Theater Review: The Assembled Parties

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The playwright Richard Greenberg is a writer deserving of accolades. He has written over 25 plays, including hits like Take Me Out; beautiful scripts with lesser productions like Three Days of Rain; and the occasional flop like Breakfast at Tiffany’s which closed earlier this month. Happily, the praise bestowed on his new Broadway play, The Assembled Parties, has been nearly unanimous. But it felt unfinished to me, an amalgam of clever scenes and empathetic characters that had lost their way.

The Assembled Parties is a story about long-held secrets between family members, first in the early 80’s and later in the early aughts. Our attention is centered on the Bascovs, a refined, upper-class Manhattan family whom you would envy for their good looks and sprawling apartment if they weren’t so nice and welcoming. Julie Bascov, the beautiful mother played by Jessica Hecht, is a former actress who at 50-something hasn’t lost an ounce of youthful appeal. Her lilting voice and enunciated syllables suggest a well-bred upbringing, the same advantages she offers her two sons, Scotty and Timmy. We meet Julie before Christmas dinner, preparing crudités in the kitchen with Jeff (Jeremy Shamos), a bright but nervous law student and friend of Scotty’s who is staying with the Bascovs for the holiday.

It’s important to mention that everyone we meet here is Jewish. And while religion itself isn’t central to the play, it’s noteworthy that Christmas is the backdrop for this family gathering. It speaks not just to Julie and her husband Ben’s secularism, but also to their Jewish ancestry. (More on that in a minute.) The Bascovs’ dinner guests are Ben’s sister Faye, her husband Mort, and daughter Shelley, who are distinctly more Jewish…or rather Jewy, which implies the stereotypes without the religiosity. Jeff’s family (whom we don’t meet) seems to be more observant and less well-off, the combination of which deepens his awe of the Bascovs. A phone conversation to Jeff’s parents indicates that they’re spending the night with Chinese food and a movie, the recognizable cliché of Jews at Christmastime.

These multiple shades of Jewishness provide much of the comedy in Act I. Whether or not you pick up on the cultural references, you can’t miss Shelley’s Brooklyn-inflected accent, or Faye’s Yiddish-infused speech, which Judith Light nails at every turn. Faye is the opposite of Julie: she is salted herring to Julie’s caviar.

As the guests arrive and the Bascovs prepare dinner, we see the stage rotate to reveal more and more rooms in their palatial apartment. Ultimately, we arrive at the dining room where our appetites have been whetted by the many mysteries that hide behind the comedy: infidelity between spouses, long-standing rivalries, a brazen girlfriend we only hear about, and a ruby necklace whose ownership is in question.

The focus amid the din is Julie, and it is testament to Greenberg’s writing and to Hecht’s performance that we fall in love with her so immediately. Jeff visibly does too, and when he jokes with Scotty and says, “I’m in love with your mom,” it’s done with deliberate bro humor to mask any signs of sincerity. It’s easy for us to feel as Jeff does – we’re enamored by the Bascovs even as we don’t know them.

When the curtain rises after intermission, it’s clear that Julie Bascov (now in her 70’s) has slowed down with time. The set no longer rotates, and Julie’s lightness has become slow with older age. (Hecht’s ability to change her entire demeanor, posture, and walk over a 15-minute intermission is remarkable.) Jeff, whose relationship with the Bascovs has been ongoing if sporadic, has returned for another Christmas dinner. He is more resigned to life, less enchanted by law, and still, it would appear, in love with Julie.

Because the mysteries of Act I hang in the air, every conversation in the second act seems to hint at their revelation. This is where the play falls short. The secrets are revealed, but they don’t affect the story. What we learn is interesting but not reality changing. This play is ultimately Julie’s story: how she encounters every setback and challenge with positivity and grace. But I wish it had been Jeff’s story: the outsider looking in for twenty years. How he has loved Julie all this time while she loves him as a son.

The bigger issue I had with the play is why Greenberg portrays a Jewish family at Christmas dinner, not once but twice. Jewishness circles the play like tinsel and ornaments around an evergreen, but Greenberg doesn’t elucidate an important point: that there are distinct differences between prosperous German Jews like Julie and shtetl-associative Jews like Faye. It’s not simply for laughs that Julie is personified by sophistication and Faye by neuroses. Perhaps Greenberg assumes the audience will pick up on the reference points, but I think most will miss them. To have this play be more than about Julie’s charm – a topic many critics singled out in their praise – we need to understand why her culture and history matter. Conjoined with Julie’s gracefulness is her denial of anything bad: how she waves off bad events, people she’s lost, and any trace of her real heritage. We love Julie but we can’t get close to her. It’s an interesting but unresolved idea that Greenberg leaves on our plates as the play ends. An hour later I was hungry again.

An Interview with Mark Rylance

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For the April issue of American Theatre magazine, I interviewed actor Mark Rylance about his new play, Nice Fish, currently making its world-premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. At the time of the interview, the play was still in development, so we talked mostly about Rylance’s inspiration and the play’s language.

Nice Fish blends dialogue written by Rylance with monologues (or rather, poems) by Minnesotan prose poet Louis Jenkins. A longtime fan of Jenkins’ work, Rylance has quoted such poems at dinners, events, and – most famously – at the Tony Awards in 2008 and 2011 in lieu of acceptance speeches. Watch his 2011 Tony speech HERE.

Nice Fish portrays ice fishermen in Minnesota on the last day of the fishing season. In addition to co-writing the script, Rylance also co-directs with his wife, Claire van Kampen, and stars in the production. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

I watched an interview that you gave after winning your second Tony award where you were asked if the acceptance speech was your own composition. You replied that you couldn’t write something that good.

(laughs) Probably not.

What was your initial inspiration to combine your words with Jenkins’ words?

I think the initial inspiration came when I noticed Robert Bly’s forward to Louis’ first book of poetry, and Robert identified what he felt was an adult voice running through the poems and also a child’s voice. One voice that was cynical and another that was imaginative. That was the beginning, and I thought maybe these two fisherman might say these words to each other. I don’t know where I got the idea of ice fishermen…. Oh that’s right, there was a funny recording I heard about Minnesota people and how they talk in non-sequiturs. They don’t pick up on what the other has said. Maybe it’s the isolation of the long winters or something.

How much did that Midwestern sensibility tie into your own adolescence in Wisconsin and thinking back on your childhood there?

That’s what it’s about for me. That’s the memory I play on. The long winters in Wisconsin. When I was doing Boeing Boeing [on Broadway] we did a workshop with Matthew Cowles, Christine Baranski’s husband, and I playing the two fishermen. It was about 45 minutes long with just Louis’ poems, no other dialogue. From that I set about wanting it to be a fuller evening with three acts. And then I started to write and imagine the other characters.

Is the non-sequitur style of conversation retained in this version?

Yes, to some degree. Their speech picks up some detail of what the other person has said. One person might be talking about a girlfriend and saying, “I waited for her outside the red house where she lived,” and then he might go on for a few sentences about her. And then the other speaker might say, “I lived in a red house once.”

That almost has an absurdist air to it.

There are absurdist turns in Louis’ poems, it’s true. The ingredients are so recognizable that you don’t see the absurdist thing coming. It’s an ongoing process to make my dialogue marry with his language. For instance, he never swears in his poems, and I’ll sometimes put that in to make something more dramatic, but I’ve just recently taken all that out.

Is it clear when the dialogue shifts from your words to his poems?

Well, hopefully it blends. But the poems tend to be a one-minute speech about something, whereas my dialogue goes back and forth.

I like the idea of collaboration. I like the fact that Shakespeare collaborated. And I expect the collaboration to carry on when the actors join. Most of them are local Minnesotan actors, so I think they’ll correct me on my syntax.

What do you think people think of when they think about ice fishing? What does it mean to a local audience?

I wanted to create [Nice Fish] in Minnesota so that people coming to the play would know about ice fishing and that environment. There’s something magical about being suspended on eight or nine inches of ice. There’s the sense that it won’t last. Hopefully we’re reflecting something truthfully, recognizably.

I’m hoping that the play is more universal than just for a local audience, but this is certainly their environment and their sense of humor. That Northern sense of humor has been in my ear a lot. I remember a Minnesotan man once saying to me, “If a man from Wisconsin tells you a joke, you don’t laugh until a week later.” They’re very dry.  I certainly found that when I came to London, my humor was not recognizable.

But your point about why people go out on the ice and build these little huts. What are they escaping for and what experience do they want to have? These are all quite useful things.

Are you hoping to have a set that evokes a realistic setting or a metaphorical setting?

I hope the set will be like Louis’ poems. They’re made up of real things, but they have the ability to be surprisingly expansive. It’s a wonderful setting – this icy lake with trees in the distance. As we’ve worked on it, I’ve realized that the character of Mother Nature is very expressive in my imagination – wind and snow and aurora borealis. I certainly remember that about the Midwest as compared to London. One is much more aware of the elements.

Do you find your accent returning when you come back to the Midwest?

Yeah, I do. Not just the accent, but a character in me too. I get a flash of being eighteen again. It was a big thing to leave the Midwest at eighteen and come to London, having very little conception in our family that any such thing would ever happen. But we all thought we were English. We used to have tea parties on the fourth of July. When I came to England I knew so little about the rest of the world. Everyone was quite politicized and well read in London. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t awake to very much at all apart from Shakespeare and plays that I had done. So when I go back to the Midwest, I feel an enormous weight come off my shoulders.

Photo credit: Mike Habermann

Classic Stage Company: Everything Old is New Again

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How do you make the classics feel fresh? One option: find innovative ways to stage them. Another option: expand the definition of “classics”. The fact of Classic Stage Company’s continued relevance, appeal, and durability within Off-Broadway theater is due to a smart combination of the two…not to mention casting Peter Sarsgaard, Bebe Neuwirth, and John Turturro. In 2011, I interviewed artistic director Brian Kulick on the eve of CSC’s world-premiere of Unnatural Acts, a based-on-real-events portrayal of Harvard’s underground gay community in the 1920’s. Co-conceived by director Tony Speciale and collaboratively written by members of the Plastic Theatre that same year, the play seemed like an unusual selection for a theater dedicated to classic drama. So I asked Kulick how he defines the term. He responded, “A classic is a play that refuses to stop resonating.”

In Kulick’s hands, CSC is benefitting from that broad interpretation. Currently on stage is Stephen Sondheim's Passion – the first New York revival of the musical and the first musical ever to be staged at the downtown theater. Frequent Sondheim collaborator John Doyle directs this production, though instead of having actors play instruments (as in previous Doyle-Sondheim productions), the nine-member orchestra is perched above the stage.

The placement of musicians doesn’t ostensibly have anything to do with Passion, but I found it to be another example of CSC’s continued reinvention. Because there is no room onstage to set up an orchestra, CSC converted its second floor office space into an “orchestra pit” and broke through the walls to expose the area to the audience below. Seeing an elevated orchestra heightens the audience's awareness of the musician as storyteller, particularly for a narrative composer like Sondheim. Space constraints lead to a new musical format = creativity borne out of necessity.

Director John Doyle’s work also benefits from this format. Doyle is often referred to as a minimalist, but I don’t believe that’s his exact intention. It’s more that he gets to the heart of the story and dismisses the pomp that can accompany big musicals. A few weeks before seeing Passion, I went to a panel discussion at WNYC’s Greene Space with Stephen Sondheim. John Doyle, and the lead cast members of the show. Doyle remarked that what is taken to be his creative style in actuality stems from spending years directing small-budget shows where money was scarce. “I got used to working with minimal resources,” he said. “I do everything I can not to get in the way of the story.” That method has stuck with him. The set in Doyle’s revival is a bare black marble floor with two gilded mirrors and light sconces against a back wall. The sparseness transfers our focus to the characters.

This production shows the beauty of Passion – how love transforms its shape and how it transfers its recipient. The cast, Melissa Errico, Judy Kuhn, and an amazing Ryan Silverman were transporting without falling into melodrama. It wouldn’t be surprising if musicals become a regular occurrence at CSC; this version of Passion is an auspicious first go at it. I would agree with Kulick that any great work of art refuses to stop resonating. Evidently, it pays to dust off the classics.

The Soul of Laramie

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What The Laramie Project aspires to is remarkable. An enacted investigation into the killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard, the play and its performers achieve what Juilliard President Joseph Polisi once called “the artist as citizen”, the use of art to advocate for a better society. Just five weeks after Shepard was brutally beaten on October 6, 1998, the Tectonic Theater Project, led by director Moisés Kaufman, went to Laramie, Wyoming to ask questions and collect information, forging a work of art that has arguably become the most comprehensive study of Shepard’s murder. On stage now at BAM and performed in repertory with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, the full work offers nearly five hours of first-person accounts, performed by Tectonic company members, that shed light on the local community, the perception of gays, and the redefining of hate crimes.

TheLaramie Project is so widely acclaimed and its subject matter is so inherently heartrending, that I was surprised by how lackluster the production was. There are many powerful revelations in the work – about the trial, the transition of Mrs. Shepard from private mother to fearless advocate, and the way the media tried to downplay homosexuality as a primary cause of the crime. But each one was presented as a direct address to the audience, as though reading quotations from an article. The breadth of interviews was impressive. But where was the play? It somehow got lost in the documentary.

Blending research with provocative storytelling is an incredible challenge. The best recent example I’ve seen is How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the AIDS crisis and the pursuit of effective treatment among activist groups. Director David France presents an overwhelming amount of historical data and documentary footage, but he finds a soul within the film as well. It felt disappointing both nights at BAM that a work so well-assembled, based on events so heartbreaking, would come across as dryly as it did.

Christopher Shinn, the Pulitzer Prize finalist, pinpoints desire as the missing element in The Laramie Project. For a study so in-depth about a gay man, the play doesn’t discuss desire in the gay community – attraction, relationships, sex both intimate and casual. That absence propelled Shinn to write a new play as “a response to all [The Laramie Project] avoids”, he told me. The new play, Teddy Ferrara, is currently onstage through March 3rd at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The play, which confronts gay college students who come to terms with the suicide of a withdrawn gay freshman, seems to be linked to the suicide of gay college student Tyler Clementi in 2010. But Shinn’s ambitions are more expansive. He explores gay sexuality in all of its complexities, from the dynamics of committed relationships to the expectation that gay men will cheat. “It asks the audience to enter on the level of desire,” Shinn says.

Of course, the narrative of Teddy Ferrara is vastly different from The Laramie Project. But talking to Shinn about how The Laramie Project inspired him to write a new play affirmed what I felt was missing, despite the Tectonic Theater Project’s many talents. The people we meet in Laramieare certainly impassioned; it’s just the storytelling that isn’t.

What Draws a Black Audience

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This past weekend I saw Outcry at JACK, the storefront performance space in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Written by Thais Francis, the show is an expression of grief and anger at the innocent black men who have been killed for no other cause than racial profiling. My friend Kelley Girod who produced the show termed it “more of an event than a play.” Slain figures like Emmett Till (killed in 1955) and Trayvon Martin (killed in 2012) find themselves in the same place. Heaven, maybe. The show runs through February 17th and is worth seeing. While the script gets clumsy at times, and Thais is inclined to use diary-worthy lines like, “when it’s real, it’s forever”, the idea to combine the lives and deaths of these innocent souls is powerful. Also powerful was seeing great diversity in the audience. It’s not common at the theater.

Kelley, a black playwright and producer, has thought a lot about what attracts black audiences. We talked after the show about Broadway productions that have appealed to people of color and the various reasons why. Most notable are the plays that focus on black characters (like The Color Purple), especially when they feature prominent actors (like The Mountaintop). There are also shows that happen to have a black celebrity (like Chris Rock in Motherfucker with the Hat). Interestingly, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess had a surprisingly small African American turnout. Maybe the opera struck prospective audiences as being dated. Or maybe Audra McDonald’s celebrity is only a draw for audiences that already love musicals.

For four years, Kelley has produced The Fire This Time Festival – a presentation of plays by writers of African and African American descent. The initial idea was to support – and create an outlet for – black writers. And to combat the idea that a black playwright “has to write a play that has black themes, like overcoming slavery,” she says. “If the play is written by a black playwright, then it will relate to a black experience in some way.” As a result, The Fire This Time covers a wide variety of subjects, some racially themed, others not at all. It keeps the festival eclectic, though Kelley admits that a show like Outcry has an easier time raising funds. There is a greater sense of urgency for investors precisely because the black themes are so prominent.

When I saw Motherfucker with the Hat and noticed how many black people were in the audience, my thought was that it stemmed from the desire to see Chris Rock on Broadway. And that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps the presence of black actors – famous or not – is the strongest factor. Regardless of the narrative, audiences of any race want to see an element of themselves onstage.

Theater Review: The Twenty-Seventh Man

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Nathan Englander’s first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, is one of my favorite books ever. I’m not sure if ‘Jewish American Literature’ is still a real genre in the Henry Roth sense of the term, but, if so, Englander is surely a Jewish writer. For someone who is said to have left religious practice years ago, he still has a deeply Jewish soul. And the threads of Jewish thought and identity are looped into every story he writes. The Twenty-Seventh Man, his first story in that collection and now his first play, onstage currently at the Public Theater, is a requiem for the great Yiddish writers in post-WWII Russia who were selectively sentenced to execution by Stalin’s regime. In a jail cell that feels believably stifling, as though “lack of air flow” was part of the set description, we meet Englander’s imagined luminaries, each a Jew and each a legend of the written word.

As the writers discuss their work, their language, and the cause of their incarceration, a new prisoner arrives, this one a near teenager whose name – Pinchas Pelovits – strikes no familiar chords as a recognizable writer. Pelovits, the twenty-seventh man to be selected, is unlike the others: he is anonymous and unpublished. But he is, he assures us, a writer. His presence in the cell is the mystery of the play, and as the other men curiously question his identity, Englander brings to light how writers measure their worth: by sustaining the lifelong ritual of writing and by creating an audience of readers. Pelovits’ elation in sharing the same room as the writers he most admires is the poignant paradox of the work. It is his one chance to share a story of his own with them.

The story Pelovits writes in prison is my favorite part of the play, and I almost wish I could make everyone in the audience read Englander’s original story before seeing the production because the story needs time and potentially a reread to resonate. What Englander arrives at is that the dead cannot be remembered – their lives and their actions have no sanctification – unless those who live make their memory significant. It’s an idea whose brilliance is almost eclipsed by its simplicity.

Barry Edelstein’s direction – maybe his last at the Public Theater and certainly his last in New York for a while as he sets up a new home at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre – was so arresting that the audience seemed to hold its breath collectively after the play’s final scene before applause took over like a welcome catharsis.

Englander’s writing has kept me company a lot this year. I read his new collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, as soon as it came out, and I used his new translation of the haggadah on Passover. The haggadah had received some mixed reviews, but what I loved about it was the way Englander made some of the most ordinary and familiar phrases come alive. One example was “eloheinu” which is typically translated as “our God” but which Englander translates as “God of us”. In doing so, he offers a new lens through which to view the human/God relationship, transferring any sense of ownership away from us. Whether or not that phrase works for you, it likely makes you think. It makes the speaker take pause and reconsider the meaning of familiar words. That ability is evident in so much of Englander’s work. He encourages us to rethink the things we know. Isn’t that what the best writers do?

Theater Review: Modern Terrorism

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Those who feel that theater doesn’t take risks probably haven’t seen Modern Terrorism. A four-door farce meets Jihadist suicide mission, the play is equal parts comedic and chilling. What it does best is portray how in the midst of plotting an attack, the habits of terrorists are familiar and so very much like our own. They rent Zipcars, make playlists, complain about FedEx, eat Rice Krispies, and reference scenes from “Star Wars”. The play’s subtitle, “They Who Want to Kill Us, and How We Learn to Love Them”, has resonance in those moments of familiarity. And while loving a terrorist may seem too outlandish to consider, playwright Jon Kern encourages us to spend time with them before we judge. The most affable one we meet in the sparse Ikea-furnished apartment that serves as their plotting cell is Rahim, a sweet-faced, good-natured young man who incongruously is the mission’s suicide bomber. Played by Indian actor Utkarsh Ambudkar (also known from the improv group Freestyle Love Supreme and a capella film “Pitch Perfect”), Rahim is driven more by a craving for approval than any overarching animosity toward Americans. Also plotting the mission is Yalda whose antipathy toward America began when her husband was accidentally killed by a drone on their wedding day. The third terrorist, Qala, a Somalian, stands apart from Rahim and Yalda because he acts out of visceral ideology rather than personal motivation. As a result, he’s the only character onstage who provokes more fear than empathy.

Much of the play’s comic relief rests on the only non-terrorist and the only white guy. Kern cleverly chooses to make the character who has the most in common with the audience a wayward stoner type: not quite the paragon of American exceptionalism. Jerome (or 3A as his extremist neighbors call him in an effort to dehumanize) stumbles upon their plot, and while acknowledging that he has become a liability, finds himself surprisingly enticed by the hyper-focused, ambition-oriented spirit of terrorists. He even makes himself useful to their operation by buying huge quantities of propane without raising suspicions. Because white crazies remarkably don’t arouse suspicion.

For his part, Jerome does dispense a few pearls of wisdom to his new compatriots. He notes that while terrorist acts shake us up as a nation, they don’t bring down the whole country. What does bring down the whole country, he posits? Goldman Sachs.

The play, for all its darkness, is really funny. Kern lightens the mood by mocking the very notion of suicide bombers. Rahim expresses the hope that nothing bad happens to him today so that he can die as scheduled tomorrow. Admittedly, some viewers may be put off by the show’s unbearable lightness. But I think it would be a mistake to think that Peter Dubois’ direction intends to ridicule a serious situation. There’s an air of absurdism to the work. We laugh amidst nervousness, between moments of held breath and heavy sigh.

Kern’s brilliance is his decision to place two key moments off stage: Rahim’s first bombing attempt and Qala’s fiery exit toward a swarm of police (the final scene of the play). In both cases, we don’t know exactly what happens. And I think that confusion is the whole point. Most of us will never understand a terrorist’s mindset. And it’s cathartic to leave the theater remembering that.

Theater Review: Annie

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Attired in dressy clothes and perched atop seats priced at $100, the girls and boys in the audience at the Palace Theatre, where the third incarnation of Annie is currently in production, may not be personally acquainted with the school of hard knocks. Glancing around the theater at the show’s end, I counted the booster seats, which the theater supplies for its smallest audience members, and was amazed at how many little kids had the good fortune of seeing the show. The politics of 1930s Depression-laden America may fly over the heads of young viewers, but that’s beside the point. Annie is a foremost a story of wish fulfillment. And its big-hearted, big-belted songs are anthems of optimism.

I had forgotten how much political content the play held, from the ironic dedication to President Hoover, (“We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover”) to the manifest distinctions between the conservative Daddy Warbucks and the liberal FDR. The political milieu, which director James Lapine emphasizes both dramatically and comically, gave the production its necessary heft beyond Annie’s fantasy storyline. The only instance when the political element teetered too far into schlock was a scene featuring President Roosevelt’s cabinet in discussion of how to ameliorate the country’s economic woes. Annie begins to sing, “Tomorrow” and suddenly she’s standing on the desk in the oval office, thus motivating FDR to introduce the New Deal. He motions for his staff to join in song, calling in the direction of Mr. Warbucks, “You too, Republicans!” It was a hokey but comical moment that dipped precipitously into camp once the Secretary of the Treasury brought out the jazz hands.

Among the adults in the audience, it’s a safe gamble that nearly everyone knows the story and music, either from the original 1977 production, its revival in 1997, or its film version, released in 1982.  We have our expectation of how Annie will look and how Miss Hannigan will talk. The greatest accomplishment for Lapine is that he gets so much personality and nuance from each actor that, in less talented hands, might be reduced to caricature. The show doesn’t rest on Annie alone, but 11-year old Lilla Crawford, who fills the role, carries so much of the performance on her small frame. Her voice has clearly benefitted from vocal training while retaining that purity of emotion that happens when an actress connects to her lyrics. She also blends youthful earnestness with the necessary hardscrabble roughness that lends believability to her character. Spitting into her hand before shaking Daddy Warbucks' hand is a welcome touch, especially when he does the same.

The other cast members give equally multi-faceted performances. As Miss Hannigan, Katie Finneran projects more than a cantankerous orphanage keeper; she is a woman who clings to her last hopes of being happy and desirable to men. As Daddy Warbucks, Anthony Warlow conveys much more than a stodgy stiff-nosed billionaire; he is a man in search of meaningful relationships who carries the memory of his own scrappy youth. And the actresses who fill the roles of the orphan girls are more than Dickensian street urchins who sing about misfortune. They are little comediennes who will gladly steal a laugh as willingly as they steal Miss Hannigan's things. Emily Rosenfeld who plays the littlest orphan Molly is a miniature Mary Tyler Moore with a precocious knack for physical comedy, especially when she puts on Miss Hannigan’s bra and stuffs it full with scarves while singing “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”.

Much of these nuanced portrayals owe thanks to Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography. You would never guess this is the same choreographer whose pop and locks are on display a few blocks away at Bring It On: The Musical. The breadth of his work is testament to dance as an element of storytelling.

What we love ultimately about Annie is that having wealth, while undeniably fabulous, pales next to having a family. The whole 5th Avenue penthouse/two-story crystal chandelier (which is impressive, by the way) is for our pleasure far more than it is for Annie’s. We believe that her greatest happiness is in having a loving parent. Though the opportunity for upward mobility in troubled times is something we too can all embrace. You too, Republicans.

The Last Days of Look Back in Anger

Look Back in Anger

I caught a performance of Look Back in Anger close to the end of its run. The play evoked a palpable feeling of resignation and not simply because of proximity to its final performance. The portrayal of the angry young man that made so strong an impression on British theater has always affected me more as the depiction of women who have become resigned to a relationship threaded with abuse. My desire to see this incarnation was based mostly on a curiosity of what director Sam Gold would do with it. In New York theater, this has been the year of Sam Gold. He seems to be everywhere, and what has impressed me about his work is an incredible grasp of what sexual tension looks and feels like. That talent was on full display here; it was a veritable pressure cooker onstage. And much of that was due to the space he created for this production. The stage measured only five and a half feet deep, so in moments of either passionate intimacy or aggressive horseplay, the actors seemed precipitously close to the edge – of the stage, of reason, and so on. Also the set was gross. Garbage, half-eaten food, clothing, and newspapers covered the floor and further muddied and crowded the Porter home.

The fiery, vitriolic center of Look Back in Anger is Jimmy Porter, a lower-class Brit who is torn between love and resentment for his well-educated, upper-class wife, Alison. In this production, Jimmy’s anger touched on themes of politics and class struggles, but they didn’t penetrate those topics. Mostly he was a cantankerous asshole, which Matthew Rhys (the Brothers and Sisters star) portrayed convincingly but without much nuance.

Jimmy and Alison live with their close friend, Cliff, an unrefined yet sweet soul of a guy who becomes increasingly affectionate with Alison the more Jimmy puts her down. Played by Adam Driver, Cliff added much needed heart to the production. The play holds big surprises which occur following the arrival of Helena, Alison’s well-bred friend who is appalled by Jimmy’s boorishness and conspires to help Alison leave him. Gold embraced these twists of plot through movement that imposed on the confined space, but while visually interesting, it didn’t resonate. Maybe I just couldn’t get past the utter malleability of women, which (even in the 1950’s world of John Osbourne) is hard to digest. The only touching moment was the one that showed Jimmy and Alison’s playful and sincere intimacy. It revealed why she would marry someone so harmful: there is genuine passion there, though it was generally eclipsed by their incompatibility.

The signature tableau of the play depicted a woman ironing men’s clothing while the men snicker at the newspaper. The meticulousness dedicated to removing every wrinkle from Jimmy’s shirts looked bizarre amidst an absurdly dirty apartment. I’d probably pick garbage off my floor before starting on ironing, but maybe I was missing part of Gold’s aesthetic in those moments. In any case, he’s now on to his next revival, a new adaptation of Uncle Vanya, coming to Soho Rep this June. Despite Look Back in Anger falling a bit short, Gold is in the auspicious position of being a discernible success even when some of his productions aren’t.

Theater Review: Wit

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A patient is generally interrupted by her doctor 18 seconds after she starts speaking. Such is the common failing of good physicians: medical care that loses sight of the patient as human. The bedside manner. The Hippocratic Oath. In Margaret Edson’s play Wit, the human touch of doctors is betrayed by the question asked in rote monotone to sick patients: “How are you feeling today?” Our narrator Vivian Bearing, poetry scholar and cancer patient, opens the play with this inquiry, and explains that for a cancer patient, such a question is at best a formality and at worst an insult. She flips this seemingly innocuous question on its head and gives it a new meaning as though she were interpreting a poem. Margaret Edson, a sixth-grade teacher, has one play to her name. And it is, as Cynthia Nixon put it, “a near perfect play.” Nixon currently stars in Wit’s first Broadway production, playing Vivian, our guide through cancer with a key to the poets. Diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, with numerous accolades and scholarly publications under her belt but nary a friend or close colleague, Vivian is sick and entirely alone. She doesn’t resent her physicians’ cold cerebral approach; in fact, it mirrors her own. The doctors’ dogged pursuit of knowledge and discovery in medicine – portrayed by their administering inhumane levels of chemo – is juxtaposed with Vivian’s inexhaustible study of poetry, particularly the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Her tension as a patient comes in her need to tell us – the audience, her only confidants – that she is someone to be recognized, that she still has much purpose. Between bouts of chemotherapy, she teaches us poetry, elucidating John Donne’s struggle with life, death, and afterlife.

As a result, Wit – a play that seems to pull at the heartstrings of viewers – was also one of the most intellectually engaging works I’ve even seen. Dressed in a hospital gown throughout the play, Vivian leads us theatrically through her life and her life’s work. For former English majors like myself, there is so much pleasure in hearing poetry out loud. We hear Vivian recite the words of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”, first with the austere, intellectual remove of a scholar and later with the gut-wrenching urgency of a terminal patient. Cynthia Nixon is wholeheartedly committed to Vivian. She breathes life into this role.

One of the most poignant motifs in Wit is the frequent interplay of teacher and student: Vivian with her college students, oncology physicians with their residents, a doctor and his patient. Edson shows how often great scholars can fail as teachers, perhaps because their love of the material overshadows their ability to empathize and listen. In this beautiful play, Edson demonstrates that what we continually need, through sickness and health, is to be heard.

Theater Review: Other Desert Cities

Other Desert Cities

In the opening scene of Other Desert Cities, we meet Polly and Lyman Wyeth, a couple so unapologetically – and comically – Republican, my first point of reference went immediately to Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock. Exemplifying wealthy elitism, disdain for taxes, and unrelenting hawkishness, they create a stark contrast against their adult children who range from lefty to indifferent. We meet the family on the occasion of their daughter Brooke’s visit from the east coast where she’s lived for several years. The narrative occurs in the Wyeth’s Palm Springs home, which manages to be upscale without having any particular sense of style. Everything in their living room is beige, and one might guess that their entire social circle is similarly colored. Brooke, a writer, has a new book coming out and a big announcement to make: the new work is a memoir that promises to unearth several skeletons from the family’s history. The senior Wyeths are understandably nervous; the book’s disclosure of a harrowing family situation implicates both of them. As a small courtesy, Brooke has manuscripts for everyone and offers her relatives the chance to address any truly objectionable material before the New Yorker publishes an excerpt.

In the scenes that follow, Polly, Lyman, Trip (Brooke’s brother), and Aunt Silda all have their turns hurling vitriol at one another over the tensions and buried secrets that the book digs up. The performances are phenomenal, particularly the elder Wyeths, played by Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach. The conservative caricatures they present in the play’s opening evolve seamlessly into complex, nuanced individuals whose worldviews and principles come deeply at odds with parental love and protection.

Ultimately, a big reveal is made – a surprise that turns the family secret upside down. But I didn’t find it as satisfying or powerful as I imagine it intended to be. Throughout the previous scenes of insults and attacks, there is the sense that something big is imminent. And it is. But I found it so hard to believe that it made the play nosedive into implausibility. I admire Jon Robin Baitz’s bold writing and his ability to keep the tension level simmering throughout the pressure cooker that exists in the seemingly serene Wyeth home. And I liked his portrayal of how staunch political belief can seem unflinching until it compromises your own child. The play is an impressive work, but the climax felt false, like the Palm Springs home that has the appearance of comfort.

Theater Review: Once

Once_new york theatre workshop

When I first saw the movie Once, I was struck by how lovely itwas given how little happens. Two musicians with little means but abundant talent meet and create a demo album. He (Guy) is an Irish guitarist and songwriter who’s down on luck, love, and any future prospects. She (Girl) is a Czech pianist who is a stark realist with a passion for music. When she hears one of Guy’s songs on the streets of Dublin one night, she feels with absolute conviction that his music needs to be heard by a wider audience. A quiet romance builds as they begin to create music together, and for a couple that barely touches throughout the whole movie, there’s an unbelievable amount of sexual energy. What I love most is that the subtlety of their love story is weighed against the fierce emotion of the songs. When Glen Hansard’s voice hits the upper register on the song, “Say it to Me Now,” it is nothing short of an emotional experience. The stage adaptation at New York Theatre Workshop was beautiful as well, and it allowed the musical to breathe as its own theatrical entity. This production treats music very differently in that way; all of the actors play instruments and sit on stage the entire show, picking up their violins or guitars during various songs to create a swell of music. The success of the adaptation owes much to director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett. Their talent is in understanding how an audience interacts with a performance. Creating a functioning bar onstage where cast mates sing and play instruments as though part of a spontaneous hootenanny, and where, cleverly, audience members can buy a pint of Guinness before the show and during intermission brings one into the world of a Dublin pub. The way the characters’ movement contributes to the narrative is equally evocative. During one scene in which Girl writes lyrics to Guy’s music, she places headphones over her ears and responds to the melody as though she feels the music in her entire body.

The only place where the production falters is the book. Enda Walsh goes for the easy laugh a few too many times and makes some scenes feel clumsily strewn together like unrehearsed sketch comedy. But he does expand the roles of each character far more than the movie allows, which adds dimension and depth to the show.

It’s rare to see a love story like this one where individuals who have so much chemistry are so reluctant to say expressly how they feel. Rather it’s conveyed through their musical collaboration and the inspiration they draw from each other. I hope to see Once flourish on Broadway. A quiet story may seem dwarfed by a grander stage, but the music will fill the space perfectly.

Theater Review: Follies

Follies

Youth is wasted on the young, as the saying goes. Or maybe it just feels that way after going to a reunion: that painful occasion that propels even those with successful careers and youthful faces to feel that their best years are behind them. Follies is Steven Sondheim’s grand tribute to what once was and what might have been. The revival was beautiful to watch, and its threads of nostalgia were woven through each scene and song. In discussing a Sondheim musical, I feel I should admit that I’m not swept away by him as many are. Admittedly, I named this blog after a Sondheim lyric, which presupposes a certain fandom, but I think the topic of his lyrics is the whole point: his brilliance is in the words. With the exception of one song in Follies, the musicis more entertaining than moving, and for a show that grapples with the pain of lost love, it should have more of the latter.

Similarly, the characters are not very nuanced which demands that the actors do much with little material. Jan Maxwell (Phyllis) does that best. She strikes a balance between being hurt by a distant husband and being too proud to admit it. Her scene-stealing dancing, singing, and general gorgeousness made her one of the best parts of the show. Bernadette Peters less so. She portrays Sally as a fragile lost lamb whose excessive voice quiver made her seem about to crumble at any moment. When she reconnects with Phyllis’ husband Ben, the man she had wanted to marry, she deludes herself into thinking they’ll have a second chance at love, a moment that felt heavy-handed where it ought to feel heartbreaking. That said, her rendition of “Losing My Mind” was so beautiful, it almost benefitted from Peters’ diminished voice. The frailty of her high notes was more poignant than had she belted them out.

The sadness of Sally and Phyllis, and their husbands Buddy and Ben, is that they still seem so confused about who they are even after all these years, and each feels in some way that the potential for great love has been lost. The youthful versions of the main characters pale in comparison and not only due to the ghostly lighting cast on them throughout the performance. They come across like vapid young things who don’t have much ambition beyond getting marred. What disappointed me about Follies was that the present day characters are only slightly more fleshed out. Ultimately, these love stories are simple, and if they resonate with viewers, it’s because of the abstract empathy felt toward anyone whose hopes for a relationship don’t quite pan out. What moved me instead was the way that reunions conjure earlier versions of oneself. For Phyllis and Sally, the hardest image to conceptualize is not who they were but who they are.

Theater Review: We Live Here

We Live Here

When actors decide to try their hands at writing, directing, or other nonperformance-based roles, they seem to open themselves up to criticism. What is it about Ethan Hawke writing a novel or Drew Barrymore directing a film that makes the public predict it’ll be terrible until proven otherwise? Maybe it’s the very misguided notion that actors are dumb or the reluctance to admit that some people are just that talented. Which brings me to Zoe Kazan’s new play, We Live Here. Kazan actually studied playwriting, but she segued early on into acting and, by her mid-20’s, had already done Chekhov on Broadway. With her first Off-Broadway production, she proves she can write, and while the play left me wanting a little more, I think she’s about to become one of those rare artists to enjoy a double career. A family drama set in the comfortable living room of an upscale New England home – a Pottery Barn catalog brought to life – We Live Here introduces us to a suburban family on the eve of daughter Allie’s wedding. Her much younger sister, Dinah, has a new boyfriend who comes for the wedding weekend without so much as a heads up let alone a formal invitation. When he arrives, it’s clear he has a history with this family, and their reactions range from surprise to nervous breakdown. Whatever went down with Daniel and the family happened years ago at a time when Dinah was too young to know better. Kazan shows her skill in subtly powerful ways here, dropping clues like breadcrumbs, and Sam Gold’s nuanced directing makes us feel the awkwardness of Daniel’s reunion with the family. By intermission, I was riveted.

But then the second act dismantles upon itself. As the family’s complications are increasingly revealed, it appears that Daniel isn’t integral to their problems; those hardships probably would have happened with or without him. An unexpected flashback is a thoughtful surprise, but it doesn’t illuminate anything beyond a very troubled family – which we already knew. In spite of it, the cast was fantastic. I loved watching Jessica Collins and Oscar Isaac (as Allie and Daniel) play off each other again. I remember seeing them as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth when both were students at Juilliard, and it’s great to see their onstage chemistry again. The play didn’t fully come together for me, but it’s clear Zoe Kazan is on to something. I’m excited to see what she does next.

Theater Review: The Select

The Select

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that.“ Just one of the many perfectly blended lines from Earnest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that comes to life in its stage adaptation, The Select. The Elevator Repair Service’s third homage to great American literature, The Select takes us on a nearly four-hour tour through Paris and Pamploma with an entertaining troupe of expats who measure out their lives in wine bottles. Our narrator is Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson), a smart-alecky but gregarious chap who doesn’t let much ruffle him, not even an injury in the first World War that rendered him impotent. The only force that gets beneath his skin is Lady Brett Ashley (a radiant Lucy Taylor). The fact that their relationship always teeters between friends and lovers lends a romantic “what if” element to every scene that features the two of them. The natural chemistry between them was among my favorite parts of the play – from the way they seem to have a secret understanding to their adorable dance to a French pop song. (I confess, I always love a dance interlude and this show has two of them.)

Director John Collins makes phenomenal use of his stellar cast. The actors who play several characters apiece are in no way secondary to this production. They create the idiosyncratic world of Café Select and the bullfighting ring, of old friends and temporary lovers. And Collins gives each actor the opportunity to explore his or her range. While the show goes on a bit too long, it’s nonetheless filled with one inventive scene after another, incorporating an ingenious use of sound design to celebrate the familiar pours and clinks heard in one’s favorite bar. The way Collins utilizes the space is equally clever; an ordinary folding table is believable as a big fish, an angry bull, and a hotel bed.

ERS’ enthusiasm for great literature is contagious and inspired me (as I’m sure many others) to dust off a few Hemingway novels and approach the writer’s trademark language with new perspective. Interesting how some of the lines that can seem so cold on the page become something rich and fluid with the right production.

Theater Review: Master Class

Master Class

I have two pet peeves when it comes to theater: undeserved moments of fourth wall breaking and shows that rest on the strength of one performer. The fact that Master Class had both wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the play had had more heft and substance. Terrence McNally’s 1995 play about the legendary opera singer Maria Callas leading a master class at Juilliard focuses mainly on a vibrant rendering of Callas made even more vibrant by the performance of an extraordinary actress in that role. Previous Marias have included Patti Lupone and Zoe Caldwell – undoubtedly big shoes to fill. This production features Tyne Daly in the lead role, and she’s extraordinary. Regal, dynamic, and intimidating. But unfortunately, the play is less concerned with creating a narrative than with showing “what Maria Callas was like.” It reminded me of so many biopics (particularly of musicians) where the film feels formulaic and obvious, and the redeeming quality lies entirely on a skilled actor in the leading role. As for the fourth wall breaking, it happens in the first minute of the play. Daly enters the stage and immediately the audience begins clapping. Then she scowls at the crowd and states, “No applause.” It’s a clever technique: the line is said by Callas to the imagined attendants of the master class, but it of course works on the level of Daly speaking to the audience. This would be a great opener if the attention then shifted to the scene onstage, but it goes on a bit too long and starts to feel like Maria Callas doing stand-up.

One recurring joke is Callas’ insistence that the master class “is not about me.” Namely, it’s about the opera students. But of course it is entirelyabout her and her ability to dominate any room, discussion, and relationship. Her frequent deflection of praise followed immediately by a lengthy recounting of her greatest achievements becomes a repetitive device that gets tiring in spite of Daly’s excellent stage presence and comic timing.

Her main objective in working with the students is to open their eyes to the meaning of the words. This was the most captivating part of the play: Callas’ insistence that her students find the emotion behind the music. What she does best is break her students down and build them up again, an approach that works most poignantly with her first student, the awkward yet resilient Sophie (Alexandra Silber). The two following students do less for the play. A corpulent singer named Anthony (Garrett Sorenson) is cast mainly to show off his magnificent voice, but Sorenson, while an accomplished opera singer, has little acting experience and is a bit cringe-worthy in his spoken lines. The third student, Sierra Boggess of Little Mermaid fame, plays the eager prima donna so forcefully that it reduces her character to stereotype.

Twice during the play, Callas takes us into her memory and revisits her proudest moments onstage as well as her tumultuous relationship with Aristotle Onassis offstage. But what’s missing in these scenes and throughout the play is any connective thread that illustrates how music or her career has changed her or what it means to teach the next generation of opera singers. Despite some heated dialogue between Callas and her students, there’s little tension at play. The experience of the master class doesn't change Callas' perspective in any way nor will it likely be memorable to her after the fact. Rather, it's a day in her life amid those hazy years after she stopped singing.

Theater Review: Jerusalem

Jerusalem_mark rylance

Johnny “Rooster” Byron was born with a bullet in his teeth. He knows the giant who built Stonehenge, has jumped over thirteen buses, and pumps magic blood. In Jerusalem, what we know about Johnny is the stuff of folklore, the tall tale of a mythic creature who manages to stumble around drunk while simultaneously holding court with a collection of wayward young miscreants. Remarkably, there is no story in Jerusalem. It’s a three-hour long experience in this weird world. A bit like a dream that has no structure but captivates you nonetheless. What we see in this universe is the haven that Johnny creates for these kids, which – in spite of the drugs, booze, and squalor – is purportedly safer than what they would experience at home.

And wow – Mark Rylance. Among the performances I’ve been lucky enough to see in my life – Ian McKellan as King Lear and Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois among them – Mark Rylance as Johnny Byron ranks high. The opening scene in which Johnny, somewhere between hung over and still wasted, shimmies around his littered yard to a jazz record he inexplicably owns was a dialogue-free expression of his bizarre joie de vivre.

Much of the play is long, at times even tedious, and the narrative seems directionless. At each of the show’s two intermissions, I found myself wondering what conflicts were in play, what elements of the story were perched on any sort of precipice. Prior to the third act, the play seems to be a collection of scenes, some of them touching and some wickedly funny but all seemingly disconnected from any arc with meaning. And yeah I asked myself a few times, “what the hell am I missing?” or “would I appreciate this more if I had a quaalude?””

The redemption, for me, came in the play’s final moments. In part because Mark Rylance took the performance to a new level of brilliance, and in part because Jez Butterworth finally connected those loose threads. After nearly three hours of what Johnny calls an “alcoholic bucolic frolic,” we realize that there is a powerful surge coursing through this man. Approaching eviction from his illegally parked trailer and the only real home he’s ever known, Johnny conjures the spirits of giants to come to his aid. At once, he is propelled by a godly spirit. He’s not crazy after all. Or maybe he is. Butterworth doesn’t leave us satisfied, but he suggests just enough to make us believe that there is more to this man than far-fetched stories and belligerent drunkenness. There is magic in him. And with that awakening, what seemed arbitrary becomes profound.

Theater Review: The Motherfucker with the Hat

mfwiththehat

Motherfucker with the Hat is not for the faint-hearted, but those who have the palate or at least the stomach for an evening of foul-mouthed drama will experience one of the most honest plays about addiction out there. The play focuses on the relationship of Jackie (Bobby Cannavale) and Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who struggle with alcohol and cocaine addictions respectively. He’s trying to quit. She, not so much. What’s at stake is more than their sobriety, but in fact their fidelity and trust. What makes the central relationship of this play even more explosive is that Jackie and Veronica appear to be high-octane people regardless of their chemical intake. Veronica is a feral pit bull trapped in a cute, petite body. And Jackie has an endearing sweetness that is easily subverted by a short fuse. In fact, the first thing one might notice about this production is that everyone yells. A lot. Even when they’re happy. In the opening scene (one of the best I’ve ever seen in its tightness of acting, dialogue, and staging), Jackie comes home to Veronica with gifts in celebration of his first job since his release from prison. Their excitement about the job and more so about each other is expressed in sexual and gleeful vociferousness. So you can imagine that the volume only increases when, in the midst of excitement, Jackie eyes a suspicious looking hat on the table and jumps to the accusation that Veronica is cheating on him. The play continues in similar blood-pumping ferociousness as insults are hurled, secrets are uncovered, and bottles of alcohol are either smashed or guzzled.

With the understanding that addiction is a disease comes a certain empathy for individuals who aren’t in control of their destructive actions. It makes us care about Jackie and Veronica and believe that there’s love and good intentions at their core. But if the cheating or other misdoing happens while sober, then the fact of their addiction may be immaterial to their behavior. Simply put, would these characters have the capacity to be this hurtful if not for the drugs that control them? The power of this play depends, for me, on that question. For Jackie and Veronica’s relationship to mean something, I have to believe that their addiction is inextricably linked to their transgressions. To playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ credit, he doesn’t force the argument one way or the other. What he does instead is suggest that coping with addiction can’t help but seep into every other facet of living.

As for Chris Rock’s performance, yelling onstage has never found a more well-suited actor. Seriously, his conversational volume is decibels louder than necessary. Is that based on Anna D. Shapiro’s direction or is it just Chris Rock being Chris Rock? Either way, he holds his weight pretty well against the extraordinarily talented Bobby Cannavale.

The tone, language, and coarseness of Motherfucker occasionally feel odd in a Broadway theater, but I’m so glad that a larger audience gets to experience Stephen Adly Guirgis’ writing. The play is a bumpy ride, which – given the subject matter – makes it feel more genuine.

Theater Review: Vieux Carre

Vieux Carre copy

What I admire most about the Wooster Group is that they never simply put on a play.  They take in the full scope of the writer and the creative range of his or her work.  In performance, they embody the viewpoint of contemporary theater artisans, finding new relevance in older texts while using multi-media to interpret the work through myriad dimensions. Their revival of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre is no exception, and yet the performance fell short.  This late, lesser known work of Williams’ debuted on Broadway in 1977 and ran for just five performances.   It was one of the writer’s final plays and one of his most autobiographical, detailing his experience at a New Orleans boarding house during his younger years amid a motley crew of memorable misfits and eccentrics.

The play is fertile ground for a company like the Wooster Group; creating bizarre worlds is what they do well.  Veteran company members Kate Valk and Scott Shepherd play two oddballs apiece and they do so brilliantly, but their talents in physical and character transformation seem to overcompensate for a paper-thin storyline.

The play is perhaps the most emotionally naked of Williams’ oeuvre in its honest depiction of a young man exploring his sexual desires for the first time while breaking new ground as an ambitious writer.  The individuals we encounter at the boarding house are impressionable on the young writer, and the most unnerving and explicit of his experiences there become the inspiration for his first writing compositions.

But the production needs more substance.  The strange universe of the boarding house dominates the play far more than the character we care most about. Actor Ari Fliakos plays the “writer” and believably conveys his awkwardness as an inexperienced gay man reacting to entirely new types of people, particularly men to whom he’s attracted.  But we don’t have a tangible sense of who he is.  He types furiously on his keyboard, but as the words appear on a screen overhead, they appear to be just words.  Verbatim quotes from those in the house and not any sort of expression of his soul.

It’s evident that Director Elizabeth LeCompte is fascinated by the life and work of Williams and the ways in which they coalesce within this play.  As a great fan of Williams’ myself, I found a certain pleasure in watching a portrait of the artist as a young man.  Yet, sadly, this work – while notably autobiographical – shares so little of the writer’s greatest talents.

Theater Review: The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

*Jan 01 - 00:00*04_Features

One thing about Tennessee Williams that’s largely indisputable:  he chooses titles like no other playwright.  Consider the titles A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot, Tin Roof: they’re poems in themselves, dramatic situations filled with longing, sometimes painful and always emotional.  So too with his later play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, currently playing at the Laura Pels Theatre.  Even before the play begins, there is the sense of something ending, of time lost.  And in fact it is.  The work is Williams’ two-act contemplation about death, written the year his lover, Frank Merlo, passed away. Williams is known to be a creator of great female characters, and the individual grappling with mortality in this work is unsurprisingly a woman: the wealthy and reclusive Flora Goforth, spending her last days in a lavish villa in Italy.  Yet Williams also gives bodily presence to death itself, and – surprisingly or not – that persona comes in the form of a beautiful man, played by Darren Pettie (known most recently as the closeted Lucky Strike heir on Mad Men.)

The play follows two days in the life of Flora who is loath to admit how much disease has brought her to the end of her life. Played vivaciously by Olympia Dukakis, Flora's iron-willed resolve betrays her failing health and her sexual appetite masks the acknowledgment that her life is now behind her. If she sounds like Blanche Duboise aged forty years, she is. Stubbornly delusional as she preys on younger men and throws a well-shaken martini in the face of adversity, Dukasis' Flora is as irresistible to watch as she is presumably exhausting to know. But she’s essentially the only compelling aspect of this production.  Her extraordinary performance within an ordinary play reminded me of Geoffrey Rush’s turn in Exit the King, on Broadway in 2009 – another example of a boundlessly talented actor making the most of a finite script.  And coincidentally, another play in which the primary source of dramatic tension is an elderly person’s release of life.

Though Milk Train reveals an undeveloped story and frustratingly vague supporting characters, there is something poignant about Flora that sustains the show. So enraptured by the pleasures of life and the yearning desire to taste youth, excitement, and love one more time, she achieves something poetic and bittersweet that is found in the best of Williams’ plays.  Dressed in a loud flowery tunic, bright leggings, and wedge sandals, she momentarily views herself as a young woman again as she sees the handsome Pettie coming to visit her.  She looks up mischievously, cocks her head, and says, “Ok old girl, let’s give it another whirl.”