The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Monday, February 26, 2007

“Adrift in Macao” is witty musical parody of 1950s film noir

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:57 pm
Durang spoofs stock Chinese character, bar singers and man on the run.

By Lucy Komisar

Christopher Durang’s clever, witty and marvelously staged parody of film noir makes you grin till your cheek bones hurt. Durang is one of America’s most durable and talented satirists, though he makes the point that this play is a parody, “a fun way to celebrate something you love,” rather than a satire, which points out “stupidities or destructiveness in a subject that upsets you.”

The Primary Stages production, directed with great comedic sense by Sheryl Kaller, shows the superiority of clever parody to broad camp. When Lureena (Rachel de Benedet), a long lanky blonde in slinky purple gown, disembarks in Macao, circa 1952, she calls out “Rickshaw!”

“Hello, I’m Rick Shaw, declares a slightly seedy but good-looking man (Will Swenson) as he approaches in a white suit, black shirt, and stubble.

Lureena’s musical intro (Durang also wrote the lyrics) is “In a foreign city in a slinky dress.” Fortunately, an attractive lady who can carry a tune and slink can always get a job as a nightclub singer. In this case it’s at Rick Shaw’s Surf and Turf Gambling Casino.

Durang expresses his love for a lot of 1950s movie icons. The black Maltese Falcon makes an appearance, but later we learn that the diamonds it hides are really coated corn. (As is the film.) The bird is carried by a Chinese factotem (the multi-talented multi-accented Orville Mendoza), who is called Tempura because he’s been battered by life. And he insists that he is “scrutable.”

Michele Ragusa, playing the just deposed nightclub singer Corinna, does a smashing Carmen Miranda number, “Mambo Malaysian.” So you thought that only South America had tropical fruit to pile on a headdress? Ragusa’s gutsy voice and style are crowd pleasers.

The final key character is Mitch (Alan Campbell), a brooding American running from a mysterious past. He also has the requisite white suit, good looks, and stubble. Mitch is a short story writer. We hear a bit of his oeuvre when he reads from his journal: “She dripped seduction like water, and I was parched.” But, he doesn’t do so well with Lureena, because, as she reminds him, “Not on the first night, mister. It’s 1952.”

Mitch is looking for McGuffin which, according to Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot device that moves the characters and the story, “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers.” As Durang’s characters explain, “They seek him here, they seek him there, they seek him everywhere.” From a 1905 poem by Baroness Orczy about the Scarlet Pimpernel, which of course became an iconic line in the Hollywood film.

Durang manages to include a parody of a parody, homage to “Spamalot,” when Rick sings smartly, “Why didn’t they write me a song?”

My favorite bit is when Rick interrogates his singers, who are now in New York “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Moments later, Corinna, a recovering opium addict, explains that “the more wholesome environment of America in the 50s” has gotten her off drugs. So a little bit of satire, in Durang’s definition, creeps in.

The score, by Peter Melnick, is brash, tuneful Hollywood, with due obeisance to the familiar theme songs of private eyes. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli creates lively dance numbers of the movie musical genre. And Thomas Lynch has designed a properly garish piano bar with red curtains.

“Adrift in Macao.” Book & lyrics by Christopher Durang. Music by Peter Melnick. Director Sheryl Kaller. Choreography by Christopher Gatelli. Starring Alan Campbell, Will Swenson, Rachel de Benedet, Orville Mendoza, Michele Ragusa, Jonathan Rayson, Elisa Van Duyne. Sets by Thomas Lynch. Costumes by Willa Kim.

Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters. 59 East 59 Street. Tue 7pm; Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Through March 4, 2007. $70. 212-279-4200. http://www.primarystages.com/.

Photos by James Leynse.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Corporate Profits Take an Offshore Vacation

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lucy Komisar @ 5:38 pm

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS), Feb 23, 2007

Last week, Merck, the pharmaceutical multinational, announced that it will pay 2.3Merck, the global pharmaceutical corp. billion dollars in back taxes, interest and penalties in one of the largest settlements for tax evasion the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ever imposed.

Merck had cooked its tax books by moving ownership of its drug patents to its own Bermuda shell company — an entity that has no real employees and does no real work — and then deducting from U.S. taxes the huge royalties it paid itself. While setting up a shell company is not inherently illegal, it is if tax authorities determine that its only purpose is to evade taxes. Bermuda is a tax haven that has no levy on royalties.

Merck also faces legal action in Canada for 1.8 billion dollars in back taxes and interest.

What Merck did isn’t unusual but in fact is becoming common for multinationals in the era of globalisation. It’s one of the ploys in a corporate bag of tricks called profit laundering. A company figures out how to move its book profits offshore so it can evade millions and even billions in taxes to the country where it really operates. In an era where much of a company’s assets may be intangible intellectual property — patents, logos, manufacturing processes — this strategy can make reported profits and taxes disappear.

People understand that nations’ economies are hurt when jobs move overseas. But what happens when intellectual capital, on which the increasingly knowledge-based economy depends, is also moved out?

IRS Commissioner Mark Everson said last June, IRS Commissioner Mark Everson at Senate hearing. Photo by Lucy Komisar“Tax issues associated with the transfer of intangibles outside the United States have been a high risk compliance concern for us and have seen a significant increase in recent years. Taxpayers, especially in the high technology and pharmaceutical industries, are shifting profits offshore.”

The cost of manufacturing drugs or computer technology is minimal compared to the cost of research and development. So, beginning in the early 1990s, several dozen pharmaceutical and computer companies established subsidiaries in Bermuda and other tax havens to game the system.

They set up shell companies and transferred patents or logos or other intangible property there. Then, when profits rolled in, the company paid big license fees or royalties to its own shell — at the price it decided — and deducted that from home taxes. Revenues were sucked out of the U.S. or other countries even though the patents were created and were still used for work within home borders.

Although almost 60 percent of U.S. pharmaceutical companies’ sales take place in the U.S., where the government’s refusal to control drug prices makes profits higher than elsewhere, the companies report to the IRS that their profits come largely from international sales. The world’s biggest drug firm, Pfizer, with most of its sales in the U.S., said that in 2004 it had 4.4 billion dollars in pretax profits in the United States and 9.6 billion dollars internationally.

Last year, Martin Sullivan, a former U.S. Treasury Department economist, noted in the journal Tax Notes that pharmaceuticals had accelerated their movement of profits to low-tax jurisdictions. He wrote that “In 1999, foreign profits accounted for 39.2 percent of worldwide profits of large U.S. drug companies. By 2005 that percentage had jumped to 69.9 percent.”

He figured that the companies’ foreign assets were 41 percent and their sales 43 percent of the world total, so that foreign profits should be 43 percent. But the companies reported them as 66 percent, cheating the U.S. of 23 percent of profits. That amounted to nearly three billion dollars a year from nine drug companies, including Merck, which cut 1.5 billion dollars from its taxes over a decade.

Prime technology companies playing the offshore game areMicrosoft Microsoft and Google. Microsoft gets about 75 percent of its 40 billion dollars in revenue from licensing fees. A few years ago, it set up an Irish subsidiary called Round Island One Ltd. to own its 16 billion dollars worth of copyrights on software developed in the U.S.

In 2004, it shifted nine billion dollars in profits to Ireland and thereby avoided paying some 500 million dollars in U.S. taxes. Using the Irish company, Microsoft also avoids taxes elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The maneuver helped Microsoft drop its worldwide tax rate from 33 percent to 26 percent.

Google similarly set up an Irish subsidiary, Google Ireland Holdings Ltd, which in 2004, its first year, helped the company avoid paying about 131 million dollars in U.S. taxes. GoogleGoogle noted in its annual report that year that it expected its effective tax rate to drop even more significantly. It explained, “This is primarily because proportionately more of earnings in 2005 compared to 2004 are expected to be recognised by our Irish subsidiary, and such earnings are taxed at a lower statutory tax rate (12.5 percent) than in the U.S. (35 percent).”

Both companies may have some minimal operations in Ireland, but the issue is how much value they allot to that jurisdiction for tax purposes.

IBM didn’t use an offshore shell but shifted royalties to another operating location. According to The (London) Observer, whistleblower Gerard Churchhouse, a former IBM marketing manager, revealed that in the early 1990s, IBM U.S. was losing money, so IBM UK transferred artificially high royalties to the U.S. company. IBM He said it thereby evaded as much as 1.4 billion dollars in British taxes. Churchhouse said he was fired for raising the issue with his bosses. IBM refused to confirm or deny his story, but in 2001 it paid the British Inland Revenue about 1.4 billion dollars to settle claims of tax evasion.

The situation is getting worse. According to Sullivan, U.S. Commerce Department data show that U.S. companies increased the profits assigned to 18 tax havens by 68 percent, from 88 billion dollars in 1999 to 149 billion dollars in 2002. He said the increase in offshore profits was not related to increased economic activity and that, “subsidiaries of U.S. corporations now generate profits mainly in tax havens rather than in locations in which they conduct most of their business.”

The result of this and other sorts of tax trickery is that nearly two-thirds of the companies operating in the United States reported owing no taxes from 1996 through 2000, according to a 2004 report by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office.

Jack Blum, Jack Bluman expert on tax evasion and former counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Since the 1960s the percentage of tax revenue at the federal level that comes from corporations has declined from around 30 percent to around 8 percent. A substantial portion of this decline is the consequence of the ability of companies with global operations to shift income to jurisdictions where tax collectors cannot find it.”

The U.S. Treasury and IRS say they are reviewing accounting rules on transactions involving intellectual property, but the U.S. government has failed to adopt tough measures to end royalty-shifting.

Most of the 2.3 billion dollars Merck has to pay is back taxes and interest; only 100 million dollars is penalty. No Merck official has been charged with a crime. That signals that companies have little to lose by continuing their tax scams.

The Financial Times reported in 2004 that Merck “would have failed to meet consensus earnings forecasts without the improved [tax] rates.” Merck may think it took a profitable risk.

Photo of Mark Everson by Lucy Komisar.

Story on IPS site

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

“Translations” is moving tale of politics of language

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 12:11 pm
Brian Friel’s play examines how Brits used English to dominate

The Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Brian Friel’s 1980 play “Translations” is a stunning and moody production that examines the use of language to bond and to divide in both a personal and a political sense. It also becomes a symbol of patriotism and conscience as it plays into the conflicts and connections among the occupied and the occupiers in Ireland in 1833. The play is beautifully staged by Irish director Garry Hynes with a sympathy that extends to people on all sides in that quarrel.

Setting his tale in the imaginary Irish village of Ballybeg, (itself renamed from the Gaelic, Baile Beag) in a hardscrabble dirt-floored school house in a mud-walled old barn (designed as if it were a painting by Francis O’Connor), Friel presents a “conquered” people who may be dirt poor and no match for British military power, but who are literate and thoughtful.

This schoolroom is not for children, but for adults. Some wish to advance in life, others simply to expand their intellect. Old Jimmy Jack (Dermot Crowley) a scruffy 60ish fellow, is studying books in Latin and Greek. Young Maire (Susan Lynch) wants to learn English, language of commerce, and has dreams of going to America. Manus (David Costabile), the lame school teacher, is a mild but compassionate man who exults when he teaches the mute young Sarah (Morgan Hallett) to pronounce her name.

The British Captain Lancey (Graeme Malcolm) and Captain Yolland (Chandler Williams), supposedly representative of higher culture, have arrived to map the area and change the place names from the Gaelic to English, the better to stamp Britain’s ownership of the place. Hence “Translations, where transforming language becomes a ritual of imperial domination.

Manus’s father, Hugh (Niall Buggy), the pompous old master who runs the school, has an admirable devotion to academic truth but also a sense of his own importance. He treats his son a servant-assistant. They all recognize that they must accommodate to the new power. Hugh has applied to be headmaster of a new British-run English-language school – which will help in the colonial process of subduing the Irish — and Manus defers to him by not filing his own application. In the end, of course, the Wordsworth that Hugh and Jack dismiss, will become as known to the Irish as any of their own writers.

Living somewhere between both groups is Hugh’s son Owen (Alan Cox), who left Balleybeg six years earlier and is a successful shop owner in Dublin. Owen is an operator, the sort who plays all angles to get ahead, and he has become the translator for the British. To establish his sympathies, he even changed his name from Owen to Roland. The clothes of the Irish are all earth tones, the British are in red coats, and Owen’s jacket is somewhere in between, a muted red.

But language is not always a barrier. The drama is heightened when the British lieutenant is smitten by both the land and young Maire. They cannot converse but love the sounds of each other’s speech. Yet, the lieutenant’s love arouses others’ animosity. Lovers who cross lines court danger. Some things can’t translate.

This is an ensemble play, and it’s hard to single out any one of the very fine actors. Among the more memorable, Niall Buggy combines just the right combination of bluster and pathos as Hugh, and David Costabile expertly portrays the sensitivity and hesitancy of Manus. Dermot Crowley is a delight as the occasionally drunk old Latin and Greek devotee. Susan Lynch infuses Maire with all the guts and gumption she’ll need in America.

Friel’s play is a remarkable blend of poetry and politics.

“Translations.” Written by Brian Friel, Directed by Garry Hynes. Sets by Francis O’Connor. Starring Niall Buggy, David Costabile, Alan Cox, Dermot Crowley, Michael FitzGerald, Morgan Hallett, Geraldine Hughes, Susan Lynch, Graeme Malcolm, Chandler Williams.

Manhattan Theatre Club at Biltmore Theatre, 261 W 47th St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sat & Sun 2pm; Sun 7pm. Running time 2:15. Through March 11, 2007. $56.25-$86.25 212-239-6200. http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/current-season/p-translations.htm.

Photos by Joan Marcus.


 

 

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

“The Drowsy Chaperone” is silly, insipid musical fantasy

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:47 pm

Beth Leavel in the title role offers the only bright witty moments

By Lucy Komisar

“The characters are two dimensional and the plot is well worn,” says “the man in the chair” (Bob Martin). He’s got it right. The nervous laughter from the audience is the kind that is elicited by TV sitcoms aimed at people who think they are supposed to laugh, so they do, even if they’re not sure why. They’re just used to following the laugh track. Alas, I’m not.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” seems to be a joke on the audience instead of for it. The man (with no name) in a 1928 slightly seedy bed-sitter is fantasizing a musical. The very thin plot is that a producer does not want to lose his leading lady, the ridiculously named Janet Van De Graaff (the anodyne Sutton Foster), to marriage.

What transpires is (with a few exceptions), egregiously silly. Not campy, which needs to be clever. Simply silly. Smoke coming from the feet of tap dancers. Dumb jokes about old people. The butler is called an underling, and a “lady” spits water at him. This is a made-for-television play. And the TV audience has found it. They actually cheer when the dancing star, Foster, does a split!

The story and dialogue are inane. Janet: “Why are we dancing; our dreams are in tatters.” Robert (Troy Britton Johnson): “But the music is infectious.” She is conflicted. Robert is the right man, not her fiancé. But who the hell cares? Are those lines supposed to be so trite they are clever? They are not. Trite yes, clever no. Not the way Foster and Johnson deliver them.

Aldolpho, a heavy-handed, heavy-breathing would-be Latin lover played by Danny Burstein, is a painfully obnoxious character of the sort one might see on television, if one watched television.

On the other hand, Beatrice the chaperone (Beth Leavel), is a sophisticate who will have you eating (and drinking) out of her hands (“Keep your eyeball on the highball”). She is the best thing – the only good thing — about the play. She is drowsy because she drinks too much, maybe in self-defense against the idiots who surround her. Leavel dominates the stage; she also knows how to do satire. When director Casey Nicholaw gets good material and a good performer, he seems to know what to do. Think tongue in cheek.

The best number is an ironic production complete with Chinese red dragons and smashing costumes by Gregg Barnes, which depicts how Asians fascinate Caucasians. A cute musical bit throws in some Busby Berkeley and a little Jane Goodall. Yes, the primate anthropologist. The Aviatrix (Kecia Lewis-Evans), an excuse for getting a piper cub onstage, has a pleasing jazzy soprano.

But some of the parts are better than the whole.

“The Drowsy Chaperone.” Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. Starring Danny Burstein, Georgia Engel, Sutton Foster, Edward Hibbert, Troy Britton Johnson, Eddie Korbich, Garth Kravits, Jason Kravits, Beth Leavel, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Bob Martin, Jennifer Smith, Lenny Wolpe, Linda Griffin, Angela Pupello, Joey Sorge, Patrick Wetzel. Sets by David Gallo. Costumes by Gregg Barnes.

Marquis Theatre. Broadway between 45th & 46th Streets. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm; Running Time 1:45. $25-$110. 212-307-4100. http://www.drowsychaperone.com/

Photos 1 and 2 by Joan Marcus; 3 by Craig Schwartz.

Friday, February 2, 2007

“A Spanish Play” on Actors’ Culture Mixes Trite & Trendy

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:47 pm

French playwright Yazmina Reza’s work is curious and erratic, often entertaining

By Lucy Komisar

The subject could be sitcom. It involves a family of women. The mother Pilar (Zoe Caldwell) is a widow who has just found a younger lover. Her daughters, both actresses, Aurelia (Linda Emond) and Nuria (Katherine Borowitz), are excruciatingly jealous of each other.

Their jousting is viewed with varying degrees of detachment, unhappiness and erratic, biting scorn by three onlookers: Fernan (Larry Pine), an apartment manager, who is the new lover of Pilar and appears affably detached about her family’s angst; by Pilar, who is dismayed by her daughters; and by Mariano, (Denis O’Hare), the husband of Aurelia, with whom he spars aggressively.

As this is by French playwright Yazmina Reza, it’s not sitcom, but cultural commentary. But the attempts at commentary are slight, such as Fernan’s remark, “Actors do women’s work. They want to please. They are now VIPs. People want their opinions.” True, but not exactly earth-shatteringly original. If such an apercu had sharp edges in France, they were worn down crossing the Atlantic.

The plot focuses on the rivalry between the sisters, one a successful actress about to go to a major film gala, and the other a “housewife,” who is rehearsing for a production of community theater. Or is the whole event that we are watching itself the rehearsal for a play? If that is the case, as the press agent’s flyer suggests, it’s not very clear.

The play is full of subtle intellectual games that involve both the conflicts between the protagonists and director John Turturro’s projection of video on the back wall that shows us a character as he or she is also acting on stage. It’s always fascinating to see faces up close; it reminds us of the way that film trumps theater. It also helps in this theater-in-the-square when one is seated on the side and staring at the back of an actor’s head.

However, the play takes off only in the electric interaction between Linda Emond as a woman on edge and Denis O’Hare as her husband, a teacher and, as time and dialogue proceed, a great drunk.

Katherine Borowitz also sets sparks flying as Nuria, who shows the down side of movie stardom when she dresses for the awards gala in a transparent get-up so tacky that it would be booed out of a red-light district.

Zoe Caldwell disappoints as Pilar, portraying neither the sorrow of a widow nor the angst of a mother distressed about her daughters. Larry Pine, the laid-back Fernan who seems barely to register his new lover’s concerns, does not seem to fit into any part of the culture, whichever one Reza is describing.

This is a play where the whole is less than the sum of some of its parts.

“A Spanish Play.” Written by playwright Yasmina Reza, translated by David Ives. Directed by John Turturro. Starring Linda Emond, Denis O’Hare, Larry Pine Katherine Borowitz, Zoe Caldwell.

Classic Stage Company, 136 W. 13 St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Running time 1:30. Through March 4, 2007. $70-$75. 212-352-3101. http://www.classicstage.org/.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

 

 

Watch for Congressional action on tax evasion

Filed under: Scoops — Tags: — Lucy Komisar @ 8:58 pm

The word from Congress watchers is that there will be action against tax evasion

Feb 2, 2007

 

There is movement on the Hill to go after tax shelters and enforcement against tax cheats. Capitol DomeWith acute budget pressures, the time is ripe. The Democrats are in a box. They have promised to eliminate the deficit, not raise taxes, to expand health care and more for Americans. Nobody is going to press for tax increases. The only place to find cash is the tax gap, to figure out how to go after the corporations and people who cheat. Members of Congress are actively talking about the problem.

Legislation is coming out of the Senate. Senator Carl Levin is pushing the idea of criminalizing the proceeds of tax evasion, which would be remarkable. The House Banking Committee will have bills. There is likely to be something out of Finance and Ways and Means

At the same time there will be New York indictments on tax shelter cases involving the accounting firm Ernest & Young. But just as in earlier case, the Bush Justice Department conspicuously fails to indict those who bought the shelters. The line is, “You rich guys: If you did this, it’s not your fault. The lawyers and accountants made you do it.”

 

“The Clean House” a quirky satire about social class

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:40 pm

Brazilian maid who hates cleaning raises issue in suburban home

By Lucy Komisar

It’s a telenovela! declares Mathilde (Vanessa Aspillaga), the Brazilian maid, in Sarah Ruhl’s riff on the roles and status ascribed by social class. Part fantasy, part deftly devised social commentary, and part a passel of good jokes, the play unfolds in a delightful zig zag of unexpected turns.

The insouciant housekeeper, Mathilde, doesn’t like to clean houses. “When I was a child,” she recalls, “I thought, if the floor is dirty, look at the ceiling.” She spends her time inventing good jokes (which we hear in Portuguese) and dreaming about her parents, who had a very good time dancing, making love and telling jokes.

Jane (Blair Brown) is an absolute character opposite. A doctor whose white garb matches her white furniture and rug, she is rigid where Mathilde (dressed in black) is laid back as well as gifted with a controlled humor and sensuality. That division extends to the barrier Jane sets between herself and the maid. She declares, “I don’t want an interesting person to clean my house. I just want my house cleaned.” She thinks that servants should to be talked to as a doctor to a nurse.

The class barriers are broken by her sister, Virginia (Jill Clayburgh), and her husband Charles (John Dossett). Clayburgh sparkles as the nervous suburbanite, Virginia, who likes to clean. As her house is done by 3 o’clock, she makes a deal with Mathilde to let her secretly clean Jane’s house.

Charles, also a doctor, further smashes the rules about the social divisions by falling in love with Ana (Concetta Tomei), an older woman on whom he has performed a mastectomy. Not only does her operation presumably ought to make her less desirable, but the engaging Ana lives in a small apartment, albeit with a balcony overlooking the sea, that is no match for Jane’s soigné elegant suburban home.

Charles declares that according to Jewish law, you are legally obligated to break off relations with your spouse if you find a soul mate. Jane replies, “But you’re not Jewish.” He counters, “I heard about beshert on a radio program.” Mathilde, who is looking for the perfect joke, may have found it in the nutty conversation of a couple in process of breaking up.

More about class: Virginia, a Bryn Mawr graduate, declares that she has gone to work in a store and found solidarity on the checkout line.

Ruhl and director Bill Rauch have created a surreal theater piece that smoothly mixes fantasy and reality to integrate conflicts of gender and class. They have the advantage of excellent performances, especially by Vanessa Aspillaga who glides though the play like a worldly sprite, and Jill Clayburgh, who gives an amazingly vivacious portrayal of the sad sack sister whose husband really wanted a housekeeper.

This play is more than the sum of its parts.

“The Clean House.” Written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Bill Rauch. Sets by Christopher Acebo. Costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Choreography by Sabrina Peck. Starring Vanessa Aspillaga, Blair Brown, Jill Clayburgh, John Dossett, Concetta Tomei.

Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. Running time 1:50. $75. 212-239-6200. Through Jan. 28, 2007. http://www.lct.org/calendar/event_detail.cfm?ID_event=80195535

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“The Apple Tree” cute musical spoof of love, jealousy, celebrity

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:36 pm

By Lucy Komisar

This is a cute, quirky spoof about male-female relations, jealousy and power, and the celebrity culture of Hollywood. It starts out with Adam and Eve and progresses to love, which turns out to be lethally self-involved. The movie star piece is a good finish, since the celebrity world represents the apotheosis of self-love. The three vignettes, in which the central characters are all women – all Kristin Chenoweth — might be considered sexist, except for the fact that men don’t come out looking so good, either.

Gary Griffin has directed this revival of a play that premiered 40 years ago with a light comic touch that lets us laugh and take the show seriously at the same time. It’s not a memorable show, but it’s appealing.

The first of the three pieces, “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” based on a story by Mark Twain, is slight and stereotypical, cartoonish but often funny. Adam (d’Arcy James) starts out with a corporate demeanor, “By the power vested in me…” Eve (Chenoweth) wants to talk “about us.” He wants her out of the way. Who is this odd creature: “Nothing seems to interest it except resting. It is a man!”

Adam is a bit of a jerk. Eve invents fire, then sets about decorating his hut. She wants an education. They bicker about the snake. The stuff about forbidden fruit is all “chestnuts,” he declares. Is this the first sitcom?

The second selection, “The Lady or the Tiger,” based on a story by Frank Stockton, arrives as a clever take-off of a Wagner opera, complete with a warrior in chest armor (d’Arcy James). Chenoweth is masterful as the Princess Barbára, faced with a mortal dilemma posed by jealousy.

Barbára’s father, King Arik (Walter Charles), has condemned her warrior lover and given him the punishment of having to choose to pass through one of two doors, not knowing which leads to a murderous tiger and which to a beautiful women. Could Barbára’s advice make a difference? The jealous lover’s song sets out the conundrum which is the second stage of male-female relations.

But the pièce de résistance is “Passionella: A Romance of the ‘60s,” based on a story by Jules Feiffer. It is a wonderful send-up of America’s fascination with movie star celebrity, all the more so as it was written in the sixties when the celebrity culture was not so revoltingly entrenched. The poor, plain Ella (Chenoweth), with black horn-rimmed glasses and a hangdog expression, spends her days as a chimney sweep and her nights watching TV and fantasizing about being a “glamorousmoviestar,” which is, after all, one word.

Through some magical intervention, she gets her wish and becomes one of the self-involved glittery damsels that inhabit tinsel town. We also get a glimpse of a male variation, the rocker (d’Arcy James), who has lots of hair, a black leather jacket, and a penchant for dirty fingernails. Andy Blankenbuehler creates snappy choreography for the figures in black who inhabit that world. Is this a dream or a nightmare?

There’s plenty to love in the stars of this show, especially Kristin Chenoweth, the compleat musical comedy actress, with a rich voice, charm and presence, who bubbles no matter who her character. Marc Kudisch, who displays sophisticated charm and panache even in small roles, dominates the stage with his voice. D’Arcy James’ sound is sweet and strong. All three have sung opera or in concerts, and it shows.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote the music and lyrics as well as the book. The songs are pleasing when you hear them, though you won’t leave the theater humming anything. Well, you might find “Oh to Be a Movie Star” ringing in your ear.

“The Apple Tree.” Book, Music & Lyrics Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick. Additional Book Material by Jerome Coopersmith. Directed by Gary Griffin. Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Musical Direction by Rob Fisher. Starring Kristin Chenoweth, Brian d’Arcy James, Marc Kudisch, Walter Charles, Meggie Cansler, Julie Connors, Sarah Jane Everman, Jennifer Taylor Farrell, Justin Keyes, Lorin Lataro, Mike McGowan, Sean Palmer, Eric Santagata, Dennis Stowe.

Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 2pm. No perf 8pm Fri Jan 19; no perf 2 pm Sat Jan 20. Added perf 7:30pm Sun Jan 21. Through March 11, 2007. Running Time 2:10. $36.25-$111.25. 212-719-1300. http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/studio54.htm.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“The Vertical Hour” is pretentious political theater

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:34 pm

Bill Nighy a standout in a flawed play about liberals and morality

By Lucy Komisar

David Hare has written some very good political plays, among them “Stuff Happens,” which follows the Bush Administration decision-making that led to the invasion of Iraq. He appears to have dashed off “The Vertical Hour” as a comment on the American character, particularly the character of American liberals in the light of that war. He should have written an Op Ed.

This play, aside from a few interesting nuggets of ideas, is a sloppy combination of sitcom and pop-film-style male-female sparring that divests it of credibility. The only reason to see it is the astonishing and subtle performance of Bill Nighy as the doctor who has left London to live in the country for a reason has to do with his own moral failings. Nighy so effortlessly plays the role of Oliver Lucas, that you feel he could do it while also cooking up a meal, which in fact his character does. Nighy has intriguing body language and an utterly charming demeanor.

The play starts out with Nadia Blye (Julianne Moore), an instructor at a college in northern California (liberal land) meeting with a student. The young man (Dan Bittner) defends capitalism and American power. He thinks the study of international relations is silly; his focus is business. America wins; it always wins. You could say it’s an empire going to fall, but not in his life time. Why did David Hare do this? If you want to posit a premise, that this is what “America” thinks, why have some unwashed college student say it to a professor whom he confesses he is hot for? She informs him that, “The purpose of women talking about politics is not to turn men on.” At that cartoonish point, an intermission might have emptied out the theater.

An immediate problem for the production is Julianne Moore. With long straight reddish hair that makes her appear more a coed than a professor, she is playing the role for TV or the movies. She has no stage presence; she lacks gravitas. Director Sam Mendes must have been comfortable with Nighy, but perhaps he didn’t know what to do with Moore. Or maybe he just gave up.

Scene two, Nadia and Philip (Andrew Scott), Oliver’s son, arrive in Shropshire to visit him. Philip is a physical trainer who has resented his father since he discovered his unfaithfulness, which devastated the boy’s mother. So he moved to America.

Nadia is a believer in progress. She was a war reporter in the Balkans. (Is Nadia Blye a veiled reference to the intrepid American journalist Nellie Bly, 1867-1922?) She has a litany of political complaints. The Balkans tour made her cynical and angry at society’s readiness to ignore suffering. She is frustrated at writing about things when nobody cares. She doesn’t like the confidence of the monied class. She learned as a young girl that half the world lives on $2 a day and wonders why people didn’t talk about that. There was more terrorism in the 1980s than today, she points out. Also, “terrorism is the wrong answer to the right question: modernity.” She makes these profound statements as she, Oliver and Philip sit under a very large tree. The tree of knowledge?

What ever happened to subtlety, to making points in a way that doesn’t just announce, “Hey, this is the point I want to make.”? This is a play, remember, not a stump speech at Hyde Park. Part of the problem, is that her pronouncements never lead to conversation. Oliver never seems to take them or her seriously. (A little sexism here?)

We learn some of Hare’s peeves about the American character. Philip declares that Americans think what’s more important is how you feel. He says, “A man drops dead on the street. The first thing they say is how ‘did that make you feel?’” First of all, that is nonsense. Second, is caring about feeling altogether bad? After all, Philip is there to remind us what is wrong about Oliver’s character, about how that made him feel.

The conversation gets interesting only when Oliver becomes the questioner. Here is Hare talking. He expresses his concerns about materialism and war, about politicians exploiting ancient hatreds. He gets some clever lines: “Politicians don’t speak words, they use them.” But the most of the dialogue is as pretentious as the title, which refers to the time after a combat catastrophe in which a doctor can be of use. What is that supposed to mean? The time when citizens can be of use?

There have been intellectual plays built around conversation and argument about morality. Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn is a good example. But if Hare is trying to suggest the difficulty of assigning moral worth and blame, the result here is merely confusion. Who is good and who is bad? People who don’t protest about killing or hunger? Nadia who went to a Bush White House meeting because she thought she could have an effect – or maybe she was just thrilled to be asked? Oliver who has “good” anti-war politics, but cheated on his wife?

The issue Hare seems to tiptoe up to and then around is personal morality. Oliver is against the war, but he is a womanizer. The political argument morphs into “will he or will he not bed her?” At a middle-of-the-night conversation à deux under the tree, Nadia starts chug-a-lugging Chardonnay! The audience groaned at Oliver telling her that she seems to be “a woman who’s been badly hurt.” Such a cliché!

Nadia is no match for Oliver. He seems to be putting her on. This is not a fair fight. Director Mendes could have made her seem a little less stupid. Too bad, in fact, that Oliver didn’t have someone who could match him in wit. I think of Kate Hepburn or Vanessa Redgrave. Now, Redgrave could defend political ideas a lot more credibly than Julianne Moore.

“The Vertical Hour.” Written by David Hare. Directed by Sam Mendes. Sets by Scott Pask. Starring Bill Nighy, Julianne Moore, Andrew Scott, Dan Bittner, Rutina Wesley.

Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm; Sun 3pm. $76.25-$96.25. 212-239-6200.

Photos by Paul Kolnik.

“Company” a surreal, sophisticated view of marriage game

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:31 pm

John Doyle turns Sondheim’s classic into elegantly staged chamber musical

By Lucy Komisar

Artists tend to have signatures styles and so do playwrights, so why not directors? Following on the success of his production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeny Todd” last year, John Doyle has staged Sondheim’s “Company” with the same artifice of having the players double as musicians, reverting to their flutes and cellos after delivering their lines.

The device gives a surreal tinge to both plays. Surreal made sense in “Sweeny Todd,” a tale about murder. But surreal for the marriage game, where a bunch of New Yorkers are trying to get their single friend, Robert (Raúl Esparza), to wed? Well, yes, it works in “Company,” too. It’s a way of taking vignettes that might seem sitcom and turning them into artistic riffs about life. George Furth, who did the book, somehow manages to touch all the stereotypical bases without seeming clichéd.

This stylized and sophisticated production is a perfect match for the text. The actor-musicians sit on swivel stools atop plexi-glass rises. Hanging above a white Greek pillar (surrounded at the base by home radiators) is a huge square chandelier with 49 bulbs. The floor is parquet, and the baby grand is a Steinway. The set is a pastiche of soigné Manhattan apartments. Everyone is elegantly in black.

This is a funny valentine to love and marriage. The realities of the five couples who are trying to get 35-year-old Robert to join the club are anything but cozy. Harry (Keith Buterbaugh) has been arrested for being drunk. His wife, Sarah (Kristin Huffman), contradicts and swipes at him. Yet, as he holds her in a choke hold, she sings that marriage is a joy. Another couple, Dave (Fred Rose) and Jenny (Leenya Rideout) get stoned. Joanne (Barbara Walsh), a bored, rich sophisticate in her 40s, provides drama to the Sondheim standard, “Here’s to the ladies who lunch.” Three single women, April (Elizabeth Stanley), Kathy (Kelly Jeanne Grant), and Marta (Angel Desai) do a smashing jazzy rendition of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

There are funny insider New York jokes. When Amy (Heather Laws) starts having doubts about marrying Paul (Robert Cunningham) because he is Jewish, he reminds her, “At least three-quarters of your friends are Jewish.” And she retorts, “I much prefer my Gentile enemies. At least they leave you alone.” Laws performs a show-stopper in which she sings lyrics at breakneck speed, an extremely difficult feat.

The love fest appears to be more between Robert and his friends than between the partners of the couples themselves. We enjoy the delight of trombones, tuba and trumpet blaring, “What Would We Do Without You!” and the rag-style “Side by Side by Side.” No matter. Better the truth than the saccharine ladies magazine fictions that were exposed after the fifties.

Esparza projects the face of a perfectly ordinary fellow and does not stand out among the others in the cast. No star quality here. The production itself has the feeling of a staged concert by a talented ensemble. It provides a delicious, if not memorable, evening. Like a piece of the cake that dieting Sarah would die for.

“Company.” Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by George Furth. Directed by John Doyle. Set by David Gallo. Music direction and orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Starring Raúl Esparza, Barbara Walsh, Keith Buterbaugh, Matt Castle, Robert Cunningham, Angel Desai, Kelly Jeanne Grant, Kristin Huffman, Amy Justman, Heather Laws, Leenya Rideou, Fred Rose, Bruce Sabath, Elizabeth Stanley.

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Mon – Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat 2pm. $36.25-$101.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.companyonbroadway.com/.

Photos by Paul Kolnik.

“Mary Poppins” a bumpy musical flight of fantasy

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:28 pm

Some soaring moments, plus predictable albeit charming fantasy

By Lucy Komisar

Brandishing sticks topped with round brushes, the chimney sweeps do a tap dance atop a London row house, and audience spirits rise as high as that roof. When life-size toys in opera voices menace children who’ve thrown a temper tantrum, one again sees vintage Matthew Bourne, co-director and co-choreographer of “Mary Poppins,” the new musical on Broadway. Alas, most of the production numbers don’t reach those heights. (The co-choreographer is Stephen Mear.)

Not to say they aren’t engaging. A dull park turns bright green with painted flowers. Statues come to life and dance (more Bourne). And officious bank officials in black morning coats bob and weave against a backdrop of columns and domed ceiling. That is all fine for Broadway, just not what we’ve come to expect of subtly witty Bourne. Think entertainment, not artistry.

For most of “Mary Poppins,” about a nanny who flies through the air clutching a carpet bag and an umbrella, the feeling is definitely earth-bound. Though Ashley Brown, who has a lilting soprano, makes several levitating journeys, one as far as the second balcony, her Mary Poppins never quite takes off. Or gets beyond her cardboard cutout personality.

The story, to remind those who haven’t read it for years, concerns the stiff authoritarian banker, George Banks (Daniel Jenkins), who believes in precision, order and efficiency, a standard he applies to his family. When his wife (Rebecca Luker) says, “The kids want to say goodnight,” he replies, “Tell them you’ve given me the message.” The kids’ unhappiness turns to rebellion. They take out their angst on governesses, but meet their match, or their salvation, in Mary Poppins, who thinks that sugar is the best medicine.

The play is based on the movie version of the 1934 story by Australian feminist columnist and former actress, Pamela Lyndon Travers. She set it in the Depression, but the 1964 film by Disney – a rabid right-winger — moved it to 1910 Edwardian England. Travers didn’t like the film. She started work on a darker sequel, but died in 1996 at the age of 96. While she probably would not like this version either, at least Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book, sought to make the show politically relevant.

Father is worried about losing his job at the bank because he chose to give a loan to an earnest fellow (Matt Loehr), who wants to expand a factory to provide jobs, instead of to a hustler, the aptly named Von Hussler (Seam McCourt), who is touting a scheme to make money from money. Considering how banking really works, that decision is the biggest fantasy in the show. The bank scene dance number is a high spot.

Mother, who has given up an acting career for marriage, is unappreciated by her husband and bored with a life that includes organizing tea parties for rich ladies who don’t show up. She sings about “Being Mrs. Banks.” A Betty Friedan moment. Jenkins and Luker give pleasing professional performances.

But the direction by Bourne and Richard Eyre plays down the darkness in favor of Disney fluff and shelves of dishes that collapse and straighten up. We are left wondering at the significance of the ragged woman who begs pennies to feed the birds at the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. Mary urges the children to give her some coins, but there’s no word about poverty. Partly out of the failure to take on such issues, the plot is weak. Janelle Anne Robinson is high-spirited and appealing as the West Indian candy lady, but we don’t get an inkling of why West Indians are in England. The musical numbers eschew substance and seem added on rather than intrinsic.

Still, kids and many adults will enjoy the fantasy. There are some entrancing performances, especially by Gavin Lee as Bert, Mary’s charming lanky Cockney chimney sweep beau. There are fine portrayals by Jane Carr, who trills along as Mrs. Brill, the family’s Cockney maid, and Ruth Gottschall, Miss Andrew, the monstrous nanny. The children — Katherine Leigh Doherty as Jane and Matthew Gumley as Michael in the performance I saw – are talented and engaging.

Kudos go to set and costume designer Bob Crowley, who provides gorgeous backdrops. But in this production, the “game” goes to Disney, not Travers.

“Mary Poppins.” Book by Julian Fellowes. Music & Lyrics by Richard & Robert Sherman. Additional Material by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe. Directed by

Richard Eyre & Matthew Bourne. Choreographed by Matthew Bourne & Stephen Mear. Starring Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Daniel Jenkins, Rebecca Luker, Jane Carr, Mark Price, Cass Morgan, Ruth Gottschall, Michael McCarty, Katherine Doherty, Delaney Moro, Henry Hodges, Alexander Scheitinger. Sets & Costumes by Bob Crowley.

New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 West 42 St. Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed & Sat. Running time: 2:40. $20-$110. 212-307-4747. http://disney.go.com/theatre/marypoppins/index.html

Photos 1-3 by Joan Marcus. Photo 4 by Alastair Muir. Photo 5 from show website video. Photo 6 by Michael Le Poer Trench.

“Suddenly Last Summer” is gripping portrait of moral disintegration

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:22 pm

Tennessee Williams’ play about corrupt power gets stunning performance

By Lucy Komisar

The set is like a jungle: a New Orleans courtyard with large palms and an overhead trellis dripping with vines and blood-red flowers, and on the ground, poinsettias. In the middle of the garden is a Venus fly trap under glass. The genteel Violet Venable (Blythe Danner) used to feed it fruit flies that her son Sebastian ordered from a supplier in Florida. It is a metaphor for Violet and her son, who would consume and destroy people, and for the terrible eerily parallel vengeance their actions let loose. She shows it off casually when a visitor arrives.

Danner and Carla Gugino, as her niece, Catharine Holly, are brilliant in Tennessee Williams’ dark portrait of moral disintegration, first produced in 1958. Director Mark Brokaw creates a mood of subtle horror that expands as you discover the cruelty of corrupting wealth and power. The lush set by Santo Loquasto provides a sense of nature gone a bit wild.

The women are connected by Sebastian, who has died at 40, but in the years before dominated their lives. Catharine knows the dark story of his death at Cabeza de Lobo (it means wolf’s head), a fictional seaside village. To suppress the truth, Violet has committed the young woman to St Mary’s, a hospital for the mentally ill, where she has been given shock treatments.

Violet and Catharine are cut from the same cloth, both tough Southern ladies with a veneer of gentility. Or maybe that gentility is a false cloak provided by the syrupy New Orleans accents that they wear with such assurance. Violet is rich and soignée and looks it, elegant, in a colorful patterned purple wrap over her violet dress. She is a bully. Catharine, intense, and on all accounts innocent, wears a seductive white dress with a cutout bodice that leaves little to the imagination. Or did designer Loquasto just pull that off the rack?

Violet has had Catharine brought to the house so she can meet Dr. Cukrowicz (Gale Harold), who runs an experimental lobotomy program at the state hospital. She wants him to take Catharine as a patient. When Catharine speaks in the language of poetic hyperbole, the doctor gives her a calming shot. Is that what is done to art?

The real mental case is Violet’s quintessential neurotic fixation on her son. She for years had accompanied him on summer trips and refused to return home even when she got word her husband was dying. Her “loyalty” to her son is shown to be as disreputable as the disloyalty shown to Catharine by her greedy mother and brother.

Williams’ language is rich and poetic, with metaphors curiously drawn from the natural world. Violet tells of sailing with Sebastian to the Galapagos Islands where they saw giant sea turtles hatch on the beach and then scurry to the water to escape the carnivorous birds that swooped down and devoured the unlucky.

The performances of the supporting characters don’t match Danner and Gugino. Harold is oddly flat as the doctor. But the play is constructed largely around monologues by Danner and Gugino, and one savors every word.

“Suddenly Last Summer.” Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mark Brokaw. Set and costumes by Santo Loquasto. Starring Blythe Danner, Carla Gugino, Gale Harold, Becky Ann Baker, Sandra Shipley, Karen Walsh, Wayne Wilcox.

Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th St. Tue-Sat 7:30pm; Wed, Sat-Sun 2pm. Running Time 1:30. Through Jan. 20, 2007. $63.75 – $73.75. 212-719-1300. http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/pels.htm.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“Home” a gem of a play about class in England

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:20 pm

Story is played out by inhabitants of a mental asylum

By Lucy Komisar

In this gem of a play, thing are not what they seem, and what appears normal shares defining characteristics with what appears odd and eccentric. It shows how dissembling can be what middle and working class appearances communicate to onlookers.

British playwright David Storey’s work, directed with subtlety and sympathy by Scott Alan Evans, opens with Jack (Simon Jones) and Harry (Larry Keith), two middle-aged British men in spiffy vested suits, sitting on a bench before a fastidiously-manicured hedge. Harry has carefully placed his fine leather gloves atop a sporty Fedora on the white wrought-iron table; Jack carries an elegantly turned walking stick. They chat about the army, sports, family, and “Little England,” all quite normally, except that their phrases are fragments, often monosyllables, and don’t make up a continuing conversation. It’s as if they were remembering snippets of past lives.

The men get up to take a stroll, and soon their places are taken by two working-class women, both rather unfashionable in dress and demeanor. Marjorie (Cynthia Harris) wears a cardigan and glassy-eyed expression and carries a red umbrella, and Kathleen (Cynthia Darlow) has odd too-tight shoes and a marked Cockney accent. Their conversation is gloomy; they view the world as hostile. When the men reappear, one of the women addresses them as “Lordship” and “professor.”

Chatting amongst themselves, the four speak in bits of sentences and interrupt each other. Marjorie orders the others about. Jack is polished and urbane, but exhibits no emotion; Harry conveys deep sadness. Kathleen giggles at references that she sees as sexual, especially the word “little.” The men exude optimism, the women see the dark side. But they are the realists. Marjorie, with the umbrella, expects rain, and later we hear thunder.

The interaction among the four and their remarks about shared experiences slowly makes one aware that their worlds are closer than we had imagined: they live in a mental institution.

Playwright Storey was born 1933 in Yorkshire, the third son of a coal miner who spent 40 years at the coalface so that he could give his sons higher education. A sense of class is very much part of Storey’s sensibility. “Home,” which opened on Broadway in 1970 when Storey was 37, appears to be a subtle exploration of England’s class divisions within the constraints of a place that could be an allegory for “Little England.”

The acting by The Actors Company Theatre members is superb. Simon is gentle and intelligent as Jack, offering a hint of the man he once was. Larry Keith is wistfully sad as Harry, harkening back to a life he only half recalls. Cynthia Harris is blustery as Marjorie in a way that only half hides her insecurity, and Cynthia Darlow brings out the raucousness of Kathleen that is a cover for confusion and suffering. A fifth character, Albert (Ron McClary), who seems utterly disconnected from the world, arrives to carry off the wrought-iron furniture piece by piece, a bizarre action which the others take in stride. Their lack of condemnation or anger at someone a lot more mentally unstable than they are shows a sympathy that the larger crueler society might emulate.

“Home.” Written by David Storey. Directed by Scott Alan Evans. Set by David Toser. Costumes by Mimi Lien. Starring Cynthia Darlow, Cynthia Harris, Simon Jones, Larry Keith, Ron McClary,

The Actors Company at Beckett Theatre, 410 West 42 St. Mon, Wed-Fri 7:30pm; Sat 2pm, 8pm; Sun 3pm. Through Dec. 23, 2006. $20. 212-279-4200. http://www.tactnyc.org/.

Photos by Stephen Kucken.

“Post Mortem” jokes about life in post-Bush America

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:18 pm

Funny one-liners adorn thin plot about mounting of subversive play

By Lucy Komisar

There’s a new genre of plays that has appeared in the past few years. A combination of political theater and theater of the absurd, they are, for want of a better term, the Bush-Cheney plays. Among them currently are “Bush is Bad,” a musical parody, and “The Dick Cheney Holiday Spectacular,” a revue by the inimitable “Billionaires for Bush.” Add to that A.R. Gurney’s shaggy dog comedy, “Post Mortem.”

Gurney has written several political satires. I especially liked “The Fourth Wall,” a witty parody in which a suburban housewife is so exercised by the Bush administration (stealing the election, canceling international treaties, plotting war) that she has moved the furniture of her soignée living room to face “the fourth wall,” the audience. She seeks to persuade everybody, “including poor people and ethnic minorities,” that in spite of American unilateralism – and American capitalism — people have to think beyond embellishing their own lives.

“The Fourth Wall” had a clever plot. “Post Mortem” likewise has quite a few good one-liners, but the work itself is so thin, that there’s very little on which to hang those “bons mots.”

In a nation run by the Christian Right, censors have replaced theater critics, hidden microphones pick up subversive ideas, and the playwright A.R. Gurney has years before died a suspicious death – probably murdered – because of his writing. A Gurney manuscript is discovered by Dexter (Christopher Kromer), a college student, and he persuades his drama teacher, Alice Tucker (Tina Benko), who he is trying to seduce, to stage it. But when Dexter tries to photocopy the script, an employee of their Midwestern “faith-based” university shreds it. Dexter and Alice reconstruct the work, perform it and become world famous.

The gags and one-liners are the best part of the play. During the dark days, Dexter warns Alice, “Don’t google Gurney. It’s too dangerous.” She gives her Chekhov class instructions to write an essay on evangelical comedy. Buffalo, on the Canadian border, has become a trading post specializing in drugs coming in and refugees going out. The government, in financial difficulty because of the Iraq war, has ordered all Broadway theaters to convert to gambling casinos. Student drama organizations are allowed to produce scenes from the Bible and the Bush and Cheney families.

Somehow, the reconstructed miraculous play ends the rule of the Bush legacy, and also brings about universal health care and good public transportation. Americans are welcomed and celebrated everywhere they go. Theater can be that powerful! However, the new era still is plagued by cell phones, the topic of a too long riff by Betsy (Shannon Burkett), a student running a lecture program that has invited Dexter and Alice to speak.

Director Jim Simpson does best at setting the mood for joke punch lines, which are thrown off nonchalantly. Unfortunately, when the jokes stop, the show has serious flaws. Dexter’s infatuation for Alice is a silly, overdone sit-com device. And, the second part of the play is labored. Gurney contradicts the mood he has set by turning serious and preachy.

In the cast, the two women are especially good. Benko, her hair in a blonde chignon and an expert at comic angular body movements, exudes sophistication as Alice. Burkett is cute as the wide-eyed, pony-tailed ingénue who reminds one of a grinning cheerleader.

“Post Mortem,” by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Jim Simpson. Starring Tina Benko, Shannon Burkett, Christopher Kromer.

The Flea Theater. 41 White St. (bet Broadway & Church – IND and IRT subways at Canal St., IRT at Franklin St.). Wed-Fri 7pm; Sat 3pm & 7pm. Running time: 80 min. Through Dec. 16. $18-$45. 212-352-3101. http://www.theflea.org/.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“Butley” dissects a nasty, witty London lit prof

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:16 pm

Nathan Lane brings intensity to a Simon Gray revival

By Lucy Komisar

This dark, well-made character study of a nasty, self-hating closet-gay British professor, takes place in 1971, the year Simon Gray’s play was first produced in London. The theme fits into one of Gray’s traditional subjects, the crises faced by middle-aged male intellectuals.

There’s little to like about Butley (Nathan Lane), the man. He sloughs off his work and dismisses students who arrive for tutorials. He speaks in doggerel, showing his contempt for intelligence. He reserves his energy for envying those who’ve made something of their talents. He is a miserable alcoholic. Lane’s intensity aptly captures a man whose energies have no productive place to go.

Butley inhabits a London University garret office with steel desks and a grey mood, a fit setting for his personality. He shares the space with Joseph (Julian Ovenden), a young acolyte and erstwhile lover who wants to advance to a lectureship and has dumped him in favor of a successful publisher. Perhaps Joseph is Butley in his youth.

Butley in his middle years is witty but humorless except for one-liners that show his snobbery. He asks about the parents of Joseph’s lover: “Do they have a plaster gnome? Does the front doorbell play a tune?”

He reeks of hostility to women. When his divorcing wife (Pamela Gray) talks about his frozen soul, he inquires, “Is there a fishmonger in that?” Soul/sole, get it? With bitter wit, he comments, “A man’s bound to be judged by his wife’s husband.”

Playwright Gray appears hostile to women as well. Under Nicholas Martin’s direction, the only competent independent woman in the play, Professor Edna Shaft (a routinely professional Dana Ivey), is a broad-shouldered caricature drawn in the outline of a man. Does the name “Shaft” have significance?

The unanswered question is why Butley got married in the first place, though Gray, who was teaching at a London University college when he wrote the play, would know as well as anyone the degree to which gay academics in 1970s London needed beards.

“Butley.” Written by Simon Gray. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set by Alexander Dodge. Starring Nathan Lane, Julian Ovenden, Dana Ivey, Pamela J. Gray, James McMenamin, Darren Pettie, Jessica Stone.

Booth Theatre, 222 West 45 St. Tue 7 pm; Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sat 2 pm; Sun 3 pm. Through Jan. 14, 2007. $76.25-$96.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.butleyonbroadway.com.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“Grey Gardens” fascinates with stunning Christine Ebersole

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:14 pm
Feminist or camp, the musical serves up wit, imagination and panache
By Lucy Komisar

The fascination of “Grey Gardens” is in its depiction of what happens when rich people lose their wealth. Wealthy eccentrics are cosseted while poor relatives are held in contempt. Edith Bouvier Beale (a stunning Christine Ebersole) is flakey but monied, and elegantly garbed. We find her amusing. When Ebersole plays her daughter, Edie Beale, some thirty years later, she is an oddball who bulges unattractively out of bag-lady garments, an object of ridicule and pity.

The play by Doug Wright is based on the Maysles Brothers’ documentary film about the two Beales, who were of interest only because they were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It is at the same time a feminist parable and a gay camp satire about women, depending on whose eye is doing the beholding. It is also a fascinating, witty, imaginative and very entertaining production.

In 1941, Edith Bouvier Beale has a rich stockbroker husband. But her true companion is George (Bob Stillman), the sad, rakish, gay piano player who lives in her East Hampton mansion and says he feels “kept,” which he is. So is she, just a husband away from disaster.

Daughter Edie (Erin Davie, a charming ingénue) has been brought up to inhabit the world of the privileged. She is about to marry Joe Kennedy (Matt Cavenaugh), who in the tradition of rich men is looking for arm candy. Kennedy tells her that he will be president: “Me and the old man mapped it out.” Marrying Edie is part of the plan, giving him classy baggage for the White House. (This part of the story is not based on fact.)

Edie’s cousins Jackie (Sarah Hylan), who will wed another Kennedy, and Lee (Kelsey Fowler), who will marry a Radziwell, are insufferable snobs who sing, “Marry well.” (Original music is by Scott Frankel, clever lyrics by Michael Korie.) Davie as young Edie exudes joy, but, underlying that, shows a frantic insecurity.

Edith Beale’s self-centered sensibility is tinged with darkness, made apparent in a racist song sung in the presence of a black servant (Michael Potts). The big garden party for the couple, to which the groom’s parents have been invited, turns out a disaster. (Ebersole has an elegant, luscious voice as she sings about her husband’s “arriving on The Five-Fifteen.”)

Sans husbands, sans money, the worlds of Edie and her mother collapse. Curiously, “Little Edie,” who always spoke finishing-school English, also loses that to an exaggerated New York accent.

Based on board of health and media accounts, Edie and her mother lived in a debris-strewn 28-room brown shingled house with 52 cats. The author, who invented gay George the piano player, hasn’t dropped that prism. Edie (Ebersole) is a flaming satire on women. Now 56, she steps on a scale and looks through binoculars at the numbers.

But the play is more serious than camp. Satirizing the snobbery of the polo class circa 1972, Edie wears a “revolutionary” leopard skin tank suit to declare, in screeching voice, that “the full length velvet glove hides the fist.” There are funny Norman Vincent Peale clichés and a riveting military and flag number. Mother (now the dry Mary Louise Wilson) maintains her memories and power; daughter never had much of either. Edie is flamboyant, but she sings of being a caged bird. That’s the feminist side of the story.

Beyond the text and the personal politics, of course, is Ebersole. The rich trills of her singing voice and the pitch-perfect tragi-comedy of her interpretation are memorable. At the head of an excellent cast, she gives a bravura performance.

“Grey Gardens.” Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets by Allen Moyer. Costumes by William Ivey Long. Choreography by Jeff Calhoun. Starring Christine Ebersole, Mary Louise Wilson, John McMartin, Bob Stillman, Matt Cavenaugh, Michael Potts, Sarah Hyland, Erin Davie, Kelsey Fowler.

Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48 St. Tue 7 pm; Wed-Sat 8 pm; Wed & Sat 2 pm; Sun 3 pm. $36.25-$111.25. 212-239-6200. http://www.greygardensthemusical.com/.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“A Chorus Line” has timeless dancing but dated story

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:12 pm

By Lucy Komisar

“A Chorus Line,” conceived, choreographed and directed by Michael Bennett, became a legend after it opened on Broadway more than 30 years ago. It won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and ran for 15 years. Perhaps time has dimmed its luster, or what was shocking or unconformist then is now just ho-hum. The dancing is still exciting, but the story (book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante) often seems offensive rather than groundbreaking.

Let me explain. Zach (Michael Berresse), the director-choreographer, who is auditioning dancers for a Broadway show, conducts a virtual inquisition, insisting that the dancers tell him intimate details of their lives. It’s never clear just why Zach has to know. The dancers don’t want to do it – who really would? — but they need the work. He’ll pick eight out of 17 for the chorus.

The stories are intimate, quite a few about the anguish of gay men in the closet, which was a shocker then but not now. One is about a woman whose body is not deemed attractive enough, so she has it surgically fixed. And there are problems with parents and peers. Why do we need to know these things? And what do they really have to do with dancing? This seems an early example of invasive “reality show” intrusions into people’s private affairs for the sake of nosy audiences.

Was the purpose to show that dancers had tough lives? Well, so do many people in other professions. And one might have told the stories without virtually extorting them as Zach, under Bob Avian’s direction, appears to do. Of course, the point here is that the man the dancers depend on to advance their careers is nasty. So are people with power in many other kinds of work.

All that said, the jazzy show dancing by Baayork Lee, restaging Avian’s original choreography, is, of course, exhilarating. Cassie (Charlotte d’Amboise), the older dancer who had lived with Zach and walked out on him, is smashing as she demands, “Give me a job.” Her voice reverberates with an unforgettable Broadway sound. Diana (Natalie Cortez) is witty and charming in her number about the High School of Music and Art. There’s plenty of talent on that line, though a few of the characters are pokey or tired or unnecessarily stereotyped.

The signature melodies (music by Marvin Hamlisch), “Give me your attention” and “She’s the one,” are everything you want from the musical stage. The best number is the glittering gold close, “One,” a glorious dance about dreams and illusions, with performers in straw and top hats and bowlers that conjure up Bob Fosse. (“One….singular sensation.” Remember?) The movements are exciting and vibrant, the kicks and twirls of lines in sync mesmerize. And the dancers, dressed alike in a shimmering gold that melds their individuality into a blazing unity, shows what deserves our attention.

Now, if one could keep the dancing and reinvent the story line….

“A Chorus Line.” Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by Edward Kleban. Conceived by Michael Bennett. Directed by Bob Avian. Choreography by Baayork Lee. Sets by Robin Wagner. Costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge.

Starring Ken Alan, Brad Anderson, Michelle Aravena, David Baum, Michael Berresse, Mike Cannon, E. Clayton Cornelious, Natalie Cortez, Charlotte d’Amboise, Mara Davi, Joey Dudding, Pamela Fabello, Lyndy Franklin, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Deidre Goodwin, Tyler Hanes, Nadine Isenegger, James T. Lane, Lorin Latarro, Paul McGill, Heather Parcells, Michael Paternostro, Alison Porter, Jeffrey Schecter, Yuka Takara, Jason Tam, Grant Turner, Chryssie Whitehead, Tony Yazbeck.

Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45 St. Mon – Sat 8 pm; Wed & Sat 2 pm. Running time 2:05. $86.25 – $111.25. 20 tickets at $20 (limit two per person) day of performance at box office through ticket lottery. Lottery tickets distributed 2½ hours before performance (11:30 am for matinee, 5:30 pm for evening); drawing 2 hours before performance. 212-239-6200. http://www.achorusline.com/.

Photos by Paul Kolnik.

“Losing Louie” is potboiler about impact of an affair

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:09 pm

Sons harbor envy and resentment and a secret you will probably guess

By Lucy Komisar

“Losing Louis” was a big hit in London. Maybe it lost in the translation from “Louis” to “Louie” as it crossed The Pond. If this is British humor, it’s of the “No Sex Please, We’re British” variety, not of the Tom Stoppard sort. Except for a couple of funny one-liner jokes told as jokes, not as part of the plot, this is a pot-boiler which author Simon Mendes da Costa attempts to enliven with a sprinkling of sexual vulgarities. Do we really need to hear two middle-aged men discussing the advantages and disadvantages of having or not having a foreskin? Or see a man and woman offering to perform oral sex on their partners?

The family drama – moved from England to the upscale New York suburb of Pound Ridge — revolves around Louie (Scott Cohen), who in the first time-period, the early 60s, is cheating on his wife with their law school student boarder, Bella (Jama Williamson).

The 6-year-old son, Tony, discovers the affair, and what he knows and tells will be revealed in the future/present. Meanwhile, Bella gets pregnant and marries her Navy boyfriend. Louie’s subservient homebody wife, Bobbie (Rebecca Creskoff), miscarries.

The play switches back and forth between then and now, when Tony (Mark Linn-Baker) is a paunchy 50 and dad has just died.

Now Tony has a wife, the brassy, zaftig Sheila (Michele Pawk). Tony is a diamond cutter, struggling economically; his daughter Claire is apparently retarded and institutionalized. He drives an economy hatchback.

His brother, the well-turned out Reggie (Matthew Arkin) is a lawyer. He is married to the svelte, elegant Elizabeth (Patricia Kalember), and their kids get good grades in high school. Reggie and Elizabeth each drive a luxury car. Yes, it’s all very pat.

Tony is jealous and resentful and angry. Reggie is playing around. They both carry guilt relating to Louie. There is a bit of mystery involved, which my seat partner had solved by intermission. But it does make you want to hang around just to see what transpires in the second act.

If you are looking for subtlety, you won’t find it here. Nor will you find very good acting, perhaps with the exception of Kalember who is not as cartoonish as the others. Cohen is utterly flat as Louie, and Williamson is not much better as Bella. There are no sparks between them, so you wonder why they go to such trouble to carry out their quasi-clandestine affair. The Linn-Baker and Michele Pawk Tony-Sheila duo is of the one-dimensional TV sitcom sort, complete with a garish tie that wife picks out for his birthday.

Jerry Zaks is normally a very fine director. One is at a loss to understand why he chose to direct such a crude, predictable play and how he presented it in such an unexceptional fashion.

Manhattan Theatre Club at Biltmore Theatre, 261 W. 47 St. Tue-Sat 8 pm; Sat & Sun 2 pm; Sun 7 pm. Running time: 2:25. Through Dec. 10, 2006. $56.25-$86.25. 212-239-6200.

“Losing Louie,” Written by Simon Mendes da Costa. Directed by Jerry Zaks. Starring Matthew Arkin, Scott Cohen, Mark Linn-Baker, Patricia Kalember, Jan Maxwell, Michele Pawk, Ana Reeder, Jama Williamson.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“Heartbreak House” a sublime Shavian commentary

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:07 pm

Useless self-absorbed upper class ignores slide into war

By Lucy Komisar

The politics is subtle, the story is arch, the acting sublime. “Heartbreak House,” given a delightful production by Robin Lefevre at the Roundabout Theater, was written by a master who knew how to put his opinions forth with artistry. Shaw dissects the bourgeoisie at the time of the start of World War I. Hersione Hushabye (Swoosie Kurtz) and her husband Hector (Byron Jennings) are useless Bohemians who appear to live, with servants, off the earnings of her investor father, the blustery, white-bearded Captain Shotover (Philip Bosco). (The names are overwhelmingly Dickensian) It’s not clear what the Captain invents, though he is handy with dynamite.

Her visiting sister, Ariadne Utterword (Laila Robins), is the wife of a governor of British colonies. (It’s a time of empire.) The two businessmen of the ménage reflect Shaw’s views of capitalists. Mazzini Dunn (John Christopher Jones), who is skilled at developing a product, has no head for managing it. His business is purloined by an underhanded investor, Boss Mangan (Bill Camp), who turns out to be an intermediary for others. It’s getting modern, isn’t it?

The slimy, cigar-smoking Mangan has feigned wealth with which he hopes to snare the inventor’s charming daughter, Ellie (Lily Rabe), in marriage. Though this young lady declares she will wed to help her father reduce his debts, she obviously desires a comfortable lifestyle herself. But she is also willing to engage in a dalliance with a mysterious suitor, who turns out to be Hector. The ingénue is soon unmasked to be as cynical as Hersione, who has no problem with her husband’s straying. Also unmasked is the morality of the bourgeoisie.

Hector, with no apparent profession or income, is meek and willing to be Hersione’s, or anybody’s, plaything. He dresses up in a red cape (lush costumes are by Jane Greenwood) that makes him look like an exotic potentate. How can you deal with a society where nobody expects much of the people close to them and the ill-used seem to bear no ill will against those who oppress or cheat (on) them?

These are symptoms of moral decay. Shaw’s introduction to the play is a long essay against war. The play describes the society that allows the war to happen, or is at least so self-involved that it takes no responsibility for it. He says he is writing a picture of “cultured, leisured Europe before the war,” of people who lived in “an economic, political and, as far as practicable, a moral vacuum.” The Captain, who keeps his useless family alive with inventions of destruction, is alternately lucid and absurd.

Boss Mangan is reflective of the “practical businessmen” who Shaw noted were called on to manage things when war broke out. He explained, “By this they meant men who had become rich by placing their personal interests before those of the country, and measuring the success of every activity by the pecuniary profit it brought to them and to those on whom they depended for their supplies of capital.” He said, “They proved not only that they were useless for public work, but that in a well-ordered nation they would never have been allowed to control private enterprise.” Prescient, no?

None of the narcissistic protagonists seems to be aware of what is going on in the world outside. There’s no sense of danger until the moment when a call comes to douse the lights against an air raid. Shaw’s subtitle, “A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes,” pays homage to Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and the upper classes’ utter blindness to the world-changing events around them.

The actors make it clear that they can barely see beyond their own little worlds. Swoozie Kurtz is a delightfully cynical, tough Hersione. Ariadne, played by Laila Robins in an exhilarating performance — her voice trills rather than speaks — is self-absorbed, flirtatious, but then cruel to the men she enchants, especially Randall (Gareth Saxe), her husband’s brother. He is a foppish young man in morning suit, who she treats as a bothersome puppy – or maybe an elegant boy toy. Indeed, one of the subtexts seems to be how women turn men into children.

The other point Shaw makes is that England is a doomed ship. “Hector: And this ship that we are all in? This soul’s prison we call England?” Lady Utterword has the final word with instructions to Randall to “play us ‘Keep the home fires burning’.”

Director Robin Lefevre creates a mood that clearly evokes the era of the play, but which with the sharpness of Shaw’s political commentary is somehow “period” and modern at the same time. It couldn’t be more relevant.

“Heartbreak House.” Written by George Bernard Shaw, Directed by Robin Lefevre. Sets by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Starring Philip Bosco, Swoosie Kurtz, Byron Jennings, Lily Rabe, Laila Robins, Bill Camp, John Christopher Jones, Gareth Saxe, Jenny Sterlin.

Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42 St., Tue-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 2pm. Through Dec. 17, 2006. $51.25-$86.25. 212-719-1300. http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/aa.htm.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

“My Names is Rachel Corrie” is theater as political debate

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:06 pm

But email musings by 20-something on Israel-Palestine is not good drama

By Lucy Komisar

This solo theater piece will be judged by two standards.

The first is political: are viewers convinced by its arguments against Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza? Are they moved and persuaded by the writings — journal and emails — of Rachel Corrie, a young American, 23, who in 2003 was killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to block it from knocking down a Palestinian home?

The second standard is artistic: is this a theatrically exciting production?

The answer to the first depends on your politics. Rachel was obviously naïve if she thought – and it’s the impression one gets — that the struggle by Palestinians is represented by the non-violent actions she took part in. Whether the Israeli’s have the right to be in Gaza is something else.

The answer to the second is a pretty firm “no.” Putting together teenage musings and 20-something activist’s emails home in this case doesn’t work dramatically. The play is not helped by the fact that Megan Dodds deals with teenage angst in Olympia, Washington, with the same level of earnest intensity as she does with deadly confrontations in Gaza.

The story told in the monologue delivered by Dodds moves from Rachel’s rather unexceptional teenage home life– encompassed by a bedroom painted red and plastered with photographs — to a trip to Russia that raised her consciousness about the world. We learn about her peace and justice activism, her feelings about boys and parents, and finally her decision to go to Gaza and become part of a movement that involves foreigners and Palestinians in nonviolent resistance against Israeli government actions. Now the set becomes white concrete blocks pock-marked with bullet holes.

Rachel visits Palestinian homes that are targeted by Israeli troops. She describes the Israeli tanks and watch towers and checkpoints. She witnesses violence: “Today’s Demo. At least ten greenhouses destroyed. Cucumbers, peas, olives, tomatoes….150-200 Men arrested. Shot around them. Eat them. Six people in hospital.” She describes bulldozers destroying 25 greenhouses. She reports that an explosive broke the windows in a home where she was having tea.

Based on the arguments of Israeli government critics and supporters, the play will not change anyone’s mind. People will view Rachel Corrie as a heroine or a naïf.

But as an artistic endeavor, the play is hampered by the decision of Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner to build it only on Rachel’s writings. Sometimes she displays a budding talent. She might have been a successful novelist. She writes lines such as: “I have to grab the great big flaccid flaps of my eyebrows and lift them off my cheekbones in order to see.” Her words describe interior feelings and thoughts. However, what emerges is a narrative with no sense of place.

“Nine Parts of Desire,” about Iraq under attack, was vivid and exciting because writer-actor Heather Raffo created and portrayed a series of characters that gave one a rich sense of being there. You flinched when bombs went off.

But though Rachel talks about people she interacts with, we never hear them. We hear only a foreign activist speaking to people of her own western world. It is hard to imagine that she was really in the place she describes. The most exciting part of the play is the genuine video of a ten-year-old Rachel giving a classroom political speech about world justice. Unfortunately, a political speech – the sum of her later thoughts – in this case doesn’t make a play.

“My Name is Rachel Corrie,” Taken from the writings of Rachel Corrie; edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner. Starring Megan Dodds. Directed by Mr. Rickman. Designed by Hildegard Bechtler.

A Royal Court Theater production at the Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane, at Sixth Ave. & Macdougal St. Greenwich Village. Tue-Sat 8pm; Sat & Sun 3pm; Sun 7pm. $25-$75. (212) 307-4100. Through Dec. 30, 2006. Running time: 1:30. http://mynameisrachelcorrie.com.

Photos by Stephen Cummiskey.

“The Hairy Ape” Is O’Neill’s Reflection On Class Divide

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:03 pm

Brilliant revival of 1920s play evokes workers’ alienation

By Lucy Komisar

Director Ciarán O’Reilly has finely staged – sometimes choreographed — an emotionally and aesthetically powerful production of “The Hairy Ape,” Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 drama about class and alienation. Especially if you’ve never watched it performed, this is a version to see.

Yank (brilliantly played by Greg Derelian), heads a crew of stokers who shovel coal into the furnace of an ocean liner. He is persuaded that he does a job of significance, insisting, “I belong.” He identifies with the engines he feeds.

But the British radical, Long (the excellent David Lansbury), is trying to raise his consciousness, declaiming that the “lazy, bloated swine what travels first cabin ….dragged us down ’til we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin’, burnin’ up, eatin’ coal dust! Hit’s them’s ter blame—the damned capitalist clarss!” And that begins to stir Yank’s doubts.

The ship’s hold where the crew bunks, created with lush imagination by designer Eugene Lee, envelops one in its noise and grime. Yank hunches over because the ceilings are – symbolically — too low for him to stand as a man. As he moves with frenetic energy, his muscular arms swing in a simian way.

Contrasting that view is the upper deck where Mildred (an insouciant Kerry Bishé), the lithe, white-lace-clad daughter of the steel mill titan, verbally scuffles with her aunt (the mortally annoyed Delphi Harrington) and insists on going below deck to “see how the other half lives.”

Her shock and horror at the sight of Yank reveals to him how he’s viewed by the powerful people of society and upends his sense of his own worth. His desire to get even takes him on a journey that brings only confusion – on Fifth Avenue where the wealthy virtually see through him, in jail where he imbibes a political anger he can’t translate, at the headquarters of the Wobblies (IWW: the Industrial Workers of the World), whose vision is more sophisticated than his simple desire for revenge.

Derelian expertly channels the fury of the hulking man who realizes he is viewed virtually as a beast. He deserves a Drama Desk nomination for his performance.

The vignettes of Yank’s journey are artfully set off by the mournful riffs of jazz horns. Designer Lee creates seven evocative scene changes. This Irish Repertory production is Broadway quality.

“The Hairy Ape,” Written by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. Starring Kerry Bishé, Jason Denuszek, Gregory Derelian, Jerry Finnigan, Delphi Harrington, David Lansbury, Jon Levenson, Allen McCullough, Michael Mellamphy, Kevin O’Donnell. Sets by Eugene Lee.

Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22 St. Wed-Sat 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun 3pm. $50 – $55. Through Nov. 19, 2006. 212-727-2737. http://www.irishrep.org. The text.

Photos by Carol Rosegg.

James Sewell brings wit and imagination to ballet

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 8:01 pm

Mix of classical and modern creates a vibrant dance idiom

By Lucy Komisar

Suddenly dancers in classical pose are transformed into modern angular shapes that twist and jump to the sounds of the baroque. The music becomes electronic as classical body language turns into erratic gyrations in “Anagram,” choreographed by James Sewell to the music of Franz Schubert.

In Sewell’s “Involution,” figures in green tights crawl, fall, twist to the jazzy sounds of Andean flutes. Program notes explain that this depicts the flow of energy through the body. One senses a tension as the dancers turn. The piece is lush, imaginative.

James Sewell, who comes to New York every year or two, but performs frequently in the Midwest for luckier audiences, has created a visually luxurious dance idiom that is chock full of surprises and invention. His signature amalgam of classical and modern allows him to create complex, diverse seasonings. Sewell dances are never staid, never boring.

The fun part of this collection is “Guy Noir: the Ballet,” a clever spoof of the tough guy Sam Spade detective genre (danced with panache by Benjamin Johnson), based on the character by Garrison Keillor. It was choreographed by Sewell and written by Sewell and Sally Rousse, his wife and dancing partner.

This is a hokey mystery complete with a mugging and not only a chain saw, but an electric saw, a drill…..well, a whole tool shop. Or tulle shop. In fact, the tale that is told (by Keillor on tape) is about a contest run by the Acme Tulle Co. (Tulle/Tool, get it?) for the best dance commercial done by someone carrying a tool. (Or tulle?)

The arrival of a worried blonde lady elicits the comment of narrator Keillor: “A leg’s a wonderful thing when it’s attached to someone like her, and she had two of them.” The lady, a contest competitor, has been threatened!!! I won’t reveal the mystery.

One dancer does her leaps while wielding a chain saw. And there’s jazzy music by an electric saw. The charming, witty movements give a whole new meaning to “story ballet.” And the excellent, talented ensemble members are expert interpreters of the tale. There are, in fact, quite a few wonderful legs expressing the visions of the Sewell Ballet!

“James Sewell Ballet.” Dancers: Penelope Freeh, Brittany Fridenstine, Benjamin Johnson, Justin Leaf, Nicolas Lincoln, Sally Rousse, Peggy Seipp-Roy, James Sewell.

Performance seen at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, April 2006. The Sewell Ballet performances for the rest of 2006 are at the Guthrie, Minneapolis, Oct 12-15; University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Nov 13; Saint Mary’s University, Winona, Nov 16; Ritz Theater, Minneapolis, Nov 29-Dec 3; Schauer Arts Center, Hartford WI, Dec 8; Janesville Performing Arts Center, Janesville WI, Dec 9; Truman State University, Kirksville MO, Dec 12. For details and schedule for 2007: http://www.jsballet.org.

Photos by Erik Saulitis.

Theater At War, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 7:57 pm

Classic and modern plays target Bush and (other) terrorists

By Lucy Komisar

The Public Theater in recent months consciously chose three plays to comment on the Bush war. Not by name, of course, but hardly mistakable. So did The Classic Stage. An import brought from Ireland by the Atlantic Theater Company skewered war in general.

War historically has aroused playwrights’ passions. Think Aristophanes. And it is appropriate that three preeminent playhouses should offer us a commentary on war, book-ending works by Shakespeare and Brecht with modern views that move from the serious to the absurd.

“Stuff Happens”

“Stuff Happens,” by David Hare, directed by Daniel Sullivan, at the Public – from the days of Joseph Papp a prime venue for relevant theater – turns the drama of Washington decision-making into vivid realism on the stage. Hare is the “fly on the wall” as he creates dialogue so realistic and grounded in what we already know, that we don’t for a minute doubt that it, or something like it, occurred. The title, of course, is from Donald Rumsfeld’s inane excuse for the Iraq disaster.

Red swivel chairs are pushed around the floor to represent cabinet meetings or dealings with foreign visitors. Hare is British, and his vantage point is the interaction of decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic. In between are press conferences and internal discussions.

Hare makes Powell (Peter Francis James) a hero, probably more than is warranted. The Secretary of State warns about setting the Iraqi regime on fire. He says Bush (Jay O. Sanders) needs to pay attention to diplomacy. Rumsfeld (Jeffrey De Munn) asks, “How do you know he has weapons of mass destruction?” Powell: “Because we still have the receipts.” Under Bush I, the US facilitated extensive arms transfers to Saddam. But Powell comes off badly in comparison with Robin Cook (Armand Schultz), a former foreign secretary who resigned his job as Leader of the Commons over Tony Blair’s decision to go to war. Cook spoke out. Powell didn’t.

Hare is the political arguer making his points through the characters we know. Director Daniel Sullivan gives us a quasi documentary feel, helped by actors such as Gloria Reuben who is a dead-ringer for Condoleezza Rice. (You’ll also see Hans Blix, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz – the great and the dreadful.)

This play ought to be produced in every city, town, and university in America.

[“Stuff Happens,” by David Hare, directed by Daniel Sullivan, starring Goerge Bartenieff, Jeffrey De Mun, Glenn Fleshler, Zach Grenier, Peter Frances James, Byron Jennings, David Pittu, Gloria Reuben, Jay O. Sanders. The Public Theater.]

How did we get there? Americans didn’t invent war-for-power. Nor do US political leaders have a monopoly on megalomania, refusal to adhere to moral codes or a ready willingness to order killing. Shakespeare had some ideas.

“Macbeth”

The set at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park is filled with debris and metal, the detritus of destruction, a junkyard. Soldiers are in camouflage; officers show bloody wounds. The weird sisters are in modern dress and do not seem crazy.

In this Public Theater version, directed by Moises Kaufman, Liev Schreiber as Macbeth and Jennifer Ehle as his wife are more richly nuanced than the traditional cardboard power couple. Indeed, they are very sexual beings, a fact emphasized by Ehle in her slinky gowns. Lady Macbeth is manipulative, but no more neurotic than your normal wife-on-the-make, till the final breakdown.

Macbeth seems less a tyrant than a man who fervently believes in his own right and destiny to rule. Not very different from others who share that sense of their “vocation.” Of course, he’s a stand-in for Bush. The couple’s plotting to take power appears cool and calculated and could have been organized by Carl Rove.

When murdered King Malcolm’s son declares that he thinks his country is struggling “beneath a yoke,” there’s no doubt which country is meant. And when the troops pass through the real trees in Central Park to come onto the stage, it’s not hard to imagine a metaphor for a modern populace rising against repressive rule. (Or didn’t you know that the Bush administration and Congress have repealed habeas corpus?)

[“Macbeth,” by William Shakespeare, directed by Moises Kaufman Starring Herb Foster, Jacob Fishel, Live Schreiber, Jennifer Ehle, Sterling K. Brown, Florencia Lozano, Teagle F. Bourgere. The Public Theater.]

“Richard II”

Even more “Bush” was the Classic Stage’s “Richard II,” a vivid lesson about the arrogance of power. Brian Kulick hardly had to put Richard II and his court in dinner jackets to make the point more timely: arrogance among national leaders produces smug blindness and disaster. But the contemporary staging, a common and dynamic trait of Classic Stage Company productions, brings even more vividness to Shakespeare’s morality tale.

Here’s a monarch (Michael Cumpsty) not only imbued with a sense of being born to the manor, or throne, but also so incompetent a political manager, that when presented with two disputatious lords, he doesn’t solve the problem they pose, but simply banishes both. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.

Richard doesn’t bother to consider what might result. Alas for him, one of the exiled lords, his own cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (Graham Winton), decamps to Ireland, where he plots with disaffected aristocrats there and in England to raise an army.

Richard’s childishness is emphasized by a drunken, champagne-swizzling revelry to the ironic tune of the fantasy “Teddy Bear’s picnic.” Professing concern for the common people, he is served cocaine by Sir John Bagot (David Greenspan), one of his loyal sycophants. (Drinking? Cocaine? Just who could Kulick have in mind?)

While disaster looms, Richard and his French queen, Isabel (Doan Ly), in riding costumes, enjoy the good life at the ranch, err, country castle. Shakespeare’s lines emphasize Richard’s sense of royal prerogative, his feeling that he has been selected by god. Richard ignores the cardinal’s advice that he will raise house against house, bring on war, disaster and horror.

[“Richard II,” by William Shakespeare, directed by Brian Kulick. Starring Michael Cumptsy, Jon DeVries, George Morfogen, Graham Winton, Doan Ly, David Greenspan, Jesse Pennington, Craig Baldwin, Ellen Parker, Bernarda De Paula. Classic Stage Company.]

“Mother Courage”

Kings and presidents may fight for power, but they have a lot of help from those who make cash from the strife. “Mother Courage” was Bertolt Brecht’s ironic allegory of war as a tool of capitalism. It’s 1624 and a Swedish Protestant has invaded Catholic Poland. The Swedes are fighting for god…and legal tender. And sometimes for the “high,” the exhilaration. “War: once you’re in, you’re hooked,” says a sergeant.

Meryl Streep’s Mother Courage seems war weary from the start, sometimes almost zombie-like in the way she plods on, impervious to suffering, though occasionally with a glint that suggests she’s having a good time making it while the world burns around her. Her curious New York accent and her tough demeanor, her hiking boots and khaki clothes locate her smack in the middle of US war cheerleaders. It’s swiftly clear that this play is about the present, just as for Brecht it was about the war of the time. And about war’s connection to money. We don’t see the actual battles here, just the “supply side” of the business: the food and wares that Mother Courage peddles (Halliburton?) and the human “supply,” her children who are taken as war fighters or war victims.

The cannon fodder/troops are ensnared by machismo. A solider declaims, “When you’re marching, no woman can scold you.” He prances in a uniform set off by a red sash: “No woman ever controlled you.” The only woman war wants is the prostitute. Yvette (Jenifer Lewis) gives a smashing performance of the archtype, with a bluesy rendition of a raunchy song about fraternization.

Tony Kushner has made some rather pointed changes in Brecht’s text: “It is expensive, liberty, especially when you start exporting it to other countries.” The audience understands and applauds the politics. A character notes that there’s a tax put on salt and that, “The rich get tax exemptions.” More applause. And, “Sometimes you have to torture people, which adds to the cost of the war.”

Well, maybe the references are less than subtle. However, the modern commentary on the Bush administration fits politically quite well with Brecht’s sentiments – he would have liked it. Besides, Brecht didn’t mean to be subtle. In his script, the general announces that troops are allowed “only one hour of looting.”

The money connection is stark. “What else is war but competition, a profit-making enterprise?” And so is the moral that the beggars pronounce in the “Song of Solomon”: “Obedience leads to our wretched ends.”

[“Mother Courage,” by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe. Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Frederick Weller, Larry Marshall, Jenifer Lewis, Raul Aranas, Alexandra Wailes, Austin Pendleton. Public Theater.]

“The Lieutenant of Inishmore”

From the horrific to the absurd. Or rather, to the more horrific, which can be shown only as the absurd. Lest we forget that evil warriors come in all national stripes, and that for some countries “war without end” has burrowed into the psyche even more than in America, the Irish “Lieutenant of Inishmore” provides the satirical edge, a comment on war’s absurdity mixed with its horror.

Martin McDonagh’s play is a satire of the brutality and senselessness of IRA killings. It’s the only one of the anti-war plays that takes on the squeamish task of detailing what happens to the road kill of warrior kings, presidents and small-time terrorists, who often use similar tactics.

Padraic (David Wilmot) is too mad for the IRA and even for his erstwhile comrades in the “INLA” splinter group. Padraic is torturing James (Jeff Binder) – who hangs upside down — because he sold pot to Catholic school kids. McDonagh skewers the fighters’ moral pretensions. Padraic assures his victim that he shows mercy by pulling only two toenails, and on the same foot. Young Mairead (Alison Pill) practices shooting cows to blind them, to take the profit out of the meat trade. She sings with feeling about a dying rebel.

Padraic’s affectionate sentiments are reserved for Wee Thomas, a cat, who becomes a target of his erstwhile comrades. But as one observer notes, heroism is measured by the target, an important point for these macho men. One says, “There’s no guts involved in cat battery; it sounds like something the fucking British would do. Like on Bloody Sunday. The INLA has gone down in my estimation.” Christie, the fighter with an eye patch, declares, “Is it happy cats or it is it an Ireland free we’re after?” So how do they choose their “heroic” targets? One terrorist says, “I used to have a list of valid targets, but I lost it on a bus.”

The blood sports go so over the top that you can hardly take them seriously, except for that fact that the IRA or its splinters, really do blow people up. When the young boy, Davy, asks “Will it never end?” and “Hasn’t there been enough killing?” – ironically the language of the anti-war Irish — he might be totting up as well the death tolls of the wars in all the other war plays this season.

[“The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” by Martin McDonagh, directed by Wilson Milam. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Peter Gerety, David Wilmot, Jeff Binder, Alison Pill, Andrew Connolly, Dashiell Eaves, Brian D’Arcy James. Atlantic Theater Company.]

Photos from “Stuff Happens,” “Macbeth” and “Mother Courage” by Michal Daniel.

More performance photos: http://proofsheet.com/public_theater/stuff/, http://proofsheet.com/public_theater/macbeth/, http://proofsheet.com/public_theater/courage/

Photo from “Richard II” by Joan Marcus.

Photo from “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” by Monique Carboni.

“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris”

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 7:52 pm

Songs of love, loss and war shimmer in this witty cabaret

By Lucy Komisar

This charming, poignant, elegantly staged theater piece of love-and-loss songs envelopes one so completely that you feel as if you’d wandered into a Paris cabaret instead of the slightly seedy Zipper Theater, where the lobby bar and cozy corners establish a mood that gets you ready for the demi-monde.

With four singers whose distinctive voices are perfect counterpoint to Jacques Brel’s music and draw out the drama of his lyrics, director Gordon Greenberg turns this collection of moody, plaintive pieces into a theatrical evening.

The songs may be from the late 1950s to the late 70s, but plus ça change, titles such as “Alone,” “Don’t Leave Me” (Ne Me Quitte Pas) – done by Gay Marshall with a distinctive Edith Piaf aura — and “Songs for Old Lovers” are never passé. Every one tells a story which is subtly enacted.

My favorite is “Madeleine,” a giddy, witty send-up by the company. And not to be missed is Robert Cuccioli in “Fanette” and “Amsterdam” and pretty much whatever he is doing. And further…..well, I’d like to mention virtually every number in the script.

This show first played The Village Gate in 1968 and ran for more than four years. Then as now, Brel’s anti-war songs — “The Statue” about a soldier killed in war and “Le Moribond/Goodbye, My Friends/My Last Supper,” — reverberated in the audience.

The translations are by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman.

Glad Jacques Brel is back – in New York!

“Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.” Based on Jacques Brel’s music, lyrics and commentary. English lyrics and additional material by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. Directed by Gordon Greenberg, Starring Robert Cuccioli, Gay Marshall, Jayne Paterson (understudy for Natascia Diaz), Rodney Hicks.

The Zipper Theatre, 336 West 37th Street. Mon 8pm, Tues 7pm, Thurs-Sat 8pm, Sat 3pm, Sun 3pm and 7pm. Running time: 2 hrs. $65.00. (212) . http://www.jacquesbrelreturns.com

Photos by Carol Rosegg.

“The Wedding Singer” send-ups of love, Wall Street and politics stokes the laughs

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 7:49 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Director John Rando, known for the brilliantly campy “Urinetown,” has another success here with a witty, lively send-up of 1980s style — a Boy George look-alike (Kevin Cahoon) with long hair and swishy demeanor – mixed with a 1950s “gotta get a husband” attitude.

photo Joan Marcus.

cast, photo Joan Marcus.

The long joke is about a small-time band leader and guitarist, Robbie (Stephen Lynch), who wants to write rock hits. Robbie is smitten with a rather tacky lady named Linda, (Felicia Finley). She ditches him, but he is too dumb to notice Julia (Laura Benanti), the charming waitress who works in the catering hall where he plays weddings, bar mitzvahs and other milestone events.

While we wait for the inevitable to happen, book writers Chad Beguelin and Tim Herlihy pile one old joke on another – Julia’s pushy mother, Angie (Adinah Alexander), girls comparing notes about boys – and make them come out fresh and funny. Swinging grandma Rosie (Rita Gardner) is a hoot. Tacky Linda sings outrageously dark lyrics and wears a spike choker.

Robbie & grandma, photo Joan Marcus.

Robbie (Stephen Lynch) & grandma (Rita Gardner), photo Joan Marcus.

Robbie’s failed romance sends a dark cloud over his spirit, which yields a frantic “love song”: “I hope you fucking choke, somebody kill me please.” Nothing and no one is what you’d expect. Wholesome Grandma, whose basement he occupies in Ridgefield, NJ, tells him he’ll find someone else and that faithless Linda is a whore.

A word must be said about designer Scott Pask’s terrific sets. Pask’s vision of New Jersey — two-story houses with sloping roofs, gray siding and postage-stamp lawns — evokes the community where I grew up, though that was in Long Island. But in Newark, Pask can sit us in a rooftop restaurant with a view of a tank farm.

Wall Streeters with big dollar, photo Joan Marcus.

Wall Streeters with big dollar, photo Joan Marcus.

As in “Urinetown,” politics is an undercurrent. Robbie tries to get a day job and runs into the world of Ivan Boesky insider trading. In a green strobe light show, traders in gray suits do a number that urges one to “Sell high, buy low, leverage your portfolio.” They chant about “power lunching in your power tie. It’s all about the green. If you sell your soul at least you’ve made a sale.” It’s witty, it’s entertaining, it’s of the moment.

Holly (Amy Spanger) a smashing blonde dancer with a brassy voice, who reminds one of a young Bernadette Peters, highlights a disco scene peopled by the “bridge and tunnel crowd.” Choreographer Rob Ashford makes the room shoot stars!

But the pièce de résistance is the brilliant fake wedding in a Las Vegas “Oval office.” A sign says, “Bedtime for Bonzo;” several witnesses wear dark glasses and secret service ear pieces. Among the guests are a Tina Turner look-alike and Imelda Marcos with a Ferragamo shoe box. Costume designer Gregory Gale outdoes himself.

Look, you really have to be there. Which is actually a pretty good idea!

“The Wedding Singer.” Book by Chad Beguelin & Tim Herlihy. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Directed by John Rando. Choreography by Rob Ashford. Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street, New York City. Opened April 2006.

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