Friday, January 31, 2020

Grand Horizons (Second Stage Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Despite its superficially sitcom veneer, “Grand Horizons” is, beneath the copious laughs, a surprisingly perceptive and insightful work about relationships, family, aging, life choices, and the nature of love. Bess Wohl’s throwback comedy also offers terrific opportunities for its cast, all of whom rise superbly to the occasion.

For starters, Jane Alexander gives one of the best performances of her long and distinguished careers. She plays Nancy, wife of 50 years to the taciturn Bill (equally masterful James Cromwell) who nurses dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. They are now living in an independent living senior community, the titular Grand Horizons.

Over breakfast one morning, Nancy placidly announces she wants a divorce. Bill acquiesces without further batting an eye. But when the news gets out, their two grown sons -- Ben (Ben McKenzie), a lawyer, and Brian (Michael Urie), a high school drama teacher immersed in a production of “The Crucible” with an improbable cast of 200 -- are apoplectic at the thought of the impending breakup. They promptly descend on their parents’ abode for an intervention to sort out what they view as an impossibility. Ben’s expectant wife Jess (Ashley Park) is a therapist ever on the ready to offer her professional advice. 

Ben is gruff and is aggressively impatient for the parents to see reason; Brian is self-centered and emotionally overwrought, frequently on the verge of tears. He’s just getting out of a failed relationship, and at one point, while everyone is asleep upstairs, he even brings home a randy pickup (amusing Maulik Pancholy) who even on short acquaintance, soon gleans Brian’s inherent selfishness. Later, Urie’s rising hysteria as he hears more of the sordid details that led to his mother’s decision is hilariously conveyed. In fact, all the interactions between Alexander and Urie are special. as for instance, when she reveals his father has “something on the side.”

As indicated, the play is worth catching for Alexander alone who demonstrates peerless comic timing, while giving a genuinely feeling performance. Wonderfully poised even when saying the most surprising or outrageous things, her beautifully dry, unflappable delivery is masterful. 

Priscilla Lopez brightens the second act as Bill’s lady friend Carla, a dental office receptionist from the adjoining Vista View community, whom Bill has met in his stand-up comedy class. 

There’s satisfying chemistry between all the actors, incuding McKenzie and Park who expertly limn their troubled-beneath-the-surface relationship, and Park proves yet again what a fine comedienne she is. 

Many have seen parallels to Neil Simon in the play, but I think there’s a closer stylistic parallel to English playwright Alan Ayckbourn. Wohl’s themes here, underneath the bellylaughs, are quite profound, and the emotions are never less than real. 

Clint Ramos’ set lighted by Jen Schriever perfectly captures the dull sameness of the Grand Horizons units. Linda Cho’s costumes are character-perfect.  Bryce Cutler’s projection design provides an amusingly animated pre-show and intermission drop curtain.

Leigh Silverman’s razor-sharp direction is perfectly attuned to Wohl’s style and keeps the action, however outrageous, satisfyingly plausible.

(Hayes Theater, 240 W 44th Street; or 212-541-4516; through March 1)

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A Soldier’s Play (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

Charles Fuller’s 1981 Pulitzer-winner, a jewel in the crown of the old Negro Ensemble Company, and one which has generated two Off-Broadway revivals, finally makes it to Broadway courtesy of the Roundabout. It’s a classy, well-acted production with some sharp directorial touches by Kenny Leon, including a significant amount of song and stylized movement.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling that the procedural structure -- so very familiar from TV -- makes the play a little less groundbreaking than the original production with such future lights as Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, and the subsequent film (titled “A Soldier’s Story”), must have seemed.

The setting is a segregated Army base in 1944 Louisiana. The black enlisted men, most or all veterans of the Negro League, are itching to be sent off to war. In the play’s opening moments, their commanding officer Sgt. Waters (played by veteran of the original production and film David Alan Grier, albeit in a different role) appears on the upper level of Derek McLane’s stylized army barracks set, crazily ranting about how “they’ll still hate you,” when he’s felled by two bullets from an unseen assassin. 

The play continues in classic whodunit fashion. The black Capt. Davenport (an authoritative and dynamic Blair Underwood) is sent to investigate, much to the surprise and delight of the men, but the enormous discomfort of the base’s white Capt. Taylor (Jerry O’Connell in a well-judged performance). Upon meeting Davenport, Taylor freely admits to some ingrained prejudice, but his real concern is that if the killing turns out to be a presumed KKK lynching, the locals would never stand for a black man making the charge. (In fact, the base is in lock-down mode to prevent any random reprisals from the men.)

Undeterred, Davenport continues on his assigned mission, interviewing all the men, including a couple of white officers, Byrd (Nate Mann) and Wilcox (Lee Aaron Rosen) with whom Waters clashed the night of his killing.

What Davenport soon discovers is that Waters was universally hated by his men for his disdainful contempt of obsequious blacks whom, he felt, were a disgrace to the race. It is a credit to Grier’s performance that bullying and demeaning though he is, he manages to show us the pain he himself has endured.

But, as we see in the numerous flashback scenes, Waters was quite merciless in taunting the men of whom he was especially critical, including the angry Pvt. Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha), Private Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones) whose stripes were taken away from him by Waters, and most especially, the likable, guitar-strumming Pvt. C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson) whom Waters sees as especially emblematic of the “lazy, shiftless” type he disdains. In short, there are a lot of suspects.

The flashback scenes do frankly seem a bit clunky, despite all of Leon’s directorial finesse, and the play overall seems unusually talky, but the mystery aspects certainly keep you hooked, and the overall themes of racism and racial identity are undeniably compelling, and still have contemporary relevance.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Besides those mentioned, there’s outstanding work by Rob Demery as the cocky Col. Cobb, McKinley Belcher III as the wary Pvt. Henson, Jared Grimes as the insecure Pvt. Smalls, and Warner Miller as Cpl. Ellis.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street;  212-719-1300 or; through March 15)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

My Name is Lucy Barton (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Laura Linney won unanimous acclaim for her performance in this stage adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's best-selling book when she performed it at London's Bridge Theatre in 2018, and she’s now justly earning the same kudos for reprising the role on Broadway.

The titular Lucy -- who left her Amgash, Illinois home for New York years before to pursue a career as a writer -- lies in a hospital room fighting a serious infection after an appendix operation. Much to Lucy’s surprise, she awakens one day to discover her estranged mother has traveled all the way there to look over her. Lucy marvels at the bravery of the insular woman making her way there on her own. Her mother ends up staying for five days before departing as abruptly as she came, a pattern that will be poignantly echoed later in the play.

The mother, a plain speaking farm woman, warms Lucy with her presence, but it's clear that she had been an emotionally distant parent. And the father, suffering from PTSD, was even worse. We learn that Lucy and her siblings endured lonely childhoods, with beatings and other punishments part of their life. Lucy, for instance, had to endure being locked in her father’s truck for hours on end, once, traumatically, with a snake. 

As this is a one-person show, Linney plays both Lucy and her mother. Her portrayal of the mother is finally characterized. One starts to feel two people are on stage, as the mother regales her with homespun stories of what the neighbors, like one Kathy Nicely, are up to. 

We do hear of the other people in Lucy’s life, including a particularly empathetic elderly neighbor named Jerry. Lucy's husband is significantly absent at the hospital, but Lucy gets great comfort from a kindly Jewish doctor who faithfully checks on her even on his days off. She keeps in touch with her two young daughters by phone. But the loneliness underneath her upbeat optimism is beautifully conveyed.

Luke Halls’ projection design is outstanding as it shows us everything from the gleaming Chrysler building outside Lucy's hospital room to the aforementioned truck to the green fields of Illinois. Bob Crowley’s spare hospital room set, lighted by Peter Mumford -- Lucy’s bed, a visitor chair, and the window -- are pretty much all but nothing more is really needed. Audience members sit on either side of the stage, as presumably was the case in London. 

Richard Eyre directs with an assured sense of drama, understated though it may be. There’s little in the way of conventional plot, but the narrative is emotionally rich. 

It seems to me that the novel - which I've not read - has been astutely adapted for the stage by Rona Munro. Even with its first-person narrative structure, the play registers as vital drama, and never feels like an audiobook. 

Its 90 intermission-less minutes fly by, and Linney -- in perhaps her most iconic role since she make such a splash as Mary Ann Singleton in “Tales of the City” back in the early 1980’s -- is rewarded with a well-earned standing ovation. 

(Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo by Matthew Murphy

Monday, January 13, 2020

Jagged Little Pill (Broadhurst Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Though I must confess I had zero familiarity with Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette’s lauded 1995 album from which many of the songs in the new musical derive, it still seems to me that “Jagged Little Pill”  is head and shoulders above most jukebox musicals. 

That’s because the songs (music co-written with Glen Ballard with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth) are woven into an uncommonly absorbing narrative fashioned by Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Juno." The story she’s fashioned to fit the songs concerns a well-to-do Connecticut family with a heavy dose of dysfunction. As many of my colleagues have pointed out, there are more issues here than you can shake a stick at -- opiod addiction, rape, online bullying, racism, and much much more -- but even so, I never found any of that excessive, so skillfully does the story unfold.

The show has come to Broadway after a successful run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Not being familiar with the album, the songs had no prior associations, and frankly, I found most of the lyrics nearly incomprehensible -- a complaint echoed by several at my performance -- but even so, the general mood of each number was clear enough. If a character was, say, expressing anger or loneliness, those emotions were powerfully conveyed. Perhaps the audibility issues are a result of Jonathan Deans’ sound design (well balanced in the dialogue though) or perhaps it's just the nature of the louder ensemble numbers. 

The talent on view is exemplary. Mary Jane Healy (Elizabeth Stanley surpassing all her previous excellent work) is the overreaching mother who has high expectations for her son Nick (Derek Klena) who has just gotten into Harvard (as she just knew he would), leading the boy to feel valued more for his achievements than himself. A car accident has left her hopelessly addicted to painkillers, a fact she conceals from her family, along with another secret potentially even more explosive.

Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding, talented daughter of LaChanze) is the adopted black daughter, a tireless activist for all causes who is secretly involved in a lesbian relationship with her friend Jo (Lauren Patten) until, that is, she meets the cute Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) at a party. Businessman husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) is a workaholic, and neglects the disinterested Mary Jane (aka MJ) for internet porn. When outsider girl Bella (Kathryn Gallagher) is raped at a party by Nick’s callous friend Andrew (Logan Hart), we learn that all is even less ideal than MJ’s Christmas letter, which opens the show, would suggest. 

With all of the high drama, there are lighter moments and humor in the mix.

The songs (some from the “Jagged Little Pill” album along with other Morissette material, old and new) -- and effectively orchestrated by Tom Kitt -- are superlatively performed. But it is Jo’s angry outburst “You Oughta Know” that emerges as the big showstopper and actually stopped the show with a partial standing ovation at the reviewed performance. But other numbers, sonically muddy or not, make an impression such as “Ironic,” which spins from Frankie’s creative writing class; Bella’s “Predator”; Nick’s “Perfect”; Steve’s “So Unsexy”; and Mary Jane’s “Uninvited.” 

Even if the show were devoid of songs altogether, Cody’s book would, I think, make a solid theatrical evening. Director Diane Paulus has worked her usual wizardry to make a cohesive and satisfying evening. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui provides the lively choreography.

Riccardo Hern├índez’s flashy scenic design, Emily Rebholz’s funky costumes, and Justin Townsend’s astute lighting are top-flight.

(Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44 Street; or 212-239-6200) 

Photo by Matthew Murphy: Celia Rose Gooding and Lauren Patten

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Inheritance (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

The London phenomenon which wowed them at the Young Vic before transferring to the West End has come to Broadway with five of the principals from the London cast. 

Matthew Lopez’s two-part, nearly seven hour drama -- a present day riff on E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howard’s End” -- centering around  a group of gay men in upper West Side Manhattan is riveting from start to finish. Though comparisons to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” are inevitable, and “The Inheritance” shares with its predecessor thematic similarities such as the devastation of AIDS, and the same marathon length, the Lopez play is unique.

The story focuses on Eric (Kyle Soller), a lawyer in a spacious, rent controlled apartment and his lover Toby (Andrew Burnap), a novelist and budding playwright whose play is about to receive a Broadway production. A privileged young man named Adam (Samuel H. Levine) comes into their circle, and audaciously suggests that he might be right for the lead role in the play. Skeptical Toby arranges an audition, and Adam lands the part. Before long, Toby is smitten with him, and when he learns that Eric is about to be evicted from their apartment, he callously calls off their impending marriage.

The shattered Eric subsequently befriends Walter (Paul Hilton), an elderly neighbor who tells of how he took in AIDS patients to the upstate house he shared with his life partner Henry (John Benjamin Hickey), a wealthy Republican real estate executive, much to the latter’s disdain, as Henry had wanted the house to be a refuge from all the death resulting from the AIDS scourge of the 1980s. Before his death, the ailing Walter leaves a scribbled note saying he wants Eric, in whom he discerns a kindred spirit, to have the house, but after his passing, Henry and his two grown sons choose to ignore Walter’s wishes. (That, it seems to me, is the most overt parallel to the Forster plot.)

Nonetheless, Henry develops a warm if platonic friendship with Eric. Complications arise.

The title refers not only to the property willed by Walter, but also to AIDS, and, more generally, what one generation passes to the next, be it illness or guilt. 

The cast is extraordinary. I had read the script a few months earlier, and while I found the plot compulsively absorbing, I couldn’t quite see the characters in my mind's eye as they are not overtly described in the text. But the cast brings them vividly to life. Hilton doubles as the very humane spirit of Forster exorting the men to be true to themselves, even as the men chide him for not publishing his gay novel, “Maurice,” in his lifetime, though not mentioning that homosexual acts were then still criminal.  Levine also doubles as the pitiable hustler Leo who bears an uncanny resemblance to Adam. 

Lois Smith plays Margaret, the sole woman’s part (Vanessa Redgrave in London), and she’s accomplished as ever as the mother who had been estranged from the son who died of age decades before. Her marathon second act monologue is expertly delivered. 

Bob Crowley’s set -- a simple raised platform around which the ensemble  observe and sometimes comment on the central action -- works beautifully, and the disputed property when Eric (and we) finally see it is beautifully realized. Jon Clark’s lighting, Paul Arditti and Christopher Reid’s sound design, and Paul Englishby’s music contribute mightily to the overall classy presentation. 

Stephen Daldry has done his usual masterful job directing the proceedings, and the first play ends with a particularly outstanding bit of staging that doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house. 

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200)