Thursday, April 20, 2017

In & Of Itself - A question of who we are and what we see

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Before taking their seats in the Darryl Roth Theatre, audience members come face-to-face with a wall of cards. The different offerings listing various life choices. From "dreamer" and "cat person" to "working stiff" and "contortionist". Also making the cut are such career paths as "haberdasher", "fire eater" and "freeloader". Each ticket holder asked to chose the card that best describes how they see themselves. These choices coming into play during the next hour and a half as Derek Delgaudio demonstrates some very astute powers of observation, along with some intricate slight of hand in his one-person show, In & Of Itself.

More than a master magician, Delgaudio is also an expert storyteller. He recalling when he first fell in love with the idea the idea of magic and how, while honing his craft, he learned that when it comes to card play, there are many professionals who are masters of one method or another, but very few who are well-versed in a host of different tricks.

However the most important tenet of all that he picked up, and this under rather unusual circumstances, was when he learned that it's not what you can do, but how it comes across that matters. The idea being never to appear too showy or confident in your presentation. For doing so risks alienating those you're seeking to impress, or trying to fool. How one is perceived being a key component to a successful performance.

Delgaudio also relates a well-known fable about what happens when a group of blind men come upon an elephant and the different impressions they get when each man touches only one part of the animal. Perception again being the overall point of the story. Delgaudio also tosses in a bit of whimsy here when he wonders why no one ever thinks about how the elephant felt while being poked and prodded by so many people at once.

There's also an exploration of perception as it refers to inanimate objects. For example, one may pass a brick lying on the side of a road and pay no attention to it. However when that brick is thrown through your living room window, it takes on an entirely new meaning, both physically and emotionally.

Delgaudio make for both a genial and comforting host. The entire evening being a sort of journey of personal self discovery. He opening the show with a tale of a man who continually defied the odds via a game of a Russian roulette. The idea, one which Delgaudio translates to himself, is to continually push one's boundaries to see how far they can go.

This is another issue Delgaudio continually returns to as he tries to get the audience to understand both himself and his methods. Yet while Delgaudio goes to great lengths to explain who he is, including sharing a bit of his personal family history, the show's ultimate twist is that, by the time the performance is over, Delgaudio will have demonstrated just how well he knows those in the audience. This involving not only the cards people chose before the show began, but also a letter he gives to an unsuspecting audience member. One which turns out to be surprisingly personal for the one who reads it.

The letter sequence is one of several situations which involve audience participation. Those in attendance either helping Delgaudio with certain happenings on stage or contributing their own ideas to what is unfolding, or what may unfold in the future.

The show is ably directed by Frank Oz, who gives Delgaudio free rein to reach out to the audience on a seemingly one-to-one level. The work given an extra layer of subtlety thanks to the music of Mark Mothersbaugh.

Quite satisfying and intellectually stimulating, when all is said, shown and done, In & Of Itself proves to be a very enjoyable experience.

In & Of Itself
Written & Performed by Derek Delgaudio
Presented by Glenn Kaino, Neil Patrick Harris, Tom Werner, Gary Goddard Entertainment

Production Designer: A. Bandit
Lighting Designer: Adam Blumenthal
Sound Designer: Kevin Heart
Advertising & Marketing: The Pekoe Group
Press Representative: Vivacity Media Group
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Stage Manager: Christine Catti
Company Manager: Jon Hamel
General Management: DR Theatrical Management
Consulting Producer: Michael Webber, Sébastien Clergue
Co-Producer: Jake Friedman, Vanessa Lauren
Executive Producer: Prediction Productions
Original Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Directed by Frank Oz

Daryl Roth Theatre
101 East 15th Street
Tickets: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Information: http://www.inandofitselfshow.com
Running Time: 90 minutes no intermission
Closes: June 18, 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

"The New Yorkers" - Less than a full meal, but still quite delicious

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Illicit liquor flowing by the barrel, gangsters who won't stay dead after being shot, high society folks with low moral standards, tap dancing cops with machine guns, and where being thrown into Sing-Sing prison is an excuse to break into song. These are but some of the elements present in the long-forgotten 1930 musical The New Yorkers. Painstakingly resurrected by the people at Encores! this product of a bygone era proves to be both very delightful and also so very, very lacking in substance a decent wind will blow it away.

Subtitled a Sociological Musical Satire, the show gleefully takes aim at the New York upper crust, as well as the widespread corruption that often afflicts those in authority. Also coming in for a ribbing is the entire concept of prohibition. The show's creators making the point that a ban ignored by enough people, ceases to be a ban in all but name.

The overall plot involves Alice Wentworth (Scarlett Streallen), a Park Avenue dilettante who's engaged to fellow blue-blood Philip Booster (Todd Buonopane). even though she has fallen in love with someone else. The person who stole her heart being Al Spanish (Tam Mutu), a mobster who runs one of the hottest nightclubs in New York. A place where the elite come to play and illegal alcohol is freely available. Al, who's had a long-term relationship with singer and club headliner Mona Low (Mylinda Hull), happily returns Alice's affections. Although he has no intention of giving up his life of ill-repute. Nor would Alice want him to. It being so much more fun than her accustomed lifestyle, and more dangerous to her health. Especially since Al is trying to muscle in on the New York caviar market. Something gangster Feet McGeegan (Arnie Burton), who controls the flow of sturgeon into the city, is determined to prevent.

What makes the show so interesting is the seemingly haphazard way it's structured. The piece filled with comedic sketches - vehicles for actor/singer/comedian Jimmy Durante, who was in the original cast - as well as various musical numbers, all quite enjoyable and most of which stop the forward momentum of the show cold while they play out. Something which would never go over in the musicals of today. This is especially true with "Wood". An act one finale so offbeat, that actor Kevin Chamblerlin, who plays the Durante role, has to explain to the audience that this was how the first act actually ended in 1930.

The show has a fascinating pedigree, it being the brainchild of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno. According to the show program, Arno was someone loved taking down society's upper crust in his drawings, an effect which translates quite well here. While much of the material was long thought lost, most of it was pulled together though a painstaking restoration process, with new material added to cover the gaps, Such as a sly reference to "Big River", the previous production presented by Encores!

Acting as the glue that holds the entire piece together is the often machine gun-like dialogue from book writer Herbert Fields, much of which still packs a punch today. Such as "There comes a time in every man's life when a woman needs fifty dollars". The line spoken by Alice's mother, Gloria (Ruth Williamson) upon seeing her cheating husband (Byron Jennings) on the town with a woman of easy virtue. Of course Gloria is also stepping out on her husband, thus showing how the apple doesn't always fall far from the tree. Also quite funny is a sequence where Philip is told how Prohibition was enacted a decade earlier; to which he queries, with a drink in his hand when said regulations would actually take effect. This being a not-so-subtle swipe at how easy it was to obtain liquor at the time if one wanted it.

Fitting quite nicely into all of this is Cole Porter's delightful score. While the two standards that came out of the show were "Love For Sale" and "I Happen To Like New York", other enjoyable tunes include "The Great Indoors", which touts the virtue of staying at home on weekends. There's also the hilarious "Say It With Gin", as well as the very funny "Drinking Song". The last not a Porter contribution, but created for the show by Chas. Henderson and Fred Waring. Members of Waring's group, The Pennsylvanians, appearing in the original production.

Strallen is quite appealing as Alice. She opening the show by running into a doctor's office and setting up a comedy bit, which basically sets the tone for what is to follow. Mutu is appealing as Mr. Spanish. He and Strallen's easy chemistry working well in their rich girl/bad boy love story. Hull does very well as Mona and delivers a wonderful rendition of "The Great Indoors". She also has a nice comic duet with Buonopane in "I'm Getting Myself Ready For You" - one of the more risqué numbers of the show. Robyn Hurder is great fun as Lola McGee, a good time girl who goes through the entire Sing-Sing chain gang, among others. Chamberlin does very well as hoodlum/comic Jimmie Deegan. He having one of the more difficult jobs here. Delivering material that was clearly written for someone else, but succeeding nicely. Burton does a wonderful turn as McGeegan, especially in the number "Let's Not Talk About Love", added here from Porter's 1941 musical "Let's Face It". The cadence of the song calling to mind the style of "Tschaikowsky" from "Lady in the Dark".

Adding to the ambiance of the piece are the wonderful period costumes by Alejo Vietti and some very enjoyable dancing numbers choreographed by Chris Bailey. John Rando's direction works well, he able to bring all these different styles more or less together and still form an altogether satisfying experience.

While the Encores! production of The New Yorkers is certainly not perfect, there was still a lot of fund to be had. Besides, while the show was light and airy throughout, and without much substance, not once did it feel bloated.

The New Yorkers: A Sociological Musical Satire
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Herbert Fields
Based on a Story by E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno

Starring: Cyrille Aimée, Clyde Alves, Todd Buonopane, Arnie Burton, Kevin Chamberlin, Mylinda Hull, Robyn Hurder, Byron Jennings, Eddie Korbich, Tam Mutu, Jeffrey Schecter, Scarlett Strallen, Tyler Lansing Weaks, Ruth Williamson, Matt Bauman, Sam Bolen, Christine DiGiallonardo, Brian Flores, Tessa Grady, Matthew Griffin, Curtis Holland, Evan Kasprzak, Marina Lazzaretto, Kathryn McCreary, Timothy McDevitt, Kristyn Pope, Mariah Reshea Reives, Lindsay Roberts, Brendon Stimson, Joseph Wiggan, Cody Williams.

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer
Costume Design: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Orchestrations: Josh Clayton and Larry More
Dance and Vocal Arrangement: Rob Berman
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Casting: Binder Casting - Jay Binder, CSA/Justin Bohon
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Ron Berman
Directed by John Rando

Presented by New York City Center Encores!
131 West 55th Street
March 22 - March 26, 2017



Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Escaped Alone" - Presenting Horrors Large and Small

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Lewis Carroll once wrote that the time has come to talk of many things. In what might be described as an ominous allegory with elements of pitch-black comedy, Caryl Churchill does just that with her striking one-act piece, Escaped Alone. The work originating at the Royal Court Theatre in London and currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In an almost pastoral backyard setting, Sally (Deborah Findlay), Vi (June Watson), Lena (Kika Markham) and Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett), are enjoying the day, swapping bits of gossip and sharing the latest news. All in the neighborhood of sixty, Sally, Vi and Lena are long-time friends, while Mrs. Jarrett is a relative newcomer to the group. She being initially invited to join the others as the play begins, and it's through her eyes the audience learns about the other three. Explanatory asides and background information directed in such a way as to bring everyone up to speed on specific relationships and situations.

However, it's not long before this outwardly genial location vanishes, via some bands of red lights and crackling sounds, leaving a darkened stage where Mrs. Jarrett relates how, due to a series of global upheavals, normal everyday life has ceased to exist. Scenarios where the question is not how long those still living can survive; but rather how long before the horror of it all drives those survivors completely insane.

It’s via the continual switching between these two settings that the full power of Escaped Alone can be felt. The women, having no inkling of what is to come, are all dealing with their own personal issues. Matters which pale in comparison to the other situations presented. Yet at the same time, the apocalyptic horrors described are all in the abstract - though one could argue that given the current political state of the world, they may be closer to reality than ever - while the issues affecting the ladies are completely relatable, understandable, and to them, life-defining. 

Lena may be suffering from agoraphobic, while Sally has an overwhelming fear of cats. Vi is struggling with the aftereffects from having killed someone, albeit in self-defense; a situation made even more tenuous when Sally reveals she may not told the entire truth of what happened when the matter came to trial. She being more eager to help her friend than present a full picture of what happened. As for Mrs. Jarrett, she is prone to fits of rage. In an ironic twist, the ladies' half-hearted attempts to help one another - such as Sally continually telling Lena she needs to get out more, or the group tiptoeing about the word "cats" - only serve to make the quartet's already uneasy relationship with their fears that much more tenuous.

Also visible throughout is an overall feeling of biting commentary. Such as in the first scene, which shows Mrs. Jarrett passing a large fence which encloses the backyard. She pausing in front of a doorway until invited inside. The way the sequence is presented making one think of a border wall, and the myriad of issues that go with it. Even though Churchill wrote this play before Donald Trump took office, the cord the scene strikes shows how certain matters not always in the front of public consciousness can quickly move front and center when circumstances change.

The cast, all of whom came over from London, are excellent. Each able to make their characters quite real and fully believable. Indeed, the four could be any group of women, sitting in any sort of comfortable surrounding and the play would work just as well. The bond between Sally, Lena and Vi, and to a lesser degree Mrs. Jarrett, clearly visible. Even when one of them tries to verbally guide another in a way the person to whom the comments are directed does not wish to go.

James Macdonald's direction is sure-handed, keeping the performances restrained for the most part - though all four women have their break-out moments - while allowing the strength of Churchill's text to come roaring through. Eschewing the “show, don’t tell” premise, dialogue and description are the keystones for triggering the audience’s imagination to fill in the nuts and bolts of the more terrifying moments.

Clocking in at just under an hour, the work wisely doesn't overstay its welcome. The switching of scenarios getting more frequent as time goes on, with some of them so bleak it’s almost a relief when the story returns to the backyard. After all. who wouldn’t prefer a rousing rendition of "Da Do Ron Ron” to talk of babies being born without eyes?

A totally absorbing piece about how ordinary people are forced to deal with the situations life throws at them, Escaped Alone, the title having its roots in the Book of Job and Moby Dick, is a very powerful and thought-provoking work.

Featuring: Linda Bassett (Mrs. Jarrett), Deborah Findlay (Sally), Kika Markham (Lena), June Watson (Vi)

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
Scenic Design: Miriam Buether
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: Christopher Shutt
Directed by James Macdonald

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.BAM.org
Running Time: 55 minutes, no intermission
Closes: February 26, 2017


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" - Devastatingly Brilliant


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

There's a moment in Martin McDonagh's pitch-black comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane where the entire audience gasps over a certain character's actions. It's a sound not of horror or pain, but rather of anger and disgust over what they see is about to happen; as well as their inability to do anything about it. Such is the power of this completely shattering work, which offers a look at the dark side of family relationships. The work performed to absolute perfection by The Druid Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In County Galway, Ireland, the aging Mag Folan (Marie Mullen) lives with her daughter Maureen (Aisling O'Sullivan) in the small town of Leenane. The two have a tense and caustic relationship, that has grown more combative over time. With her two sisters married and gone, Maureen has long since become Mag's de facto caregiver. Mag's daily wants in terms of tea, food, listening to the radio or watching the television - all accompanied by various digs at her daughter - have begun to take their toll on the younger woman. In addition to her family responsibility, there's another reason why Maureen stays with her mother. One which Mag lords over her every chance she gets.

Maureen's perennially depressed outlook is exacerbated by the fact she recently turned 40, and sees nothing in her life ever changing. Her only victories over her mom coming when she deliberately buys her the wrong type of cookies or biscuits. Mag, who harbors a deep fear of being sent to a home for the aged, does all she can to prevent any type of change to their status quo.

However things do change when Maureen learns that Pato Dooley (Marty Rea), an old friend who moved to London, is coming back from a visit. Their subsequent meeting turning into something more, and which presents the possibility of a lasting happiness for Maureen. Something Mag is determined to stop at all costs.

It should be noted that Mag sees her need to keep her daughter by her side as perfectly legitimate. Mag's status and identity are all tied up in her home, possessions and daily routine. The thought of being reduced to just another old person alone somewhere absolutely terrifies her. It's that fear which has turned her into someone with a pathological need to control those closest to her, which in turn has the effect of alienating those who, in other circumstances, would be her closest allies.

At the same time, one can't help but feel sympathy for Maureen, a woman who is certainly deserving of a life of her own. Pato finding himself caught between these forces in an initially hilarious sequence where both mother and daughter try to get the upper hand. Pato soon desperately wishing he could anywhere else.

Having seen the Druid production of the play when it was first performed in New York twenty years ago, it was the bleakness of the show I remembered most of all. What I had forgotten however, until I saw it again, was just how funny The Beauty Queen of Leenane can be. McDonagh not hitting anyone over the head with a message, but rather slowly drawing the audience into the drama by initially treating the mother-daughter relationship in a comical way, and thus quite relatable to anyone who has ever had to care for another. At least part of the comedy is delivered by Aaron Monaghan as Pato's younger brother Ray, who comes by to deliver letters or impart vital bits of news to Mag and Maureen. He, like his brother, bringing a sort of outsider quality to the two women's environment. Once which both ladies welcome, albeit for completely different reasons.

Not simply content with the initial narrative, McDonagh turns the story on its head several times by showing that the accusations Mag and Maureen level against each other are perhaps not that far off the mark. There's also the question of just how much described is actually true. The characters at times creating their own perception of reality to fit the situations in which they find themselves.

Garry Hynes, who directed the original production of Leenane, guides the play with strength and subtlety. She allowing the characters to take center stage and thus makes the play about these specific individuals who you care for, root for, or root against. At the same time, she never permits the comedic moments to overwhelm the underlying seriousness of the situation. The final effect being quite powerful and affecting. Hynes won a Tony Award for her directorial efforts with the show originally and quite deservedly so.

Mullen, who played Maureen in the original production, winning a Tony for the role, is excellent here as the physically weak, but mentally devious Mag. Someone who is determined not to lose what she has; at least not without a fight. The actress also offers up some hysterical moments via her slowly changing expression when she realizes Pato and her daughter have spent the night together.

O'Sullivan strikes a powerful yet poignant note as Maureen, a woman wanting to finally have a life of her own and who is terrified of becoming just like her mother. Rea is good as the earnest if perhaps too trusting Pato. His scenes with Mullen offer some hilarious moments, particularly when he unwittingly serves up some poetic justice for Mag via a bowl of porridge. Monaghan is fine as Ray; the only character who doesn't change during the course of the play, but rather is content to go on his merry way, never conscious of the effect his actions have on others.

Francis O' Connor's set of the Folan home is appropriately drab and depressing. Nothing warm or happy here, rather just a gray and empty space. Greg Clarke's sound design and lighting by James F. Ingalls ably adds to this effect.

Perfectly executed on so many levels, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a masterpiece in showing how bad family life can be when one side doesn't take the time to truly consider the wishes and needs of the other.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
by Martin McDonagh

Featuring: Aaron Monaghan (Ray Dooley), Marie Mullen (Mag Folan), Marty Rea (Pato Dooley), Aisling O'Sullivan (Maureen Folan).

Set Design by Francis O'Connor
Lighting Design by James F. Ingalls
Sound Design by Greg Clarke
Composer: Paddy Cunning

Presented by the Druid Theater Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, one intermission
Closes: February 5, 2017