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KOMISAR'S CURTAIN-RAISERS
by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'After The Fair'
Michele Pawk and James Ludwig prove the power of the written word in "After The Fair." (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Contents: July 30, 1999:
(1)The York Theatre's "After the Fair" at Saint Peter's Church
(2)"Dear Liar" at the Irish Repertory Theatre
(3)"The Brave" at the Atlantic Theatre
(4)"Goodbye My Friduchita" at The Directors Company
(5)Pan Asian Rep's "The Joy Luck Club"
(6)Margaret Cho's "I'm the One that I Want"

"After the Fair"
book and lyrics by Stephen Cole, music by Matthew Ward, directed by Travis L. Stockley
Produced by the York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
239-6200
Opened July 15, 1999
Closes August 15, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 15, 1999
Turning the tables is an old and often satisfying life trick. In this operetta-style musical, staged with charm and taste by the York Theatre Company, two country women get the better of a young London cad, catching him in the unlikely trap which he himself has sprung.

In Thomas Hardy's tale, a young London barrister spends part of the year traveling on the rural "Western Circuit" where he meets and, for his amusement and love of conquest, seduces a succession of na´ve country girls. One day, he goes to a country fair and meets young Anna (Jennifer Piech), an uneducated lady's maid.

What happens after the fair persuades Anna that she has found the love of her life -- and future husband. But when Charles Bradford (James Ludwig) begins a correspondence, with the intention of keeping Anna on the string for his next visit, unexpected complications arise. Anna can barely write her name.

Into the breach steps her employer, Edith Harnham (Michele Pawk), a woman of perhaps 40, who married too quickly and now is lonely and bored, living with passive, self-absorbed husband Arthur (David Staller). She writes Anna's letters, putting into them the romantic feelings she has long suppressed.

The story is not only about longing for love. It is also about power relations between the sexes and the classes, and about class snobbery.

Edith married Arthur because she was afraid to be a single woman in the 1890's; she didn't have nerve to wait for romance. Arthur, a sluggish, unappealing wine merchant, makes lame sexist jokes, such as, "You should choose a wife or claret for their body not their clarity." Charles admits that his goal on his country jaunts is "to find girls beneath my station." There is some satisfaction in seeing the women and the men get what they deserve.

Stephen Cole (book and lyrics) has turned Thomas Hardy's short story into a appealing, poignant play. Matthew Ward's music has a melodious, old-fashioned sound. And Michelle Pawk and Jennifer Piech bring lovely, rich sopranos to the score, presented with the accompaniment of two pianos, clarinet and flute.

Pawk, in her high necked, full-sleeved 90's gown, projects a bittersweet melancholy and suppressed passion. Her "A Spot of Tea" duet with Charles is a piece of wry, dry humor, and her powerful song with Anna, "There's a Woman/What is Real," beautifully expresses her aching sadness.

Director Travis L. Stockley has staged the piece by cross-cutting scenes and venues on a set by James Morgan which creates rooms with hanging window frames, and a black leather chair here, a writing desk there, and a tea-table or lectern across the way. "After The Fair" is elegant fare.

"Dear Liar"
by Jerome Kilty, directed by Charlotte Moore
Produced by The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22 Street
727-2737
Opened July 22, 1999
Closes September 19, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 20, 1999
My favorite quote by the British actress Stella Campbell was from a letter she wrote to her friend George Bernard Shaw. Complaining about straight-laced views on sex, she said she didn't care what people did as long as they didn't do it in the street and frighten the horses. That's not in the letters that make up this play, but it gives you an idea of Campbell's proclivity for wit and straight talk.

She was a bright, smart, engaging woman who made her stage debut in 1888 and had her first big success in 1893 as the star of Pinero's "Second Mrs. Tanqueray." She was quite a match for Shaw.

The married playwright was smitten with her and, as this was a time when people wrote letters, they carried on a stunning epistolary romance. Shaw often declared his love in the style of an infatuated boy. For a man who was a self-proclaimed feminist and socialist, he saw nothing odd about demanding she requite his love, though he had no intention of leaving his wife. At one instance, she tells him pointedly, "I don't have a husband." (On the stage, she kept her married name, Mrs. Patrick Campbell.) And when he makes the mistake of following her to a seaside resort where she has gone with a lover, she and the man (whom she would marry) skip out on him with a ruse in early morning. But their friendship and letter-writing continued, broken by occasional fights and long pauses, till her death.

Jerome Kilty's 1958 "letter play," which opened on Broadway in 1960, is said to have invented the epistolary genre. It takes the two over a stretch of 40 years, beginning in 1899 and is a fascinating look into the relationship between these very self-assured friends and soul-mates. It's also a delightful entertainment in a graceful prose that expresses affection, anger, sadness and the warmth of shared intimacies.

The production is anchored by Marian Seldes's lively recreation of Campbell. She does a captivating rendition of Eliza Dolittle from "Pygmalion," which Shaw wrote for her in 1912. Her expressions and body language age as the years pass. However, Donal Donnelly's Shaw runs too much on one note to give a real sense of that extraordinary man. He reads the letters as if reading letters, not feeling or living them. His Shaw comes across as invariably pompous.

Director Charlotte Moore moves Seldes around various points of a set made of her writing desk, several chairs and Shaw's lectern, but most of her action is solitary; there's not enough interaction between the two.

Still, the phrasing of the letters has its own appeal. And one of the arguments between the two has resonance today. When Campbell, in financial straits, wanted to publish the correspondence, which both of course had kept, Shaw wrote her, "The publication of intimate letters is not permissible by people of honor." Times change. She eventually published some of them, and her daughter in 1952 filled a book with hundreds more.

"The Brave"
by Sharman Macdonald, directed by Charlotte Moore
Produced by Goldthread Productions
The Atlantic Theater, 132 West 22 Street
580-3264
Opened July 22, 1999
Closes September 5, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 22, 1999
Sharman Macdonald's "The Brave" is an intriguing play about sexual politics, colonialism and the battles against labor in Britain's 1970's and 80's. It is also a bit like an overstuffed sandwich. It's a lot more satisfying than the thin gruel one is often fed, but one wishes Macdonald had left a few bits of filling out. Her political agenda is so long, that in the end the message gets confusing.

It's the mid 1980's, a decade after wage controls and other squeezes by the British Tories provoked a long and bitter strike by Scottish coal miners. The workers lost, and unemployment forced many to leave the country. Susan (Alice Barden), who supported the miners by planting bombs in public places, is living in Algeria to where she fled after skipping bail. Her sister Ferlie (Kimberly Anne Ryan) has come for a visit and for sympathy -- she has an unsatisfying marriage to a husband who doesn't like sex.

Ferlie, who proclaims she is a pacifist, has mortally injured a local man she says tried to rape her. She flipped him, a technique she learned at home when women organized against a rapist preying on them in the local woods. The Algerian bartender Hocine (Aasif Mandvi) makes suggestive moves to her. "You want a little brown boy?" It's what women come to Algeria for, he says. Ferlie makes a political joke in her rebuff: "No, no, I'm a socialist." And "I was brought up to be pleasant. Smiling is what I do best." It was what she said about the rapist: "I was polite. You've got to be polite." She tells her sister, "If only you'd smiled in the dock." Macdonald conjures up the way women have been taught to be nice even to men who oppress them.

Susan retorts, "I don't believe in lying down and accepting it. Why would you accept oppression? You throw a bloody bomb!"

At Ferlie's resort hotel are two Scotsmen who work on an oil pipeline. Jamie (Randy Scott) is a very funny voluble fellow, militantly angry at having been forced to leave home to get a job. His sidekick Robbie (David Marantz) doesn't say very much, but plays a guitar comically tuned to pop nostalgia. Jamie raises doubts: "What makes you think every man has desires on your sister?"

There are also doubts about the political bone fides of these transplanted socialist Scots who take readily to acting like colonialists. Jamie humiliates Hocine, then when an Algerian policeman, played also by Mandvi, catches them in the desert trying to dispose of the "rapist's" body, Jamie offers him Ferlie's. It's a power reversal between Jamie and the Algerian, but the woman's position hasn't changed. And it's an odd scene, because Ferlie seems scarcely disturbed. "It's a small price to pay for freedom," she declares. Is that more "lying down and accepting it?"

The play is cleverist in its wry leftist commentaries about politics and the upper classes, with inside Brit quips about socialism for the rich. Jamie wisecracks about Hocine, "He's a Marxist capitalist in a socialist country being screwed by capitalism."

Markas Henry's set enhances the sense of fantasy, with the hotel's concrete Arabic arches and seaside bar on one side and a stretch of real sand and faux villa on the other. Alicia Mathewson's sound pulls you into the landscape with a Muslim call to prayer and Arab music.

Randy Scott, who is American, puts on a remarkable Scottish accent for the role of Jamie, which he infuses with vibrant energy and magnetism. Kimberly Anne Ryan is almost ethereal as the somewhat spacey Ferlie. The only false note in the play is the scene that has her, at the water's edge, dressed for no apparent reason in a see-through bra and half slip. It makes her seem as if she's truly flaky, rather than a victim of the political and social evils Macdonald has been describing.

"Goodbye My Friduchita"
by Dolores C. Sendler, directed by Michael John Garces
Produced by The Directors Company
311 West 43 Street
712-7458
Opened July 12, 1999
Closed
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 10, 1999
Priscilla Lopez is a powerful, ironic, complex, delightful Frida Kahlo in this surreal play by Dolores Sendler which is part monologue, part art lesson. Sendler has taken the Mexican painter's life story and told it through the thoughts gleaned from her diaries, letters and poems. That is set against projections of Kahlo's work so that the elements in the paintings, which were strongly autobiographical, complement the events in her life. It is a stunning visual retrospective.

Dressed in floor length traditional Mexican dress, wrap-around braids, long dangling earrings, eyebrows that meet at the bridge of her nose, and an impassive expression like those on Kahlo's portraits, Lopez looks so much like the painter that she might be her reincarnation.

She gets admirable support from Anilu Pardo, who plays Frida as a young girl, often interacting with the mature artist.

The play uses paintings to illustrate Kahlo's life, and vice versa. Most of the artist's 200 works were self-portraits and they repeat the theme of her physical suffering. When she was 18, the bus she was riding was rammed by a streetcar, and a metal bar pierced her hip. Her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, a foot broken. Pardo, lying on a hospital bed after the accident, powerfully renders the young woman's poignant letter to her boyfriend. While she reads it, a slide flashes on the backdrop -- Kahlo's self-portrait of herself lying at the bottom of a double-decker bed, the top place taken by Death.

Spinal problems continued through Kahlo's life, requiring operations and drugs and causing recurring pain. She also suffered a miscarriage, depression, a suicide attempt, and divorce. She died at only 47.

Now you understand her weeping, bleeding self-portraits painted with tears on her cheeks and nails in her head and body. She painted a fetus, a bloody body and a murderer, a dying deer shot with arrows who would never reach the nearby sea.

Kahlo had a conflictive relationship with her husband, painter Diego Riviera. They both had affairs with numerous others -- she with Trotsky whom they befriended in his exile, he with her sister -- and they ultimately divorced. Looking back, Kahlo says in the play, "If I had known how much he would suffer with my death, I'd have suffered less in life." But you also see her depressing self-abnegation before him as she asks forgiveness after her anger over his affair with her sister. Ever conflicted, she painted herself holding him in her arms as a naked babe.

Sometimes the text is gripping, but the play is generally less successful in its words than in its visuals. The attempt at poetry is often pretentious and melodramatic, and the plotline is repetitive and one-dimensional, focusing on Kahlo's painting, her physical suffering and her relationship with her husband to the exclusion of her very important political and intellectual life. The only hint of that is gleaned from the story of the couple's visit to Detroit. At a big party, she asks Henry Ford, "Is it true you are a Jew?" He was a prominent anti-Semite.

But there was much more. Not long before her death, and in a wheelchair, she attended a rally protesting against the U.S. for instigating the CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala. Though Kahlo's coffin is draped with a hammer and sickle and the same symbol adorns one of her dresses, there's nothing to suggest that she was an important member of the Mexican left. Nor do you get the sense that she was an intellectual who interacted with peers from many countries. Instead, she is portrayed as a neurotic woman consumed by jealousy and pain. It's a portrait not up to Kahlo's level of art.

"The Joy Luck Club"
by Susan Kim, based on novel by Amy Tan, directed by Tisa Chang
Produced by The Pan Asian Repertory
424 West 55 Street
239-6200
Opened July 7, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 10, 1999
You can see how the gutsy ladies in Susan Kim's "The Joy Luck Club," based on Amy Tan's novel, survived their tough beginnings in China and made it to America. They are strong, vivid personalities, especially the funny, arrogant, pushy Lindo Jong (Kati Kuroda) who acts out a tale of the clever ruse she used to escape a forced marriage. Sometimes their personal struggles brought them perilously near insanity.

By contrast, the daughters depicted in the play are rather mild, uninteresting creatures, their crises hardly worth attention. Waverly Jong (Jeffiner Kato) for example, becomes a child chess champion, then gives it up in pique.

The vignettes are told in the course of the mothers' mah jong game -- their "joy luck club" -- at which they share dreams and rivalries over their daughters. The young women resent their pushing, and none of them fulfills her mother's dreams. None has much character or presence, either.

That jagged shift between heightened interest and letdown also characterizes the play. At one moment, at a riveting lake festival, Terry Leong's colorful traditional costumes add sparkle to folkloric dancers. At another, a teenager is complaining about having to practice the piano.

In a moving scene, a mother in China returns home to retrieve her child and take her to the place where in desperation she's become a concubine. In another rather trite one, a daughter summons up the nerve to speak out to her divorcing husband and demand to keep their house.

Kim and director Tisa Chang are better at humor than melodrama. The story of what happens when an Anglo boyfriend is brought home for Chinese dinner is very funny, but the tale of a child's death by drowning in America is overwrought.

The mothers, in addition to Kuroda -- Jo Yang, Wai Ching Ho and Tina Chen -- are first rate, bringing depth and emotional charge to their performances. Ben Lin is charming as Canning Woo who tells the story of his wife's tragic separation from her first marriage's two children in China.

"I'm the One that I Want"
by Margaret Cho, directed by Karen Taussig
Produced by Westbeth Theatre Center
151 Bank Street
712-7458
Opened July 6, 1999
Closes September 4, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 6, 1999
When I invited a friend to accompany me to Margaret Cho's performance, she replied, "Oh no, not another one of those 'the perils of fame' victim tales! Why is there money in this stuff?" Curiously, Margaret Cho sees herself and her predicaments in the same light. After losing her TV sitcom, "All American Girl," she says, "part of me loved being the Hollywood casualty." To make it more interesting, she became an alcoholic, a serious pot smoker, and imprudently promiscuous.

First, she put the story into a screenplay, but the producer interested in the project insisted she go to bed with him. Her compliant manger kept arranging their meetings at hotel lobbies. So, no movie. Instead, she ended up with a stand-up routine that tells the story of the perils of Margaret Cho in Hollywood. If you get a lemon, you make lemonade.

Margaret Cho is talented, bright, and funny. She is brilliant at mimicry, especially of her mother and other Koreans, whom she portrays with campy, outrageous exaggeration. She also does well at sounding like little girls and old men. Her screechy comic delivery, a strongly accented cross between Valley Girl and New York, is something that grows on you.

She's a successful entertainer in comedy clubs, which are known typically for a crude, vulgar approach to sexual themes. It's the pre-pubescent style of dirty word humor, often reduced to repeatedly saying the names of sexual body parts. It's part of the "gross-out genre" that entertainment writers have begun to comment on and which prompted one critic's plaint, "The culture is totally debased."

Cho fits in beautifully. Her comedy is about self-involved people who are obsessed with sex and success. It lacks any hint of subtlety, wit or imagination. It's even got a riff where she numbingly repeats the word "vagina."

Dressed in a slinky black crepe gown and a pink and orange crushed velvet evening coat, she complains about the phoniness of Hollywood. But she seems to share its values. She says her ambition is to be a famous star. Her big break was the first TV sitcom about an Asian-American family. The studio decided she was overweight and hired a trainer and nutritionist. She lost 30 pounds in two weeks, and her kidneys collapsed. The joke: "When Jesus carries a cross in Jesus Christ Superstar, that must be a really good workout. You're doing arms and cardio."

She tells lots of ethnic jokes: "This set is so Korean. If it were any more Korean, we would be in a deli." And mother jokes: her mother hopes Margaret's grandparents die before she comes to play a comedy club back home so that she doesn't have to make two trips. And fag hag jokes: "Fag hags are the backbone of the gay community. We went to the prom with you." She says she's not going to worry anymore about getting thin.

I laughed at some of it, but I had the feeling I got when I used to watch sitcoms. Not much substance, lots of wasted talent. Empty calories. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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