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?

A-


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

D+

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.

         

Friday, February 28, 2020

Unknown Soldier

A-


Inspired by the story of an amnesiac French WWI soldier, Daniel Goldstein (dir. Godspell) and the late Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Fortress of Solitude) worked on this musical off and on for almost a decade before it finally had a brief but successful production directed by Trip Cullman (The Pain of My Belligerence, Lobby Hero) at Williamstown in 2015. The three intended to develop it further but, busy with other commitments, did not get around to it. Then, in 2017, Friedman tragically died at the age of 41. Fortunately for us, Goldstein and Cullman decided to work on it again and brought it to Playwrights Horizons, where it is now in previews. The intriguing story, spanning four generations, is told in a manner that is sophisticated and complex. Friedman’s music ranges all the way from ballad to vaudeville and his lyrics go from conversational to poetic. He had a special knack of making the transition from speech to song sound natural. Goldstein’s book is like a satisfying puzzle and his lyrics are also fine. Cullman’s direction handles all the elements skillfully. We meet Ellen Rabinowitz, first as young girl (Zoe Glick; Frozen) being raised by her grandmother Lucy (Estelle Parsons; August: Osage County) in her Troy, NY home after the death of her mother in childbirth, then as a 40-ish Manhattan obstetrician (Margo Seibert; The Thanksgiving Play, Octet) in a troubled marriage. While closing up her grandmother’s home after her death, Ellen runs across an Ithaca newspaper clipping of her grandmother Lucy as a young woman (Kerstin Anderson; My Fair Lady) and an amnesiac soldier (Perry Sherman; Fun Home) who had been found wandering through Grand Central Terminal without any identification. Via email, Ellen enlists the aid of Andrew Hoffman (Eric Lochtefeld; The Light Years, Small Mouth Sounds), a middle-aged Cornell research librarian, to learn more about the photograph. As he gets more involved in the research, their exchanges become flirty and Andrew wants to meet Ellen. Meanwhile we see flashbacks to scenes of the young Lucy trying to adjust to the apparent death of her husband in the war and the amnesiac soldier trying to deal with his own loss. He is sent to an asylum where the doctor (Thomas Sesma; Nick & Nora, La Cage) names him Francis Grand. When they publish his photograph, hundreds of people, including Lucy, visit the asylum, hoping to find that he is their lost loved one. He responds to Lucy so she begins visiting daily in the hope that he will remember her. The photo in the newspaper was taken on a picnic she arranged at the asylum. The research breaks off here and Ellen does not know what happened next. When Ellen and Andrew finally meet, their meeting does not conform to our expectations. An undelivered letter from Lucy to Francis that Andrew gives to Ellen finally provides answers and allows her to get on with her life. The seven lead actors, all fine, are supplemented by an ensemble of five (James Crichton, Emilie Kouatchou, Jay McKenzie, Jessica Naimy, Mr. Sesma) who play a variety of roles. The five musicians do justice to the excellent arrangements. The monochrome gray set by Mark Wendland (The Pain of My Belligerence) shows five workstations in the basement of the Cornell Library surrounded by stacks of banker’s boxes. Hidden in some of these are miniatures of typical Troy houses and other buildings. In one corner there is a dinette set. Projections by Lucy Mackinnon (The Treasurer) are used sparingly. The costumes by Clint Ramos (Mankind, Slave Play) and Jacob A. Climer (Kid Victory) make it clear during what time period each scene takes place. The occasional choreography by Patrick McCollum (The Band’s Visit) is low-key. I have a few quibbles. A story told by Andrew is quite moving, but does not really seem to fit in. An abrupt shift to a vaudeville number is rather jolting. Overall, the story is emotionally satisfying and well-told. It illuminates the importance of the stories we tell ourselves. Sadly, it reminds us of what a loss to musical theater the untimely death of Michael Friedman was. I highly recommend seeing it to everyone who appreciates serious musicals. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

All the Natalie Portmans

C-

MCC Theater is presenting the world premiere of this depressing family drama by C.A. Johnson (Thirst). Keyonna (Kara Young; The New Englanders) is an unhappy black lesbian high school student in D.C. who seeks escape from her bleak reality by covering her wall with photos of movie stars. Her particular favorite is Natalie Portman (Elise Kibler; Napoli, Brooklyn), who becomes her imaginary friend. Her loving older brother Samuel (Joshua Boone; Network, Actually) is having sex with their mutual friend Chantel (Renika Williams; The Climb), with whom Keyonna once shared a kiss. Samuel works in a bar once frequented by their late father, the circumstances of whose death are never explained. Their mother Ovetta (Montego Glover; Memphis) is an alcoholic who spends her hotel salary on booze and gambling rather than on the rent. She placates their landlord with sexual favors. Samuel gets into trouble with the law and Keyonna stops attending classes. Eviction looms on the horizon. A series of mother-son and mother-daughter conversations provides a showcase for Ms. Montego’s talents. The fantasy interludes in which Natalie Portman appears dressed for one of her movie roles are amusing at first, but do not really lead anywhere. The set by Donyale Werle (The Legend of Georgia McBride) is appropriately dreary. Jennifer Moeller’s (Sweat, Aubergine) costumes seemed apt. Kate Whoriskey (Sweat. Ruined) is a fine director, but not even she can work magic with this material. All in all, it made for a dispiriting afternoon. Running time: two hours, including intermission.

The Hot Wing King

B-

For the third and final play of her Signature Theatre residency, Katori Hall (Hurt Village, Our Lady of Kibeho) has gone in a surprising direction: she has written a play about six black men in Memphis, of whom four are gay. It’s not often that we get a look at a loving relationship between black gay men and all the more surprising that it took a woman to provide it. The action is set in the cozy home of Dwayne (Korey Jackson; Far from Heaven), manager of a Memphis hotel. His lover Cordell (Toussaint Jeanlouis; but i cd only whisper) and their friends Isom (Sheldon Best; Sugar in Our Wounds) and Big Charles (Nicco Annan) are the other members of the New Wing Order team, who are competing in the annual hot wing contest. Cordell is the genius whose exotic wings recipes the others love to taste. We learn that Cordell is in the process of divorcing his wife who lives in St. Louis with their two college-age sons. He only moved in with Dwayne a few months ago. Big Charles owns the barber shop where Dwayne and Cordell met. I never did figure out how the flamboyant Isom fit into the group. We also meet Dwayne’s brother-in-law TJ (Eric B. Robinson Jr.), a petty crook who is doing a poor job of raising his teenage son EJ (Cecil Blutcher; Showtime Blues) after his wife’s death. Dwayne would like to take EJ in, but Cordell, guilty over abandoning his own sons, doesn’t want to raise someone else’s. Although there are serious moments, humor prevails. I was frustrated that many lines that drew laughs from black members of the audience sailed right by me. The actors work well together, especially in a couple of slapstick scenes. The resolution of the hot wing contest is a bit anticlimactic, but as a group portrait, this lively play succeeds. Michael Canahan’s (Skeleton Crew, The Piano Lesson) set, which consists of a cross-section of Dwayne’s house, looks lived in. Emilio Sosa’s (On Your Feet!, Make Believe) costumes befit their characters. Steve H. Broadnax III’s (Travisville) direction is assured. Running time: two hours 30 minutes including intermission.