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.

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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.

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at the theatre: women on the verge

You may have heard that David Yazbek and Jeffrey Lane’s flaccid musical interpretation of Pedro Almodovar’s black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is set to close a few weeks in advance of its limited run.  No need to rush out and buy tickets, folks, as all the fair to middling faint praise you’ve heard is, unfortunately, on the money.

The film, featuring an unknown Antonio Banderas and the irrepressible Carmen Maura, was released in 1988, a full decade into the Spanish movement known as La Movida – the Madrileno counter-cultural reaction to the death of  Franco.  It represented a resurgence of the Spanish economy and the forging of a new Spanish identity, characterized by freedom of expression, a spirit of freedom on the streets, and the transgression against taboos imposed by a dictatorial regime.  The messiness of that freedom was what Almodovar found himself satirizing:  new money, recreational drugs, and free love were a potent hedonistic cocktail for citizens used to being told what they could and could not do.

What the stage adaptation attempts to satirize under the guidance of director Bartlett Sher is, well, nothing.  Mistaking the film for a Latin exercise in zaniness, the authors have attempted to craft a screwball musical comedy that’s not terribly musical and only intermittently amusing.  (Hats off, however, to the  inspired Laura Benanti, who brings down the house with her song Model Behavior and provides most of the evening’s all too few laugh out loud moments.)  The talent left to bog snorkel through this muck is impressive:  Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein, and Patti Lupone, who seems to spend half the show crossing upstage in various funny hats.

“Nervous breakdown” is actually a poor translation of the Spanish “ataques de nervios,” which in truth is closer to hysteria or post traumatic stress disorder.  This Women on the Verge … doesn’t come close to making that distinction – or minding for that matter.

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