Friday, November 25, 2011

Tales in Two Cities - Red, The Normal Heart, Private Lives - Play Reviews

Red - Canadian Stage Company at Bluma Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by John Logan, Directed by Kim Collier
Runs until Dec. 17th 2011

The Normal Heart - Golden Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Larry Kramer, Directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe
Ran until July 10 2011. Opens June 6 2012 at Arena Stage, Washington D.C.

The Normal Heart - Buddies and Bad Times Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Larry Kramer, Directed by Joel Greenberg
Ran until Nov. 6th 2011

Private Lives - Royal Alexandra Theatre - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Private Lives - Music Box Theatre - Broadway - New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Noel Coward, Directed by Richard Eyre
Ran until Oct. 30th 2011 in Toronto, Began on Broadway Nov. 6th. 2011

So I saw Red, The Normal Heart and Private Lives both in Toronto and on Broadway in New York. Local Toronto productions of Red and The Normal Heart both managed to be very different, but just as outstanding as their Broadway counterparts of the same play in different productions with different direction and cast. Oddly, I saw the same production of the same play in two different cities, and came out with far different reactions. Private Lives opened in Toronto but by the time I finally saw it at the end of it's Toronto run, Paul Gross was out sick. Then as luck would happen, I was invited to see it on Broadway less than 2 weeks later, without an understudy, and it was like a whole different show. Amazing how one actor can change the entire dynamics of a play (albeit, basically a 4 person play).

Seeing John Logan's play Red again left me with the same quibbles about the play itself, which I think is a cleverly constructed play that makes some typical art issues and debates seem more brilliant and worldly. The play nicely stays tight on 2 particular years of Mark Rothko's life when he creates a work commissioned specifically for the Four Seasons restaurant of the new Philip Johnson/Mies van der Rohe Seagrams building. Hiring a young assistance gives the play a nice guise for Rothko to sprout his artistic beliefs to a fresh young painter with ideas of his own, but as I noted in my review from the Michael Grandage Donmar/Broadway production (which I also gave 4 stars out of 5), the play is deceptively simplistic and relies on tremendous performances to keep it colourful.

The new Toronto production, directed by Kim Collier (who directed the magnificent Studies in Motion last year for Canadian Stage), luckily has those colourful actors to fill the Rothko and the assistant's shoes. Jim Mezon (who was tremendous in this summer's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Shaw) has a slow burn growl with that glint of deep thoughts behind darting eyes under those Rothko spectacles. Newcomer David Coomber (probably the lone survivor from this summer's godawful play Bullets for Adolf by Woody Harrelson) grows some confidence and strength thru the play until his assistant Kin holds his own against Rothko, and I mean that as in the arc of the play. Coomber's freshness is played perfectly against a seasoned Mezon's Rothko, as they work the studio room, layering the air with one life account over another, as the paintings behind them keep switching out as 2 years goes by.

David Boechler's beautiful recreation of Rothko's studio is angled coming straight into the audience. It sort of lets Mezon's Rothko to thrust himself on us while his paintings loom towards the viewers as constant reminds of Rothko's dominance in the art world. Revealed behind two disappearing walls that formed a giant ice cube sitting on the stage as one entered the theatre, the soft glow of the studio lights breaks the cube (a joke about Rothko destroying the cubist painters before him? As pointed out by the Globe's Nestruck).

While the lighting and musical score seemed to have a bit too many pulsating heavy handed moments that tried to underline "the idea" of the scene, and the video interludes, while lovely, didn't quite seem to connect with the actual play itself despite being images of red brushstrokes, Kim Collier manages to keep the pace steady, moving Logan's play with a beautiful soft brush swathed over a large canvas. If Grandage painted a bold crimson canvas on his stage, with a domineering Alfred Molina almost crushing an easily lovable Eddie Redmayne, Collier seems to have a gentler hand with Mezon and Coomber, as if she's priming her canvas from left to right to Grandage's vertical strokes.

Collier's Red brings out more of the nuances between Rothko and his assistant. Since there's less of a physical threat (just due to the fact that the larger Mezon is still not as tall as the nimble Coomber, whereas Molina easily overbears Redmayne), Mezon's Rothko has a more reluctant guiding hand over Ken, and uses a calm-before-the-storm-threatening tone to outlay his power. It's a different hue to the play Red that makes the play compelling and mesmerizing despite it's flaws.

Seeing The Normal Heart for the first time on Broadway with it's starry cast, didn't quite leave me as emotionally ripped and teary eyed as many around me were (or had been told), but I did feel an anger towards the frustrating circumstances that gay men encountered when the AIDS virus first took hold of NYC in the 80's. Larry Kramer's play is quite a ranting exhibit of his own fight in rallying people, and specifically the gays of New York, and the politicians in charge to recognize here was a disease killing them. It's not the most elegant of plays, and the fragmented scenes gets the history across, but the humanity and the emotions play at heightened states, giving actors some juicy dramatic moments, but giving very little room for nuance and any actual true emotional connection, whether it between characters, or with the audience at hand.

The terrific Broadway cast includes television stars Jim Parsons (fun to see him doing a role very different to his Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory), Lee Pace (giving a different sexy swagger to his leading role in Pushing Daisies), Luke MacFarlane (Brothers & Sisters), some theatre vets Joe Mantello (Angels in America), John Benjamin Hickey (Cabaret), Patrick Breen (Next Fall), and film star Ellen Barkin in the lone female role. Barkin and Hickey won Tony Awards for their roles, and while Barkin puts up a feisty bravado, almost bullying performance as Dr. Brookner, I found it tended at times to lean towards being shouty and overdone. I applaud Barkin for the passion she put into the charged role, as the lone medical supporter to the case.

Joe Mantello also turns in a passionate performance as Ned Weeks, the central figure who is a veiled version of Larry Kramer himself (who was at the theatre every night handing out flyers after the show, if that gives you any indication about his passion for the cause). Kramer's passion turns to pushy annoyance as a real person, as a character and as a plot point, so Mantello dials it up and keeps it there. It may be accurate, and it gives the play the political and moral outraged required at the heart of the story, but it doesn't quite give it the actual heart. For that, John Benjamin Hickey gives a bravura performance that gives humanity to the piece, as a New York Times Style columnist Fleix Turner who falls in love with Ned Weeks.

The plain set is nicely boxed in with a white backdrop the a sculptural relief of words that gives it a simplicity and grandeur required to fill a Broadway house. On the flip side, the Toronto production (a co-production between Buddies and Bad Times with Studio 180) is set on a plain checkered floor in a in-the-round black box space. The intimacy helps the audience connect emotionally with the story and the characters and makes The Normal Heart seem a little less of a political play and far less of a rant piece.

It helps with a cast that includes Sarah Orenstein as Dr. Bruckner, who gives a far more nuanced portrayal while still keeping the anger level up. Jonathan Wilson is also just as excellent, angry and nuanced as Ned Weeks, and while stirs up that pushiness via the character, Wilson plays it at a tone without overdoing it. He's balanced by a terrific Jeff Miller as Felix, who gives a strong but giving counterpart. Paul Essiembre and Ryan Kelly are wonderful in their roles, while Greenberg keeps the play moving swiftly from all sides of the stage. It's a stellar production with a mostly great ensemble, but as with the Broadway production, even with the added intimacy, I still come out of The Normal Heart with anger at my heart, bustling with activism in the blood.

The case of Exes In (2 different) Cities: Private Lives is one of those oh-so-clever-British-Noel-Coward comedies set ups that would never happen in real life, but that's what the the-ah-tah is for. So yes, it's about Amanda and Elyot. Exes now both on their honeymoons to their new respective spouses. And of COURSE they happen to be next to each other in adjoining balconies. As the realization occurs, comedy and pratfalls abound as Amanda and Elyot reunite, reminisce, rekindle their love, remember their hatred for each other, and all the passions in between.

The reason for this latest revival is because Sex and the City's Kim Catrall plays Amanda and she purrs and flirts around in such British elegance that the iconic Samantha is easily forgotten. Her counterpart is Paul Gross, Canadian television, theatre, and film star (and probably best remembered in the US for Due South and Slings & Arrows), and Paul easily has the suave manly old-style charm that can pull off an Elyot. He's handsome and charming, but can still play rough, and has the command that can actually go against Catrall's sensual but strong Amanda. She's a modern women with old-school elegance and Catrall easily simmers between both ends, giving a wonderfully comic performance.

The problem in Toronto was with Gross out sick, his understudy, while genial, seemed soft and was completely trampled over by the strong Catrall. Hence the play, which really requires two equals in battle, felt unbalanced and thus unfunny. Catrall did her best and Simon Paisley Day and Anna Madeley get a bit more space to shine (since generally they are relegated on the back burner from the main show of Amanda and Elyot), and the understudy wasn't terrible, but the rhythm felt off and the play fell flat.

With Gross and Catrall at their prime, purring, shaking, growling, and simmering at each other, you see an Amanda and Elyot who are so wrong and yet so passionate about each other, they can't help destroy their lives, the room (in a stunning design by Rob Howell) and everyone around them. Day and Madeley do their best, with Day having some particularly hilarious quips, especially with Gross, and Caroline Lena Olsson gets some nice zingers as the French maid, but this is really Catrall and Gross' show and they have a lot of fun with it and it shows.

Photos for Red by Bruce Zinger
Photos for
The Normal Heart Toronto by John Karastamatis
Photos for
The Normal Heart Broadway by Joan Marcus
Photos for
Private Lives by Cylla von Tiedemann
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