Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Dance of Death - Two People Praying for the End

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

"Death will come and then perhaps, life begins." A line at the end of August Strindberg's bitter comedy The Dance of Death which best sums up what the two main characters are feeling. Written in 1900, this tale of a long-suffering couple bound together by love and hate is given fresh life thanks to a powerful new version by Conor McPherson and crackling direction from Victoria Clark. The show running in repertory at Classic Stage Company with Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie.

Set at a military island outpost off the coast of Sweden at the beginning of the 20th Century, Edgar (Richard Topol), an aging career solider close to retirement, and his somewhat younger wife Alice (Cassie Beck), have been married for almost 25 years. However from the outset it becomes clear neither can stand to be in the presence of the other. Any hint of happiness or contentment having long since disappeared via years of verbal digs and spiteful comments. Ones ranging from Edgar's complaining about Alice's piano playing, to Alice never failing to remind Edgar how she forsook her stage career in order to marry him.

Drawn into this conflict is Kurt (Christopher Innvar), a man newly assigned to the island garrison, and whose past interweaves with both Alice and Edger. Their prior encounters may also have something to do with why Kurt left his wife and family more than 15 years earlier. Though Kurt, at first glimpse, now seems to be on the proverbial straight and narrow, it’s not long before his own inner demons - ones he thought long put to rest – begin to emerge as he finds himself being pulled into the hell Edgar and Alice have created.
(L-R) Christopher Innvar, Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.
While the venom Alice and Edgar have for each other may be obvious, what takes longer to recognize is the deep affection that's still present between them. Disgusted over how their lives have turned out, both are still unwilling to cast off the devastation their marriage has become. The two locked in mortal combat for so long that without it, each would basically cease to exist. This poisonous bond the reason for the most dysfunctional relationship to hit the stage until Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, there are more than a few echoes of Strindberg in that later work. Particularly with a very nasty game of "get the guests" – or in this case, "guest".

As the battle between Alice and Edgar becomes ever more bitter, Kurt finds himself not only trapped in the crossfire, but also unsure of exactly who to believe; and thus offer his support and sympathy. It’s this yin and yang effect, one beautifully executed by the entire cast and creative team, that makes the show so fascinating to watch. Alice and Edgar each trying to play the sympathy card, only to have their efforts morph into a desperate need to come out on top, no matter who is actually in the right. The entire experience akin to watching an impending head-on collision of two locomotives racing toward each other at full speed. One completely unable to look away from the inevitable destruction, while at the same time wondering in what condition(s) the combatants will emerge in the aftermath.

McPherson and Clark must be also be commended on the way they are able to make the production continually walk a fine line between black comedy and bleak drama. All while still allowing enough space for Beck and Topol to explore just who Alice and Edgar are under the layers of virtual armor they always wear. These two elements of the story are played so close together, there were times the audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or gasp during some of the exchanges. Another particularly nice touch was how both characters silently made their initial appearance in the show. Not so much walking as gliding silently onto the stage and then beginning an almost macabre dance with each other. One setting the tone for much of what follows.

Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Topol gives a fine performance as Edgar. A somewhat mealy-mouthed sort who clings to his supposed principles as if they were the holy scriptures. He blaming his failure to move further in his career - he has only achieved the rank of captain - because of his continual refusal to play the political games necessary for advancement.

Beck is excellent as Alice, perfectly matching Topol in their characters' back and forth struggle for supremacy. Beck showing Alice to be a perennially angry soul, who takes her misfortunes out on everyone in her orbit. A main reason the couple can never keep any household staff. Yet in reality, both Alice's and Edgar's outbursts are little more than excuses for their own failures. They choosing to blame others for their actions - ones which have left them virtually ostracized by the rest of personnel on the island - rather than even think of accepting some of the fault themselves.

Innvar does well as Kurt, a sort of stand-in for the audience, as he tries to sort out the stories Edgar and Alice tell - while at the same time trying desperately to hold on to his own dignity and moral compass. An effort which soon gives way to his just trying to survive their onslaught one piece.

Quentin Chiappetta's sound design efforts - which include the sounds of the ocean, seagulls and a off-shore marker buoy - do an essential job in bringing forth the feelings of isolation and loneliness which are central to the story. Nicely adding to this effect are the different set pieces of furniture by David L. Arsenault; said objects all appearing well-worn from years of use. Lighting by Stacey Derosier also works well here, particularly in the opening sequence.

A sobering tale about how the feelings of love and hate are two sides of the same coin, this production of The Dance of Death hits the mark perfectly while being a textbook example of how to blow the dust of a work more than a century old without taking away its original intent.

Featuring: Cassie Beck (Alice), Richard Topol (Edgar), Christopher Innvar (Kurt)

The Dance of Death

By August Strindberg

In a New Version by Conor McPherson

Scenic Design: David L. Arsenault

Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian

Lighting Design: Stacey Derosier

Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta

Original Music: Jeff Blumenkrantz

Fight and Intimacy Direction: Alicia Rodis, Claire Warden

Production Stage Manager: Roxana Khan

Assistant Stage Manager: Janelle Caso

Properties Designer: Alexander Wylie

Casting: Telsey + Company, Adam Caldwell, CSA
                William Cantler, CSA, Karvn Casl, CSA

Press Representative: Blake Zidell and Associates

Directed by Victoria Clark

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 (toll free: 866-811-4111) or
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 10, 2019

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Call Me Madam - Bright, Bouncy, and at times creaky

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Given the state of things in the world today, one would think the time would be prefect for a revival of the 1950 Broadway musical, Call Me Madam. The show currently being given a such treatment as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. With a score by Irving Berlin, a book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, and starring Ethel Merman, this gentle political satire originally ending up running for a total of 644 performances.

In Washington, DC, transplanted Texan Mrs. Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack), is the reigning socialite on the political circuit. Her parties are "must attend" events for everybody who's anybody, and where those of competing political stripes can talk, mingle and relax. Even if a problem does occur at one of her gatherings, Sally is always ready with a quick remark to defuse any potential danger.

Carmen Cusaack and Jason Gotay in Call Me Madam. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sally is also about to broaden her horizons, having just been appointed U.S. Ambassador to the tiny country of Lichtenburg. A somewhat poor nation that's "too small to be a city and too big to be a town", Lichtenburg is also a place on the cusp of change. The younger generations wanting to move into the modern era, with the older ones generally preferring to follow more traditional values - including dressing in the more time-honored Lichtenburg apparel.

It quickly becomes apparent that Sally, who has been instructed to improve relations between the two countries, is ill-prepared for the restrictions of diplomatic protocol and other international niceties. At times having a bull in a china shop mentality, her preferred method of action is to simply throw money at whatever problem she faces. A solution a visiting U.S. Congressional Committee readily agrees with, but one which Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), a Lichtenburg official, is adamantly opposed. A self-described holder of both liberal and conservative values, Cosmo wants to get his country get back on its feet economically without any foreign aid - or the strings that come with it.

Cosmo and Sally's continual disagreement on this point soon threatens the internal stability in Lichtenburg; there being those in Cosmo's government all too eager to accept whatever the U.S. has to offer. While Sally tries to find a way to make everybody happy, and also keep her budding romance with Cosmo on an even keel, her young and idealistic assistant Kenneth (Jason Gotay) further complicates matters between the two countries by falling in love with the Princess of Lichtenburg (Lauren Worsham). Such fraternization between commoners and royalty being strictly forbidden.

Carmen Cusack and Ben Davis in Call Me Madam. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Offering a classic fish out of water story, as well as a spoof of foreign relations, and peppered with numerous political asides - many of which had the audience applauding - Call Me Madam is a slight and winsome tale, which invokes a sense of nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time. However for the show to work properly in this modern era, the property needs a top-notch team to bring the story to life. This particular production unfortunately, suffers from numerous missteps. Many of which are the responsibility of director Casey Hushion, who seems unable to decide how to best showcase the material. The various scenes often coming across as listless and disjointed, rather than anything that feels like a continually flowing narrative. One also can't help but wonder why some of the people of Lichtenburg talk with an accent and others do not.

Another problem is that Cusack is somewhat miscast as Sally. While she does a great job in the role, and has a wonderful singing voice, her somewhat laid-back approach to the character allows the weak points in the production to become more noticeable. As opposed to Merman or someone else of that ilk, who would allow their personality to really take over the part and thus draw the audience's attention to them, rather than what was going on elsewhere on stage.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like in the show. The entire cast projects an infectious enthusiasm in their performances and the Berlin score is a joy to hear. Musical highlights includes the enjoyable "Mrs. Sally Adams"; the rather sweet "It's A Lovely Day Today", as sung by Gotay and Worsham, the latter who loses her Lichtenberg accent at points; the whimsical "You're Just In Love"; and Cusack's very fine rendition of "The Hostess with the Mostes' On the Ball". There's also the deliciously comical "The Ocarina", the national dance of Lichtenberg, which is hilariously presented from start to finish.

The Call Me Madam Ensemble. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Davis makes an excellent foil for Cusack. His Cosmo being a firm, upright sort, with just the right amount of a European cultured feel. He's also never met anyone quite like Sally and is completely unsure how to deal with her - at least at first. It also helps tremendously that the two actors have a strong onstage chemistry and project a smoldering tension between their characters. They also bring off their musical duets together quite well.

Gotay and Worsham are fine as Kenneth and Princess Maria, though neither character is particularly well-developed. Completely stealing the show in what is basically a glorified cameo are Darrell Hammond and Carol Kane as Maria's parents, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Lichtenberg. Their appearance also helping to tie up at least one major plotline.

Also deserving of mention are Adam Heller, Jason Gotay and Brad Oscar, playing three members of Congress who, like all good lawmakers, are quickly able to adapt to whatever changing situations that come up. Such as responding to Cosmo's refusal of U.S. aid by doubling their original offer. They are also wonderful in "They Like Ike", a not-so-subtle musical reminder of how one party's political power can suddenly come to an end.

Denis Jones' choreography is enjoyable, as is Rob Berman's musical direction. Berman also conducting the Encores! Orchestra, which gives its usual impeccable performance here.

Call Me Madam, a reference to Sally Adams' title, Madame Ambassador, offers a lot of enjoyment, and more than one political truism which still resonates in today's world. However all too often, this Encores! offering chugs along when it should soar and meanders when it should be tightly focused. It's not so much a bad production as a missed opportunity.

Featuring: Carmen Cusack (Sally Adams), Christopher Gurr (Henry Gibson/Ensemble), Adam Heller (Congressman Wilkins), Jason Gotay (Kenneth Gibson), Brad Oscar (Senator Gallagher), Stanley Wayne Mathis (Senator Brockbank), Michael Benjamin Washington (Pemberton Maxwell), Ben Davis (Cosmo Constantine), Randy Rainbow (Sebastian), Lauren Worsham (Princess Maria), Darrell Hammond (Grand Duke Otto), Carol Kane (Grand Duchess Sophie).

Florrie Bagel (Ensemble)Daniel Berryman (Ensemble)Taeler Elyse Cyrus (Ensemble)Leslie Flesner (Ensemble)Ta’Nika Gibson (Ensemble)Leah Horowitz (Ensemble)Javier Ignacio (Ensemble)Max Kumangai (Ensemble)Matt Loehr (Ensemble)Brandt Martinez (Ensemble)Skye Mattox (Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Ensemble)Harris Milgrim (Ensemble)Bethany Moore (Ensemble)Mary Page Nance (Ensemble), Robert Roby (Ensemble)Kathy Voytko (Ensemble), Sumi Yu (Ensemble), Ricardo A. Zayas (Ensemble).

Call Me Madam
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Jen Caprio
Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Don Walker
Concert Adaptation: Bill Russell and Charles Repole
Production Stage Manager: Karen Moore
Casting: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, Justin Bohon

Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Choreographed by: Denis Jones
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by Casey Hushion

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or
Running Time: Two Hours, 25 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: Sunday, February 10, 2019

Call Me Madam is presented through special arrangement with R&H Theatricals

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"Message in a Bottle" - When love hurts

By Byrne Harrison

Many solo shows have more than a whiff of the psychiatrist's couch about them.  And since much art springs from the struggles of the artists, that can be expected.  The difficult part is walking that line between therapy and performance to create something engaging and entertaining.

Michelle Drozdick's solo show, Message in a Bottle, walks that line quite neatly by giving voice to the struggles and victories that Drozdick faced dealing with alcohol addiction, while also creating a surprisingly humorous piece of theatre that equates alcoholism with an abusive relationship.

Drozdick's addiction is given (somewhat) human form in the guise of Tito, a bottle of vodka with googly eyes, a tie, and arms made from plastic forks.  We see Drozdick's relationship with Tito from first date, full of fun and flirting, to break up--watching as Tito becomes possessive and jealous, separates Drozdick from her family and friends, inserts himself in all aspects of her life, eventually forcing her out of her job so she can spend all her time with him.

Much of the humor in this piece springs from watching Drozdick interact with a bottle of vodka as though it were a human being, which Drozdick handles very well.  But the humor in the scenes belies the serious message of succumbing to and learning to manage her addiction. The result is a fun and moving show that resonates with the audience.

Message in a Bottle runs about 40 minutes, just about the right length of time.  The show never feels rushed or unnecessarily drawn out.

Message in a Bottle has its final show on Sunday, January 27th at 6 PM at The PIT (123 E. 24th Street).

Message in a Bottle
Written and performed by Michelle Drozdick
Directed by Adrian Sexton
Photo by Giancarlo Osaben