The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Saturday, March 26, 2016

“Widowers’ Houses” a Shaw satire of ‘moral’ folks who profit from exploiting the poor

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 2:50 pm

By Lucy Komisar

George Bernard Shaw’s first play, given a first rate performance by The Actors Company Theatre directed by David Staller, establishes the theme of personal morality vs business corruption that would be a signature of his works through the years. He wrote it in 1892.

Jeremy Beck as Harry and Jonathan Hadley as Billy, photo Marielle Solan.

Jeremy Beck as Harry and Jonathan Hadley as Billy, photo Marielle Solan.

Shaw from the start liked to skewer snobbery. Harry Trench (a naïve but likable Jeremy Beck) and Billy, more formally William De Burgh Cokane, (the unctuous Jonathan Hadley) are British tourists at a hotel on the Rhine. Pretentious Billy flavors his speech with French, and we enjoy the fact that his accent and grammar are dreadful.

They meet an even less cultured fellow traveler, Mr. Sartoius (a properly crude Terry Layman) who thinks a church called Appollinaris is named after the water. His daughter Blanche (Talene Monahon, very good as the young hysterical ingénue) would rather visit shops than churches. All but Harry are obnoxious.

Harry and Blanche meet and in minutes (it seems), she has inveigled him into an engagement. Seems too fast to be believable.

Jeremy Beck as Harry and Talene Monahon as Blanche, photo Marielle Solan.

Jeremy Beck as Harry and Talene Monahon as Blanche, photo Marielle Solan.

Shaw didn’t have time for much courtship in this play, because he needed to devote most of the action to Harry’s discovery of the dark side of his intended family.

Sartoius says he has real estate and is connected to Dr. Trench and his aristocratic relative. Hmm.

It all becomes clear in Sartoius’ drawing room when the frightened, groveling employee Lickcheese (John Plumpis) – note the Dickensian name – complains that he has problems because the wood stairs in one of the tenements is dangerous, three women have been injured there, the stairs should be stones. And he is getting all the rent he can: “No man alive could have screwed more out of those devils.” Because he fixed the staircase, he is fired.

His plea for intervention by Harry and Billy meets deaf ears. Billy remarks about Sartoius, “His affection for his daughter is a redeeming point, certainly.” Shaw turns that ironically on his head, when Lickcheese declares, “She’s a lucky daughter, sir. Many another daughter has been turned out upon the streets to gratify his affection for her. That’s what business is, sir.”

Jeremy Beck as Harry and John Plumpis as Lickcheese, photo Marielle Solan

Jeremy Beck as Harry and John Plumpis as Lickcheese, photo Marielle Solan

And who is the moral guy here, “Which of us is the worse, I should like to know? Me that wrings the money out to keep a home over my children, or you that spends it and try to shove the blame on to me?

So the first issue is how the young doctor Harry Trench will deal with the fact that the lady’s father is a slumlord. And that she doesn’t seem to mind.

Harry confronts Sartoius: “I found out this morning from your man, Lickcheese, that your fortune has been made out of a parcel of unfortunate creatures that have hardly enough to keep body and soul together—made by squeezing, and bullying, and threatening, and all sorts of tyranny.”

First Sartois needs to know: “I assume, to begin with, Dr. Trench, that you are not a Socialist, or anything of that sort.” Oh, no, he votes Conservative. “At least, if I ever took the trouble to vote, I should vote for the Conservative and against the other fellow.” Shaw, of course, was a Fabian socialist.

Then he explains that poor people don’t know how to live in proper dwellings: they would wreck them in a week.

Terry Layman as Sartoius, Jonathan Hadley as Billy, John Plumpis as Lickcheese, Jeremy Beck as Harry, photo Marielle Solan.

Terry Layman as Sartoius, Jonathan Hadley as Billy, John Plumpis as Lickcheese, Jeremy Beck as Harry, photo Marielle Solan.

Lickcheese returns in top hat and tails, having transformed himself. Seems he got involved with a parliamentary report about housing for the working classes that focused on London’s worst slumlords, and he has extorted money from people he would have exposed.

So what happens when a Conservative’s good intentions come smack up against his pocketbook? Sartoius informs Harry that the annuity that supports him is based on interest from the mortgage on the slum.

And, by the way, if he sticks with it, there’s a thoroughfare planned for the area, and if they upgrade the property, they can demand big compensation from the government.

Does this play written more than a hundred years ago seem very current?  Director Staller makes it seem as if it could happen today. Are there slumlords that game the system? Are there good guys who don’t have a problem enjoying the profits thereby derived? From fraudulent mortgages, for example, when they are bundled into whatever? Hmm.

So, will the moral Conservative ditch the immoral investment? Will he marry the slumlord’s daughter? Will England in the late 1800s change? The Labor Party would be founded in 1900, eight years after Shaw wrote “Widowers’ Houses.” The play is an excellent prequel to why that happened. The party had a good run until Tony Blair. Then, as Billy might have said, “Plus ҁa change, plus c’est la même chose.”*

 Widowers’ Houses.” Written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by David Staller. The Actors Company Theatre/TACT at Samuel Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. New York City. 212-714-2442. Opened March 13, 2016, closes April 2, 2016. 3/25/16. (*The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

“L’Amant Anonyme” is 18th French century opera composed by son of a slave

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 12:10 am

By Lucy Komisar

In the canon of arts that are little known because they weren’t created by white men, add an 18th century baroque opera composed by Joseph Bologne, born 1745 in Guadeloupe, the son of a French plantation owner and a slave.

It’s a charming confection that was designed as a chamber piece, to be performed privately, because the Paris Opera would not accept “a mulatto.”

His father brought him to France at 7 years old to be educated. He was brilliant. And an accomplished fencer, which made him at 16 a chevalier and eased his way into society. At 17 he read in Rousseau’s “Social Contract” that “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” which challenged the existence of slavery.

At 24 he made his debut as a solo violinist to great acclaim. He wrote string quartets, violin concertos and symphonic concertantes. John Adams called him great and accomplished and in 1776 he was proposed as music director of the Opera, but leading sopranos petitioned the queen that they could not submit to the orders of a mulatto.

Jennifer Moore as Léontine and Everett Suttle as Valcour, photo Tina Buckman.

Jennifer Moore as Léontine and Everett Suttle as Valcour, photo Tina Buckman.

His opera, “L’Amant Anonyme,” was presented at the private theater of Mme de Montesson in 1780. He would write six operas, this one the most successful that survived in its entirety. The production adapted and directed by Philip Shneidman features a chamber orchestra of strings, wind instruments and harpsichord.

The text is in English and the vocals in French. It begins with Joseph on trial for actions against the revolution, though it’s never made clear what he is accused of. Most of the story, hokey as befits operas, is about unrequited love. Valcour (smooth tenor Everett Suttle) is in love with Léontine (the very elegant soprano, Jennifer Moore) but is afraid to tell her. And she is indifferent to him, but then says he fascinates her.

He is hopeless at his plight, Léontine comments on his remoteness. Their friend Ophémon, (fine baritone Jesse Malgieri) tries to bring them together. There is some swordplay that makes one think that some of this might be autobiographical.

There are also a peasant girl (the excellent Marie Masters) and her fiancé (Anthony Webb), as well as a lady in waiting, Aude Cardona. The musicians sit at the side in the small black box theater, which makes one think of the villa drawing room where this would have taken place.

In the end, of course, “love inflames her heart.” The singing is a lot better than the acting in this corny production.

Worthwhile to see a worthy production of an 18th century composer, the son of a slave.

L’Amant Anonyme.” By Chevalier de Saint-Georges, libretto by Desfontaines after Mme. De Genus, adapted and directed by Philp Shneidman. the little OPERA theatre of NY at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York City. 212-753-5959. Opened March 12, 2016, closes March 20, 2016. 3/19/16.

Friday, March 18, 2016

“Ideation” shows unnerving connection between corporate sleaze and designs for mass killing

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 2:43 pm

By Lucy Komisar

Think of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”* as if it were designed by corporate consultants figuring out how to dispose of large numbers of people unlucky enough to have contracted a very deadly virus about to go global. Then move to Aaron Loeb’s engrossing bizarre, dark play which posits a related idea that couldn’t be real. Or could it, in principle? Or the lack of it.

Carrie Paff as Hannah, Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, and Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, photo Carol Rosegg.

Carrie Paff as Hannah, Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, and Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, photo Carol Rosegg.

Ideation is the act of coming up with ideas, corporate speak for thinking. The management consultants would be ranged around a cherry wood oval conference table. There would be a large white board, an intern would be sent for coffee, the boss at another location would communicate by speaker phone.

For secret project Senna, the major rules would be 1. No power point, 2. Assume the worst, and 3. No N-word. No, it’s not that N-word, it’s the other N-word. Consider the system diagram for Collection, Containment, Liquidation and Disposal.

Playwright Loeb’s plot idea might seem crazy at first, but that’s only if you didn’t pay attention to the early remarks of Scooter (Ben Euphrat), a young guy getting his MBA who is there as an intern because his father is on the board.

The team is Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips) a bit obnoxious, Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) insistent, sometimes rattled, Hannah (Carrie Paff) assertive, chic, in very high heels, Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) from India, a bit calmer at the start.

The ensemble of actors is excellent, utterly believable, they inhabit their souls, in some cases very damaged souls. All of them appear willing to sell out whatever souls they ever had. Director Josh Costello leaves no doubt that the events that transpire could be true.

Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, Jason Kapoor as Sandeep, Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, and Ben Euphrat as Scooter, photo Carol Rosegg.

Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, Jason Kapoor as Sandeep, Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, and Ben Euphrat as Scooter, photo Carol Rosegg.

Brock and Ted have just come back from Greece, where they saved money for a client by shifting the cost of maintaining his trucks to the municipality by persuading it that the upkeep should be done by the local government “in the guise of business friendly environment.” And with some “modest chargebacks,” ie kickbacks.

Brock explains, “So our client saves and the union gets more heads funded by the government borrowing money they can’t pay back but, you know, who are they going to call when that blows up in their faces?”

Sandeep points out, “They will see that our client is thriving while they are in debt. But wait a minute… Just a year ago, two, our client was in debt. So, from this, what will they conclude?”

Scooter volunteers, “That you tricked them.” Adding, “Brock…you were saying you’d privatize the port. But if there’s not enough revenue to justify the new regional maintenance technicians in the first place, isn’t that liability just going to catch up with our clients?”

If they could do that with no moral compunctions, what else could they do? How do you go from the scamming inherent in privatization (consultants win, everyone else loses, it happens all the time) to a new project, using the whiteboard to discuss mass killing?

Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, photo Carol Rosegg.

Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, photo Carol Rosegg.

It’s for a good cause, to get rid of people with a contagious virus that could kill millions if it spread. But then there are technical problems. How do they dispose of bodies, through crematoria or dumping them into remote mass graves to be hidden under concrete?

The solution has to be “scalable,” for a million victims, a word they don’t use. Ted suggests that the bodies could be loaded onto shipping containers and pushed overboard mid-ocean. Isn’t that a biohazard? You could just grease some palms.

But Sandeep raises essential doubts, “No such virus exists.” Ted replies, “Not yet.” So why are they doing this? Hmm. (Why do we always assume the givens?)

Sandeep says, “For it to work — for something like this to work, everyone would have to keep it secret until… until it’s too late. I mean that’s the problem with something like this historically, isn’t it? To execute something of this scale — it’s impossible to keep it secret. And if people knew, someone would stop them….”

But he gets to the point. Might people stop them from using the plan “against dissidents. Against people who look like me. Against Mexicans or gays or whomever they want to use it against, in the name of whatever they are doing things in the name of. Country? Profit? God? Well… those are the big three, aren’t they?” he notes.

Of course we now know what the N-word is. And what this project could be about.

Carrie Paff as Hannah, Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, and Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, photo Carol Rosegg.

Carrie Paff as Hannah, Michael Ray Wisely as Ted, and Mark Anderson Phillips as Brock, photo Carol Rosegg.

Sandeep’s colleagues begin to think about how to cover themselves, about the non-disclosure agreements they signed, worry that if they reveal what is going on that they won’t get another job on The Street. And then, suppose there are bids from competing teams. There are conflicts.

As the tension rises, they draw charts of options, each labeled with smiley faces, happy or sad. There’s rationalization. Then fear: aren’t they probably being surveilled? Suppose the people at the top think that they know too much. The focus shifts from what they may be doing to others to what might happen to them.

You also begin to wonder how much of the project is fictional. Or does it stand for something else? Forget the likelihood of using the killing system against dissidents. Not yet. But what’s more current? Where does killing by drones come in? Did people work out the U.S. drones project on a white board? Where does launching drones fit on the morality meter between cheating a Greek municipality and setting up an operation where the N-word is appropriate?

Aaron Loeb establishes perfectly the moral conundrum, the slippery slope of the amoral corporate/political project. You don’t really know where to draw the line between the past, present and possible future. You only understand that the kind of morality represented by corporate sleaze and groupthink has seeped into areas where “a modest proposal” for killing is readily accepted by political decision-makers.

Ideation.” Written by Aaron Loeb, directed by Josh Costello. San Francisco Playhouse at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York City. 212-279-4200. Opened March 15, 2016, closes April 17, 2016. Winner of the 2014 Will Glickman Award for best play premiering in San Francisco. 3/17/16.

*  “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick,” known ever since as “A Modest Proposal,” was a satirical essay published anonymously by Jonathan Swift in 1729. He suggested that Irish people mired in poverty might get some cash and do some good by selling their children as food for the rich.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

1938 Irish play “Women Without Men” depicts women without solidarity

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

By Lucy Komisar

This play is a period piece. The time is close enough to the present that it’s fascinating but also a little irritating for a feminist. It was written by Hazel Ellis, an Irish actress and playwright in the 1930s. She performed at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and had success with several plays there.

Kate Middleton as Ruby Ridgeway, Dee Pelletier as Mademoiselle Vernier, Emily Walton as Jean Wade, photo Richard Termine.

Kate Middleton as Ruby Ridgeway, Dee Pelletier as Mademoiselle Vernier, Emily Walton as Jean Wade, photo Richard Termine.

The women are teachers in an Irish country boarding school in 1937. Ellis had attend such a school herself. At that time, teaching was probably about the highest level job a woman could get. Better than maid or nanny or store clerk. But their choices were so limited, that they had to put up with depressing conditions, only half a day off a week, nightly curfews of 10 pm.

So they vented their frustrations on each other, back-biting as a daily routine. The French teacher, Mademoiselle (a very good Dee Pelletier) is treated rudely when she kindly brings a plate of tea and biscuits to the wood-paneled faculty lounge, where all the action occurs.

Emily Walton as Jean Wade, Mary Bacon as Marjorie Strong, photo Richard Termine.

Emily Walton as Jean Wade, Mary Bacon as Marjorie Strong, photo Richard Termine.

When young Jean Wade (a charming Emily Walton) arrives as the new teacher, she is astonished at her colleagues’ meanness.

Marjorie Strong (a controlled Mary Bacon), who has been there for a few decades, advises her to withdraw and keep silent, as she has done.

They are properly snobbish. When Wade asks “Are the pupils nice?” she is told, “Yes, it’s a very expensive school.”

Wade, who has a fiancé, announces she doesn’t want to get married. She’s told, “Mind you don’t lose him and be sorry.” The show depicts how horrible it is to live without men, which in this play means you are condemned to the company of nasty, malicious women.

Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington as students, Emily Walton as Jean Wade,Kellie Overbey as Miss Connor, photo Richard Termine.

Beatrice Tulchin, Shannon Harrington as students, Emily Walton as Jean Wade, Kellie Overbey as Miss Connor, photo Richard Termine.

Wade is outgoing, and the girls love her, which arouses jealousy among the teachers. Especially among Miss Connor (the tough but fragile Kellie Overbey) who has spent several decades writing a philosophical book on beauty that she talks about a lot but shows to no one.

Teachers get angry when students give Wade flowers, and Connor plots to derail a play she has organized to show off the girls’ talents.

The dénouement crashes into melodrama. Has to do with Connor’s opus magnus. Under attack, will the heroine reject being a woman without a man and decamp to her fiancé? Or will the other women get together, discover solidarity and demand better conditions? Was there feminism in Ireland in the 1930s?

Mary Emily Walton as Jean Wade and her colleagues, photo Richard Termine.

Emily Walton as Jean Wade and her colleagues, photo Richard Termine.

Director Jenn Thompson does a good job presenting this cleanly, sympathetically, without succumbing to the melodrama.

Indeed it is worthy as a period piece. But it’s hard to figure out if this was a play urging female solidarity or despairing of its absence. Which raises the question, why the title? Why are these women defined as “without men.” Is the playwright suggesting that women without men are doomed?

At 30, Ellis left the theater and entered two failed marriages, exiting them into loneliness and alcoholism. With or without a man, she should have stayed at The Gate.

Women Without Men.” By Hazel Ellis, directed by Jenn Thompson. Mint Theater Company, New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, New York City. 212-581-1212. Opened Feb 25, 2016; closes March 26, 2016. 3/3/2016.

 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

“Prodigal Son” – John Patrick Shanley’s engrossing memoir of rebel Catholic youth

Filed under: Theater — Lucy Komisar @ 9:12 pm

By Lucy Komisar

A smart but rebellious kid gets suspended from a Catholic high school in New York City for saying he doesn’t believe in God. He ends up at the Thomas Moore Preparatory School in Keene, NH, a small boarding school where he will continue to argue about ideas and also get into fights and scrapes.

Timothée Chalamet as Jim Quinn, photo Joan Marcus.

Timothée Chalamet as Jim Quinn, photo Joan Marcus.

John Patrick Shanley, the author of this engaging autobiographical play, presents a charming, vivid look back at how a precocious youth, who would become a major playwright, had to navigate the shoals of rigid school thinking and a run-in with a closeted gay teacher who came on to him. (There’s also a mystery about a student who tried to kill himself.)

Shanley says the story is largely true, even most of the names. As he is also the director, you know you are seeing his truth.

His character, Jim Quinn, (the excellent Timothée Chalamet), is 15, with a New York accent and consigned to “a room in Hell.” Though he wouldn’t have capitalized it. He’d made the remark about not believing in God “to wake up the teacher.” Probably he wouldn’t have capitalized God either.

By 16, his satirical sweatshirt says “pray for war.” It’s 1966, and the American conflagration is raging in Vietnam. Shanley would remain a man of the left.

Timothée Chalamet as Jim Quinn and Robert Sean Leonard as Alan Hoffman, photo Joan Marcus.

Timothée Chalamet as Jim Quinn and Robert Sean Leonard as Alan Hoffman, photo Joan Marcus.

He’s not completely isolated at the school; the head of the English Department, Alan Hoffman (Robert Sean Leonard) is a pacifist. He seems open-minded, congenial to students.

Chalamet is like a dancer as he takes off chasing his muses. He’s a romantic, a fantastic. He argues that Socrates was a suicide. So were Thomas Moore and Jesus. “Because he wouldn’t play the game and lie about what he believed…. Nobody was asking Jesus to rat out his neighbor, just back off the King of the Jews stuff.”

The tall lanky kid is jousting with philosophers. He’s a charmer. But there are scrapes. He gets drunk. He steals some records. He beats up freshmen. He acts out. Headmaster Carl Schmitt (a properly rigid Chris McGarry) threatens to kick him out. “I have to protect the student body from moral peril,” says Schmitt.

Timothée Chalamet as Jim Quinn and Annika Boras as Louise Schmitt, photo Joan Marcus.

Timothee Chalamet as Jim Quinn and Annika Boras as Louise Schmitt, photo Joan Marcus.

Schmitt’s wife, Louise (Annnika Boras), who tutors Jim in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” provides some humanity to argue his case.

Shanley pleads for a recommendation to Harvard. Fallback is NYU.

You love rooting for this fearless, clever kid who, with the passion of his intellect, was smarter than everyone around him. There are some moments that come perilously close to hokey. But as the memoir of a major moral playwright, it’s a gem.

Shanley, by the way, graduated from NYU. He would win the Pulitzer Prize for “Doubt,” about a possibly pedophile priest.

THE END

Prodigal Son.” Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York City. 212-581-1212. Opened Feb 9, 2016, closes March 27, 2016. Running Time 95 minutes, with no intermission. 3/2/16.

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