My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2019

January 22, 2020

Gunman.jpeg

THE DUBLIN TRILOGY. Probably the highlight of the (or damn near any) year. On the cozy Irish Repertory Theatre main stage — we’ve been thrilled there so repeatedly that we decided to start supporting them — we were treated to Sean O’Casey’s JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK as well as the lesser-performed THE PLOUGH AND THE STARS and THE SHADOW OF A GUNMAN. O’Casey’s rare ability to weave warmth and humor into the direst of circumstances opens up these plays and makes us better able to face horror because we are among recognizable fellow human beings. The Irish Rep acting company is uniformly superb, always has been, even alongside visitors like Matthew Broderick and here, in PLOUGH, the wonderful Maryanne Plunkett of the O’Casey-cousin Richard Nelson plays down at the Public. 

feral.jpeg

FERAL. Another norm-bending piece from Scotland, not as arresting as last year’s FLIGHT but swimming in a nearby loch. Three puppeteers, a sound effects artist and a video director concoct a story before your eyes: first using line drawings, then with three-D paper, cardboard cutouts and oddly poignant human figures with eyes but no mouths. You watch a live minicam feed on a video screen above their heads as they create an idyllic little town in charming detail and then destroy it as commercialization (in the form of a megastore called “Supercade”) comes in and infects the culture. The moral and physical rot is palpable and heartbreaking. All the fascinating, tightly coordinated “backstage” work takes place in plain view. The audience was stunned into awed silence at the close. 

hades.jpeg

HADESTOWN. Musical retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice story by Anais Mitchell. Rachel Chavkin’s inventive staging is dazzling: three independent concentric turntables are just a few of the surprises she has for you. Everybody is great, but two old pros really own the stage: Andre De Shields as Hermes and that human subwoofer Patrick Page as Hades. Most of the songs are really good too, and since there’s a cast album dating back to 2010, plenty of people came prepared. You don’t need a Greek mythology textbook to follow along (the first musical number hands all the relationships to you on a platter), but as a bonus you get a sensational seven-piece band that features two of the hottest trombone solos I’ve heard in quite a while. Although it’s only coincidental, the Act I closer, “Why We Build The Wall,” could have been written yesterday: it’s as if Trump met Hades and said, “Daddy like!” 

mother.jpeg

THE MOTHER. Isabelle Huppert is as mesmerizing on stage as she is on film. You can’t take your eyes off her, not even in a show that’s deliberately staged in widescreen. It’s a tense, packed, tightly wound ninety minutes, but the best part was being about twenty feet from her the whole time. Chris Noth also did yeoman work, but the show is Ms. Huppert’s possession. It’s the kind of performance critics tend to call “brave,” as in, “I can’t believe what I just saw Isabelle Huppert do!”

oklahoma.jpeg

OKLAHOMA! I appeared in a production of this show in college; after about six weeks of memorization, rehearsal and performance, you can’t help getting to know a piece pretty well. So it was such a treat to see the thought that went into Daniel Fish’s brilliant restaging, using only twelve cast members and seven musicians. In the famous three-quarter-round room at Circle In The Square, the house lights were full nearly the whole time, drawing the audience into the setting (they’re invited onstage for chili and cornbread at intermish). But “Pore Jud Is Daid” was performed in pitch black dark, so dark that nobody dared to laugh at the song’s dryly comic lyrics (“He looks like he’s asleep / It’s a shame that he won’t keep / But it’s summer and we’re runnin out of ice”) because the “hero” is in fact cruelly urging a suicide. This production is stripped down but somehow even more authentic: we hear pedal steel, mandolin, banjo and accordion along with the bass, cello and violin. Yet they make enough noise that the audience head-bangers on the title song continue their devotion at its end-of-show reprise. Damon Daunno as Curly contests the stage with Ali Stroker, a wheelchair-bound actress who destroys as Ado Annie, but I particularly loved Patrick Vaill as Jud Fry. The staging requires actors to sit out others’ scenes, but Vaill’s spot was just opposite my seat and I never saw him break character unless he was joining a song’s male chorus (e.g., “Kansas City”), in which case he acted to the song instead. He looks like Caleb Landry Jones but sings like Hugh Jackman. Keep your eye on him. 

bees.jpeg

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES. With such wattage — book by Lynn Nottage (SWEAT), music by Duncan Shiek (SPRING AWAKENING), lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (JELLY’S LAST JAM), and directed by Sam Gold (KING LEAR, FUN HOME, HAMLET) — one can’t possibly stay away. Fortunately, this show delivers. A kinetic thirteen-member ensemble makes great noise in a variety of styles: lots of gospel, show-tune belters, I even heard a samba beat in there. The musical numbers work for the story yet most of them can stand alone as independent songs. This adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of personal-level race relations in 1964 South Carolina works the illusion of being effortless, as if it had really been a musical all along. Gold’s bare-bones representational staging (the various appearances of the “bees” are beautiful) reminded me of the crepe-paper ocean waves of PETER AND THE STARCATCHER. The nine-piece orchestra includes a bitchin horn section. The entire production is just wonderful and should conjure plenty of fans, especially those who loved the non-musical film adaptation.

soft.jpeg

SOFT POWER. The best new musical I’ve seen since HAMILTON (whose DNA shows up a couple of times, if I’m not mistaken). Play and lyrics by David Henry Hwang, which alone is reason enough to be interested. It’s a meta-drama whose crucial subjects are China-America relations, Chinese American (like the author) relations, the 2016 elections and the real-life 2015 stabbing which nearly ended Hwang’s life and appeared to be a random hate crime. One of the characters is “Hillary Clinton,” and another is “DHH” — in other words, the playwright. It’s provocative and funny and serious and playful: the show-within-the-show is THE KING AND I from the Chinese perspective. Oh, yeah: the songs are great and they run the musical gamut, complete with a standing-still eleven-o-clock number. The ditty explaining the nutty U.S. elections system is funny because it’s true. The fourteen-member company can sing, dance and act — they’re all triple-threaters. China may not be getting more like us, this show posits: we may be getting more like China. You get something to think about while you’re simultaneously having a great time.

tootsie.jpeg

TOOTSIE. Tons of fun, featuring an exceptionally sharp book by Robert Horn. They’ve traded the movie’s tv soap opera milieu for a Broadway show, an intentionally bad musical sequel to ROMEO AND JULIET. Santino Fontana is sensational in the Dustin Hoffman role: not only does he have to act two parts, he also has to sing two parts, and you really do buy him as a female alto. It’s an old-fashioned razzle-dazzler (complete with overture and entr’acte), only lots funnier than most others. It’s been a long time since there was a big hit at the Marquis, but I guarantee you: one has arrived.

constitution.jpeg

WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME. We saw the last preview before the Broadway transfer officially opened. At first it seems to be a memory monologue, but it transmutes into a fantasia on feminism (there will eventually be two other performers besides the main one). Powerfully planned and performed (Heidi Schreck is a seasoned playwright and you can tell from the careful construction of the piece), one of the most moving things I saw on a stage all year. It has a lot to do with our current times but approaches from an oblique angle. A theatrical treasure. 

white.jpeg

WHITE NOISE. The brilliant Suzan-Lori Parks’s new one is jam-packed with intelligence and outrage. It’s a four-hander (featuring Daveed Diggs and Thomas Sadoski and two excellent ladies who were new to me, Sheria Irving and Zoe Winters) with an outre premise — I’d rather leave it for you to discover — which peels away the layers that cover our posturing and privilege, even when we’re most sanctimoniously proud of ourselves. Plus each actor gets an absolutely stunning monologue. Oskar Eustis’s direction in the Public’s snug Anspacher space is clear as a bell. 

HONORABLE MENTION: ALL MY SONS, COLIN QUINN: RED STATE BLUE STATE, THE ENIGMATIST, INSTRUCTIONS FOR AMERICAN SERVICEMEN IN BRITAIN, THE MICHAELS, SEA WALL/A LIFE 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017    2018


The Puzzling Mr. Kwong

November 13, 2019

prod_1560365740323_enigmatist+1

David Kwong is in love with both magic and puzzles, and his stage show THE ENIGMATIST combines the two in a thoroughly entertaining way. Besides being a professional magician (his day job), he’s also a professional cruciverbalist, or crossword constructor, so good at it that he’s sold plenty of puzzles to the New York Times, the gold standard of crosswording. 

His show is part magic, part puzzle…but then, isn’t a piece of “magic” really nothing more than an unsolved puzzle? Mr. Kwong’s through-narrative is about coders and code-breakers of history, and as he regales the audience, he also astonishes them with jaw-dropping feats. Among his film credits, he was the head magic consultant on NOW YOU SEE ME; if you’ve caught that movie, you’ll recognize the same kind of cheerful wrong-footing behind these live effects.

Some of them you will see nowhere else. For example, Mr. Kwong illustrates the principles of the crossword form and constructs a puzzle before your very eyes, all in a manner that seems spontaneous but — spoiler alert — isn’t, as we discover in the startling finale. He invites several audience members to pull random Scrabble tiles from a bag and drop them into a cup. Before an overhead Scrabblecam, he sets himself a time of 2:30 in which to use all these letters, then fails, then later reveals that every single move was deliberate. We’re beyond typical stage magic here — this is a good sleight artist and a good Scrabble player. Most importantly, he can really sell “impromptu.”

3L9A1170

Part of the beauty of this show is that it slices and dices traditional magic methods into something more meaningful and truly amazing. The old how-did-that-signed-dollar-bill-get-inside-the-kiwi-fruit gag electrifies when it’s joined with another major effect that proves the magician has been totally in control all along.

The audience gathers in a puzzle room at New York’s High Line Hotel before the show to try its hand at four conundrums, which wind up figuring into the show’s climax in a way we couldn’t possibly anticipate. Then into the cozy showroom, where nobody is more than thirty feet away from the artist. That doesn’t mean the closer folks get a better look at Mr. Kwong’s methods, only that he’s able to perform without over-projecting. That intimacy makes you feel you know him after ninety minutes. Many magicians greet their audience after the show; the people I saw reacted to Mr. Kwong as if greeting a friend. 

THE ENIGMATIST runs through January at the High Line, then for six weeks beginning next May at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. After that, who knows? It’s an enigma. But if you ever find yourself anywhere near a David Kwong performance, I’ll be puzzled if you let it slip by.

david_kwong_01.1200x1000

A locked box holds a big surprise at the end, but you have to be a very good puzzle solver to open it.


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2018

January 2, 2019

FLIGHT. One of the damndest things I ever saw in my life. You sit alone in a dark individual cubicle with headphones on. For the next 45 minutes, a series of tiny dioramas passes by inches from your face, illustrating the harrowing years-long journey of two young Afghan refugees as they try to make their way through the Mideast and Europe to London. The scenes are sequentially lit in sync with a pulse-pounding audio track voice-acted to perfection. Twenty-two others ring the giant turntable in their own cubicles. They’re all watching at other points in the story as the mechanism wheels around in its near-hour clockwise circuit. It’s amazing technically: the miniature model work is astonishing, and brilliant lighting effects and forced perspective add to the drama. It’s also amazing theatrically, because nothing — nothing — gets between you and the wrenching story (an adaptation of the novel HINTERLAND). It was produced by Vox Motus, a group of Glaswegian geniuses who killed with this piece at the Edinburgh Festival. Wow.

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY. Bob Dylan + Conor McPherson = Sublime. It’s set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace, but during the Great Depression, long before the bard was born; we’re in deep Woody Guthrie territory. Dylan’s songs, most but not all chosen from the Seventies and Eighties, are made to sound prettier than ever without sacrificing one ounce of grit. The tunes serve the story rather than vice versa. Sometimes the dramatic arc creates a wrenching change: “Like A Rolling Stone” is here performed as more of an elegy than Dylan’s own acerbic revenge fantasy. Other times you’re just happy to relax into the lilt of a song, as with a gorgeous “Sweetheart Like You.” (INFIDELS, well represented here, is my favorite unsung Dylan album.) It’s hard to describe. I need a cast recording to fully explain it to you. But I knew this was one of my top moments while I was sitting there

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS I AND II. We couldn’t beg decent tix here in New York, so we decided to go to London over Thanksgiving to see it. (We discovered that Jimi Hendrix and G. F. Handel were next-door neighbors on that same trip!) We read the script when it was first published, but our aging brains had forgotten everything except the BIG REVEAL. (“Keep The Secrets” is the production’s mantra.) All we’d retained was the feeling that if they can reproduce this stuff on stage, we are so there. (They can, and we were.) Either you’ve bought in to Harry Potter or you haven’t. Let’s just say that there’s a generational twist which pretty much tracks the lives of the franchise’s original fans, and finally they are justifiably able to use the word “awesome!” correctly. No more details. It’s the spectacle that SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK wanted to be, and then some.

HELLO, DOLLY! It’s a rare treat to see a live musical artist who can suck the oxygen out of a room just by walking on. For me, Elvis, Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Springsteen. Now I have to add Bette Midler. This is far from my favorite musical, but Midler absolutely controlled the crowd every single second. They worship her not just for her body of work, but because this happens to be the perfect vehicle for her unique brand of showmanship. David Hyde Pierce struggled with a cold the night I saw it and was probably really good when he was at 100%, but face it, you don’t buy a ticket to see Horace Vandergelder. I wouldn’t have gone at all had some friends not goaded me into it (repeat; I’m not a big fan of the show). I would have thus let a huge opportunity get away from me. They’ll be talking about this for a long time. Jiminy crickets: what a Broadway baby.

JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART. Sometimes the most powerful moments are the simplest — in fact, that’s precisely what makes them resonate. This is a one-man show in which the accomplished theatrical craftsman talks a little bit about his life, but mainly he tells us two stories: Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” and P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” The first is a masterpiece of verbal sound effects and atmosphere; Lithgow makes us hear the barber’s razor against his strop and the snip-snip of his profession as his monologue gradually tells us more about him than we really wanted to know. The second piece is one of the funniest things in the English language, and upper-class British drollery rolls off Lithgow’s tongue delightfully, to what we hope is also the delight of his father. For this is how the senior Lithgow entertained his son early in life — and during his final days the roles were reversed, using the very short-story volume which the actor brandishes on stage. So it’s an entertainment, but also deeply personal. The combination is electric.

ON BECKETT. Bill Irwin, that great actor and clown (he wears the latter description as an honor sash), leads us on a 90-minute tour through the minds of both Samuel Beckett and himself. Quoting liberally from TEXTS FOR NOTHING, WATT, THE UNNAMEABLE, and the “booger” of a masterpiece, WAITING FOR GODOT, Irwin opens his own heart and presents a difficult artist’s genius before us in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. Plus there is the physical clowning, which in Irwin’s self-directed hands is the throughput of the show. The highly informed earnestness reminded me of how deeply my friend John Maxwell was affected by the work of William Faulkner, so much so that he felt compelled to tell others about it, and so we came to write a theatrical monologue together that wound up changing the course of his life. I sense that same inner gravitas here. I am dying to see the next production of GODOT that comes my way, because Irwin has opened up so much depth to me. He also gave me an inkling into what it’s like to choose acting as a passion and profession, undressing simple technique and then injecting real artistry, with Beckett’s newly fraught words as a backdrop. The prose is sometimes so impenetrable that you just have to zone out and enjoy sheer musicality without parsing for meaning, but your interest never wanes. Tiny theater (the Irish Rep), big concepts. We left stunned, grateful, and happy.

SAKINA’S RESTAURANT. I saw this only two days after the Bill Irwin, so, with Lithgow, I have to say this year one-man shows frickin ruled. Aasif Mandvi (you may recognize him from THE DAILY SHOW) first mounted this beauty twenty years ago, and it hasn’t aged a day. He appears as Azgi, an Indian who has the chance to move to New York and work at a family restaurant. Then, one by one, he morphs into the restaurant’s owner, his wife, the place’s namesake daughter, her fiancé, etc. It’s the immigrant experience from deep inside an “America” (presciently, never “United States”) that most can never apprehend. Like most improv artists, Mandvi is first and foremost an actor, able to clothe a completely new character with nothing more than a scarf and precise body language. This production is part of Audible’s solo theatrical series, so if you dig down deep into the internets, you will find a way to hear it. I wish you could have been there to see it.

THREE TALL WOMEN. Great work by three terrific actors in this revival of a Pulitzer winner, but the revelation is that Glenda Jackson has become a grande dame! She owned this show; she was utterly magnificent as the eldest incarnation of the same person. Laurie Metcalf and Alison Pill, as her earlier selves, are aces too. We were in the front row and Ms. Pill expectorated upon us with a plosive P, but we didn’t mind. Joe Mantello’s wonderful staging cleverly collapsed the play’s two acts into one. I took this picture of Paul Gallo’s lovely set afterwards. 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I knew this was going to be easy for critics to pick apart, and the day after opening the New York Times’s Jesse Green (the raver) and the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout (the grouch) published diametrically opposed reviews, even down to their views of a more slavish 1991 staging that Teachout preferred to this one. Aaron Sorkin has fooled around a bit with Harper Lee’s immortal source novel, going straight to the trial and cutting away periodically, and he’s made some background characters firmer in their resolve. But the heart of the book and its moral tutelage remain pure in his fine adaptation. The three children at the story’s center are played by adults, but the conceit works. Jeff Daniels, who used to spit out Sorkinisms as a broadcaster on HBO’S THE NEWSROOM, brings a James-Stewart everyman quality to Atticus Finch, a Southerner who tries to see the good inside even his tormentors. I think it was time for this play to appear; I heard gasps from audience members who clearly were not familiar with the story. I’ll bet some of them are later moved to pick up the book.

TWELFTH NIGHT. A joyous populist adaptation with clever, tuneful music and lyrics by Shaina Taub (center), who also plays Feste, the clown. There were a dozen or so pros in the main roles, and then an ensemble of about 100 (kids, vets, caregivers, ex-cons, deaf actors, and more) culled from arts & educational organizations all over the five boroughs — split into two groups which played on alternate nights during the show’s five-week run. The 23 songs are original but feel confident and alive. Each Labor Day a similar production is mounted by the Public Theater’s Public Works project, but this year they got the whole theater as the second featured slot in the summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park program. ASL is gorgeously treated as choreography throughout; the feeling of joy and empowerment washes off the stage and into the audience, which has already spent the pre-show minutes up on stage at an “Illyrian street fair” with cast members. There will certainly be snobs who object to the 100-minute brevity and the songs, which help audience members keep up with the plot. But this is a visual demonstration of what the Public is all about, and it’s nothing short of thrilling. Shaina Taub will one day be a household name in the theatre: she’s that good. But these insistent tableaux of affirmation and achievement constantly erupt. They couldn’t possibly happen anywhere else than right before your eyes. And all of this took place outdoors on a fine summer night in Central Park. Magfrickinificent.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE DEAD, 1904 (you go inside James Joyce’s famous dinner party as a guest!); THE FERRYMAN (a stout Irish family drama which will seduce you and then impale you); THE HARD PROBLEM (Tom Stoppard is an international treasure); KING KONG (ape scenes only, but ALL the ape scenes, especially the one in which Kong shambles WAY downstage to violate the audience’s space); NETWORK (for Bryan Cranston and some hip video effects, otherwise I preferred the movie in almost every way); THE WAVERLY GALLERY (I usually avoid “senile dementia“ stories b/c they cut too close to home, but Kenneth Lonergan nailed both the humor and the horror, and that was Elaine Frickin May up there!)

 

My Favorite Theatre In:

2017    2019


Christ Goes To Brooklyn

April 13, 2018

tv-jesus-christ-superstar-957032cc2c55dad8.jpg

NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.

It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.

Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Unknown-1.jpeg

Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.

But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.

Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.

Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie. 

King Herod Josh Mostel.JPG

Josh Mostel as Herod in the movie.

Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.

jesuschristsuperstar-1521056015-640x360.png

By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.


My 10 Favorite Theatre Pieces Of 2017

December 19, 2017

hansen.jpeg

DEAR EVAN HANSEN. A Broadway musical with real dramatic substance. It has a lot to say about adolescent peer pressure, bullying, deceit, and situational ethics — much too heavy for a musical, it would seem — but it preaches redemption from the heart, not the head. Gorgeous songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a star-making turn for Ben Platt in the title role. This show will kill on national tour.

derren.jpeg

DERREN BROWN: SECRET. The British star of “psychological magic” made his American debut, and did it ever rock. It’s more than just magic; Brown is a performance artist too. For example, he can and does draw a very credible easel portrait upside down, and it’s not the same famous face every night. Brown controls every second of this magnificent piece: as he revealed in the jaw-dropping finale, even when he makes you think he’s improvising, he’s not. A cool, crafty master, but warm, open and delightful in the out-of-character “talkback” after the performance I saw. In a simultaneous piece of magic, after a halftime bladder break I noticed stage-lighting legend Jules Fisher in the milling crowd and sidled up to re-introduce myself, having met him once at the Ricky Jay weekend in Rhinebeck. The always gracious Mr. Fisher and I had a quick two-minute chat and I was bidding him goodbye just as his theatregoing companion walked up after his own restroom visit. It was none other than Stephen frickin Sondheim. I just smiled and nodded; if I had immediately gushed over the maestro too it would have been disrespectful to the now-undoubtedly-amused Jules Fisher. But I’ll happily imagine a post-show cocktail chat: “Hey, Steve, suck it: tonight some fan walked up to ME!” That makes the second offstage wonderment that Ricky conjured for me.

108_1_orig.jpg

EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE. A new play by Wallace Shawn, who loves to push buttons that subtly unnerve his audience. A group of television executives and performers, part of some society at an unknown diagonal from ours, gather at their favorite bistro for what begins as amusingly vapid chitchat. But the proceedings turn ominous with such ferocity that at first you wonder if you heard that last line correctly. (You did.) The satire is now deadly but darkly funny, an odd fantasia with elements that are disturbingly recognizable in our own culture. I went mainly to see a rare non-drag appearance by my old friend John Epperson, but he and the rest of the fine company gave me much more than I’d expected. I kept thinking about the simple but outre premise for weeks.

home-hero.jpg

GROUNDHOG DAY. Sue me, but it’s great, and just the endorphin jolt we needed in this grueling, debilitating year. Of course this is a musical version of the hit movie; along with the “jukebox musical,” movie adaptations have become a Broadway subgenre as producers relentlessly search for new ways to pre-sell tickets. But the songs are bright and clever and the redemptive emotional heart of the Bill Murray picture is perfectly preserved (Murray stopped by and loved it to the point of tears). We saw Andy Karl — the well-deserved toast of London in the earlier West End engagement of this show — at a preview just before he sustained a minor injury during his athletic performance. (The methods of misdirection are delightful as he starts his day over and over again faster than humanly possible, but he has to work strenuously hard to achieve them.) This is another one that should have a long life on the road: it’s much better than several current long-running hits I could name.

14HAMLET-master768.jpg

HAMLET. Sam Gold’s intimate production in the snug Anspacher space at the Public Theater just might be the best HAMLET I’ve ever seen. The nine-member cast, led by the riveting Oscar Isaac, did some doubling and tripling — for example, the natural comedian Keegan-Michael Key was a fine Horatio but also performed with the players, receiving an ovation for their overwrought death scene — but its collective energy filled up a sparse, mostly bare-bones setting in casual contemporary dress to eliminate any distractions. The 3:30 running time didn’t feel labored at all. In fact, Gold cut out the Fortinbras character and subplot altogether: that’s how tightly packed this play is. Being so physically close to superb actors interpreting some of the most sublime words ever written for the theatre was an experience I won’t soon forget.

3-derek-delgaudio-in-in-of-itself-c-matthew-murphy.jpg

IN AND OF ITSELF. Another magic show that defies description, because “magic show” is far too facile a term for this masterpiece. I saw Derek DelGaudio three years ago in NOTHING TO HIDE, the Neil Patrick Harris-directed two-man show he performed with Helder Guimarães (I’ve never seen better card handling in my life), but this bears little resemblance. It’s a very personal journey, for both performer and audience, that is illuminated by magic in a tiny off-Broadway theater. Deeply considered monologues guide the evening, interspersed with some of the most gaspingly creative illusions I’ve seen. I happened to learn the method for one mind-boggling trick and, as with most great ones, the how’d-he-do-it is tame and prosaic. But DelGaudio’s quiet showmanship is off the scale. The final few seconds left the audience stunned in amazement and unable to move until they could process what they had just seen.

maxresdefault.jpg

JUNK. The investor culture that invented “junk bonds” in the Eighties, the heyday of Michael Milken and pals, would seem a difficult atmosphere for a play. But Pulitzer winner Ayad Akhtar keeps the focus on human beings: specifically, those who were responsible for turning “industrialization” into “financialization.” JUNK’s dramatic core is this: is the main purpose of a corporation to serve its customers or its shareholders? This sprawling piece uses individuals to represent trends and presents the stakes so clearly that even we laymen can understand. It’s about nothing less than the soul of business and its vital relationship to the national welfare.

play-that-goes-wrong-700x455.jpg

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. My current #1 recommendation for prospective NYC visitors. I caught this in London a few years ago but it was great to see the original West End cast, including the three authors, on Broadway. (Yanks have since replaced them.) The premise is that a company of British amateurs has managed to book a real theater for its old-fashioned locked-door murder mystery, but to their chagrin Murphy’s Law intervenes again and again and again; adorably, there’s nothing else to do but soldier on. The timing and stagecraft necessary to make sure everything goes wrong right, if you get me here, is superb: the show won a Tony for Best Scenic Design and when you see it you’ll understand why. Gut-bustingly funny for two solid hours. If you do get tickets, arrive :15 early, because the pre-show routine is also a scream. EDIT: because of the words of mouths like mine, this show looks likely to not only recoup its investment but also send a bus-and-truck troupe across America. Congrats, mates! EDIT, 1/9/19: New York won’t let it leave! This hilarity moves off-Broadway, as AVENUE Q once did, for what should be a long, happy run. Meanwhile the bus-and-truck company is coming to a theater near you…

melody-grove-in-the-strange-undoing-of-prudencia-hart-photo-by-jenny-anderson.jpg

THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART. A folk tale with music from the National Theatre of Scotland. It was performed in the “Heath” Scottish-styled pub at the McKittrick Hotel, the inventive venue which also houses the immersive presentation SLEEP NO MORE. The five cast members were all around us at various points, telling and singing a spooky story but with big grins on their faces and mischief in their minds. Included in the ticket price was a flight of Scots whisky to get us in the mood. The charming nature of the staging also made it easy to get to know our tablemates. A great night out, and hurrah for Scotland.

the-wolves.jpg

THE WOLVES. I missed Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist last year when it galvanized people in an off-Broadway production by The Playwrights Realm, so it was great to have a chance to catch up with a new staging. What happens is that nine members of a girls’ high-school soccer team — identified only by their uniform numbers — talk to each other while they go through their warmups (a soccer mom appears briefly). But their giddy teenage conversation carries a powerful current of serious subtext that engages the audience organically; you get jostled without even noticing it. The actors are pitch-perfectly plausible; I’ve never been a teenage girl but everybody assures me that’s what they really sound like. Such a simple setup and profound dramatic arc, performed by a true ensemble (most of them vets of the original production). And it’s the author’s first play.

ALSO NOTABLE: THE ANTIPODES (from one of my favorite young playwrights, Annie Baker), JULIUS CAESAR (we were there the night two right-wing trolls interrupted the performance), LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS (John Leguizamo teaches and learns), MEASURE FOR MEASURE (deconstructed by Elevator Repair Service, the brilliant experimental troupe), PRIDE & PREJUDICE (a madcap music-hally romp through Austen, but made with love)

12/20/2017: Add to the notables AT THE ILLUSIONIST’S TABLE at the selfsame Heath of PRUDENCIA HART. There’s a tad too much Derren Brown in Scott Silven’s bravura evening, but he freaks the folks just as powerfully — and here the audience is only two dozen or so, all sharing a lovely dinner and some fine whisky at the earnest Scot’s candlelit table. Wow on all fronts. (OK, now I’m positive I’m done for the year. My 2018 will actually begin with HELLO, DOLLY!)

My Favorite Theatre In:

2018    2019


Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

tn-500_juliuscaesar0037rr.jpg

Outre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania; then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic; and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

90.jpeg

Of course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

Screen-Shot-2017-06-13-at-12.27.16-PM.png

Here is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

julius_caesar_production_still.jpg

I don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

IMG_0447.jpg

Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

IMG_0446.jpg

…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The screamer turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood (and, a few months after this show, the Washington Post: he has to be the hands-down worst stinger in the world!), escorted by a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

IMG_0449.jpg

Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

ScreenHunter_179_Apr._05_16.39.jpg

Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

IMG_0457.jpg

Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.

7/3/17: In response to my letter of complaint to Delta Air Lines, I received the following email today: “Thank you for writing to let us know how you feel. No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We are sorry if our decision disappoints you. Thank you for your feedback. Regards, Ms. Rolfe.” I think Delta brass might be trying to officially pin this on the “gore” factor, not the actual one. But Shakespeare is way ahead of them. For example, Titus Andronicus serves up his own children in a fucking pie, and no corporate sponsors have ever said boo about that. The airline doth protest too much, methinks.


Stand-Up Tragedy

September 23, 2016

1458047088866

It’s even worse.

When I first wrote about standing-ovation-creep on this page more than six years ago, it was an irritation, like a skin rash you just have to live with. Since then, it’s become an out-and-out pandemic, infecting more and more theatre audiences in New York — and, I’d be willing to bet, where you live too, because this virus is issuing forth from the heartland.

Let’s restate a few caveats. A performance that brings an audience to its feet with gratitude is a wonderful thing, and once upon a time such a spontaneous eruption swelled the cast and crew with pride precisely because it was so rare. I have witnessed these thrilling occasions — but fewer times than I have fingers. (My most recent was HAMILTON.) However, the days when you could actually reward a magnificent production beyond mere seated applause are long gone, vanished before my very eyes.

I recognize that audience behavior evolves over time. Beatles aside, the loudest sound in an Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson audience was the ol’ two-fingered whistle. But watch Colbert or Maher today, and you’ll hear people — usually women — shriek where they used to laugh. I’m sure that excited reaction is a bleed-over from pop music concerts, and it’s fine for a talk show where revving the crowd up to paroxysmal frenzy is part of the trick. Thing is, we’re starting to hear the whooooooooos for stage musical numbers, even “this is my way of saying I think that’s funny” in the more raucous comedies. This is a second cousin to stand-up fever.

It’s very expensive to visit New York, even before the theater sticks out its palm for you to cross so lavishly. If you go to a Broadway show, you expect to see transcendence; it had better be better than what your community theater can pull off. Some shows are certainly lesser than others, but they are all of professional caliber, and if you’re not used to that, damn near anything can impress you, especially if it features someone you’ve seen in movies or on tv. I believe that’s where the ubiquitous standing O has come from: visitors from out of town. My latest piece of evidence: I was sitting in a side box for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS a couple weeks ago, so I was able to watch the crowd. The standing ovation that day was definitely led by people in shorts and sandals.

Why should I even care about whether people jump to their feet or not? They’re just being nice, get off their backs! Two reasons. One, as stated above, when it happens every time, the gesture is demeaned: performers will never again be able to earn a legitimate standing O, since they will automatically receive one simply by delivering the final line of Act II. Two, I enjoy watching actors take their curtain calls, but unless I stand as well (to my shame, I’ve done it a few times) all I can see is a butt from the previous row. Usually I remain seated anyway. It’s not because I didn’t like the show; it’s because it didn’t deserve a standing ovation!

Here’s how bad it’s gotten. The other night I went down to 59E59, the only off-Broadway theater in rational walking distance from my house, to see a surrealistic farce called BEARS IN SPACE, part of a citywide Irish theatre festival. Delightful show: four young guys using deliberately low-tech theatricality and ratty hand-and-rod puppets, snarky as hell but telling a story that turned out to be very sweet. (One of them was Jack Gleeson, GAME OF THRONES’s sadistic King Joffrey, but in one section he played that notorious imperiousness for laughs.) The audience — couldn’t have been 200 people — were attentive, laughing where they should, etc. They loved the show. (I did too.) The boys wound it up and the applause was vigorous, energetic. As I was joining them in banging my hands together, something was vaguely bothersome. WTF? Finally it struck me. Nobody in the appreciative, giddy audience had risen to their feet! I self-flagellated on the walk home (what, no standing O means you’re missing something, dickweed?) and sat down to write this piece, my first sequel. Dudes and dudettes, standing ovations are WAY WAY WAY too common, but there’s nothing anybody can do. Their function as a meaningful way to communicate back to the stage is all over.

9/27/16: Last night, at the new production of THE FRONT PAGE (it was that or the Clinton-Trump “debate”), before the inevitable tumultuous standing ovation, came some “sitting ovations,” or entrance applause, for everybody the audience recognized: Jefferson Mays, John Slattery, John Goodman, Robert Morse, Nathan Lane, even Holland Taylor. This show is a trifle, an amusing limited run for holiday-season tourists, slathered with stars, and it did make me laugh a few times. But to the adoring audience, it killed. A standing O was locked in the moment they opened their programs, and every comment I overheard afterward reflected a mind duly blown. But I won’t play the snob card: New York needs their money.

11/23/16: Yes, the cast of the final play in the “Gabriel Family Trilogy” did a wonderful job, but DAMN! Even most of the audience in a little 200-seater upstairs at the Public felt the need to hit their feet. Fortunately we were sitting in the first row, and I think I caught a couple of curtain-call winks — thanks for giving us an enthusiastic response but not fucking standing up! — or maybe it was just my imagination. I mimed applause to Jay O. Russell in the lobby as we were filing out and he seemed to enjoy it. But the war’s over. Automatic standing Os and Trump have each won.


%d bloggers like this: