by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Reviews of the Season: 2012-1013
I'll Eat You Last
The Testament of Mary
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Glengarry Glen Ross
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
An Enemy of the People
Other Desert Cities
The Best Man
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Fragments by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Brook
Directed by Matthew Warchus,
Book by Dennis Kelly,
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin,
Based on the book by Roald Dahl.
"Matilda," the Broadway musical directed by Matthew Warchus, has had fantastic positive reviews, sold out tickets and the highest gross for the month. When I saw it on a Sunday matinee, the audience was full of children and they seemed to love it too. But I hated it. It was like an assault to the body. The set itself was immense and consisted of books hung all across the stage, like a vast curtain and dozens of programs with initials "Matilda" so that one felt attacked immediately.
Of course, the little kids who performed were cute but the poor little things had to scream out the lyrics of the score in order to be heard. It's always dangerous to put little kids on the stage because their charm distracts and they attract too much attention, causing the audience to applause every five minutes. Another thing that was insufferable was the lighting manipulated endlessly, making the production more of a circus than a musical play. A big disappointment and a vulgarization of a charming story.
“I’ll Eat You Last”
A Chat with Sue Mengers,
By John Logan,
Directed by Joe Montello and starring Bette Midler.
One of the most disgusting plays on Broadway is Bette Midler in “I’ll Eat You Last.” For almost two hours, she sits on the stage smoking, drinking and talking about her career. Now, what was this big career that we had to listen to? She was a top agent for stars and she told all the gossip stories about her clients, her personal story about rising from the Bronx and how she made it big (it was a much repeated cliché). A biggest joy was handling Barbara Streisand and people like that and her
main interest was gossiping about them – their love lifes, their personalities and uninteresting anecdotes. I kept wondering why I had to know all of that. More than once, I felt like leaving the theatre. It made one feel somehow unclean to listen to tales about people you don’t care about. But the audience loved it. They laughed long and loud at every nasty remark. It’s amazing that the American public would pay money to listen to such garbage. But it seems to be common these days to hear gossip. People love gossip, and especially about movie stars. Sue Mengers, as depicted by Bette Midler, was a tough vulgar character.
So that’s what’s happening on Broadway: you get Bette Midler telling us how Hollywood producers make their money. To me, it was a sad occasion because this show is a low point even if the house is packed and the audience seems to love it. Old-fashioned as I am, I would still love to hear original ideas from a theatre: words, language and thoughts that are memorable. This show is memorable alright, for its disgusting language and boring gossip.
If you want to have a great night in the theatre, go quickly to the box office and get tickets for “The Nance” by Douglas Carter Beane, playing at the Lyceum Theatre. A Nance was a person in the days of Burlesque who made fun of homosexuals. Usually, this was played by a straight man and was supposed to be hilarious. Making fun of gays in those days was common. In this play, the Nance, portrayed by the great Nathan Lane, is himself gay and has a role of ridiculing his own sex. In those days, it was really tricky, you could be sent to jail for being gay. So, in a word, the play shows the life of a Burlesque performer who, in order to make a living, denigrates his own sex. Nathan Lane is incredibly moving besides funny and knows how to attract an audience.
What is interesting about this play are the backstage scenes of a burlesque play as the actors prepare to go on, it has a historical value. But the best thing is the great Nathan Lane, a terrific performer, a great comedian, a man who can bring the audience to tears and an overall super actor.
“The Testament of Mary”
Walter Kerr Theatre
“The Testament of Mary” is a new play by Colm Toibin, directed by Deborah Warner and starring Fiona Shaw. These two have always worked together to perform avant-garde theatre, some interesting and some not. For me, one woman squishing all over the place as Mary was a total bore. Everyone knows the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and I did not feel that I want to hear about it again. What was interesting about the production was some of the theatrical effects, a huge tall tree dominating the stage for example and white squares flashed on the background. Fiona Shaw ran around the stage, screaming most of the time, wires around her neck, carrying dead wood and baptizing herself naked on the stage. It was a one-woman-show and the actress made the most of it. But for me, it was a cold actress performance, full of so-called avant-garde tricks. Nevertheless, the audience was deadly quiet, not a sound, not a movement, not a cough, unusual silence. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was touching for most of people but I was not one of them.
The big sell on Broadway is Tom Hanks, the famous movie actor, in the premiere of a new play by the late Nora Ephron. The play is about a Daily News Columnist, Mike McAlary and his coverage of the Abner Louima police brutality case. It is like a television script, so why Nora Ephron wrote this play is a mystery. Why Tom Hanks chose to play in it is not a mystery. He was a dear friend of Nora Ephron who recently died and though this part is beneath him, it is his tribute to his old friend. Tom Hanks on Broadway in a mediocre play, playing a mediocre part and giving a mediocre performance, is making a lot of money for the producers. These days, any play, good, bad or indifferent, that features a movie star will cash in. And Tom Hanks has helped the producers to cash in. Tickets are not hard to sell though they are expensive as the audience is is in love with movie stars, no matter what.
Brooklyn Academy of Music
The great Peter Brook has not lost his magic. Even in his late eighties, he is still supreme. He has never lost his interest in Africa and once again he brings “The Suit,” a story on love, fidelity, forgiveness, remembrance and hardship. The story based on South African writer Can Themba, adapted by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, is the vehicle by which Brook reminds us of the complexity of love, fidelity and various other passions that we face in life. Brook’s staging is stock, simple and compelling. I would say that this is the most important piece of theatre in the season so far. Long live Peter Brook.
American Airlines Theatre
The Roundabout Theatre Company presents the 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by William Inge “Picnic” at the American Airlines Theatre. It’s a balmy Labor Day in the American Heartland and a group of women are preparing for a picnic... When a handsome young drifter named Hal arrives on the scene, his combination of uncouth manners and titillating charm sends the women reeling, especially the beautiful Madge, who becomes involved with him (and so forth). This is a light weight play, romantic maybe, but in fact a waste of time for an old-fashioned “woman’s” play. Why they revived this is a mystery.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
Richard Rodgers Theatre
This prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams is no doubt a classic and has played for many years with many different actors. This production cannot hold a candle to the many stars who played these roles. (Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman played in the film; who can match them?) Of course we still have the brilliant scenes of Tennessee Williams which holds up even today. I have seen this play with different people many times. So now, it’s up to the younger generation who may not be familiar with the great work of Tennessee Williams. They should run to the theatre and catch this famous play even though the actors and the production can never be the same as the original. In a Tennessee Williams play, he, the author, lives on while the actors fade into the distance. So, see this while you can.
“Glengarry Glen Ross”
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
Broadway has given itself over to revivals. Some of the plays have been produced two or three times before. I believe I have seen Glengarry Glen Ross three times including the movie. This revival has one new aspect: Al Pacino in the leading role. But it doesn’t do the production any good. In the first scene, Al Pacino seems to meld into the scenery. His presence is not felt. His voice is not felt. And whatever characteristic he was thriving for seems vague. The direction is simplistic, the actors sit most of the time (I don’t remember Pacino even getting up) and the language is static. But the audience doesn’t seem to care. The house is sold out; they laugh at the right places and enjoy the crap that is presented to them. Of course, the author David Mamet is a heavy duty writer whose vocabulary consists mostly of the four letter word starting with “F.” The people, as usual, are low down, ignorant and from a theatrical point of view, totally uninteresting. Why Pacino would do this play now, or act in this crummy production is a mystery. But maybe not much of a mystery; you never know how much money his contract demands.
The point right now on Broadway is to get these revivals cheap and keep the costs low to make a big profit, all the while boring people really interested in serious theater. One wonders why the tourists would pay those exorbitant fees to see Al Pacino make a fool of himself in a poorly directed play.
P.S.: Al Pacino, you’re a good actor. Pick something worth your talent or maybe just do movies because productions that are produced so poorly will destroy your talent.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Edward Albee, now in his last years of his work, has lived to see yet another production of his famous play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Since 1962, when the play was first performed, it has been revived numerous times all over the country, has been made into a movie with the famous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and produced in a number of amateur productions all over the States. One wonders if there is anybody in the last decade who hasn’t seen or heard of Virginia Woolf; the play, the movie, and the fact that two famous lovers made the play an international success. It would be hard to discuss the actual plot of Virginia Woolf. There is no real plot. It’s a discourse on marriage, on love, on friends, on sex, on death. It’s about nasty people doing nasty things to each other, forgiving each other, and beating up on each other. I guess Albee was trying to say “marriage is a flop.” With a play as dense as this, it would be hard to say what Albee was actually getting at. In fact the play has been diagnosed dozens of times but certainly the work was never a positive view of love and marriage, and of sensitive and pleasant people. Basically, the characters are hateful, revengeful and spiteful but they do forgive each other in the end. Actually, they have no other alternative. Maybe marriage is all like that, according to Edward Albee. Anyway, the plot is not new but brilliant because the dialog carries the day. Although the cast is excellent, the real star is Edward Albee. By all means, catch it if you can.
Ethel Barrymore Theater
Chaplin, the musical, has a magic ring in it. It’s been this way for long time and it will always be this way. There were very few geniuses like Chaplin. Any time we have a chance to see anything about him, it is always a pleasure. So I recommend this play at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Rob McClure is miraculous in picturing the essence of Chaplin. Of course he doesn’t compare to the real man but it’s good enough for remembrance and it’s a lot of fun, especially if you take young children how have never seen or heard of Chaplin before. The choreographer has done a very good job and the company is excellent.
"An Enemy of the People"
Samuel Friedman Theater
"An Enemy of the People," produced by the Manhattan Theater Club in a new version of the famous Ibsen play, is a good beginning if you are interested in the work of the great Ibsen. As we know, it’s a morality play and a lesson for all of us today. Here we find a man exposing the ills of the society to people how don’t want to know about them, so ironically he becomes an enemy rather than a hero. The director, Doug Hughes, is again his magnificent self in directing an old play and makes it very much alive. For my money, it was Doug Hughes who was the star of the play. If you have never read Ibsen or studied him at school, it certainly is worth a visit. I highly recommend it.
Walter Kerr Theater
This play is a revival of a 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on the classic Henry James novel, “Washington Square.” Jessica Chastain got terrific reviews for her performance and of course she deserved them. The Heiress is an old potato and the revival of it seems to me to be unnecessary because the brilliant Henry James does not play well on the stage. I’ve seen The Heiress with several actresses; I’ve seen the movie, I’ve read the book and when I was teaching at a college, I taught the book. But the essence of Henry James cannot be caught on the stage, where his brilliant language and ambiguity cannot reveal the underline meaning of his work. However, for those who are not familiar with this work, I recommend you go and see it. At least, it would be an introduction to one of the greatest writers of the English language.
It is a mystery to me why everybody would want to do this melodramatic play which had been produced in 1937, written by the famous Clifford Odets. “Golden Boy" is the story of a poor boy who is ambitious to play the violin and is good at it. But his hands are good enough to be a prize fighter as well. Coming from a poor family, he has a choice and he makes it. You can be sure the money aspect wins and destroys him and his family. Why Lincoln Center decided to revive this play, with its ordinary story line, is a mystery. Bartlett Sher, the director, seems to have captured most of the publicity and someone I’ve never heard of, Seth Numrich, plays the lead. But it seems that nevertheless, although it is well directed, for me it’s a bore to see this revival. Give me more brilliant shows like "War Horse."
Signature Theater is doing good work by featuring important playwrights, but sometimes important playwrights have been a disappointment. Sam Shepard is one of those. His new play, “Heartless,” was really awful. It is the same Sam Shepard theme, families and distress, families arguing, families devoid of love, recriminations and regrets. I’ve seen this before with Shepard and one would think that after all these years of success, he would have a different look and a different view of life. But no, it’s the same Sam Shepard dialog, fast and furious and meaningless. To me, the play was depressing because it seems that Shepard was depressed. And in a way, I regret that he has not developed into something new. All this often happens after great success (a few marriages and children) to people and it is really sad. But I’m not giving up on Sam Shepard. Although this play was a failure, his next one might be great. And I commend the Signature Theater for producing important playwrights.
The season has only just begun and I’m sorry to say it is very unappealing. Nothing but revivals and sub stars.
“Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris has received both a Pulitzer Prize and a Critics Award for Best Play of the Season, it was even rumored to win the Tony award for Best Play and so of course I hastened to see it. However, after a mere few minutes into the play I began to wonder what it was all about and whether or not it was saying anything at all. The play centers on an old decrepit house in a fictitious place by the name of Clybourne Park. The white family who has been living there is trying to sell it and struggle with whether or not to sell the property to a black family. It quickly became clear that this play was about race. Yet rather than providing insight or even a glimpse into the individual lives and emotions of its characters, I felt as though I was listening to a history lesson.
What’s wrong with this work is that the characters are symbols of the American race problem and are never explored on a personal level. As the playwright never examines the private lives of these people we, as the audience, are never forced to confront anything deeper or newer regarding the issue of race. The plot is simplistic, even old-fashioned, and its characters are merely mouthpieces for political and social positions rather than real characters with depth. In the first act you have a silly wife, a silent husband with a nasty disposition and a black sullen black servant and her regressive black husband. As prices and logistics are discussed, various remarks are made so that it is clear that this white family is trying to hide its racist disposition by engaging in boring small talk. In the second act, many years later, the race issue is turned on its head, as the black family refuses to sell the same house at Clybourne Park to the white family who had originally lived there. In the meantime, the conversation, spanning two and a half hours, is dreary.
There is plenty of race-baiting in the play with the white family telling smutty, racist jokes in front of their black counterparts, highlighting white stupidity, and displaying the same kind of ditzy women once again. Of course the positions that these characters represent are relevant, even pervasive in American society today but somehow this play becomes a cliché because it presents nothing new about this country’s racial problems. You hear about it, read about it, and it is in front of your face every day. A worthwhile play would explore why human beings hate as much as they do. Why does this racial problem exist 150 years after the abolition of slavery? Clybourne Park does not deal with that. In fact it adds nothing new to our enlightenment. Okay, it’s a noble try and despite its faults, it’s worth seeing, particularly when compared to the numerous low-grade revivals.
OTHER DESERT CITIES
Some truths can be so unsettling or so heart breaking that they are better kept hidden from others and even one’s self, especially at Christmas time. Brilliantly written by Jon Robin Baitz, “Other Desert Cities” explore the upheaval and emotional debris left when unsettling truth about loved ones, past and present are brought to the surface. Concurrently this play is a critique of the morality of American culture in the 1980s, when Mom and Dad were happy making lots of money despite the criticisms of their anti-war children.
When the play begins, its Christmas of 2004, almost two decades after the gilded Reagan years, and Brooke Wyeth, the daughter and troubled political revolutionary informs her family that she has written a memoir detailing the demise of Lloyd, her deeply loved, radical older brother. The memoir, she explains, places the blame on her parents. And so, throughout this family get-together, the younger members explore discernable truths about their parents, the grim choices that they made as affluent Republicans, and the effects on their children. This is a play that sheds light on the moral ambiguity of American culture in the 1980s while its characters find comfort among each other in spite of the pain inflicted on one another.
The production is spell binding and quick-witted while its cast members are all in sync. However, our eyes are drawn to two remarkable virtuosos, Stacey Keach and Stockard Channing as the affluent Republican parents, Lyman and Polly Wyeth. Keach’s performance as Lyman is both well-layered and relatable as both a War Hawk seeking financial gain and a caring, honest father. Channing stands out, even among such an accomplished ensemble, as her Polly embodies a generation of women who forfeited their own self-hood and power to be the front veneer of the power hungry banker or politician. Credit Joe Monticello for successfully bringing out the complexity of the good and the bad of these characters in perfect balance. We laugh, we sympathize, and most importantly we see parts of ourselves reflected in each of these characters. This is an important play and should be seen.
THE BEST MAN
In the 1960s, when it first produced, “The Best Man”, a political drama by Gore Vidal, was a critique of the corrupting influence of television on politics and the deterioration of American political discourse as the country divided over the Vietnam War. “The Best Man”, last revived in 2000, has returned to Broadway with a star-studded cast including James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, and Candice Bergen. It is great to see Angela Lansbury back on the stage with a great career behind her and clearly a great career ahead of her. While it is interesting to see famous actresses Lansbury and Bergen on stage together, nothing beats James Earl Jones as President Art Hockstader, who is on his way out of the White House. With his voice and his presence, he has become a favorite and rightfully so.
Set in Philadelphia in the 1960s at a presidential convention, two candidates jockey for their party’s nomination. The two candidates, William Russell and Senator John Cantwell, represent opposite ends of the political and moral spectrums. On the one hand, Russell (John Larroquette) is an ivy-league educated characterized by his ethics and distaste for populist pandering. On the other hand, Senator Cantwell, played by Eric McCormack, represents the common man who will stop at nothing to win President Hockstader’s endorsement. Cantwell begins the mudslinging by bringing up Russell’s psychiatric history in the public forum and the discourse degenerates thereafter. In 2012, in the age of reality TV and theatrical political debate, Vidal’s critique on American political discourse is no less relevant and bears repeating and this project deserves the praise it has received. See it, by all means.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Nicholas Martin
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang is a delightful time in the theater. An ironic description of contemporary families that is both sad and funny, the family relates itself to Chekov which is very amusing, and the play is full of oneliners involving all of Chekov's plays as they relate to this family. What is disturbing about this is that the play becomes a series of oneliners, so that the audience waits for the oneliners and has little feeling for the characters. There's a certain caricature to the characters that makes it hard for one to go along with their troubles. So while the play is funny and Christopher Durang is extremely clever, it's hard to become involved in the production. The actors of course are splendid, and the time goes quickly. See it by all means. It is extraordinarily clever but not very moving. Most of it is a lot of fun, if one considers the hardships of life as fun.
One of the productions that may be dazzling as avatars is Alan Cummings “Macbeth,” which he plays all the parts. Alan Cummings thinks he can do anything. But he can’t. His “Macbeth,” in which he plays all the parts, is disgusting. I see no point in distorting Shakepeare and putting yourself above the greatest playwright that has ever lived and trying to change his viewpoint. Alan Cummings suffers from hubris. He may get away with it but in the long run he’s not an admirable actor.
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Peter Brook
If you really want to see great theater, you really shoud see the short Beckett plays at the Theater for the New Audience. It’s come back a second time from last season but it is still Peter Brook’s production and it is still good. Although there was a laugh a minute in the play, the underlining feeling was tragic. Beckett’s idea of life as usual, is negative. Seeing this play makes one feel more negative. On the other hand the honesty of the production, two guys, a woman and a paper bag are all that’s on stage. The funny part about Beckett is that he has a lot of laugh lines, and the audience enjoys laughing but I feel that if they wouldn’t be laughing they would be crying. Direction is ultra simple and simplicity in the theater is hard to come by. But Peter Brook’s genius brings it all together. Every move has a reason, every piece of dialogue has a reason, and even the lifting of an eyebrow has a reason. It is really amazing to see what one genius director can do with one genius playwright. Don’t miss it, you’ll remember it forever. Not every season do we have geniuses. This time we have Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett.
Margaret Croyden's new book is "The Years In Between – A Reporters Journey: World War II-The Cold War."
GO TO PAST ARTICLES BY MARGARET CROYDEN
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