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Monday, May 20, 2019

Posting Letters to the Moon (59E59 Theaters)


By Harry Forbes

Here’s a show that should be pure catnip to any British theater buff: the wartime correspondence between actress Celia Johnson (best remembered for her iconic performance in the classic film “Brief Encounter”) and her husband, travel writer (“Brazilian Adventure”), adventurer and journalist Peter Fleming, read by their daughter, actress Lucy Fleming (who compiled the letters into a theatrical evening), and her husband, Simon Williams, fondly remembered as James Bellamy on “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

The evening comes from London’s Jermyn Street Theatre where it was seen last year.

The letters roughly cover the period 1939 through 1945 when, after four years of marriage, Fleming was sent off to be stationed in New Delhi, while Johnson was ensconced at her husband's estate with her soon-to-be-widowed sister and sister-in-law and (eventually) eight children. During this arduous period, she managed to make three of her most memorable films, all written by Noel Coward: “In Which We Serve,” “Brief Encounter,” and “This Happy Breed.” And she somehow found time to do considerable radio work (e.g. a dramatization of “War and Peace”), serve as an auxiliary police woman, and very much more.

The letters -- along with the connecting narrative -- are voiced with effortless charm by Fleming and Williams accompanied by slide projections, as well as incidental music (by Simon Slater) and modest sound effects where appropriate.

The format may superficially sound reminiscent of A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” but actually, given the irregularities of mail delivery during the war, there isn’t quite the back and forth volleying one might expect, but Fleming has done an excellent job of making them as conversational as possible.

In any case, both express the same sentiments of affection, missing the other, and feeling a poignant sense of “endless separation.” Johnson says she never quite knows how to address her letters, and remarks it’s like “posting a letter to the moon.” There’s much humor in the correspondence, and they affectionately call each other “Mr. Flem” and “Mrs. Flem.”

The Johnson letters carry the lion’s share of the narrative, as she worries about management of the household (with its ever revolving door of cooks), and whether she’ll be able to accept this or that role, including two war-related films for director Carol Reed. There are fascinating tidbits about the filming of “Brief Encounter” with co-star Trevor Howard who, she discovered, was eight years younger than she, a fact that greatly disconcerted her. Filming often took place at night night far out of London where the arc-lights would not attract attention from the German bombers. Throughout, there were various royal visits, including those by the Queen Mother and her daughter, the present Queen Elizabeth 2.  
                                 
“I have enjoyed making it a lot but I don’t really believe David Lean and Ronnie Neame know all they should about directing,” Johnson needlessly worries at one point about the fledgling director and cinematographer. And “I do hope I’m good in this film,” she later frets, ever modest.

We hear her first hand account of the incessant bombings during the blitz. In fact, her successful run of Daphne Du Maurier's “Rebecca” was curtailed when the theater was bombed after midnight.

And from the debonair and witty Williams -- offspring of distinguished parentage himself (actors Hugh Williams and Margaret Vyner) --   we hear of Fleming’s concurrent Intelligence work and other wartime assignments, including evading the Japanese when his plane crashed in the Burmese jungle. Besides the letters to Johnson, there’s one to their small son, Nicholas. There was an amusing anecdote about Fleming ordering up a private train to take him from Scotland home, after he missed catching one. Fleming’s brother was James Bond creator Ian, introduced with amusingly understatement as someone “who later had some success as a novelist,” and he, too, makes a few brief appearances in the narrative.

What does come through these letters vividly is the lost art of letter writing in this age of social media and emojis, as Williams articulates in his opening remarks. He speculates that likely the letters were intentionally preserved as a keepsake for their children to learn how it was during those difficult years, with a hope perhaps they would one day have a wider public forum.

Thanks to their daughter and son-in-law’s loving resuscitation, that has become a treasurable reality.  
     
(59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison; 646-892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org; through June 2)
               
L-R: Simon Williams and Lucy Fleming in POSTING LETTERS TO THE MOON at Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Tootsie (Marquis Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The positive out-of-town buzz on this musical version of the 1982 Dustin Hoffman film turns out to be entirely justified. Tuneful and very, very funny, the show also features a star-making performance by Santino Fontana as Michael Dorsey who, when he can’t seem to land (or keep) a job as a man, decides to impersonate a woman (under the name Dorothy Michaels).

The film’s setting has been cleverly revamped from a soap opera to a Broadway musical, and some outmoded thinking on feminist issues has been dutifully revised for present-day #MeToo sensibilities, though in fairness, director Sydney Pollack’s film was careful to walk a politically correct road in its day, and still holds up well on its own terms.

Arrogant, always questioning Michael Dorsey has alienated preening director Ron Carlisle (very funny Reg Rogers) by tiresomely wanting to know his character’s backstory and motivation, and gets duly bounced. But when his ex-girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles) tells him she’s up for a female role (the nurse) in a sequel to “Romeo and Juliet,” he takes her place in drag, impresses the lead producer Rita Marshall (Julie Halston), and lands the job, unbeknownst to his writer roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) and agent Stan (Michael McGrath). In his Dorothy persona, he irks Ron in other ways, but wins the respect of the cast including leading lady Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), empty-headed hunk Max (John Behlmann), and the rest of the cast.

Michael falls for Julie right away, and it’s not long before Julie too finds herself strangely attracted to the charismatic “Dorothy.” Farcical complications abound as roles get confused.

The cast is marvelous across the board. Fontana’s role allows him to showcase his prodigious skills as a fine dramatic actor as well as a top musical talent, besides demonstrating, as never before, his impeccable comic timing. He navigates the male/female aspects of the role as brilliantly as Hoffman did in the film, but without imitating him, and creates a genuinely lovable character as Dorothy. At times he reminded me of Barry Humphries’ creation Dame Edna Everage. It’s only fair to specially single out Paul Huntley for superlative hair and wig design and Angelina Avallone for make-up.

Fontana has found just the right vocal timbre for his Dorothy songs without resorting to obvious falsetto. His audition piece, “I Won’t Let You Down” simultaneously impresses both the show’s creative team and us.

Cooper is wonderfully warm and empathetic throughout, with a lovely vocal delivery. Stiles -- looking a bit like a madcap Bernadette Peters -- has no trouble navigating her comic tongue-twisting showstopper. Sandy has been written far ditzier here than in the film.  Halston is spot-on perfect as the feminist producer, and lights up the stage with her every appearance. Grotelueschen, Rogers, and Behlmann all excel in riotous roles, and shine in their principal musical moments: “Jeff Sums It Up,” “I’m Alive,” and “This Thing,” respectively.

David Yazbek’s score -- back in traditional musical comedy mode after the Middle Eastern rhythms of “The Band’s Visit” -- is a delight from its bouncy overture onwards. The “Opening Number” (so-called) is intentionally generic, but thereafter, the ear is beguiled by some lovely ballads such as Julie and Dorothy’s “There Was John” and the duet “Who Are You?” for Michael and Julie and humorous numbers including, most witty, Sandy’s frenetic patter song  “Whaddya Do.”

The ensemble number, “The Most Important Night of My Life,” is also a standout, very well staged by choreographer Denis Jones, whose lively work enhances the show..

Robert Horn’s book (based on the film story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart) has more outright laugh lines than did the film, the humor of which sprang more from situation. (“It’s not a laugh comedy,” Pollack once said. “It’s Chekhov.”) Though some outmoded dialogue has been scuttled, this is still, in its essentials, a story of a man who becomes a better man by becoming a woman. And though the laughs are plentiful, poignancy has not been sacrificed.

There are significant plot changes from the movie whose screenplay was credited to Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, but with important uncredited contributions from Barry Levinson, Robert Garland, and Elaine May. Besides the change in setting, Julie no longer has an out-of-wedlock baby or a widowed father (who falls for Dorothy), and she no longer has a drinking problem as Jessica Lange’s character did in the film. Nor is she having an ongoing affair with Ron, though Ron does pursue her. Sandy is no longer a current girlfriend as was Garr, but an ex, which makes Michael’s falling in love with Julie less icky. The co-star who falls for Dorothy is not the aging Lothario played by George Gaynes but the dim-witted hunk.

David Rockwell has designed a bright cartoony looking set encompassing Michael and Jeff’s bachelor pad, the theater, the bar and grill where Jeff and Michael work, and other locales, lighted by Donald Holder with colorful costumes by William Ivey Long (and yes, the trademark red dress is here).

The whole is directed by Scott Ellis with an expert hand and exuberant flair.

(Marquis Theatre, 210 W 46th Street; TootsieMusical.com or 877-250-2929)

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ink (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

James Graham’s hugely entertaining play -- a hit in 2017 at London’s Almeida Theatre -- about publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of the failing British tabloid, The Sun, and his challenge to the increasingly aggressive editor Larry Lamb to bypass the circulation of the rival paper, The Daily Mirror, has come to Broadway with one of its leads, Bertie Carvel, as well as the overall creative team, intact.

Jonny Lee Miller, who has taken on Richard Coyle’s part in London,  gives a superb high-octane performance as the driven editor whose competitive tactics involve heavy emphasis on gossip, sensation, giveaways, and heightened coverage of television (then generally considered “competition” by the press).

It isn't long before he steps too far over the line of journalistic ethics by exploiting, against the advice of the authorities and his own staff, the paper's own deputy chairman Sir Alick (Colin McPhillamy) when the latter's wife is kidnapped, leading to tragic results. Less lethal but also morally questionable is his innovation of a naked Page 3 girl, as he convinces a beauteous staffer (Rana Roy) to be the first model. 

Bertie Carvel, Australian accent and all, makes a thoroughly convincing Murdoch, charming and ruthless, though even he becomes squeamish when he feels Lamb has gone too far.

The tautly written play, by turns humorous and appalling -- think of it as “The Front Page” for the modern age -- brilliantly captures this ruthlessly competitive era of Fleet Street journalism, ca. 1969. The heady action is interspersed with musical interludes, choreographed by Lynne Page, which perfectly capture the freewheeling spirit of the period.

Michael Siberry is excellent as The Mirror’s editor Hugh Cudlipp, Lamb’s former boss, and an exemplar of old school journalism. (Can it really be 33 years since this actor first starred in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby” revival on Broadway?), and there’s good work too from Andrew Durand; Eden Marryshow; Bill Buell; Tara Summers; Robert Stanton; and Erin Neufer as various staffers which Lamb has wrangled to work at The Sun. Some of the cast play two or more roles.

Bunny Christie’s mountainous set of desks and cabinets, lighted by Neil Austin, and Jon Driscoll’s projection design provide the very apt visuals. Adam Cork composed the original music and designed the heightened amplified sound which add immeasurably to the ambience.

Rupert Goold, artistic director of the Almeida, directs the proceedings at a breakneck pace, and steers his cast to deliver finely detailed performances.

(Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W. 47th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through June 16)

0274 – (l-r) Bertie Carvel, Bill Buell, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Stanton, Eden Marryshow

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Be More Chill (Lyceum Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

After premiering in 2015 at the Red River Theater in Red Bank, N.J. (and generating a cast album that went viral with over 200 million online streams), the sci-fi musical by Joe Iconis (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book) -- based on the 2004 novel by the late Ned Vizzini -- had an Off-Broadway run last year with a few cast changes, and has now made its way to Broadway.

Thematically, it resembles such shows as “Mean Girls” and “Dear Evan Hansen” in having a high school protagonist who feels woefully out of step with his classmates, and at least temporarily loses his best qualities by trying to be popular.

Jeremy (Will Roland) is a total loser. When he’s not feeling invisible, he’s the butt of jokes and bullying, and only makes things worse when he tries out for the school show to be near his crush, show geek Christine (very funny Stephanie Hsu). “I Love Show Rehearsal,” she sings proudly when they audition for the show, a post-apocalyptic production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” His only friend is the laid back Michael (George Salazar). When his chief bully Rich (Gerard Canonico) suggests a pill called a Squip -- actually a Japanese microcomputer -- that will make him more cool (or “chill”), he decides to take it, despite Michael’s grave misgivings.

Sure enough, under the guidance of the Squip inside his brain -- personified by Jason Tam in Keanu Reeves mode -- he becomes popular but callous, and suddenly has no time for his true friend Michael, especially after the Squip blocks Michael from his range of vision. Christine, meanwhile, has taken up with the popular Jake (Britton Smith), so Jeremy begins to hang out with two of the popular girls, Brooke (Lauren Marcus) and Chloe (Katlyn Carlson) dating the former, and letting himself be tempted when the latter makes an aggressive play for him. His single father (Jason Sweettooth Williams playing two other roles as well), perennially depressed and not even bothering to wear pants at home, is eventually roused from his apathy. It’s only when Rich begins to unravel because of the Squip that Jeremy starts to realize he may be in trouble.    

The cast is brightly dynamic starting with Roland who transforms convincingly from the awkward nerd of the early scenes; likeable Salazar scores with his showstopping “Michael in the Bathroom” lament; Hsu is appealing daffy throughout; and Tiffany Mann makes a standout impression as Jenna who combines a strong belt with serious operatic chops. She leads a clever 21st century updating of the “Bye Bye Birdie” telephone song called “The Smartphone Hour.”

Stephen Brackett directs his talented cast resourcefully, perfectly attuned to the coming-of-age material, wile Chase Brock devised the very lively choreography.

As you can tell from the plot synopsis, the show has worthy themes of self-worth, being true to yourself, and making positive connecting with others while disconnecting from over-reliance on technology.

Beowulf Boritt has designed the high tech set with sliding screens and a proscenium framed by a computer screen-like border, lighted by Tyler Micoleau. Bobby Frederick Tilley II designed the colorful costumes. Ryan Rumery’s sound design has a predictably high decibel level, but lyrics register clearly.

For a show plainly aimed at the teenage/early 20s crowd, which has responded so positively to the show, there’s entertainment value for their parents and adults in general. The tunes are catchy, the lyrics clever, and the situation alternately funny and poignant.

(Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photo: The Cast of "Be More Chill"
Credit: © 2019 Maria Baranova

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

All My Sons (Roundabout Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

Director Jack O’Brien has delivered a quite superb revival of Arthur Miller’s oft-revived early piece (pre-”Death of a Salesman”) which grips from the start right up to its devastating climax.

The film with Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster used to be a TV staple, but no longer. Still, it’s been revived with great frequency, including a new production running in London right now with Sally Field and Bill Pullman. I fondly recall a 1982 London production with Colin Blakely and Rosemary Harris. The last Broadway revival in 2009 starred John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest, and in 1987, there was Richard Kiley and Joyce Ebert. while Roundabout itself has done it twice before (in 1997 and 1974).

This is the story of Joe Keller (Tracy Letts), a midwestern factory owner just after the Second World War. His pilot son Larry has gone missing three years earlier and is presumed dead, but Joe’s wife Kate (Annette Bening) refuses to accept that fact. Their surviving veteran son Chris (Benjamin Walker) -- in line to inherit his dad’s business -- has invited Larry’s fiance Ann (vivacious Francesca Carpanini), whom he has known since childhood, to visit so he can propose to her. They realize Kate must be told the news delicately, as their union would be an admission that Larry is not returning.

We learn that Joe had manufactured cracked cylinder heads, resulting in 21 fatalities. There was a trial but Joe pinned the blame on his business partner, Herb Deever, Ann’s father. When Ann’s brother George (Hampton Fluker) visits their father, from whom he and Ann have been estranged, in jail, he learns the truth, tells Ann he’s coming to visit, setting the stage for a major confrontation.  

Performances are very fine across the board, including those of Michael Hayden (who memorably played Chris in Roundabout’s last revival) as next-door neighbor Jim; Chinasa Ogbuagu as Jim’s wife; Nehal Joshi and Jenni Barber as their other next-door neighbors, the Lubeys. Frank Lubey is working on a horoscope that may prove to the ever-hopeful Kate that her son has somehow survived the war.

Letts, alive to every nuance of his conflicted character, superbly conveys the forced jocularity and normalcy at odds with the guilt, and Bening, haggard and her voice drained of emotion, shows the steely grit beneath the vulnerability. Walker is particularly outstanding as the idealistic son who simply cannot accept that his father could have done anything wrong.

The color-blind casting of Fluker and Ogbuagu is, to be honest, a bit jarring at first in such a hyper-realistic period setting, but their performances are excellent. And it’s a bit of irony that original director Gregory Mosher dropped out after a dispute about his color-conscious idea of casting the Deevers as black. Rebecca Miller, the playwright’s daughter, had objected to the resulting perception of an interracial romance between Ann and Chris which would not have been casually accepted in those less enlightened times.

Those matters aside, Fluker gives a fine performance of a tricky role, conveying very well how his character’s anger melts under Kate’s calculated warmth before eventually rebounding.

Douglas W. Schmidt’s beautifully traditional set -- the backyard of the Keller home, highly detailed, and lushly green -- Jane Greenwood’s 1940s costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting, and John Gromada’s sound design all contribute to the classy production design. There’s an effective use of projections throughout, as when the play opens, and a storm rages outside the Keller home.

In a production as fine as this, one can admire anew the rock solid construction of Miller’s play -- and its ongoing relevance -- which no matter how often it’s done, holds the audience in thrall.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street); 212-719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org; through June 23)

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sweethearts (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)


By Harry Forbes

This admirable young company finished its fifth season with Victor Herbert’s hit, “Sweethearts,” which opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre (yes, the very same venue where Disney has long since taken up residence) in 1913, thereafter touring for several years. The work is most assuredly in the top five of the composer’s best shows (lyrics by Robert B. Smith), and Artistic Director Alyce Mott’s production resoundingly confirmed its evergreen appeal.

Those who only know the property from the famous MGM film with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy -- a clever modern day story about battling operetta stars (which rather presaged “Kiss Me, Kate”) appearing in a production of “Sweethearts,” had a witty script by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell -- will discover it bears scant resemblance to the original.

This is the third go-round for Mott and this work, and as such, definitely the charm. She had originally adapted it for the late Dino Anagnost’s Little Orchestra Society in 2005 where it was narrated by Lynn Redgrave no less. But whereas the maestro’s annual foray into Victor Herbert put the emphasis squarely on musical values -- with singers cast more for their voices than their dramatic aptness -- the VHRP productions utilize performers who truly fit the roles, and who are adept at both music and dialogue. The productions are more fully staged with excellent choreography (by Susanna Organek whose work strongly enhanced every number). Mott’s version was, by the way, also nicely mounted by Light Opera of New York (LOONY) in 2013.

Besides featuring a crackerjack cast, the spring VHRP shows now feature The New Victor Herbert Orchestra -- seven topnotch players including William HIcks on piano -- led with spirit and style by VHRP Music Director Michael Thomas who had also conducted the LOONY performance. And given the intimate acoustics of Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, the orchestra perforce sounded much larger. The lush entr’acte was a special joy.

The story opens in a laundry in Bruges, the establishment of Dame Paula (Vira Slywotzky, also serving as delightful narrator, and reprising her role in the LOONY production). She’s assisted by her four (originally six) daughters and adopted child Sylvia (Claire Leyden) whom she found among the tulips as an infant. Sylvia is in love with the caddish Lt. Karl (Jack Cotterell) who’s carrying on with milliner Liane (Joanie Brittingham).

When Sylvia learns of his infidelity, she is ready to warm to the charms of Franz (Jovani Demetrie), initially unaware he is the heir presumptive to the (fictional) country of Zilania. But we learn Mikel (Jonathan Fluck), a Zilanian diplomat, had spirited Sylvia, actually a princess, out of the country during a revolution, and has now returned to restore her as the rightful monarch of the country. But the ambitious Liane lets herself be mistaken for the royal young lady, thwarting the efforts of Mikel and two comic intriguers, the Dutch von Tromp (Matthew Wages) and veddy British Slingsby (David Seatter). An additional plotter, the French Caniche, has been dropped, his bits conflated with Mikel’s character.

The original book by frequent Herbert collaborators Fred De Gresac and Harry B. Smith, roundly denigrated by critics, was here respectfully and intelligently tweaked by Mott. Some song order has been changed, and some verses dropped, mostly to accommodate the streamlining of characters.

Leyden and Demetrie had given a tantalizing preview of a couple of the “Sweethearts” numbers at February’s lovely Valentine’s Day concert, and lived up to what they presented then. Leyden had the most stage time, scoring with the popular title song, the twinkly “Mother Goose,” the teasing “In the Convent They Never Taught Me That,” and the soulful “Angelus, singing with lovely tone and incisive delivery of the text. Herbert specifically tailored the part for the popular Christie MacDonald, and I can’t help thinking he’d surely have been pleased with Leyden’s assumption of the role.


The song “Sweethearts” was so popular in its day, it was played everywhere, leading an exasperated Herbert, who with fellow composers had recently formed ASCAP, to seek legal action which was successfully resolved when it reached the Supreme Court, ensuring that composers would henceforth be recompensed for public performances of their work.

Virile baritone Demetrie’s ardent “Every Lover Must Meet His Fate,” which recurs throughout the show, was powerfully sung, and his counterpoint reprise of the number in tandem with Leyden’s “Angelus” was a genuine goose-bump moment, Herbert’s musical mastery never more evident. (His finales in this work are also superb and as complex as anything in the operetta genre.) Demetrie and Leyden also blended beautifully on their second act reverie dreaming of domestic bliss, “The Cricket on the Hearth.”

Brittingham made Liane quite the minx, a far cry from her usual good girl roles, and scored with “There is Magic in a Smile,” sung when she briefly thinks she has the upper (royal) hand over Sylvia.

Seatter's delivery of “I Don’t Know How I Do It, But I Do” rivaled Roderick Cook’s masterful rendering in the great 1983 performances given at Town Hall under the baton of Evans Haille.  According to Mott’s program notes, incidentally, the song may be the first instance in an American musical of a song specifically written to be spoken over musical accompaniment.

Elsewhere, Wages unleashed his strong baritone on the sardonic “Pretty as a Picture” as the men campily mocked the fairer sex’s use of cosmetics. Seatter, Wages, and Fluck were highly amusing in their monk disguises harmonizing on “Pilgrims of Love.” The three also provided delightful clog-clicking accompaniment to Brittingham’s infectious “Jeanette and Her Little Wooden Shoes.”


Cotterell was a thoroughly convincing cad as he explained his flirtatious ways in  “The Game of Love,” and later dueted with Brittingham on “Talk About This -- Talk About That.” Slywotzky got to showcase her rich soprano on Dame Paula’s “What She Wanted - And What She Got” sung, on this occasion, as a duet with Fluck’s Mikel.


The ensemble of four men (Al-Jabril Muhammad, Drew Bollander, Jonathan Hare, and Keith Broughton) and four women (Caitlin Ruddy, Sarah Caldwell Smith, JoAnna Geffert, and Emily Geller) made a wonderfully resonant chorus, sounding at least twice as large again thanks to the venue’s intimate acoustics.

Mott took the occasion to announce next year’s very enticing season -- one with a distinctly Gallic theme -- “Babette,” “Madeleine,” and “Mlle. Modiste.” Ooh la la!

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; April 30 & May 1 only)


Photos by Jill LaVine:


Top to bottom


Claire Leyden as Sylvia in the final moment of "Sweethearts"


L-R Claire Leyden, Jovani Demetrie, Vira Slywotzky
   
L-R  David Seatter, Al-Jabril Muhammad, Jonathan Hare, Drew Bolander, Keither Broughton, Matthew Wages. "Pretty As A Picture"

L-R   Drew Bolander, Caitlin Ruddy, Al-Jabril Muhammad, Sarah Caldwell Smith, Jonathan Hare, JoAnna Geffert, Keith Broughton, Emily Geller, Jack Catterell as Lt. Karl

Friday, May 3, 2019

Caroline’s Kitchen (Brits Off Broadway)


By Harry Forbes

Well, to begin with the positive, it’s certainly nice for us Anglophiles to have a solid contingent of accomplished English actors led by those pros Caroline Langrishe and Aden Gillett trodding the boards in New York. But I’m afraid the vehicle which brings them here is rather big feeble.

This putative comedy by Torben Betts -- apparently a rewrite of his play “Monogamy,” which had a London run -- registers like bottom-drawer Alan Ayckbourn.

Langrishe plays Caroline Mortimer, a famous TV cook who broadcasts from her own North London kitchen. Right-wing and ultra-religious (she was a theology major at Oxford, and a crucifix hangs on the back wall), she’s adored by the British public who look at her as the perfect embodiment of English domesticity.

But, in fact, she’s a completely self-absorbed egoist, an alcoholic, and an adulteress, as she’s conducting a torrid affair with her married carpenter Graeme (James Sutton). She never seems to have time to engage in conversation with anyone, no matter how urgently they need to speak with her. Her son Leo (Tom England) is home from Cambridge, desperately anxious to share details of a broken love affair and a related revelation (gee, what could it be?), Graeme also implores her for a word, and her steamroller personal assistant Amanda (Jasmyn Banks) needs her to focus on a potential scandal.

Amanda’s gotten word that “The Daily Mail” is about to run some embarrassing photos of Caroline falling drunk out of a taxi. This captures Caroline’s attention, but only barely.

Eventually, Graeme’s mentally unstable wife Sally (Elizabeth Boag) comes in for a reckoning with Caroline, but before she can make a big scene, Caroline’s hard-drinking, narrow-minded husband Mike (Gillett) bursts in from a game of golf and starts to flirt shamelessly with Sally, thinking she’s a potential buyer for their house. Every time it seems an increasingly tipsy Sally will spill the beans about Caroline’s infidelity, Mike whisks her away to show more of the house.

Despite the potential for humor in situation, this domestic farce is pretty laugh-free. The audience at my performance could only manage a few isolated chuckles at best. The setup is contrived, and the comic bits labored. As those farcical elements pile up, there’s simply no grounding in any kind of believability of the sort which makes the best farces work.

Caroline is clearly not drawn as a particularly sympathetic character, but Langrishe does her best to build herself up to an impressive lather. (I didn’t quite understand the relevance of her spirituality.) Mike is rather repellant, and consistently abrasive, as written. There’s a serious undercurrent here about family dysfunction, but not enough to give the play substance.

James Perkins has designed an attractively detailed kitchen set (with lighting by Chris Withers). Max Pappenheim’s sound design includes increasingly torrential rain on the roof, presumably symbolic.

On their own terms, performances are solid, and director Alastair Whatley handles all the farcical action well, including scenes where all the characters are speaking simultaneously at cross purposes, and particularly when the play culminates in utter physical chaos. The sheer stagecraft at his point is admirable.

At 95 intermission-less minutes, “Caroline’s Kitchen” passes the time easily enough, but unfortunately never rises higher than sitcom level.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 646-892-7999  or www.59e59.org; through May 25)

L-R: Caroline Langrishe, Jasmyn Banks, James Sutton, Tom England in CAROLINE’S KITCHEN. Photo by Sam Taylor