Intermission Talk March 30, 2015

March 30th, 2015

“The Audience” for

“The Heidi Chronicles”

Crosses All Generations

by TONY VELLELA

“I’m sorry I don’t want you to find out that I’m worthless.  And superior.”  Dr. Heidi Holland, art historian, author, professor, friend, makes this confession as guest speaker to a banquet room of other Miss Crain’s alumnae, the exclusive Chicago girls’ school.  The topic?  Women, Where Are We Going?  It’s 1986.  And Heidi does not know where she is going.

When Wendy Wasserstein’s brilliant play “The Heidi Chronicles” premiered in 1988 at Playwrights Horizons, later moving, for a three-year run, to Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre, it’s fair to say that the playwright also did not know where she was going.  What she did know was that her tightly-constructed serious drama, laced with wit sharp as a carving knife, had up-ended both how a certain category of women looked at their lives, and how women characters would forevermore be depicted.  Spanning nearly a quarter century [1965 - 1989], the story line explores personal and professional relationships, at a time when the notion of women ‘Having it all’ first gained real traction.

Going from inside out, this production has been blessed with a few real assets, chief among them casting Elisabeth Moss as Heidi.  Her career has included other characters with challenging life situations, including Peggy Olsen, whose evolving assertiveness in AMC’s “Mad Men” has much in common with Heidi, and Zoe Bartlett, daughter of President Jeb Bartlett, in NBS’s “West Wing.”  Moss possesses an elusive quality that may just come naturally to some – her public ‘image’ has few definitive adjectives attached to it.  People like that often find that others project onto them the characteristics they believe the person has or should have – a kind of blank slate – not judgmental, not aggressive, not flirtatious, and not ego-centric.  Wasserstein told me on more than one occasion how lucky she felt that it was Joan Allen who originally brought her Heidi to life, because she’s an actress in possession of these highly-cherished characteristics.   [It's the principal reason I found Jamie Lee Curtis's Heidi in the T-V movie version less convincing.  She, whether consciously or not, projects certain attitudes, regardless of the role, the circumstances or the dialogue.]

With Moss as Heidi, this production has made room for the work of Jason Biggs and Bryce Pinkham, who round out the three main characters.  While attending a dance with her best friend Susan [a smart, focused Ali Ahn] while still a high schooler at Miss Crain’s, Heidi meets cute – Pinkham’s clever, witty Peter Patrone.  The pair complement each other’s natural inclination to stay removed from the action, using for-their-age rather well-developed repartee [him to her: You look so bored you must be very bright.]   Somewhat prophetically, he affirms: “I want to know you all my life.  If we can’t marry, let’s be great friends.”

The third point on this triangle is Scoop Rosenbaum [Biggs].  When he meets Heidi at a Manchester, New Hampshire mid-winter dance for Eugene McCarthy’s Presidential ambitions, she’s now a Seven Sisters college student, still more comfortable on the outskirts of the dance.  Scoop trumpets his importance, boasting that as a reporter for The Liberated Earth News, he’s been chosen to pick up Paul Newman from the airport.  Like Peter, Scoop has an immediate attraction to Heidi’s quick wit, but Scoop manages to use his as a kind-of verbal truncheon, deployed in service of picking up women, or at least, her.  Even at this first meeting, Heidi and Scoop lay out their fundamental life positions.  She states “All people deserve to fulfill their potential,” and reacting to his polished confidence, wonders “what is it that mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.”

During the ensuing two-and-a-half decades, Heidi’s world takes her to representative situations, places, events and societal moments that define the state of American life.  She joins women friends protesting the exclusion of women artists at the Chicago Institute of Art – on the day Richard Nixon resigns.  She attends a baby shower for Scoop’s accommodating wife, in the wake of the assassination of John Lennon.  And a secondary character, Lisa’s younger sister Denise [an appealing Elise Kibler] holds an important key to Wasserstein’s overview of the play’s topic of feminism.  As the playwright anticipated, younger women would come to take for granted the advances made by Heidi’s generation, even finding fault with how they conducted their lives.  Women today in their teens and twenties find it implausible that there was a time in this country in the not-so-distant past when the questions Heidi’s cohorts struggle with were ever a real issue.  The quarter century the play spans was riddled with assaults on women’s rights from many quarters.  The thought that a single woman could/should be a mother – natural or adoptive – rocked institutions, split apart friendships and working relationships, caused many women to re-examine very carefully all the parts of their identity and self-image.  It seemed like, every week, there was another ‘the first woman . . .’ story in the news, and that stage of American life continues.  One of the most poignant consequences of Heidi’s journey emerges when her best friend Peter comes out to her during the women artists protest, and they manage to heal the breach that so many others never did – the strain of who’s liberation was more critical, more painful, more significant – equality for women, or for the gay community.  And again, Wasserstein’s writing personalizes the issue so poignantly, as we see two individuals, rather than two stereotypical characters, try to understand each other.

Wasserstein’s very canny decision to make her central character someone who is not the central character in her life story presented an unusual challenge – how to make a self-defined outsider the person whose life we want to follow.  There’s been a fair amount of carping in reaction to the staging of this revival, about how relevant Heidi’s story still might be, and how the events and people mentioned still might be.  I would ask those making these kinds of observations whether they were unable to feel moved by the revelations in the dark corners of the Keller family  in “All My Sons” without specific knowledge of World War II homefront activities, or whether lack of familiarity with the politically-motivated blacklisting that went on during Korean War years reduced their feelings for Katie and Hubbel in “The Way We Were.”  I confess to one area of nit-picking that hit me as soon as I saw the first full-page New York Times ad, announcing the production.   There’s outsider, reserved Heidi, holding forth in a short-sleeved, fire engine red, low-cut dress, with a come-hither smirk on her face to match.

Costume designer Jessica Pabst made a serious misstep here – was it trying to make her look more contemporary?  More social [both male characters have always been featured behind her in the red-dress shot].  Others who also saw the original production have also told me how jarring that photo was to them when it first ran, and made them think twice about revisiting the play.

Wendy spent a good deal of her time trying to make the point that she wrote about specific people in specific situations, and not stand-ins for societal stereotypes.   That meticulous crafting of her work paid off – members of any generation can find a great deal to enjoy in this classic Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award winner.  Despite her noteworthy good humor, it remained a sore point for her to continue having to say that Heidi’s life choices were those of Heidi, not of an entire generation.   And as long as anyone believes that the other people whom she’s close to may be at odds with her choices, and as long as society forces labels onto its members that marginalize rather than include them, this play will resonate.  For now, take this opportunity to experience the signal achievement of one of our great playwrights – gender aside.

What do Queen Elizabeth II, Dolly Gallagher Levi and the King of Siam have in common?  They’ve all been brought to stage by one actor [not the same one for all three], and all garnered considerable acclaim.  In reverse order, those thesps are/were Yul Brynner, Carol Channing and Helen Mirren.  [Remember James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey. . .?"]  And Ms. Mirren’s regal recreations of meetings with Britain’s prime ministers can be seen right now at Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, in Peter Morgan’s “The Audience,” where she is revisiting the role that won her the 2006 Best Actress Oscar for portraying Her Majesty in “The Queen.”  This production, which earned her an Olivier Best Actress Award, has been transported from its London origins, two years ago.  [I refuse to use that wearying phrase 'from across the pond.'  Retire it, please.]

And just as a lack of specific knowledge of who all the bold-face-named people are does not detract in large measure from enjoying “The Heidi Chronicles,” here, too, one can enjoy so much of the goings-on without being steeped in all the historical names/dates/places ricocheting round the stage.

And what a stage!  The Windsors inhabit two splendid domiciles – their day-to-day digs, London’s Buckingham Palace, and their working country estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, that serves as the nestling-place for Balmoral Castle.  Both locales are presented with just enough detail to evoke their splendor, their provenance, and ironically, despite ever-soaring ceilings and vast expanses of rugs and drapes, their ability to make one feel quietly confined.  Understandably, the Queen appears more relaxed at Balmoral, possibly because it is privately-owned by the family, and not by the Crown.  She’s perfectly comfortable when one minister’s audience at Balmoral has a backdrop of “a spot of summer rain.”  [The estate was a gift to Queen Victoria in 1852 by her loving consort, Prince Albert.]   And once again, designer Bob Crowley [no relation, I believe to the residents of Downton Abbey], has delivered a masterful depiction of place, time and atmosphere.

Portraying a living monarch presents specific challenges for any actor.  In this case, Mirren is tackling the unique challenge of giving us moments in someone’s public and private life during sixty-plus years, and out of chronological sequence.   Wizard Crowley, ably aided by hair and make-up designer Ivana Primorac, repeatedly transforms Mirren from one era to another, often during the flick of an eye.  This venerable actor hits all her marks – watch her posture arch and straighten, hear her voice almost sparkle as a young girl and devolve into sterner stuff as age, health and crises take their toll, and take notice of how her body will gently rock back and forth in a gesture she retained all her life.  We witness the intellectual growth of this young girl through her teen years, jolted by the death of her father, King George, and marred by Europe’s clumsy descent into another war.  These were duty-driven times when she reluctantly but with a steely sense of purpose, exhibited a maturity her troubled realm will come to rely on.  If we don’t understand that she understands how she possesses power through influence, all we would get is an impersonation of familiar public moments and little else.  The full sweep of the play’s chronology assures us, as the play’s audience, that there is substance here.

Elizabeth’s personality manages to serve her well, as it bumps up against prime ministers large and small, modest and arrogant, grounded and unsteady, each one learning how to back out of the room while maintaining a modicum of dignity – some more successfully than others.  Director Stephen Daldry has carefully assisted an estimable ensemble in extracting choice moments, as minister after minister must attend their weekly meetings, policy reviews masquerading as afternoon tea sessions.

Among the passing parade of spot-on depictions are Dylan Baker, capturing the boyish charm of a politically naive John Majors;  Judith Ivey, giving the Queen some unladylike push-back as Margaret Thatcher; the rumpled bulldog Winston Churchill, trying to secure a place in the Queen’s confidence as a seasoned grandfather figure, done to perfection by Dakin Williams, and seemingly her favorite, when it comes to sheer camaraderie, Richard McCabe’s humane, almost homespun Harold Wilson.  When the crisis builds concerning the Suez Canal, she laces her colloquies with Sir Anthony Eden with just enough starch to make it clear that she is, indeed, thank you very much, on top of all the issues.  A simple “I read everything” puts his borderline paternalism to rest.

Lest one feels put off by the prospect of a come-to-life series of historical Madame Tussaud-inspired dioramas, there is a different prospect on offer.  Here is a to-be-cherished opportunity to experience capital G great capital A acting.  Two of the most celebrated and honored grande dames of the theatre of the last century  made their mark in roles about royalty.  Laurence Housman’s 1931 drama “Victoria Regina” provided Helen Hayes with the role that she became identified with, which required her to depict the British monarch from youth to old age, and with a reputation that resulted in having a Broadway theatre named for her.  Thirty years later, Julie Harris brilliantly mastered the same role for television’s Hallmark Hall of Fame.  And now, Helen Mirren joins that small list of greats.

On Book

Talking of greats, few people have worked with as many greats as Robert Lewis.  His penetrating, well-written autobiography “Slings & Arrows: Theater in My Life” has been in paperback for a while, from Applause Books, and in it, you will find an overflowing life, filled with the likes of Julie Harris, Lillian Hellman, Marilyn Monroe and Tallulah Bankhead, not to mention Stella Adler, Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Agnes De Mille.  You’ll also be acquainted with how Lewis worked with Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Alan Jay Lerner, Charlie Chaplin and yes, even Eleanora Duse . . . . the new Broadway season promises to introduce several new musicals, and if you’d like to ground yourself in their ancestry, pick up a pick-up [you may need it to tote this tome home], and buy David Leopold’s “Irving Berlin’s Show Business.”  Coming in at more than 225 pages, it’s not a coffee table book – it’s a coffee table on its own.  That’s because Leopold has peppered this work with many dozens of full-color photos, production stills and publicity shots, all of them delicious. Berlin was another giant in the world of theatre, his 100+ years churning out classic after classic – from half a dozen Ziegfeld Follies, five Music Box Revues and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” “Easter Parade” and more, all brimming with numbers that got recorded in every style, by all of the country’s greatest warblers – it’s the true chronicle of American music . . . I’m re-referring “Wendy and the Lost Boys,” Julie Salamon’s captivating biography of Wendy Wasserstein.  Now that Heidi has returned to Broadway, it’s fitting that this loving  look at a genuine genius of her era be read and enjoyed . . . and going back to the importance of accurate, character-specific costuming, there’s a very comprehensive little volume simply titled “Edith Head,” a commendable compilation pulled together by Isabella Alston and Kathryn Dixon, for TAJ Books International.  Head received thirty-five academy Award nominations, winning eight Oscars, a still-standing record.   It’s loaded with sketches and full-color photos from her decades-long career.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.”  He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details].  His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14.  These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others.   His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.

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Intermission Talk

March 3rd, 2015

“Between Riverside

and Crazy” There’s

No “Abundance”

by TONY VELLELA

If there’s one thing there’s plenty of in Beth Henley’s 1989 play “Abundance,” now in revival at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre, it’s exposition.  Admittedly, she has chosen a sweeping saga to relate – the play follows a twenty-five year period in the lives of two mail order brides, from their arrival in the relatively-untamed Wyoming Territory of the 1860s, through a final encounter in St. Louis.

When we meet them, Bess is an outwardly meek, plain-ish young woman, enraptured by romantic notions engendered in dime novels about true love, while Macon, the first person who talks to Bess after a nine-day wait for her intended, is outgoing, boisterous and eager for adventure.  The man who shows up for Bess is the brother of the man she expects, because that man has died.   The brother, Jack, has none of the intellectual or aesthetic inclinations of his deceased brother.  He drags Bess off, marries her, and thus begins her abusive odyssey.  Macon, meanwhile, is claimed by Will, a humble, modest man with a scarred face and missing one eye, covered with a eye patch – not a love match, but a serviceable one.

As time passes, we learn, through rather blunt dialogue, about how the two women’s friendship fills in for what’s missing in their marriages.    And while colorful dialogue gets bandied about, some of it laced with more two-dollar words than seem natural to their users, meaningful facts and events get told rather than shown, breaking any mood.  ["Can you believe it's been four years since. . ." or "It was just last summer she buried her infant child in a soap box. . ."]  When Bess fails one night to return to the cabin they’re all sharing, it’s discovered that she’s been kidnapped by Indians.  Despite the deep bond between the women, Macon doesn’t actively resist the advances of Jack, almost immediately, launching an ongoing sexual relationship.

More time passes,  crops fail, and Bess reappears.  She’s been held captive by an Indian tribe and turned into a slave bride, complete with facial tattoos.  Her survivor tale becomes the fodder for a true adventure book, and the subject of a wildly successful speaking tour.  With this comes the searing rift between the women, as Bess becomes the more powerful, and turns her back on the others.

Sounds like a hoot, don’t it?  Well, sadly, some serious missteps weaken the impact of the tale, chief among them how the drama is compromised by Henley’s often lazy writing, that foregoes crafted expository scenes for exclamatory statements.  At  rise, a striking wrap-around piece that resembles tree bark graces all three walls, and lighting changes produce some eye-pleasing effects.  But designer Wilson Chin undercuts that clever choice by adding a ten-foot tall block-and-tackle rigging that overhangs the proceedings, yet never comes into play at any time, ever.  Not since the huge dead tree that haunted the stage of “Parade” has such an overpowering image done such damage.  And despite program notes that explain how the play is based on factual events, Henley has a lovely feature of the women’s friendship, how Macon teaches Bess to whistle.  She uses Joseph Brackett’s Shakers dancing song “Simple Gifts” as the tune.  It’s another unexplained, facile choice that, because of its familiarity as the basis for Aaron Copland’s theme in his ‘Appalachian Spring,’ takes us out of the story.

All four principals – Ted Koch, Kelly McAndrew, Todd Lawson and Tracy Middendorf – do their very best to mine what’s on the page, but even their best efforts can’t kindle enough interest to make us invest emotionally in the outcome.

Ironically, despite being drawn from factual events, “Abundance” rings false, while the new Stephen Adly Guirgis play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” an entirely fictional story, bristles with real-life feeling.   The central role of Pop, a retired New York City policeman, is stunningly portrayed by one of our most accomplished actors, Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has finally been given a leading role.  Ensconced in the kitchen of his rambling Upper West Side rent-controlled apartment, Pop chooses to sit in the wheelchair that belonged to his deceased wife.  His choice to do that reflects a willingness to appear victimized, the basic characteristic that threads throughout.

One of the many virtues of any work by Guirgis is that who it’s about – here, it’s a retired cop, a jailbird son, a shiftless hanger-on and his slutty-looking girlfriend, the cop’s former female partner, and devoted Church Lady – does not begin to tell you what it’s about.  This writer instinctively creates layers of behavior, varieties of personal agendas, well-hidden facts and contradictory responses for each of his characters.  And under the astute direction of Austin Pendleton, a pitch perfect ensemble delivers the goods for each of their roles.

A few plot points include an aggressive campaign to oust Pop from the apartment, so landlords can charge a market rate rent; a shooting in which Pop was seriously wounded by another off-duty cop that Pop believes has not been properly compensated; some losing struggles with various addictions, and an over-eager evangelist church lady who weaves together religion with mysticism.

The chronicle unfolds on a multi-segment turntable set, meticulously dressed under the superb direction of set designer Walt Spangler.  As various rooms in the coveted apartment turn into view, so, too,  do the various themes and situations, providing just the right sense of how separate events, like separate spaces, can co-exist distinctively,  rather than blend together and lose their integrity.

Because the playwright has us meet his central character in a somewhat comic set-up – the first kitchen scene when dietary foibles stand in for larger conflicts – the steady if irregularly-spaced [that's a good thing] turns of events can never be predicted.   Each one of these walking wounded speaks with a unique voice, a particular dialect, a personal point of view.  Very rarely do all the components of a stage drama come together as organically as they do here.  And if there’s a middle-management type holding down an acquisitions post at any cable television network, hustle yourself over to the Second Stage Theatre and snap up this gem, so that the whole country can bask in the sheer pleasures it provides.   And while we’re at it, where’s the visionary producer who will mount an all-black cast version of “Death of a Salesman,” toplining Henderson and S. Epatha Merkerson?  I’m there.

On Book

How to fight the drearies of this endless winter!  Immerse yourself in the life stories of theatre folk who have given us so much pleasure, diversion, entertainment and food for thought.  Here are four recommendations to take you away from the now.  Given his monumental contributions to the American theatre, one would have imagined that, by now, a theatre would be named for Moss Hart.  In Jared Brown’s diligently compiled “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” from Back Stage Books, the all-too-short life of this genius unfolds, and wraps you up in its warmth . . . although ‘warmth’ is rarely used to describe the personage of his subject, Robert Dowling’s “Eugene O’Neill – A Life in Four Acts” from Yale University Press,  makes it very clear why this dramatist remains a giant of the stage.  Much more than a diary of plays produced and productions heralded or derided, this dutiful biography gives us more insight into the man, the women in his life, the people who governed his place in American theatre, and all of it set against the backdrop of the times when they occurred.  It’s as substantive as any PBS special, and you get to go back and revisit sections as your knowledge of this remarkable life grows from chapter to chapter . . .

While preparing for my recent special class at the 92nd St. Y on Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy,” I discovered Victoria Wilson’s utterly charming new book “A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907 – 1940.”  Stanwyck famously portrayed Lorna Moon in the film version of that play.  In her volume, Wilson takes us by the hand and walks us through every phase and stage of this not-heralded-enough actor, who had her early success on the New York stage.  The term ‘page-turner’ was coined for this one . . . and finally, a little-known personal story to consider as a welcome respite.  Character actor, producing associate, librettist and agent Richard Seff has seen it all, from every vantage point, and reports his memories, anecdotes, observations and advice in “Supporting Player – My Life Upon The Wicked Stage.”  Boldface names weave in and out of his glorious life, as we bump shoulders with Chita, Roz Russell, the Merm and many, many more.   Treat yourself.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS theatre documentary series “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” won a Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts.  He’s written nine other produced plays and musicals.  He teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y [92Y.org for details], and launches a new series of live events, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . .” on March 12, when he welcomes Michael Cerveris as his first guest.  On June 1, he interviews Susan Stroman as the next entry in the series.

Intermission Talk

January 27th, 2015

Will the ‘Constellations’

Unite ‘The Elephant Man’

and ‘The Merry Widow’

for a ‘Honeymoon in Vegas?’

by TONY VELLELA

Playwright Nick Payne has titled his dazzling new drama “Constellations.”  That’s constellationS – plural.  He has given us two rather bright, slightly above-average attractive young Brits whose individual realms, or universes [or constellations] are intercepted by each other.  She is Marianne, [an appropriately confident Rose Wilson] an academic careerist at Cambridge whose area of concentration is “theoretical early universe cosmology.”  Truly.  And he is Roland [a disarmingly fetching Jake Gyllenhaal] who makes his living as a bee-keeper.  Payne instructs us to place our minds, and therefore the location of this story, in ‘the multiverse,’ set in the ‘Past, Present and Future,’ capital letters noted.  He has selected a quote from Paul Davies that points out, in part, that ‘time is an illusion.’

Armed with these points of orientation, one should be prepared for an array of mini-scenes that kick in almost immediately.  Under a buoyant firmament of pink-tinted helium-inflated balloons that form their own unique and personal pantheon, Marianne and Roland start off in a meet-cute dialogue at the backyard barbecue of a mutual friend, and in short order, we see their two-to-three minute encounter replayed, this time with a different emphasis, and then again, with a third and fourth.  Getting past their ‘meet’ moment(s), they seem to stumble into a relationship, with several at-times humorous, at-times serious points of emphasis, depending on who is doing the recounting.

Payne has taken the tortured human exercise of ‘what if’ and given it a more engaging framework – starts and stops that will remind anyone who has taken an acting class of the kinds of improvisation games that are supposed to prepare actors to be at the same time spontaneous and reactive.  And unlike the currently running musical ‘If/Then,” which attempts to show two possible life lines that could have happened in the life of one young woman, ‘Constellations” ups the ante.  As we all [painfully] realize, our lives are built from mega-endless choices  made or not.   The collective result is the telling of several different stories that have happened, are now happening or may in future happen to this couple.

Payne’s writing looks deceptively simple, but in fact, it demonstrates a keen sensitivity to the role of the reaction in any relationship or encounter.  You can’t resist trying to re-weave these threads as they are unspooled, however difficult that may be, because it requires an ability to record each variation in your mind just as the next one is coming at you.  The general theme is delivered – the most pervasive illusion humans need to disavow themselves of, is that they have practically any control over the way their lives occur.  Director Michael Longhurst should be very grateful for at least one occurrence connected with his production of “Constellations” – the casting of two supremely talented, sharp-as-tacks actors who can re-wind, re-play and react as quick as a flash.  [And in that regard, lighting designer Lee Curran's use of blackout flashes creates the exact ambiance that surrounds the story/stories.  It resembles the viewing of a collection of different takes of one scene during the filming of a movie.]   Wilson and Gyllenhaal score career triumphs as they live and re-live these conflicted lives.

Life’s random blessings and curses made the life of Joseph [John] Merrick a study in personal triumph over unimaginable misfortune.  Born in Leicester, England in 1862, Merrick suffered from a relentless amalgam of physical deformities and crippling diseases, damning him with a grotesque, misshapen appearance.  As a young man, he was taken in by a sideshow manager and turned into a popular ‘attraction’ as The Elephant Man.  Bernard Pomerance’s  play “The Elephant Man,” now in revival at the Booth Theatre, starring screen star Bradley Cooper [currently in 'American Sniper'], follows Merrick’s tortured yet at times triumphant career, moving from circus freak to society darling, as his intellectual faculties trump the off-putting appearance that most people never see beyond.

At rise, a tawdry soiled  red curtain frames a translucent screen.  Behind it, the figure of an adult man stands, waiting to be revealed.  When he comes into view, it is a muscular, well-defined body that looks so perfect that one wonders if this is indeed the title character.  Then, with remarkable, slowly-evolving movements and twists, slowly and silently, the body assumes its contorted, gruesome form, depicting a human person who has been cursed with near sub-human features.  Cooper manages this transition with such ease, such rhythm, that it’s difficult to picture the original shape once the transition has been completed – an actor’s physical triumph.  Merrick’s true-life tale begins with him being set-upon by street thugs, and discovered by a carnival-type showman who sees Merrick as a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, a novelty worth paying for, to ogle at.  Merrick’s fate is forever altered when young Dr. Frederick Treves, an inquisitive surgeon, hears Merrick, tormented by his caged-animal type existence, crying out ‘Help me!  Help me!”  Treves invests time, money and personal reputation, bringing this outcast into the world of Victorian London society.  As memorably presented by Alessandro Nivola, Treves struggles to balance his competing objectives, namely to be sympathetic, analytical and mercenary.  Meetings with other professionals, clergy and even nurses hired to care for him always end badly, even harshly.  But it is the friendship of Mrs. Kendal, a prominent stage actress of the day who at first finds the prospect of meeting him an adventure in personal discovery, that gives Merrick the cerebral companionship that, at least temporarily during their times together, overrides the superficial rejections that constantly define his existence.  And as Lady Kendal,  Patricia Clarkson shows how genuine compassion, matched with a disregard for the opinions of others, can trump even the most traumatic circumstances a person has been subject to.

As a famous stage personage, Mrs. Kendal knows too well the curse of having others pay unwanted or at least unsolicited attentions.  This is a bond that permits each of them to look past appearances, and instead look into curious minds, and unfulfilled souls.  Ms. Clarkson, in my experience seeing her work for twenty + years now, has the rare ability to pull out of her characters an aspect of their experience, or their private view of life, that makes them the unique persons their writer/creators hoped to present.  I often refer to her breath-taking portrayal as Blanche in the Kennedy Center production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as the finest depiction of that complex character I’ve yet seen.  Here, she has a self-aware understanding that as an actress, she is permitted to always be acting – that is, at the same time to speak or comment or move, whatever the situation requires, and to see herself doing it.  It’s a very private awareness of oneself, a characteristic they each discover, that both know about themselves.  It’s a non-expressed wink at the rest of the world.

As his endeavors to bring Merrick into the London circles of the rich and famous demand constant vigilance, Treves confronts every kind of obstacle.  In his curiosity to understand Merrick the person – every aspect of what that means – Treves finds this part of his medical study grow into almost an obsession, and it overcomes him.  At his end, the compulsion reduces him to a compromised man with his own set of crippling mental and emotional afflictions.  We see him, at the end, plaintively crying out with the same plea he heard from his protege: “Help me!  Help me!”

Both “Constellations” and “The Elephant Man,” though vastly different in their details and circumstances, rely most heavily on the subtle interplay between and among actors filling their roles.  It’s fortunate indeed that both of these presentations have been blessed with  such high-caliber stage actors, capable of the moment-to-moment behavioral and vocal nuances that keep us so engaged.

Opera, of course, is all about voices.  While this is not a realm I have visited frequently, the opportunity of seeing/hearing Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara in a previously-unseen type of role was a great attraction.  She’s currently on view at the Met as a flirtatious ambassador’s wife in turn-of-the-last-century Paris, the catalyst for some rollicking shenanigans in Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.”   Paired with the splendid soprano Renee Fleming, in the title role, on her ‘home turf,’ Ms. O’Hara more than provides the hoped-for vocal displays that have made her a star twenty blocks south.

Also making her Met debut is five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman, who has directed and choreographed this production, resplendent with all the design magic that transforms the Metropolitan Opera House into a fantasy world.  Ms. Stroman applies her musical theatre expertise to give us a light-as-meringue operetta confection, where we get the eye-popping treat of grand waltz music [most famously 'The Merry Widow Waltz'] choreographed with stunning precision.  And the riotous chorus girls spin their allure in true Stroman style, as if the historic Maxim’s has come to life after a century of repose.   And it explodes with all the high-kicking and skirts-flouncing the stage can contain, and then some.

And where would you find contemporary versions of those flashy, splashy musical riots in Maxim’s ?  That would be Las Vegas!  When award-winning screenwriter Andrew Bergman penned, and directed his 1992 film farce “Honeymoon in Vegas,” he felt it could easily be the basis for a musical.  Nearly a quarter century later, he’s done it – now easily filling the big big stage at the Nederlander Theatre, this adaptation has been tune-ified via the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown.   And from the opening moments of its overture, “Honeymoon” conveys all the giddy glitz and razzmatazz of unapologetic Vegas lounge life.  Just a guess, but it’s possible that orchestrator Larry Blank’s prior assignment on “Catch Me If You Can” provided that brass-blaring, percussion-pounding sound that so perfectly sets the mood.

The honeymooners are Jack Singer [the ebullient Rob McClure, of 'Chaplin' fame], and his perennial betrothed girlfriend Betsy [an ideal girl-next-door Brynn O'Malley].  What’s been holding up the vows-taking?  Rob’s now-departed, but never forgotten mother Bea [made joyfully overbearing by the priceless, energy-bursting Nancy Opel, possessing all the charms of past comediennes such as Nancy Walker and Kaye Ballard].  Seems mom left this mortal coil with one last wish on her deathbed, that Jack never, ever get married.  And to reinforce this dying demand, mom manages to materialize, for Jack’s eyes only, anytime or anywhere wedding bells seem imminent.  [The son-smothering mother in "Bye, Bye Birdie" is a theatrical ancestor.]  Ms. Opel’s jack-in-the-box pop-ups alone are worth the price of admission.

When Jack finally breaks loose and impulsively grabs up Betsy, they fly off to Vegas for a wedding honeymoon trip in one.  With just a few hours to fill before they make their trip to a quickie wedding chapel that evening, Jack decides to grant himself one last round of poker, especially since casino owner Tommy Korman [a true beacon of light and smiles Tony Danza], invites him to join a special-guests game.  What Jack doesn’t know is that Tommy has spotted Betsy during their check-in, and was stopped in his tracks.  The young woman bears an uncanny resemblance to Tommy’s recently-departed wife Donna, a victim of too much sun-bathing that caused skin cancer.  To Tommy, this is no coincidence – it’s his opportunity for a second chance with a Donna look-alike, and he will do anything to make that happen.  What he does is rig the poker game, so that Jack loses multi-thousands of bucks that he has no way to cover.  Tommy’s offer: let me spend a weekend with Betsy, and your debts will be wiped clean.

Well, the permutations are not that difficult to imagine.  But they’re unspooled with so much old-fashioned musicals-type numbers and comic set pieces [including numerous reappearances of mom Bea, materializing in the most unlikely settings], that you just go with it.

McClure once again demonstrates his natural charm and boyish vigor, akin to the young Dick Van Dyke, that you forgive his dopey decisions.  And Danza, already accorded icon status by a certain demographic of the audience for whom he will always be the boss, tops it when he breaks into a pretty decent tap routine.  He seems just as surprised as the audience that he’s pulling it off so smoothly.  He’s still got some rough spots in his overall delivery.  However, the screwball premise and his mostly heartfelt pining for a lost love let you forgive.

The show?  Could easily lose about twelve minutes.  The book?  Vintage [which is to say the work of a veteran] Bergman.  The score?  Some of Brown’s best [albeit hindered at times with kind of tortured lyrics.]  There have been, during the last many or so decades, a phenomenon in television sitcom-land – those second-tier comedies that don’t merit Emmy Awards or nominations, but manage to be renewed year after year, because they are safe bets to offer up a pleasing storyline, a gaggle of very good performances and no bitter after-taste.  Think “The King of Queens,” or the current “The Middle.”   If there were a category of musical that holds the same place on Broadway, that’s where you’d find “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

Afterpieces

The indomitable Woodie King, Jr. launches the 46th season of his distinguished New Federal Theatre with “The Amira Baraka Project.”  His approach is to bookend the offerings, starting with a revival of the memorable “Dutchman,” from 1964, [performances begin on February 5th and continue through March 8th], and progress toan engagement of “The Most Dangerous Man in America (W.E.B.DuBois), scheduled for May.  The productions will take place at the Castillo Theater [543 west 42nd street] . . . Currently in rehearsal for production at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theatre, is a production unfolding with a touch of poignant sadness.  “Josephine and I” recounts the near-fantastical life story of Josephne Baker, who went from the slums of St. Louis to international stardom as an entertainer, and a separate, perilous life as  a French Resistance spy and civil rights activist.  The production comes as the Broadway world mourns the recent loss of Baker’s adopted son Jean-Claude, who for decades presided over his all-welcoming theatre district cafe, Chez Josephine.  Previews begin 2/17 . . . Previews begin 2/10 for a production of the Clifford Odets’ classic “Rocket to the Moon,” at the Theatre at St. Clements.  Starring the ever-impressive George Morfogen, this tale of a Depression-era loveless marriage, spirit-sapping career and the temptation to leave it all behind also features Lou Libertore, who first made a Broadway mark in the original cast of “Burn This,” opposite John Malkovich and Joan Allen . . . and coincidentally, the subject of the Depression is what I’ve chosen as the theme of my newest round of sessions at the 92nd St. Y.  Check out the offerings by visiting 92Y.org — I’m exploring plays and musicals from and about that decade, including Rodgers & Hart’s “Babes in Arms,” Steinbeck’s  “Of Mice and Men,” Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” Kaufman & Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” Arthur Miller’s “The Price” [featuring unseen video excerpts from my exclusive interview with the playwright], Lawrence & Lee’s “Auntie Mame” & and Jerry Herman’s musicalization of it, “Mame,” and two Odets classics “Awake & Sing!” and “Golden Boy.”  Join me!

On Book

“Mame” is part of the new collection of Ethan Mordden’s essays and musings, “Open a New Window – The Broadway Musical in the 1960’s,” from Palgrave Macmillan . . . and for a thorough and thoroughly-engaging look at the landmark career of Mame’s musical mentor Jerry Herman, check out Stephen Citron’s ‘Jerry Herman – Poet of the Showtune” from Yale University Press . . . Moss Hart, though his life and career were tragically cut short at the age of fifty-seven, left an unparalleled legacy as writer and director for stage and screen.  His autobiography “Act One” remains a loving testament to his early years, but it closed its coverage halfway through his life.  Now, finally, a comprehensive chronicle of Hart’s life “Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre,” is available from Back Stage Books, by Jared Brown.  I remember his wife and widow Kitty Carlisle Hart once confiding how sorry she was that he was not alive to tell his own story.  She always kept a copy of “Act One” on the grand piano in their sprawling, east sixties apartment.  Here’s a chance to read it, beautifully told.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions,”  a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts.  His play ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge.  His performing arts articles have appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, the Robb Report, the Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other publications.  He has written nine other produced plays and musicals, three books and will soon host a series of live interview evenings at the 92nd St. Y, beginning with his first guest, Michael Cerveris, on March 12.

Intermission Talk 11.23.14

November 23rd, 2014

“The River” is

no “Side Show.”

It’s “The Real Thing.”

by TONY VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterplay

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

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

On Book

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

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

Intermission Talk

November 2nd, 2014

We’re “On the Town”

As “The Last Ship”

Is  Not “Disgraced.”

by TONY VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterplay

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

On Book

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

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

Intermission Talk 10.19.14

October 20th, 2014

“You Can’t Take”

“The Curious Incident”

for a “Tail! Spin!”

with all those “Bubbles”

by  TONY  VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFTERPLAY

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

ON BOOK

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

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

Intermission Talk 9/28/14

September 28th, 2014

“This Is Our Youth”

Sends “Love Letters”

Of “A Fatal Weakness”

by TONY VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ON  BOOK

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

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

Intermission Talk

July 8th, 2014

Remembering Eli

by TONY VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Eli.

Intermission Talk May 4, 2014

May 4th, 2014

‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’

Meets Up with ‘Violet’

to Catch ‘Lady Day at

the Emerson Bar & Grill’

by TONY VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Book

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

And Also . . .

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

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

Intermission Talk 4.14.14

April 15th, 2014

‘The Realistic Joneses,’

and ‘Mothers and Sons’

will travel ‘All the Way’

for ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

by TONY VELLELA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Book

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

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