Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mary Page Marlowe - Getting To Know You - Just Not Completely

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Each of us during the course of our lives will meet, work and interact with numerous people on an almost daily basis. Yet in the end, we'll never really know many of them at all. Such is the premise for Tracy Lett’s fascinating drama, Mary Page Marlowe. The show being performed by Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theater

Played by six different actresses and seen at various ages between 12 and 69, Mary Page Marlowe is someone who has gone through/will go through a tremendous of turmoil in her life. Coming from a broken home and raised by her mother Roberta (Grace Gummer), who's unhappy with how her own life turned out, Mary Page has built up a series of internal defense mechanisms to prevent anyone from getting too close. Those stuck on the outside of these mental structures include her children, Wendy and Louis (Kayli Carter, Ryan Foust), and at least two of her three husbands.

Something else Mary Page has erected over the years are practices of denial and enabling. The former in regards to a drinking problem; and the latter when it comes to pleasing her latest bed partner in a string of what she considers to be meaningless affairs. Or acquiescing to her first husband's wishes during their divorce.

The underlying irony in Mary Page's actions is that the more she tries to insulate herself from being hurt, the unhappier both she, and those around her become. Her continual attempts to avoid the fate of her mother leading Mary Page to become a very close copy of what she has been running from almost all her life.

While various information regarding Mary Page is revealed over the course of the play - including facing jail time for driving while intoxicated; a growing estrangement from her children; and a continual need to rebel against what others expect of her - exactly who Mary Page Marlowe is never gets completely revealed. Then again, for the longest time, Mary Page herself is unable to articulate what causes her to act the way she does. A confession and partial realization in this regard brought forth via an illuminating conversation she has with her Shrink (Marcia DeBonis). Tatiana Maslany playing Mary Page at this point.

It’s a testament to Lett's writing that as each segment of the play unfolds, all in a non-linear progression, the audience is continually drawn into a story having no idea of the outcome until the very end. The entire experience akin to trying to fit together an elaborate puzzle. Kudos also to director Lila Neugebauer, who brilliantly succeeds in presenting the work in a way that keeps each succeeding scene relevant to what has come before, and integral to what will occur after.

Every one of the actresses playing Mary Page are at the top of their game. Each woman presenting a piece of someone who is totally relatable to the audience, even if we don't understand that character completely. Be it as a teenager (Emma Geer) determined not to just settle down and get married; a 40 year-old (Susan Pourfar) trying to make the best of a bad situation when telling her children that her marriage to their father is over; or a woman in her sixties (Blair Brown) showing the ease and comfortableness she shares with husband number three (Brian Kerwin). Mary Page referring to Kerwin's character as the "best of her husbands".

It also helps that the show is peppered with many interesting characters - a number of whom appear for only a single scene. Among them, Mary Page's husband number two (David Aaron Baker) and number three; as well as Ed Marlowe (Nick Dillenburg), Mary Page's father.

Dillenburg in particular offers just the right amount of pain coupled with an ominous sense of menace as Ed wrestles with his own demons. All of which makes you want to know more about this character. Kerwin shows an easygoing chemistry with Blair, making their characters' marital status completely believable.

Elsewhere, Gummer is able to reveal enough of Roberta in her scenes to explain why Mary Page's mother turned out the way she did. Also doing a good turn as Mary Page is Mia Sinclair Jenness, the actress playing the character at 12 years old. A child who just wants a word of encouragement from her mom, but ends up getting only backhanded compliments.

The connection the audience soon feels with Mary Page also leads to the show's one major misstep. Though Letts has certainly written an interesting story, he's so intent on keeping Mary Page at arm's length from the audience, that he does not finish what he started. Specifically, although we see the root causes of why Mary Page has become the way she is, we never see the moment when she apparently decided to change the direction of her life or how she wound up on the other side.

This missing information becomes particularly glaring when taking into account a key moment where Mary Page (Kellie Overbey), explodes at husband number two for daring to accuse her of not being able to feel anything. With the story taking Mary Frances from points a-z (albeit not chronologically), but missing steps p-t, one can't help but feeling somewhat cheated. Also omitted from the story is a more complete understanding of the relationship between Mary Page and Wendy.

Fortunately, what is present in the play is more than enough to hold one's interest. The story unfolding in carefully orchestrated bits and pieces, forcing the audience to piece the together the proper timeline while trying their best to fill in the blanks until more information is provided – when it is.

The sets by Laura Jellinek, ranging from the various homes of Mary Page, to a psychiatric office and a hospital room, are quite good, as are the costumes by Kaye Voyce.

Mary Page Marlow reveals one person's story as shown through the different snapshots of her life. While the end result is not as complete or as satisfying as it could be, the journey to which one is treated is still nicely intriguing.

Featuring: David Aaron Baker (Ray), Blair Brown (Mary Page Marlowe, ages 59, 63 & 69), Kayli Carter (Wendy Gilbert), Audrey Corsa (Connie), Marcia DeBonis (Shrink), Nick Dillenburg (Ed Marlowe), Ryan Foust (Louis Gilbert), Tess Frazer (Lorna), Emma Geer (Mary Page Marlowe, age 19), Grace Gummer (Roberta Marlowe), Mia Sinclair Jenness (Mary Page Marlowe, age 12), Brian Kerwin (Andy), Tatiana Maslany (Mary Page Marlowe, ages 27 and 36), Kellie Overbey (Mary Page Marlowe, age 50), Susan Pourfar (Mary Page Marlowe, ages 40 and 44), Maria Elena Ramiez (Nurse), Elliot Villar (Ben), Gary Wilmes (Dan).

Mary Page Marlowe
by Tracy Letts

Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott
Original Music: Bray Poor
Production Stage Manager: Kyle Gates
Stage Manager: Travis Coxson
Voice & Dialect Coach: Gigi Buffington
Press: Polk & Co.
Casting: Tesley & Company
              Adam Caldwell, CSA
              William Canter, CSA
              Karin Cal, CSA

Advertising: RPM
Production Manager: Bethany Weinstein Stewert
General Manager: Sarah Danielsen
Director of Marketing & Communications: Laura Dilorenzo
Director of Finance: Samuel J. Bellinger
Director of Development: Rob Mooney

Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street
Tickets: 212-246-4422 or https://2st.com
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Closes: August 12, 2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Peace For Mary Frances - A Tale of Dysfunction That Misses the Mark

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Choosing to die with dignity when your body is falling apart is a hotly debated topic. But what happens when one's entire family agrees with that decision, only to see the person in question live on for longer than expected? Such is the basic premise in Lily Thorne's playwriting debut, Peace for Mary Frances, now being presented by The New Group. An interesting idea to be sure. Unfortunately Thorne loads up the story with so many characters and sub-plots, the show sinks under its own weight long before the final curtain.

Mary Frances (Lois Smith), having reached the age of 90, has gotten to the point where she feels she can no longer enjoy life. She needing she assistance to go to the bathroom, get into bed and simply get off the couch. She is also taking numerous medications that need to be administered on a strict schedule. However, Fanny (Johanna Day), the youngest of Mary Frances' three children, and her companion during the daylight hours, is not all there mentally, and thus unable to ensure proper steps are followed in this regard. Fanny is also a recovering drug addict and not allowed to spend the night at the family home due to an earlier incident with a lit cigarette. As a result, Mary Frances' other daughter Alice (J. Smith-Cameron), must become her primary caregiver, even as she makes plans to die in her own bed.

Alice and Fanny, as quickly made clear, have a long-standing adversarial relationship; neither trusting the other. At least part of the problem stemming from the period when Fanny was a regular drug user. Yet Alice is no angel either. She having in the past gone through a long period of not speaking to her mother. The animosity between mother and daughter so strong that, for a time, Alice was cut out of Mary Frances' will.

Alice also has two daughters of her own. Helen (Heather Burns), an actress; and Rosie (Natalie Gold), who is happily married with children. Helen noting that Rosie's kids will be the first members of this family to be raised by parents who really love each other. A not-so-veiled reference to various familial situations that have occurred over the years.

L-R: Natalie Gold, Lois Smith, Heather Burns in Lily Thorne's "Peace for Mary Frances," directed by Lila Neugebauer. This world premiere Off-Broadway production from The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center. www.thenewgroup.org. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Thorne brings up a lot of interesting issues in her work, which also marks her professional debut as a playwright. Included among them are the right to die, the different levels of sibling rivalry, and children trying to live their own lives while continually vying for a mother's love.

All these issues would be ratings fodder for any number of self-help shows. However for something like this to work on stage, the author needs to know where they're going with the story, and what they're specifically trying to say. Something which is sadly not the case here. The various characters are only half-developed, while the audience experiences numerous plot lines which are often left hanging. Such as Helen suddenly attacking Fanny during a verbal altercation - the matter just as suddenly dropped. We also never really get an idea of who Alice is or what caused her prior estrangement from her mother. As for Fanny, she disappears for much of the last third of the show, appearing only twice thereafter. The first scene of which makes no sense, given what we know of the character up to that point.

There are also questions about Mary Frances herself. Not only may she be healthier than she lets on, but she also shows herself to be a rather manipulative woman. She continually playing each of her daughters off the other. The biggest irony of the show is its title. Mary Frances supposedly just wanting to die in peace, but she is often the one continually stirring up drama and keeping everybody on edge.

It also doesn't help that the show has numerous characters one doesn't really care about. Such as Eddie (Paul Lazar), brother to Fanny and Alice, and the family lawyer, who comes by to visit once a week and go over his mother's affairs. Though why he's so detached from everything, except at the very end, is another question that's never answered. Also, the idea of the family calling an assisted care facility right out of the phone book, without doing any research on them, also doesn't ring true.

Both the acting and directing are more than adequate here. Smith, Day and Smith-Cameron all doing excellent jobs in their not-always-sympathetic roles. Most of the supporting cast also doing the best they can with what they have to work with. Brian Miskell, playing a hospice psychologist, injects a brief bit of levity into the story when he assures Alice and her daughters that this isn't the worst family situation he's ever had to deal with. A remark which provoked more than a little knowing laughter from the audience. Lila Neugebauer's direction moves the story along nicely as she works to bring some extra life to the various moments of tension and confrontation.

A hospice nurse (Mia Katigbak) tells Mary Frances at one point how some people refuse to die when they still have unfinished business. Applying that axiom the play itself, Peace For Mary Frances could do with some serious reworking before appearing in its next stage incarnation.

Featuring Heather Burns (Helen), Johanna Day (Fanny), Natalie Gold (Rosie), Mia Katigbak (Bonnie), Paul Lazar (Eddie), Brian Miskell (Michael), Melle Powers (Clara), Lois Smith (Mary Frances), J. Smith-Cameron (Alice).

L-R: Johanna Day, J. Smith-Cameron, Heather Burns in Lily Thorne’s “Peace for Mary Frances,” directed by Lila Neugebauer. This world premiere Off-Broadway production from The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center. www.thenewgroup.org. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.
Peace for Mary Frances

Written by Lily Thorne

Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Costume Design: Tyler Micoleau
Music & Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Matthew Frew: Properties Manager
Nicole Iovino: Assistant Stage Manager
Emily Moler: Assistant Director
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associated Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Directed by Lila Neugebauer

Presented by The New Group
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.thenewgroup.org
Running Time: 2 Hours 40 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: June 17, 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Me and My Girl - A Musical From Yesterday Comes Roaring To Life

 Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In this world of message musicals and important themes, it’s nice to know that every so often a vehicle comes along whose only purpose is to offer a good time. The 1937 tuner Me and My Girl, which was recently resurrected for an engagement as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center, is such a work.

With a storyline paper thin; musical numbers that have often have nothing to do with advancing the plot; dusty jokes which were old when the musical was first new; and songs inserted where a few lines of dialogue will do; this production was, from the first moment to the last, nothing less than sheer perfection. 

In 1930s England, the place to be during the summer, for anybody who is anybody, is Hareford Hall. A massive manor house with grounds that include tennis courts, a golf course, and a cricket field. Though with the recent death of the Earl of Hareford, the race is on to find a male heir. One who can continue the same sensible and conservative traditions that have been part of the Hareford family for generations.

It's not long before the heir is indeed found. However, the gentlemen in question, one Bill Snibson (Christian Borle), the product of a brief marriage between the late Earl and a woman from a somewhat lower class, turns out to be a good-natured cockney fellow from the Lambeth district of London. A man perfectly at home in the pubs and dance halls, but completely out of his depth when it comes to high society.

While the Hareford elites are somewhat perturbed, to say the least, Maria (Harriet Harris), the Duchess of Dene and the late Earl’s sister, is determined the family legacy will continue; and sets out to mold Bill into a "proper" English gentlemen. Although Bill quickly comes to enjoy his new surroundings, there is one major stumbling block to the Duchess' plans. That being Bill's undying love for his "girl" Sally Smith (Laura Michelle Kelly), from whom he refuses to be parted. As the Duchess envisions Bill eventually marrying someone suitable to his new station in life, she wants Sally gone as soon as possible. So too does Lady Jaqueline Carstone (Lisa O'Hare), the closest thing this show has to a villain, who sees a life of financial security were she to marry Bill. This to the consternation of Gerald Bolingbroke (Mark Evans), who loves Jaqueline and would marry her in an instant, were he not drowning in debt.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, and not wanting to hurt Bill's chances for a new life, Sally tries to point out to Bill how unsuited the two now are for each other, and makes plans to return to Lambeth alone.

Christian Borle and Laura Michelle Kelly in Me and My Girl at Encores! at New York City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus 

With book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, the show first became a smash in London in 1937; repeating its success on Broadway two years later. In 1984, the shows book was heavily revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent, to become a hit all over again on both sides of the Atlantic. Watching the musical play out on the City Center stage, it’s easy to see why. The story is sweet and light, and the tunes by Noel Gay are completely infectious. Most being nothing more than a chance for the cast to break into song and dance. As is the case with the absolutely delightful “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”, which opens act two; and the famous “Lambeth Walk”, which started a dance craze when first introduced in England

That’s not to say the musical doesn’t have some poignant moments as well. Among them, the wistfully mournful “Leaning on a Lamp-Post”, sung by Bill when he thinks he’s lost Sally, and Sally’s solo number in a similar vein, "Once You Lose Your Heart". Also present in the score are comedic numbers for just about every one of the main and supporting cast. Where else for example, can you find a song all about the family solicitor? Don Stephenson doing a great job in that particular role.

Yes, there are issues of class consciousness present, but it’s all played almost totally for laughs, with the audience rooting for Bill and Sally from start to finish. There’s even an implied reference to one Henry Higgins tossed in. Along with a scene that shows Borle to be channeling Gene Kelly more than a bit.

The entire cast is excellent. Borle is prefect in the role of Bill. He movements so limber, they remind one of a young Dick Van Dyke. In a refreshing twist for shows of this type, Bill never becomes so seduced by his new life as to try to forget Sally in the arms of someone else. His comic number with O’Hare (“You Would if You Could”), a nice testament to that effect.

Kelly makes a great Sally. A salt-of-the-earth type, yet lacking Bill’s “come hell or high water” attitude, she’s never able to feel as if she belongs among the Harefords or their ilk. Chuck Cooper is great fun as Sir John Tremayne, the co-executor of the Hareford estate, who quickly becomes Bill’s ally. Cooper also perfectly delivering one of the funniest lines in the show (having to do with tea and a steamroller). Harris is great as the no-nonsense Duchess, who refuses to let the Hareford tradition die. Nor do the Hareford ancestors, as Bill learns after a few drinks.

The musical direction under the baton of Rob Berman is excellent. The show so involving, one forgets at times the orchestra is on stage throughout. Also essential to the musical running on all cylinders is the exquisite direction and choreographic work of Warren Carlyle. The various numbers coming off so well, it looks like the cast rehearsed for months beforehand. Best of all, this incarnation of the show never once feels dated or out-of-touch. Everything registering as immediate and alive. Also deserving of mention are the costumes by Emilio Sosa, which are all very well done. 

Message musicals certainly have an important place in the theatrical pantheon. But at the same time, it’s a real joy to see a show where the only objective is a simple, unadulterated fun. Welcome back, Me and My Girl, you have been sorely missed. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Lisa O'Hare (Lady Jaqueline Carstone), Mark Evans (The Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke), Simon Jones (Lord Battersby), Suzanne Douglas (Lady Battersby), Don Stephenson (Douglas Herbert Parchester), John Horton (Sir Jasper Tring), Harriet Harris (Maria, Duchess of Dene), Chuck Cooper (Sir John Tremayne), Bill Buell (Charles Hethersett, The Butler), Christian Borle (Bill Snibson), Lara Michelle Kelly (Sally Smith), Kevin Worley (Pub Pianist/Ensemble), Sam Bolen (Footman/Ensemble), David Scott Purdy (Barman/Ensemble), Jessica Wockenfuss (Mrs. Worthington-Worthington/ensemble), Christine DiGallonardo (Lady Diss/Ensemble), Lizzie Klemperer (Lady Brighton/Ensemble), Price Waldman (Bob Barking/Ensemble), Florrie Bagel (Mrs. Brown/Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Constable/Ensemble), Maddy Apple, Alex Aquilino, Phillip Attmore, Abby Church, Jake Corcoran, Ta'nika Gibson, Jordan Grubb, Brittany Rose Hammond, Eloise Kropp, Mariah Reshea Reives, Chaz Wolcott (Ensemble)

Me and My Girl
Book and Lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book Revised by Stephen Fry, with Contributions by Mike Ockrent
Music by Noel Gay

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert Adaptation: John Weidman
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Chris Walker
Production Stage Manager: Nancy Pittelman
Casting by: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
121 West 55th Street
Running Time: Two Hours, Twenty Minutes, with one intermission
Closed: May 13, 2018

Long Day's Journey Into Night - One family's fall from grace

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Like an immense series of interlocking puzzle pieces, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night inexorably charts the downfall of a family which has literally collapsed in upon itself through decades of inner rot. The current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and originally seen at the Bristol Old Vic, offering quite the spellbinding journey.

The story takes place over the course of a single day at the Connecticut home of the Tyrone family during the summer of 1912. Stage actor James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) and his wife Mary (Lesley Manville) following their annual pattern of hunkering down for a brief respite after yet another season on the road. A life, as Mary often notes, of endless “cheap hotels”. Mary also forced to deal with continual bouts of terrible loneliness during the periods James is busy performing or out with his fellow thespians.

Joining James and Mary in Connecticut this year are their two adult sons. James Tyrone Jr. (Rory Keenan), a.k.a. "Jamie", an actor in his own right, as well as a drunk and a woman chaser; and Edmund (Matthew Beard). The baby of the family, and Mary's favorite, Edmund has recently returned home after working his way across the globe by ship, and recently embarked on a writing career. Edmund, whose health has never been the best, may also be suffering from consumption, a condition that killed Mary's father years earlier.

Mary is also heavily addicted to morphine. A condition she developed due to complications in the aftermath of a very difficult pregnancy. James not helping the situation by refusing to take his wife to a more competent (and thus more expensive) physician; rather than the one he ultimately selected. As quickly becomes apparent, James is a notorious tightwad due to a continual fear of poverty, one stemming from childhood. This is also why James is continually conned into buying worthless parcels of land. He feeling that land, which will always be there, is a much safer investment than stocks and bonds, or putting his money into banks, all of which can fail.

Despite the family's hope they might be able to enjoy their time together this summer, every one of the four is on edge. Mary has just returned from her latest stay at the sanitarium, with the men constantly observing and dissecting her every movement, looking for signs she has returned to the needle. This constant scrutiny causing Mary to feel something akin to a fly under a microscope and only serving to add to the emotional pressure she feels as she struggles to stay clean.

Jeremy Irons and Leslie Manville in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Directed by Richard Eyre. Photo Credit: Richard Termine

A major irony in the story is how James believes all that’s needed to break any cycle of addition, is one's own will power. Yet James himself is unable to walk away from his refusal to spend one penny more than necessary, for anything. Be it not getting the best help possible for Mary, or later Edmund, or not wanting more than one light bulb to burn downstairs in their home at night. His irrationality over money coloring everything he has done in life.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night could be called O’Neill’s very personal requiem. A semi-autobiographical story, the play was completed in 1941, yet not published until 1953, three years after his death. What makes the story so compelling is that O’Neill takes the time to thoroughly examine the roots of each of the four main characters, while also showing the circumstances which have brought them to where they are today. Not to mention also bringing forth the self-destructive streak in each. From James' harrowing experiences as a child, to why Mary both loves and hates each of her children, (albeit for different reasons), the text never stops at the surface of any issue discussed. Particularly resonating in this regard is Jamie’s drunken warning to Edmund about how he will do his best to destroy his younger brother, in spite of how much he loves him.

Irons is perfect as James. The character continually projecting an attitude of superiority, coupled with a frequent sneer of disgust. Also part of his makeup is an air of terrible resignation regarding events of which he is helpless to do anything about. At times, James does half-heartedly acknowledge his own shortcomings, but, like everyone else in this family, is either unable or unwilling to save himself from what he has become.

Manville gives an absolutely dynamic performance as Mary. A woman walking the finest of lines, she desperately wants to be cured from the poison that rules her soul, but her life has become so full of painful memories, that existing in a drug-induced haze continually looks more and more attractive to her. While Manville shows Mary to be quite the pitiful figure, she also brings forth the character's deeper feelings of bitterness in regards to all she has suffered over the years. Each member of her family, at least in Mary's eyes, partially to blame for the way she is now.

Keenan is good as Jamie, a young reprobate already well on the road to ruin. Though underneath his anger is a desperate need for someone to show him that life doesn’t have to be this way. It's also interesting to note that while Jamie hates his father with a passion - the feeling often mutual - in actuality, he is more like his namesake than he's willing to admit.

Beard is fine as Edmund. A stand-in for O’Neill, and a bit of a dreamer, he wants nothing more than to simply get well. However, upon his return home, he too becomes enmeshed in the family dynamics once again, receiving mixed signals of love, hate and disgust from all sides. He also doesn’t make it easy on himself by succumbing to temptation a little too regularly. Such as continually drinking alcoholic beverages when it’s clearly not good for his health.

Jessica Regan does well as the family serving maid Cathleen. She nicely playing off Manville in their scenes together.

Direction by Richard Eyre is very strong, allowing the story to move at its own pace as, bit by bit, the truth about what the audience is seeing moves front and center. Eyre also does a nice job in seamlessly melding the nostalgic and occasional comedic moments with the more dramatic ones.

The set by Rob Howell is nicely eclectic, showing pretty much what an actor of James Tyrone's ilk would have in his home. Though some parts of the house seem a bit too modern, or fit the era depicted. Peter Mumford's lighting is very good, especially in the final act. John Leonard's sound design also adds an important element to the tale. It nicely calling up the sounds of the wind and sea birds to help place the story properly. There are, however some problems in being able to hear the cast in act one, along with the habit the actors had of stepping on each other’s lines more than once.

Offering an unflinching look at one family's ultimate "heart of darkness", this production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, other than a few small issues here and there, is quite the wonder to behold.

Featuring: Jeremy Irons (James Tyrone), Lesley Manville (Mary Tyrone), Matthew Beard (Edmund Tyrone), Rory Keenan (James Tyrone, Jr.), Jessica Regan (Cathleen)

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Bristol Old Vic
by Eugene O'Neill
Set and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Peter Mumford
Sound Design: John Leonard
Directed by Sir Richard Eyre

Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 40 minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 27, 2018

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Summer and Smoke - More Than 90% There

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One can't be helped out of a bad situation unless they are first willing to help themselves. A tenet for anyone suffering from substance abuse, and also when it comes to matters of the heart. The latter point brilliantly made clear in Tennessee Williams' 1948 drama, Summer and Smoke. Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group, the work shows how fine a line there can be between sympathy and pity.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma Winemiller (Marin Ireland) is the somewhat repressed daughter of the town reverend (T. Ryder Smith). She teaches music, hosts weekly literary gatherings and generally tries to set a proper example for others. She also refuses to condemn one person for the actions of another. Such as her friendship with Nellie Ewell (Hannah Elless), daughter of a woman who personally welcomes many of the traveling salesmen who pass through town. Alma has also been forced to sacrifice much of her childhood to take care of her mother (Barbara Walsh). A woman who, since having a nervous breakdown, can be quite verbally abusive.

One Fourth of July, Alma has a chance encounter with John Buchanan (Nathan Darrow), the ne’er-do-well son of the town physician (Phillip Clark). John however, has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. He preferring a life of liquor, gambling and female companionship. He's also often seen in the company of Rosa Gonzalez (Elena Hurst). A woman whose uncle owns the Moon Lake Casino; a place which offers the very pursuits John enjoys.

When Alma and John meet, there's an instant attraction. One not only filled with sexual tension, but also a meeting of kindred souls. Both people possessing an inner torment, and each fighting a future that has been seemingly predetermined. John seeing in Alma a woman who can save him from his inner demons, yet mostly content to admire her from afar. Alma meanwhile, seeks someone to show her the passion and beauty she has never experienced first-hand, but can only watch helplessly as John continuously fails to measure up to the man she wants him to be.

Marin Ireland and Nathan Darrow in Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams at Classic Stage Company. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Williams' strongest plays deal with human nature, and Summer and Smoke is no exception. The story makes it clear that Alma and John are not so much in love as looking for a lifeline. Yet one can’t help but feel that should these two actually get together, it will end in tragedy. Each desperately seeking an idealized version of what they believe a happy existence should entail.

Ireland and Darrow are brilliant together, each deftly bringing their character’s pain vividly to life. Ireland is the standout, a woman simply worn out from coping with the stress at home and the pressure of who she’s supposed to be. Alma must also often deal with the latest news from the town gossips; John frequently the subject of their revelations.

Darrow is fine as John, the harder role to pull off. He having to present a totally cynical worldview, yet still make his character sympathetic to the audience. John can be best described as someone searching for, and hiding from, himself in any way possible.

The rest of the cast is quite good. Elless is fine as Nellie, a musical student with no talent whatsoever, but who eventually finds her own place in the scheme of things. Smith is okay, if a little stereotypical, as Reverend Winemiller. Walsh does an excellent job as Alma's tormented and hurtful mother. Someone who just may have a bit more sense of awareness than she lets on.

John Doyle’s direction is sure-handed, allowing the various characters, and particularly the two leads, to play off each other perfectly. He mixing in several pregnant pauses when the two are together, while helping to bring forth the inner feelings of each. Probably the most lasting impression of all is the air of defeat and resignation Alma and John often carry with them.

While this production has all the makings of a perfect offering, there is one glaring misstep. That being the quite minimalist (and almost non-existent) sets by Dane Laffrey. It’s a practice that can work in many instances, (such as CSC’s excellent revival of Pacific Overtures last summer), but not in this case. Summer and Smoke is set in a specific era and screams for the proper atmosphere. One projecting an aura of a faded Southern gentility in conflict with the changing times. Grounding the production thus would have made the work feel so much more immediate. Even the name of the town suggests a place slowly cracking under the weight of its own history; and just having a painting to indicate a statue, or making a reference to a veil which isn’t there, only serves to abruptly pull the audience out of a specific moment rather than immersing them in it.

Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are well done, especially the well-tailored suits Darrow wears. R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting works nicely, as does Walter Trabach’s sound design. The latter often used in an attempt to counter the minuscule offerings of the set.

Summer and Smoke is a compelling tale of two lonely people. The CSC/Transport Group's production of which is quite good indeed. However, if it did not suffer from the problem mentioned above, the show could have been so much better.

Featuring: Glenna Brucken (Rosemary), Phillip Clark (Dr. John Buchanan, Sr.), Nathan Darrow (John Buchanan), Hannah Elless (Nellie Ewell), Elena Hurst (Rosa Gonzalez), Marin Ireland, (Alma Winemiller), Tina Johnson (Mrs. Bassett), Gerardo Rodriguez (Papa Gonzales), T. Ryder Smith (Reverend Winemiller), Ryan Spahn (Archie Kramer), Jonathan Spivey (Roger Doremus), Barbara Walsh (Mrs. Winemiller)

Summer and Smoke
By Tennessee Williams

Set Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Kathryn Rohe
Lighting Design: R. Lee Kennedy
Sound Design: Walter Trarbach
Original Music: Michael John LaChuisa
Casting: Nora Brennan Casting
Associate Director: Francesca James
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Production Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Englander

Directed by Jack Cummings III

Presented by Classic Stage Company and Transport Group
136 East 13th Street (CSC)
Tickets: 212-352-3101, 966-811-4111 or www.classicstage.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes one intermission
Closes: May 25, 2018

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Yerma - Where Need Becomes A Dangerous Obsession

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Director Simon Stone's reinterpretation of Federico García Lorca's Yerma is, quite simply, one of the best shows of this or any other theatre season. Enjoying its North American premiere at the Park Avenue Armory, and featuring a tour-de-force performance by Billie Piper, the work examines the unraveling of a relationship where those involved are each hoping for a markedly different outcome.

Set in present day London, Piper's character, referred to simply as "Her", is in a very happy relationship with John (Brendan Cowell). However she's about to turn 33 and, hearing her biological clock ticking, wants to have a child. Something John seemingly wants no part of. Trying to put the matter on hold for as long as possible, he arranges for his work to take him out of town for longer and longer periods. Said travel not coincidentally occurring during the time his mate is most fertile. Even when John finally acquiesces to his partner's need and really throws himself into the matter, so to speak, the attempts and results are much less than encouraging.

Piper's character is also a professional journalist and blogger. Often writing about personal issues important to her. Her co-worker Des (Thalissa Teixeira) continually urging she make her postings as real as possible. The result being that even though she changes the names of all involved, anyone who knows Her and those in her orbit, can pretty well guess who she's referring to. Such as John's friends and colleagues, who quickly key in on mentions of his possible infertility, and his refusal to get tested. Or the fact how, she once induced him to orgasm while he was passed out drunk. She also refuses John's request to stop writing about her attempts to get pregnant; feeling that sharing this story has become so much of who she is. Her ever growing need in this regard blinding her to the fact she's not the only person in this equation. She also failing to notice how her own sense of identity may be more tied up in trying to conceive a child, rather than actually having one.

Much of this character's need to have a child may also stem from the relationship she has with her own mother (Maureen Beattie). A woman quick with comic or caustic remarks, but having serious issues of her own when it comes to being emotionally close with her offspring. Thus by having a child, Her can then shower it with the maternal love she herself never received.

In the program notes, Lorca is quoted as saying Yerma has no plot; and indeed, the early scenes remind one of a rather sappy British sit-com. Featuring snap shots of Her and John in a sexual and alcohol-fueled existence. Yet it's not long before things start to become intensely real, with both characters forced to face the cold light of reality. Especially when it comes to truths neither wants to hear.

Brendan Cowell (John) and Billy Piper (Her) in Yerma at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Stone's staging of his own adaptation is nothing short of brilliant. He taking an 84 year-old play, albeit one with a universal theme, and placing it in a totally relevant and modern setting. With all the emotional baggage that comes with it. The various scenes divided by such ominous sounding titles as "Disillusion", "Reality", "Deception" and Descent", among others.

Another essential element of the story is the very intriguing set by set designer Lizzie Clachan. The show taking place in what can best be described as a huge glass tank which fills most of the stage. Watching the characters ensconced therein, one can't help but feel those inside exist in their own closed universe. Each often unable to see beyond their own needs and desires, and where compromise, such as adoption, is definitely not an option.

Piper, who is onstage for almost the entire play, gives a shattering performance, going from a well-adjusted woman to one mentally and emotionally unhinged, while spiraling deeper and deeper into despair. Originally seeming somewhat vapid, it's not long before the audience sees exactly where she's coming from as they quite willingly accompany her on the emotional roller coaster that has become her existence.

Cowell is very good as John, providing a perfect counterbalance to Piper's performance. He matching her verbal joust for joust, while also being the more realistic person in the relationship. Ironically, it's John, for all his selfishness, who ultimately becomes the more responsible of the two. While also displaying an important streak of self-preservation.

Charlotte Randle works well as Mary. the sister of the Piper character. Someone who has relationship problems of her own, and who also figures into her sibling's writings - as well as some unpleasant fantasies. Beattie gives a strong performance as Her and Mary's mother. A woman who cares about her children from a distance, yet is unable to give either of her daughters the emotional support and understanding they need. John MacMillan does a nice turn as Victor, a former lover who unexpectedly reenters the picture and who may be a possible solution to a certain problem.

Also deserving of mention is the excellent work by lighting designer James Farncombe, and music and sound designer Stefan Gregory.

Interesting when it starts and riveting by the time it finishes, Yerma works best because it never forgets the various human elements in this all-too-real situation.

Featuring: Maureen Beattie (Helen), Brendan Cowell (John), John MacMillan (Victor), Billie Piper (Her), Charlotte Randal (Mary), Thalissa Teixeira (Des)

by Simon Stone
after Federico García Lorca

Directed by Simon Stone
Set Designer: Lizzie Clachan
Costume Designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Music and Sound Designer: Stefan Gregory
Video Designer: Jack Henry James
Casting: Julie Horan CDG
Associate Director: Kate Hewitt
Associate Lighting Designer: Nicki Brown
Associate Sound Designer: Peter Rice
Company Stage Manager: Pippa Meyer
Deputy Stage Manager: Sophie Rubenstein
Stage Manager: Cynthia Cahill
Assistant Stage Manager: Heather Cryan
Assistant Stage Manager: Ella Saunders
Production Manager: Jim Leaver

A Park Avenue Armory and Young Vic Production
Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue at 67th Street

Tickets: 212-933-5812 or armoryonpark.org/

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 Minutes, no intermission

Closes: April 21, 2018

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer-The Opera

A Good Idea Taken Too Far

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In the world of tabloid talk shows, few are more famous, or infamous, than "The Jerry Springer Show". A place where relationships, questions of sexual identity, politics and other issues of the day are regularly discussed, dissected and bandied about. Accompanied at times by insults, accusations and the occasional flying fist or tossed chair. This is the atmosphere recreated in Jerry Springer - The Opera. The work first seen in London in 2003, and now making its Off-Broadway debut with The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The show's creators, Stewart Lee & Richard Thomas, were clearly aiming for parody in their efforts, while also tucking in a few moral messages. But the end product goes so far over the top, it feels more like a wasted opportunity.

This is a shame, especially since things start off so wonderfully. The first act offering a hilarious take-off on the Springer show, complete with some folks in the "studio audience" who are more than ready to let loose with insults and heckles. Egged on by a somewhat demented Warm-Up Man, (brilliantly played to hilt by Will Swenson), this group serves as a sort of Greek chorus for what is to follow. Soon after, we meet Mr. Springer (Terrance Mann) himself. The character seen here as a quiet, unassuming fellow. His attitude a marked contrast to the continual frenzy going on around him.

Among Jerry’s guests are a man with several different paramours, a fellow with a diaper fetish, and a woman who wants to be a professional pole dancer. Each of these people, as well as their loved ones, also having other hidden secrets in their lives. All of which are brought out in a way to cause maximum humiliation for them, and maximum enjoyment for the aforementioned studio audience. Jerry trying his best to stay above the fray by quietly asking some leading questions, and then letting Steve (Billy Hepfinger), his head of security, run interference when things get out of hand. As they inevitably do.

L-R: Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Sean Patrick Doyle in “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” a production from The New Group, in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center Jan 23 – Mar 11, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni / www.thenewgroup.org

The problem with all this, however, is one of immense overkill. Each of the above scenarios following the same pattern. Especially with the supposed "innocents", who turn out to be just as brazen and crude as those initially spilling their secrets. Using one or two  similar instances as a set-up for what follows is fine. But by the third such example, things start becoming rather tedious. A feeling that never fully goes away from that point on.

Act Two starts with Jerry finding himself in Hell. His only chance of salvation being to successfully mediate an extremely long-running dispute between Satan (Swenson), Jesus (Justin Keyes), Adam (Nathaniel Hackmann), Eve (Tiffany Mann), Mary (Jennifer Allen), and God (Luke Grooms). It's certainly an idea with plenty of potential. Unfortunately, the show's creators seem to be more fixated on having religious figures continually swearing at each other, rather than trying to find anything deeper on which to focus.

Despite the various problems, there are times when the musical is able to touch on some very important issues. Such as when a group of Jerry's hardcore followers serenade him with the song "We Eat, Excrete and Watch TV". Their main purpose in life being to live vicariously by watching other people's misery. The irony here of course, is that these fans, who think Jerry's guests are basically nothing but a bunch of losers, are themselves the biggest losers of them all.

Another good moment occurs when Jerry finally loses his patience and tells those around him that there are certain things on which they never will agree. A situation which, he notes, is not necessarily a bad thing. An important sentiment, especially in these days of polarizing opinions; where the idea of compromise and bi-partisanship have become dirty words to so many. Sadly, too many of these points are simply tossed into the mix haphazardly, and are never given a chance to grow to fruition.

Although Springer may be a fascinating individual - he was the Mayor of Cincinnati and a campaign advisor to Robert Kennedy, both points mentioned in the show - we never get the chance to know the character as a real person. Mann's portrayal somewhat lacking in depth or passion, at least until the very end. Another key point occurs when Jerry mentions how the purpose of his show is to give a voice to people who have no voice. Admirable to be sure, but too often he comes off as either an enabler or someone who has let things get out of his control. He often providing "gotcha" moments to embarrass his guests, titillate his audiences and boost ratings, rather than actually trying to help those who come on his show deal with their various issues.

The music by Mr. Thomas is enjoyable, though the way the songs are presented cause the lyrics to be drowned out more than once. Especially in the beginning of the show. As for said lyrics, using swear words extensively only succeeds in reducing their shock value. Cutting down on the total somewhat would have made those that remain far more effective.

Swenson is the clear standout among the cast. The actor hitting it out of the park "Backstage Family". Where, as the Warm-Up Man, he rhapsodizes on his bromance with Jerry. Mann, at the same time, offering a contrasting viewpoint to Warm-Up Man's interpretation.

L-R: Will Swenson, Terrence Mann in “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” a production from The New Group, in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center Jan 23 –  April 1, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni / www.thenewgroup.org

The entire company - other than Mann, as discussed above - throws themselves into their roles with extreme enthusiasm. Their actions helping to make up for the various lack of substance in many of the selfsame characters. High marks also go to director John Rando and choreographer Chris Bailey for making full use of venue playing space. Thus putting the characters at times right next to the audience. Also quite good is Derek McLane's set. Especially in Act One where he recreates the studio where the Jerry Springer show is taped.

Jerry Springer - The Opera starts out with the potential to be something really amazing, but tries way too hard to be outrageous without ever settling on a clear through line for the story. Either focusing more on Jerry himself, or trimming a good portion of Act One would have been a good place to start. As it stands now, what's presented on stage feels like a tired imitation, rather than anything fresh or new.

Featuring: Billy Hepfinger (Steve), Will Swenson (Warm-Up Man/Satan), Terrence Mann (Jerry Springer), Luke Grooms (Dwight/God), Florrie Bagel (Peaches/Ensemble), Beth Kirkpatrick (Zandra/Ensemble), Elizabeth Loyacano (Valkyrie/Andrea/Angel Michael), Kim Steele (Valkyrie/Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Sean Patrick Doyle (Tremont/Angel Gabriel), Justin Keyes (Montel/Jesus), Jill Paice (Baby Jane), Tiffany Mann (Shawntel/Eve), Nathaniel Hackmann (Chucky/Adam), Jennifer Allen (Irene/Mary), Brandon Contreras (Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Brad Greer (Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Nichole Turner (Backing Jerry/Ensemble).

Jerry Springer - The Opera

Music and Lyrics by Richard Thomas
Book and Additional Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Sarah Laux
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid
Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky
Orchestrations: Greg Anthony Rassen
Musical Direction: Michael Brennan
Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design: David Bova and J. Jared Janas
Dance Captain: Kim Steele
Fight Direction: Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: James Harker
Casting: Telsey + Company, Cesar A. Rocha, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Directed by John Rando

Presented by The New Group the
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Information: www.thenewgroup.org
Running Time: Two Hours, 15 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: April 1, 2018

Matt McGrath will take over the role of "Jerry Springer", beginning March 13, 2018