Monday, June 18, 2007

Sessions - June 17, 2007

Anyone who has ever been in therapy, group or otherwise, will recognize the characters of Sessions. While the characters' issues are standard dramatic fare - nothing new here - the actors provide enough depth to make stereotypical neurosis truthful. Even their therapist, Dr. Peterson (Matthew Shepard) is written as something of a cliché, but Shepard's warmth, charm and humanity make him anyone's dream shrink. Picture a modern-day Paul Henreid from Now Voyager. Of course he is a married man fighting the temptation to cross the line with one of his patients.

Book, Lyrics and Music are by Albert Tapper, and this is problematic. The book is fairly strong, the tunes, while not entirely memorable, are certainly pretty enough, but the lyrics are mediocre at best. Some collaboration might have pushed this piece from being simply "enjoyable enough" to something special.

The set design (Peter Barbieri, Jr. who also did the costumes) is exquisite and is the perfect New York City psychologist's office. Naturally the show is set in New York, where else would one find so many neurotic characters? This too is a bit of cliché, at least, and to Barbieri's credit, they do not all wear black. The show is very New York specific, right down to New Jersey and Staten Island jokes and street addresses of Starbucks and the Strand book stands. To a point that is fine for a New York audience, but seems too insular. When George (the delightful Scott Richard Foster) mentions he has moved to Washington Heights to get as far from Bleecker Street as he can, one wonders if anyone outside of New York City will have a clue as to what he's talking about.

The characters include Mr. & Mrs. Murphy (Jim Madden and Bertilla Baker), the squabbling retirees. Leila (Amy Bodnar), the sex-kitten with a broken heart and some serious hair extension issues at this performance. Dylan (David Patrick Ford), who can't accept his life of privilege and so takes on the personality of Bob Dylan - and does a very amusing and understated imitation. George Preston (Scott Richard Foster), as the indecisive introvert who cannot get over a girlfriend who broke up with him more than a decade earlier. Sunshine (Natalie Buster, who understudies all the female roles), the well-off child of an alcoholic suburban home who is finally ready to quit therapy after ten years. Mary (Trisha Rapier), the breast cancer survivor who refuses to leave her physically abusive husband. Baxter (Al Bundonis, whose time onstage is thoroughly captivating and far too brief), the Donald Trump-inspired real estate mogul who wants his father's approval. And The Voice (Ed Reynolds Young), who is the therapist Dr. Peterson visits with his own issues.

Abused wife Mary is possibly the most tragic, as well as the most clichéd character (no fault of Trishia Rapier's - it's just how she's written). She has two songs, one for each act that both say essentially the same thing: I'm not leaving my husband because when he beats me I feel loved. The fact that Dr. Peterson does not report this long-term abuse to the police is a plot problem. This is something that is required by law, yet he does not report the abuse even though it has gone on the entire time Mary has been in therapy - years! At one point Mary states emphatically that "THIS is my support group", one wonders how supportive they really are when not one of them has reported the situation either. When Dr. Peterson receives a phone call telling him that Mary has been killed by her husband towards the end of Act Two, it is no surprise. Mary's death is 'required' to propel Dr. Peterson into a full-out crises of confidence, but honestly, we all saw it coming: why didn't he?

While it is not particularly moving, Sessions is an enjoyable couple of hours at the theater. It's just unfortunate that it is more pop-psychology than the real thing.


Sessions

Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Thru August 1

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Intimate Exchanges - Affairs in a Tent - June 16, 2007

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has been writing plays for a very long time. It stands to reason that an artist wants to try a little something new, a little innovation, every now and then. He certainly pulled it off brilliantly with The Norman Conquests and now Intimate Exchanges attempts a very similar gimmick, with a far broader scope.

While The Norman Conquests is actually three separate plays that all take place at the same time, Intimate Exchanges raises the bar. This is actually part of a sequence of plays (8 in all, with 16 different endings all going in different directions). This sounds overwhelming, and it could be: if you think about it too long. But in fact I saw only one in the sequence and I can see where it could go and how this 'sequence' could all play out. This does not mean you need to see all the configurations to enjoy it. Affairs in a Tent was a complete piece in its own right and I imagine the same holds true for all the others.

The people with the hardest jobs here are the actors: there are only two. They play all the parts in all the plays. In Affairs in a Tent they do an amazingly good job, this is not a simple matter of switching out a wig and a costume - all the characters are well-defined individuals. Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst are to be commended. Keeping all the characters, and all the scripts straight and crisp is a herculean task and they both rise to the challenge and excel. Claudia Elmhirst is particularly effective here - I had to strain to see that this was the same actress playing headmaster's wife, Celia, and hired help, Sylvie. Bill Champion's first appearance wearing a blond wig, as Lionel, a ne'er-do-well with good intentions, bears an uncannily resembles Michael McKean's David St. Hubbins in This Is Spinal Tap. This is just one layer of humor in addition to his wonderful, spot on delivery. He lands every line. These are two actors who do justice to comedy and it was a pleasure to watch them.

photo credit: Tony Bartholomew

While I found the play very funny, I thought as farce it might work better with more actors playing the parts to keep things moving. I noticed people in the audience straining to see the appearance of the 'next' character whenever one of the actors exited (which might mean a costume/character change) and that is a distraction that takes away from the piece. There is also a problem with extended set changes. Very near the end of this play there is a scene change that takes well over 3 minutes and that is a very long time to hold up the action, particularly so close to the end as things have risen to a fever pitch. It destroys the momentum and left me feeling disengaged from the final scene. Certainly this is a minor criticism in such a major work, but it seems an extra pair of hands helping with the change would solve this issue.



Intimate Exchanges
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY 10022
Tickets: 212-279-4200
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Thru July 1

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Escape From Bellevue - June 16, 2007

It would be a mistake to attend a performance of Escape from Bellevue expecting to see a "musical". What you will see is a sort of one-man show with music. This is not to say it is a bad thing, just be forewarned. I am always hopeful that a show billed as a "rock musical" will actually deliver 'rock' - this does not always happen and sometimes, as in Escape from Bellevue, the music becomes secondary to a fun storyteller. So no, it's not the next Spring Awakenings, but it is a fun, entertaining 90 minutes. And during the musical 'breaks' there is definitely a feel of a mini-stadium concert. Sadly the amplification makes it nearly impossible to hear all the lyrics, which may be fine at a concert, but it falls short in a theatrical experience where the words are so vital to propelling the story. The set design and lighting effects are quite slick and the inclusion of several (very) short films round out the show.
Front man of The Knockout Drops, Chris Campion tells a great story. He acts out characters and takes on personalities without sounding at all stiff or rehearsed. You will never again hear the phrases "rodeo clown" or "Yo quiero culear tortugas" without laughing. Really.

The premise of Escape From Bellevue is Campion's troubles with alcohol, drugs and suicidal tendencies that landed him in Bellevue not once but three times. The first time when he drunk-dialed his friends in the middle of the day and said today would be his last "quicker than I could say Sylvia Plath the boys from Bellevue were at the door". Suicide humor: gotta love it. The second trip was spurred by "I'm going to kill myself" thrown at a girlfriend in the heat of an argument.

His encounters in the infamous mental hospital are quite funny, (the Thorazine story in particular is a riot), but despite the fact that he clearly had serious problems there is an emotional 'step back' in that he is telling stories without delving into and sharing the deeper emotions. However, at the end of the show there is a moment - after the third trip to Bellevue when he has checked himself into the hospital rather than being sent by well-intentioned and worried friends - that does touch a real emotional chord. He finds himself laughing "my light was back on" and feeling finally that he is "exactly where [I was] meant to be". When he says he is "grateful to be here", meaning that he did not commit suicide, we see at last the true depth that, had it been explored throughout, could have made a diverting piece into a very powerful show (without losing the fun).



Escape From Bellevue
Village Theater
158 Bleecker Street
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 8:00pm & 11:00pm
Tickets: 212-307-7171
Running time: 90 mins (no intermission)

Friday, June 15, 2007

In a Dark Dark House


The ultra-prolific Neil Labute has carved out a reputation as the foremost misanthrope of American theatre. His work features seemingly heartless characters who revel in their own sadomasochism, happiest in situations where they can cause immeasurable pain and suffering. For the longest time, I have defended and found much to enjoy in Labute's work, praising his sharp and focused voice even as the darkness of his plays became more and more conventional.

That praise ends with In a Dark Dark House, which is currently receiving its world premiere production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, under the auspices of Manhattan Class Company and the direction of Carolyn Cantor. This latest piece is slim and dramatically reckless, and often feels unfinished.

The drama takes place over three brief scenes, and it should be noted that if you happen to blink at any point, you might miss one of the many revelations that Labute haphazardly throws at the audience. Terry (Frederick Weller), a salt-of-the-earth midwesterner, has gone to visit his younger brother Drew (Ron Livingston) at a tony rehab where he's drying out. It turns out that Drew--a lawyer recently disbarred for shady business practices--has recovered memories of molestation in therapy, and has called his big brother in to authenticate them.

It is clear from the first moments that the two men don't get along. Even though he is dressed in a dirty bathrobe and barely speaking above a whisper, Drew's gentility shines through. Terry has taken a different path in his life; a truer path, at least to him. Their conversation when not discussing their shared past of abuse and hardship is polite but awkward, never reaching a level of intimacy you would expect from normal siblings. Labute understands this, and his early writing for the men can be thrilling. If only it were sustained throughout the entire piece.


If there is one thread that holds the work together, it is Weller's intensely vivid performance as Terry. His line readings are surly and glib with just the right dose of indignation, which are all good things in this case. Livingston tries hard but can't get over the fact that he's miscast; he's far too likable to play a calculating and manipulating leach. A third character, played appealingly by Louisa Krause, is introduced in the second scene, but it's hardly worth mentioning. She's drawn so thin that you begin to forget about her while she's still in plain view (a major problem, since Labute goes on to fashion her into a major plot device).

Carolyn Cantor's unsteady direction is also problematic; her style of cartoonish realism that served Essential Self-Defense so well only accentuates the textual flaws here. It may be time for Labute to take a break, or at least a breather: as his twists become more and more predictable, his work is becoming less and less watchable, and even longtime fans like myself are considering turning away. In the meantime, find someone to revive bash.

Tickets: Ticket Central
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street
New York, NY 10014
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Through July 7

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

Living Dead in Denmark - June 14, 2007

Qui Nguyen's tremendously funny Living Dead in Denmark, part of the Vampire Cowboys Trilogy is being revived (as zombies tend to be) and presented as part of the First National Asian American Theater Festival. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to see this witty, hilarious play again.

Sometimes when people hear "Shakespeare" they turn away - "I'll never understand it" or "I hated it in high school". But Nguyen shows exactly how much fun Shakespeare really is: no, this is no iambic pentameter-heavy attempt to re-create the wheel. What it IS is a retake on some of Shakespeare's best-known characters and settings, a retake that involves toxic waste and zombies. May not sound like it could work, but it does - perfectly. Nguyen starts with time-tested characters and puts them into a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world and shakes it all together with some geek humor, perfect placement of classic lines of Shakespeare (that almost everyone will recognize), some ninja fighting, pop culture references and comes out with total genius.
Of course the writing is amazingly clever, but much credit must also be doled out to great direction by Robert Ross Parker, terrifically stylized fight sequences by Marius Hanford and understated production design by Nick Francone and hilarious zombie & gore effects by Chuck Varga. None of this would work nearly so well without this great cast. Some taking on more than one role, all of them pitch perfect. For the most part it is tongue in cheek funny, but there are moments of real pathos as well - just enough to let you know you are watching something that was created with much thought and love, not just a goof-fest. The scene with Laertes who is portrayed by a puppet (design by David Valentine - and gorgeous) voiced by Carlo Alban is utterly heart-breaking.

I could write volumes about each actor and how fully they inhabit their characters in this wonderfully dark and funny world, but that could take weeks. Each of them is a standout - which is quite a cool thing to pull off in a show that works as total ensemble.
This is the essence of exciting new theater. The Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company is a group of hard-working, TALENTED, people who make lively, fun theater on a very tight budget. But they prove at every show that you don't need piles of cash (just tons of talent) to make good theater. Though I'm sure they wouldn't say no to piles of cash. If anyone is interested in helping that cause you can see their website for details - it's tax deductible. I'm anxiously awaiting their next show - I have no doubt it too will be a killer.


Living Dead in Denmark
Beckett Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Tickets: 212-352-3101
866-811-4111 (Toll Free)
June 12th - June 15th
Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)

Featuring the amazing cast: Carlo Alban (Horatio, Laertes), Alexis Black (Juliet), Jason Liebman (The Ghost/Hamlet), Maggie Macdonald (Puck, Witch), Tom Myers (Caliban, Guildenstern, Witch), Melissa Paladino (Lady Macbeth), Jason Schumacher (Fortinbras), Andrea Marie Smith (Titania), Temar Underwood (Gravedigger, Rosencrantz, Witch, Oberon), Amy Kim Waschke (Ophelia).

Monday, June 11, 2007

Noche Flamenca - Aldaba - June 10, 2007

Before seeing the amazing Noche Flamenca my view of Flamenco had always been that it was an intense, beautiful art form - but extremely serious. It's nice to have my horizons expanded. Noche Flamenca is everything you might expect from a traditional Flamenco presentation - with just a little more.

My Spanish is very limited, so I only got some of the lyrics sung by Manuel Gago and José Anillo. But while you might miss the finer points, as I did, you don't need to understand Spanish to understand the emotions. The combination of dance, music and song are what immerse you, catch you up and take you places that hit your core. The choreography is perfection - not a single moment feels rehearsed or expected. It is as if everything is happening for the first time, sprung from pure emotion.

The first piece of the program, El Camino, introduces us to the entire company seated together as if they are just jamming at home and you feel at home. It's a party! It's a wonderful way to start the show. Each of the members take a few moments to show their stuff and of these my favorite was the delightful Elena Martín dressed in a fabulous red dress with white polka dots. Her movements were serious, then sensual and in the end simply sassy. She fairly brought the house down and proved there is humor in Flamenco for sure.

Solea por Bulerias let's Alfonso Losa show off his amazing frenetic footwork. His style is like watching a man possessed. His body seems to be moving on it's own and his expression is often one of surprise that he is being brought along for this amazing ride. It's as if the story of The Red Shoes is coming true before our eyes.

The charming piece Se Me Va begins with a quiet guitar solo by Miguel Perez before the closed curtains. Clearly this is a solemn song of love lost and regret, but then he is joined by singer José Anillo and things begin to lighten up a bit as pairs of clapping hands poke through the curtains and join the singer and the charming Vanesa Coloma as she dances, her expressions varying from disdain to shocked amusement.

The first act ends on an impossibly high note with Siguiriya showing off the astounding technical skill combined with raw emotion and ebullient stage presence of guest artist Alejandro Granados. The piece begins slowly, building to a crescendo of amazing physical control and complicated foot work that had the audience cheering wildly. His performance alone is worth the price of admission, but Noche Flamenco offers so much more!

Act Two again begins with the entire company. Quebrada a far more solemn start than Act One, and here we get to see not only the company but the wildly talented Soledad Barrio as she gives us a hint of what she can do. There is a moment in this piece where the three women twirl around each other, holding the precise poses and showing the tremendous control necessary for Flamenco that is so beautiful you wish it would simply go on and on.

The dancers get a break during the Solo de Guitarra which was performed by Chuscales. I can honestly say I was transported. You could hear a pin drop as the audience, formerly raucous in their vocal appreciation of the craft onstage sat in rapt attention to this gorgeous music. I can only assume we were all mesmerized. A man, a guitar and nothing more: and it was heaven.

And finally we have Solea. Soledad Barrio's solo piece. As with all the dance it begins low and builds. I wish I had words that could describe what she did. Again I must comment on the sheer level of physical control necessary to dance Flamenco and Ms. Barrio clearly has not only that control but an artistic fire of emotion that swept the audience to their feet even before the piece was done! I am rarely one to jump to a standing ovation - but I was one of the first ones up for this one. I was struck with how modest and delighted the performers were by this response. They seemed truly surprised and it was a sweet ending to a most fiery show.

Noche Flamenca is an experience not to be missed.


Noche Flamenca
Theater 80
80 St. Mark's Place
New York, NY 10003
Through July 29

Friday, June 8, 2007

LoveMusik - June 2, 2007

LoveMusik opens with Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill in a pin spot hauntingly singing, in a thick German accent, about the fleeting nature of love. He is soon joined by Donna Murphy’s Lotte Lenya as the circle of light slowly expands revealing raw emotion, heartbreak and possibilities. They had me at “Speak Low”.

From here we are witness to the unfolding romance between two iconic figures of the theater. Alfred Uhry, who wrote the book, cleverly unravels the myths surrounding these two characters to present us with fully formed, fleshed out and powerfully human representations. Michael Ceveris and Donna Murphy create characters that are so interesting and engaging I found it impossible not to connect with them. I don’t want to reveal any secrets but there is a scene towards the end of the second act which involves Weill and Lenya and one small simple prop and the scene is devastating.

The production, directed by Hal Prince, and set design were minimal but with talent of this caliber there is no need for the distractions of overwhelming sets and scenery. From their first meeting in a row boat to their reunion in a Paris bedroom, Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design quietly suggests the setting allowing the focus to remain on the story. The performers in this show need little more than themselves to hold the attention of the audience. Donna Murphy is quite simply a revelation. Her Lotte Lenya is a self-assured, brash, spitfire balanced with a subtle vulnerability that is heartbreaking when it is revealed.

For every bit that Lenya’s character is big and colorful Michael Cerveris’s Weill is subtle and understated. His gentle delivery tinged with a shy determination to “take care of Lenya” is matched only by his love of creation. It is clear he is driven by two passions; love for Lenya and composing music. LoveMusik is appropriately titled.

Bertolt Brecht, as portrayed by David Pittu, is another theater figure who is brought down to human proportions. Way down in fact. After his introduction with Tango Ballad (from Threepenny Opera) we are taken on a rollercoaster ride of the ups and downs of his life. His relationship with both Weill and Lenya is documented in a less than flattering, but ever honest and unselfconscious, way.

LoveMusik includes a healthy sampling of the Weill music catalog. Some rather well known songs such as Surabaya Johnny (sung by Murphy in a second act show stopper as she is draped in an exquisite evening gown (costumes by Judith Dolan) to lesser known fare like I Don’t Love You. The songs are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the show in such a way that gives depth and power to Weill classics like It Never Was You that heretofore changed how I relate to them.

If I were asked, what would you expect the outcome to be if one of the most prolific and honored directors in theater history collaborated on a new musical with a Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winning writer, my answer would be nothing less than LoveMusik.

This review was a collobration between Gary and Marxsny.

LoveMusik
Manhattan Theatre Club at The Biltmore Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, New York
Tickets: 212-239-6200/800-432-7250
Running Time: 2 hr 35 min with one intermission
Open Run

Rabbit - June 7, 2007

Nina Raine's Rabbit is a deceptive little play. Right from the opening lines of "no" *pause* "no" *pause* "no" spoken in a Beckett-like style by a father and daughter you are deceived. Because it is not a Beckett-y play. It switches to a naturalist comedy as we meet the daughter, Bella (Charlotte Randle) and her friend Emily ( Ruth Everett) at a bar celebrating Bella's 29th birthday. And we are deceived. Because it's not completely a comedy. It switches to flashbacks of Bella and her father and we find that the truth of this piece is Bella's desire to let go of the past - and her inability to truly do so.

photo credit: Robert Workman

Bella's father is dying. He is in hospital attended by his wife and sons while Bella tries to live her life and celebrate her birthday at a party she has arranged with all her friends; the majority of whom have never met. This is because Bella needs to be in control, needs to not risk that an old flame may be more interested in Emily than her, not risk that she might find love if she lets herself feel. But the night of her birthday, as her father is dying, the combination of emotions and the co-mingling of her various groups of friends makes it impossible for her to keep her memories at bay. Makes it impossible for her to continue to deceive herself.

On the surface this is a thoroughly enjoyable light play with witty dialogue, amusing characters and the 'oops' factor of running into an old love. But below the surface is a smart dissection of human relationships, how enduring old pains can be, and how difficult it can be to let go of subjective memories.

The cast is superb. Hilton McRae as Father is wonderful as he shows us a man losing his ability to communicate because of illness, and a younger man who has the same problem - for different reasons. Charlotte Randle runs the gamut of emotions and takes us with her every step of the way. Ruth Everett makes the young doctor Emily enchanting - it's not easy to tell a story about dissection and neurology and make it casual and fun. Adam James (Richard) and Alan Westaway (Tom) show us two very different men with much in common below the surface and Susannah Wise (Sandy) has a comic timing and delivery that is enviable. Nina Raine has written a very smart, very deceptive little play here and her direction is clear and crisp.

Rabbit is a pleasure. You will not regret the deceptions and you might gain a little insight.

Rabbit
59E59 Theaters (B)
59 East 59th St.
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-279-4200
running time: 1 hour 50 mins with intermission

Now in Previews
Opens on June 10, 2007
Closes on July 1, 2007

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Passing Strange - June 6, 2007

The coming of age story is not by any means a new plot line, but it can be enjoyable and moving when it's well done - or when there is an actual story to be told. This usually means we care about the protagonist. Passing Strange is the coming of age story of a whiny kid who finds his way to Europe while attempting to learn the ropes of the craft of songwriting. And to smoke hash. Gotta say: I could not care less.

There's no dramatic push to drive him away from his fairly comfortable, middle class home in Los Angeles where he lives with his mother. From what we are shown the main reason for his rebellion is that his mother wants him to attend church. He feels his spiritual path lies elsewhere but nonetheless joins the church choir (because he falls for a girl in the choir). So much for spirituality as his driving force. He ends up leaving home to roam Amsterdam and Berlin to find 'the real' - I'm hazy on what this actually means. Perhaps it was defined in one of the many endless songs which, while admittedly had a great beat, my toe was tapping, were unintelligible. If the lyrics were moving or meaningful in any way, neither I nor the people attending with me could hear them.

The set was well designed by David Korins whose work is always clever and fresh. While at first the set appears to be a whole lotta "not much", it is deceptive. We find musicians are set on descending platforms that rise and fall depending on the action and the back wall is revealed to be a full 'light wall' that becomes a city of neon and is quite impressive. I wish I could say the production deserved such stylish treatment.

This is a show that needs a hefty edit job. There are smart bits of dialogue, there might even be a story here, but as one of the oft repeated lyrics of one of the many (unlisted) songs says: "Too bad it takes so long". It does indeed take far too long to go absolutely nowhere.

There are fine performers working hard here, but truthfully there was only one standout, Colman Domingo who plays multiple roles (Mr. Franklin, Joop, and Mr. Venus) is the only - and I mean only - character who actually makes any sort of connection to the audience. If I had to choose one fatal flaw in this show that would be it -- the absolute lack of connection to the audience. In fact the bulk of the show seems played purely for the cast and musicians themselves, taking the concept of the fourth wall to a place more like a biosphere. On more than one occasion cast members were cracking each other up like Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on a bad episode of the old Carol Burnett show. It was barely funny in the 1970s - it's really not funny here. Really. I expect a little more professionalism at the Public.

The welcome resurgence of rock in Broadway and Off-Broadway musicals is not well served here. Wait for something better to come along. Something with an actual story.


The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Tickets: 212-967-7555
running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Closes July 1