Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Play Boy - Theatre Reviews

So, like, I saw a few plays recently:

All My Sons - Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
A Man For All Seasons - Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **
Black Watch - St. Ann's Warehouse - Off-Broadway, Brooklyn, NY - *****
Dividing the Estate - Booth Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Equus - Broadhurst Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Ivanov - Donmar in the West End - Wyndham Theatre - London, UK - ***
Prayer For My Enemy - Playwrights Horizon Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
The Seagull - Walter Kerr Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **
6 Characters In Search of an Author - Gielgud Theatre - London UK - ****
Speed-the-Plow - Barrymore Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Streamers - Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ****1/2
Wig Out - Vineyard Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ****

And to be honest, the plays that I responded to the most were not on Broadway, despite some big showy names currently playing the Great White Way (and I do mean white) (Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe in Equus, Katie "I've been capture by Tom Cruise" Holmes with Diane Weist, John Lithgow and Patrick Wilson in All My Sons, Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard in The Seagull, Jeremy "Entourage" Piven and Elisabeth "Mad Men" Moss in Speed-the-Plow).

Last year I told myself I would try to "better" myself and see more plays and not just musicals but the truth is, a mediocre musical is usually far more entertaining than a mediocre play and most of the plays I saw above were well done productions that I could respect but I didn't love.

On the other hand, when a play is done right, it can blow my mind. Like Black Watch which I saw again this time in New York and will most definitely be at the top of my Best of Stage list for this year. And the Roundabout's Off-Broadway revival of Streamers almost did.

Sadly, since it's taken me so long to get this up, a few shows have closed since (Ivanov and the terrific 6 Characters In Search of an Author in London and Wig Out Off-Broadway) and most of the others are limited runs. Here are my reviews in alphabetical order:

All My Sons - Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Written by Arthur Miller, Directed by Simon McBurney
Runs until Jan. 11th 2009

Lets get to what everyone wants to know. Katie Holmes may have screamed her whole performance but so did the respected John Lithgow and Diane Wiest so I really didn't have a huge problem with her. I thought she was fine in a pared down production that stripped away any excess and presented Miller's classic play in the stripped down staging (think Dogville). Whether you like this new creative fiddling by director Simon McBurney or not will help determine whether you like this new revival of All My Sons.

I thought the new direction was an interesting choice that was probably for the wrong play. As the guy and girl next to me argued at the intermission, he loved it for this new interpretation, she hated it for going against the entire point of the play, and I kind of fell in the middle agreeing with both points. By isolating the Keller's onto such a theatrical platform (with a actual platform on the stage that actors walk on and off from, from completely open side wings of the stage where actors sit and await their entrances), it loses the intimacy of the portrait of this particular family and presents them as almost a Greek tragedy using them as propped up examples. The play however probably works best as an intimate look of the Keller's during their time of loss and unravelment.

Yet, the play itself is so simple and so strong that in the end, I was still taken with the play even though I had doubts about the production (which made the first act kind of boring and disjointed) and Patrick Wilson's exceptional and realistic performance stands out amongst a credible cast that percolates with true emotion in a play that is directed to be ACTED. His shirtless scene doesn't hurt either (hehe)!

A Man For All Seasons - Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **
Written by Robert Bolt, Directed by Doug Hughes
Runs until Dec. 14th 2008

Frank Langella plays Sir Thomas More who tries to do the right thing when King Henry VIII requests a divorce and leaves the Catholic Church. "When he is forced to decide whether to support or denounce the king, More chooses to take the most provocative action of all -- to remain silent" and finds himself being targeted for blame by Thomas Cromwell.


Frank Langella puts in a strong performance and the play was funnier than I thought it would be but in the end, I just couldn't care about the time and history of the piece and while the end scenes with a persecuted More is quite dramatic, getting to that point still felt like a long and boring history lesson in 3D.

Black Watch - St. Ann's Warehouse - Off-Broadway, Brooklyn, NY - *****
Written by Gregory Burke, Directed by John Tiffany
Runs until Dec. 21st 2008

I saw this in Toronto this past summer and decided to revisit the production to verify if I was just high or if the play really was as amazing as I had first remembered it.

The play is really as amazing as I remembered it. It really is the BEST PLAY I HAVE EVER SEEN.

So what are you waiting for? GO and GET TICKETS NOW before it's too late.

I'll basically just be repeating this in my end of the year Stage write up but Black Watch tells an incredibly simple story of soldiers in Iraq (from the view of the Scottish army called the Black Watch) and re-tells it in ways we have never seen before and even though we've thought we've heard it all (when I first heard about it, I rolled my eyes and groaned too), this production re-tells it as if it were all brand new.

The staging, the words, the actors, the lighting, the sound effects, the special effects, the music and score, the choreography, the set and props are PERFECT.

From the scenes of boredom as the soldiers await in the heat of the gulf, to the camaraderie of the boys in the pool hall, to the physical and emotional reactions of "the letters", to the explanation of the history of the Scottish Army through costumes, to the explanation of the codes of injury, the play begins off as any normal retelling of Iraq might have but soon they (literally) rip that up and something fresh, insightful, disturbing, funny, and emotionally devastating will take over your senses to present you something that fully embraces the full potential of theatre.

The full cast of Duncan Anderson, David Colvin, Paul J Corrigan, Emun Elliott, Peter Forbes, Jonathan Holt, Steven Miller, Michael Nardone, Paul Rattray and Nabil Stuart is simply outstanding with not a weak link amongst the 10 men.

Dividing the Estate - Booth Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Written by Horton Foote, Directed by Michael Wilson
Run until Jan. 4th 2009

The new Lincoln Center Theater play on Broadway brings the transfer of 92 year old Horton Foote's latest Off-Broadway play onto the big stages and it pits a southern family still living in its life of prestige, with a set of Black folks still working as the help, into some turmoil when realism sets in and money troubles amongst the family forces a discussion about dividing the estate.

It's an old style play about old people for old people (I think I was the only person without white hair sitting in the audience) and while it doesn't have the stinging wallop of fellow Broadway play about white people problems August: Osage County, Dividing the Estate is still a pleasant, enjoyable and often quite funny play about the trials and tribulations of ... well... white people coming to terms with the reality of living in the 21st century without access to a plentiful trust fund. And what little of the estate left there is to divide, let's watch as the grown children fight and squabble over it! Oh the fun! (Actually, I'm not being sarcastic, it actually IS kind of fun)! Nothing life changing but this new play will play well regionally and is an amusing diversion if nothing else.

The large cast is led by Elizabeth Ashley (apparently she used to be someone but I think it was before my time) as the matriarch of the family and Gerald McRaney (Mr. Delta Burke, Jericho, Major Dad) as an irresponsible son but Arthur French as Doug, the longtime Black butler who was literally born into the job, and Mary Jo's Hallie Foote, who was literally born with a role given to her, hilariously stood out from the rest of the cast. Hallie Foote may have her father to thank for writing the play with a role she's been given but she knocks it out of the park with her incredibly funny turn and odd yet oddly funny line readings.

Equus - Broadhurst Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Written by Peter Shaffer, Directed by Thea Sharrock
Runs Until Feb. 8th 2009

Yes, Daniel Radcliffe is REALLY good. Yes he gets fully naked. Yes he has a pretty decent (if petite) body but no, he's not hung like a horse.

Harry Potter Radcliffe plays the the psychological puzzle named Alan Strang that Richard Griffith's (Harry Potter's Uncle Dursley) psychiatrist Martin Dysart must figure out after Strang blinds 6 horses.

The production is beautifully directed with gorgeous and simplistic costumes with metal masks and hooves etching out horses from 6 gorgeously bodied actors (who include Spencer Liff and newcomer hottie Collin Baja) and Radcliffe is riveting as the sexually naive (and disturbed) Strang.

Alas, the play ultimately fails though because the play itself seems incredibly dated especially in this day and age of Dr. Phil's, Oprah's and Prozac and much of Dr. Dysart's musings as he relates all of Strang's problems onto his own life gets a little dull and self-centered.

Still, the play is mesmerizing whenever Radcliffe is on stage and he brings whatever light there is to the darkly atmospheric show.

Ivanov - Donmar in the West End - Wyndham Theatre - London, UK - ***
Written by Anton Chekhov, In A New Version by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Michael Grandage
Closed Nov. 29th 2008
The Seagull - Walter Kerr Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **
Written by Anton Chekhov, In A New Version by Christopher Hampton, Directed by Ian Rickson
Runs until Dec. 21st 2008

After seeing two critically acclaimed British productions of Anton Chekhov plays, with the Donmar Warehouse in the West End's Ivanov and The Royal Court's The Seagull currently on Broadway, I can definitely say that I am NOT that into Chekhov. Wow, really? The plays are about WHAT? I guess I built up Chekhov to be some huge intellectually challenging, thought provoking masterpieces and then slowly realized he writes really fancy soap opera's set amongst a bleak Russia.

Ivanov which has always been seen as one of Chekhov's lesser plays got the grand treatment in London with Kenneth Branagh leading the way as Ivanov, a man dealing with debts and his sick wife Anna (Notting Hill's Gina McKee) whom he no longer loves as he finds a new paramour Sasha and things come crumbling around him.

Branagh was good and McKee is always a wonder but my problem with the performances is that Ivanov is not supposed to love Anna anymore but the chemistry between Branagh and McKee is electric and throws the play off balance. The rest of the play, especially the poker party in Act 2 when Anna and Ivanov are not in much of the scenes together, make much more sense and can play out more naturally (and quite amusingly at times).

Meanwhile, I didn't realize the famed The Seagull is about actors and the romantic entanglements amongst them and while Kristin Scott Thomas is quite commanding and fabulous as a lead actress, I didn't connect with the play at all in its dour and depressing presentation and while I'm a fan of Mackenzie Crook (UK's The Office) and Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass), I found no empathy for their love-lorned characters. In essence, I was bored by the soap opera antics of these drama queens and the greyish looking simplistic sets did nothing to add spice to the production.

Prayer For My Enemy - Playwrights Horizon Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Written by Craig Lucas, Directed by Bartlett Sher
In Previews, Opens Dec. 8th 2009, Runs until Dec. 21st 2008

The story of Dolores (Victoria Clark, The Light in The Piazza) and the story of a family whose son goes to Iraq converge after a devastating accident (but not one you might automatically think of) in a story of enemies and forgiveness.

The family is headed by gruff father Austin (Skipp Sudduth, Third Watch) and Karen (Michelle Pawk) with son Billy (Jonathan Groff, Spring Awakening, Hair) going off to Iraq to prove to his father he's not a sissyboy, while sister Marianne (Cassie Beck) ends up marrying Tad (Zachary Booth), Billy's childhood friend who was in love with Billy.

So yah, I saw this because Jonathan Groff was in it and Victoria Clark was in it and even though I see them at two opposite ends of the theatre acting/world spectrum, it was interesting to see them interact in this play together and it was great seeing their terrific performances in a straight play (though I do miss them singing).

The play is still a work-in-progress with Sher and Lucas still making changes during previews (it opens today actually, Dec. 8th) as they explained in a post-show talk that helped explain the play a lot (though not always a great sign when a play must be explained and it can't totally speak for itself).

Still, the collision of themes from an asshole father to the confusion of gay impulses, to doing what's right, to starting the forgiving process are ripe with thought and though I found sometimes the play presented some themes a bit too bluntly or cliched (must the gruff asshole father be bi-polar and must alcohol play apart of the family AGAIN? Enough already. ANY typical family can have many problems that aren't exacerbated by additional "problems" and it dilutes the connection for the rest of us.) The play is still problematic but it spoke to me far more than the "classics" of Chekhov above and I had a bigger emotional response to Prayer For My Enemy.

6 Characters In Search of an Author - Gielgud Theatre - London UK - ****
Written by Luigi Pirandello, In A New Version by Rupert Goold and Ben Power, Directed by Rupert Goold
Closed Nov. 8th 2008

I knew nothing this play except that Pirandello is a famous playwright but the new Chichester Festival's production that modernizes the old Italian play was both exillerating as it was confusing. This new version envisions a producer (a terrific Noma Dumezweni) making a documentary for DVD and while her crew edits a film about euthanasia, the creepy 6 characters (led by "the father" Ian McDiarmid) in search of an author comes trampling into their office demanding their story to be told. The producer agrees and soon enough, the crew begins setting up the re-enactments with other actors until the 6 characters start demanding to play themselves and thus begins the mobius strip that has only just begun.

Honestly, I lost track of all the meta-physics the play enrolls in oneself (including one scene where the producer runs off stage and a camera crew catches her running off trying to save the body of "the boy" character as she discovers herself backstage in the Gielgud theatre, runs next door to the Queens Theatre where Les Mis is playing and back, all of it breaking the 4th wall and probably a few more).

Some performances were a bit much (notably Denise Gough's "the step-daughter") but it might have been directed that way to differentiate the surreal from the real.

From "the girl" drowning in front of our eyes to the producer herself questioning where the real world begins and ends, the play is truly disturbing and fascinating.

Speed-the-Plow - Barrymore Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2
Written by David Mamet, Directed by Neil Pepe
Runs until Feb. 22nd 2009

Jeremy Piven and Raúl Esparza and Elisabeth Moss in a David Mamet play! Too bad the play seems dated especially in this world of Entourage (oh look, starring Piven himself) and the thousands of entertainment shows and websites where everyone knows everything about how Hollywood is run nowadays.

Piven plays a newly promoted exec who is given the responsibility of greenlighting films and decides to put his friend's (Esparza) blockbuster find through thus giving his friend a huge boost in the Hollywood world. In comes a temporary secretary (Moss) who manages to convince Piven to consider greenlighting an "important" movie based on a book instead and thus the inner confliction and backstabbing begins. Except nowadays, studios are probably likely to approve both a big blockbuster and balance it off with a smaller low budget "Oscar" type movie so none of this really makes sense anymore and thus the crux of the drama seems pale and inconsequential.

At least the performances are pretty good with Piven trying not to play Ari and does a decent job of playing a Hollywood player of a different (and conscionable) sort. While Moss does what she can as the temptress, she's too smart and square as a woman who would be convincing enough to convince the studio exec to completely change his plan. There's a flirtyness missing from her natural aura and she does what she can to act her way through the role but she's battling a bit of miscasting from the start.

Esparza is the star of the show (and probably the least well-known of the 3 member cast) as the desperate player trying to get into the Hollywood game and he sparks and sparkles in his desperation.

Streamers - Roundabout at the Laura Pels Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ****1/2
Written by David Rabe, Directed by Scott Ellis
Runs until Jan. 11th 2009

New army recruits are awaiting deployment to Vietnam but the play is less about the Vietnam war itself than it is about the time the boys spend in the bunks as the impending war looms over. As the soldiers await and try to bond, the differences in their status and social classes begin to unravel until a final shocking act that changes it all. I'm still not sure I fully believed the final twist and I could see people hating the plot direction but after some thought, I thought it wasn't as gratuitous as I first reacted.

3 young soldiers are privileged enough to get a room of their own. Richie is a fey acting soldier prone to singing out loud and who grew up in the big city and not your typical enlister. Billy is a small town good boy trying to learn the ways of the world, while Roger is a Black soldier cool enough to ignore Richie's gay tendencies and smart enough to keep quiet about it. Then comes Carlyle, a new Black soldier who isn't a smart or sophisticated as Roger but yearns for some bonding and some attention.

Hale Appleman as Richie turns in a star making performance in his Off-Broadway debut. He plays Richie both tender and witty, confused and controlled and avoids any gay cliches while still playing the character as convincingly gay. It's such a nuanced and delicate portrayal yet Appleman fully commands the stage and after a few minutes of him on the stage, it's hard to take eyes off of him.

J.D. Williams (The Wire) is suitably perfect for Roger, the Black man from the right side of the tracks. Brad Fleischer gives Billy the aw-shucks innocence he needs but almost plays a little too accepting at times that doesn't quite gel when he doesn't seem as accepting but it's a small quibble in a generally great performance. Ato Essandoh has the difficult role of Carlyle and somehow he manages the precarious balance the character requires.

The revival of Streamers by David Rabe (Hurlyburly) may have been written before I was born but it still (sadly) feels fresh and relevant. This new production is captivating and well-acted with a superb cast and while the play takes a head-spinning turn into darkness, it was still a pleasure to watch.

Streamers photo by Sara Krulwich/NYTimes

Wig Out - Vineyard Theatre - Off-Broadway, New York, NY - ****
Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Directed by Tina Landau
Closed Nov. 16th 2008

To call this play fierce is too easy but the dramatic play (with songs) that follows the battle of two houses in a drag off is surprisingly illuminating and emotional even though it's a big melodramatic soap (Chekhov probably could have used more sequins and lip-synching). Young playwright McCraney portrays the family created between a bunch of drag queens, their kings and the real girls that follow in a house led by the amazing Nathan Lee Graham (The Wild Party, The Comeback) as Rey Rey as she lords over the others protectively as their house gets challenged in a Drag Ball.

The drama and romantic interludes intertwine with the rules of their society all while the house must prepare for a surprise walk-off against the rival Serena (a scary Daniel T. Booth) and her underling Loki (a limber Sean Patrick Doyle). A newcomer Eric (a warm Andre Holland) becomes a guest to Ms. Nina (a superb Clifton Oliver) only to find out that head of the house Lucian (Erik King) has already had his mark set upon Eric. Add in fine performances by Joshua Cruz as Venus and Glenn Davis as The Deity, and real girls Rebecca Naomi Jones (Passing Strange), Angela Grovey and McKenzie Frye and you get an excellent all-round cast in an over-dramatic telling of another world that still feels all too familiar.

1 comment:

Esther said...

Great roundup!

We agree quite a bit although I liked "Dividing the Estate" more than you did. I just thought it was sharp and funny and tremendously entertaining. When you said it was a play for old people, you weren't including moi, were you? ;-)

And I pretty much agree with your assessment of "Equus" and "Speed the Plow." I really liked Daniel Radcliffe. But I also thought Anna Camp was great as the girl who leads Alan astray. For me, Raul was the best part of "Speed-the-Plow" but I agree the premise doesn't really work today.

And I definitely agree with you about "Black Watch." It was thrilling, so inventive and the cast was incredible. Thanks for convincing me to see it!