Saturday, May 7, 2016

Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

“I can’t do it like this!” protests the writer EITAN KATZEN to the BEARDED MAN, the SURVEY TAKER and the PIZZA DELIVERY woman who have come knocking at his door. Brandishing weapons, they make the stakes clear: a story or your life! So the writer held hostage to these three strange muses begins to weave his tales, played out on the stage by the same characters that are holding him captive. 

Based on eight stories from the latest anthology by award-winning Israeli author and filmmaker Etgar Keret, Suddenly, A Knock at the Door is a celebration of storytelling and the magic of art—an ensemble piece written for six actors and two musicians playing more than 30 different roles. It is a comic drama of a modern writer weaving extra-ordinary tales in the middle of Tel Aviv. Here stories are the currency, a matter of life and death. Here, stories make us real and teach us (with a nod to Scheherazade) how to face the difficulties of life—from the absurd to the unbearable—without resorting to violence or abusing your power.

Suddenly, A Knock at the Door, written by Robin Goldfin and directed by David L. Carson, will be presented by Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., June 2 through 19.  It will feature live music composed by Oren Neiman and performed by Oren Neiman and Gilad Ben-Zvi. 

Visit or call SmartTix at 212-868-4444.

Jeffrey Swan Jones*
Antonio Minino
Alyssa Simon*
Kenneth Talberth*
Stephen Thornton
Elanna White

Playwright Robin Goldfin writes: “Etgar Keret is one of Israel’s most celebrated writers. He is the author of six collections of stories that have been translated into more than thirty languages, and most recently the memoir THE SEVEN GOOD YEARS, published first in English. In the U.S., his work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine and The Paris Review. He has also been a frequent contributor on NPR's This American Life. What a pleasure it has been to adapt the stories of this master storyteller to make a new play!" Visit Etgar Keret's official website here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Jesse Tyler Ferguson is fully engaged in 'Fully Committed'

I really enjoyed the first half hour of Fully Committed, Becky Mode’s one-man play featuring Jess Tyler Ferguson as Sam Callaghan, an actor working as a reservations manager at “a world-renowned, ridiculously red-hot Manhattan restaurant.” It was the remaining hour that bored me as the same jokes were repeated over and over in what is really a long “Saturday Night Live” type skit than a play.

Under the direction of Jason Moore, Ferguson, a theatre veteran well known now for his role on “Modern Family,” plays more than 40 characters, mostly callers desperately trying to get reservations or others who work at the restaurant where dinner prices range between $250 and $350 a person and which bills its food as “molecular gastronomy.” Among the offering for one night are “crispy deer lichen atop a slowly deflating scent-filled pillow, dusted with edible dirt, smoked cuttlefish risotto in a cloud of dry ice infused with pipe tobacco and nitro-frozen shaved foie gras enshrouded in a liquid chicken-filled orb.”

Sam works nonstop, pushing buttons to answer the phone, listening to desperate pleadings, putting callers on hold, checking computerized schedules and darting across the room to deal with the diva chef on another line. Ferguson handles the part with the right level of intensity and humor. I only wish he had had a more developed play with which to work.

One of the funniest callers was Bryce, Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal assistant, whom Ferguson portrays in an extremely gay voice (actually many of his characters sound a bit like gay men, even a southern woman). Paltrow strikes me as one of the more self-involved of the Hollywood set, and Bryce’s requests reflect that. He says Gwyneth wants to come in this weekend — the restaurant is always booked three months in advance, hence the title fully committed — and wants a “round, freestanding table,” no legumes, a male-only waitstaff, “an all-vegan tasting menu that’s a locally-sourced, no-fat, no-salt, no-dairy, no-sugar, no-chicken, no-meat, no-fish, no-soy, no- rice, no-foam, no-corn tasting menu for 15, okay?”

This is in Bryce’s first call. Several more with Paltrow’s queenly demands are made and are funny in their narcissistic precision. Bryce calls back later to say, “When Gwyneth was in last time, she found the lighting a little harsh, so if table 17 is too close to the sconce, rather than change tables, what she’d like to do is change bulbs, from whatever it is you’re using to something a little softer, which we would be more than happy to supply. . . Sam, don’t worry! I’ll send my assistant over and we’ll take care of it. . . His name is Tasha and I’ll have him run over with some Edison bulbs at like 5:00.”

It’s a delightful mocking of today’s shallow celebrities. Among the other A-listers with reservations or hoping to get them are Malcolm Gladwell, Helen Mirren and Diane Sawyer.

As if his job isn’t miserable enough with all its stress, Sam’s working environment is dismal, a basement office with exposed pipes, ancient filing cabinets and a metal table holding the ever-ringing phone. Derek McLane’s set is appropriately unappealing, making Sam’s “day job” seem even more like hell.

Fully Committed was first produced Off-Broadway in 1999. Mode, who based the play on her experience working in the high-end restaurant world, updated the script to reflect today’s foodie (I detest that word and all it stands for) culture and obsession with off-beat cuisine and status restaurants. It plays the Lyceum Theatre through July 24.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne star in the Roundabout's powerful revival of 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'


When the house lights rose at the end of the latest Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I felt we needed a moment of silence before applauding this awe-inspiring production. Jessica Lange’s performance as Mary Tyrone alone deserved to be reverenced. I wanted time to come back to reality in the American Airlines Theatre.

The three hours and 45 minutes evaporated as the Tyrone family, magnificently played by all — Gabriel Byrne as Mary’s husband, James, the hard-drinking, cheapskate former matinee idol; Michael Shannon as their alcohol ne’er-do-well elder son, Jamie; and John Gallagher Jr. as the tubercular, poetic younger son, Edmund — tangled in their web of anger, blame, regret and delusion that suffocates the love they have for each other.

This Roundabout Theatre Company production, directed by Jonathan Kent and running through June 26, is so raw and real that it brought back the connection I felt when I first discovered this great work by Eugene O’Neill in college. Back then, I felt I was encountering my mother and her family, who by the way were O’Neills (no known relationship), on every page. This is the very reason I have wanted to avoid the play in later years.

It is a powerful drama about four people who definitely need to get away from one another but who are bound by their dependency — all of them financially on James, who prospered so well in his one commercial role that he abandoned his dream of being a serious actor, much to his regret now. Their emotional dependancies, though, are the real tragedy of the play.

In the 2003 Broadway revival, Vanessa Redgrave played Mary and although she won a Tony Award for Best Actress, her performance left me unaffected. I didn’t feel any vulnerability. She was for me a great actress playing vulnerable, but she remained strong, as she always does when I see her. I felt the same when she starred in The Year of Magical Thinking.

But Lange’s Mary is so fragile I marveled that she could keep going. She begins as the restless wife who has loved her husband even as she blames him for her drug addiction and taking her away from her plans to be either a concert pianist or a nun. With Lange it’s easy to see the gentle convent school girl at the heart of the broken woman. She brings out Mary’s youthful quality, making her decline all the more sad.

At the start, James sums up the family’s mode of functioning when Jamie wants to avoid talking about his lazy, worthless existence.

“Yes, forget! Forget everything and face nothing! It’s a convenient philosophy if you’ve no ambition in life except to —,” he says before Mary quiets him.

One of O’Neill’s dominate themes is that humankind cannot bear too much reality. The Tyrones embody this theme, and the show’s production team plays on it nicely. Natasha Katz’s lighting enhances the family’s escape from reality by shadowing in dimness Tom Pye’s set of the Tyrones' shabby Connecticut beach house. The lack of light is attributed to James’ unwillingness to make “the Electric Light Company rich,” but it symbolizes the darkness of how the family deals with its pain. (My grandfather Patrick O’Neill used to nag his children to turn off the lights, saying, “The gas company’s as rich as cream,” the term “gas company” being a holdover from his childhood in Ireland.)

The Tyrones are definitely not ready to shed a light on their reality.

“None of us can help the things life has done to us,” Mary says bitterly. “They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”

The men have learned to cope by escaping into their drinking. Mary relies on morphine, a drug she became addicted to after Edmund’s painful birth.

The play, which captures in one day in 1912, takes place shortly after Mary has returned from her latest hospitalization (detox) and the family carries on as if she has overcome her addiction this time. But it isn’t long before even these people so practiced in deception have to admit the truth.

“What’s the good of talk,” James says to the boys with resignation turning to bitterness. “We’ve lived this before and now we must again. There’s no help for it. Only I wish she hadn’t led me to hope this time. By God, I never will again!”

But when he is with Mary, he tries to reason with her.

“Dear Mary! For the love of God, for my sake and the boys’ sake and your own, won’t you stop now?”

Mary is stubborn in her denial.

“Stop what? What are you talking about? James! We love each other! We always will! Let’s remember only that, and try not to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped — the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”

With Lange and Byrne we can see love in their gestures, the hand holding and hugs, and the way they look at each other. But they are mired in resentment, Mary toward James for bringing in a cheap hotel doctor for Edmund’s birth who covered up his incompetence by giving her morphine. James resents the guilt he refuses to acknowledge in his role in Mary downfall and mourns for the Shakespearean career he never had.

“The past is the present, isn’t it,” Mary asks. “It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

The inability to escape the past — and these people try hard — is another of O’Neill’s themes. It’s heavy stuff, but this ensemble of actors are convincing as a family who has been down these roads many times before.

Lange actually has been on Mary’s journey before, earning an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in the role on the West End in 2012.

After hours of moving portrayal, Lange is most heartbreaking in the final scene when Mary, far gone into to her morphine world, slowly walks into the living room wearing a long white nightgown (costumes by Jane Greenwood) and dragging her wedding dress. The men, soused from a night of drinking, are frozen like an oil painting in the darkened background as Mary comes to the front of the stage into a spotlight, in what is the most light to grace the stage all night. In a soft, quiet voice she recalls telling Mother Elizabeth that she wanted to become a nun, but Mother Elizabeth told her to go out into the world for awhile before making her decision.

“After I left her, I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would alway love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.”

Lange looks lost and alone, as she ever so quietly says the final lines.

“That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”

Silence should have been mandatory after that, in appreciation for Lange’s frail, damned Mary, for all the cast and for O’Neill who created such as work of beauty and pain. Time is needed to absorb the feelings before the standing ovation that was most definitely deserved.

Friday, April 29, 2016

'Waitress' is only half baked

I don’t know if a comparable term to chick flick exists in theatre, but if it does it could be applied to Waitress, the new Broadway musical starring Jessie Mueller. Based on the hit 2007 indie film, the show at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre offers heavy-duty female bonding, along with songs about pregnancy tests, getting knocked-up and online dating, as well as a joke about pap smears.

“I’ve got to get out of here before I die of estrogen asphyxiation,” says Cal (Eric Anderson), boss of the three devoted-to-each-other waitresses at Joe’s Pie Diner.

Besides being the theatrical equivalent of a click flick, Waitress, under the direction of Diane Paulus and with a book by Jessie Nelson, is a theatrical sit-com. Jenna (Mueller) is a waitress who creates heavenly pies with names like Deep Dish Blueberry Bacon, and who is stuck in a loveless marriage to the oafish Earl (Nick Cordero). When she finds herself pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want, along with the husband she no longer wants, her sisterhood of waitresses — Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Kimiko Glenn) — offer advice and support. And she also develops a new dessert — Betrayed By My Eggs Pie.

You’ve met her sidekicks in plenty of TV series — the wise-cracking, plus-size Becky who complains that one of her boobs is sagging lower than the other, making her look “like something Picasso would have created,” and Dawn, the skinny little bespeckled spinster mouse who lives alone and eats frozen dinners until she meets the man of her dreams, a fellow history buff played with zest by Christopher Fitzgerald.

It’s a cute story but with its heavy reliance on sit-com humor and stereotypical characters it doesn’t offer enough to sustain its length of two hours and 35 minutes.

Sara Bareilles’ music is jaunty, but her lyrics are often hard to understand, especially when sung by Mueller. I have talked to quite a few people who also had trouble catching the words. I don’t know if something was wrong with the sound system or with the enunciation from Mueller, who was terrific as Carole King in Beautiful, for which she won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award.

Along with its chick flick and sit-com leanings, Waitress is also a rom-com. Jenna and her married OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), have a fling, although it’s certainly not romantic, nor is it convincing. They have no chemistry.

Not convincing, unfortunately, is what I felt about most of Mueller’s performance. She seemed to be going through the motions of Jenna’s life rather than inhabiting her the way she did Carole King. Her pie-making as well as her lovemaking looked mechanical rather than dreamlike or exciting.

But Jenna will triumph as sit-com, rom-com, chick flick character always do. That’s not giving away the ending. You already know the genre.

The dance numbers, choreographed by Lorin Latarro, were bland, but Scott Pask’s set was nice, a cozy southern diner where it would be fun to stop in for a piece of pie and some gossip with the girls. In fact, you might want to head out for pie right after the show because the producers have real pies baking out of sight in the theatre to enhance the mood. At least that was authentic.

Waitress has been nominated as Best Musical of 2015 by Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and the Drama League. It comes to Broadway following a sold-out limited engagement at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA.

In the opening number the staff sings of “days like this we can only do the best we can. . . then we do it again.” That pretty well sums up the spirit of the show, carrying on because it had to but without much spark or creativity. Had this musical opened last season with competition like Hamilton, Something Rotten and An American in Paris I don’t think it would have received many nominations.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Vanessa Williams and Matthew Morrison announce 2016 Drama Desk nominations

Nominations for our 2016 Annual Drama Desk Awards were announced during a continental breakfast this morning at Feinstein's/54 Below by Vanessa Williams and Matthew Morrison.

In keeping with Drama Desk's mission, nominators considered shows that opened on Broadway, Off Broadway, and Off Off Broadway during the 2015-2016 New York theater season.

The Drama Desk nominees will receive their official nomination certificates at our nominees' reception on May 11 at The New York Marriott Marquis.

The 61st Annual Drama Desk Awards, hosted by Michael Urie, will take place on Sunday, June 5 at The Town Hall in Manhattan.

About Drama Desk
Drama Desk was founded in 1949 to explore key issues in the theater and to bring together critics and writers in an organization to support the ongoing development of theater in New York. The organization began presenting its awards in 1955, and it is the only critics' organization to honor achievement in the theater with competition among Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions in the same categories.
2016 Drama Desk Award Nominations

Outstanding Play
The Christians, Playwrights Horizons
The Humans, Roundabout Theatre Company
John, Signature Theatre
King Charles III
The Royale, Lincoln Center Theater

Outstanding Musical
First Daughter Suite, Public Theater
Daddy Long Legs
School of Rock
Shuffle Along

Outstanding Revival of a Play
Cloud Nine, Atlantic Theater Company
Death of a Salesman, New Yiddish Rep
Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse at St. Ann's Warehouse
Long Day's Journey Into Night, Roundabout Theatre Company
A View from the Bridge
Women Without Men, Mint Theater Company

Outstanding Revival of a Musical
The Color Purple
The Golden Bride, National Yiddish Theatre Folkesbiene
Fiddler on the Roof
She Loves Me, Roundabout Theatre Company
Spring Awakening

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Andrew Garman, The Christians, Playwrights Horizons
Avi Hoffman, Death of a Salesman
Frank Langella, The Father, Manhattan Theatre Club
Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III
Mark Strong, A View from the Bridge

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Georgia Engel, John, Signature Theatre
Mamie Gummer, Ugly Lies the Bone, Roundabout Undeground
Marin Ireland, Ironbound, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater/Women's Project Theater
Jessica Lange, Long Day's Journey Into Night
Nicola Walker, A View from the Bridge

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof
Robert Creighton, Cagney, York Theatre Company
Michael C. Hall, Lazarus, New York Theatre Workshop
Zachary Levi, She Loves Me
Benjamin Walker, American Psycho

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Laura Benanti, She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack, Bright Star
Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple
Jessie Mueller, Waitress
Annette O'Toole, Southern Comfort, Public Theater

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Bill Camp, The Crucible
David Furr, Noises Off, Roundabout Theatre Company
Matt McGrath, The Legend of Georgia McBride, MCC Theater
Richard Thomas, Incident at Vichy, Signature Theatre
Michael Shannon, Long's Day Journey Into Night

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Brooke Bloom, Cloud Nine
Megan Hilty, Noises Off
Kellie Overbey, Women Without Men
Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed, Public Theater
Jeanine Serralles, Gloria, Vineyard Theatre

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Nicholas Barasch, She Loves Me
Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress
Baylee Littrell, Disaster!
Paul Alexander Nolan, Bright Star
A.J. Shively, Bright Star

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
Alison Fraser, First Daughter Suite
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen, Second Stage
Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me
Mary Testa, First Daughter Suite

Outstanding Director of a Play
Rachel Chavkin, The Royale
Sam Gold, John
Rupert Goold, King Charles III
Joe Mantello, The Humans
Jenn Thompson, Women Without Men
Ivo van Hove, A View from the Bridge

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Michael Arden, Spring Awakening
John Doyle, The Color Purple
Rupert Goold, American Psycho
Bartlett Sher, Fiddler on the Roof
Bryna Wasserman, Motl Didner, The Golden Bride

Outstanding Choreography
Joshua Bergasse, Cagney
Spencer Liff, Spring Awakening
Lynne Page, American Psycho
Randy Skinner, Dames at Sea
Savion Glover, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Music
Sara Bareilles, Waitress
Michael John LaChiusa, First Daughter Suite,
Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock
The Lobbyists, SeaWife, Naked Angels
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Bright Star

Outstanding Lyrics
Sara Bareilles, Waitress
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen
Glenn Slater, School of Rock
Michael John LaChiusa, First Daughter Suite

Outstanding Orchestrations
August Eriksmoen, Bright Star
Larry Hochman, She Loves Me, Roundabout Theatre Company
Joseph Joubert/Catherine Jayes, The Color Purple
Andrew Lloyd Webber, School of Rock
Michael Starobin/Bruce Coughlin, First Daughter Suite

Outstanding Music in a Play
Billie Joe Armstrong, These Paper Bullets!, Atlantic Theatre Company
Estelle Bajou, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, One Year Lease Theater Company
Shaun Davey, Pericles, Theatre for a New Audience
Philip Glass, The Crucible
Tom Kitt, Cymbeline, New York Shakespeare Festival

Outstanding Set Design for a Play
Riccardo Hernandez, Red Speedo, New York Theatre Workshop
Mimi Lien, John
G. W. Mercier, Head of Passes, Public Theater
Christopher Oram, Hughie
Derek McLane, Fully Committed

Outstanding Set Design for a Musical
Es Devlin, American Psycho
Emily Orling, Matt Saunders, Eric Farber, Futurity, Soho Rep/Ars Nova
David Rockwell, She Loves Me

Outstanding Costume Design for a Play
Jessica Ford, These Paper Bullets!
Martha Hally, Women Without Men
Constance Hoffman, Pericles
William Ivey Long, Shows for Days, Lincoln Center Theater
Anita Yavich, The Legend of Georgia McBride

Outstanding Costume Design for a Musical
Jane Greenwood, Bright Star
Katrina Lindsay, American Psycho
Jeff Mahshie, She Loves Me
Alejo Vietti, Allegiance
Ann Roth, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Lighting Design for a Play
Neil Austin, Hughie
Mark Barton, John
Bradley King, Empanada Loca, Labyrinth Theater Company
Tyler Micoleau, Antlia Pneumatica, Playwrights Horizons
Justin Townsend, The Humans

Outstanding Lighting Design for a Musical
Jane Cox, The Color Purple
Jake DeGroot, SeaWife,
Ben Stanton, Spring Awakening
Justin Townsend, American Psycho
Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Projection Design 
Nicholas Hussong, These Paper Bullets!
Darrel Maloney, Tappin' Thru Life
Peter Nigrini, Dear Evan Hansen
Finn Ross, American Psycho
Tal Yarden, Lazarus

Outstanding Sound Design in a Play
Fitz Patton, An Act of God
Fitz Patton, The Humans
Miles Polaski, Fulfillment, The Flea Theatre
Bray Poor, John
Ryan Rumery, Empanada Loca

Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical
Mick Potter, School of Rock
Brian Ronan, Lazarus
Nevin Steinberg, Bright Star
Dan Moses Schreier, American Psycho
Scott Lehrer, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Wig and Hair
David Brian Brown, She Loves Me
Jason Hayes, The Legend of Georgia McBride
Robert-Charles Vallance, Women Without Men
Charles G. LaPointe, The School for Scandal, Red Bull Theater
Mia M. Neal, Shuffle Along

Outstanding Solo Performance
Simon Callow, Tuesdays at Tesco's, 59E59
Kathleen Chalfant, Rose, Nora's Playhouse
James Lecesne, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Daphne Rubin-Vega, Empanada Loca
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Fully Committed

Unique Theatrical Experience
ADA/AVA, Manual Cinema/3LD/The Tank/
Antigona - Soledad Barrio/Noche Flamenca
That Physics Show
The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show

Special Awards

The Humans - Special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble
Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, and Sarah Steele spend a very special Thanksgiving Day together in Stephen Karam's play, reminding us that home is indeed where The Humans are.

The Royale - Special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble
The heavyweight cast of McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, Montego Glover, John Lavelle, and Clarke Peters gels as a unit in bringing Marco Ramirez's story, inspired by Jack Johnson, to unforgettable life, offering a trenchant statement on racism in America.

Sheldon Harnick - Special Drama Desk Award

New productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Rothschild and Sons, and She Loves Me this season remind us that this veteran lyricist's takes on faith, family and community are as resonant as ever.

Camp Broadway - Special Drama Desk Award
For more than 20 years, this indispensable organization has introduced young people to the magic of theater. Camp Broadway plays a crucial role in creating tomorrow's audiences.

Danai Gurira - Sam Norkin Award
Whether writing about women in wartime Liberia in Eclipsed or about an affluent immigrant family from Zimbabwe struggling with assimilation in Familiar, Danai Gurira demonstrates great insight, range, and depth, bringing a fresh new voice to American theater.

64 shows with nominations
33 shows with multiple nominations
31 shows with single nominations

Shows with multiple nominations

She Loves Me - 9
American Psycho - 8
Bright Star - 7
The Color Purple, First Daughter Suite, John, Shuffle Along - 6
School of Rock, Waitress, Women Without Men - 5
The Humans, Spring Awakening, A View from the Bridge - 4
Dear Evan Hansen, Empanada Loca, Fiddler on the Roof, King Charles III, Lazarus, The Legend of Georgia McBride, Long Day's Journey Into Night, These Paper Bullets! - 3
Cagney, The Christians, Cloud Nine, The Crucible, Death of a Salesman, Fully Committed, The Golden Bride, Hughie, Noises Off, Pericles, The Royale, SeaWife - 2

Monday, April 25, 2016

Frank Langella stars in Broadway's 'The Father'

So often when I leave the theatre I ask myself, Why? Why did the playwright write this play, and even more, Why did this company choose to produce it? I asked those questions yesterday as I left the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Florian Zeller’s The Father at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

I also wondered why Christopher Hampton would translate from French this depressing play about a man’s decent into old age and senility. And why three-time Tony Award winner Frank Langella chose to play him.

I admit to a bias against the subject. My mother hadn’t known me for years before she died and I had an uncle who was so distressed about his escalating memory loss that he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, abruptly ending his life as well as his memory. I avoid books, movies and plays about this topic whenever possible.

For most of the 90-minute play, directed by Doug Hughes, we flash from scene to scene with ever-shifting characters and facts as Andre (Langella) tries to make sense of his world. Is he living in his Paris apartment or that of his daughter, Ann, and her husband? Or is his daughter (Kathryn Erle, in photo with Langella) divorced and alone? Or ready to move to London to be with an Englishman she has met?

We really do flash from scene to scene because each transition is marked by blinding lights bordering the stage that are shot into our eyes, followed by blackouts. (Lighting by Donald Holder.)

The device of the confusing scenes works like an absurdist play in which nothing is as it seems, which is fitting for a play about losing one’s grasp on reality. Zeller has describe it as “tragic farce.” I could have gone along with that, although it didn’t involve or interest me, but the final scene in which Andre is reduced to sobbing on the floor of a nursing home in his nursing’s arms while crying for his Mommy was over-the-top. Depressing turned into dreary, which is worse because it left me with disgust at the waste of time and talent.

Scott Pask’s set looks like an employee rest area in a middle-management firm, bland and boring. It’s functional, though, for letting items be removed or added as Andre’s mind grows more confused.

Langella does a good job of portraying that confusion, which isn’t surprising. It’s too bad he doesn’t have a better play for his talents.

The cast also includes Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell and Kathleen McNenny.

The Father was well received in its runs in France and England. I suppose looking at the world through the eyes of the demented is dramatic, but that wasn't enough to compel or move me. Especially with that cheap, melodramatic ending.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

'The Crucible' echoes today's hysteria

I was drained at the end of The Crucible, but not by the nearly three-hour running time. Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Broadway revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre is the most compelling production of Arthur Miller’s historical drama I have ever seen.

With the barest of staging, van Hove puts full emphasis on Miller’s story of the real-life Salem witch trials of 1690s and the lying and hysteria that turned neighbor against neighbor in a wave of religious judgment. Miller wrote the play, which won the 1953 Tony Award for best new play, as an indictment of the witch trials of his day, the McCarthy anti-communists hearings and black listings.

Scheduled as part of the centennial year celebration of Miller’s birth, the play is once again timely in this political season of hysteria against Muslims in particular but all immigrants as well. That was also the case for the last Broadway revival, in 2002, coming as it did following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 18-member cast of international film and TV stars includes two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (most recently nominated for her role in “Brooklyn”), Ben Wishaw (“The Danish Girl”), Sophie Okonedo (Tony winner for A Raisin in the Sun and Oscar nominee for “Hotel Rwanda”) and Ciaran Hinds (“Game of Thrones”). They and the rest of the cast give their all, fully embodying those damned and damning Puritans of long ago New England.

Every element of the production adds to its chilling atmosphere and mounting fear. Composer Philip Glass’ original score is ominously haunting, rising in intensity as the indictments mount. Scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld provides a set that looks like a community room in a modern penitentiary, with slate gray brick walls and utilitarian metal tables and chairs. Every scene, from that of the villagers’ homes to the courtroom, takes place there. The minimalism forces all attention to the plot as we see good person after good person jailed by the testimony of a band of lying teenage girls.

Ronan plays Abigail Williams, the leader of the pack, with a steady control that keeps the character believable throughout, from her feelings of rejection as her married lover, farmer John Proctor (Whishaw), turns her aside, to her malicious courtroom dramatics that end in death sentences for so many she claims consorted with the Devil. It is easy for this character to become shrill, but Ronan never lets that happen.

Whishaw and Okonedo as John wife, Elizabeth, also nail their parts beautifully, evolving from a couple in a troubled marriage to one unified in love and commitment in the moving final scene.

I also appreciated Wojciech Dziedzic’s costume design. In their muted-colored pleated skirts, white shirts, knee socks and tights, cardigans and hoodies, the girls look like modern New York prepsters and the women, in wide-legged pants and loose, oversized tops, look right out of the downtown bohemian scene. This further emphasizes the contemporariness of the play’s story. Period costuming would have been distancing.

This production, which continues through July 17, is the second example I’ve seen this season of van Hove’s brilliant reconceptualizing of a classic drama. In the fall he directed Miller’s A View from the Bridge with another stark staging that was gripping. That production was a transfer from London where it also met with acclaim.

These two productions are marvelous birthday presents to Miller, who died in 2005 at 89. One of the American theatre’s most moralistic writers, Miller had an understanding of what impelled the rush to judgment in Salem.

“They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us,” he wrote. “When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom.”

Miller wrote that at the time of the original production. In 2016 his words, sadly, still ring true.