Intermission Talk 11.23.14

November 23rd, 2014

“The River” is

no “Side Show.”

It’s “The Real Thing.”

by TONY VELLELA

Count me among the millions of folks who love a good mystery.  I’ve even penned a mystery play ["What We Don't Confess"] and a mystery novel ["By Book or By Crook"].  So discovering a ‘mystery’ element in the new play “The River,” by Jez Butterworth ["Jerusalem"] was a bonus, added to the prospect of seeing Hugh Jackman on stage again.  To my mind, he’s a true acting Renaissance man – he does it all, and exceedingly well.  The in-the-round playing space at Circle in the Square offered director Ian Rickson real challenges, and his has been well-served by the designs of the set and costumes [Ultz] and lighting [Charles Balfour], which all combined to give Jackman an environment as real as any actor could hope for.

Where are we?  It’s an isolated cabin on the edge of a lake in rural England [I assume, judging from everyone's accents].  The central character, only referred to as the Man, has been visiting since he was a boy.  He has always made these trips to enjoy the thrills of trout fishing – physical, epicurial and spiritual.  When we meet him, he’s in the company of a comely young woman [called The Woman], and they appear to be in mid-sojourn, enjoying the aforementioned thrills, as well as others, particularly sexual and even romantic.  Jackman’s Man is perfectly comfortable here, right down to not worrying about that hole in his sock.  He seems eager to please her, and treads most carefully on the right side of the line that separates being respectfully engaged emotionally, a romancer, rather than being overtly aggressive, a seducer.  Until he doesn’t.

There’s been a surfeit of hedge-betting in much of the written commentary about this play.  It’s elliptical structure, in which we seem to be re-visiting moments we’ve seen before, as well as Butterworth’s bone-marrow simplicity in the setting-up of it, easily lend themselves to generating head-scratching among even the most attentive audience members.  Is this man dangerous?  Delusional?  Prone to fantasized re-enactments of some past traumatic event?  Fact is, we’re not meant to know the answers to these questions, as Butterworth exercises his considerable talents to generate a world as unknowable as the whereabouts of Godot.  And what about that Other Woman?

What’s there to recommend?  Jackman, of course.  Few working actors can create as much realism inside the characters they are contracted to portray, and I think it has something to do with an actor’s willingness to being seen unadorned, however acting-classy that may sound.  The same vulnerability that gave us his Curly ["Oklahoma!"], who never crossed over into overly-boastful arrogance is also present here.  Whatever the truth is, past and future, again and again, in that remote cabin, I’m willing to give that Man some latitude by assuming he’s got a pretty good reason.  Butterworth’s reason for writing such an unsatisfying puzzler?  Like the story itself – no clue.

In stark contrast to the exemplary design work that gives “The River” its aura of place authenticity, director Sam Gold has permitted [or been party to] real missteps in the production of the revival of “The Real Thing” at the American Airlines Theatre.  At rise, we see what appears to be an expansive contemporary [for the late '80s] living room.  There’s the sofa.  There’s the sideboard.  There’s the armchair.  There’s the bookshelves.  There’s the area rug.  David Zinn’s stage-wide set does double [or is it triple?] duty as the homes of two separate couples in London, and with a few modifications that aren’t related to what they are to represent, a recording studio, and a train coach.

Why quibble about this?  Because Tom Stoppard’s [melo]drama about the coupling and uncoupling of one playwright [male], and three actors [two female, one male] wants us to be interested in their lives, their choices, their disorientations.  A new play by Henry [an endearing Ewan McGregor], meant to star Annie [Maggie Gyllenhaal, as charismatic in her Broadway debut as she has been on film], goes off the rails as his marriage comes apart, when Henry and Annie fall in love, as he also discovers his wife Charlotte’s infidelities.   His wife [the always-reliable Cynthia Nixon] becomes enamored with a young anti-nuke militant she has met on a train ride back from appearing on stage in Glasgow.  Her first husband, Max [a likeable Josh Hamilton] manages to figure in the mix as well.

This is Tom Stoppard, circa 1984, already a force to be reckoned with in the English-speaking theatre, his swoon-worthy dexterity with the spoken and the written word emerging more fully here.  When viewing the original production thirty years ago, I was absolutely gob-smacked  hearing a gentle diatribe [if that's not a contradiction] delivered by Henry, relating his core philosophy about the value of how a carefully constructed sequence of words can deliver truths, and how a badly assembled sequence of words can pervert even the simplest of intentions.  The metaphor?  How a cricket bat is constructed – the choice of the wood, how it is shaped and assembled, to do its job very very well.  All of Stoppard’s splendid semantics is here in the service of what one might call an examination of what constitutes genuine love for someone else, despite any new revelations that surface about that person.  Here, it’s not simply the predictable discovery of sexual infidelity, but also the utter disbelief in how someone views the subject, and practice of opportunism.   The particulars here center around a willingness to bestow virtuous motives on someone who, to others, may seem short on integrity and long on self-aggrandizement.  Do you, as an actor, play a role for the sake of your or your playwright’s career, or reject the opportunity when that role challenges your basic principles?

While all this may sound very High-Minded, [and my recollection after seeing the original production is that it seemed so], the play has been short-changed in this revival.  It now merely serves as a platform for a handful of very engaging mid-career actors to ‘play’ in the land of Stoppard.    Surprisingly, very little believable, deep warmth, or emotional fervor  passes among them in any combination.   And after a while, it becomes distractingly tedious to try to decipher where we are, both in the scrambled interrelationships and in the free-form set design where they take place.

The tawdry world of Depression-era vaudeville is where we are, in the dazzling revival of  “Side Show.”  The original book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Kreiger have been supplemented with additional book material by Bill Condon, who also directed the production, at the St. James.

Of the batch of revivals from twenty-five/thirty years ago that populate this season’s list of offerings, this one has done the best job so far of justifying the decision to bring it back.   In its original incarnation, the story of the lives of the British conjoined twins Violet and Daisy Hilton, followed them from being treated as property, sold to a ‘manager,’ who exhibited them as side-show oddities, through their discovery by a vaudeville impresario, their popular success as singers and the turmoil they suffered when private feelings were never able to be realized.  The same storyline unfolds here, but this time, the girls seem to have become the fully-actualized, three-dimensional people they longed to be.   This transformation may be due, in part, to the simple casting choices this time.  Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, both first-rate talents by any standard,  portrayed the girls in the original cast, and from the first moment we see them, they had, in my recollection, a muted allure about them.  All it needed was nurturing.

Here, the equally talented Erin Davie [Violet] and Emily Padgett [Daisy] look as weary, as haggard, as beaten-down as their existence would have caused them to become.  This is not meant to suggest any lack of, how-to-say, attraction these women have.  What it does is give them, the characters, so much more room to grow, so much more history to overcome.   Their rescuers, played convincingly by Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik, arrange a slow ascent from side show to vaudeville to popular theatre events and even briefly into film.  This time, legendary film-maker Tod Browning ["Freaks"] appears as the pivotal character he was in their real lives, including them in that iconic classic about the shadowy world of the lives of those circus curiosities whose physical oddities defined them as permanent outsiders, near-defenseless against exploitation and ridicule.

“Side Show” owes its revitalized new life in large measure to director Bill Condon’s application of the masterful story-telling he so expertly exhibited when helming the screen version of Krieger’s dynamic show-business opus “Dreamgirls.”  And his sensitivity to the particularities of human diversities, so vividly on display when he wrote and directed the films “Kinsey” and “Gods and Monsters,” are so well-utilized again, bringing us inside the lives of two young women whose outward identities are forever linked, while their inner personalities and desires could not be more different.  This time, we discover that distinction, and enjoy seeing the journey of discovery as they experience it.

Afterplay

Is the noise of city life getting to you?  Have you felt that true creativity no longer exists?  Take heart!  The world-renowned theatrical troupe Mummenschanz has taken up temporary Big Apple residence for a short time only.

They’re displaying their wordless, silent magical imagination-creations at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, at the south end of Washington Square Park.  If you’ve seen them before, renew your memories, and if not, make new ones, and share them with your children, or treat someone else’s to this wondrous event.  Visit www.Mummenschanz.com for details . . . another holiday  treat is available for families, as the longest-running musical in the world, “The Fantasticks,” offers a discounted package . . . and there’s a different special on display at the Merchant’s House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, as the Summoners Ensemble Theatre returns to re-tell Charles Dickens’ timeless classic “A Christmas Carol,” set in the museum’s authentic period dwelling, built in 1832, still featuring original family possessions.  Limited seating – details at www.merchantshouse.org.

On Book

Two engrossing new volumes help us trace the fascinating history of America’s most widely-revered popular art form – the musical theatre.  John Kendrick has reached way, way back, showing us how theatre in the mid-1800s sowed the earliest seeds of what we love to indulge in – a great big musical show.  In “Musical Theatre – A History,” Kendrick makes visits with Gilbert and Sullivan, the great Al Jolson, Richard Rodgers and both of his talented partners, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, the genius of Sondheim, the emergence of the Disney musicals, and much much more, from Continuum Press . . . In “Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre,” the journalist Ethan Mordden, writing for Oxford University Press, takes us from the dawn of the last century up to the early 2000’s, with great detail, insight and a healthy dose of sheer adoration for America’s musical theatre world . . . and who are the people responsible for what we see on the Broadway boards?  In “Great Producers,” Iris Dorbian introduces us to a dazzling display of the talented behind-the-scenes makers and shakers who have shaped all that theatrical history, and more.  From Allworth Press, this comprehensive volume explores the work and worry of more than a dozen luminaries, from David Belasco and Florenz Ziegfeld, through David Merrick and Joseph Papp, to today’s moguls, including Michael David, Andre Bishop and the Weisslers.  It’s a real eye-opener.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  “Admissions,” his Best Play Award-winner [N.Y. International Fringe Festival] is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge Press published his play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  His articles about the performing arts have appeared in dozens of publications, including Parade, the Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Dramatics, Reader’s Digest and the Robb Report.  He has taught at several institutions, including Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studios and the New School.  He is currently conducting theatre-topic classes and sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details], as well as small-group sessions and individual coaching from his home in Manhattan.

Intermission Talk

November 2nd, 2014

We’re “On the Town”

As “The Last Ship”

Is  Not “Disgraced.”

by TONY VELLELA

How someone professes to feel about The Big Topics – religion, politics, equality, sexuality, economics, education – has more often than not been shaped to a persuasive degree by how he or she was raised, and when and where.  Those imprints linger long, below the surface, while even the most studied discourses of a university classroom or the elegant prose of a Times non-fiction best-seller can fail to completely erase their effects.

In Ayad Akhtar’s stunning play “Disgraced,” now unfolding under the deft hand of director Kimberly Senior, in a wisely-economical eighty minutes at the Lyceum, the prejudices and self-definitions of five people interplay to a volcanic climax.  The premise, which suffers only slightly from the conveniences of minor theatrical agit-prop, revolves around Amir [a charismatic Hari Dhillon], a rising mergers and acquisitions attorney of Pakistani heritage and birth, now fully assimilated into the enviably comfortable echelons of the Upper East Side.  He is married to Emily [fetching Gretchen Mol], a Caucasian painter who has embraced all the realms of Islamic traditions in her art.  Despite her concentration on the intricacies of tile pattern renderings from centuries past, she is rendering a portrait of her husband at rise.  There is love, admiration and pride in how she approaches his image, even as it mimics a Velasquez portraiture of his Moorish assistant [slave?].

In quick order, we learn that their first-time dinner guests are Jory [a riveting Karen Pittman], another rising attorney at the firm where Amir works, and her husband Isaac [a convincing Josh Radnor], who just happens to be an important Whitney curator, in a position to offer Emily a berth in their upcoming show examining the sacred in art.  The arrival in future scenes of Amir’s young nephew Abe, formerly Hussein before a name change [Danny Ashok, a real gift to Broadway from the London stage], completes the dramatis personae.

Because both his wife and his nephew goaded him into offering free counsel in the case of an imam revered by Abe, who has been accused of raising funds for Hamas, Amir finds his photo and name in a Times articles, which identifies him using the name of his law firm, even though his single visit was personal, and not meant as the start of a formal association.  The law partners are furious with him.  Wife and nephew feel that he did the right thing.  When Isaac and Jory show up for the special dinner party, the topic meant to be ‘on the table’ is Emily’s inclusion in the exhibition, a major advance in her career.  But the news that Jory, and not Amir, has been named the new partner, blackens the proceedings.  Along the way, all four try to explain and justify how they feel about the emergence of an Islamic presence on the world stage(s), each one relating it to their own backgrounds and agendas.  We know about Amir’s perilous journey, extricating himself from his deeply religious upbringing to mainstream American society, requiring a name change, and a fabrication when identifying his genealogical roots [the town was in India, but was soon after part of Pakistan when the Brits re-drew the borders].  His fierce ambition and drive led him to plow in longer hours before and after everyone else at the office.  Unfortunately, only surface details about the others [gender, race, occupation] are revealed.  When incendiary topics such as the impact of 9/11, the rise of Islamic terrorism, the comparisons to what some see as Israeli aggression, how a Euro-centric emphasis in education colors the nuances of Islamic tradition, women wearing ‘the veil,’ and so forth, it only takes a few drinks, and some unexpected, critical revelations,  to scrape away the veneer of polite social intercourse.

How these four adults relate to the issues this Pulitzer Prize-winning play pulls out, and how you feel about them, depends on where they want to go now in their lives.  While Emily’s fascination with the Islamic/Moorish traditions and accomplishments from centuries past serve to inform and distinguish her art, there is an aspect of how she relates to her dark-skinned husband that may seem to border on romanticism – idealizing him for who he was, and where he came from, and therefore giving her an identity-by-association that is distinctive from ‘white American female.’  While Jory’s African-American heritage is obvious, little else is known, except that she has learned to play the corporate world game far better than Amir, and no one accuses her of identity-upgrade because she is married to a Jewish art world leader.

If there is one watchword to keep in mind when you see this compelling drama – and you really should – it is that you must always keep in mind where these people see themselves going in their lives.  The personal, sexual, corporate, religious and integrity-based issues that implode inside each of them because of how their actions intersect, even violently, must be balanced against a need to remember that internal pressure to become who you think you are or should be,  will very often override what your right-brain conclusions may be. Structurally, “Disgraced” mirrors elements of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” although the issues seem higher, deeper and more universal – but that’s in the eye and ear of the beholder.   In the end, Akhtar has succeeded in presenting enough justification for even the most horrific behaviors, if one pulls back and takes it all in from a larger perspective.  Tough stuff.  Good stuff.

The rollicking Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Leonard Bernstein musical “On The Town,” now in revival at the Lyric, initially burst forth during World War II, a nearly mindless confection that follows three on-leave-for-one-day sailors ready to conquer New York City.  While most people are familiar with the 1949 film version that  Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly directed, and starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin [and the indomitable Florence Bates], this production features the complete score, rather than the pared-down playlist in the movie.  Among the standout musical moments we are treated to here is Bernstein’s composition, the compelling, melancholy cornet solo “Lonely Town.”

One of the tars [that's what they used to call sailors], becomes enamored with the poster showing the graceful winner of this month’s Miss Turnstiles, a beauty contest sponsored by the MTA patterned after the real-life Miss Subways of that era.  His buddies agree to help him track her down.  They all find girls.  They all have robust numbers.  Everybody dances.

The audience is greeted with a proscenium-wide American flag, Patton-size, and instead of the overture,  a rousing rendition of our national anthem fills the auditorium, and everyone obediently stands while it’s played.   Bordering the initial shipyard set is a billboard proclaiming ‘America Must Have A Full Day’s Work From Every American.’  No worries here – director John Rando oversees the proceedings, guaranteeing that this is a hard-working, working-overtime cast, belting it out 110%, and at times they seem over-eager to please.   The always enterprising designer Beowulf Boritt has generated background after background of moving images that fill the stage, and costume designer Jess Goldstein has cannily kept the all-white sailor suits distinctive from the riot of colors among the passing parade.  One very amusing set piece, at the Museum of Natural History, involves a giant dinosaur come to life, a la the manipulated bigger-than-life animals in “War Horse,” but here with hilarious results.

While the cast’s most familiar member is the ever-popular Jackie Hoffman [who could easily present a one-woman show on the life and work of television comic icon Imogene Coca], the relative newness to the audience of the principals winds up being an asset – no one story line outweighs the others because of the fame of its presenter.  There is one stand-out worth mentioning, however.

As the sex-starved cab driver Hildy, [recall that frantic number "Come Up to My Place"], Alysha Umphress fills the stage with voice, presence, sparkle and shine.  [Aside to adventurous producers: consider a revival of the antic, zany "Hellzapoppin," with Ms. Umphress in the role assayed by Martha Raye.  And if you're not familiar with Raye beyond her comic cut-ups in "Four Jills in a Jeep," "The Boys From Syracuse," and the Big Broadcast movies, find somewhere to download her powerful scat-singing and her Merman-class belted vocals.  A knockout].

Well, everyone has a good time, everyone finds love [except Ms. Hoffman], and the best way to take this one in is to realize its history: when audience members left the theatre when it first ran, they stepped outside into a New York engulfed in a world of war terrors, near and far.  “On The Town” was meant to be a bright and sprightly antidote, and for two+ hours, it delivered the goods, just in time, before the lads need to get back on board their ship.

A very different sort of vessel is at the heart of one of this season’s most highly-anticipated properties, “The Last Ship,” with a book by John Logan ['Red,' 'I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers'] and Brian Yorkey ['Next to Normal,' 'If/Then'] and featuring music and lyrics by pop superstar Sting, in his first outing writing for the stage.

It might serve this work better were it to label itself a folk tale, or a fable, because as a story, resting on the need to relate a real-world assault on the lives of a small coastal town in northeast England, it falls short.  Wallsend has thrived for generations as a well-regarded ship-building location, with its inhabitants living like any other population in a ‘factory town.’  When the shipyard closes down, they are thrown into a downward spiral of despair and economic ruin.

Fifteen years earlier, a scrappy teen-ager named Gideon chose to abandon his home, to escape the brutal treatment from his father, and the tunnel vision lives that surround him.  His heartfelt dilemma – leaving his girlfriend Meg, with a promise to return with fame-and-fortune earnings, to carry her off to a new, bright and happy life.  It doesn’t happen.  His real world, which brings him as much cold, stark  defeat as callow Matt in “The Fantasticks,” leaves him dissolutioned, and he returns following his father’s death hoping to pick up with Meg.  In his place with her is Arthur, himself a former yard workhand, and who has chosen to head up the corporate transition to convert the area into a scrap-metal operation.  This makes him the object of embittered resentment among the townspeople, despite the fact that there is no other alternative on the horizon.

“The Last Ship,” like the locales in “Billy Elliot” and “Kinky Boots,” depicts the loss of identity for people who have known no other.  Gideon’s return only rubs salt in their wounds, seeing a wastel son return from what they imagine has been a life of adventure and accomplishment, compared to their own bleak existences, something the facts belie.  He does not receive a prodigal son’s welcome home.

If this all sounds like grim pickings on which to base a musical, well, you’re right.  Sting has drawn many of the story’s basic plot points from the early, unsettling  days of his own life, which has given him an advantage that other ‘pop’ musicians, such as Elton John and Cyndi Lauper did not have when they tested the tumultuous waters of the Broadway stage.  But what elevates it above the particulars of the story, however much is autobiographical,  is its soaring score, one that engulfs the theatre with rousing, muscular strength, forcing you to pay attention.   Sting has long been noted for inventive metrical structures.   Here, he relies on 3/4 time, a choice he has often made in his career, for the show’s signature song, which repeats several times through the proceedings, guaranteeing that it will stick in your head for days to come.  If I ran into you tomorrow, I could still hum ‘…’til the last [two, three]… ship [two, three] … sails!]  Sting’s stock in trade, through his thirty-plus years of composing, has always been to give us melodies, harmonies and messages in his songs that combine in ways that are fun to listen to, crafted from infectious grooves, often in unusual or mixed meters [see his "Ten Summoners Tales" album, for example].   He ’scores’ again with that talent for variety, matching meter to mood again and again.

Director Joe Mantello, who can deliver memorable work in service of complex, unique content ["Take Me Out,"  "Assassins" - both Best Director Tony Award winners], as well as somewhat pedestrian traffic-manager work when given less-original material ["Other Desert Cities," "The Ritz"], is at the top of his game here.  And he has been given a superior cast to work with.

As Gideon, “American Idiot” star Michael Esper draws out every emotion this multi-faceted character must display, all with a voice that sounds like a Sting clone [that's a compliment].  As Meg, the girl he  left behind, London import Rachel Tucker makes you see the gentle soul who has hardened over time, all with the ability to be endearing.  Doing double duty as young Tom, and the earlier Gideon, Collin Kelly-Sordelet  makes a dynamic Broadway debut, keeping the mix of cocky and respectful in appropriate balance.  And Jimmy Nail, as union boss Jackie, trying to hold his men’s lives and hopes in cheque, truly blows the walls out of the Neil Simon Theatre whenever he delivers the anthem boasting that “we built the greatest shipping tonnage that the world has ever seen, and the only life we’ve known is in the shipyards.”

What Gideon also finds when he returns is a son.  He wasn’t aware [nor was she] that Meg was pregnant when he first abandoned ’ship,’ and now, Meg has a life revolving around scrappy fifteen-year-old Tom, and a successful lover Arnold who is devoted to both of them [a rock-solid Aaron Lazar], who is still waiting for her to accept his constant marriage proposals.   The best representation of the push-pull of past versus future is embodied in Meg’s tortured challenge: marry Arthur, whom she genuinely loves,  and guarantee a future for herself and her son, or rekindle a romance that still has claims on her heart.  In the show’s most affecting number, Sting has repurposed his song “When We Dance,” as Meg slowly, painfully glides between the loving embraces of both men, in a kind of pas de tres [is that correct?], three people dancing a ballad that will be a gut-punch to anyone who has ever been unexpectedly revisited by a long-ago lover and the memory of that tender love, which has never ever really been forgotten.  In contrast to David Zinn’s metal and scaffolds, dark skies and blank walls, this number, in a solitary follow-spot, shines like a glistening pearl inside the grey interior of a clam shell – a stunner.

So what’s the story line?  Prodded by the town’s loveable pastor, done almost stereotypical justice by Fred Applegate [in years past in the pictures, it would be Frank Morgan or Barry Fitzgerald], the townspeople decide to defy the new corporate owners of the shipyard, take it over, and build one more ship, to save their reputation and put up a fight for their heritage.  What happens to it when it’s completed?  Good question.  Lemme know if you find out.

There are other noteworthy aspects to this big show – Steven Hoggett’s stomp-and-turn choreography fits the genre perfectly, an entre-act musical performance of defiant distaffers, led by the powerfully-voiced Shawna M. Hamic, and as Jackie’s wife Peg, Sally Ann Triplett threatens to rip the paint off the tavern walls with her chillingly delivered  “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.”  She’d be a shoo-in as Nancy in an “Oliver!” revival.

It’s disappointing that the plot holes nearly distract you from all the fine, creative and compelling work in “The Last Ship,” which suffers the same fate as the currently-running “If/Then,” leaving you scratching your head, trying to figure out how, or whether the parts fit together.  But that doesn’t last too long.  Within another few minutes, another Sting-based number reminds you why you’re there in the first place.

Afterplay

Tickets are now on sale for the annual Kids’ Night on Broadway week, starting January 9th.  This terrific annual event, sponsored locally by The New York Times and administered by the Broadway League, permits kids ages 6 to 18 to see a Broadway show for free, when accompanied by a full-paying adult.  Close to twenty plays and musicals are on the roster, and all the details are available at kidsnightonbroadway.com.  And readers outside the metro area should note that similar events are held in many cities across the country. . . the recent gala honoring Joel Grey and Jeanine Tesori at the National Arts Club benefitted the work of the highly-esteemed Encompass New Opera Theatre, which for thirty-eight years has been dedicated to the creation, development and production of adventurous new theatre and contemporary opera.  Its next production, Richard Pearson Thomas’ “A Wake or a Wedding” will be presented at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, starting on November 6  [visit encompassopera.org for details].

On Book

To see where “On the Town” fits into the broad pantheon of American musical theatre, consult Stanley Green’s “Broadway Musicals – Show By Show” [fifth edition], published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.  This exhaustive overview starts with the classic 1866 “The Black Crook” and covers hundreds of shows . . . another valuable compendium is Penguin’s  “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Shakespeare’s Plays,” by Cynthia Greenwood.  The author covers the 21 major plays as well as the lesser-performed works, and expands her reporting to include references to significant speeches and quotations, and information on noteworthy productions . . . and for a look at the other side of the ’successful theatre’ coin, check out Marilyn Stasio’s “Broadway’s Beautiful Losers – The Strange History of Five Neglected Plays,” in paperback from Delta.   You’ll be surprised to see S.J. Perelman, Saul Bellow and Hugh Wheeler among the also-rans.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” published by Playscripts, received a Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.  ArtAge Press published his ” Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He has also written seven other plays and musicals, all performed in New York and at other venues in the U.S.  He has covered the performing arts for The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, Theatre Week, Reader’s Digest, the Robb Report, Parade and Rolling Stone, among dozens of publications.  He has taught theatre classes at Columbia University Teachers College, HB Studio and several other institutions across the country, and currently conducts theatre classes at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org/InSession for details], as well as small group sessions and personal coaching from home [tvellelea@nyc.rr.com].

Intermission Talk 10.19.14

October 20th, 2014

“You Can’t Take”

“The Curious Incident”

for a “Tail! Spin!”

with all those “Bubbles”

by  TONY  VELLELA

It’s rare indeed when the hunger of a starvation situation can be satisfied by a serving of a souffle.  In this [admittedly very tortured] metaphor, the hunger causing the starvation is the lack of solid, intelligent, witty and non-puerile comedy, and the souffle is the revival of “You Can’t Take It With You.”

This 1936 classic by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, its story cradled in the ravages of the Depression, managed to provide much more than 155 minutes of pleasant diversion, like a bright new jacket that covers the threadbare garments beneath.  If you open it, its sturdy, all-purpose lining insures that its wearer will be ready for whatever a changeable, unforgiving climate might deliver.

The Vanderhof family, all three generations, fill a rambling brownstone in Washington Heights, around the corner from Columbia University.  Patriarch Martin, [the disarmingly sonorous James Earl Jones], who has probably seen his sixties come and go, presides in the gentlest possible manner over all those who reside here, many of whom are relatives.  They include his daughter Penny Sycamore, [a delightfully flighty Kristine Nielsen], who spends many hours pounding away at the keys of a typewriter that was delivered twelve years ago by mistake.  She is now at work on her eleventh play, none of which have ever been produced.  Penny’s husband Paul, [Mark Linn-Baker], currently partnered with one of their boarders, a Mr. DePinna [Patrick Kerr], in a quest to create the perfect fireworks display pieces.  The basement serves as their workshop.  The Sycamores are blessed with two daughters, aspiring, no-talent ballerina Essie [an effervescent Annaleigh Ashford], who creates home-made candies called Love Dreams, and the black sheep of the brood, young Alice, [Rose Byrne, in her Broadway debut, the only casting misfire, leaning far too much on screwball-comedy exaggerated mannerisms], who holds down a conventional office job in a financial institution, the very type that Martin walked away from thirty-five years ago, to pursue the joys of daily living, and counts snake-collecting and visiting circuses and commencement exercises as among his favorite pastimes.

Rounding out the household are Essie’s xylophone-player, printing-press aficionado husband Ed, and the cook, Rheba.  This is the type of family most ten-year-olds wish they were part of, where no one judges anyone else, where dinner consists of watermelon, corn flakes and Essie’s candies.

Life was rolling along its merry way until a serious affliction levels Alice – she falls blindingly in love with Tony Kirby, vice-president of the firm where he and Alice both work.  And Alice must try to calibrate exactly how to introduce Tony [a charming Fran Kranz], not to mention his parents, to her carefree clan, without losing him. Despite how deeply she loves her family, their long-term guests, and the assorted collection of free spirits and dedicated devotees of all things libertarian, she is fully aware that they are an acquired taste.

Other visitors drift in and out.  There’s Gay Wellington, the pie-eyed, down-at-heels, dipsomaniacal actress Penny brings home from a chance meeting on the cross-town bus, who is portrayed by the brilliant Julie Halston, in a performance worthy of a special Tony Award for most memorable exit. Elizabeth Ashley makes a meal and a half out of her role as the flamboyant Russian ex-patriot countess Olga, who trades her blintzes-making skills for a friendly shelter.  And in yet another display of his versatility, Reg Rogers ignites his role as Boris, ballet master who shamelessly encourages Essie.

I know!  It’s a lot to take in!   But this is where and how this production, blending the especially gifted talents of director Scott Elis, and designers David Rockwell [sets], Jane Greenwood [costumes], Donald Holder [lighting] and Jon Weston [sound], keeps all the balls in the air as though inflated with helium.  The dialogue doesn’t project out over the footlights; it floats, each hilarious line wafting out for a delighted audience to savor.

Complications?  They include threatening visits from G-Men, ill-timed arrivals of Tony’s parents for a dinner party; explosions from the basement; Treasury agents out to collect back taxes going back for decades, and worst of all, a lover’s quarrel that could break apart our lovely love story couple.   And when all comes together as it should and does, the deeper messages of honoring your bliss, respecting others and eschewing the reverance for money all come through, strong and sweet.

And in case any contract conflicts look to prevent an extended run for this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, permit me to suggest a few possible second-cast choices: to replace Jones as the family’s beloved leader, Ed Asner; to inhabit the role of Penny, the priceless Marylouise Burke; Valerie Harper can gesticulate with great gusto as Countess Olga, and to fill the lovers’ spots, Bobby Steggert, and from the cast of the recent revival of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan,’ Sarah Greene.  Something this good – no this great – should not be permitted to disappear until every man, woman and teen-ager gets to see it.  Twice.

Keep your eyes on his hands.  As Broadway newcomer Alex Sharp ignites the character of Christopher in the Simon Stephens stage adaptation of the Mark Haddon novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” he seems instinctively to know that young people who present somwhere along the autism spectrum have involuntary hand gestures that punctuate their speech.  This is a small story, on its surface.  In a London suburb, a dog is discovered dead, impaled on a garden pitchfork.  Some suspect the boy next door, an outsider who exhibits strange behavior traits, can’t tolerate physical contact, carries a heightened sense of justice and who has some negative history in the neighborhood.

While the basics do not warrant an episode on the best television procedurals, the value is in the telling.  Proving she can weave intricate details of fact and fantasy together to create stage magic when she helmed “War Horse,” director Marianne Elliott matches that virtuoso accomplishment here, again using diverse elements and disbelief-suspension techniques.   Christopher’s mind operates inside layers of abstract formulas, well beyond the ken of the most learned minds.  How, then does a theatrical experience do justice to the intricacies of this young man’s brain functions, while at the same time making it possible, even somewhat accessible, for an audience-member who barely passed high school algebra to absorb what the story is about?

For a start, the audience is asked to fill in most of the routine details on its own – in a playing area with nothing more than several white rectangular stool/cube pieces, graph paper layouts projected onto all walls and floor areas, and an underlay of LED lights that can translate sketchings and illustration drawings into dazzling displays.  Christopher speaks the English language with the attention to precise meanings that a linguist might, in conversation with HAL, the Space Odyssey computer-in-charge.  He does not tolerate sloppy wordplay.  And like many autistic adolescents, his social skills are negligible.   The current ABC Television sitcom “The Middle” does showcase the acting of Atticus Shaffer as the youngest child, Brick, also a social misfit and an intellectual wizard.  One uses careless phrasing or imprecise descriptions at one’s peril with him.

Finding the person or persons responsible for the murder of the dog becomes Christopher’s obsession.   He assumes what he believes are the characteristics of a sleuth on a case, without knowing how to interact properly or with any degree of subtlety.  He seems to possess a form of eidetic memory, lasting well into his teen years.  However, his clumsy inquiries turn him into a prime suspect.  And all the while, he is batting back the intrusive disruptions to daily life caused by the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and the subsequent wrangling over custody of the boy.

Experiencing “Curious Incident” is rather like what happens when an untrained eye takes a first look through a very powerful microscope, at a drop of water – galaxies of activity, explosions of color and movement, innumerable points of light and no clear conclusions present themselves.

The skills here present among all the creators rarely come together as they do here – it’s possible to harken up previous theatrical moments that also stirred the senses – such as the moments between Peter and the horses in “Equus,” or the parade of the animals during the opening moments of “The Lion King.”  Playwright Stephens interjects self-referential elements, such as a visual reference to the constellation Canus Major [we're looking for the killer of an important dog, remember].   But here, instead of isolated moments, these ‘moments’ are more than separate events, large or small – they just keep occurring, again and again, and what is most impressive, most rewarding, most satisfying is that they are cumulative.  Each one furthers the telling of the story, and the evolution of Christopher’s mind, and sensibility.  In its most accurate definition, the production is wonderful – full of wonder.

Not everyone knows how to traffic in correct use of language.  And it is that imperfection that playwright Mario Correa latched on to in crafting “Tail! Spin!”  Correa has mined the transcripts of press conferences, Congressional hearings, television talk show comments and media interviews to stitch together the lamentable misfortunes of four political animals – Florida Congressman Mark Foley, Idaho Senator Larry Craig, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.  Director Dan Knechtges keeps shuffling and re-shuffling the deck, and with the exception of relying unwisely on staging crucial moments far downstage, gives each player his moment in the glare of the spotlight.

During a brisk seventy-five minutes, at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre  at Culture Project, and with an imposingly large American flag as its backdrop, this is a take-no-prisoners pastiche of personal misbehavior that torpedoed the political fortunes of four prominent men, and tarnished those around them.  Each one demonstrates an amazing aptitude for pulling myriad ‘what-were-they-thinking’ stunts.  Is it possible that men who control how media operates  can be so mind-numbingly clueless to the way every word, every text, every e-mail, every tweet and every sexting image lives forever, out there, just waiting to be viewed and reviewed by friends and enemies alike, providing enough fodder for any opponent to score points with?

Four on-target actors – Arnie Burton, Sean Dugan, Tom Galantich and Nate Smith – bring the culprits to life, and fill out the roles of assorted staffers, interviewers and talking heads, while the fearless Rachel Dratch makes certain that we also see the various women who all play supporting roles in these lascivious lives, their wives, their assistants, their mistresses and Barbara Walters.

America’s appetite for skewering political figures is unquenchable.  “Tail! Spin!” will satisfy those cravings nicely, and it would seem to be logical that this bill-of-fare would receive a strong reception down in D.C.

From dirty politics to good, clean fun – nothing beats the Gazillion Bubble Show.   While it may seem like an entertainment ready-made for children only, this time the parents can experience just as much enjoyment as the offspring.

This worldwide phenomenon recently celebrated its 3,000th performance in New York’s New World Stages, and there is definitely cause for celebration.  The feats accomplished here combine science and art, resulting in a series of magical moments.  The outward elements are simple enough: a liquid soap mixture, and an array of wands with circular appendages with diameters that range from a few inches wide to several yards.    Dip the wand into the liquid, swish it through the air and Ta-da!  Bubbles!!

While that in itself can generate genuine awe, it is the variations on that theme that make for memorable moments.  During the course of the seventy-five minute show, 23-year old  Melody Yang, [daughter of the Gazillion Bubbles creator Fan Yang], bubbles appear in larger and larger sizes, exemplifies poetry in motion, as she inserts small bubbles into bigger ones, encases five-year-old volunteers from the audience in a shimmering bubble cage, and swirls elongated bubbles into forms that resemble the underwater creatures in the underwater creature feature “The Abyss.”

Sandwiched between the creation of on-stage bubbles galore are videos on multiple screens that recall how Yang family members shattered Guinness World Records, such as the world’s largest [7.5 feet in circumference], created in Berlin in 1997, in Hollywood also in 1999, the most bubbles inside bubbles, a total  of nine concentric bubbles inside each other, and in Wavrin, France, in 2000, Yang’s youngest daughter managed to slide inside a gigantic bubble without having it burst apart.  Another record was logged when one hundred people found themselves inside a bubble, played out on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008.

At one point, Melody relates the quandry they faced while visiting friends Hawaii, who lamented their frustration at never experiencing a snowstorm.  When the tale concluded, the theatre was plunged into total darkness for fifteen seconds.   When the lights returned, the stage had been transformed into a lovely garden, with every surface covered by tiny bubbles, as a rapid stream of said bubbles cascaded out into the audience, amid squeals of unbridled ecstasy emanating from children of all ages.  The volunteer children were rewarded with soap bubble hats [that withstood their journeys back to their seats, as well as packages of the secret bubble liquid that could be tried at home.

Following the wrap-up of that section of the show, Melody proceeded to call up light show lasers, which she played with, and used them to create new visual images.  Overall, the Gazillion Bubble Show is good, very clean fun for the entire family.

AFTERPLAY

A pair of indomitables are worth noting: the whirlwind actor Angela Lansbury and the legendary diva Lypsinka, aka John Epperson.   First, Dame Angela.  For those readers who were not able to make it to New York for the 2009 acclaimed revival of 'Blithe Spirit,' you missed seeing her in the role of psychic extraordinaire Madame Arcati, a role previously done by Mildred Natwick and Geraldine Page.  Happily, a cross-country tour of the production launches in mid-December at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, then moving on, to San Francisco, Toronto winding up at the National, in Washington, DC in late March.  Details are available at www.BlitheSpiritThePlay.com . . . Meanwhile, Epperson's Lypsinka re-visits the stage in a trio of productions, 'Lypsinka! The Boxed Set," "The Passion of the Crawford," and "John Epperson: Show Trash," running in rep from 11/5 through 1/3/15, at the Connelly Theater in the East Village . . . and finally, a third female icon, the character Heidi Holland, in Wendy Wasserstein's "The Heidi Chronicles," comes alive again, in a revival starring Elisabeth Moss, starting in early February, helmed by Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon.

ON BOOK

Movie fans will be familiar with the 1938 screen adaptation of 'You Can't Take It With You," Frank Capra's Oscar-winning picture, which starred Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.  Many other memorable films started as Broadway plays or musicals, and the Jerry Roberts comprehensive volume "The Great American Playwrights on the Screen" chronicles dozens of great adaptations by great playwrights, such as Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Neil Simon . . . a different sort of compendium allows you to peek behind the curtain of nearly sixty Broadway and off-Broadway productions that opened during the 1967-68 season.  Compiled by William Goldman, with an introduction by Frank Rich, "The Season - A Candid Look at Broadway" not only presents all the basic information about the titles it covers, but also adds critical commentary as a bonus . . . not quite as precocious as Christopher in "Curious Incident," the malicious little girl of Maxwell Anderson's "The Bad Seed" makes for some engrossing reading into the damaged mind of a child criminal.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS theatre documentary series "Character Studies."  His award-winning play "Admissions" is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge Press publishes his play "Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre."  Mr. Vellela has written about the performing arts for more than forty years, in a variety of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Rolling Stone and the Robb Report.  He teaches theatre-related classes at the 92nd Street Y [info at 92Y.org/InSession], along with small group theatre studies and coaching sessions from his home.

Intermission Talk 9/28/14

September 28th, 2014

“This Is Our Youth”

Sends “Love Letters”

Of “A Fatal Weakness”

by TONY VELLELA

It was twenty-five years ago [1980] and a few doors down from 256 west 47th street’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre [at the former Edison Theatre, 240 west 47th street] that I first saw A. R. Gurney’s truly masterful work “Love Letters.”  That cast starred Richard Thomas and Swoozie Kurtz.  Today, you can see Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy in the same roles, bringing to life, through only their letters, two well-healed, upper crust people, as their lives continue to bring them together and pull them apart.

From the very first exchange, Melissa Gardner [Farrow] and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III [Dennehy] share a love-hate, conundrum-laden relationship . . . male vs. female, sensitive vs. stoic, flight vs. stolid, needy vs. supportive.  And they change sides again and again, as events and relationships tear at their tenuous bonds.  The genius of this piece lies in Gurney’s brilliant capturing of the changes in the language they use to convey where they are, how they are, and the never-ending questions that all begin with why.

Letter-writing, as so many essays and op-eds and social commentators have pointed out [some with distasteful glee], has fallen into an almost obscure category of behaviors, like getting up when a lady enters the room, or using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ even when you don’t have a secret agenda at play.   In “Love Letters,” Melissa and Andy eventually, and too late, come to terms with each other’s flaws, and their own, in part because the act of writing a letter requires more contemplation and reflection than typing a couple dozen characters and pushing a button.  Gurney gives us the unvarnished observations these two discover, and he lets us in on the discoveries.

And here, both Farrow and Dennehy bring those discoveries to vivid life, all through the delicate, subtle, even meticulous use of the inflections of their voices.  Farrow’s young Melissa keeps us entertained with the kinds of speech patterns only little girls can get away with – a shade too cute, and a shade too dismissive.  And as Farrow’s Melissa ages, we hear [and see] how the dismissive side comes to win out over the more loving, the more human side she has learned to hide.  And Dennehy’s Andy is forever struggling to balance the influences of the upper class, high expectations, always proper family life that led him to a successful political career, and a dubious marriage, all the while missing those earliest chances to express emotions that Melissa desperately sought

There are two compelling reasons to see this production:  great writing and great acting.  Some have balked that the stage is bare except for a long wooden desk the two share, but without eye contact, a pair of chairs, and two loose-leaf notebooks containing the ‘letters.’  But keep this in mind: “Chicago” has now been running for a couple of decades using all-black costumes and about eleven chairs.

Kenneth Lonnergan’s “This Is Our Youth” is also a product of that original era – its story takes place in 1982.  I first saw it done in its premiere production in 1996, when Scott Elliot’s New Group brought in the young director Mark Brokaw to stage this young playwright’s first work, with Josh Hamilton, Mark Ruffalo and Missy Yager.  And a mere eighteen years later, it has made it to Broadway, with Anna D. Shapiro directing Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson.

Like Gurney, Lonergan intends to provide us with a window into the lives of a few privileged young people.  Unlike “Love Letters,” which chronicles two lives during maybe fifty or so years, “This Is Our Youth” unfolds in under fifty hours.  Set in an unkempt Upper West Side studio apartment where Dennis [Culkin] plies his trade as a moderately savvy drug dealer to his ‘friends,’ the perennially luckless Warren [Cera] bursts into the room with almost as much disruptive force as Pale in “Burn This,” though with the opposite quantity of self-confidence.  Warren has absconded from his father’s place with $15,000 in cash.  For the first half of the first act, the two wrestle verbally and physically with all the pleasurable possibilities this booty presents, and all the horrendous consequences that spending it could bring down on them.  This is a chess match between unequals – Dennis knows every button to push to humiliate, denigrate and manipulate Warren, and Warren has been on the receiving end for the entire history of their friendship, that by now he repeats the sad, almost masochist responses Dennis counts on.  But when Dennis moves into new territory with the fugitive teen, which is to end his virginity as one of the spoils of the cash adventures, it’s a new game.

Dennis trades in any and all drugs, mentioning heroin as casually as pot.  We are meant to take it all in with a lack of awe, a kind of acceptance that this  is a not-untypical dynamic among these kids.  While the disaffected post-hippie era of the story did witness the crash-and-burn of their parents’ progressive fantasy future, not all of their kids wound up smoking and toking and looting and shooting up.  With that in mind, “This Is Our Youth” smacks [excuse the pun] the audience with the harshest cases, those something-teen near-casualties whose lives banged around like the little silver spheres in a pinball machine.  And under Shapiro’s pitch-perfect direction, these two guys affect as much, or more physical careering off walls, onto the floor and up against each other’s bodies as anything you’ll see in “Pippin.”  Energy that has never been fully expended gets an outlet triggered by the ill-gotten gains of Warren’s heist.

Culkin and Cera both show us their characters’ basic behaviors – Culkin with a sullen, almost acrid delivery, Cera with a timidity that reminds us of a giant plush toy rabbit.  He even has his own collection of rare toys that gets sacrificed in the tumult.  Gevinson, in an impressive stage debut, holds her own against Dennis, as the plot-device third character who almost likes Warren but does not follow through with the plan Dennis has to use her for the devirginization of his friend.  And while all three never fail to represent their characters very well, there is a sterling moment near the end of the play when Warren shows a glimmer of independence, a hint at what may yet happen, if and when he comes to terms with his hero worship of Dennis, and demolishes it, and his dependence in the bargain.  He’s not anywhere near that revelation yet, but Cera shows us that Warren may one day free himself from this psychological addiction.  Look for Cera’s well-calibrated few moments that show us what may lie ahead.

Overall, this is a ’snapshot’ play – two very meaningful days and nights in the lives of disastrously disaffected young people as they try to control events even as they spin out of control.

It’s a smaller universe that gets the microscopic treatment in “The Fatal Weakness,” another gem of a revival from the Mint Theatre Company, whose mission is to present long-forgotten plays that were heralded in their day.  Set in 1946 in a post-WW II American city, George Kelly’s drama begins deceptively enough.  The action takes place in an eye-popping living room, with wall coverings of silver reflective embossed paper that serve to create a symbolically reflective environment.  The set design work by Vicki R. Davis creates such a sumptuous home for the story’s upper-class middle-aged couple that you are tempted to get up and join the conversation.  At rise, Ollie Espenshade is just returning from the wedding of people she does not know, simply because she adores the rituals and accoutrements of the wedding ceremony.  She’s an unrepentant romantic.  And in the personage of Kristin Griffith, Ollie has a rather regal bearing, all polished, well-spoken and in good form.  So it is very easy to jump to the conclusion that this will be all light-hearted fun and frolic – a domestic comedy with little on its mind but misunderstandings that trigger humorous outcomes.

This supposition is nurtured by the sparkling performance of Griffith, who puts one in mind of a very successful and prominent actress of mid last century named Natalie Schafer.  She gained notoriety as Eunice ‘Lovey’ Howell on “Gilligan’s Island,” but was a frequent guest on most television programs of the ’50s, including “The Goldbergs” and “I Love Lucy,” but who also had a distinguished film career earlier in such pictures as “The Snake Pit” and “Back Street.”  This is said to make the point that playing a woman of a certain age, who seems preoccupied with life’s little annoyances, but who then is confronted with a more serious agenda to tackle, requires true skill, and Griffith has it and then some.

Ollie has begun to suspect that her dapper, country club-habitue hubby Paul [the appropriately distinguished Cliff Bemis] has not been golfing on many previous Saturday afternoons, but keeping company with another woman.  She calls on the services of her close friend and confidante Mabel [the magnetic Cynthia Darlow] to help her sort out the truth.  And the nuptial difficulties of her over-indulged married daughter Penny [an entitled-acting Victoria Mack] crowd out her time and take her off her game, trying to concentrate on her own fraying marital state.  Throughout the proceedings, comic relief is supplied through the services of Ollie’s maid Anna, portrayed by the veteran treasure Patricia Kilgarriff, who shines whenever she’s present.

Evidence of his dalliances is obtained via an unseen friend with a car, who surreptitiously shadows the husband, providing blow-by-blow accounts of his visitations to a certain lady doctor.  Ollie decides to plan a detailed response, and the result is not at all what one might expect.  Coupled with an alliance with her daughter’s distraught husband, who sees his marriage disintegrating, due in part to the kind of pampering Penny received constantly from her father, Ollie now has life-changing battles on two fronts to wage.  The fate of her young grandson’s upbringing also hangs in the balance.  With Mabel’s unflinching aid and good spirits, Ollie comes out in a place not at all where well-made comedies of that era would have placed her.  And Kelly’s well-structured,  three-act play, guided with a firm hand by director Jesse Marchese, provides us with a truly satisfying theatre escape.  Women discovering their potential independence rings out in each scene, and the play itself puts one in mind of Clare Booth Luce’s classic “The Women” – and bad company that ain’t.

We’re three-for-three now, with powerhouse women performing in shows that re-create the performance styles, and lives of iconic singers.  First, Mary Bridget Davies blew the roof off the theatre with her gut-punching renditions of the acid rock queen in “A Night With Janis Joplin.”  Then, we are seeing how Audra McDonald is channeling the great blues diva Billie Holiday in “Lady Day in Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”  And now, Tammy Faye Starlite shows us the drug-addled, psychedelic-soaked Nico of Velvet Underground late ’60s fame in “Nico: Underground.”  Set in the basement black box space of Theatre for a New City, this perfectly-crafted piece interweaves a dozen songs from her recordings with a free-form interview she conducted in Melboune in 1986.  The piece, crafted with wit and deference by T.D. Lang, is winding down its run, but is rumored to be moving somewhere.  Look out for it, then look in on it.  It’s uniquely compelling work, and Miss Starlite knows just how to hold in her emotions, letting out just enough to keep us fully engaged.

ON  BOOK

If you are admirer of Kenneth Lonergan’s work – as I am – your admiration will only grow if you pick up a copy of “This Is Our Youth,” to see how carefully chosen his character’s words and phrasings are.  Mamet gets a good deal of credit for this kind of character attention; Lonergan deserves even more praise because his dialogue flows so naturally.  And while you’re at it, pick up his “Lobby Hero,” a play that deserves a revival by now . . . Prep yourself for the upcoming production of the Frank Marcus dramedy “The Killing of Sister George” by reading it first, in the Samuel French edition.  When it premiered in London in 1965, it starred the remarkably talented twosome of Eileen Atkins and Beryl Reid.  The film three years later replaced Atkins with Susannah York.  Nothing can replace the joy of reading this one, and then, get yourself to the theatre to see it come to life [and death] . . . With George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart once again dishing up truckloads of laughs with “You Can’t Take It With You,” which I’ll be discussing next time around, it’s a good time to indulge in two other of their masterworks – “Once In a Lifetime,” and “The Man Who Came to Dinner” in a smart collection by Grove Press . . . and if you fancy yourself a serious student of the business of laughter, you will be amazed at the insight, research and downright ardor of Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh – the funny business of America.”  The title may be familiar, because this is the companion book to Kantor’s acclaimed PBS documentary of the same name.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts.  “Maisie and Grover Go To The Theatre” is published by Art Age Press.  He has also written seven other plays and musicals, all produced, as well as dozens of articles about the performing arts for Parade, Dramatics, The Christian Science Monitor and Rolling Stone, among many others.  He has taught theatre courses at Columbia University Teachers College, Lehman College, HB Studio and other institutions nationwide.  Currently, he conducts theatre-related classes at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details] as well as small group sessions and private coaching from home.  He is a member of the Writers Guild East and the Dramatists Guild.

Intermission Talk

July 8th, 2014

Remembering Eli

by TONY VELLELA

> [For this special occasion, I'm foregoing my usual format, which will resume with the next edition of  'Intermission Talk.' ]

He loved clocks – collected them.  During any guest’s first visit, he would proudly conduct a guided tour of the study’s shelves, table tops, and walls, displaying timepieces from an impressive array of countries of origin, of different ages, sizes and shapes.   Ironic that he was fascinated with instruments that measured periods of time, when to me, he always seemed ageless.

On Tuesday, June 24 of this year, Eli Herschel Wallach passed away.  His chronological age was 98.  If forced to attach a number to his spiritual age, to his curiosity-quotient age, to his contagious-sense-of-joyful-optimism age, it might be somewhere around fourteen.

He was among that handful of people I always considered inspirational, people I vowed to meet.  The opportunity came when I got myself a magazine assignment to chronicle a day in the lives of Eli, and his wife, actress Anne Jackson.  It was mid-October, 1988, and they’d just opened in Joe Papp’s loving revival of the 1942 Hy Kraft comedy “Cafe Crown,” a popular example of the Lower East Side’s Yiddish Theatre at the start of the last century.  Eli portrayed a grandiose actor-manager and producer whose current project involved ‘improving’ Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” giving him a wife, and an expansive Riverside Drive apartment – one, I now realize, that was similar to the Wallachs’ own, rambling abode.  Our first meeting took place in their dressing room below stage at the Public.  Annie was engaging in one of her favorite hobbies – taking photographs of herself and Eli, as reflected in a mirror.  This time, the mirror was that classic style, with a perimeter bordered by brightly-lit bulbs.  Annie invented selfies.

We adjourned to a restaurant across the street, and I observed my first exposure to the bristling banter they loved to practice.  It went something like this. “She: Finish your soup, Eli.  He: I’m not hungry for soup.  She:  It’s good for you.  He:  [sliding it to her side of the table] Please.  Be my guest.  She:  [sliding it back] Finish your soup, Eli.”   During the ensuing twenty-six years, I witnessed many of these real-life two-handers, always done with a sly hint of a wink.  He once revealed how they often would stop mid-bicker, to critique each other’s line delivery.

To Eli, what an actor does while, before or after delivering what the playscript says is needed to be said – the business of business –  was serious business.  Like a good many most accomplished thesps, he drew from life experiences.  He told me how, as a young Actors Studio acting student, he used to invent various methods of observing, to learn about human behavior.  “I used to sit on the subway, holding a Chinese newspaper, and pretend to be taking in an article, facial reactions and all.  Seeing how the other riders reacted to my reactions was great fun.”  In October, 1997, he launched a new play by Jeff Baron, titled “Visiting Mr. Green,” which had its New York premiere at the Union Square Theatre.  The night I saw it, we talked afterward on the empty set, about how he created Mr. Green, a lonely, cranky old man.  I had been especially moved  by the way he had taken his mug of ‘hot’ tea, and gently caressed the side of his cheek with it, to warm him.  “My father used to do that,” he explained.  That one motion helped him ease into, and connect with this character, who was resigned to marking time, a solitary, doleful old man whose only warmth came from inside that heavy, ceramic mug. Our conversation was interrupted by the booming sound of a man’s voice, coming from the back of the house.  It was Richard Widmark, complete with floppy, round canvas cap.  As he bounded down the aisle, the remarkably boyish Widmark said a phrase or two that put both of them in mind of the 1962 Cinerama epic “How The West Was Won,” which they both starred in, but not in the same sequence, and under different directors!  Later that week, he told me about that Cinerama experience, where actors were required to talk to the right or left of their scene partners, to accommodate the eventual curved screen the picture was projected onto.  He didn’t recollect it as a particularly enjoyable way to work.

Eli never forgot that his colleagues were individuals first, with private lives, and personal feelings, with the same life challenges everyone faces.  There was no more vivid example of that than an incident related to Marilyn Monroe, one of his co-stars in Arthur Miller’s 1962 film, “The Misfits.”  I was asked to do a magazine feature on just how pervasive Marilyn’s image had become in American [at least] society.  It was tentatively titled “Today’s Marilyn,” built around one month’s observations, by me, of where her face, her name, her image would show up.  One day, it might be part of a print ad, and on another, she’d be an example of something or other, during a discussion on NPR.  And the next day, someone on the #1 train would be wearing a Marilyn T-shirt.  To give the piece some background, I decided to get some quotes from Eli about working with her on that picture, and about his knowing her during her Actors Studio years.  I called the apartment, and told him what I was requesting.  He got quiet for a moment or two, then said, very softly but firmly, “Tony, don’t do it. Don’t do this article.  She was a complicated, and many times, a very sad girl.  Troubled.  Leave her alone.  Let her rest in peace.  Please.”  I honored his wishes, and cancelled the assignment.

He was known for his generosity toward other actors.  One afternoon, as I was leaving the Wallachs’ apartment after a visit, the doorman buzzed from the lobby, to let him know that someone was on her way up.  Eli told me it was a very bright, dedicated young woman who was coming by, to talk with him as she prepped to play Serafina Delle Rose, in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo,” in Boston.  Eli memorably starred opposite Maureen Stapleton in that classic play’s premiere in Chicago, in December, 1950, opening on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre the following February.

For creating the role of truck driver / romantic Alvaro Mangiacavallo, he won a Tony Award.  [He and Annie enjoyed a life-long friendship with the playwright.  The couple met when they were cast in his two-character one-act, "This Property is Condemned," for Equity Library Theatre in 1946.  Two years later, they were married.]  When the elevator door opened, out stepped an eager, wide-eyed, and very grateful future Serafina – Andrea Martin.

That generosity extended to me in a big way, when I wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  Without hesitation, he agreed to serve as its senior host, lending it the kind of gravitas so valuable to any new project.   It was during that time that we had conversations about his foray into writing, discussing his endeavors in putting together his 2005 autobiography, “The Good, the Bad, and Me.”  The same humanity he displayed by asking me not to do that piece on Marilyn, comes through beautifully in the book.  I urge you to read it.

During a 2000 post-performance conversation, following Anne Meara’s off-Broadway play, “Down the Garden Path,” that they were both in,  the topic of Tennessee’s “Camino Real” came up.  [He made sure I learned to pronounce it correctly; accent on the first syllable  = CAM - uh - no.]  In its Broadway premiere in 1953, Eli took on the daring lead role of Kilroy in a play that was way, way ahead of its time in so many ways.  I mentioned that the play included a speech championing the idea of taking risks, a sentiment I was always moved by.

The next day’s mail brought a note from Eli.  He wrote:  “Dear Tony -  The quote – from ‘Camino Real’ – Lord Byron says ‘Lately I’ve been listening to hired musicians behind a row of artificial palm trees – instead of the single pure-stringed instrument of my heart . . . for what is the heart – but an instrument that turns chaos into order – & noise into music.  Make voyages – Attempt them.  There’s nothing else! -  Best wishes, Eli.”

His note, framed, still graces one wall in my office.

Thank you, Eli.

Intermission Talk May 4, 2014

May 4th, 2014

‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’

Meets Up with ‘Violet’

to Catch ‘Lady Day at

the Emerson Bar & Grill’

by TONY VELLELA

Even without consulting experts at the Weather Channel, I’m certain the chances of lightning striking the theatre district twice within a matter of months are sky-high.  But if you’re talking about uncanny recreations of iconic female performers, it’s happened.  Earlier this year, Mary Bridget Davies channeled the spirit, energy and sound of ’60s rock legend Janis Joplin.  [The planned re-opening off-Broadway at the Gramercy Theatre was abruptly cancelled, a real loss for those who had not yet enjoyed her performance.]

And now, Audra McDonald has achieved the same rare feat – her choice, the jazz legend Billie Holiday, in ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.’  Holiday’s singing style was infused with more emotional range than any mere melody line could express.  She would make her own choices when it came to the use of phrasing, giving a lyric as much power and impact as any masterfully-spoken soliloquy, somehow creating aural exclamation points and ellipses with her voice.   And there are those who believe that her mesmerizing delivery drew, in part, from a life riddled with every kind of abuse that can befall a woman.  Laine Robertson sets this musical tragedy in a small club in north Philadelphia in March, 1959, months before her death.  The production benefits from its venue – Circle in the Square – where the playing area has been turned into that small club, so McDonald can sing to patrons at tables, and unsteadily weave her way to the bar to retrieve more gin when no one else wants to.

Between numbers [and they include ones identified with her, such as the dirge on lynching, 'Strange Fruit' and 'God Bless the Child'], Holiday recounts her often losing battle with racist promoters, club personnel and others, as well as her tortured love life.  Here, she repeatedly confuses her piano player, Jimmy [Shelton Becton, equally strong pianist and actor], with her first husband, Sonny, who introduced her to the heroin addiction that caused her to lose her cabaret license, required to perform in New York.  Her rendition of ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’ seems to inform her confusion, as if she’s sending a coded message to him, with moonlight the code word for smack, or horse, or whatever moniker or slang name you’re used to for heroin.

The story half of the evening, presented without fuss by director Lonny Price, balances the true joy of the songs.  Her rendition of ‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’ lets Billie admonish anyone who listens to keep their hands and minds out of her private life.  Even a tuneful vocal call-and-respond exercise with the keyboard allows us to see her playful, lost child side.

Eons ago, when I was a mere lad, I had a conversation with a middle-aged editor at Life Magazine, who was trying to grasp why my generation had become so enamored with Janis.  He asked me if it might be the same kind of phenomenon that gripped his generation in their early years, when they saw Billie Holiday perform.  I couldn’t really answer him then, but now, seeing and hearing and experiencing the wave of emotions McDonald demonstrates on her behalf, I would say yes.

Another ‘Emerson’ figures prominently on the boards right now, but this one’s not a place, but a person.  Emerson Steele makes her Broadway debut in ‘Violet,’ the compelling folk tale from Jeanine Tesori [music] and Brian Crawley [book and lyrics], adapted from the Doris Betts short story, ‘The Ugliest Pilgrim.’  As a child in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains, Violet’s face is horribly disfigured because of a brutal accident, when her father loses his grip on an axe and leaves the girl with a vicious scar [invisible to the audience].  Many years later, the young woman decides to leave home, board a Greyhound and travel to Oklahoma, seeking the miracle-making touch of a faith healer in Oklahoma.

As the adult Violet, Sutton Foster finally lands a role that lets her demonstrate her full dramatic talents, travelling with, sparring with, sleeping with and singing with a disparate handful of passengers sharing the bus ride.  She joins forces with her fellow road trippers in a lively mix of numbers that echo the rhythms of country, gospel, blues and roadhouse rock.  Foster manages to override some far-fetched plot points, giving us reason to hope she discovers the miracle she’s seeking.

Our great discovery is young Steele.  Holding focus despite sharing scenes and songs with veteran performers, Steele possesses that same presence many of us witnessed when Foster, in a much lighter role, broke out of the pack in 2002, in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’ which also featured Tesori’s music.  It’s a pity there’s no solo number that would give Steele more stage time.

The details are different from ‘Violet,’ but in Martin McDonagh’s biting comedy/drama/satire ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan,’  the basics match up very closely.   Here, a young man bearing wrenching physical deformities strikes out on his own, forsaking his rural Irish home, in a bold attempt to take control of his presumed hapless destiny.  And like ‘Violet,’ this piece has finally made it to Broadway, on a journey that took both of them about the same length of time.  ['Violet' premiered at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons in 1997.  'Cripple,' after a successful 1996 London run, opened at off-Broadway's Public Theatre in 1998.]

Cripple Billy [Daniel Radcliffe] has been called that since birth, seventeen years ago.  Abandoned by his parents because of his handicaps, he’s been raised by two women who run the village’s lone, meager store.  Inishmaan is a tiny island populated by the kind of folks whose quirks somehow seem less odd when observed in the aggregate. One of Billy’s guardian ‘aunts’ converses with specially-chosen rocks.   Fiery, tart-tongued Helen, [a sharp, beguiling Sarah Greene], the unrequited object of Billy’s emerging sexual interest, and the target of her merciless scorn, enjoys pelting people [especially the parish priest] with eggs.  Billy himself has gained a reputation for lengthy periods spent gazing at cows.

It’s 1934, and as actually happened, a film director Robert J. Flaherty and his crew have arrived on the nearby island of Aran from Hollywood, U.S.A.  They plan to shoot a documentary about life there, and when word of this event reaches the shores of Inishmaan, Billy constructs an elaborate plan to get himself delivered to where the action is.  He sees it as his only shot at getting to America, and in fact, to Hollywood, no less, where he is convinced he will find work, wealth and happiness.  And defying all the odds and all the gods, as well as a hacking cough that causes him to spit up blood, he gets himself taken in by the film-makers.  Back on Inishmaan, speculation about his doom is topic number one.

Languishing in a seedy flophouse after failing to see his fantasies ignite, he decides to return, arriving the night of the showing of a print of Flaherty’s ‘Man of Aran,’ a mind-numbing chronicle.  Watching the citizens battle boredom, and losing the battle, is itself a hilarious scene.  When the clothespins are taken off the bedsheet cum movie screen, Billy in person emerges, and the locals now consider him a hero for making it to Hollywood, and then, for choosing to return.  Later, Helen agrees to go out walking with him, the rural Irish version of dating, and she seals it by bestowing his first kiss.  Alone in the store, happier than he’s ever been, the cough sounds an early, deadly warning of what’s to come.

His most satisfying accomplishment, next to gaining Helen’s attention, is having the townspeople stop referring to him as Cripple Billy.  From that point on, it’s to be Billy, his new, hard-won identity.  This production marks the fourth time I’ve seen this play, including with young Ruaidri Conroy at the Public, repeating the role he created in London.  This time, I believed that I was seeing a young man trying to muster whatever strength and resources and drive and defiance even remotely available to him, facing overwhelming odds, pitting him against immeasurable negative expectations.  I felt that his stakes could not be higher – his identity.  He would no longer be defined by what he was, free to become his new self.  I can’t help speculating that this time, this actor inside this role understands at his core what that struggle is like.  And perhaps Daniel Radcliffe can see the time coming when his professional identity will not be dominated by his having created a certain world-famous child wizard character in the movies.

On Book

Despite Michael Grandage’s studious direction, there’s a lot of Martin McDonagh’s delicious satirical jabs at the world of Irish folklore that doesn’t land well on the American ear so’s we can comprehend it.  You can savor it much better on the page, by picking up a copy of ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan,’ and while you’re at it, add to your shopping basket his prize-winning ‘The Beauty Queen of Leename.’   Add his ‘The Pillowman’ to your list, to discover another truly skillful piece of writing.   They’re all published by Dramatists Play Service.   And to learn about the heritage McDonagh both draws from and pokes harmless fun at, check out the great Irish John Millington Synge’s ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ and ‘Riders to the Sea.’  A contemporary American wordsmith has just turned ninety, and to commemorate his 65-year career as one of Broadway’s legendary lyricists, Harbinger Records is releasing a 2-CD set, ‘Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures.’  And again, if you want to really savor this man’s genius, pick up copies of ‘Fiorello!’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘She Loves Me,’ and – well, they’re all worth reading.

And Also . . .

The free Broadway Outdoor Concert returns this year, with performances in Shubert Alley from 11 AM to 12:30 PM, Wednesday, May 21 – rain or shine.  And for readers from other places, planning a visit, three of Broadway’s finest have now begun Thursday matinees – ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’  More chances to fill out your visit with more shows!

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His award-winning play ‘Admissions’ is published by Playscripts.  He has written about the performing arts for Dramatics Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, Parade and dozens of other publications.  He will launch a series of classes and sessions about great plays and characters at the 92nd St. Y in the fall.

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.