Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Jessica Hecht stars in 'Admissions'

     Assumptions about race are challenged, often loudly, in Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s thought-provoking play at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.  Unfortunately, the impact is weakened by Daniel Aukin’s strange direction.

     First up, the good thing about this production, the really good thing, is that it stars Jessica Hecht, one of New York’s strongest, most versatile actors.  She is always a standout, even when she’s in a small television role as she was several years ago playing the divorcing wife of a sleazy state’s attorney for one episode of “The Good Wife.”

     Now she is holding stage as Sherri Rosen-Mason, the admissions director of an elite New England prep school.  Her drive to diversify the nearly all-white institution is an obsession.  In her 15 years on the job she has increased minority enrollment to 18 percent from six percent.  

     “If no one fixates on it nothing would change,” she says to Roberta (Ann McDonough), an administrator in the development office who has accused her of seeing race rather than students.

    But her liberal world of white privilege is shaken when her 17-year-old son, Charlie (Ben Edelman), her only child, is the one excluded, having been put on the deferred list for Yale while his best friend, Perry, who is biracial, is accepted.  Charlie’s situation pits her maternal drive against her ideals as she has to face the truth that she has turned away plenty of Charlies for Perrys, and question what matters most, racial balance or individuals.  

     The questions raised are good ones, but I was hindered from fully entering their world by the casting — and overacting — of Edelman.  I never for one moment felt I was looking at a high school senior.  A college senior would have been a stretch.  He looked like a 25-year-old man, which I found out later when I Googled him is more or less the case.  His bio says he graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2015.

     With all the talented teenagers in New York, why did Aukin cast such an age-inappropriate actor?  And then allow him to nearly foam at the mouth with racist anger in the pivotal scene when he learns his fate?  All I saw was an obnoxious, overbearing young man rather than a hurt and angry high school student.

     Andrew Garman plays Bill Mason, the husband and father in the equation.  At first he’s disgusted by Charlie’s “racist, sexist screed.”  

     “It looks like we successfully raised a Republican,” he says. But his views change too after Charlie makes an abrupt, extremely liberal decision about his future.

     While the questions raised are heavy, Harmon lightens them with lots of humor.  My favorite scenes were those between Sherri and Roberta as they prepared the new school catalogue.  Sherri chastises Roberta for choosing photos featuring only white students, which she feels will hinder her quest to admit even more minorities.

     “If they don’t see anyone who looks like them they won’t apply,” she says.

     Roberta tries again, this time including a photo of Perry, but Sherri doesn’t think he looks black enough.  Roberta then pours through the course lists and finds an English class with two black girls in it.  She arranges for the photographer and tells the teacher to expect him, only to arrive in the classroom and find that one of the girls is out sick.  She has to make an excuse of why the photo can’t be taken that day.  Sherri finally tells her to stage the photos. Hecht and McDonough play against each other well, with poor Roberta becoming ever more frustrated by her unrelenting boss. 

     Sally Murphy completes the cast as Ginnie, Perry’s mother and Sherri’s longtime friend who has her own experiences of both sides of the racial question in being married to a black man who is only a teacher at the school while Sherri’s husband, with lesser credentials, is the headmaster. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Open House


     Long before Manhattan began moving uptown, the theatre district made its home on 14th Street, where performance halls provided magnificent shows, just as they do today in Times Square. A little part of those glory days will be returning now to 14th Street as the beautiful art-deco Centennial Memorial Temple (CMT) opens its doors for rentals.

     With a dozen subway stops and the PATH train all within a two-block walk, the 1,347-seat CMT is easily accessed from the Upper East and Upper West Sides, downtown, the outer boroughs and northern New Jersey.

      Come see this landmark theatre, at 120 W. 14th St. between Sixth and Seventh avenues, at an April 10 Open House from 10 a.m. to noon. The space is perfect for film shoots, concerts, corporate meetings, movie screenings, fundraisers, graduations and town hall meetings.

           CMT’s technical staff members bring to every event a wealth of experience from their work in all facets of the media and entertainment industries. They have won Grammy Awards, worked on the Oscars, served on crews for top recording artists, like Sting and the Foo Fighters, toured with Broadway shows and staffed production crews at major TV studios. They know how to make your event an unforgettable experience and will handle the details and the pressure so that you can have peace of mind.

     Need a more intimate space for fewer people? Railton Hall, located under the auditorium, can host up to 100 guests for any kind of event and Mumford Hall, right below Railton, is the perfect place to host groups of up to 220 for an intimate luncheon, corporate meeting or staff training.

     If you are unable to attend the Open House, we would be happy to arrange a private tour for you. CMT is owned by The Salvation Army and was built in 1929 to honor the 100th anniversary of its founder, William Booth. This state-of-the-art performance hall was designated a New York City landmark in 2017.

     To join us for the Open House, arrange a tour or find out how CMT and our other spaces can create a landmark event for your organization, please call (212) 337-7339 or visit our website at www.salvationarmyny.org/openhouse

      All proceeds from the rental of our spaces are used to support The Salvation Army’s more than 100 programs and services in the Greater New York area, which serve more than a million at-risk adults, children, and families each year.   

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Later Life

       Will love finally bloom for a middle-aged woman and man who met and flirted briefly three decades earlier and now find themselves together again at a party on a terrace overlooking Boston harbor? That is the question that drives A.R. Gurney’s Later Life in the Keen Company’s 25th anniversary production, which opened last night at The Clurman Theatre under the direction of Jonathan Silverstein.

     Ruth (Barbara Garrick) has harbored memories all these years of her evening with Austin (Laurence Lau), a service man on leave in Capri where she was vacationing. They had enjoyed each other’s company, but when she invited him to her room for the night he declined. When they meet again on the terrace, he doesn’t remember her.

          What follows in this wistful little play is moderately involving. Ruth is the more interesting of the two because she is more of a free spirit, or at least as free spirited as a character gets in a Gurney play. Austin is more representative of a Gurney character, a New England WASP, banker, graduate of prestigious private schools who married the boss’s daughter and is now divorced with two grown children.

     All his life, Austin has been convinced that something terrible is going to happen to him. Gurney wrote in an Author’s Note to Later Life that he was inspired by the man in Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” who has a similar fear and so lives his life in such a sheltered way that he finally discovers he hasn’t lived at all, thus fulfilling his prophecy. Austin is not that extreme, but he has lived in a buttoned-down, controlled way.

     Jodie Markell and Liam Craig play a variety of party guests, which Gurney wrote is a way of conveying that we can all take on a variety of roles, even in middle age. I hadn’t picked up on that. I saw it as a casting cost-saving measure, with the characters’ main function seeming to be to interrupt the getting reacquainted process of Ruth and Austin. They come and go on the terrace, which has been romantically designed by Steven Kemp featuring the lights of Boston in the background and a star-filled sky. I gasped in delight when I first saw that set. 

     Austin seems ready for some romance this time around, even though he has gotten used to living alone, which, among the advantages he lists, allows him to fart when he wants. As for whether the two finally become one, you will need to head to Theatre Row before the show’s April 14 closing to find out.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Harriet's Return: Based on the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman

     Harriet Tubman was a busy woman.  The 4’10” illiterate former slave made 19 trips back to the South to bring 300 other slaves to freedom in the North and Canada, led troops and missions during the Civil War, fought for women’s rights, was an herbalist, a nurse and founder of a boarding house for the poor, to name some of her accomplishments.

     Karen Jones Meadows is also a busy woman.  The considerably taller actress is portraying Tubman in a one-woman play she wrote called Harriet’s Return: Based on the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman, at the Castillo Theatre through March 4.  Unfortunately, Meadows’s play is crammed with so many details of Tubman’s life that it is hard to follow at times.  The script needs editing to eliminate some scenes and enhance and clarify others, and to provide transition.  

     She also needs to slow down.  Under Clinton Turner Davis’s direction, she is in nearly constant motion.  She tells Tubman’s story while circling the entire stage repeatedly, even while walking behind the bare trees that represent the forest through which Tubman escaped.  I had the feeling I should be running behind her to catch up.  This distanced me from the character.  

     Harriet’s Return is the result of a commission Meadows received in 1983 by Charlotte's Afro-American Cultural Center to craft a series of one-woman performances entitled "A Living Portrait of Black History." It became fully scripted in 1992, when a youth version was commissioned for Ron Milner's Paul Robeson Theater in Detroit.  An adult version debuted in 1995 at Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. Both of these scripts were created for other actresses, but Meadows ultimately stepped back into the role and has toured with it widely. 

     I wish Meadows and Davis could have seen the late Sarah Melici’s Fool for Christ about the life of Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.  Melici wrote the script with Donald Yonker and performed Day simply and directly.  Without much moving around the set, she portrayed Day and the characters in her world through her expressive voice and gestures and a minimum of props and staging.  She addressed the audience directly and I always came away feeling I had spent an hour in conversation with Day and that I knew her well.

     I felt the same way each time I saw the late Linn Maxwell’s Hildegard of Bingen and the Living Light and when I see Casey Groves’s Damien.  

     The most moving scene for me was when Tubman returns for her beloved husband, John, only to find he has another wife.  He closes the door on Harriet and her shock and pain are nicely realized.   For the most part, though, Meadow’s performance seemed more head than heart.  I did not feel I had spent time with Tubman.  Meadows is working hard to get out the information, but she doesn’t capture Tubman’s soul.

Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Hayley Mills puts on a Party Face

     When I received the press invitation to Party Face, I didn’t even bother to read what the play was about.  I saw the name Hayley Mills and knew I wanted to be there.  I grew up loving her movies, from “Pollyanna” to “The Trouble with Angels.”  I had never seen her onstage and actually don’t think I’ve seen her anywhere in half a century.

     Unfortunately, seeing Mills was the best part of Isobel Mahon’s sit-com of a show at City Center Stage 2.  Although well played by the cast, the characters are stereotypical, starting with Mills as Carmel, the pert, judgmental mother we’ve all seen too many times.  Even her compliments have a ring of criticism, such as when she arrives at her daughter’s apartment in a Dublin suburb and comments on the vase of stargazer lilies.  

     “In my day, you never saw a lily outside of a funeral parlor,” she says, providing the first of the insults she’ll aim toward her downtrodden daughter Mollie (Gina Costigan), just returned from three weeks in a psychiatric hospital after having a nervous breakdown while gazing at cereal boxes in the supermarket.  Mollie has invited her mother to see her newly finished kitchen extension.

     “Is it a little clinical,” Carmel asks, before sweetly adding, “Of course, it’s all the rage now.”

     Carmel has taken it upon herself to turn the occasion into a party, having invited Mollie’s narcissistic neighbor, Chloe (Allison Jean White), much to Mollie’s distress.  Joining what is now becoming a gathering are Mollie’s supportive sister, Maeve (Brenda Meaney), and Bernie (Klea Blackhurst), an obsessive-compulsive woman Mollie met at the hospital.  

     As you would expect, anger builds on all sides, including the melodramatic mention of a long-dead baby, but this being a light — really light — comedy, all will be resolved in the end.

     Director Amanda Bearse keeps the plot from getting too out-of-hand, but she could have made note of Mills’ Irish accent, which disappeared shortly after she walked through her daughter’s door.    This was fine with me because I could hear in this now 71-year-old woman traces of the little girl whose voice and English accent I loved. 

     I’ll keep my memories of that Hayley and hope that if the grown-up one returns to New York to do another show, she can find a better one. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Literary Guide for Lent

Sarah Arthur’s Between Midnight and Dawn is the last part of a series that includes At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, and Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Each collection stands alone, with its own unique curation of voices and themes. The reader is welcomed into what you might think of as a quiet library and finds company in the life-giving words of another – poetry and prose that transcends centuries, hemispheres. 

With this book we arrive at Lent, those 40 days (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter. It’s that time when the church—and the soul—faces the tomb, aware of its own mortality, seeking the promise of light on the other side. It’s a journey we make alone, yet not alone, surrounded as we are by those who have caught a glimpse of sunrise.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone, 
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

— David Whyte