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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, April 6, 2004
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
Plays New & Old—
THE PAGANS [****] *
FROZEN [****] *
BUG [***] *
BIG BILL [***] *
THE MOONLIGHT ROOM [****] *
EMBEDDED [***] *
SARAH, SARAH [***] *
SMALL TRAGEDY [**] *
WINTERTIME [**] *
MAGGIE MAY [**] *
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM [****] *
Musicals Old & New— *
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF [****] *
SWEENEY TODD [*****] *
JOHNNY GUITAR [****] *
MINISTRY OF PROGRESS [**] *
Other Entertainments— *
NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER [****] *
NOH & KYOGEN: MASTERS OF PERFORMANCE [****] *
THE JOURNALS OF MIHAIL SEBASTIAN [****] *
BRIDGE & TUNNEL [*****] *
MOBY DICK [****] *
SILENT LAUGHTER [**] *
THIS MONTH'S "LAST ROUND-UP" *
Robby Benson's OPEN HEART in the Emergency Room: *
Three Snacks from Food for Thought: *
Mario Fratti's Blindness: *
Tom Hanks on Avenue Q: *
Second Helpings of Hugh Jackman in Boy from Oz: *
Updating The Roaring Girle: *
A TACTful Reading of The Chalk Garden: *
Plays New & Old—
THE PAGANS [****]
Scene from "The Pagans"
Ann Noble's The Pagans is a really well-made play. That means its characters are interesting and clearly-defined; its narrative-line is enriched with complications; it has a strong point to make about family relationships, and it has a satisfying resolution, growing out of a shocking [off-stage] tragedy.
The Riordan Family in County Clare are not as bizarre as some of Martin McDonagh's West Coast Irish, but they do have their quirks. Dad drinks & snoozes the day away. Second-son Tadhg Riordan can't hold a job and is in mourning for his lost life as a football star. Mother Margaret holds the whole family together, while her super-pious old-maid star-boarder sister Frances calls down God's Wrath on all & sundry.
The First-Born Son, Michael, has escaped to America. But this is no Philadelphia, Here I Come. An urgent but cryptic letter from his mother has brought him back to the shabby old house. But with his Upper-Class blonde American wife. Family clashes open the drama, but they intensify when these two enter.
Despite some almost-too-neat dramatic contrivances, the actors are so good, so totally believable in their roles, that Noble's play fascinates. This production, staged by Stephen Hollis, is so moving that it ought to transfer Off-Broadway after its run at the June Havoc Theatre. Among the fine cast: Susanne Marley, Frank Anderson, Chris Drescher, Mark Alhadeff, Rachel Fowler, Steven Rishard, Victoria Adams, and especially Nora Chester, as Mother Margaret Riordan.
Frozen is a shattering experience, even if much of it is related to the audience in segments of confidential monologues by the three principals, who occasionally interact—with potent consequences. Brian F. O'Byrne plays Ralph, a serial rapist-killer of little girls, who also has a large stash of kiddie-porn. Swoosie Kurtz, in a succession of hair-do's, is the distraught mother whose daughter has disappeared.
Laila Robins is Agnetha, the psychiatrist from frozen Iceland, who wants to explore the lower depths of Ralph's unconscious as he awaits his fate in prison. She also wants to prevent the furious mother from confronting the remote, ice-cold Ralph, who, as a murderous psychopath, feels no remorse. She does not succeed in this. But, in "forgiving" Ralph for what he has done to her daughter, the mother does get through to him in a way the good doctor never could.
In a time of rampant child-abuse, priestly paedophilia, Internet kiddie-porn, and random serial-killings, Bryony Lavery's insightful drama should provoke not only strong emotional responses, but also serious discussion of these sociopathic social problems. And Kurtz, O'Byrne, and Robins should be nominated for awards this spring!
Tracy Letts' Killer Joe enjoyed a certain scandalous success several seasons ago. Considering the audience-interest in that tale of Trailer Trash horrors, why have New Yorkers had to wait almost eight long years to see Letts' even more horrifying Bug? This was already produced in London in 1996. Perhaps the Grand Guignol this drama involves was judged too strong for Manhattan spectators?
Steppenwolf's Letts moves the scene-of-the-crime from a trailer-court to a seedy motel on the fringes of Oklahoma City. But his characters are still society's Walking Wounded. Shannon Cochran is both pathetic and empathetic as Agnes, trying to survive on tips, and fearing the arrival of her violently abusive husband who has been in prison.
In the meantime, a lesbian friend [Amy Landecker] drops by with a strange young man she's picked up. Michael Shannon plays this odd bird like a wounded innocent. He decides to stay on with Agnes, as he is on the run from Pentagon scientists who have used him for medical experiments, supposedly implanting living bug-cultures underneath his skin.
Predictably, ex-con Jerry [Michael Cullen] turns up to hit Agnes, filch money from her purse, and threaten to return and get rid of her new tenant. These human chemical-elements can come to no good when combined.
Bug's biggest production expense—aside from the nightly wear & tear on the smashed set—must be the Stage Blood, for quarts of it are spilled, before the two Shannons douse themselves with gasoline and immolate. Although this may be a great astonishment to jaded Broadway audiences, it is Old Stuff to jaded Parisians, who for years could see plays like this every evening at the Théâtre du Grand Guignol. It would be all too easy to dismiss this show as just an American version of the Guignol, but, unfortunately, the Crazies are Out There, living dangerous, even murderous, fantasies which have no cure. Received any messages from the FBI through the fillings in your teeth lately?
BIG BILL [***]
Big Bill Tilden was almost certainly set-up for arrests as a pederast. That was the Inside Word in LA. This handsome and much-admired tennis-champion shocked all decent right-thinking Americans when he was caught in a convertible with a teen-ager. That teen-age boys could have well-developed sexual impulses—even to the point of making money from them—was beyond the understanding of most people at that time. Boys were presumed innocent until they "came of age." Hustler—as a term for male prostitutes of whatever age—had not even come into the vernacular. Not to mention the idea that some lonely boys might actually be looking for a "Daddy."
The Tilden Scandal hit the headlines at a time when people could still be shocked at the heterosexual scandals of Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn. That Flynn had raped or debauched Peggy Larue Satterlee was appalling. Except to those who had known her in the small Sierra foothill town from whence she removed to more fertile sexual pastures.
A. R. Gurney's new play about Bill Tilden is an effective bio-drama, intercutting times & scenes to sustain interest. And he is fortunate to have John Michael Higgins as a very virile, self-confident Big Bill. Other cast-members play multiple roles. Notable are the very versatile Margaret Welsh, David Cromwell, and Stephen Rowe.
Mark Lamos has staged the fast-paced show in John Lee Beatty's quasi-tennis-court at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.
THE MOONLIGHT ROOM [****]
This troubling drama was premiered almost at Ground Zero, in Carol Fineman's intimate & adventurous Worth Street Theatre. It has moved to Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, thanks to some glowing reviews and word-of-mouth. Tristine Skyler's Moonlight Room is confined to the waiting-room for Emergencies at New York Hospital. But it's really more about the hazardous lives of single-parent teens on the Mean Streets of Manhattan, especially after-hours.
Neither Mr. Wells nor Mrs. Kelly know what to do about their arrogant, errant, often absent children. He is widowed—and clueless. She is divorced, but has been unable to make a new life for herself, swallowed up in self-pity. Her attractive daughter, Sal, and her quasi-boyfriend, Josh—a sometime drug-messenger, are nervously waiting to find out what will happen to their black chum, Lightfoot, who has overdosed at a Rock Concert.
Brendan Sexton III and Laura Breckenridge are especially compelling as Josh and Sal, but Kathryn Layng is also fine as Sal's desperate mother. Jeff Cohen staged this provocative play: How can parents—single or married—raise teen-age kids in a city like New York? And have them reach maturity unscarred and alive?
Much was expected of Tim Robbins' Los Angeles satire of the Bush War on Iraq, Embedded. The title refers to the pre-war Pentagon decision to train media-reporters for actual combat conditions, being "embedded" in military units in action. This of course helped co-opt them into supporting the adventure, as they could hardly criticize the fighting men & women who were essentially protecting them. In vignettes, Robbins shows their training and the subsequent censorship and manipulation of the news by the military. Central to this is the Jessica Lynch fable, here viewed as Saving Private Ryan. Even Jessica's own parents do not want to believe the truth she has to tell them.
Robbins also shows service-men & women leaving their loved ones—and on the ground in Iraq. Most of this is deadly serious. It is not generally satiric, except for the intrusions of a gung-ho officer among the journalists and ground-forces. The satiric element is largely confined to periodic interludes with members of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, all wearing Commedia masks: One of them is obviously a Condi Rice face. Some of their material is arcane, rather than pointed.
Clearly, Robbins was not about to take on the Invader-in-Chief, although a sharp, parodic satire in the vein of Barbara Garson's Vietnam War Macbird would be welcomed by many who are shocked, if not awed, by the Terror President.
SARAH, SARAH [***]
Daniel Goldfarb's new play should be of special interest to Jewish orphans. And of even more especial interest for orphans of wealthy Ost-Jüden who have sent their child to an orphanage in Siberia and never thereafter made any effort to retrieve the forlorn unfortunate.
Unfortunately, the audience doesn't get to witness any of this heart-rending tsuris. It is finally wrenched from the fiercely son-protective Sarah by her Polish married male-friend, who loves women's undies and serves as her cleaning-lady while wearing a dress. Is that kookie enough to capture your interest?
Sarah doesn't think the blooming young Rochelle Bloom is good enough for her spoiled son, Artie, on whom she has pinned all her hopes of respect, position, & prosperity. But he's studying philosophy, instead of dentistry, breaking her heart.
Second Act: Artie is now in late middle-age, a grandfather. He still looks like the Polish cleaning-man, but he nags like his dead mother. He and his unmarried, infertile daughter are in a tourist-hotel somewhere remote in China, adopting an abandoned ethnic infant—who is certainly undernourished and may also be retarded & malformed. By the end of the act, even Artie comes to love the orphan. James Noone's detailed realistic settings—changed in full view of the fascinated audience—were the most real aspect of the entire evening. Mark Nelson staged. J. Smith-Cameron was the conflicted, nagging Sarah—and also her grand-daughter, Jennie. Go Figure!
SMALL TRAGEDY [**]
Last June, when the American Theatre Critics had their annual conference in the Twin Cities, all shows were free except Craig Lucas' Small Tragedy. It was being staged in a small church-as-theatre venue that had to sell every seat. Good that I waited for press-tickets in New York. It would have been a shame to have spent real money on what is in essence an amateur rehearsal of a deliberately awkward adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. A cast of stereotypically kooky—but uninteresting—sophomoric college-students and two sophomoric adults use the rehearsals to rehearse philosophical questions about the nature of tragedy and whether Americans can experience it. The pay-off for all this is long in coming. One of the cast is not the Sole Bosnian Muslim Survivor of a Serbian Massacre that he pretends to be, but one of the actual killers. His American wife chooses to have a happy life, rather than succumb to tragedy.
Charles L. Mee should give the Attic Greeks a rest. And, while he's at it, he could store some of his Attica-influenced dramas in the attic. True, he did have a big success at a recent Humana Festival—and later at BAM—with his hilarious sex-and-violence-ridden rewrite of Aeschylus, Big Love. In fact, I loved Big Love a lot. But True Love and First Love were not so lovable.
In Wintertime, Greek playwrights and philosophers still abound, largely thanks to a delivery-man who lectures the characters & audience on some Eternal Truths about love & relationships. As the would-be comedy's structure is deliberately & obviously contrived as an almost surreal meditation on love & marriage, intrusions & interludes are par for the course. Not to mention the awkwardness of deliberately "poetic" language which is difficult to listen to for very long, partly because it gives the actors so much trouble to articulate it.
Mee apparently intended this work to be received as an "Operatic Farce," without the customary French doors. In fact, it does take place out-of-doors in a fake-snow landscape, with character-stereotypes arriving out of snow-banks or on an elevated snow-path. Iinterior furnishings are covered with snowflakes. And there is opera music on tap as well.
If Geo. W. Bush saw this play, he would surely push for an Amendment to the Constitution to prevent the marriages of all those on stage, gay or straight, foreign or domestic. Foreign is represented by a buxom Marsha Mason—working her way through an Italian accent—and the obsequiously annoying Michael Cerveris, as a French Lover. On the domestic front, Marylouise Burke and Carmen de Lavallade are intermittently amusing as a mutually-nagging Lesbian pair.
Andrew Lieberman's snowy setting is almost the most interesting thing on stage. Mee has already written Summertime—yet to be seen at 2nd Stage. They used to be known for giving forgotten plays a Second Chance. So maybe it's time to revive Springtime for Henry, in keeping with the seasonal theme.
Or 2nd Stage could revive the entire Cycle of the Seasons created by poet-playwright Christopher Fry? They include The Lady's Not for Burning, Venus Observed, and The Dark Is Light Enough. The final drama in this series, A Yard of Sun—set in Siena during the running of the Pallio—has never received a major New York production! That might be something really worthy of 2nd Stage.
MAGGIE MAY [**]
Years & years ago, Lionel Bart astonished London with a musical titled Maggie May. It was OK, but not as good as his seminal London in World War II epic, Blitz! When Wildfire Productions invited me to see its staging of Maggie May, I wondered if Bart's show had finally reached these musically-parched shores. No such luck.
At the tiny Belt Theatre—almost next-door to the Zipper Theatre—on West 37th Street, the audience sits in rickety old church-pews, looking down from a steeply-tiered balcony into a performance-pit below. My pew was broken and even though I took the highest row, I couldn't see much between the heads of those in front of me.
Jocelyn Szabo staged Christiane Szabo—as sweet, nubile Maggie—and Ean Sheehy—as her nervous, wimpy, would-be boy-friend, Donny—in this confined space, which contained a hotel bedroom, a dock, and a yacht-deck. Tom O'Brien's modest comedy should appeal to younger theatre-groups and audiences, but it has little to recommend it in the way of wit, ingenious plotting, or fascinating characters. Sheehy was amusing as the Eternal Loser who has faked winning a free trip for two to the Bahamas and then nearly ruins it all by Terminal Shyness.
Stephen Bradbury was interesting as Charlie, a Militant Hedonist, rich, retired, and having fun in the sun on his yacht. Ethan James Duff was a buff drop-out, Donny's old chum, now working for Charlie. He was an all-too-convenient playwriting-convention to provide a real love-interest for Maggie—and some needed conflict.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM [****]
Not yet another production of Midsummer Night's Dream? Can't actors give this one a rest? The Umpteenth production of Twelfth Night is bad enough, but MSND—with its Rude Mechanicals—should have worn out its welcome by now. There are those who once thought that Peter Brook's remarkably innovative MSND production, way back in 1972, was Definitive. As I edited the Official RSC Production Book for that staging, I was one of them—and did not look forward to future productions which could not measure up. Many MSND's since have not come anywhere near Brook's. But every once in a while, the Illusion of the First Time occurs again.
This is certainly the case with Edward Hall's staging of an all-male cast. This company of highly-energized and thoroughly-trained young men is a true ensemble. No one stands out as a Star. Unlike a campy Brit all-male As You Like It some years back at BAM, this BAM import is generally very serious. The women's and maiden's roles are played with both feeling and intelligence, not with cute smirks and winks. Although Shakespeare's most lovely women were in fact impersonated by comely boys and teens—with some older women such as Juliet's Nurse being played by comic actors—Hall's Propeller production profits from the male/females being more mature.
Thanks both to their training and their obvious intelligence, this ensemble can speak the Shakespearean texts unbroken for breath, with the quality of the poetic line undamaged, yet delivered as potent, incisive speech. Tony Bell, as Bottom, is surely one of the most jolly, lovable, and merrily foolish Rude Mechanicals ever. Only in the performance of the Rustics' play before the Duke do things get out of hand: an unnecessary Festival of Coarse Acting.
As admirable as Bell are Robert Hands [Helena], Jonathan McGuinness [Hermia], Sam Callis [Titania], Barnaby Kay [Oberon], Matthew Flynn [Theseus], and Emilio Doorgasingh—who, as Hippolyta, often looks disturbingly like Frida Kahlo. Simon Scardifield is a Puck with an edge.
Musicals Old & New—
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF [****]
Scene from "Fiddler on the Roof"
Much has been made by some New York critics of the fact that the new Fiddler's new Tevya, Alfred Molina, is not Jewish. And that the cast is also not dominated by American-Jewish performers. "Goy-veh," sighed one reviewer. Michael Feingold opted for: "A Mall and Its White Visitors." Does this suggest that the Ost-Jüden were not white people?
For those who were too young to have seen Zero Mostel in Tevya's First Incarnation—or Topol, as his successor—Molina seems to entirely delight. Your reporter has seen Mostel, Topol, and even an East German Tevya, in Walther Felsenstein's splendid Komische Oper staging of Fiddler. Molina's Tevya is right up there with the best. The surprise—because he is best-known as a dramatic actor—is how well he sings!
Presented on an open stage, bordered by leafless trees—with the orchestra lurking at one side among the twigs—director David Leveaux's new Fiddler on the Roof is handsome to behold and moving to experience. The score seems a succession of beloved modern musical classics. Preserving most of Jerome Robbins' choreography is more than mere homage: it is essential.
Randy Graff's Golde is more a nagging shrew than she need be. Nancy Opel's Yenta seems also excessive. But Tevya & Golde's daughters are charming: Sally Murphy, Laura Michelle Kelly, Tricia Paoluccio, Lea Michele, and Molly Ephraim. Is it the casting of what seem to be two Irish-American girls and one Italian-American girl that offends? What's in a name, after all? John Cariani's Motel the Tailor and Robert Petkoff's Perchik are also admirable.
SWEENEY TODD [*****]
For some of those who love Madame Butterfly and La Traviata, Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is too raw, too shocking, for the opera-stage. But this powerful musical transformation of the "Penny-Dreadful" horror-story and the Grand Guignol melodrama about The Demon Barber of Fleet Street comes into its own only in the opera-house. It did moderately well on Broadway, but not well at all in London at the Drury Lane Theatre—where some critics were clearly annoyed that the American team of Hal Prince and Sondheim had hi-jacked a gruesome bit of London folklore.
Sondheim's effective score was certainly a shocker on the Great White Way, but it did not achieve its real powers with a Broadway pit-band. It needed the orchestral forces of the New York City Opera—and, in London, of the English National Opera—to overwhelm audiences with its full horror, majesty, and tragedy. The Dies Irae has never sounded so terrifying in church or cathedral as it does on stage in the City Opera's revival of its harrowing Hal Prince production.
Elaine Paige—freed of her Cats costume—was a delightful wonder as Mrs. Lovett. Although memories of Angela Lansbury in the role do not fade for those who saw the original Broadway production, Paige certainly gave Mrs. L a distinctive quality. What is more, she was able to articulate Sondheim's devilishly ingenious lyrics without Broadway miking in the immense auditorium of the New York State Theatre.
Tim Nolen—who created Sweeney for the City Opera some seasons ago—was, if anything, even more vengefully powerful than before. [Mark Delavan alternated with Nolen in the role.] The criminal injustices which spurred Sweeney's furies into action elicited a certain sympathy. Even his rage at Humanity in General. But when he began his wholesale slaughter of Londoners seeking nothing more than a shave, the bloody instant-murders became almost comic. Especially when the bodies slid neatly from the barber-chair down a chute to Mrs. Lovett's meat-grinder. The "worst meat-pies in London" suddenly had become the best!
Also impressive in the City Opera's fine cast: Scott Hogsed as the young sailor Anthony, Tonna Miller as his beloved Johanna, Walter Charles as the Judge, Roland Rusinek as the Beadle, Keith Jameson as the sweet, trusting, pitiful Tobias, and Judith Blazer as the beggar-woman Todd kills. Only to discover too late that she's the long-lost wife he thought dead…
JOHNNY GUITAR [****]
This is a lively spoof of that old Republic Motion-Picture, with some really good—and often amusing—quasi-Country & Western songs. The voices are all strong and vibrant, and their owners certainly know how to Sell a Song. The entire cast—some of whom double or triple—are wonderful farceurs, striking heroic, melodramatic attitudes which are immediately undercut by music-cues or smart retorts.
Joel Higgins, who wrote the songs, also staged the handsome cast with a flair for the comedic. Judy McLane is both seductive and commanding as Vienna, the proprietress of a saloon outside the town-limits, but right in the path of the coming railroad line. Ann Crumb—as Emma Small—is an over-the-top melodrama villainess and Vienna's arch-enemy. Emma wants Vienna's land. She also loves/hates The Dancin' Kid [Robert Evans], a bumbling bank-robber she is intent on capturing. Even though she puts Vienna's neck in a noose, she also seems to Have a Thing for Vienna.
An immense neon-outlined Guitar hangs over the stage before the actions begins. Just so you'll know you've come to the right theatre. Steve Blanchard is great as Johnny Guitar—a musical chord is heard whenever his name is mentioned—and he actually wields his instrument with flair. In fact, the entire cast is great in both the songs and the hilarious book of Nicholas Van Hoogstraten. Martin Silvestri has credit for the overall musical score.
MINISTRY OF PROGRESS [**]
Although Ministry of Progress is mounted on the same Jane Street Theatre stage that helped make Hedwig and the Angry Inch such a success, it is not at all in the same vein. Nor is it—as a colleague suggested—really a remake of The Rocky Horror Show, though it certainly seems to echo that formula.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gene Poole—a pun: got it?—is not another androgynous Dr. Frank N. Furter. But he does tend to lose his shirt—and sometimes his trousers as well—fairly often. This must surely be because he has Good Arms! The anti-hero & anti-heroine, David Glutterman & Sylvia, are not, unfortunately, another love-duo of the white-bread-innocent caliber of Rocky Horror's Brad & Janet.
Kafka's The Castle could have been the inspiration for this thundering Rock Musical, but it's not. A radio-play by Charlie Morrow gets that credit. Sad to say, however, the central character and his search for a corrected ID Card at the Ministry of Progress are neither amusing nor compelling.
Had this show been either parodic or satiric, it could have been much more interesting. It may have been striving to be both, but it doesn't work. It certainly is not another Urinetown, more's the pity. Kimberley Hughes "created" and directed it, as well as writing some of the songs with known composer-lyricists.
Unfortunately, many of these seem like trunk-songs, with no potent relation to the episodic narrative line, even though some song-titles strive to stress such a relevance. Thudding clichés pass for powerful lyrics, underscored by a heavy Rock beat. Even younger audience viewers didn't seem transported or translated by these songs, alas.
All the actor-singers, however, have impressive credits in other shows. And they are all very good singers, despite the stereotypes they have been given to perform. Three overhead video-screens make a visual effort to support the Kafka-esque qualities of the fable, such as it is. Perhaps the best presentation of all in this production is Judy Jacksina's stunning press-kit. Had I studied it before seeing this show, I would have expected much much more. And would have been even more disappointed.
It could have been another Urinetown, if not a Rocky Horror Show.
NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER [****]
Hans van Manen created an amazing new dance company years ago in Holland: The Nederlands Dans Theater. It performed in strong contrast to the classical forms of The Royal Ballet, under the talented direction of Rudy von Dantzig. Over the years, Van Manen's NDT innovations invaded the Royal Ballet as well, making it also one of Europe's more interesting dance ensembles.
Today—thanks largely to the stunning choreographies of Czech-born Jiri Kylián—the Dans Theater is still strongly innovative, in the forefront of experiment. At BAM, this was resoundingly demonstrated with three Kylián works, all of them US premieres.
For traditionalists, unfamiliar with his visions, one of them—Last Touch—might have seemed devoid of choreography. Against a Biedermeier Victorian backwall, six dancers were discovered frozen in place. The wall had a large mirror, a doorway, and a window, through which could be seen the silhouette of leafless branches: suggestive of Caspar David Friedrich. The floor was covered with rumpled cloth. Stage-right, reflected in the mirror, stood a young woman in severe black, at the edge of a table with a white cloth and burning candle on it.
In the doorway, a young man was arrested in the act of entering. Downstage from him was a young woman, reclining in a Thonet rocker and reading from a thin book. Upstage under the window, two black-clad young men were arrested in a game of cards. Stage-left in a chair was a loosely-clad young woman, with a small table and bottle at her side.
In the slowest of slow-motions, the woman at the table began to pull the cloth & candle toward her. In turn, each of the dancers began the slowest of movements. The women erotically attracted the men, resulting in some slow-motion climaxes and the conflagration of pages of the book. Even the candle went out in slow-motion. This was tremendously charged, rather than tediously attenuated. The innovative score of Dirk Haubrich consisted largely of electronic pings, thunks, pongs, plinks, bleebs, & squonks. To the uninitiated, it might seem almost impossible to count to such a composition, but it had its own beat-markers, and the dancers were certainly in concert with it.
Kylián's Claude Pascal also had Victorian echoes, with a quartet of dancers in period-costume, miming recorded speeches and variously interacting with a tennis-racket, a fan, a cane, and a ball. Contrasted to these conventionally-dressed but crazily-acting personages were three pairs of lithe young dancers whose movements were reflected in 20 giant mirrors on pivots. Haubrich's score for this work was inspired by two Gustav Mahler themes. The final choreography, 27' 52", takes its name from its exact length, and composer Haubrich uses texts from Baudelaire and the Dalai Lama. Judging from the names of this fine young ensemble, it is a little United Nations.
NOH & KYOGEN: MASTERS OF PERFORMANCE [****]
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Japan Society's Performing Arts Program in New York, three Masters of the ancient Noh & Kyogen Theatre traditions came to Manhattan to demonstrate their skills. As with the age-old Kabuki Theatre of Japan, the greatest actors are named National Treasures. For these New York performances, Katayama Kuroemon, Hosho Kan, & Shigemaya Sensaku donned beautifully embroidered robes to recreate the ritual movements and tradition-ordained cadences of Ne Ongyoku and Koi no Omoni.
The first mini-drama is Kyogen and translates as Horizontal Singing. A master commands his servant to sing for him, but this saucy fellow insists he can only perform when drunk, lying in his wife's lap. The master gets him drunk and offers his own lap. It is not easy to sing—either in English or Japanese—in such a position, so this is a show of technique. The drunken servant gets carried away, singing upright and even dancing. He tries to run away, but his master pardons him and asks for more songs. Very Japanese! With handsome kimonos. And a sedate traditional Japanese orchestra in very sober robes.
The Heavy Burden of Love, the second play, is from the Noh Theatre. All movements—and there is very little movement at all—are performed with excruciating slowness. Slower, even, than Slow-Motion. This gives the audience ample time to admire the intricacy of the embroidery on the shining robes. The story of the drama involves an aged gardener seeing a beautiful Court Lady and falling foolishly in love with her. An official tells him he may be favored with a glance if he carries a handsome bundle around the courtyard garden one-thousand times.
As punishment for his imprudent love, he finds he cannot lift the package: it contains a heavy stone. And so he dies. His ghost returns from the darkest depths to curse the Lady, but seeing her beauty again, he relents and blesses her for a thousand generations. As a gardener, he is poorly dressed. Hades cannot be so terrible, for as a ghost he has a robe of great loveliness.
THE JOURNALS OF MIHAIL SEBASTIAN [****]
When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, the young Romanian author and critic Mihail Sebastian began a series of journals which he kept until the end of World War II. These chronicle not only the conquest of Europe by the Nazis, but more immediately the changing tides of anti-semitism in Romania, especially among those he thought of as friends and colleagues.
Although Romanian Jews had always had to deal with prejudice, they had made a respected place for themselves in education, crafts, commerce, and the arts. Yiddish Theatre, in fact, was first created in Romania, and later transported to New York's Second Avenue.
But in the 1930s, Romania's 759,000 Jews suddenly found themselves in potentially fatal difficulties. Three successive dictatorships thrived on anti-semitism, largely to divert the general populace's attention from the nation's real problems. First came the notorious King Carol II—and his mistress, the infamous Magda Lupescu, who was in fact Jewish! He was deposed by the dictator, Ion Antonescu, and the Nazi-like Iron Guard. The Guard was brutally suppressed by Antonescu, who held power until 1944. Pogroms slaughtered thousands of Jews even before war broke out, but in 1941-42, all Jews were targeted for the Final Solution.
Fortunately for Sebastian and others who survived, Antonescu and his henchmen began to realize Germany was not going to win the war. They foresaw protecting their remaining Jews as a post-war bargaining-chip. One of my own City University students, Moshe Yassur, was thus able to survive and make his way to Palestine, later Israel.
David Auburn, author of Proof, has adapted Sebastian's journals—including other autobiographical materials, when he found journal-lacunae—as a dramatic monologue which Stephen Kunken performs with great vitality and feeling. Sebastian's adventures in falling in love with Romania's promiscuous leading stage-star, and his travails in getting the play he's written for her produced on stage are amusing, moving, and ultimately saddening. Being a Jewish playwright proves a distinct liability in Bucharest's changing social climate, so the play finally premieres under an alias:
Rather like Ionesco's hero in Rhinoceros, Sebastian observes how his friends are beginning to change—not into rhinos—but into open anti-semites. For those in the audience who know the name and fame of the oft-quoted Romanian critic, Mircea Eliade, it is an unpleasant surprise to discover that this formerly bosom-friend of Sebastian's gradually becomes a real Jew-hater and supporter of the Iron Guard.
Those in the audience who lived through World War II safely on this side of the Atlantic—like your scribe—nonetheless have the grim experience of the progress of the Nazis over Europe as recreated in Sebastian's Journals. Stephen Kunken makes this all seem to be happening as we see and hear him describe it. Carl Forsman directed him.
On a happier note, my former student and dear friend Moshe Yassur has not only translated Mikhail Sebastian's Journals into Hebrew for Israeli readers. But he has also revived Yiddish Theatre in Romania, with recent productions also shown in Berlin and Dresden. Romania's National Yiddish Theatre is currently in Tel Aviv with one of Moshe's stagings!
Moshe Yassur has even staged Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw for the National Theatre in Bucharest, and it sells out every time it's offered in the repertory. I have seen a video of this staging, and it is very, very professional. Obviously Moshe was able to work with the best actors in Romania! I have yet to visit Bucharest and see Moshe's various productions in repertory. But, as Joe Orton's longtime pen-pal, I think Joe would have been proud of Moshe's staging of his Black Comedy.
There are those who think Romania is a Black Comedy…
BRIDGE & TUNNEL [*****]
This solo-show is an absolute Must-See! Sarah Jones, who created it, provides audiences with an amazing cast of immigrant American minorities, brought together by a love of sharing poetry and experiences. Her MC is Mohammed Ali, an immigrant Pakistani accountant, whose wife is often on the cell-phone, worried about the Feds' eagerness to "interview" him as they prosecute President Bush's "War on Terror." In a wonderful spirit of melting-pot supportiveness, however, he brings together a very diverse group of interesting people, most of them trying to make sense of their new lives in a new homeland.
One of Jones' engaging characters is an old lady from Long Island who reminds those who are suffering from prejudice and discrimination that it was the same for Jews and others who emigrated from Eastern Europe years ago. These would-be poets' frustrations and insights are totally topical, entirely understandable, and ecumenically enlightening.
A Chinese-American mother frets about her thoroughly American son who wants to "play the field," rather than marry a nice Chinese girl. Her problems are compounded by a daughter who likes girls, not boys, and has found a life-partner who really is Chinese. Unfortunately, this girl's student visa is up, so she must return to the Orient. If her daughter were a son instead, she could marry her love and guarantee her citizenship. Sarah Jones makes a strong but subtle point about the injustice of banning gay marriages, in this instance of Instant Second-Class Citizenship for Gays.
Comparisons are often odious, but it's no offense to say that Sarah Jones is in every way the equal of monologist Anna Deveare Smith. She has been ably supported in developing her concept by Steve Colman, who co-authored & co-starred in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam. Berkeley Rep's Tony Taccone directed.
MOBY DICK [****]
Scene from "Moby Dick"
Hamburg's Theater Triebwerk showed New Victory Theatre audiences something astonishing: Three German actors in an English-language adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The primary story-teller/actor, Oliver Hermann, speaks English with a British accent, as does bassist/actor Heino Sellhorn. Cellist/actor Uwe Schade speaks clear English with a slight Teutonic tinge. Played initially in German, this production has won a number of European awards and has widely toured. The world of whaling-ships and mad Captain Ahab is created with headgear, jackets, hand-props, a sea-chest, and three semi-masts, two of which support the bass & the 'cello when they are not being played to underscore the action. The complexities of the novel were somewhat smoothed out in the hour-and-a-half playing-time. But the trio never lost the close attention of the audience of children and adults. This should be more widely seen in the United States & Canada—where Theater Triebwerk has already toured. It would be good to see more of their work—in English—for it is too much to hope a young New Victory audience would sit still for a play in German. Unless it was visually so charged that even super-titles would not be needed.
SILENT LAUGHTER [**]
Director/Star/Co-Author Billy Van Zandt's comedic inspiration is to present a stereotypical silent-film comedy on stage—built around the character of Billy the Bum—with live actors saying nary a word, only mouthing stereotypical lines. To reinforce the visual concept, costumes & set-pieces are black & white & shades of gray. In the tradition of old silent-films, titles & dialogue are projected over the proscenium to explicate the actions to the audience, in case the mime is not clear. The most interesting aspect of this new show at the Lambs is the use of projections of black & white vintage photos of Old New York City Scenes as moving-panorama backdrops.
Although the generally attractive cast works very hard at being funny, the hackneyed & repeated routines didn't even arouse much mirth among youngsters in the audience, for whom the broad & coarse sight-gags might have seemed an amusing novelty. Unless, of course, the kiddies have already grown tired of them on TV in Saturday morning cartoons—which adopted much of the silent-film comedy-shtik once movies began to talk.
While the laughter on stage and in the audience was indeed largely silent, the performance was constantly blasted by the tumultuous tunes of an electronic organ, with its huge manual at stage right in the audience. It was too loud, too much of a Presence, eclipsing the silent sequences on stage. This would have worked much better with a piano-player and a tinny old upright. The MoMA silent-film showings have honed this to an artform.
THIS MONTH'S "LAST ROUND-UP"
Robby Benson's OPEN HEART in the Emergency Room:
Because I was permitted to see Open Heart before it was officially opened, I was asked not to review it. Robby Benson—who conceived the musical as a showcase for his beloved wife, Karla deVito— also wrote the book, composed the music, and even stars in it as the career-driven TV sit-com line-producer, suddenly under Cardiac Arrest. Program notes indicate Benson has himself already had two open-heart surgeries, and his credits as a writer, director, producer, actor, and Voice of the Beast in Disney's Beauty & the Beast suggest this dynamic & engaging show is more than a little autobiographical. Benson swears it's not. But it is well worth seeing, hearing, and thinking about. Having had two heart-attacks [1965 & 1990] myself—but no open-heart surgeries—I could certainly empathize with Benson's workaholic hero. Stan Brown—in various roles & voices—completes the talented cast of three. Kevin Farrell is the able music-director. Matt Williams staged.
Three Snacks from Food for Thought:
Elaine Stritch was in fine form reading Dorothy Parker monologues at the National Arts Club. An especially appetizing offering in the Food for Thought spring program of play-readings, the three devastating Parker character-sketches included The Waltz. Stritch is incomparable as a monologist. It's high time for her to do another One-Woman Show!
Mario Fratti's Blindness:
Appalled at a New York Times report that more than a score of young American soldiers in Iraq have committed suicide, Mario Fratti has written a new one-act play, Blindness, to bring this disturbing news to the Home Front. Fratti has created a number of dramas dealing with major social and political issues over the years. He is perhaps best-known for Nine—his stage-musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2—but important human problems are his constant concern as a dramatist and critic.
In early January, the Times broke the news about the military suicides. The American bombing & invasion of Iraq has not proved to be the "cakewalk" promised by the Secretary of Defense. And some of the young men and women ordered Over There to ensure Iraq's transformation from Dictatorship to Democracy are apparently cracking under the stress.
Fratti's new anti-war drama is scheduled for production in Italy, Spain, Japan, and France in the next two months. It is promised for New York this summer. Mario tells me Harold Pinter just read it and loves it. Anyone interested in reading or producing Blindness can contact Mario Fratti at his website: www.mariofratti.com
Tom Hanks on Avenue Q:
It's Awards Nomination Time once again. So I have been receiving invitations to see Broadway—and even Off-Broadway—shows a second time. Just in case I forgot how wonderful they seemed way back last fall. I seldom accept these invites as there are very few open-slots for show-going so close to nominations. One usually needs every evening and matinee free to see new productions. But I can understand producers' concerns that really good shows and outstanding performances which bowed in October will have been all but forgotten by late March. Nominators are often obsessed with the wonders that they have seen in the past few weeks. Not by what dazzled them in Pumpkin-Season.
Recognizing this critical short-circuiting, I've long made potential nomination lists from the beginning of each season. So that I do not forget what I loved in the Autumn & Winter. What I failed to do this season, however, was to go to shows that had already won awards Off-Broadway and subsequently moved to the Great White Way. As I had already admired and nominated Golda's Balcony and I Am My Own Wife, I didn't make a point of seeing them on Broadway. I suppose I really should, just to see how well they translate to new, somewhat larger venues.
When the call came to see Avenue Q a second time on Broadway, I felt rather guilty, for I'd not seen it a first time there. I'd loved it at the Vineyard Theatre on East 15th, and duly nominated it for awards. When it moved uptown—on a tide of rave reviews—I wished it well, but didn't think I needed to see it again. But the press-agent didn't realize I'd not seen it at the Golden at all, so I duly got a second chance. In fact, I liked the show so much last season, I decided to check it out.
I'm very glad I did so. Avenue Q is even better uptown in a larger theatre, with larger set and stunning special-effects, and much larger, even more energized performances by its excellent cast. Of course, although puppets are the stars, it's not really a Family Entertainment.
Puppet-Sex is shown live on stage. Homosexuality is openly discussed, even excused. Fortunately, Marriage Between Puppets of the Same Sex is not featured! But there is a promised union between a Human & and Monster! Internet Porn is not condemned, but praised. It even has a big Musical Production Number!
My only problem with this hilarious show—the entire audience was rocking with laughter—was my obstructed view. I had an aisle seat up front, but there was this very tall guy sitting right in front of me. I was dodging to the right and to the left to get glimpses of the stage-action. Nothing to be done about it. No empty seats anywhere!
At the interval, he was still in place, although crowds of girls and women were streaming down the aisle to him. They wanted autographs. Another celebrity, I guessed. And decided to ignore the crowd. I told my guest I'd just seen the remake of Dawn of the Dead on 42nd Street. It was terrible, I thought.
"Why do they want to do that to movie classics? The remake is always worse than the original film!"
At that moment, the tall man turned around in his seat: "Well, I hope you'll like Ladykillers." Yes, it was Tom Hanks, star of the remake of Alec Guinness' Ladykillers.
Second Helpings of Hugh Jackman in Boy from Oz:
Hugh Jackman is a Wonder. His dynamic performance as Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz could make him a Living Legend. On a recent Wednesday evening—after a blockbuster matinee performance—Jackman galvanized audiences at the Imperial Theatre with his amazing recreation of Australia's gift to cabaret, Radio City Music Hall, and even Broadway—although Allen's Legs Diamond musical didn't survive.
I was already dazzled by Jackman's energy and all-round performance skills—he sings, he dances, he plays the piano, he acts, he improvises with the audience—when I saw this show last fall. Over the weeks and months, it has only improved. And I have to admit that I now have come to like many of Allen's songs, especially as they are used in the context of telling his life-story. As for the audience, he drives the women and girls crazy. When he takes his shirt off, for a quick-change, there is pandemonium. The real Peter Allen was a sexy, seductive, androgynous performer. Hugh Jackman is even more so, but he is a happily married man, so don't get your hopes up! A middle-aged Birthday Girl from the mezzanine was brought down front for some chatting-up. Then Jackman led the cast and the entire audience in "Happy Birthday to Pat."
At the flashy Ziegfeld Follies-style finale, Jackman's sweaty T-shirt and towel—autographed, of course—were auctioned off to benefit Broadway Cares—Equity Fights AIDS. As both Allen and his longtime lover had died of AIDS, this charity-pitch is especially resonant at the close of The Boy from Oz. In the midst of the diversionary national conflict over banning Gay Marriages, Peter Allen's very serious problems about sexual identity and commitment should prove instructive to many in the audience. Allen's difficulties are explored very sensitively in the show. He married Liza Minelli, partly because that's what guys are supposed to do: marry women & raise families. But, as they say, he swung both ways. He found the love of his life in man who clearly loved him enough to tell him the truth about his work and help him perfect it.
Young Michael David Federan still astonishes as Young Peter. He's almost as dynamic as Jackman. Beth Fowler, as Allen's mother, is admirable: you could wish for her as your own totally supportive mom. And it's magical to see & hear Judy Garland perform again, in the person of Isabel Keating. Stephanie J. Block is a charming & moving Liza, standing in for the real one, who was foreclosing on a kind of Gay Marriage of her own. Jarrod Emick is stalwart, handsome, and very masculine as Peter Allen's lover, Greg. And Michael Mulheren doubles as Allen's drunken, abusive Dad and his tough, abusive agent.
As if all these wonders were not enough, Robin Wagner's ingenious sets, William Ivey Long's fabulous costumes, and Donald Holder's innovative lighting are worth the price of admission in themselves. So I was very pleased to see the show a second time. But some in the audience had already seen it five or ten times!
Updating The Roaring Girle:
Is it just another instance of invoking the Free-Speech Amendment that young, or youngish, playwrights find it necessary, or trendy, to sprinkle their dialogues generously with variations of the F-Word? Alice Tuan—abetted by co-adapter and actual director of The Roaring Girle, Melanie Joseph—has her actors liberally enliven their speeches with Fuck, Fucking, & Fucked. Middleton & Dekker's original 1611 Jacobean social-comedy has been thought, by some, to be too complicated and too much bound to its own place & time to be playable in modern times. The Royal Shakespeare Company proved that's not the case. But the Foundry Theatre's Tuan Dynasty updating doesn't quite make the cut. Oblique references to Bush Era politics—in Elizabethan Drag—generally fall flat, although some of the production staff—seated above the audience in the sub-sub-basement of Baruch College's new Main Bldg—were cackling insanely with laughter. Most of the actors were both attractive and talented, but their efforts were like treading water in a sea of treacle.
A TACTful Reading of The Chalk Garden:
Considering the graying Seniority of many in its audience, The Actors Company Theatre is fortunate in its anagram of TACT. Tact is certainly something Golden-Agers appreciate in an era of militant incivilities. Its recent reading of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden was distinguished by its amusing civility in dealing with tri-generational Family Problems, resolved by the plain-speaking Miss Madrigal, her insights sharpened by a term in prison, after being reprieved from the Death Sentence. Among the fine interpreters were Cynthia Harris, Simon Jones, Nicholas Kepros, Gloria Moore, Mary Bacon, & Francesca Di Mauro as Madrigal.
This season's roster of TACT readings was not entirely tactful, however. Chris Durang's Marriage of Bette and Boo still has the power to disturb and offend. The season will close in May with an extended production of The Triangle Factory Fire Project on Theatre Row, instead of the Florence Gould Hall, TACT's usual venue. Christopher Piehler's script about this dreadful New York City disaster promises to be anything but tactful. [Loney]
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2004. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com.
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