Intermission Talk

February 22nd, 2018

“Bright Colors and Bold Patterns”

Leave Behind “Brilliant Traces”

 

by TONY VELLELA

Just as no two couples are alike, so too is it true that no two weddings are alike.  The current best examples are “Brilliant Traces” and “Bright Colors and Bold Patterns,” both running off-Broadway.  They also share some sharp, clever writing, and – oh, yes – we never do see three out of four of the intendeds.

In Cindy Lou Johnson’s memorable “Brilliant Traces,”  [from Art of Warr Productions, at the WorkShop Theatre], two people, not by choice but by circumstance, find themselves confined for a time in a white-out storm in Alaska.  Veteran television comedy writer Bill Persky once told me that there were really only eight solid premises in comedy, and one of them was having your cast stuck, snowbound and without communication possible, in a near deserted cabin that no one else who knows you/them knows about.

Johnson’s very clever and most admirable play premiered initially nineteen years ago at the Cherry Lane, with Joan Cusack and Kevin Anderson, directed by Terry Kinney.  To make its mark on the downtown theatre scene, the recently-formed Art of Warr Productions has selected this sharp two-hander, and it was a long time coming.

The aforementioned wedding?  The almost bride Rosannah [Alyssa May Gold] discovers, almost involuntarily, that the married-life game ain’t for her.  And this revelation comes when she’s in full bridal get-up, veil and little pink satin shoes et al, standing at the head of the church aisle, where the music has started, but, funny thing!  Her feet are not following the expected course of action.  Instead, Rosannah lets the rest of her body due its chosen thing – back out of the church, get her behind the driver’s seat of her car, and turn on the engine.  No plan, no destination – she is not looking to get somewhere [she is at this point in Arizona], but looking to get somewhere else.  In this mind-over-body conundrum, mind wins.  She drives, and drives and keeps driving, stopping at regular intervals for gas and candy bars, until her car dies – in Alaska.  All she can see up ahead is a small one-room cabin, barely visible through the white cloud of snow encompassing everything.  She manages to gather the energy to pound on the door, and then let herself in.  She is not alone.

Another person is there, seated on a small bed, blanket pulled up over his head.  And he listens, silently, as Rosannah rags him out for not helping her more.  And this gal, bridal gown the worst for wear, truly knows how to rag somebody out.  She is soooo angry, sooo disgusted, sooo beyond real assistance at this moment, finally collapses into one of the two chairs in the room, and pours herself a whiskey from the bottle on the table.

And that other person?  Name of Henry, he waits until she seems to have settled down a bit, but still waits, because she’s had another shot, stood up, ranted some more, and collapsed on the floor.  Good person Henry lifts her up and places  her on his bed, making sure to wipe off her public parts with a damp cloth, and removing the gown.  The little satin shoes have been abandoned, under the table.  He has not yet spoken.

Of course, she wakes up, two days and nights later, confused and still angry.  During her monologue rant just after she gets there, she mentions something about a wedding, attested to by her outfit.   And Henry tries to learn the basics of her ‘story.’

There are no more details, only personal observations.  And hers center on the futile attempt to shape some sort of life-long life at the end of that aisle.

And what of Henry?  Offshore oil rig worker, Henry [Blake Merriman] retires to this home whenever his shifts end, a sanctuary or a hermitage?  He is also capable of angry outbursts, aimed at this other person who has insinuated herself into his carefully-crafted solo existence.   No chance he is perfectly harmless.

And here is where Johnson has reshuffled the deck.  These are not two people stuck in a near-deserted nowhere [Scenic designer Matthew Crane’s simple, yet very evocative set design lends the appropriate air of authenticity, as does the sensitive direction of Joshua Warr.]  These are two strangers in a near-deserted nowhere.  Happily, this is an actual PLAY – real characters, fearful moments of confrontation, charming moments of real humor, and story lines that are never obvious or predictable.

Rosannah and Henry clumsily trade personal secrets, including a really unexpected revelation about the death of a child.  Lest this sound like a rather bleak he-said she-said volley, what gives it the gut punch it earns comes from the dialogue, and the very welcome simplicity of the set-up – one room, no phone, limited tea.  That they each have almost managed to conquer their fear of, or disdain for a life lived among others may be more obvious to us than to them at first.  No meet-cute comedy this.  Rosannah and Henry suffer from deep emotional crises, ones that the actions, the sympathies of another person, any person, don’t seem to matter much.  Merriman offers a touching array of emotions, at times recalling the quiet terror that Henry Fonda understood so well.  Gold’s Rosannah would benefit from exploring even more nuance in her character’s situation, relying too much on the wide swing between indignation and resignation.  The original production, which I saw at the Cherry Lane, elevated Rosannah’s mental and emotional states beyond the ‘basic facts.’

Joan Cusack 1989

Joan Cusack then went on to stunning depictions of young women more complex than their description.  If anything is missing from this production – and there is so much to enjoy, take in, welcome back for this revival – is that extra layer of nuance, both in portraying Rosannah, and in seeing how she reacts to the only other person in the room.

There appears to be no concern about nuance in Drew Droege’s riveting solo piece “Bright Color and Bold Patterns,” at the Soho Playhouse, under the proven astute directorial guidance of Michael Urie.  We are at a gaily – purposeful choice of words here – festooned poolside and terrace in September in southern California. A previously coke-assisted Gerry [ a very commendable Jeff Hiller], toting a near-empty martini glass, and wears a shirt and shorts that conflict with the title’s admonitions about what to wear at tomorrow’s wedding between two of Gerry’s closest sort-of friends.  He takes another sip, then launches into a two-way conversation with someone in the front row [he’s not an actor, and doesn’t respond].  But this interplay is what gives this marvelously gifted piece of writing its grounding.  Gerry is a relentless cross between a modern-day aficionado of the expansive, never-more-open gay community and the ‘girls’ in Mart Crowley’s soon-to-be-revived classic drama/comedy “Boys in the Band,” which set box office records and opened avenues for so much dialogue about thirty years ago.

At this night-before pre-ceremonial dinner, being held nearby, we never do meet the same-sex couple being celebrated.  Who we do meet are the effortlessly loquacious Gerry, and the ‘friends’ he speaks with in his one-sided exchanges.  And he certainly  gives more than he gets.

This is a set-up laced with possible humor, ribald jokes and the sharp but not outright vicious personal attacks that Joan Rivers perfected.  Joan was not a big person -she only came up to my chin – but it was the self-assuredness, the pure confidence in what she was relating, that gave her work the power it had.  Here, Droege has crafted what could well be an homage to her.

When we meet Gerry, the soundtrack is sharing with us Diana Ross’s plaintive  yet melodic “My World is Empty Without You.”  Yup – that’s where we’re at.

The laughs come fast and furious, as we witness Gerry scold, admonish, belittle and indulge in wildly hilarious interchanges with this silent guy.  He can become deliriously taken with his own tack-sharp wordplay, and the bulls-eye jabs that hurt no one we actually see, but register as squarely hitting their intended target.  Not so long after, Gerry spots another colleague, and starts in on another one-way exchange that leaves us giddy with laughter.

The story line covers far more than the now-relevant gay marriage debate, because like any great work, this one is both specific and universal.  You don’t need to recognize the names and places Gerry tosses about to recognize the pattern of the humor: introduce a topic, let you get familiar with in, deride it without mercy by pointing out its near endless shortcomings, bringing you into the conversation to affirm his points of humor, then let it go – like an air-filled balloon he’s been pinching closed with one finger and thumb, letting it skitter across the room and out of sight, out of mind, to be replaced instantly by another little anecdote.

And here’s why this works so incredibly well.  Like the material Joan wrote for herself, Droege has placed criticisms, comments, stinging assaults, mock compliments, all of them, in the mind of the audience.  In this case, Gerry is sharing his exchanges with us, and we ‘get it,’ all of it, because Droege has salted Gerry’s conversations with recollections about the never-to-be-seen happy couple, now being derided so harshly for allowing the wedding invitations to finger-wag about the dress code.  It’s a gay wedding, for God’s sake!  Gerry is in disbelief.  And even when his tone and commentary mellow with personal confessions, the combination of Droege, Urie and Hiller combine so many welcome elements to today’s scene – and with more than enough guaranteed laughs that whatever point they wish to make lands with perfect color-blind power.

AfterPlay

For a start, let me thank those who urged me to use the column to point out that the current production of a Lincoln Center play titled “Admissions,” is not the play of mine that enjoyed three separate New York productions, all directed by Austin Pendleton, and went on to be named Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival.  My “Admissions” uniquely looks at the world of racism, hidden agenda and not-often-acknowledged prejudices among a group of disparate, serious and engaging college students.  No teachers, no faculty members, no adults – and at this momentous time when students are taking the lead in challenging one of society’s most pernicious evils – the scourge of guns – this original “Admissions” looked at issues solely through the eyes and minds of students.  Happy to state that is was published after its premiere by Playscripts, and that the Drama Bookshop carries copies . . . a curious fusion of ’80s rock, classical arias and concertos have been fused to create “Rocktopia,” by Rob Evans, which will open next month at the Broadway Theatre . . .  you say you’ll be on the road for a while mid-April to mid-May?  You say you never got to experience “The Secret Garden?”  With more purpose than Rosannah in “Brilliant Traces,” fire up you motorcar and head west, very west.  Theatre Calgary has selected that classic musical to celebrate its 50th anniversary this spring.  Details at theatrecalgary.com.

On Book

Melissa, daughter of Joan Rivers, has generously compiled stage material and insights into how her mother created and performed throughout her iconic career.  Collecting and sharing so much more than her earlier “The Book of Joan: Tales of Mirth, Mischief and Manipulation,” Melissa shows how much real hard work went into her mother’s successes, and failures . . . to remember one of the theatre’s greatest character actors who just passed away at age 93,  Louis Zorich, pick up the his “What Have You Done?  The Inside Stories of Auditioning – From the Ridiculous to the Sublime.”  His wife for more than half a century, Olympia Dukakis, penned the foreword . . . and if you’d like to out-quip and one-up Gerry, no better source than “The Queer Encyclopedia of Music, Dance & Musical Theatre,” edited by Claude J. Summers, for Cleis Press.  Take that, Gerry  [extra loud snap of the fingers]!

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TONY VELLELA‘s play “Admissions” received three New York productions, directed by Austin Pendleton,  won best play at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  He wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” for Anthony Rapp, with composer Misha Piatigorsky.  His feature articles and reviews about the performing arts have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Life, Dramatics, Parade, and Rolling Stone, among other places.  He has taught theatre-related courses at HB Studio, West 92nd St. Y, Columbia University Theaters’ College, and other institutions across the country. His documentary “Test of Time” won the Best Documentary CableAce Award for Lifetime Television.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre package, and reservations, are available at the Carmel App, at www.carmellimo.com and at 212 – 666 – 6666.


Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, at 212 – 944 – 0595, or at www.dramabookshop.com.

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Intermission Talk

December 28th, 2017

 

“Once On This Island”

“The Children” Met

“The Parisian Woman”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Like most bold-face people, in or out of the performing arts / political world, Uma Thurman has long been able to enjoy two of ‘something/someone’ where most others would only be entitled on one.  In work and life, she has earned that courtesy.  It’s unfortunate, then, that just when she could truly have used that ‘two of . . .’ benefit, it wasn’t there.

The ‘something / someone’ in this case is editors.  While still in her teens, Thurman created a searing presence on the big screen.  Demonstrating early on how well she had learned her acting craft,  she established her acting career on the big screen,   due  in part to the craft of editors. {Her role in Stephen Frears’ 1988 “Dangerous Liaisons ” cemented her star status.]  Making a picture only requires the actor to get it ‘right’ once.  On stage, the impact is required eight times a week – every week.   If someone is ‘on’ for only half the running time of an average play [two hours], ‘getting it right’ figures to be eight hours a week – every week.  In sequence.  And delivered regardless of the flu, bad clams at lunch or bouts of faulty memory.  Not so in pictures.   An exceptional take that runs about three minutes only needs to be captured one time – the rest is up to the editor.

Editor # 2 in theatre might be  the playwright, the director, the dramaturge or even an acting coach.  That person can note, early on, certain moments the actor is finding problematic.  One could be the length of a speech [the audience will tire of it].  Another possible source of trouble might be the movement[s] the director has put in place that tell the audience where to look [a film editor can bring you up close to the actor, a middle distance away, or part of a large group – alternating these combinations during the same speech].   Various members of the design and tech crew can mess up lighting cues, sound cues, and entrance or other cues, which impact the actor’s well-honed, finely-tuned performance, down to the millisecond.

In  Beau Willimon’s “The Parisian Woman,” at the Hudson Theatre,  Thurman’s Broadway debut , one wonders what her career trajectory would have been like, had she chosen stage work first.   If that had been the case – a 2nd or even 3rd rate actress  trading on stunning beauty, and . . . that would have been it.

This story follows Chloe [Thurman], a stunningly beautiful young woman, married to Tom, [Joshua Logan], an ambitious tax attorney eyeing a federal judgeship, a goal she supports.  She relishes the role of ‘stunningly beautiful woman,’ acted out for whomever she believes can be useful.   Here it’s her guileless husband, and her ever-willing lover Peter [Marton Csokas, almost managing to overcome cliche dialogue],  and Rebecca, [Phillipa Soo], the brilliant, young, beautiful closeted daughter of Jeanette [Blair Brown] a well-placed government appointee who could help Tom.

That’s the four-sided triangle.  Chloe allows both men, and Rebecca, to believe she is their chosen partner.  She uses clandestine pictures of her affair with Rebecca, in a fairly clumsy blackmail attempt to influence Rebecca’s mother Jeanette,  on Tom’s behalf.  Potentially scorching high intensity issues emerge with very little passion, using achingly static dialogue.  Compare this with Wendy Wasserstein’s gripping “An American Daughter.”

Does Tom get the job?  Does Chloe follow  Rebecca,  half her age and just as attractive, to make a new life in California?  And what about Peter?

Director  Pam MacKinnon’s choices look like grad school exercises,   clearly compounding things.  To be somewhat fair, she is crippled by the playwright’s soap opera-tenets script.  ‘Now’ references were dropped in to create ‘relevance,’ such as ‘Kelly,’ meaning DJT’s chief of staff.  Willimon has someone doing something for a long time as lasting ‘twenty years’ – the time designation seized on by writers too lazy to draft a specific back story for person or event.

Thurman possesses the acting skills and intellectual acuity to score strong on the stage.  She’s got to attract both kinds of ‘editors’ who look beyond the movie star and use their talents to serve her well.

The opposite is on view in “Once on This Island,” a multi-talented feast for the senses at Circle in the Square.  And it’s just what we all need now during this frigid blast era, a trip to the warm place.  It’s the first collaborative endeavor of  librettist-lyricist Lynn Flaherty and composer Stephen Flaherty.  It premiered  in May, 1990 at Playwrights Horizons, and then transferred to Broadway.  This Tony Award-winning creative powerhouse duo [“Ragtime,” “Anastasia,” “My Favorite Year” and others], took a simple French Antilles folktale based on Rosa Guy’s novel “My Love, My Love,” and brought it to vivid, vibrant life.  At the perfectly- suited Circle in the Square, it takes full advantage of that unique venue’s features.

Following a storm, a young orphan girl is discovered in a tree  by a generous older couple, Papa Ge, the death god [Merle Dandridge] and Mother Earth goddess  Mama Euralie [Kenita R. Miller].  They raise her as their own, with specialized assistance from the goddess of Love, and the water god.  Though it’s a small island, it hosts two separate and distinct clans – the beauxhommes, with light skin and French traditions, and the peasants, with native black skin and a lifestyle honoring nature and simple truths.

From the start, this exuberant, enchanting musical envelops you with its spirit, sometimes positive, other times not.  Cleaning up the beach after the storm, they collectively explain how everyone there survives such setbacks.  The secret:  “We Dance.”  And that they do.   We are ever so gently lured into their colorful, joyful little world of peaceful co-existence, of sharing and of the kinds of sincere love that is free from cynicism, sarcasm and selfishness.

Years later, the girl, Ti Moune, has grown into a lovely young woman [Hailey Kilgore] .  One night she comes upon an auto accident, and rescues the handsome, fair-skinned driver Daniel [Isaac Powell].  Recalling her rescue as a little girl, she is convinced that “. . .the gods saved my life so I could save him.”  Her kindness in overlooking his obvious heritage, nursing him back to health despite  admonitions from her family and friends, leads to love.  A love story, obviously.  But it doesn’t go where these tales usually go.

The Filipino Broadway star of “Miss Saigon” Lea Salonga, in a much-anticipated return in a worthy vehicle for her captivating abilities, portrays the goddess of love Erzuile.  The other deities, and the water god Agwe, {Quentin Earl Darrington] provide their own individualized touches to Ti Moune’s life, far greater than fairy tale depictions might require.   Powell, with an endearing sweetness, finds himself trapped between his growing love and passion for his selfless rescuer, and loyalties to family and creed.

Chronicled in “One Small Girl,” Ti Moune’s several encounters with the gods, the goddesses and the people who people her life, each has a musical number with a very particular messages.  Ahrens and Flaherty have wisely, and unobtrusively, added eight Storytellers for this production, and along with their story-telling duties, they give background harmonies to just about every song.  Flaherty’s exceptional score effortlessly blends together elements from diverse pop-Caribbean melodies which are all inherently present, and when married to Ahrens’ lyrics, yield results far greater than the sum of their parts.  The rousing, life-affirming “Mama Will Provide” is stoked with as much gentle defiance and muted power as any of the great Negro spirituals.  Elsewhere, it might be a show-stopper, but not here.   Flaherty’s score has been fluidly-integrated into the story, thanks also to the skillful music supervisor Chris Fenwick, orchestrations from Annmarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin, and music director Alvin Hough, Jr.

The endlessly inventive director, Michael Arden [his was the impactful, re-imagined 2015 Deaf West Theatre’s revival of “Spring Awakening”] has a proven ability to take the best elements in any work he works on.  Here, he nurtures and honors all of them –  book, lyrics, music, spot-on casting, and the fresh, exuberant choreography of Camille A. Brown.  Note, for instance, the “Rain, and “Discovering Daniel” sequence, where Arden constructs  Daniel’s car from beach litter.  He then melds music, movement, choreography and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s evocative lighting to magnify the elements of the crash.  If this sounds like standard fare, pay particular attention to how Arden has layered in the unique sounds of found objects.  Ingenious ‘found’ instrument design is courtesy of Bertles and Bash the Trash, the spice of the score.

This bold [but never brash], gleeful, rapturous celebration of the times of one’s life has so many outstanding aspects – it’s a natural choice for a Best Ensemble Tony Award, if one were granted, the way SAG does for films.  One among them is Miller’s natural story-telling through lyrics, a rare feature best remembered in Barbara Cook’s singing.  Overall, this melodious production, with one beatific moment after another, deserves a long run  – it’s one of this or any other season’s best.

Speaking of two’s [refer to sentence # one, above], we are indeed blessed to have two superior, exceptional works on view at the same time.   Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children,” at the Friedman Theatre,  embeds real threats to humanity within a seemingly prosaic three-person encounter in a small, unfussy seaside cottage on the coast of England.  Retired engineers Hazel [Deborah Findlay] and her husband Robin [Ron Cook] took up permanent residence there,  just outside the ‘exclusion zone,’  after a horrendous accident at a nearby nuclear power plant where they were both employed.  Its recent core meltdown was the result of a rare earthquake, which triggered a tsunami, sending flooding water into the basement of the plant, where the emergency generator had been foolishly situated.  The couple, along with their [unseen] young son, have taught themselves how to cope with the missing pieces of a well-ordered life, such as electricity, potable water and a supply of basic, nourishing food.  Dinner might be crackers or celery – but not both.

When Rose [Francesca Annis], another of the original plant design team, appears in Hazel’s kitchen uninvited, the two women seem to share the same type of casual chat one might overhear at a sorority reunion.  Tensions emerge slowly, such as when Hazel notices how familiar Rose is with the location of items in the kitchen.  Robin’s return from errands leads to the unobtrusive, un-hysterical peeling away of layers of additional, at first unspoken, back stories, thanks to the subtle hand of director James Macdonald.  Skipping over the thirty-eight year gap takes real finesse.

Rose eventually confesses that she has a more complicated agenda.  As three of the plant’s original design engineers, she believes they all have a responsibility to return now and assist however they can with the ongoing clean-up and restoration of it.  They share their own interconnected  layers of relationship events, stemming from the fact that Rose and Hazel were both Ron’s lovers during those times.  These times, now, infest any conversation with the possibility that the civil threesome might implode.  And while it is the malfunction of their nuclear power plant, in ways similar to the woeful chain of events that caused the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, this is not a black-and-white polemic on the elimination of nuclear power.   In fact, all three exhibit blase attitudes to that subject, believing that nuclear power is a necessity.

While Rose implores the couple that it is their responsibility, their duty to do this, Hazel suspects that Rose has taken up her previous role as chief rival for Ron’s affections.  Back in the early times, the two women were the only female members of the team, and Ron’s successful interest in both of them was well-known.  Even now, they can enjoy re-creating a line dance routine to a James Brown number.  That brief respite helps to refocus on the nature of this visit – how do these people unbundle the interconnected tension-filled threads of a trio of agendas, personal and professional, against the backdrop of such a societal cataclysm?   Do loyalty and responsibility override personal long-held feelings?  In this prosaic kitchen, how do well-educated, thoughtful and skillful baby boomer scientists acknowledge the immediate deadly consequences of their specialized work, contrasted with their belief in its long-range benefit to satisfy an ever-growing hunger for energy?  Provocative and suspenseful, “The Children,” originally staged at London’s  Royal Court,  represents the finest in dramatic playwriting.

AfterPlay

You are on long-range notice:  Kids’ Night on Broadway, a program of the Broadway League, supported by The New York Times, takes place on Tuesday, February 27.   Any child 18 and under can attend one of the sixteen participating Broadway show for free, when accompanied by a ticket-purchaser adult.  Some shows will also include in-theatre activities including talkbacks and activities books.  Broadway.org is the official League on-line headquarters for Broadway.  Kids’ Night on Broadway events will also be held in several cities across the county . . .  a program to provide admissions to veterans is underway, presented by TDF [Theatre Development Fund, to make available free tickets to NYC’s former servicemen and women of all ages who have served in any branch of the armed services.   The line-up includes “Beautiful” on January 21, “Come From Away” on January 25, “School of Rock” on January 29, “Chicago” on February 4, “A Bronx Tale” on May 16 and “Kinky Boots” on May 19.   To learn more, visit  www.tdf.org.

On Book

“Journeys in the Night: Creating a New American Theatre with Circle in the Square” is founder/director Theatre Mann’s  engrossing autobiography from Applause Books, chronicles the exceptional contributions the venue, and Mann, have made to the theatre world . . .  Nathan Lane penned the introduction to another grand autobiography, “Neil Simon’s Memoirs,” now in paperback from Simon & Schuster.  Start the year off with countless smiles . . . and if you want to bolster your knowledge of theatre, start the new year off with Michael Billington’s “The 101 Greatest Plays – From Antiquity to the Present” from Garden Books.  It’s less pretentious and more accessible than the title might suggest.

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TONY  VELLELA‘s play “Admissions” was chosen as Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival, in a production directed by Austin Pendleton, and is published by Playscripts.  He wrote and produced the PBS series “Character Studies,” about theatre.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” with for Anthony Rapp, with composer Misha Piatigorsky.  His feature articles and reviews of the performing arts have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, Parade, Rolling Stone, Life Magazine and dozens of other outlets.  He has taught theatre-related sessions at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University’s Teachers’ College and several other institutions across the country.  His documentary “Test of Time” was a CableAce Award winner for Lifetime Television.  His new play “Labor Days” is in development.

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CARMEL CAR &  LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or at 212 – 666 – 6666.

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Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop,250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, at 212 – 944 – 0595, or at www.dramabookshop.com.

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Intermission Talk

November 21st, 2017

No “Junk” Left Behind

After “The Band’s Visit”

 

by TONY VELLELA

Some early holiday presents are now on view at the Barrymore Theatre.  If this has been, so far, a season with mixed rewards, grab onto this production,  made up of many creative gifts.

“The Band’s Visit,” with music and lyrics by David Yazbek [“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”] and book by Itamar Moses [“Outrage,” “The Four of Us”] uses as its basis the documentary-style, original screenplay of the same title by Eran Kolirin, set in a fictional 1996 Israeli town.  The 2007 limited-release film garnered extensive praise.  But the basis for a Broadway musical?  At best, a clear mismatch, and at worst, an idea with no chance of succeeding.

Members of the Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Band, led by their conductor Tewfiq, [a stunning characterization by Tony Shaloub, of TV’s ‘Monk’ fame], discovers that a mix-up in ticketing by the airport bus station ticket seller, has resulted in them being deposited in Bet Hatikva.  It’s a remote, dead-end Israeli village, not their intended destination, the Egyptian town of Petah Tikva  —  something to do with the ‘P’ sound and the ‘B’ sound getting crossed.   No more buses will depart for their true destination until tomorrow morning.  Their backwater ‘home’ for the night has no hotel, and only one halfway decent eatery, run by Dina, an enigmatic young woman who extends a measure of hospitality [Katrina Lenk, who possesses an unlimited range of abilities to project the effects of a near-unlimited variety of circumstances].

Desolation rarely yields happy moods.  And the residents of Bet Hatikva, few in number, have a sorrowful sense of their fate in the two opening songs, “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere.”  Everyone on either side of the cultural divide struggles to sort out how best to cope, with everyone resorting to English as a make-do second language, resulting in short, declarative sentences that can’t plumb below the surface of the situations.  This is not a tale of multiple vignettes drawn from a real-life event, as in “Come From Away,” because it’s fictional.  What it shares with that expansive show is its reliance on the human heart to transcend new obstacles.

In the opening graph above, ‘holiday gifts’ are referred to – gifts, plural.  For a start, the score draws from the rich musical heritage of the locale’s north African – Middle Eastern region, ranging from the darbouka/riq, an Arab tambourine, to the oud/guitar, a short-neck, lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument heard throughout the region, from Turkey and Greece to all the Israeli and Arabian territories.  Composer Yazbek folds in flute, clarinet, cello and saxophone, to give the score a lush yet unfussy admixture of harmonies.  The orchestra characters, actual musicians, display real virtuosity in bringing it to life.

Structurally, the visitors split into three small groups, each one accepting an offer of locals to stay the night.  Instead of the predictable one-two-three, one-two-three sequence of events, the masterful director David Cromer [repped earlier this year at the helm of  Max Posner’s off-Broadway drama “The Treasurer”] permits each overnight odyssey to develop at its natural pace, recede and allow room for another one to come to the fore, a tricky decision that keeps us fully engaged.

But – a musical?  Most likely the greatest accomplishment of “The Band’s Visit” stems from its tone, its refusal to jump-start the volume, its avoidance of all things ‘musical theatre.’  Several of its most impactful moments emerge from near silence, as when Dina and Tewfiq allow confidences to be shared on a ‘park’ bench, which in actual fact sits amid rubble and debris.  Despite its bountiful collection of life-examining observations, the book by Moses weaves humor into the proceedings effortlessly, such as watching the ever on-the-prowl trumpeter Haled [a giddily funny performance by Ari’el Stachel], whose standard pick-up line, regardless of the nationality of, or language spoken by his intendeds, always queries “Do you like Chet Baker?”  And a hint of whimsy is evident from the start, when the musicians appear, compliments of designer Sarah Laux, in powder baby blue uniforms.

While Shaloub’s conductor eventually allows his personal tragedies to be shared with Dina, it is her mesmerizing presence that gives “The Band’s Visit” one of its most valuable features.  Dina, [so well served by Lenk, already a veteran of two other unique Broadway offerings ,”Once,” and “Indecent”], makes us ache as she cautiously unpeels away the layers of hurt and regret that keep her there, making us believe we are taking in the aroma of jasmine, in her haunting “Omar Sharif.”  When she and Tewfiq blend rarely-exposed emotions and rarely-met expectations in “Something Different,” they are also giving this stunning, wondrous musical a possible sub-title.

“Junk,” the title of Ayad Akhtar’s latest play has, perhaps not realized by the author, two alternate meanings.  In addition to its intended, the designation for low-value bonds that get traded on or around the world of Wall Street, it’s commonly used to mean trash, or garbage.  But on other ‘streets,’ more uptown and more downscale, ‘junk’ refers to a man’s private parts.  Given the macho-entrenched  world that Akhtar wants us to peek into, that one may be the most apt.

Way back in the shady eighties, know-it-almost-alls on both coasts were becoming binge-traders, seeking out low-priced, high-interest return properties that they could flip, at an obscene profit, leaving the original investors holding some extremely big bags, and not of gold.  Most notorious of these villains was super-trader Michael Milken, whose spider-web tentacles enmeshed the lazy, ‘don’t bother me with the details’ money manipulators, whose sole contribution to the national welfare was their endless dallying in the manufacture not of goods or even services,  but paper ‘propertie.’  One of their ‘best’ characteristics was the projection of security, the sure thing, that comes with believing in someone who seems always to be three or seven steps ahead of the game.  And when the game overcomes their faulty calculations, the house of cards falls in on itself, smothering its inhabitants.

At the epicenter of this labyrinth in “Junk” is the character portrayed by Steven Pasquale, Robert Merkin.  [Merkin/Milken – get it?]   While others have faulted the idea of casting leading man type Pasquale [“Bridges of Madison County”]  as the slick, soulless operator, he instead presents a confidence man with the type of charm needed here.  He possesses the qualities this ‘role’ requires, just like Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.”

As an ambitious reporter out to make her mark covering that world, Teresa Avia Lim falls short of the required overdrive intensity and passion that would power her engine.  In an early monologue, she laments “When did money become the thing – the only thing?”  Arresting as this sounds, echoes of Lorraine Hansberry’s Mama in “Raisin in the Sun” come to mind, when Mama confronts  her son Walter Lee, when he lectures her that money is life.  Mama says “So now it’s life.  Money is life.  Once upon a time, freedom used to be life.  Now it’s money.  I guess the world really do change.”  Her son ricochets with “No, it was always money, Mama.  We just didn’t know about it.”

So while the core component of Akhtar’s multi-part saga relates how the financial system and its willing participants during the last twenty or so years of the last century sought greater and more concentrated power through the accumulation of wealth, that ‘core’ is hardly new.  What the playwright has accomplished is the unbundling of the contemporary ‘components,’ built into relatable characters, who are forced to make choices, as we watch a few of them survive, and the rest get pulled down into the quicksand.

A word about the environment of “Junk” – Lincoln Center’s  A-team of creatives – John Lee Beatty [sets], Ben Stanton [lighting], 59 Productions [projections], and Doug Hughes [director] represent the finest example of creative collaboration.  Each one contributes just the right measure of individual input, without overshadowing the others.  Hughes in particular keeps an unobtrusive hand on the tiller, so that this cast of twenty-some fine actors, most notably Joey Slotnick, Ethan Phillips and Michael Siberry, can navigate the moments, moving the plot lines along in quicksilver action.

AfterPlay

Speaking of holiday gifts [see the first sentence, above], “Home for the Holidays – Broadway’s Christmas Concert Celebration” is currently running at the August Wilson Theatre, and is built around 25 Yuletide classics.  And another gift to theatregoers taking in this joyful event is the opportunity of seeing some recently-discovered talent, winners from television’s “American Idol,” “The Voice” and ” America’s Got Talent.”  It only runs until December 30, and for details, visit www.HolidaysOnBroadway.com . . . holiday celebrating can now be shared with those performers who have always been there on every special day, and sometimes with more than eight shows a week.  Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League, best known as the presenters of the Tony Awards, has announced that, starting with Thanksgiving week, staggered performance days and times mean those on the other side of the footlights will be able to spend time with their loved ones, also.  Friday matinees and alternate curtain times, for instance, will make this a win-win for everyone.  For the complete holiday schedule, go to Broadway.org. . . . more great news from the Broadway League!  With the support of the New York City Department of Education [DOE], the League is launching the first full year of Broadway Bridges, giving every NYC student the opportunity to see a Broadway show before graduating.  To learn whether or when your child is eligible, visit BroadwayBridges.org.

On Book

Speaking of the eighties [see second graph of the “Junk” review], what was going on in theatre during that delirious decade?  “Famous American Plays of the 1980s,” published by Laurel/Dell, compiled by Robert Marx, gathers the best of – – works by Sam Shepard, Jules Feiffer, Wallach Shawn, Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine, and August Wilson.  It’s in a handy paperback edition now, and a genuine good read . . . Ayad Akhtar’s best-known work is “Disgrace,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  And if you missed its electrifying production four seasons back, Back Bay Books, a division of Little, Brown and Company publishes the playscript . . . and returning to the subject of holiday gifts, these three are perfect re-gifting choices, the difference being you give them first to yourself, and then give them as gifts to friends and family.  “Christmas in July – The Life and Art of Preston Sturges,” by Diane Jacobs, chronicles his sweeping, very influential career, and while he is best known for his iconic films, such as “The Palm Beach Story,” “Remember the Night,” “The Lady Eve,” and this book’s title, Sturges also turned out several plays, starting with ‘The Guinea Pig’ and ‘Strictly Dishonorable,’ in 1929.  Published by California University Press, it’s a real eye-grabber . . . another guilty pleasure, “Show & Tell – The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes,” compiled by Ken Bloom, for Oxford University Press, spills out dozens and dozens of great tales about the great guys and dolls of the last hundred or so years, from George [Mr.] Abbott to Florenz Ziegfeld . . . and finally, with a title like “The American Stage – Writings on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner,” how could you go wrong?  Edited by Laurence Senelick, with a foreword by John Lithgow, for the Library of America, you might just opt to hold on to this one!

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TONY VELLELA wrote the Best Play winner “Admissions,” for the New York International Fringe Festival, directed by Austin Pendleton, and published by Playscripts.  He wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  He has written several other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” for Anthony Rapp, with composer Misha Piatigorsky. His performing arts

feature articles have appeared in dozens of national and international publications, including Parade, Rolling Stone, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Dramatics and others.  His documentary “Test of Time” was an award-winner for Lifetime Television.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or at 212 – 666 – 6666.

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Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, or 212 – 944 – 0595, or at www.dramabookshop.com.

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October 19th, 2017

“Time and the Conways”

and the “Dolly” Follies

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Credit Roundabout Theatre Company and director Rebecca Taichman for resisting any temptation to update J. B. Priestley’s “Time and the Conways,” written in 1937.  There is great value in experiencing dramatic work as it was written, for the time it was written about.  In Priestley’s case, this play’s ‘contemporary’ scenes are bracketed with scenes from 1919, which gives the story the contrasting sensibilities he seems to have wanted to achieve.

Whether he does that completely depends on what you are focusing on.  The Conways, whose matriarch [“Downton Abbey’s”  Elizabeth McGovern] is a well-taken-care-of still young widow, juggling the serious as well as the frivolous challenges her six young adult children – four daughters, two sons – come up with.  More often, she’s playful and unserious, qualities she hopes will be passed to them – she’s just one of the girls.

At rise, Neil Patel’s set places us in the morning room of the large and well-appointed villa of the Conways, an airy, comfortable home base where casual gatherings take place.  They are part way into celebrating the birthday of young Kay, whose literary ambitions are, at turns, admired and scorned.  Order of the day for such celebrations [at least in those days] is for the five children still living at home, plus Mother, to  perform short charades sketches for the guests, giving everyone license to don funny hats, quirky clothing pieces and fake moustaches.  Mercifully, these are done offstage.  They all seem to be getting a bit more fun out of it than the audience, but when in Rome . . .

Midway through the evening, the arrival of sixth child, Robin, who has been away serving King and country in the Great War, is an unexpected, and joyous event.  Priestley presents this Conway menage at the dawn of this new chapter, each member casting about, seeking their purpose, defining their identity, or trying to.  In addition to Kay and Robin [whose next goal seems to be catching up on the good times he missed and letting tomorrow take care of itself], the family circle also includes stern  Hazel, a Socialist advocate; stylish Madge, currently the object of a new man in the neighborhood who seems to be everywhere she is; passive Alan, a go-along, get-along type contented to permit all the women in the household to move him around as they see fit, and effervescent Carol, whose zest for living life to its fullest keeps her bouncing around the room from chair to chair, lap to lap.

If this sounds like a set-up scene, that’s because it mostly is.  The girls, except for Hazel, live life in the superlatives – if something is unsatisfactory, it’s not just poorly done or lacking all that it might, it’s “ghastly!”  Madge’s man in the shadows, Ernest Beevers [the mention of his name always produces giggles and scoffs], is a stolid businessman who, uninvited, joins the group for a short time, to profess his deep admiration for her.  She is predictably dismissive.

Patel’s gorgeous set then retreats, and down slowly drops another version of the same room, circa 1937.  Here’s Priestley’s real canvas, where he lays out his points of view on society’s ills, personal faults, failed relationships and indiscriminate management of one’s resources and holdings.  England is enduring the pains of the Great Slump [what the Brits called the Great Depression], and the Conways are textbook examples of how the former upper middle class has lost its place of privilege.

The teachings of British philosopher John William Dunne exerted strong influence on Priestley.  His concept of time as a malleable condition of all life creates an almost surreal climate in this second section, eighteen years later, when the serendipitous choices and miscalculations they’ve all made have fully matured.  One by one by one, their stations in this life are revealed.  A disastrous marriage, an alcoholic addiction, a harsh, unforgiving temperament and a sense of near total ambition find their ways into one or the other of the adult Conway children.  One has been lost to a premature death.

More telling that the fates of her children is where Mrs. Conway finds herself.  The generous financial position her husband left her in has been squandered.  The house, once highly prized at the close of the war, is more relic than realm.  And it falls to the former outsider Mr. Beevers, who has married into and insinuated himself into the family Conway, to point out just how critical things are for her, and them.  Still nostalgically imagining they are the upper class, they hear from Beavers that they are no longer living at the close of the last war.  They are marking time now “at the beginning of the next one.”  The chilling moment is lent even more impact because of the casting.  A brilliant acting discovery a few seasons back in “Hand to God,” Steven Boyer fairly dazzles in his colorlessness.  He wants no more than what he has attained.  And he wants no part of using his resources to rescue his in-laws.  They provided what he wanted at the outset, a trophy wife and early on, an introduction to the society that has long since evaporated.

The structure Priestley has fashioned, sandwiching the 1937 scenes between the first and the second 1919 sections, is more than a reminder of how what was past is present, and what is ahead cannot be shaped.  We are still at Kay’s birthday party the second time around.  Early signs of character damage appear, and without the foreknowledge the previous 1937 section has provided, they may pass barely noticed.  A dreamlike state seems to envelope Kay, whose high-mindedness and quest for a literary, even intellectual and spiritual existence, seems to be less an asset than something ever ever so slowly draining out her valued vitality.

Whose vitality, you ask, has not drained away?  That brightest of lights on  Fourteenth Street, the woman whose comings and goings are endlessly fascinating – the widow Dolly Gallagher Levi.   This tuneful tsunami first hit the Broadway boards on January 14, 1964, following a years-long grind wherein producer David Merrick, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman and librettist Michael Stewart agonized over how to turn the Thornton Wilder “The Matchmaker” into a musical, and who to bestow the title role to.  Every Broadway 101 student knows that Carol Channing exploded into the stratosphere when she first put her hand in here, and put her hand in there, and remained in the role for years.  Less well-known is that Merrick expected Ethel Merman to star, and when she turned up her nose, Mary Martin was courted, who did the same thing.  Both of them eagerly took their turns at the Harmonia Gardens when the show opened in London.  Lucky Carol.

Dolly’s parentage, however, goes way way back – to 1835!  British playwright John Oxenford penned “A Day Well Spent,” featuring some of the same basic elements, and seven years later, Viennese composer Johann Nestroy added his songs to the story, and titled it “He Will Go on a Spree,” in which the chief clerk’s journey into the big city formed the central core.  About a century later [1938], Thornton Wilder became intrigued with the tale, and opened “The Merchant of Yonkers,” and rather quickly, the show’s merchant, and all the others, closed.

Never one to accept defeat – some of Wilder’s other diverse credits include about 60 plays, among them “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “Our Town,” as well as the chilling screenplay he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, “Shadow of a Doubt” – he decided to bring the matchmaker out from her mothballs.  As a gift for close friend Ruth Gordon, Wilder rewrote the playscript, and the 1955 Broadway hit “The Matchmaker” was born.   Shirley Booth, 1955 Oscar winner for “Come Back, Little Sheba,” was tapped for the 1958 picture, in a cast that featured Tony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Morse.

Hello, Dolly!
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Carol became the iconic Dolly, the one future widows would be compared to.  And the announcement in 2016 that Bette Midler would revive the blockbuster set off a ticket-buying surge that still continues.  Her contract runs out in January.

How do you replace a star?  Merrick set that standard by replacing Channing with other stars, a practice not done in the ’60s, and those stairs would be downtrodden by, among others,  Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers and Martha Raye.

To my mind, Raye was the overall best, drawing from split-second comedy timing, dancing she displayed in several 1930s tuners, and a powerful jazz-inflected singing voice that shook the rafters.  And now . . . you know, of course.  Envelope, please.  The parasol goes to – Bernadette Peters.

Merrick shook the foundations of Broadway when, seeing that ticket sales were beginning to lag four or five years in, made a bold pronouncement.  He would mount an all-Black cast to travel from Yonkers to Manhattan eight times a week.  His choice for Dolly?  The larger-than-life-itself Pearl Bailey.  Her casting paid off handsomely, and once again Merrick proved nay-sayers wrong.  Of course, the fact that Pearly had a recurring yen to do an ad lib stand-up and song-and-dance ditty once the actual show ended gave him no end of pain.  But she came through.

While the title song, and a few others, such as “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By” found their way into cover versions [Hello, Louis], nightclub acts, T-V variety shows and radio play, attention paid to Jerry Herman’s knack for lyric-writing that advanced the story line and honored his music took a back seat.  To his credit, the only real ‘lift’ Herman took from Wilder’s dialogue was ‘I put my hand in here.  I put my hand in there.”  The rest is all Jerry.

A few tasty examples: “When a man with a timid tongue, meets a girl with a diffident air, why should the tortured creatures beat around the bush, when heaven knows, Mother Nature always needs a little push.  I put my hand in here . . .”  And “Twist a little, stir a little, Him a little, Her a little, Shape a little, mold a little, some poor chap gets sold a little, When I use my fist a little, Some young bride gets kissed a little.  Pressure with the thumbs.  Matrimony comes.  When I put my hand in there.”

Or how about: “It takes a woman, all powdered and pink, to joyously clean out the drain in the sink.  And it takes an angel with long golden ashes, and soft Dresden fingers, for dumping the ashes.”

With the question of who seduces Horace for the next year or so has been answered, one wonders where the search will then lead.  Will this revival run long enough to see Sutton Foster putting her hand in here?  Can history repeat itself with Audra McDonald putting her hand in there?  It’s a pretty good bet that, in words from Herman’s own hand, “Dolly’ll never go away again!”

On Book

The remarkable dexterity of Thornton Wilder’s writing, as well as his complicated and harrowing at times personal life, come alive in Penelope Niven’s “Thornton Wilder – A Life.”  Edward Albee contributed the foreword to this valuable examination of one of the twentieth century’s greatest . . . If “Time and the Conways” is your first exposure to J. B. Priestley, you’ll thank yourself for picking up a copy of his better-known “An Inspector Calls,” a engaging thriller of a play that had its most recent visit to our shores, a Best Revival of a Play Tony winner in 1994, also bestowing the award on director Stephen Daldry and featured actress Jane Adams . . . Jerry Herman’s career has had its own musical theatre moments, good and bad, and Stephen Citron’s “Jerry Herman – Poet of the Showtune” lets us in on it.  Published by Yale University Press, his golden age parallels a vital period for musicals, a period of transition and change, 1961 to 2000 . . . And the legend who is responsible for more nasty tricks, more snubs and salvos, and probably more hits than anyone else in the zany history of Broadway, David Merrick, is given a zesty biographical treatment in theatre critic Howard Kissel’s “David Merrick – The Abominable Showman – The Unauthorized Biography.”  Kissel’s easy way with words stems from his years as chief theatre critic for The New York Daily News.  Lucky us.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions’ won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  He has written several other plays and musicals, including “Mister,” with composer Misha Piatigorsky, for Anthony Rapp.  His performing arts features have appeared in dozens of publications, including Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, Parade, Dramatics and The Christian Science Monitor.  His documentary ‘Test of Time’ was an award-winner for Lifetime Television.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or at 212 – 666 – 6666.

 

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Books recommended or referenced in Intermission Talk are available at, or through Manhattan’s special Tony Award-winning Drama Bookshop, 250 west 40th street, NYC 10018, at 212 – 944 – 0595, or at www.dramabookshop.com.

 

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Intermission Talk

September 12th, 2017

The “Prince of Broadway”

Is Trapped in “A Play

That Goes Wrong.”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

You are drowsy.  You quick-click the remote, skipping from Benny Hill to Carol Burnett to vintage Ed Sullivan to vintage Soupy Sales to Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” to The Three Stooges to . . . you fall asleep.  To sleep, perchance to dream, and in that dream, parts of all those shows combine into a dizzying, hilarious kaleidoscope of scenes and characters.  You wake up, and realize that you’ve been in the audience of “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

Comfortably settled into the Lyceum Theatre, written by [or perhaps concocted is more appropriate] Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, it seems to be capturing the spirit of that long-ago Broadway manic phenomenon, “Hellzapoppin,” except that this has an actual story line to torpedo.   A product of London’s eleven-year-old Mischief Theatre, it captured the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.  And unlike most comedy forms, which require a set-up and a pay-off, this one delights in skipping the first step, going directly from pay-off to pay-off, much like the brilliant stand-up Stephen Wright did, with simple one-liners [“If coconut oil comes from coconuts, where does baby oil come from?”].

Here’s the premise: a local theatre company, the Cornley University Drama Society, thanks to the generosity of its newest member, is presenting “The Murder at Haversham Manor” in a large legit theater.  It’s a murder mystery wherein a typical Brit dysfunctional family must deal with the serial knockings-off of one after another of them.  And even before the ‘play’ begins, two crew members can be seen scurrying about on stage, trying to repair and replace failing mantles and loose floorboards.  Once underway, the usual list of motives, such as secret indiscretions, basic avarice, revenge, tangled family relationships, and more, identify possible suspects.  But the telling of the tale, by this profoundly inept troupe, rolls out misadventure after mishap, giving slapstick a good name by its elegant delivery.  If bad acting alone were punishable by death, there would be no living actors of this amateur troupe onstage for a curtain call.

Director Mark Bell possesses both superior stage direction skill and a keen sense of choreography, which provides “The Play That Goes Wrong” with its fast-paced gallop, never out of step.  Like Michael Frayn’s iconic stage/backstage farce “Noises Off,” “The Play That Goes Wrong” relies on a split-second timed delivery of each beat, because the moments are laid out like dominoes, ready to fall one after the other, unless something causes the action to jump ahead, skipping over some of them, resulting in plot points to collide, out of order.

Some tried-and-true laugh-getters come through unapologetically.  The reliable spit-take gets maximum use, as when paint thinner is mistaken for whiskey. Another veteran development comes when the inevitable necessity for someone – in this case the stage manager – to go on when the heroine gets knocked out by a wayward door.  The reluctant stage manager becomes so enamored with performing that she embellishes every gesture, but is taken aback when she drops her prompt book, tossing the pages all out of order.  Buster Keaton would be proud of this gang.

The scenic design, by the brilliantly creative Nigel Hook, is a grand conglomeration of innocent-enough elements -a grandfather clock, only three doors [a rarity for a successful farce], a down-center chaise longue, a telephone with a not-quite long enough cord, and so much more, all of them fodder for sight-gags and riotous visuals.

If there’s anything that could be called wrong with this production, it would be its length.  With intermission, it clocks in at two hours fifteen minutes, which means the comic momentum that builds in act one must be re-ignited at the start of the second act.  They manage to do it, of course, however not without a certain fatigue setting in.  That’s just about all that’s wrong here.

To segue from a play with that comedy’s title, to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of “Prince of Broadway,” would be ungracious.  Several years in development, following a try-out in Japan, this “Prince” seeks to chronicle and to celebrate the unparalleled Broadway career of 89-year-old producer/director Harold ‘Hal’ Prince, stretching from his role as co-producer for 1954’s “The Pajama Game,” right up to and including this one.  If you sit across from him at his desk, he is flanked by his record-breaking  21 Tony Awards , including the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.

Google him to get the full list of credits.  The line-up in this show draws from seventeen of them.  And many proved to break new ground in the musical theatre universe.  “West Side Story” tackled ultra-sensitive gang territorialism, “Fiddler on the Roof” brought Sholem Aleichem’s classic stories of Jewish oppression to audiences, “Follies” exposed the painful emotional challenges of women whose identities were tied to physical beauty, “Cabaret” revealed how some managed to survive the great and growing political power of 1930’s Nazi-ism in Germany, “Company” showed the false sense of security and happiness that comes from a single life built on an inability to make commitments, and on and on and on.  Big themes inside big productions.

Where “Prince of Broadway” falls short is in conveying these themes before any of the chosen musical selections are performed.  Those of us, for example,  who were lucky enough to have seen the original “Cabaret,” can recall how unexpectedly moving it was to experience subjects that were, and remain, vital and timeless [the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” about how German youth, brain-washed by state propaganda, came to believe in the inevitable world domination by their homeland, will always grab one by the throat].   But what if you don’t know the “Cabaret” premise?  The plaintive “So What?” was written by Kurt Weil for his wife Lotte Lenya, who introduced it in that show’s premiere.  Without that cloak of context to explain how a Protestant Berlin landlady, who has been proposed to by a gentle, caring Jewish grocer, could seem selfish or heartless when she rejects his entreaty.

No narrative presents the back story for “A Little Night Music.”  Same fate for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”  Ditto “Evita.”  Ditto “Parade.”  What narrative does exist comes through when various cast members take turns “standing in” for Hal, entering with his signature pair of glasses perched above his forehead, giving a very brief intro to what we are about to see, and what ‘he’ was feeling about it at the time.  And even though designers Beowulf Boritt [scenic and projection design], William Ivey Long [costumes] and Paul Huntley [hair and wig design] strain to capture the spirit of all these shows, precious few manage to convey their meaning.  The basic skeletal set housing the “Company” numbers did recall that show’s ‘feel.’  And projections used with the “Evita” segment gave the songs the feel of the time they were meant to represent, which begs the question why more projections were not used.

And so – – – how could a work that draws from a peerless collection of great musicals covering more than six rich decades of Broadway history seem so – so – shapeless, or uninspired.  Perhaps the fault lies in the book, by David Thompson.  His work has been seen to suffer from a kind of episodic format.  The compelling subjects within his “Scottsboro Boys” managed to move the stories to the forefront, with help from its director/choreographer Susan Stroman, who performs the same task here.  His book for “Steel Pier,” though, lacked the forceful compelling immediacy that the life-threatening conditions facing its participants, and was watered down further  by a romantic relationship that weakened the impact of the plot.

This cast of nine, including fine work from Stroman regular Karen Ziemba, plugs away delivering each of their assignments with varying degrees of success.  Another stand-out is a show-stopping tap routine by Tony Yazbeck within the “Follies” medley.

The jukebox musical phenomenon that captured the Street a decade or two ago and can still provide an evening’s worth of great entertainment [see “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical”] is not what “Prince of Broadway” can be compared to, and that difference may be at the heart of why its lack of cohesion is so disappointing.  What unites all these represented shows, from “Damn Yankees” to “Evita,” from “Follies” to “Show Boat,” is the involvement of Mr. Prince, as either producer or director, or both.  What is common throughout all those titles, show to show, musical to musical, decade to decade, is his dedication to creative excellence, regardless of what rules must be broken, to achieve the best result, the most compelling theatrical experience that can be shaped, to give each individual work its shot at having its story, its theme, its subject clearly received by its audience.  Different rules had to be jettisoned, and new approaches had to be invented – so that each show’s integrity could be uniquely performed for its particular audience.

AfterPlay

A new, and much-anticipated jukebox musical “Red Roses, Green Gold” has been written by librettist Michael Norman Mann, drawing from the collection of music and lyrics the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.  Mann, whose previous credits, culled from Dead-inspired works, were “Cumberland Blues,” staged in 1998, and “Shakedown Street”, done in 2005.”Roses/Gold” has been booked into the Minetta Lane Theater in the Village, opening on October 29.  Tickets should be available now . . . Guess who’s coming to Broadway.  Actually, three guesses, since there are three correct answers.  First up is one of his generation’s most acclaimed actors, three-time Tony Award winner Mark Rylance [“Jerusalem,” “Boeing-Boeing” and “Twelfth Night”], who will portray King Phillipe V of Spain in “Farinelli and the King,” by Claire van Kampen.  The limited engagement begins a limited run at the Belasco on December 5.  Number Two is Uma Thurman in Beau Willimon’s new play “The Parisian Woman,” under the direction of Pam MacKinnon.  The limited run engagement at the Hudson Theatre kicks off its previews on November 7.  And Number Three?  Not a real person [yet], but a very vivid personality, who knows from all different types of the color ‘blue.’  Yup – it’s Amanda Priestly, who was first seen in the 2006 picture “The Devil Wears Prada,” portrayed by Meryl Streep.  The musical adaptation will feature a score by Elton John [“Aida,” “The Lion King”] and a book by Paul Rudnick [“The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told”], and adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel.

On Book

The celebrated play about a theatre production that is unable to keep things on track, the iconic farce “Noises Off,” by Michael Frayn, is published by Samuel French.  Frayn’s writing has never been equaled when it comes to the stage-based premise of how whatever can go wrong, can and does . . . the murder mystery play, long a staple of regional and amateur theatre groups, gained prominence because of two crackling good murder tales by Agatha Christie.  Both are published by Samuel French.  The first, “Murder on the Nile,” was published in 1948, and the second, “The Mousetrap,” premiered in 1954, and is still running in London – an established favorite for generations . . . and if your curiosity has been aroused by all this murder mystery play talk, pick up the entertaining and comprehensive “Curtain Up – Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre,” by Julius Green.  The handsome tome was brought out by HarperCollins in 2015 . . . so many of the productions that Hal Prince initially brought to life have become landmarks in their particular genre, such as “Cabaret.”  One of the most influential revivals, directed by Sam Mendes for the 1998 Roundabout Theatre Company’s production.  You will be happy to immerse yourself in “Cabaret – The Illustrated Book and Lyrics,” edited by Linda Sunshine, for Newmarket Press, which serves as both a playscript and a historical look at the play and its various incarnations.  Great pictures!  There are more than 100 photographs and drawings [including 82 in full color], by Joan Marcus, as well as never-before-seen backstage photos by Rivka Katvan, and archival photographs of past productions.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.”  His Best Play Award-winning work “Admissions,” at the New York International Fringe Festival, was published by Playscripts.  He has written several other plays and musicals, and his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has covered the theatre and the performing arts since 1968, his articles appearing in dozens of publications, including Parade, Rolling Stone, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, Dramatics, Crawdaddy, The Christian Science Monitor and the Robb Report.  He has taught theatre-related courses at several institutions, including HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, and colleges & universities, such a Columbia University’s Teachers College.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666  – 6666.

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Books referred to, or recommended in Intermission Talk, are available at, or through Manhattan’s Drama Bookshop, 250 West 40th Street, NYC 10018, 212 – 944-0595, or at www.dramabookshop.com.

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Intermission Talk

July 12th, 2017

 

“A Traveling Lady”

Tries to Revisit Her Past,

 But Ends Up Instead in “1984”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

One wonders if certain spokespeople from a certain administration,  preparing for on-camera talkbacks, attended “1984,” and subconsciously absorbed the mantra “Words don’t matter.”  George Orwell’s iconic reading-list novel, penned in 1949, now belongs to the group of works that have made the journey from being harbingers of an unknowable future, through the stage where it has earned a place as a given standard written by an author who has become famous and familiar because of the notoriety of his/her work, and finally to the present, when it is okay to look back on it with a certain nostalgia for its seeming eagerness to deconstruct current conditions as proof of the original work’s naive approach to analysis.

Thirty-five years have passed between the story’s ‘present ,’ which is 1949,  to the time period when the story takes place, in its title year.  Conditions are now in place – the ever-present surveillance by an all-seeing, all- controlling central government political entity – that actualize what the story’s title has come to mean in contemporary usage.  Now, if you are willing to take in everything the production, at the grandly restored Hudson Theatre, has to offer, ambiguities and all, this will be the full meal plus coffee and dessert.   If you are among that eager group who take pleasure in finishing your sentence, even when they’re wrong about it, look elsewhere.

Orwell’s POV character is an Everyman named Winston.  He is ’employed’  ridding the language and biographical records [people who’ve been branded having been ‘un-personed’]  which have been  deemed offensive, by the central command, all the while harboring a secret repulsion for that process and for those who invented and administer it.  Ever-present  two-way large monitors monitor the fidelity of everyone.   His chance meeting with Julia, another sympathetic fellow-traveler, offers him some  measure of hope, portrayed in her riveting Broadway debut by Olivia Wilde.  Their secret trysts in an overlooked nook, which we can witness via simulcasting, reveal  just how devoid of ‘human’ behavior all lives have become.

A series of events demonstrate just how routine this cleansing of any offenses or offenders has become.  They take on a grim, jolting  pattern,

not unlike a gruesome ‘Groundhog Day’ familiarity.  What does not follow a pattern is their occurrence.  The only semblance of true relief comes in the ‘person’ of a middle-aged, well-dressed, mannerly guide named O’Brien, [the always reliable Reed Birney], who identifies Winston as someone with unusual qualities, worthy of special attention and treatment.

Thus ends any shot at redemption.  What follows is an unraveling of any remaining ability to witness the wholesale destruction of Winston’s identity, because it is not his physical being that is at stake here and now, it is Winston’s soul, his identity.  As the destruction of his realness progresses, it takes on an escalating level of violence that can border, for some, on sadistic porn.  What Winston is forced to endure, lacking any clear, linear objective , does  reveal the nature of the undertaking, as a kind of dead-end game of doomed survival in which the destruction of the chosen one’s will to survive intact is the goal.

Comparisons to the original source material has some value, to a point.  What does transfer most definitely is the severity of its randomness.

Nearly over-the-top uses of stark lighting choices and skull-piercing sound contribute to an overall sensory overload at times, aimed at destroying Winston’s being.  It is a theatrical experience that can mesmerize.   Leave the kids at home.

Unlike the single-minded, single-purposed central character in Horton Foote’s brilliant “The Trip to Bountiful,” the woman referred to in the title of his play “The Traveling Lady” seems to be at the mercy of the too many unforeseen forces.  Georgette [Jean Richty] gets off the bus in small town Harrison, with one suitcase and one little girl.  She’s expecting to meet her husband Henry, who’s been incarcerated in the State Penitentiary, but due for release today.  With no place to stay and no known relatives – this is her husband’s home town – she rests in the bus station, where a courtly gentleman [George Morfogen]  lets her know that he has a few places to rent.  As the local judge, he has a reputation to uphold in terms of who he rents to, so he proceeds, as gently as possible, to have her admit her husband’s circumstances.  It’s then that she leans that Henry [PJ Sosko] has been in town for a month.

Set in the back yard of Mrs. Clara Breedlove [Angelina Fiordelisi], the story brings to center stage each of the major and minor characters, most with issues to deal with, and all of them cut from the same homey chintz fabric that positions them as the trustworthy smaller-town cousins of most William Inge characters.  It has been Georgette’s lifeline dream that her little family will finally find itself in friendly territory, ready to settle down and possibly help Henry avoid the perils of drinking, which led to his arrest.  Foote does show us a gentler side of Henry, who plays guitar and sings special songs for his daughter.

Horton Foote has always been recognized as one of America’s most valued dramatists, for introducing us to the worlds of people we might only glimpse from the train as we pass through its territory.  This particular back yard seems to have become somewhat of a stopping place for residents going to or from somewhere. Next door neighbor Sitter Mavis [Annette O’Toole]] must always be tending to her quirky mother [Lynn Cohen], who wanders.   And Slim [Larry Bull], a widower who works part time at the station, rents a room nearby.

These carefully drawn characters, none of whom lean to hysteria or melodrama, try to cope with their burdens and blessings.  When Henry finally reunites with Georgette, it doesn’t play out as she has imagined, leaving her once again with a suitcase, a little girl and not much else.  Whenever she needs assistance here, it’s Slim who comes through with a solution, no strings attached.  Except he seems to be falling in love with her.

This uniformly compelling cast, under the astute direction of Austin Pendleton, “The Traveling Lady” doesn’t measure up to other works by Foote,  such as his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man from Atlanta,” and the Oscar-winning original screenplay for “Tender Mercies.”   Here, he leans a little too much on spoken exposition, yet  it’s evident how Foote has been able to pull from personal life experiences to craft so many diverse, yet universally-challenged men and women.

On Book

This used to be called High Summer, when humidity prevents you from holding your attention on any one thought for more than a couple dozen moments.  This is the best time to single out short or one-act plays for your ‘books to read at the beach’ list, starting with “The Best American Short Plays – 2014 – 2015,” edited by William Demastes [Applause Books]  . . .  For theatrically-minded material, look no further than “Collected Essays,” by Arthur Miller, which demonstrates how this dazzling wordsmith is a master story-teller, regardless of the medium. . .and treat yourself to a banquet of Horton Foote gems.  “Getting Frankie Married – and Afterwards,” along with other plays by Foote are in a collection from Smith and Kraus . . . Jerry Tallmer wrote the introduction to “Horton Foote – Four New Plays,” which includes the celebrated “Dividing the Estate,” is published by Smith and Kraus . . . and an introduction by John Guare opens another collection “Horton Foote – Three Plays,” from Northwestern . . . and if you were not fortunate to catch “The Traveling Lady” at the Cherry Lane, pick up a copy from Dramatists Play Service.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts, Inc. following its Best Play Award-winning presentation at the New York International Fringe Festival.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  His performing arts features have appeared in Parade, Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics, and several other publications. He has taught theatre classes at HB Studio, the 92nd Street Y, Columbia University Teacher’s College and other sites.  His “The Test of Time” received a CableAce Best Documentary Award, for Lifetime Television.

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Intermission Talk

June 5th, 2017

 

Don’t Use “A Doll’s

House – Part Two”

as a “Bandstand.”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

 

Choose idols with great care and consideration.

 

In dramatic literature, such status finds itself attached almost casually these days . . . ‘a masterpiece!’ . . . ‘sure to become a classic!’ . . . ‘among this century’s most significant works.  MUST be seen!’  Myself never went in for any degree of hyperbole.  A playwright may be thought of as worthy of high praise, [Lillian Hellman], even placement among a very elite grouping of the best of the best [Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, August Wilson].

To find him/herself among those dramatists who will always be relevant, who combine the most elusive twin accomplishments [universality and specificity, timely and timeless] and yet withstand adaptations – well, that’s who you should idolize.  You have your Shakespeare, you have your Chekhov and you also have your Ibsen.

There is now Lucas Hnath, a young, audacious and seemingly humble  playwright who appears to have hewed to that stated-above formula.  He undertook a writing challenge that sounds like the nightmare thesis assignment metered out to a graduate student – – take a widely-recognized theatrical classic and write a sequel, kinda like penning a moving picture franchise screenplay  meant to get backsides into dem dere seats, regardless of how successful the end product may be.

In this case . . . hold on to your hats: “A Doll’s House – Part II” is a MUST-SEE piece of stagecraft!  One of the most inspired productions to light up Broadway, and the English-speaking theatre, in the last century-plus!  What great theatre is  supposed to be!

Okay.  Let’s settle down here.  As you may recall, in the final moments of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” written in 1879 Norway, the central female character, Nora Helmer bustles in to the great expanse of living room in the well-appointed home she shares with her banker husband Torvald, and their three young children.   We come to realize that the relationship we witness between the couple is fairly typical of their life together: she flits and flirts, until she gets him to accept again that today’s spending spree is for his own good.  Should he have a chance at moving up at the bank, his wife’s appearance may play an unspoken role.   And however thrifty and careful he may be with his work at work, her point is well-taken.

Her selflessness comes with a price – far from a marriage of equals, it is one that mirrors many of their contemporaries, not between two people, but more like between one, and a half – she has sacrificed large portions of her ‘self,’ her identity, to keep this charade going.  What’s different about the Helmer household?  Unlike most other women, she is well aware of these deceptions.   And when she finally comes to terms with herself, and how this societal construct has robbed her of so much, she acts.  Rather, she reacts.  At the close of the original piece, she leaves husband, children, household – the works – to strike out on her own, destination unknown.

Part Two?  Fifteen years later, a knock at the door.  Nanny, nurse, housekeeper Ann Marie, who has stayed to raise Nora’s children, to supervise the running of the home, to keep the demands of the bank, which Torvald now heads,  from interfering with his ability to pay attention to his offspring, opens it in near disbelief.  And now Part Two begins.

What follows is a rapid-fire delivery of ideas, charges, countercharges, accusations, recriminations,  admissions, denials between the couple, laced with as many earned laughs it can possibly sustain.  Yup – laughs!

This is not to diminish the power of Nora’s rationales, which at first held her back, and then sparked a stand-and-fight reaction: Nora has become a successful, popular novelist for and about women, weaving  personal discoveries into her books, speaking female truth to male power, circa 1870s, some still visible today.

Hnath has divided the action into four sections, one for each principal, introduced by large titles projected briefly against the walls.  It’s an unobtrusive device.  He has invented an unsigned divorce decree by Torvald, that stands to prevent Nora from collecting her royalties, and building her independent career, since no Norwegian divorce can be considered final without the full participation of the husband.  Thus begins the volley, with Nora and Torvald attempting to best the other.  And just outside the room is fifteen-year-old Emmy, who has never met her mother.  When she does come into the dynamic, her life choices terrify Nora, because this daughter of this liberated mother is seeking to be part of a conventional marriage.

What Hnath’s Broadway premiere production also benefits from is the richness and depth of the collective experiences of his team.  Director Sam Gold, ably aided by designers David Zinn [costumes], Jennifer Tipton [lighting] and Miriam Buether [sets],  among others, have kept the overall stage picture spare and minimalistic, with a few anachronistic touches [a Kleenex box, a water bottle] to spark a smile or two.

Casting could hardly be better.   Chris Cooper’s Torvald holds in his restraint admirably.  Condola Rashad fairly shines as the ‘wayward’ daughter.  And the ever-cherished Jayne Houdyshell matches Nora’s defiance toe to toe, calling her out on some behavior that turned the nanny into an un-consulted accomplice.

This is Nora’s story, Nora’s plea for Torvald to help her re-gain her independence, Nora’s ‘unpacking’ of her bag of emotional tools and resources to get what she wants and needs, and finally, Nora’s revenge.  Known most widely for her role as the flighty sister Jackie on the “Roseanne” sitcom, Laurie Metcalf has been marking time, waiting for the perfect role that would permit her to put into practice all the skills and training, and all  the seemingly natural instincts she possesses as an actor.  Hnath has delivered that role to her, and they are both the better off that he has.  And lucky us!  We get to witness this truly gifted theatrical artist at the peak of her abilities.  She MUST be seen!!

Despite being saddled with one of the least effective musical theatre titles in quite a while, “Bandstand” [book & lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker, music by Oberacker] socks us with lean-forward musical numbers and a welcoming story line.  Set in Cleveland and New York City from August through December, 1945, it traces the troubled yet hopeful journey endured by returning G.I. Donny, whose last moments of the war were spent cradling his best friend as he lay dying in his arms.  A promise was made to let the friend’s fiance hear about his thoughts for her.

Donny, an accomplished drummer, singer and composer, can’t locate a place for his talents until one remark by another veteran/musician leads to a chain of events that result in a true kick-ass swing band, whose make-up includes the remaining guys who used to play with Donny’s deceased friend, also a drummer.  And when Donny visits Julia, the bereft young widow, [kept unsentimental yet moving by Laura Osnes], they share warm recollections about their departed loved one.

Despite that patronizing attitude that you’re sure you can predict every plot point from opening to fade out, the creators have managed to seed their story with not-so-fast moments and pay-off switches that keep it fresh.  This team has done its homework, dropping in real period references, such as the Judy Garland – Robert Walker picture “The Clock,” and the name of one of era’s most widely-known radio musical program announcers, Andre Baruch – good work!  And two style choices lift the production out of any been-there, done-that path.  The first presents Donny’s tortured bouts with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, barely relieved by alcohol, played out amidst ‘recollections’ of other veterans, staged with gritty movement/dance.  These vivid sequences, likely one of the many creative contributions from director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler [late of directing  “Hamilton”], and his associate Mark Stuart.  Lighting designer Jeff Croiter enhances and helps to dramatize the emotional punch of these recollections.

The second?  This is the story about the make-up, break-up, make-up of a band – a real, live band.  And the creatives grabbed at the chance to take full advantage of casting actor/musicians who play their instruments themselves.  This gives the whole undertaking a grand high level of brightness, hearing the right-there muted, sassy brass and the insistent syncopation delivered spot-on by piano, bass and drums.  Deserving kudos to music supervisor Greg Anthony Rassen and his co-orchestrator Bill Elliott for seeing that this assembled band gets it right every time.

There are lotsa parts floating around here – major story lines, secondary story lines [including great moments from Beth Leavel as Julia’s mom], punch-your-heart-out numbers that fill the stage, and the solitary coming-to-terms with the secret that could torpedo everyone’s dream.  The big big task of holding all this together rests on the character Donny’s shoulders.  And Corey Cott can out-shoulder any young man on Broadway.  He first came to everyone’s attention during a two-year stint in Disney’s “Newsies,” followed by his performance in “Gigi.”  This time he has landed a role that provides outlets for every facet of his talents – musical and dramatic.  The number that intros who he is and what he was and wants to be – “Donny Novitski” – blows out the walls of the Jacobs Theatre.   His performance alone makes you thankful  you chose to attend.

AfterPlay

Never enough Ibsen.  From now until June 24th, the Wheelhouse Theatre Company is presenting the great man’s great drama on the conflict between personal integrity and short-term interests, in “An Enemy of the People,” a stirring drama.  Jeff Wise directs, at the Gene Frankel Theatre . . . Janeane Garofalo has placed herself in [a] good company, for her Broadway debut, starring along with Lilli Taylor and Celia Weston, in Scott W. McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room.”  It had an acclaimed run off-Broadway in 1991.  Anne Kaufman directs this current production, at the American Airlines Theatre. . . . and if you are one of Amanda Priestly’s ‘everybody who wants to be us,’ you’ll have another shot at getting up close and impersonal with the fashion fashionista in “The Devil Wears Prada.”  Mentioned as collaborating on the project are Paul Rudnick and Elton John.

On Book

And if you’d like to get some idea of Ibsen’s powerful impact on theatre, you need look no further than another esteemed practitioner of the pen, August Strindberg.  A biography of his life and extensive work, by Sue Prideaux, “Strindberg – A Life,”  from Yale University Press, explores how much impact Ibsen had on the then-emerging Strindberg’s work . . . what was going on, on Broadway, when the boys were coming home after WWII?  The Laurel Drama Series entry for that time period, “Famous American Plays of the 1940s,” edited by Henry Hewes, selects several, including two by newcomer Arthurs, Miller and Laurents [“All My Sons,” and “Home of the Brave”], each with its own take on the aftermath of the war.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre ‘Character Studies.’  His Best Play Award-winning work “Admission,”, at the New York International Fringe Festival, was published by Playscripts.  He’s written several other plays and musicals, and “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has covered theatre and the performing arts since 1968, his articles appearing in dozens of publications including Parade, Reader’s Digest, US  Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and The Christian Science Monitor.  He has taught theatre-related courses at several institutions including HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, and colleges & universities, such as Columbia University Teachers College.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the officialtransportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666-6666.

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Intermission Talk

April 11th, 2017

If You “Come From Away,”

Don’t “Sweat” “The Price”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Given its timely subject matter, the new musical “Come From Away,” with book, music and lyrics by relatively new Canadian team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, in their Broadway debut, looks like a guaranteed Best Musical nominee, and may jump the line to capture the award.

But if you think the recent glowing notices result from a kind of sentimentality rather than a kind of superior quality, you would be wrong.  This great work relates a microcosm of tales from the 6,700 [yup – 6,700!] passengers whose 38 flights were redirected  in mid-flight on September 11, 2001, from destinations in the United States to the rarely used airfields in remote Gander, Newfoundland, in northeastern Canada.  The town’s residents, numbering little more than the total number of people deplaning on their soil, exhibited the kind of open-hearted, open-handed generosity and selflessness toward outsiders of any circumstance, that residents of the country to their south like to think of as one of their best features.  [Enough said.]

What makes “Come From Away,” at the Schoenfeld, so outstanding is how it tackles this most-problematic format with head-on directness, under the delicate direction of Christopher Ashley, with able musical staging assistance from Kelly Devine.  They have collaborated with now-veteran scenic designer Beowulf Boritt [recall his earliest work on “The Last Five Years”], to present a style that isolates each character’s ‘story,’ then interweave it into the overall tragedy/human comedies, pulled together with true finesse.  Despite the appearance of a few well-crafted solo narratives, this is not, repeat NOT, a series of loosely-linked monologues, hitting home the truism that any huge crowd is nothing more, or less, than a collection of individuals.  It illustrates the familiar adage ‘You can’t understand a person’s life until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.’  In this case, people are actually wearing other people’s [strangers’] shoes, and shirts and pants and socks and skirts, and at least superficial identities.

Why this diverting of flights?  Officials feared that any plane bound for an American destination might itself be a carrier for bombs, set to detonate on landing at its appointed site.   The magnitude of the events that unleashed this coming-together must be taken in by all concerned, despite its unique, unthinkable reality.  It benefits from Broadway vets Chad Kimball and Rodney Hicks, but first among equals is Jenna Colella, one flight’s female pilot, who ‘grounds’ the proceedings.  This is a 12-person cast who embody passengers, crew, townspeople, local officials and residents of nearby little towns, again making the case for a ‘Best Ensemble’ Tony Award, similar to the SAG accolade.  How about it, Tony Award committee?

Another worthy Tony Award candidate, this one for Best Play, is Pulitzer Prize winner Lynne Nottage’s “Sweat,” now at Studio 54.  When the Pennsylvania rust belt town of Reading realizes the full impact of its major industry, a steel-tubing factory, downsizing its employee roles, tensions boil over at a local bar, where many workers congregate.  And once it becomes clear who stays and who goes, and that one of their regulars, Cynthia, [expertly realized by Michelle Wilson],the only one who has managed to move into the ranks of management, will keep her job, loyalties erupt.  Some express muted, then outspoken anger, saying that because she is a Black female, she was given some sort of preferential treatment, and that she owes it to her work-friends to strike, to support them.  She strains to make the justifiable case that she is now on the inside, the only place anyone from their ranks can have their voices and fears heard.

Like many groups of people in such circumstances, their individual backgrounds are diverse, troubled, spotted with police records,  and are often home to felt but not expressed prejudices.  This news give those prejudices a platform.  Bar owner Stan [ stoic James Colby] lost a leg in a maiming accident, for instance.  And the appearance of Cynthia’s now-addicted former husband Brucie [an intense John Earl Jelks], serves as a grim predictor of what the future may hold for some.  Stan’s bar helper Oscar, born here from immigrant Columbian parents, becomes the target for even more venom.  In his Broadway debut, Carlo Alban handles the difficult assignment of managing to stay out of it for all of Act One, a challenging task for any actor who may feel the instinct to react, even non-verbally to all that is erupting around hm.  {full disclosure: Carlo made his professional acting debut opposite Anthony Rapp, in my musical “Mister,” written with composer Misha Piatigorsky.]  Oscar makes the plaintive outcry “How far back does your family need to go, to mean you have ‘priority’ status?”

Nottage, in her long-anticipated Broadway debut, does what is possible with the issue of relating individual back-stories, often relying a little too much on a directly-spoken narrative that begins to feel labored.  But the details of these lives unfold before we meet them, first at the start of, and then at the climax of George W. Bush’s White House tenure.  Nafta becomes a four-letter word.

This is truly naturalistic theatre as its very best, aided by the fully appointed bar ‘home’ set by John Lee Beatty, and another candidate for a Best  Ensemble Tony Award, were it in existence. Guided by the skilled hand of director Kate Whoriskey, it’s a must-see for anyone who professes to love theatre.  Here’s a good place to place your love.

As someone who professes a personal admiration for Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” and has seen four productions over the years, I can recommend this current revival at the American Airlines Theatre with few reservations.  [first time: 1968, with the original cast, including the remarkable David Burns, helmed by Ulu Grosbard].  It’s an excellent example of what Arthur did so well – take what seems like a small story, an aggregate of personal lives upended, even destroyed by one new event that touches all of them in different ways.

Here, set in 1968 New York City, Victor, a city cop wanders among the left-over items of his family, in the attic of a brownstone about to be demolished.   Memories, some sweet and some bitter, are recalled.  The purpose of his visit is to meet with a used furniture dealer to hear an offer to unload everything all at once.   When Solomon [a scene-stealing Danny DeVito] arrives, a seemingly wizened character of 88 years, he permits himself the indulgence of relating his own life’s wear-worn trails. [“Oh!  I just remembered!  I had FOUR wives, not three.”]  And when Victor’s wife Esther joins them, she makes no bones about wanting to get on with it.  [“Where did you FIND this guy?”]  Although attenuated due to Solomon’s meandering, they seem to be on track until Walter, Victor’s only sibling, appears in the last moments of Act One, after not speaking with his brother for decades.   Here is where the real story gets told, and it is as gripping at its denouement as you’d find in any ‘thriller.’  Small story = big consequences.  That was Arthur.

No false steps here, guided by director Terry Kinney.  Brothers Victor [Mark Ruffalo] and Walter [Tony Shaloub] fit their roles with appropriate  detailed specificity given their characters’ current past trials.  Ruffalo especially, in a spot-on Broadway debut delivers a throat-gripping performance that lasts long after the curtain comes down.  But it is Jessica Hecht, continuing to build a stunning display of virtuosity as her career grows, who brings new revelations to the character of Esther.  In what may appear to be a secondary, almost plot-device role, she shows the difficulty in trying to scratch out some semblance of compromise, some acknowledgement that wrong often does in different way, on two sides of the same issue.

Drawback: a set design that saps the play/story of its locale’s impact, namely the closed-up, almost stifling attic rooms where everything has been stashed.  The almost- perfect instincts of Derek McLane [perhaps with input from Kinney], gives this space to an open back wall.  Instead, we see a grey cloudy sky, rooftop water towers.  Result: an openness at odds with the conundrum these people are wrestling with.  The power of this story, though, can’t be denied.  And though it’s considered one of Arthur’s less valued works, it ranks for me, and even in his estimation that I discovered in a conversation with him a few years before his death, to be one of his favorites.

After Play

Playwright David Rabe [“Streamers,” “Hurlyburly,” “Sticks and Bones,” “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummer”]  has given the go-ahead for a new off-Broadway production of his riveting play “In the Boom Boom Room,” opening April 27 at American Theatre of Actors.  Joe Papp produced the play on Broadway in 1973, with Robert Loggia, Charles and Madeline Kahn . . .Steinbeck fans can take in a new presentation of his masterful “Of Mice and Men,” now at the Gene Frankel Theatre, produced by Onomatopoeia  Theatre Company.  They refer to it as a faithful production of the piece, but it’s only there for a few more weeks, so check in with www.theOtheatrecompany.com for schedule and details . . . and previews begin on May 21st at New World Stages, of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall,” starring Tamara Tunie and James Badge Dale.  The playwright states ” if theatre is going to remain relevant, we must become faster to respond” to what’s happening in our country, and the world.  For more info, visit http://buildingthewallplay.com‘.

On Book

Arthur Miller’s brilliance at grasping the underlying truths about people’s lives extended beyond his vivid, lasting plays.  Check out his views on a wide range of social and political issues in “Arthur Miller: Collected Essays,” from Penguin Books, with an Introduction by Susan Abbotson . . . and Lynn Nottage’s stunning new play “Sweat” brings to mind again the landmark plays of Clifford Odets, who saw and chronicled the damage done to everyday people by everyday assaults on their lives and livelihoods.  You can get it all, in “Clifford Odets: Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays,” from Grove Press.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series “Character Studies,” about theatre.  His play “Admissions” was the Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written several other plays and musicals.  Also for television, his documentary “Test of Time” was the CableAce Award Winner in its category.  He has written performing arts features for The Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Reader’s Digest, Dramatics, the Robb Report and several other publications.  His books include “New Voices – Student Activism in the ’80’s and ’90’s,” which has now been adopted as a classroom text at many universities.  His new play “Labor Days” is in development.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or at 212 – 666 – 6666.

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Intermission Talk

March 7th, 2017

“The Great Comet”

Lights Up Your

First “Jitney” Ride

on “Sunset Boulevard,”

in “The Present”

by TONY VELLELA

Eight times a week, at the Palace Theatre, home to the current revival of “Sunset Boulevard,” there’s a performance that lights up that space with energy, depth and the ability to grab and hold your attention.  That would be the one being given by Michael Xavier, in the role of the writer Joe Gillis, whose broken-down debt-laden roadster finds its  way unknowingly into the driveway of silent screen legend Norma Desmond.  She is once again being portrayed by Glenn Close, who starred in the original Broadway production in 1994, for which she won a Tony Award.

Xavier’s pitch-perfect booming voice overcomes its surroundings, some of which prove to be distracting, such as having the orchestra on stage, and keeping the back wall and surrounding surfaces mostly in dim lighting or in the dark.   And Xavier has the tough assignment of coming across as someone both sympathetic and heartless – in the original 1950 picture, William Holden filled the role perfectly, although he wasn’t required to sing.

Of course, the ‘draw’ for this revival is the chance to see Ms. Close in a role she first did 23 years ago, when she was 44.  Norma, as written, is 50.  [Aside:  one of the original ideas, instead of Gloria Swanson in the lead, was to have her portrayed by Mae West.  Add your own exclamation point.]

There are thousands of enthusiastic fans of Ms. Close, and from time to time, I count myself among them.  In this circumstance, though, this was an over-the-top, eccentric behavior reading of Norma, who you might think can absorb all the ‘top’ behavior one might throw her way.  Here, though, she has become a two-dimensional version of the original silent screen megastar, and the production has become a kind of Classics Illustrated version of the original musical, which was itself an adaptation of the film.  She is a woman who has managed to find the balance between being strong and being fragile.  There’s too little of the former on view.

Director Lonny Price, assisted by set designer James Noone, seemed to want to go in the opposite direction of the 1994 work, which was criticized by some for the elaborate interiors of Norma’s palatial old-Hollywood digs.  Here, we have a series of interconnecting fire escape-type stairs and landings, contributing to the coldness of the proceedings.

Now, if you love/loved the original musical, or are a Glenn Close admirer, this is just the ticket for you.  But compare the potential experience with the ticket price before you get out that credit card.

The environment contributes a large percentage of the fun that can be found at the Imperial Theatre, where “The Great Comet,” [aka “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”] is unleashing all its fascinating elements.  And all creative credit goes to Dave Malloy, described in his Playbill bio as a composer/writer/performer/orchestrator/sound designer.  Every one of those talents is given a real workout in this remarkable show.

Based on a section of Leo Tolstoy’s  epic novel ‘War and Peace,’ “The Great Comet” is a love story wrapped in layers and layers of artistic coverings.  And the main ‘draw’ here is the Broadway debut of singer Josh Groban who, despite  several guest appearances on many television shows, has a limited resume when it comes to acting.   He wears ample padding under his costumes, to fill out his slender frame.

One of the early lyrics warns the audience to pay attention, because “everyone’s got nine different  names.”  Turns out to be pretty close to the truth.  And any attempt at unraveling the interconnectedness of these characters’ story lines could leave you with a dizzying headache.  Because, for a start, all the dialogue is sung.  Part of the premise here is that this is a story that belongs inside an opera, rather than inside a musical theatre frame.  Pierre and Natasha are linked through their connection to his old friend and her godmother, Marya D.  Pierre is [unhappily] married to Helene, whose brother Anatole is close friends with Dolokhov.  Natasha is engaged to the vainglorious Andrey, who is best friends with Pierre.  Okay, pencils down.

So why is this fabulous musical so, well . . .  fabulous?  It is enlivened by the straight-out , direct approach Malloy has employed, to get it all out there – think “Hamilton” with a Russian accent.  And the score deserved the accolade ‘lush’ because it keeps topping itself from one moment to the next.  With a work like this, where actors weave through the theatre, which has been reconceived as a Russian salon, it’s difficult to separate where one talent kicks in and another leaves off.  Director Rachel Chavkin has married all these top-drawer people – scenic designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Paloma Young, lighting designer Bradley King and sound designer Nicholas Pope assisted with wit and innovation by choreographer Sam Pinkleton – into a loving family of creative artists, come together to tell this elaborate story.

The ‘Natasha’ here is Denee Benton.  She had modest credits prior to bursting forth in this very challenging role, with a voice that rivals the early work of Julie Andrews or Barbara Cook.  And she, seemingly effortlessly, projects a warmth that can be infectious.  No wonder everyone is falling in love with her.

Director Chavkin has pulled off one of the most complex, most daring pieces of Broadway staging in recent memory, allowing you into the ‘space’ of these dazzling people.  Wandering minstrels distribute little treats of audience members – my companion, Linda, got an origami-type little red box, housing a delicious mini potato pancake [she allowed me half of it].  The show bears the same fantasy myth feel of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “The Fantasticks,” only multiplied by a thousand.   Single bright light bulbs descend and withdraw.  An off-stage angelic chorus expands the sound experience.  Good, and yet restrained use of day-glo and strobe  lighting are folded in to provide another type of artistic accenting.  Era-correct prints and pictures adorn the walls.  Small tulip lamps grace the small tables that audience members may have discovered comes with their seat, in the central playing arena.   Actor-singers brush past, all the while accompanying themselves on guitar, clarinet or concertina.  And by unleashing these wandering minstrels into the audience, Chavkin achieves a kind of wrap-around stereo effect.

At one point, a genuinely vexed Helene decries “I don’t know good from bad.”  In the world of the great comet, [which actually did take place], even the bad is good.

Two other plays that have grabbed the attention of regular Broadway theatre-goers, “Jitney” and “The Present,” are due to be shuttered on March 19th.  First, “The Present.”  is in actual fact, a deception.  The playscript results from tinkering and the wholesale chucking out of Anton Chekhov’s first [it is assumed] attempt at playwriting, bearing no title at that time.  As an act of loving collaboration, Australian adapter Andrew Upton redesigned this piece with Cate Blanchett in mind to play the leading role.  And as her foil, he envisioned veteran Aussie actor Richard Roxburgh.   who has good history as her playing partner.  Upton retains a few stock Chekhov ‘types,’ such as the cynical and a Russian country estate, only here, the time period has been shifted forward, to the 1980s.

There’s a fair amount of misplaced love interests, envy, debauchery, drinking and shouting.  And a little boozy dancing.  Upton has affixed a new title – “The Present” – to this piece, and the double meaning [it’s her birthday and she’s been gifted with a pistol, which, of course, gets fired, and the time period spotlights this moment, the present, in all their lives] does nothing to clarify what Upton was seeking to convey.  For all practical purposes, this present should fade graciously into the past.

On the other hand, the presentation of any August Wilson play from his ten-play cycle, each one taking place during one of the decades in the last century, is worthy of attention.  And in the case of “Jitney,” now in its final days at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, attention must be paid.

The premise is achingly familiar – a family-run, barely making ends meet little company peopled by its employees and hangers-on.  Here, as in all of Wilson’s cycle plays, it unfolds in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  It’s been a while since I visited that part of the world, but scenic designer David Gallo has succeeded in capturing the sloping streets and grey atmosphere that provides the setting for the story, which centers on a struggling car service company used by near-by neighbors to do grocery shopping, run auntie to the doctor or keep a date in court.  Some of the same elements here also show up in Wilson’s final century play, “Radio Golf,” which repeats issues stemming from a city government bent on tearing down sections of the neighborhood to create middle-class housing [add your own exclamation point].  And there are also echoes of the lives glimpsed at in “Fences.”  The city plans to board up the car service’s cramped, one-room storefront, by the end of the month, and its owner, Becker [John Douglas Thompson, in a powerful portrayal], has no real plan for what comes next.  When his son returns from his incarceration, Becker seems to have no use for him, claiming that the crime he committed was an act of stupidity.

A few drivers, a travelling bookie, a displaced Vietnam vet and a few other ‘regulars’ drop in and out, with Wilson giving us just enough back story on each one to show how they are interconnected.  A sofa held together by masking tape, a pot-belly stove as the source of heat, the fulfillment of a standing appointment to ‘carry’ someone to the doctor, the ‘numbers’ guy who takes bets – they all stand ready to help Becker relocate, or create a new incarnation of the place, but no real plan emerges, until an unexpected turn of events seems to lead the way out of this dismal dark place.

Until now, this had been the only Wilson cycle play not presented on Broadway, so technically, this makes it eligible for consideration in the ‘best play’ Tony Award category.   Under the astute directorial eye of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, there’s so much here, you won’t feel like something’s been left behind.  Take a ride in this “Jitney” while you still can.

After Play

It’s been announced that Lincoln Center, continuing on its mission to revive mid-century classical musicals with full, lavish and engrossing productions, will be turning its attentions to “My Fair Lady,” with previews beginning on March 22, 2018, opening on April 19, 2018.  If anyone reading this can manage to get a few moments with director Bartlett Sher, whisper this name in his ear: Lindsay Mendez . . . theatre isn’t often able to ‘play’ off current events, but a new work by Jason Odell Williams, “Church & State,” directed by Markus Potter, and produced by Charlotte Cohnn, along with several partners, is now in previews, with a March 20th opening, at New World Stages, for an open-end run . . . the Onomatopoeia Theatre Company, in residence at the Gene Frankel Theatre [24 Bond Street], will present a very naturalistic production of John Steinbeck’s American/Great Depression classic ‘Of Mice and Men.”  The run starts on April 7, and lasts until April 29, to be directed by Thomas Gordon, who will also appear in this cast as George.  His ill-fated friend Lennie will be portrayed by Alexander Kafarakis.

On Book

What do “Hair,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Taboo,” and “Cry-Baby” all have in common?  They’re all featured in theatre journalist Peter Filichia’s page-turner “Broadway Musicals – The Biggest Hit & The Biggest Flop of the Season – 1959 to 2009,” from Applause Books . . . if you’d like to delve deeper into the world of “The Great Comet,” the Samuel French acting edition is now available at the Drama Bookshop . . . and for those whose interests lie in theatre, but not ON the stage, here are two selections that could peak your interest:  “Hamilton: An American Musical” collects the vocal selections from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s powerhouse of the same name . . . and from Broadway Press, Louisville, Kentucky, comes “Backstage Handbook – An Illustrated Almanac of Technical Information,” by Paul Carter, with illustrations by George Chiang.  This handy, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand handbook is really an indispensible resource for anyone now working in, or planning to work in any aspect of the tech side of producing a show.  For more information, check out www.broadwaypress.com.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, ‘Character Studies.’  His play ‘Admissions,’ Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by Art Age.  He has also written nine other plays and musicals.  His entertainment reporting has been published in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Parade, Rolling Stone, Dramatics Magazine, Readers Digest and the Christian Science Monitor.  The documentary he wrote for Lifetime Television was awarded Best Documentary in its category.  He has taught theatre-related subjects at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia Teachers College, among other institutions.  His play “Labor Days’ is in development.

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or at 212-666 -6666.

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Intermission Talk

February 13th, 2017

 

 

Everyone’s Got a “Yen”

for “Dear Evan Hansen”

 

by TONY VELLELA

It’s a rather old-fashioned word, one that can easily be applied to all four characters in Anna Jordan’s new play “Yen,” in the MCC production at the Lucille Lortel.  Three teens living in a squalid housing project flat discover, through an achingly emotional and physical series of events, that they each have their own yen, hard to identify and harder to satisfy.

The boys, half-brothers Hench [age16] and 14-year-old Bobbie, fill their time watching porn on television, playing violent video games, and rough-housing, a situation that should have ended long ago, when their drug-addicted, widowed mother moved next door to camp out with relatives.   The boys’ main-room existence does not include the mother, who lives nearby, nor the attack dog, which lives in a side room, and is heard but never seen.

What’s missing in each of these scraped lives [18-year-old Jennifer, given a real presence by Stefania LaVie Owen,  also lives next door] is order, certainty, a sense of belonging and the opportunity to simply settle into a peaceful, and safe haven.  There’s a good deal of rough-and-tumble, when one of the brothers starts to jostle the other over anything major or minor.  The near manic antics of Bobbie nearly fill the space, his 14-year-old self having less self-control or social order than his older brother, and Justice Smith makes excellent use of the fight direction provided by fight director J. David Brimmer.

But even more outstanding is the work of Lucas Hedges, who must maintain a delicate balance between trying to calm his own fears and keep his brother’s and his mother’s disruptions under control.  Hedges, who was favored with an Best Supporting Oscar Nomination this year for his equally gripping portrayal of a young man in crisis, in “Manchester by the Sea,” possesses a rare quality not often seen in young actors.  Hedges, whether having learned it in some intense acting class, or brought it to himself personally, possesses a kind of discipline that permits his character to  project stillness, or as they used to say ‘center’ himself,’ a characteristic that has served well some of the previous generations’ best, including Montgomery Clift, and currently, Eddie Redmayne.

What ‘happens’ in the days we see them, in “Yen,”, varies little from what happens when we are not there.  The boys  steal whatever they need by way of food and clothing [currently one clean T-shirt between them].  The mother hopes to spot something in their apartment whenever she drops in, that she can nick from them and pawn for drug money.  And lost soul Jennifer uses the distress of the fiercely barking dog, named Taliban for obvious reasons, as her excuse to get into the boys’ lives, and satisfy her yen for a connection to these her-age young men, and possibly spark a sexual adventure.

“Yen” does not offer much permanent hope for anyone, but it does make for a more-than-satisfying theatrical event, especially witnessing theatrical emergence of Lucas Hedges, destined to make his mark on many more roles to come.

By sheer coincidence, uptown at the Music Box, another twenty-year-old actor has been setting off sparks of excitement with his remarkable performance in the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen.”  A classic loner, he explains to his parents, sister and friends that the cast that encases his forearm came from falling out of a tree.  We learn quickly not to trust much of anything Ben relates to us, because he has devolved into an inwardly-focused young man, totally bereft of any of the social skills needed by anyone of his generation or class.  His only ‘friend’ is the son of a neighbor.

To help cure him of these alarming  withdrawals, his parents have enlisted a therapist whose method of reversing such a condition is to have the young man write a letter to himself each morning, outlining why the coming day will be so successful, hence the title.

And here is where the stunning discovery comes in.  Young Evan is portrayed by the remarkably gifted  Ben Platt, who, from almost the first few moments on stage, shows us just how damaged Evan is.  The music, by “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, offer Platt an opening number – “For Forever” – which shows his instability, his lack of confident stance, and his overall vulnerability.  One morning, in the school’s computer lab, he writes his therapeutic “Dear Evan Hansen” letter, outlining ‘his’ great qualities and attractive features, and in a rush to get to class, sees the other class outsider, Connor [a chilling portrayal by Mike Faist], and in their hurrying to get to their classes, bump into each other.  Evan’s to-himself letter winds up stuffed in Connor’s pocket, where it is discovered later that night, when Connor chooses to hang himself.

Now, this may not sound like ripe material for a musical, but these days, they’re making magic with that genre.  Just recall “Next to Normal,” “Rent” and “Grey Gardens,” all of which were helmed by Michael Grief, who handled directing duties here so expertly.

The electrifying stand-out element in the show is the portrayal of its central character.  Ben Platt possesses some of the most exquisite talents ever seen on a Broadway stage, which give him the freedom to express just how deeply wounded and entrapped young Evan is.  More and more plot mix-ups and entanglements ensue, including a student-led campaign to try to honor Connor’s distress, and at the same time, to interpret the discovered letter in Connor’s pocket as one, undelivered,  from Connor, meant to be sent to Evan.  When it finally implodes, Evan makes his peace with his guilty feelings that he has been leeching off Connor’s death, and the welcoming into Connor’s family by Connor’s parents.

Yeah – heavy stuff.  But Steven Levenson’s finely-honed book keeps the story line clear enough to hold you, and the score serves the story well.  But it is the performance of young Ben Platt, all twitchy and jittery, all desperate, the vibratto in his voice telegraphing a broken soul with nowhere to put its underappreciated emotional reserve, that grabs and holds you throughout the entire musical.  It’s a rich season on Broadway for seeing new, breath-taking performances, from Platt and Hedges.  I’ll get you a baby-sitter if you need to find one, in order to get to see these shows.

On Book

Let’s look over our shoulders for a moment, and try to see where today’s theatre scene came from.  The iconic theatre master Jacob Adler, brother of Stella, compiled years ago a vivid memoir titled “A Life on the Stage,” which will enlighten you to those heady days in lower Manhattan when where was no television, no radio programs and not much else in the way of live entertainment.  From Applause Books, this volume  was translated with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, and gives you a new perspective on our heritage.

AfterPlay

 

Tennessee Williams followers may be pleased to hear that the production of “God Looked Away,” currently at the Pasadena Playhouse, is rumored to be readying for a Broadway run.  Written by Dotson Rader, about his intimate relationship with Williams, has Robert Allan Ackerman as its director . . .  also just over the horizon [again] is “Prince of Broadway,” the fascinating tale of the life and career[s] of Hal Prince.   Mr. Prince will direct, with co-direction and choreography supplied by Broadway veteran Susan Stroman.  And like “God Looked Away,” no word on time or place . . . what is in place is the Transport Group’s “William Inge in Repertory,” which will feature rotating productions of “Picnic” and “Come Back, Little Sheba,” starting on Thursday, February 23 under the direction of TG’s Jack Cummings III.  Its rep schedule can be found at transportgroup.org.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,” Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts, and his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” by ArtAge.  He has written for dozens of magazines and newspapers, three books, nine other plays and musicals, and has taught theatre related sessions at HB Studios and the 92nd St. Y.

 

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CARMEL CAR & LIMOUSINE SERVICE, in business since 1978, has been selected as the official transportation company for Intermission Talk.  Its wide variety of services, including special theatre packages, and reservations, are available at www.carmellimo.com, the Carmel App, or 212 – 666 – 6666.

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