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Archive for the Category ‘Theater’

Most everything is right about “The Play That Goes Wrong”

Most everything is right about “The Play That Goes Wrong”

One of the stars of this play is not human. It’s the set for the riotous slapstick comedy put on by (real) British actors about a disastrous production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor” by a fake university drama society. Sometimes slapstick is silly, but this is exceedingly clever. It’s co-written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields who also act in the play. Director Mark Bell does brilliantly at making everything go so wonderfully effortlessly wrong.

Andy Karl gives charismatic appeal to quirky musical “Groundhog Day”

Andy Karl gives charismatic appeal to quirky musical “Groundhog Day”

New York TV weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is in Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the annual groundhog-comes-out-of-his-burrow-and-sees-or-doesn’t-see-his-shadow day. If he sees it, there will be six more weeks of winter. (But how do they know?) It’s a pretty silly made-for-media fake news story. With a made for TV weatherman.

“Anastasia” a fine colorful big-musical Russian Romanov princess fantasy

“Anastasia” a fine colorful big-musical Russian Romanov princess fantasy

Complex, fascinating and gorgeous, this fantasy tale of the young woman who might be the surviving daughter of Czar Nicholas of Russia is a colorful musical mystery with elegant singing, marvelous dancing and costumes that light up the stage.

With a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, it features the top talents of Broadway. That goes for director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey, who have “big Broadway show” written all over them.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” takes 19th-century play to funny, clever feminist present

“A Doll’s House, Part 2” takes 19th-century play to funny, clever feminist present

Fifteen years after she slammed the door, Nora returns to Torvald’s house as the Betty Friedan of 19th-century Norway. As created by Laurie Metcalf from the script by Lucas Hnath, she is smart, witty, sarcastic, tough and likely to make women cheer. I did!

“The Little Foxes” are the capitalist killers of Hellman’s riveting family conflict

“The Little Foxes” are the capitalist killers of Hellman’s riveting family conflict

Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play is a family battle where the antagonists are class and gender. The title comes from the Song of Solomon in the King James Bible: “Take [from] us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” The Manhattan Theatre Club, under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, gives it a stunning production.
The place is a small Alabama town in 1900. The little foxes are the members of the Hubbard family of shopkeepers who lust after the pedigree and money of the cotton aristocrats. They attempt to move up the social and economic ladder through marriage, one to the naïve daughter of a plantation owner, the other to a banker. They will indeed spoil what they touch.

“Present Laughter” stars sublime Kevin Kline in delicious Noël Coward farce

“Present Laughter” stars sublime Kevin Kline in delicious Noël Coward farce

You can see why an ingénue, femme fatale and ex-wife are smitten with Garry Essendine, the self-absorbed hammy stage star played by Kevin Kline in Noël Coward’s delightfully funny sophisticated 1943 play, “Present Laughter.” Because, so are we, smitten.

It is 1939 in London. Garry, 57 going on 37, lives in a stylish duplex apartment furnished with lots of modern art, books, a baby grand piano and a very idiosyncratic staff, including a dry, sardonic secretary, a dour Swedish cook and a laid-back butler. He is cosseted by his ex-wife, who helps manage his theatrical affairs, and he is targeted by women, whose advances he deplores and enjoys.

“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” satirizes couples’ attempts to be cool

“How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” satirizes couples’ attempts to be cool

Sarah Ruhl satirizes a midlife crisis that turns two ordinary and apparently happy couples in their forties to group sex. They have been inspired by a three-some of 20-somethings and think they might be missing something. So they fall into a pretty joyless ménage à quatre. It’s funny, if not profound. And the cast is fine as schmoozy, nice folks getting into trouble with their “what are we missing that the young folks have?”

“Angel” & “Echoes” on machismo underlying Islamic and colonial repression

“Angel” & “Echoes” on machismo underlying Islamic and colonial repression

Drawing on the crises of the Middle East, London playwright Henry Naylor has produced two powerful, insightful plays about women who struggle to defeat the machismo that incites Islamic militants. And which is hardly limited to the Islamic world. Naylor, 51, is a man with a strong feminist sensibility and a keen eye for drama. He shows in works that are political as well as theatrical how the domination and abuse of women is part of the psyche of political repression.

O’Neill’s radical “The Hairy Ape” enthralls

O’Neill’s radical “The Hairy Ape” enthralls

You might never see a more powerful, stunning production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” than this one directed by Richard Jones and starring Bobby Cannavale at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s a very early O’Neill work, first produced in 1922, a time of radical ferment in the U.S., and it is imbued with the young man’s poetic and fierce attack on capitalist exploitation of workers and the inequality that engenders. Which makes it a very modern play as well.

“Come From Away” a Canadian charmer with a subtle message to the red states

“Come From Away” a Canadian charmer with a subtle message to the red states

This play is a charmer. I didn’t expect to say that. I thought a story about the passengers who force-landed in Gander, Newfoundland, because airspace in the U.S. was closed on 9/11 and who were welcomed by the locals, would be hokey and sentimental. It is not.

“Sunset Boulevard” is too campy story of has-been star and desperate screenwriter

“Sunset Boulevard” is too campy story of has-been star and desperate screenwriter

Glenn Close is masterful in Norma Desmond’s final mad scene. Suddenly camp becomes real drama, tragedy of the Shakespearean sort. Till then the has-been silent film star, the grande dame who flounces around in glittery gold and silver sweeping gowns and capes, is hard to take too seriously. The camp is exaggerated by butler/major-domo Max (Fred Johanson), whose dark mood and piercing eyes could have come out of a Mel Brooks Frankenstein spoof. “Goulish” is a word to describe them both, and the haunted house they live in.

“Life According to Saki” is dark, whimsical satire that aims at British upper class

“Life According to Saki” is dark, whimsical satire that aims at British upper class

Macabre and whimsical, dark and comic at the same time, a clever satiric pen pointed at self-absorbed aristocrats of the early 1900s, Katherine Rundell’s “Life According to Saki” is a delicious evening of theater.

“Jitney” follows working men struggling to survive

“Jitney” follows working men struggling to survive

You can feel the humanity pulsating and striving through the drab surroundings of the car service office in “Jitney” by the great American playwright August Wilson, who died in 2005. The protagonists, moving in an orbit around the solid Becker (a resolute, moving John Douglas Thompson), who set up the cooperative 18 years ago, are working class guys with jobs, if you want to include the numbers guy, Shealy (Harvy Blanks).

“A Bronx Tale” is musical coming of age with a twist: kid grows up among hoodlums

“A Bronx Tale” is musical coming of age with a twist: kid grows up among hoodlums

It’s a knock off of “West Side Story,” here Italians vs blacks, and very hokey, but “A Bronx Tale” has a certain charm and pizazz nonetheless. The place is Bedford Avenue, tenements with fire escapes and pushcarts. And kids singing doo-wop. They are working class Italians, circa 1960.

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” flashes across Broadway

“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” flashes across Broadway

This immersive, hokey, utterly engaging production is one of the memorable plays to see this season. In fact, it almost feels as if you don’t just see it, you are in it. The audience is dispersed around a gorgeous set, seated at rows and tables, some on the stage, backed by red drapes and paintings, as actors move through the aisles and on risers. Sometimes lighted chandeliers descend or disco lights flash. Everything seems red, white and black.

“The Front Page” an engaging politically advanced 90-year-old noirish comedy

“The Front Page” an engaging politically advanced 90-year-old noirish comedy

Nathan Lane is superb as the over-the-top newspaper editor Walter Burns in this near 90-year-old noirish comedy that has some political nuggets hidden in its hokey scenario. It’s given a fine, only slightly tongue in cheek, reprise by director Jack O’Brien. Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur had been Chicago reporters, and the action takes place in the press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building. The courts building shares the gallows courtyard with the county jail. Then anarchist Earl Williams (John Magaro), who is accused of killing a policeman and is going to be hanged, escapes.

“The Band’s Visit” is a charming gem about human connections across political divides

“The Band’s Visit” is a charming gem about human connections across political divides

An Egyptian police band, the grandly named Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, in 1996 is supposed to play at an Arab cultural center in Israel, but gets the town’s name wrong at the bus station and ends up in an Israeli backwater.

Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a trumpet player who loves Chet Baker, sings “My funny valentine” to female soldiers at the bus station. But the diversion plus imperfect English turns Petah Tikva, the city with the Arab cultural center, into Bet Hatikva. And so hangs the tale, and a charming, moving, slightly sentimental gem of a play.

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a hokey Sex in the City in 18th century France

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a hokey Sex in the City in 18th century France

I seem to be using the word a lot lately: hokey. Chandeliers with lit candles descend to sounds of operatic “ah ah” and pretentious violins. The story is based on a French epistolary novel written in 1782, and meant as a satire. But with the direction by Josie Rourke, you get the feeling that audiences are invited to enjoy the sex stuff. It’s basically about a guy putting notches on his bedpost. (“Sex in the 18th-century French City”?)

The anti-hero Valmont (Lev Schreiber) is conspicuously charming. His former lover the Marquise, played by a take-no-prisoners Janet McTeer, wants revenge against her former lover Jacour, who has announced that he is going to marry a rich young girl. And Valmont wants to seduce married women known for their high morals.

“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is charming fluff highlighting great songs of the 40s

“Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is charming fluff highlighting great songs of the 40s

It’s light fluff, but if you love 40s music, as I do, just forget the silly plot. Besides, the production and the actors are charming. And there is 40s scat. Also jazzy music, dance kicks, swing and tap. The show is based on a 1942 movie, but a lot of the songs have been added.

“The Encounter” is a hokey gimmicky pretentious conceit

“The Encounter” is a hokey gimmicky pretentious conceit

Simon McBurney, founder and artistic director of the British theater company Complicite (a French word here pretentiously spelled without the acute accent on the e) has produced a hokey often loopy and generally pompous conceit under the pretext of an anthropological mission to the Amazon.

He pretends to be the photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969. But the visual, as it would appear to an audience viewing the stage, is not enough. You get earphones to enjoy surround sound and sense that you are partaking of McIntyre’s adventures and dangers. Something blows in your ear, a noise comes from behind and you want to turn. You hear the crashes and echoes of the jungle. Think radio show sound effects.

“Fiddler on the Roof” still brilliant political musical theater

“Fiddler on the Roof” still brilliant political musical theater

When can it be more relevant to look at the politics of theater? In this year of bizarre reaction, “Fiddler” continues to be the quintessential representation of popular struggle. This is a brilliant production by Bartlett Sherr. Lucky to see it with Danny Bernstein and Jessica Hecht, major actors of our time. They are supported by an excellent ensemble cast. In Russia of the early 1900s, a Jewish community in Russia is confronting the challenges of social modernization and the political threat of the Czar.

“The Cherry Orchard” is brought up to date in Simon Godwin’s engaging production

“The Cherry Orchard” is brought up to date in Simon Godwin’s engaging production

Simon Godwin’s staging of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” with Stephen Karam’s adaptation is modern in mood, without changes of costumes. Except that hanging Calder sculptures represent the eponymous trees.
This is a very diverting production, especially a gorgeous costume ball that has a bit of a Fellini-style carnival in it, with characters in tights and glitter, and a clown with a bulbous nose. It suggests surreally the disintegration of society. Or the society as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (the excellent Diane Lane), head of an unraveling aristocratic ménage, has known.

Post-War would bring peace and “Plenty;” David Hare’s disappointing play suggests why it didn’t.

Post-War would bring peace and “Plenty;” David Hare’s disappointing play suggests why it didn’t.

Is David Hare’s play “Plenty” about the personal or the political? A confusing muddle.
We first see our heroine Susan (the very fine Rachel Weisz) at 17 in occupied France where her job is to work with other resistance fighters to divert Germans from the front. In a black cap and trench coat, she is waiting for a drop. But an unexpected “drop” is Codename Lazar (Ken Barnett), a British pilot who has bailed out. She weeps to him about how she is replacing an agent who was captured and taken to Buchenwald. Then the war ends.

“Underground Railroad Game” is a stunning, biting, compelling satire on what white Americans learn about slavery

“Underground Railroad Game” is a stunning, biting, compelling satire on what white Americans learn about slavery

This is not a children’s game. It is a riveting, compelling, inventive dissection of slavery, the underground railroad, the civil war and racism. In fact, “riveting, compelling, inventive” is a good description of Ars Nova, which presents this play and also created “The Great Comet of 1812” just opening on Broadway.

The Underground Railroad Game comes out of the experience of Scott Sheppard, one of the two creator/performers, who in the 5th grade participated in a unit about the civil war that divided students into Union and Confederate soldiers. But this is much more. And definitely not for 5th graders. If the underground railroad gives people the sense of, “at least there was a silver lining” to slavery, this production puts the real story out, with in-your-face realism. Taibi Magar’s powerful direction is bereft of illusions.

“Sense & Sensibility” a funny hokey caricature of Jane Austin’s genteel 19th-century England

“Sense & Sensibility” a funny hokey caricature of Jane Austin’s genteel 19th-century England

The protagonists sometimes scowl, smirk, sneer, scream, run with branches to represent a forest, are pushed around on roller chairs, pass through moving doorways that reflect entrances and exits, and occasionally face inches away from first-row audiences to pull them into the plot. Not quite Bedlam but you get the very idea from this troupe that believes in “the immediacy of the relationship between the actor and the audience…collapsing aesthetic distance…[in] a kinetic experience of shared empathy.”