The “China Doll,”
in “The Color Purple”
has “A View From The Bridge”
of “A Wilder Christmas”
by TONY VELLELA
Traditionally, the Christmas holidays are symbolized using the colors red and green. This year, it’s necessary to add the color purple. Maybe the green has a second meaning: it could apply to the envy other musicals now opening may be feeling should they visit Broadway’s Jacobs Theatre.
“The Color Purple,” with book by Marsha Norman, and music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, returns to Broadway following its initial premiere run in 2005. This version, directed by John Doyle, originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.
Set in various rural Georgia locales between 1909 and 1949, it’s the saga of one young black woman’s journey from near slavery conditions, to a fulfilled life of independence and creativity. It is based on Alice Walker’s esteemed blockbuster novel of the same name, and the 1985 motion picture, helmed by Stephen Spielberg, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey.
This time, there is a simplicity to the overall design of the musical, which can prove to be a benefit for those audience members not familiar with the intricacies of the story. Doyle, as he has done in past Broadway productions of “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “A Catered Affair,” chose to strip away almost every set design detail that provides us with information about where we are. If the intention was to laser-focus in on the individuals and the specifics of what’s happening to them at the moment, it can be called an apt choice. There are those, however, who believe that less is not always more. Because the director was also the set designer and the person responsible for the musical staging, one can fault a kind of obsession with a fixation on presenting only the barest of necessities. At rise, all we see is a wall of slatted boards, mounted at various angles, and from them, an array of various kinds of bentwood chairs hanging like they would in an Amish homestead. And the chairs stand in for every other kind of furniture, set piece or even bludgeoning instrument. Added to this stage picture is the absence of every color except brown, and the oppression of the time and place becomes quite visceral. Unfortunately, this relentless monochromatic environment affects not only the characters on stage, but also the audience members, who can tire of the sameness, being lulled into inattentiveness.
At their peril. From the first moments when the young, clumsy and plain-featured Celie suffers both physical and emotional abuse from her father, and then many others, the match is lit, and the long fuse that eventually burns toward the explosion that is her liberation, attention must be paid. And the demands on us, to give ourselves over to witness the emerging realization of her identity, is made compelling because of Cynthia Erivo, in her startling Broadway debut. As her young self withstands being pushed into a fixed marriage, a less-than-human servitude and finally, the entirely unexpected love connection that unlocks her passion and her soul, it is the specific choices the actor makes, and the unlimited ferocity she infuses those choices with, that make this breakout performance as thrilling to see as it was to witness Heather Hedley’s skyrocket trip to the stars in “Aida.” She is that good, and then some.
The somewhat obvious costume choice in Act Two when Celie appears in a blood red dress lessens the continuing impact of a design palette that probably sounds good in a production meeting, but again, comes across as a one-note decision lacking in subtlety. When, in Act Two, the women unwrap bolts of African fabric that shout out bold colors and patterns, there’s the real echo of a similar moment in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” when the daughter Beneatha revels in the gift her African boyfriend has bestowed – authentic African costuming of the same patterns and colors.
What is not at all subtle, and that is meant as a compliment, is the Broadway debut performance of Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, cast against type as Shug Avery, the brash, sultry dance hall hostess who grabs the attention of everyone in any room she enters. Hudson’s svelte appearance, sloe-eyed countenance and overall louche demeanor insists on being watched, and every time she has an opportunity to sing, it’s a bonus, especially in the rousing “Push da Button.” And when she and Celie profess their tender bonding in “What About Love?” – tears.
Overall, “The Color Purple” has been built from a meaningful, heart-wrenching, intense and inspirational set of individual stories. The production would have benefitted from a strong counter-point opinion cautioning Doyle that obsession with cutting away almost everything but the bare bones of any work can have unintended negative consequences.
Also adopting a ‘less-is-more’ approach in presenting another revival is “A View from the Bridge,” one of Arthur Miller’s most precisely-crafted plays, getting a fresh take on how it can be presented, at the Lyceum Theatre. The superlatives bank has been overdrawn from the time this production premiered, with much of the excitement centered on the work and future of Dutch director Ivo Van Hove, here in his Broadway debut.
One is reminded of a boxing ring – a large blank square playing space, backed up by a non-descript fourth wall sporting one doorway. No furniture. No set pieces or props. And the stripped-down decision extends to the actors, who are almost always barefoot. And the result: the ‘boxing ring’ area almost immediately becomes an invisible cage, with its inhabitants trapped inside its unseen walls.
It’s the mid-fifties. Longshoreman Eddie Carbone, his wife Beatrice and her niece Catherine live in a very modest apartment in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood overwhelmingly populated by families whose roots are in Sicily, and whose ties to the old country include assisting any newly-arrived immigrants as they attempt to assimilate. Illegal arrivals, stowaways on boats coming in to the port, pose a dangerous real-world conundrum. If they [nicknamed ‘submarines’] are caught, they are immediately deported. But their Brooklyn hosts also face arrest and jail time.
The Carbone household already faces its own internal, private drama of personal interrelationships. Young Catherine, who has lived with the Carbones ever since her mother, Beatrice’s sister, passed away, is now a fully-developed young woman. The obvious, suppressed sexual energy that sparks between the girl and her uncle has become an unspoken point of stress for Beatrice, who sees how the girl still behaves as if she were ten years old, jumping up onto Eddie’s lap, wrapping her arms around his neck and nuzzling him when he comes home, and how he, in turn, seems unconsciously to stroke, pat, kiss and pet her whenever they’re together. Add into this volatile mix the wife’s statement that she wants her husband to resume their love-making, which has been absent for months.
Enter: trouble. Two distant cousins wash ashore, hidden among the crew of a ship that has just docked there, and without a second thought, the Carbones offer to put them up until they can find their own place to stay. Eddie obliges by finding work on the dock for the two brothers, one older with a wife and children back in Sicily, the other younger, with a taste for adventure and fun. And to Eddie’s horror, young Rodolpho and Catherine find a love connection. Nothing good comes from any of this, as Eddie tries to elicit the aid of a lawyer, in breaking up the couple, only to learn that there’s no law against it. Every possible conflict ensues. And the worst possible consequences unfold.
This time, this revival does something no other one has managed to accomplish, and this is a play that has enjoyed a fair number of return visits down through the decades, each with its own highlights. To assess the impact of any revival, one must first consider the author’s original intentions, and then, what past productions have given us. Arthur Miller once told me that he had felt the story of the Carbones had elements of opera, and among all the ones I’ve ever seen, this is the one that comes closest to manifesting that ideal. These are regular, everyday people hit hard by larger-than-life challenges. And that is happening because of a perfect marriage of vivid performances and ultra-creative staging.
The guts-and-grit persona of Eddie pours forth in Mark Strong’s visceral portrayal, a man whose gut instincts always govern his behavior, and whose obsession with his nubile young niece cannot be tamped down. Equally prone to following her natural instincts as Catherine, Phoebe Fox is careful not to project any secret lascivious intentions. And the ideal match, to guilelessly seek to have a married relationship
with Catherine, is Russell Tovey’s Rodolpho. Last seen as Rudge in “The History Boys,” in all the versions, including on Broadway and in the television movie, Tovey scored an American hit on the HBO series about the gay lives of young men in San Francisco, “Looking.” Tovey’s fresh-faced, innocently cocky Italian lad bowled over with the wonder of New York and America hits the just-right balance between sensitive lovelorn boy and rough-and-tumble street lad, ready to fight for what he sacrificed so much to finally achieve.
Paired with outstanding performances is van Hove’s smart direction. It’s my view that the power of Miller’s story and the clear, meteoric arc of the story, come through in part, due to the director’s past work in opera. He has ferreted out the basic truths and the searing lies that Miller has inter-woven. Van Hove’s choice to leave his actors/characters barefoot is not, in my view, an arbitrary or stylistic decision. Nothing can give an actor more of the ‘feel’ of being rooted in the basics of a story than the feel of the their skin in direct contact with the wood or canvas surface of the stage. Van Hove’s removal of all set pieces means that Eddie and Catherine have just about nowhere else to put their hands but on each other, weaving an easy, constant tactile flow between the two, as he preens her, fixes her hair, strokes her bare legs. Van Hove has worked closely with sound designer Tom Gibbons, who has composed a relentless, low-tone groaning underscoring that underlies the ominous mood that envelopes everyone. Miller’s writing is clean, spare and vivid. In the case of Eddie, he bears an uncanny resemblance to another of Miller’s iconic males, also one who is plagued by tangled sexual attractions inside a closed world of strict norms and rigid rules. That is “The Crucible’s” John Proctor, also accused of behavior not accurately ascribed to him. Listen to Carbone, cut down in the street after precipitating a deadly confrontation, when he cries out to his wife that “I want my name.” He could be the great-great-great grandson of Proctor. This is the production that all future productions will be measured against. And good luck with that.
In order to apply it to David Mamet’s new play “China Doll,” at the Schoenfeld Theatre, starring Al Pacino, that old adage “The Emperor has no clothes” needs a modification: this time, TWO Emperors are metaphorically naked.
This clumsy, ragged playscript, is another instance of Mamet believing [apparently correctly] that he has managed so successfully at turning himself into a ‘brand,’ that
he can cobble together just about anything, with his name attached, and get it produced. One wonders if it was simple vanity that attracted Pacino to do the lead role. His character, Mickey Ross, is on stage the entire time. He appears to be a billionaire industrialist with international holdings and plenty of domestic political clout. How do we know what we think we know? Through one of the most overused, least credible forms of exposition: the one-sided telephone call.
You know the pattern, because you’ve seen it on millions of television shows and in B-movies going back to the addition of sound. The person we see at first repeats, almost word for word, what the person on the phone has asked. Then, gives a complete-sentence response. “What do you mean you want to know when I arrived? I arrived at ten o’clock, just like I said I would. [pause] You want to meet me at midnight? You already know I’ll be . . .” etc., etc. etc. Amateur hour-writing.
And doubling the pain of sitting through this debacle, in which Ross seems to be trying to outsmart the people ready to level politically-charged criminal accusations, is a performance by Pacino that features all the worst aspects of this mega-talented, vital and often revered actor. Pacino rants, squints, shouts, blusters, stammers, demands and through it all, gives orders to the play’s only other character, young Carson, working as an assistant to the mogul, because he wants to grow up to be just like him. Or so he thought. [Pacino’s performance rivals those irritating insurance television commercials starring a character named Flo, in a white uniform and scarlet lips, or that phone service-hawking couple who don’t seem to have anything else to talk about except who loves their phone company more.] In one of the most strenuous, demanding performances unfolding anywhere in town [or elsewhere, for that matter], Christopher Denham serves as the perfect lackey, to be near his mentor. Denham manages to carry off this second-banana role with great finesse. Guiding this up-and-coming fine actor’s performance may be the only positive contribution from director Pam McKinnon, whose previous outings have included lending a masterful touch to the revival Steppenwolf production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the Bruce Norris Pulitzer Prize-winner “Clybourne Park.” Go figure.
There was a time back in the early days of literate theatre-productions that the #1 rule the playwright was expected to honor is this: we need to care about someone.
Almost from the get-go, there’s no good reason to hope Ross succeeds in his threats and manipulations. Denham’s character is very nearly a two-dimensional stereotype until the last moments of the play, which take way, way, way too long to arrive.
Incidentally, the title, “China Doll,” like the rest of this undertaking, has no meaning. No ‘doll,’ human or toy, no ‘China’ reference. Which fits the play. Or maybe either one was mentioned when I nodded off.
To return to the Christmas theme, a great gift to give any friend, family member, young person new to theatre, older person ready to give up any hope of ever again experiencing the past joy of seeing great theatre, or most of all, to yourself, is the wonderfully satisfying, creative and lovingly rendered Peccadillo Theater Company’s “A Wilder Christmas.” Yup – THAT Wilder – Thornton, of “Our Town,” “Matchmaker,” “Bridge of San Luis Rey” and “Skin of Our Teeth” fame. This time, it’s two of his many one-act plays that have been paired, to make for a glorious evening of story-telling. “The Long Christmas Dinner” and “Pullman Car Hiawatha” each exhibit features that show how Wilder was experimenting with various forms and formats. “The Long Christmas Dinner,’ written in the late 1920s, relates ninety years in the life of an American family, unfolding around a holiday dining room table, in a script that seems to lay the basic premise for A.R. Gurney’s 1981 “The Dining Room.” Relatives come and go, marry and die, bicker with and care for each other, as Wilder craftily demonstrates how certain behaviors skip generations and how blood lines can determine even the most obscure outcomes.
And the passengers on the “Pullman Car Hiawatha” possess an ability to ‘speak’ their thoughts, giving us the rare opportunity to hear what they’re thinking. And in case there are conditions not readily apparent, Wilder has included a conductor character who doubles as a sort of Narrator, capable of speaking directly to us, the audience, a direct antecedent of the “Our Town” Stage Manager. Remnants of Grover’s Corners and of the future television series “Outer Limits” tumble together with ease, in one of the year’s most enjoyable, satisfying and theatrical events. Directing kudos to Dan Wackerman, Peccadillo’s Artistic Director, for excellent work with this uniformly excellent ensemble cast, and for orchestrating this fine production.
Two unique theatrical experiences are on offer for, and about teens, so if you’re wondering what else to come up with, to entertain your teens during the coming weeks, check these out:  The Big Apple Circus, which has returned to the Big Top at Lincoln Center. It’s their 38th season, and they’re premiering their all-new show “The Grand Tour.” Audiences get transported to the Roaring ’20s, get introduced to the advent of modern transport vehicles, and get up-close to some of the world’s greatest circus acts, all within 50 feet of every audience member. For details, visit www.bigapplecircus.org . . . and the world premiere season of the new play “Prospect High: Brooklyn” is still underway. It was written by Daniel Robert Sullivan and a talented team of New York City teenagers. It spotlights four super-talented teen-agers and their less-than-enthusiastic teacher, and addresses a variety of important themes, including casual racism, self-harm, friendship issues, trans acceptance and more. Performances are taking place in schools across the country, and return to home turf this coming spring. Plus, scripts are available for schools to consider putting on their own production. For details, visit DanielS@roundabouttheatre.org.
The backstory of how “A View from the Bridge” came to be written is one of the most important Broadway legends in the history of that Golden Age of Drama. Arthur Miller had been very well-served by director Elia Kazan, who was responsible for bringing “Death of a Salesman” and “All My Sons” to life. [It was also the era when Kazan was doing the same remarkable things for a still-emerging young playwright named Tennessee Williams, having helmed “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Robert Anderson’s tender “Tea and Sympathy”]. It was assumed Kazan would also direct “View,” but a serious, bitter rift drove an iron wedge between the two men, and the original production was directed instead by Martin Ritt, as a long one-act, and later, the full-length version, which premiered in London, had Peter Brook in the director’s chair. The themes of the corruption that held dockworkers by the throat, and the devastating effect it had on their personal lives, is, of course, at the heart of “View;” Kazan could not let go of the theme. It emerged, instead, in his collaboration with the brilliant writer Budd Schulberg, whose screenplay for “On the Waterfront,” which Kazan co-wrote, he famously directed. To read about both sides of this saga, check out both men’s autobiographies: Arthur’s = “Timebends,” from Grove Press, and Kazan’s = “A Life,” from Knopf . . . an equally fascinating life story can be discovered in “Thornton Wilder – A Life,” written by Penelope Niven, from HarperCollins, with a foreword by Edward Albee. Did you know that he wrote the screenplay for the picture Alfred Hitchcock believed to be his best – “Shadow of a Doubt?” . . . and to give yourself about two dozen or so treats, pick up the collections of Wilder’s short plays, in “The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder – Volume I and Volume II,” from Theatre Communications Group.
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play “Admissions” won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts. His one-act “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press. As a journalist, he has covered the performing arts for almost fifty years, in publications such as Parade, Dramatics Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and Reader’s Digest, among many others. He teaches theatre-related sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details on upcoming sessions]. His new play, “Labor Days,” is in pre-production.
CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk. Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212-666-6666.