Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Rat Trap (Mint Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

Noel Coward’s first substantive play -- written when he was 18 but not produced for several years later (and then at Hampstead’s Everyman Theatre for a limited fringe run, rather than London’s West End) after he was a firmly established playwright -- is finally enjoying its American premiere courtesy of the adventurous Mint. (There had been a 2006 revival at London’s Finborough Theatre.) 

Though not in the same league as most of Coward’s later work, and not a comedy, in spite of some choice epigrams here and there, there’s much to admire in the young Coward’s precocious skill and talent. And the production will, of course, be of great interest to Coward and serious theater buffs. 

Coward himself delivered a clear-eyed assessment in the forward to one of his Play Parade compilations: "It is not without merit. There is some excruciatingly sophisticated dialogue in the first act of which, at the time, I was inordinately proud. From the point of view of construction, it is not very good, except for the two principal quarrel scenes. The last act is an inconclusive shambles…”  Yet, he fervently wished he could see a production of it, especially as he had been out of the country even for the Hampstead premiere. 

Those remarks are a bit harsh but, on the whole, accurate based on the creditable and enjoyable Mint production, smartly directed by Alexander Lass.  

The story concerns promising young novelist Sheila (Sarin Monae West), who’s already penned one bestseller, newly married to Keld (James Evans), a budding playwright, harboring the notion that they will nurture each other’s efforts in blissful harmony. Sheila’s observant friend and roommate Olive (Elizabeth Gray) is highly skeptical, and indeed her misgivings prove prescient when, six months later, the self-absorbed Keld becomes unpleasantly irritable at every domestic interruption from the stolid maid Burrage (a scene-stealing Cynthia Mace), and now not at all tolerant of Sheila’s writing efforts. He expects her to handle all the domestic details like a good wifey. 

The situation would seem to suggest a boldly feminist point of view, and for a while, Coward continues on that track. But all that comes to naught in that weak final act and denouement. 

Adding some levity and a different perspective to Sheila and Keld’s domestic strife are the secondary characters of Naomi (Heloise Lowenthal) and Edmund (Ramzi Khalaf), she a novelist and he a poet, who live in unmarried “sin” and harmony. Edmund was played in the original production by Raymond Massey.

There’s also a troublesome ex-Gaiety girl Ruby (amusing Claire Saunders) who has a part in Keld’s play and continues to badger him for more roles. She was originally played by Adrianne Allen who, a few years later, would marry Massey, and out of that union would come actors Daniel and Anna Massey. Their messy divorce 10 years later made headlines. But I digress.

The Mint’s cast, admirably and unobtrusively diverse, is quite capable, British accents are good, and everyone seems to have the measure of their role. West creates a very sympathetic portrayal of Sheila. Gray is especially solid as the wiser older friend. Though overall Evans is well cast in his role, his peevish outbursts in the second and third acts go beyond the realm of irritability and register as borderline psychotic, but it’s difficult to know whether the script would allow for a more nuanced interpretation. 

Khalaf and Lowenthal perform an interpolated Coward number, “Forbidden Fruit,” the playwright’s first important song, and just to close the historical loop, sung by Daniel Massey (as Coward) in the Gertrude Lawrence biopic “Star!” But the interlude is superfluous.

Vicki R. Davis’s set, Christian DeAngelis’ lighting, and Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes are all pleasing.

Props to the Mint for doing this Coward rarity, and here’s hoping they exhume more of them.

(Mint Theater Company, 131 West 55th Street   NYCityCenter.org or 212-581-1212; through December 10)

Photos by Todd Cerveris: 

Top: (l. - r.) Sarin Monae West and James Evans 

Below: (l. - r.) Heloise Lowenthal, Claire Saunders and Ramzi Khalaf 

Monday, November 14, 2022

A Man of No Importance (CSC Repertory)

By Harry Forbes

The first mainstream New York revival of the 2002 musical created by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Terrence McNally (book) is a lovely one, perfectly suited to the cozy CSC stage. The original production at the (also intimate) Mitzi Newhouse Theatre starred the late Roger Rees in the role of an Irish bus conductor played, in turn, by Albert Finney in the 1994 non-musical film. 

This time around it’s Jim Parsons as Alfie Byrne, the closeted gay man in 1964 Dublin, harboring a secret crush on Robbie, the handsome bus driver on his daily route (played by A.J. Shively, so good in last season’s “Paradise Square”). Alfie is a theater buff who reveres Oscar Wilde as Ireland’s greatest playwright. And he runs the local theater group -- the St. Imelda’s Players in the local church hall -- with all his bus regulars taking enthusiastic part. 

They’ve played all the Wilde comedies, but now Alfie has his sights set on the atypical Wilde drama, “Salome.” When newcomer Adele (pure-voiced Shereen Ahmed), a shy young woman, takes the bus one day, Alfie is sure he’s found his ideal Salome. 

Alfie lives with his unmarried sister Lily (Mare Winningham) who, completely in the dark about her brother’s sexuality, continues to hope that he will find the right girl. She, in turn, is being courted by the local butcher Mr. Carney (Thom Sesma), The Players’ leading man.

CSC has assembled an excellent company that compares well with the original cast. Besides those mentioned, there’s Alma Cuevo (as Oona Crowe), Kara Mikula (Mrs. Curtin), Da’Von T. Moody (Bretin Beret), Mary Beth Peil (Mrs. Grace), Nathaniel Stampley (Father Kenny), Jessica Tyler Wright (Mrs. Patrick), Joel Waggoner (Ernie Lally), and Williams Youmans (Baldy O’Shea).

The thrust stage is, as always, an involving setting, and director John Doyle has his cast make full use of the aisles and stairs. As you might expect with Doyle at the helm, yes, several members of the cast play their own instruments which, on this occasion, seems fitting in establishing a sense of community, and, as in the musical “Once,” seems apt for the Gallic setting. 

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s modest but pleasing Irish-flavored score lends itself well to this treatment. There are no outright showstoppers though Robbie’s “Streets of Dublin” (memorably performed by Steven Pasquale in the original cast) gets a fine, rousing treatment by Shively. But hearing the score again, played and sung so well, confirmed its overall quality: the company’s jaunty “Going Up”; Adele’s plaintive “Princess”; Baldy’s wistful “The Cuddles Mary Gave” sung at his wife's grave; 

Parsons, younger than his predecessors in the role, makes the role his own, and reveals a fine singing voice and credible Irish accent. Winningham is also outstanding both dramatically and vocally, after demonstrating her musical chops in the recent “Girl from the North Country.”

Doyle himself created the minimal but effective scenic design lighted by Adam HonorĂ©. Ann Hould-Ward’s period costumes add to the authentic atmosphere, while Sun Hee Kil’s sound design is a model of clarity, Music Director Caleb Hoyer conducts Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations with spirit and sensitivity.


(Classic Stage Company (CSC), 136 East 13th Street; classicstage.org; through December 18)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) A.J. Shively, Jim Parsons

Friday, November 11, 2022

Almost Famous (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This musical adaptation of Cameron Crowe's 2000 semi-autobiographical film is slavishly faithful to its source, an approach I rate as a plus. To have gone a different route would have disappointed the Oscar-winning film’s many fans. (The film won Best Original Screenplay.)

Now truthfully, he film itself, which I watched just a couple of days earlier, doesn't exactly cry out for musicalization despite its rock world milieu. But composer-lyricist Tom Kitt, in tandem with Crowe himself, have come up with some quite decent numbers that nearly all take their cues from the film's dialogue, which is presented here with nearly line-by-line fidelity. In short, book writer Crowe has done everything possible to put his beloved film on stage.

For those who need reminding, the story tells of 15-year-old William Miller (the fictional stand-in for young Crowe played here by Casey Likes) who, like Crowe himself, aspires to be a rock music writer, for Rolling Stone. William’s mother Elaine (Anika Larsen), a college professor, disdains that goal but nonetheless warily and lovingly indulges his efforts. 

She allows him to travel with the (fictional) Stillwater band fronted by Jeff Bebe (Drew Gehling) to write a piece for Rolling Stone’s editor Ben Fong-Torres (Matthew C. Lee) who has no idea how young William really is as they've only spoken over the phone. And, of course, the projected four days William tells his mother he'll be away turns out considerably longer.

He's taken in caring hand by a groupie not much older than he is named Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer) who is smitten with the handsome guitarist for the group, Russell Hammond (Chris Wood). Penny’s pack of fellow fans include Estrella (Julia Cassandra), Sapphire (Katie Ladner) and Polexia (Jana Djenne Jackson), all well played here.

William’s mentor, seasoned rock critic Lester Bangs (Rob Colletti taking Philip Seymour Hoffman’s film role), warns the boy not to become friends with the band as they will use him to glorify their image, and of course that is exactly what begins to happen.

All the casting seems to have been done along with the film’s cast in mind. Without resorting to imitation, Likes, Larsen, Wood, Pfeiffer, and Gehling manage to channel Patrick Fugit, Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, and Jason Lee. 

They're all good, and Pfeiffer in particular is remarkably successful at recreating Hudson’s charismatic luminosity in the film. She also has some of the prettiest numbers here such as “Morocco,” her paean to her pipe dream destination; and “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You” (a duet with Wood). 

This being a musical, young William has his share of songs, too, which at first seems a bit odd as his character is written as the wide-eyed observer. But Likes is a strong vocalist, and it would have been disconcerting for him not to sing.

The score is a mix of newly written songs by Kitt and Crowe and a handful of others heard in the film.

Director Jeremy Herrin is, on the whole, successful at creating a cinematic fluidity (even including the film’s bus and plane scenes), and scenic and video designer Derek McLane’s set pieces come in from the wings and the flies at various times for scene changes. David Zinn’s costumes entertainingly capture the 1970s ethos.

A few of the band’s numbers are played at rock concert decibels, but the dialogue and book songs otherwise play out at comfortable levels in Peter Hylenski’s crisp sound design

The show does seem a tad long but I'd be hard pressed to know what cut without losing one of the key scenes from the film.

The audience at my performance seemed to have a rousing good time, which must have been gratifying for Cameron Crowe who watched the show from the back of the house.

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 800-447-7400)

Photo by Matt Murphy: (l.-r.) Casey Likes, Solea Pfeiffer

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Piano Lesson (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, which premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987 and then came to Broadway in 1990) is receiving its first Broadway revival, and it’s a first-rate one. Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington and Danielle Brooks head an accomplished cast under the savvy direction of first-time Broadway director LaTanya Richardson Jackson (wife of Samuel).

Hotheaded Boy Willie (Washington) and his sidekick Lymon (Ray Fisher) noisily burst into the home of Willie’s widowed sister Berniece (Brooks) who lives with their railway worker uncle Doaker Charles (Jackson) early one morning in 1936 Pittsburgh. They’ve driven up from Mississippi to sell a truckload of watermelons, but Willie’s principal motive is to sell the antique piano with which Berniece adamantly refuses to part as it's a family heirloom with profound significance. With his half of the sale earnings, Willie hopes to buy the farm where their ancestors toiled as slaves, and make something of himself. Doaker eventually relates the piano’s history in a lengthy speech beautifully delivered. (In fact, all the characters have their major moments.)

We learn the piano is adorned with carvings of the Charles family’s ancestors from slavery times, and Willie and that Berniece’s father died in stealing it from Sutter, the descendent of the slave owner who owned it. Subsequently, their mother treasured the piano as it was her most tangible keepsake of their father. Willie stubbornly believes a solid future is more important than preserving the past. 

Apart from Berniece’s young daughter Maretha (Nadia Daniel at my performance) playing it, the instrument stands idle. Berniece refuses to touch it. And the house is, in fact, haunted by the spirit of Sutter whose ghost is witnessed by Berniece and Maretha. (Yes, this is a bona fide ghost story.) Even Doaker confesses he’s sometimes heard the piano playing when no one is around.

Into this already heady mix come Avery (understudy Charles Browning at my performance), a novice preacher who hopes to marry Berniece, and Doaker’s shifty brother Wining Boy (outstanding Michael Potts), an alcoholic itinerant piano player/singer. 

Washington gives an explosive performance, comparing favorably to Broadway originator Charles Dutton. (Interestingly, Samuel L. Jackson played that role in the Yale production, and was Charles Dutton’s understudy back in 1990). 

Doaker is a contained character, but Jackson exudes quiet power whenever he speaks or even when he simply sits in the adjoining kitchen observing the action around him.

Fisher makes a marvelously guileless Lymon, and the scene in which Avery cons Lymon into buying an ill-fitting, garish silk suit (1930s costumes by Toni-Leslie James) is as amusing as his subsequent flirtation with Berniece is touching. The versatile Brooks is, as always, terrific.

There’s good work too from April Matthis as good time girl Grace both Willie and Lymon hope to seduce.

Wilson’s prose is often dense, and there’s a good deal of expository dialogue. And at first the heavy regional accents prove challenging but eventually the ear adjusts. 

Beowulf Boritt’s two-level set, lighted atmospherically by Japhy Weideman, is striking. And Jeff Sugg’s projection design includes some bravura ghost effects in the play’s climactic moments. 

The 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV production with Dutton and several other members of the original cast makes for interesting viewing and is available as of this writing on YouTube. Wilson opened up the play a bit for the screen and the performances are outstanding. But there were some cuts and edits for television. I'm glad to know the present production will be preserved, and is currently in the pre-production stage.

(Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 15)

Photos by Julieta Cervantes

Top: (l.-r.) John David Washington, Samuel L. Jackson

Below: Danielle Brooks