Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Theater Online: This Is Who I Am

I was not planning to review this, but I fear that the rather negative review in the New York Times might prevent you from enjoying a worthwhile experience. This two-character play by Amir Nizar Zuabi is a hybrid — what you are watching online at a specific time is an actual live performance. The two characters are a father (Ramsey Faragallah) in Ramallah and a son (Yousof Sultan) in New York City who are on a video call trying to recreate the recipe for fteer, a triangular pastry filled with vegetables and spices, that was a specialty of their late wife and mother. Since they both have been unsuccessful in their separate attempts, they think that they might get it right if they combine forces. The format of a video call is the perfect setup for a 70-minute conversation, deeply moving at times, that reveals deep fractures in their relationship, misunderstandings that have divided them, as well as the trauma of living under occupation. Both actors are excellent and the direction by Evren Okcikin is smooth. I am not sure why it took five theater companies — PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater and Oregon Shakespeare Festival — to produce it, but the result is very satisfying. The fteer looked delicious too. 

 For tickets, go to woollymammoth.net. Runs through January 3.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Theater News: 100th Anniversary of "The Dybbuk"

I am sharing this press release which I hope may be of interest: Dear Colleague:   This month marks the 100th anniversary of THE DYBBUK, the world’s most famous Jewish play, by S. Ansky. The Congress for Jewish Culture is celebrating this historically significant milestone with a virtual presentation of the play featuring an all-star international cast including Los Angeles-based Mike Burstyn (Barnum, The Rothschilds, Shane Baker (New York), Mendy Cahan (Tel Aviv), Refoyel Goldwasser (Buenos Aires), Daniel Kahn (Berlin), Amitai Kedar (Tel Aviv), Yelena Shmulenson (New York), Suzanne Toren (New York), and Michael Wex (Toronto). Under the direction of Allen Lewis Rickman, who also provides English narration, the online production of THE DYBBUK will premiere this evening (Monday) at 7 p.m. EST on the Congress for Jewish Culture’s YouTube channel. The production will remain on YouTube indefinitely. It will be performed in Yiddish featuring English subtitles, with a script adapted by Allen Lewis Rickman (from an adaptation by Dina Halperin, who appeared in the 1937 film version). The link, for your consideration, is www.youtube.com/channel/UCImhbhZ0JyMyEG1_KPnOXYQ.   Playwright S. Ansky wrote THE DYBBUK from late 1913 through 1915 in Russian and it was later translated into Yiddish by Ansky himself. The play had its world premiere in that language, performed by the Vilna Troupe in Warsaw on December 9, 1920, 30 days after the playwright’s death. Legendary impresario Max Reinhardt, upon seeing the Vilna production, famously declared “This is not a play, this is a religious rite!”   THE DYBBUK was subsequently translated into over 25 languages and performed thousands of times all over the world. On September 1, 1921, the play had its American premiere at the grand opening of Maurice Schwartz’ Yiddish Art Theatre in New York, starring Schwartz and Celia Adler. The play was an important artistic and commercial hit. Along with numerous Broadway productions, the film adaptation of THE DYBBUK was released in 1937 directed by Michał Waszyński. It is still being produced in countless adaptations, as well as operas, ballets and symphonic suites. The play is considered the jewel of the Jewish theatre.    Based on years of research by S. Ansky, who traveled between Jewish shtetls in Russia and Ukraine, documenting folk beliefs and stories of the Hassidic Jews, THE DYBBUK relates the story of a young bride possessed by a dybbuk – a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person – on the eve of her wedding.   This virtual presentation serves as a particularly personal way to honor THE DYBBUK as two members of the company had close relationships with notable figures from the play’s initial premieres. As a young teen, Mike Burstyn appeared in three plays with Maurice Schwartz and the two families became lifelong friends. Shane Baker’s mentor, Luba Kadison, had a small role in the original production and she went on to star as Leah, a role she would reprise throughout her years onstage. Her father Leib Kadison founded the Vilna Troupe during World War I.   Best regards,   Jim Randolph     Jim Randolph Media Relations

Friday, December 11, 2020

Meet Me in St. Louis: A Holiday Special in Song and on Screen

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Just in time for the holidays, Irish Repertory Theatre brings us this delightful treat. It's an abridged online version of the 1989 Broadway musical based on the beloved 1944 Judy Garland film. Through the magic of technology, the actors, each filmed in a different location, have their performances blended together into the production so skillfully that, except for a couple of awkward moments during the ball scene, it is easy to forget that they are not actually performing together. Director Charlotte Moore has done an amazing joy of supporting the illusion. The musical itself, with songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine and a book by Hugh Wheeler, is a modest affair depicting the life of an upper-middle class St Louis family during the period leading up to the 1904 World's Fair. The best known songs are "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and the title song. The appealing cast includes recognizable names such as Melissa Errico as the mother and Max von Essen as the boy next door. Shereen Ahmed is lovely as Esther (the Garland role). The other members of the diverse cast -- William Bellamy, Rufus Collins, Kerry Conte, Ali Ewooldt, Kathy Fitzgerald, Ian Holcomb, Austyn Johnson,  Jay Aubrey Jones, Kylie Kuioka and Ashley Robinson -- perform well as an ensemble, even though they were never on the same set. Kudos to the creative staff -- Charlie Corcoran, scenic design; Meridith Sommers, video editing; M. Florian Staab, sound design and mix; Michael Gottlieb, lighting; Tracy Christensen, costumes; John Bell, musical direction -- for bringing off a unique experiment so successfully. It will be running until January 2. Go to irishrep.org for tickets. $25 is the suggested contribution.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

A Theater Recommendation: Steppenwolf Now

In this theater-deprived season, here's a ray of sunshine. Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago's esteemed ensemble theater that has brought us such works as "August: Osage County" and "Linda Vista," is presenting a season of online plays starting in November. And at $75 for six plays, it is a real bargain. You can read the details by following this link:

https://www.steppenwolf.org/now

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

What Do We Need To Talk About?

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Little did I imagine when I penned my last review exactly two months ago that it might well be the final one. Fortunately, I’m still here but live theater in New York isn’t. When it will return and which theaters will survive are questions that will probably not be answered for a long time. As March and April slipped by, the list of theatrical evenings I had looked forward to in vain grew longer and longer: Company, The Minutes, The Siblings, Sanctuary City, 72 Miles To Go, Nollywood Dreams, Caroline or Change, Intimate Apparel, Selling Kabul, Flying over Sunset, The Visitor, Take Me Out and How I Learned To Drive. Although several worthwhile filmed productions were made available either on television or online, they were not live theater. Leave it to Richard Nelson to come up with something original that bridges the gap between recorded and live. Tonight the Public Theater presented on their website the premiere and sole performance of Nelson's timely postscript to his four plays about the Apple family of Rhinebeck, What Do We Need To Talk About? When we meet the four Apple siblings — Barbara (Maryann Plunkett), Richard (Jay O. Sanders), Marian (Laila Robins), Jane (Sally Murphy) and Jane’s partner Tim (Stephen Kunken) — they are just starting a Zoom session. Richard is temporarily living with Barbara who has just returned from a near-fatal hospital stay. Tim is in isolation in the guest bedroom of the home he shares with Jane, who is too frightened to go shopping for groceries. Marian has dressed up for the call. For the next 70 minutes, we watch and listen as they talk about life today and tell each other stories. It is very much like observing them sitting around the kitchen table in the previous plays, but with the major advantage that you don’t have to struggle to hear them. If you haven’t seen the earlier plays, the details of their conversations will probably mean less to you, but I think the work can stand on its own merits. What a pleasure it is to be reunited with these sympathetic characters. Watching it sliced two ways, reminding us of what we are missing while holding out hope for what might lie ahead. It will only be available until May 4, so don’t delay.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Perplexed

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Let me begin with quotes from two previous reviews:

“No one knows how to pander to a Manhattan Theatre Club audience better than Richard Greenberg. String together some witty one-liners, throw in a Jewish matron, add a few Yiddish words, mention Great Neck at least once and, voila, MTC awaits with open arms.” (Our Mother’s Brief Affair)

“There seems to be something about Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I at City Center that inspires scenic designers. Some of the finest set designs I have seen in New York have been at that theater. … Unfortunately, the “magic” effect of MTC’s Stage I on set designers does not seem to apply to playwrights. I have seen too many clunkers with great sets here, including this one.” (Long Lost)

Alas, both of these observations could apply just as well to Greenberg’s latest effort, now in previews at MTC. While the mention of Great Neck may be missing this time, we get not one but two Jewish matrons. Lest he ignore any segment of the typical MTC audience, he includes a gay character as well.

Once again, Santo Loquasto is the true star of the evening. I thought his set of a grand CPW apartment for The Assembled Parties could not be topped, but this set of a library off the ballroom of a Fifth Avenue apartment comes very close. If only what took place on the set were as impressive as the set itself!

The ten characters are all attending a wedding which, for some reason, starts with a reception and dancing and concludes with vows at midnight. The apartment belongs to the unseen Berland Stahl, a much-hated real estate bigwig, and grandfather of the bride Isabelle (Tess Frazer; Mary Page Marlowe). Her parents are Joseph (Frank Wood; Side Man, Network) and Evy (Margaret Colin; Jackie, Defiance), who is a NYC councilwoman. Her brother Micah (Zane Pais; Dead Poets Society) has just been involved in a scandal. Her uncle James (Patrick Breen; The New Englanders, Next Fall) is an author whose popularity has passed. We learn that Isabelle’s family have been disinherited by Berland after some messy lawsuits.

The groom is Caleb Resnick (JD Taylor; Apologia, The Last Match), a do-gooder, whose parents Ted (Gregg Edelman; City of Angels, Passion) and Natalie (Ilana Levine; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) had a falling-out with the Stahls 20 years ago. The officiant is Cyrus Bloom (Eric Williams Morris; King Kong, Coram Boy), a long-time family friend whose career path led from Wall Street to the rabbinate to teaching. Patricia (Anna Itty; India Pale Ale) is Berlind’s Guyanan home aide.

Different combinations of characters enter the library and talk and talk and talk. Occasionally there is a witty line to remember. What little plot there is hardly piqued my interest. While it was a pleasure to see a few actors I always enjoy (Breen, Colin and Wood), it was not pleasure enough to make the dreary proceedings more bearable. While I admire MTC director Lynne Meadows’s dogged support of Greenberg over the years even though he has never produced a hit for them, I wish she would try harder to find new talent. Much as I enjoy their excellent sets, I wish they would spend less on sets and more on play development. Running time: two hours 30 minutes including intermission.