Saturday, February 14, 2009

Uncle Vanya

photo: Joan Marcus

It's no secret that good productions of Chekhov are hard to come by in New York, while bad ones are a dime a dozen. The last decade has seen everything from Derek Jacobi crashing and burning in a Roundabout-helmed Uncle Vanya to last winter's terminally overpraised, melodramatic incarnation of The Seagull. Austin Pendleton's new production of the former play, which recently opened at Classic Stage Company in the East Village, falls somewhere between the two poles; the production itself is attractive and fluid, but suffers from crucial casting errors in several key roles. Both Denis O'Hare and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Vanya and Yelena Andreevna respectively, are far too contemporary for such a traditional staging; he runs around dispatching his trademark hysterics, while she brings her hipster inflections to her bored character's languid dialogue. Peter Sarsgaard, the weakest link of the aforementioned Seagull, fares slightly better here as the frustrated Dr. Astrov, but I believed neither his passion for Yelena nor his neutrality towards the plain Sonya (Mamie Gummer, in the first winning performance I've seen her deliver). In the end, it's a shame that Pendleton (a former CSC Vanya himself, in the late eighties) has to waste a generally winning mise-en-scene on such a disparate and defective group of actors.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


The dictionary defines xanadu as, "a place of great beauty, luxury and contentment." Xanadu, currently playing at the Helen Hayes and based upon the famously horrible 1980 movie musical starring Olivia Newton-John, is none of these things. It is far too garish to be beautiful, too threadbare to be luxurious, and too loud to give anyone a feeling of contentment. Still, you're bound to have a damn good time at this bright, boisterous and mercifully short confection, which seems to have overcome the odds and is quickly becoming the surprise hit of the summer. (The crowd at the stage door was already three rows deep by the time I made it out of the theatre.) While half of the piece's success is due to its off the charts kitsch factor--the legwarmers and rollerblades, the memorably cringeworthy ELO score, the tacky scenery (by David Gallo) just screaming to be chewed--one would be remiss not to credit the extremely talented and incredibly hardworking cast. It's no shock that Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman are delicious as evil muses, or that Cheyenne Jackson plays a lovable dope par excellence. The pleasant surprise here comes courtesy of Kerry Butler as the irresistable muse Clio, who comes to earth to inspire Jackson's starving artist. Her vocal features--both her rollicking belt and her send-up of Newton-John's crystalline soprano--are note perfect and her flourishes of humor are simply uproarious. Could she be Broadway's next bonafide musical comedy star? I think so.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Old Acquaintance

As far as pastiche revivals are concerned, Roundabout's current staging of John Van Druten's Old Acquaintance is nowhere near as entertaining as The Constant Wife, which the company presented perfectly two seasons ago. Both comedies are of a similar fach--headstrong dames front and center, living, loving and letting the feathers fly--but the latter, set on the cusp of the Twentieth Century, featured crackling dialogue brought to life by an extraordiarily gifted cast. The cast of the former certainly has gifts to spare (it's headed by two of New York's most valuable performers, Margaret Colin and Harriet Harris), but as far as material goes, there just isn't much there. The story, which centers around two protofeminist novelists who have engaged in a friendly rivalry since girlhood, is solid and resonates somewhat, but Van Druten's stilted, dry text leaves the players with very little to work with. (I can't imagine that most of the lines, which Colin and Harris try very hard to sell, were ever that funny, even when the play premiered in 1940.) Still, this play is, if nothing else, a piece for two formidable divas, and I'm hard pressed to think of any better ones. For two hours, these often underappreciated ladies reign supreme. That's nothing to complain about.

Monday, July 9, 2007


There really aren't signs big enough or lights bright enough to trumpet the arrival of Patti Lupone's Mama Rose. She tears through the iconic role with a kind of focused ferocity that I've never seen anyone bring to this role before. Ably supported by a terrific onstage orchestra, the reigning Grande Dame of musical theatre landed one classic number after another--a subtle but forceful "Some People," a delightfully erotic "You'll Never Get Away From Me," opposite Boyd Gaines' winning Herbie--causing near pandemonium at City Center. In addition to Lupone and Gaines, a fine supporting cast has been assembled: Leigh Ann Larkin's June is well-sung, if a bit abrasive; Tony Yazbeck's Tulsa is adorable and expertly danced; the strippers--Alison Fraser, Nancy Opel and Marilyn Caskey--are the best I've ever seen. Laura Benanti defied the odds and turned in a surprisingly youthful and glowing Louise. The dark colors of her voice made her rendition of "Little Lamb" the most appropriately mournful I've ever heard. (Her reading of the song's final line, "I wonder how old I am," accentuated with a single tear, was flawless.) I could quibble about a few aspects of Arthur Laurents' new production, but I don't think that I will. The handful of flaws here aren't important. Patti Lupone's soon-to-be-legendary performance is. See it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Romeo and Juliet

This is the most deceptively simple Shakespeare work: it's perfect just as it is, and yet every director who tackles the play thinks that they have to do something cutting edge with it. Michael Greif can now add his name to that list; his new production for the New York Shakespeare Festival fails on nearly every level. It tries to be both ethereal and industrial--the set is a giant steel bridge atop a shallow lake--but ends up nothing but pretentious, and the revolving turntable stage by Mark Wendland is only a big, loud distraction. I can't imagine a more mismatched a miscast pair of star-crossed lovers than Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose. The former is projects the attitude of a passive thumbsucker, while the latter plays the lovestruck heroine with a Lucia-like madness as early as the balcony scene. This attitude served her well as the play progressed--her Act One closing speech was terrific--but it didn't amount to much overall. Of the entire cast, only Camryn Manheim's Nurse was successful. Dressed in a skin-tight peasant frock and smoking cloves, she was as motherly as Mary and as womanly as Carmen, everything the character should be.


Sarah Ruhl is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern American playwrighting. Her chief offense, which is rather common today but which she takes to extremes, is valuing aesthetic pleasurability over genuine organic storytelling. It's almost remarkable that she could take one of the most fullproof love stories of all time--that of Eurydice, whose beloved husband travels to the deepest regions of Hell to recover her--and turn it into the equivalent of an art house chick flick, complete with moments of weepy melodrama and post-mortem familial reconcilation. But she seems to say that it doesn't matter, because there are so many pretty things to look at: running water...illuminated letters...a chorus of cranky stones! It doesn't help that Ruhl's writing style alternates between extremely heightened language and almost unintelligible gawkings, or that the underwhelming cast has no clue how to perform it. After The Clean House, which I also loathed, I was told by many that it was the Lincoln Center production that was at fault and not the playwright's text. After Eurydice, I know better. Ruhl may have hoodwinked the MacArthur Foundation and some of New York's best companies, but never again me.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Blog break

Well, I left New York today and am going to be gone for the better part of the next three months. In that time, I'll probably only manage to get into the city rarely, so reviews this summer are going to be few and far between. I do have some shows lined up already: In June, I'll be seeing a preview of Eurydice and Romeo and Juliet in the Park; July brings about Gypsy with Patti Lupone and Old Acquaintance on Broadway; and August has Beyond Glory and the other Shakespeare in the Park offering, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in store. I'm also going to try to fit in Xanadu somewhere down the line (mama loves cheese), and possibly make a return visit to Forbidden Broadway to sample their new material.

I'll keep reading you, and I hope that you keep reading me. I will be back full-force come September.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

In a Dark Dark House

Anyone who has seen a play by the ultra-prolific Neil Labute knows the basic setup of all of his works: introduce characters, mix in some tension and then throw in a (usually predictable) eleventh hour twist. His newest misanthropic dramady, In a Dark Dark House, deviates from this familiar pattern, introducing a shocker rather quickly and letting it lay there for far too long. The audience knows that something else is coming around the corner, and spends the rest of the evening trying to figure out what the playwright has up his sleeve. Fortunately, it gives us something to do other than pay attention to the baffling action that's happening on stage. I'm often a defender of Labute's style, but there is very little that anybody could positively spin here; it feels like something that was thrown together in a few hours, with little conflict and even less resolution. One bright spot, though: Frederick Weller turns in an intensely vivid performance as a man out to right a wrong committed against his brother (a disappointing Ron Livingston) when they were children. His surly and often glib line readings (both good things, in this case) fit right in with Labute's elan.


Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight--formerly called Angel Street, and the basis for George Cukor's 1944 film of the same name--is one of those plays where the style and tone of the piece is so integral that any diversion from it causes the entire piece to fall flat. Sadly, it is clear from the opening moments of the Irish Repertory's current revival that this mounting, while handsome to look at, is going to be a long affair. Most of the performances are far too modern for the decidedly period story, and also much too manic for the essential elements of suspense to seem genuine. Laura Odeh has the unenviable task of essaying a role made famous on screen by Ingrid Bergman, and often suffers the most; in an attempt to project her character's descent into insanity at the hands of her husband (David Staller, also unconvincing), she overexaggerates every gesture she makes, sacrificing any semblance of actual human emotion. Irish Rep stalwart Brian Murray fares the best as a hardboiled detective with a score to settle, but it's not quite enough. By the time that the show starts to really cook--mostly in the last fifteen minutes--you're already mentally checked out.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Crazy Mary

The title character in A.R. Gurney's new play is the (somewhat disputed) scion of a formerly wealthy Buffalo family who has been interned in a tony sanatorium for the rich since the early 1970s. No one from the family has visited her in years, and she rarely speaks; she prefers to spend her days listening to classical music and opera on the radio in her room. Her solitude ends when her last living relative--a distant cousin who recently became her legal guardian--pops onto the scene to investigate the mysterious life that Mary has led since being committed. I had worried that in the hands of A.R. Gurney this scenario would come off as far too schematic and situational, but it turned out to be a lovely surprise; it's easily his best play in years. Unlike other recent works by the author, which have seemed promising but undercooked, Crazy Mary boasts fully-formed ideas and a drum tight dramatic arc that is both hilarious and harrowing. A few pieces fall flat (especially some tired and unnecessary shots at President Bush that have become unavoidable in Gurney's work of late), but a majority of the script is solid, and director Jim Simpson keeps the action moving at a steady pace. Sigourney Weaver makes a welcome return to the stage as the newly reconnected kin with ulterior motives, but the play belongs to the wonderful Kristine Nielsen, who is deeply affecting as a woman that time left behind. New York would be a much grimmer place without her sizable talents.