Thursday, September 30, 2010

Short-a-Day: Nell Freudenberger's "An Arranged Marriage"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 6, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 71.

It never ceases to amaze me, how differently people see the world. That alone makes a great case for marriage: sharing the world with someone with another viewpoint is like suddenly donning 3D glasses--the two lenses join together and create a whole new world. Freudenberger doesn't entirely reach those heights, but that's mainly because the story remains focused on a Bengali, Amina, whose jumpy narrative is a little confusing and takes some getting used to, and doesn't tell us much about George, the American man she's marrying. The details of their e-mail courtship are the highlights of the piece, but they're not the story. Watch the way George cries at what she thought was a funny anecdote (to her, eating only a single egg each day is normal; to him, it is tragic) to the way she asks herself if she could love George, learning to fall for each of his features individually: "She covered the eyes and asked the same question of the nose (more challenging because of the way it protruded, different from any nose she know). She had slept on it, but the following day at British Council (an agony to wait until the computer was free) she'd been pleased to discover that the photograph was better than she remembered. By the end of the day she thought that she could love even the nose."

THEATER: Orange, Hat & Grace

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Orange, Hat & Grace begins abruptly, as the elderly and prim Orange (Stephanie Roth Haberie) walks over a path of mushy wood chips to sit on an eroded antique chair. From the dirt rises a young girl, Grace (Reyna de Courcy), who calls out from the "black black black black night," asking, with an air of the supernatural about her, to be let in. If playwright Gregory S. Moss were to linger in this moment, we might mistake this for a theatrical version of Let the Right One In, but this is a show about a different sort of likable monster--the human kind--which is why the action abruptly cuts, lights on full, to reveal Hat (Matthew Maher), a bearded, slovenly beast of a man, chopping away at Orange's roof. Over the next hour, we largely forget about Grace--though she can be seen sitting motionlessly on a stage-right bench--and focus instead on the wonderfully odd courtship between these two . . . not realizing, until the very end, how much this new relationship informs the unspoken one with Grace.

It's a tricky choice, but Sarah Benson makes it look easy, as is to be expected of this clear and intensely physical director. As she did with Blasted and That Face, Benson plays each moment to the fullest--for what it is--rather than trying to telegraph or explain the text. This doesn't meant that the aesthetics are ignored--Rachel Hauck's roughly hewn set is both a claustrophobia-inducing hovel and a snug love-nest--but rather an acknowledgment that the answers are all in the text. To be fair, Moss has already filled his play with striking actions--a finger-suckling orgasm and a close shave that is both tender and harsh--but it's Benson and her cast who make even the eerier moments seem entirely natural.

For some, the ending of Orange, Hat & Grace will come as a shock--and it is, perhaps, too symbolically staged to turn Hat into a literal scarecrow, a totem for a lonely and narcissistic woman. But much of the play is about language--particularly in the way it delineates between the deliberate choices of Orange and the careless neologism "Hep" that Hat grunts as both a "Yes" and a "No." And the last ten minutes do not negate the first hour, particularly the comic gold of Maher and Haberie's chemistry. There's something awfully romantic about the way Orange can't help but smile at Hat's crude decisions ("I am pitching woo") and his rash actions (despite being warned, he attempts to drink piping hot coffee and then scalding eggs), and more important, something brokenly maternal in that, too. And Hat's attempts to impress Orange--"When I chop your wood, do I look strong to you?" he asks, frozen in a strongman pose--always get a chuckle, especially given Maher's all-innocent, moon-faced deliveries.

But Orange, Hat & Grace goes a lot deeper than that odd romance, hence that opening scene with Grace, not to mention the educational FEED series that accompanies select performances. Ultimately, Moss wants to know what makes us human, and the more that Orange civilizes Hat, the more we wonder about her actions toward Grace, the sickly baby she abandoned in the woods. The implication seems to be that words aren't as important as emotions, for while Orange can name every leaf that Hat gathers--and does, in an effective, Meisner-ish scene of call-and-response--she cannot connect to them the way that Hat can. When he carves her a baby made out of wood, she rejects it; when he attempts to talk about sex with her, she explains that "There are some things you do, and later you pretend they don't exist." And it is the aptly named Grace who has the last word: "When someone's done something bad to you but. Then. You do something good for them. In return.... [T]here must be a word for it there's a word for everything."

Words take you only so far; but there's more than enough embedded in Orange, Hat & Grace and in the talents of the cast and crew to go the rest of the way, and then some.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

RELEASE: Legs and All Redux

I loved this show when it ran as part of the Frigid Festival earlier this year, and I'm excited to let you know that it's back for a limited run. If you like clowning at all, I recommend you grab your tickets now--my original review is here, and additional information is here. Also worth pointing out is that the October 2 and October 10 performances don't have talk-backs -- they have interactive workshops, and given the talent of the two stars, that's a pretty innovative and worthwhile investment!

RELEASE: MilkMilkLemonade Redux

I don't think I'll have the time to see this revived production of MilkMilkLemonade (with new director Jose Zayas), but since essentially the same cast is returning, you should probably make some time to see it yourself. (After all, how often is an off-off-Broadway play revived?) You can read my original review here, and then find out additional information here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

THEATER: Orlando

Photo/Joan Marcus

What is Orlando supposed to be? Whatever Virginia Woolf set out to do in her original faux biography of the same name, it's not clear that playwright Sarah Ruhl knows any better, nor that director Rebecca Taichman particularly cares--given the way in which she's farmed out grid-based choreography to Annie-B Parson and the heavy lifting of the multiple-parts chorus to the fabulous costuming of Anita Yavich. Perhaps that's as it should be, since Orlando (Francesca Faridany) begins the play as a man and ends it, five hundred years later, as a woman. But then again, perhaps it's not, for if the play wants to be about the marked differences between a man and a woman--especially in the 1500s--Ruhl needs to do more than have the chorus discuss it; Taichman needs to do more than have David Greenspan--no matter how humorously--doff a two-dimensional robe and clunk around as Queen Elizabeth.

The biggest unanswered question throughout the show is, Why adapt Orlando in this fashion? Ruhl's writing flows beautifully on the page, but it is tiring on the stage--all poetic flourish and no physical substance. It comes across as exceedingly showy, from the way in which "frost" is depicted by draping a white sheet over the green grass of the square set to the freeze-framed tableaux before and after the intermission. Worse, character plays second-fiddle to all this text, from the overpoweringly bland narrative of the chorus to the thin emotional breadth we get to see from anyone other than Orlando. As for Faridany herself, she's a lovely and exuberant actor, but either she's given no room to show the difference between Act I's masculinity and Act II's femininity, or she does not know how to express that. It is one thing for the play to say "In one night, Orlando had thrown off his boyish clumsiness and become a nobleman," but quite another for it to fail to show this.

Orlando's central struggle is to become a poet--and words, time and time again, fail him. How almost cruelly ironic that Ruhl, who already is poetic, gives him all the words in the world and still fails him: "Flinging a net of words after the wild goose of meaning and everything shrivels," shrieks Orlando, and indeed, the play is flaccid. Even those who major in Gender Studies may be taken aback by such bland musings: "How odd! When I was a young man, I insisted that women be obedient, chaste, and scented. Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires."

It's telling that Orlando's largest problem stems from an entirely different direction, too: the scope is so vast, so unbalancing, that it once again makes a mess of meaning. Orlando spends the first hour as a "man" in the Elizabethan Age, but then the next hour--and four centuries--as a woman, and it is only in this latter part, as she is wooed, as she is married, as she is independent, that we see any growth. As a research paper, it lacks a thesis; as a play, it lacks a heart. This is frivolous philosophical babble and Ruhl, who has offered so much more when masking her big ideas (like In The Next Room or Dead Man's Cell Phone), has written the season's first big disappointment.

Monday, September 27, 2010

TV: Dexter

If you've liked Dexter in the past, you'll continue to like him. (And honestly, how could you not like Michael C. Hall's murderously good performance?) However, if you think this is going to be the season that changes him, it's not looking good so far; after negating all the forward momentum of the last season, these first three episodes settle back into a comfortable groove and resign themselves to simply throwing more obstacles at Dexter than ever before--most of whom (Peter Weller, Julia Stiles) we don't even meet in these episodes. And yet, you can't stop watching, can you? Check out my review for Slant Magazine here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

THEATER: The Little Foxes

Having never read The Little Foxes or watched the 1941 film, I can't speak to whether the essence of Lillian Hellman's production has been maintained. Director Ivo Van Hove has stripped so much out--not just the furniture, but almost all of the humanizing elements of this conniving clan--that it speaks largely as a symbolic work, a condemnation of a society in which there are those who "tear up the earth" and then those who watch. With the brusque physical actions and the whip-snap starts into melodrama, it feels almost like watching a more savage and far less romantic Odets. Then again, this icy production is a good match for the current populist anger against pure, calculating capitalism.

In the course of a surprisingly quick two hours (no intermission), we watch siblings Ben Hubbard (Marton Csokas), Oscar Hubbard (Thomas Jay Ryan), and Regina Giddens (Elizabeth Marvel) manipulate those around them in order to get what they want--shares in a profitable new business venture that will exploit the poor workers of their home town. They're each bastards, the only difference is the depths of their baseless behavior: Ben sells out his brother Oscar who sells out his son Leo (Nick Westrate); meanwhile, Regina uses her daughter, Alexandra (Cristin Milioti), to manipulate her sick husband Horace (Christopher Evan Welch). The few good people who remain are roughly treated--the servants Addie (Lynda Gravatt) and Cal (Greig Sargeant)--and in such a careless fashion that it's doubly demeaning. For instance, we'll see Birdie (Tina Benko), a slightly mad and manic woman, be bluntly and repetitively beaten by her husband Oscar: it is the epitome of senseless violence, for it serves nothing, and it's in this that Van Hove's coolness begins to dig at the back of the audience's skulls.

Van Hove's choices transform The Little Foxes into a play about emptiness, and he's talented enough to make that about as engaging as it can be. One deliberate choice is to hang a video screen as if it's a framed picture; Tal Yarden's design is then used to show the actions of off-stage characters--or, more often, their inaction (they're often either perfectly still or freeze-framed). It's also an uncomfortable--but effective--way to render characters as objects: on screen, there's a terrific argument between Regina and Horace; on stage, we see the eavesdropping Alexandra pleads for someone to intervene--everything falls on deaf ears. Later, there's a still image of Alexandra lying atop her father's body; this hangs over a scene in which the family bickers over stolen bonds and casts the entire thing in a much harsher context. It makes what everyone's ignoring all that more relevant, the beating of a tell-tale heart drowned out by greed. (It's also a fairly attractive and minimalist way of showing which parent Alexandra finds more human: the dead one.)

Whether this is still Hellman's The Little Foxes or not, the sheer artistry of the show--though a bit understated compared to previous Van Hove work at NYTW--makes for a provocative night of theater. It's a well-acted one, too: you can practically see the claws in Marvel's grasping speeches, and both Ryan and Csokas give her plenty of meat to dig into--the former with his twisting words, the latter with his ominous presence. As for Milioti, she's the heart of this piece--a burst of emotional concern amongst the black-and-white carelessness of her kin, which only clarifies the bleak tone Van Hove is going for. Rest assured, you'll leave the theater angry: hopefully it'll be more at the situation and less at Van Hove's brutal means.

Monday, September 20, 2010

THEATER: Roadkill Confidential

Hit or miss, the work of Sheila Callaghan and producing company Clubbed Thumb is always raw, unusual, and exciting. Roadkill Confidential fits that mold, lightly borrowing from the narrative conventions of a noir flick to examine the intersections of art and violence. (To be exact, the subtitle reads “a noir-ish meditation on brutality.”) It’s an interesting but not entirely effective choice, for while the stylized interrogations of the FBI Man (Danny Mastrogiorgio) allow for some back-door philosophizing (i.e., it’s not overt), they don’t exactly let us connect with the characters--i.e., the art gets in the way. The show is funny, original, and intriguing, and that may not be enough.

Art professor William (Greg McFadden) compares the work of his “partner,” Trevor (Rebecca Henderson), to that of Guillermo Vargas, who “exhibited” live, suffering dogs as a way of pointing out the “hypocrisy” of audiences who took exception to this—not because it was cruel, but because it was called art (i.e., they still ignored the starving dogs in the street). It’s in that light that he allowed Trevor to use photographs of his wife’s death (car crash), happy to ride her notorious fame, and with little thought to how this might affect his son Randy (Alex Anfanger). Now, seven years later, she’s using roadkill to build a sculpture—but because she wants the audience to feel the danger, they’re all killers themselves, laced with a biological weapon that kills on touch. Do we safely watch, or do we interfere and risk death?

By taking a hands-off approach, however, the play invites us to do the same. Callaghan uses a lot of illusion-shattering tricks in her script, and director Kip Fagan reinforces them. For instance, the FBI Man is able to use his bad eye to get inside people’s heads, freezing the action as he does so, speaking for them. Occasionally, when Trevor opens her mouth to speak, war reports from the news come out. Prerecorded clips of “local” news are exaggeratedly delivered by a fear-mongering news anchor. Couple this with Peter Ksander’s military-laboratory set—a diorama-looking affair, boxed off from the audience—and the use of Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s video design, and the installation grows more and more distant. Callaghan can already be pretty abstract in her writing (although always beautifully, poetically so), and that makes it hard to stay present, to be affected by the symbolism.

“If we did not know the relationship of the artist to the subject / Would we still feel the emotional impact of the work?” The answer in this case is no: we don't get enough of the relationships, so it all feels a bit appropriated and neglected. For instance, the All-American Stand In—their neighbor, Melanie (Polly Lee), who is a perfectly abhorrent babbling and dabbling woman, filled with false intimacy—doesn’t exactly conjure up our sympathy. She is a visible brush-stroke, a flourish of comic relief. The robust pas-de-deux between Trevor and her surveiller is terrific, but what it shows is that if Roadkill Confidential is a work of art, it's one that has yet to be unveiled.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

THEATER: The Revival

It takes a lot to get Pastor Eli (Trent Dawson) worked up; for years he’s kept his emotions in check, has maintained his marriage with June (Aidan Sullivan), and has dealt with the narrow minds—and dwindling numbers—of his Arkansas congregation, which doesn’t care much for his Ivy League-educated sermons. (“To rationally choose the irrational—to really think about it, convert, and then keep thinking about it.”) But when his political aide Trevor (Raymond McAnally) keeps insisting that he throw a revival in order to impress some visiting scouts for a megachurch network, he finally snaps, to which Trevor replies: “This is great! Ya’ just spoke with passion.” Eli points out that Trevor still hasn’t heard him, at which point Trevor hits the nail on the head: “Don’t matter what ya’ said—ya’ meant it—ya’ wuz mad.”

Trevor’s observation is a sad but true fact of modern oration, especially in politics, but that’s what makes Samuel Brett Williams’s The Revival such a miracle. The dialogue, actions, and characters of his play are not only filled with passion, but they are convincing enough to keep the audience listening, and more than that—it is filled with things worth hearing and seeing. The plot itself isn’t all that new—Eli gets himself into some trouble after falling for Daniel (David Darrow), a rough, cow-pummeling runaway in need of shelter—but the execution is divine, particularly when it comes to the impeccable cast. Authenticity runs throughout the entire Project Y Theatre production, from the roughly hewn crosses and wooden beams hanging above Kevin Judge’s split-scene set to director Michole Biancosino’s choice to add pre- and post-show hymns (sung by a live chorus) and to plant worshippers in the audience.

The intensity ratchets upward throughout The Revival—particularly in a set of concurrent scenes that juxtapose violence with a genealogical prayer, and the writing continues to outdo itself, shifting from irrational explanations of rational actions to rational explanations of irrational actions. The plot surprises, excites, and ultimately delights; it’s more than just a series of passions. In fact, Williams has provided so much history for these characters that his actors are able to show multiple things at once. There’s a moment where June confesses that she’s always suspected Eli’s inclinations—not because she thought ill of him, but because she thought so little of herself. It’s heartbreaking, but when Sullivan delivers the speech, we respect, detest, and pity her.

Watch also the way that Dawson’s Eli prays: as an intellectual, he always leaves an extra inch of thought between his words, as if he’s trying to be utterly accurate. Taking the other approach, McAnally delivers Trevor’s methodical speeches almost spontaneously; when he talks, it’s as if a volcano of words has erupted within him—flashes of anger, muted seconds later by rational albeit molten thoughts. Most impressive of all is Darrow’s performance as Daniel: he earns the teen’s irrational and rebellious anger, and has the range to show not just the necessarily hardened youth, but the sensitive heart that wants to beat underneath. (He reads Proust, not because he understands it, but because he’s been told that only smart people read Proust.) He makes bold choices on stage, and shoots the audience electric looks in which a million things are meant and in which anything might happen: “Ya’ wanna call the cops—fine—fuck you. People wanna come after me ‘cuz we wuz happy—fine—FUCK THEM. I’ll die like your Jesus, and then I’ll rise again, and ya’ know what—I’LL STILL BE A FAGGOT!”

The Revival does enough to make you want to spring to your feet—and at the same time, floors you. The result is the sort of play that makes you feel like you’re floating, and a highly recommended piece of theater.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

TV: Boardwalk Empire

Good, but not great, even though it's more like Deadwood than The Sopranos. Still, there are so many great characters in Boardwalk Empire that once it stops expanding and starts consolodating, it's going to have a lot of strength--these actors are terrific. See the whole review over at Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

RELEASE: Vampire Cowboy Theatre Company's Saturday Saloon Series

Ever been to a theater party? No, I don't mean a cast party, I mean one of those fund-raising shindigs where you shell out a hundred bucks to see some sort of star-studded performance. Well, that may be how the institutions do it, but I'd much rather throw down with these guys and their free admission, five dollar all-you-can-drink beer, and their own admirably star-studded list of playwrights and scrappy serials. I mean, shit, really? And from what I saw of Crystal Skillman's Hack! earlier this year, their stuff is wild, fun, and really loose with genres and self-referencing humor. Skillman's joined by Mac Rogers, James Comtois, Adam Scott Mazur, Temar Underwood, and Brent Cox, and I can't imagine this being anything less than crazy good. And free. With optional beer goggling. Find out all about it by clicking right here.

QUOTE: from Erich Fromm's "The Heart of Man"

"The tendency of pretending that any war is a defensive one shows two things. First of all is that the majority of people, at least in most civilized countries, cannot be made to kill and to die unless they are first convinced that they are doing so in order to defend their lives and freedom; second, it shows that it is not difficult to persuade millions of people that they are in danger of being attacked, and hence, that they are called upon to defend themselves. Such persuasion depends most of all on a lack of independent thinking and feeling, and on the emotional dependence of the vast majority of people on their political [and religious] leaders."

The emphasis above is mine, as is the bracket (based on an early part of the paragraph). This was written in 1964, but isn't only relevant to those who lived through the fear-mongering propaganda of the Third Reich. I quote it now, here, because--perhaps due to being a critic with such strong opinions--I believe so strongly in the importance of independent work. I am tired of hearing people regurgitate what they hear, believing it to be what they feel, simply because they--one assumes--too lazy to wrestle with what might inconvenience them. I've got this on my mind after seeing Matt Freeman's Brandywine Distillery Fire, because what I saw refracted in that "New Naturalism" was a look at today's unthinking, unfeeling America. And man, now I've got to be really carefully that I don't fall into that trap, as I so rarely see or read straight-up "facts."

Monday, September 13, 2010

THEATER: Brandywine Distillery Fire

Do we need a new Naturalism? And if so, is Matthew Freeman's Brandywine Distillery Fire it? The first question is unanswerable, as is the second, as is the play itself, which is an unperformable play, performed, which is, one guesses, sort of the point. According to notes from the collaborative team, which includes Freeman, director Michael Gardener, and the initially improvising ensemble, the show simply began--like some sort of theatrical Big Bang--with the failures then coaxed out, encouraged, embraced, and eventually fully staged. As the notes put it: "What resulted are texts which promise narrative, performances which promise elegance, sets and costumes which promise classicism and a production which never delivers on its promises." Or, as the play puts it in one of the more direct monologues: "You might be imagining that behind my eyes is a complex series of motivations. No, no. It’s less than that and more."

But we've seen this concept of less-and-yet-somehow-more before: Nature Theater of Oklahoma's dinner-theater reconstructions of casual conversations. Radiohole's mismatched actions and text. Chuck Mee's fractured narratives and near stream-of-consciousness text. Or, in the more surreal moments of furniture rearrangement: Ianseco. When scenes repeat themselves, or actors stand still for minutes on end: Beckett. Or, with the addition of chintzy music, perhaps Foreman. It's not clear that any of this is particularly new, or that this mash-up has a point, aside from pointlessness, which--to be fair, is the sort of New Naturalism of America. This much can be said about Brandywine: it's too mystifying to be annoying. The audience sort of rubbernecks at the intentionally butchered lines (putting the accENT on the wrong sylLAble, loss of modulation), much as they may have upon first reading Postmodern writers like Donald Barthleme.

Here's the interesting part: the show serves the straight-faced cast and its gleeful director--who uses the entire Ontological-Hysteric Theater: aisles, backstage areas, a lighting platform--really well, but it distracts from the playwright. There are clever bits about aphasia, grammar, and the nature of existence ("Harold, Wallace, and Winnie. Two cats." "You just said three names." "You're making a very good point."), but save for the few scenes that are entirely monologue-based, they're hard to grok. What you'll most likely remember from an observation about tourism is not the pang of first-world guilt, but rather how the actress describes herself as "nuclear fission," "radioactive," "Hiroshima" and "The Eastern Front."

The main point is made, though, echoing in different incarnations throughout the play: we shouldn't just say things. Logic demands a beginning, middle, and an end. Life is not but a(n American) dream. In the best possible way, then, to Freeman and company: Mission Accomplished. Now, can we get real again?

RELEASE: The Flea Theater's "Pay What You Can" Tuesdays

Joining the ranks of the neighboring Soho Rep.'s $.99 Sunday performances, the Flea, one of my favorite theaters for seeing up-and-coming actors (resident company, the Bats) and ballsy new plays (Rapp, Bradshaw) is now adding a "pay-what-you-can" Tuesday. This is just in time to catch the latest A. R. Gurney play, if you like that sort of thing--which, for a user-defined price, you almost certainly will. Information about the show is here, but if you want these special Tuesday tickets, you'll have to get them day of show, at the box office--assuming it's not all sold out by then.

[PS. Also intriguing about this production of Office Hours? There are two full rotating casts, so if you really like it, you can double-dip and see different actors do the same show. It's also a great opportunity for the Bats to get more boots-on-stage experience.]

RELEASE: New York Innovative Theater Awards Ceremony

This'll be the third year I'm attending the NYIT Awards, after watching the ceremonies two years ago and live-blogging the whole thing last year. Even if you can't attend in person (Lisa Kron's a great host) or don't have the time and/or bandwidth to watch the livestream online, I recommend that you at least check out the list of winners (which will eventually be posted here), since it's a great starting place when it comes to figuring out what to check out downtown. It all goes down next Monday, September 20th.

RELEASE: Way To Heaven

A remounted production of Way to Heaven, which I covered in May 2009, is being done at the Repertorio Espanol, starting September 28. I was struck by how different this was from the "regular" Holocaust play, mainly because it dealt with one of the more theatrical bits of German propaganda: the establishment of a concentration camp (Theresienstadt) filled with Jewish actors, which could be used to show the "humane" treatment of these prisons. Most of the original cast, if not all, still seems to be with the show, so read my review here, and check out additional information here.

[NB: I recommend against the dual-language option, based on previous experience. It's a neat and unique service, but I find that it pulls me out of the world of the show--I'd almost prefer supertitles.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

THEATER: How My Mother Died of Cancer And Other Bedtime Stories

[Part of the Fringe Encores Series]

How My Mother Died of Cancer and Other Bedtime Stories is all over the place, and that's OK: it can't be easy to write a personal piece about the death of your mother. But there's a limit to how far you can get by on sympathy, and does Chris Kelly really want his play to succeed based on pity? The schema he's following is that of Lisa Kron's Well, in that as Kelly's stand-in Kate (Elizabeth Romanski) attempts to grieve by recreating those last few months onstage, only to be constantly interrupted by her father (Mike Boland), who hates the theatricality of it. And that's the awful problem at the heart of How My Mother Died: there's a lack of sincerity. Kate is not Chris, and there's a troubling layer of "theater" in that the people playing Kate's circle--brother Tim (Jim deProphetis), comic gay friend Trent (Josh Hemphill), stoner-ish Barry (Dylan Kammerer), and ditsy Lena (Brianna Tyson)--are supposed to be her actual friends and family, whereas her mother (Sharon Wyse) is, obviously, being played by an actor. But as directed by Laura Moss, everybody comes across, first and foremost, as an actor, and that makes it hard to forgive the often intentionally amateurish production. (Kate reminds us that the budget is tight.)

It's not easy to get past this convention, since Kelly spends so much of the show stressing it--a defense mechanism, perhaps, gone amok. But on the other side, there is quite a deal of whimsical coping: the mother plays "Wheel of Cancer" and, after being hooked-up to a breathing machine for her lung cancer, is forced to play charades to communicate. Trent, who loves being the center of attention, nicely hams up scenes (and accents) where he likens doctors to mechanics, turns a eulogy into a Mad Lib, and spoofs late-night exercise infomercials: "Tumors of Steel." Tim makes a great straight man for all these antics, allowing Kate to turn away from lip-sync versions of "She's a Lady" or Music Man-like choreography, and to actually relate memories--like those bedtime stories that give her such reason to miss her mother.

The best moment in How My Mother Died of Cancer comes as the father attempts to recreate his last moments with his wife, only to get frustrated by trying to remember the lines his daughter has written for him. At that point, the actor playing the mother speaks directly to him, telling him not to worry about the script, to just speak, and to speak from the heart. It's good advice: would that more of Kelly's show felt brave enough to do exactly that, to stand by its conventions (or its discarding of them, ala Young Jean Lee's Lear) and to speak through them, instead of merely at them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

THEATER: Edward Albee's Me, Myself & I

As is to be expected of an absurdist comedy about a crazy mother (Elizabeth Ashley) and the existential crisis brought about by OTTO (Zachary Booth) against his identical twin otto (Preston Sadleir), Edward Albee's Me, Myself & I is a raging mess. It's a good premise, what with OTTO trying to figure out who he is, only for his frazzled, generally bed-ridden mother, to ask him "Are you the one who loves me?" and to then confess to the audience that she can't tell them apart: "I see you twenty times a day, but I don't know you." It's tragic and funny, as we've come to expect of Albee, but the initial idea's stretched to an unbearably thin two hours, with a gamut of juvenile arguments and a bunch of nitpicking wordplay trying to pass itself off as some sort of metaphor of cleverness.

The lack of meaningful characters makes it hard to feel otto's anguish at being told he doesn't exist and impossible to hate their mother, who is too daffy to be responsible for her actions. Everybody is off in their own world, including the psychiatric Dr. (Brian Murrray)--who has been living in Mother's bed (more or less) ever since her husband ran off at the twin's birth, twenty-eight years ago--and Maureen (Natalia Payne), who attempts to calm her boyfriend, otto, down with some sort of hyperactive shushing. The only character who is sane--cruelly so--is OTTO, who gleefully explains the mechanics of the show (intermissions, curtain calls, prosceniums), and at least allows us to meditate on the general identity crisis of theater. (Then again, Emily Mann's entirely straightforward direction doesn't exactly do much to shake things up.)

Albee's best full-length works--The Goat and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--have always had something serious at stake, but Me, Myself, & I seems content to just be ridiculous and indulgent, throwing out lines like "I don't think existence determines much of anything, does it?" without caring to deal with its repercussions. Everyone feels especially untouchable in the rushed final ten minutes of the show, which opt for an artificial "Mission Accomplished"-style banner ending rather than anything approaching rapprochement. Never mind that OTTO's just slept with Maureen--something he apparently does fairly frequently--or that The Man (Stephen Payne) has just returned. For those who prefer realism, there's That Face, for those who'd like their insanity to make a little more sense, there's Oliver Parker! For those who don't care, there's this.

Friday, September 10, 2010

RELEASE: Out of Time & Place

For the last few years, I've been generally raving about the programming that goes on at Women's Project, even more so in the light of the complaints you see so often on the theatrosphere about how the majority of theater, especially above 14th Street, happens to be white and male. Well, in light of my interests in seeing a more diverse and thereby interesting range of voices on the stage, I'm happy to point out that Women's Project has just released a two-volume anthology of plays by female artists, called Out of Time & Place. It's print-on-demand right now, so it's $25 for each volume, but you can also download PDF versions for $12 each, so if you're interested in reading some work by Lynn Rosen, Laura Eason, Charity Henson-Ballard, Crystal Skillman, Christine Evans, Nadia Davids, Alexis Clements, Bekah Brunstetter, Kar Manning, Carla Ching, and Andrea Thome--most of whom I'll admit I've never heard of--then check out this link.

RELEASE: Noor Theater's Highlight Reading Series

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I go to and love the theater because it shows me things that I would not otherwise ordinarily experience, even living here in this multicultural and amazing city. So I'm happy to pass on information about Noor Theater's monthly reading series of Middle Eastern plays, which begins this Monday, September 13th, with Sevan Green's Forgotten Bread and culminates on December 13th with a tragicomedy from Betty Shamieh, whose The Black Eyed blew me away at NYTW in 2007. More voices, more views, more theater: reserve your free tickets by clicking through here.

RELEASE: Fireside Chats About Horror Films

Okay, this isn't totally theater-related, but this event's at the very cool Dixon Place, it's hosted by the very talented (and knowledgeable) Clay McLeod Chapman, and has a bunch of great guests, like actors Denis O'Hare and Abe Goldfarb. Oh, did I mention that it's totally free? Click here to get yourself a ticket; the first event of this monthly series is Wednesday, September 22nd at 9:00.

RELEASE: The Wicked Women of Off Broadway

[Part of a new initiative, I'll now be posting the best press releases about theater-related events.]

Do you like Sarah Ruhl, Annie Baker, Theresa Rebeck, and Lisa Kron? More importantly, do you like them more than me--so much so that you'd like to see them just sit around talk about off-Broadway and their developments within that world? If so, and you're free on Sunday afternoon, October 3, then click here to RSVP for the Off Broadway Alliance's free panel discussion with them, moderated by New York Times reporter Patrick Healy.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

TV: Nikita

Does this image do anything for you? More importantly, is it stimulating enough to carry forty-odd minutes of the most boring revamp of the La Femme Nikita property yet? Think of the show as Alias, only repopulated with the cast of the new 90210 and without any of the snazzy scenarios JJ Abrams conjured up. Then read the whole review for Slant here.