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.