The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

“In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play” is a whimsical cartoon about curing bad sex

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 4:52 pm

By Lucy Komisar

The conceit of this bizarre, quirky play could be dismissed as an absurd allegory except that it is based on true facts.

Michael Ceveris as the doctor, photo Joan Marcus

Start with men who don’t have a clue about women’s sexuality, add women who feel malaise, throw in a guy who’s unhappy that the woman he cared for left him, and send them to a doctor with what today appears to be a very unusual prescription.

It’s often comic, albeit, like the bad sex it skewers, it is curiously unsatisfying. It is a burlesque, where, under the direction of Les Waters, the characters are cartoons and orgasms are the punch lines of the play’s one joke.

As the modern age arrived in the early 1880s with Thomas Edison’s invention of a system for the generation and distribution of electricity, the refusal to acknowledge the nature of women’s sexuality led apparently sympathetic physicians to solve their problem (generally called hysteria) by giving them orgasms with vibrators!

So everyone played the game that this was an advanced medical treatment, and the women – what did they think? Did they just lay back and enjoy it (without thinking of England) as the patient in Sarah Ruhl’s play appears to do?

The set is a Victorian house in “a prosperous spa town outside of New York City, perhaps Saratoga Springs,” at the dawn of the age of electricity and after the Civil War, circa the 1880s. Events take place in the parlor and the doctor’s consulting room, which is filled with bound medical books. Dr. Givings (an appropriately impassive Michael Cerveris) is a specialist in women’s disorders.

Maria Dizzia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Wendy Rich Stetson, Michael Cerveris, photo Joan Marcus

Sexual problems are described obliquely, and Ruhl’s dialogue is clever. Mr. Daldry (well-played by Thomas Jay Ryan as a rather stiff fellow), complains that his wife (Maria Dizzia) is sensitive to light and cold: “Her fingers do not work in the living room or any other room.” But Dr. Givings seems to know what’s wrong. His diagnosis is hysteria, and he recommends therapeutic electrical massage.

A side joke is the extensive dress and petticoat paraphernalia (costumes by David Zinn) that must be removed for each visit.

Maria Dizzia, Michael Ceveris, photo Joan Marcus

Mrs. Daldry lies on an examining bed, the doctor sticks a metal device under the sheet, and she has orgasmic convulsions—called “paroxysms.” During a visit when the electricity blows, the doctor’s assistant Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson) passively reaches under the sheet to try the “manual” method. The patient doesn’t connect any of this to what happens in the dark with her husband, which she doesn’t much like.

The doctor’s wife, Mrs. Givings (Laura Benanti), is curious and, in a giggly intrigue of sisterhood with Dizzia, soon finds out what the treatment is all about. Dizzia and Benanti are delightful as the women, both utterly naïve, Dizzia fluttery and open to the experience and Benenti slightly ditzy. They both seem lonely. The back story of course is the failure of intimacy in marriage.

Chandler Williams, Laura Benanti, photo Joan Marcus

The doctor also sees men. Leo Irving (Chandler Williams) is a young artist who’s been jilted and hasn’t been able to paint for a year. His treatment is hard to believe. He also has a pronounced theatrical speech which maybe is how an artist is supposed to talk.

It’s also hard to believe the premise of the play that the doctor, who presumably studied human biology and must understand how and why this treatment works, really didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe male bonding made it impossible for him to point out that his patient’s unhappiness stemmed from her husband’s failure as a lover.

Michael Cerveris, Laura Benanti, photo Joan Marcus

Then why is he is cold to his own wife? That seems connected to the fact that he doesn’t pay attention to her in other ways, escaping to his club and leaving her lonely and alone whenever he fancies. He even asks her to hide when a patient arrives, and she squats behind the couch. We feel her humiliation.

To throw in more of the tenor of the times, there are multiple prejudices. Speaking about the wet nurse that his wife requires, the doctor says, “You’d rather have a Negro Protestant than an Irish Catholic, wouldn’t you?”

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Laura Benanti, photo Joan Marcus

They hire Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who is the only one in the group who seems to understand that the purpose of sex is pleasure for both parties.

This play is often funny, though in spite of the subject, it is not erotic. In fact, it’s particularly asexual. After all, eroticism has to do with two people turned on by each other, not by a doctor holding a metal device. It’s only at the very end that Ruhl suggests how that can work, along with feminist direction that shows a male actor nude instead of a female. But that realism seems to belong to another play.

In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.” Written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Les Waters. Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened November 19, 2009; Closes January 10, 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

“This” is a witty play about the angst of thirty-somethings.

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 12:47 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Melissa James Gibson has a ready wit and clever way with words. In this stage-of-life play, she uses that talent to examine the lives of four college chums who have stayed close friends, for good and for ill, into their late 30s. It’s not a deep play, but it’s engaging. In a sympathetic, non-judgmental way, she deals with friendship, the dissolution of marriage, adultery, personal loyalty, death, and the desire for a meaningful life.

Though she never gets below the surface, she doesn’t make you think you are watching television (a high compliment also to director Daniel Aukin), though a friend said it reminded her of the series “Thirty Something,” which I never saw.

Glenn Fitzgerald, Eisa Davis, Darren Pettie, Julianne Nicholson, Louis Cancelmi, photo Joan Marcus

In several apartments, (set by Louisa Thompson), the friends get together for dinner and drinks, to soothe and to hurt each other. They would be in a cocoon were it not for a visiting Frenchman, Jean-Pierre (Louis Cancelmi), an official of the Paris-based Doctors without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières), who reminds them and us of the suffering world out there.

Gibson has created the perfect foil for the others’ self-involvement. At one point Jean-Pierre answers his cell phone and fires off a conversation in rapid French, beginning with, “They shot at the ambulance?!”

The men are jealous and the women are attracted to Jean-Pierre. Tom (well played by Darren Pettie as a psychologically closed-up character) quips, “I’m a cabinet maker without borders.” Alan (Glenn Fitzgerald), the gay friend who makes his living as an entertainer doing feats as a mnemonist – someone who remembers everything – is an unhappy guy and would like to join Jean-Pierre’s organization for a “do good” job. Fitzgerald exudes distress.

Eisa Davis and Darren Petti, photo Joan Marcus

Tom’s wife Marrell (a warm but vulnerable Eisa Davis) is a cabaret singer, quite a good one from her jazz number. (The first rate songs have lyrics by Gibson and music by Peter Eldridge.) Their friend Jane (a very fragile Julianne Nicholson) is a poet and college instructor in an unsatisfying job.

Marrall is black, as was Roy, Jane’s husband, who died a year ago. The others are white. Both marriages produced children. Tom and Marrall are going through a hard patch, including one of them not wanting sex, though in confidences to Jane, each blames the spouse. No one comments on the difficulties of interracial marriages, so apparently there haven’t been any.

For a gaggle of friends who care about each other, they show extreme insensitivity. The first example is a parlor game in which they make Jane the foil. She is told they have made up a story, but they haven’t. When she asks yes or no questions, they answer depending on whether the question ends with a vowel, a consonant or “y.” Her questions expose and wound her. They don’t seem to care. It’s a first clue that this four-some is not as caring as they pretend.

Darren Pettie, Julianne Nicholson, photo Joan Marcus

The group crisis is exacerbated by a sexual betrayal, and then a confession by Jane which is a very unlikely turn of the script. Gibson apparently needed it to move the plot, but it’s not very believable, unless it, too, was meant to wound.

When the issue of adultery inside the group is broached, Jean-Pierre adds some perspective by reminding them that what is really upsetting is the misery in Africa, not what people do with their bodies.

The back story, which arrives as an afterthought, is Jane’s inability to deal with the death of her husband, which has left her so out of it she forgets to pick up her daughter after school.

There are funny bits such as a shtick about the right to use language that belongs to another “group.” Alan protests when Jane says she feels “schvitzy” because that is Jewish and she isn’t. She ripostes, “That’s like me telling you to stop using all the WASP-y words… like wainscoting….Yes, I’d like you to stop saying wainscoting.”

Glenn Fitzgerald, photo Joan Marcus

Alan muses, “I think maybe I’d make a Great Merchant, Or or I know, a Moneylender, or a Moneylender Without Borders.” And the two race to outdo each saying the Kaddish at break-neck speed.

The actors are all excellent, with portrayals that are more than believable. But the ending is abrupt and corny. Maybe this really could have been on “Thirty Something.”

“This.” Written by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Playwrights Horizons, 216 West 42nd Street, New York City. Opened December 2, 2009; Closes January 3, 2010. 212-279-4200.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

“Fascinating Aïda” is clever satire of politics and social mores

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 10:52 pm

By Lucy Komisar

For over a quarter of a century, a trio of witty Brits has been amusing audiences with pointed political musical satire and a few jabs at social mores. The latest version, “Fascinating Aïda – Absolutely Miraculous,” in the Brits Off Broadway Festival includes some numbers that you won’t find even from hot American satirists.

Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson, Liza Pulman, photo by Andy Bradshaw

Dillie Keane, Adele Anderson, Liza Pulman, photo by Andy Bradshaw

Early 80s trio members Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson are joined by new trooper Liza Pullman in a collection of clever skits that sometimes recall the classical American satirist Tom Lehrer, occasionally reach heights Lehrer never dreamed off, and sometimes, alas, descend to a vulgarity that belongs in Broadway comedy clubs.

The writers are Keane, the pianist with a dry demeanor and perpetual scowl, a founder of the group, and Anderson, who came a year later. The director is Frank Thompson, who turns the theater production into fast paced cabaret.

At the best are satirical jabs at the financial crisis, “The Markets,” a sharp poke at celebrities called “I Just Want to Be Famous,” and a hysterically funny clever send-up of Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya and German songstresses called “Lieder.” These are so good, that it’s almost churlish to mention downsides.

The show starts with the delicious “I Just Want to Be Famous,” including “I’m going out in a see-through dress and underwear by Prada; Got myself snapped at the latest club in a very provocative pose …And if I’m not in the papers tomorrow, next night I’ll try harder, dancing on the bar with Mickey Rourke wearing even fewer clothes. Oh, it isn’t too late, it isn’t too late, it isn’t too late to be famous.”

Well, those are the slightly tacky wanna be’s. But what about the left-liberal good guys? Listen to “White’s Blues.” “We vacation in Mauritius, yes, I know it’s a very long flight; But we pay our carbon offsets, so that makes it all right; Ooh, I ain’t got the blues, I’ve got those we’re helping local economies by supporting eco-tourism; Well-meaning Times-reading whites.”

And “If they drill for oil in Alaska, it’s an ecological bummer; but it would be so inconvenient if I couldn’t drive my Hummer.  Ooh, I ain’t got the blues, I’ve got those actually, it balances out, ’cause the nanny’s car is tiny, socially sensitive whites.”

“Lieder” is a brilliant parody, but it’s more than the words, it’s the actions of the singers who are a hoot as they perch on chairs with their legs aloft akimbo. “It doesn’t matter if you sing out of tune, so long as you’re German…. (off key) . …So if your voice sounds like it’s coming through a strainer, sing it out of sync, like Marlene, and soon you’ll be compared to Lotte Lenya… who was Austrian.”

There’s a series of Elizabethan airs that lampoon politicians and other worthy targets. “Carla Bruni! Carla Bruni! She makes men feel swoony….nothing that she does could ever cause affront, even though she’s married to that Gallic runt.” And “Tony Blair’s got a vital job, oh…In which to make his mark; Bringing peace to Israel oy…Just like he did in Iraq. Ululate.”

Liza Pulman has a very fine soprano, though my attention was distracted by the fact that both her costumes had necklines of the sort that threaten wardrobe malfunctions. Adèle and Dillie seemed content to direct attention to their voices and acting.

I didn’t like crude sexual numbers such as “Chastity (begins in public)” and “Dogging” which belong in comedy clubs or frat houses. Such audiences never heard of Carla Bruni or Tony Blair. “Fascinating Aïda” sometimes seems confused about who her/their audience is.

Let me end with ‘The Markets’ because it is so right-on — I know because I’m writing about this now in my investigative journalist’s life. To the tune of the Major General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance”:

“Derivatives are monetary instrument, to put it very neatly:
But unlike stocks and shares the actual value comes from something else completely;
The value of derivatives derive, you see, from value underlying
And are often used to lessen risk for speculators selling and/or buying;
Now value can be notional or market and those values never meet
In addition, only market value gets recorded on the balance sheet;
Oh, and a sell is not a sell, it’s called a put, just as a buy is called a call;
And thus anything you call, you’d better put before the prices start to fall.”

And next there’s short selling and hedge funds and more. To get it, you have to be au courant enough to know what they are talking about, which admittedly is not most of the audience. But take it from me, Fascinating Aïda understands (and skewers) the financial system as well as any financial analyst.

“Fascinating Aïda – Absolutely Miraculous!” Written by Dillie Keane & Adèle Anderson. Directed by Frank Thompson. 59E59, at 59 East 59th Street, New York City. 212-279-4200. Opened December 17, 2009; closes January 3, 2010.



Friday, December 18, 2009

“Ragtime” is a cinematic, visionary, heart-stopping view of America of the early 1900s

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 2:24 pm

By Lucy Komisar

The power and sweep of “Ragtime” take your breath away. The mix of true history and invention yields a bittersweet story anchored in the panorama of American history.

Quentin Earl Darrington & cast, photo Joan Marcus

Quentin Earl Darrington & cast, photo Joan Marcus

It is the early 1900s in New Rochelle. The upper-class white family and their friends — dressed in white — cakewalk and sing of their bucolic lives in the Westchester suburbs. We learn, through Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics, that there were ladies with parasols, fellows with tennis balls, but, “There were no Negroes.” Not in New Rochelle.

Shift to Harlem, where Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington) is playing ragtime for pulsating black dancers.

“And there were no immigrants.” The set by Derek McLane is a multilevel iron structure that invokes Pennsylvania Station which was completed in 1910 and was called a “civic masterpiece.”

Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Sarah Rosenthal as his daughter, and other immigrants, photo Joan Marcus

Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Sarah Rosenthal as his daughter, and other immigrants, photo Joan Marcus

Above, on a high walkway, a stream of new arrivals swathed in dark clothes (costumes by Santo Loquasto) and clutching bundles moves wondrously into a new world. Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), born the Jew Eric Weiss in Austria, drops in from the sky, upside down.

And the militant Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio) denounces the capitalist exploiters, J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin) and Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle).

That’s just the opening of this inspiring revival of the musical by Terrence McNally, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. Marcia Milgrom Dodge has directed and choreographed it with poetry, style and elegance, pulling together the strands of Doctorow’s interwoven narratives so that the pastiche makes a rich fabric of early 20th-century America.

The cast: immigrants, prosperous whites and blacks, photo Joan Marcus

The cast: immigrants, prosperous whites and blacks, photo Joan Marcus

The characters are meant as symbols, as the play mixes real people with invented ones, true events with imaginary ones. The fictional people come from three families—upper-middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, immigrant socialist Jews from Latvia, and Harlem blacks.  They represent American dreams: the woman who feels hemmed in by her status as a wife, an immigrant hoping for a better life, a black man seeking equality.

The sound and beat that backdrops the story is ragtime, a new music that represented new attitudes. It was a metaphor for Doctorow, who said that taking the imagery of a rag bin of threads and tatters of images and ideas, he wanted to look at the disparate, conflicting and intersecting strands of humanity that made up America at the turn of the century. It was a time when European immigration peaked, as in 1907, 1.2 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Labor struggles were endemic. Racism was virulent.

The dramatic vignettes are interspersed seamlessly as the story builds to interconnect the lives of the rich whites, the blacks, the immigrants to create one fabric. The story is gripping.

Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman, photo Joan Marcus

Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman, photo Joan Marcus

The interweaving of the true and invented give the play both a personal emotion and verisimilitude, each strand strengthening the other. McNally is faithful to the story and to what Doctorow wanted to say. It is a masterful combination.

Real figures include Emma Goldman, powerfully drawn by Donna Migliaccio, as the radical union organizer speaking for the rights of workers, including the immigrants who traded bad times in Europe for misery on the Lower East Side. Her Union Square rally is broken up by violent police.

She had her work cut out for her in this time of industrialization and the assembly line. J.P. Morgan wears a top hat and fur lapel, while workers struggle to get their fair share. Doctorow’s hero Tateh (Robert Petkoff) arrives from Latvia, but leaves the jobless Lower East Side for a mill in Lawrence, Mass. Striking workers there are attacked by thugs and cops.

Savannah Wise as Evelyn Nesbit and vaudeville dancers, photo Joan Marcus

Savannah Wise as Evelyn Nesbit and vaudeville dancers, photo Joan Marcus

Meanwhile, elsewhere, frivolity reigns. Evelyn Nesbit (played with sharp humor by Savannah Wise), the chorus-girl wife of millionaire Harry Thaw (Josh Walden), who inherited a coke and railroad fortune, finds fame in a sex scandal. Thaw kills architect Stanford White (Mike McGowan), who had once been Nesbit’s lover.

The trial filled the tabloids, and Evelyn milks it in a vaudeville act. Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) falls in love with Nesbit, but then goes to the Goldman rally. Steggert is appealing as the young fellow who has compassion for the suffering workers and swaps frivolous infatuation for radical politics.

Stephanie Umoh as Sarah, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse, photo Joan Marcus

Stephanie Umoh as Sarah, Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse, photo Joan Marcus

In the race strand, Doctorow’s ragtime pianist Coalhouse has fallen in love with Sarah (Stephanie Umoh),given shelter by Mother (Christiane Noll) while Father (Ron Bohmer) is away with Admiral Peary on an expedition to the North Pole. Returning from New Rochelle in his Model-T, Coalhouse is stopped by racists of the Emerald Isle fire house, who set in motion heartbreaking events that destroy his dreams. He vows revenge.

We hear the Negro leader Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young) preach non-violent forbearance and see the dénouement occurs symbolically at J.P. Morgan’s Library on Madison Avenue and 35th Street.

The story shows the tragedies that ensued during the struggle for justice. But it also points to the transformative power of the new world. Mother challenges patriarchy.

Christiane Noll as Mother, Ron Bohmer as Father, Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Sarah Rosenthal as his daughter, photo Joan Marcus

Christiane Noll as Mother, Ron Bohmer as Father, Robert Petkoff as Tateh, Sarah Rosenthal as his daughter, photo Joan Marcus

She sings, “I was content, a princess asleep and enchanted. If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me.” Those were “the days when I let you make all my choices.” She recalls, “I was your wife. It never occurred to want more.” But, “We can never go back to before.” Now, everything is possible.

The singing is first rate, including Mother/Noll’s bell soprano, Father/Bohmer’s tenor and Booker T. Washington/Young’s excellent baritone. Migliaccio is especially strong as Emma Goldman, Darrington, rent by fury, and Umoh, driven by desperation, are a moving couple as Coalhouse and Sarah.

Stephen Flaherty’s music expertly describes the characters and the mood. There is a charming jazzy idiom of ragtime and gospel. They are interspersed with anthems, operetta-style waltzes and genteel parlor songs. The choreography is bright and memorable, mixing the styles of the different social groups till they are woven into a new 20th century fashion. This is one of the important plays of American musical theater.

“Ragtime.” Book by Terrence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York City. 877-250-2929. Opened November 15, 2009.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Paul Volcker says privately Obama appointed him as “window dressing”

Filed under: Blog — Lucy Komisar @ 1:55 pm

By Lucy Komisar
December 14, 2009

The man who isn’t there:  whatever happened to Paul Volcker?

Paul Volcker

Paul Volcker

President Obama appointed him Chairman of the new Economic Recovery Advisory Board which is supposed to advise the president on jump-starting the economy and stabilizing financial markets. But the former Federal Reserve Chairman has been cut out of key discussions, including one taking place today with officials of a dozen big banks.

At this morning’s Council on Foreign Relations breakfast to hear Barclays President Robert E. Diamond, Jr, one of my table-mates related what Volcker thinks about his exclusion. The ex-Morgan Stanley banker said Volcker is telling friends that President Obama appointed him just for “window dressing.”

Or else why isn’t Volcker at the meeting Obama is holding today with members of the financial services industry to discuss economic recovery, the Administration’s plans for financial reform and the banks’ lending practices?

Maybe Obama doesn’t want to hear the points Volcker might raise. Volcker told the House Financial Services Committee that he is for a stricter separation between banks that hold deposits and investment banks. And he says that by designating some companies as too big to fail, they get an implicit guarantee that they “will be sheltered by access to a federal safety net.”

According to the White House press release, staff people expected to attend are Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement Valerie Jarrett, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Dr. Christina Romer, Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Where is Paul?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

“Superior Donuts” is funny dark comedy about white 60s radical and young black man

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:48 pm

By Lucy Komisar

There’s a whiff of television in Tracy Letts’ dark comedy about a sixties radical coming to terms with his life and a society that continues to have an underclass. The story is intriguing if a bit formulaic. It’s as if Letts said, “Well, we need a middle-aged white ex-hippie with a pony tail, a brash young black man, a couple of cops of mixed colors and genders and some bad guys to prevent the story from cloying too much.” That said, there is some charm in what he came up with, even if it’s not great drama. Tina Landau directs at an agile pace that highlights the laughs.

Michael McKean as Arthur, photo Robert J. Saferstein

Michael McKean as Arthur, photo Robert J. Saferstein

Arthur Przybyszewski (Michael McKean) runs a shabby donut shop in a black section of Chicago. In the sixties, he was an activist and in 1968 was beaten by Daley’s police. That would be at the Democratic Convention when protestors marched down the lakefront Michigan Avenue and shouted “The whole world is watching.” (I was there, too.) He went to Toronto to escape the draft.

His father, a Polish immigrant, died while Arthur was in Canada, and he returned home to run the shop. His life hasn’t turned out very well. His wife left him, and he hasn’t seen his daughter in years. He is a loner who lives in the past and doesn’t connect with anyone. McKean does a persuasive turn as the laid-back Arthur who still wears the T-shirts of the bands of his era.

Business in the donut shop is bad, and to add to it, when Arthur opens up that morning, the door is smashed and “pussy” is scrawled on the mirror. He hardly seems to care.

Jon Michael Hill as Franco and Michael McKean as Arthur, photo Robert J. Saferstein

Jon Michael Hill as Franco and Michael McKean as Arthur, photo Robert J. Saferstein

Later that day, in walks Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a young black man who needs a job. Hill is lively and engaging in the role. He persuades Arthur to hire him as an all-around helper and also sets about offering some good advice. Arthur is missing the evening trade, he needs to fix the place up. It’s seedy, with a Formica counter and metal stools with red plastic seats. (The set is by James Schuette.) He needs music, and “How’s about poetry reading. I’ll produce a coffee house.” Arthur acknowledges the competition of a new Starbucks, and Franco quips, “They’ve got Starbucks in wheat fields.”

Franco also tells him to improve his appearance: “Let me tell you who looks good in a ponytail, girls and ponies.” And he suggests he pay more attention to the lady cop (Kate Buddeke), who finds all kinds of reasons to stop by the shop.

The young man seems to be down on his luck now, but he has hopes for the future. He is writing the Great American Novel called “America Will Be,” after Langston Hughes’s poem. He wants Arthur to read it. Letts needs to give Arthur someone to care about, and that could be Franco.

Robert Maffia as Luther Flynn, Cliff Chamberlain as Kevin Magee, the debt collectors, photo Robert J. Saferstein

Robert Maffia as Luther Flynn, Cliff Chamberlain as Kevin Magee, the debt collectors, photo Robert J. Saferstein

Till now it’s pretty light stuff and could be any family TV story. It gets darker when a couple of mobsters (Robert Maffia and Cliff Chamberlain) come around to collect on a debt. Seems Franco had been a runner for gamblers and had fallen into the vice himself. Meanwhile, Max Tarasov (Yasen Peyankov), a Russian who owns the DVD shop next door, wants to buy Arthur out. Eventually, all the pieces fit together. I could have done without the gratuitous brutality and a rather corny dénouement.

But the plot does grab your attention, as any good TV drama might, and there is some clever, funny dialogue and good acting by all, especially McKean as Arthur, Hill as Franco, Buddeke as a cop, Peyankov as the Russian store owner and Michael Garvey as his nephew, Kiril.

“Superior Donuts.” Written by Tracy Letts, Directed by Tina Landau. Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened October 1, 2009; closes January 3, 2010.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

“So Help Me God!” is a comic and sardonic look at divas of the stage

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 3:57 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Kristen Johnston, photo Richard Termine

Kristen Johnston, photo Richard Termine

When theater actress Lily Darnley (Kristen Johnston) kisses her image in the mirror, it might be taken as an exaggeration. It’s not. It’s the quintessential moment in this droll backstage comedy about self-absorbed celebrity divas who, alas, were just as much among us in the 1920s as today.

Maurine Dallas Watkins’ 80-year-old play, directed with satirical smarts and verve by Jonathan Bank, was written with the eye of a journalist who was noted for her sardonic humor. Watkins had covered crime for the Chicago Tribune; she would go on to write film scripts in the 30s and 40s for directors such as John Ford.

Kristen Johnston, John Windsor-Cunningham as an actor, Ned Noyes, photo Richard Termine

Kristen Johnston, John Windsor-Cunningham as an actor, Ned Noyes, photo Richard Termine

We don’t know much about her today, except for her 1927 play “Chicago,” the basis for the musical. “So Help Me God!” would have premiered in 1929, but then the stock market crashed. The Mint Theatre Company, which Bank heads, is noted for salvaging such gems of the past.

The scene of “So Help Me God!” is the rehearsal for a play called “Empty Hands” which has been penned by a stiff college professor (Ned Noyes).  Darnley – so self-absorbed that even in the acting world she is a caricature — is less taken with her role than with the clothes she may wear and the supporting actors she might seduce.

(Her lipstick gets increasingly smudged as the play goes on.) In fact, she insists on

John Windsor-Cunningham, Kevin O'Donnell, Anna Chlumsky, Catherine Curtin, Kristen Johnston (in front), photo Richard Termine

John Windsor-Cunningham, Kevin O'Donnell, Anna Chlumsky, Catherine Curtin, Kristen Johnston (in front), photo Richard Termine

changing the script to allow her to improve the stage wardrobe: she will be a lady of the manor, of nobility, instead of a professor’s wife.

And she acts that way, pushing the cast out into the rain so she can speak on the phone in privacy. She is manipulative, arrogant, cut-throat and outraged if anyone else gets noticed. She’s also a bit of a lush. One wonders how she has succeeded on stage. But Johnston succeeds very well on the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theater as she/Darnley systematically destroys the interior play and, to the extent she can, the actors who threaten her.

Anna Chlumsky, Kristen Johnston, photo Richard Termine

Anna Chlumsky, Kristen Johnston, photo Richard Termine

The challenge is taken up by Karren-Keppuch Lane (Anna Chlumsky), the neophyte ingénue from Cincinnati, who slips in through the stage door and manages to become Darnly’s understudy. She is in Darnley’s shadow, but it won’t be for long. She transforms herself from a sweet young innocent to a driven wannabe star, which she will achieve by any means necessary.

Watkins also makes it clear that the other actors will suck up and to do anything to keep their parts, including betraying whoever they’ve said to love. Jules Meredith (Kevin O’Donnell) who Karren falls for, is ready in a moment to be a lap dog for Darnly, who had just fired him, then changed her mind.

Ned Noyes, Kristen Johnston, Allen Lewis Rickman as her producer, photo Richard Termine

Ned Noyes, Kristen Johnston, Allen Lewis Rickman as her producer, photo Richard Termine

The Brit Desmond Armstrong (Matthew Waterson) is equally adept at sleeping with the star and getting his name in the promotional billing. Her writer, producer, and directors fall into place.

The cast, who Darnly tells her press agent should be identified just as “supporting” actors, delivers very well on that account. Catherine Curtin is a hoot as the in-your-face wise-cracking Brooklyn-accented company member, Belle, who reminds one of the ladies of “Chicago.” Kraig Swartz does a memorable campy Glenn, her second director.

The play may be old but it’s up to the minute on the story.

“So Help Me God!” Written by Maurine Dallas Watkins; Directed by Jonathan Bank. Mint Theater Company at Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York City. Opened December 7, 2009; Closes December 20, 2009. 212-279-4200.

Friday, December 4, 2009

“Shrek the Musical” is a kids show with clever jokes & lyrics for adults

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 4:07 pm

By Lucy Komisar

There’s a genre of musicals that is supposed to be for kids, but is just as much for adults. I include “The Lion King” and “Wicked” and now “Shrek the Musical.” I loved them all. What they have in common is strong moral politics. The characters in the first play fight oppression, the second combat racism and Shrek does a bit of both. Like the others, it proves that shows about ideas are more interesting and fun than empty-headed fluff.

Brian D'Arcy James as Shrek, photo Joan Marcus

Brian D’Arcy James as Shrek, photo Joan Marcus

“Shrek” is a charmer. Book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who has a long track record of writing clever satires for adults. The poor guy Shrek (Brian D’Arcy James) has been put out by his parents because he is ugly and told to make his way in the world.

In his refuge he is approached by a gaggle of fairy tale characters who were all put out by the nasty Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber). Will Shrek show solidarity?

There are a lot of very adult lyrics to amuse the folks shepherding kids. (Many adults arrive on their own!)

John Tartaglia as Pinocchio, photo Joan Marcus

John Tartaglia as Pinocchio, photo Joan Marcus

Snow White tells how she lives with seven men, “but it’s not easy.” Pinocchio (John Tartaglia) declares, “I’m wood, I’m good, get used to it.” There’s also a cross-dressing wolf. And a remark that, “Somewhere, a village is missing its idiot.”

Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster), who is locked away in a tower à la Rapunzel, dreams of a rescuing prince, but notes that “a pre-nup will be binding.” And, “I know he’ll appear, though I seem a bit bipolar.” She punches the air.

Sutton Foster and dancers, photo Joan Marcus

Sutton Foster and dancers, photo Joan Marcus

There’s a spoof of kitchy good morning birds; Foster’s high note destroys one.

At one point, puppets that bear a strong resemblance to those in “The Lion King” pass by to the sounds of an African song.

Do kids get this? For them, there is a lot of dialogue in the vernacular of how kids speak. And a bit of flatulence, which goes over big. They also get tin soldier armies with swords and a magic mirror. Director Jason Moore handles everything on a fine line between seriousness and the edge of camp.

Brian D'Arcy James and Daniel Breaker, photo Joan Marcus

Brian D’Arcy James and Daniel Breaker, photo Joan Marcus

The dialogue is embedded in clever musical production numbers with choreography by Josh Prince and music by Jeanine Tesori in styles of R&B, blues, hip hop, gospel, R&R. The lush, imaginative sets are by Tim Hatley who also did the costumes and puppets.

I was particularly taken with the appealing comic donkey (Daniel Breaker). Breaker came to everyone’s attention in “Passing Strange” and here shows he has a very wide-ranging acting ability.

Christopher Sieber and company, photo Joan Marcus

Christopher Sieber and company, photo Joan Marcus

Foster is lively and fetching as the princess, and D’Arcy James is a good lumbering, slightly sad-sack weird guy.

Christopher Sieber is a hoot as the midget bad guy Lord Farquaad, with fake yellow-stockinged legs that flip out from his torso as he waddles around on hidden knees.

Did I mention that I went with another adult and we loved this show?

“Shrek the Musical.” Book & Lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire. Music by Jeanine Tesori, Directed by Jason Moore. Choreographed by Josh Prince. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened December 14, 2008, Closes January 3, 2010.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

“Memphis” is a vibrant back story of Rhythm & Blues in the 50s

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 5:21 pm

By Lucy Komisar

J. Bernard Calloway and Montego Glover as Delray and Felicia in the Beale Street club, photo Joan Marcus

J. Bernard Calloway and Montego Glover as Delray and Felicia in the Beale Street club, photo Joan Marcus

It’s 1951 on Beale Street in Memphis, and Huey (Chad Kimball) wanders into a hot music joint. He’s found the music of his soul. The only problem is that this is the black part of town, and he’s white.

“Memphis,” book by Joe DiPietro, music by David Bryan, lyrics by both, and directed by Christopher Ashley, is a vibrant sometimes sketchy, but visually exciting story musical with terrific sounds that range from rhythm and blues to gospel. It’s a social and political back story of R&B, what blacks referred to as “race music.”

Montego Glover & Chad Kimball as Felicia & Huey, photo Joan Marcus

Montego Glover & Chad Kimball as Felicia & Huey, photo Joan Marcus

Huey figures he can build a white audience for the music, and he is right. Along the way, he has to confront his mother’s racism as well as suspicion by blacks and, when he becomes a radio DJ, hostility by the money people who bankroll radio stations. Falling in love with the black lead singer, Felicia (Montego Glover, who shines in this role) doesn’t help. In fact, it gets them beat up.

Struggle against racism dogged the people who created R&B. A network TV show that invites Huey to host wants only white dancers. Officials say they can’t get sponsors for a show with black performers. Huey refuses to give in.

Derrick Baskin, Cass Morgan, James Monroe Iglehart, and J. Bernard Calloway as Huey's mother and Beale Street club singers, photo Joan Marcus

Derrick Baskin, Cass Morgan, James Monroe Iglehart, and J. Bernard Calloway as Huey's mother and Beale Street club singers, photo Joan Marcus

But in the end R&B brings blacks and whites together. Along the way a young white girl goes to a black church, and Huey’s mother (Cass Morgan) gets gospel music religion.

The play moves through Felicia’s struggle to get on the radio and win national recognition.  A crisis occurs when she wants to go North to the big time and Huey wants to stay in Memphis, to bring change there.

'Memphis' dancers, photo Joan Marcus

'Memphis' dancers, photo Joan Marcus

The story rings true and in fact is inspired by the experience of a white DJ of the time. Montego Glover is dynamic as Felicia, and Chad Kimball is appropriately laid back as Huey. No one without his cool could have survived! Director Ashley moves seamlessly between plot and music so that every element works. The show also features exhilarating, pulsating choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

“Memphis.” Music & Lyrics by David Bryan, Book & Lyrics by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Christopher Ashley, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, New York City. 212-239-6200. Opened October 19, 2009.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

“The Brother/Sister Plays” is dark poetry about difficult lives

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 11:57 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s powerful plays are written in the dark poetry of lives marked by desperate seeking after love etched against routine misfortune and tragedy. Yet the characters often exhibit joyous defiance against the odds of disappointment.

Nikiya Mathis, Kianne Muschett, Heather Alicia Simms, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory in 'In the Red and Brown Water,' photo Joan Marcus

Nikiya Mathis, Kianne Muschett, Heather Alicia Simms, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory in 'In the Red and Brown Water,' photo Joan Marcus

The friends and family whose lives make up the stories McCraney tells reside in the projects in the mythical city of San Pere in the bayou of the Louisiana Delta, south of New Orleans. There’s little sense of an outside world.

They use a Black English argot. The dialogue is stylized, with people speaking both in narrative and third person stage directions about themselves. A character may finish a speech with the comment, “He exited,” providing a sense of distance, as if the person were looking from afar at his own life.

“In the Red and Brown Water,” fluidly directed by Tina Landau, centers around Oya (the strong and engaging Kianne Muschett), a sprightly high school girl who is a fast runner. She is offered a running scholarship at the state college. But her mother is ill, and she must choose whether to take that chance or stay and be near her mother in her last days.

Kianne Muschett as Oya and Sterling K. Brown as Shango, and the company in 'In the Red and Brown Waer,' photo Joan Marcus

Kianne Muschett as Oya and Sterling K. Brown as Shango, and the company in 'In the Red and Brown Waer,' photo Joan Marcus

Oya, with a sweet smile permanently etched on her face, moves through life as in a dream. She is courted by the smooth Shango (Sterling K. Brown). His rival is the reserved Ogun (Marc Damon Johnson). She seems to lose her center when her mother dies.

Everyone is in white. Sometimes there is a Greek chorus of characters singing and moving. The set is composed of matched metal cans and barrels back-dropped by a raised walkway. The projects they represent are not grungy; they are surreal.

The people around them include mischievous Elegba (the very talented André Holland), who is a funny charmer as a kid, and Aunt Elegua (the excellent Kimberly Hébert Gregory), who likes young men and exudes a sense of joie de vivre. The desperation and lack of options of the young women in the projects is shown by their desire to get pregnant by boyfriends who, they hope, will then stay with them.

Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun, Brian Tyree Henry as his brother Oshoosi, and Andre Holland as Elegba in 'The Brothers Size,' photo Joan Marcus

Marc Damon Johnson as Ogun, Brian Tyree Henry as his brother Oshoosi, and Andre Holland as Elegba in 'The Brothers Size,' photo Joan Marcus

“The Brothers Size,” tautly directed by Robert O’Hara, is much harsher. Ogun’s brother (Brian Tyree Henry), who has just spent two tormented years in prison, won’t get a job. Ogun, a proponent of tough love, denounces his laziness and tells him he should work in his car repair shop. Marc Damon Johnson brings strength and bottled up emotion to the role of Ogun.

There is affectionate bonding in a lively duet as the brothers sing and copy the style of an Otis Redding song. But grown-up Elegba (Holland) was also in the pen and is a bad influence. Holland is brilliant playing Elegba, playing a cop, playing a child.

A parsons table is a car and a bed.

The third play, “Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet,” also smoothly directed by O’Hara, shows Holland as a 16-year-old high school senior trying to figure out his sexual leanings. Is he “sweet”? He finds out from a street-smart visitor from the Bronx (Sterling K. Brown). The scene is expressive and painful.

Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Aunt Elegua and Andre Holland as Marcus in 'Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet,' photo Joan Marcus

Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Aunt Elegua and Andre Holland as Marcus in 'Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet,' photo Joan Marcus

Marcus (Holland) lets himself go in a moving dream song and dance with two girls decked out as sunflowers. The light side is provided by Nikiya Mathis, very funny as Shaunta, a high school classmate. And Gregory is powerful both as Elegua, now an old woman, and Shun, the mother of one of Marcus’s classmates.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is young. But his imagination is sophisticated. If these plays are any indication, he will be an important American playwright.

“The Brother/Sister Plays.” Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Part 1: In The Red and Brown Water, directed by Tina Landau. Part 2: The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, directed by Robert O’Hara. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (between Astor Place and East 4th Street) New York City. 212-967-7555. Opened November 17, 2009; Closes December 20, 2009.

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