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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, April 23, 2004
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
Plays New & Old— *
INTIMATE APPAREL [*****] *
WELL [****] *
SIXTEEN WOUNDED [****] *
MATCH [***] *
MATT & BEN [***] *
MR. FOX: A RUMINATION [****] *
SLY FOX [****] *
A RAISIN IN THE SUN [****] *
TWENTIETH CENTURY [***] *
JUMPERS [*****] *
Musicals Old & New— *
BOMBAY DREAMS [***] *
ASSASSINS [****] *
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE [****] *
FINIAN'S RAINBOW [***] *
Other Entertainments— *
SIROE [*****] *
BARBARA COOK'S BROADWAY [****] *
VIVACE [****] *
THE TRICKY PART [****] *
Contemporary Theatre Abroad: *
Catalan Fleeting at CUNY Grad Center: *
Déjà Vu All Over Again: *
Plays New & Old—
INTIMATE APPAREL [*****]
Intimate Apparel is a sad but beautiful meditation on varieties of Love & Longing, especially as they affect four women and two men: Negro, White, and Jewish. It is a lovely, thoughtful play, and it is handsomely produced at the Laura Pels Theatre, in what was once the American Place. But it is exactly the kind of new American drama that Sydney Lanier was looking for when he founded the American Place Theatre all those years ago.
Lynn Nottage's prize-winning drama has a recurrent visual theme—in addition to the hour-glass corsets on display: it is BEDS. Five of them. The first bed is in the bare colored-boarding-house room of the ingenious seamstress, Esther [Viola Davis]. There is also a vintage Singer sewing-machine, from which she is earning money to open a beauty-parlor in East Harlem.
The second bed is a lavish creation—complete with green silk canopy worthy of Louis XIV—in the home of an unloved and barren Manhattan socialite, Mrs. Van Buren [Arija Bareikis]. Esther makes lovely but daring corsets and undies for her, as she does for Mayme [Lauren Velez], a whore who plays a mean piano. Mayme's handsome four-poster bed is only slightly less lavish than Mrs. Van Buren's.
Then there's the severe cast-iron single-bed of Mr. Marks [Corey Stoll], an Orthodox Jewish fabric-merchant on Orchard Street, who sells beautiful yardage and lace from his tiny room. He places a board over the bedstead to show his wares to Esther, who is a very special client.
The final, and almost fatal, bed is a cast-iron double-bed: it is the marriage-bed of Esther and George [Russell Hornsby]. They have come together as a result of a misleading correspondence—which has given each false expectations. Neither Esther nor George can read or write. Working as a laborer on the Panama Canal, Carribean-born George pays to have letters written to Esther. And she asks her two women clients to write for her. Neither knows the actual fantasies in the letters. That George calls the Great Canal a "fissure" in the earth and writes of "being swathed" may give the audience—if not Esther—a clue that something is amiss.
Esther knows she is not pretty and she is already 35, but she hopes her inner beauty—her caring, steadfastness, industry, honesty, and longing—will be apparent to the obviously sensitive writer of her cherished love-letters. Unfortunately, George is anything but sensitive, and her letters to him led him to expect something quite different, not only in Esther, but also in her mode of living and status. Soon, he is taking her hard-earned money and squandering it on Mayme, whom he has discovered by chance. Ultimately, he takes all Esther's money and leaves.
The beautiful smoking-jacket she had made for him from fine Japanese embroidered silk from Mr. Marks she retrieves from Mayme when she finds her wearing it and all becomes clear. Esther takes this handsome jacket to Mr. Marks and gives it to him. Although it is forbidden for an Orthodox man to be touched by a woman not his wife—let alone one not of his race & faith, he lets her tenderly arrange the garment on him. An irresistiable attraction, but an impossible love…
Lynn Nottage has used two 1905 vintage photographs to end each act. The first is an Unidentified Negro Couple. The second is Esther, having returned to sewing-machine and boarding-house: An Unidentified Negro Seamstress 1905. Viola Davis as Esther makes this almost heart-breaking. Fortunately, she still has her landlady, Mrs. Dickson [Lynda Gravátt], for silent sympathy.
Daniel Sullivan has staged the excellent cast with great sensitivity, Derek McLane's ingeniously suggestive bed-settings are brilliant. Catherine Zuber's costumes—especially the gowns and corsets—are splendid. Allen Lee Hughes' lighting highlights what is important, leaving the rest in shadows.
In early April, at the Louisville Humana New American Play Festival, this drama's author won the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award for the play. The honor is also money-in-the-bank, for it includes a check for $15,000. The award is jointly funded by the American Theatre Critics Association Foundation—of which I'm a board-member—and the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Charitable Trust. This is the same foundation which has taken over the American Place Theatre and made the Laura Pels Theatre available to Roundabout Theatre, producers of Intimate Apparel.
This spring, Nottage is twice an ATCA winner: she also won the Francesca Primus Prize of $10,000 which recognises "emerging female playwrights." This will be formally awarded in San Francisco at ATCA's annual conference. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, Nottage also won in a different sense. One of her Yale School of Drama playwriting students, Carson Kreitzer, won an ATCA/Steinberg $5,000 Citation for his new play, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The other citation was awarded August Wilson for Gem of the Ocean. Last year's ATCA/Steinberg Award winner was Nilo Cruz, for Anna in the Tropics, which later opened on Broadway.
Lisa Kron discovered she had to leave home to get well. Growing up in East Lansing—with a mother who was a chronic, even lethargic, victim of allergies—as a child she was also plagued by allergic illnesses. When she left home for New York, she soon found she was All OK.
Had her dear mother been a regular reader of Mary Baker Eddy's Science & Health, With Key to the Scriptures, she would have known that we make ourselves sick. It's not about allergies at all. But, considering the number of menorahs in Mrs. Kron's bookcase, Christian Science was not an option.
Actually, Lisa Kron clearly loves her often frustrating mother—whom she has brought on stage at the Public Theatre—especially for her own wonderful healing-qualities in holding together a marginal community from which whites are fleeing. But how could she be a Healer and muster such dynamism to energize an ethnically diverse community, when she herself is generally worn out, depressed, and almost literally "enjoying poor health"?
Kron—a brilliant monologist—has decided to explore the idea of Wellness—as well as Sickness—with the aid of an ensemble of actors who will help her illustrate her lecture with instances from her childhood. At stage-right, she has recreated her mother's living-area, complete with mother slumped in a recliner.
Nothing goes quite the way Kron has planned. The characters take on lives of their own, and the actors have their own ideas about what's happening. Again and again, Kron emphasizes that this "exploration" is NOT about her, not about her mother. It is about Community and intended to be Universal, she insists.
Of course it's about Lisa and her really lovable Mom. Kron has devised an ingenious serio-comic format to lay the ghosts of childhood and an aggressive-passive mother. Novelist Thomas Wolfe—no relation to the Public Theatre's director, George C. Wolfe—was not quite right about You Can't Go Home Again. Maybe he meant you shouldn't go home again. Nonetheless, both Wolfe and Kron have done it, with instructive reports for the reading and theatre audiences.
SIXTEEN WOUNDED [****]
Into a fusty old Art Nouveau Confiserie in Amsterdam, an embittered young Palestinian refugee from a Gaza Strip Refugee Camp enters most unconventionally. Mahmoud [the handsome Omar Metawally] is thrust through the window, scattering shards of glass over the floor of Hans' bakery & shop. He is on the run. The stolid baker, Hans, is played with strength and sympathy by Judd Hirsch. He is a loner, a Jew with terrible memories. An attractive prostitute [Jan Maxwell] services him once a week and drops by daily for coffee. Martha Plimpton is his shop-girl, Nora, who is soon attracted to the proud Arab newcomer whom Hans is teaching to become a baker.
Mahmoud and Nora connect, and she becomes pregnant. Mahmoud asks Hans to stand in at the boy's birth for his elder brother. Hans begins to learn the Arabic blessing. It would seem Mahmoud has put his past and his hatred of Jews behind him, among new-found friends. The horror of his bombing a bus back in the Holy Land has not been raised. But his brother appears to remind him of his duty to the Jihad. He is to receive a bomb and place it where it will do a great deal of damage. Hans late at night finds him arming the bomb in the bakery. What will be the outcome of this fraught situation?
The message of Eliam Kraien's provocative new drama is not to trust Palestinian Arabs, no matter how intelligent and attractive they seem to be. Kindness, even love, will not dissuade them from their Holy War to recover their Lost Lands from Settlers and Israelis. This may be either an overstatement or an understatement of the Truth of the Matter. Only G-d/Allah can know the hearts of Mankind.
It's unfortunate that pious Fundamentalist Arab Muslims are forbidden to have anything to do with theatre, as well as to draw or fashion a representation of a human-being or even animals. The No Graven Images Thing. Otherwise, we might be able to have a Wahabbi drama that would attempt to present the Terrorists' theological, social, and political justifications for their implacable Jihad.
Could you believe former matinée-idol Frank Langella as an aged gay dance-teacher? Or that he actually long ago fathered a son whom he never acknowledged? You can tell he's acting, as all the flamboyant gestures and facial-expressions are familiar from similar portrayals on TV and film. Still, there's always a danger that perpetuating such swishy stereotypes will threaten the Foundations of Christian Marriage.
Playwright Stephen Belber pulls out all the stops to provoke periodic torrents of laughter when Langella talks dirty or recalls the past. At one point, he tries to cheer up an unhappy young woman [Jane Adams]—who actually might be his daughter-in-law—by suggesting Cunnilingus. This gets a big laugh: the word itself is almost as hilarious to the audience as the idea of the deed. But it doesn't happen on stage. Instead, they breathe deeply and dance a bit.
Ray Liotta plays the conflicted, constricted, brutal cop and frigid husband like a very constricted actor—or The Great Stone Face. An apparent homophobe, he may well be the son of a faggot ex-choreographer. Only a Match of the two men's DNA will tell. All three of these admirable actors have a long string of notable credits in the performing-arts. Perhaps they would show to better advantage in a less-contrived comedy-drama. Or one with the same characters and situations, but also with real depth and earned laughter.
Nicholas Martin staged, obviously giving Langella his head. That's an acting-metaphor, of course. James Noone designed the cluttered Inwood apartment.
MATT & BEN [***]
Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers had the bright idea to create a surreal vision of how the film-script of Good Will Hunting came into being. Then they starred themselves, cross-dressed, in the roles of Matt & Ben. You cannot do this kind of thing night after night without becoming stale, so now they have been replaced at PS 122 with Quincy Tyler Bernstein & Jennifer R. Morris. The current press-release claims "nearly a thousand actresses lined up to audition." It does not say whether they were all heard. After hearing the delightful Bernstein & Morris, director David Warren and the authors could easily have closed auditions right there.
This is a duo-drama about Best Friendship, as well as envy & put-downs. As Ben & Matt are trying to make a screenplay of Catcher in the Rye by copying out lines of dialogue, a package drops from the ceilng. It contains the complete script of Good Will Hunting with their names on the cover. Later, it turns completely blank. J. D. Salinger drops by to point out they do not have permission to adapt his ancient best-seller. The rest is Screen History…
MR. FOX: A RUMINATION [****]
Bill Irwin Speaks! America's most famous mime has written a fascinating new drama which combines his talents as a playwright, mime, and actor. What's more, Mr. Fox: A Rumination also offers a backstage/forestage evocation of Popular Entertainment on the Bowery in the Gilded Age. Irwin imagines the career of George Fox, a comic and pantomime artiste, who became famous for his Humpty-Dumpty panto routines.
In the traditional framework of Frenchified Italian Commedia dell'Arte, Fox and ensemble recreated Harlequin, Pantalone, Pierrot & Columbine for the rowdy Bowery Bhoys and other poor and immigrant audiences. In Irwin's vision, Fox aspired to Higher Art, but he was at every turn exploited and ultimately ruined by top-hatted Theatre Managers, including Daly and Palmer. A cranial collision with another farceur also impairs his judgment and ability to perform.
In the wake of the Civil War, Fox introduces a Freed Slave routine for New York worker-audiences—who were not welcoming to black competition on jobsites. [This is also noted in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel.] His black comic, George Topak [Marc Damon Johnson], enters carrying a large Chest-of-Drawers, with a sign: FREEDMAN'S BUREAU. Bureau/Drawers? Get it? This trick piece of furniture permits all kinds of prop & costume and actor switches into and out of its big drawers. At one point, Fox bumps skulls with Topac, and he's never quite right after that.
Geoff Hoyle, Irwin's mime-colleague, is especially appealling as Fox's devil-may-care brother. Fox devises a three-legged dance-routine which wows the Bowery audiences—as well as those at the Signature Theatre where Irwin is the Man for the entire season. As Irwin, he can be pleased that he's made his dramatic-point so effectively, even if it means Hoyle gets the laughs. As Fox, however, he's jealous, for he devised the routine, but cannot, in the context of the scene, perform it. The audience doesn't know that, so all credit goes to brother Charlie.
Fox's sad fate is truly tragic, but not so uncommon for many a journeyman-performer in America's late 19th century theatre. Irwin is to be hailed for recreating this Lost World of Manhattan Theatre, as well as for his and his company's powerful performances. The story of George Fox is not exactly Les Enfants du Paradis, but it is in its own way just as heart-breaking. And Bill Irwin's American-Commedia mime may not ascend the heights of Jean-Louis Barrault's sad clown, but he comes close.
SLY FOX [****]
This revival of Sly Fox was so provocative, I wrote two entire pages on it. But I neglected to Save the Document inside this file. When I closed it, instead of the Save As… window coming up, the text simply disappeared and is not now to be found anywhere on the hard-disk. It's now midnight. I've just packed for the Humana Festival in Louisville, and I have leave here at 5:30 am. So there is no way I can recall all that I had to say about Arthur Penn's handsome production.
Larry Gelbart has revised his original adaptation of Ben Jonson's Volpone which worked well enough. As I was not among the critics given a copy of the new script, I cannot note changes line-by-line. [Press-agents save those scripts for really important critics!] But it did seem that there are now more broad Burlesque Comic jokes & puns in the show than before. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it certainly had the audience roaring with laughter. Even some jokes as old as Aristophanes…
The main problem with this new mounting, for me, is that Penn and most of his actors have chosen to impersonate—or indicate—their characters very broadly, even stereotypically. Bob Dishy's ever-arching eye-brows are only part of his Mugging repertoire. But he's not the only one on stage who wants to let the audience know how funny all this is. Just in case all the handsome doors in the elegant settings haven't tipped them off that this is a farce.
Actually, it's a farce with a satiric social & political edge—at least in its origins—and it would be much more hilarious if all the performers had actually inhabited their characters as well as Rene Auberjonois. His Crouch scampers across the stage in a literal crouch, but he is so serious in his lust for Foxwell J. Sly's chest of gold that he seems completely unconscious of how ridiculous he is. Comedy is never so funny as when the characters are driven by their personal demons, without sly winks aside to the audience.
Bronson Pinchott's Lawyer Craven is also very good, although his nervous tics and virtually choreographed gestures are almost stylised. But he, also, is totally obsessed by greed and all the more amusing for it. He is living—not showing—the part.
As Sly, Richard Dreyfuss is almost too urbane, too self-conscious a plotter. He is at his best as the Wild West Judge. When he literally "throws the book" at an offender, it's a great sight-gag. But it's totally in keeping with the rest of his courtroom proceedings—which are sporadically recorded with an old ink-pen by the senile clerk, played by Professor Irwin Corey. Alas, Dreyfuss is no George C. Scott, who made Sly his own.
Another notable performance—although almost a cameo—is Peter Scolari's sex-mad Chief of Police. When he skids to his knees and tears open his police-tunic, it seems the sudden craziness of a runty little man who is suddenly confronted with two beautiful, desireable women. One of whom is available for a fee… This is not played as a burlesque-skit, with one eye on the audience. He seems temporarily oblivious of everyone in the bar-room serving as a court. Except the women… These are played by Rachel York & Elizabeth Berkeley—both of whom could have used some insightful direction.
Unfortunately, that good actor, Eric Stolz, seems to belong in another play, perhaps a Reality Con-Show. Instead of being a Frisco Barbary Coast version of Ben Jonson's slinky, seductive, sleazy servant Mosca—really a kind of pimp to the gold-lusts of Sly's would-be heirs—he seems, in his neatness and brisk efficiency, more like How To Succeed's Finch, working his way up the corporate-ladder with deliberate treachery.
The durability of Jonson's Volpone is amazing. But this tale of an Imaginary Invalid—counterfeiting death-throes to con his would-be heirs out of yet more gold—is one of the Most Basic Plots. Human Greed is a theme that works well for both Comedy & Tragedy. And especially for Farce.
That old black & white Volpone film-version with Harry Bauer—set in Renaissance Venice—shows that it will still work for modern audiences in its proper place & period. Actually, that could also be Jacobean London, rather than Venice, but no matter. Rex Harrison was at ease as a modern Sly in The Honeypot. The last Broadway musical to grace the stage of the soon-after demolished Joseph Urban Ziegfeld Theatre was called Foxy: it featured Bert Lahr as the consummate con-man. And Placido Domingo even sang the role at the Met recently in Sly, the opera!
The physical production of Sly Fox is a joy to behold, as they say. George Jenkins' original sets—recreated by Jesse Poleshuk—offer a luxurious Gilded Age Beaux Arts bed-chamber for Foxwell J. Sly. Sections of this revolve to form the bar-room, a prison, and two homes—one crammed with Virgin Shrines. Albert Wolsky's handsome costumes look very well in these venues. The time is nominally 1888, but the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake is invoked for a sight-gag.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN [****]
This untimely revival of Lorraine Hansberry's African-American classic of a Black man's Coming of Age—"finding his manhood"—in a Chicago ghetto features Sean "Puffy" Combs as that man. Audra McDonald is his long-suffering wife, Phylicia Rashad his worried mother, and Sanaa Lathan his striving sister. The somewhat dated script may have been doctored, for when it was premiered on Broadway many many moons ago, "Power to the People" Home-Rule in Africa seemed to augur a Bright Tomorrow for all the former British, French, and Portuguese African Colonies. Now, the Nigerian Idealist, Asagai, admits he may have his throat cut by his own people when he returns. When Hansberry introduced this drama in 1959, who then could have imagined the savageries against their own people of such Black African despots as Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe, Robert Mugabi, Idi Amin, and so many others? Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones now seems prophetic, rather than Expressionist racist-claptrap.
The entire cast of Raisin—even the lone white man—was admirable in Kenny Leon's staging. But Thomas Lynch's set actually didn't look like a roach-infested slum-apartment. Many a young New York or Chicago artist would today be eager to move in. A novel touch was showing the walls of the upstairz apartment, but without the floor between!
TWENTIETH CENTURY [***]
The best thing about this gleaming Art Deco Revival of the Hecht-MacArthur Broadway farce is John Lee Beatty's stunning sliding-set of a lounge and two compartments on The 20th Century Limited. William Ivey Long's handsome period costumes—especially for Anne Heche, as the vain, glamourous star, Lily Garland—are also a visual triumph. And Ms. Heche wears them very well indeed.
The play itself, however, does not wear so well. Considering how Broadway producing has changed over the decades, the problems of producer Oscar Jaffe and Max Jacobs seem like a video of Theatre History. This wouldn't matter so much if more acting-skills were apparent, instead of knockabout energy in promoting caricatures: Just LOOK at how CRAZY we are up here on stage!
As Oscar, Alec Baldwin begins to look less like a Leading Man and more like Brian Murray in need of a subscription to a gym. Walter Bobbie staged. You may remember this property as a musical? On the 20th Century? Perhaps Roundabout should have revived that version instead?
This new production of Tom Stoppard's Jumpers was a revelation to me. David Leveaux staged it for London's Royal National Theatre, in a stunning setting by Vicki Mortimer, with costumes by Nicky Gillibrand. [Nicky & Vicki—what a team![ I have seen the play a number of times before—including a highly praised RNT mounting some years ago. But this is the first time I really understood who the Jumpers were and why they were on stage.
They of course have metaphoric—even allegoric—significance in Stoppard's surreal vision of a campus-murder. Elementally, however, the Jumpers are a university gym-team composed of staff & professors. And they appear as entertainers at a noisy party in the home of a Professor of Ethics, wonderfully played by Simon Russell Beale. His beautiful wife Dorothy [the lovely Essie Davis] was once a much admired musical-comedy star, but her career came to a humiliating end. And she may have just shot one of the jumpers at the party.
Fortunately, the University's Vice-Chancellor [the dapper Nicky Henson], a man-of-all-talents, is lawyer, coroner, doctor, and chief of the Jumpers. He has them bring a body-bag to remove the corpse from Dorothy's luxurious bed. The entire affair is like an Art Deco Surreal Nightmare, playing out in the head of Dorothy's professor-husband.
Not all nightmares are surreal: some are too horribly real. Beale, as George, is so focused on preparing his lecture on the Existence of God for a college debate that he doesn't seem aware of what's going on. His debate-opponent and most-hated rival in the Philosophy Department may have been killed by his wife. An unidentied woman was seen stripping to the buff as she swung overhead across the room at the fatal party. Even Dorothy appears in the buff, but in her bedroom, not at the party. George's faculty chief is in bed with Dorothy on and off. And An Inspector Has Come To Call!
The satirical & linguistic core of the play is not in its zany farcical plot, but in the extended examination of philosophical double-talk, dictated rapid-fire by George to his secretary, who stenos furiously but utters not a word. Stoppard scores bulls-eyes on a number of pretentious scholarly targets. This is more than George can do, however, when he takes bow & arrow to work off his anger, always missing the target, as the secretary moves out of range. As is often the way of academics who live too much in their minds and not enough in the real world, he is more concerned with the well-being of his goldfish, his turtle, and his hare. He never gets to test the truth of the old adage about the race of these latter two, as he's unknowingly speared the hare with a stray arrow and he accidentally crushes the turtle with his foot, as he lifts the dead rabbit out of a bag on his bookshelf.
Even read slowly from the playtext, Stoppard's extended & interrupted philosophical monolgue for George requires close attention to understand his ingenious and hilarious critique of language in the dis-service of Ideas. As delivered in gun-bursts by Beale—in a plummy Brit accent, no less—it demands very close attention indeed. Fortunately, Beale is so skillful in phrasing—and in explicating with facial and hand gestures—that little is lost. Even in very big words, nonsense is still nonsense.
Musicals Old & New—
BOMBAY DREAMS [***]
When I saw this handsomely-costumed musical some time ago in London, I wondered how it would fare in Broadway. Its plot was so predictable; its characters so stereotypical; its songs so derivative—lyrics by Don Black, that only its glittering costumes and some of its Moghul-inspired settings offered much of novelty or visual interest. The choreography was relentlessly ordinary, if frenetic.
Aside from the recent success of Monsoon Wedding, India's Bollywood films haven't had all that much exposure in Manhattan. If there was not a public for these endlessly repetitive movies, would there be one for Bombay Dreams? We'll find out soon enough.
But audiences are no doubt starved for new musicals, so all may yet be well for Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of A R Rahman's epic of an Untouchable slum-boy who overnight becomes a major film-star and forgets his dear old grandma, his eunuch best-friend, and all the other Lower Depths dwellers of a slum soon to be razed for a Multiplex Bollywood Movie-Theatre.
The idea of India's centuries-old Caste-System surviving into the 21st century may seem appalling to Americans, but it is still very much in evidence there—where thousands and thousands of men, women, and children are so far down in the pecking-order that they can't even get a foot on the lowest range of the social-ladder.
On my recent tour of Moghul Rajasthan, my guide frequently reminded me that he was of the Brahmin class, but that our driver was several notches down. And that I really should not talk with Untouchables such as the old lady sweeping out the Rat Temple, where sacred black rats were crawling all over the the religious images.
You won't get the Rat Temple in Bombay Dreams, but you will be able to enjoy internally-lit images of the Elephant God, Ganesh, in a lively festival processon. Ganesh is the god who removes obstacles. In Agra & Jaipur, I found both a pink jade and a silver Ganesh—and major obstacles have since been removed from my work!
There's no point in summarizing the plot. You could almost have written this yourself. It is less complicated on Broadway than in London. Here, the Brahmin lawyer who is to wed the lovely Independent Film-Producer is the arch-villain and murderer of the unfortunate eunuch, Sweetie [Sriram Ganesan]. In London, he is only a tool of a really villainous Hindu Mafioso, with interests in movie-production and high-rise developments. In London, this monster even has a helicopter for his escape! Miss Saigon all over again:
The costumes are gorgeous. Most of the production-numbers are colorful—especially the Dancing-Waters Sequence: This offers the audience the Soaked-Sari equivalent of the Wet T-Shirt Contest. The songs are pleasant enough. In a different time, some could even have become popular, but they don't Rock and they are no match for Rap & Hip-Hop.
Madhur Jaffrey is a delight as grandma Shanti. I wish I could say the same for Manu Narayan, as the hero Akaash. London's Akaash had a kind of brash charm, but Narayan comes across as insufferably vain, even arrogant. Without redeeming charm… Ayesha Dharker is imperious & glamorous as the film-star Rani. Anisha Nagarajan makes a sweet, soft foil as Priya, in their contest for Akaash's love.
Annie's Tommy Meehan worked over Meera Syal's London script for New York. Music & songs are composed by A R Rahman, with Black's lyrics. Songwriter Denise Rich, not so incidentally, is a co-producer of this show! Her ex-husband was pardoned by Bill Clinton. Will the Bushies blame Bombay Dreams on the Clinton White House?
Anyway, All's well that ends well…
This show is a very entertaining advocate for Gun Control! Charlton Heston and Attorny-General Ashcroft should both see it. Preferably in adjoining seats!
Let's hope no Neo-Con Crazy is going to accuse Stephen Sondheim of putting murderous ideas into the heads of unbalanced & disaffected people intent on Making a Political Statement in the most definitive way possible. Fortunately—as his new/old musical demonstrates—both successful & unsuccessful assassins of American Presidents have been a disoriented & bumbling lot. In all cases on view, Adequate Security could have prevented these dastardly attacks.
Even if the Bush Administration didn't provide Adequate Security for New York City on 9/11, it will surely be very careful to protect the President when the Republican Party holds its Nominating Convention in Manhattan this summer. If they fail, Sondheim & his book-author John Weidman may have to add a new production-number to Assassins, currently inhabiting a giant wooden scaffold at Studio 54.
It has happened before and—with the renewed Al Queda Threat—it could happen again. As Sondheim's mordant musical reminds us, America has lost two arguably Great Presidents to assassin's bullets: Lincoln & JFK. Many Americans have no idea who James A. Garfield was or even William McKinley—who called the Spanish-American conflict "a splendid little war!"
The four successful Presidential Assassins were John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Leon Czolgosz, & Charles Guiteau. The bumblers were Giuseppe Zingara—who missed FDR, Samuel Byck—who tried for Nixon, John Hinckley, who hit Ronald Reagan, but did not succeed in killing him, and Sara Jane Moore & Squeaky Fromme, both of whom tried to shoot Gerald Ford. But he kept falling down, making a difficult target to hit…
It has taken this show some 14 years to make it to Broadway. It was originally showcased at Playwrights Horizons in 1990. I wanted to see it then, but was denied a seat on the grounds: "It's moving to Broadway. You can see it there!" That did not come to pass. Some had found the musical too mocking about a very uncomfortable subject.
In the meantime, however, I have been able to see the show, but only as performed by college-ensembles, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. On tiny stages, with amateur players, and virtually no production-values, the musical seemed to lack cohesion, even purpose. Some individual numbers were, of course, illuminated by Sondheimian verbal ingenuity and tonal tricks. But its concentration on the pathetic lives and desperate goals of the assassins seemed fractured. Only their goal of killing an American President provided a frame.
Now, especially thanks to the directorial genius of Joe Mantello and the towering wooden-scaffold setting of Robert Brill, there is finally a visual cohesion—almost a choreography—which makes Assassins a metaphoric Engine of Death. Although Killing a President is no Laughing Matter, Sondheim & Weidman manage to provide a number of laughs, some of them farcical, but more of them bitterly satirical. The cast is generally very good, but Michael Cerveris stands out as Booth. Denis O'Hare is delightful as Guiteau, a charmingly batty murderer. Becky Ann Baker is hilarious as Sara Moore, mother of four and the assassin who couldn't shoot straight.
As it's staged, audiences with no Sense of History may well laugh at her failure to bring down President Ford. He does it himself, tripping as he leaves his hotel and falling on his face. But, had Sara succeeded, just think of the Succession! Nelson Rockefeller would have become President, and he was already having an affair with some kind of secretary or intern. [In the event, she "locked" on this unfortunate, multi-millionaire Vice-President when he died of a sudden heart-attack in the midst of coitus. How about coupling—you should excuse the expression—this story with Bill Clinton & Monica and perhaps JFK & Marilyn Monroe? Now that would make a really interesting Sondheim musical!]
Closing with Lee Oswald's Bid for Fame, the show makes the point that non-entities can ensure themselves a Place in History, if not the Guinness Book of Records by successfully Killing a President. But he should be an American magistrate. Who now remembers Sidi Carnot?
You may not want to buy the sheet-music for such Sondheim songs as "Everybody's Got the Right," "Gun Song," or "Unworthy of Your Love." But they have a certain power in the actual show. This is a production you may well want to see several times, not only to enjoy the performances but also to study its veiled intricacies. Sondheim musicals always repay in-depth analysis.
CAROLINE, OR CHANGE [****]
When I saw this new musical at the Public Theatre, I admit I was not entranced. Now, I must say I was wrong not to have appreciated its qualities. I was perhaps alienated by the bratty kid who may be book & lyrics-author Tony Kushner as a neglected, unloved child growing up in New Orleans. Actually, Harrison Chad—as Noah Gellman—does a very good job of portraying this confused, unhappy boy. And Tonya Pinkins, as the Gellman family's underpaid and under-appreciated maid, Caroline, is superb.
Caroline has three children to raise, abandoned by an abusive husband. She is patronized by the second Mrs. Gellman who "wants to be her friend." She is Noah's de facto friend, though he is something of a nuisance to her. His mother had died. His ineffectual, clarinet-playing dad is in endless mourning. Veanne Cox plays the tautly strung, nervously smiling Rose, who cannot reach either her husband or Noah.
Change has a two-fold meaning. Noah always forgets to remove small-change from his pants-pockets before they're washed. Caroline scrupulously saves the coins in a cup for Noah. Rose tells her to keep the change. It will be a lesson to Noah, as she cannot get through to him. Unfortunately, in doing this, she makes Noah "Caroline's employer" and turns Caroline into his punisher as well.
Caroline cannot see a way out of her personal and financial difficulties. She needs to Change. The entire Gellman Family needs to change, as well, but this is primarily Caroline's story. Unlike her friend, Dotty [Chandra Wilson], she can't take college-courses after hours. Her rebellious daughter, Jackie [Anika aNoni Rose], is determined to change, but she also needs to understand her mother better and love her more.
Ultimately, Kushner's fable shows two groups—two classes—of damaged people trying to cope. They are often on the wrong frequencies, unable to connect with those who most need them. Speaking of frequencies, there's even a Singing Radio [a trio, in fact], as well as a vocalizing Washing-Machine [Capathia Jenkins] & a James Brown-style Dryer [Chuck Cooper]. Cooper also plays a singing New Orleans Bus. There's no Streetcar-Named-Desire in this part of town.
Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori have created a most unusual musical tapestry through which they weave their own kinds of change. It is even magically haunted by the Moon [Aisha de Haas], which appears through silhouetted trees over the water-logged terrain. In New Orleans, the ground is so wet, they bury the dead above ground in vaults and mausoleums. That's where Noah's mother rests, as Caroline labors on in the only basement in the quarter. Damp and lonely…
George C. Wolfe staged, wonderfully interweaving the tapestry-threads. I am so glad I was able to see this show again—and up close, this time—so I could at last appreciate how very special it is. There's even a kind of Healing at the close, but this may be just a stage-effect to send the audience home happy. Healing doesn't seem possible in such a short time, given what had gone before.
FINIAN'S RAINBOW [***]
Charlotte Moore has had the very good idea to do her own Irish Rep Encores, providing a stripped-down concert-version of Finian's Rainbow. The tiny stage was decorated with bars of music on fleecy clouds floating on blue walls & pillars. The cast was representatively, if economically, costumed. Kimberly Dawn Neumann, as the deaf-mute dancing Susan, was especially attractive and effective. But Melissa Errico was the center of attention as Sharon McLonergan. Jonathan Freeman was her lovable old Irish Da, with Malcolm Gets as Og, searching for his stolen Crock of Gold. John Sloman was a properly blustering Senator Billboard Rawkins, transformed into a Black, and thence into a transformative legislative Mensch.
When this show was premiered way back in 1946, the fiercely Segregationist Southern Senators Theodore Bilbo & John Rankin were riding high. This show was the first to "Have a Dream," long before Martin Luther King. But its tunes were so lovely & its lyrics so catchy that many viewers could enjoy an easy Liberal Laugh, without having to do anything about the appalling Racism in the South. Of course, there was plenty of Racism in the North, but it was often less obvious.
Finian's Rainbow didn't desegregate any schools, buses, or lunch-counters. But it toured widely, and it got a lot of people thinking. I saw it on tour in San Francisco, and I can vouch for the effect it had on many of us UC/Berkeley students who saw it then. But we were also crazy about the score. We often sang "Look to the Rainbow," "If This Isn't Love," "Old Devil Moon," "Necessity," and, of course, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" The latter song became so well known that on the Fred Allen Show, Mrs. Nussbaum referred to it as: "How Are Things with Uncle Morris?"
Georg Frideric Händel—his German baptismal-name—honed his craft as a composer of Italian opera-seria in Hannover, Italy, and in London. His genius must have been god-given, but his opera-plots—by Metastasio and others—were less-inspired. And frequently, they were entirely predictable. That is certainly the case of Siroe, recently given an ingenious revival at BAM.
Indeed, there's even a whiff of King Lear about King Cosroe's decision to name one of his two sons King in his place. The younger, weaker, treacherous, intriguing son, Medarse, lusts for the crown, but is in no way suitable for the throne. The elder son, Siroe, is defiant of his tyrannical father—who has brutally killed another king, conquered his country, and taken his titles. He did this, even though he knew Siroe was in love with the murdered king's daughter, Emira. In the meantime, disguised as Idapse—one of Cosroe's most-trusted & beloved officers—she plots Cosroe's bloody death and the return of her kingdom. If Siroe does not help her kill his father, she will deny him her love. [Talk about a Coalition of the Willing in Iraq!] Then, there's also the lovely Laodice, Cosroe's elegant mistress, whom he will bestow on the unwilling Siroe, if he swears his love and allegiance. [Would you want your father's mistress as a hand-me-down, along with a Used-Throne?]
This brilliant production was originally staged by Jorge Lavelli in Venice in 2000 in the Renaissance splendor of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni. At BAM, it was once again accompanied by the Venice Baroque Orchestra, complete with lutes and harpsichords. Andrea Marcon conducted from the keyboard of one of the harpsichords, but he didn't agitate the keys. He spent some time inter-acting with the characters, as they also did with the orchestra, some of whom even entered the downstage playing-area to circle round the royal cast.
In Venice, this must have worked very well in grand Palladian spaces. But at BAM's Harvey Theater—turned into a semi-ruin for Peter Brook—it proved a bit awkward. At one point, Laodice was required to pick her way around the perimeter of the orchestra-platform—where there was very little walking-space. She also had to mount the amphitheatre-stairs to interact with the audience, but not get her stiletto-heels caught in her long glittering gown. At other times, she had to perch on what remains of the stage-boxes and slide or jump down to stage-level without aid of stairs.
Levelli also required her to lie down by the conductor and sing from that position. He must have it in for beautiful women opera-singers, for he really set the remarkable singing-actress Simone Kermes on an opera-obstacle-course. Nor was he notably more solicitous of Liliana Rugiero and Katerina Beranova, as Siroe and Idapse. Their uniforms made them look like North Korean Border-Guards. At least Laodice was able to wear a wonderful Art Deco-style toque, sequined gown, & ostrich-feather-trimmed cape. Non-singing gray-uniformed black soldiers, under the command of Siroe's friend, Arasse, stood against the sidewalls of the stage. At the close, four of them—on unseen elevator-clogs—marched upstage in long illuminated robes and white masks, holding mysterious glowing globes. Fraancesco Zito designed the costumes.
The voices, the movements, and the acting-talents of the entire cast were amazing. Considering the number of extremely challenging—if strikingly beautiful—arias Handel has provided, it's also amazing that none of the cast was in the least vocally diminished by the end of three complicated acts. To the names of Kermes, Rugiero, and Barnonva must be added Vito Priante, as Cosroe; Roberto Balconi, as Medarse, and Matthew Burns, as Arasse. Remarkable singers, all! Purity of tone, clarity of diction, impressive ranges… Why are these fine artists not heard on New York's major opera-stages?
BARBARA COOK'S BROADWAY [****]
Wonderful to have Barbara Cook onstage at the Vivian Beaumont! And on the very set that Christopher Plummer would later stand as King Lear. Cook—in a delightful running-commentary on her long career in musicals and cabaret—noted that both she and Plummer were singled out in the same year as Promising New Personalities.
That was half a century ago, but Cook's voice is still strong and lyrical. And she can still hit the high-notes. She worked with both a body-mike and a hand-held instrument. There was a time, however, when she didn't need miking. Cabaret can do that to you! Her faithful Wally Harper was at the keyboard. And James Levine, of the Met, was in the audience!
Barbara Cook's finale was a show in itself. Dressed in sober flowing black—as befits as Great Lady [in every sense]—she pulled back a black cloth on the grand-piano, disclosing a heap of shimmering jewels. Adorning herself with necklaces, bracelets, rings, and finally a grand tiara, Cook sang with abandon: "Glitter and be gay," from Bernstein's Candide. Ecstasy!
A Great Love Fest! Every time Cook mentioned a famous personality or a favorite song, applause broke out. Possibly some of these eager folks wanted to let Barabara know they knew who Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein were?
Following an admirable Moby Dick from Hamburg, Germany, the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street has imported a beautiful Vivace from Berlin, the German capital. Considering Berlin's dark past in the 1930s and 40s, it's a wonderful sign of healing that this entire show has been composed by Tal Balshai, born in Israel, but celebrated in Berlin. He plays the grand-piano on stage in Vivace—and he's also appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Director Markus Pabst has ingeniously combined the varied talents of prize-winning German gymnast Kristin Sroka, juggler Andreas Wessels, and Jojo Weiss, who can create the most amazing sounds & rhythms with his body. "Visual audio theatre," he calls it. There are beautifully choreographed sequences of dance-movement and juggling genius. As well as some artfully comic adventures, which are occasionally highlighted by the very serious art-songs of handsome counter-tenor Daniel Lager. This charming show has its own orchestra, set in the boxes of the New Victory.
THE TRICKY PART [****]
In the tiny theatre-space of the McGinn-Cazale on Broadway, the ingenuous Martin Moran opens by showing audiences a photo of an old 12-year-old boy in a kayak. He admits the lad is himself and then begins an amusing account of his elementary years at Christ-the-King parish-school in a Denver suburb many years ago. Fortunately, he is charming—and self-aware—enough to make this seem both familiar and uncharted territory. Christopher Durang has been here before, but Moran's Catholic misadventures have a special twist. Watching the Clock and the Crucifix at the front of the classroom, day after day, Moran realizes that Christ is always being crucified at 2:45 pm—his arms outstretched to the same position as the hands on the clock!
Moran's memories gradually shade into something far more serious, far darker, as an older man, a former seminarian, takes him and a chum to a Rocky Mountains ranch for a weekend. It is his first experience of sexual climax, but not his last with this man, who may have—in Moran's boyish sub-conscious—filled-in for a present-but-absent father. How Moran has come to terms with this experience in his later life as an actor and a gay man is insightfully shared: Walking-Wounded but a Survivor. This confessional show may be his on-going therapy
Contemporary Theatre Abroad:
Catalan Fleeting at CUNY Grad Center:
Barcelona's celebrated playwright, Josep Benet i Jornet, came all the way from Catalonia to Fifth Avenue to share in a play-reading of his disturbing drama, Fleeting. The presentation was so interesting, it's to be hoped some New York ensemble will want to perform it fully-staged. As well as regional and university theatres across the country.
Although it is difficult enough to find a revival of any play by Federico Garcia Lorca, it's almost an embarrassment that so little is known on this side of the Atlantic about the modern theatre of Cataluña. Catalonia's dynamic and innovative stage-director, Calixto Bieito, has shown his work at BAM, but the CUNY preview of Fleeting is a first.
Benet i Jornet's characters don't have proper-names: only Wife, Director, Son, Lady, etc. That doesn't mean they don't have distinctive personalities, just that they are more universal than curiously Catalonian. The initial scene is a dinner-party in which table-rapping is given a whirl to amuse an artist-guest. Ultimately, the table taps out the numbers for alphabet-letters which spell DEATH.
The second and third scenes occur simultaneously, but are played one after the other. In the second, the Director goes home to say farewell to his beloved daughter who is setting off on a journey on the morrow. She may be beginning a New Life, but she doesn't expect to see her father again. But this is a journey from which she will not return, though she doesn't realize how absolute this will be. In the third scene, the dinner-guests carry on, with no idea of what is happening elsewhere at the same time.
Among the able players—who had only two rehearsals—were Paulette Attie, Jack Davidson, Alice King, and Alex Kilgore. Melanie Sutherland staged Marion Holt's translation of Benet i Jornet's original Catalan playtext. The venue was the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center of the City University Graduate Center—which is presenting a series of readings and disucssions of Contemporary Theatre Abroad.
The Graduate Center and the Segal Theatre Center are located in the former B. Altman Department-Store, at 34th and Fifth. The CUNY Grad Center is a kind of department-store in itself. Among its offerings is the PhD in Theatre Program, associated with the Segal Center. Marion Holt—an expert on Iberian drama and Spanish literature—is a professor-emeritus in the program. [As is your reporter!]
The impressive reading of Fleeting and the subsequent discussion with the playwright himself were co-sponsored by New York's Instituto Cervantes and Barcelona's Institut Ramon Lull. These programs are planned by Dr. Frank Hentschker of the Segal Center. Those who would like to know more about the play in translation and/or future Center programs can contact: <http://web.gc.cuny.edu/metc>
[That is, if you can type all those letters & symbols without hitting the wrong keys! It took your reporter two tries to get it right. If this address doesn't work, then I still didn't type it correctly. Maybe you should just send a letter to the Segal Center? The street-address is not listed in the program, possibly because they figured you would already know it if you were able to find your way to Altman's! For the Record: 365 Fifth, NYC 10036.]
Déjà Vu All Over Again:
For Awards-Voting-Purposes, drama-critics are often invited back to see again shows they reviewed last fall. Even critics have a way of forgetting Great Performances from October a long way off in April. I don't forget so easily—and I always make lists of shows, performances, stagings, choreographies, and designs I especially liked. As a nominator & voter for the Outer Critics Circle Awards—and a Drama Desk Awards-voter—it's a duty and a pleasure.
So I am delighted to note that Wicked is even better now than when I saw it initially in early performances. It is the most spectacular of all new musicals on Broadway. Susan Hilferty's many fantastic costumes are a show in themselves. And Eugene Lee's massive machine-cog settings make his City Opera Sweeney Todd set look positively benign. But best of all are the brilliant performances of Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth as the "Green" Witch and the "Good" Witch. On a Wednesday evening, they were so alive and fresh, it was difficult to realize they'd just done the show for the matinée, also full-out! Carole Shelley and Joel Grey continue to delight, as well.
Jefferson Mays plays a number of roles in I Am My Own Wife, but the central one—Charlotte, the transvestite antique-collector—is unquestionably an unforgettable portrait. How he-she survived both the Nazis and the Communists—both of whom hated homosexuals—is a wonder and a very strange tale which playwright Doug Wright has tried to unravel. Moisés Kaufman has staged with skill, making good use of Derek McLane's stark setting, backed by towering shelves of old clocks, phonographs, lamps, and furniture. David Lander has used specific lighting to stunning effect: when Time is mentioned, all the clocks are spotlighted. Reference to old recordings brings lights up on all sorts of phonographs. This is still the same show which premiered last season at Playwrights Horizons, but it is now shown with a somewhat grander background at the Lyceum Theatre. When it ultimately closes, the producers should have an Antiques Auction for Broadway Cares—Equity Fights AIDS. There are some real treasures on stage—including Mays, who is not up for auction. [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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