Intermission Talk 4.14.14

April 15th, 2014

‘The Realistic Joneses,’

and ‘Mothers and Sons’

will travel ‘All the Way’

for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

by TONY VELLELA

Very smart people [or at least, people other people think of as smart], differ on what Gertrude Stein was referring to, when she wrote “There is no there there.”  Was it   Oakland, California?  The big house that once stood on a certain street, but has since been demolished?  The emerging American suburban class?  It was Gertrude’s comment that was the first thing I said to my friend, as we taxied  uptown, when he asked what I thought of Will Eno’s new play, “The Realistic Joneses,” which we’d just seen.  He shared my confusion(s) about the previous one hundred minutes.

Just as someone might admire a jazz quartet’s deft performance skills, but find the piece they’d chosen less than worthy of their talents, individual and collective, it is also like that quartet I admire, or even hold in awe, what the outstanding actors Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei are playing their roles. They have made Eno’s characters appear to possess rare insights, or to have harnessed cosmic truths, or to have conquered fears of their own pending mortalities or to comprehend those other Big Life Mysteries the rest of us can’t even describe.

The Playbill notes tell us that the older couple Joneses, Jennifer [Collette] and Bob [Letts], reside in “a smallish town not far from some mountains, Time: Present.”  The younger Joneses, Pony [Tomei] and Bob [Hall] have just moved into the house next door.  Both couples are childless.  It is revealed that the Messrs. Jones both suffer from a rare, degenerative, neurological, fatal condition, something about abnormal levels of copper intake.  Their disease stands out as the story’s most comprehensible serious fact, since, as in so many other stories down through the millenia, it’s a great candidate for causing dramatic denouement consequences.  The olders live here because the most accomplished specialist in that medical field practices here; the youngers have moved here for the same reason.

Each Jones possesses particular behavioral qualities – not unique, but distinctive – such as Bob’s trouble finding or using the right word to fit his intended meaning, or John’s acerbic, unpredictably-employed wit, or the wide-eyed cheeriness of a Disney character [preferably musical, preferably from the animal or insect kingdom], that gives Pony her perky two-dimensionality.  And these four actors treat us to a truly glorious display of what it means to be a great actor, how to marshal the widest range of facial expressions, judiciously employed pauses, vocal spoken-word virtuosity, expressive body language(s) – the works, performances that are joys to behold!

Eno has us witness what seems like dozens of events involving just about every possible combination four people can make.  Somebody stumbles upon a dead squirrel, and while others ponder burial rites and recite a requiem, another unceremoniously dumps it into a plastic trash bag.  One couple puts a broken lamp out with the trash, but the other husband takes it in, and repairs it, so it gives off light.  The men stare at the night-time sky, but bicker over who looks where.  A one-from-each set couple acknowledge a mutual attraction, and may or may not consummate it.  One wife hears sounds behind a locked bathroom door, but doesn’t offer a guess that they are the sounds of her husband masturbating.  Well-served by the delicate direction of Sam Gold, this A-list cast modulates Eno’s non-sequitors, terse exchanges, elliptical phrasing and banal banter, to construct the types of familiar delivery rhythms anyone weaned on American sitcoms has been conditioned to laugh at.  And, for the most part, audiences who have paid top dollar, oblige.

All this creates an expectation that the aggregate result, having been constructed like those movie trailer clips featuring tantalizing moments, suggestive situations, out-of-context exchanges and revealed emotions, will provide answers, however incomplete, to the basic questions: Who are these people, What are they doing, When and Where are they doing it, and Why.

Eno is being heralded as a wunderkind who has boldly taken that classic five-W’s list, the foundation of any solid news article, or any story worth telling, especially in the traditional ‘well-made play,’ and shredding it, flinging random pieces against a glue-coated wall.  [Jeez, I hope you can follow that!]  Despite how avant-garde, how daring that may sound, “The Realistic Joneses” comes across as a 21st century echo of the post-absurdist theatre that’s been kicking around for maybe three-score-plus years.  Maybe they’re so named to reference Generation Jones, born between the mid-1950s and the early 1960s, noted for their skepticism, unrewarded initial optimism and unmet expectations.  Eno’s Jones ensemble comes across as the theatrical grandchildren of Eugene Ionescu – the mid-twentieth century playwright who eschewed linear plotting structure, using instead an amalgam of sketches and scenes, a description that fits “TRJ.”  After all, some say the surname Jones is derived from the male given name, Ion.  Like Ionescu.

So, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, maybe there is a ‘there’ there, and it’s where the Joneses, older and younger, come to live and die.  There are no pigeons on the grass, alas, just a dead squirrel.

Broadway has welcomed back another family younger – Younger, that is – the three-generation African-American family in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where it premiered in March, 1959.  It remains as relevant as it was then.

In a cramped three-room apartment [common bathroom in the hall] in Chicago’s Southside, sometime between World War II and 1960, live a ten-year-old boy [Travis], his parents [Ruth and Walter Lee], his college-age aunt [Beneatha] and his grandmother [Lena].  Grandmother and aunt share the bedroom.  Parents sleep behind the partitioned, repurposed former breakfast nook.  The boy sleeps on the living room sofa.  The small apartment is, in fact, this play’s sixth ‘character.’

From its opening moments, when Ruth quietly fills coffee cups, takes down a box of cold cereal and picks out eggs from the refrigerator, the effects of that privacy-robbing ‘character’ show plainly in her weary posture.  Ruth, given a tender plainness by Sophie Okonedo,  has not yet shared news of her unplanned pregnancy.   She begins her morning ritual of rousing father and son, warning again that the bathroom will soon be occupied by others.  Soon, all five Youngers are orbiting the kitchen table, a cool autumn Friday morning that looks like any other.  But tomorrow, their world will change.  The postman will deliver a check to Lena, the $10,000 life insurance payout on her deceased husband’s policy.

Denzel Washington portrays the presumed ‘head’ of the family [who in this production is ten years older than Hansberry's original, to accommodate Washington, 59], but overt prejudices of all kinds have kept him in a chauffeur’s uniform, behind the wheel of a wealthy Lake Shore Drive white businessman’s limousine, instead of pursuing his own personal aspirations for financial independence, aspirations in perpetual limbo.

Hansberry selected a line from the pungent Langston Hughes poem, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ to title her masterwork.  Walter Lee’s dream is to buy in as a one-third partner in the purchase of a neighborhood liquor store deal his pals are organizing, and he needs his mother to invest that insurance money.  She has her own dreams.  Lena sees it as a guarantee that her daughter, Beneatha, will complete college and medical school, to become a doctor, itself an almost unheard-of career choice dream for any young, black woman of that time.  Lena would also like to see her struggling, sunlight-deprived family moved into a modest little two-story, to fulfill a dream she and her husband nurtured as newlyweds.  And it is Lena, whose every thought and action reflect a bedrock devotion to her church’s strict tenets, and who is this family’s de facto head, who believes owning a liquor store would violate everything she stands for, and what her late husband would support.  Still, seeing the depths of her son’s disappointments and sense of failure, she makes an unexpected set of decisions.  She puts down a $3,500 deposit on a house, albeit in an all-white community, and gives the rest to Walter Lee, instructing him to set aside, in a savings account, the sum of $3,000 for his sister’s education, and to open a new checking account in his name, a fresh start she hopes will rekindle his spirit. Later, when she’s out, the neighborhood sends a ‘welcoming committee’ representative, to buy back her down payment with a handsome profit, because they believe people are happiest when they are living with others who “share a common background,” because “our Negroes are happier when they live in their own communities.”   Newly-empowered as head of his family, Walter Lee orders him to get out.

Director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the most recent Broadway revival [2004], keeps the action on a low burner, even when Ruth reveals that she has put down a deposit for an abortion.   Walter Lee disobeys Lena, turning over the entire $6,500, in cash, to his would-be partners, and it is when Bobo visits and admits sheepishly that the third pal has absconded with all the money they both gave him, to finalize the deal, that Washington flares up convincingly.   His plan to realign their fate:

call the ‘welcomer’ and take their money, in exchange for tearing up the deed.  When he arrives, check in hand, he is met by a changed Walter Lee, the reborn son of his parents’ faith, pride and sense of the true worth of freedom, who turns him away.  And when Lena appears to give in and accept defeat, it is Ruth who vows “to wash every floor in America,” and who admonishes the other three adults to cover the monthly mortgage payments.

The moments when Walter Lee breaks into a near minstrel-show routine, showing how he will welcome ‘the man,’ some in the audience I saw it with cheered his choice to sell out, to barter his integrity, his dignity and the faith his parents taught him, for his own pay-back check.  Was it the force and power of Washington’s convincing delivery?  Don’t know.  Do know that this playwright, the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, would shudder at that reaction.

“A Raisin in the Sun” stands as one of the best examples of a seemingly simple set of story lines held together by colloquial language of an era, by the ease of taking place in one unfussy set, by giving us carefully-drawn, specific, comprehensible characters tied together by relatable relationships, and by another almost always underrated component, a sense of humor.

If there is anything that would enhance this production, and bring it even more in line with Hansberry’s skilled creation, it would be to allow the script’s moments of levity to break out, as when Ruth responds to Beneatha, who wonders what whites are so afraid of.  Beneatha: “What do they think we are going to do – eat ‘em?”  Ruth:  “No, honey, marry ‘em.”

Tribute must be paid to actor Stephen McKinley Henderson [Bobo], whose history with this play goes back at least a quarter of a century, when he played the same role in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival, and the subsequent transfer to the PBS American Playhouse television film.  It was very gratifying to see that Henderson received some well-deserved entrance applause.

[This play is on my short list of contemporary American classics, and during the first three Thursday nights in May, I'll be conducting a class at the 92nd St. Y that explores all its aspects.  I'm also presenting segments of the in-depth interviews I did for my PBS series 'Character Studies, including Audra McDonald, Joe Morton and Phylicia Rashad, as well as original Broadway director Lloyd Richards, and original cast members John Fiedler and Ruby Dee.  For more information, go to 92Y.org/classes and enter 'Understanding Raisin in the Sun' in the Search bar.  Join me.]

It’s invisible, but there’s a bold straight line from the Youngers to the Johnsons.  Of course, Lena Younger’s dream house was that little two-story in Clybourne Park. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s was considerably larger, with two-story columns in front and its color long ago gave it its name – the White House.

And LBJ got there by the grisliest turn of events – the assassination of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, and JFK’s blood had barely dried before his Texas veep had taken the oath office as our 36th President and Commander-in-Chief.

In Robert Schenkkan’s epic nearly three-hour “All the Way,” Johnson tries to balance epic-sized elements that shape his journey, from the man chosen for the second spot on the ticket because of the votes that came with naming a Texan, to the man elected to the top spot, despite the baggage that came with nominating one to be President.  Johnson, and his devoted better half businesswoman Lady Bird, carried in their hearts the deep convictions required to steam-roll America’s colorful, cantankerous and churlish Congress into passing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It outlawed the kind of housing discrimination Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger family bravely confronted.

Years ago, that no-nonsense film critic Judith Crist used to call those fictional Hollywood epics jam-packed with second-tier stars ‘Hey there…’ pictures.  ‘Hey there, it’s Elsa Lanchester.’  ‘Hey there, it’s Red Buttons.’  “All the Way” unspools with its own version of what Mrs. Crist used to do, only here, it’s the people who moved and shook that era . . .  elected, appointed, anointed or self-appointed, but always political.  During that year-long campaign to election night, in November, 1964, [this play gets its title from the slogan 'All the Way with LBJ!], Johnson used every tactic, every strategy, every owed but not yet redeemed favor, every roll-able pork barrel, every Congressional – hell, you surely get the idea.  The man knew where every little governmental gear switch was, what it controlled, and he was a genius at the business of flipping those switches.

Even the most accomplished actors can feel intimidated when cast to portray a larger-than-life historical figure.  And while Bryan Cranston possesses a passing resemblance with Johnson, as an actor, he chose to do what the best actors have always done when faced with this challenge – capture and present the essence, and forget about trying to become a carbon copy.  Your knowledge of Lyndon – personal or political, public or private – will provide what you need, to know you’re viewing an electrifying performance from Cranston, an almost non-stop marathon of back-slapping, joking, cajoling, wheedling, everything that made LBJ such a master.

To appreciate fully what Schenkkan, Cranston and director Bill Rauch have managed to create, one should have some working knowledge of that time in America, and it is laudably masterful.  Without it, all you’ll experience is a commendably-presented ‘hey there,’ evening, featuring Hubert Humphrey, Roy Wilkins, Strom Thurmond, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Sen. Maurine Neuberger, Sen. Robert Byrd, Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert McNamara, Katharine Graham and a couple dozen of their best friends and worst enemies.  If you can’t attach a few relevant facts to at least half the names on this list, find a great documentary about that year, watch it, then visit the Neil Simon Theatre.

The politics that underscore Terrence McNally’s new play “Mothers and Sons” owe much of their ’shape’ and ‘form’ to how civil rights activists and their nemesis counterparts confronted what they wanted to address, in particular, discrimination based on race.  Marriage equality for gay men and lesbians barely registered on the radar screens of American society when LBJ focused on passage of his legacy legislation.  And the remotest possibility of it becoming a reality seemed like it would become a casualty of the HIV epidemic.  McNally’s never-seen character Andre did become one.

Set in the present, in a to-die-for Central Park West apartment, two people stand silent and motionless when the play begins.  And for what seems like twenty or so minutes [it's probably more like three or four], the tall, lanky fortyish man [Frederick Weller] and the well-dressed, middle-aged woman [Tyne Daly] finally permit the smallest of talk, about the view, the wall of windows, even the weather, to fill the empty air.  Is this a real estate agent showing the place to a perspective buyer?  With the dropping of a few personal-referring nouns and the shifting of verb tenses from present to past, we finally realize that he, Cal, lives there, and that she, Katharine, has stopped in almost impulsively, en route to Europe.  Two decades ago, her son Andre, and Cal, were in a committed, long-term relationship which the virus ended.  Here, now, the two most important people in Andre’s life are in the same room, talking about nothing.

McNally brings them together to affect a reconciliation, however forced or insubstantial, but events of their shared past have since been overshadowed by very recent others – Cal is now married to the younger, less encumbered Will, fifteen years Cal’s junior, [Bobby Steggert] and the two have an outgoing, curious and endearing young son, Bud [Grayson Taylor].  Instead of finding a blank canvas where she can paint her grievances about Cal’s perceived failure to canonize her son, Katherine instead finds one splattered with vivid hues, new shapes, coloring outside the lines.  The offer to review and share items from a box of items Andre left behind, shipped to Katherine and now returned to Cal is made to appear like an intrusion, a prodding to revive Andre’s memory, and the mere existence of the loving relationship he shared with Cal should, Katherine feels, be part of Bud’s personal story.

McNally wants us to understand the yellowing memories of a recent past, a devastating time that very nearly killed off two generations of a community that was already forced to self-sacrifice its rightful place in American society.  For Katherine, and all the mothers who may have belatedly. and likely begrudgingly accepted who and what their sons were, having no living person to be connected to can lead, as she admits, to thoughts of suicide. She has more anger than places she has to inflict it.  And finding her presumed potential former son-in-law contentedly kissing a new mate generates even more, despite Cal’s earnest attempt to move on.

It takes some real sleuthing to unearth, to define all the hurts and grievances, the unrealized expectations that all three adults carry.  The new married couple seem to believe that their happy union is a testament to the kind of loving that Andre hoped to experience during a long life.  The unsettled mother can’t fully heal a wound she can’t fully locate.

While it plays like the device that it is, young Bud’s earnest request that Katherine be his new grandmother at least puts an unearned coda on the proceedings.  All four cast members deliver smooth, comfortable performance, though more creativity from director Sheryl Kaller would enliven the proceedings, which even at a running time of ninety minutes seems long.

On Book

Other plays from Terrence McNally, written closer to the time that “Mothers and Sons” seeks to recall, will give you a more authentic window into that time.  I recommend getting acquainted with his “Lisbon Traviata” [1989], “Lips Together! Teeth Apart” [1991] and “Love! Valour! Compassion!” [1995], as well as any McNally collection that includes “Andre’s Mother,” a short play written in 1988 which gave birth to our Katherine and Cal. . . Reading Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Kentucky Cycle,” can seem daunting when you pull it off the book shelf, but the writing is compelling, and remarkably, reading it permits you to stop, savor, re-read and even pause to research something or somebody.  Same thing with “All the Way.”

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TONY VELLELA wrote the award-winning play ‘Admissions,’ published by Playscripts.  His ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre’ is published by ArtAge Publications.  He wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre ‘Character Studies.’  He begins a new series of classes in May at the 92nd St. Y – go to 92Y.org/classes and enter ‘Understanding A Raisin in the Sun’ in the Search bar.

Intermission Talk 3/6/14

March 7th, 2014

Does “London Wall” Lead

To “The Bridges of Madison

County?”  Read on, read on.

by TONY  VELLELA

If he has any kind of superstitious nature, Jason Robert Brown, in future, should tread very carefully when involved with any project that’s got a large tree on stage.  The set for his Tony-winning “Parade” was dominated by a towering dead hanging tree, and that show suffered from a scrambled plot line that robbed the audience from feeling the pathos at the heart of the story.  In the new musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” a large, leafy tree anchors the Iowa landscape, the only actual natural element in front of lush, Technicolor scenes projected on the back wall, an apt representation of the contrast between this production’s genuine and disingenuous elements.  Fortunately, leads Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale manage to carve out a few scenes that burst through, with heart-stopping passion.

This is Iowa farm country, circa mid-sixties.  Italian war bride Francesca [O'Hara] has long since carved out her comfortable routine, caring for her farmer husband Bud [Hunter Foster] and now teen-aged children Carolyn [Caitlin Kinnunen] and Michael [Derek Klena].  When her family embarks on a trip to the Iowa State Fair, an event whose charm Francesca does not appreciate, she covets the prospect of four solitary days and nights.  On the first day of that respite, a handsome photographer on assignment for National Geographic to photograph the county’s wooden covered bridges, drives up and asks her for directions.  It’s meet cute, the corn country version.

It’s based on Iowa native Robert James Waller’s wildly popular 1985 novel, which was adapted for the screen in 1992, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.  Like its progenitors, this musical is unapologetically uber-romantic, at a time when Broadway doesn’t usually reward such a choice, but can find a place for it when a production finds the right balance – i.e. “Once.”

Here, its creative team of book writer Marsha Norman, composer-lyricist Brown, and director Bartlett Sher struggle to give us the basic components that would successfully combine to make it a kind of love tragedy.  There’s much to like, including the haunting “Another Life,” sung by Whitney Bashor, as Robert’s ex-wife, in a guitar-accompanied solo that echoes that era’s Joni Mitchell.  It also provides his first flat-out, front and center showpiece musical theatre lead role for Pasquale, who has the same rare combination of all-man virility, stage presence grace and powerhouse vocal chops that equal the strengths of Hugh Jackman.

And best of all is Kelli O’Hara.  She’s been cast in a variety of roles that all share that pretty or spunky blonde quality ['South Pacific," "Pajama Game," "Nice Work If You Can Get It"] and finally – maybe it’s the Neapolitan dark-haired wig – she’s been liberated, unshackled, able to tackle the role of an adult woman, with serious conflicts, buried disappointments, lost dreams and layers of responsibilities to people she loves.  Francesca, thanks to how Norman chose to depict her, retains the wide scope of dramatic facets afforded to Streep in Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay [result: Oscar nomination for her].  Likely result: Tony nomination  # 5 for O’Hara.  At least.

The bad or flawed choices can’t be overlooked, because they rob the piece of fulfilling its really grand potential, aligning it with some of  the most memorable, affecting mid-last-century musicals, such as “Carousel.”  This, for instance, is Iowa, a fairly empty place if you’re talking numbers of people per square mile. Bud and Francesca and kids live on a sprawling farm, with only one family across the street, and lucky for us, it provides another chance to enjoy the wonderful Cass Morgan.  Yet, once Francesca’s family has left town, you’d think she’d be pretty alone.  But, no.  There are unnamed people dragging in fences and positioning set pieces, with others silently, visibly seated on straight-back chairs on either side of the stage.  Are they meant to be witnesses?  To what end?  Is this “Our Town – the Iowa version?”  It means that we rarely connect with the so-necessary feeling of solitude Francesca at first welcomes, and then, when Robert becomes a live-in guest, counts on.  Even when they’re finally in bed together, there are these other unnamed people around.  Mood killer.  The staginess of having these folks moving around in front of farm country projections couldn’t help but put me in mind of the hokey musical scenes injected into the film version of  “Country Girl,” to accommodate casting Bing Crosby in the lead.  Tellingly, the musical high point comes at the close of the first act, when the lovers meld into each other’s voices and arms, alone on stage, singing probably the best song Brown has ever crafted, the enchanting “Falling Into You.”

Ultimately, this is and should be a small story, two people who ignite all kinds of unrealized passions, confronting the possibility of making undefined fantasies into realities, however dangerous and remote that may be.  Those heightened feelings are literally given full voice whenever the rich, textured, lush sounds of Kelli O’Hara are allowed to soar.

Look at how John Van Druten chose to title his play “London Wall.”  Inside London there is a specific area known as the City of London, stretching between Aldersgate Street and Bishops Gate, and among the major thoroughfares is one named London Wall.  Financial and legal firms make up most of its occupants.  The office of Van Druten’s fictional solicitors Walker, Windermere & Co. is among them.

This newly-revived work, which shifts between W W & Co.’s general office and that of senior partner Walker’s office, was heralded when it premiered in 1931 for its frank depiction of how young women functioned in the business world.  The still innocent novice stenographer, nineteen-year-old Pat Milligan [sympathetically played by doe-eyed Elise Kibler] and the world-weary senior secretary, thirty-five year-old Miss Janus [given the fearless candor of a dozen Eve Arden roles by Julia Coffey] depict the opposite ends of the lives of women working in post Great War Britain.  And true to his career-long style of giving audiences credible characters instead of stick-figure symbols in his plays, Van Druten calls this one “London Wall,” a place.  These women, and the other distaff staffers, are individuals, who they are because of where they are, and when they are there.

Britain experienced the deaths of 956, 703 young men, with an additional 2.2 million+ wounded, meaning the loss of that many young male workers in all segments of the economy, and that many young potential husbands in all segments of society.  Result: unprecedented numbers of job openings now filled by women, hired often begrudgingly by 19th century generation bosses.  And, the drastic shortage of eligible [forget desirable] bachelors.  Miss Milligan, Miss Janus and their co-workers, socialized to pin their survival by making a prudent marriage, became easy targets for predatory men who looked like viable prospects, when, in fact, they were so many dapper foxes loose in so many oak-paneled henhouses.

Over the course of two days, Van Druten’s law firm world takes a few body blows to its smooth-running constitution.  The resident lothario, Mr. Brewer, shows an appropriately obsequious side to his boss, and an equally false solicitude to the women in the office, both done to perfection by Stephen Brewer.  His latest target for conquest is Milligan, an orphan, ill-prepared to resist his sweet-talk, his casual invitations to dinner and the theatre, and his polished practice of escalating his familiarities.  When she finally turns down his invitation to dine in his flat, he corners her in the now-empty late afternoon general office, a full-force assault that could easily end in rape.  Only the unexpected arrival of Walker interrupts him.

Janus, meanwhile, has been offering encouragement to young Hec, a callow, gangly office boy who works in the same building, and can’t seem to figure out how to express his love for Milligan.  As a possible husband candidate, Hec seems to Milligan to be lacking in career possibilities, especially compared to Brewer, an established solicitor at a reputable firm.  The situation for young women, who have very limited opportunities to rise very far in the business world of 1931, and very little interest in doing so, seems to favor cads like Brewer, and trump Hec’s sincerity and charming lack of guile.  Hec could easily serve as a template for Matt, the boy of  “The Fantasticks.”

The day-in, day-out routine is founded on a pattern familiar to anyone who recalls the PBS series “Upstairs, Downstairs,” or currently, the addictive “Downton Abbey.”  While those domestic worlds include both genders, the office world has, forgive me, the men on top and the women on the bottom.  Van Druten tells this story from the women’s POV, making clear just how little control they have over anything – their pay scale, their responsibilities, their schedules.  Alongside Janus and Milligan, we see two other co-workers – the skillfully flirtatious Miss Bufton [played with comic confidence by Katie Gibson,] sporting a vivid blonde coif that owes its sheen to something out of a bottle, and ready for a good time for as long as it lasts, and the good-girl, good-wife-to-be Miss Hooper [given a muted appeal by Alex Trow],  who proudly shares the glisten of her newly-acquired diamond engagement ring with the other girls.  She’ll be leaving soon.

What tips the balance of this well-ordered dynamic is a brutal act visited on Janus.  After investing seven long years as a dutiful mistress to a married lover, she learns, in a clandestine, brief phone conversation, that he’s calling it quits, leaving for America that night.  Still in shock at this turn of events the next morning, she learns from Miss Hooper that her heartless cad was killed in an accident hours after the phone call.  Suddenly clear-eyed, Janus informs Walker that she’s giving her notice, after devoting fifteen years to the firm.  Her personal resources are limited, but to her, she boldly looks forward to enjoying this new-found freedom from the dual caged roles of being a secretary forever and being always a mistress/never a wife.  It’s female empowerment, and she doesn’t let the uncertainties scare her.  And in a generous act of sisterhood, she escalates her attentions on the Pat-Hec stalemate, and takes real joy in orchestrating a scenario that results in them becoming an actual couple.

“London Wall” is laced with light-hearted, humorous moments, to leaven the serious, even dark ones, and under Davis McCallum’s brisk direction, we can savor all of them.

And once again, the Mint Theatre Company creates a marvelous environment for a period play to play in.  Tiny, era-perfect details in set decoration, props and costuming insure that we are brought fully into this world.  Special credit goes to Marion Williams [sets], Martha Hally [costumes], Gerard Kelly [wigs] and Joshua Yocom [props].  They demonstrate how valuable the contribution can be, when designers are in sync with the script, and with each other.

My best memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman goes back fifteen years.  Ana Ortiz was part of a cast that was doing readings of a new musical of mine, and she invited me to see her in a new play by a playwright she thought was outstanding.  The play was “In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Hoffman was its director.  This bare-bones production was being presented in a small, kind of barren second-story space somewhere in the west twenties.  When you reached the top of the stairs, holding open the door to the theatre was a broadly smiling Phil Hoffman.  His expression was pure joy – like the kid who just unwrapped the Christmas present that contained exactly what he hoped for.  Among all my memories of this gifted and talented man, on stage and off, this is the one I am happiest to recall.

Afterpieces

If you are not among the 4 million people who have enjoyed the exhilarating  “War Horse” when it galloped through Lincoln Center a few seasons back, you’ve got another chance to hop into that saddle.  Britain’s National Theatre Live Program has partnered with venues around the world to screen Nick Stafford’s explosive creation, and New Yorkers native or visiting can experience it at Symphony Space at west 95th street and Broadway.  The first of six showings takes place on Sunday, March 16 at 2 PM, with five more spread out on different days of the week, ending on Wednesday, April 16 at 2 PM.  Visit www.symphonyspace.org for details.

A different kind of partnership has successfully entered its fifth year.  The Broadway Green Alliance, teamed with the National Resources Defense Council, has already achieved significant accomplishments in its quest to convert, redesign and examine every aspect of every Broadway production, to implement sound, effective environmental policies.  Broadway theatres have replaced all their marquee and outside lighting with energy-efficient bulbs [more than 10,000 and counting!], saving approximately 700 tons of carbon emissions a year.  It can also count the switching to environmentally preferable cleaning products and appliances too numerous to count, as well as the creation of recycling, water filtration and energy efficiency programs as further evidence of its success.  And now, they have begun a campaign that will share what they’ve learned with any off- and off-off Broadway production, and they encourage producers and company managers and persons in charge, at regional theatres, summer theatres and amateur theatre groups, as well as those in charge of the budgets and administration of high school, college and university theatre programs.  This ambitious, dedicated initiative has brick-and-mortar offices in Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Beijing extending the on-the-ground reach of its New York home base.  And for those who live and work and play elsewhere, they’re just a click away – rsale@broadwaygreen.com.

Another project to celebrate is the new Negro Ensemble Company Monday Night Reading Series at the Pershing Square Signature Center, which launches on Monday, March 17.  My depressingly tiny one-room apartment on Avenue B meant I could walk to where the original NEC productions lit up the Lower East Side back in 1967, in an unassuming loft-like space above the St. Marks Playhouse.  The announcement of this new project, where previously unseen plays by NEC alumni including Leslie Lee March, Micki Grant and Samm-Art Williams.  Promise yourself now that you will check it all out at nectheatr@aol.com – no ‘e’ right before the ‘@’, please, or ring them up at 212-582-9639.

On Book

John Van Druten has been heralded ever since his first plays were done, back in the early thirties.  To get a better understanding of why he is so highly thought of, especially by fellow writers, you should pick up the play scripts for three of his best.   They’re all published by Dramatists Play Service.  “I Remember Mama” chronicles the lives of Norwegian immigrants in the early part of the turn of the last century, and the play [the Broadway premiere featured Marlon Brando] was followed by a popular film, and then a popular television series of the same name.  Van Druten adapted his good friend Christopher Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories” into a spiky, stunning play, “I Am A Camera,” which was the basis for the musical “Cabaret.”  The Broadway premiere featured Julie Harris as Sally.  And in yet another vein, his comedy “Bell, Book and Candle” starred Lilli Palmer in its premiere, a role handled memorably in the film by Kim Novak.

News that a play about the life of Moss Hart is coming to Broadway should lead you to the charming, very readable biography of the acclaimed writer and director, “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” by Jared Brown, published by Back Stage Books.

To discover nine plays that share a heritage with the Negro Ensemble Theatre, pick up or order “Black Theatre U.S.A. – Plays By African-Americans, The Recent Period, 1935 – Today.”  This revised and expanded edition, published by The Free Press, was edited by James V. Hatch and Ted Shine.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series “Character Studies,” about theatre.  His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts.  He has covered the performing arts for more than forty years for dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade and Theatre Week.  He will soon present a three-part series of sessions on “A Raisin in the Sun” at the 92nd Street Y, starting the first Thursday in May.  He continues to teach small group classes and conduct coaching sessions for actors, playwrights and directors, and can be reached at tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

Intermission Talk

January 22nd, 2014

You’re Always ‘Beautiful,’

Before and ‘After Midnight’

by TONY VELLELA

There’s a line in a song, the title of which I can’t remember, that goes ‘…everything old is new again.’  And I’m here to give thanks to a few very welcome talents, whose creativity lifts two current musicals from productions that could quite easily have devolved into predictable derivatives, taking some seemingly old components and elevating them into true causes for celebration – one in the world of singing, the other in the realm of dance.

The ’singing’ one first.  There wasn’t much real buzz in the lead-up to the public’s introduction to “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical.”  Shoulders shrugged.  Jukebox musical.  No marquee name.  Limited generational appeal.  Pundits and critics alike geared up to pronounce it a likely pale imitation of the powerhouse mega-hit musical “Jersey Boys.”  Un-shrug those shoulders.  “Beautiful” is not an imitation anything.  Like the woman on whose life the story is based, it’s an original.

And oddly enough, the realities of that woman’s life contribute many of the reasons why this show succeeds.  For a start, it IS a woman’s life, a woman whose coming-of-age, both personally and professionally, closely tracked the evolving roles of and for women during the third quarter of the last century, when society was willingly reinventing itself post-WWII, and soon after, seeing those new norms shattered.  King was a young teen-ager when the Hit Parade routinely featured Patti Page ['Too Young to Go Steady,' 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?, 'Tennessee Waltz'].  Waiting in the wings when King was churning out her own Hit Parade chart toppers was a teen-aged Janis Joplin.

Married and pregnant [in reverse order] at age 17, she willingly melded her identities – college student, young  mother, nascent composer and long-suffering yet willing supporter to her collaborator-husband, Gerry Goffin.  Her unshakeable drive to have her songs recorded finally paid off when an adventurous record producer Don Kirschner [portrayed likeably by Jeb Brown] was just beginning to hitch his wagon to the dream of signing artists who knew how to appeal to the lucrative pop music audience.  And for a few years, King and Goffin [played with conflicted conviction by Jake Epstein] ride this wave.  Song after song, such as ‘Up on the Roof,’ ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ cemented their place in the pop-rock world.  Their only rivals were the writing team Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil [Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen[, whose output included 'On Broadway' and 'You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling.'  Fortunately, this real-life couples friendship permits that duo to fill the familiar, traditional roles of best friends in this story.

With all this success, King was initially unable or unwilling to acknowledge how her marriage was beginning to fray, victim to her husband's adulterous habits, drug-taking and undiagnosed mental illness.  Making it worse was his indiscriminate choice of young women who were also part of this still-emerging, still small universe, where talent and creators mixed and mingled in the legendary midtown Brill Building.  Finally, having carried the lion's share of parenting to their two daughters, and pinning her little-girl fantasy of settling into a suburban version of "Father Knows Best," meant to accomplish what her parents did not, she shook herself hard, and broke free.

So, you may be saying to yourself - young pregnant-then-married woman, juggling family and career, liberates herself from unfaithful husband.  This is not a new story, with quirky twists and a predictable police presence.  And you know what?  You're right - and - that's the point.  What makes 'Beautiful' the stand-out work that it is, and what has made King's music so enduring, is that her personal journey mirrored the journeys of so many thousands of other young women at the time.  And she was able to take that fact, and translate it into material that was inescapably accessible.  And because it speaks to the complications of all human relationships, it transcends time, place, age, gender and circumstances.  No uber-melodramatic crises.  Like one of King's most impressive and lasting numbers, that gave Aretha Franklin one of her most memorable hits, Carole King is, proudly, a Natural Woman.

Professionally, King was almost dragged bodily to the microphone, to perform solo at the Bitter End, scoring a victory for her still-developing roster of talents.  She was at the head of the pack of this new phenomenon in music, singer-songwriters.  And unlike most of the best ones [Dylan heads the list], she’s a woman.  This time, waiting in the wings are the likes of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro.  Years later, when I was writing for the underground rock/alternatives paper Crawdaddy, she teamed with another s/s, James Taylor – seeing them together in concert remains an indelible good-vibrations memory for me.

Credit to Doug McGrath [book] and Marc Bruni [direction] for understanding and implementing the necessary restraint needed to resist any temptation to distract us from this woman’s simple [however traumatic] story.  Simple does not have to mean inferior, or lazily-crafted or careless.  At least, not here.

Which has made it all the more possible for this lucky convergence of circumstances to play themselves out. This is a story about how the struggle, the challenge, the obstacles and the rewards that shape the central character’s life have come to be embodied in the stunning performance of Jessie Mueller.  Her singing voice captivates, holding our attention because it sounds so unforced.  Her acting choices do not obfuscate the truth of her character’s conflicted feelings – nothing showy here, nothing false.  And that’s why we like, root for, listen to and applaud her character.  Mueller herself has finally landed a role that permits this un-showy anti-diva the great opportunity to electrify an audience, with a lone grand piano, a somewhat shy demeanor and a vocal talent as big as Brooklyn.  We’re lucky to be around to enjoy it, live, on stage and free of unnecessary extra production ‘values.’  We celebrate her thrilling singing.

Now, for the ‘dance’ one.  The fresh music revue “After Midnight” showcases the talents of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, and their artistic director Wynton Marsalis.  Emerging from a series of developmental productions that were part of City Center’s Encores! series, “After Midnight” stitches together songs from the jazz era, when Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, E. Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Cab Calloway and others regularly blew the roof off Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club, in the ’20s and ’30s.

The revue format permits an audience to take in the work of different creators, without the constraints of needing to serve the dictates of a ‘book.’  There’s often a hint at an attempt at continuity, and in this case, the versatile and charming Dule Hill obliges, serving as a friendly narrator, keeping the proceedings loosely within the frame of honoring the Cotton Club’s iconic reputation as the home of the hottest jazz in town.  In its heydey, it welcomed talent from uptown and down, to drop in after the twelve o’clock hour, and jam.  Muted, wailing cornets sparred with seductive, sly trombones.  Insistent drum lines struggled to keep peppery clarinets in their place.  And a couple of strong hands on the piano freely mixed the white keys with the black, even though it was black talent on the bandstand, and whites-only faces at the tables.

If this were simply a concert, you would leave happy.  But, thanks to director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, music supervisor, arranger and conductor Daryl Waters and their assistants, the dancing in “After Midnight” spills over the footlights, throwing off sparks in all directions.

American musical theatre suffered a real drought in the choreography department a few decades back, thanks to the rise of the British imports such as “Phantom” and “Les Miz,” where characters sing, sang and sung their way through the entire show.  It took that force of nature Susan Stroman to reintroduce Broadway audiences to the fun and pleasure of watching a show that danced as well as sang -1992’s “Crazy for You.”  What follows has been a string of great musicals featuring memorable choreography, by Stroman and others.

Along comes an original piece starring great, classic jazz numbers, twenty-five in all.  Also starring – eye-popping dance.  Perhaps the dance numbers benefit from not needing to contribute to the progression of a book’s story lines.  More than likely, however, this looks to me like an outstanding example of real theatrical collaboration, where the above-mentioned creatives sought to animate each individual song, using its individual story or message or feeling, with arrangements shaped to provide a choreographer with choices, with internal patterns to emphasize, and in this case, to infuse all of them with an element that has been all but missing in most choreography – a sense of wit and whimsy.

The usual tyranny of the rule of honoring balance – if there are four dancers to the left, there are four to the right.  If a new step begins with the first dancer on the right, each successive dancer in the line, in absolute, strict sequence, picks up that new step until the whole line is doing it, at the same time.  Think of the Rockettes.  When symmetry is called for, you get it, and more, when precision has its own rewards.  Back when black-and-white short subject cartoons played before the headliner feature movie, also during the Cotton Club era, theatres would often show delightful creations from Max Fleischer.  If you’ve ever seen one, you’ll recall with a smile how musical numbers starred posture-perfect characters, marching in perfect unison, not a misstep to be seen.

Here, happily, each moment promises the possibility of a surprise.  Julius ‘iGlide’ Chisholm and Virgil Gadson, for instance, rip into ‘Hottentot’ with infectious glee.  Chisholm appears to have discovered a way of disconnecting parts of his body, only to reassemble them in another formation, all keeping in time with the glorious sounds of authentic jazz.  Contrary to its title, Jared Grimes takes ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing’ and shows us that it certainly does – what it means is Grimes has been given a specialty number that seems to re-invent tap-dancing, infusing his happy feet with keen moves that defy our own feet from remaining flat on the floor.

Of course, with this treasure trove of material to draw from, the show provides ample opportunities for a delectable array of musical specialties.  A very sly Adriane Lenox wrings the last drop of humor from “Women Be Wise,”  and later, admonishing other members of her sex, fingers waggling, pointedly warning to tell their men to “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.”  Similar to the Club’s history of inviting special guest musicians to join in, “After Midnight” plans to honor that tradition, starting with Fantasia Barrino, who skyrocketed to the top following her performances on TV’s “American Idol.”  The list of future guests includes Toni Braxton, Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds and K. D. Lang.

And if your acquaintance with Dule Hill has heretofore been limited to the small screen ['The West Wing," "Psych"], meet singer/dancer Dule Hill.  His stage musicals credits include replacing Savion Glover in “The Tap Dance Kid” and stand-out work in “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk.”  Hill possesses a kind of casual insouciance that dares you to look away whenever he’s on stage.  And, really, why would you?

There are dozens of reasons to welcome these two shows and wish them a long and happy stay, including the fact that these are NEW shows, not revivals.  The only thing they revive is your chance to settle into your seat, lean back a little, and take it all in.  You’re welcome.

On Book

If you’ve taken in the new film version of “August: Osage County” and found that you liked it, but didn’t love it, I suggest you visit the source.  Even though the picture’s screenplay was adapted by the playwright, Tracy Letts, he has noted that sacrifices must always be made in this translation process.  For me, a goodly amount of the bite and sting that hit me squarely on the nose [all three productions], is missing from the picture, despite the presence of mega-wattage stars Streep and Roberts, et al.  Pick up the original stage play, and you’ll see what I mean.

Since “After Midnight” honors the music of the Cotton Club era, you will enjoy the new biography “Duke – A Life of Duke Ellington,” by Terry Treachout, who performed the same service to another jazz legend, in his “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.”

And if you’re looking for an opportunity to introduce your kids to theatre, and drag them away from their ever-flickering small screens, here’s a heads-up.  Now in its 18th year, “Kids’ Night on Broadway” has expanded to venues across the country.  This marvelous project lets children between 6 and 18 see participating shows for free, for FREE, when accompanied by a paying adult.  The list of shows and cities is too long to list here, so check out kidsnightonbroadway.com for details.

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TONY VELLELA’s play “Admissions,” which received three New York productions, directed by Austin Pendleton, won the Best Play award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  He wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His articles have appeared in dozens of publications, from The Christian Science Monitor to Rolling Stone, from USA Today to Dramatics Magazine.  His documentary “The Test of Time” won a CableAce Award in the docu category.  He has taught at Columbia University-Teachers College, HB Studio, Lehman College and other locations, and continues to teach small-group classes on theatre subjects, and conduct private coaching sessions, and can be reached at tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

Intermission Talk 12/15/13

December 15th, 2013

‘Struck’ by boredom

while ‘Waiting for Godot?’

Try ‘A Gentleman’s Guide

to Love and Murder’

by TONY VELLELA

So-called experimental theatre, at least in my personal experience, registers like hearing the national anthem of Kyrgystan sung in its native language.  But every now or then, a piece emerges that begs to be seen.  Playing at HERE on Dominick Street is one of those.  “Struck,” described as ‘. . . a new performance about neurology, the workings of the mind, and one woman’s walk on the razor’s edge between life and death.’  And damned if it doesn’t succeed!

No, it’s not a classroom lecture for medical interns, a tale triggered by lightning, a historical study of a management-labor dispute or even a baseball story about a player who can’t get a hit.

A middle-aged woman steps away from her garden and drops the flower she was holding.  From that moment on, almost everything in her life also falls away – her ability to communicate, to distinguish between imagination’s inventions and the brain’s failure to absorb reality.   You watch as her grab-bag of sensory input pulls her into a private, personal Never Never Land, as the very real physical consequences of a carotid artery event plunge her into an almost non-being state.  A brief clip of Tinkerbell whisking us into The Wonderful World of Disney sets the mood.

But it has really funny moments, clever visuals using only a few sliding translucent fabric curtains defining spaces, video clips of her brain’s innards doing a helter-skelter dance, and a fighting spirit that insists on pulling her back to her real world.  Actress Tannis Kowalchuk suffered a major stroke in 2011.  She chose to pull together collaborators from the worlds of neurology, design, playwriting and theatre to weave this mesmerizing journey.  Its easy pace unspools in a tidy seventy minutes, avoiding theatrical trickery. In its stead is a genuine motivation to welcome anyone into this victim’s universe, using a scant few props, a doctor’s examining table, video snatches, live and recorded music and an overhead  umbrella of cotton shapes threaded with changing colored lights.

You know you’ve put up with a lot of less-than-remarkable stage work this year.  Let 2013 end with the kind of production that merits your time, attention and appreciation.

The kind of appreciation you will have after seeing Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” at the Cort Theatre, [in rep with Pinter's "No Man's Land"] partly depends on whether you’ve seen other productions.  This one seems to be going for the laughs.

Beckett’s 1950 classic overflows with unanswered metaphysical, cosmological and metapsychological  ponderings.  Two old guys inhabit a bleak landscape, wandering through its nearly featureless topography, [time and place unspecified], speculating on the arrival of some character they refer to as Godot.  [We are learning how to pronounce his name correctly.  It's not Guh-DOH.  It's GAHH-doh.]  Speculation centers on whether or not he has the answers to what’s being pondered.

This time, director Seth Mathias has paired Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the senior members, with Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup entering the picture a few times in the roles of master catalyst and slave catalyst.  Mathias, surely with the approval of Stewart and McKellen, has them expending a goodly amount of patience, kind of with the same wide-eyed acceptance of life’s inequalities and mysteries as Beckett’s Winnie, in “Happy Days.”  It’s not news that both veterans know how to inflect a phrase.  Here, that delivery seems to have its roots in Music Hall fare.  The catalysts, though infected with the same impulses, are a simpler pair.  Crudup in particular, breaks through the pervading drive to lighten things up, and he does so with more than good comic timing.  This time, Crudup’s skill makes his character Lucky multi-faceted, however muted those facets may be.  It’s always a delicious pleasure to witness Stewart and McKellan, and here, they are the consummate actors, a bit at the expense of their characters – they come across like other-world Sunshine Boys.  Maybe Godot is Neil Simon.

The most rollicking place where Brits willingly and memorably pop the entertainment buttons on their tweedy vests is in the Music Hall.  Right now, the best place where you can really really get the full measure of that style, complete with music, is in the new Brit import, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

And if you love a good murder, you are in for a special treat – this one’s just for you, because it offers up, tempered of course with a treasure trove of bright and shiny musical numbers, nine of them.

If the story line feels a little familiar, it’s probably because you’re a lover of mid last century British slightly off-kilter comedies.  The Alec Guinness film “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” adapted as is this piece from the Roy Horniman novel ‘Israel Rank,’ gave us Guinness as a distant inheritor of a great estate and fortune.  Trouble was, the hero had eight other relatives in line ahead of him, and his remedy?  Simple.  Kill them all off.  And Guinness, that master of chameleon talents, plays every major role!

These days, the logical and unchallenged inheritor of that great skill is Jefferson Mays, who carried the entire play ‘I Am My own Wife’ playing all the parts.  And here, he tosses in a fine singing voice, a great way with lilting choreography, and the ability to execute some of the quickest changes ever seen.  Mays sparks all facets of Robert L. Freedman and Steven Pinkham’s hilarious concoction, featuring lyrics brimming with clever rhymes, Peggy Hickey’s jaunty choreography, and enjoys the benefits of director Darko Tresnjak’s on-target choices.

The stage of the Walter Kerr harkens back to the almost two-dimensional feel of a stereopticon come to life, bedecked with tapestries, oak and even lit [maybe not really] by clamshell footlights.  Every murder has its highlights, either by method or error, some more efficiently than others.  Included among many shining performances is Lauren Worsham, whose vocal style recalls Kathryn Grayson, who starred in many M-G-M musicals about the time Guinness was making audiences laugh themselves silly.  And a true veteran of every medium, Jane Carr, spares no energy delivering quips and asides with whip-snapping precision.   This one comes with every laugh polished to the highest degree.  Hilarious!

On Book

This time, you are encouraged to make your holiday gift-giving extend your own love of theatre.  Share the fun of leafing leisurely through some of those magnificent picture books, such as ‘Broadway – The American Musical,’ by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon, Stanley Green’s ‘Broadway Musicals of the ’30s’ and the stunning compendium ‘Theatre in America: 200 Years of Plays, Players and Productions,’ compiled by Mary C. Henderson.  Don’t overlook gift subscriptions to the tireless non-profit theatre companies that give us all so much pleasure.  And don’t overlook yourself – look ahead now to a play or musical that will be opening in the weeks and months ahead, and vow to order your tickets as soon as they are available.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions,’ received three New York productions, all directed by Austin Pendleton, including one that received a Best Play designation at the New York International Fringe Festival.  It is published by Playscripts.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre’ is published by ArtAge Publications.  He has written for dozens of publications, including Dramatics, Parade, The Christian Science Monitor and Rolling Stone.  He continues to teach limited-size seminars on plays and musicals, and information about upcoming offerings, as well as private coaching, is available through tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

Intermission Talk October 27, 2013

October 27th, 2013

When You Spend “A Night

with Janis Joplin,” You’ll

Feel Just Like a “Big Fish”

by Tony Vellela

Careful where you walk while leaving the Lyceum Theatre, after the final electrifying moment of “A Night with Janis Joplin.”  And why, you ask?  Because this is the first time [for me] in nearly forty years when the phrase “This show knocked my socks off!” really fits.  Knocked-off socks fill theaisles, litter the stairs and clutter the lobby.  This dame can sing!

For more than a year, Mary Bridget Davies [Broadway debut], has been touring with this biomusical, from Cleveland to Washington to Philadelphia, and many more venues.  Result?  A show that is/was ready for Broadway.  Janis’ talents provided her own jet propulsion fuel that rocketed her from rural Port Arthur, Texas to the acid rock capital of the universe, San Francisco.  “A Night with Janis Joplin” is not meant to cover the high points in a turbulent life – hard to imagine how so many played out in her last four or five years.  And it’s not a cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs, or the perils of choosing a free-love ‘lifestyle.’  What makes “A Night…” so capable of grabbing at your basic emotions, shaking them up and leaving them on the floor?

Writer-director Randy Johnson has assembled a canny mix of rock, blues, Broadway melodies and roadhouse staples, written by a natural blend of musicians whose tunes could tell her story.  It’s a jigsaw.   From Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Ragovoy & friends, Rodgers & Hart, Willie Mae Thornton, Barry & Robin Gibb, the Gershwins and Sam Andrew, to Janis herself, this wildly diverse cross-section of America’s best ‘outsider’ song-smiths gave Johnson the material he needed to revisit her critical moments, devastating disappointments, consciousness-altering private pieces and serene escapes, all without a picture of what the finished puzzle must look like.

And this was a wise decision on Johnson’s part, because this is a love story, but of a very unconventional nature – this young woman discovers that she’s in love with life itself, and tries to insinuate herself into every whisper and shout her new ethos was rousing in her newly-discovered personal native language – music.

In choosing  songs, Johnson has done his homework, and then some.  When you learn that Joplin wrote “Move Over,” or “Down on Me,” or “I Need a Man to Love” [with Sam Andrew], the hazy picture of who she was and what she wanted, it begins to take shape.  A young woman, disenchanted with the norms of the society that Port Arthur expected her to become, took what she agreed with – the idea of joining a like-minded group of people with similar views; the joy she could feel when throbbing, heart-stopping music filled the room and beyond; the sly and sassy ‘back at ya’ when she twerked during a lyric break, four decades before it had a name, or even the simplest pleasure, what a walk through the beauty that nature offers – and turned away from the rest.    She self-taught herself using the tools she could find, such as listening over and over to the recordings, the diner soundies, or the clips from race movies, that featured Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday or Ma Rainey.  She also self-taught herself how to work hard at keeping blues separate from expectations – and anyone who scoffs at this experience doesn’t have the courage to face it, as she ultimately tried and tried to do, and which ultimately killed her ["A Woman left Lonely"].  And when she expressed, through singing, her almost spiritual longings, ["Summertime," "Cry Baby," "Little Girl Blue," "Piece of My Heart" or "Ball and Chain,"], you come to realize how she has given you a unique gift, the assembled puzzle pieces, showing how music can transform or even elevate any experience, if you allow it to.  And with Janis, there was almost nothing she did not allow.

What she did ‘allow’ in the people she surrounded herself with, was personal honesty.  And Edmund Bloom, the central character in Daniel Wallace’s magical novel “Big Fish,” the basis for the new Broadway musical of the same name, certainly could lay claim to possessing generous amounts of same.  Born into the most typical lower middle class, post Great War family imaginable, little Edmund decided that, in every story or tale he told, he would be certain that he was the hero.  His rousing, almost military-style opening number “Be a Hero,” sung to his young son Will,  makes this life tenet quite clear.  And night after night, overriding the protestations of his wife, Edmund became a fatherly version of Sherazade to Will’s hunger for more and more stories.  And Edmund could tell them.  Through some smooth time-shifts, we see an older Edmund mining his own imagination, and in the process, either inventing or describing his exotic, companions on his journey through life, from backwoods swamp land [Karl, the seven-foot-tall giant, portrayed with dignity and  a touch of charm by Ryan Andes] to the glitter and allure of the big city [every number featuring the ensemble].

We can pretty much figure out where this story is going, but that’s not the point.  Director/choreographer Susan Stroman has selected a piece that gives her the place and space where she can roll out what she does best – the melding of song into story, the chance to once again give every dancer and townsfolk an identity to inform their work, a seamless collaboration with designers she knows very well by now.  She manages this feat despite the vacuous, pedestrian score by Andrew Lippa.

On the big, big plus side is another engaging, perfectly true performance from Billy Steggert as grown-up Will, Kirsten Scott’s touching Jenny, and, anchoring this meringue of a show to keep it from floating away, one of the latest from the current class of show-stopping Broadway Babies, Norbert Leo Butz.

Stroman has fashioned a birthday cake of a musical, much like the inside show in a thirties picture, that might close before Joan Blondell and Dick Powell have a chance to get their names up there in lights.  Hoofers hoof with military precision on the college campus, as well as under the Big Top.  Children over the age of, maybe, six or seven, will likely enjoy “Big Fish,” which may well be this season’s ‘other musical.’  And like its title, become a big enough fish to be noticed in a small enough pond.  Check back in March.

On Book

Go to the source is always good advice when you love something so much you want to know a whole lot more about it.  The Douglas Wallace novel, “Big Fish,” satisfies that longing, and then some.  Publisher Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill chose to add ‘A Novel of Mythic Proportions’ at a cover sub-title.  And so it is . . .

Jessie Meuller, whenever she was on in “On A Clear Day ,” injected some life into that recent, poorly-conceived revival, but now, we get a chance to see her getting her own show to carry.  ”Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” begins previews on November 21, with an official launch on January 12. . . Forty [40!] years after visiting the big boards for a short stay, “Company” is getting a kick-in-the-butt make-over, as one of its original creators, Stephen Sondheim, and Tony-winning director John Tiffany ["Once"] open their minds to the show’s core themes. [librettist George Furth died in 2003].   Sondheim has been quoted as saying it’s commitment [the need for . . . the fear of . . . the redeeming value of . . .] that each principal reveals as their primary, and usually unattainable goal in life.  And, reflecting what “Company” lovers have preached since its first preview,  the central character, Bobby, is now an out gay man. . . Joseph Horowitz, writing for Norton Press in “On My Way,” resurrects and seems to set the record straight on the larger contribution than usually credited, to the folk opera’s original director, Rouben Mamoulian.

No greater work has been bestowed on music and also folk tales lovers than this one, and the pivotal role of Mamoulian in strengthening the ‘role’ of the music may now finally be permanently acknowledged . . .acknowledging all the players and all the parts and all the issues and all the, well, you get the idea.  William Goldman’s “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway,” for Limelight, New York, is like taking a long, eye-filling theatre theme park ride written about all the ins, outs ups and downs of an average season. . . And any fan of Susan Stroman may want to share the Classic Stage Company’s early developmental workshops of “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville,” beginning its run on December 14.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the theatre-based documentary series “Character Studies” for PBS . . . his play “Admissions,” published by Playscripts, enjoyed three New York productions, all directed by Austin Pendleton, and recipient of the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival . . his television documentary “Test of Time,” written for Lifetime Television, was awarded best documentary . . . he has also written several other plays and musicals, the successful educational series of classroom videos for the Films Media Group . . . his small, focused classes on theatre, using videos of his substantive interviews with the most influential people in theatre during the last sixty years, is conducted from his home – limit of seven students; he also conducts individual coaching sessions  . . . his play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Movies” is published by ArtAge Publishing . . . his most recent play, “Labor Days,” is seeking a producing partner.

Intermission Talk

August 19th, 2013

Will ‘Einstein’ ‘Harbor’

a ‘First Date?’  Would

‘rogerandtom’ agree?

by Tony Vellela

Mary Poppins certainly had the right idea – a spoonful of sugar DOES make the medicine go down.  In the case of the high octane play ‘rogerandtom,’ Julien Schwab’s rewarding foray into multi-dimensional existences [those are the medicines], the ’sugar’ is this very talented playwright’s use of whimsy, of by-now theatrical tricks and artifice, in general, a light touch.

Presented at HERE, the play and its distinctive production demands can’t be separated.  The story unfolds in a scaled-down apartment, whose living spaces are defined by white tape on the floor.  The characters honor this convention, with one exception.  Getting to the facts in the case, a young woman, Penny [Suzy Jane Hunt] is discovered coming into the space, which has white packing boxes, their contents labeled on their sides.  She then begins a frantic search for something, finally finding her ring on a table.  She convinces her husband Rich [Richard Thieriot] to pretend that they are still a couple when her brother Roger [Eric T. Miller] arrives – she has convinced him to attend a play that their brother Tom has written.  The brothers have been estranged for years, and she intends to get them back together.  After a few rounds of wrangling, and no Roger, she calls him on his cell, and a phone rings in the pocket of an audience member.  He joins the two others, by standing up, speaking to them directly, and walking into the set/apartment.  Turns out their meeting here, which includes the discovery that Tom won’t be joining them, IS Tom’s play, and they are all in it.  Roger, however, is un-amused, unwilling to ‘play along,’ and deflates the core premise of the evening – the melding of reality and imagination and how that process can serve to absolve us of any wrong-doing we’ve consciously participated in.  It’s dense.

But – here’s the sugar – it’s hilarious.  It takes a while for the audience to adjust to how Schwab changes lanes for this play to play in – how much is reality, who are these people to each other and in their own reality separate from their connection to this play, did the playwright swallow whole volumes of the collected plays of Beckett, Pinter, Sartre, Ionesco, Wesker, Albee et al.  Now, remember the sugar.  As the play and the play-within-the-play unspool in this brisk, 75 minute production, you are cautioned to let it into your sense receptacles, and take to the organizing of it for the ride home.  BTW, if you enjoyed Zoe Kazan’s “Ruby Sparks,” where writer Paul Dano finds he has the ability to conjure up a fascinating young woman, you’ll be pleased with the unconventional take this one takes.

A word about Suzy Jane Hunt.  This young woman carries the same ability to convey adulterated rage and unleashed anger, in the same way as Marin Ireland.  She can balance personal trauma with external events, like Joan Allen in ‘Burn This.’  Pay attention to her career.

Take a sharp left, and left again.  We’ve arrived at the place where they ponder the Universe, and Jay Prasad’s method was to write the play “Einstein,” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.  Albert Einstein grew into, arguably, the most influential intellectual mind to explore where we [all of us] came from, what are we doing here, and how can any of this knowledge help us prepare for what’s to come.

Recreating the title character, Richard Kent Green, gives us enough of the real man’s appearance, behavior and use of language to keep us on track.   His task is a rough one, because the stage directions only allow for four chairs, one table, three sliding panels, and projections.  While that may seem like a lot to work with, it hampers how we can see the man interacting with the people [family, co-workers], how he functions within the self-knowledge of his own personal failings, and how he tried to hold on to his preeminence, despite rejecting quantum mechanics and the Big Bang Theory.

Prasad has written two other plays, also about giants of the mind – Bertrand Russell and Alan Turing.  There is a strong sense of him wanting to share all he knows about Einstein, at least – I don’t know the other plays.  Because of that, the play has far more than it needs in terms of content.  What it needs is a director or seasoned dramaturg to help him to extract and shape a more playable play.

There was, I would venture, some hesitation in Chad Beguelin’s subconscious while he was penning “Harbor,” the Primary Stages production at 59E59.  Beguelin has staked out a nicely thought-out dramatic premise: a rebellious, irresponsible, near miscreant woman, Donna [Erin Cummings - an energy powerhouse with the skill to channel it], with  her pre-teen daughter Lottie [Alexis Molnar - already a seasoned actor, she's pitch perfect here]  in tow and a second child in her womb, drives their trailer to the home of her younger brother.  He’s gay, married, well cared-for by his husband, a successful broker [Ted, Paul Anthony Stewart - created as any gay man's fantasy mate].   Hey.  It’s Sag Harbor.   She’s there to make herself and daughter Lottie an inevitability as house guests, trading on brother Kevin [Randy Harrison, keeping it moment-to-moment, as it should be].  Donna insinuates her + brood into their home, and slowly manipulates Kevin into having great sympathy for her situation.

Now, that is a lot of goings-on.  And within this premise are places for little explosions to go off, and some of them do.  But there lingers throughout the missing element of hardcore development.  Early scenes with Kevin and Ted limp along with terribly tortured exposition – gay jokes are painfully forced.  So here’s the hesitation.  Mr. Beguelin’s  past, very successful work comes from lyric-writing for musical theatre, for such winners as “Elf,” “The Wedding Singer” and “Aladdin.”  And here lies the problem – a need to inject anomalous beats and dialogue and subsets of scenes that can drain away the dramatic steam that has built up.   He’s got a pregnant woman [did I mention the drugs?] moves in on her stable brother, her above-average daughter who is lacking a formal education, a gay couple confronted with the kind of crisis familiar to hetero couples, and more.  When Donna stays long enough to have her baby there, pieces begin to fly apart and force themselves to come back together, in a different pattern.  The true heartfelt moments register, to be sure – thanks in large part to Erin Cummings’ characterization of Donna.   The final pattern, where and how each one of them [including the newborn] set up their immediate futures, and reassess the events of their past, is certainly unsettling.  It makes clear that the drama of this piece needs to be unleashed completely, because it can stand on its own.

“First Date,” the sprightly new musical by Austin Winsberg [book] and Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner [music and lyrics] at the Longacre, is full of surprises.  While it didn’t exactly sneak into town, it came in quietly – which often signals ‘disaster ahead.’  This one’s not for all tastes, but any time a new writing team pulls off really clever and satisfying material, well, hooray.  There’s so little to the plot – two people meet on a blind date set up by friends, they clash, they split, they kiss – that one can forget it’s even there.  It feels like a collection of sketches strung together.  It’s the musical numbers that deliver the surprises.  This show has many of the same characteristics that musicals from the late ’50s and early ’60s had – negligible book, connect-the-dots falling-in-love story, and a variety of splendid tunes.  From the opening “The One,” to the rousing “Something That Will Last” that closes the show, the musical side hits the mark.  And you should note that the two leads, Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez, possess back-row-busting lung power, and they have a real chemistry on stage that could easily be happily seen in other musicals, such as “Cabaret.”

Special Tribute


I’m putting aside the usual portions of the column for a special tribute to someone who became synonymous with New York theatre for me and so many others.  Shirley Herz, press agent extraordinaire, died on August 11, at the age of 87.

It’s entirely possible that most readers have never been in contact with a press agent, don’t know what they do, can’t say where they fit in the overall ‘machine’ of New York theatre.  Press agents are without doubt the unsung heroes and heroines of making that machine work.  When a show is announced, producers choose a press agent or press agency, to handle publicity.  Sounds simple.  Simple, it ain’t.

There are newspaper ads that include quotes from some reviews, any reviews with positive quotes to be quoted.  There are special receptions, press events, crisis management when an unfortunate off-stage incident hits the tabloids, interviews to be set up, on-camera television one-on-ones, bookings on talk shows and the late nights, and for those of us who cover theatre, managing the task of matching those people with the days and times when they will be invited to a late preview or early post-opening performance.

Well, she did all that, of course, and damn well.  However, Shirley donated time to publicize AIDS benefits, which led to the creation of the life-support and research organization, Equity Fights Aids.

But it’s what else Shirley donated that made her stand apart from many others.  She gave off an air of confidence, of knowing how to be in charge without creating more divisions, of displaying genuine concern if someone underwent some unpleasantness and of being available if you need advice or information that she may have, that will help you.

The first time I crossed paths with her was in 1969.  A friend of mine at the time, the remarkable Margo Sappington, was hired to be in the cast of the scandalous off-Broadway review, “Oh! Calcutta!” and to choreograph the work.  Margo wound up on the cover of Time Magazine.  I covered the X-rated show for Crawdaddy.  And down through the decades, Shirley was always involved in something interesting, something new and fresh or something classic.

When I was writing and producing the PBS series “Character Studies,” about theatre, she was an invaluable source for tracking down information, people, pictures – whatever.  She was a project-saver more than once.

The last time we spoke, back in June, we vowed to set a definite date to get together for coffee.   As so often happens to us, days turned into months.  I regret that missed opportunity so much.  She received a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre at the 63rd Tony Awards ceremony. And in an unprecedented tribute to her, Broadway theatres dimmed their marquee lights on August 14.  My small tribute can’t begin to compare, but that doesn’t mean that my admiration and respect and gratitude for the way she treated press people, and everyone, is any bit smaller than that of any other.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series ‘Character Studies’ for PBS.  His play ‘Admissions,’ received a Best Play award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and had a total of three off-Broadway productions, directed by Austin Pendleton.  It’s published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Publications.   He has written three books, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, taught at several institutions including Columbia University Teacher’s College and HB Studio.  He is currently forming small [six students], in-depth classes for the fall, which feature exclusive taped interviews with 80 of the leading artists of the theatre for the past 70 years.  Anyone interested in exploring his classes may contact him at  tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

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Intermission Talk 7/27/13

July 23rd, 2013

Solo ['Buyer & Cellar'], or

Duet ['Two-Character Play']

both add up to theatre gold

by TONY VELLELA

It’s just possible that Irving Berlin had this past month in mind eighty years ago, when he penned “Heat Wave” for Ethel Waters, lighting up the stage in “As Thousands Cheer.”  The patter ends with “…a chicken laid an egg on the street, and it fried!”

Talking of light, [Well, I was.], there’s an old saying that people used to, well . . . say: ‘Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket.”  It seems as though that’s just what Amanda Plummer, currently in the revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Two Character Play,” has been doing.  [Aside to anyone born prior to the Bush the Second's administration: a bushel basket is a rounded affair, made of large strips of wicker, woven together, with two wire handles, and it was/is used to carry a pretty large volume of whatever, from here to there.  How much?  think three bed pillows, or Google it.].  Now, Amanda Plummer.

She has that rare quality a select number of actors are blessed with, the ability to mesmerize.  Now, it may partly be inherited – her father = Christopher P., and her mother = Tammy Grimes.  But there’s a whole lot more to it.  And to the dismay of anyone who has seen her once, that quality has not been on view very often in the last thirty or so years.  Her ‘light’ has been known, among older theatre aficionados who saw her a few decades ago, to inspire heartfelt panegyric little heard these days.

Plummer manifests the living-inside-her-characters skill that, for example, permitted Julie Harris, at age 26, to play twelve-and-a-half year old Frankie on stage, in Carson McCullers’ “A Member of the Wedding.”  And to revive that type of comparison, now comes the nervously-awaited revival of the Tennessee Williams oddity, “The Two-Character Play.”  A brother-and-sister acting team, [he is Felice and she is Clare], having been employed by a producer to appear with others in repertory around the country, they have been left, abandoned, when the funds evaporate.  The rest of the company has disappeared with them.  She [Clare] and he [Felicity, portrayed by Brad Dourif, with an unexplained diffidence] find themselves on a shabby stage, surrounded by a mismatched collection of props and furniture. They feel an obligation to present a play.  But without the others, the well-rehearsed chestnut they’ve been lugging around from town to town is out of the question – they are the only two who remain.  The only ‘logical’ conclusion they arrive at, in this less-than-logical realm, is that they must fall back on the two shared experiences within which they can communicate.  They have that  shared history that actors have, when they have  appeared together in the same variously praised and flawed productions. They also attempt to draw on their shared history as siblings, scarred and buoyed as they have been, by various joyful and devastating family events.

To the dismay of the [imagined] audience, this pair of tortured thespians draw from both.  Their ‘realities’ become entangled with the factoids of the play they have chosen to present, conveniently titled ‘The Two-Character Play,” which relates the tale of two actor siblings, a boy and a girl, who must survive while trapped in a Southern Gothic domicile, its better days decades in the past.  Even this one play they believe they can conquer is riddled with holes in each of their memories, so improvisation is called upon to mend the rips and tears of the plot – the play-within-the-play plot, that is.

Still with me?  Good for you!  Because what Williams is and was doing has as much to do with challenging himself to break free of his ordered formulas that he mastered so masterfully in his mid-century classics, as it does playing this new game, this theatre of the senses and  styles.  His ‘Two-Character Play” has echoes of Albee’s George and Martha, the unlikely bonding of Shylock and Antonio in Arnold Wesker’s “The Merchant,” the melding of fact and fiction in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” and so on, and so on.  Of course, this is still a piece written by Mr. Tennessee Williams, so the flow of it, the rhythms of the speeches, tend to last.

And what it all depends on is the strength of the performances.  Brad Dourif does tackle the verbal and physical banter with an admirable kind of aplomb, giving brother Felicity some needed grounding.  You can swallow the pretext that he is an actor playing roles.

But it is Amanda Plummer – remember how this column started? – who has returned to the New York boards after a fifteen-year absences, to give a performance that is nothing less than startling.  Now in her mid-fifties, she entered into the realm of legend portraying a nun at odds with her order’s head mother superior, and with the Church. She seems to invent their story, moment to moment, in that way that children often think of theatre – that the actors are making it up as they go along.  A childlike sensibility that revolves around her helps to support that notion.  That spontaneity of expression, that unbridled release of emotions and almost defiant verbal ejaculations of her challenges to her brother, can make you literally blink to try to ascertain whether you are seeing this woman actor playing the part of a woman actor playing the part of a disintegrating woman actor, or whether you are seeing an actual  breakdown.  It is possible to speculate, as many have, that we are seeing Tennessee create this woman as the epitome of what happens to late-career playwrights when their greatest works are behind them.  And that Williams tries fervently to transfer his own shaky mental state onto the character of Clare, in hopes that his own condition will dissolve into her comparatively healthy state.  Did I emphasize ‘comparatively?’  Did he really give her a name that means ‘clear?’  And does the tale of Felice and Clare continue on, without end, long after we leave our seats [like that famously unsatisfying 'end' to the HBO series 'The Sopranos?'], as Clare attempts again and again to improvise a way for it to end.  And end, again.  And again.

Unfortunately, this production is scheduled to end, on September first. An awful lot of carping does make its way into mid-summer casual conversations about the limited choices for us theatre junkies.  Either, we have been heard to complain, there are too many musical revivals, or too few rare opportunities to see something that doesn’t send all our brain cells on vacation.  Here is the remedy.  Organize a small party of friends and trek on over to the New World Stages theatre complex on west 50th street.  Maybe you will discover that another interesting outing is on view in one of the other black box spaces, which have all been converted from movie houses. Tennessee would have loved that symbolism.

While “The Two-Character Play” unfolds on a dusty stage cluttered with furniture pieces and enough props to fill a warehouse, the new comedy “Buyer & Cellar,” by Jonathan Tolins, scrapes by with a small table, a folding chair, a picture book and maybe one or two other properties.  This is the very funny play that purports to take place in the basement and converted barn of Ms. Barbra Streisand, which have been modified to resemble a rambling upscale mall, stocked with Barbrabilia of all sorts.  The lone character, Alex, portrayed by the soothingly smoothie, and refugee from ‘Ugly Betty,’ is Michael Urie, who has been hired by La Diva to act as a make-believe sales clerk in charge of the loot.  Now, Michael Urie is not – not – a Streisand impersonator.  And “Buyer & Cellar” is not a gag, gag, gag jokefest.  Tolins has labored to great result, turning out as humorous, and as outright outrageous, as any of the best moments from Douglas Carter Beane or Bruce Vilanch or Jane Wagner.

This suffocating heat tsunami can make us all a little edgy, a little out of sorts.  [This is not a laxative commercial.]  The remedy?  Escapism, when the destination is the made-up mansion mall of our favorite funny lady, and our host is the fresh young solo stagemeister Michael Urie.

After-Pieces

If you were planning to visit the Rialto on your vacation, hoping to catch the arrival in August, of the new stage version of “Flashdance,” formulate a plan B.  The producers have decided that more work needs to be done, based on its try-out responses . . . It’s all denials when producers of the upcoming re-revival of “Cabaret” get quizzed about Anne Hathaway bringing Sally Bowles to life, and she, or whomever, would be doing it opposite the stretched-to-the-limit Alan Cumming, as the M.C.  He jazzed up that same role back during the end of the last century, when Studio 54 became the Kit Kat Club, and if plans materialize, will do so again, at the start of next year . . . An impressive line-up of August Wilson ‘veterans’ will be lending their talents to an ambitious project – to create audio recordings all of Wilson’s works in his ten-play cycle about life in the African-American community, one play for each decade in the twentieth century.  Among the readers taking part, at the New York Public Radio’s Jerome L. Greene Space are Anthony Chisholm, S. Epatha Merkerson, Marion McClinton, Stephen McKinley, Phylicia Rashad and Jesse L. Martin.  The series kicks off with Ruben Santiago-Hudson helming “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on August 26, and ends with the opportunity to hear Ms. Rashad revisit the legendary Aunt Ester, from “Gem of the Ocean,’ on September 24th.

On Book

Finding a copy of Tennessee Williams’ “The Two-Character Play” can be as elusive as the characters themselves.  Under that title, it can be found in ‘The Theatre of Tennessee Williams – Volume 5,’ a New Directions book.  The play also has been known by another name – ‘Out Cry,” and the same play has been selected for “Tennessee Williams – Plays 1957 – 1980,’ compiled by Mel Gussow and Kenneth Holditch, for The Library of America.

. . .  I’ve begun reading a curious work titled “Lascivious Something,” by Sheila Callaghan, which was recommended to me by a usually-reliable friend.  So far, so very good, indeed . . . Maybe you’d like to turn a few heads by holding up a very funny collection so others can see its cover.  The book is the renderings from the long-running off-Broadway powerhouse, “Old Jews Telling Jokes,” by Sam Hoffman, with Eric Spiegelman.  After the initial sniggerings at the title, more and more laughs pour out, non-stop . . . And it’s great to announce that Allie Mulholland’s ambitious ReGroup Theatre will release the third in its series of books that gather together ‘lost’ plays from the original Group Theatre canon.  This one, due out within weeks, includes the classics “The House of Connelly” and ‘Johnny Johnson.”  For more information, contact the ReGroup Theatre at RSVP@regrouptheatre.org.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” published by Playscripts, and directed  by Austin Pendleton at three separate New York productions, won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.  He has written several plays, musicals and political comedy revues, along with three books, and dozens of magazine and newspaper articles.  He has taught theatre-related sessions as Columbia University’s Teacher’s College,

HB Studios and other theatre institutions, and he continues to offer private coaching and mentoring sessions, as well as a select series of small-group [max. = six people] colloquium sessions on a variety of plays and musicals.  Inquiries about upcoming offerings can be obtained through tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

Intermission Talk 6/17/13

June 17th, 2013

After the ‘Cinderella’ Ball,

Enjoy Your Vacation Off

and Way Off Broadway

by Tony Vellela

There are those who seek out a vacation destination based on how near it is to a great golf course.  Others want to be assured that an endless stretch of white, sandy beach will permit them to fry their skin on both sides at the same time.  We, however, cannot survive for too many nights without experiencing that special lift we get, from sharing that unique pleasure that comes during two magical hours in the dark.  No, it’s not gazing at the rings of Saturn, munching popcorn at a drive-in, or even sharing a hammock behind a cabin in the piney woods.

Gotta see a show.  So with that in mind, this time around, I’m offering a few leads that might help you choose where to head for when you get your reprieve from the time clock, the lunchroom, the car pool and the boss.

At the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, MA, the captivating Annette O’Toole stars in ‘Southern Comfort,’ a new musical by Dan Collins [book & lyrics] and Julianne Wick-Davis [music], about transformation, love and redefining family.    It runs from July 19 through August 10.  Jeff McCarthy co-stars, in this production directed by Tom Caruso.

If your feet can move as fast as that master of fancy tap footwork Maurice Hines, you can catch his dazzling new tribute show ‘Tappin’ Thru Life,’ at the Cleveland Playhouse.  It’s only on until June 22, but it’s a great chance to see and hear Hines honoring many of the previous show biz greats who inspired his career, among them Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.  Hines has ‘tapped’ Jeff Calhoun to helm the show. Tony-winner Mary Zimmerman both adapted and directed this premiere, family-friendly for Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.  Zimmerman has taken the original Rudyard Kipling stories, and the subsequent Disney film, and fashioned her own vision to create ‘The Jungle Book.’ using music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman.  The adventures of young Mowgli are a mainstay in the bedtime story hours of many children and hold a place of honor in the memories of their parents, teachers, aunts, uncles, and the rest of us.  Choreography by Christopher Gattelli adds to the lively event, which opens June 21 and will guide us through its colorful jungle until July 28.

While you’re in the Windy City, if you plan it carefully, you can also catch a new play directed by Pam MacKinnon, at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  If you missed the Tony-winning revival of  ’Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ this past season, you will now have an opportunity to witness why MacKinnon won a best director Tony for handling the same post she holds down here for the new Bruce Norris play, ‘The Qualms.’  This one also takes a jaundiced look at marital relationships, as a group of married couples gathers at an apartment complex by the beach, for yet another swinging soiree laced with food, drinks and drugs.  When they attempt to integrate a new twosome into the festivities, the mix’n'match-fest doesn’t quite gel. The fireworks go off July 3rd, and keep bursting forth until 8/31.

If you do find yourself in the city with the big shoulders, head north for a few days.  It doesn’t matter when, because from now until the fall, Ontario, Canada’s Shaw Festival, with its four performing spaces, guarantees that there will be something to your liking. A few examples: in the mood for a romantic tale?  There’s “A Light in the Piazza,” and “Enchanted April.”  Eager to be transported back about a century, to what seemed like simpler times?  Try “Major Barbara” or “Lady Windemere’s Fan.”  How about a classic toe-tapper that never fails to leave you humming – what better than “Guys and Dolls?”  And that’s truly only the half of it!  What gives the Shaw its ‘died and gone to theatre heaven’ quality, aside from the picturesque, small town environs that’s beautifully manicured and maintained, is its playing schedule.  You can take in three separate productions in one day, starting with an 11:30 AM performance, then a 2 PM matinee, followed by an 8 PM offering.  Type in shawfest.com to get the whole story.

If you like the fun of intrigue in the traditional noirish style, the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA presents a cloak & dagger tuner titled, simply, ‘Cloak & Dagger.’  Written as an intermission-less 90 minute show, [a la Hollywood B pictures of mid last century], this new musical by Ed Dixon pits his luckless gumshoe Nick Cutter against all the usual suspects, especially the blonde femme type. This one opened already [in the dead of night?] and plays until 7/6.

Do not overlook or look past local, regional, senior or college productions when you’re visiting a new-to-you destination.  These are folks whose love of theatre is genuine, and if you willingly suspend your disbelief, you’ll find that they’ll got a lot to offer in the ‘jus

Finally, if you find yourself hankering for the lights of 14th street, the Goodspeed in East Haddam, Ct is happy to satisfy your hanker, with its gala revival of the Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart classic, ‘Hello, Dolly!’  One of the most acclaimed regional theatres in the world of musical revivals, the Goodspeed hosts Dolly Levi and company, directed by Daniel Goldstein, from June 28 through 9/8.

If your vacation looks more like a stay-cation [for those of us Big Applers], it WILL be the lights of 14th street, and environs, that can offer a rich, rewarding and memorable grab-bag of theatre treats.  For a start, you might finally check off a few shows that you were too distracted to take in when they were first on display on Broadway.   Two cases in point:  you can bask in the joy of both “Peter and the Starcatcher,”  and “Avenue Q” in the same day, because they’re both holding forth at the New World Stages complex, at 340 west 50th Street.

There is another destination that’s located right in the heart of little ole New York, at the Broadway Theatre.  It’s a vacation not in a geographic place [although the locale is certainly distinctive]. It’s Rodgers & Hammerstein-land.  Their “Cinderella” will transport you back into that special world of bachelor princes, fairy godmothers, passenger pumpkins and breakable footwear.  Even if you are not familiar with its original television incarnation [Julie Andrews, and my God! Kaye Ballard!], even if it’s all new to you, you will luxuriate in the hallmark R&H elements, chief among them, a signature waltz.  Recall: the Carousel waltz, or ‘Shall We Dance?’ from ‘The King and I.’  This time it’s ‘Ten Minutes Ago,’ and it could be the sweetest of them all. Cinderella & Company do justice to the original tale, with a few noteworthy adjustments, compliments of its adult-friendly new libretto [book] by Douglas Carter Beane.  This version has laughs for the designated escort   With apologies to Prince Santino Fontana, this time the Bachelor fits the contemporary mold – real handsome but not drop-dead gorgeous.  He’s from the Dustin Hoffman school.

But he is still quite a catch.

Most of all, for me, it’s another chance to hear that gorgeous voice of Victoria Clark.  She does have echoes of Mary Martin, but with the corners sanded off.  [Oh, and the wicked ogre-woman who keeps Cindy chained to the sooty hearth?  In a role she was born to play - Harriet Harris.  A very big bonus.]  Now if only the management will keep the line for the disabled rest room [I'm in that category] clear of doting mommas with cute-as-a-button little princesses too precious to be walked down a flight of stairs to the ladies’. . ..

Finally, here’s an off-Broadway development that will have long-range echoes for years to come. Sometimes all the parts seem to come together with such ease that it appears to have been pre-ordained.  So it is with the announcement that the Culture Project, which has operated from 45 Bleecker Street for many years, will produce its Women Center Stage 2013 Festival for one month, starting July 8, at that venue, which was recently renamed in honor of a great lady of the theatre, and a great human being in life, Lynn Redgrave.  The Festival’s mission is to promote the work of women artists, especially those that have proven to be inspirational through their life and work.  No one fits that description better than Lynn.

Claimed by a cancer that she beat back vigorously for years, Lynn was always a woman who shied away from trading on her family name, a family that produced three generations of truly remarkable, estimable and individually unique theatre artists, whose talents shone on stage, on film and in television roles, starting with her grandfather, Roy Redgrave, a leading man in silent films, followed by her parents, Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, siblings Vanessa and Michael, and nieces Natasha Richardson and Jenna Redgrave.  A friend for more than thirty years, one of my fondest memories centers around the happy discovery of how modestly she kept things, chief among them her simple little flat on west 57th street, just down the block from Carnegie Hall.  One might think it was the residence of a starting-out musician toiling to appear on that great  stage, instead of the woman who garnered dozens of honors, and along with her signal acting skills, was also an accomplished playwright.  She used that side of her creative self to honor her parents in two separate works, “Shakespeare for my Father,” and “Nightingale.”  To many, including myself, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a person whose life was dedicated to the theatre, is to have a theater named in their honor.

On Book

Continuing with recommendations of books to tote to the beach, the cottage,the deck of a cruise ship or the back porch, here are more titles to consider. ‘Actors at Work,’  a collection edited by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan, for Faber & Faber; ‘The Mystic in the Theatre – The Life of Eleanora Duse,’ by Eva Le Gallienne, Southern Illinois University Press; ‘Working in the American Theatre,’ by Jim Volz, Metheun Press; ‘Introduction to Theatre Design,’ Stephen Di Benedetto, Routledge Press, and ‘Anne Bogart – Conversations with Anne,’ Theatre Communications Group.’

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions’ was performed three times in New York, each time directed by Austin Pendleton.  It won Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre,’ is published by ArtAge Press.  His feature articles about the performing arts have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, Parade, Rolling Stone, the Robb Report, Reader’s Digest and Saturday Review.  His ‘Test of Time’ won a CableACE Award for Lifetime Television Network.  He has taught theatre-related classes at the New School, HB Studio, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and several other institutions.  He conducts small-group sessions and private tutoring from his home -get latest information by contacting him at tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

Intermission Talk

April 29th, 2013

April 27, 2013

Don Those “Kinky Boots,”

Call “The Nance” and

Wake Up the “Orphans”

by TONY VELLELA

Eye-high kicks [and kickers] are back, and Broadway’s got ‘em!  Not that dancers with the ability to execute effortlessly those spectacular steps where their feet sky-rocket from floor to [almost] ceiling are not present in other musicals, but the dames and faux-dames in “Kinky Boots” seem to do it best.  And how appropriate, in a show that’s all about footwear.

Adapted with real style from the 2005 similarly-titled Brit indie picture, it follows the same story line: Charlie, a seemingly feckless young man [Stark Sands, a sweetie] inherits his dad’s failing shoe factory, and when he learns how the whole town depends on it for their financial survival, he postpones his plan to join his girlfriend in London, to study law, to return the factory to sound footing.

Enter: fate, in the form of Lola, a big-build drag queen with a broken heel [the powerhouse Billy Porter].  Soon, they’ve joined forces to manufacture boots for Lola’s gay club cohorts, and together, they overcome every predictable obstacle that blocks their steps to success.  It’s a by-the-book [by Harvey Fierstein] triumph, showcasing the Broadway debut of pop queen Cyndi Lauper [music and lyrics], directed and choreographed [and choreographed and choreographed] by master dance guru Jerry Mitchell.  Their ’secret’ was to combine the best of each of their worlds, allowing you to relax a few minutes in, and think – I’m in good hands [I'm stepping away from the 'foot' references].  You subconsciously recognize musical chords from Lauper’s hits.  The dance ensemble, with Porter in the lead, meld the Radio City Rockettes, the ‘La Cage’ Cagells and Ike Turner’s hard-driving Ikettes.

And Charlie, though he’s the last person in the Hirschfeld Theatre to do it, finally realizes his heretofore fiancee Nicola [an appropriately uber-proper Celina Carvajal] would do better in London alone, and her place will seamlessly be taken by the industrious shop-floor worker Lauren.  She’s been praying for this to happen, [Annaleigh Ashford, bright as a silver shoe buckle, who possesses all the instinctive qualities that would pay off big-time as Ado Annie].

Didja like ‘Hairspray?’  Didja?  Didja bounce a little in your seat a coupla times during ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?’  Didja?  Huh?  Well, step right up [it fits here] and let these new queens do their stuff, in flash-colored, spangle-soaked, spike-healed boots that promise to lift your spirits eye-high.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, it was an entirely different picture in the lives of gay men in 1937, Depression-era America [in "The Nance," instead of north country industrial Britain, it's in New York].  It’s also the eve* of Fiorello LaGuardia’s mayoral re-election campaign: [The *'s mean it was true.] he means to make it clear to outer borough voters* that he stands for clean living, family-friendly entertainment and the cleansing of burlesque houses.  On the bill of every one of them* would be a cartoonish ‘nance,’ an actor portraying the company’s comic gay male, who gets joked about, poked about and mildly scuffed up, for the crude amusement of the largely male audience, there to see ecdysiasts undo their stuff.  Here,  that flouncing, lisping, weak-wristed queer in skits onstage is portrayed by a middle-aged, garishly-costumed, portly actor named Chauncey Miles, one of the best, at the Irving Place Theatre*,  brought to life by one of our bona fide national theatrical treasures, Nathan Lane.  In this type of  comedy, a few notches above ‘low,’ the ways that silence, and the double take are used can be, in every way,  the determining factor between an audience’s weak smiles and full-throated guffaws.   and Lane has melded the best of Benny, Berle, Pangborn, Blore, Fields and Lahr to greatest effect . . . i.e., Jack, Milton, Franklin, Eric, W.C. and Bert.

Franklin Pangborn                             Bert Lahr

Offstage, Chauncey is every bit the nance, though not ‘out’ about it.  He is guided by his own personal, solidly Republican credo which, in general, supports government staying out of the business of small businesses, who employ so many.  His GOP-based idealism also dictates a taste for anonymous sex with rough trade, found in places* known for turning a blind eye to men, using signals and symbols*, to pick each other up.  Unless the cops are also there.  This time, he’s patronizing a downtown H & H automat.

When Ned, a New York State Red Roman apple-cheeked lad, homeless and hungry, presents himself to Chauncey, that credo turns into a cre-don’t.  Chauncey  surreptitiously slips him half of his sandwich.  Ned, in appreciation, nearly gets them arrested simply by starting to join Chauncey at his table.  Ned agrees to go home with Chauncey, and the next morning, Chauncey learns that the young man is not there for money.  The pair, in short order, turns into a couple, at least to their friends.  [This seemingly unlikely pairing may be an homage to Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" - "Remember, I'm the pretty one."]  At work, Chauncey learns that New York City License Commissioner [and "confirmed bachelor"*] Paul Moss* has launched a vociferous public crackdown* on all burlesque houses that feature nance skits, which could mean the end of Chauncey’s ability to perform.  Ned [Jonny Orsini, a  natural charmer performing a star-making turn in a star-making role] endures the tough times, the emotional upheavals, the depression and even the attempts by Charlie to kick him out.  And it’s during this section that we see just how masterfully the playwright, Douglas Carter Beane, has woven together all the disparate yellow and green and blue patches of cloth, and the orange and red and purple lengths of yarn, many of which are based on or taken from real-life events and people*, into a rainbow quilt of hellish stress incarnate.  Nothing could prepare Charlie for this development, and many of his throw-away lines underscore this.  Speaking of underscoring, Chauncey even cracks wise about how these developments seem ripe for the musical accompaniment of Warner Bros. musical scorer Max Steiner.   Chauncey now finds himself with a loving, cynicism-free, beautiful young man who proclaims his love, and is willing to make any sacrifice to stay with him.  Charlie is not and has not been programmed for this.

Carter uses parts of the burlesque show’s sketches and songs as illustration, and anyone familiar with the sketches in “Gypsy” knows the references to ‘…meet me ’round the corner in a half an hour.’  The personal story moves forward [maybe a bit like "Follies" or even "Cabaret"] until a make-or-break moment comes, involving a choice that must be made, a critical choice that could split them up.  Charlie allows the split to happen.

Chauncey rather unwillingly reveals the deepest emotional secrets of all the Chaunceys, regardless of their age or occupation or any other external characteristic: their self-loathing demands that they never allow for personal, permanent happiness.  He tells Ned that his sexual hunting and gathering  pattern must always end in separation or rejection.  He tells Ned that “the getting is better than the having.”  The pathos felt by these characters when the separation has happened is as genuine, and earned, as Linda Loman’s at Willie’s graveside.  The comedy ratcheted up for the audience equals the situational hilarity that bounces between Oscar and Felix.  But the deep pain and exhausting sorrow we see in Charlie’s [Nathan's] eyes at the end are not surpassed by anything or anybody in the American theatre canon.

Lyle Kessler’s 1985 play “Orphans,” in revival at the Schoenfeld Theatre, is also built around lost boys, brothers in fact, who occupy ['live in' is a stretch] a house in North Philadelphia that they took over when both parents died.  Treat, [Ben Foster], the older one, ventures forth each morning to ply his trade as a pickpocket and petty thief.  The younger, Philip, [Tom Sturridge], suffers contentedly from a kind of agoraphobia, never having left that one house in a decade or so.  When Treat drags home a sloppily drunk businessman named Harold [Alec Baldwin], expecting to repeat an oft-practiced exercise of getting the drunk as drunk as he can, extracting all his valuables, and then dumping him somewhere else.  But this one’s different, turning the tables on the brothers grim.

This piece of macabre melodrama, which doesn’t match up to others of its era from Harold Pinter or Joe Orton , does provide some scenery-chewing characters  for any enterprising actor to bite into.  As Harold comes-to, he sees two fairly inept, but still reckless young lads who could spell his demise unless he’s careful.  In fairly short order, employing almost invisible personal cunning and conjuring, Harold has successfully transitioned Treat from anti-establishment punk to pro-business twat.  The hyper-kinetic, Philip, however, requires more visceral powers than simply what the lure of creature comforts can offer.  As Harold exhibits more and more sagacious talents, the young orphans accept and then welcome him as a father figure, especially since they imagine him to be the type of  silk-tie gangster they believe they can equal, with proper training and guidance.  And amid all of Harold’s instruction and allure, a bond is formed tying together the older man, the dependant Philip and the controlling [and caring, in many ways] Treat.  The semblance of a family emerges.

Lest you think this is a cautionary tale about the failure of crime to pay off, let me caution you: the potential for devil-deep mayhem and bug-eyed terror never really reaches the level that the presentation of all the familiar parts would imply.  We got yer knife!  We got yer blunt objects!  We got yer gun!   And we got yer assorted hair triggers [events and people] ready to set off all the above, and more!  The missing element?  Having any of them explode to such a degree that any of these brash, deadly premises promises, all confined in the one front room of that  house. The unpredictable Philip, who alights from the wooden windowsill to the inches-wide sofa back to the spindles of the staircase, juts and cuts through the space like the hybrid child of a dragonfly and a rhesus monkey.  In the give-you-the-shivers world of finely-tuned acting, Sturridge shines bright, brighter, brightest.

Foster’s Treat never fully displays the assumed-to-be-necessary true grit needed to keep it all from falling apart.  Baldwin’s Harold never fully settles into a central persona that would lead us to believe he comes from the functioning society outside the door.  Only Sturridge stakes out his emotional and psychological territory and carries it through with physical action [think of Leonardo DiCaprio's disciplined performance in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?'].  “Orphans” isn’t by any stretch a great play.  It has its admirers [I'm not especially one of them] and its detractors [not me, either].  It’s a pretty good play, with some eye-popping moments.  This revival does go one better in one way – we get to see this exciting young actor’s Broadway debut.

On Book

Moving on, it’s that time of year when daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, interns and assistants, and the kids who mow the lawn get ready to graduate from high school, college and university.  Instead of a tie or a scarf, for those who have exhibited even the slightest interest or curiosity about theatre, give a gift of books.

Herewith [and later-with], a variety of selections to inform, educate, satisfy and lure the mortar-boarders into the footlights parade, or more correctly, parades, for the list includes selections that cover the stage from every angle.  For more details, Google the title or author, or visit in person or on-line any bookshop of established repute, such as New York City ’s Tony Award-winning institution, the Drama Bookshop.

Consider: “What We Do – Working in the Theatre” Bo Meltzer, Infinity Publishing; “The Season – A Candid Look at Broadway” William Goldman, Limelight; “Backwards & Forwards – A Technical Manual for Reading Plays” David Ball, Southern Illinois Press’ “An Actor Prepares to Work in New York City” Craig Wroe, Limelight; “The Empty Space” Peter Brook, Touchstone; “The Director’s Voice” a two-volume set, edited by [1] Arthur Bartow and [2] Jason Loewith, Theatre Communications Group {TCG]; “On Directing” Harold Clurman, A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster; “Broadway Musicals – 101 Greatest Shows of All Time” Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, Black Dog & Leventhal Press;  ”How to Write Like Chekhov” Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek, Life Long Books; “A Guide to Producing Plays & Musicals” Frederic B. Vogel & Ben Hodges, editors, Applause Books, and “Acting As a Business – Strategies for Success” Brian O’Neil, Vintage Press.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.  As a playwright, his “Admissions” was produced three times in New York City, all directed by Austin Pendleton, Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, and published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Publications.  He has also written four other plays and two political musical comedies, all produced.  He wrote the Cable Ace Award-winning documentary “Test of Time” for Lifetime Television.  His articles and reviews have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Parade, the Robb Report, Rolling Stone and Dramatics.  He has done guest-teaching at several institutions, including Syracuse University, HB Studio, Columbia University Teacher’s College and the New School.  Currently, he conducts very small [six-person] in-depth classes in theatre, and also one-to-one sessions on scene study, play analysis and auditioning.  He is putting together another round of classes. and can be reached for more information at tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

3.12.13

March 10th, 2013

“The Drawer Boy” takes “The Revisionist”

to “Belleville” leaving “The Cat On A Hot

Tin Roof” with “Talley’s Folly”

by TONY VELLELA

Like Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Matt in Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly” is a principal character in the play, and also its narrator.  They both open their plays with an orientation lesson. of sorts, explaining background and relationships.  Tom announces at the top of his story that “This play is memory.”  Matt, unfortunately, makes no such declaration, and that difference is what distinguishes a great classic [the first] from a very, very good play [the second].  Had Wilson fessed up and given us the distance and perspective the realm of memories affords, “Folly” would go down much smoother.

Matt bounces onto the stage, explaining in the present tense that “the battle is turning” in World War II, prophesying that “‘peace and prosperity’ are in the air,” and that the “hope the people had known has been changed into the enemy.”  This sounds scarily like we’ve got ninety-plus minutes ahead of us filled with the rapid-delivery musings [and rantings] of a second-rate miscreant.  He soon makes it clear that something else is in store.

An early forties Invisible Man accountant, Matt has come back to his hometown, Lebanon, Missouri on this July Fourth eve, standing alone now in a rundown old boathouse on the Talley family property.  He is soon joined by Sally, a late thirties attractive but conservative-presenting woman who wants him to leave the property, and abandon the notion that she wants to spend any time with him.

The foundation element of the story concerns a brief non-carnal encounter the two had one year ago, on this spot, when, in each of their retellings, they permitted because of personal problems that rendered them vulnerable.  The difference is that Matt has turned that event into an almost sacred transgression, and he is back to rekindle what he thought was there.  A nurses’ aide at a local hospital, Sally suffers through Matt’s unwelcome appearance at her job.  There is a certain “meet cute” formula going on here, except that we join the pair somewhere in mid-dudgeon, and since they have history, there’s an insider quality to the barbs.  Later, when they segue into banter, is far more enjoyable.

Of course we can guess the ending.  Getting there, in this play, depends entirely on the casting, and director Michael Wilson has scored a one-and-three-quarters coup of sorts.  Danny Burstein, a Tony nominee for his touching performance in last season’s “Follies,” uses a kind of  ’shock and awe’ approach to his Matt, delivering some over-the-top moments that at times make you wish Sally would just walk back up that hill.  You know that inside his puffed-up chest resides a heart of, maybe not gold, but maybe silver.  Gold-plated silver.

There’s an appealing breakability to Sarah Paulson’s Sally.  She, too, presents an obvious inner softer side.  She is, after all, a woman who helps to nurse the physically wounded back to health.  Paulson doesn’t permit Sally to let out a smile for more than half the play, despite Matt’s clever witticisms.

Why is “Talley’s Folly” like a tea kettle?  Two reasons.  First, it will take its own time to boil, regardless of how studiously you stare at it.  And second, when its boiling point has been reached, the steam spurts out forcefully, rather like a volcano.  While the soft, gentle conclusion here does not have the force of a volcano, it was predictable.  [Warning: Mixed metaphor ahead.]  It erupts.  Tea, anyone?

Isn’t it flat-out annoying when productions of two new plays are compared and contrasted, that have opened within a week or so of each other, when that’s the only thing they seem to have in common?  Did they want us to think there’s some sort of closed-door clearinghouse that governs which themes should be addressed next spring, or whether plays set in the 1930s should be on the boards at the same time?  Spoiler’s Alert:  I am about to try very hard to avoid such a practice.

The plays in question are “Belleville,” by Amy Herzog, [exhibit B], at the New York Theatre Workshop, and “The Revisionist,” by Jesse Eisenberg [exhibit R], at the Cherry Lane Playhouse.  Both are set ‘today,’ single domestic set – B in Paris and R in Szczecin, Poland.  Both have American primary characters – B a late 20s-early 30s married couple, R a young emerging children’s book writer in his 20s.  Both have strained relationships with their hosts – the B couple, who are renting an apartment in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris from a Senegalese couple, and young R with his distant elderly female cousin whom he has no memory of meeting her when he was ten.  The Americans exhibit at times blatant acts of ingratitude, and both men have a pot habit that impairs their judgment and behavior. Exhibit R has three characters, while B has four.  Both plots hinge on a phone call from the U.S.A.  Taken together, they could be subtitled ‘Little Secrets and Great Big Lies.’ R’s delicate balance is poised on a carefully-maintained secret, while unspoken lies bind together, then shatter the B couple.

Other than that, they are entirely different.  Exception: they both can grab your attention fiercely, and not let go.

Exhibit B gives us a strung-out young woman, Abby [Maria Dizzia], whose occupation is yoga instructor, married to Zack [Greg Keller], who works with an international children’s AIDS project.  Abby has a pattern of acting without thought to consequences, or forgetting to complete something she committed herself to doing, always concluding with a practiced “Sorry.”  Zack is tolerance personified.  On the surface, they could be the children of well-to-do hippie parents.  However, Abby’s indifferent or outright callous approach to so many things marks her as damaged goods, the cause not revealed early on.  She assumes Zack will make anything right, and that he will be unjudgmentally [is that a word?] forgiving of all her transgressions.  And her behavior can be as exhausting as what makes parents of autistic children so frayed and in need of their own care-giving source.  Zack, to fulfill that role,  uses pot.

As this pre-Christmas slice-of-ever-volatile life tale unfolds over two days’ time, Abby learns that their funds have long since run out [no clear explanation of where grocery money is coming from].  The Old World genteel building manager [Phillip James Brannon], allowing them to stay on into an unpaid month number four, informs Zack that his uncle, the actual landlord, was for a time willing to take his nephew into his real estate business as a partner.  The uncle’s offer has been withdrawn, after he checked the books and found this glaring deficit.  The building manager, faced with the potential loss of his promising business future, and the unwillingness of his wife [Pascale Armand], who recently bore their first child, to tolerate Zack’s insensitivity to her husband’s situation, gives them two more days to come up with the back rent, and at that point, they still must vacate.

Parts of this tale you recognize from so many other sources: Abby’s mother died, which led her to marry Zack, for security; she goes off her anti-depressant meds, with familiar but painful-to-watch consequences; he goes from fibs, to little white lies, to Lies; the everything-happens-during-two days’-time aspect; the last scene totally up-ending the core of the story.

But many parts you do not recognize.  Herzog salts the familiar with so many other spices, through the power of her engaging details.  When we start getting into the high weeds of a couple’s mutual trust destruction, we’ve learned enough about them to track their missteps, lost opportunities, personal fears and fanciful fantasies.  Imagine someone holding in two hands a delicate clear glass punch bowl, swaying it back and forth for a while, then losing his grip.  It falls slowly [in slo-mo, in fact, in your imagination], and crashes on the hardwood floor.  The story line here is like that crystal bowl.  Shards of glass impale everyone, as they fly up from the floor.  Try as they will, no amount of apologies and rationalizations and appeals and pleas can reverse the progression of this couples’ uncoupling, until the inevitable tragic ending.  Half a century ago, they could have been a failed version of George & Martha – sad, sad, sad.

Jesse Eisenberg [yes, the actor from "The Social Network" and other films] has written a two-and-a-half hander curio taking place in an aging two-and-a-half room apartment in the Polish part city of Szczecin.  Nested there contentedly lives Maria, in her 70s, unmarried, and when we join her, listening to American National Public Radio news reporting.  She proceeds to fuss about the place, obviously in expectation of a special visitor.  And when David [the actor Eisenberg] arrives from America, she cannot contain her joy at seeing this distant cousin, two generations younger.  Maria agreed to David’s visit when he requested it, as a sanctuary to rewrite, at his editor’s condition, his second children’s book, destined to the same limited appeal as his first.  Maria gives David her [the only] bedroom.  Above the bed are pictures of various family members from the past sixty years, whose presence unnerves him.  They get off to a bristly start, with David turning down her specially-prepared, costly dinner, wanting to get to work immediately.  When she relates some of the plans she’s made for his stay, he upbraids her sharply, reminding her that he is there to write, nothing else.  The frost does not soon melt.

A few warm spots happen, when spotty family anecdotes are exchanged, and David shows some courtesy and even gratitude.  He maintains a suspicion that Maria is the subject of government spying, finding repeated phone calls from someone who says she is soliciting charitable contributions.  However, three days in, when wine induces a more serious colloquy, a very very big lie surfaces.  It rips the ribbon that has tenuously come to connect them.  Once out, David must leave, and Maria must try to reconstruct her personal identity with the mere twigs that she had gathered to fashion the foundation of her life.  The premise, though parochial in its scope, much the same as the type of construct Herzog employs is “Belleville,” is attractive for its seeming smallness. It is Eisenberg’s intelligent yet deceptively prosaic dialogue that rivets us.

And, did I note that Maria is being created by Vanessa Redgrave?  Nessa [as her now-deceased sister Lynn, and the Redgrave family, used to call her] seems to possess the ability to expand or contract, to fit the playing space she’s working in.  I first saw her on Broadway twenty-five years ago, as Lady in Tennessee Williams’ literally incendiary “Orpheus Descending,” a role that requires every kind of voluminous delivery.  Here, she resembles a cartoon grey mouse, living quietly behind that black baseboard archway.  And because the Cherry Lane is a compact off-Broadway house, her every carefully-calibrated, even wondrous movement and glance and muttering can be taken in by every audience member.  It’s a living compendium of how to act for the theatre.

And however cleverly Eisenberg has fashioned  this long one-act piece, it is ultimately the Redgrave performance that gives it its singularity.  Eisenberg [playwright and actor] gives us the young, self-important brat that he can consume for lunch.  And the originality of the premise, how it handles its issues of how the need to revise one’s work and one’s life can carve out that person’s perceived identity, enhances the experience of spending a short visit in Szczecin.

From Paris and Poland, next up: the Mississippi Delta, where it looks like not all the cats are hangin’ out on that famous tin roof.  To take it from some of the more quotable critics, Scarlett Johansen as Maggie in that Tennessee Williams classic scorcher gives a stinker of a performance.  But I’m here to testify that the pulchritudinous Ms. J is giving one of the best interpretations of that titular character that I’ve ever seen.  And personally, she is a gorgeous eyeful.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” poses serious obstacles for any young woman trying to make us forget Elizabeth Taylor in that white silk slip, one of the most iconic images from mid-twentieth century filmdom.  It’s like watching an eager young actor show up for an audition doing the “Stella!” monologue from “Streetcar,” daring us not to compare him to Brando.  Maggie has been lugging around her own personal burlap bag full of lies for years now, lies about the ‘ideal’ marriage she’s in, with the football gilded god, Brick.  It’s Brick’s father’s birthday, and the old man’s nearest and dearest have gathered to pay tribute, especially those who harbor jackpot envy for Big Daddy’s fortune, if and when the suspicions that he has terminal cancer are true.

Big Daddy’s fortune flows from the canny stewardship he’s exercised over ‘the most  fertile scrap of land this side of the river Nile.’  Along with cotton, he has been eager to grow him a pair of proper heirs apparent, a son and a grandson he trusts, to name in his will.

Enter Maggie/Scarlett.  Or should we say re-enter.  Married to Big D’s favorite son, her avaricious desires are hampered by the most obvious of shortcomings in this little melodrama: Maggie and Brick are childless.  And Brick’s solicitous brother Gooper and his strident and ever-pregnant wife Mae are expecting their fifth offspring.

But watch what Johansen does with Maggie’s millstone, Brick.  Instead of over-preening, hip-strutting about the bedroom/stage, she keeps both ‘eyes’ on the bathroom where he’s finishing up a shower.  As Brick, Benjamin Taylor ["Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson"] skillfully navigates the room, holding a drink, using a crutch and wearing only a towel.  Miss Maggie smoothly, carefully navigates the room, delivering one of the most challenging monologues in the Tennessee Williams/American theatre canon.  And she does it catching every nuance and inflexion that was probably in TW’s head as the words got pounded out on his manual typewriter.  It’s easy to overlook what Maggie’s ’stakes’ are in this head-to-head competition between her husband and his brother, the personal stakes – an inheritance, a mind-numbing fortune that would forever keep her from sliding back into the poverty she compares to being as poor as Job’s turkey.  Sure, it’s all that.  But Brick would also inherit all that.  What’s at stake for Maggie the Cat is maybe her last chance to solidify her status as a true beauty, the lust-satisfying all-woman creature.  Because as long as she has not borne Brick’s child, her reason for being is hollow.

And that’s the challenge Miss Johansen tackles eight times a week, prepping herself for more of Big Daddy’s admiring, lingering glances, knowing that it’s her seemingly casual sex-appeal appearance that keeps his hope alive that Brick will father a child.

There was, and may still be, a wry anthem sung by TV’s “South Park” kids, “Blame Canada!”  This time, it’s Canada we have to thank, for the arrival of Michael Healey’s thoroughly engaging, well-crafted “The Drawer Boy.”  Set on a small farm in central Ontario during the summer of 1972,  the entire story unfolds in the kitchen, on the back porch and the back yard of a sustainable farm, run by two friends, Morgan [Brad Fryman] and Angus [William Lacey].  Now middle-aged, they served together in WWII, which left Angus, who is a math savant, stricken with a condition that robs him of some memory, and Morgan has become his caretaker, although they both share the work of running the farm.  Enter callous, young Miles [Alex Fast], a drama student who is part of a group using the summer to produce a new play about farm life, and seeks a kind of trade.  Alex would like to board with Morgan and Angus, and observe how the day-to-day operations take place, in exchange for doing whatever he can when he’s not at rehearsal with his theatre company in the nearby town.

It’s hard to tell what category or genre to expect once Miles arrives, because the elements are there for a fish-out-of-water comedy, an unnerving thriller or a rural drama.  Healey’s skills have given us some of each, in perfect balance.

As the weeks go by, we see a tender friendship grow between Miles and Angus.  Angus continues to search quietly for “something” in the house or on the property, not being able to recall what it is, except that it is significant.  But an undercurrent of unspoken tensions rise to the surface.  Details of how they burst forth, due to innocently-told stories from classic theatre by Miles to Angus, with life-changing consequences, will not be revealed here, because this is one work that deserves the courtesy [to the writer] of being experienced fresh.  What must be said is that all three actors have an unaffected style of work, keeping their presence and interplay well within the scope of the story, and, due to the excellent, serviceable set designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, have no need to compromise what they do.

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After-Pieces

If you only consider the pair of titles – “Waiting for Godot” and “No Man’s Land” – you might be inclined to watch old episodes of “Downton Abbey” instead of attending that gloomy-sounding evening in the theatre.  But, wait!  What we have here is Harold Pinter’s “Godot,” and Samuel Beckett’s “Land,” starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and they’re bringing their priceless talents to these revered works, in repertory, directed by Sean Mathias.  The Broadway-bound package arrives in Gotham in the fall . . . . . These two great actors are masters of the spoken word, to be sure.  Another form that celebrates the spoken word is the poetry slam, and if you’re one of those folks who scoff at the idea of poetry slams, open your mind and let this new talent in!  I was privileged to see and hear top-level poetry jams produced by Russell Simmons, who told me about his devotion to giving these young performers, who write all their own material, a real platform to shine, and they did.   On April 20th, celebrating National Poetry Month, the 15th Annual Teen Poetry Slam Finals, with contestants from across the country, will fill the Apollo Theatre stage, presented by Urban Word NYC.  For details, visit apollotheater.org, then visit the Apollo . . . . . While we enjoy [and possibly compete for tickets to] Bette Midler in the solo show “I’ll Eat You Last,” a different Divine Miss M vehicle, the beloved 1988 film “Beaches” has been adapted for the musical theatre stage.

The announcement was made by Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre.  It washes up on shore next February . . . . . Now in its 18th season, Rattlestick Theatre Company, in the West Village, is responsible for, among other things, the premiere production of Jesse Eisenberg’s “The Revisionist,” running now at the Cherry Lane.  Up ahead for Rattlestick is a daring expansion – the opening of a Los Angeles production of the new play “Slipping,” by Daniel Talbott, for a five-week run, starting on April 7.  They’re taking with them this season’s “Golden Boy,” the tremendous Seth Numrich.  For details: www.Rattlestick.org/rattlestick-LA.

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On Book

Lanford Wilson was one of America’s greatest playwrights.  To broaden your familiarity with his works, try “Volumes I and II – Lanford Wilson’s Collected Works” from Smith and Kraus. . . . . It’s great to report that Michael Healey’s “The Drawer Boy,” which won 4 Dora Awards, including Outstanding New Play,  is available from Playwrights Canada Press, based in Toronto. . . . . If you enjoy one-acts, one of the best at that form is Murray Schisgal, and his two break-out favorites, “The Typists” and “The Tiger,” ran together in New York in 1963, starring real-life married couple Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, “Admissions,” which had three New York productions directed by Austin Pendleton, won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.  He has also written several other plays and musicals, and two political musical comedy reviews, all produced.  He wrote the Cable Ace Award-winning “Test of Time” for Lifetime Television.  He has taught at Columbia University Teacher’s College, Syracuse University, HB Studio and other institutions, and continues to teach small seminars and individual coaching sessions from home.  Information is available through tvellela@nyc.rr.com.