Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Other Desert Cities" - Where consequences of the past and present take center stage

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Long-hidden family secrets are revealed in Jon Robin Baitz's powerful Other Desert Cites, now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre.

Christmas 2004, Palm Springs, CA. Arch-conservatives and Hollywood elite Lyman and Polly Wyeth (Stacy Keach, Stockard Channing), he a retired actor and U.S. Ambassador, she a former screenwriter, are welcoming their producer son Trip (Thomas Sadoski) and novelist daughter Brooke (Rachel Griffiths) home for the holidays. This is the first time East Coaster Brooke has returned for Christmas in six years, having previously suffered a complete nervous breakdown. (She now struggles with severe depression.) Brooke is also still trying to come to terms with the suicide of her older brother Henry more than 30 years earlier, at the height of the Viet Nam War protests. At the time of his death, Henry was wanted for questioning in the bombing of an Army Recruiting Center. The final member of the Wyeth family is Polly's sister Silda (Judith Light), a recovering alcoholic, now living with Polly and Lyman after her latest stint in rehab. Silda is also the political polar opposite of Polly and Lyman.

As the family tries to coexist with one another, Lyman playing peacemaker and Trip trying to stop to all political discussions before they start, Brooke reveals the topic of her latest book: a memoir about Henry and her childhood as she remembers it. However when the book turns out to be more of a "gotcha" blame game over her parents' role in what actually happened to her brother; with perhaps a bit too much input from Silda, whose memories from that time are particularly slanted, a family showdown looms over Polly and Lyman's reactions.

Underneath all the political verbiage (with discussions covering everything from Ronald and Nancy Regan to the situation in Iraq) is the continual realization, expressed by more than one person, that there are always consequences to one's actions. Eschewing conservative or liberal bashing per se, Baitz instead crafts some very powerfully layered characters, all of whom seem to firmly believe in their point of view. Where any particular audience member happens to stand on the political spectrum is not as important as the underlying tale of what happened long ago that serves to hold one's interest and makes the characters so identifiable. The playwright also mixes in a nice amount of humor into the story, with one-liners and putdowns coming thick and fast-usually from Polly or Silda.

Channing is wonderful as Polly, a woman of steel who always has to be in control of any situation and who protects Lyman like a tiger guarding her cub. Her character is poised, plain-speaking, sarcastic and always pushing her children (especially Brooke) to do better in their lives. Polly is also not one to back away from a fight, no matter how personal the cost.

Keach works well as Lionel, his bearing and attitude easily suggesting one of the old Hollywood guard, and also a man of old-fashioned ideals and values. Yet at the same time, he's one of those people who wants to find a way to make everyone happy, or at least able to live with uncomfortable situations. Quiet and calm throughout, when he does erupt it's completely unexpected, for it seems so out of character to what has come before. Keach and Channing also have excellent chemistry together, which works to their advantage playing a long-married couple. Polly & Lyman have also come to the same conclusion, albeit separately, that if Brooke goes ahead with her book, their relationship with their daughter will change forever. (The way both Channing and Keach deliver this pronouncement is quite sobering to behold.)

Griffiths is excellent as Brooke, the catalyst and lynchpin to the story. A woman determined to expose the truth as she sees it, so she can finally begin to heal. Yet at the same time, Brooke is still seeking her family's approval, via Polly and Lyman's blessing to go ahead with the book, which Brooke already knows on some level they will not accept. It's this needy, almost cloying at times attitude, coupled with a strong independent streak that makes the character of Brooke so appealing.

Light is very good as Silda. Much better in fact than Linda Lavin, who originated the role last year off-Broadway at Lincoln Center; Light succeeds in making Silda, a currently sober but terribly bitter aging Jewish liberal, far more than a simple stereotype. She is a woman with an outwardly laissez-faire, inwardly firm resolve, in order to punish her sister for past transgressions. At least until Silda's own secrets begin to be revealed. Sadoski is fine as Trip, a young man who has no patience or desire to fight a battle over a brother he barely remembers; and who is extremely tired of living in Henry's shadow. (Griffiths is also new to the Broadway production; Channing, Keach and Sadoski all reprise their roles from the Lincoln Center engagement.)

Joe Mantello guides the show with a firm directorial hand, slowly mixing together the different elements the script provides and surreptitiously bringing them all to a boil. The transfer to Broadway has also served the production nicely, with some minor tweaks and changes throughout giving the piece a better polish and more visceral tone overall.

John Lee Beatty's set of the Wyeth home is very good, though upon closer inspection one can notice things that are just a bit off, such as the interior entranceway to the house being a bit incongruous with the rest of the domicile, showing perhaps that Polly and Lyman are not what they seem to be. The lighting by Kevin Posner and sound by Jill BC DuBoff work fine, as do the costumes by David Zinn; especially the outfits worn by Light, Channing and Keach, all of which have an appropriately comfortable look to them.

Other Desert Cities is a tightly-woven story of one family wresting with the memory of an incident long past, one which may forever change their future. Both funny and touching, the play is a powerful piece about love, loyalty, trust and consequences -- consequences both obvious and unforeseen.


Other Desert Cities
Booth Theatre


222 West 45th Street

Featuring: Stockard Channing (Polly Wyeth), Rachel Griffiths (Brooke Wyeth), Stacy Keach (Lyman Wyeth), Thomas Sadoski (Trip Wyeth), Judith Light (Silda Grauman)

Written by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Joe Mantello
Sets: John Lee Beatty
Costumes: David Zinn
Lighting: Kevin Posner
Sound: Jill BC DuBoff
Original Music: Justin Ellington
Production Stage Manager: James FitzSimmons
Assistant Stage Manager: Jenn McNeil
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharage.com
Information: www.lct.org
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission
Open Run www.lct.org

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sing Out, Clarise!

It's been a while since I've done a giveaway, so let's do one!

StageBuzz.com is giving away two tickets to SILENCE! The Musical, currently playing at the 9th Space Theatre at PS 122 (150 First Avenue at East 9th Street).

Photo by Carol Rosegg
SILENCE! The Musical is a hilarious parody based on the Academy Award winning film. Rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling matches wits with the brilliant but insane cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter in order to catch the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. Clarice faces her own demons while racing the clock to unlock Lecter’s clues before another innocent girl is killed and skinned by Buffalo Bill. This laugh-out-loud naughty satire features a singing chorus of floppy-eared lambs narrating the action as Buffalo Bill gleefully dances a hoedown while kidnapping hapless Catherine Martin. Even Dr. Lecter, scary as ever, sings about the life he’d like to lead someday outside the prison walls.
“A hilarious takedown! Makes those naughty ditties in The Book of Mormon seem like trunk songs dropped from The Sound of Music.”    – NY Times

Comment on this post with your e-mail address [comment moderation is on, so your comment will not appear and your e-mail address will not be made public].  A winner will be chosen at random on Friday, December 2nd at noon and will receive a voucher good for two tickets to SILENCE! The Musical (a $118 value) through January 31st.

UPDATE: Congratulations to Jill Manty, winner of the two tickets.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Atmosphere of Memory" -- A Question of "what," "if," and "when"

Review by Judd Hollander

Profanity-laden and at times hilariously vulgar, David Bar Katz's comedic-drama The Atmosphere of Memory looks at images of the past as they actually happened, how they are remembered in the present, how people want to remember them, and how they never happened. If that seems somewhat confusing, so is the play itself at times with Katz perhaps throwing in too much and going too far afield in his exploration of this subject. Yet underneath all the excess verbiage and staging is a fascinating story of a twisted family dynamic.

Photo by Monique Carboni
Jon (Max Casella), a playwright, is in rehearsal with his latest show. One in which he cast his own mother, Claire (Ellen Burstyn), to play his onstage mother; while another actor, Steve (David Deblinger), plays Jon. The play deals with Jon's painful remembrances of his own family upbringing. A history involving Claire, Jon's sister Esther (Melissa Ross), and his long-estranged father Murray (John Glover). However as Steve points out, the onstage character of Jon is too much of a cipher; with the script being too indistinct to really connect with the people Jon is trying to depict. Jon has written the play because he's "just trying to find out what happened;" being firmly convinced there was some major childhood incident that changed his life, one which he has since blocked out, and is now determined to uncover.

In his quest to do just that, Jon gathers his family together, the first time in years they have all been under the same roof, with Murray recalling some rather pointed details of past exploits, (such as how Jon was conceived on the kitchen floor). All the while Claire tries to act as the family peacemaker and voice of reason, while Esther is more concerned with just trying to stay above it all, having long since moved on with her life.

If there is one thing Murray, Claire and Esther are united about, it's that there was no one defining or traumatic incident in Jon's childhood that shaped him into the person he is today. Certain his family is hiding something, Jon brings out stacks of notebooks containing his memories of what went on around him as a child. That is, after he first tape recorded them. (How he was able to get this information in the first place is revealed as a pivotal plot point.) Jon then convinces his family to begin acting out the incidents in the notebooks in an attempt to finally get to the truth.

The basic point of Katz's work, as mentioned above, is that memory is highly subjective, and one often remembers what one wants to remember, rather than what actually occurred. Also pointed out to Jon repeatedly is that he wrote nothing down about himself from his childhood. However in giving us almost no clue as to who Jon is, Katz has created a character that is basically a blank slate. So much so, it's impossible to get inside his head, which hurts the credibility of this wannabe lynch pin of the story.

The play would also have worked so much better were Katz to have concentrated on this family relationship, rather than tossing in other actors playing different versions of Jon, Esther, Claire and Murray. Katz's efforts to tell the story via a play-within-a-play format results in a hodge-podge that encompasses everything from Nazi Germany to ancient Greece. There's also a time-traveling troubadour (Sidney Williams) whose job it is to narrate the action; a practice which gets annoying rather quickly. True, that character is designed to be rather less than appealing, but that doesn't take away from the reality that he isn't needed in the first place. A dramaturg would have definitely helped to eliminate some of the extraneous material and keeping the entire piece on track.

One major thing the play has going for it is a seemingly endless supply of theatrical anecdotes, as well as a running gag of how cynical and shallow actors can be -- the latter point becoming evident in a scene between Jon, Esther and Helen (Kelly Curran)-the actress portraying Esther; Helen also being Jon's girlfriend. An enjoyable treat for theatre insiders, though audience members not plugged into that world may feel somewhat left out.

Casting is a mixed bag. Glover steals the show as the foul-mouthed, loosely moraled reprobate who, to his credit, makes no apologies for who he is or what he's done. It would have been nice however it the character had more of a backstory. Ross is adequate in the role of Esther, who pointedly calls Jon out over his perhaps revisionist history. Yet at the same time, we never really know much about this character either, and we're sort of left hanging as to how she figures into it all. Burstyn, on the other hand, is simply wonderful as the seemingly long-suffering and iron-willed matriarch. Yet she's also a person who has more than a bit of Nurse Ratched in her and who may hold some of the answers Jon seeks. Curran, Deblinger, Williams and Charles Goforth (as the director in Jon's play) work well, through they're all pretty much one-dimensional figures. There's a hilarious scene between Deblinger and Goforth which opens the piece and can't be reprinted here, but sufficient to say one will go from wondering "what the hell is going on?" to "I shouldn't be laughing, but I am."

Pam MacKinnon's direction is very good, and she choreographs the sequences with Glover, Casella and Burstyn expertly; but the scenes of Jon's play mostly miss the emotional mark, causing the show to drag whenever they're staged, thus severely crippling the work overall. Yet despite all the excess material, both Katz and Mackinnon are able to frame the story in such a way that the core characters and material are able to hold the audience's interest throughout.

There's a lot to be said for The Atmosphere of Memory and there are some good performances for the audience to appreciate. However the play as whole isn't quite where it needs to be. At least not yet.

Also in the cast are Paul Kandel and Kelley Rae O'Donnell.

The Atmosphere of Memory

Featuring: Ellen Burstyn (Claire), Max Casella (Jon), Kelly Curran (Helen), David Deblinger (Tom/Steve), John Glover (Murray), Charles Goforth (Shrink/Mike), Paul Kandel (Jack), Kelley Rae O'Donnell (Interviewer), Melissa Ross (Esther) Sidney Williams (Narrator/Rex)

Written by David Bar Katz
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Presented by Labyrinth Theater Company

Scenic Design: David Gallo
Costume Design: Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design: Dans Maree Sheehan
Sound Design: Brendan Connelly
Stage Manager: C.A. Clark
Production Manager: Rosie Cruz
Technical Director: Richard A. Montgomery II
Press Representative: O&M Co.
Original Songs – Music by Adam Schlesinger, Lyrics by David Bar Katz

Bank Street Theater
155 Bank Street

Running Time 2 hours, 30 minutes

Closed: November 20, 2011

"Milk Like Sugar" - A powerful and painful look at inner city-life

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Ari Mintz

Kirsten Greenidge has written a harrowing tale of teenage angst, peer pressure and the desperate need to belong in her riveting, and oftentimes painful to watch Milk Like Sugar, presented by Playwrights Horizons at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

In an inner-city neighborhood, teenagers Annie (Angela Lewis), Margie (Nikiya Mathis), and Talisha (Cherise Boothe) pass the time talking about boys and comparing the latest cell phones and iPads. One night at a tattoo parlor, where they go after hours and are waited on by aspiring artist Antwoine (LeRoy McClain), Margie, who is several weeks pregnant, suggests Annie and Talisha also get themselves with child so all three can have their children together, and also all have something cute and cuddly to love. While Talisha, who is dating an older man, is quick to agree, Annie hesitates at first, but soon succumbs to the urging of her friends.

However Annie's choice of daddy material, Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), a high school senior whom she has a crush on (he's about two years older than her), is not willing to be the father. Busily taking care of his sick mother and studying hard for college, Malik has no plans to become a teenage dad. Malik instead is determined to be one of the people in the airplanes he sees overhead, instead of being stuck on the ground as the people above look down on him.

It's not long before Annie begins to wonder if getting pregnant is actually the best choice she can make. Her confusion only intensifies when she finds herself befriending Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), a recent transfer student who has a strong affiliation with God and who comes from a home where family is everything and eating evening meals together is a common, rather than a rare occurrence. 

Annie's home life however, is completely the opposite. Myrna (Tonya Pinkins) her embittered mother, continually blames Annie for the way her own life has turned out. Annie the being the result of an unplanned pregnancy when she herself was a teenager. Myrna also has no patience for Keera's "family values" (i.e. game night) that Annie tries to introduce into her home. Add to this Margie and Talisha's continual pressure for Annie to get with the "pregnancy program" and it's not long before Annie's opportunities to try to figure things out start shrinking by the minute.

With Milk Like Sugar Greenidge paints a bleak picture of inner-city life; and where the choice to change means sacrificing everything you're familiar with (such as when Malik must make a decision regarding his future) in order to do so. Hand-in-hand with this is the overall defeatist attitude present, one which grows stronger as the play progresses. Whether it's Talisha making excuses for an abusive boyfriend, or Antwoine laughing dismissively when Annie suggests he might actually have a future as an artist, it becomes quickly apparent that these are all emotionally spent souls who have grown up too fast, with their childhood and innocene long since stolen away.

Another telling point is the unrealistic pipe dreams Margie extols. Her comments about how wonderful it will be to have a child; along with Annie, Margie and Talisha's laughing and comparing the different types of expensive baby strollers they would buy to show off their kids, shows how unprepared they are to take on this responsibility and is a scathing comment by the playwright of the attitudes of some inner-city teenagers and their lack of parental supervision.

Casting is superb throughout. Lewis is excellent as Annie, a high school sophomore who never really thought about her future until now and very quickly realizes she doesn't like what she sees. One can feel her pain, helplessness and finally sheer desperation as she starts to feel herself being smothered by her surroundings before she's even had a chance to live.

Mathis is both good and aggravating (deliberately so) as Margie, the most vapid of the bunch. Blissfully happy being pregnant, and loving being part of the clique with Annie and Talisha, she ultimately gets a rude awakening when she least expects it. Boothe proves a revelation as Talisha, initially the most overbearing of the group but by the end of the play she's revealed to be perhaps the most vulnerable of all, tearfully proclaiming at one point "I don't want to be alone." Pinkins makes an imposing figure as Myrna, a woman habitually blaming other people for her misfortunes while basically neglecting her own personal responsibility in the situation.

Moore does very well as Keera, a sort of social outcast who offers Annie a look at way of life quite different from her own. A mini-dance sequence involving the two characters is very telling. Yet while Keera truly believes in her spiritual path, she also carries her own dark family secrets, one which threaten to envelop Annie when she is at her most vulnerable.

Mallory-McCree is nicely calming as Malik, a young man who has plans beyond the local neighborhood and who passionately tries to impart those dreams to Annie. His soliloquies of watching the planes and stars is quite touching and one can feel and understand his fierce desire to make a change for himself.

Rebecca Taichman's direction is strong, keeping the play moving relentlessly to it's inexorable conclusion, while continuing to raise the emotional tension of the story until everything is at the boiling point and quite ready to explode.

Milk Like Sugar (the title referring to powered milk), is a haunting play about failed lives, ones that have been lost almost before they ever had a chance to begin. Both message-laden and soul-destroying, the play is a painful lesson about how important choices can be in life, and how squandering even one can mean an end for them all.

Milk Like Sugar
Featuring Cherise Boothe (Talisha), Angela Lewis (Annie), Nikiya Mathis (Margie), LeRoy McClain (Antwoine), J. Mallory-McCree (Malik), Adrienne C. Moore (Keera), Tonya Pinkins (Myrna)

Written by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Rebecca Taichman 
Scenic Design: Mimi Lien
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Original Music and Sound Design: Andre Pluess
Production Manager: Christopher Boll
Production Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Assistant Stage Manager: Allison Cottrell

Presented by Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre

416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Information: www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running Time: 1 Hour, 40 minutes no intermission
Closed: November 27, 2011

"Children" - A Family in Transition

Review by Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephen Kunken

Few things can be as frightening, ominous or inevitable as change, as powerfully demonstrated in A.R. Gurney's Children, this 1974 work currently being given a sterling revival by The Actors Company Theatre.

In well-to-do summer home in one of the WASPish enclaves on an island off the coast of Massachusetts in 1970, a family is gathering for the July 4th weekend, where Mother (Darrie Lawrence), the widowed matriarch, makes an important announcement. Come September, she will be leaving her children the summer house and marrying "Uncle Bill," not actually a relative, but an old family friend who was one of the ushers at her wedding 34 years earlier. After their initial surprise, Mother's two oldest children Randy (Richard Thieriot) and Barbara (Margaret Nichols) are relatively happy for her; however Mother's youngest son Pokey, who hasn't been to the house since their father died five years earlier, is definitely not. Pokey is also the unofficial keeper of the family history and seems determined to keep the past alive.

Randy and Barbara meanwhile have their own problems, ones that threaten to envelop everyone around them. Randy has an obsession with sports (he can remember the scores of any sporting event he ever played), especially when it concerns games on the family tennis court. He is also a bit of control freak, prone to temper tantrums, and has a long-standing sibling rivalry with Pokey. All of which can drive those around him, including his wife Jane (Lynn Wright), to utter distraction.

As for Barbara, she's becoming involved with Artie, her first love whom she probably would have married years ago had her parents not pushed her in a different direction. Yet while Randy and Mother have different opinions about Barbara's blooming relationship with the now-married Artie, much of the objections come from the fact Artie is of a lower social class. (He used to cut the grass at the summer house years ago and now does construction work on the island.) There's also the irony that Barbara's situation with Artie has at least a few similarities to Mother and Uncle Bill.

Over the course of the weekend, Mother and her children will argue about personal priorities, family values, child-rearing, finances, past choices made and exactly what their futures might hold. Bound up in all these issues is the overriding theme of people caught up in a changing world where the idea of yacht club costume parties and always doing what is expected is beginning to lose its allure. This is most clearly personified by Pokey and his wife Miriam. He has been clearly influenced by the civil rights movement and sees injustice at every turn, while she is studying for her PhD and has a day job outside the home. Qualities Jane finds appealing, as Jane is beginning to feel the need to do something more with her life.

With Children, Gunrey has written a multi-layered and fully textured script, allowing the audience to get inside each of the character's heads, and showing how conflicted, angry and lonely they actually are. While all maintain, at least for a while, a sort of calm and contented exterior, it's because that's what they've been raised to do, yet there are cracks starting to show. From Mother's anger at an ill-timed interruption when trying to take family pictures, to Randy's obsessive need to beat Pokey at anything, to Barbara's anger at her mother for behavior Barbara perceives as hypocritical, everyone in the family has their own inner demons to fight and personal past to reconcile. It also helps that while none of the characters presented are always sympathetic, all have various qualities that make them quite interesting.

Another important aspect of the work is Gurney's deft handling of customs and places that pretty much don't exist today. Such as Barbara and Randy's late father's will which says the beach house goes to Mother until she remarries; at which time the house goes to the children. Randy's comments that this is standard practice shows the mind set of the culture at the time. It's moments like these that help set the work in a time long-gone, yet still alive in the minds of many.

Casting is excellent, Children being one of those plays that can truly be called an ensemble piece. Each role dependant on interacting with the others to make the entire story focused and well-rounded. (This also goes for the various characters the audience never sees but whom are talked about frequently.)

Lawrence is perfectly cast as Mother, the aging matriarch of the family who struggles to balance the desires of her family with her own needs, and who learns that walking away from everything and everyone she has known is not as easy as it sounds. Mother is also a woman to whom tradition, custom and class mean something specific and thus colors what she says and the decisions that she makes.

Thieriot cuts a nice figure as Randy. A man-child of sorts, he's also more than a bit spoiled; crying, jumping up and down, or throwing his tennis racket when things don't go his way. To be sure, Randy loves his wife and family, but more importantly for him, he loves things the way they were when he was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, and has been stuck in a sort of mental time warp ever since. Annoying at times, one can feel his abject fear when confronted with losing something he holds precious, while also feeling pity for his never thinking such a thing might actually have been possible in the first place.

Wright is nicely appealing as Jane, the one character above all who represents change. A devoted wife and mother, she finds herself unconsciously bonding with Miriam, admiring the way Miriam raises her children while seeming to be one of those women who "have it all." This realization causes Jane's orderly world to become unsteady as she begins to take a hard look at her own life. It's a credit to the actress that she is slowly and realistically able to bring Jane to life over the course of the play, starting out as little more than window dressing, and then growing more aware and passionate as the tale progresses.

Nichols does a good job with Barbara, perhaps most one-dimensional character in the group. A divorcee looking for happiness and easy (or “quick-fix") solutions to her problems, she's sometimes perhaps too eager to jump in with both feet before thinking about the resulting repercussions, as others point out. Yet Barbara is one of those people who, like Pokey, Jane and Mother, is starting to learn to move to her own music and who, like Mother, is desperately tying to grab what she perceives as her last chance at happiness. Barbara also carries with her a certain amount of liberal guilt at her upbringing, which may also color the choices she must make.

The direction by Scott Alan Evans is both subtle and evenhanded, working in tandem with the script to allow each character a few special moments to shine, as well as bringing all the various elements in the story together. This results in the audience being slowly drawn into the tale until one feels a part of the action taking place before their eyes.

Brett J. Banakis' set of the family beach house (actually the deck mostly) authentically give the story a sense of place, while Haley Lieberman's costumes work well with the family's somewhat old-money and conservative styles in marked contrast to the changing times around them. (Look for the final outfit Barbara wears as a complete difference to what has come before.) Lighting by Bradley King works well, as does the sound design by Stephen Kunken, complete with sounds of the ocean and sea gulls.

Children is a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring the inevitably of change, both from without and within. Part family drama, part cultural history lesson, this is a quiet yet touching play that should not be missed.

Children
Featuring: Margaret Nichols (Barbara), Richard Thieriot (Randy), Darrie Lawrence (Mother), Lynn Wright (Jane)

Written by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Scott Alan Evans
Production Stage Manager: Robert V. Thurber
Assistant Stage Manager: Michael Friedlander
Dramaturge: Stephanie Walter
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Assistant Director: Lauren Miller
TACT General Manager: Cathy Bencivenga
Props: Lauren Madden
Press & Publicity: O&M Co.
Sound Design: Stephen Kunken
Costume Design: Haley Lieberman
Lighting Design: Bradley King
Scenic Design: Brett J. Banakis

Presented by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT)
The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Info: www.tactnyc.com
Running Time: 95 Minutes, no intermission

Closed: November 20, 2011

"The Lyons" - Hilarious and Painful Family Dysfunction

Review by Judd Hollander
Photos by Carol Rosegg

You'll laugh till you cry and smile through your tears at The Lyons, probably the most biting comedy/drama about family dysfunction to arrive on the scene this year. Dripping with acidic-laced humor and punctuated with a continual ego-deflating wit, playwright Nicky Silver and director Mark Brokaw have set the bar pretty high in this work about facing one's demons, moving on and letting go, whether one really wishes to or not. It's a hilariously compelling story and filled with an absolutely superb cast.

Lyon family patriarch Ben (Dick Latessa) is in a New York hospital, while his wife of many years Rita (Linda Lavin) sits in the room looking at a magazine, though not quite at his bedside. Arriving soon after are the couple's daughter Lisa (Kate Jennings Grant), a recovering alcoholic who may have a new man in her life; and son Curtis (Michael Esper), who makes his living as a writer of children's stories and who has a boyfriend they've never seen.

It should be noted Ben and Rita don't really get along with their parents, albeit for different reasons, and this is the first time all four have been together in one room for quite a long time. However upon arriving, the children are told their father is dying and they don't have much time to say their goodbyes. (Ben and Rita didn't want to worry their children until they had to.) This unexpected news and subsequent ripping open of old family wounds threatens to send Lisa back to the bottle ("it's more fun when you're drinking") and Curtis into an emotional explosion. 

Things are not made easer by the fact Ben and Rita's matrimony has long since deteriorated from wedded bliss, if such a thing was ever there in the first place. Their relationship now reduced to angry back and forth arguments ranging from how Rita will redecorate their living room once Ben is gone, to her perennial disappointment in the marriage. All of which causes both their children to be drawn back into the family drama, with Lisa revealing something explosive about Curtis' boyfriend, while Curtis notes that his sister's new love interest is actually her abusing ex-husband.

The Lyons could easily be a riotous black comedy about a dysfunctional family spinning further and further out of control, but Silver has no intention of letting his characters (or the audience) off that easy. Hidden under each member of the Lyons clan's long-simmering personal anger and pain is a terrible longing for something more than what they have, or what they believe they used to have. As Ben says to Curtis in a rare quiet moment, when asked why he's stayed with Rita all these years, he answers "because I loved her." More importantly, Ben still loves the person he believes Rita once was, an exchange which explains much about the depths and limits of their relationship.

The play does not provide answers so much as it asks questions, for in reality none of the people portrayed, except perhaps the hospital nurse (Brenda Pressley), is truly a sympathetic character or particularly likable were you to actually meet them. For one member of the family, a case of unrequited love veers dangerously into stalker territory; while with another it's continually making excuses for a guilty party for the way things have turned out. There's also the question of how long should parents decide to take care of their children before they finally cut the apron strings and heave them out of the nest so the adults can move on with their own lives. (Parenthood this ain't.)

Lavin brilliantly brings Rita to life as a bitter woman trapped in a situation she never should have agreed to and, up until this point, has only been going through the motions of her life. But with change now being thrust upon the family, she may have one final chance for some happiness, transient though it may be, and she is determined to grab hold while she can. Probably the most defining thing about the character is that she's a woman with a spine of steel. Not so much combative, though there is that, but a powerful determination to stick with the choices she's made, both in the past and in the future, regardless of what anyone else might think.

Latessa cuts a poignant figure as Ben, a man dying of cancer but not quite yet ready to go into that final good night and still up for a verbal battle with anyone within reach. He's also the most sympathetic character in the play, though he has the habit, like most of the rest of the family (excluding Lavin) of blaming everyone except himself for his situation. Yet you can't help but feel sorry for this man who, at the end of his life, has so many regrets.

Esper plays Curtis often brimming with anger and resentment, especially when his carefully ordered world is pulled out from him-which it is more than once. Cloaking himself in a false aura of normalcy, he has some serious issues regarding obsession and acceptance to work out; ones which only serve to drive away those he desires the most.

Grant's portrayal of Lisa is perhaps initially the most stereotypical of the bunch, a woman with a drinking problem who's also in a continual downward spiral with her relationships. Her confessions at an AA meeting are quite telling. Fortunately Grant manages to put a human face on Lisa, making one care about the character and wanting to know what happens to her even after the show ends.

Pressley and Gregory Wooddell nicely round out the cast, Wooddell playing an amiable insurance agent and wannabe actor with some interesting secrets of his own.

Mark Brokaw's direction is tight, sure-handed and powerful. Mixing together the script's various levels of humor and drama to allow all the elements in the play to come together perfectly for maximum effect.

Allen Moyer's sets are well done, as are the costumes are by Michael Krass. The lighting by David Lander changes from being properly stark in the hospital scenes to being properly subdued for the apartment ones. However, work by fight choreographer Thomas Schall doesn't quite pay off here, with one particular confrontation scene (between Esper and Wooddell) feeling too staged to be real.

The Lyons is a fascinating journey into the depths of hell one family creates for themselves. Thanks to an excellent script, direction and a top-notch cast, it's a journey well worth taking.

The Lyons
Featuring: Linda Lavin (Rita Lyons), Dick Latessa (Ben Lyons), Kate Jennings Grant (Lisa Lyons), Michael Esper (Curtis Lyons), Brenda Pressley (Nurse), Gregory Wooddell (Brian)

Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Set Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: David Lander
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Production Stage Manager: Roy Harris
Production Managers: Ben Morris, David Nelson
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
Casting: Henry Russell Bregstein, CSA

Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: or 212-303-0303 www.vineyardtheatre.org

Running time: 2 Hours, with one intermission

Closes: December 22, 2011

"Relatively Speaking: 3 One-Act Comedies" - Batting About .500

Review by Judd Hollander

Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel, the final segment of a trio of one-acts being presented on Broadway under the umbrella title of Relatively Speaking, show Allen at his best with one of the most hilarious works to hit Broadway in recent memory. As long as you have a pulse, it's sure bet you'll be holding your sides and roaring with glee almost from start to finish.

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, sometimes you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince; the frogs in this instance being the two earlier plays in the production, it definitely being a case of things getting better as time goes on.

Things start off very wobbly, with Talking Cure by Ethan Coen, the weakest and least focused one-act of the bunch. Though the beginning of the show does hold a bit of promise; with a Doctor (Jason Kravits) having a session Larry (Danny Hoch), a patient in a mental hospital, the much taller Hoch towering over Kravits both in size and verbal wit. There's also a nice moment where Larry is describing a very specific usage of a packing tape dispenser, accompanied with hilarious pauses and imagery.

Sadly the piece never really goes anywhere, with the Doctor continually trying to get to the root of Larry's problems and Larry deflecting the Doctor's efforts at ever turn; Larry all the while tossing in moments of homespun philosophy, albeit with caveats (i.e. "everyone has problems"). Larry even suggests that he is actually the doctor and the Doctor is the patient in one exchange. However, without some kind of end point, this back and forth banter quickly becomes terribly repetitive and rather annoying. Things get even murkier with a flashback sequence involving Larry's parents (Allen Lewis Rickman, Katherine Borowitz), the idea supposedly being that they are responsible for shaping Larry into the man he is today. However there is no real emotional connection between these two sequences and the entire story sort of fizzles out, leaving one not at all interested in what may have happened to the characters. Also in the cast is Max Gordon Moore.

Up next is George is Dead, by Elaine May, which has a more concrete story to offer, but is somewhat lacking in the make up of one particular character and probably should have been expanded into a full-length piece to better flesh out the tale.

Carla (Lisa Emery) is leaving a telephone message for her husband Michael (Grant Shaud), with whom she had an argument, (something about family priorities-a running theme throughout this play), when Doreen (Marlo Thomas) arrives with the announcement that her husband, the title character, has died. Carla, it turns out, is the daughter of Doreen's childhood nanny (Patricia O'Connell) and, with nowhere else to go, Doreen finds herself turning to Carla for comfort in her time of sorrow.

It's not long before Doreen is revealed to be a rich, spoiled and pampered woman who in no time at all has Carla waiting on her hand and foot, from getting her tea to scraping the salt off some crackers while Doreen settles in for the night. Although Carla tries to muster up a word of protest now and again, she quickly allows herself to be talked into complying with Doreen's every request, Carla having a personality that seems to be part subservient, part needy and party martyr. Doreen is also unwilling (or unable) to face what happened to George and so Carla finds herself becoming Doreen's "assistant" (Carla's word) in order to handle the funeral arrangements.

George is Dead is a basically a play about patterns. Carla, who felt neglected by her own mother, who was always busy taking care of Doreen, now finds herself slipping into that same role at the risk of neglecting her own life and her life with her husband. There's a lot of potential in the script, but what's missing is a full sense of cohesiveness. The play could easily be a comedy, drama or a mixture of both, but it's kind of hard to see what May is going for at times. Also since Carla is for the most part a reactive character, we never get to see where she's coming from. (Unlike with Thomas, Shaud and O'Connell; the latter two staking out definite positions in their brief scenes.) In some ways Carla is a terminal victim of emotional abuse. Yet there is never any point in the play that lets the audience know just who she really is, a vital link which is sorely missed.

Thomas does very well as Doreen, the character at times so annoying one wants to shake some sense into her, yet at other times so helpless as to be the object of sorrow and pity. She's also quite refreshingly candid about her lack of common sense, tact, or ability to really care about anyone else. Certainly not a nice person to be around, Thomas is able to give life to Doreen and make her ultimately fascinating to watch, with the audience either wondering what she'll do next or waiting to see if she'll finally get her own comeuppance. Also in the cast are Allen Lewis Rickman and Max Gordon Moore.

As mentioned above, the highlight of Relatively Speaking is Woody Allen's deliciously funny Honeymoon Hotel. Taking place in the bridal suite of a tacky roadside motel, Jerry (Steve Guttenberg) and Nina (Ari Graynor), a deliriously happy couple (he clad in a tuxedo, she in a wedding dress), enter and prepare to spend a night of connubial bliss. However, long before that happens there is the first of many knocks at the door as it quickly becomes apparent all is not what it seems. Jerry and Nina didn't just get married. Rather, they ran off together as she was about to marry someone else. The actual intended groom being a young man by the name of Paul (Bill Army), who happens to be someone with whom Jerry has a very long standing rivalry.

Not only does Paul eventually arrive, but so do Jerry's wife Judy (Caroline Aaron), Nina's parents (Julie Kavner, Mark Linn-Baker), Jerry's friend Eddie (Grant Shaud), and Jerry's psychiatrist Dr. Brill (Jason Kravits). As well as the somewhat soused Rabbi Baumel (Richard Libertini in an absolutely hilarious and Tony Award-worthy turn), many of whom, while trying to make sense of what's going on between Jerry and Nina, end up airing their own dirty laundry; touching on subjects ranging marital indiscretions to the death of Judy's first husband. Other weighty matters mentioned include God, literature and pizza, (Danny Hoch appearing at one point as a pizza delivery boy), with trademark Woody Allen angst and dysfunction present throughout.

In addition to a mostly crackerjack script, Allen and director John Turturro have cast the play with a team of pros, each of whom deliver their lines in all seriousness, no matter how crazy the situation happens to be. Honeymoon Motel is classic Allen, with Jewish and family humor coming thick and fast, and while there is nothing particularly new about the piece, the work has a wonderful freshness about it thanks to the actors involved, all of whom are at the top of their game. It's also worth noting that the play has a sort of timeless quality and could easily have taken place in any number of recent decades, with only the tweaking of a few lines here and there.

Linn-Baker and Kavner are two of the standouts here, a longtime married couple (she a bit of a controlling, shrewish yenta, he somewhat of a henpecked husband) harboring years of pent-up resentment, hurling verbal brickbats at each other with razor sharp accuracy. Also taking center stage is Libertini's completely hysterical portrayal of the Rabbi, a man who introduces people as if he were giving their eulogy, and who manages to work in such topics as penis envy into his fumbling conversations, all to brilliant effect. This is also someone who can get gales of guffaws just by pointedly shaking his figures. He's kind of like an eccentric drunken uncle everyone humors while hoping he'll just sit down and be quiet. Yet he also manages to get in some philosophizing at times. ("God exists, he may have attention deficit disorder, but he's there.")

Guttenberg and Graynor work fine as the beleaguered couple just tying to find some happiness, though both are at least partially living in a dream world. Aaron is good as the so-called "wronged woman" and Shaud and Kravits both get in more than a few comical licks with their respective roles. Both actors (as well as Hoch) coming off much better here than in their earlier appearances in the production.

If here's a problem with Honeymoon Hotel, it would have to be the ending, which is tied up just a bit too neatly. Yet Allen and company carry it off nicely enough to make the final denouement more than acceptable, if not totally satisfying.

Turturro's direction is somewhat uneven during the production, depending on which specific one-act he's working on. His guidance is very good in Allen's work, less so in the others. Whether this is due to the strength or lack of it in the various scripts is questionable, yet Turturro must take at least part of the credit and share in some of the blame in how they all turned out.

Sets by Santo Loquasto, costumes by Donna Zakowska and lighting by Kenneth Posner are all okay, if nothing to really get excited about. Though all are able to give the different works the proper sense of place and atmosphere. Except for Talking Cure, which ultimately really doesn't connect at all.

Relatively Speaking (a title with more than one meaning) begins with a sputter, ends with a bang and picks up steam as it progresses. It's far from perfect, yet the strongest and funniest moments far outshine the glaring weaker ones.

Relatively Speaking
3 One-Act Comedies

Talking Cure
Written by Ethan Coen
Featuring: Jason Kravits (Doctor), Danny Hoch (Patient), Max Gordon Moore (Attendant), Allen Lewis Rickman (Father), Katherine Borowitz (Mother)

George Is Dead
Written by Elaine May
Featuring: Lisa Emery (Carla), Marlo Thomas (Doreen), Grant Shaud (Michael), Patricia O'Connell (Nanny), Allen Lewis Rickman (Funeral Director), Max Gordon Moore (Assistant Funeral Director)

Honeymoon Motel
Written by Woody Allen
Featuring: Steve Guttenberg (Jerry Spector), Ari Graynor (Nina Roth), Grant Shaud (Eddie), Caroline Aaron (Judy Spector), Julie Kavner (Fay Roth), Mark Linn-Baker (Sam Roth), Richard Libertini (Rabbi Baumel), Jason Kravits (Dr. Brill), Danny Hoch (Sal Buonacotti), Bill Army (Paul Jessup)

Directed by John Turturro
Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Donna Zakowska
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Carl Casella
Casting: Cindy Tolan
Production Stage Manager: Ira Mont

Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street

Tickets: 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com

Running Time: Two Hours, with one intermission
Open Run


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Justin Plowman of "Brew of the Dead II: Oktoberflesh" Talks Zombies, Gore and Hipsters

By Byrne Harrison
Photo by Deneka Peniston
Justin Plowman is the director of the horror comedy Brew of the Dead II: Oktoberflesh, currently running at UNDER St. Marks, and its predecessor, Brew of the Dead.  Other directing credits include Robosaurus and Fancy Eating You Here for A Cavalcade of Curiosities and Porcelain & Pink for A Voluminous Evening of Brevity.  As an actor, he recently appeared in GeminiCollisionworks's ObJects and DMTheatric's Plan 9 from Outer Space, both at The Brick, has appeared in numerous Dysfunctional shows over the last decade and also appeared in and co-produced Clue - Live on Stage playingWadsworth the Butler. Justin is Dysfunctional Theatre’s Director of Development.
I recently had a chance to talk with Justin about a subject both fascinating and repulsive to me -- zombies.
So are you sick of people asking you if Brew of the Dead II: Oktoberflesh is going to be like "The Walking Dead," or "Dawn of the Dead," or any of the other zombie-related shows and movies out there?
Not at all. Both of our shows owe a huge debt of thanks to the "zombie lore" that came before us. In fact, much of the humor in the plays is based on the assumption that the audience HAS seen a lot of zombie themed movies.

Did your work on Brew and Brew II involve much zombie research on your part, or were you already a fan of the genre?
Both me and the writer, Patrick Storck, have always been big fans of the genre, so when he started writing, I could throw out ideas shorthand to him and he knew what I was asking for. One of my favorite obscure email exchanges came during the first Brew which was basically:

Me:   Pat, please tell me you got Piscopo in there!
Pat:   Of course.

(Joe Piscopo was in the classic redemptive, zombie-cop film "Dead Heat" from the '80s, co-starring Treat Williams)

One of the differences between Brew and Brew II is the zombies. The original Brew didn't show a flesh eater until the very end of the play (in a wonderfully inventive ending).  This one brings a zombie onstage early on.  Was it a challenge to keep the zombies frightening?
I liked the way we did the zombies in the first one, but we couldn't use that trick again and we knew it. We decided early on that if we were going to do a full-on sequel, then it would have to have more of everything. More blood, more action, and more of the undead wandering around. As for keeping them frightening, we wanted the early zombie to grow on the audience a bit and then have the audience turn on THEM in Act Two. Not sure that we completely succeeded there but that was the intent. By the end of the show, I feel the zombies have become a legitimate threat again and that's what matters.

I loved the fact that so much of the Brew cast was back, albeit playing different characters.  Since many of you have worked together before, what was the rehearsal process like?
Much like the characters in both shows, we've become a sort of zombie apocalypse family. Some of us were experts while the others had to go through a "zombie boot camp" to catch up. There were a LOT of movie nights and trading of DVDs early on. Between the two shows, we actually went and filmed the first one as a feature in the woods by the Delaware Water Gap over one weekend (it was actually the weekend the Rapture was supposed to happen, which we all enjoyed immensely). So, needless to say, the rehearsal process was relatively painless. The actors knew the genre, knew their characters, it was just a question of getting the bits all smoothed out and the lines into their heads.

I'm a big fan of Nosedive's Stephanie Cox-Williams, who was your "Gore Designer" for the show.  How did she become involved in the production?
Amy Overman (the Artistic Director of Dysfunctional) and I became quick friends with Stephanie through some mutual friends at The Brick Theater out in Brooklyn. She's amazing. As soon as we pitched the idea to her, she immediately said yes and it's been all blood soaked fun and games since. She really helped us up the ante with the sequel and we were extraordinarily lucky to have her.

Your pre-show and intermission video segments were great, and I remember seeing some of the "who will survive the zombie apocalypse" videos used as publicity in the previous Brew of the Dead.  Who put all that together?
That was me and Amy running around NYC with a camera. The PSA's are all still available on Dysfunctional Theatre Company's YouTube channel. We filmed them as a goof. As a way to get a lot of friends of ours involved in the show since they couldn't be onstage. But as we were doing them, we started to realize they were a really funny way to get the audience into the right state of mind so we decided to use them. Throw in some Iron Maiden and GWAR between them and you got yourself a pre-show! As for intermission, we needed to show the passage of time and give the actors a bit of a break since they're almost all onstage the entire time so I figured, let's just address that directly to the audience. It's a zombie show. We're not out to prove any great truths of the universe or show some existential flaw in existence. Let's just have some fun and hit each other with crowbars.

There were some great moments of shock and suspense (which I, of course, don't want to give away), that I think were really aided by the fact that UNDER St. Marks is such an intimate theatre.  On the flip side, the audience is probably never more than 20 feet from the actors, so sometimes they can see... well, how the magic works, so to speak.  What were the pros and cons of the space for you?
Well, once again, it IS a zombie show. We're hoping that seeing "the magic" won't affect anything because how often do you see crowbars shoved into eyeballs with blood splattering everywhere? UNDER St. Marks has been a great home for the two shows because it's kinda creepy on its own. After walking down the dark stairwell you see lines of seats and one entire wall of exposed, broken brick. Really helps set the mood. As for cons, there's always problems sharing a space with other groups. Whether it's having to clean up all our mess and be out in 10 minutes, or having 2 lights just not work at all because some young company didn't understand how to set it properly. You never know what you're walking into with a shared space but Horse Trade has been great at solving any problems that may arise. 

The zombie apocalypse starts tomorrow (well, let's say Saturday, after the final performance), and the cast and crew is trapped in the theatre, surrounded by hungry, East Village zombies.  Which one will survive?
Are you kidding? We are fully stocked with weaponry (although the guns are fake SPOILER) and have an entire fridge out back filled with beer. We hole up there and get access to the building above. We'll figure it out from there. And, come on, East Village hipster zombies? What, are they going to try and bite me "ironically"?

What is your own personal zombie survival plan?
Shaun had it right. Find a weapon. Find some friends. Find a bar. Hole up and watch the news until a better plan presents itself or you join the French Foreign Army of Darkness.

Who survives the zombie apocalypse: George Romero, Robert Kirkman or Max Brooks?
Kirkman takes the most realistic look at the whole thing so probably him. Max Brooks can just stay with his dad and hope Zero Mostel doesn't zombie up and take revenge for Mel ruining "The Producers" movie. As for Romero.... it pains me to say this.... it's over Johnny. While he started the whole genre he simply doesn't understand it anymore. He wouldn't last 10 seconds. And really, that might benefit the rest of us. I mean, did you SEE "Diary of the Dead"? OR "Survival of the Dead?" Scary. And not for the right reasons.


Brew of the Dead II: Oktoberflesh

November 3-19
Thursday through Saturday at 8pm

UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Ave and Ave A)

Tickets ($18/$15 students & seniors) are available online at http://www.horsetrade.info/ or by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Third Annual "Broadway Can!" Fundraiser Tonight

Sunday, November 13 · 8:00pm - 9:30pm


THE 3RD ANNUAL
BROADWAY CAN! 
A Concert for the Citymeals-on-Wheels & City Harvest

A night of Seth Bisen-Hersh's music performed by Broadway performers!

starring:

BECKLEY ANDREWS (Gypsy)
TOBY BLACKWELL (Rent)
SETH BISEN-HERSH
BRIAN CHILDERS (Danny and Sylvia)
RUSSELL FISCHER (Jersey Boys)
DAVID GARRY (Company)
KIMBERLY FAYE GREENBERG (One Night with Fanny Brice)
NINA HENNESSEY (Bye, Bye Birdie)
LARA JANINE (Rock of Ages)
STEPHANIE KLEMONS (Bring It On)
MICHAEL MCGURK (The Wedding Singer)
BRIANNE MOORE (The Visit)
ELLY NOBLE (Carrie)
RORI NOGEE (Pinkalicious)
CARYN OSOFSKY (The Fantasticks)
DAVID PERLMAN (Baby It's You)
MEGAN REINKING (Hair)
BRIAN CHARLES ROONEY (The Threepenny Opera)
SHELLEY THOMAS (Rent)
CORREY WEST (South Pacific)
ELISA WINTER (Sweeney Todd)
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 13TH, 8PM

$22 Cover/ 2 Drink Minimum (cash only - $2 off with the donation of a canned good)
Don't Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St.
Call for reservations after 4: 212-757-0788 or reserve online at donttellmamanyc.com

The 3rd Annual Broadway Can! A Concert for Citymeals-on-Wheels & City Harvest will be presented at Don't Tell Mama, one night only, Sunday, November 13th at 8pm. The evening will be comprised of songs by composer/ lyricist Seth Bisen-Hersh. Bisen-Hersh will be joined on stage by a phenomenal cast including Beckley Andrews (Gypsy), Toby Blackwell (Rent), Brian Childers (Danny and Sylvia), Russell Fischer (Jersey Boys), David Garry (Company), Kimberly Faye Greenberg (One Night With Fanny Brice), Nina Hennessey (Bye, Bye Birdie), Lara Janine (Rock of Ages), Stephanie Klemons (Bring It On), Michael McGurk (The Wedding Singer), Brianne Moore (The Visit), Elly Noble (Carrie), Rori Nogee (Pinkalicious), Caryn Osofsky (The Fantasticks), David Perlman (Baby It's You), Megan Reinking (Hair), Brian Charles Rooney (The Threepenny Opera), Shelley Thomas (Rent), Correy West (South Pacific) and Elisa Winter (Sweeney Todd). The concert will be produced by Dennis Fowler, directed by Laura Pestronk, stage managed by Rich Abrams.

The audience can expect to hear 21 songs from Bisen-Hersh's catalog featuring songs from Love Quirks, More to Love and four world premiere songs. Songs will include "Thanksgiving Day", "It's Not You, It's Me", "I'm Not Interested in You", "I Like Big Girls", "Can You Believe I Was Ever Sad We Broke Up?" and the popular youtube hit, "Hey!".

All the proceeds for the evening will go to Citymeals-on-Wheels, which "raises private funds to ensure no homebound elderly New Yorker will ever go a day without food or human company." The canned goods will be donated to City Harvest, which has "served New York City for more than 25 years" as a "food rescue organization, dedicated to feeding the city's hungry men, women, and children."

For more information or to donate to the charities, please visit:
http://www.sethbh.com/broadwaycan
http://www.citymeals.org/
http://www.cityharvest.org/

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"A Charity Case" - A Masterful Performance by Alison Fraser

Review by Rob Hartmann

A Charity Case, the new play by Australian playwright Wendy Beckett, delves into the deeply emotional topic of adoption with sensitivity, grace and humor. The central story, of a dressmaker struggling to her raise her adopted daughter in mid-'60s San Francisco, is brought to vivid, heartbreaking life by Alysia Reiner, Jill Shackner, and most especially Alison Fraser, who anchors the play with a masterful performance.

Faith Bander (Fraser) and her restless adoptive daughter Deirdre (Shackner) share a small apartment, which doubles as the workroom where Faith makes ends meet by sewing dresses for clients she secretly despises. Faith’s husband abandoned the family years before: now Faith takes refuge in vodka-neat cocktail hours and questionable boyfriends, while Deirdre has private moments of anguish, crying out to all the parental figures who have left her. Deirdre has been corresponding with her birth mother, who in her letters calls herself Harpie – after the mythological bird-woman figures who were thought to snatch people away to the underworld. Harpie (Reiner), clad in patchwork rags, spends most of the evening climbing through a cage-like structure which surrounds the set – unspooling her own story while observing the escalating tension between Faith and Deirdre.

A Charity Case is almost two different plays braided together. Author and director Beckett attempts to marry two very distinct styles: one, a mostly naturalistic portrayal of a loving yet contentious mother-daughter relationship – the other, a more heightened mode which draws on Greek drama by way of stream-of-consciousness poetry. The two competing styles do not always mesh well together, although by the play’s end, the more theatrical elements have served their purpose of adding an epic quality to the story, lifting it toward a mythic view of the triangle of adoptive mother, birth mother and child.

The play is woven through with bird imagery, beginning with Harpie’s naming of herself after the legendary raptor-spirits. Faith’s surname, Bander, calls to mind bird banders, who capture and track birds with bands placed around their legs. Birds echo throughout the production design: a print of three songbirds hangs in Faith’s apartment, while the hat that Harpie wears in the final moments of the play is subtly trimmed with feathers at the brim.

Beyond the references to birds (the baby-bearing stork, ravens, harpies and the immortal phoenix), the text invokes a variety of mythic female archetypes. The three characters are a variation on the mother-maiden-crone trinity, as well as the trinity of the martyred saints Faith, Hope and Charity: there is the aptly named Faith herself, Deirdre as the “charity case” of the play’s title – and the birth mother, who, when abandoning her Harpie guise, says, “I’m really just an ordinary woman, flawed; hopeful…” The daughter’s name “Deirdre” alludes to “Deirdre of the Sorrows” of Celtic mythology, who was ejected from her royal home and raised in the wilderness by a wise woman.

The metaphor of sewing also figures prominently (the harsh ripping of a seam brought an audible reaction from the audience in a climactic moment.) Harpie is wrapped in rough patchwork, while Faith, who dreams of being a designer, finds herself laboring as a seamstress in a dying profession: bespoke dressmaking is being abandoned in favor of mass-produced fashion.

I’ve been making their dresses for years, good enough before. No loyalty. Now all they want is cheap, cheap mass produced, made in Japan. All those ugly big stores. But I’ll find a way to punish them. Yes, they’ll see. Faith Bander they say, gossip, gossip, single mother, divorced. Oh lock up your husbands girls. Here comes Faith in one of her beautiful dresses. Jealous bitches! So, when I make their dresses, I’ll leave a few little faults here and there. Not so you would notice. An awkward shoulder, a clumsy fit at the waist so their stomach protrudes. And still, I’ll have them begging for my designs, oh yes. Damn chain stores. Who wants to see yourself coming down the street; everyone wearing the same dress.

Alison Fraser expertly calibrates Faith’s speeches, finding the vulnerability and humanity in even the angriest tirades. She deftly coaxes forth the play’s humor, most especially in a retort to an emotional outburst from her daughter (I won’t quote it verbatim so as not to spoil the joke.) She shows us Faith’s fragility, her mercurial moods, her sadness, her wit, and her strength – binding these all together in a layered portrayal of a woman trying to do her best and not always succeeding. (One wonders what she would do when given the chance to tackle Amanda Wingfield.)

As Deirdre, Jill Shackner finds the coltish energy of a 17 year old who is trying desperately to cling to her childhood. In one funny and moving sequence, she begs for a retelling of the story of when she was brought home from the hospital, trying to climb into her mother’s lap as she might have as a child. She stalks the apartment, occasionally mock-strangling herself to shock her mother – the banding of the bird grown too tight.

Alysia Reiner, who previously starred in Ms. Beckett’s play Modotti, has the most challenging task of the evening – being the sole bearer of the play’s more esoteric passages. At first it seems that the character might be Deirdre’s older self, while later it becomes apparent that she is Deirdre’s birth mother. The ambiguity is intriguing, but when so many other elements of the character are mysterious, it becomes a challenge to sort out in the moment. An uncertainty of tone made these sections occasionally hard to follow: the abstract writing is made more difficult to understand by the choice to deliver some of the text in a garbled rush. The emotion is conveyed, but some of the finer points are lost. It doesn’t help that the performer’s expressive face and body are mostly obscured by a heavy wig and bulky robe. In the final moments of the play, when the hair and rags are stripped away, Ms. Reiner conveys worlds merely in her hesitant posture as she walks toward a first meeting with her daughter.

The stylishly threadbare-around-the-edges set design by David L. Arsenault captures the essence of '60s San Francisco in a bohemian wooden-bead curtain. The set also evokes San Francisco’s Mission architecture, with its curlicued wrought iron gates: a bird cage trapping all the women. Effective use is made of an oversized wooden train seat, making Ms. Shackner seem tiny and childlike in the play’s opening tableau (in which lighting designer Travis McHale skillfully sets the mood of mystery.)

In a work where dressmaking is a central element, the clothes take particular focus. Theresa Squire crafts a stunning Tiffany-blue rolled collar sheath dress for Faith; she puts Deirdre in outfits ranging from period-perfect white Gidget dungarees to a heartbreakingly little-girlish party dress.

Ms. Beckett clearly has a strong connection with her subject matter. When it seems that every talk show has explored the topic of adoption from every angle for decades, it’s a challenge to strip away Lifetime-television-movie clich├ęs and reawaken an audience to the pain of all involved. While the ambitious attempt to meld theatrical styles may be confusing at times, the play does wield significant power in its 75-minute span. At the afternoon performance I saw, the audience lingered after the curtain call, taking a few moments to absorb what they had seen before being ready to leave the theater.

A CHARITY CASE plays at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, with matinees Saturday at 2 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $35, available through Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or telecharge.com, or at www.pascalproductions.net.