at the theatre: orphans

orphansLyle Kessler’s Orphans is a curious little play. The story of two brothers – one a grifter, the other a shut-in – and the mysterious gangster that upends their lives has long been a regional theater favorite. It’s slight, but affecting, and the three roles have enough meat to give any actor interested in delving deep into a character study a lot to chew on. (Maybe that explains why chunks of the play so often turn up as audition pieces.) But to be impactful as an evening of theater those three actors need to be evenly matched, which is not the case in director Daniel Sullivan’s production debuting on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Tom Sturridge, an actor heretofore unknown to me, gives a performance of such feral specificity as Phillip, the autistic shut-in, that it leaves you wondering what might have been had his partners in crime been able to rise to his level. As Treat, Ben Foster, who replaced Shia LaBeouf after a surreal and very public spat involving creative differences, has his moments but lacks the urgent desperation which comes with assuming the mantle of being his brother’s keeper after Mom and Dad…well, we really don’t know what happened, but it’s obvious that Treat and Phillip have been left to fend for themselves for a long time. Treat gets by as a petty criminal, without any aspiration except to provide for him and his brother – a couple of orphans clinging to each other and enabling their own askew reality in a seedy Philadelphia neighborhood. (The City of Brotherly Love, natch.) Enter Harold, played by Alec Baldwin, a dapper, connected “businessman” lured home from a bar after a night of serious drinking by Treat, who’s hatched a cockamamie plan to hold Harold hostage for a tidy ransom. After passing out Harold wakes the next morning to find himself tied to a chair and it seems that perhaps the ridiculous plan was indeed sublime. Yet playwright Kessler subverts our expectations: Harold easily escapes his ropes, and rather than flee becomes a surrogate father to these two lost boys. You could say he gives them a lesson in self-actualization, helping Phillip to conquer his fears of the big bad world beyond the front door and giving Treat a job, along with a taste for fine suits and bourbon. Suffice it to say this happy domestic arrangement doesn’t last long and things don’t end well. There’s no emotional payoff, however, if we don’t believe these boys are fully invested in Harold. Which brings us to Mr. Baldwin. It’s disconcerting to watch an actor of such estimable talent stumble so demonstrably. His stylized shuck and jive often comes across as funny but it’s emotionally hollow, leaving you to question Harold’s existence as anything other than a metaphor made flesh. And his rapid-fire delivery a la Jack Donaghy too often threatens to turn this production into an extended sitcom – albeit one with an unfortunate ending. What subtle thrills this play provides should come from the shifting dynamics of power in the family love triangle but Baldwin is clearly the alpha male here and his persona can’t seem to find the backseat. Maybe ShiaLaBeoufwas right after all. Or maybe he was just too terrified by the dizzying bar set so high by Mr. Sturridge.


at the theatre: pippin

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 11.11.41 AMHell isn’t other people; it’s a revival of Pippin. Does that make me sound cynical? At the risk of drawing the ire of community theatre groups and teenagers everywhere, I can sum up in two small words the particular reason why this show hasn’t been revived on Broadway until now. And no, they are not “Bob” and “Fosse” – but more on that later. It’s crap. There, I said it: the elephant in the room. Despite an infectious easy-like-Sunday-morning score and high-concept theatrics, Pippin, at its core, is an amateurish bore. It isn’t so much a musical as an EST training run amok at Ye Olde Renaissance Faire; an exercise in self-actualization wrapped up inside the comforting embrace of that familiar trope: hey kids, lets put on a show! Would it originally have been produced without Fosse at the helm? I doubt it. But Fosse being Fosse – I told you we’d come back to him – did more than slap a bit of lipstick on a pig. He twisted the unforgivably earnest story of one young man’s (one very privileged man, I might add) quest for purpose into something tailor-made for a generation dabbling in consciousness raising, creating a surreal and disturbing metaphysical entertainment that seduced its audience with the director’s trademark hot and cool razzle-dazzle and a healthy dose of social commentary. (A confrontational style that would reach its apotheosis, I might add, three years later in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.) Director Diane Paulus doesn’t seem so interested in the meta-theatrics of her production at The Music Box, except when it’s convenient – or unavoidable. But she does take the instructions of the title song quite literally: “we’ve got magic to do.”  The show-within-a-show conceit of this Pippin is not some mysterious white-gloved performance troupe, but a big top circus, providing Paulus (and a very game company) ample opportunity to distract and amuse us with feats of strength, illusion, and derring do.  Life as a circus is a tenuous metaphor; a wholly non-threatening 180-degree turn away from the original production, but that’s the beauty of shows like Pippin and its precursor, Godspell: they are skeletons on which a director can boldly stamp any theatrical vision. Paulus takes advantage of this without ever connecting the storytelling with the style and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience, served by an athletic and adventurous group of acrobats and a (mostly) top-drawer cast of leading players. Only Matthew James Sweet, as our titular hero, fails to impress. Terrence Mann as Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne, Charlotte D’Amboise as his conniving stepmother, Rachel Bay Jones as his love interest, and Andrea Martin as his show stopping grandmother are a quartet of perfect foils for all the navel gazing going on. It’s hard to banish thoughts of what Ben Vereen brought to bear as The Leading Player, but a devilishly sexy Patina Miller more than holds her own. I just wish Paulus had allowed her to show some of the menace in between all those jazz hands. Yet that’s what makes this production so unusual: for all the hoary shtick, it’s irony free. Instead of finding its corner of the sky, Pippin just wants to be loved.


snubbed again

b_tonyawardAll awards are subjective, let’s face it. And within the very small community which bands together to create what we commonly refer to as Broadway, they’re even more so. The nominating committee for the Tony Awards, whose nominations were announced yesterday, is made up of just forty-two theatre professionals – almost 850 people vote for the eventual winners – and if anybody told you they didn’t have an agenda or axe to grind, well, they’d be lying. Plus, there are the commercials interests of The Broadway League, the national trade organization for Broadway theater producers, general managers, theater owners, and presenters in over 250 theaters across America, to take into account. The Tony Awards are a joint venture of the League along with the American Theatre Wing, a non-profit organization which first created the awards to recognize excellence and now mostly supports education in the arts. So, while the theatre-going public might consider The Tonys to be the Oscars of live theatre, critics have long suggested they’re primarily a promotional vehicle for a few large production companies and theatre owners with an interest in getting prime-time exposure for their soon-to-touring productions. Me, I have no axe to grind; except that I – along with Bette Midler, Fiona Shaw, Seth Numrich, Alec Baldwin, Christine Jones, Yvonne Strahovski, John Logan, Joe Mantello, Sigourney Weaver, Doug Wright, and ‘Hands On A Hardbody’ - was snubbed once again. But the moral of the story: take the Tony Awards with a healthy dose of salt. We all know the biggest honor comes from simply being in the arena.


at the theatre: the testament of mary

IMG_1547There’s something thrilling about watching a great artist dangle on the precipice of a cliff, walking the razor’s edge between sublime and ridiculous. Fiona Shaw is such an artist. An actress of fierce conviction and commanding presence, I expect it would be mesmerizing to watch her read from the phone book, such is the power of her craft in plumbing the depths of truth out of even the most banal material. Fear not Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, mind you, where there is no need to worry about the quality of the writing being strained. Playwright Colm Toibin, whose elegiac novels revolving on themes of personal identity rank among some of my favorite, has fashioned a demanding, intelligent play out of the twinned myths of religion and fantasy. The Last Testament of Mary is no gnostic gospel, but it does imagine the later life of the Blessed Virgin as a woman in self-imposed exile. Mary does not believe that her son was the son of God and furthermore she refuses to co-operate with those simpletons – the writers of the gospels – who insist on visiting her. Mary is a mother, first and foremost, who had the misfortune to have a son who let things go to his head. It is the mother’s paradox for her to simultaneously grieve his death yet curse his megalomania, which turned the unforgiving spotlight of iconography on herself. This Mary wants none of it. And if she were left alone on a bare stage to tell us her story, we would sit enrapt. Yet director Deborah Warner, whose often visionary collaborations with Ms. Shaw stretch for more than a quarter century, will have none of that. For ninety minutes this Mary is a ceaselessly fidgety fuss bucket: moving a chair here, an amphora there, forever arranging then rearranging props and tables with an unlit cigarette dangling from her mouth. If the action is meant to underscore some greater emotional reality it’s not entirely convincing. In fact, Mary’s vulnerability is at its most ferocious when words become too much and the inability to communicate vents itself through the painful stomping of her feet, like a child caught in a tantrum. Designer Tom Pye is complicit with Ms. Warner, littering the stage with enough detritus – not to mention symbolism – to keep an actor busy for two plays, let alone the single act which makes up this evening. It’s too on the nose: the barbed wire, the ladder, the tree which dangles from the sky, its roots not touching the earth. We can’t help but be riveted by Ms. Shaw, who commits to her character so completely that even an act of gratuitous nudity does not take us out of the world of the play. Yet it’s the viewer’s paradox to both applaud the fearless conviction of an artist and wish someone had the good sense to leave her well enough alone.


at the theatre: kinky boots

kinky boots

These boots aren’t made just for walking. In the talented hands (and heels) of a drag queen called Lola – a role that should finally make the estimable talents of Billy Porter familiar to a wider audience – they’re made for high kicks, chassés, and fierce, show-stopping realness. Drab brown brogues be gone; thanks to Lola and her kinky boot designs a struggling family run shoe factory in the middling English Midlands will survive. Yet Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper’s new chocolate box of a musical is about more than just middle class survival, noble as that might be. Like Billy Elliot, to which it owes a debt of gratitude, Kinky Boots extols the virtues of embracing the ineffable thing inside you that allows you to thrive. Let it raise you up, the company, led by Lola, sings in a rousing finale that gives a tantalizing taste of what this musical might have been. But as directed – and I use that term loosely – by Jerry Mitchell the drama which precedes it is messy, unfocused, and as clunky as an old pair of cha-cha heels. Lacking either the critical eye of a dramaturge or the flair of a showman, Mitchell is unable to take Lola’s advice and raise up the promising framework of his collaborators. Certainly a musical should be able to stand alone on it’s own feet, but I often I had the sinking feeling that nobody with an objective, incisive eye was pushing the talented team at the Al Hirschfeld Theater towards doing their best work. Individuals left to do his or her own thing lead to a wall full of spaghetti: only the overdone bits tend to stick. Which is a drag, literally. That’s not to say that Kinky Boots isn’t often entertaining, because it is, especially when the dynamic Mr. Porter takes center stage. I just wish he had some help in trying to raise up his surroundings. As Charlie, a young man who inherits his father’s shoe factory and finds himself stricken by a bout of George Bailey-itis, Stark Sands has a natural, winning charisma. He doesn’t possess the voice of a trained singer but he gives it the old college try and the strain shows only occasionally. He is, however, cast adrift by Mr. Mitchell more than once – most egregiously in his big eleven o’clock number, The Soul of a Man, a vocally challenging, emotional turning point in which Mr. Sands is left to pointlessly wander around the apron of the stage. Annaleigh Ashford plays it broader but fares better as one of the hapless factory workers with a hopeless crush on Charlie, not to mention a history of always choosing the wrong guys, which she sings about to great comedic effect. Performed with gusto, The History of Wrong Guys comes close to bringing down the house and it would if someone put a proper button on the end of the song. This inattention to detail builds up throughout the evening like an exercise in self sabotage – something no self-respecting drag queen worth her sequins would stand for. Kinky Boots could have (should have) been as capital-F fabulous as the glittering red heels of its title. Instead it’s been stitched and stretched into something altogether more ordinary – kind of like that pair of drab brown brogues.


at the theatre: breakfast at tiffany’s & ann

Ann & Breakfast at Tiffanys

I don’t get the sentimental attraction to Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Is it the waifish innocence of Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy-clad eccentric crooning “Moon River” in the film version that sets the hearts of grown men and women aflutter? Or is it nostalgia for a time when it seemed possible that anybody could reinvent themselves simply by wishing it so? Either way, I don’t buy it. Maybe there’s a charm and subtlety to Capote’s novella – no less a curmudgeon than Norman Mailer declared that he “would not change two words” of it – but Holly Golightly is no radical; she is no Sally Bowles. For one, the two black sheep at the center of the story lack the context that made the denizens of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” so excitingly alive. This problem is only exacerbated in playwright Richard Greenberg’s lovingly dusty adaptation now in previews at the Cort Theater on Broadway. Holly and Fred, the unsexed homosexual narrator who sets this flight of fancy in motion, aren’t so much two lost souls as two souls lost in schmaltz. Fidelity to the source seems to have jaundiced Greenberg’s usually sharp dramatic eye. Director Sean Mathias – who helmed a different adaptation of the story to less than glowing notices in London last year – adds only fuel to the nostalgia fire with gauzy scrims and violins and projections which yearn for a city long since gone. When I wasn’t dozing off I had the distinct feeling of watching a play through the lenses of a stereopticon – until a painfully awkward nude scene involving a bathtub and strategically placed bubbles arrived too little too late. (Mr. Mathias, if you recall, is the man who orchestrated a lengthy nude scene for Jude Law’s Broadway debut in a play whose title might just as well serve on the marquee at the Cort, Indiscretions.) Cory Michael Smith, forceful and riveting in Mike Bartlett’s Cock two seasons ago at The Duke, makes a likable, if bland, Broadway debut here. Would that Mr. Mathias lavished as much attention on Smith’s sculpted abs as he did Law’s manhood. And poor Emilia Clarke, well, she just seems out of her league as jolly Holly – but then what actress could make this wholly unbelievable character believable? Winsome melancholy doesn’t really travel well across the footlights. If you prefer your characters a bit stronger or, say, larger than life, better to skip uptown where Holland Taylor isn’t so much portraying charismatic Texas Governor Ann Richards as channeling her onstage at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont. As written by Taylor, it’s not much of a play – a few anecdotes here, a bit of hagiography there – and I’m not entirely sure it’s deserving of the overproduced Broadway production it enjoys, but it’s immensely satisfying – not mention a change of pace – to sit in the presence of a dynamic politician who had not only a gift for the gab and a talent for zingers but also believed in the higher calling of public service.


at the theatre: vanya & sonia & masha & spike

vanya & sonya & masha & spike

You never know with playwright Christopher Durang. His plays often straddle a murky line between incisive satire and puerile humor. But like the best novels of Kurt Vonnegut, when he’s at the top of him game his seemingly simple, zany stories betray the existential angst and simmering fear brewing beneath the calm, clean surfaces of modern life.  So I am overjoyed to report through tears of laughter that his latest confection, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now on Broadway in a pitch-perfect production at the John Golden Theater, is a return to frolicsome – and forbidding – form. A mash-up of characters and plot threads from Anton Chekov’s four major works – Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard – the play revolves around Vanya and Sonia (David Hyde Pierce and a luminous Kristine Nielsen), a brother and sister left to tend the family estate – and their dying parents – in Bucks County, PA, while their glamorous sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver) finds fame and fortune in Hollywood. A surprise visit from Masha, with her 20-something boy toy Spike in tow (the ridiculously fit and spectacularly undressed Billy Magnussen) throws the normally placid household into chaos – not least of all due to the prophecies belched out by the cleaning woman, appropriately called Cassandra (a very funny Shalita Grant), and the arrival of a lithesome young neighbor named Nina, who curiously enough wants to be an actress. In less-skilled hands this could have easily devolved into an extended SNL skit but Durang and director Nicholas Martin make sure that throughout their frothy mix of lust, rivalry, regret and ridiculousness there is a palpable awareness of the human condition, making Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike a romp the likes of which I think even Mr. Chekov would laughingly approve.


at the theatre: cat on a hot tin roof

cat on a hot tin roof

Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, currently being revived on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre with an ineffectual Scarlett Johannsson, has received so many underwhelming notices that I found myself last week at the theater in a most peculiar state: waiting for the curtain to go up with almost no anticipation or expectation. In effect, the evening had failed before it had even begun. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as a good state of mind to begin, approaching Rob Ashford’s production as a blank slate does strip the evening of the burden and baggage of memory. If anything, it affords the director an opportunity to recalibrate and restore the text. Elizabeth Taylor might be enshrined in our collective celluloid consciousness in a revealing white slip purring “Maggie the cat is alive!” but Ashford rightly understands that Williams’ parboiled Southern melodrama is really a family affair: a quartet of cats – to beat a metaphor to death – tails up, claws out, and braying for their rightful recompense. His misstep is an inability to find any subtlety in the evening. (Christopher Oram’s gorgeous mixed metaphor bedroom setting is part of the problem: who puts cats in a birdcage?) The drama unfolds in broad, flat strokes, like a table-read put on its feet far too soon. Fine performances from Ciaran Hinds, Benjamin Walker, and Debra Monk can’t mask the fact that the mendacity at the root of this family’s internecine conflict doesn’t have the power to shake us because it’s made so glaringly obvious to everyone except the people onstage. Big moments don’t land because they haven’t been earned. And often Ashford seems content to let the actors revel in Williams’ poetry, rather than connect it to the reality of the mise en scene. It seems that despite the best of intentions this cat’s in free-fall, struggling to find its feet.


at the theatre: the anarchist

When David Mamet writes a play with emotionally driven characters and a plot hinging on dangerous points-of-no-return and vigorous debate the results are often visceral, whether you appreciate the mise en scene or not. This playwright specializes in unflinching drama and, yes, it is often riotously funny and startlingly vulgar, too. The point being that love him or hate him – and Mamet has his fair share of vocal champions and detractors – there is no arguing with his skill as a dramatist when he delivers to an audience people living his or her own desperate emotional truths. When Mamet chooses to write a dialectic, however, the results are often less than engaging. His chief skills as a master storyteller drop by the wayside – as they should, the dialectic method is a dialogue in search of the truth and not a debate. Disguised as drama, however, it has little resonance below the neck. The Anarchist, Mamet’s latest play, now in previews at the Golden Theater, unfortunately falls in to the later category. For a man whose reputation has often (maybe unjustly) been said to rest upon a propensity to display his dramatic balls, so to speak, it makes for a doubly disappointing evening at the theater. What’s most frustrating is that the premise doesn’t lack the potential for dramatic fireworks: Cathy, a longtime inmate with ties to a violently anarchic political organization is up for parole. Her warden, Ann, wants to be certain that if Cathy is released it’s for the right reason. What follows is an almost Shavian point-counterpoint on the individual’s responsibility to society versus the state’s responsibilities to the individual, which would make for fascinating reading but not, alas, compelling viewing. Stars Patti LuPone and Debra Winger do their level best to inject a human element into the arguments but the drama onstage is not anarchic or revolutionary or even radical. It’s confused.


at the theatre: who’s afraid of virginia woolf?

For anyone with even a passing knowledge of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the ghosts of Burton and Taylor loom large. Not necessarily because their performances in Mike Nichols’ terrifying noir exorcism are good per se – though they are superlative – but because they have been committed to celluloid, which has become our culture’s lingua franca. (Arguing about the superiority of Uta Hagen’s Martha in Alan Schneider’s original staging is a bit like the arguments made for Laurette Taylor’s turn in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie:  you had to be there. The legacy of the ephemeral artist evaporates with time.) Which is one of the reasons why Tracy Letts – the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County – is so successful as the male half of Albee’s dynamic duo in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Woolf which opened at the Booth Theatre exactly 50 years after the original Broadway opening. Letts gives a tightly controlled, calibrated impersonation of Richard Burton as George. Like a floor show playing out in front of a movie screen it’s familiar, if not entirely authentic. With crisp enunciation, Letts’ muscular, musical delivery, is at once stylized and powerful but there’s something ineffable missing here: the humanity  On the flip side Amy Morton’s Martha is all too human, throwing off the balance of this marital cage match. You get what the actress is after: trying to get as far away as possible from Taylor’s lasciviously boozy floozy. As admirable as it is to see this fine actress stretch to find Martha’s desperate depths beneath the bluster, Woolf is not a realistic drama; it’s a Walpurgisnacht, as Albee himself titled the second of the play’s three acts: a highly stylized – dare I say theatrical? – transfigured night. Morton expends so much Chekovian energy being miserable that when she finally confesses to Nick  – who, along with Honey, is a virtual non-entity in this outing – that George is the only man who ever made her happy, it rings false. Nothing could make this woman happy – except perhaps a train to Moscow.


at the theatre: evita

You let down your people, Evita. You were supposed to have been immortal. That’s all we wanted – not much to ask for. Ok, maybe quoting Che Guevara’s sardonic funeral oration for Argentina’s first lady is a bit misdirected. To my mind Evita is immortal – but that’s in large part thanks to Hal Prince’s seminal production of a generation ago,  not to mention the star-making performances of Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin. (Yes, I age myself – at this point it’s unavoidable.) The question remains: is it Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita that we should cry for in its first ever Broadway revival or is it director Michael Grandage’s shambolic production? Does the fault lie with Elena Roger, the tiny-voiced, diminutive Argentine actress in the titular role? Or perhaps pop star Ricky Martin, who as the de-politicized Narrator née Guevara looks wholly uncomfortable in his own skin. Even Rob Ashford’s usually reliable choreography must come in for a bashing: in one number, The Art of the Possible, Juan Peron deftly vanquishes one general after another to propel himself into power. How does Ashford stage this? By having them awkwardly enact a series of half hearted Greco-Roman wrestling moves. It’s symbolic: this production flirts with a number of interesting ideas that get neither fully developed nor wholly abandoned, they just lie there like so much stagnant water. It’s hard to squarely pin the blame on any one individual because across the board everyone is off their game here, save the suave and golden-throated Max Von Essen as tango singer, Augustin Magaldi. It’s difficult to not feel for the two leads, either: Martin’s lack of stage experience isn’t served by stripping him of any discernible character. (The shift from Che Guevara to an anodyne Narrator is inexplicable. Are we to blame the anti-Castro theatergoing lobby?) And Roger tries hard but she lacks the powerhouse voice the role demands. Ultimately what this pointless revival makes all too clear is that at the Marquis Theatre there’s a thin line between immortality and ignominy.


at the theatre: clybourne park

Two years after it’s premiere at Playwrights Horizons, Bruce Norris’ acid-washed Pulitzer Prize winning diptych about real estate and race relations, Clybourne Park, has made it to Broadway. It was touch and go there for a while after lead producer Scott Rudin beat a hasty retreat when a dispute with the playwright over an unrelated acting gig turned into an exercise in vindictiveness. Jujamcyn president Jordan Roth managed to save the day (and the limited run of the play) and the critics for the most part have lined up like good little soldiers to heap hosannas on the one that almost got away. Pam McKinnon directs the original off-Broadway company with a sure hand and everybody is uniformly top-notch, equally milking every outre moment for did-they-really-just-say-that laughs mixed with I-can’t-believe-they-said-that gasps. That said, the only real weakness lies in Norris’s too-clever script, which begins (and ends) with an interesting conceit: act one takes place in 1959, as a white community frets about the African-American family about to move in next door; act two flashes forward fifty years and the same house represents very different demographics, with gentrification now knocking on the neighborhood’s door. Climbing through the looking-glass of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the characters navigate the play’s shifts from political correctness to racial resentment, revealing how far our ideas of race and gentrification have changed. Or have they? Duh. Despite the gentleman in the Oval Office - or maybe because of him – we know the answer to that question all too clearly as of late. So sitting though Norris’s play, I’m sorry to say, is a bit like being forced to watch a special (funnier) two-hour episode of Thirtysomething. He’s preaching to the converted, yes. But does he need to be so painfully obvious about it?


at the theatre: once

With some shows it’s love at first sight – or sound. Others slyly creep up on you after the fact, infecting you like a virus. Still others out and out break your heart for one misguided reason or another. But most frustrating of all are the shows you want to love that wind up leaving you cold. So went my heart at Once, the slender new musical which seems to have lost its way in an over-produced transfer of the well-received production at New York Theatre Workshop. For anyone who hasn’t seen the moody and romantic film on which it’s based, it’s the story of a socially disconnected Irish busker and an immigrant girl who meet and over the course of three Dublin days enjoy a mutual love affair with music and – unconsummated - each other. Simple, spare and elegant, it’s a film about the power of music and the redemptive effect of having someone believe in you when you no longer believe in yourself. When the film’s two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova – who had gone on to become partners in life as well – won an Oscar for Best Song (the hypnotic Falling Slowly) it seemed to bring the story full circle. What gets lost in the stage version is the Spartan elegance that lets you feel for the characters without being told what you should feel. Director John Tiffany relocates the action to a Dublin pub and suddenly we’re all pullin’ for pints, so we are. Feel free to go up on stage before the show and grab a drink. If that’s not twee enough for you, there’s a ceilidh band onstage to Oirish up the joint even more. (Don’t worry if you show up late, the whole noxious process will repeat itself at intermission.) Despite this annoying tendency to tart things up for Broadway – not to mention the now cloying trend of actors doubling as the band – there are a pair of wonderful performances by Steve Kazee and Cristin Miloti as – don’t choke – Boy and Girl. They share great chemistry  – and even better voices. If Once were built around their artistic collaboration this could be the stuff of fairy tales, as the title subtly implies. But Enda Walsh’s lumbering book skews the focus towards something far less interesting, another boy meets girl, boy loses girl story. A handful of barely sketched secondary characters make lame attempts at comic relief but it comes at the expense of dragging the story down to a leaden pace.  I’m wondering if the show ran with an intermission off-Broadway, too, or if what’s happening uptown is a just a bloated excuse to sell merchandise and drinks. Either way, a judicious bit of dramaturgy would have served this production well. If anything, Once highlights a problem specific to many a fairytale: let them go on too long and they eventually turn into nightmares.


at the theatre: don’t dress for dinner

Farce is a theatrical form best left to the F’s: Frayn, Fo, and Feydeau. In lesser hands – meaning almost everybody else – the hijinks tends to rise no higher than juvenile sex comedy, which is about as good as it currently gets at the Roundabout Theatre, where Marc Camoletti’s limp Don’t Dress for Dinner is naughty-ing up the proscenium. (What’s next, Roundabout, an all-star No Sex Please, We’re British?) There’s only one way to explain how this creaky sex comedy managed to find its way to Broadway: a revival of Camoletti’s other creaky sex comedy, Boeing-Boeing, was a surprise hit a few seasons back. That endeavor, however, was blessed with the felicitous casting of Mark Rylance, who invested his lecherous Lothario with an almost unnerving degree of  pathos – and won a Tony Award in the process. It was still very much a farce – quite a funny one at that – yet it somehow seemed to speak to the human condition, too. That, dear readers, is what is known as a theatrical anomaly: the accidental elevation of schlock into art. Lightening hasn’t struck a second time for Mr. Camoletti. (Dead for a decade, I doubt the playwright much cares.) The very competent Ben Daniels is Robert, the eye of the storm this time around, and he plays it for laughs – which you’d expect would be good enough if the play were as well constructed as a farce demands. But it’s not, so you keep finding yourself doing something that’s anathema to farce: questioning the play’s inherent logic. You see, a really successful piece of farce features a series of extravagantly improbable situations, so full of plot twists and chases and random events that an audience shouldn’t even try to follow what’s going on lest they become overwhelmed and confused. The joy comes from observing how it’s told: the physical comedy, the bountiful word play, the slamming of doors, the stylized performances of mistaken identity. To that last note, attention must be paid to Spencer Kayden, who knocks it out of the park as a cook caught unawares and called upon to do double duty as Robert’s lover, niece, and tango partner. As a husband and wife trying to keep their indiscretions discrete, Patricia Kalember and Adam James simultaneously keep their balls in the air and their wits about them with grace. A miscast Jennifer Tilly is not quit as successful. Director John Tillinger keeps it all moving at the speed of sound but I’m afraid even that’s not fast enough to stop you from pausing to wonder if all plays should henceforth come with sell by dates.


at the theatre: a streetcar named desire

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much from the current revival of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Something about the African-American casting struck me as a trick, a shtick, an effort to cash in on a trend that started with a sub par Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few seasons back. Plus, there was the luminous spectre of Cate Blanchett – an achingly fragile Blanche in a production of the play that arrived from Australia last season at BAM – still figuring so vividly delicate in my mind. How exciting then to find myself at the Broadhurst Theatre the other night hearing Williams’ play as if for the first time. Led by the inquisitive mind of director Emily Mann, this is not a production that trusts in (or cares for) ghosts. It does, however, believe in the transformative – and destructive – power of desire. Slick with sweat and trapped in a threadbare tenement hothouse, Nicole Ari Parker’s Blanche is no broken butterfly: she’s a carnal animal unable to hold herself in check. Blanche may pretend to be otherwise but Stanley, a virile Blair Underwood, sees her for who she really is – something his wife Stella (the pitch-perfect Daphne Rubin-Vega) cannot bring herself to do. When Stanley succumbs to his own desires, telling Blanche “we’ve had this date from the beginning,” the brutal animalism that follows – here, a graphic scene of anal rap only alluded to in the original stage directions – is a consummation that (finally!) makes sense: there’s a price to be paid for running amok. Consensual desire  – such as that between a husband and wife? – when fulfilled can be transportive – but wantonness is a threat to the social order. That you still feel such powerful empathy for Blanche in the light of her self-destructive concupiscence is a testament to the multi-layered performance of Parker.  Her Blanche is seriously damaged goods – but then again, aren’t we all?


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