Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Ferryman (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Jez Butterworth’s gripping domestic drama from London, brilliantly acted by an ensemble cast, about a large family in Northern Ireland in the ominous shadow of the Irish Republican Army, circa early 1980s at the height of the Troubles, is everything friends who had seen it London raved about. (The play sold out in one day when it premiered at the Royal Court prior to its West End transfer.)

In the opening prologue, a priest named Horrigan (Charles Dale) has been summoned to meet with IRA kingpin Muldoon (Stuart Graham) about the grisly discovery in a peat bog of the body of one Seamus Carney who went missing a decade earlier, ostensibly a victim of the IRA. Muldoon wants Father Horrigan not only to inform the dead man’s family, but also, as we later learn, to ask their silence.

The next scene brings us to the bustling farm household of Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine), brother of the deceased Seamus, Quinn’s pale wife Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), and their seven children (including, rather remarkably, an actual baby). There’s also his wheelchair bound Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan), so called because she sits in her own silent reverie but occasionally breaks her silence with tales from the past and auguries of the future, stern Aunt Pat (Dearbhla Molloy), a staunch anti-British Republican transfixed by her radio and what she views as the latest hateful pronouncements from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and gregarious classics-quoting Uncle Patrick (Mark Lambert). It is he who explains the allusion to “ferryman” of the title. It is Virgil’s Charon who plied his trade on the River Styx.

The aunts are especially memorable. Flanagan’s long recitation about a lost love intertwined with fanciful tales of fairies and banshees is as mesmerizing for the audience as it is for the children who eagerly soak up these stories, and their sometimes gruesome details, at her feet. Similarly, Aunt Pat’s fiercely related story of another loss during the Easter Rising is equally compelling.

There’s also Seamus’ wife Caitlin (superb Laura Donnelly) who cooks the meals in the household and, in all but name, serves as mother, as Mary mostly keeps to her room, felled by what she says are various viruses. It soon becomes evident that there is some sort of romantic bond between Caitlin and Quinn. Caitlin has a teenage son Oisin (Rob Malone), a furtive, angry lad constantly spying on others’ conversations, mirroring the play’s theme of the sinister intertwining of the personal and the political.

Adding to the youthful energy are visiting Corcoran cousins, including a boastful punk Shane (Tom Glynn-Carney) who has succumbed to the glamour of the IRA. In a finely acted scene, his brother Declan (Michael Quinton McArthur) taunts him for his loose-lipped indiscretion, followed shortly by an articulate warning along similar lines from eldest Carney son Michael (Fra Fee), the most morally upright of the Carney brood.

The acting is powerful throughout. Considine exudes quiet power as Quinn who had been an IRA member years earlier but now wants nothing to do with them. Justin Edwards is brilliant as Tom Kettle, a slow-witted displaced Englishman who has lived on the property since childhood, a tangible symbol of the British occupation. His recitation of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Silent Lover” is a dramatic highpoint. Graham’s deadly calm and confident persona as Muldoon makes him all the more fearsome.

And it should be mentioned that besides the extraordinary aforementioned baby, there’s also the unusual appearance of a live goose and rabbit.

As the program note informs us, “For five months, Republican inmates in the Maze Prison have been on hunger strike to demand they be recognized as political prisoners,” and Thatcher refuses to do so. When the play opens, five have already died including Bobby Sands. This is the situation the IRA hopes to use for sympathy and support.

The family’s raucous celebration of the close of harvest day will be ended by surprise guests including Muldoon which propel the rest of the absorbing action. Much of the pleasure of Butterworth’s epic play is putting together the pieces of the plot as they are revealed, so I shan’t say more.

Butterworth’s play is at times reminiscent of those of Martin McDonagh, not to mention, the classic playwrights such as Synge and O’Casey, but his voice is brilliantly his own. At times, it’s difficult to sort out who’s who among the large family, but that’s part of his canny storytelling technique.

Sam Mendes directs with a brilliant ear for the ominous undertone beneath the cheerfully rambunctious family activities. The brilliant cast truly inhabit their roles, and every action feels truly organic. The older children are realistically boisterous, the younger ones nonchalantly vulgar and fascinated, as children can be, by violence.

Rob Howell has designed an amazingly realistic farm house which puts us right in the action, atmospherically lighted by Peter Mumford. Nick Powell’s evocative sound design and music are furthur plusses.

The play is about three and one half hours long, but you won’t be bored. It’s the sort of play that generates cheers and bravos at the end, and deserves every one of them.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com)

Photos by Joan Marcus (top to bottom):

(L-R): Laura Donnelly (Caitlin Carney), Genevieve O’Reilly (Mary Carney), Sean Frank Coffey (Bobby Carney), and Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney)

Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney – center, standing) and the company of The Ferryman

Monday, October 29, 2018

Orange Blossoms (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project LIve!)

By Harry Forbes

Four years after Light Opera of New York exhumed Victor Herbert’s last operetta (more accurately, a “comedy with songs,” and those numbers more in a musical comedy vein), here comes another, this time courtesy of Victor Herbert Renaissance Project.

The LOONY production had utilized a nine-piece orchestra, and resulted in a very nice, albeit dialogue-heavy, recording from Albany Records. For her VHRP production, Artistic Director Alyce Mott wisely adhered much more closely to the original book by frequent Herbert collaborator Fred de Gresac (Mrs. Victor Maurel) (“The Red Mill,” The Enchantress,” and “Sweethearts”). It was based on her popular French play “La Passerelle” (co-written with Fran├žois de Croisset), and later adapted for London and Broadway as “The Marriage of Kitty.” Interestingly, Gresac’s collaborator on the book and lyrics was Tin Pan Alley’s B.G. “Buddy” de Sylva.

Mott assembled an exceptionally strong cast, one of VHRP’s best yet, under the customary expert musical direction of Michael Thomas (with Herbert virtuoso William Hicks on piano).

Emphasizing the play with music structure, there was, in fact, noticeably a greater dialogue to music ratio than usual in a Herbert piece, and no overture. The plot concerns wealthy Baron Roger Belmont (Bray Wilkins) who is advised to enter into a temporary sham marriage with Kitty (Joanie Brittingham), goddaughter of his friend and lawyer Brassac (David Seatter) in order to evade the conditions of his aunt’s will,  which were intended to block his liaison with a glamorous divorcee Helene de Vasquez (Sarah Caldwell Smith). At the nuptials, Kitty is in disguise, but months later, when Belmont finally gets to know her, he discovers he loves her.

Providing comic relief (and some razzmatazz tunes) are the secondary comic couple, Brassac’s secretary Tillie (played to gum-chewing New Yawk perfection by Alexa Devlin), and private detective-in-disguise Jimmy Flynn (Drew Bolander).

When Kitty is set up in Cannes for her solitary year as a “married” woman, we meet her ladies maid Ninetta (vocally strong JoAnna Geffert) and butler Auguste (Jonathan Fox Powers), both excellent.

Adding color to the proceedings are Brassac’s gold-digging divorcee clients (Jenny Lindsey, Alexa Clint, Geffert (again), Elisabeth Slaten, and Susan Case, and the various men in their lives (Colm Fitzmaurice, Quintin Harris, and Keith Broughton) who blend beautifully on the droll “Let’s Not Get Married” and other concerted numbers.

The songs are, as usual with Herbert, a superior lot. This is the show from which his evergreen “A Kiss in the Dark” derives, but there are many gems, all well sung by the company. For all its charm and excellence, “Orange Blossoms” was not a hit in its day, despite what appears to have been an ultra-deluxe production and generally appreciative reviews, so “Kiss Me Again” gained more of a foothold with the public after its inclusion in an edition of the Ziegfeld Follies soon after.

Brittingham, a VHRP regular, had her best role with the company yet, and delivered that timeless number with pure tone and sensitivity, as she did her second act ballad, “The Lonely Nest.” I was sorry not to hear her do Kitty’s sprightly (if arguably extraneous) “Glow Worm” song, the evening’s only excised number, besides the “Moonshine and Mosquito” ballet. Furthermore, she demonstrated her considerable comic chops in her jaunty ditty “In Hennequeville,” and paired beautifully with strong-voiced Wilkins when he wasn’t dueting with his intended Helene (well played and sung by VHRP regular Smith). Wilkins also had the Laurence Harvey-like good looks and requisite aristocratic manner for his upper crust role.

Devlin and Bollander delivered their lively comic duets, “New York Is the Same Old Place” and “Way Out West in Jersey” with clarion tone and requisite panache, and Bollander his self-aggrandizing “J.J. Flynn” with vaudevillian brio.

Veteran baritone Seatter, in particular, had the lion’s share of expository dialogue but delivered it expertly, and sang incisively in the ensemble numbers allotted to him, like the delightful quartet “I Can’t Argue With You” (with Smith, Wilkins, and Clint). The spoken parts were, on the whole, quite capably handled by the cast.

Mott’s sensible direction was enhanced by choreographer Emily Cornelius, absent from VHRP’s last productions, to provide some nifty steps for the Act 2 opener, “On the Riviera,” and the title number for Kitty and her admirers, though opportunities were more limited overall given the nature of the piece.

In addition to the LOONY recording mentioned above, there’s a good recording of the complete score in the Comic Opera Guild series, albeit with four-hand piano accompaniment.

Next up, enticingly,  is an evening of Herbert love songs (February 26 and 27), and then “Sweethearts” (April 30 and May 1), the latter to be accompanied by the New Victor Herbert Orchestra.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; October 23 and 24 only)

Photos by Jill LaVine:

(Top to bottom)

L-R:    David Seatter, Bray Wilkins, Joanie Brittingham, JoAnna Geffert, Jonathan Fox Powers

L-R:      Jenny Lindsey, Colm Fitzmaurice, Alexa Clint, Keith Broughton, Sue Case, Quintin Harris, Elisabeth Slaten

L-R:     Alexa Devlin, Drew Bolander

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Apologia (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Stockard Channing has returned to New York in the play that brought her deserved acclaim in London’s West End. In Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “Apologia,” she plays an American expatriate living in England. An art historian, her character Kristin Miller was once a 1960s activist. Now her grown sons return home to celebrate her birthday, but also to castigate her for abandoning them as children.

The catalyst for this unleashing of years of pent-up resentment is her recently published memoir in which neither son is even mentioned, an omission which would seem to confirm her lack of even a modicum of maternal concern.

When son Peter enters in the first act with, of all things, an American evangelical girlfriend named Trudi, Kristin fairly bristles with sarcasm and criticism. (Kristin has brought them up to believe religion is “patriarchal propaganda”), and is less than gracious when overly-eager-to-please Trudi presents her with the gift of an African mask which she and Peter picked up on recent trip to Botswana.

Later, over dinner, by which time they are joined by other son Simon’s soap opera actress girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Kristin’s longtime gay friend Hugh (director John Tillinger in a rare return to acting), tensions boil over. Then when her disturbed son Simon arrives in the middle of the night, having just injured himself in a fall, he lets Kristin know his own feelings, while she nurses his wounds.

Hugh Dancy plays both brothers, as they are never on stage together, skillfully differentiating each, and conveying the emotional scars Kristin’s absenteeism left on both of them. As intimidating as Kristin can be, Talene Monahon shows Trudi to be fearlessly bold in stating her own convictions however naive, and continuing to praise Kristin with all sincerity despite the latter’s relentless disparagement. Echikunwoke nails Claire, whom Kristin derides as self-centered and egotistical. And Tillinger delivers his droll interjections over dinner and after with masterful timing.

The play would seem to pit Kristin’s past activism against her role as mother, but in its essentials, it’s the old story of a parent failing at balancing any career and parental duties. But Campbell’s dialogue is lively -- and Channing delivers her brittle retorts masterfully -- with intriguing revelations along the way. Campbell eventually shows these characters to be not what they seem, while Daniel Aukin orchestrates all the familial dysfunction perfectly.

Dane Laffrey’s book-dominated cottage, lit by Bradley King, seems just right for the intellectual Kristin. And Anita Yavich has designed perfect character-defining outfits.

Oh, and about that title, if you were wondering, Kristin defines it at one point. “It means a formal, written defense of one’s opinions or conduct...not to be confused with an apology.” And as you might infer from the above plot outline, Kristin does indeed have some "'splaining to do," as Ricky Ricardo might have said.

(Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street; 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through December 16)     

Monday, October 8, 2018

I Was Most Alive With You (Playwrights Horizons)

By Harry Forbes

Craig Lucas has found inspiration for his latest play from, of all things, The Book of Job, fashioning a modern story about a TV writer and his family beset with a deluge of bad fortune leading them to question God, free will, and other such weighty matters.

Though the underlying philosophical message may be dense, the narrative -- starting in 2010, with extended flashbacks to critical events that befell the characters in 2009 -- is clear enough, completely absorbing, and profoundly moving. You might say this is a spectacular demonstration of “when bad things happen to good people,” though that would be a huge oversimplification.

Ash (Michael Gaston) is the writer of a long-running series, and when the play opens, barely recovered from the tragic events we will soon observe in the flashback scenes (and I shan’t reveal them as Lucas unfolds them in masterly storyteller fashion as the play progresses), and he and his longtime writing partner and friend Astrid (Marianna Bassham) -- attracted to each other, but honorably platonic -- having been trying to come up with a new idea after their fallow period necessitated by the aforementioned events.

Ash’s deaf son Knox (Russell Harvard), once a substance abuser, is madly infatuated with an opiod-addicted lover Farhad (Tad Cooley). Ash, for his part, had drug problems in his youth, and even did some jail time. He is in a fractious marriage with his not very accurately named wife Pleasant (Lisa Emery). His mother Carla (Lois Smith) -- who lives with her caretaker Mariama (Gameela Wright), whose estranged son happens to be on Death Row, presides over the annual Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering that will explode with revelations and recriminations among all the characters, and culminate with the horrific incident that propels the rest of the play.

After everything that has happened, Ash and Astrid decide to use the Book of Job material for their new project, as the relevant scenes from the family troubles are interwoven. It’s difficult to tell whether Ash and Astrid are guiding the play’s narrative in a fictionalized way or whether the events described are completely as they were. The ending, however, is intentionally ambiguous.

The play’s press material speaks of the “interpersonal miscommunication...across lines of deaf (physically), Deaf (physically and culturally), hearing, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, atheist, gay, straight, addict, sober, class, gender, racial, ethnic, and generational identities.”

That may sound like heavy going, and some have found the preponderance of misery excessive, I was absolutely riveted throughout.

Uniquely, the play -- originally produced by Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company -- is performed on two levels on Arnulfo Maldonado’s split level set, the main action below, and above, a “shadow” cast of silent performers (Seth Gore, Beth Applebaum, Amelia Hensley, Harold Fox, Anthony Natale, Kalen Feeley, Alexandria Wailes) signing the dialogue. ASL is a significant plot point too. Knox, for instance, can actually speak but chooses not to do so. His partner Farhad, also partly deaf, has had an implant, and refuses to sign. Pleasant has never believed in signing, a sore point with all, although it was through her obstinacy that Knox learned to speak. Throughout, the cast morphs between speaking and signing, and when it’s only the latter, super-titles projected on the stage, provide the translation.

All of the performances are superb, though the extraordinary Harvard (“There Will Be Blood,” “Tribes”) -- and for whom Lucas was apparently inspired to create a vehicle -- must be singled out for his heartbreakingly powerful work. The most dramatic adversities involve his character, and it’s hard to know whether Job is meant to be the not-very-Job-like Ash, who relates the action of the play, or Knox. Or perhaps it’s all the characters.

The complexities of the work are deftly choreographed by Tyne Rafaeli, with Sabrina Dennison as Director of Artistic Sign Language, as ASL is such a major component.

The production credits are all top-notch from Annie Wiegand’s lighting to David C. Woolard’s costumes to Jane Shaw’s sound design to Daniel Kluger’s striking original music.

(Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.org; through October 14)

Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Tad Cooley, Michael Gaston, Lisa Emery, Russell Harvard; Above: Anthony Natale, Seth Gore, Amelia Hensley, Harold Foxx.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Nap (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

About that title, no, this is not about someone’s cozy afternoon siesta, but rather, “The Nap” is a novel comedy thriller about a snooker championship, and “the nap,” as we learn early on, refers to the texture of the playing table.

Richard Bean’s play -- his first on Broadway since the hilarious “One Man, Two Guv’nors” in 2012 -- was first produced at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2016, and in fact, the action is set there.

Dylan (Ben Schnetzer), a local lad about to compete in the World Snooker Championship, is the offspring of a divorced ex-con, former drug dealing father (John Ellison Conlee) and a gambling-addicted mother (Johanna Day), who’s now involved with a ne’er-do-well Irish boyfriend Danny (Thomas Jay Ryan).

Despite his less than upstanding heritage, Dylan, for his part, is scrupulously honest about the game, and resolutely refuses a suggestion that he throw one frame of the upcoming match in order to pay back his colorfully named benefactress, one-armed Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), a crooked trans woman with a penchant for malaprops.

In any case, Dylan needs to be especially above board as an “integrity officer” of the International Center for Sport Security (Bhavesh Patel) and a comely National Crime Agency cop (Heather Lind) who’s clearly attracted to Dylan from the get-go, are close at hand. But, as events will demonstrate, Dylan’s integrity is sorely tested.

Besides the amusing dialogue fashioned by Bean, the production -- smartly directed by Daniel Sullivan (a far cry from his last MTC outing, “St. Joan”!)  -- has the clever added feature of a video projection of the snooker table so the action can be seen up-close. The play culminates in an actual snooker game with Dylan, the 117th ranked snooker player in the world, pitted against champion Abdul Farrah (played by real life champion Ahmed Aly Elsayed). Interestingly, the denouement can change depending on the actual winner.

The game is sufficiently explained for novices, and thus the plot is easy enough to follow for all. (, “It’s not like pool," one of the commentators informs us. "Any ball is available to either player. It’s a game of points accumulation. A red ball is one point, and if you pot a red it stays in the pocket and you stay on the table to try and pot a colour.”)
The Yank cast handles their English accents with aplomb, and their comic talents are uniformly  exemplary. Not all Bean’s jokes are equally felicitous -- Waxy’s malaprops wear a but thin, for instance -- but on the whole, they are quite rib-tickling, such as the running gag of Bobby trying to recall the names of iconic movies, which invariably involves the whole cast in a sort of impromptu round of Twenty Questions. The funniest bits are perhaps the droll, tightly understated remarks by the offstage color commentators. And there are some neat plot twists along the way, too.

David Rockwell’s set, aptly lighted by Justin Townsend  -- from the the grubby British Legion snooker practice room to the high tech Championship Final stage -- are all authentically designed. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are spot-on for this milieu.

Putting aside the boisterous farce of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” I think it’s fair to say “The Nap” takes pride of place as the funniest show currently on the Broadway boards.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or www.manhattantheatreclub.com; through November 11)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l - r)   Bhavesh Patel , Thomas Jay Ryan , Ahmed Aly Elsayed , Max  Gordon Moore, Ben Schnetzer, John Ellison Conlee, Johanna Day, Heather Lind, Alexandra  Billings, Ethan Hova

Monday, October 1, 2018

Bernhardt/Hamlet (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

At the age of 55, the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who had already triumphed playing several Shakespearean heroines including Ophelia, decided to take on the title role of Hamlet. And it is the mounting of that legendary 1899 production that serves as the focus of Theresa Rebeck’s uneven but mostly rollicking backstage comedy/drama.

Using largely present-day colloquial dialogue, Rebeck attempts to show us the artistic process behind the endeavor, and her characters comprise “The Divine Sarah’s” inner circle, including actor Constant Coquelin (excellent Dylan Baker) (playing both Polonius and The Ghost in the production, and later, as we see, originating the part of Cyrano de Bergerac), Art Nouveau poster illustrator Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), disapproving theater critic Louis Lemercier (Tony Carlin), and her latest lover, married playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) whom Bernhardt recruits to take the iambic pentameter out of Shakespeare, leaving only the meat of the story. (That point actually puzzled me a bit, as I don’t believe iambic pentameter translates to French in the first place, but never mind.)

In the second act, Rebbeck shows us the genesis of Rostand’s most celebrated work, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and we even get a fully-staged scene from that play. It’s a colorful digression to be sure, but one that makes a long play, already juggling a lot of themes, even longer and less focused.

Rostand’s wife Rosamund (Ito Aghayere) shows up unexpectedly in the second act and there’s a pretty good confrontation scene, as does Bernhardt’s disapproving but ultimately loving son Maurice (Nick Westrate). But for all its good bits, the play lacks a strong dramatic arc.

Still, there’s real chemistry between McTeer and Harner, the latter a strong asset to the production. Other parts are capably essayed by Brittany Bradford, who plays Ophelia in the production, and Triney Sandoval and Aaron Costa Ganis, who at one point, are seen rehearsing the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scene with McTeer. One of the most compelling scenes shows the rehearsing of the ghost scene between McTeer and Baker.

McTeer gives a confident, flamboyant, imperious, larger-than-life performance, as you’d expect. She’s no slouch at taking on classic roles (e.g. Mary Stuart in Shiller’s play, Nora in “A Doll’s House”), but there’s nothing particularly Gallic about her assumption of this role, nor was there in Glenda Jackson’s portrayal in the only fair 1979 film, “The Incredible Sarah.” It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect a great English actress to suggest Frenchness, unless perhaps by affecting an accent, but then everyone in the cast would have needed to do so. Still, that might have been the way to go in order to make the whole more authentically persuasive.

Rebeck presents her protagonist as a trendsetting naturalistic actress, which is somewhat contrary to the more declamatory style for which Bernhardt was known. Still, we learn Bernhardt felt Hamlet must be played as a ripe 19-year-old youth.

Despite my intense admiration for McTeer, and the promising subject matter, I found the overall tone too jocular, and overly laden with present-day feminist, gender, and sexism jargon, as in tiresome questions about what it means for a woman to play Hamlet. I may be wrong but I don't think historically it was such a big deal for her to be playing Hamlet at the time (any more than it is for Glenda Jackson to take on King Lear as she’ll be doing later this season, or for McTeer to have played Petruchio as she did in the park); Bernhardt played several men's roles in her day. The gambit may raise eyebrows, but not generate outrage.

The dynamic between Bernardt and Rostand is intriguing. Beyond their romantic entanglement, he is shown to be frustrated by her demands to adapt Shakespeare’s text. (As we learn, the task was eventually done by other hands.) But, in any case, we never actually get a sense of how this prose “Hamlet” might have sounded, as it would have had to be an English translation of that French text.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel handles all the backstage activity with panache (to use a “Cyrano”-inspired word), and is adept at staging the considerable comic elements and snappy one-liners of Rebeck’s script. “A woman who does nothing is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet,” Bernhardt quips at one point.

Beowulf Boritt has designed a cleverly revolving set with morphs from backstage to cafe to Rostand office to Bernhardt dressing room, all atmospherically lighted by Bradley King, Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are richly designed, and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound design add to the rich period ambience.

(American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, 227 West 42nd Street; 212-719-1300, or roundabouttheatre.org; through November 11)