Monday, April 30, 2012


Not every brain-boosting scientific experiment has to go awry (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Lawnmower Man), but where's the drama in smooth sailing? August Schulenburg's a smart playwright, so he more or less opens his new science-fiction play, Deinde, with Professor Daniel Nemerov (Matthew Trumbull, charmingly awkward) establishing the four rules for proper use of "Deinde," an experimental neural interface designed to exponentially increase the brain's processing power, rules that are literally designed to be broken. In doing so, Schulenburg removes the pressure of having to focus on action, and instead gives himself the wiggle room he wants to meditate on the deeper question that accompanies talk of Singularity-type events: if we change the way we think, will we still be human? If we can change the future or the past, will anything we do in the present even matter?

On one end of the debate is the aging quantum physicist Malcolm Forner (Ken Glickfeld), who strongly believes in the importance of carefully applied wisdom as opposed to the brashness of raw intelligence; when his supervisor, Nabanita Ghosh (Nitya Vidyasagar), introduces the Deinde project, he willfully refuses to participate. On the other are the energetic young'uns, Jenni (Rachael Hip-Flores) and Mac (Isaiah Tanenbaum), who can't wait to "get smart." Meanwhile, stuck between the two is the moral analyst, Cooper (David Ian Lee): he sees the value of linking in -- in this near-future setting, a virus threatens to wipe out humanity, and superior number-crunching may be the only thing that can save his wife, Dara (Alyssa Simon) -- and yet he also sees the danger of acting rashly: that's what's kept him from consummating his flirtations with Nabanita.

As staged by Heather Cohn, these three paths are occurring simultaneously, and each carries its own side-effects, though none as dangerous as the transformations firing through Mac's synapses. Tanenbaum chillingly grows more and more alien, beginning with his rapid-fire computations and overlapping conclusions, continuing with his frustrations at the "tar-brained Fudds" who are unable to keep up with or understand his six-dimensional logic, and culminating with a full-on, musically inspired psychotic break: "I was gonna kill you, man," he says, forcing his frightened best friend and bandmate, Bobby (Matthew Murumba), to laugh along with him. Hip-Flores's transformation is gentler, as befits her character's personality, and therefore perhaps even creepier, as she turns away from her artistic girlfriend, Mindy (Sol Marina Crespo), her mind being overwritten by Mac's more communal (and carnal) desires, to the point that the two speak as one. (There's some deft comedy here, too, in their attempts to hide their linked minds from their co-workers.)

At its best, Deinde is thought-provoking and disconcertingly plausible, with Schulenburg poetically describing bosons and infinity. Unlike "Deinde" itself, however, the show is far from streamlined, with Schulenburg's tendencies to overwrite monologues or to re-stress key points (Glickfeld handles his repetitious warnings with real grace) sometimes putting the "try" in that poetry. Moreover, given how fascinating the central premise is, some of Schulenburg's sub-plots -- Dara's new lust for life, Nabanita's odd attraction to Cooper -- feel underwhelming: they don't have the gravity to fight the play's more natural narrative arc. (For an example, watch the touching "holly" scene in which Malcolm attempts to win Nabanita over to his non-computer-assisted logic.)   At the same time, however, they're never overly distracting; this is much like the props and costumes, which, while clearly from our time, still manage to signify the future. (Will Lowry's scenic design -- formula-filled chalkboards and crisp glass monitors, suspended in mid-air -- is a bit more successful, as they're never touched and therefore never smudged.)

Ultimately, Deinde succeeds as speculative theater by fully questioning the implications of a technological advance and dramatizing one possible result -- a result, mind you, that may be all the more insidious given the lack of malice present in its "villains." Would it have benefited from some cuts and a more uniform ensemble? Sure. The better question, however, is whether or not you will benefit from seeing this production: the answer to that, especially if you're new to Flux Theatre Ensemble, is yes. Come see how far an Off-Off-Broadway show can take you.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

THEATER: Leap of Faith

So stop me if you've heard this one before: according to Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza), the trick behind his revival scam is essentially a two-act set up, in which you promise a miracle so great that the audience will have no choice but to see it through -- and if that miracle never comes, you can blame it on the audience's lack of faith (or charitable donations, or intelligence, etc.). You dazzle them with some fancy, disco-ball-like outfits (designed in this case by William Ivey Long), use the narrow confines of, say, a tent to keep everyone packed together (Robin Wagner's set simulates this by thrusting into the house), and you sing the hell out of every song, until it no longer matters what you're actually singing. (Esparza's meaty growls are perfect for this, though he's well-matched by Leslie Odom, Jr.'s crisp tenor, Krystal Joy Brown's piercing notes, and Jessica Phillips's strong yet wistful tone.)

That's right, folks: it sounds almost as if Leap of Faith is warning us about itself, an act that twists even further in on itself by Warren Leight and Janus Cercone's decision to frame the show as if it's actually part of a revival occurring right here in the St. James Theatre for all of us sinners. And while this new musical isn't without soul and a few moments of thunderous emotion (mostly in the second act), it does feel like a rather calculated act, a plot designed by Christopher Ashley to separate some true Broadway believers from their money. The show is slick when it needs to be sincere (the twee and trick-filled "Like Magic"), polished when it should be rough ("King of Sin," a terrific number despite distracting from Jonas's inner conflict), and full songs from Alan Menken (the similar in spirit Sister Act) that are quickly forgotten, sung as they are by some unfortunately undefined characters. ("Walking Like Daddy," which sounds terrific in the moment, has zero impact, given how little of an introduction -- or conclusion -- is provided for Odom, Jr.'s role as a rival visiting pastor.)

Then again, Broadway is often about smoke and mirrors these days; why penalize Leap of Faith for being so playfully honest about what it's designed to do, particularly when choreographer Sergio Trujillo can make a whole audience bounce along to a song like "Dancin' in the Devil's Shoes" or "Last Chance Salvation." Moreover, it's not all an illusion: Phillips manages to cram elements of the overprotective mother, lonely woman, and distrustful sheriff into the role of Marla McGowan, making sappy songs like "Fox in the Henhouse" tolerable and turning duets like "I Can Read You" into sweet duels. More importantly, she pushes Esparza to constantly top himself, both in scenes and songs, until his climactic, Rose-like turn, "Jonas's Soliloquy," in which our hero attempts to make sense of the miracle he knows his con-artistry can't have possibly conjured up. (Shades of 110 in the Shade come to mind.)

Ultimately, Leap of Faith may have fallen far short of converting and even slightly short of inspiring this member of the audience, but there's enough left here to leave even skeptics with a spring in their step, and that's not so bad.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

THEATER: Lonely, I'm Not

[EDIT (4/30): My assessment of the show, in case it's not clear from the "published on" date, is based on a PREVIEW performance.]

Lonely, I'm Not; bored, I am. Paul Weitz's new play at Second Stage isn't awful, it's just awfully empty in its exclamatory presentation of Porter (Topher Grace), a once-vicious, work-obsessed man who has spent the last four years recovering from a nervous breakdown, failed marriage, and current depression. Trip Cullman, rarely the most subtle of directors, only adds fuel to this fire by blaring the titles of each abbreviated scene in neon signage that is both behind and a part of Mark Wendland's set. The final product ends up feeling more like the cover of a magazine, flashy and colorfully designed so as to lure the reader in, than it does like a substantive address on the human condition.

This is doubly true for Porter's love interest, Heather (Olivia Thirlby), a beautiful, strong, and confident person who thinks of her gender as the only disability in her role as a high-level analyst, not her literal blindness. She's a Post-Feminist Depressive's Pixie Dream Girl, an always forgiving, entirely open, and corrective force for the hero, and little more. And it only gets worse from there for the supporting characters, who have been double-cast in the efforts to make the actors feel as if they're actually contributing something, though it's clear that Heather's clingy, hyperactive roommate Claire (Maureen Sebastian) is just comic relief, as is the college friend who sets Heather and Porter up, an inexplicable expletive-spewing man known only as Little Dog (Christopher Jackson). Weitz throws away opportunities to deepen his characters at every turn: he introduces Porter's deadbeat dad Rick (Mark Blum) as a way of explaining Porter's emotional ennui rather than to challenge or develop it; Heather's mother (Lisa Emery) is of the cheerily judgmental sort, revealing Heather's drive, but not interacting with it.

My frustration with Weitz's work (which admittedly still has two weeks of previews left) stems most, however, from my closeness to Porter; he and I aren't so different (minus the depression), and I fear that if I can't fill in the blanks, nobody in the audience will be able to connect. Or, worse, they'll breeze past this as a variation on the meet-cute comedies, though the relationship (and chemistry) between the two is tenuous at best, a fact that self-conscious Porter can't help bringing up. I guess I'm just sick of lazy writing like this making it onto a respectable stage: heaven forbid a scene last longer than four minutes and actually deal with its emotions instead of making light of them. Why bother to develop a character when you can just have Porter, working as a telemarketer, chat amiably with a senile and equally lonely eighty-six year old: Look, look at how broken he is! Why build tension when you can just have Porter abruptly scream over the commitment that comes from a home-cooked meal, and for that matter, why even bother to have Porter emote at all, when he can just tell us (after the fact) how he cries during sex.

It's ninety minutes of pseudo-inspirational pap, in which characters show how wounded they are by flopping on the floor or taking a lighter to their palm and then just miraculously decide to get better. If it's really that easy, then it's really not all that dramatic, and it's certainly not comedic; either way, Lonely, I'm Not is not worth your time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THEATER: Nice Work If You Can Get It

From the sound of it, Nice Work If You Can Get It is setting itself up from failure: classic Gershwin songs harshly bolted onto a Prohibition-era farce that's adapted by Joe DiPietro from work by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. Confidence is inspired by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, fresh off of Anything Goes, and her leading lady, the do-anything Kelli O'Hara, but there's still that disclaimer-like "if" haunting the title. Rest assured, however, that the result of this "new" musical is nice work -- actually, pretty damn wonderful work. DiPietro has as firm yet playful hand here as he did with Memphis, the songs are more than merely soldered on -- they're actually often comically playing against the original context -- and David Chase's arrangements are terrific (see the dueling "By Strauss" and "Sweet and Lowdown"), and Marshall's direction is quick, lively, and above all, fun, with lots of storytelling stuffed into the extended dance sequences.

The single rough patch rests in this entire affair rests on Matthew Broderick's weary shoulders: he looks bored to be playing yet another variation on Leo Bloom -- he's now a rich simpleton -- and his arms are so stiff that it appears he's trying to bring planking to Broadway, particularly in comparison to full-bodied performers like Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Robyn Hurder, Chris Sullivan, and Judy Kaye. It's far from awful, mind you, and Broderick's got a fine voice, but Act II opens with the talented chorus girls loosening up the previously (and purposefully) vice-squad boys, and one keeps waiting for Broderick to similarly blossom. (Okay, there's perhaps one more sore spot: Derek McLane's sets aren't nearly ritzy nor colorful enough, but all that open space and those blank walls are at least covered up and somewhat justified by the constant dancing.)

The plot's a tried-and-true one: in fact, as pointed out by a friend, it's actually a revised version of 1926's Oh, Kay, but with almost entirely new music. On the eve of his fourth (yet first "respectable") marriage, Jimmy (Broderick) stumbles out of a speakeasy and all but passes out in the arms of Billie (O'Hara), a toughened, never-been-kissed bootlegger. As it happens, Billie and her crew, consisting of the sharp and put-upon Cookie (McGrath) and the loyal yet nervous Duke (Sullivan), need a place to stash their liquor from the likes of Chief Berry (Stanley Wayne Mathis), Senator Reverend Judge Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver) and a Carrie Nation-like Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Kaye), who runs the unfortunately titled "League of Dry Women." Their solution is to head to the exorbitantly wealthy Jimmy's never-used Long Island beach-house, unaware that Jimmy's marriage to the interpretive dancing Eileen Evergreen (Thompson) is to be consummated there. In order to keep the owners out of the booze-filled cellar, Cookie disguises himself as a butler while Billie attempts to distract Jimmy with her "womanly ways" -- falling for him in the process. (In a sweet subplot, the head chorus girl, Jeanine [Hurder] is led to believe that Duke is an actual Duke, and actively woos him.)

With the exception of the ill-fitting (or at least less slick) finale to Act I, "Fascinating Rhythm," much of the joy derived from Nice Work If You Can Get It is in seeing these Gershwin classics turned on their heads or given a proper home. Billie sings "Someone To Watch Over Me" as she's handling a bolt-action rifle, "Looking for a Boy" is sung by the drunk, chandelier-seizing Duchess, "Hangin' Around With You" becomes a cockney-accented revenge song, and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" takes on charming new life as Billie and Jimmy attempt to fool the police into thinking that they're married. As for "'S Wonderful" and "They All Laughed," they're perhaps the most apt choices of the evening, since they both handily describe the musical itself. It's worth emphasizing the lesson taught by "Blah Blah Blah," however: words are never as important as the context behind them, and Marshall's direction is filled with scene-enriching material. To wit, "Treat Me Rough" is hysterically matched with some of the clumsiest flirting ever staged, and Eileen's vanity is emphasized by the bubble-bath fantasia that accompanies "Delishious."

I don't ordinarily fall head-over-heels for such airy entertainment -- especially not two-and-half-hours worth -- but Nice Work If You Can Get It has me humming away on cloud nine. Perhaps it's hard to get work these days; at least this musical's making it easy to play.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

THEATER: Clybourne Park

It's unprofessional of me, I know, but at a certain point in Clybourne Park, I stopped taking notes. I was just so enjoying Bruce Norris's overlapping dialogue -- lines that would be contentious if the characters bothered to acknowledge one another (they're not supposed to) -- that I allowed myself to get lost. Which winds up, of course, being the sucker-punching point, in that it's necessary to remove oneself from the language to realize just how tangled up we are in the prejudices of the past.

Act I, set in 1959, is an exercise in uncomfortable comedy, as Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) are confronted by an overzealous Rotary Club member, Karl (a marvelous Jeremy Shamos), who is dead-set against the sale of their house to a black family. Inevitably, the family's black housekeeper, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), and her visiting husband, Albert (Damon Gupton) are dragged into the argument, as is the local priest, Jim (Brendan Griffin). Act II, set fifty years later, emphasizes how what we now easily recognize as racism, persists well into the modern day: it's just perhaps more tactfully tip-toed around, now. You see, now it's a white couple, Steve and his uncontrollably PC wife Lindsey (Shamos and Annie Parisse; every actor is double-cast) that is trying to buy this house, and it's a black couple, Lena and Kevin (Dickinson and Gupton), who are resistant, perturbed by the thought of rich, white interlopers changing the face of their community. It's a credit to the cast and crew, and director Pam MacKinnon, that the play manages to be so comically tense, and it's no surprise that one of the big moments involves an escalating series of offensive jokes: what are we really offended by, after all?

Stepping back from the indignation, the thoughtless disrespect, and the ever-present specter of racism, one sees the people who are really at the heart of these issues, how these two irreconcilably different households are actually one and the same, and how "community" is little more than an artificial construct: a fence that we choose to erect among those who are "like" us and those who are not. And her's the final lesson of Clybourne Park, literally buried within the show. Russ and Bev's son is dead -- this occurs before Act I -- but he returns in a flashback at the end of Act II. This boy, Kenneth, was once a beloved part of the community, but after going to war in Korea, something changed. And because we fear what we do not know, these former friends and families cast him aside, driving him to suicide. And what sort of a community is that?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

THEATER: The Columnist

It's not hard to see what attracted David Auburn (Proof) to a historical subject like Joseph Alsop. The twenty odd years covered by The Columnist (1957-1978) were tumultuous ones for America, and Alsop (played here by a tightly wound, ever-graceful John Lithgow), setting aside for a moment the contrast between his closeted homosexuality and vociferous jingoism, represents a case study in the transition from one era to another, as ambitious journalists like David Halberstam (an earnest Stephen Kunken) and youthful idealists like his step-daughter Abigail (normally played by Grace Gummer; I caught her fine understudy in the role) begin to contest and supplant his domineering hold on "facts," particularly when it comes to Vietnam.

But the reason for columnists in the first place is that facts alone (sadly, in many cases) do not convey a story, and Daniel Sullivan's staid direction makes The Columnist a rather boring affair -- Good Night and Good Luck as opposed to Frost/Nixon. These twenty years prove to be too much for Auburn, and his scenes stack uneasily atop one another; Lithgow has the opportunity to acquit himself nicely as the years wear him down, but others -- particularly his knowing wife Susan (Margaret Colin) and younger brother (Boyd Gaines) -- are presented as sounding boards for Alsop, not characters in themselves. Much of the "drama" takes place in the elided years, and what's left is so eager to score intellectual points with its connections and parallels that it forgets to forge emotional ones. This is truest, structurally, in its use of Andrei (Brian J. Smith), a Russian who Alsop twice encounters. The first time is a delicate, sexual meeting that leads to betrayal (it's a KGB sting); the second is an deliberate, sexless meeting that leads nowhere. In fact, that's how the play ends, with Alsop -- forgiving, at last, but also very much alone -- sitting at his desk, unable to write another word about it.

I suspect audiences who lived through these times may find the historical resonances more compelling, even though they're so artlessly thrown in our faces (unlike, say, the far more thrilling and subtle Mad Men). But I doubt that'll be enough to overcome the dramatic inertia of The Columnist, a play that feels as alive as newsprint and about as timeless.

Friday, April 20, 2012

WINNERS: Peter and the Starcatcher/Seminar

One of the perks of writing about theater is being able to afford it, in that tickets are generally comped. Fortunately, last week, I was given the opportunity to give away some free tickets to two of the shows that I'd enjoyed -- Seminar, which has just had an interesting set of changes to the cast (Justin Long and Jeff Goldblum), and Peter and the Starcatcher, which has miraculously transferred to Broadway with all of its charm intact.

So! Without further ado, the winners are Jacky Caguicla and Daniella Villano! Oh, and to the left, you'll see that winning picture of some star-catching that I'd asked for.

Be on the lookout for more giveaways in the future!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

THEATER: You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents' Divorce

Photo/Joan Marcus
In 2009's This Beautiful City, The Civilians turned the lens of their investigative theater on a megachurch in Colorado and cut through religion to capture the essence of a community. In 2010, their In the Footprint cut through the politics surrounding the Atlantic Yards project, and once again, got to the heart of a neighborhood. It's funny how the big things always manage to distill themselves down to a few simple truths, and by that logic, You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce should be yet another success. Instead, by reducing their scope to transcribed and edited interviews with each actor's own parent(s) and making do without the musical flourishes of Michael Friedman, their work feels oddly diminutive: too personal, perhaps.

The sample size is so small that the show never takes on a greater significance, only a specific one, and if your parents didn't divorce for legal reasons (a prison sentence for Janet's husband), over an affair (amicably for Socialists John and Frinde and passive-aggressively, like the proudly punitive Beverly), or out of fear (as with Mary Anne), then you're likely to feel underrepresented. Moreover, Anne Kauffman's direction is a little too cozy, what with all the tea-brewing and casual interruptions to "answer" the doorbell or the phone: it doesn't build momentum well, especially when stitching together four different narratives. In fact, the show's eight segments are so consistent in tone that were it not for the super-titles announcing each theme ("How They Met," "Now They're Married," "Now They're Divorced"), you might confuse them.

For the sake of balance, it's also a bit unfortunate that only Matthew Maher gets to present both of his fascinating parents, but I feel as if I could now pick Jennifer R. Morris's mother, Beverly, out of a conversation, and Robbie Collier Sublett does a wry, fine job of presenting his skeptical mother, Janet. Caitlin Miller's perhaps got the hardest subject to portray -- either much was left on the cutting-room floor, or her mother, Mary Anne, is talented at holding back. Or maybe it's just the process of recounting memories that are decades old: though she confesses relief at her ex-husband's eventual death, we're never able to really understand what it must have been like to share a roof with such an unrelentingly angry man. (And that, in itself, is already probably far more reductive than the subjects deserve.)

That said, there's much to be said for the personal stuff the ensemble is bravely displaying -- a sort of living museum that hints at the origins and ends of love. The (tran)script has been lovingly polished by the cast (blemishes and all), and while it's very specific, it's also very sincere. At worst, Tales from My Parents' Divorce will at least encourage children in the audience to call their own divorced parents for a more accurate history lesson; at best, it's an hour spent in the company of charming, distant relatives, here to remind you that we've all got stuff in our lives. And like this show, it'll either work out for you, or it won't.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

THEATER: Peter and the Starcatcher

There's a star being caught in Peter and the Starcatcher, and it ain't the unnamed Boy (Adam Chanler-Berat) who will, by play's end, become Peter Pan. Which is not to say that Chanler-Berat and his cohorts, Carson Elrod and David Rossmer ("We're lost!" "Boys!" runs one of the knowing quips in the show) aren't entertaining, nor that these enslaved orphans' would-be savior, the precocious thirteen-year-old Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger), isn't a self-important hoot. But in this prequel, lovingly and creatively adapted by Rick Elice from the loving and creative novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the star is, as ever, our delightfully villainous Captain Hook -- or should I say, Black Stache (Christian Borle), since it's not until a remarkable, scene-stealing moment late in Act II that he is "disarmed." "You've single-handedly rendered me single-handed!" he sputters, after huffing and puffing and flailing about. Wails Smee (Kevin Del Aguila), technically no longer a "right-hand man" -- the puns keep coming -- "I'm stumped!"

Yes, Peter and the Starcatcher is a whimsical riot of a show, never a dull moment about, and the high energy and inventive staging from Roger Rees and Alex Timbers reminds one of Jolly-Ship the Whiz Bang, only without the puppets. (Just look at the eccentric islander, Fighting Prawn [Teddy Bergman], and tell me he doesn't seem like an animated character, so convincing is he.) In minimalist style, characters double for scenery (doors) and ropes are twisted, twirled, and tightened into narrow corridors, undulating waves, and fearsome teeth, but the show never feels threadbare, and it easily fills this Broadway stage. For instance, Jeff Croiter's remarkable lighting deserves more than a nod: his color schemes and separations make for the most epic sea-battle ever performed with miniatures. The same can be said of Donyale Werle's weathered, wooden stage, which shows both age and beauty -- and some surprising color in Act II.

And yet, for all this, everything comes back to that super-nova of a performance being given by Mr. Borle (who is already the best thing about Smash, the NBC TV show that he currently stars in). Not only does he enhance any ensemble he's a part of (there's a delirious mermaid sequence), but he solidifies all of his solo sequences, making quick work of the script's alliterations and even quicker work of his character's own perpetual flubs ("Abandon spleen!" he cries, as the Neverland begins to sink). It takes an expert at physical comedy to appear to be so effortlessly clumsy, be it his attempts to strike a pose or simply to rhyme in verse, and though he jests that iambic pentameter would be box-office poison, I expect that a healthy dose of Mr. Borle is antidote enough to salvage any scene. (That explains why Peter and the Starcatcher is so much honest-to-goodness fun: there are no scenes in need of salvage.)

Peter Pan brags that he'll never grow up; with theater as good as this, audiences will never have to.

Friday, April 13, 2012

THEATER: The Big Meal

In Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, Dan LeFranc smoothly glided between seven years worth of tender/awkward trips between a divorced father and his maturing son; in his even more ambitious and absolutely piercing new play, The Big Meal, he shifts across eighty years of dinners, starting with a random pickup between Sam and his waitress, Nicole, and ending with an epically casual goodbye that confronts death as powerfully as anything I've seen on stage since Young Jean-Lee's Lear. He does so with spot-on language as strong as anything from natural contemporaries like Annie Baker, and if some find his characters a bit thin, they're missing the universal appeal of LeFranc's approach. (Our Town, but more so: this could be any one of us, past, present, or future.) Six Feet Under needed five seasons to deliver such a powerful farewell; LeFranc manages it in less than ninety minutes. And don't worry: you won't leave feeling empty, though you might want to bring a bottle of water with which to re-hydrate.

As for Sam Gold, there's simply not enough I can say about this director's ability to stage concept-heavy pieces in a fashion that keeps the emphasis on the characters. Yes, Sam and Nicole are first played by Phoebe Strole and Cameron Scoggins, but when they meet each other again a few years down the road, now played by Jennifer Mudge and David Wilson Barnes, it's a seamless transition. There's a haunting echo effect, too, in that when we first meet Sam's parents, as played by Anita Gilette and Tom Bloom, we know that by the play's end, they'll be taking on the roles of Sam and Nicole. We become our parents; our children become us -- and speaking of kids: Rachel Resheff and Griffin Birney are charming in all forms, be they hyperactive children, spoiled grandchildren, or docile great-grandchildren.

Even if you absolutely abhor structural works, I strongly recommend The Big Meal. Knowing that the last meal is only just around the corner -- but not for whom -- keeps the stakes (or steaks) almost unbearably tense, and watching life find a way to bloom regardless is an interesting affair. Time flies by, but it's hard to register those changes in ourselves: not so in LeFranc's world, where characters go from hating squalling gibbonous brats to monkeying right along with them, where fractures mend in a tragic instant (or fester in fast-forward), and where memories (of, say, Barcelona) revise themselves in real-time. It's the best thing I've seen out of Playwrights all season (in a banner year of hits!), and must-see theater for anyone with a hearty appetite not just for a slice but for an entire pie of life.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

THEATER: "Scotland Week"

The latest series of themed performances at the international 59E59 features two Scottish plays, directed by the playwrights, that deal with loss via character's reactions to historic (or near-historic) events.

Federer Versus Murray

There's a bit of feeling out of the opponent at the start of every tennis match, a case of nerves, a wobbly serve, the need to get a sense of the give of the grounds. That's as it is for Gerda Stevenson's Federer Versus Murray, only this unease never fully goes away, mainly because despite the five-scene (five-set) structure, the tennis seems incidental to the script, and when it's directly referred to ("Game, set, and match..."), it comes across as self-serving cheese: a playwright reaching for low-hanging connections. Were the entire play centered around that single match, with Flo (Stevenson) rooting for the uncontrolled and fiery Murray in her blue-and-white Scottish face-paint and her husband Jimmy (Dave Anderson) beside her with his white-and-red cross, logically and gentlemanly supporting Federer, the play might find a more natural rhythm, one that approaches the hypnotic back-and-forth of an actual court.

Instead, the scenes too closely echo one another, with the couple arguing about the same thing -- namely, Flo's inability to cope with the death of their saxophone-playing solder of a son, and Jimmy's alternate form of grief: namely, clipping articles that "prove" the fraudulence of the war and obsessing over tennis. The scenes are broken up by Ben Bryden playing saxophone in the shadows, and while the music is lovely, it's too on the nose, particularly in his final appearance, dressed in an army uniform. (We get it, we get it.) Unnecessarily adding to the drama is a mysterious, unseen (but smelled) gentleman caller for Flo; only briefly addressed in the play's off-kilter fifth scene (which jumps several months into the future to offer a dreamy hope for the two), it serves only as a distraction.

Which is ironic, considering that the distracted parts are what work best in Federer Versus Murray. That is to say, the moments in which Flo and Jimmy manage to forget their shared tragedy feel entirely natural and lived in. The way they talk about their daughter, dismiss or support one another's foolish yet romantic dreams (Jimmy longs to visit Basel, the home of his beloved Federer), or share a pot of tea is lovely. Until, of course, one of them accidentally mentions how they've done their best to "soldier" on, at which point roses are thrown, letters are scattered, or the two are feebly pushing and pulling on one another. (Stevenson, who writes, directs, and stars, would do well to hire a fight choreographer or second pair of eyes to assist her with these sequences; they seem far too tentative and telegraphed.) That's the cost of trying to cram five unique scenes into a single hour: things get rushed, exaggerated, and lose their sincerity. Connections don't have room for subtlety: they're bellowed and pointed out, to deleterious effect.

That's rugby, not tennis, and while there are some moments of genuine excitement in Federer Versus Murray, the final result comes up short.

A Slow Air

There's no doubt that David Harrower (Blackbird) has a story to tell in his latest piece, A Slow Air, but he may have chosen the wrong medium for it. Athol (Lewis Howden) and Morna (Susan Vidler) are estranged siblings who haven't seen each other for fourteen years, and it makes narrative sense for them to address the audience, not each other, in a series of slowly converging monologues. But the unseen linchpin between their reunion, Morna's twenty-one year old son, Joshua, hints at a flaw; a budding graphic-novel artist (graphic indeed: he's obsessed with the 2007 terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport), what excites him is the gutter. "That's what they call they white space between the boxes o a comic. Where the unseen story happens before the next picture is drawn. Anythin can happen in the gutter, he said." However, Harrower's staging has no gutter, only a heavily accented and almost metronomic pace (the running time, claims the program, is exactly 82 minutes) that makes the action seem inevitable, not filled with possibility.

This stifling atmosphere sucks much of the life from the production, and while that's doubtless some of Harrower's conceit -- Morna is locked into a string of meaningless men and a thankless cleaning job, while Athol's tile-laying business is as stalled as his marriage once was -- it doesn't make for compelling theater. As is often the case of monologue-heavy shows, especially ones that may be difficult for some audiences to hear, A Slow Air is better read than seen; it's begging to be a short story, particularly with all the subtle echoes. I entirely missed one of the nicer bits of resonance, in which after Athol has shown Joshua old family portraits in which his father would photograph them frozen in mid-air, Joshua attempts to catch Athol doing the same -- in the abandoned house where those Glasgow terrorists plotted. It's a cruel circle of what passes for "normalcy," and the icy grips of a life interrupted.

A Slow Air picks up in its final fifteen minutes, with Athol and Morna now describing, in a faster-paced back-and-forth, the same events, and finally letting out their emotions while doing so. And yet, even here this poetic work holds back, leaving many of the plots (Morna's unspoken sickness, Athol's past infidelities) hanging, like the final image of the play, in mid-air.

GIVEAWAY: "Seminar"

The lovely people over at Seminar have offered me a chance to share my experiences at the show with all of you, or, to be more specific, two winners of the following contest. Now I haven't yet seen Jeff Goldblum, Justin Long, or Zoe-Lister Jones, but with Hetienne Park and Jerry O'Connell still with the production, it's probably still worth sitting in on this "master class," and in honor of the subject matter -- creative writing -- here's what you need to do to win:

  • Write, in 500 words or less, non-fiction or fiction, about an unusual class that you've taken. This can be about a crazy professor, this can be about an odd lot of students, this can be about a strange subject, or any slightly related tangent.
  • E-mail your entry to illogicaljoker at gmail dot com. 
  • One winner will be the most creative winner, as judged by me. A second winner will be randomly chosen from all entries* (*but note that you must still submit some sort of story, no matter how bad, in order to be eligible). 
  • Your deadline is 4/19; the winning story will be posted here, and each of the two winners will receive (1) voucher that can be redeemed for (2) tickets to a performance between now and 5/27 (subject to availability). 
So get those pencils sharpened and then use them to poke at the recesses of your brain stuff!

Incidentally, if you'd rather just buy tickets, here's a discount code: 

Monday through Thursday Evening, Wednesday Matinee and Sunday Matinee
$84.50 ORCH/FRONT MEZZ (Reg. $116.50-$121.50) 
$69 REAR MEZZ (A-F) (Reg. $76.50 -$81.50)
Friday Evening, Saturday Matinee & Evening
$89.50 ORCH/FRONT MEZZ (Reg. $126.50)
$69 REAR MEZZ (A-F)  (Reg. $81.50)

TO ORDER TICKETS:  VISIT (hyperlink: CALL 212.947.8844 and USE CODE SEFNF316
And if you're really jazzed about it, feel free to hit up their social networks and!/seminaronbway
Class dismissed!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

GIVEAWAY: "Peter and the Starcatcher"

I recently attended a preview performance of this whimsical and inventive prequel to Peter Pan, and I thought I'd offer readers the chance to win (1) voucher (for two tickets for any performance through 6/1/12, assuming tickets are still available). In honor of the creativity of directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and the singular performance of Christian Borle as Black Stache, the voucher will be awarded in the following way:
  • Take a photograph that in some way represents "star catching."
  • Do so, and e-mail it to illogicaljoker at gmail dot com by 4/17/12.
  • This should be either your photo, or a photo that you have the rights to, as I'll be posting the winner here.
Be literal or metaphorical, it's up to you: the most creative interpretation, as judged by me, will win the voucher. 

Have fun, and if you have any questions about the specifics of this contest/giveaway, please comment below.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

THEATER: Planet Egg

More polished than your average tech-demo/theater-hybrid, Planet Egg takes up the baton from where the delightful Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer left it, and crafts a two-man (and one Foley woman) performance of puppet cinema, in which a film is made before your eyes. Looking like a stop-motion short (akin to something you might see at, say, a Spike and Mike festival), Planet Egg is a dialogue-less ballad between a socket-faced, red-ribbon-legged creature who crashes on the titular planet and the lonely white radish-like creature that lives in a fortress made of broccoli. (There are also banana seesaws, carrot benches, and angry mobs of miniature mushroom creatures that like to cry out "Shroom!")

Zvi Sahar (who also created the show) works with Justin Perkins to manipulate the heads and legs of these creatures, leaping across the turntable surface of the planet as they head from one misadventure to the next. Unfortunately, while it's clear that socket-face is trying to repair his ship and escape, the nuances of each action aren't nearly as clear, and although it's easy to get caught up in the excitement of, say, a perspective-shifting chase sequence (set to terrific chip-tune music from Gad Emile Zeitune), many of the jokes(?) are lost. Nor is the entire production live: pre-recorded sequences provide the puppeteers time to change scenery and pre-recorded sounds assist Ien DeNio where Foley effects just won't do.

Planet Egg is a whimsical production, less than an hour long, but at the moment, it's a little scrambled. Here's looking forward to a hard-boiled follow-up!

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

THEATER: The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew can be a very funny play -- and probably should be, lest one linger too long on the sexist implications that one either believes are being mocked by Shakespeare or taken to heart -- but Arin Arbus's manic direction for Theatre for a New Audience cannot seem to bear to let well enough alone. Despite having an excellent center in the boisterous -- but ultimately not a buffoon -- Petruchio (Andy Grotelueschen) and his sharp-tongued, iron-jawed would-be-wife Kate (Maggie Siff, who has well-played similar roles on Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy), this production shoots off in a dozen directions at once. Even the program's dramaturgical notes offer only "perspectives" from other scholars, there's no thesis, no backbone.

There are two clear signs of trouble right off the bat; for one, Arbus has inexplicably shifted the setting into the American Frontier, sometime in the 19th century, even though this has absolutely no effect on the show. This has the immediate effect of making Anita Yavich's costume choices seem superfluous; as for set designer Donyale Werle's saloon-like exterior, one keeps expecting Wyatt Earp to show up with a gun. Arbus has also made the choice to include Shakespeare's original Induction (i.e., introduction), which establishes Shrew as a play-within-a-play, performed with the purpose of testing a drunk who has been tricked into believe he is a long-lost lord. Unless you're actively pursuing the theme of identity, or commenting on the seriousness of Kate's eventual subservience, neither of which Arbus is achieving, this is simply flab on the show, and we all know how much comedies benefit from some extra flab and jokes without punchlines. (There's no resolution to this framing device; in fact, the last acknowledgment of the "lord" in the audience is when an actor tells him to shut up, disruptive as he is.)

As for the play within, Petruchio's reverse-psychology and fact-denying wooing are a comic delight, as always, made all the stronger by Groteleuschen's absolute confidence and by Siff's perfect partnering, from gasping double-takes and resolute put-downs to some far-flung spittle and physical comedy. John Keating (who plays Tranio), John Christopher Jones (as old Gremio), and Saxon Palmer (as Hortensio) get in on the more exaggeratedly fun aspects of the wooing, but the rest of the ensemble is a mixed bag, ranging from the diligently expository servant, Biondello (Varin Ayala), to Kate's thanklessly bland father, Baptista (Robert Langdon Lloyd), and simply unbelievable wooers, Lucentio (Denis Butkus) and Kate's sister, Bianca (Kathryn Saffell). You can literally feel the energy draining from the stage when the two leads are absent, which is further evidence that Arbus is not entirely sure what story she aims to communicate with this version of Shrew.

In the final scene, three men bid, entreat, and command their wives to come to them; only the forceful third has any success. Would that this production had taken that "lesson" to heart; in a world in which the next Shakespearean production is just around the corner, there is no compelling reason not to dismiss this one.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

THEATER: Blast Radius

Photo/Deborah Alexander
Twelve years ago, dying aliens were found on an expedition to Mars, and their ambassador managed to convince the astronauts to smuggle the seeds of their race back to Earth, so that they might save themselves and humanity in the process. They, of course, lied, and swiftly enslaved the human race, turning them into little more than Medieval farmers and breeders. Now that you're caught up on the events of Advance Man, the first part in the Honeycomb Trilogy, you can fully enjoy the positive side of all that grim groundwork: Blast Radius, the second part in Mac Rogers's ambitious science-fiction theater. This engaging work from Gideon Productions taps into the themes of humanity that made his Universal Robots so compelling, and is both a heartbreakingly bleak look at our rebellion and, like third-season Battlestar Galactica, a useful mirror in understanding the nature of terrorism. (Oh, yeah: humanity's last chance is to gather fifty-one suicide bombers in an attempt to topple one of the massive hives of the alien invaders.)

Although there's no need to have seen Advance Man in order to enjoy this sequel, those who have will appreciate all of the distress set designer Sandy Yaklin has put into this once-charming home in Coral Gables, FL, as well as the murkier lighting that Jennifer Linn Wilcox has brought to the clandestine meetings occurring there. Those just tuning in, however, will thrill to see the evolution of these characters. The Honeycomb's ambassador, Conor (Jason Howard), has now fully acclimated to his human body, putting his newfound appreciation of "individuality" to the task of loving, body and soul, his fellow human ambassador, Abbie (David Rosenblatt). Meanwhile, as Conor grows more human, mourning the illness afflicting his proxy (and Abbie's actual) mother Amelia (Kristen Vaughan), Abbie comes across as a spoiled brat, abusing his powers in the hopes of squashing the futile resistance he believes (correctly) his sister Ronnie (Becky Byers) to be mounting, convinced that humanity will only be saved once it no longer exists -- i.e., once it has been assimilated into a beautiful, ever-loving, single mind. As for Ronnie, her teenage rebellion has blossomed into a fully justified war, one in which she no longer has to stand alone, well-matched as she is by the wisdom of her co-leader, Shirley (Nancy Sirianni), and the strength of her beloved Peck (Adam Swiderski).

Providing both comic relief and emotional release -- Rogers is skilled at tugging your heartstrings via vibrations in your funny bone -- are some of the other laborers: Joe Mathers is a delight as the simple-minded and outspoken Jimmy, as is his co-worker, the more restrained (but not necessarily wiser) Dev (played by Seth Shelden). The knowledge that they must be convinced to die so that humanity might live is made more tragic by the presence of their loved ones: bitter, hyper-intelligent Clem (Alisha Spielmann) and sweet, maternal Fee (Felicia Hudson). Also joining this large ensemble are Tash (Amy Lee Pearsall), a woman pushed the brink of despair by the loss of her child, and Willa (a terrific Cotton Wright), a "skin" like Conor, who has been sent to infiltrate the resistance (and to provide further contrast between the species).

Rogers's strengths lie in making the familiar foreign and then cleverly showing us, once more, what we'd forgotten. The fractures between Abbie and Ronnie as well as the new connections between Abbie and Conor help to question the nature of love, humanity, and identity -- all while still providing a healthy dose of action (nicely choreographed by Mathers). Blast Radius is also aided by the return of Jordana Williams, who also directed the first installment and is thereby able to squeeze even more out of the parallels between the two parts (watch Conor teaching Willa how to walk as Amelia looks on). The few weak moments -- largely scenes that don't really end, and the odd transitions between them (was that a didgeridoo?) -- are at least handled quickly, keeping us in the moment, ever expanding and maximizing the final impact of Blast Radius.