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Intermission Talk

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

 

Can “The Mushroom Cure”

Help “Shear Madness”

It Could Happen!

 

“It could happen!!”  And just what exactly does that infamous tagline, made famous by comedy comedienne Judy Tenuta, from the last eighties to the late nineties, in her appearances with Ellen de Generes, Barbara Walters, Joan Rivers, Rita Rudner, Howard Stern, George  Carlin and others, have to do with the writer and performer Andy Strauss, appearing now at the Davenport Theatre, on west 45th Street, in the theatre district.  These were Judy’s heroes, the performers and comedy stars Judy learned from, and her famous tag line, that she often ended her act with. “It could happen!” – would have been the best approach to the solo show, based on his true story, in “The Mushroom Cure.”

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In it, Strauss traces his tortured journey battling OCD tendencies, and his hope that a sweet-faced Kansas farm girl [who could pass for a Broadway chorine, like Laurey in “Oklahoma! – look it up] in, of all places, a crowded Times Square.  Strauss has a miserable record meeting and keeping girl friends, but this time – they click.  His mission that night was to connect with his long-time, unreliable dealer nicknamed ‘Slo,’ describing his approach to everything.  Well, Strauss’ journey introduced him to his ideal: Grace.

His purpose?  To score mushrooms Strauss has read about, that could manage to give him some relief for his debilitating obsessive compulsive disorderliness that has taken over his life.  Instead, he meets Grace, among this sea of selfie-snapping, Hershey Store-patronizing, famous face-seeking tourists, shuffling along on all the available concrete walkways, and there she was!  His Goddess!  He was instantly smitten.  He had to approach her!  She was The One, proclaiming hopefully  “It could happen!” And, as it happens, she was in Town, attending a psychology conference, and knew all about drugs, and mind-altering substances, having begun her own personal experimenting at the age of sixteen!  The chick had creds!  “It could happen!”

Strauss: “Let’s go back to my place.”  Grace” “Okay!”  And the next morning, they had connected, he was convinced that she  was indeed The One!  He rolls over, and she is gone.  But alas – a phone number.

mushroom

And thus begins the Strauss Odyssey of his struggle to wend his way through the types of ‘cures’ she is familiar with due to her work, and because of his determination to hold on to Grace, which includes a circle of sixteen red plastic chairs to form the circle of sharing.  Strauss does not share well.  But he and Grace soldier on, at one point matching up with a rather questionable counselor who has lost the use of his office, and now meets patients in Tompkins Square Park, staking out his professional bench, where they meet him.  Doesn’t go very well, and the consultation ends when his next patient shows up, at an adjacent bench.  ‘It could happen!”

Events eventually take them to a seaside house, where they realize, while cooking up some liquid cure, that they love each other.  He is now, finally, able to say it to a great woman, one he really wants to settle down with.

Now, this is a ‘sharing’ of a personal prejudice against the one-person show, unless they happen to be James Lescane, with material he wrote, or Lily Tomlin, with material written by her partner Jane Wagner, or Patrizia Norcia, impersonating Ruth Draper, using Norcia’s original material.

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But this guy HAS something.  His material should lose about 12 – 15 minutes, and why it has not, could be for two possible reasons, typical in situations like this:  [1] as the writer, he is too close to the material, and did not get strong, definitive advice from his director, James Libman, or his assistant director, Sarah Newton, or [2] as the writer, he did not yield to an observation by his performer [himself] that the text feels too long, and because the performer is also the writer, there may have been a reluctance to cut the material he has become so close to.

And as a performer, he has yet to master some of the finer points of presenting this type of narrative text.  There’s a ‘still in development’ feel to it.  What’s missing in the next observation is a cross-over explanation aspect – if you haven’t done any of the drugs described, or participated in any of the drug-related experiences [this is NOT a sharing], it’s very difficult to relate to the worlds of LSD or its many cousins, unlike, for instance, another currently running successfully-written play that mines somewhat similar territory “The Effect,” in part because the style of the text includes two main characters, and a few vital supporting roles, that taken together, fleshes out the story very easily, for the observer to take in.  But someone needs to work with Strauss, because there is DEFINITELY SOMETHING HERE.  He has a definite charm in his presentation and physical presence.  He has moments of real genuine flow and comedic style, and writing.  This show deserves to be seen, and be supported.  Does the mushroom cure work?  Can’t say.  ‘It could happen!”

What does work in “Shear Madness” is the writing. And, the bane of any writing assignment – the re-writing.  And, it may be said, that’s the reason this non-musical  comedy whodunit has been running for so-o-o-o-o long.  Originally, it was adapted from a play [‘Scherenschnitt’] by German writer and psychologist Paul Portner, in Lake George, New York, translated and adapted by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, credited now as ‘the show’s creators, producers and original cast members.’  Their original work was first done in a regional theatre on January 29, 1980.  There’s some dispute over which play holds the title ‘longest-running.’  Warren Manzi’s crime drama “Perfect Crime” is the longest crime drama in New York theatre history, with an opening night of 4/18/87, and its star, Catherine Russell, holds the Guinness book of Records as the person playing the greatest number of performances as the same character [nearly 12,000, missing only four shows, for the weddings of her siblings].

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But the underlying reason “Shear Madness” continues to attract audiences in productions still running in New York, in Boston’s Charles Playhouse, at Washington’s Kennedy Center, a the Al & Haek Theatre in Seoul, Korea, at the Theatro Apothiki in Athens and the Theatre des Mathurins in Paris, among more than 40 other cities, is that they have been granted permission by the creators to update the dialogue, and make local, national news and popular culture references in the dialogue.  The night it was seen by this writer they weaved in Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement speech, urging the audience members who vote to choose who the killer is, to “vote their conscience.”  Also dropped in, swiftly, were jabs at Taylor Swift, Melania Trump’s convention speech scandal, the departure of Fox’s Roger Ailes, along with a healthy infusion of malapropisms, such as “you’re a genital liar,” and “this is not rocket surgery.” To list them is to ignore the talents of these actors, whose improv skills will generate a brand new batch of flubs and snubs, all in good fun.  And it is good fun.  While they are all stand-outs in this field, actor Jordan Ahnquist seems to be the fastest and most proficient.  And that same night, Cady Hoffman was not in the show, and her understudy, Mary Ann Conk, went on instead.  And she rocked!  [Plus, she’s a perfect Bette Midler look-alike and Carol Channing performance style double!]

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A final reason it lasts so long in these cities is that each show is different, between the liberal flow of improvs so skillfully employed so seamlessly throughout the show, combines with scripted new material inserted by the production team, plus – the real fun of asking the audience to participate as a kind of jury, questioning the suspects, and then voting on who they think is guilty, that night.

Who’s to say why certain shows just catch fire – “The Fantasticks,” and “Line” in New York, “The Bald Soprano” in Paris, and Agatha Christie’s masterwork in London since 1952, of murder and suspense, “The Mousetrap.”  It appears that this modest one-set whodunit, which in the Boston production alone, gone through nine barber chairs, 96 blow dryers, 270 bottles of stage blood, 198 hairbrushes, 1320 cans of hairspray, 1560 bottles of nail polish, and more than 13,000 cans of shaving cream, has become one of those shows.

“Shear Madness” may also break a record for the most number of hair salon stage props used by any production.  “It could happen!”

AfterPlay

If you’re one of those folks who keep saying to yourself “I’ll be sure to catch ‘Fun Home’ next weekend,’ be on the alert!.’  There aren’t too many ‘next weekends’ left.  The show with much of the original cast, including Tony-winner Michael Cerveris, will close on Saturday, September 10 . . . . and if you missed the much-heralded “Dear Even Hansen,” with a genuinely sell-crafted book by Steven Levenson, and music & lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, and directed by Michael Grief, moves to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, with previews starting on November 14 . . . .and a very adventurous work with music written and performed by award-winning actor and musician Hershey Felder, and directed by Joel Zwick is titled “Maestro,” about the life and work of Leonard Bernstein.  The play with music has previously played LA’s Geffen Playhouse, San Diego’s Old Globe, the Paramount in Boston, Chicago’s Royal George, the Berkeley Rep, the Allen Theatre in Cleveland, New York’s Town Hall, and other venues before launching a Big Apple run on August 31st at the 59 East 59 Theatres, in a run that lasts until October 16th.

On Book

At a time when the topic of immigrants and immigration seems to be in the minds of so many, it’s interesting to reflect on how that subject intercepts with the world of theatre without having to stretch too far.  John P. Harrington’s excellent chronicle about the birth and early days of one of New York’s most significant homes to early straight plays. “The Life of the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street,” from Syracuse University Press [2007] is a great place to appreciate where and how immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe left their mark on the development of the American theatre. . . .  the same can be said for Harold Clurman’s “The Fervent Years – The Group Theatre & the 30’s” original copyright 1945, DaCapo Paperback, Original = New York, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, which featured an Introduction to the Da Capo Edition by Stella Adler, and a span of eight years of photographs from Ralph Steiner, Vandamm, and Alfredo Valente . . . . and in an absolute act of love organized by devotee of theatre of the thirties, Allie Mulholland, founder of the ReGroup Theatre, a spectacular series of three book collections: “The ‘Lost’ Group Theatre Plays by John Howard Lawson and Claire & Paul Sifton,” with a Foreword by Estelle Parsons, Introductions by George Bartenieff & Allie Mulholland, and an Afterword by Jeffrey Lawson; “The ‘Lost’ Group Theatre Plays – Volume II – by Robert Ardrey & Nellise Child;” a Foreword by Wendy Smith; Essays by Daniel Ardrey, Allie Mulholland & Frank Redfield, and “The ‘Lost’ Group Theatre Plays – Volume III by Paul Green,  Edwin Piscator and Nine Others” – Prefaces by Judith Malina and William Ivey Long, and Essays by Margaret Bauer, Tim Carter, Allie Mulholland and Marsha Warren . . . . and talking of America’s most versatile conductor, composer, pianist, pianist, author, teacher, librettist and television star,

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check out the thoroughly engrossing biography by Joan Peyser – “Bernstein – A Biography.”  It was published in 1987 by Katomo Ltd. a division of Beech Tree Books, from New York’s William Morrow Agency, and has, as one of its special features, the fact that it was written thirty years ago, closer to the time when he was still alive – he died in 1990.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions”, received three New York City productions, all directed by Austin Pendleton, won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and was published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go To the Theatre,” published by ArtAge Press, and wrote nine other plays and musicals, including the musical ‘Mister,” for Anthony Rapp, with music by Misha Piatigorsky, all having New York productions.  He has written about the performing arts for fifty-one years, for publications including the international daily newspaper The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Parade, Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Pageant, Saturday Review, Reader’s Digest, the Robb Report and several others.  He has taught theatre classes at HB Studios, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University’s Teacher’s College and several other educational institutions.  His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production.

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

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Intermission Talk

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

What’s “The Effect”

of that “Waitress?”

Sweet.  Sweet.

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

A pair of thank-you’s are in order, before looking  more closely at Lucy Prebble’s powerful new drama, “The Effect,” now thankfully in residence at the Barrow Street Theatre, in the Village until Labor Day. The first, presumably, has been repeatedly bestowed by her, on director David Cromer, for his matchless contribution to the life of this production.  The second to my good friend Doc, a medical physicist, who accompanied me to the theatre to see this play.  This is not to say that “The Effect” requires expert analysis to be understood.  But it was a blessing to learn on the spot that all the terms and associated events related to early clinical drug trials and their related consequences were, in fact, accurate.  [There really is such a thing as Transient Global Amnesia.]  His observations only strengthened my admiration for Ms. Prebble’s  playwriting skills.

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At first glance, “The Effect” could appear to be a left-field take on the familiar meet-cute premise: two people find themselves thrown together under unusual, and somewhat unpredictable circumstances, only to discover they are madly attracted to each other.  Connie and Tristan [equally remarkably portrayed by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson] have both, separately, signed on for a month-long experiment, confined to stay within the hospital, to test the efficacy of a newly-developed anti-depressant.  They are under the guidance of Dr. Lorna James, [Kati Brazda], a clinician of a certain age whose identity centers around her work, and the drug company’s project manager Dr. Toby Sealey, [Steve Key], an attractive careerist aware of his ability to have most women of any age find him attractive.  From the get-go, the rigid protocols that must be observed, to insure that the results have merit, clash with the participants’ personalities, though in different ways.

Because the intention of the trial is to gauge moods, to observe the onset of, or absence of depression, and to note changes in responses as dosages are increased, how Connie and Tristan react, not just individually, but in relation to each other, lays out a framework for what the play might explore.  Connie, and even to a certain extent, Dr. Lorna, are quick to see Tristan’s playful, flirtatious behavior, and he is just as quick to deny its conscious practice.  When Tristan proposes, after only a matter of days, that they embark on a travel adventure together when the trial ends, Connie sees it as another type of flirtation, until she begins to develop ‘feelings’ for him, despite being in a relationship with an older man she claims makes her ‘happy.’  Tristan challenges that.  And not too much later, she acknowledges  a growing attraction to him, and the confusion it has caused in her.  Wary that it is the drug that has altered her ability to perceive her true feelings, she pushes Dr. Lorna into having an adult, woman-to-woman rather than doctor-to-patient discussion about these impulses.   When the doctor hears that Connie has a relationship to go home to, regardless of how stable it may be, and that the attraction to Tristan poses a real threat to that relationship, the doctor allows herself to reveal a similar episode in her life that involved a short-term affair that played out at a medical conference, and her regret that she did not have either the courage or the correct perception to end it, and instead, allow it to surface again, from time to time.   Apart from Connie’s knowledge, we learn that the doctor’s sometime lover is/was her boss at the clinic, Dr. Sealey, and further, that Dr. Lorna herself had battled her own version of depression because of the ongoing affair.

And what of Tristan?  He continues to prod and nudge Connie, to wear away at her sense of certainty that her current relationship should be based on fidelity, and to use his quirky, almost childlike at times approaches to their time together finally to unleash floods of passion, sexual and emotional.  Discovered by the doctors, they promise to end it, as it threatens to contaminate the trial.  It does not end.

effect2

As the thrusting-and-parrying between Tristan and Connie resume, she discovers that one of them is taking a placebo – the ‘control’ factor common to these types of experiments.  The deeper question now erupts into the open – who is feeling what, because of the effects, or side effects of the drug, which is known to elevate dopamine levels, which is  known to stimulate the euphoria and peaceful, harmonious state of mind often associated with the earliest stages of falling in love with someone.  When she reveals the placebo information to him, it ignites the level of intense challenging of motivations, the exhausting parsing of words carelessly chosen, the calling into question the very nature of their natures.  At times, the interplay between these two matches the verbal batterings that have rarely been seen and heard in a serious contemporary play, [which is to say: well-written], outside the living room of George and Martha [“Sad.  Sad.  Sad.”].

Both women, independently, arrive at a crisis point, forced to confront situations that they cannot guarantee they are viewing objectively, or that have not been manipulated without their knowledge.  Forced again to share what she may know about the overall situation with Connie, Dr. Lorna states bluntly about drug trials, and drugs in general:  “There are no side-effects.  There are only effects.”  In this case, because of the subjective nature of depression and related mental illnesses, measuring success can be difficult.  And because of the [secret] relationship between the doctors, between Dr. Lorna and her bouts with depression, and the danger of emotional attachment or bias seeping into the trials, vital issues concerning ethics in such situations are dramatized in a remarkably accessible manner.

And overall, the effect of this masterful work is to expose the fallacies in the assumptions made about trials like this, and to prompt a stark warning about how reliable anyone can be when trying to answer the question “How do I feel now?”

One thing is certain, for those of us who approach the prospect of seeing a new film-to-stage-musical transfer: they can be tricky properties.  One of the most anticipated, now on view at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is “Waitress,” and despite some carping from the sidelines, it accomplishes what most new musicals fail to deliver – it’s a break-out-the-smiles little gem of a show.  Based upon the 2007 indie motion picture of the same name, written, directed and starring Adrienne Shelly, “Waitress” is a textbook example of teamwork.  Jessie Nelson [book], Sara Bareilles [music and lyrics] and Diane Paulus [director] each brought their strengths to the project, with Paulus integrating all the elements with her usual unique approach to any material.

Jenna is unhappily married to a serially unemployed wife-batterer.  She finds refuge in her work making up new recipes for, and then baking pies for the diner where she works, and where she doubles as one of the table-serving waitresses, whose tips are snatched away as soon as she gets home.  The discovery that she’s pregnant forces a deeper need to re-examine her circumstances.   And despite all these complications, Jenna is a vital, engaging, serious, multi-layered character, thanks not only to the above-mentioned team, but because she is brought to life by the remarkable Jessie Mueller, Tony Award-winner for the 2014 bio-tuner “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical.”  Structured with a nod to Hollywood Golden-Age musicals, it, too, features the central [female] character having one or two female friends, in this case, fellow waitresses Becky [the powerfully-voiced Keala Settle] and Dawn [the endearingly meek Kimiko Glenn].   A few numbers in Act One provide the trio with an opportunity to deliver silky harmonizing, a la The Andrews Sisters.  [Google them.]

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And the three-waitress, gruff-but-kindhearted diner owner  premise bears more than a little resemblance to the Martin Scorcese picture “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More,”  starring Ellen Burstyn [whose character also was a singer!], and later, the Linda Lavin T-V sitcom, “Alice.”  Each of them gets a spotlight number – Becky’s “I Didn’t Plan It,” gloriously riffing on her reasoning when the secret affair she’s been hiding is discovered, and Dawn’s “When He Sees Me,” a self-doubt heart-tugger, reminiscent of  Amalia’s “Will He Like Me?” from “She Loves Me.”  With their encouragement, Jenna focuses on a regional baking contest, with its $20,000 prize money, her potential ticket out of the marriage, and into business for herself.  Her talents as a baker are known far and wide.  She begins to squirrel away some of her tips in hiding places around the house, to cover the contest’s entrance fee.

Enter: her potential Prince Charming, in the person of gynecologist Dr. Pomatter, who possesses all the right characteristics to fulfill that fantasy role.  Drew Gehling, as the sympathetic doc, has a soothing vocal style that echoes James Taylor, and a modest awkwardness that made Topher Grace’s Eric on “That ’70s Show” so endearing.  Of course, they begin a passionate affair.  Of course, he’s married.  Yet, their lovely falling-in-love duet “You Matter to Me” makes the case that, though indeed mismatched, do seem to belong together.

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This would not be any kind of feel-good story if there were no romantic partners for her single friends in the offing.  Dawn, in particular, makes it past her initial five-minute date with Ogie [you can conjure what he looks like from his name].  Christopher Fitzgerald is beyond smitten, showing up at the diner the morning after, igniting the proceedings with “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” bouncing off the walls and sprawling over tabletops, with possibly the evening’s most infectious, rousing number – a genuine show-stopper.

With all the ‘pieces’ turned out by the top of the second act, they then start to come apart.  The Good Doctor has a loving, charming wife, a nurse who Jenna meets during her pre-natal care.  The no-account, drunken husband discovers Jenna’s cash cache, and keeps it all – again demoralizing her into thinking she would have no chance at winning.  And every day that goes by, the baby’s existence becomes more apparent.

And while all the plot-points find their resolutions, they are not always what one might expect.

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And when Jenna stares herself down in the mirror, assaulting her own lack of confidence and the loss of her younger self’s spirit and enthusiasm, the result is one of the best standout numbers of the season.  Composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles gives Jenna, in the person of the compelling Jessie Mueller, “She Used to Be Mine.” Whatever shortcomings you believe “Waitress” may suffer from, this one number, with its raw emotions, daring self-examination and spot-on lyrics [“She is messy but she’s kind/ She is lonely most of the time.”] has been seamlessly married to the kind of melody line that soars to the sky, then pulls itself back down to earth, only to lift you again out of your seat, transfixed by Mueller’s Streisand-level acting ability to deliver the story inside the song.  It’s that kind of transcendence one longs to discover, rare as it is, in musical theatre.

On Book

Fresh off the Tony Awards, it’s interesting to take a look back, on the past winners, as well as their competition – did you know that “West Side Story” lost to “The Music Man,” in the Best Musical category for 1958?  The Heinemann Publishing edition of ‘The Tony Award’ chronicles all the winners and almost-winners, and includes a thorough history of the Tony Award founders, the American Theatre Wing.  It benefits from having been co-edited by one of the Wing’s most esteemed past presidents, and friend to everyone in the theatre – Isabelle Stevenson.  Also included is a piece by the Wing’s founder, Antoinette Perry, and the award is named for her – but you already know that . . . the announcement that a revival will open early next year of Lillian Hellman’s classic “The Little Foxes” includes the exciting news that it will star Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, who will alternate playing the polar-opposite roles of Regina and Birdie.  If you were lucky enough to see the 1981 revival, directed by Austin Pendleton, the memory of Elizabeth Taylor [Regina] and Maureen Stapleton [Birdie] will always be the one to match.  And to prepare for the upcoming production, pick up the ‘The Collected Plays – Lillian Hellman,’ which collects a dozen of this tough-as-nails scribe.  ‘Another Part of the Forest’ is a prequel to ‘Foxes,’ and her searing indictment of homophobia, ‘The Children’s Hour,’ remains one of the most intricately-crafted piece of theatrical writing of the twentieth century . . . and from another great female writer, Molly Haskell, comes “Frankly, My Dear – ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited,” from Yale University Press.  No less an authority on the landmark picture than Melanie herself, Olivia De Havilland, sings its praises in the book’s introduction.

AfterPlay

Like the heroine of “Waitress,” the three central characters in Eric Overmyer’s new comedy “On The Verge” need to strike out to find their true selves.  Now running at the Attic Theatre Company’s Walkerspace through July 9, features Emily Kitchens, Ella Dershowitz and Monette Magrath as the ladies in question . . . and a pair of the Bard’s summertime romp, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will make it as easy as possible to revel in its revelry.  The adventurous company Shakespeare in the Parking Lot adapts the classic fable as a Lower East Side tale, behind the Clemente, 114 Norfolk Street, Thursday through Saturday evenings, July 7 to 24, and details are at www.shakespeareintheparkinglot.com.  The New York Classical Theatre has already launched its travelling production of “Dream,” to be performed in Central Park West at West 103rd Street, now through June 26, Rockefeller Park in Battery Park, June 29 through July 2, and moving to Prospect Park the following week.  Visit www.newyorkclassical.org for more info.  Oh, and the best part of these Dreams?  They’re all free. . . and if you still haven’t caught “Finding Neverland,” this delightful musical, a great ‘starter’ musical for kids to see, will close on August 21, and not even Tinkerbell will be able to make it reappear . . . finally, word comes that a new revival of “The Glass Menagerie” hits the Great White Way next February, starring Sally Field as the indomitable Amanda.  With the announcement comes the report that the role of the crippled daughter/sister Laura will be portrayed by an actress in a wheelchair.  One wonders how all the basic elements of that intricately-plotted plot that hinge on Laura’s disability, identified as pleurosis by the playwright, and the character, can be portrayed the way the author intended.  She suffered a childhood infection that resulted in her having one leg shorter than the other and requiring her, for a time, to wear a leg brace, and though no longer needed, left her with a slight limp.  All the internalized insecurities that that young woman carries, literally crippling her emotionally, contrast with the ‘barely noticeable’ faulty gait she struggles to hide.  One wonders how such a critical distinction – the difference between the real and the perceived condition she lives with – can possibly be ignored when she’s in a chair.  In an era when Arthur Miller’s evil teen flies, and her lies are actualized, in the current “Crucible” revival – not what the playwright intended – perhaps it’s too much to hope for, that any great play [by a now-deceased, and maybe defenseless playwright] can withstand the temptation for a director/producer decision-making team to be satisfied with the words on the page.  Stay tuned.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” won the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written several other plays and musicals, three books, and numerous articles for a variety of publications, including Dramatics Magazine, Parade, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, USA Today and Reader’s Digest, among others.  His documentary for Lifetime Television, “Test of Time,” was a CableAce Award-winner.  He has taught theatre classes at several institutions, including HB Studio, Columbia University’s Teachers’ College and the New School.  He will conduct a two-part workshop on Thornton Wilder’s classic play, titled “The Darker Side of ‘Our Town’ on June 20 & 21 – visit www.92Y.org for details.  His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production [www.labordays.net].

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

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Intermission Talk Monday, May 9, 2016

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

“The Father” Is Now

“Fully Committed”

To “A Long Day’s

Journey Into Night”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Give the man some credit.  This remark is directed at those who feel the need to complain about the length of Eugene O’Neill’s stunning masterwork “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”  The entire premise, the oppressive nature of this family having to face yet another seemingly endless ordeal of having to witness the slow drip-drip deterioration of their mother’s exasperating dependence on morphine, the whole point is that it stretches out over hours and hours and hours of repetitive patterns that none of them can seem to prevent.  It IS a very long day.  And for the audience to comprehend fully the nature of these events requires that they are made to endure the tedium and heartbreak of watching it unfold – yet again.  That’s the reason it stretches out as it does.  LONG day – get it?  Duh!

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What unfolds in this revival at the American Airlines Theatre is another sepia-tinged snapshot of the Tyrone family on one August day/night in 1912, in the living room of their summer house.  The large windows look out over the yard, and farther away, the ocean.  James, a semi-retired classical actor who prides himself on his thriftiness, which created the sorry condition both his wife Mary, and his younger son Edmund, find themselves in.  Because James refused to engage the best doctors to treat them, at different times, Edmund’s persistent cough has progressed to ‘consumption,’ [tuberculosis] and Mary’s inability to cope with the death of an infant son led to a prescription for morphine, and a dependence on it, which, these many years later, she cannot seem to quit.  The older son, James, Jr., takes his refuge in drink.

Gabriel Byrne’s James Sr. manages to hold down any showiness that others often impose on the once-celebrated actor, bringing it all up from time to time, when he feels he must remind his family of his prominence in the American theatre.  James, Jr. [Michael Shannon], exhibits true restraint in his attempts to shield his younger brother from the various onslaughts that jab at the sick boy’s weakened physical and mental conditions.  And as Edmund, the meticulous John Gallagher, Jr., aided no doubt by Jonathan Kent’s thoughtful direction, manages to keep his distance, whenever possible, from his parents, seemingly to create an artificial chasm that prevents them from overtaking his very existence.  In a nod to the father’s tightwad ways, costume designer Jane Greenwood has given Edmund a worn-through hole in the sole of his shoe.  Other designers have also made great attempts to reproduce the closed world of the Tyrones – the living room here from Tom Pye sprawls far more than the actual room in the Monte Cristo cottage in New London, Connecticut where the real O’Neills spent their summer months.  And while it allows for more ‘playing’ area, more space for the director to move his actors around, it removes the sense of confinement and enclosure that can add another oppressive element to the proceedings.  Slate grey walls give designer Greenwood just the right background palette for her actors’ browns and greys to fade into – she has eschewed all traces of reds, oranges, yellows or even stark whites to maintain the perfect environment for this wearisome tale.  Pye has blanketed the shelves with well-worn copies of the classics, likely the ones aspiring writer Tom, a generation later, would love to have had in the shabby Wingfield St. Louis apartment.

The power of the play is its balance between the forced fiction that this is just another day for just another family, in their seaside summer home, and the impending doom that will soon befall mother and younger son.  And it is in the presentation of these two roles that any production of this play stands or falls.  In this instance, it’s a draw.

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Gallagher has already proven his skills in giving the characters he inhabits the detailed particulars that define any living person’s persona.  Here, his Edmund valiantly tries to mute the intrusion of his vicious coughing, to keep attention away from what is clearly a great and growing problem.  Edmund, an aspiring poet who battles, every waking moment, with the terrifying reality that his life may be cut mercilessly short, can display the soul of an artist quite naturally, a sensitive nature that moderates the inner rage that would sear any soul staring death coldly in the face.  Gallagher seems to get all of it, in the right proportions.

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And a good word must be spoken on behalf of Colby Minifie, in the usually thankless role of the maid, Cathleen.  Too often, she is played as a silly, almost cartoonish Irish immigrant girl, with little depth, but Minifie gives us a young woman who seems genuinely enthralled with the fascinating details of her mistress’s life, grateful for the precious moments Mary shares with her, and equally unsettled by the stark outbursts from Mary, when the drug takes over.

And then there’s our Mary, a role that most serious actors have sought to tackle, with Katharine Hepburn’s mesmerizing version captured in the 1962 picture, directed so masterfully by Sidney Lumet.  This time, it’s two-time Oscar-winner Jessica Lange’s crack at it.  Several seasons back, Lange took on another iconic female role – Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”  The results there, and here, share many of the same outcomes.

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Ms. Lange can always be counted on to immerse herself in the details of her character, the why’s and when’s and where’s of the woman.  Here, her Mary Tyrone shows us the flitting, flicker-y movements of her shaky hands, never able to settle comfortably in her lap.  Her repetitious recitals of the dismissals that she still has the morphine addiction have the ring, not of the objections put forth by a woman who seeks to dispel the concerns of her family, but the false ring of practiced speech.  This is Ms. Lange performing Mary, rather than inhabiting her.

And then there’s the return of, what some refer to as ‘the cackle.’  However uncharitable it may sound, Ms. Lange has developed a distracting habit of tacking on, to the end of many of her speeches and pronouncements, a kind of cackling half-laugh, that sounds like the character minimizing the truth or impact of what she’s just stated.   It becomes a kind of verbal coda, leaving the impression that what was just stated can be put aside.

This is a production that benefits greatly from two facts from Byrne’s career: his impressive Dublin years doing Ibsen, Wilde, O’Casey and Chekhov, followed by years at London’s Royal Court and National Theatre, and secondly, playing the younger Jamie Tyrone in O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.”  All these experiences have given us a portrayal of the man who became this flawed, conflicted celebrated professional actor, and this flawed father, never able to shake off the demons of his own past.

A different, yet equally compelling father figure lives, or more rightly, survives, at the center of  Florian Zeller’s new play “The Father,” now at MTC’s Friedman Theatre, and which, in my mind, is the Best  Play of this season.  As so many others have observed, the topic – the onslaught of dementia – has crept into the public consciousness and the popular culture, including the touching Oscar-winning portrayal by Julianne Moore in last year’s “Still Alice.”  This may be the result of the Baby Boomer cohort moving through the population curve, one of its [our] last major societal influences.

THE FATHER SAMUEL J. FRIEDMAN THEATRE 261 W. 47TH ST.  THE FATHER - CAST  Frank Langella Frank Langella as André  Kathryn Erbe Kathryn Erbe as Anne  Brian Avers Brian Avers as Pierre  Charles Borland Charles Borland as Man  Hannah Cabell Hannah Cabell as Laura  Kathleen McNenny Kathleen McNenny as Woman  Andrew Hovelson Andrew Hovelson as Pierre (Understudy)  Andrew Hovelson Andrew Hovelson as Man (Understudy)  Anthony Newfield Anthony Newfield as André (Understudy)  Person Placeholder Pilar Witherspoon as Anne (Understudy)  Person Placeholder Pilar Witherspoon as Laura (Understudy)  Person Placeholder Pilar Witherspoon as Woman (Understudy) THE FATHER - PRODUCTION CREDITS  Person Placeholder Florian Zeller Playwright  Christopher Hampton Christopher Hampton Translated by  Doug Hughes Doug Hughes Director  Scott Pask Scott Pask Scenic Design  Catherine Zuber Catherine Zuber Costume Design  Donald Holder Donald Holder Lighting Design  Fitz Patton Fitz Patton Original Music & Sound Design  Person Placeholder Alexander Greenfield Associate Director  Person Placeholder Jerome Martin Associate Scenic Designer  Person Placeholder Ryan Park Associate Costume Designer  Person Placeholder Porsche McGovern Associate Lighting Designer  Person Placeholder Patrick LaChance Associate Sound Designer  Person Placeholder Joshua Helman MTC Production  Person Placeholder Bethany Weinstein MTC Production  Person Placeholder James FitzSimmons Production Stage Manager  Person Placeholder Katherine Wallace Stage Manager  Jim Steinmeyer Jim Steinmeyer Illusion Consultant  Person Placeholder Nancy Piccione Casting  Person Placeholder Caparelliotis Casting Casting  Person Placeholder Florie Seery MTC General Manager  Person Placeholder Erin Moeller Company Manager  Person Placeholder Boneau / Bryan-Brown General Press Representative  Person Placeholder Chris Boneau General Press Representative  Person Placeholder Aaron Meier General Press Representative  Person Placeholder Melissa Cohen G

And as the cohort has done in so many other ways throughout the previous decades, the impact  is unique, thanks to French novelist Zeller’s comfort level with his attack. . . there is no outwardly-directed venom or anger, per se . . . just the observations.   As Andre, a retired gentleman living in a tastefully-appointed Paris apartment, Frank Langella presents as a healthy, engaging father to his caring daughter Anne [in a gentle, caring portrayal by Kathryn Erbe], visiting him with chit-chat domestic news.  After the lights go out ever so temporarily, Andre picks up a similar domestic conversation with another young woman [Hannah Cabell], whose responses create some confusion – is THIS the real Anne?  Why does she call herself Laura?  And throughout the play, Andre’s mis-identifications proliferate, as his son-in-law claims to live where Andre does, and other pairs of people claim the same name, and the same ‘place’ in Andre’s life.  At one moment of levity, Andre reveals to the woman visiting him that he had a career as a tap-dancer, and rises, clad in pajamas and house slippers, to demonstrate a fairly decent time-step.  She assures him that his now-past career was in engineering.  And as the ‘facts’ meld and shift, as the ‘parts’ of his memory are shed, just like last week’s fresh-cut flowers involuntarily shed their petals, so, too, do the furnishings big and small, also disappear.  After similar brief blackouts [blamed on a faulty fuse in the off-stage kitchen, being tended to by a repairman, or is that his son-in-law?], the wall painting goes away, joined in its disappearing act by that imposing lamp, and then . . . what’s to be next?   The most persistent vagrant is Andre’s prized wrist watch, which he claims has been [re]moved without his knowledge or permission, only to be [re]located in a special hiding place for valuables, behind the microwave.

What Zeller has done, expertly, is ease us into Andre’s POV.  What Zeller has identified, in his ever-so-smoothly penned playscript carefully translated from the French, by Christopher Hampton, and just as carefully directed by Doug Hughes, is a commentary on theft, on identity itself – is this person that person?  Has some someone ‘stolen’ the other  person?  What Andre must try to cope with is the most lacerating loss anyone may have to confront.  The match-up of actor to character could not be more compelling, because in appearance,  Langella, now 78 years old but as agile and imposing as any leading man half his age, Andre appears to be in full ‘possession’ of ‘his faculties,’ as the medical, psychological, legal communities might classify.  Because, after all, what does anyone possess that could be stolen, what possessions?  It is our memories.   And because memory is so blatantly personal, it represents the one component of our living lives that cannot be replaced.  Once again, here is a playwright who has so aptly titled his work.  The one ‘label’ still firmly attached to Andre is ‘father.’  He is Anne’s father.  And when that label is called into question, what is left of that man?  What accounts for the sweep of terror that overtakes his face?  Has Andre been forced to add a question mark after the title = “The Father?”

A few short blocks away, an actor who has become part of the national television audience’s collection of beloved characters in ABC’s runaway comedy hit “Modern Family” returns to his roots, the New York stage, in a piece that gives him the opportunity to create forth [40!] characters, in the challenging piece “Fully Committed.”  Jesse Tyler Ferguson catapulted to the top of the list of versatile, affecting actors in his endearing turn as an addled child contestant in the 2005 Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”  The ‘anchor’ character in Derek McLane’s single-set basement area office space, in this solo comedy by Becky Mode and Mark Setlock, and helmed by Ms. Mode, is Sam.  His day job [like half of Manhattan, his ‘real’ profession is acting] has him juggling calls as the overwhelmed reservationist at a restaurant the authors describe as “world-renowned,” and “ridiculously red-hot.”  The must-be type of place egoist Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” obsesses over.

And obsession, in the most intensely positive manner, is a word that can be applied to Ferguson, who here exercises his devotion to the craft of acting.  One by one by another one, the calls come in, starting at 10 A.M. plus one second.  They run the garrulous gamut, the list encompassing the demandingly ever-accommodated [she infers forcefully] socialite, a oxygen-sucking French maitre d’ and the currently installed personal assistant to Gwyneth Paltrow, who ‘requires’ a table for 15 on Saturday – THIS Saturday, despite the three-months out standard rule for booking tables – that must include a menu with no legumes and no female wait staff.   What the authors have done here, so cleverly, is stitch together more than three dozen distinct personalities, many conveyed within a matter of three dozen words.

And what this production provides is a demonstration of what Ferguson does so stunningly well.  One may assume this represents a preponderance of audio accomplishments – how do all these people SOUND?  Could this be a radio play?

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Ferguson makes it an in-person, on stage solo piece, because his demanding clientele, and also family and friends, are shown as well as told.  Ferguson can also switch from haughty to imperious to pleading using facial expressions and body gestures – a slap of the desk top signals a new person.  This is the same type of tour-de-force performance that won James Cordon a Tony Award for his dexterity in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” and has echoes of other practitioners of this rarely-achieved art form, the solo performance involving a variety of characters, actors such as Ruth Draper and Lily Tomlin.  Your ticket invites you to see not one performance – but forty.

AfterPlay

Another tale of lost identity, “Harper Regan,” from playwright Simon Stephens [“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”] features Maeve Yore, directed by Terry Schreiber, in the title role of what happens when a woman leaves home and family in working-class London and loses herself.  This compelling new piece arrives here from the British production, and has landed at the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, 151 West 26th Street, running until June 1 . . . get a jump on the anticipated buzz for “Nix,” which could be described as “Hamlet” meets Erin Brockovich.  Petra is a single war widow with kids to raise, who must resort to hauling away waste water from fracking wells, and she uncovers irregularities connected with the disappearance of an engineer ready to blow the whistle when he mysteriously goes missing.  Filling the venue with the sounds of rock, Latin and rap music, it springs to life with script, lyrics and direction by Katherine Brann Fredricks and music by Massimo Malassi, and runs from June 13 through July 10 at the Planet Factory, 64 East 4th Street.  Details at Planetconnections.org . . . and a reminder: the always dazzling Marin Mazie is now teaching the children at the Vivian Beaumont’s production of “The King and I.”

On Book

Speaking of multiple identities, no actor has amassed a resume overflowing with the extensive varieties of characters brought to life with such specificity than the much-heralded [and richly deserved] Meryl Streep, whose roots are in theatre.  If you were among the dozens of rain-soaked theatre-lovers who witnessed her brave depiction in the title role of “Mother Courage” at the outdoor Shakespeare production in Central Park a few summers ago, you collected a memory one hopes will always be with you.  And for some insight into how this remarkable actor grew from teen to today, Michael Schulman’s “Her Again – Becoming Meryl Streep,” from HarperCollins, tells many tales, beautifully . . . and let’s say you are a devotee of theatre and are about to graduate from high school or college or university or dancing class or wherever, tell a couple of people to pitch in to give you a stunning graduation present: “Hamilton – The Revolution,” written and compiled by Lin-Manuel Miranda [does this man never sleep?] and Jeremy McCarter.  It plots the discovery of the Revolutionary maker-and-shaker, cramming it with many dozens of color photos, annotated explanations of the lyrics and running commentary for the piece tagged with the already-bestowed designation of ‘classic.’  It’s a prize.

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TONY VELLELA is the author of the play “Admissions,” published by Playscripts, and winner of the Best Play Award at the New York International Fringe Festival.  His play “Maisie & Grover Go to the Theatre,” is published by ArtAge.  He wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.”  He has written nine other plays and musicals, including “Mister” and What We Don’t Confess.”  His performing arts pieces have run in Parade, Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Reader’s Digest and dozens of other publications, during this forty-year journalism career.  He has also written three books.  He has taught theatre classes at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University, and several other colleges, universities and learning institutions.  His new play “Labor Days” is in-pre-production.

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

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Intermission Talk

Friday, April 15th, 2016

No “Crucible” Stopped

“Cagney” From Becoming

Hollywood’s “Bright Star”

 

 

During a conversation we were having about honoring a playwright’s intentions, he told me about how he once had a no-compromise disagreement with a set designer, hired by a regional theatre, over the size and placement of a tree stump.  The stump in question is referenced in the stage directions for “All My Sons.”  Its size and placement dealt with making sure it was located in full view of the audience.  And the ‘he’ was Arthur Miller.

After seeing the current revival of Miller’s masterwork “The Crucible,” the thought crossed my mind – what would Arthur’s response be, to the Act Two pyrotechnics that are currently sending shivers down spines eight times a week at the Walter Kerr Theatre.  My best guess?   He would not allow it.

His remarkable play, set in Salem, Massachusetts in the spring of 1692, reflects a series of real-life events – “witch hunts” in the vernacular – that engulfed areas of New England, where the pursuit of ‘witches’ overtook the lives and times of entire communities, often resulting in gruesome death sentences.  The line between those whose activities governed the realm of the church and the realm of the state [the keepers of religious purity vs. the defenders of civil order] blended, tending to disappear, as fearful citizens willingly gave over their personal rights and privileges, lest they be branded instruments of the Devil.  Sanctity gave way to sanctimony.

Teen-aged Abigail,  employed by the Proctors to look after their little daughter, and who lived with her host family in their remote, isolated farmhouse , successfully enticed stolid John into indulging in forbidden sexual trysts.  When he decides to end the affair, and he attempts to mend the rents in his marriage, it is Abigail’s heartless jealousy that launches her accusations that John’s wife Elizabeth is a witch.  Abigail skillfully entreats other young women of the village to join her in employing the wiles and rituals of Tituba, a West Indies native, whose midnight naked dancing in the forest is glimpsed by Abigail’s uncle, the Rev. Samuel Parris [ Jason Butler Harner].  Convinced that his niece has been possessed by Satan, Parris sets off the chain reaction of recriminations and accusations, backed only by the girl’s wild rantings, swearing she can ‘see’ all manner of creatures and ‘natural’ phenomena – the work, she swears, of shape-shiftings.  Abigail [a chillingly intense Saoirse Ronan, whose Oscar-nominated turn in “Brooklyn” is still fresh in many memories] keeps upping the ante, and stops at nothing in her determination to damn Elizabeth, convinced that John will turn to her and she can lay claim to his affection and attention.

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The appeal of Ben Whishaw’s John is not that he embodies the traditional features and physical allure of actors who have played John, such as Daniel Day-Lewis or Liam Neeson or Yves Montand.  Whishaw’s John possesses a different kind of appeal – the vulnerable man-boy who provides an easy home for the girl/woman eager to control a seemingly weaker-willed mate, whose sex appeal is based on an almost puppy-dog charm – from Montgomery Clift to James Franco.  Director Ivo van Hove selected much of his cast cunningly, and included among that accolade is young Tavi Gevinson as Mary, Abigail’s most malleable accomplice.  Gevinson creates Mary’s initial attempts at breaking the hold Abigail has over the gaggle of teen-aged girls with such pathos that one almost believes she may succeed in exposing the lies and fabrications that Abigail keeps manufacturing.  In the end, though, she succumbs to the other girl’s mind control.   And while Sophie Okonedo plays through all the expected behaviors and postures usually associated with Elizabeth, she doesn’t give us the kind of hollow shell of a woman who we can imagine as once having the moral rectitude that a man like John would sacrifice his life for.  Joan Allen’s version, opposite Day-Lewis, better depicted the layers of emotion, conviction and repression that triggered John’s downfall.

But what about that tree stump reference?  The key to this play’s power, to its ability to mesmerize its audiences the same way that Abigail was able to mesmerize the children, then the adults and then the officials who kept the rules – that key is the fact that Abigail has invented her visions, whole cloth, describing what is not there, pulling the other girls into her wild-eyed ranting, who are always half a step behind in how they mimic the vengeful vixen.  We shudder to think how easily virtually every person, regardless of age or gender or depth of their religious convictions – how almost everyone swears that they ‘see’ what Abigail has described – and there’s nothing there.

Yet in this production, director van Hove, with his long-time collaborator, scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, do ‘show’ us.  Great and powerful gusts of gale-force wind slice through the stage, tossing people and things.  Flocks of pinpoint lights flutter and swoop over, under, around and through the proceedings.  When Abigail implores her Devil-hatched ‘yellow bird’ not to land on her head, a laser beam follows her command.

What are we to make of this?  Did the playwright want us to doubt whether there actually was a real satanic presence?   To ‘show’ us what is not there completely undercuts the power of this play.  When van Hove stripped away every set piece, every window and door, every hand prop and even the actors’ shoes, in his justifiably acclaimed production of “View From the Bridge” last year, the jointly arrived-at decision between director and designer served to focus on that play’s core, its essence, which exists in the playwright’s words.  Here, as shown in the photographs of Sara Krulwich, every scene takes place in the same warehouse-type industrial space, with only some benches and chairs, a door to an anteroom area, and slant-open windows to make do as stand-ins for, among other locations, the Proctors’ isolated farmhouse, the courtroom where the offenders are tried and convicted, Rev. Parris’s daughter’s bedroom,  a jail cell and the woods.

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This is the ‘fingerprint syndrome’ at work, wherein a director, with the assistance of a designer, feels the need to make some stark alterations that depart from the original script, to prove he/she was there.  And as often as not, the results tend to deviate from the playwright’s intentions, which were, certainly in the case of a writer of Miller’s caliber, very carefully set forth.  The ‘feel’ of an isolated farmhouse, which separates the Proctors from the majority of the townspeople and therefore from the hysteria that has taken hold, carries as much weight as the presence and participation of any character.  And the absence of any visual depiction of Abigail’s twisted, bitter imagination can freeze one’s blood.

A few seasons back, John Doyle gave each character in his revival production of “Sweeney Todd” an instrument to play, along with whatever lines, lyrics and movement they were required to deliver.  It created a sensation – innovative!  Creative!  Revealing!  The glowing notices just kept coming.  The following year, Doyle was tapped to direct a revival of “Company.”  If it worked then, the thinking must have been, let’s repeat it.  The result?  Bobby and Joann and the rest of the Manhattan sophisticates had to tote around a variety of musical instruments, with no justification for their presence.  I happened to be sitting in front of Elaine Stritch, of that musical’s original cast, and when I stopped to say hello when the performance ended, I asked what she thought.  Through clenched teeth and forced smile, came that unmistakable throaty voice.  “Well,” she managed to force out between her tight lips, “it’s different.”  So too this adaptation of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”   Better?  No.  Clearer?  No.  Just different, for the sake of being different.  Arthur may have chosen other words to describe the sorry loss of the play’s power.  It can be intense, a la “The Exorcist,” like any really scary flick can be.   But that’s not what he wrote.

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What Steve Martin and Edie Brickell wrote is an unapologetically tender, and bluegrass-tuneful new musical called “Bright Star.”  Gently moving back and forth between the 1920s and the 1940s in North Carolina, the bluegrass-inspired love story finds young Alice yearning to make her mark in the big wide world of literature.  And making her mark in the rough’n’tumble world of Broadway as Alice, is Carmen Cusack, a true discovery that will hit you with the same glorious sense of discovery that welcomed Jessie Mueller, when her numbers helped to rescue the ill-fated revival of “On a Clear Day.”  Here, Cusack’s in the central role, and she lights it up just like any bright shiny star should.  Her performance echoes the wide-eyed, high-spirited spunk that a young Mary Martin must have had when she was washing that man right outa her hair.  While the particulars of the story manage to juggle a handful of endearing secondary characters, it is Alice, along with her eventual intended, the disaffected mayor’s son Jimmy Ray [Paul Alexander Nolan], and the just-returned-from-WWII Billy [A.J.Shively], making a beeline for Asheville to get his short stories into print, plus the stay-at-home girl next door, Margo [Hannah Elless].  As the inevitable couplings take place, bust apart and then head for the altar, [TWO weddings!], our grown-up Alice becomes the editor of The Asheville Southern Journal, where the boy writer Billy submits piece after piece, until she buys one for $10.

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The necessary standard dance breaks make sure we don’t get stuck in the dirt, with especially inventive choreography, compliments of Josh Rhodes.  One really memorable dance number makes grand use of lanterns to illuminate the meadowlands at dusk.  Radiant sunsets provide plenty of romantic moments, giving us the picture of how we would have liked North Carolina to be, rather than how it actually was [or is?].  Director Walter Bobbie chose wisely when scenic designer Eugene Lee was taken on board – his single unit, open, no walls wooden structure glides across the stage from place to place, housing the rousing melody makers who keep things moving along at a brisk pace.

Like last season’s “Finding Neverland,” this new tuner really fits the bill for any parent wanting to introduce their teens to the pleasures of a shiny new Broadway musical, not afraid to honor sincerity as a virtue.  And while the lead roles may be filled by names not yet familiar to the general audience, that may not be true for much longer.  There are bright stars aplenty here.

And no Hollywood star shone more brightly than that of James Cagney, the scrappy Irish lad who went from pick-up boxer, to vaudeville female impersonator, then attention-grabbing roles on the New York stage of the 1920s.  His career skyrocketed,  via an explosion of tough-guy movie performances all through the Depression-era ’30s.  Jack Warner, one of the Brothers, decided to get ahead of the entertainment-hungry curve after seeing Cagney, with Joan Blondell, in Broadway’s “Penny Serenade.”  Warner, portrayed with an infectious jocularity by Bruce Sabath, built the screen persona image that gave Cagney steady work for most of that decade, milking every possible gangster story line, and pairing Cagney with some of the screen’s most bankable female stars, such as Ann Sheridan and Sylvia Sidney.  Cagney basked in his new-found fame, and in his ability to pull his family out of its financial straits.  No fool he, Cagney insisted that he always be cast opposite guys taller than he was – he wanted to be seen ‘punching up.’

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And the sprightly new bio-musical “Cagney,” at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs, recreates some of his career and personal highlights.  While the structure of the piece feels more like a collection of vignettes, there’s no denying that the production struck gold with its leading man, Robert Creighton, who bears much more than a passing resemblance to the title character.  Already a Broadway veteran, with half a dozen shows on his resume, including “Anything Goes,” “The Lion King” and “Chicago,” Creighton delivers bigtime on the other feature that gave Cagney his unique place in Hollywood history – he was equally at home as a two-fisted rowdy, pounding the daylights out of anybody who gives him the double-cross, as he was pounding out staccato rhythms with his tap shoes.

An aside about the theatre: producers and scenic designer James Morgan have tricked out the interior of the Westside Theatre to resemble those opulent movie palaces that gave work-weary men and women the chance to feel like they had escaped into a fantasy world for two or three hours, lost in the loves and battles of those larger-than-life silver screen legends.   They’ve even papered its walls with movie posters that used to grace lobbies, where we come face-to-face with titles such as “Hard to Handle,” and “Blonde Crazy,” and “The Mayor of Hell.”

Creighton also collaborated with Christopher McGovern, on music and lyrics.  Peter Colley’s episodic book does its best to connect Cagney’s touchstones, even as he sparred with Warner over the direction of his career.  The writers chose the familiar framing device of showing a central character and his nemesis at the start of proceedings, and then revisiting them throughout the show – in this instance, we see Cagney and Warner settling for an uneasy truce at a SAG Awards event.  And contrary to Warner’s advice, Cagney was savvy enough to take on the role of a lifetime – impersonating  the legendary song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  At the other end of the spectrum from his usual fists-flying toughs, the Cohan role won him the 1942 Oscar as Best Actor.

The very-hard-working, six-member cast depicts dozens of men and women who threaded through Cagney’s life, from his family growing up, to the screen starlet Mae Clarke, who will forever be remembered as the dame who got that grapefruit in the face, in “Public Enemy,” to screen colleagues such as Bob Hope, who saw real potential in the newcomer.  While all six deserve kudos, Danette Holden pins down a vivid variety of roles, including Ma Cagney.  Ms. Holden could easily be passed off as a younger version of comedy great Jane Curtain.

Along with belting out the musical numbers, and giving the gangster types what-for, “Cagney” reveals the personal side of this star’s trials, when he stood up to studio bosses in support of labor union causes.  He defied Warner,  when Warner warned him about the dangers of his political activism. “I own you,” the mogul boasts.  Cagney calls his bluff, quits the studio, and launches his own production company.

If you have spent any time taking in great Cagney screen classics on TCM, such as “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “White Heat,” “The Roaring Twenties,” and dozens more, the references will resonate, but even if you don’t count yourself among the initiated, “Cagney” tells a truly unique rags-to-riches, American dream life story, the little guy who could, and did.

 

AfterPlay

 

The venerable Drilling Company returns for another warm-weather season of their series “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot,” which will feature its third at Bryant Park, 42nd Street at 6th Avenue.  The free productions include “Much Ado About Nothing,” “As You Like It” and “Measure for Measure,” beginning May 19.  They will also honor the Bard’s 452nd birthday with a special program on April 22.  In addition, they perform in the parking lot behind The Clemente, 114 Norfolk Street.  Visit shakespeareintheparkinglot.com for details . . . the new play “Harper Regan,” from English playwright Simon Stephens, will be presented at the T. Schreiber Theatre, 151 west 26th street from May 4 through June 4.  Stephens is the Tony Award-winning writer of the astonishing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”  Visit www.tschreiber.org to learn more.

 

On Book

 

If you’d like a more comprehensive overview of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” here are a few sources to check out:  the Penguin Books paperback edition of the play, which includes a thorough, enlightening Introduction by Christopher Bigsby . . . Miller’s exhastive autobiography “Timebends” relates  how he came to write the play . . . and Elia Kazan’s “A Life” relates how the famed director brought the original production to the stage . . . and to put the life and career of George M. Cohan in perspective, the beautifully appointed “Broadway: The American Musical” chronicles his legendary performances on the Great White Way.

 

In Remembrance

anne jackson

 

Last week, one of the American theatre’s true treasures passed away.  Anne Jackson died at age 90, having worked for more than six decades on and off Broadway, including a remarkable thirteen times with her late husband, Eli Wallach.  The Wallachs were a favorite pair of playwright Murray Schisgal – they appeared in four of his plays.  She met her husband when both were cast in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “This Property is Condemned,” in 1946, and they were married two years later.  They remained close to Williams, and together or separately, appeared in several of his plays, such as “The Glass Menagerie,” and “Summer and Smoke.”   I had the great privilege, ten years ago, of writing and producing “A Life in the Theatre: Onstage and Off – A Tribute to Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach,”  celebrating the couple’s half century together.  As noted that night, one of the most memorable things about Anne was her spontaneous, joyful laugh.  The laugh is gone now, but her place in the hearts of those who worked with her, knew her, or saw her work remains strong.

 

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, “Character Studies.”  His play “Admissions” was a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written nine other plays and musicals, along with countless articles about the performing arts, for dozens of publications, including Parade, Dramatics Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone and USA Today.  His play “Labor Days” is in pre-production.  Mr. Vellela has also taught theatre-related classes at HB Studio, the 92nd St. Y, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and the New School, among others.

 

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

 

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Intermission Talk

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016

“Blackbird” Says

“She Loves Me”

to “The Humans”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

 

Folks of a certain age can still generate a wistful smile when hearing the song title “Will He Like Me?”  Their memory tape recorder involuntarily re-plays the plaintive, achingly emotional voice of a young Barbra Streisand, from her 1964 blockbuster album “People,” its lyrics worrying over the fate of a young woman’s pending, terrifying ‘blind’ date she agreed to.  As she often did during the early years of her nascent career, Streisand plucked haunting little gems from current Broadway and off -Broadway shows.  [Recall that her rep was launched via musical theatre, by the 1962 Tony Award-nominated supporting character Miss Marmelstein, in the Broadway tuner “I Can Get  It For You Wholesale.”]   On the “People” album, her fourth, “Will He Like Me? ” was borrowed from Jerry Bock’s music and Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics for their 1964 Broadway hit, “She Loves Me,” starring the effervescent Barbara Cook.  And for those who are fortunate enough to visit the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current sparkling revival, that same heart-rending lyric is delivered by Laura Benanti.  Attempting comparisons is a bogus exercise – her shop clerk Amalia possesses all the qualities of the original, including a crystalline soprano voice that knows just what to do with that Bock/Harnick gem.

And everything about this revival does sparkle.  The story is familiar: two shy, lovelorn young people decide to avail themselves of a lonely-hearts club, writing anonymous letters to each other, hoping to find a soul-mate.  Period.  No smutty stuff.  No double entendres messages.  And here, as in other incarnations of this storyline, they both, cluelessly, work at the same place – a 1930s Budapest perfume/cosmetics shop, run by a gruff but heart-of-gold proprietor.  [Here’s what you might be trying to recollect about its same basic story: first, a straight play by Miklos Laszlo; then the 1940 Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy “The Shop Around the Corner,” with Margaret Sullivan, James Stewart and Frank Morgan; followed by the 1949 Hollywood musical valentine directed by Robert Z. Leonard, “In the Good Old Summertime,” starring Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S. Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall, and a very young Liza in the picture’s final moments, and later, the 1998 Nora Efron comedy “You’ve Got Mail,” with Meg Ryan owning a neighborhood bookshop, and Tom Hanks, the head of a superstore chain poised to put her out of business.]

“She Loves Me” can finally, courtesy in part due to the unobtrusive direction here by Scott Ellis, move into the first ranks of beloved American musical theatre classics.  Its 1964 debut came in a season also blessed with the multi-award winning “Hello, Dolly!” and ironically, “Funny Girl,” which gave Streisand her second nomination, losing out to Mrs. Levi.   Benanti’s Amalia possesses that elusive quality that, decades earlier, almost cost  Mary Richards her job at that Minneapolis T-V station: spunk.

shelovesmetwo

As the other half of the meet-cute pair, Zachary Levi as Georg [no relation to Dolly], keeps his charm factor just to the left of a little goofy in a kind of endearing manner.  He’s a dedicated worker, and no lady-killer sales clerk like Kodaly [Gavin Creel], whose snarkiness has conquered the heart and willpower of Ilona, the only other female of the sales force, a stunning Jane Krakowski.  In another role that showcases her virtuosity as well as her appeal, Krakowski never overshadows Benanti’s position, which is a balancing act many women either resist or can’t accomplish.  Ever since she blew the roof off the bar in the Grand Hotel, Broadway audiences have been waiting to see  her as the central character in a grand musical.  Perhaps some adventurous producer can imagine keeping her natural glamorous persona in cheque and reward her with a no-holds-barred revival of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” or ‘No Strings,” or “The Pajama Game.”  Until then, relish her work in “She Loves Me,” including her confessional solo “A Trip to the Library.”  [And if it seems familiar, it may be because composer Jerry Bock seems to have lifted, note for note, the opening stanzas of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.”  But,  no harm done.]

shelovesmejane

Here’s another prime example for the Tony Awards committee to consider a Best Ensemble Cast Award – every role is delivered with the kind of finesse and allure that good musicals require.  Byron Jennings tweaks the tenderness out of shop-owner Maraczek; Michael McGrath shines as longtime go-along get-along clerk Sipos,  coming through as a secret Cupid; the delivery boy with big dreams, portrayed by a young Nicholas Barasch, possesses even bigger talent, and as the apoplectic head waiter, Peter Bartlett, like Ms. Krakowski, finally deserves his own central character spotlight.   Maybe the Bert Lahr vehicle “Foxy?”

shelovesmeset

Overall, “She Loves Me” is a dazzler, without the gaudiness that might imply.  Seeing this exquisite set, as they used to say, is worth the price of admission.  Is the interior of a Faberge egg gaudy?  This is another design masterwork from David Rockwell, and maybe he’ll earn his sixth Tony nomination that will lead to the award.

When Georg musters the courage to visit homebound Amalia, nursing a cold, his get well gift is vanilla ice cream, also the title of one of the show’s lovely numbers.  And in those days, ice cream didn’t get pumped out from a metal contraption in a factory somewhere.  It was handmade, carefully crafted, so superior to today’s artificial, manufactured products.  And that’s the reason you’ll enjoy this production – every detail carefully chosen and put together.  Perfection.

One does wonder whether successful playwrights ever spend a few moments to thank the gods of the performing arts for the dedicated work of great actors, who infuse so much focused creative energy into the process of bringing their characters to life – often, eight times a week.  There are two acclaimed dramas now on the Broadway boards – “Blackbird” and “The Humans”   – that deserve it.  Nightly.

If you’ve already tuned in to, or read any of the notices about David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” you’ll already know the bones of his drama, which went down fifteen years ago.  Ray [a slightly paunchy fifty-something-year-old office worker, the believably harried Jeff Daniels] and Una [Michelle Williams, as a slim, scarily intense twenty-seven year old], stalk each other in the grimy, fluorescent-lit break room of an anonymous company.   Details of their sensational sexual relationship [he was forty; she was twelve] remain unstated only a few minutes in, during this intermission-less scorcher.  His rape conviction led to his loss of employment, residence, social standing, even emotional stability.  They never saw each other after he clumsily left her alone in a motel room, and she fearfully wandered the strange town looking for him, and instead, found herself taken in by strangers who contacted her family and the police.  She testified inside a closed room; they had no contact from then til now.

And when the door to the empty employees’ break room swings open, no one is there to acknowledge Una’s defiant entrance.  Moments later, Ray’s reaction when he arrives: anger, fear, defiance, confusion, all at the same time.  Una’s reaction to his reaction: unspecific threat.

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When two people who are or have been any kind of couple, and the plot is not romantic, the text must carefully relate why they are together again.   And in “Blackbird,” she taunts him with her power to again torpedo his newly-reclaimed life, which he says now includes a woman he loves, who loves him.  Their shared history, with its almost innocent bits and pieces of their mutual flirtations, that led to the doomed weekend, mount up, and frame a tabloid tale revealing two people, both outsiders, who allowed – rather encouraged the taboo attraction.  And now, after believing that his past had been atoned for and his present safely protected, his accuser returns, but does not indicate exactly why.

Harrower has written – no, given birth to – two characters with so much emotional baggage, so many barely-healed scars, so few choices in the matter of renewed association, that our curiosity peaks early, replaced by being maneuvered into the role of audience to a spectator [almost] blood sport.  They are George and Martha, going at each other, whether or not we care to let them.  She is his Lolita.  He is the one who learned her how to drive.

Here’s where the ‘thank you, God’ comes in.  All the snarls and choke-holds, the gamut of assaults, the reversals, the inflicted damages of “Blackbird,” – they all leap across the stage and into our laps, because Daniels and Williams know how to do this, how to take well-crafted text, swallow it up, and thrust it out into our laps, slapping us across the face with fire-stoked fierceness, wisely selecting when to pause and when to shout.  Make no mistake – this is superior dialogue-writing.  But it’s by no means actor-proof.  If there’s a reason to see “Blackbird,” it’s not because the story of these two people will surprise or shock or cover new territory.  It is because Daniels and Williams know, really know what great actors do – they elevate the writing, and take the audience along for the experience.

The new play “The Humans,” by Stephen Karam, is a chronicle, because, like “Blackbird,” it unfolds in real time, one of the more challenging playwriting formats to conquer.  And Karam does that.  Five members of an immediate family convene for a Thanksgiving dinner in the newly-rented Chinatown apartment of Brigid, the younger daughter, whose boyfriend Rick shares the space as the sixth member of this cast.  And the events that constitute the play are the events that have likely presented themselves in hundreds, thousands of Thanksgiving dinners during the last decade or so . . . lost pensions and related money issues, aggravated medical conditions, broken loving relationships, dementia, the questioning of religious beliefs.

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The Blakes are solidly lower middle class.  To label them part of ‘the American middle class’ is to pretend that their income levels put up against their rising routine costs of living can still allow them to enjoy what used to be thought of as middle class amenities:  a home securely-owned, a rather new car that runs well, college-educated children, a pension-assured job, debt that could be managed, an annual vacation.

That’s not the Blakes.   Older daughter Aimee [a seriously well-drawn Cassie Beck] has lost her law-firm job, and she believes it’s because she is undergoing escalating medical problems, and her long-term relationship with her girlfriend just ended;   Deirdre, the mother [another mesmerizing performance from the matchless Jayne Houdyshell] barely hides her resentment at being made accountable to two new bosses half her age and who draw salaries many times higher than hers; Erik, the father [a deceptively natural performance from Reed Birney] whose maintenance job at a private school is a new source of problems] and Lauren Klein’s ‘Momo,’ Erik’s mother, whose dementia complicates her physical disabilities that confine her most of the time to a wheelchair.

Every character, including Brigid, whose foundering career as a composer that means her means of support is bar-tending, has immediate, sometimes devastating difficulties.  And as facile as it might be to describe them as functions of lack of money, they go much, much deeper.   Rick, whose family has made sure he inherits a tidy trust fund when he reaches forty, in two years’ time, still wrestles with questions of career choice and relationship commitment.

Humans, The Laura Pels Theatre Cast List: Cassie Beck  Reed Birney Jayne Houdyshell Lauren Klein Arian Moayed Sarah Steele  Production Credits: Joe Mantello (director) David Zinn (scenic design) Sarah Laux (costume design) Justin Townsend (lighting design) Fitz Patton (sound design) Other Credits: Written by: Stephen Karam -

“The Humans” is titled from a comic book that Rick grew to like, wherein aliens [I think this is right] who have taken up residence on Earth, unbeknownst to the native population, find amusement in the troubles and trials of the life forms that populate this blue-ish planet.  Karam, too, reaches for humor from time to time in relating the aliens’ discoveries about us homo sapiens.  To them, the details of the lives of the Blakes and almost son-in-law Rick could certainly register as the stuff of reality T-V that get revealed, bit by bit, over time, except here, the revelations are paced to be revealed during one Thanksgiving dinner.  And at play’s end, no neat-‘n’-tidy solutions have emerged.

And here, too, despite how un-alike their circumstances are, it’s possible to note that one element that links “The Humans” and “Blackbird:” both plays register as strongly as they have in recent weeks because they have been blessed with stunning performances.  “The Humans” features enough over-lapping dialogue to present the appearance of real life.  “Blackbird” features enough abridged conversational phrasing to present the appearance of personal riffing with an adversary.   They both bristle with enough proper nouns [town names, for instance, or local places] to present the sounds of real people talking about real places and times.

When “August: Osage County” emerged a few seasons back to its very deservedly highly acclaimed status, it was its naturalness that gripped its audiences.  What each character was doing, had done or planned to do provided more than enough substance to keep us engaged, to challenge our imaginations and traditional thinking, our sense of morality and civility and decency.  Those theatrical conventions exist here as there, except that in this case – and in a way this makes it even more accessible – this family is smaller, these problems are more common and the level of expectation for resolutions is not as high.  When an audience in a theatre, watching outstanding, live actors re-create well-drawn characters in compelling circumstances, the result is the same.  We appreciate it.  But remove the ‘outstanding’ adjective from ‘live actors’ and you’ve got melodrama.  If that’s what we want, we can watch political coverage on the news.

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AfterPlay

A different view of politics can seen and enjoyed at “Votes,” by Jacqueline S. Salit and Fred Newman, with a score by Annie Roboff, that depicts what happens when a former First Lady and Secretary of State, on Election Eve, has the evening interrupted by an unexpected [and unwelcome] guest.  Details are at www.jsnyc.com/season/votes.htm.   It’s running from April 1 to May 8 at the Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street . . . Will Eno’s “The Realistic Joneses” kicks off the Voice theatre’s new spring reading series, on March 31, followed by Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” on April 7 – check it out at www.facebook.com/voicetheatre . . . and you say you want more theatre listening?  Can’t beat listening to Emma Thompson and Richard Armitage tell the tale of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”  It’s from Audible, an amazon company.  Can you hear me now?

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.”  His 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 Press.  He has written several other plays and musicals, countless magazine and newspaper articles about the performing arts for Parade, Rolling Stone, Dramatics magazine, The Christian Science Monitor,  Reader’s Digest, Theatre Week and several other publications and news services. He has taught theatre classes at Columbia University Teacher’s College, HB Studio, Lehman College and other institutions and arts organizations across the country.  His next session at the 92nd St. Y, titled “The Darker Side of ‘Our Town'” will take place on Monday, June 20 and Tuesday, June 21 – contact www.92Y.org for details.  His new play “Labor Days” is in pre-production.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some People Excel At Blue Rocket Reviews And Some Dont – Which One Are You proappstraining.com

Monday, March 14th, 2016

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Intermission Talk

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Don’t Ask “Dot”

About “Our Mother’s

Brief Affair.”

by TONY VELLELA

 

It’s a certainty that Kander and Ebb did not have Dot and Anna in mind when they penned “Two Ladies” for “Cabaret,” in 1967.  But one thing is certain – the title characters in “Dot,” at off-Broadway’s  Vineyard Theatre, and in “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” at Broadway’s Friedman Theatre, could both have lived at that time.

dot1

Relatively new “Dot” playwright Colman Domingo sets his story in present-day West Philadelphia, where three millenial-age children take different approaches to how their beloved, and still-lively mother is functioning as she develops the early stages of dementia.  Responsibly-motivated Shelly,a lawyer, still resides near the family home where their mother still lives.  Struggling music journalist Donnie now co-habits with his husband in New York City.  And the youngest, Averie, lives in Shelly’s basement, indulging in over-the-top behavior as she nurses an acting fantasy.  On the days before Christmas, Shelly insists on forcing her siblings to take more of an active role in caring for Mom.

Family dramas that find tension relief with comedy moments often fail to present the serious side of their stories.  Yet Domingo manages to craft all those moments when Dotty’s mind leaves the present, and takes up residence in the past, with the seriousness they demand.  Hers is a vivid memory bank, which makes her conversational exchanges with her children, with Donnie’s loving husband Adam, with Kazakhstani home care worker Fidel, and with family friend Jackie, all provide the broader picture of what this household once was, and for all of them, still does – a safe, congenial, laughter-bound home for all who enter.

As eldest daughter Shelly, a lawyer whose life has been taken over by the demands of looking after her mother’s welfare, Sharon Washington presents a character at her wit’s end.  When we first meet her and Dot in the bright family kitchen, the daughter is frantically trying to fry eggs for her mother’s breakfast, maneuver her mother into signing much-needed power of attorney papers, and getting the lady to take her pills.  It’s a scenario that is just short of slapstick, and one does wonder how these tasks could so totally defeat her.  What Domingo has done, though, is depict the shared characteristics of mother & daughter – they both refuse to have events defeat them.  A less strong mother might not have reared a so-strong daughter.

dot2

Gay son Donnie also inherits some of his mother’s traits, namely a desire to foster a family, a goal not fully shared by his husband.  Their internal relationship issues do surface from time to time, clouding the real agenda – caring for Dot – that should be front and center during their visit.  Stephen Conrad Moore’s Donnie, and Colin Hanlon’s Adam stick to their assigned roles as circumstantial characters, even when the presence of Donnie’s high school sweetheart Jackie [a thoroughly compelling Finnerty Steeves] muddies up the story lines, as she reveals her unplanned pregnancy by a married man.  It’s easy to see why Jackie would seek refuge in this family, which must have been one of the more welcoming residences on the block decades ago.

Come-back lines, sight gags, witty retorts and plays on words pepper the script, in the manner of early Neil Simon.  The play’s internal structure follows the reliable connect-the-dots format that defined comedy vehicles, on stage and in some television sitcoms of the mid-sixties era, minus any dramatic elements .  Two aspects of “Dot” separate it from those works: the marquee name attached to this production belongs not to the stars, or the playwright, but to the director, Susan Stroman, making her entry smoothly as a director of a straight play, and demonstrating that her Tony Awards for many musicals do not limit her abilities.  The second aspect of “Dot” that distinguishes it from comedies of years past is the family’s racial make-up.  As an African-American family dealing with the recurring assaults of dementia that keep visiting Dot, it makes clear that her condition, and the way her family and friends deal with it, know no racial boundaries.  Giving us Dotty’s life-long vigor and forceful refusal to let the memory loss define her, Marjorie Johnson captures the whole person, who she is now, and who she has always been, in a performance that ranks among the season’s most memorable.

The other ‘lady’ treading the boards now has the opposite relationship with the subject of memory.  In Richard Greenberg’s surprisingly satisfying “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” Linda Lavin’s Anna insists that her Long Island Jewish identity holds more secrets than her two adult children ever knew, or seemingly care to know about.  They are rightly suspicious that Anna’s tales of forbidden liaisons with a dangerous cohort when her children were in their teens is nothing more than a product of incipient Alzheimer’s.  She insists otherwise.

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Greenberg, an acclaimed accomplished wordsmith, again shows off his talents with character creation, giving Anna two children whose lives smack of details that enrich the story – her boy Seth [a solid Greg Keller] is a gay New York obituary writer, and his sister Abby [charming Kate Arrington] is raising a daughter with her girlfriend, and works as a librarian in California.  Because both children deal in life stories in one way or another, their mother seems inclined to punch up her own life story while she still has the chance.  Why relate this dark chapter now, she is asked.  “I wanted to be known,” she replies, matter-of-factly.  Do her riotously randy rendezvous retellings reflect reality?  Does it matter?

Greenberg has given us a great gift – another role that provides Lavin with an opportunity to display her uncanny sense of comic timing.  Hers is a talent still uncommon – it echoes the genius of Nancy Walker on film, or Imogene Coca on television – when almost any half-decent humorous script provides a launching pad for these women to soar.  It’s timing, timing, timing, and you can witness it also in carriage as well as speech – see Lavin move about with carefully-metered steps, when not even four-inch heels can alter her perfect pacing.  Director Lynn Meadow seems to have found Greenberg’s tailoring of the daughter’s character to show how she is her mother’s child – whining and all.  This is a comedy master class for any young woman seeking to make a name for herself as an actress able to tackle comic roles.  For the rest of us, it’s simply a gift.

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Both “Dot” and “Our Mother’s Brief Affair” break no new ground when it comes to writing style.  With very few alterations, you could be told they were revivals of forty-year-old plays and believe it.  But at a time when experimenting with form results in lack of substance, they are welcome offerings indeed.

AfterPlay

Acclaimed poet and writer Jose Roldan, Jr. brings his captivating solo show “Father, Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned”  back to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe through the end of March.  The award-winning solo show chronicles  Roldan’s devastating journey of self-discovery as a gay male in a Latino culture in The Bronx in the 1980’s, and merits a visit downtown.  The Cafe’s website has details . . . now for something entirely different downtown, and not even in the category of ‘theatre,’ the South Street Seaport Museum opens a fascinating exhibit of artifacts in its main lobby, at 12 Fulton Street, on March 17.  Google the South Street Seaport for details . . . marrying Broadway and the Bard, veteran stage actor Len Cariou performs an evening of Shakespeare and song at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row.  Performances continue until March 6.

On Book

It’s indeed noteworthy that Colman Domingo’s “Dot” relies not at all on the racial heritage of its central characters as any kind of important element in the play’s story line.  To gauge how some of the best-known plays by African Americans handled their topics in the period between 1935 and the end of the last century, consult “Black Theatre USA,” from the Free Press, compiled by James V. Hatch and Ted Shine … and to delve deeper into the world of the Bard, check out “That Man Shakespeare,” by David Ellis.  Subtitled “An Icon of Modern Culture,” this comprehensive tome provides a thorough overview of the man and his lasting influence on literature for the ages . . . and to prepare yourself for the current revival of Eugene O’Neill’s

“Hughie,” find it with several other shorter works from the legendary playwright in “Collected Shorter Plays,” from Yale University Press, featuring an introduction by Robert Brustein.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre “Character Studies.”  His New York International Fringe Festival Best Play winner “Admissions” is published by Playscripts.  His play “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre,” is published by ArtAge Press.  He has written about the performing arts for Life Magazine, Dramatics magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Reader’s Digest, Parade and dozens of other publications during a forty-year journalism career.  He currently teaches theatre sessions at the 92nd St. Y.  His new play “Labor Days,” is in pre-production.

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

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Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

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Intermission Talk

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Turn All “Noises Off”

and Listen to the

“Fiddler on the Roof”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

Some years ago, the Screen Actors Guild, in an effort [one supposes] at increasing its influence in the choice of the Best Picture Oscar, invented its own award for best ensemble acting in a motion picture.  Since movies are shot in small segments, out of order and practically never with the entire cast in any one scene, the idea that an ensemble sensibility even exists is questionable.  But there you are.  This is referenced because the place where a genuine ensemble effort does exist is on the stage.  And if ever there were to be a special Tony Award for Best Ensemble Acting by a Cast, its hands-down recipient this season would be the very game gang over at the American Airlines Theatre, turning in spectacular work in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s current revival of Michael Frayn’s by-now classic farce, “Noises Off.”

Simply stated, the premise follows a second-tier collection of British actors as they stumble through the final rehearsal of the comedy “Nothing On,” when practically nothing works.  We then see how it all looks in performance from backstage, and finally, how the finished product plays out near the end of its tour.  Under Jeremy Herrin’s razor-sharp direction, unfolding in the dual sets by design master Derek McLane, this randy collection of actors, director, stage manager and stagehand attempting to salvage a minimally viable performance generates enough smiles, giggles, laughs and guffaws to keep you warmed up for the rest of the winter.

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The ‘marquee’ name they hope will attract an audience in the provinces belongs to the somewhat dotty Dotty Otley, late of a telly sitcom in the role of a lollipop lady [crossing-guardian].  And in the hands of veteran comic actress Andrea Martin, her every moment on and off stage rings true with fuzzy execution, muddled delivery and wide-eyed wonder.  And just as the producers of that fictional farce were wise to place Dotty center stage, so too were the producers of this revival, to entrust this key character to Ms. Martin.  Hers is a career that has been on an upward trajectory ever since I first visited her and fellow cast-members of Toronto’s Second City in 1978, when they were producing the now-fabled comedy series “SCTV.”  Along with Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, John Candy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and a few others, they wrote and performed comedy gems, and earned their creds onstage at Toronto’s Old Firehouse, where improv routines spilled out every weekend.  And then as now, Martin’s quicksilver timing, fearless delivery, self-assured presence and generous spirit toward fellow cast-members sets the tone for the entire endeavor.

When the dim-bulb, sex kitten character recalling Diana Dors and Barbara Nichols, played by Megan Hilty makes her initial entrance onto the ‘Nothing On’ living room set, and proclaims  “All these DOORS !!,” she says it all.  Every good farce is fashioned around wrong entrances, and here, they’ve got [by my recollection] nine to choose from.  Hilty adds a touch of verisimilitude to her character by silently mouthing every other actor’s lines, trying to keep her place.  That practice is just one of many this cast carries out so splendidly.  As an insecure actor desperate to discover his motivation for every moment’s movement, Jeremy Shamos provides comic moments Buster Keaton fans would relish.  Rob McClure’s shattered-nerves stagehand can’t control his high-voltage shakes when pushed into any under-rehearsed understudy’s nightmare, going on at the last minute.  In fact, every cast member in either play fills out mildly lurid backstories and sadly misfiring romances, to perfection.

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The entire midsection of the piece displays what’s happening backstage during a chaotic first act performance, which means very little dialogue is permitted.  This gives the section a silent-movie quality, when it’s all gestures and motions, and, as Norma Desmond would say, “Faces.”  Playing a mindless, memory-challenged housekeeper, Andrea Martin brings to mind some of the past female greats of this very difficult art, such as Britain’s  Hermione Baddeley, Joyce Grenfell and Gracie Fields, and America’s other beloved Gracie, Gracie Allen..  Her Dotty wrestles throughout with a disappearing, errant plate of sardines, which plague her every moment.  And anyone who seems intent on finding fault with this stunning production may be confusing sardines for carp.

Gestures play a silent role in the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” where the endlessly versatile Jessica Hecht displays the kind of heartfelt, loving care for her five daughters with her hands.  Watch as Momma Golde caresses their cheeks, smoothes down their hair, strokes shoulders, always in service of reassuring her offspring that God will provide, even when Poppa isn’t able to.  Hers is a story-teller’s art, showing when telling isn’t always enough.

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And Poppa’s hands tell their own tale.  Five-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein gives his Tevye an Everyman quality, so eager not to offend his God when his hands rise up to heaven to plead for a little relief.  “Fiddler” remains one of Broadway’s most beloved musical creations, showcasing the brilliance of book-writer Joseph Stein, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick.  Based on the Sholom Aleichem stories of life during the Russian upheavals that exiled Jews from their centuries-old homelands, it’s a plot-heavy work – when Burstein famously reminds God that he has ‘blessed’ him with five daughters to marry off, it foretells the challenge of keeping all their personalities and destinies distinct and still moving.  Director Bartlett Sher wisely assisted in guiding set designer Michael Yeargan’s vision for this revival, keeping stage pieces to a minimum, without creating a meager landscape.  The little village of Anatevka that we see reflects its simple, basic construct.  What Sher has used, to fill out the landscape, is people.   His cast of thirty-six townspeople, tavern owners, butchers, tailors, and the indomitable matchmaker Yente bring a real place to life.  There’s just enough variety in the browns and greys of Catherine Zuber’s costumes to indicate poverty, the abandonment of self-esteem.  And the fresh take on their dances by choreographer Hofesh Schecter does not diminish the memory of original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins.

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This plain-folk sentiment is embodied so effectively by Burstein, an average-size man who struggles so movingly with the forces of tradition and change that threaten to shred the very fabric of their lives, and at the same time, to inform the to-their-parents almost shocking choices of the daughters.  Notice, for instance, how the behavior of second daughter Hodel [the luminous Samantha Massell] reflects the movements of the mother, a tribute to the performances of both women.  And among the tide of young men considering the daughters as potential mates, note especially how Adam Kantor’s timid tailor Motel, and Ben Rappaport’s determined student Perchik make every moment count, always aware that their very presence is enough to disrupt their hoped-for unions with two of the daughters.

Despite its revered place in Broadway history, “Fiddler on the Roof” remains a tricky business to put over – so many emotions, so many traditions, so many conflicts – and how to balance the serious, even somber cords that bind these multi-generational families, friends, neighbors, loved ones and enemies, all competing for the right to exist on their own terms.  Happily, this version finds that balance.  And the fiddler remains standing, sure-footed and steady, on the roof.

AfterPlay

The clever Paper Canoe Theater Company initiates its new family-oriented production “A Sock’s Fables,” with apologies to Aesop, running from February 6 to March 13, and includes a special free puppet-making workshop.  Details of the Brooklyn-based endeavor are available at http://www.papercanoecompany.com . . another family-based series is already underway via Theatreworks USA at The Kaye Playhouse, including shows featuring Curious George, Skippyjon Jones and Henry and Mudge.   Check it out at www.hunter.cuny.edu/kayeplayhouse. . . the Theatre Development Fund (TDF) has updated its popular TKTS App to simplify the purchase of the least expensive same-day tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows.  You may download the Official TKTS App free of charge at the iTunes app store, android store or at www.tdf.org/tktsapp. . . and the acclaimed Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg returns to BAM with Chekhov’s final masterpiece, “The Cherry Orchard,” from for four performances in mid-February.  Contact www.BAM.org, or phone 718-636-4129.

On Book

There’s an old show biz adage, that goes something like “Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”  Look no further than the American Airlines Theatre’s sparkling rendition of “Noises Off” to appreciate its message.  And a good deal of contemporary comedy owes its origins to those brave, hearty souls known as stand-up comedians.  Just close your eyes for ten seconds and imagine yourself in front of a marginally hostile room full of people who are determined to not laugh.  Okay, eyes open.  And cast them onto three very informative and educational books on the subject.  In one of the most comprehensive overview historical deliveries on any subject, Kliph Nesteroff’s superb chronicle, “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy” from Grove Press, will keep you enthralled, with its wonderful mix of notes, quotes and anecdotes about where our world of comedy came from, how it rewarded some and punished others, and what to look for when trying to satisfy your own personal likes and dislikes when it comes to humor . . . to get behind the serious business of funny, Sophie Quirk’s “Why Stand-Up Matters – How Comedians Manipulate and Influence” from Bloomsbury Publishing, will enlighten and surprise you . . . and the man most often credited with shaping the style and sensibility of this generation of comics is revealed in the Harper Perennial book, “Becoming Richard Pryor,” by Scott Saul . . . and just in time for Black History Month, Square One Publishers has released Steward F. Lane’s remarkably comprehensive “Black Broadway: African-Americans on the Great White Way.”  From its origins in the nineteenth century, right up to landmark productions such as “The Color Purple,” Lane incorporates observations not only from marquee actors, but also from the producers, designers and directors who have been responsible for seeing that we all get to see these great accomplishments.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series on theatre, “Character Studies.”  His Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival is published by Playscripts, and ‘Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” by Art Age Press.  He has written several other plays and musicals, countless magazine and newspaper articles about the performing arts for Parade, Dramatics Magazine, Rolling Stone, Theatre Week, Reader’s Digest and several other publications.  He has taught theatre courses at Columbia University Teacher’s College, the New School, HB Studio, Lehman College and other institutions and arts centers across the country.  Currently, his sessions on all aspects of theatre are offered at the 92nd St. Y – his next series, on every Tuesday morning in March, is titled “Let the Sons Shine In,” examining in detail the male central characters in “The Glass Menagerie,” The Seagull,” “The Rose Tattoo” and “Our Town.”  Visit 92Y.org for details.

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

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