Saturday, December 29, 2012

Late 2012 Quick Bite Reviews

As much as I love to see theater and write about it, the last few months have been really challenging to do either.  My day job (which funds this hobby) has been very busy.  From time to time, I have managed to get out to the theater but I have not had a chance to write about many of the shows I saw.  People have been asking my opinion of some of these shows so I thought I would do a very brief write-up just to give you a sense of where I stood with these productions--several of which have already closed.

This is not me at my most artful or articulate.  Down and dirty quick we go.


Glengarry Glen Ross:  After the first act of the play, I started to think this was the most experimental and Spartan reading of Mamet I had ever seen.  The actors seemed to be playing against the meter and so the words got more attention--too much attention.  Treating them like scripture seemed like the wrong approach.  The words are the emptiest part of this play.  What people are saying is largely irrelevant.  This play is about these men, their personalities and how they sell.  What they are saying is less important than what those words accomplish.  Saying what you need to say to make the sale is what drives them and feeds them.  It really could be called What Makes Salesman Run (come on I love Budd Schulberg--and if you have not ready What Makes Sammy Run you are missing out).  Al Pacino's Shelly Levene makes it clear that he's a salesman who cannot hold an audience any longer.  He is not feared.  He is not respected.  He is practically invisible.  Pacino's tic of constantly touching his hair made me think that this is a man who has to keep checking if he is still there.  A reminder that he is alive, present and accounted for.  Bobby Cannavale's Ricky Roma is there to show us how it is done--slick, fast, shiny, convincing.  When Lingk (played with subtly by Jeremy Shamos--who ends up again in parentheses) apologizes to Roma for letting him down by backing out of a sale,  Lingk is wishing he could be the man that Roma has sold him on being.   In Act Two, in Shelly's undoing you actually see Al Pacino become a wisp of a man.  It happens in an instant.  For he was puffed up, renewed, alive again, and then deflates before your eyes.  It is a moment of great theater.  Putting aside ego, reputation, our knowledge of this actor in so many iconic films, Pacino is Levene in that moment and he is physically diminished.  I might not have loved the production overall but for me that moment was worth seeing.

Grace:  Sometimes small scale intimate drama gets lost on Broadway and sometimes it was never very good to start with.  Craig Wright's Grace seems like the kernel of an idea that never quite blossoms.  Questions of faith, changing your life, fate, coincidence and God all ping around the surface of this play, but they never quite get plumbed to their depths.  Despite a cast of well-known actors who attempt to do their best, the characters are left to wander around these mammoth issues.  Michael Shannon, as per usual, is the best thing about this show.  Unfortunately saddled with a Phantom of the Opera style mask and the attendant deformity, he only gets to perform with half of his face for most of the show.  But half his face is definitely worth more than the whole face of some performers.  Paul Rudd's technical stage work is to be commended.  There are some scenes ostensibly rewound and he must act them forward and then backwards--which he does, brilliantly.  But he seemed overall ill-suited to the role. He was fine at times when he was a moony Jesus-freak but less effective as someone more menacing.  It was a delight to see Ed Asner on stage as well in a small supporting role here.  

The Mystery of Edwin Drood:  I was looking forward to this show because of the cast and the unusual premise where the audience picks the ending.  The cast did not disappoint.  Will Chase and Betsy Wolfe are both a delight.  The cast is having a lot of fun so I think much of the show's appeal is the infectiousness of that bonhomie.  I was less comfortable with the brown-face happening in the show than others have been.  But overall I found the show dragged for me.  I'm glad I stuck around for the Act Two voting because that was the most lively part of the show.  It's a harmless diversion and I think most people would enjoy themselves.   


Giant: A big beautiful mess. This three hour show may sprawl like the landscape of Texas but in all that time I lost sight of the characters, any emotional engagement and the reason we were there.   I've never read the book but having seen the film I know there is a lot of story in the story but this musical could not wrap it's arms around the story it wanted to tell.  Was this about a family?  Was this about love? Was this about ranch? Was this about Texas? Was this about America? It's all those things and none of those things.  There were some gorgeous songs and noble performances from Brian D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin.  Bobby Steggert is underutilized sadly.  I enjoyed Katie Thompson's ballsy, fun performance as Vashti. She burns the stage down a few times.  As with the source material, this show still does not know how to handle questions of interracial couples and bigotry.  Sadly because of the limited time devoted to it the Mexican characters get little to say and do.  Adapting this material now seems questionable if no one was going to address the period questions with any modern perspective. 

Murder Ballad: What happens when teen angst gets inappropriately rendered as adult entertainment... You get a rock music musical such as Murder Ballad where emotions run high but the stakes are so generally absurd it's hard to care about anyone or anything in it. Worse yet here the music can only speak to a shrill level of emotional expression without any variation thus dulling actual emotional development. I'm afraid I had a "get off my lawn" moment but the joke is the creative team IS my age here.  Murder Ballad feels like the type of work that might have felt meaningful or powerful to me when I was younger but now it has none of the impact.  I was really curious about this rock musical and intrigued by the unusual staging where the audience is seated (in part) on the stage which is the set and the performances happen all around you.  An interesting directorial approach and a top-flight cast are wasted on material that just doesn't sing but it sure skulks around a lot like a moody teenager.   When an 80 minute show cannot sustain a story, I think it is time for someone to reconsider what exactly they are trying to say.

The Old Man and the Old Moon:  Despite predictions that I would run out of this whimsy-fest screaming I did not.  I did not even try to beat anyone to death with a banjo.  I grew up in New England on folk music and I frickin' love a sea shanty so walking into the Judson Gymnasium as the Pig Pen Theatre company played folk music I was easily sold on this production.  The music is the strongest aspect because it transports you to this time and place and sets the atmospheric tone for the folk tale adventure being told.  As a lover of cinema, I enjoyed the shadow puppet work (which reminded me of Kara Walker's art a bit).  The simplicity of the tools used were a good reminder that this show is about storytelling and a good story does not need bells and whistles.  Could Daniel Kitson have told the story better?  Yes.  Without shadow puppets? Yes.  (I thought of him during the amusing debate over the word dirigible).  But these young performers do a great job.  The story drags, especially in Act One.  But they had me in Act Two and maybe I started to rethink my own career when the Old Man starts to rethink his.  Damn you cute boys and your storytelling.  Now I'm crying.

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