Thursday, September 15, 2011

THEATER: The Invested

As we've seen over the last few years, greed may not actually be all that good for the economy, but when it comes to the theater, the bubble on Wall Street dramas hasn't even come close to bursting. Sharyn Rothstein's The Invested won't be the play that pops it, but neither is it a play that particularly pops. While there are some sure-fire zingers, most delivered by Bill Enoch (Thomas Hildreth), the shady new CEO of "MetroBank" (see if you can figure out which institution this represents), Ron Canada's presentation and Rothstein's plotting is fairly tame, yoked to a sexism-related subplot that never makes it off the back-burner.

Some key research seems to be missing, which leads the play to rely so heavily on the emotional reactions of the passed-over, would-be-CEO Catherine Murdock (Christina Haag) that it never adequately explains what this fund has actually done, nor what its massive downgrade and the subsequent internecine conflict between Bill and Catherine means. We're told that investments are "iffy," just as board member Jane Griffin (the fabulous Judith Hawking) only ever tells us that she's fighting for Catherine. As for stakes, long-time client Sid Simon (Bill Cwikowski, turning a stereotype into a down-to-earth hoot) puts such a human face on them that Murdock is driven (by her heart and the scale model of the Code of Hammurabi on her desk) to reimburse Sid's losses out of the bank's own pocket. That problem solved, the play spends the rest of its time worrying only about Murdock's job, and frankly, that's an uninteresting one, given her multimillion-dollar status.

What one looks for in a bank is akin to what one looks for in a show: a strong identity, a great deal of focus, and a high return on investment (time, money, etc.). What The Invested delivers is a potent premise; a wandering plot that lingers on Catherine's adorably naive new assistant, Madeline (Turna Mete, who is likeable enough to merit her own play), and her improbable involvement with the married, annoying, office clown Henry (Michael Daniel Anderson); and an only somewhat fulfilling return. (This return stems almost entirely from the dialogue, not the characters: "If my panties got damp every time I met a snake charmer, I'd have died of thirst by now." "Sexism is dead, the only -ism left is capital, and you're fucking with it.") Strip out the assistants, focus on the alliance of women between Catherine and Jane, turn Bill into a more understandable villain, and you'd have a one-act powerhouse: the relationships are there, our interest is piqued. (Rothstein's Neglect is still one of the better two-person plays I've seen -- perhaps her scope is too large here.)
Instead of being this year's Microcrisis (a fiercely satirical piece about the next big bubble), The Invested is merely a safe way to spend two hours -- you'll laugh, a little -- which is ironic given the show's own tag-line: "The bigger the risk, the bigger the return." 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

THEATER: The Lapsburgh Layover

Photo/Ben Arons
If going to the theater seems a little like visiting an exotic country, the Berserker Residents have merely made that more literal. The moment you arrive at Ars Nova, you are given travel documents, ushered into the underbelly of the theater for an honor-based security check, and then brought to the main hall of an obscure country in which you, an airline passenger on an emergency landing, will have dinner and entertainment provided by the nation's people: "Welcome to Lapsburgh," they tell you, providing brochures, sales pitches, and boasts of their cultural history. "Please don't go!"

The Lapsburgh Layover isn't quite a site-specific work (though there is some charmingly light audience interaction), but Lisi Stoessel's set, which festoons itself throughout the entire space, not just the dinner-theater stage, helps to make it feel like one -- the atmospheric effect is similar to that employed by The Mad Ones. The piece is also well-directed by Oliver Butler, whose hyper-visual work and layered work with the Debate Society has helped him both to provide context for the joke-heavy script and to smoothly handle the play-within-a-play, "Detective Mickey and the Case of What Happened at Club Regard," with which Oleg Tolsten (Dave Johnson), Zelda Tre'Force (Leah Walton), Olaf Nystabakk (Justin Jain), and Jebozya Gilsty (Bradley K. Wren) are attempting (successfully) to entertain the waiting passengers (you).

Simply nailing the noir-spoof "Detective Mickey" would be enough for most companies ("Make it a double," goes one line, answered with: "The usual? The usual?"). After all, they're already dealing with a ridiculously sinister man-woman villain, Carmen, and a unique battle between hypnotists, to say nothing of the many deaths of Nystabakk's characters -- a bartender drowned in a drink, a Big Fancy Mayor who is blown to pieces (and then used as a meat-puppet). But the Berserkers go several steps further: their Lapsburghian characters have their own rivalries -- mainly between Gilsty, who believes himself to be professional, and Tolsten, who is "just" a farmer, but who gets the lead role on account of Tre'Force's attraction to him -- and these keep interrupting the scenes. At the same time, there's also a mysterious rumbling echoing throughout the theater (M. L. Dogg should be proud of his sound design), which occasionally forces scenes to be abridged or otherwise ad-libbed. There's so much -- and that's really the only flaw: it's so unrelentingly funny that it never transcends to meet its unexpected ending; so packed full of funny moments that there's little room to expand on the individual character quirks. (Given their high-strung comedy, they do manage to convey panic in a credible fashion.)

Still, if it's a question of whether you'll enjoy yourself in Lapsburgh, the answer is most certainly "yes." Both the actors and their characters are eager to please, particularly the hard-working Jain, whose "PowerPoint" presentation of the Lapsburghian attractions is the highlight of the evening. (The whole thing is done with transparency slides.) Additionally, the intimacy of the setting -- much of the play takes place in the aisles -- provides extra laughs, for "Detective Mickey" is done with an extremely cheap budget, so you may wind up watching a character "die" (flailing about to the clacking sound effects of "bullets") in the seat next to you.

Plausible, no; hilarious, yes. The Lapsburgh Layover feels like a vacation in ToonTown.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THEATER: Follies

They don't make musicals like Follies any more. In fact, even in the unassailable repertoire of Stephen Sondheim, there is hardly anything like it. I mean, a musical about two married couples returning to the theater of their youth on the verge of its destruction, and reflecting on the ghosts -- literally depicted -- of their past regrets? A musical which spends a large part of the second act lost in a fantasia called "Loveland" that's filled with the dancing vaudevillian embodiments of their follies? (Imagine if Book of Mormon's "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" went on for another five songs.) Yes, the show's unbalanced in tone and a bit redundant in message, as if Sondheim distrusted his own clarion instincts, and yes, it might be better if some of the regretful numbers didn't seem quite so extraneous and revue-like ("Ah, Paris!" and "One More Kiss" leap to mind). But if ever a show could justify its own youthful, exuberant mistakes, wouldn't it be Follies? And in the hands of Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, and Danny Burstein, wouldn't this be a pretty good rendition?

Enough with the questions: doubt tends to lead to regret, and there's none of that here, for Follies is a memorable musical well worth seeing (especially if you haven't), an honest-to-god adult musical: yes, there are affairs and loveless marriages, but they aren't rashly dissolved -- there's weight behind every syllable of every year that Phyllis (the astounding Maxwell) saw squandered with her husband, Ben (Ron Raines): "Could I Leave You?" she spit-sing-snarls in her bring-down-the-house number; it's both tragically simple and hopelessly complex. The same goes for the relationship between flighty Sally (Peters, divinely mousey in the role), who loved Ben, and the aptly named Buddy (Burstein), for whom she settled. Buddy, the perfect gentleman, is at odds with himself, for while he's found the perfect woman -- Margie, who we never meet -- he's married to "The Right Girl," with whom he's still helplessly in love.

It's on the strength of these emotions, these regretted and re-examined relationships, that we're willing to follow the cast into their own minds, scenically represented by Derek McLane's feathery, Georgia O'Keefe series of prosceniums. And it's on the strength of songs like the pattering "The God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues" that we're willing to stay there, even if this Buddy song's rehashing the Margie/Sally relationship woes he's just been raging over. The only problematic song is "Losing My Mind," a terrific slow-burn that Eric Schaeffer unfortunately stages almost identically to the earlier, equally fiery, "I'm Still Here." Everywhere else, the show manages to distinguish its nuances and layers -- note the bright colors Gregg Barnes gives the older women and the duller shades in which the ghosts are clad, or the way in which Natasha Katz's lighting only ever touches the present-day characters. It's a shame for the staging to falter, especially with Warren Carlyle proving himself an able choreographer in both the solid "Who's That Woman" and the slinky "The Story of Lucy and Jesse."

The same lack of distinctness goes for the subplots: Jayne Houdyshell is perhaps too noticeable as Hattie, the solid singer of "Broadway Baby"; when her vignette's done, you keep waiting for her to step back into the foreground. And while it's a shame that Emily (Susan Watson) appears to be going senile, you'd be forgiven for missing that -- there are but two lines that refer to it, and her cute duet "Rain on the Roof" all but washes her central tragedy away. It's not clear that any director would be more able to navigate these shakier bits, but they might at least speed through them: it sometimes feels as if Schaeffer himself is lost in the dilapidated scenery. Then again, it's Sondheim: who can blame him for wallowing? Follies: in which things can be so wrong, that they wind up right once more . . . and that's the greatest tragedy of them all.

Monday, September 12, 2011

THEATER: The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill

Photo/Anton Nickel
Ever read 3nuts or Garfield Minus Garfield? If so, then you'll feel right at home with the latest full-length production from the New York Neo-Futurists, The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill: Vol. 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays, which recontextualizes early O'Neill plays by performing only the stage directions, albeit in a selectively adapted and comically directed fashion, both courtesy of Christopher Loar. It's somewhat of a party trick, and if this isn't already an improv game, it soon will be. But at a swift seventy-five minutes, it doesn't wear itself out, thanks especially to the game six-person ensemble and their nimble-tongued narrator, Jacquelyn Landgraf. And while it's not necessarily as revelatory as earlier Neo-Futurist shows, like The Soup Show, it succeeds in expanding the company's repertory to a whole new level of non-illusory theater, one that's filled both with humor and existential terror (Beckett fans will rejoice): see both Lauren Sharpe's whimsically lewd depiction of O'Neill's description of a painting that's "an orgy of colors," and the way that she struggles under the weight of a dozen somewhat contradictory and poetically vague descriptions. (Consider the phrase "inefficiently pompous." Good. Now try to express that.)

Perhaps most surprising is the general clarity -- and hopelessness, presented here with humor -- that remains even in drastically abridged versions of O'Neill. The seven plays range from 1913 to 1917, covering everything from what appears to be a low-class gangster drama ("The Web") to the last shreds of humanity found on a shark-surrounded lifeboat ("Thirst") and the secret affairs of the upper-class ("Servitude"). These changes of pace are much appreciated, since the majority of the show is presented in Our Town minimalism, with the performance space blocked off in white tape so as to leave the wings (and idle actors) onstage, their entrances now as much a part of the show as in, say, those from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And yet, it's the uniform nature of the show, of the wardrobe -- grays, browns, suspenders -- that allows the uniquely flawed, peccably perfect language to stand out. Consider the half-whisper -- "Whis...," calls one actor -- or a "sigh . . . that is kind of like a moan." If there's an imbalance, it is a slight one, noticed only occasionally in the difference between the way a veteran Neo-Futurist like Cara Francis or Erica Livingston "throws herself into a chair" and the way Danny Burnam, Brendan Donaldson, and Connor Kalista do. [Update: As noted in the comments below, Kalista is actually one of the more senior Neo-Futurists; the error is mine, although I maintain that there's a difference in abandon between the men and women of this cast, one that in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the show.]

The text may be Eugene O'Neill's, but Christopher Loar has boldly liberated these "directions," like so much found art: chiseled out of one era and cast anew. And while the final five minutes are particularly clever, in the way in which they elevates both a simple stage effect and an absurd punchline, you could just as easily say that of any part of the show -- the chaos of an accordion in "Bound East for Cardiff" or the triplicate effect Loar uses to echo the very basic elements of "Before Breakfast." So with that in mind, here are your stage directions: take the F train to Second Avenue, walk to Fourth Street, and check out The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill.