Intermission Talk

If You “Come From Away,”

Don’t “Sweat” “The Price”

 

by TONY VELLELA

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Play

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

On Book

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

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

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

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