Sunday, May 27, 2007

Facing East - May 27, 2007

The extremely negative treatment of homosexuals within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) is not new ground for the stage, i.e. Angels in America, Confessions of a Mormon Boy. So I was pretty sure I knew the territory we'd be exploring in Facing East. What I was unprepared for was the incredibly high quality of the acting and the writing. Here's where I must admit to a bit of New York bias here as this show has transferred in from Utah I truly didn't expect this level of polish. In this case the unexpected was a very good thing indeed.

The title refers to the day of resurrection when the chosen will be called to heaven - exactly as they were when they were buried which prompts an amusing anecdote about a great aunt wanting assurances that the funeral director would securely attach her stockings to a garter so she would not have her nylons around her ankles when she rose up and stood before the lord. The Lord coming in from the east, which is why all the graves in the cemetery the play is set in face east. No unsightly spinning in the graves here, you simply rise up and you're facing east.

And yes, I did say that the play is set in a cemetery. This is where we meet Ruth and Alex whose son Andrew's funeral has just ended. Alex cannot bring himself to leave the grave site so the groundskeepers can "fill in". He is torn up by the hypocrisy of the funeral "No one should attend the funeral of someone they didn't know. We didn't know him." The story focuses primarily on Alex, who is the host of a soon-to-be syndicated radio show called One-Minute Dad where he dispenses daily doses of homespun fatherly advice; yet feels "I failed my own son." Alex's (Charles Lynn Frost) remorse is palpable and his sorrow at the loss of his son could have turned to teeth gnashing and anger but instead is handled with dignity and depth of emotion that had a majority of the audience in tears. Yeah, okay I admit it, I was one of 'em. But I heard LOTS of sniffling so I wasn't the only one!

Ruth (Jayne Luke) is a remarkably well-controlled mother in mourning. Her religion is her rock and her role as mother is her greatest accomplishment - yet she seems unusually calm about Andrew's death - even for someone with such intense faith in the hereafter. We find out why later in the show but I will not divulge that here. Ruth's hint of chill could have made her a monster, but Luke makes sure she is not. She, like Alex, are fully developed HUMANS with just as many flaws as any of us - and just as many good points. As they talk about the Andrew they knew in a 'do-over' of the funeral that Alex insists they perform regardless of the fact that people are waiting for them, we find out about Andrew (who never appears). Flashback conversations are cleverly staged by having one parent in black-out speaking 'as Andrew' while the other parent recounts a memory giving us insight into their talented, spiritual, sweet-natured, 24 year old son who took his own life and who happens to have been gay.

In the last third of the show we meet Marcus (Jay Perry) who was Andrew's lover (his one and only) for the last year. Marcus arrives graveside hoping to be late enough to have missed the family whom he did not want to upset by being present. As Marcus reveals his stories of Andrew we find that despite the 'ultimate, unforgivable sin of homosexuality' many members of their family had been regular visitors to Andrew and Marcus's home. Alex seems truly crushed to learn this because he was not a part of it, at the same time he seems somewhat comforted that some people had the good sense to love his son the way he deserved to be loved. Alex having lost the true love of his life, before his marriage, firmly believes "everyone deserves a chance to be in love". It is unfortunate that he did not practice that belief more strongly with Andrew, but despite what may read as 'downer' material here, Facing East ends with a sense of redemption and hope.

Though this show is still in previews, I am posting this now because this show is a limited engagement and I hope this gives people a chance to get in there and see it. You will cry, you will laugh, you will be moved and you will not be sorry you went. (But do remember to bring some tissues.)

Facing East
Atlantic Stage Two
330 West 16th St.
New York, NY 10011
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Opening Night - May 29
Limited engagement through June 17
Running time: 75 minutes (no intermission)

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sum of Us - May 25, 2007

It is not often that you get to see a show that includes strap on dildos, a lesson in a relatively unknown history, rock, blues and Joan of Arc but in SUM OF US Michelle Matlock and INNER PRINCESS (whose members are Becca Blackwell, Lee Frisari, and Tanisha Thompson) present an admirable work in its early stages - and yes it includes all of the above and then some.

The premise of the show is a rock band's late-night rehearsal in a former speakeasy. The band's members are, described in broadest terms, gender-benders - the location, their material, and their life concerns and issues summon the spirit of Gladys Bentley a famous performer during the Harlem Renaissance.

The mixture of rock with early 20th century blues works, though there is not nearly enough of it. In fact the piece works best when there is strong interaction between Gladys and the women of the band. Unfortunately this too is at a minimum, but as this is a work in progress I imagine there will be addendums to the show in future. The current running time is slightly over an hour and there is no dearth of material to be explored here so expanding and adding would certainly be welcomed.

Michelle Matlock is an impressive performer who not only entertains but sincerely wishes to educate her audiences, this is something she does extremely well. While you are busy laughing or tapping your toes, you are learning. The history of homosexual performers is not something that is often addressed in entertainment, possibly because of the closet, possibly because of a simple lack of historical awareness. But Matlock has clearly done her homework - and she's going to share it with us. It seems this is a special love of hers, as she does something similar addressing a different historical stereotype in recounting the history of Mammy in her solo show The Mammy Project. Sort of a Cliff Notes history lesson with music. And I do mean that as a compliment: we learn best when we are moved and entertained.

The performers of Inner Princess each have a different style and appeal and they work well together. There is a genuine camaraderie and sense of humor here and their music is infectious. Bass player Becca has the most one-on-one interaction with Gladys and her performance as Billy Tipton, while brief, is particularly strong. It doesn't hurt that she bears a remarkable resemblance to the late Tipton.

Each band member has her own series of short anecdotes illustrating issues of gender confusion and discrimination and these too are shining moments. Drummer Lee Frisari's delivery as she tells how a recently incarcerated man tried to pick her up (regardless of her gender) at the health food store where she works is particularly funny "He asked me about calcium. I told him about calcium. 'Are you a man or a woman,' he asked me. I kept telling him about calcium."

Guitarist Tanisha's anecdote about trying to get a hot date home in a cab before the fire burned out is frustrating and sad. And the injustice of someone not getting laid because of a cab is infuriating. And Bentley's sorrow at having to drop the drag, and thus lose her true identity, due to McCarthyism is fairly heartbreaking.

There are some rough spots, but as the performers freely admit after the performance as they ask for objective audience feedback, this is still a work in progress. The beginning is a little weak and amorphous, and the end, while fun and uplifting comes a touch too soon. I wanted to know more about the current characters and their historical counterparts, hopefully in the next incarnation the Sum of Us will add it all together.

p.s. ladies, I have to vote to ditch the blue strap on... that bad boy's a little on the small side (just my opinion.)

Sum of Us
Dixon Place
258 Bowery, 2nd Floor
New York, NY
through May 26

Monday, May 21, 2007

Gaslight - May 19 , 2007

Gaslight, or Angel Street, its alternate title, was written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938 yet its illustration of manipulation is as relevant today as it ever was, and seems all the more insightful for its age. It's a fine play, made into an even more compelling movie because suspense can be so much more impactful onscreen with the use of cut-aways and music. As a stage production, Gaslight still has impact and the production currently up at the Irish Rep has much to recommend it.

Odds are good that everyone is familiar with the story, but here's a quickie overview: bad man tries (successfully) to make rich young wife think she's losing her marbles while he attempts to find rare jewels in their home that were undiscovered during a murder/break-in that took place more than a decade before in the same house.

As the 'bad man' David Staller plays Jack Manningham with the absolute confidence of a seasoned sociopath. There are times when actors become self conscious playing 'evil' characters and want to round out with something that touches their humanity. But not Staller and I say BRAVO! We want to hate the villain and he opens the door and invites us in to hate him HARD! He taps into something best described as a Vincent Price vibe, all gentlemanly sophistication wrapped around Charles Manson.

His confused young bride of "five years and a little" Bella (Laura Odeh) is a study in contradictions. One moment she is happy as a lark, the next distraught that she may be losing her mind - the fact that she holds onto a thread of disbelief in her impending madness shows through every now and again and we want to shake her and say "yes! wake up, this guy is bullshitting you into the nuthouse!" She's trapped in a web of subtle brainwashing yet deep down there is a core of strength that has not been bullied by her husband and Odeh shows us that and we root for her. It would be easy to play this part as a sniveling bimbo, but Laura Odeh gives us layers, showing sparks of independence and self-confidence that blossom in the end and are ultimately very satisfying.

A happy accident of the Manningham's maid, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton) dating the servant of a retired police detective who had been in charge of the unsolved murder/break-in is Bella's salvation. The detective, Rough (Brian Murray) is the life preserver she needs to save herself from losing her mind. Murray's Rough is witty, calm and self-possessed; at first his relaxed delivery had me concerned that he was going up on lines. How stupid of me! Rough is a man who instinctively knows that he's on the right track, and he sees no reason to be brusque or panicked when he explains the situation to Bella. He is a port in the storm, and Brian Murray plays him in a delightful Sherlock Holmes meets Columbo fashion that is utterly charming and reassuring, and yes, funny. When he comforts Bella with "My dear, you've had a bad time." His understatement gets an enormous audience-wide laugh of agreement.

The smaller yet significant roles of housekeeper Elizabeth (Patricia O'Connell) and maid, Nancy (Laoisa Sexton) are no less well played. You want to hug Elizabeth - especially when she is confronted by Manningham's early return home while she is hiding Rough - and slap Nancy. That hussy! Well done ladies!

The set design by James Morgan is sumptuous, extremely detailed and uses the unique layout of the Irish Rep's stage to great advantage. My only complaint is slight, and it regards Charlotte Moore's direction of the blocking. For those of us in the side section a majority of the action is played with the actor's backs towards us and while luckily theater is more about voice than visuals, it would have been nice to see a little more than was presented here. Granted, it is a challenging space, but folks on the sides are entitled to as much of the production as those in the center.

Still that is my one complaint, and as such has little bearing on this reviewer's opinion that this production of Gaslight is well worth your time.

Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
(between 6th & 7th Avenues)
Runs through July 8th
running time: 2 hours with one 15 min intermission

all photo credits: Carol Rosegg

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Silverland - May 16, 2007

I'm not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry after seeing Silverland. Both responses seemed appropriate which seems altogether fitting. In his tremendous debut play Benjamin Davis displays a deft turn of phrase, rhythms reminiscent of of everything from The Greeks to Shakespeare to Sam Shepard's early work - and yes, it all works! As a first piece this is ambitious in its scope and in the hands of director Di Trevis and 6 talented actors it is a harrowing warning on global warming, and an exploration of the human desire for companionship.

The year is 2011, the starting place a rave outside London. Six characters meet and their stories unfold over the course of a year - the final year 2012. The year the world ends, the Mayans stopped their calendar there, global warming is hitting its peak, the world is in the throes of a fresh water drought and looking towards space for new resources and in the midst of all this: we dance!

There is a wonderful blend of poetic and vernacular language here. When Mikey (Bradley Taylor) the more street-savvy of the two young ravers, quotes "He who binds to himself a joy, Does the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies, Lives in eternity’s sun rise" his pal Dario (Cary Crankson) shouts out "Blake!" They high-five like two literature geeks. It is delightful and unexpected and we are forced to reevaluate our initial impressions of these characters who at first glance seem to be mere goofball kids out to get high and dance - a valuable lesson. Of course, later in the play when they finally realize that they are not quite in the same reality they were at the start they quote Arthur Brown's Fire - in true head-banger fashion.

There is repetition of key pieces of dialogue and moments from their lives that resonate as the characters move through time from one New Year's Eve to the next and exemplifies the cycles of the earth, cycles of our lives. The beginning is the end: the end, a beginning.

The character of Cleo, played with humor, power and charm by the graceful Ony Uhiara is the most enigmatic. I will not disclose 'who' she is, but suffice to say without her there would be no story. Jane Gibson's movement choreography for Cleo is at once sensual and religious.

The artist, Ellie (Sophie Hunter) is both prophet and the soul of social conscious. Her recurring dreams of drowning and her fascination with the melting glaciers and storm surges propel us towards the inevitable. Sophie Hunter repeats a haunting mantra which is reprinted in the show's program:

"You know, we sit here on the edge of it, on the precipice, just waiting to fall.
And when we do it will be a plunge into the deep dark,
and our green island will be engulfed by the silver sea."

Each time she repeats this I thought well, it's just going to be the same - but it was not. As the play moves forward her retelling of this mantra becomes more and more emotional, more urgent and kudos to Ms. Hunter for giving me goosebumps with these lines.

Tom McClane (Gabriel) and Tim Steed (Stockers) as the epitome of the money making ruiners of the world are, as Mikey and Dario, also not quite what they seem on first glance. Gabriel and Ellie fall for each other and we discover that Gabriel feels more social responsibility than the stereotypical banker/stockbroker. Stockers, who is at first glance "slimy geezer" is revealed to have a secret need that he cannot seem to fulfill; and I believe his journey was the one that moved me the most.

Silverland is at once a warning and a reassurance. Di Trevis's deft direction is a perfect match for this poetic, funny and multi-layered work. It's a strange combination that leaves you feeling both hope and resignation: is the end of the world the cycle of life is as it is meant to be, it is our misfortune to live in 'interesting times' or can we repair the damages we have done? We are left satisfied and questioning in the same breath - what more could you ask from the theater?

59E59 Theaters (B)
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 1 hour 45 mins no intermission
Runs through June 3

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Happy End - May 14, 2007

Happy End set in 1919 Chicago is the story of a gangster (Bill Cracker, played by Joey Piscopo) and Salvation Army Lieutenant (Lillian Holiday, played by Lorinda Lisitza) who meet and fall in love at Christmas in the midst of Bill's gang's biggest heist.

I think Brecht and Weill are fun fun fun. I wish I could quote Michael Feingold's adaptation and say that Theater Ten Ten's production of Happy End was "fantastic beyond belief" but that would be wrong. It's a decent production, but smacks heavily of community theater despite it being the longest continuously operating Equity Theater Company in New York. The theater is located in a basement auditorium with acoustics that vibrate and echo in a most unpleasant manner particularly when the brass instruments are blowing and operatic soprano of Lorinda Lisitza is trilling like Jeanette MacDonald. Lyrics are often lost to the din. This is unfortunate as the lyrics are more than half the fun of a Brecht Weill collaboration.

This is not to say the production is without merit. I applaud director David Fuller's attempt to incorporate the cavernous space, but due to the fact that the audience is not raked it might have served the show better to go old-school traditional and keep the actors on the proscenium stage where we could all see them rather than have them staged on the floor for large portions of the show effectively dismissing those of us not in the front 2-3 rows. I am also stymied as to why there was a need for two intermissions for a show with no major set changes and a running time of just over two hours.

Some of the musical productions work, some do not. "The Bilbao-Song" was amusing and well done, "The Sailor's Tango" and "Surabaya-Jonny" were half trilling vibrato and for the most part unintelligible. I would have thought this was just my old ears giving way until I heard the people behind me sighing and shuffling: this happened every time Miss Lisitza hit the high notes. Honestly, we want to hear the words - do your vocalizing at before the show.

"The Song of the Big Shot" was fun and charming. Greg Horton (Dr. Nakamura "The General") hit just the right mark of being 'stage sinister'. Timothy McDonough ("Baby Face") and Dave Tillistrand (Sam "Mammy" Wurlitzer) were charming stand-outs in the "gang". I was lucky to hit a performance where Sandy York was playing Major Stone - she was in charge without being strident and her voice was perfect (yes, I could hear every lyric thank you). This brings me to the reason I stayed through the two intermissions: Joey Piscopo.

I saw Joey Piscopo's solo show Joe Piscopo's Son in this same space. (Which I must stress works so much better for straight plays than for musicals.) Seeing him play gangster Bill Cracker with cool disdain and boredom via Sinatra was a treat. One of the high points of the show is a short film depicting "The Heist" - it is black & white (sepia) and a perfect recreation of a 1919 silent film which is integrated into the live action to superb results. Mr. Piscopo directed the film. As Bill Cracker runs through the Salvation Army service he calls out "don't mind me I'm just passin' tru" and one hopes this is the case. He deserves a better venue.

HAPPY END, A Melodrama With Songs
Theater Ten Ten
1010 Park Ave
between 84th and 85th Streets
running time: 2 hrs 10 mins (including 2 intermissions)
Through May 27, 2007

Monday, May 14, 2007

Crazy Mary

The title character in A.R. Gurney's new play is the (somewhat disputed) scion of a formerly prominent Buffalo family who has been interned in a tony sanatorium for the rich since the early 1970s. In that time, no member of the clan has been for a visit, and she rarely speaks; she prefers to pass the time alone in her room, listening to classical music and opera on the radio. Her solitude is ended one day when her last surviving relative--a distant cousin who is now her legal guardian--pays a visit with her college age son to investigate the mysterious circumstances that her new "ward" has been living with over the past thirty-odd years.

Sounds a bit hokey, right? I had worried that in the hands of Gurney, Crazy Mary would come off as far too schematic and situational, but my fears were dispelled after the first scene of Act One. Alternately hilarious and harrowing, this is Gurney's best new work in quite some time, and the smart production it is being given by Playwrights Horizons accents both the quirkiness and the heart of the piece exquisitely.

In recent years, Gurney has moved away from his former calling card, the drawing room farce, favoring pieces that are more pointed and political in nature. And--to this theatregoer at least--very few of his current works have been overly successful on a whole. Gurney is a good writer but he's not as well-versed in the language of political theatre as some of his contemporaries, often leaving his pieces dry and far too ambitious. Aside from a few stale jokes about the Republican Party, Gurney finally manages with this play to bridge the gap between his genres of choice, creating a wonderfully overwrought comedy that retains an edge from start to finish.

It is never a question of whether or not Mary (Kristine Nielsen) is truly crazy; it seemed fairly obvious to me, although others may disagree. When we first meet her, she is a shell of a woman, rocking back and forth and mostly oblivious to the world around her. However, a case of mistaken identity firmly returns Mary to the land of the living. A question still remains, though: Is the newly "reborn" Mary living in the same world as those around her?

Nielsen--who, for my money, is one of the best theatre actresses we have in New York--is deeply affecting as a woman who fell victim to the silence of an icy patrician world, never knowing how to fit in or what to do to please the people she loved. She is reminiscent of Miss Haversham, desperately clinging to the only time that she was happy because it is the only thing that can define her.

In a welcome return to the stage after a few dormant years, Signourney Weaver does an astute job playing Mary's cousin with ulterior motives. She works very hard to make sure that her character--a woman who longs to resurrect the glory of her past--never feels like a one-dimensional ice princess, and the progression she makes throughout the show never feels anything less than utterly genuine. Michael Esper is terrific as her son, a young man who isn't comfortable being the "last hope" of the once-great family. His scenes with Nielsen, who projects the buoyancy of a bobby soxer around him, are delightful and truly heartfelt. Mitchell Greenberg and Myra Lucretia Taylor both shine in supporting roles, and the production is directed with careful precision by frequent Gurney collaborator Jim Simpson.

When Mary finally achieves the validation of her family--something she has longed for since childhood--she finds her voice. With this exciting new work, it appears that A.R. Gurney is finding his voice once again.

Tickets: Ticket Central
Subject to availability, students with a valid ID can purchase tickets for $15 one hour prior to curtain at the box office. Limit 1 per person.
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission
Through June 17

Cameron Kelsall is a guest reviewer for this blog. He also runs the blog Theatre Snobbery at its Finest, which can be read at

Saturday, May 12, 2007

10 Million Miles

For those of you who suffered through Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky earlier this season, you can now subject yourself to its sequel of sorts. 10 Million Miles, currently being presented by the Atlantic Theatre Company, is another intermissionless, ninety minute road trip to hell. The musical, which constructs a story of two drifters en route to New York (with many detours) around a handful of songs by country star Patty Griffin, often veers into deeper territories than its material can support, leaving the audience bewildered and confused.

The story is simple and rather thin: Duane (Matthew Morrison) and Molly (Irene Molloy), who once had a one night stand, agree to drive together from south Florida to New York. The former has an opportunity to run a gas station with a friend, while the latter--a recovering alcoholic--seeks a fresh start in a friendlier place. Along the way, secrets about their relationship are revealed, which makes it hard for the two to part company.

It would help the show greatly if these central characters were at all compelling, but in the hands of Morrison and Molloy, they never come alive. Both performers have pleasant (if small) voices, but they sing the material without even a soupcon of theatricality or emotion. They're rarely ever on the same page, which could explain why the distance between them feels as wide as the one in the show's title. Neither actor ever gives the audience a reason to care about them.

Another major problem is that Griffin's songs are not theatrical in any way. In the tradition of country music, each number is a stand-alone piece that tells its own intricate story. It's not uncommon for musical numbers in shows to comment on the plot rather than work to move it along--Bertolt Brecht's Epic Theatre movement revolutionized this concept--but Griffin's music does neither. Coupled with a weak book by playwright Keith Bunin (which surprised me, since his The Busy World is Hushed was one of the best plays I saw last season) and there is barely a leg for this show to stand on.

The heavy lifting falls to the show's supporting players, Skipp Sudduth and Mare Winningham. They play a myriad of roles, from Molly's "Jesus freak" aunt to Duane's mechanic buddy who was left mentally crippled by war. Both are excellent, but neither has enough stage time to make this long and often tedious journey worth the trip.

Tickets: Ticket Central
Atlantic Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission
Through July 15

Cameron Kelsall is a guest reviewer for this blog. He also runs the blog Theatre Snobbery at its Finest , which can be read at

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Chorus Line - Everyone felt something and I felt nothing, well sorta.

I had never seen the original production of A Chorus Line. During the time of its' 15 year run musical theater didn't really play a big role in my life, for whatever that means. So in order to expose myself to a piece of Broadway history I attended a performance of the current revival at the Schoenfeld Theatre and I have to say that my expectations were much grander than what was delivered.

The evening started out with my friend and I being talked down to by this horrible usher who told us he would give us programs only after we sat down. I had no idea what this idiot's deal was, but I was not going to let it negatively impact my evening, I had 2 hours of A Chorus Line to do that.

Overall, the show itself was entertaining and interesting enough but the cast and the performance struck me as amateur. I don't believe it is a $110.00/ticket, Broadway worthy show.

I'm thinking that the whole purpose behind reviving A Chorus Line is rooted in its nostalgia factor. I think this production is probably more for theatre patrons who have seen and enjoyed the original. I got the impression that most of the audience was rather familiar with the show and they seemed to really enjoy it.

There are some aspects of this show that to me, just seem dated. For one, I think the whole sleazy 42nd street theatre plot line would be lost on anyone who hasn't been on 42nd street before 1995. Let's face it, Disney is the only person turning tricks on 42nd street these days. Some of the music sounded dated as well. There were several points where closing your eyes and just listening may confuse you into thinking the show stopped and a car chase scene from a Charlie's Angel episode started. The world of musical theater where A Chorus Line is set, in 1975, is a world where AIDS does not exist. Although I dislike stereotypes there is a possiblilty that because a huge part of this show is about Broadway performers discussing how they have been affected by life, it may be slightly unrealistic to think that in 2007 none of them have been impacted by HIV.

I did not find any of the cast to have remarkable vocal ability and some of them were just not good. I thought Natalie Cortez, who played Diana, was probably the best and she sings the 2 best songs,"Nothing" and "What I Did for Love". Perhaps the producers were just trying to be authentic and went for a true chorus line; talented dancers and no singing ability. Again, not what you want to hear for a $110.00/ticket Broadway MUSICAL.

Normally the combination of dancers and mirrors is a win win situation, such as in the recent revival of 42ND Street and Renee Zellweger's "Roxie" in the "Chicago" film. But alas "The Music and the Mirror" was less than impressive. When the semi-circle of mirrors lowered onto the stage I had high hopes, but the song and dance ended without the proverbial bang. Perhaps the viewpoint from where I was sitting did not allow me to experience the full effect, either way it was a letdown.

There were things about the show I liked. Several of the characters and stories were genuinely entertaining, funny and poignant. As far as laughs and emotion go, I think the actors were effective in their ability to get the most out of the audience they could based on the material they had to work with. I liked the evolution of the dancers from uncoordinated individuals at the beginning into a cohesively synchronized unit at the end. It was very apparent that dancing was the strong point of the cast. I think there is probably a certain amount of skill needed for a really good dancer to appear out of step and time.

In todays age of the "massive" Broadway Musical it is possible to succeed without huge sets and costume changes. The revival of "Chicago" and the recent "Sweeney Todd" revival, 2 shows that are/were more of a concert performance, are proof that a show can be a success and be highly entertaining without being a huge production. Substance and artistry themselves can carry a show but I didn't find great amount of either of them in A Chorus Line. Without the big production, I guess I was left with less than I expected. A 15 year run on Broadway certainly implies that a show was something remarkable and fantastic. (In order to prove the fallacy in that statement I'll just say "Cats"). I think this production of A Chorus Line fell short of the mark. With some reworking however, A Chorus Line has the potential to appeal to a whole new legion of fans and be something fantastic once again.

Schoenfeld Theatre

236 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-239-6200
or 800-432-7250

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain Live! - May 10, 2007

If you have ever attended a screening of a silent movie with live accompaniment, usually an single organist, and walked out feeling as though you'd seen something very special then you need to see Brand Upon the Brain LIVE before it closes on Monday in New York. (This event is also travelling check for cities near you.) This is not only a total EVENT the likes of which are very rare as far as film is concerned nowadays, but also a wonderful movie on its own.

Not only are we treated to a truly funny and beautifully filmed in black and white, but at these performances the accompaniment includes a 11 piece orchestra, a foley team and a different guest narrator at every performance but also a Castrato! When will you ever see this sort of set up again? It is a rare delight, not to be missed.

The premise of Guy Maddin's new film is the unusual events of his childhood on remote Black Notch Island where his parents run a 'mom and pop' orphanage. Sinister doings in the basement laboratory of Guy's scientist father provide the horror and suspense of the films of F.W. Murnau with an homage to The Leech Woman involving harvesting 'nectar' from the brains of the orphans in attempt to keep Guy's mother young.

Subplots abound as the oldest orphan Savage Tom runs black masses late at night; Guy's sister (aptly named "Sis" and played with a comic flair and restraint by the delightful Maya Lawson) engages in the first throes of young love; a celebrity harpist and "Kid Detective" Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) appears on the island to investigate the odd markings on the orphans necks and subsequently falls head over heels for Sis prompting her to a Twelfth Night-like cross dressing hidden identity as her own twin brother Chance Hale; and this is just skimming the surface of this highly entertaining, thoroughly modern and yet vintage-feeling film (beautifully shot by Director of Photography Benjamin Kasulke). It's as if David Lynch made a comedy - and I mean that with the utmost respect and praise.

I believe this film would be equally entertaining without the 'event' aspects, and depending on the narrator possibly better, seen as film alone. The performance I attended featured a completely under-rehearsed Anne Jackson in a somewhat annoying and embarrassing performance as the narrator. That said, I do highly recommend you try to see it in it's "Live!" incarnation if you possibly can. It's not often you get to peek in on Foley artists at work, and they are fascinating.

Brand Upon the Brain

Village East Cinema
181 2nd Avenue
New York, NY 10003
running time: 97 mins no intermission
Closes in New York May 14

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Receipt - May 9, 2007

After my first evening of the Brits Off-Broadway Festival, Memory, I think I showed tremendous optimism attending another of the festival's offerings. Lesson learned: Optimism pays off!

The Receipt could well be described as a humorous look at modern man's existential angst. It could also be described as a damned good time. Let's leave the former description to the NY Times to explore and stick with the damned good time.

What appears to be a rather unimpressive set turns into an amazing reproduction of a city, filing cabinets become everything from household appliances (yes, the washing machine is trying to escape), to office buildings, to trains and anything else you might need to tell a story of a man who has had enough of being locked in a cage. "Too many humans riding low trains to go work in high buildings" and for what? For "work" no one can even describe. Welcome to the Habitrail.
photo credit: Greg Piggot

This brilliant two hander is performed with grace, humor and charm by Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch who offer us pathos and a look into what our lives have become and how we might appear to future generations all wrapped up in a show that made me laugh (perhaps too loudly at times) on many occasions and kept me smiling throughout.

At one point Will Adamsdale mimes a woman ("T") taking a shower with such perfection I felt like a Peeping Tom and his character Wiley's descent into an apparent nervous breakdown as he attempts to locate the owner of a mysteriously encoded receipt he found on the street (for 1 250ml gls chndy) is both disturbing and immensely funny.

Chris Branch's sound effects and dry characterizations ranging from Wiley's boss to the "Here Not Here" man who answers intercoms for empty buildings "so you can speak to a live person" were hilarious as each of them causes Wiley never ending frustration in his simple attempt to do his "work".

Of course there is a deeper message here, the disconnect between people, the lack of understanding of why we do the things we do, our absence of self-awareness, the habit of our daily lives; but it is slipped to us with such style and humor that you almost don't realize you're being given a very important lesson.

Go, get tickets. Now!

p.s. when they ask questions: answer - it will make them happy.

The Receipt

59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY 10022
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 80 mins no intermission
Runs through May 27

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Beauty on the Vine - May 6, 2007

Zak Berkman's Beauty on the Vine is one of those rare plays with an intermission that does not make me want to skip out before the second act. Given the opportunity to escape at the half, I often debate whether to stay or go even if I didn't thoroughly hate the first act! Not so here. I still would have been happier without an intermission, but I never thought of leaving. In point of fact I actually wished there was a bit more to this play as I felt there were so many issues brought to the fore, all of them worthy of deeper exploration, that there certainly could have been more said. This piece would be worth turning into a cycle of plays to give each topic its fair measure.

This is not to say that Beauty on the Vine fails. Any play that makes you think, that touches you, and gives you cause to investigate the topics further is indeed a success.

The story centers on Lauren (Olivia Wilde) a beautiful, confident, and successful radio talk show host promoting the cause of the Republican Right... or is she? Unfortunately, Lauren is murdered by a stalker more because of her beauty than any of the other possible reasons proposed by the devastated family. Proposed reasons being her marriage to a racially ambiguous, liberal man with "genocide face", her Republican sentiments, or the 'love' obsession of a psychotic stalker.

After Lauren's death her newlywed husband Sweet (the delicious Howard W. Overshown) is approached by a woman who attended high school with her. She and another girl had plastic surgery to make themselves look like Lauren. Beautifully explained by the second of the two Lauren clones (all played equally well by Ms. Wilde in her Off-Broadway debut) "at 13 girls are given a cloak of invisibility. Some wear the cloak all their lives, some throw it off eventually, but Lauren never wore hers - [she knew who she was] and we turned to her like flowers turning to the sun"

Sweet's best friend Ellie (Helen Coxe) is at once humorous, endearing and level-headed, Daniel (Victor Slezak) is WASP father extraordinaire, and while slightly misguided, his love for his daughter Lauren is clear. The Mother (Barbara Garrick) of one of the Lauren clones leaves one wondering if they will ever eat a baby carrot again, and The Girl (Jessica Richardson) is the epitome of the insecure high school girl, and possibly a bit on the one tomato shy of a salad side.

I loved the set (Narelle Sissons) which afforded multi-uses of mirrors and see-thru prisons. The infinity views of Sweet and Daniel sitting side by side was powerful. Sound by Ryan Rumery, as ever, was on the mark. There is an issue of bad wig use for Lauren (Olivia Wilde) - it could use a serious combing out as it not only looks like a wig but a bad Halloween wig after a hard night.

For all the less explored topics, and bad wig, Beauty on the Vine is a beauty. I want more from Zak Berkman, and I think he does have more to say - I'm listening.

Beauty on the Vine
Clurman Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 2 hours 15 mins
Closes June 3

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Memory - May 5, 2007

The first impression of Memory is one of bleakness. The set, the costumes and almost all the props and set decorations are shades of black, white and gray. Ah-ha. Memory diluted: never only black and white. Not terribly subtle, but not a hammer to the head either.

Small elements: the cap of a water bottle, a red pen, red white and green in a bouquet of flowers, a red apple, oranges in a bowl add the only hints of color in this grey world. There must be some symbolism at work here, but I was unable to follow it.

Playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein follows a time-worn tradition of setting his story within a play, in this case it is the story of Holocaust survivor, Eva, being rehearsed by 6 actors with their director. Eva's story, while compelling, dramatic, and ultimately tragic, is underserved by the conceit. There is no connection between the characters of the actors and the play they are performing, it is an unnecessary device that detracts from the meat of the Eva play. There is enough time hopping between the past and present, Bethlehem and Berlin to have made a significant play without the addition of the play within a play vehicle; which itself is perfunctory and underserved leaving both ends of the story diluted.

The actors do a suberb job - the fact that they are 'rehearsing' Eva's story is therefore once more diluted. Only in the final moments do the 'actors' have any line problems, this is due to last minute rewrites which inexplicably none of the actors feel are necessary. Why? We are never informed - again there is no connection.

There is a feeling that we are watching something that is "important" here... yet it always remains just a feeling. The pay-off being a subtext that never wraps satisfactorily and a tragic story that might have been explored more thoroughly without the play within a play.

There is a smoke effect during the performance that might need a bit of tweaking - audience members were choking and fanning themselves with their programs. Hopefully this was merely an opening night technical issue. As this production is a transfer and part of the Brits Off Broadway series there is a distinct feeling that the original staging was kept with no adjustment for the space at 59E59. Approximately 25% of the action is extreme downstage leaving anyone not in the first 3 rows with no visibility at all.

Had Memory been performed only as the Eva play I think this would be a wonderful piece. But in the words of the 'character' of Felix, "it's nothing personal" as such it is a memory that will soon fade.

59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY 10022
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 90 mins no intermission

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Talk Radio - May 2, 2007

When Eric Bogosian's Talk Rad!o was produced back in 1987 I had no interest. Just didn't grab me. When it came to Broadway this year, it still didn't grab me. But I couldn't resist seeing Liev Schreiber live on a stage. And that much alone was worth it.

Talk Rad!o
is not a horrible play, it's simply flawed. I think this production gave it a great shot, but ultimately it's not a terrific play. For the most part the show focuses on Barry Champlain (Liev Schreiber) doing his Night Talk radio show, speaking with people who call in to the show giving him fodder for extemporaneous rants. This is when the play swings along at its best. The voice actors who play the various callers are to be commended and Liev Schrieber is as sharp and spontaneous as if he were actually doing a live radio call in show. In fact, had this show been an audio book or a podcast I would have been just as happy. Schrieber has a voice that any actor would sell their mother to have; luckily that voice belongs to a wonderful actor who knows what to do with it and gives as subtle and natural a performance as I've seen on a Broadway stage. As Barry knocks back the Jack Daniels, his progression into intoxication is so slight as to go almost unrecognized - but it's there and quietly truthful.

However even this talented actor cannot make this a better play. While it is a wonderful vehicle for him, and indeed any actor playing the Barry Champlain part, the segments when he is offstage and his co-workers are telling the audience how they first met him are like watching commercials. They give a bit of backstory, but truthfully it could have been integrated more fluidly. As it stands it simply gives Schrieber a moment to get offstage and give that gorgeous voice a moment's rest. This is not to downplay the actors who must give these expository speeches; this is a writing issue. Theirs is a thankless job, which is too bad as they clearly do the very best they can with the material at hand. The voice actors fare far better as the call-in segments are gems.

The set by Mark Wendland is smart and true in its utilitarian representation of a radio station (hardly the glamour end of the entertainment industry). The sound design by Richard Woodbury was dead-on and the use of John Lennon's version of Stand By Me for the close was well chosen. Lights by Christopher Akerlind helped with the sense of isolation and chill, especially when characters were in the upstage glassed in offices. Costumes by Laura Bauer evoked the period.

As a character piece, Talk Radio works. As a complete production it needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Talk Radio
Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250