Thursday, February 24, 2011

THEATER: The Hallway Trilogy (Part 1: Rose & Part 2: Paraffin)

[Note: Due to an unfortunate circumstance, I was unable to see Part 3: Nursing, by today's opening. Given how unrelated the first two plays were, and how strongly negative my reaction to them was, I've decided to run the review based only on coverage of Parts 1 and 2. Those were so disappointingly incomplete that I doubt anyone would even notice my omission, but since Nursing sounded the best of the bunch, and because Rapp's certainly capable of greatness, I wanted to be perfectly clear.]

Hallways are a means of transport, not really a destination in of themselves, a fact that is painfully obvious throughout the first two parts of Adam Rapp's Hallway Trilogy. By setting his three plays at fifty year intervals, from 1953's Rose to 2003's Paraffin and 2053's Nursing, Rapp gives himself the leeway to write more about time than character, but his exaggerated vagueness showcases neither. Instead, these plays relentlessly -- and pointlessly -- combine the many versions of Rapp, from the embittered Kindness to the absurd Essential Self-Defense to the violent Bingo with the Indians (lacking, most notably, the intellectual and emotional strengths questioned in The Metal Children).

Rose opens with a familiar scenario: a woman behind on rent, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), uses her femininity to "negotiate" re-entry to her apartment by sleeping with her ogre-like superintendent, Mr. O'Neil (Guy Boyd). Our sympathy fades, however, as it comes out that she's already somewhat of a gold digger, banished back to this Lower East Side tenement with her sister, Megan (Sarah Lemp), after her twice-as-old and many-times-as-rich fiancee caught her cheating on him. Rapp similarly strips away our feelings toward Orest (William Apps), a semi-talented Russian musician stuck caring for his obese mother, when the man abruptly scorns Megan (who he had at one point courted), going so far as to spit at her feet without cause. It's just as hard to care for Jerry (Louis Cancelmi), a nerdy, tight-strung guy: his obsession with Mary is so inexplicable and aggressive -- especially given his Princeton education -- that he's downright creepy.

Even the supposed heart of the play, Rose (Katherine Waterston), fails to leave an impression, mainly because her endearingly fragile mannerisms quickly give way to full-on delusions: she's yet another would-be actress, and she's convinced herself that Mr. O'Neil is actually Eugene O'Neill, whom she once auditioned for, even though the playwright has just died. In the sense that Rose is all about the shattering of dreams and the acceptance of a rather squalid reality -- the play ends with Rose's worried and loving husband, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), hopelessly waiting for her to return -- it fits that era of dramatic literature. (To be fair, such tragedy has never really gone out of fashion.) But the play is stylistically at odds with itself: a silent clown named Marbles (Nick Lawson) causes mischief; a gangster stereotype named Louie Zappoletto (Danny Mastrogiorgio) drops in to take control of the building's management; Jerry is actually a secret Communist, which gives Rapp room to rant; and Rose just wanders off into an abandoned and supposedly haunted apartment, presumably to commit suicide. Let's just say these plots are far from synergistic.

We come to Paraffin with higher expectations, but it, too, is both a retread and a mash-up of other work. The familiar opening this time -- albeit graphically and effectively staged by Daniel Aukin -- involves the latest in a series of disappointments for the pregnant Margot (Nicholson), as she wakes up to find her rocker husband, Denny (Apps), passed out in the hallway, shirtless but unfortunately not shit-less. Despite her cautious kindness in cleaning him up, he attempts to pawn more of her things, which only makes his brother Lucas (Jeremy Strong), who catches him in the act, resent him -- and covet Margot -- even more. Thankfully, although Lucas is a disgusting human, who uses his Afghanistan War-acquired injury as an excuse to openly fondle his balls in front of his prude Israeli neighbor, Rahel (Maria Dizzia) and her straightforward husband, Ido (Robert Beitzel), Margot is a fully-fleshed character.

If only the plotting were as thought-out. Instead, it turns to the hackneyed, as Margot's best friend Dena (Sue Jean Kim) takes a message from the thuggish Polish stereotype Leshik (Lawson) -- one that involves various large piercing implements and horny, disease-riddled animals subsequently being unleashed on those holes -- regarding the immediate payment of Denny's considerable drug debt. As a result, Rapp is unable to focus on the impromptu sense of community the blackout causes to form between Margot, Dena, Lucas, and their neighbors: a socially awkward Kevin (Mastrogiorgio) and the kind, diabetic queen Marty (Boyd). He's too busy trying to juggle the unnecessary drama with an inexplicably absent Rahel and frantic Ido (even odder, considering it's unresolved) and with Denny's deadline, which comes to a rather anticlimactic (and unsurprising) end, given Lucas's boasts of owning a gun. During the highlight of Paraffin, Margot waxes over the way "one irrational moment can change your life," but all Rapp accomplishes is showing us a variety of irrational moments, sans consequences, sans life-changes, sans -- most crucially -- a real sense of life.

Dramatic flaws notwithstanding, Beowulf Borrit's wide and run-down hallway, which grows more and more decrepit between plays, gives the cast and the three directors (Rapp, Aukin, and, for Nursing, Trip Cullman) a realistic setting, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is to be admired for reconfiguring their interior to accommodate such a design. Additionally, Tyler Micoleau's lighting -- which gives a good sense of time passing as it filters through the fire-escape at one end of the hall -- is also terrific, especially when it comes to the varied sources of illumination during Paraffin's lengthy blackout. And Eric Shimelonis's sound design does a fine job of capturing the noise of the modern city, from alarms to dogs, it's filled with bustle. But aesthetics alone are a poor reason to attend the theater; they're wasted here, along with the fine roster of double-cast actors, from Cancelmi to Lemp and Nicholson. The Hallway Trilogy demonstrates only that Rapp is filled with ideas, not that he has any idea how to execute them; such laziness is the theatrical equivalent of squatting.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)"

Originally published in Little Kingdoms (1993). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 83.

There's a bit of Pale Fire in this, a story told through the gallery notes for the twenty-six portraits that make up the exhibition (and, consequently, life) of Edmund Moorash. There's also plenty of Millhauser's inventive, genre-creating artistry, given that Moorash was interested in a different type of art, quickly turning from his satirically rendered "realist" paintings (of the Hogarth sort) toward his own perspective-altering designs. As with the four Heretical Histories of his most recent (and excellent) collection, Dangerous Laughter, especially my favorite of the set, "A Precursor of the Cinema." By writing in a professorial voice, Millhauser gets to play with perspective of his own, particularly in the way he presents fictions as facts, blurring the lines so readily that we accept Moorash, and with him, his devoted sister, Elizabeth (whose diary entries provide further details on Edmund), as well as his best friend, William Pinney (who falls for Elizabeth), and William's sister, Sophia (whom he falls for).

The Phantasmacists attempt to capture the macabre, the eerie, the fantastic by the method of scrupulous precision; even their fondness for unusual effects of light (flickering lantern-light, cloudy moonlight, stormy daylight, the flames of hell) is expressed in an almost scientific method of distortion. Their concern for detail, for exact representation, for high finish and smooth facture, connects them with the academic art against which they appear to be rebelling. But Moorash, even in this early painting, has begun to dissolve the outlines of objects, to blur linear identity, to infect all parts of a painting with an energy that appears to erupt from within the canvas.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

THEATER: God's Waiting Room

The last thing an audience wants is to be told that they're entering limbo for the next seventy minutes, so it's a ballsy move on Ashlin Halfnight's part to have the characters in God's Waiting Room do exactly that. But it's a necessary risk: like Lathem Prince, an original piece running in repertory with this 2005 revival (and which also offered beer), the play is a time-jumping, fragmentary piece, and it's only by dropping your guard that you'll be able to follow these four denizens as they relive key moments of their lives, hoping to find the way in which they can finally move on. Although it's saddled with the late-series preaching of Lost and none of the mysteries of that island, Halfnight's flashback technique is effective and impeccably used as it builds to a tempestuous head. But the plot itself is held back by itself indefinite subject (and subjects): unlike his 2009 spiritual follow-up, Balaton, which focused on a family, God's Waiting Room doesn't seem to know where to go or what to focus on. In fact, it ends -- abruptly -- right as it's getting interesting.

The main drama of the play stems from the insistence of the highly religious Bordo (Libby King) that her employer, Inidra (Diane Davis), finally come to terms with her past and death: with her fellow limboees, her laid-back husband Drummond (Ryan King) and his pregnant mistress Saskia (Sarah Kate Jackson). The problem is that this drama is blatantly contrived (especially a gambling-and-insurance-fraud twist); there seems to be little reason for the mentally unbalanced Bordo to be punished with this unhappy triangle. In addition, the romantic, character-building portions are too quickly overrun by the inevitable tragedy of their death; at times, the play appears to be fighting itself.

Because of the formless nature of limbo -- expressed here with a smoke machine -- Kristjan Thor's directorial talents are no real help, either. The other shows in the "Theater in the Dark, With Lights" series (which includes Lathem Prince and The Laws of Motion) had visual themes or interlocking scene-changes to communicate progression and place; here, Thor relies entirely on a dizzying pace that doesn't truly kick in until the last twenty minutes. So, given the subject, is it a success for God's Waiting Room to be neither heavenly nor hellish?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon"

Originally published in Little Kingdoms (1993). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 76.

"Grapes swell on our slopes, deer graze in the grassy trench between our walls, and in the winding streets, bordered by houses of white-washed wood and clean stone, sunlight and shadow fall equally." So goes the last line of Millhauser's medieval semi-fantasy, reminding the reader that despite the title, the story is not just about a Prince undone by jealousy, a Princess driven to denounce an honest man, the Margrave made to suffer for his unbelievable chastity, or the Dwarf working to serve them all. It's about -- like much of Millhauser's work -- about the story itself, about the meanings locked inside the art of creation.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

metaDRAMA: Music To My Ears

"Hello Flux," reads a recent blog posting on the website of the Flux Theatre Ensemble. "I didn't know about your company or this show until I read the NY Times review. I noticed it because I have a friend who is obsessed with all things post-apocalyptic." The anonymous commentator, writing in a thread for "Audience Feedback" on their latest show, Dog Act, continues: "The cart is truly amazing. I could barely take my eyes off it. The costumes and props were also wonderful. I loved all the detail and care that had been taken with those specifics. Becky Byers performance was great! I also enjoyed the physical work done by all the actors." And how's this for honesty? The poster ends with this bittersweet notice: "The story didn't really grab me but there were some lovely moments and ideas in the text." Consider, however, that the author left this note on the actual Flux site -- not on the Times site, which already allows commenting, and not as an IRL comment to her doom-oriented friend. Now having actively contributed to Flux (and potentially reading some of the other posts on the site, which we'll get to a moment), isn't this author -- whether s/he liked it or not -- likely to check them out again in the future?

This is what I love about Flux: they're actively engaged with their audience, and I'm sure that once their show wraps this weekend, artistic director August Schulenberg (or other members of his company) may drop by their comment boards and add a few responses regarding intent or execution. And they're not just engaged with their audience -- they're engaged with their critics, too. Rather than simply cherry pick quotes -- and I'll use their response to my own review as an example -- note the following consideration: "He has some interesting thoughts about the structure of the second act - I myself find the song around the fire the final bonding experience that allows for the critical balance shift between Vera, Jo-Jo and Zetta - what do you think?" It's a lovely continuation of the conversation between artist and audience, critic-as-audience, and critic and artist -- not a disavowal of reviews, but not a "let's-leave-it-at-that" either. It's an attempt to communicate; more than that, it's a mark of determination on their part to understand and grapple with what might turn people off about shows -- not so that they can avoid doing shows like that in the future, but so as to work even harder on their part to make sure that they can turn those people on to shows of that nature.

Spider-Man is having focus groups, and I hear they've now hired Robert Aguirre-Sacasa to come in and fix up the book, but it's all the behind-the-scenes secrecy and lack of engagement with the public as a whole (ironic, for a show subtitled "Turn Off the Dark") that is spinning a web of gossip. I can't help but wonder what they, and other theaters -- particularly ones like Playwrights Horizon and Soho Rep, which have talkbacks and terrific online and in-theater material to give additional depth about the show -- might gain from following in Flux's footsteps and looking to sustain conversations with its audience, conversations that make it clear where everyone's coming from -- and where it's all going. I've said it a million times on this site -- in fact, I started this sub-series of posts, "metaDRAMA," because of it -- but it's all about sparking conversation about a show, and keeping that theatrical experience alive a little longer. Anything to that end, whether it's a complaint, a critique, or a compliment, is music to my ears.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Short-a-Day: Tessa Hadley's "Honor"

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 7, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 23.

I declare a war on storytelling terrorists like Hadley, you know, the sort of people who insist on hijacking their narratives. Unless a short story writer is using a parenthetical style to some greater effect, such actions can only lead to a dulling bloat, the sort that drains from what would otherwise be a meaty story. It's the same stylistic problem Hadley faced in her last New Yorker piece, "The Trojan Prince." In this case, the story begins with a full page (out of five) detailing the relationship between Stella and her Mum and her Nana. Despite her knack for short, implicating sentences (e.g., "We were pretty happy leaving a deux--at least, I was"), she insists on drawing out these points, and frequently rambles off with narrative tics that are irrelevant, like the constant use of literal parenthetical asides ["(There's another thing: didn't I wonder why we never visited any grandparents on my father's side?)"], or inconsistent, like the jarring tone of this paragraph, so distinct from the rest of the story:

I can remember being flooded with happiness once, alone in Nana's bedroom... My chest swelled with the full awareness of the moment, as if I were breathing in a different medium, thick and heady. Dust motes swam in the air. I turned my hand in them, and thought, I'm alive! In this world! Was this before I went to school? It must have been. I didn't hate school, but it put an end to that rich, slow, expansive time, when I was free.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne"

Originally published in Little Kingdoms, 1993. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

The animated cartoon was nothing but the poetry of the impossible -- therein lay its exhilaration and its secret melancholy. For this willful violation of the actual, while it was an intoxicating release from the constriction of things, was at the same time nothing but a delusion, an attempt to outwit mortality. And yet it was desperately important to smash through the construction of the actual, to unhinge the universe and let the impossible stream in, because otherwise -- well, otherwise the world was nothing but an editorial cartoon.

What is a novella? Too long to be a short story, but too short to be a novel, it leads a questionable existence: could it not be cut to a more precise conclusion? Alternatively, is there no further depth or dimension to which it might extend and blossom? I don't have the answer to that, but in Millhauser's hands, the format works -- at least with this, the five-chapter tale of a cartoonist -- for it mirrors the main character's own meticulous labors, the way in which he draws each frame of his animated hobby, choosing laborious repetition, rather than adapt to the technological advancements of the industry, for he knows that by using the cel-format, he will settle for a static and immovable background, and he wants the freedom of an ever-shifting, however slightly, perspective. So yes, it is perhaps too obvious that over the months spent drawing, his wife is growing a little too attached to his best friend, Max, and that his young daughter, Stella, is eerily growing to resemble her quiet and patient father -- that is, Millhauser could show us these things in fewer scenes -- but at the same time, each new scene has a different perspective, a different artistic metaphor saturating its sequences, and the rhythmic lapping of these moments has a cumulative effect that at last overwhelms and justifies the medium.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

metaDRAMA: You Can't Swing Both Ways

"Visually enchanting . . . dazzling" - New York Post
"Bono and The Edge have contributed stellar songs. SPECTACULAR!" - New Jersey Star-Ledger 
"Succeeds thunderously! I was riveted." - New York Magazine

So, let me get this straight. The producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark complained about critics reviewing a show that was still in previews. And yet they've decided to run a commercial for the show that cherry picks pull-quotes from those reviews? (I'll grant that the ad does at least mention that the show is currently "Now in previews on Broadway," which is a step up for them.)

Of particular note is that they used a review from the New Jersey Star-Ledger, one of the first newspapers to break the so-called embargo way back on January 18th (after, I believe, Linda Wiener and Jesse Oxfield for Newsday and The New York Observer) and which was written by Jay Lustig, who isn't even their drama critic. (He's a pop-music editor.) And while this is far from the most egregious "excerpting" of quotes, it's worth noting that "spectacular" was used (in lowercase) in the following context: "The stunts were spectacular." As for the rest of his quote, it originally read "Bono and the Edge have contributed some stellar ballads -- songs that evoke the yearning grandeur of U2 -- though their more upbeat material tended to be nondescript, and the sound mix throughout the show could have been crisper." I can understand why they changed this bit: even a professional pop-music critic knocked most of the songs.

Ever since I started aggregating reviews for StageGrade, where Spider-Man currently holds an F+ with critics (after 18 reviews) and a D from the community (after 6 reviews), I've become more sensitive to accurately quoting critics and remaining true to their overall context, so while you can read the rest of the reviews here, I will note the Post's far more accurate take: "This erratic musical constantly seesaw[s] between the galvanizing and the lame." And I will give New York's Scott Brown, increasingly my favorite critic, the full measure of his context: "Yet even in the depths of Spider-man's certifiably insane second act, I was riveted." (To be honest, that description -- the honesty, and the sense of the overwhelming it implies -- makes me want to see the show far more than their generically edited nonsense.)

I hesitate to draw a conclusion from all of this, but it certainly suggests that the embargo's days are numbered. After all, a main reason for inviting critics to your show in the first place is in order to pull-quote them, and if they're able to come up with stuff like this even from a show this abysmally rated, why not just get the critics in early so that you can spread out their reviews (to minimize impact) and spend more time distorting their language? At the very least, let this double-faced complaining -- "We don't want your reviews! But we'll use them!" -- make it a little clearer to audiences that producers, by and large, don't care about you. Let's admit that the Spider-Man swag they're giving away to so-called "focus groups" is essentially hush money (and additional advertising); after all, if Spider-Man closes, they're not going to be able to sell that merchandise. You can't "turn off" the dark, fellows; and you can't swing both ways.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Photo/Isaiah Tanenbaum
After the apocalypse, long past our scavenging and regression to a Clockwork Orange-meets-Shakespeare argot ("In a mutant’s anus, thou quark-witted son of a three-eyed stump-licker"), the few people who will pass unmolested through the land are, of course, vaudevillians. Through the mystifying yet enthralling first act of Dog Act, one might be tempted to ask Liz Duffy Adams for an explanation of this cardinal rule, but as they put on their morality play, the reason becomes clear: if nobody preserves the past, even if but to derive entertainment from it, then there is no meaning to the present and no point to the future. (Consider, too, what they preserve: one of their acts is "The Tableau of Human Tenderness.") Time and time again, Rozetta Stone (Lori E. Parquet) and her faithful Dog (Chris Wight) face extinction; time and time again, they are saved from self-slaughter by their ability to cheer one another up with song and story, "unfettered by any fanatical reverence for facts."

With the plot's "why" out of the way, we turn to the "what"; with their ensemble so diminished, Zetta decides to allow two wandering vaudevillians to "patch" their way into her troupe: Jo-Jo the Bald-Faced Liar (Becky Byers) and Vera Similitude (Liz Douglas), who only speaks the archest of truthes: "You may have absolute confidence in the meaning of my content, but you must forgive me my elaborations of form, my dear. When only truth may be told, obfuscation of style is very strongly advised." In turn, Jo-Jo, a feral, snarling creature, is pursued by two testosterone-driven scavengers, alpha-male Coke (Zack Robidas) and his scrappy competitor Bud (Julian Stetkevych), so named -- like the god of their "religion," Wendy -- after the familiar brands of a long-lost time. This being the end of the world, however, Dog Act isn't particularly interested in the destination -- the joke is that they're "walking" from North America to China -- so much as it is in the characters; can there be peace and trust in such dire times? More importantly, if in fact Vera knows why this man has declared himself a Dog, can there be forgiveness?

So far as plots go, Dog Act is admittedly built around a variety of tricks and acts, and the second act, with its distorted retelling of the past, is far less novel than the first. (A rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" -- "Sing yo, street Harriet" -- is particularly redundant.) There's a danger, too, of getting lost in Adams's text, which can be artful in both senses of the word; then again, Adams's play notes that, when all is said and done, we must rely on people, not words, to tell the story, a point well illustrated by Jo-Jo's moral-less recitals of old fables about foxes and wolves. And in that, Flux Theatre Ensemble does a fine job: Parquet and Wight share a terrific chemistry, the sort that can sum up a history in a few sidelong glances; Robidas and Stetkevych make for an aggressively comic duo; Douglas does a fine job of coating her vulnerabilities with her manipulations; and Byers is once again shows her not-to-be-underestimated strengths (see Craven Monkey, The Little One), stealing the show with her one-track manias and unstable emotions.

Most impressive -- and practically worth its own review, given all the intricacies that went into it -- is Jason Paradine's set -- Zetta's giant cart - which serves as a colorful repository of the meaningless elements of the past (like an iBook) and an unfurling stage for the indefatigable presence of the present. Likewise, Lara de Bruijn's costumes are the best-looking clothes, despite and because of their patchwork nature, that Flux has ever had, for they provide the characters with both apocalyptic context and basic utility in a time that skips in flashes from winter to summer and back. Dog Act suffices as an entertaining reminder that all the world's a stage, and while its drama may rely too heavily on tricks, it is at least more than a one-trick one-dog show.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

THEATER: The Drowsy Chaperone

Photo/Bella Muccari
Robert Martin (Eric Weaver) is marrying Janet Van De Graaff (Whitney Branan), and it's the task of his best man, George (Colin Pritchard, doing a great Roger Bart), and her chaperone (Lorinne Lampert) to make sure that the two don't see one another before the ceremony. "That's it," announces Man-in-Chair (Craig Treubert). "That's the plot." That, in itself, would be humorous enough, as Greg Morrison and Lisa Lambert have nailed the jazzy numbers of the era they're paying homage to, and Bob Martin and Don McKellar have laced the script with enough puns and over-the-top characters to bowl anyone over. But that's only the plot of the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, which Man-in-Chair is listening to on his record player. The meatier "plot," which makes this a must-see for musical lovers -- even those who saw this five years ago on Broadway -- is the infectious way in which these simple tunes can uplift and potentially change the life of the listener. It's a romance -- as musicals tend to be -- but one that's between the musical and the audience, an entertaining clarification of the transporting love we hold for theater in the first place.

I missed the Broadway version, but given the imaginative nature of The Drowsy Chaperone, it translates well to the Gallery Players stage. Despite the lower budget, or perhaps because of it, director Hans Freidrichs embraces the cheesiness of some of his "spectacles" -- like the onstage airplane of "I Do, I Do in the Sky" or the synchronized swimming in "Show Off" -- and succeeds in making them all the more endearing. (The one exception is the off-stage orchestra, which, unfortunately, cannot leave its gaps up to the imagination.) Treubert, who played this role in the national tour, also aids in the off-off-Broadway translation: his meta-commentary, often delivered while perched giddily atop his chair or while dancing along, sweetly embraces even the foibles -- like an overly long spit-take scene that he abbreviates. In other words, by the design of the book, things go right even when they go wrong -- like when the record skips during "Toledo Surprise," causing the cast to repeat themselves, or when Man-in-Chair accidentally plays the opening number from a different musical during a disc change ("Message from a Nightingale"), taking the opportunity to remark on the limited range of some of its stars.

During a rendition of "Bride's Lament," in which De Graaff has a mini-breakdown that involves the ensemble wearing monkey masks with her face on the reverse, Man-in-Chair urges us to look past the absurd lyrics and to the heart underneath. This is the crux of The Drowsy Chaperone: it's a reminder that if you allow yourself to be entertained, there's no telling where you'll end up, or what significance you'll find in even the most cloying numbers. In that light, the vaudevillian gangsters (Aaron J. Libby and Trey Mitchell), in disguise as pastry chefs -- "I hope we have made ourselves perfectly eclair"; "I cannoli hope so" -- are a necessary evil. As the humorous icing on a B-plot involving the attempts of De Graaff's producer, Mr. Feldzieg (Robert Anthony Jones), and his ditsy assistant Kitty (Megan Rosenblatt), to sabotage the wedding, they serve as the dazzle under which Man-in-Chair can slide in his truisms about theater, especially the musical variety.

There's a reason, after all, why we applaud characters that are larger-than-life, like the scene-stealing "ladies' man" Aldolpho (Edward Juvier): can you blame us for occasionally wanting more out of life? And yet, Martin and McKellar are at their dramatic best when they sneak actual motivations into their characters: we learn that the actress (within the musical) who plays the Chaperone is an aging diva, which gives further context to her constant attempts to upstage her younger model, De Graaff, in the anthemic "As We Stumble Along." That's what makes Man-in-Chair such a potent character: he represents a link between the fantasy and the reality, giving us a touch of both the sublime and the tragic. His final, uplifting reprise is the same as the one you'll find overtly shouted on shows like Glee or fellow meta-musicals (like [title of show]): we can make that magic in the real world, too, if we dare to step outside and live a little.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

THEATER: Laws of Motion

Photo/Michael Mahoney
It's the unscheduled delay on the local train that convinces Christopher (Gregg Mozgala) to fake a sneeze, hoping to catch the eye of the pretty girl, Anna (Sara Buffamanti) sitting next to him. But when Ashlin Halfnight's Laws of Motion cuts away from their twee romance -- he, a burgeoning writer with a dark imagination who is trapped working at Kinkos; she, a self-proclaimed scribefucker who says she works as a glassblower (but whose loud outfit and appointment book suggest she's blowing something else) -- it's the cardinal law of theater that these new threads are somehow going to tie into the plot. The result, which relies on a narrative trick for its dramatic punch, is a little too familiar and overwrought, but it is at least finely directed by Kristjan Thor, who uses the trick of placing multiple scenes in the same plane (but not the same place) and the reconfiguration of the shared set into unique signifiers for each couple, to show how we are all at once connected and separate.

Among the three additional plots speeding through Laws of Motion are the tales of a failing marriage between Markus (Daniel Piper Kublick) and Bella (Sarah Matthay), and the redefined relationship between Carlo (Joseph Gallina) and his ex-wife, the brassy Lonnie (Gisela Chipe), who are working through their own issues for the sake of their rebelling teenage daughter, Sammy: these love-lost relationships at least serve as a counterbalance to the burgeoning romance between Christopher and Anna. But it's harder to fit the spoiled rich Jolene (Jessica Cummings) and her cousin Dominic (Matthew Pilieci) into the plot. Dominic's simply there to be a shoulder to cry on (and expositionally talk into), and given the stated conventions of the play, savvy viewers will quickly realize (and grow impatient) that the tragedy that has reduced Jo to coke binges and "therapeutic" S&M sessions with Mistress Fiona (an unconvincing, but sweet, Amy Newhall) must have something to do with the unspecified train delay that opened the play. Going off on further diluted tangents are Markus's colleague, Cooper (Jason Alazraki), an overconfident asshole of the Mamet variety, and Gordon (Michael Criscuolo), an angry Kinko's patron. Like Fiona and Dominic, these characters are inert; wheels which serve to spin the other characters -- and needlessly so, given the play's final destination.

Pared down, Laws of Motion offers glimpses of the slick mechanism that has surely guided so many of Halfnight's other plays. The loss of a child has made it difficult for Bella to forgive her husband Markus, but their attempts to overcome that impenetrable wall make for compelling theater, the sort with clear obstacles that force their characters to grow. Comparatively, the Lonnie/Carlo scenes lack urgency and the Jo scenes lack agency; with nothing to fight for, even solid actors like Chipe and Pilieci wind up stuck in a rut. You may go for Buffamanti's wide-eyed charm and Kublick's solid desperation, but there's no law that says you can't miss this one.

Monday, February 07, 2011

THEATER: Apple Cove

Photo/Carol Rosegg
"Oh, we'd be so adult here," says Alan (Erin Gann), giddily ogling the newest lot in his father-in-law's precious gated community. How better to prove one's manhood, after all, than by playing a game of house? "Look! Here I am in our yard. Trimming the hedges. Whoops! I nicked myself. 'Honey! I nicked myself!'" His equally childish wife, Edie (Allison Mack), eagerly plays along, carefully describing the things she has been raised to believe denote adulthood and America: "I get the first aid kit, third drawer on the left of the faux marble wax-fruit bowl, I sprint down the hall covered in a 22-count, lavender, plush-pile carpet, and I bandage you. I grab a Puffs and blow my nose. Oh! It has aloe in it!" Lynn Rosen's Apple Cove, the latest in a string of solid productions from Women's Project, doesn't get much heavier than that, but as a light send-up of our carefully closeted "values," succeeds in being dizzyingly entertaining.

Like Christopher Durang, Rosen wastes no time in getting unhinged, relying on the theatrical equivalent of funhouse mirrors (grotesque exaggeration) to reflect the perils and limitations of leading a cloistered, ultra-conservative life. Edie's father, Gary (Paul Carlin), may have paved over Bear Swamp to build his community, but as the play skips between seasons and Edie's curiosities (amongst other things) are aroused by a worldly security guard, Duke (Dion Mucciacito), they'll all learn that nature cannot be limned -- for long -- by rules. And although the play is overstuffed and unnecessarily direct, Giovanna Sardelli's decision not to edit -- to let these elements run rampant -- actually works: Gary's second wife, Mary (Kathy Searle), who is half Stepford and half evil Stepmother, is so loud that she powers through the vacuousness of her role, and you can actually hear the Sarah Palin in her as she announces, "We bombed the Japs, remember? And now they're fine. See, Edie? Adjustion."

Further enhancing the production is Scott Bradley's pastel-hued set, so gloriously subdued that its hidden surprises -- a rampant vine, a cracking wall, a slide-out crib -- bring a genuine sense of transformation with them. Such aesthetics go hand-in-hand with Amy Clark's costumes, which have the delightfully unsettling effect of actually looking like costumes, in the sense that these are people attempting to convince themselves that they are something more than they are, from the little-kid shorts Edie wears in the first scene to the way Alan's work clothes always seem too large on him, whether it's the ridiculous green vest of Rec World or the suit he wears to his father-in-law's firm.

Such pop-up-book looks fit the explosive nature of the over-the-top acting, particularly the stellar performances of the tear-throttling Carlin and sharp-tongued Searle. Gann and Mack, who have more of an arc to their characters, are saddled with a more difficult task, but for the most part, succeed. Rosen's "four scenes, four seasons" structure has a variety of built-in routines, and Mack's blithe distortions of them trigger some great reactions from the tightly wound Gann: the highlight of Apple Cove is Edie's attempt to sexually awaken the repressed Alan -- a dirty dance made all the more humorous by Edie's awkward and clumsy motions . . . and the fact that it occurs in their imaginary son's crib. (Given the phonetics of Alan and Edie, the play's title, and the paradise-with-rules setting, I'm tempted to talk about how this all relates to Adam and Eve, but honestly, Rosen does nothing with the concept beyond suggesting it.)

Given all the similarities to Durang -- especially his recent and very flawed Why Torture Is Wrong . . . And the People Who Love Them -- it's important to point out that Rosen's greatest triumph is that despite all the bending-out-of-shape antics, Apple Cove actually has a solid ending. It's benign, and far from groundbreaking, but isn't it true, after all, that in order to appreciate all that wildness, one must have some sense of its difference from order?

Friday, February 04, 2011

THEATER: Lathem Prince

Photo/Michael Mahoney
Lathem (Kris Kling) is chilling in the cemetery with his bro Patio (Bryan Grossbauer), smoking some bud to take the edge off his father's recent death, a possible murder that's incorrectly, but hilariously, described as "Exactly like Othello, except your dad was white." Playwright Ashlin Halfnight (whose name is not an anagram of William Shakespeare's) has the two talking apace about ghosts and babies, at which point the hero of Lathem Prince abruptly mounts the long table, tripping back to a time shortly after his birth, a time, even then, when his mother, Gertie (Cindy Keiter), was a bit crazy and his father, William (Ralph Petrarca), had already begun his drunken descent. "This is confusing," says Lathem, removing the pacifier from his mouth. "Where are we?" Determined to keep things frantic but followable, director Kristjan Thor conjures up William's spirit -- back in the graveyard now, keep up! -- and has him go through the stereotypical moans of a ghost, bathrobe up around his head, before the man turns around, perfectly normal, whiskey in hand, to address his son, and reveal the mundanity of death: "We have a buffet." (The omelet bar costs extra.)

But wait, wait, let's go back to the beginning, to a point before Gertie posted naked pictures of herself in a national porno, attracting the attentions of the French-Detroit Claude (Michael McGregor Mahoney) -- an irrationally happy and long-schlonged dude who likes to boast about being an uncle -- all the way back, poolside, to the day that Hamlet met Ophelia ... [ahem], that Lathem met Lia (Hanna Cheek), he playing the smoldering loner card ("I was abandoned at birth; a park ranger found me, in a tundra"), she flirting haplessly, a fluttery and excitable "fish-bird" of a girl whose sexual urges (and wardrobe) eerily resemble those of Lathem's mother. Lost in that exuberant run-on? Titillated? Good: Lathem Prince is a fragmentary, hyperactive, comic romp; it's a memory play in the hands of a delusional, and depressed narrator; it's become, by the end, a remixed tone poem ("Onomatoepeia mother fucker!"), the sort of modern, sexed-up adaptation MTV would do if it had balls and a smarter audience.

By throwing caution to the wind, Halfnight's produced his most insanely quotable show, and has given Thor the opportunity to shine as a director. Working under the relatively set-less conditions of Halfnight's "Theater in the Dark, With Lights" series (which also includes the premiere of Laws of Motion and a revival of God's Waiting Room), Thor aggressively uses the space, with scenes occurring in spotlit split-screen (Lathem and Gertie look through the same box of pictures, but at different points in time; likewise, as Lathem loses his virginity, he is simultaneously being conceived), characters diving over the central table (or carrying on atop it), and turning innocent objects -- a potted plant, a fishbowl, a boombox -- into powerful signifiers.

Lathem Prince is also blessed with a terrific cast, the sort who know how to take things just far enough -- which is often further than you'd think -- without playing "full crazy." Kling's understated frustrations and deepening paranoia lead to some interestingly staged dreams/realities, a picture that more than measures up to the thousand words of, say, "To be, or not to be," and which serves him well as the set-upon center of the play. As for Cheek, her time spent in Clay McLeod Chapman's Pumpkin Pie Show has prepared her well for playing an empathetic yet increasingly crazy character, the sort who puts her boyfriend's used condoms in the freezer and excitedly/obsessively quotes old love letters. Keiter's a real find, too, pairing her shrill tones and small size with some disturbingly deadpan lines: "Come here and I'll crown you with my vagina."

Lathem Prince is a terrifically silly night at the theater, though watch out -- if you stop laughing (or laugh too hard) you might just find yourself in tears, for funny or not, this is a tragedy. An over-the-top tragedy.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

THEATER: The Witch of Edmonton

Between each of Red Bull Theater's productions, one can just imagine artistic director Jesse Berger sitting in a dark corner of a rehearsal space, plotting and scheming, using their excellent reading series to let the diabolical rhythms of their staple, Jacobean theater, sink in. No wonder, then, that their yearly production tends to swing toward tales of bloody revenge: not just because that topic was a crowd-pleaser then (as it is now), but because the machinations and deliberations fit the technical mind scaffolding each of Berger's shows. The Witch of Edmonton, however, is missing that structure. At least three playwrights collaborated to rush this to the theater in 1621, trying to keep apace with history as it was happening, and rather than try to understand the human motivations, they chalk all the evil up to a demon Dog. The result, which promises "Mirth and Matter," delivers only Muddle.

In the first of three plots, attributed by scholars to John Ford, Frank Thorney (Justin Blanchard) has secretly married his fellow servant, Winifred (Miriam Silverman), but begs his lord, Sir Arthur (Christopher Innvar), to hide this fact from his father, Thorney (Christopher McCann), lest he wind up being disowned. As a result of his seeming bachelorhood, however, he is pressed by his father to marry Susan (Christina Pumariega), a sinful second marriage that he consents to because of the massive dowry provided by Susan's rich father, Carter (Sam Tsoutsouvas). In his attempts to run off with the money, he winds up compelled (by an encounter with the Dog) to kill Susan, and to pin her murder on Warbeck (Craig Baldwin), Susan's sniveling former wooer, and Somerton (Carman Lacivita), who still pursues Susan's sister, Katherine (Amanda Quaid).

There's enough here for a full-length play, so it's obvious that something has to give: in this case, it's any attempt to develop character. Susan turns from a sharp-tongued lass, deflecting the advances of Warbeck, into a love-struck girl, and then a melodramatic wife, clutching at her husband to stay a moment longer; Warbeck and Somerton are sketchier than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; for some unknown reason, save that half a dozen other plays of the time did so, Winifred masquerades as Frank's manservant; Arthur, who appears briefly in only two scenes, is rumored to be the father of Winifred's unborn child; and not a single one of Frank's actions seem grounded in anything, particularly love, given how icy and almost aloof his chemistry is with the entire cast. People are twisted out of sorts in order to deliver monologues or moderately snappy dialogues on the meaning of virtue or guilt; it's the op-ed page, in theatrical form. 

Mind you, there are two other plots, too, or at least attributed contributions from Thomas Dekker and William Rowley: Elizabeth Sawyer (Charlayne Woodard), who was once smart enough to have learned Latin, is now an old, withered woman, foraging for firewood on other people's farmland. Old Banks (Andre De Shields), for some reason, cannot stand that theft -- although he relents when she pretends to be a witch in order to drive him back. Conveniently, she soon becomes a real witch (the one of the play's title, though she's notably the B-plot of this affair), entering into contract with the Dog (Derek Smith); although it's ironic that at this point, now that she actually has powers, Banks has the willpower to return with the Justice (Raphael Nash Thompson) and take her to the pyre.

None of these characters have real motivations for their actions, save for bile and other humors, which is where the third plot comes in, disarming us with its comedy and salvaging much of the show. Cuddy Banks (the excellent, born-to-play-Aguecheek Adam Green), the witless son of Old Banks, begs the supposed Witch to help him get out of his own bewitchment, for he has fallen for Katherine. Instead, she leads him on a wild goose chase through the woods, a humiliating and spirit-laden affair that, oddly enough, ends with him befriending the Dog, who he treats simply as a marvelous talking dog. Because Green plays clueless so well, we're happy to go along with his nonsensical adventures with the Dog, and it's a nice opportunity for Smith, who is wise enough to play his role as the straight (albeit sinister) man, to use his physicality to the fullest.

Setting the play (or plays) aside, however, Berger has once again done a fine job with the actual staging. Anka Lupes's clever set places half the audience on stage -- as jurors, bystanders, villagers, whatever -- and balances the wildness and danger of the woods (a sloping, dirt-strewn center) with the law and order of the town (the wooden planks surrounding the dirt, complete with towers and a rather overt gallows). It's fair to say that the show makes more of a statement visually than textually, with Cait O'Connor's costumes speaking to the contrast between the well-off and the poor -- most notably in the ragged raiment of the Dog, who looks a bit like Jack Sparrow. But although Berger handles chaos well, like a chase between Old Ratcliffe and his wife (both played by a very quick-changing Everett Quinton), he handles order poorly, getting bogged down in The Witch of Edmonton's long stretches of talky emptiness.