Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Perfect Arrangement" - Not so perfect for those involved

By Judd Hollander
Photo by James Leynse

Most everyone has a public persona they show to the outside world. One stripped off only in the comfort of one's own home and only to those to whom you are the closest. But when even the slightest slip of the mask can lead to the loss of everything you're worked for, how far would you go to make sure that shield stays securely on? Such is the scenario playwright Topher Payne offers with Perfect Arrangement. Presented by Primary Stages. the show is having its New York premiere at the Duke on 42nd Street.

1950, Washington, D.C. The Cold War is in full swing and the United States Government is rooting out anyone who may have Communist leanings. Among those involved in this process are State Department employees Bob Martindale (Robert Eli) and his associate Norma (Julia Coffey). Bob is married to homemaker Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), while Norma's spouse is schoolteacher Jim Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke). The two couples are long time best friends and next door neighbors. However both marriages are shames, or in actuality, covers. For it is Bob and Jim who are in love with one another; as are Norma and Millie. The group coming up with this arrangement four years earlier as way to live together in secret while maintaining a public facade that would allow them to continue their careers in a society that by and large condemns them. Their true relationships hidden from prying eyes via a specially built closet that allows them to move from one apartment to the other without anyone outside their circle being the wiser.

Things change when Bob's superior, Theodore Sunderson (Kevin O'Rourke). explains that their new mission is to remove anyone in government whose actions could make them a target of blackmail. In particular anyone doing something of an unusual or "deviant" nature (i.e. homosexuality). While Bob is okay with this new protocol, Norma is somewhat less so. This leading to the first of many cracks in the four's once impervious shield.

More trouble comes the quartet's way in the form of Barbara Grant (Kelly McAndrew), a translator at the State Department, who's now on the chopping block thanks to her "easy" reputation. Though it quickly becomes obvious Barbara is not someone to sit still when threatened. Barbara noting one can't be blackmailed if you don't care who knows your secrets. That attitude being something Bob and the others feel they cannot afford. The irony here is that Bob is the one who created the system by which the State Department roots out its undesirables. Thus throwing other people under the proverbial bus and becoming a rising star in his job, all the while ensuring his own secrets remain secure and not caring about those outside his immediate circle. The question of whose rights are more important in such a situation being the play's ultimate message.

Payne and set designer Neil Patel have done a good job in recreating 1950s mores. The set of Norma and Millie's apartment looking like something you would find in a television series from that era. Nice, neat and with everything in its place. In a way the setting acts as a metaphor for these character's lives. Perfect and calm on the outside; but underneath far more messy, far more fraught with issues and dramatically, far more interesting. The ladies dresses in particular are perfectly divine - good work by costume designer Jennifer Caprio.

Interestingly, it's the dramatic moments that come across far better than the comedic ones. Part of this has to do with the show's underlying message, the two couples being too constrained by their own fears to come across as even unintentionally funny. Other problems occur because of Michael Barakiva's sometimes unfocused direction, which does not allow the characters to get enough into the specific moments to make any of the comic situations as amusing as they could be. Such misfires occur when Millie recognizes Barbara as someone from her past and tries desperately to disguise herself so she won't be recognized. Other moments at levity, such as Bob trying to fake a cold, or just about anything involving Kitty Sunderson (Jennifer Van Dyck), the wife of Bob's boss, all feel somewhat flat. Kitty in particular coming off as more of a parody than anything remotely resembling flesh and blood, at least in the beginning. The play could easily be done as a farce - the groundwork for it is certainly there - if that was the way Payne wanted to go. But the way the work is structured now, the too-real seriousness of the issues presented works against any attempts at levity.

Another problem is the show's ultimate ending. One where both couples must decide whether or not to take the first tentative steps outside the closet - and not the one connecting the two apartments. This particular (and pivotal) sequence begins well enough, but winds up offering what comes off as three separate endings. The final one stacking things a bit too far in one particular direction. Especially considering the time in which this story takes place and the attitude and feelings of the characters up to that point.

The cast is quite good, with Eli the standout as Bob. The one person most desperately trying to keep his personal status quo unchanged, less the gigantic house of cards he has built come crashing down. Coffey works well as Norma, a woman who eventually finds she can't keep being part of a process she despises. Feely-Lehmann is good as Millie, a person who initially finds herself totally appalled by Kitty and all that she represents. Yet in the end finds herself bonding with her in a moment of crises. O'Rourke is fine as Sunderson, a career bureaucrat with a seemingly easygoing manner, yet someone who can also become quite the son of a bitch when necessary. McAndrew is a nice surprise as Barbara. Someone who, like many of the others, keeps her professional and private lives completely separate. But who in reality may be the most honest of all.

One very telling line, used almost as a throwaway here, can be heard when Jim notes that he'd never be able to get a teaching job if his homosexuality became public knowledge. Those words indicating a reality that lasted far past the red and lavender scares of the 1950s, and even long after the gay rights movement burst into full bloom more than a decade later. It's here the power of the play is truly felt as it shows the almost desperate lengths homosexuals would go in order to appear "normal" to the world at large. The alternative being ostracism, unemployment or far worse. 

Offering quite the thought provoking story, Perfect Arrangement doesn't quite reach its full potential, but still packs an emotional punch. One powerful enough to leaving a lasting impression. 

Featuring: Robert Eli (Bob Martindale), Mikaela Feely-Lehmann (Mille Martindale), Julia Coffey (Norma Baxter), Christopher J. Hanke (Jim Baxter), Kevin O'Rourke (Theodore Sunderson), Jennifer Van Dyck (Kitty Sunderson), Kelly McAndrew (Barbara Grant).

Prefect Arrangement

Written by Topher Payne

Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer Polimeni
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Wig & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Props Supervisor: Carrie Mossman
Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Directed by: Michael Barakiva

Presented by Primary Stages Company
The Duke at 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

Closed: November 6, 2015

"Old Times" - A tantalizing journey

By Judd Hollander

Memory can be highly selective. The way one recalls a given event with absolute certainty may not at all be the way it actually happened. Such is the case in Harold Pinter's 1971 work Old Times, which is currently enjoying a sterling Broadway revival as presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre.

Filmmaker Deeley (Clive Owen) and his wife Kate (Kelley Reilly), who live in a converted farmhouse somewhere near the English coast, are awaiting the arrival of Kate's old friend Anna (Eve Best), who is arriving from Sicily for a visit. Anna and Kate shared a London flat together when there were young women recently out of school. Though curiously, Kate has never before mentioned this woman from her past.

While Deeley seems eager quite to meet Anna, and thus perhaps get a peek into his wife's life in the time before he knew her, the more introverted Kate is far less enthusiastic. Perhaps preferring to let those heady days of youth and the escapades thereof - all occurring at a time when the future was completely open to her - remain safely buried and forgotten.

Not long after Anna arrives, a not-so-subtle disconnect begins to occur. Deeley and Anna taking up most of the conversations, be they reminiscing, questions, or swapping song lyrics; with Kate becoming a sort of third wheel. Kate at one point remarking how Anna keeps talking at her as if she's dead, even though she's right in front of them. This feeling of exclusion existing not only in terms of the conversations going on, but also in Kate's relationship with her husband. Deeley traveling all over the globe for his work, while Kate seems to prefer the solitude of her present environment. She often taking walks alone, with her only constant companion her thoughts. It's as if she's continually erecting a safe haven for herself. One with ever taller walls. 

It also becomes apparent that Anna and Deeley had a significant, albeit non-verbal encounter during those long-ago London days. Though each has their own interpretation of what may have happened during that meeting. Just as Kate and Anna each have their own interpretation of that time; especially how things finally ended between the two women. This then brings the story back to the idea of selective memories. Where people chose to remember the same instance(s) in different ways. Preferring to recall things they way they wanted them to happen, rather than how they truly did.

Playing hand and hand into premise this is director Douglas Hodge's excellent staging. His firm yet delicate pacing helping to keep the audience fixated on the unfolding story, as well as the slowly increasing sexual tension, as they wait for the explosion, surprise or other clues to solve the mystery of these three people, as well as Anna's ultimate purpose in showing up after all these years. Though those wanting straight answers or a complete linear progression have come to the wrong play; for there are no quick fixes or the neatly tying up of all that has been presented. Rather, Pinter leaves it to each person in the audience to digest and make sense of what they've seen. It's also interesting to note that throughout the play Kate and Anna are often positioned in such a way that they appear to be almost mirrored images of one another. This then begs the question which of them is image and which is real. Or perhaps the question should be which is more image and which is more real? 

Also present is an almost desperate need by Deeley and Kate to maintain their own personal status quos. Deeley continuously trying to keep control of the situation by one-upping Anna during their conversations, while Kate tries not to revisit the past by seemingly ignoring it. Or at least playing it down for as long as she can. Yet in the end, both are threatened with losing the security and stability they desperately covet. For by the end it is Deeley who finds himself being pushed aside, while it's Kate, who has been relatively quiet for most the show, who ultimately finds her voice and seizes control of the narrative.

Acting by the trio is excellent. Especially when one realizes that none of the characters are quite fully formed. Rather they're more bits and pieces of experiences and memories. Yet the material the actors do have to work with and the possibilities therein make the characters completely fascinating to watch. Owen, making his Broadway debut here, cuts an interesting figure as Deeley. Someone a little too self-assured, with a constant need to be in control and wanting to learn as much as he can from Anna. But who in the end, learns that a little knowledge can be very dangerous. Reilly, also making her Broadway debut, is good as Kate. A quiet soul with an almost mousy sort of attitude at points, who eventually shows herself to be the strongest person of all. Best, as Anna has perhaps the more difficult of the three roles. A sort of cipher inside this cipher of a play, as the woman whose presence stirs up things the other two had long forgotten, or at least conveniently suppressed. That is, if any of the memories in question are actually true to begin with.

Christine Jones' set, like the characters, is deliberately incomplete, but comfortable. In another interesting point, the front door almost resembles a huge block of ice. Perhaps indicating how each of the characters is frozen in time in their own way. Or, since if you look through a sheet of ice, everything looks like it's in a million pieces, it could be another reference to the fragmentation of memories distorted by time and distance. Special mention going to the haunting sound design of Clive Goodwin. Its ominous and enveloping mantra fitting perfectly into this story.

Running a brisk 70 minutes, you still feel as if you've been through an emotional marathon by the time the play is finished. Old Times is a gut-wrenching yet at times almost gentle look at the power of memories. All the while showing that if the truth doesn't always set one free, it can certainly mark those who are able to remember it accurately.

Featuring: Clive Owen (Deeley), Kelly Reilly (Kate), Eve Best, (Anna).

Old Times
by Harold Pinter

Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Constance Hoffman
Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman
Sound Design: Clive Goodwin
Music: Thom Yorke
Hair Design: Amanda Miller
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Production Stage Manager: Nevin Hedley
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Directed by Douglas Hodge

Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running Time: 70 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: November 29, 2015

"Antigone" - Where compromise is sadly not an option

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Branches which bend under the force of a raging storm are often able to survive, while those that hold fast and try to resist the oncoming onslaught are eventually snapped off and torn away. It is this premise of being unable to bend in the face of immense outside pressure that sets in motion the ultimate fate of the two main characters in Sophokles' drama Antigone. A production of which, using a new translation by Anne Carson and under the very capable directorial hands of Ivo van Hove, is about to finish a run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In ancient Thebes, Kreon (Patrick O'Kane), who has recently come to power after a bloody siege of the city, has decreed that the body of the traitor Polyneikes (Nathanial Jackson), who perished in the afore-mentioned struggle, be left above ground to rot. This edict being Kreon’s way of issuing a grisly warning to any who may not be loyal to him. It is also a warning that Polyneikes’ sister Antigone (Juliette Binoche), is resolved to ignore. This despite the desperate pleas from her sister Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) not to disobey Kreon’s commands. Not surprisingly, Kreon does not take the defying of his orders lightly, and it’s not long before Antigone is brought before him to face his wraith. All to the great relief of a Guard (Obi Abili), who was one of those charged with watching the body of Polyneikes in order to make sure Kreon’s orders were being followed. The scenes dealing with the Guard's predicament containing just about the only comedic moments in the entire production.

The events described above basically serve as the set up for the play's ultimate message as the outcome of Kreon’s inflexibility and Antigone’s determination - or is it Kreon’s determination and Antigone’s inflexibility - become evident. The two characters' positions being diametrically opposed, yet born of the same circumstances, and with each person possessing a similar and unyielding resolve. Things becoming even more complicated when one takes into account the familial connections involved. Antigone being Kreon’s niece as well as a daughter of Odipous; she also having lost two brothers in the battle for Thebes, while Kreon lost a son in the same conflict.

Despite Antigone being the title role, the show in actuality centers around the actions of Kreon. Something which becomes evident when he makes clear his position shortly after assuming power. At first offering a sort of conciliatory approach to those who may have opposed him in the past, as a way to attempt to bring together the different factions he now presides over. Yet despite the outwardly initial calm he projects, for him the entire matter has become far too personal. Kreon having not only lost a son during the siege, but also having to face the fact that some of his own family fought against him during the battle. Thus he is resolute in his decision regarding Polyneikes and anyone who dares try to bury him.

Director Ivo van Hove, who has reimagined more than one classic work over the years, (I particularly remember a version of Hedda Gabler he directed at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004), goes the subtle route here to get his point across. Or at least as subtle as you can get considering the circumstances involved. The piece presented as a sort of warning against being too unyielding, no matter the position you take. At the same time, the story, for all of its dramatic punch, has a sort of detached feeling to it. One finding oneself applauding the strong characterizations, yet at the same time observing the entire production with more a spectator’s eye rather than the feeling of being right in the middle of the action. The audience thus also becoming in a way, a part of the chorus who ultimately passes judgment on what is unfolding before their eyes.

It’s also interesting to note how the issues surrounding the events presented, although not the events themselves, could easily be translated into numerous aspects of modern life. Kreon’s assuming control of the city could easily be re-imagined as a corporate takeover, with his initial encounter with some of the city's citizens easily taking place in a corporate boardroom of just about any Fortune 500 company. An effect helped in no small part by the cast being clad in modern dress for this production. The show also makes good use of various projections and images to give the impression that there are other elements involved than those physically seen on stage, and that we’re all part of something bigger than what we actually may see and understand.

As Kreon, O'Kane turns in a very strong and commanding performance. Whether the character makes a proclamation, threat or simple comment, there's no doubt he means exactly what he says. The actor presenting a firm and controlled presence with Kreon's movements, one often pressing down on a torrent of emotions he holds inside. This attitude thus making the character itself, as well as his ultimate fate, all the more believable. Ironically, Kreon is also the one person who learns the most during the course of the play. Though this knowledge comes with a heavy price.

Binoche does very well as Antigone. A person whom, even when she is off-stage, is talked about throughout. The character does come off as a little off-putting at first. This mainly because her first scene, where she forcefully declares her intentions to her sister, sets up everything that is to follow and with Antigone basically pushing herself right into audience's collective face. Despite all this early posturing, it is Binoche's later scenes which carry far more emotional weight. Including where she faces off against Kreon, as well as another pivotal sequence - which contains no actual dialogue. 

Carlson's translation comes off as surprisingly clean and simple as these things go, the text quite neatly putting the underlying message front and center. Carson's words going hand in hand with van Hove’s directorial efforts, both of which achieve their desired results without any flourishes or eccentricities. Just a story nicely told. The result is one quite fulfilling, both intellectually and emotionally.

Also in the cast are Samuel Edward-Cook, Finbar Lynch and Kathryn Pogson.

Featuring: Juliette Binoche (Antigone), Obi Abili (Guard/Chorus), Kirsty Bushell (Ismene/Chorus), Samuel Edward-Cook (Haimon/Chorus), Finbar Lynch (Teiresias/Chorus), Patrick O'Kane (Kreon), Kathryn Pogson (Eurydike/Chorus), Nathanial Jackson (Body of Polyneikes/Boy).

By Sophokles
In a new translation by Anne Carson
Barbican and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg

Set Design and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Costume Design: An d'Huys
Video Design: Tal Yarden
Dramaturgy by Peter van Kraaij
Composition and Sound Design: Daniel Freitag

Directed by Ivo van Hove

BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street

Closed: October 4, 2014