Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Let Me Ascertain You : LGBTQ All Out!

Last night, the Civilians hosted another episode of their series Let Me Ascertain You.  It was focused on LGBTQ stories and all the monologues were based on interviews with the people being depicted in the show.  From a former military man into bondage, to a queer runaway who was being abused by his religious parents, to Michael Friedman's hilarious rendition of a song called Horrible Seders in the voice of Tony Kushner, the evening ran the gamut from the jocular to the sublime.  The real-life stories were replete with honest portraits of suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, and families rejecting their children over their sexuality.  But at the same time there were uplifting moments about the human spirit, our capacity for love, and the depth of forgiveness.  If you've never seen one of these shows by the Civilians you can access past episodes via podcast but I recommend checking them out whenever they perform.  

Artistic Director Steven Cosson introduced the segments including a couple of songs from a new musical adaptation of the cult film Times Square, sung by Alyse Louis and Mike Brun.   A concert version of the musical will take place at Joe's Pub on June 1 and 4.  Cosson also mentioned a new Civilians project, Be the Death of Me, that will be happening at the end of June. 

Last night's line-up kicked off with Paul Stovall who performed a monologue about a man who had struggled with drugs and addictions.  This man spent much of his life fighting, robbing, and beating people.  He finally settled into life with his husband and found happiness and peace.  He works with others to help them realize their potential.  As an ex-con he is living proof to others that "you can always start your life over." 

I was pleasantly surprised to see Pedro Pascal pop up in the show.  I LOVED his performance in Maple and Vine back in 2011 and had not seen him in a show since that.  He portrayed Mark who loves a man who does not reciprocate.  Mark is living with HIV.  Pascal punctuated his monologue with a resigned and sad smile while expressing his subject's "fatalistic idea that [his HIV diagnosis] was inevitable."   Laverne Cox, portrayed another HIV positive person who rejects labels such as transsexual or transgender, and declares "Me, myself and I identify by female."  Despite a sassy and strong exterior, Cox, as her anonymous subject, was incredibly moving when she spoke of her family's acceptance of her after her diagnosis.

Michael Friedman announced before singing his song, "I am Tony Kushner in this song." Horrible Seders is a story song about what Seders must be like for Kushner and his family. It included the line "People yelling and screaming...And it's wonderful."  The song was rapid fire, verbose, and multi-layered--much like a Kushner play.  I fear I could not take notes fast enough but it will definitely be worth a listen when the podcast is posted.

Jax Jackson gave voice to Vincent, a self-identified queer who was being tortured by religious parents.  With rage, sadness, and surrendering in his voice, Jackson portrays this young man who just wants to feel safe.  Vincent runs away and finds community in the youth shelter population in New York.  "I had never really belonged to a group." 

The final performance of the night was Stephen Plunkett as David, an Iraq war vet.  David lost the love of his life--but not through death or distance.  Because his lover could not handle life out of the closet.  It was a painful monologue about how you can love someone deeply and forever even if they are not longer in your life.  And how not everyone gets the love and support they deserve.  David is accepted by many of his fellow soldiers, but ultimately rejected by his religious mother.  David asks his mother "Is your fear and embarrassment greater than your love for me?" She responds, yes.

Heartbreaking work again by The Civilians.  If I sound like a Civilians fangirl.  I am.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Quick Bites: When Shows Do Not Work

I tend to see, almost exclusively, professional theater in New York.  Even it at it's worst, I usually find something of merit (Venus in Fur excluded).  Lately I have had a good run of seeing shows I really enjoyed (Bullet Catch, The Assembled Parties) or shows I appreciated even if I did not fall in love (Matilda, Hands on a Hardbody) but there have also been some shows that did not work for me at all.

But I started to think about the good that sometimes comes from the bad.

 * * *

I caught Lanford Wilson's The Mound Builders at Signature Theatre and left that show at a loss for nice things to say.  It was not worthy of a scathing review. It was just a jumble of wrong angles that did not add up to a workable production.  There were some strange directing and acting choices that obscured whatever meaning the work had (and it did not stand out as a strong piece of source material to begin with).  But in a sea of things that felt off, a few pieces of nice work stood out and I might have overlooked them otherwise.

First, Zachary Booth had a drunk scene with an actress playing his wife.  He kept everything on a believable plane.  Not too loud, too tipsy, too clumsy.  But as he was sitting on the floor with his wife sitting behind him he reached out and started playing with her foot.  It was the tiniest of moments.  But this intimacy between husband and wife is made so clear in that moment.  It's not overt or loudly telegraphed.  It's played absent-minded and drunkenly.  But it said so much more about the characters and their dynamics than much of the rest of the play.

Also notable in this production was Neil Patel's scenic design and Rui Rita's lighting which created a character out of the house and this mystical location.   I might not have fond recollections of this show in the future but I'll keep an eye out for Zachary Booth in other things.

* * *

Tristan Sturrock's personal life story of returning to acting after breaking his neck in a freak accident is remarkable.  The theatrical version of that story, Mayday Mayday, currently playing at St. Ann's Warehouse is less so.  Written by and starring Sturrock as himself (among all the other characters) and directed by Sturrock's wife (who also features in the story) Katy Carmichael, the material is close to the hearts of those involved.  He says it is a story he did not want to tell.  And unfortunately I felt that hesitation in every aspect of the production. 

There's no question I love a good storyteller (It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later, Bad Kid, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs).  But here, somehow an intensely personal tale, told by the man who lived it, gets stripped of its emotional impact.  The production seems fixated on the external.  The theatrical devices used--vague projections, children's toys for the ambulance and medevac helicopter, literal smoke and mirrors, and some miniature skeletons--illustrated the tale but did not enlighten anything.  Rather than creating indelible images or expressing what could not be said, they felt purely instructional.   I left the show realizing I had little understanding of the emotions of Sturrock or anyone else rendered but a lot of facts about the incident. For a one man show about himself, there was, oddly, minimal introspection. 

I was aghast at my own reaction.  Was I rejecting Sturrock and his personal pain?  And then I realized he had not really bothered to include his personal pain in the show.  I think he tacitly acknowledges it but he never opens up to share it.  Sturrock has a pleasant, comedic personality but the type that makes you feel like he tells a joke to cover up his emotional struggles.  The character he creates on stage seems bound to avoid the messy bits in exchange for an easier laugh.

I feel like I'm his therapist complaining about his withholding.  All in all this story did not come to life for me.  It did not lack for factual appraisal, but it did not draw strong conclusions or build toward a strong theme.  That accidents happen and some people are lucky felt too pat a takeaway but there was little meat on the skeletal bones of this show. 

I know I was somewhat alone in my assessment of Mayday Mayday.  A woman behind me was moved to tears and an irritating woman a few seats away kept projecting loud  "awws" of sympathy at every moment in the show (FFS!!!).   So for others perhaps Sturrock gave enough of himself in the story.  But for me, I want to be told a story.  I want the teller to, in the tradition of calling upon "a Muse of Fire" use his or her tools, tricks, creativity and invention to move me, take me somewhere unexplored, reveal things to me I was not expecting, and shed light on a story previously untold. 

It was good to see a storyteller I did not like to remind me that it is not an easy art form to work in and I appreciate those who do it well so much more. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Kinky Boots: Tuesdays with Lola

With the up-with-drag-queens pep, colorful costumes, and indefatigable spirit, Kinky Boots can't be faulted for not trying. Really frickin' hard.  But with songs that run out of lyrics and an over dependence on said drag queens to give the show energy, I never quite fell for the cast who are just working overtime to telegraph their likability.

Charlie (Stark Sands) is from a small Northern English town and is son of the local shoe factory owner.  Charlie moves to London with his climber fiancée Nicola (Celina Carvajal) but is almost immediately pulled back to his hometown when his father dies. He needs a way to save his family shoe business and a chance encounter with drag queen Lola (Billy Porter) inspires him to make kinky boots for the drag market. He is assisted by Lauren (Annaleigh Ashford) one of the factory workers who discovers after all these years she has a crush on him.  They have a few weeks to design a new show line, with Lola's help and debut it at a fashion show in Milan.

Between the moments about trying to live up to dead fathers expectations, and Stark Sands sad eyes, you really need some upbeat drag queen numbers just to balance the downers with with uppers.  I just found the life lessons about tolerance in Harvey Fierstein's book were laid on far too thick. 

I was reminded of an old Daniel Kitson joke where he says he hates protestations of liberalism on internet profiles: "If on your internet profile you feel it necessary to point out in fairly clumsy language you think bigotry is bad thing.  You're not a massively interesting person. Wouldn't it be better if you could just assume most right people thinking didn't like bigotry too much.  Rather than feeling it necessary to introduce ourselves to people with every bad thing we're not.  Hello my name is Daniel, I think bigotry is bad and I've never even raped anyone. So that's me. That's me in a nutshell!" 

Somehow Kinky Boots falls into that trap and telling us over and over again that bigotry is a bad thing just gets boring.  There is a breakdown in tolerance in Act II that is patently artificial and feels like it is shoehorned in so there can even be a second act.  It creates "tension" and a separation only to be naturally followed by a reunion.  If I was into the characters or their plight, maybe I would forgive the sledgehammer of tolerance but I was barely clinging on to caring.

Jerry Mitchell choreographs and directs and it is impossible not to enjoy the drag queens on a conveyor belt showstopper. The music and lyrics are from Broadway neophyte Cyndi Lauper.  Standing on their own the ballads were heartfelt and pretty, but there were far too many and they did not add much to the story, characters or show.  Certainly the drag numbers are peppy and they give the show its momentum, but it's a false sense of one.  Don't these drag queens have day jobs? 

The reason Annaleigh Ashford's solo number sticks out for me is that she's the only character with character. Some might find she too is overdoing it but I got a kick out of her knowing wink to the audience and only wished for a little more humor in the show.  I don't really get Billy Porter.  On paper, he seems to be playing the "idea" of a character you are supposed to like, but he's not actually a character you like.  Lola can be a drag and I did not find him charismatic.  I kind of spent the whole show hoping Douglas Hodge as Albin would come and save me.  I guess there is one Broadway drag queen show close to my heart and this did not displace it.

In the end Kinky Boots is without any kink.  It's your typical Broadway tourist fare.  Harmless, safe and predictable.  Satisfying if that's your kind of show.  But I wanted more.

Matilda: A Sense of Wonder

Soaring high on a swing on your belly, lying on your back in the playground watching the clouds, imagining stories with paper cut-outs and shadows.  The visual feast that is the RSC's production of Matilda goes above and beyond to make you feel that sense of childhood wonder.  For a brief shining moment in Matilda, as the ensemble sings When I Grow Up, that sense of possibility is everything.  Children are being children and they are experiencing the pure joy that comes from play, freedom, and release.  It is a beautiful, poignant, and heart-warming moment.  And for about the length of that song I was enthralled with Matilda.  But when they moved on, my apathy returned. 

Matilda is an unusual new musical but for someone who loves things dark and should have warmed to the story of the precocious little girl who's smarter than all the adults around her, I found the heart of the musical was missing for me.  How was I immune to Matilda's charms?  As a precocious, bookworm child myself (favoring as a youngster The Twits and The BFG to the more famous Dahl books), Matilda should be my emotional soul-mate, but despite a gorgeous production, some terrific adult performances, and a few lovely songs, I found myself struggling with the main character's passivity and introversion and longing for an emotional connection to this story.

Matilda (played in rotation by four performers, and the night I saw it Sophia Gennusa) is a five year old who loves books and has dreadful, self-centered parents who are cruel and neglectful. Her parents berate her for her intellect and interest in books.  Mr. Wormwood (Gabriel Ebert) is a slick car salesman who is always looking for a get rich quick scheme.  Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita) is obsessed with her looks and her salsa dancing partner Rudolpho.   To cope with these horribles, Matilda entertains herself with naughty revenge schemes against them, with fanciful stories she tells her local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Karen Aldridge) and telling white lies about how much her parents love her. Matilda's mental gifts are recognized and appreciated by her new school teacher Miss Honey (Lauren Ward). But Miss Honey can only do so much for Matilda when she lives in fear of the school's bullying principal, Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel) who believes all children are maggots and the most important part of education is phys ed.

The adult performers are delicious in their garish and grotesque roles. Gabriel Ebert and Lesli Margherita played up their despicable characters to the hilt.  Ebert, dressed in a green checker suit (the fantastic costumes are by Rob Howell), seems to have legs that stretch up into oblivion.  His preening vanity and copious stupidity give the show some of its more comic moments.  There is no wonder all the chatter about this show seemed to be about Bertie Carvel's gender-bending turn as Miss Trunchbull. Carvel sculpts a deliciously evil character through every gesture and
intonation in his voice (there are moments he sounds a bit like a South Park character). He achieves the incredible by making Miss Trunchbull evil, funny, a little scary but oddly a little vulnerable.  She is the monster of a children's nightmare but she is also human.  Lauren Ward as Miss Honey sings with perfect clarity and is more timid child than Matilda.  But for all these fine adult performances, the show is highly dependent on the children of the ensemble (Note: I could not understand a single word of the their group numbers.  I imagine the lyrics by Tim Minchin were witty and amusing but god only knows) and the lead child playing Matilda.

Matilda's passivity was a struggle and I must assume it was a choice since it seemed consistent between story (book by Dennis Kelly), direction and performance.  She is established as someone who understands intellectually the horrible circumstances of her life but her emotional state is a complete mystery.  Despite a few moments of her naughtiness and acting out, for the most part she takes her substantial emotional lumps, blankly and completely.  When her father tears up her precious library book, she sedately picks up the pieces as if nothing has happened.  She fantasizes about a life where parents love their children--which makes me think she wants to feel love but sometimes I was not sure if she felt anything at all. 

I didn't feel Matilda's connection to her storytelling.  Her detachment left me wondering what her emotional state truly was.  The music gave little clue.  Even her most poignant ballad, Quiet, is more intellectual than emotional.  She is a child locked up in her mind.  Telekinesis releases some of that pent up emotion but even so I did not feel her anger.  When Matilda suddenly hugs Miss Honey, it comes out of nowhere.   And there is great drama in that moment because it is the first genuine emotion we've seen but that's a long time to go without an emotional breadcrumb trail.

We are suspended in a child's world filled with evil, cruelty, injustice, as well as gentleness, understanding, love, and affection.  But our guide through this world is so detached. Sophia Gennusa hits all her marks and performed as she was supposed to (lovely voice, cute as a button, adorable choreography and movement) but there was nothing behind the performance.  It's a lot to put on the shoulders of a nine-year-old actor and I do not think she should have had to bear this burden alone.  Matilda, as a character, seemed to float along in a daze and it left me adrift.  In the Matilda void, I found myself more emotionally drawn into Miss Honey's story.  Her songs, performance, and story were emotionally transparent and articulated--and Ward was a delight. 

Matthew Warchus, whose last work on Broadway was Ghost: The Musical, keeps this material smart and never lets it drift into the maudlin or sentimental.  Beyond the magical When I Grow Up number, Warchus unites the dynamic visual landscape (Rob Howell created the sets as well as the costumes) with the dark Roald Dahl based story through his cunning direction.  I thought the number about physical education with the kids physically climbing on alphabetically placed blocks in the prison-like gate to the school summed up well the type of witty direction which punctuates the production or when he places Miss Trunchbull in her office in front of a panel of antique security monitors like she's the Stasi.  I reveled in the shadow puppet rendering of Matilda's storytelling (which I preferred to the more on the nose use of live actors to act out the scenes).

When I was a child, my second grade teacher read to us aloud from the Roald Dahl books as we would draw scenes from them.  We were left to imagine the world that Dahl created and render it through our own experiences. This production feels faithful to that world but missing a crucial spark. 

Much like some Sondheim musicals where each piece can be lovely but all together it does not add up (say, Into the Woods), the pieces of the Matilda puzzle just did not seem to click even if various distinct pieces were solid.  Matilda is worth the time to see for adults and children alike.  It is a different creature from the usual Broadway tourist musical (amen) but as much as I tried to not let the hype get to me, it was not as funny, dark, or revolutionary as I had expected.  I'm mostly just sad that I did not love it.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Assembled Parties: Home For the Holidays

Amidst family squabbles, a sprawling apartment, and Jewish class issues, Richard Greenberg's  new play, The Assembled Parties, walks a fine line between humorous quips and painful truths.  Maybe a little messy and still finding its footing at the early preview I attended, but the heart of the piece was beating soundly with a great cast to execute his vision.

Scotty Bascov (Jake Silbermann) and Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) are college friends. Scotty, a scion from a wealthy Jewish family, is expected to do great things but is a bit adrift.  He's not quite sure he wants to head to Harvard next year for law school, joining Jeff. Jeff's modest background lines up with his modest expectations for himself.  Scotty's parents, Julie (Jessica Hecht) and Ben (Jonathan Walker), are hosting a Christmas party for their Jewish clan--complete with nutcracker tchotchkes and a roast goose. Ben's sister Faye (Judith Licht), her husband, Mort (Mark Blum) and their 30 year old still unmarried daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld) complete the party. 20 years pass and another Christmas party is held.  A sadder, more painful affair as time has been unkind to this family.

With issues of immigrant parents, difficult mothers and the children who resent them, success, achievement, sorting out what we want from what our parents want, and how you face endings, Greenberg's play runneth over with rich, emotional material.  Sometimes it felt like it was too much to handle and bits and bobs got lost in the tumult.  Greenberg attempts to play with simultaneous scenes by expanding and reversing time to accommodate the gambit. I "got" it but playing with time did not have extra impact.  In fact, as staged, it was a little confusing.  I wished the intrigue Greenberg layered into the first act to be exposed in the second act had been sharper and I think much of this had to do with the structure of those scenes.

There is a great deal of levity in the first act, with moments feeling almost farcical, but there is a humming of something darker there which gets expanded upon in Act II.  I found Lynne Meadow's direction kept this all in balance.  It was not a problematic tone shift because the groundwork was laid.

The play succeeds or fails with the performances and for me there were some stand-outs here. Judith Light finds a raw inner pain in her character, bearing her wounds valiantly with a dignity that makes the suffering all the more dramatic.  She often makes you forget she's acting.  She brings to life a complete person you feel you know.  Jeremy Shamos is the outsider desperate to be on the inside. His adulation for his friend's mother Julie is somehow hilariously, self-consciously Oedipal even if he's not a blood family relation. His comic, nervous energy as a young man is utterly gone when 20 years pass and he's the voice of reason in household without much sense.  But his affection for Julie is unchanged and with the passage of time, it evolves into something deeper. The small gestures and intonations he makes crafts a very subtle portrait of this now grown man and the events unseen to us that have gone on in the 20 years between acts.

Jessica Hecht started off, as usual, a bit affected in her accent.  It was the same one she employed in Harvey.  In some moments it served the flighty Julie who was a former teen movie starlet and who has seemingly never suffered a day in her life, but I found that her affectation faded as the play went on and I appreciated its departure.

Jake Silbermann does double-duty as two characters, making each distinct from the other.  In particular, his privileged Scotty played well against Shamos's unpolished Jeff. 

One of the more powerful aspects of the show was how the Bascovs' house turns from a place of aspiration to a vast space filled with ghosts, lost promise and delusions.  And it did this with organic subtlety.  The turntable from Act I, keeps moving and revealing "new rooms" in this expansive apartment and everyone keeps joking about getting lost in this epic apartment.  In Act II, the set is fixed and somehow the decay and emptiness of the characters is rendered through the open space, the rooms off in the distance, and the fact that it is stationary. Santo Loquasto did the scenic design. It was such a key presence I would have added it to the roster of stand-out performers.

I'm eager to get back to see this play as the actors have settled into the roles and dig into all the emotional baggage Greenberg's characters have in tow.

I received a complimentary ticket to this production.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bullet Catch: Brits Off Broadway

"Try to work with me, not against me." -- William Wonder
Rob Drummond stars in BULLET CATCH, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In a master class on how to build audience tension, writer and performer Rob Drummond, creates a 75-minute nail-biter around a famous bullet catch stunt that went awry.  With help from an audience volunteer, William Wonder (Drummond) is a magician who seeks to succeed where others have famously failed, performing a bullet catch before our very eyes. A loaded gun will be fired at his mouth and he will catch a bullet with his teeth--or so he hopes.  Therein lies the tale--but Drummond and director David Overend are not satisfied just to rattle you in your chair.  They are leading you to look inward as well, which ups the theatrical ante considerably.

Wonder feels an almost spiritual attachment to magician William Henderson who in 1912 was killed when he attempted the bullet catch.  The audience volunteer who fired the gun at Henderson, Charles Garth, was prosecuted in his death. Wonder tells the story of Henderson and Garth as he moves toward performing the stunt with his own reluctant audience volunteer.  The evening takes on the feeling of a séance with old timey photos of Henderson and Garth on the back wall glowing at times when their names are called out.  Using letters written by Garth to his sister, a letter from Houdini to Henderson begging him not to do the stunt, and a letter from this theater asking Wonder to sign a liability waiver, urgent voices in dispatches from the past and the present shape the story.

Despite this framework, Drummond ultimately makes this not about the stunt itself but the journey those men were on and the larger journey the audience here is on.  Free will, happiness and purpose are all bandied about. And for all the invocation of spirits of the past, Wonder is performing magic of his own before you.  There are sleight of hand tricks, mind reading, and levitation, but these are not used like a flashy Vegas nightclub act.  The goal is to build intimacy and connection between magician and assistant (and with the audience too)--like a magician for the soul rather than one for the stage.  "This is a conversation.  Not magic.  In many ways, I find this far more difficult," Wonder says to his volunteer.  The key to Wonder's magic is in reading people and reminding the audience of their existence and purpose.  Wonder asks deeper questions about what we are looking for and what we want to know.  Magic becomes the metaphor for greater introspection and understanding.

Performed in a small theater at 59 E 59th, Bullet Catch makes it so you are close to the action...and ultimately the loaded gun.  But it's an excellent setting to be drawn into this Edwardian tale of whys, whats and hows and it what it might mean to us today.

Rob Drummond stars in BULLET CATCH, part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Depending on the audience volunteer and their level of engagement, each show, I imagine, could work slightly differently.  We lucked out with a retired Wall Street fellow named Richard who read the letters by Garth in his own Scottish accent.  Richard brought a jolly energy and a resigned acceptance that he would participate fully in the show. 

Drummond is charming as Wonder.  He's created a warm and tender space for his tale and his rapport with the audience and his volunteer makes the intimacy angle work. I'm normally quite skittish about anything remotely "scary" but somehow was put at ease by Drummond.  With the gentle tone of a therapist, he draws out the volunteer turning their personal stories into magic tricks.  Maybe the conclusions are not particularly deep but the fact that Drummond turns his audience inward as they experience this show seemed most magical to me.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend this production.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Elaine Stritch: The Long Goodbye

Hearing of a young Elaine Stritch's first meeting with Stephen Sondheim is one thing. Hearing her tell it herself is another. As she says goodbye to New York City and her 65 years here she is overflowing with stories to tell.  She sings a song or four but her farewell appearance at Cafe Carlyle is more about spending an evening hearing tales of a long life on stage and off.  Her memory is fuzzy at times, her hip replaced, but if you talk while she's talking she will, with malice aforethought, threaten to "kill you."  She may be "tired" but she's still got her zing.

There is something to seeing a legend, stripped down, vulnerable, and admitting her flaws.  At 88, she's earned them.  "I'm going to perform for you and tell you what I feel about things," she said.  She warned up front that she might struggle to find the lyrics but suggested the audience sit tight and "Let me just find them.  It will be more fun."  She did manage to bungle a lyric from Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me" (one of my favorites).  Rather than "I was his queen to him" she sang "he was a queen to me, who's going to make me gay now."  She caught herself and made a joke of it. 

But as she talked, you could hear her speak with reverence in her voice about the "footlights" and as a memory came back to her of a time or place, with a squinty smile on her face, you could see it dazzle in her eyes.  Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, her co-star from A Little Night Music, passed around a silver bowl full of anecdote ideas.  Audience members selected cards and then shouted out the famous names and incidents that Stritch wanted to recall.  "Quentin Crisp."  "Jane Fonda."  "Couple From Greenwich at Virginia Woolf."

Her memories included, a cab ride on her way to a matinee of Company.  Visiting Katherine Hepburn backstage during her run in Coco (including a spot on imitation of Hepburn's affected drawl).  Getting drunk with Judy Garland and talking about maybe doing Mame together. A Bette Davis zinger (delivered with Davis aplomb) at the expense of a dead Joan Crawford.  When she told a story that started with her waking up at a man's house on the Upper East Side, the audience whistled.  She raised a hand to the audience and clarified the record, "Gay as pink ink" she said.  When someone shouted out from the anecdote cards, "Rex Harrison Fuck Up" she blanched for a moment, and then moved on to another story. Some stories shall remain unspoken or forgotten, I guess. 

When she told us of her time in summer stock with Bela Lugosi, she acted out a scene from that production of Dracula including the snafu that turned a serious moment in the play into audience laughter.  Her storytelling was so vivid that it felt like we there with her as her young boyfriend resists saying his line, "I will drive it in deep"--an inescapable double entendre from a vampire stake driving scene.  Despite her hip, she's thrusting the stake into imaginary Dracula with gusto.  For this moment, we are back in time with the young vivacious Elaine Stritch.  

Donning her giant eyeglasses to read a fan letter from a third grader, she expresses appreciation over those who have appreciated her.

Saying farewell to Elaine Stritch as she leaves New York feels so unexpected.  When I moved to New York, I never thought that maybe someday, when I was old, I would move back "home" again.  In my mind, you run away to the big city, become a stahh (sorry I'm from Massachusetts so that's how we pronounce star--also if you're in Newsies) or not.  I never thought the final act would be back in anyone's hometown.  But Stritch is headed back to Michigan to be close to her family.

I never imagined Elaine Stritch was FROM anywhere, let alone Michigan.  I guess I've always just thought of her as part of New York, or maybe sprung from the head of Zeus fully-formed ready for battle with a martini.  But she is headed "home."  Fear not, she says that "Everything is coming back in Detroit.  And if it doesn't, I will make it."  That I have no doubt.  Elaine, we will miss you.  But we are grateful for all you have given us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Good with People: Brits Off Broadway

"It stopped being about the weapons.  It was people."

The 2013 Brits Off-Broadway series kicks off this week with David Harrower's two-hander Good with People: a thoughtful drama about dying towns, the past, the future, changing your direction in life, and the meaning of bullying on a local and international scale. 

Evan Bold (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) returns to his hometown of Helensburgh, Scotland for a wedding. Upon checking into the one hotel in town for the night, he encounters Helen Hughes (Blythe Duff) at the front desk. She turns out to be the mother of Jack Hughes, a boy he cruelly bullied when he was a child. The "incident " has informed both their lives.  Evan and Helen stir up memories in each other of the past and their current circumstances.
Blythe Duff (front) and Andrew Scott-Ramsay (back) star in David Harrower's GOOD WITH PEOPLE, launching the 2013 Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. Photos by Carol Rosegg
Evan asks quite pointedly when Helen brings up the "thing" again, "Is there no better thing to remember? To dwell on?...Is that all I am. A bully in the woods."  Director George Perrin uses strains of music, shadow play and dramatic tableaux to explore how the past can haunt us.  Time is fluid and memories, fantasies, and realities bump into each other.  What starts out as a straightforward narrative, quickly gets a visual treatment that is more multifaceted.  It took a few beats into the play for this to become clear but as we learn more about the characters the visually dynamic moments staged gain resonance.

Not as fraught and intense as Harrower's brilliant 2007 play Blackbird (which came back to my mind recently when I saw Rajiv Joseph's The North Pool), Good with People however in a short time  mixes the personal and global in deceptively smart ways.  The town of Helensburgh is the home of the UK's nuclear defense base.  Erasing what had been a resort town with a controversial military installation, Helen and Evan play out some political issues in local terms.  Evan is a base brat whose father's military job brought the family to Helensburgh and the tension between the military families and local townspeople was at the core of the bullying incident with Helen's son.  Evan has left this small town and has gone on to try to do good with his work out in the world as a nurse.  Helen has remained in Helensburgh and life has not turned out as she expected. 

The strength of the piece does not come from the "issues" but more about how people live their lives in the face of frustrations, disappointment, limited opportunities and the reality of their circumstances.  Evan expresses that universal truth about going "home" and the tensions inherent in that:   "I hope I've changed.  I better have changed.  Except this morning, arriving here, walking from the station, try as I might, even after seven years away, I still feel from here." 

Duff and Scott-Ramsay are compelling and have a great deal of heavy lifting in a short play: conveying sexual tension, personal difficulties, and an unpleasant hard look back at one's own past.   As the characters opened up and revealed more of their inner struggles, I found myself drawn in by both actors. 

Several days later I find moments and lines in the play coming back to me. Like the haunted characters, I find my memories of the play become more vivid and layered as they are filtered through my own mind over time. Good with People is a rich starting point for the Brits Off Broadway series which will be running through the end of June.

L-R: Blythe Duff and Andrew Scott-Ramsay star in David Harrower's GOOD WITH PEOPLE, launching the 2013 Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. Photos by Carol Rosegg

I received a complimentary ticket to attend this production.

The Last Five Years: Divorce Shiksa Style

Forceful interpretations of moving songs, can't save the Second Stage's revival of The Last Five Years from being painfully on the nose in its direction. In some ways it doesn't matter, as the strength of this material has always been the killer songs and the actors valiantly interpreting the he said-she said emotional minefield that is a couple coming together at the same time the same couple is falling apart.

Taking a page from shows like Merrily We Roll Along and Pinter's Betrayal, the story is told in reverse chronological order by Cathy and in chronological order by Jamie.  Betsy Wolfe is Cathy, a struggling actress who comes home to find out her marriage is ending and from there we see the years roll back and the fractures in this marriage unfold in reverse order ending with their first date. Adam Kantor is Jamie, the up-and-coming author who has fallen for Cathy, his shiksa goddess, and as he becomes more successful in life, his marriage becomes less so. Directed by the composer and lyricist of the piece Jason Robert Brown the structure means that these two characters do not interact with each other except for one moment in the middle.

The songs therefore must lay out the scenes as there is no real dialogue and the emotional content is wholly dependent on the songs. And they do pack a wallop. Opening with the blistering I'm Still Hurting is as raw as you can get. The musical strands repeat throughout and there are hints at happier days in sad songs and sad over notes in happy songs.  The musical works (well that's up for debate but it worked for me enough) because you circle around the blame game for 90 minutes. The performances drive your view of the he-said/she-said-ness. If the actor playing Jamie is a dick too early well...you can't imagine how they got together. If Cathy is too shrill or needy, the same.

Here Betsy Wolfe is an ideal Cathy.  I mean how could you not fall for her breezy, perky, slightly co-dependent Cathy.  She plays Cathy's insecurities lightly but they are there beneath the surface and we see them flit back and forth across her face.  We know this actress, who things are not working out for, but she's trying, putting on a smile and pushing forward while her husband seems to be effortlessly successful.  He wants to be supportive of Cathy but she needs more from him, she wants more from him. Wolfe captures that tugging neediness perfectly. She's a whole person and Wolfe makes her believable from start to finish (or finish to start).

Jamie is moving up quickly and there's no time to wait for Cathy.  I found his trajectory is less clear in this production.  Besides his manic energy and his epic talent (which we keep hearing about-whatevs), there's not much to him except his relentless forward movement.  Until things start to fall apart.  Maybe in this production I just kept seeing Jamie in relation to Cathy and not someone standing on their own (ironic).  That said, Adam Kantor makes Jamie more charming and likable than I would have thought possible.  In what might be the most awful hard truth spoken aloud ever, Jamie sings, "I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy.  I will not lose because you can't win."  Gut-wrenching dickatude.  Cathy leave him and find happiness elsewhere!  Probably not Ohio.  But somewhere.

Kantor doesn't get his voice around the songs all the way through.  He brings more balance to a story where Jamie can feel really slick right out of the gate.  But Wolfe is so radiant it's hard to see why Jamie is pulling away from her. She's hard to take your eyes off of and maybe I felt so much for her Jamie becomes the afterthought here. 

I disliked the over-dependence on digital animation screens and the literal storytelling that went into their design.  I felt like they added little and were distracting. For some reason, rather than embrace the symbolic boat of union and disjunction in the centerpiece of the musical, I found it a little goofy in what should have been a very serious moment.

I'm glad to see Wolfe get a chance to shine here.  But let's give her a starring role and happy ending in her next show!  #TeamWolfe