You never know with playwright Christopher Durang. His plays often straddle a murky line between incisive satire and puerile humor. But like the bestÂ 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. Â 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-perfectÂ productionÂ at the John Golden Theater, is a return to frolicsome – andÂ 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. AÂ surpriseÂ visit from Masha, with her 20-somethingÂ boy toy Spike in tow (the ridiculously fitÂ andÂ spectacularlyÂ 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 calledÂ Cassandra (a very funny Shalita Grant), and the arrival of a lithesome young neighbor named Nina, whoÂ curiously enoughÂ 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, makingÂ Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike a romp the likes of which I think even Mr. Chekov would laughingly approve.
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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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, Mametâ€™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. Whatâ€™s most frustrating is that the premise doesnâ€™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 itâ€™s for the right reason. What follows is an almost Shavian point-counterpoint on the individualâ€™s responsibility to society versus the stateâ€™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 anarchicÂ or revolutionary or even radical. Itâ€™s confused.
Coincidentally, two of the more satisfying evenings I’ve had at the theatre this summer took place off-Broadway. (Perhaps coincidentally is the wrong word. Looking back on Broadway’s mostly disappointing season “inevitably” seems the more realistic choice.) Both of these plays do something mostÂ commercialÂ fare would rather eschew: look at how we define ourselves – and where we belong in the social order. Mike Bartlett’s Cock is the moreÂ aggressivelyÂ titled of the two and gives you a pretty good idea that you can expect to be grabbed by the dialectics. Should John stay with M, his longtime male lover or commit to W, the first woman he’s ever slept with? Far from the navel-gazing psychobabble you might expect, Bartlett’s take no prisoners approach doesn’t just hold up a mirror, it pile drives it into the audience’s face, proving that sticks and stones ain’t nothing next to a well-crafted equilibrium that’s been wholly upended. The four cast members are well matched but I found Jason Butler Harner especially heartbreaking as the older lover: Â a man so clear-eyed about himself yet fatally blinded by his love. Reconfigured to provide the most uncomfortable seating imaginable, reviewers have commented how the space at the Duke Theater cleverly resembles a cockfighting pit but for me it was aesthetically far grander – like a Roman amphitheater. Gladiators of love, these people areÂ lucky to escape with their heads – if not their hearts – intact.Â Nina Raine’s Drama Desk Award-winning playÂ Tribes is equallyÂ combative, though it’s the bonds of family that come in for a right bashing.Â Billy, the fantastic Russell Harvard,Â was born deaf into a hearing family, and raised inside the fiercely idiosyncratic and unrepentantly politically incorrect cocoon of his parents’ house. He has adapted brilliantly to the family’s unconventional ways, but they’ve never bothered to return the favor. It’s not until he meets SylviaÂ (Susan Pourfar, equally exceptional), a young woman on the brink of deafness, that he finally understands what it means to be understood. DirectorÂ David CromerÂ directs the intimate, in-the-round production, which has gone on to become the sleeper hit of the season. Raines covers a lot of ground, so much that clarity is often sacrificed in the face of so much sparkling badinage. Yet what makes it so compelling is the real family at its core and the divides they face.Â The struggle to hear and be heard proves a painful endeavor for all the characters. And ultimately some of their greatest triumphs of understanding occur, ironically enough, without resorting to language at all.
Judy Garland’s lifeÂ was stranger than fiction. An international star since the age of twelve, the arc of her professional success and personal pain is a study of a life livedÂ in extremis.Â Accolades and addictions went hand in hand. TriumphÂ andÂ tribulation, too.Â Could there be a story better suited to the stage? Â I think not.Â Though her life has seen its share of … how shall we say? … creative adaptations – Adrienne Barbeau as Judy inÂ The Property Known As GarlandÂ will go down in my personalÂ theatergoingÂ history as a camp classic par excellence – Peter Quilter’s award-winning 2005 play End of the Rainbow focuses on the legend as she prepares for what would amount to a final career comeback at London’s Talk of the Town, just three scantÂ months before a fatal overdose. After successful runs in Australia and the UK, the play finally lands on Broadway with a jolt of electricity I can only describe as seismic.Â It’s not so much the quality of the play that kept meÂ rivetedÂ to the edge of my seat but the roof-raising, star-making performance of Tracie Bennett as the singular Garland. I won’t mince words, this could easily have turned into a catastrophic exercise in caricature (see Barbeau, above). Yet Bennett transcends mere mimicry and fully invests the woman with anÂ excruciatingÂ vulnerability that’s at times almost too painful to witness. Emotionally this Garland is like a cat skinned alive, at the end of her tether and tenaciously struggling with inner demons both inspiring and all-consuming. As her adoring (gay) accompanistÂ Anthony, Michael Cumpsty is an adept, if occasional, foil along with Tom Pelphrey as musician Mickey Deans, the final fiancÃ©e who both orchestrated her comeback and enabled its demise. But let’s be honest, the menÂ in Garland’s life wereÂ littleÂ more than extravagant accessories and the same holds true here. The truly spine-tingling moments take place when Bennett is left alone on stage,Â performingÂ a handful of Garland’s most memorable songs with show-stopping humor and gusto. It’s like stepping through a looking-glass: you’re in London, 1969, and one of the 20th century’s greatest artists is giving you everything she’s got – and then some. Try and remember the last time you saw a play where the audience roared for an encore. Now hightail it to the Belasco, where it happens nightly – and the audience only exits the theater reluctantly.
One of my chief excuses for trekking out west to San Diego was the opportunity to see a friend of mine onstage in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning drama August: Osage County at The Old Globe – one of the California’s premier regional theaters. As expected it was a spirited and superlative production of an epic play about the secrets and lies infesting an American family on the Great Plains. It was also a not-so-subtle reminder that great theater exists (and inspires) all across America – not just on Broadway or in New York.
And we’re off!Â To London and Edinburgh that is, with a bold and daring new musical drama: The Screams of Kitty Genovese.Â Watch this space for live blogging from the London premiere at the Tete a Tete Festival to the madness that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest arts festival in the world.Â If you’re a social media darling, you can follow Kitty as she tweets her way across the UK @ScreamsofKittyG.Â She’ll be on Facebook by the time you read this, too.Â And for the old-fashioned among you there’s always Kitty’s website, which now seems about as high-tech as an abacus.Â It will be updated with photos and news along the way.Â Bonne chance, Kitty!