Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Zak's End of Year Picks

The holidays are over, the year is winding down, but there is still a lot of great theatre to be seen. So, check these shows out before it's too late.

Best of Off-Broadway: Fuerzabruta
Go see this show!

Take Your Out of Town Guests: All My Sons
Tourists want to see stars, and you get a lot of bang for your buck with this solid revival of Arthur Miller’s classic. Who knows, you might even see a Scientology protest outside beforehand. Two shows for the price of one. You can’t go wrong.

Fun Night Out While It's Still Cheap: Rock of Ages
This bitchin' 80's musical is transferring to Broadway and the movie rights have been sold to a major studio. Go see this totally rad show while it's still at the intimate New World Stages. And be sure to go to Blockheads next door for $3 Margaritas before the show so you can rock even harder.

You'll Kick Yourself if You Miss It: Spring Awakening
It won a gaggle of Tonys and is closing soon. Go see this edgy musical while you still can, it closes January 18th. Don't be scared off by the subject matter–I took my mother to see it when she was in town. If you're not too uptight you'll find your self enjoying the intriguing story and infectious rock score by Duncan Sheik.

You're Kicking Yourself That You Missed It: The Seagull
What better time of year than New Year's for a little regret, right? While it's too late to see this wonderful revival of Chekhov’s classic, you truly missed out. It was great. Sucks to your asthmar that you missed it. Your loss. (Editor's note: Theatre Is Easy does not condone flagrant patronizing.)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Molly's Holiday Picks

Now is a great time to see a Broadway show. Yes, you have to battle the Times Square holiday madness, but just think how all of those bright lights and extra people will keep you warm as you make your way to the theatre. Plus, a bunch of Broadway shows are closing in early January, so it's your last chance to see Spring Awakening, 13 the Musical, Young Frankenstein, Boeing Boeing, Gypsy, Spamalot, Grease, Hairspray, All My Sons and Forbidden Broadway (an off-B'way show, but still worth noting). Just be sure to check holiday schedules before you buy tickets, as most shows rearrange their performance dates for Christmas and New Years.

Molly's 2008 Broadway Holiday Picks
click on the show title to read the Theatre Is Easy review...

Take your parents (musical): Gypsy
Take your parents (play): All My Sons
Take the tweens in your life: 13 the Musical
Take a date (play): Boeing Boeing
For a laugh (play): The 39 Steps

Hope you have a really great holiday season!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Liza's at the Palace (Palace Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Even if you’re not a fan of her music, go to see a living legend at the top of her game.

So, I’ll admit that I really had no interest in seeing Liza Minelli’s latest concert at the Palace Theatre. I figured it was one of those things that I should see, but wasn’t really motivated to get there. I loved her hysterical turn as a vertigo stricken socialite on the brilliant tv show Arrested Development, but I kind of figured she wouldn’t be falling down and coming on to anyone during her concert so I wasn’t really that pumped about it. I generally don’t enjoy going to a concert unless I really love the artist’s music, and I’m not Liza’s biggest fan when it comes to her singing. I think she is a great performer, but did I really want to listen to her sing for two hours? The answer: hell yeah. I was so pleasantly surprised. Ms. Minelli delivers a wallop of star power in her solo show. She sings non-stop for over two hours and is utterly compelling to watch.

You forget that Liza comes from an era when people where raised and bred to be stars. The anecdotes from her life are extremely touching and she leaves you wanting more at every turn. She is a consummate professional who had the entire audience eating out of the palm of her hand from the moment the red curtain lifted. She brings a depth to her renditions of “Maybe this Time,” “And the World Goes Round,” “Cabaret,” and many others that are far better than anything that is happening on Broadway at the moment.

It is rare that you get to see a living legend that truly lives up to her reputation. Her voice is still top notch, and while you might not be able to fully understand about 10% of what she is saying, it doesn't matter. Liza's at the Palace is a truly wonderful theatrical experience that should not be missed. Even if you are not a fan of her music, you will enjoy yourself. Her performance level is something that is really unmatched in the entertainment industry today. She lives to please and entertain an audience, and Liza does just that–she entertains. Go see it before it's too late.

(Liza at the Palace plays at The Palace Theatre, Broadway at 47th Street, through January 4th. Click here for the entire performance schedule. Tickets are $55-$125 with $250 premium seats available. Visit lizasatthepalace.com for more show info.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Improbable Frequency (59E59)

BOTTOM LINE: The thinking man's (or woman's) musical theatre.

During the intermission of Improbable Frequency the lady sitting in front of me turned to her companion and said, "You really have to concentrate on this one." That is somewhat of an understatement. Set in and around Dublin during WWII, the story weaves its way in and around the connections of a eclectic mix of characters, all of whom sing, mug, shimmy, dance, vogue, and speak in verse.

What I loved most about this play was the obvious craftwork that went into creating it. All the dialogue is in verse, the songs are catchy and are all quite distinctive, the set, lighting and costumes were all time and place perfect. There was not a detail left unattended to, and that includes the cast – a fantastic group of talented actors who play a range of characters with great aplomb. The entire enterprise felt like a finely tuned Cadillac purring at an auto show. It successfully merges many genres, often feeling more like a movie than a play. There is political tension mixed with farce, romanticism and a touch of film noir...something for everyone.

My only criticism is that the play may be too smart for its own good. At some point in the middle of Act II, I sort of got lost in the labyrinth and never really found my way out. At a two and a half hour running time, perhaps a few of the extraneous off shoots of the main plot could be sacrificed for time.

But that really is a minor quibble when compared to the amount of fun this play really is. And now that I think about it, maybe the woman in front of me was concentrating too hard. Maybe the whole point of the Improbable Frequency is that it is, in fact, improbable, and the harder you try to keep everything linear and wrap your brain around all the connections and interconnections, all the more improbable it becomes. Maybe the point is to just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

(Improbably Frequency plays through January 4th at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th Street between Park and Madison. Show times are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 8pm, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Holiday schedule: December 24th at 2pm, December 25th at 6pm only. Tickets are $60...to purchase visit ticketcentral.com. Visit 59E59.org for more info.)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New House Under Construction (59E59)

BOTTOM LINE: If the actors are on, this play can be one heck of an emotional ride. If not (and if a few other things don't click), it might miss the punch.

After 15 years, 2 couples in their 40’s are reunited during the construction of a new house. Old rivalries, secrets and choices made long ago come to the surface and the audience is brought into a story about love, lust and the “what-ifs” in life.

After the first few scenes of New House Under Construction I thought this play was going to be about adults with sex issues – this can be a fine line between quality creative work and uninspiring indulgence. Fortunately the story turns away from just exploring sexual desires as the audience begins to discover more about the characters in an interesting way. The story then turns again in a completely unexpected way to share something I really appreciated in the end.

New House was written and directed by Alan Hruska, an accomplished lawyer turned writer-director. His writing offers a keen insight into human truths and character. The many scenes made for an interesting story, although a few scenes drop a bomb at the last possible moment, only to be edited too quickly. The theatrical experimentation with the space and storytelling was interesting and for the most part worked, although one scene that diverted from the structure of the staging and story didn’t thrill me too much and seemed too theatrical for my taste if not superfluous.

I caught an early preview of this show on a Saturday afternoon, so I can understand that this play is still getting its legs. In the performance I caught, the actors took a few scenes to get warmed up and I just wasn’t buying the stakes or the relationships that the material was demanding. The actors are obviously talented, although some moments weren’t quite there for me. Again, as the material sets in and the show officially opens, we’ll see how the piece comes together.

There were also a lot of little things that detracted from the enjoyment of the play and needed a bit more craft. Some were technical effects, some were written in the play itself and some were moments that are being ironed out. It took away from my engagement in the play at times. At this point, a lot falls on the actors to comfortably own the material and deliver truthful, emotionally invested scenes. There are a lot of aspects that are quite good, don’t get me wrong, it’s just going to have to click the whole way through for this to become the engaging and surprising piece of theater it can be.

(New House Under Construction plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park, through January 4th. Show times are Tuesday through Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:15pm and 8:15pm, and Sunday at 3:15pm. Tickets are $35...to purchase, visit ticketcentral.com or call 212.279.4200. Visit www.59E59.com for more info.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

CALIGULA (Horizon Theater Rep)

BOTTOM LINE: With a strong message about the contradictions of both love and government, you don't have to be familiar with Camus nor Caligula to enjoy this production.

"By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more."
-Albert Camus

Albert Camus is often considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential existentialists, though he would not approve of this label. (Incidentally, he also happens to be among this reviewer’s favorite authors.) It seems that as the new millennium matures, existential questions return to the forefront. Caligula is a story of a disillusioned leader who abuses his power in vain. It is only appropriate that Horizon Theatre Rep should choose to present Caligula now.

Produced at the impressive, newly renovated Theatre Row Studios, Caligula welcomes its audience with an impressive set. Tall columns lend a Roman flavor, while an oversized banquet table surrounded by gold chairs can’t help but reflect a very well-known piece of art. Set designer, Peter R. Feuchtwanger, brings the symbolism home with an ever-present burning flame in the background. Lighting designer, Jeff Croiter, continues this timeless design with a hint of 1920s flavor by combining traditional warm lighting effects and romantic columns of light with the starkness of exposed light bulbs. The attention to detail with the costumes and hair by Jennifer Nweke furthers the concept of a timeless era that could just as easily be from the 1920s, as it could be today, as it could be tomorrow. Even though the two hour run time sans intermission is a little scary, don’t worry, it goes by surprisingly fast. Definitely don’t let it deter you from seeing the show. Caligula provides a pleasant evening of theatre.

I have mainly one problem with this production. I simply cannot allow myself to believe that fight choreographer Rick Sordelet could be responsible for the borderline laughable death scenes. Simply google his name and you will see that this man is a tremendous fight choreographer with massive Broadway and film credits (the film “Dan in Real Life” and Broadway’s The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, and 110 in the Shade to name only a few)! I have witnessed examples of his superb choreography in the past. Sitting in the audiences of American Buffalo (Broadway revival, 2008), The Homecoming (Broadway revival, 2007-2008), and Curtains (Broadway 2007-2008), Mr. Sordelet, on more than one occasion, has caused me to jump in my seat, clutch my pearls, and gasp for air with his convincing violence. Therefore, I suspect director Rafael De Mussa, is to credit for the unfortunate distractions. It appears that at the expense of believability, the director attempted to create an “artistic” stage picture. I’ve seen this happen before and I will never understand it.

Nonetheless, I implore any audience member to suspend their disbelief and forgive those brief moments of unbelievability. After all, the story itself already asks you to believe that one man is capable of murdering and raping whomever he wishes (including the moon) at random with little to no objection. Why not believe that a person can be dead while sitting completely upright in a banquet chair and maintaing almost perfect posture? Fortunately, Mr. Sordelet has the opportunity to show off his stuff with a massive group fight scene that is rather impressive. Multiple guns, punches, and all manors of violent acts are displayed in a moment of chaos that is like a brief waltz among madmen with all the grace of a dance but none of the beauty -- and that’s a good thing. Minus the glaring death scenes, Caligula is a solid production with several fine performances that are well worth seeing.

A solid ensemble overall, a few actors rise to the top. In particular, Ben Gougeon (Helicon) captivates with mesmerizing stealth. Mr. Gougeon transforms ever so subtly from a harmless, almost oafish teddy bear of a yes-man to a captivating, carnal conspirator. He creates a passionate villain that one loves to hate. Also noteworthy, is actor Miles Warner (Mucius). With heartbreaking eyes and a hauntingly expressive face, Mr. Warner creates a character whose soul disintegrates before one’s very eyes, a stunning performance. Chris Triana (Metellus) exhibits a flawless facility with language, which not only delivers a strong performance but is also a breath of fresh air. His clarity immediately dispels any confusion in the story-line. Moments of levity are unexpectedly delivered by Hungarian actor, Gustav Bodor (Octavius). A character that so easily could have been portrayed as obnoxious or whiney is nothing but charming and likable in Bodor’s hands. Bodor’s keen comic timing and sympathetic character is perfection. Special nod should also be given to De Mussa (Caligula). According to Caligula, an actor need only be devoid of emotion to play a god on stage. De Mussa follows his character’s advice and, in doing so, creates a powerful demon. Too often actors give performances laden with yelling, crying, pointing, slamming of fists and red-in-the-facing. This reviewer appreciates any actor who can achieve a dominating character without resorting to these lesser tactics, which De Mussa does. While I found some of De Mussa’s directorial choices to lack solidarity, I must applaud his acting performance.

Again, though I do not love all of De Mussa’s choices as director of the production, his hand in aiding his actors to create fully fleshed characters and relationships is apparent. The one-on-one moments between actors are delicious. If it were a film, I believe every tight shot would be amazing. On stage however, and sitting out in the 99-seat house, the effect is a little less wonderful. As a director his staging is a little weak but his ability to glean fire from his actors is apparent. If I am being a little picky it is only because Horizon Theatre Rep’s production of Caligula has put itself on a high enough bar that it should be measured as such.

Another thing that really makes De Mussa and Horizon Theatre Rep shine is their open-minded casting choices (not to mention the sheer size of the cast). Thank you for creating a world on stage that is reflective of the streets we walk. Foreign accents tickle the ears, different ethnicities grace the eyes, all creating a landscape that is lush and refreshing. This is what “open casting” really is at its best. No political agenda or “hit me over the head message.” No racial injustice to drive home. Simply a reflection of the real everyday world. Different accents, cultures, and ethnicities exist in this world simply because they do. People of minority don’t go walking around every minute of their lives thinking, “Hmm ... how can I make the way I look or sound be a political statement?” and Horizon Theatre Rep gets that. Kudos! Kudos to you, Horizon Rep, for actually doing what so many other theaters say they do, but don’t. I only hope to see more of it in the future.

Caligula is well worth the price of admission. The story is pertinent, several of the actors are exceptional. The quality of the production is excellent, to which beautiful and simple set, lights and costumes all contribute. Caligula is what off-Broadway should be.

(Caligula runs through December 30, Thursday - Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm, at The Kirk @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues). Tickets are $18, available through Ticket Central, www.ticketcentral.com. run time is approximately 2 hours with no intermission.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Only Tribe (3LD)

BOTTOM LINE: Masks and dance are an interesting combo in theory...

I think I've seen maybe two straight-up movement pieces in my life up til last week, and was when I was 12, so I figured it was about time I gave them another shot. The Only Tribe, Roland Gebhardt's performance piece, sounded right up my alley - identity, myth, masks, projected images, multi-media, fantasia - totally down with everything mentioned in the press release... So I go there... and I just couldn't get into it. And I'm pretty sure it was because of the masks.

The dancers came out wearing these gynormous geometric masks, which pretty much looked like cellphone bars or computer chips, gray and industrial, and at first it was sort of interesting in the "Oo what's this statement" sort of way. But then I found myself concentrating more on how the dancers were managing to move with these huge impediments than on the movements themselves.

Each of the tribe's generations had its own shaped mask, and Peter Kyle's choreography was interesting and specific to each, but I had difficulty in appreciating it when what I was looking at was so aesthetically displeasing. What I understood about the basic visual was a stripping of the personal identity of each cast member–they were all in gray unitards, which erased gender, race, etc–and the concept worked well. Unfortunately, I also lost any personal connection to the story–not because I couldn't see their faces, but because their bodies, the vessels of the story, were encumbered by these great artificial physical structures.

The projected images were pretty damn cool though. Reid Farrington's projected videos of both the dancers' performances, as well as iconic flashes of flags, corporate logos, stock tickers, portraits, and pretty much anything else you can think of, brings the show's finale to an impressive, visually pleasing chaos, while at the same time clarifying the journey the tribe took to get there. In this sense, it's an invaluable story-telling tool, not just cool new toy that fit into the budget.

All in all I'd say...if you like that type of modern art that not everyone seems to get–Mondrian, would probably be the best example–this might be the show for you. But, if you prefer something with a discernable face...maybe see what's up at Lincoln Center...

(The Only Tribe plays at 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street at Rector Street, through December 20th. Show times are Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $30 and $15 for students. For tickets call 212.352.3101 or visit 3LDNYC.org.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Broadway musicals to close soon

A lot of Broadway musicals are calling it quits near the first of the year. Some are citing a rough economy as the reason, although it seems like a handful have just reached the natural end of a long and successful run. The good news is that some exciting new shows will take their places this spring. Look forward to new revivals of West Side Story, Guys and Dolls and Hair. And check out these soon-to-close shows while you still can...*

13, a new musical (through January 4, 2009)
Young Frankenstein (through January 4, 2009)
Hairspray (through January 4, 2009)
Spring Awakening (through January 18, 2009)
Spamalot (through January 18, 2009)
Gypsy (through March 1, 2009)

*dates have been officially announced but are still subject to change

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dawn (The Flea Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: A brave piece of quality theater that walks a very fine line.

Dawn
is a mature-themed story dealing with some very real issues that most adults have dealt with in some form along the way. Sexuality, alcoholism, family issues and painful truths are the name of the game for this story. These topics are nothing new and many times an inexperienced playwright or filmmaker may throw these elements into a story just for shock value or indulgence. Playwright Thomas Bradshaw does manage to shock the audience, but he does so with skillful writing and an understanding of the subject matter he is taking on in today’s era. This is edgy stuff, but not too over the top though it pushes the audience’s own comfort zones and understanding of human character.

That’s a lot of what this play seems to be about: our weaknesses as humans and the emotional struggles we experience along the way. It’s part of what makes this play intriguing to watch. You honestly don’t really know where this story is going to go or how these characters are going to end up.

A big part of the success to this story has to do with quality of the acting. This is a very experienced group of actors. Gerry Bamman, Kate Benson, Laura Esterman, Drew Hildebrand, Jenny Seastone Stern, and Irene Walsh all bring a lot of skill and humanity to the roles. Watching these actors work as an ensemble and as individuals is really engaging. Although there were some moments that didn’t grab me, overall I felt for these characters...and this was essential for this piece of theater to work. Why? One big reason is because there is no set, only the stage of the Flea Theatre itself. The actors, props, wardrobe and story do the work. This reminds me of how, when you strip it down, great acting and storytelling can be a hundred times more engaging than a million dollar set or a film with razzle-dazzle special effects.

The Flea Theater itself is a quite a nice space as well. Hats off to the “Bats," the crew and understudies, who help run the shows and the theater. They were very welcoming from the start of the show and kept the show moving smoothly through all of the scene changes and beats of the play. I also enjoyed their introduction and “turn off your cellphone” bit to start the show. It makes the experience of off-off-Broadway theater very welcoming, intimate, and sets the stage nicely for the ride. I’d be interested in seeing future productions at this space.

As for this show, I’d recommend it for the acting, direction and challenging content. Don’t take your parents to this show and I’d take a date only if you’re very comfortable with the relationship. This is heavy stuff and the story is going is take you to some uncomfortable places, but in the end Dawn is a satisfying journey that will leave you affected by the ride.

(Dawn plays at The Flea Theatre, 41 White Street between Church and Broadway. Show times are Friday, Nov. 28th and Saturday, Nov. 29th at 9pm, and Wednesday, Dec. 3rd through Saturday, Dec. 6th at 7pm. Tickets are $18 each. To purchase tickets, click here. For more info, visit theflea.org.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Boeing Boeing, new cast

Mark Rylance plays in Boeing Boeing.

BOTTOM LINE: Boeing Boeing, the farcical revival that opened on Broadway last May and won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play last season, welcomes a new cast and keeps the antics rolling.

Man, Boeing Boeing is f'ing funny. It's a farce in every way: fast paced, obvious plot, outrageous characters in silly situations, lots of physical comedy. At a time where nationally respected comedy leans toward the snarky, intellectual side (i.e. 30 Rock), it's pretty cool that a 1960's French farce can hold its own on Broadway. This is especially true given its earlier American past; Boeing Boeing's first Broadway run in 1965 lasted only 23 performances. Overseas, audiences weren't so dismissive; a recent London revival gave the production a new life, which makes sense since Boeing Boeing embraces a genre and sensibility that Brits do oh so well. And now with its Broadway revival, it seems like audiences finally understand that the this silliness is brilliant.

The show has seen a recent cast change, but they've brought on some recognizable tv personalities. The tv connection is effective, as the play feels, in many ways, like a sitcom itself. And these tv actors are certainly comfortable on the stage (although they all have copius stage credits). There doesn't seem to be a disconnect in their ability to play to a large audience after a long history on the small screen. Bernard, the womanizing architect at the center of the debachury, is played by Ally McBeal alum Greg Germann (Bradley Witford was originally in the role). Bernard's three fiancées (no, they don't know about each other) include Paige Davis of Trading Spaces fame as the American fiancée, Rebecca Gayheart as the Italian fiancée, and Missi Pyle as the German fiancée. Thankfully, the brilliant Christine Baranski and Mark Rylance continue their roles as the Bernard's housekeeper and the friend, respectively. Rylance won a Tony award for his performance last June.

In a way, Baranski and Rylance are the motors for the show. Their entrances, exits and actions dictate the direction in which the plot unfolds. Since both have been in these roles for a while, it would be easy to start to phone it in, espeically for Rylance also played the part in the 2007 London production. But luckily, these actors both bring it like it's opening night. I saw the show on a cold Wednesday night, with a less-than-packed house, and they both delivered with energy and exuberance.

I think Boeing Boeing is a great choice if you want to see a show that's well put together and professional, but doesn't require much thought or critical viewing. It's a fun ride, completely easy to digest, with comedy ranging from entertaining to downright riotous. It never feels like it undermines the audience, nor does it require a moment's work to decipher the story. Boeing Boeing is just a good time, approachable for a vast age range, and will leave you feeling pleased and satisfied.

(Boeing Boeing plays at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Showtimes are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Ticket prices range from $36.50 to $110...I saw the show for $36.50 but was able to move up to a better seat. Visit boeingonbroadway.com for more info.)

Read Theatre Is Easy's original Boeing Boeing review by Zak here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

American Buffalo

I enjoyed American Buffalo, but was not WOWED by it. I thought the performances, for the most part, were pretty solid. John Leguizamo was particularly engaging and Cedric the Entertainer certainly held his own. I was a little disappointed with Haley Joel Osment, not because he was bad in so much as it felt, to me at least, that he was a little out of his element. The entire outing seemed bigger than he was and I never felt that he really got his arms around it.

The play, as mentioned, is closing barely a week after it opened, and I can't tell you that I'm all that surprised. I don't even really know why. I like this play and i liked this production of it, but...I guess this production just never felt like more than the sum of its parts. I am a big Mamet fan, and have read and seen American Buffalo before so I certainly knew what I was in for on that front. The performances, as mentioned, were at worst capable, and usually much more than that. The other production values - set, lights, costumes - were certainly all top notch too. Everything looked and sounded great. So I don't know what it is about this production that is failing to gain traction with the theatre-going public. Maybe as the economy continues to tank and the cold dark days of winter are upon us, the masses are just looking for something a little more...inspiring. Like The Seagull.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

American Buffalo...is closing

BOTTOM LINE: the revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo, starring John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer and Haley Joel Osmet, opened this week. It's also closing this week. Although dismal ticket sales are cited as the reason the production is ending just as it's barely begun, it's here through Sunday and worth seeing if you get a chance.

Zak saw American Buffalo last night. Here's what he has to say about it...

I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed the most recent revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo at the Belasco Theatre. It was a really fast paced, solid production of one of Mamet's classic plays. I know Mamet's work isn't for everyone, but I really loved this production. It's raw, gritty, kick ass theatre. It's three guys sitting around talking about a rare coin heist and working out the uneasy dynamic of their friendship. It's guy's guy's theatre at it's best. It examines the complicated terrain of male friendship in a very real manner, which is a topic that is often not explored in American Drama. And apparently, based on the abrupt closing notice, that isn't for everyone. Which is a damn shame.

John Lequizamo was absolutely fantastic. It was a joy to watch his performance. Famous for appearing in such films as Moulin Rouge, Ice Age, Summer of Sam, Romeo + Juliet, and To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar, I forgot that he got his start on the stage and studied acting with Lee Strassberg at NYU. He truly is a gifted actor, and I hope that this excellent, albeit short lived, appearance on Broadway will catapult his film career to the next level. Seriously, put this guy in a great part that is worthy of his talent. Appearing along side Lequizamo is Academy Award Nominee, Haley Joel Osment from The Sixth Sense. After a long absence from the spotlight, Osment is adequate in his portrayal of a young junkie, but not in the same league as his costars. Rounding out the cast is Cedric the Entertainer. That's right. The comic probably most famous for his hysterical performance on The Kings of Comedy makes his Broadway debut with this ill-fated production. And you know what, he's pretty damn good. I was shocked. I was expecting him to be terrible, but he really steps up to the plate. It appears as if there is a legitimate actor waiting to burst out of this stand-up comic's shell and it's pretty sad that more people are not going to get to see it. All in all, a pretty good night at the theatre. A sad case of another Broadway casualty based on the current economic crisis. I think this play would have found its audience if given the time. Go see it before it's too late!

(American Buffalo plays through Sunday, November 23rd at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Look for cheap tickets at TKTS or buy the cheapest seats and move forward...assuming there will be room in the theatre to do so.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

East 10th Street (Axis Company)

BOTTOM LINE: Theater at its purest.

I'm not a theater snob. I don't have moral objections to pyrotechnics. If there's an arousing, feel-good musical number at the end of a show, chances are I'll be on my feet and more than a little farchlempt. That said, when the big show on the Great White Way is The Little Mermaid on Wheels, any semblance of simplicity is a welcome refresher. And I'm not sure that theater gets simpler than Axis Theater Company's East 10th Street: Self Portrait with Empty House. It's fifteen bucks to see a guy in black tell a story on a bare stage.

Mind you, Edgar Oliver is no ordinary guy. He takes the stage and starts talking, and you can see why the man is a downtown legend. He looks like he just stepped out of a Roald Dahl sketch, with eyes that manage to alternate between infinite fatigue and straight-up bugginess, and speaks with a voice that I can only describe as cavernous, a sound that should come out of someone ten feet tall with exceptionally long fingers.The fact that he's bottom lit through much of the show (great design by David Zeffren) only adds to his ghostly air.

The play itself is a glimpse into a reality so heightened - what with the homicidal midget cabalist, an ex-Nazi, and not to mention a live-in superintendent - that it frequently crosses into surreality. It is, however, the true story of Oliver's actual home, the house on 10th Street. The episodes are by turns darkly hilarious, heartbreaking, or just downright creepy, but they always have an undercurrent of solitude, an aloneness which the play rightly and unsentimentally acknowledges in its final moments.

It is a brave and unusual thing to see, this man telling a story without the shield of costume or character. Admitedly, it took me a minute to adjust. But, thinking about it now, I realize that that is a profound effect for a show to have - to force an audience to change the way it hears, the way it listens to a story, through the sheer simplicity of its telling. The show's an hour long, and you'll come out having witnessed something singular. Simply put, I'd say that's worth giving a shot.

(East 10th Street plays at Axis Company, 1 Sheridan Square just off 7th Avenue. Show times are Thursday through Sunday at 8pm through November 22nd. Tickets are $15 for adults, and $10 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets visit axiscompany.org or call 212.352.3101. Visit axiscompany.org for more info.)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Vice Girl Confidential (Under St. Marks)

BOTTOM LINE: If you want a good laugh, a good time, and you enjoy movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracey, other comic book movies, and Saturday Night Live, then you’ll enjoy this production.

Vice Girl Confidential, the title says it right there: you can almost hear the ominous, echoing voice with the pregnant pause, and see the giant “confidential” stamp slam down on the file as you read the words. As one descends the tiny staircase of the underground theatre at Under St. Marks, the feeling that, indeed, this could conceivably be a place of vice, or at least someplace confidential, prevails. Exposed brick peeks through one side of the forty-seat-theatre, only adding to the perfectly seedy atmosphere. The show opens with the sounds of voices, beeps, and boops transmitted over “the wire,” then lights up on a lone figure at a lone desk, in classic noir fashion, there to summarize for the audience what heinous crimes have taken place in this humble burg, and with thinly veiled warning, surmise what dangers lie ahead if the case isn’t cracked. Dun, dun, dunnnn...! Full of clever puns and witty spoof, playwright Todd Michael delivers a good time.

The rest of the story unfolds just as one suspects it would. Bad guys. Bad girls. Good cops. Good cops behaving badly. Bad girls behaving goodly. Shake downs, break downs, take downs, you’re busted! -- OK, so wrong cop-movie reference! (If you didn’t pick up on that one, I highly suggest you brush up on your Eddie Murphy flicks of the 1980s.) Here is a good place to note that Mr. Michael’s play is produced by Horse Trade Theater Group together with Grayce Productions. Grayce Productions deals exclusively with plays that parody the shows and entertainments of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. So, while my particular attempt at fun-with-movie-references will not be seen in “Vice Girl,” several clever quips of dialogue, stylized phrasing, and distinct blocking are a laugh-out-loud homage to the films, movies, and radio shows of that golden era.

That being said, this is a perfect show for practically all generations...well, within reason. I’m assuming that while children of all ages will enjoy the broad humor, most parents will not enjoy having to explain what a “vice girl” is exactly. And in case you haven’t figured it out yet: it’s a hooker. These girls, in the words of Stella Fontaine, the elusive Madam, played brilliantly by the playwright himself dressed in drag, (another bit that children tend to find entertaining, but adults tend to find it even more so, when done well, which it is here) are “high class, A-Number-One,” but nonetheless they are prostitutes. Now, do not be confused, Vice Girl Confidential is not a children’s show. Mr. Michael must, however, be applauded for the fact that while the play is thoroughly naughty, it is never dirty.

Director, Walter J. Hoffman successfully sprinkles the stage with humorous slapstick. Such as the innocent little sister entering dressed as a very familiar character of innocence or like Charles “Muggsy” Regan, a squealing gangster played with beautiful “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”-weasel-style by Matthew F. Garner, directing his own murderer, “a little to the left, a little more, now up,” to shoot him in the heart before he collapses flat on his face. What Hoffman really does well however, is lacing more subtle whimsy in between the jokes. For example, good guy, played by Thom Brown, D.A. Walter Slade’s breathless line delivery and classic timing. Michael’s amusing vocal inflection. Both Zach Lombardo’s ridiculously funny commitment to creating distinct characters (he plays several) and Jeff Auers convincing portrayal of the villain, Duke Craigie, seem to have leapt right out of the pages of a comic book. These things among other small nods to the genre, such as meticulous male grooming, all create a full and pleasing production.

One particularly deserving moment in the play is thanks to a combination of great dialogue, flawless direction, and a cohesive ensemble when a character delivers the ever so spot-on, pointless, nonsensical, did-she-just-say-something-dirty?-because-if-she-did-I-don’t-think-it made-any-sense,-and-if-she-didn’t-I-still-don’t-thin-it-made-any-sense, line of poetry requisite to detective, pulp, crime drama of the era. I won’t give it away but it was hilarious, and while not the biggest laugh of the show it was the smartest. Here in lies the reason to see Vice Girl Confidential, not only is it full of straightforward laughs but it is full of satisfying laughs too. There is not a whole lot of thinking necessary to enjoy it, but there is just enough to not get bored, or dismiss it. Like a good Mel Brooks movie or Warner Brothers cartoon.

Credit should also be given to the fairly seamless set changes, and beautiful, detailed, costumes and wigs on a shoestring budget. The believability and amusement of this production is due in no small part to costume designer, David L. Zwiers. Excellent discretion was used by Hoffman and Zwiers, which is no easy feat for an off-off-Broadway show.

Mr. Michael, you have found your niche as a producer, writer, and performer. This is a show that one could just easily enjoy with friends as with family. It couples today's sense of humor with that of the 1950s. A duo, spiced with nostalgia, that all can relish. “Who knows what laughter lurks in the hearts of men? Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh! Todd Michael knows...” Vice Girl Confidential is a good time, full of laughs to be shared with loved ones. So head on down to the theatre Under St. Marks, grab a beer, and prepare to be entertained.

(The show comes in at just under one hour, fifteen minutes with no intermission. Performances are held at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place, between 1st Ave. & Ave. A), November 13-15 at 8pm, November 16 at 7pm. Tickets are $18, call SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or visit www.horsetrade.info.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Billy Elliot the Musical (Imperial Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Many will enjoy this big Broadway Musical, but I'm not sure it is worth the money.

In many ways, and for many reasons, Billy Elliot is a very good Broadway musical. Many people will enjoy themselves, and I am betting it will be one of the “shows to see” this season. From what I understand, it has a lot of advance sales; this translates into no readily available discounts, and no student rush or lottery. It certainly won’t appear on TKTS anytime soon. If you want a decent (not amazing, but merely decent) seat for this show, you are looking at spending either $81.50 (for partial view) or $126.50 ($136.50 for Saturday evenings). So, is it worth it?

For those who haven’t seen the movie, Billy Elliot is the story of Billy, a boy who lives in a coal-mining town in Northern England. While the Mineworkers’ Union goes on strike, Billy discovers ballet. Ultimately, this is a story about the power (and limits) of community support- while the strike is ultimately broken by the Thatcher Administration, the town’s support enables Billy to travel to London to audition for the Royal Ballet School. For those who have seen the movie, the musical is a mostly faithful adaptation, with some minor changes (more focus is given to the community on strike, and the ending is a bit different). But both movie and musical have the same director (Stephen Daldry) and choreographer (Peter Darling). And both were written by the same person- Lee Hall (who does both book and lyrics here).

Daldry’s direction is, for me, one of the highlights of Billy Elliot the Musical. Daldry moves the action along through a variety of locales: the walls and chairs that make up the set, along with the central revolve that is Billy’s bedroom, allow Daldry to easily switch from one room to the next. Sometimes the set is two rooms at once- in the song “Solidarity” (probably my favorite piece of staging) the action simultaneously takes place in the union hall and the ballet school. So with Daldry’s staging, and terrific set and costume design (both really communicate the working-class aspect of this community), Billy Elliot certainly looks good.

Darling’s choreography, while not at all innovative, is at the very least sufficient. Certainly, he combines ballet with “musical theatre” dance effectively. I’m not convinced it should win any awards- Darling certainly isn’t the second coming of Jerome Robbins (another musical theatre choreographer who drew heavily from ballet). And I suspect the dance was more exciting because it was danced by a young boy, rather than anything specific to the choreography itself. But, the dancing is still exciting, and Billy’s big dance numbers receive some of the biggest applause in the show.

And the cast is quite good. Three boys alternate as Billy (I saw David Alvarez). There is no set schedule (or at least, no published schedule) about who goes on at any particular performance, although that hasn’t stopped some fans from returning repeatedly to try and see all three Billys. For most people, I don’t think this kind of repeat-viewing will be necessary- each Billy will be different, but I’ve heard good things about all of them. Billy’s friend Michael (the “proto-gay” kid who enjoys wearing tutus) is played by two boys (I saw David Bologna). Michael and Billy have a fun number in Act 1 called “Expressing Yourself”- one of the many times in which Billy Elliot really takes advantage of the fact that it is a BROADWAY musical.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Billy’s ballet teacher) is played by Haydn Gwynne, who originated the role in London. Gwynne is quite good, although I think my favorite performance was that of Gregory Jbara, who plays Billy’s father. Jbara was last seen in NY in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; he plays an entirely different character here (and looks entirely different as well), and has some great moments in Act 2. I should also add that the chorus is well-cast- the mining men look like miners, not musical theater actors. And the girls in Billy’s ballet class, who are all sizes and shapes, look like ballet students in a working-class town, rather than girls who have been groomed for Broadway.

However, as good as these elements (cast, direction, design) are, the heart of a musical for me always lies in the score. Unfortunately, this is Billy Elliot’s downfall. This might seem surprising- after all, Elton John wrote the music. But the score for Billy Elliot never drew me into the world of the musical. In fact, there were many times when it actively prevented me from investing emotionally in this story. To put it bluntly, the score is boring. It never allows the actors to really sing; as much as it pains me to admit, even the score for A Tale of Two Cities allows for this. Whereas in most musicals, you look forward to the next song, in this show I looked forward to the next scene, or to the next set change. John has said that he wrote the score rather quickly- in two weeks. I wish he had spent more time.

There are four “big moments” in this show- two in each act. In each of these numbers, the score dutifully builds, reminding the audience that this is one of those exciting moments- one of the highlights of the show, which they should applaud profusely and should then remark to each other “wow that was great." The score reminds people to applaud- not because it is good, but simply because it gets bigger. Ultimately, the main reason I saw for applauding was the dance- especially the Angry Dance that ends Act 1, and a ballet in Act 2 between Billy and his older self (danced by Stephen Hanna). It is telling that this ballet in Act 2, which uses classical music (not by Elton John), is probably the best number in the show.

The score is not helped by an awful sound design. While I heard some other people in the audience complain that they couldn’t understand the lyrics, I didn’t have this problem. I just didn’t like that everything was so obviously amplified, almost as if I was hearing it from the back of an enormous ampitheatre (I was in the fifth row). Microphones are basically mandatory on Broadway now, especially in large musicals. But ideally, you don’t really notice them. This was not the case in Billy Elliot.

So while it may seem a strange label for a character-driven piece dealing with ballet and a mining strike, I left Billy Elliot with the sense that I had just seen a spectacle. Not a mindless spectacle- indeed, a spectacle that is well-directed. But a spectacle all the same- I was left emotionally cold, and really only remember what the musical looked like, not what it felt like. It didn't move me at all. And this is what I mean when I say that Billy Elliot is a good Broadway musical- it is all show, and little substance. For some, this will be enough. But it isn’t a great musical- not even close- and at $126.50 (and almost three hours), I expect greatness. Or at the very least, I expect something interesting- a story told in a way that I can’t get somewhere else.

If money is no object, definitely go see Billy Elliot. But I think there are many Broadway musicals around that are better written and have cheaper tickets available. Whatever you're looking for, there is another musical that does it better. The only thing Billy Elliot has (that other musicals don’t) is its story. But there is a movie with the same story- without a good score, Billy Elliot the Musical has nothing that the movie doesn’t have. And this is the problem with Billy Elliot the Musical- it is based on a movie that is far superior- one that is written, directed and choreographed by the same people. So rent the movie instead- it is cheaper, shorter, and ultimately, more satisfying.

(Billy Elliot the Musical plays at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Opening Night is Thursday November 13th. The general performance schedule is Tue at 7 PM, Wed-Sat at 8 PM (with 2 PM matinees on Wed and Sat), and Sun at 3 PM. The performance schedule varies greatly during the 2008 holiday season- check www.billyelliotbroadway.com for more details. Running time is approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Tickets are $126.50 ($136.50 on Saturday evenings), $81.50 (partial view), and $41.50 (rear mezzanine). As of now, no discounts are available.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Made in Poland (59E59 Theatres)

BOTTOM LINE: Looking for a solid play with excellent acting, beautiful staging, and a little ass-kicking? This is it.

Right off the bat the main character lets you know exactly how he feels about the world without saying a single word. I honestly thought for a moment that the play was going to be another angst-filled artsy theatrical piece that blathers on for the next hour or so wasting my life and leading me to resent my decision to come to the theater in the first place. Fortunately, this was not the case with Made in Poland. I quickly started to like this play, mainly because the actors were so damn good. I loved to hate the villains and the parental figures were flawed and real. Heck, after this show I can now call myself a Krzysztof Krawczyk fan. For those not in the know, he’s a polish music legend you’ll be introduced to as soon as you see the very cool set designed by Olga Maslik.

The story in some ways reminds me of Good Will Hunting, but in a darker world and with a bit more danger. The main character gets in a heap of trouble when he smashes a Lincoln Town Car in his angst-filled rage. The car belongs to a gangster thug type who finds the boy and threatens him to come up with the money necessary to pay off the damage (and he means it!). The boy seeks out advice from his mom, a flawed father figure and a priest with a past...and takes a detour along the way. While the story and plot seem straightforward, it ultimately struck me more of a poetic narrative that captures life in a chaotic Poland contrasted with the moments of joy that only music and love can deliver.

The characters really drew me in and Jackson Gray’s sharp directing kept the story compelling. In many ways this was an ensemble piece between cast and crew resulting in an example of what good professional theater can be. Some actors even worked overtime, namely Eva Kaminsky playing 3 parts splendidly. Rob Campbell’s portrayal of the patriarch Viktor was heartwarming and tragic. The trio of thugs played by Ryan O’Nan, Ms. Kaminsky, and Jayce Bartok were evil and I totally bought it. Kit Williamson’s choices as Bogus made sense in a lot of ways as we learn about his tormented and confused character. Even the characters that I thought were minor, eventually won me over at some point. Again, everyone in the cast was solid, well-balanced, and compelling. I look forward to seeing more work done by these actors in the future on stage or screen.

For now, check out Made in Poland. It’s a modern, professionally produced piece of dramatic theater that I think guys will actually dig. There’s fighting, moments of humor and a decent story. (It’s better than most weekend reruns you’ll see on cable!) If you are an actor or involved in theater, check it out for the acting and directing. There is a lot of depth in this piece, ultimately resulting in an enjoyable 90 minutes of solid theater.

(Made In Poland plays until November 30th at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street between Madison and Park. Performance times are Tuesday through Friday at 8:15pm, Saturday at 2:15pm and 8:15pm and Sunday at 3:15pm. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased at ticketcentral.com or by calling 212.279.4200. For more info visit 59E59.org.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Twelfth Night (The Queen's Company)

The cast of Twelfth Night. Photo by John Santerre.

BOTTOM LINE: Who says there's no lip-syncing in Shakespeare?

In The Queen's Company's bold production of Twelfth Night, pop hits underscore classic Shakespearean mishaps. Like 90% of Shakespeare's classical comedies, there's a woman and she's in drag...and like 100% of The Queen's Company's productions everyone's a woman and so nearly everyone's in drag. The company's cross-gender work is really remarkable. The women in no way exaggerate or ridicule the male gender, but rather play each character with comment on the reversed sexuality - a feat which is, I'd imagine, a huge challenge to the actresses as well as a huge relief to the audience.

As for the show itself, there are a lot of fun, bold choices being made by both the director and cast. The lip-syncing, of course, tops both the show and the list. Now, I'm all about mixing modern trappings into classical plays, and God knows the finale (which I won't reveal) is a blast, but what's weird to me is that in a show with countless songs written into the script and whose first line is "If music be the food of love, play on," the big, fun musical numbers aren't more integrated into the show. I can only remember three songs, two of which came close to each other in the first act. This good idea half-executed makes the music more of a distraction than anything else.

This happens visually, too, with the design of the set. Again, big, interesting choices- red floor, blue lattice work walls - which could say a lot and be used in beautiful ways - end up as distracting boldness rather than supporting the story.

There are a few gem performances, though. Aysan Celik, who plays Malvolio with Alan Rickman-like snideness, is wonderful to watch, and Carey Urban, whose school-girl demeanor as Olivia, lights up the stage in what can very easily be an unsympathetic part.

Overall, I'd say you'd have to have at least a passing interest in Shakespeare to enjoy this show (in the moments when the ideas aren't followed through, there's not a lot going on) but I came out of the theater with a smile on my face, having had a lovely time in Illyria.

(The Queen's Company's Twelfth Night plays at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Performances run until November 23rd, Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 and Sundays at 3pm, with additional shows November 15th and November 22nd at 2pm. Tickets are $18...buy them at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444. For more info visit QueensCompany.org.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Joan Rivers at The Cutting Room

BOTTOM LINE: Oh no she didn't...

Comedy legend Joan Rivers is working out some new material during a limited-all-proceeds-go-to-charity-engagement at the Cutting Room, and I am happy to report that her acid tounge, razor sharp wit, and perpetually reshaped face all remain firmly, brilliantly and hilariously intact.

Her set lasts (sadly, only) about an hour and mixes some bits that still need to be fine tuned with some bits that absolutely do not. But Miss Rivers continually scores comic gold throughout the evening every time she abandons the planned stuff and just riffs with the audience, a surprisingly diverse and overtly adoring crowd. It is always a thrill to see a comic, especially one as seasoned as Rivers, who is able to take risks, and really be in the moment, tailoring her comedy to what is happening in the room. It infuses everything with a sense of urgency and immediacy imperative in comedy (good comedy, anyway). And there is something particularly thrilling about watching Rivers, a veteran performer by any standard, work a room into a frenzy. As is the case with any artist and her chosen discipline, its not the ability to do it that makes you a legend, its the ability to do it brilliantly and to make it look effortless that does. It is abundantly clear which category into which Rivers falls well before she hits center stage and grabs the mike from its stand.

Ultimately, however, I think comedy has to be dangerous if it is going to be truly and legitimately funny. If the comics aren't going to say the things most people think but wouldn't dare articulate, then who will? Watching Rivers "go there," (and by "there" I mean places you don't expect most seventy-plus-year-olds to go) reminds you that if you play it safe in comedy, it's worse than boring, its unfunny. Because if you don't have at least one, "Oh no she didn't" moment, then what's the point? I was laughing so hard that I lost count of my "Oh no she didn't" moments, but suffice it to say she had many. Oh yes she did.

(Remaining shows include Wednesday, Nov. 19th at 7:30pm, Wednesday, Dec. 10th at 8pm and Friday, Dec. 19th at 7:30pm. The Cutting Room is located at 19 West 24th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Tickets are $30 and a proceeds are donated to God's Love We Deliver and Guide Dogs for the Blind. For tickets click here or call 212.352.3101.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities closes Sunday

Just a note to tell you that A Tale of Two Cities, the misunderstood distant relative of Les Miserables, will close this Sunday, November 9th. The new epic musical opened September 18th with previews beginning August 19th. If you're into epic musicals about French revolutions, check it out while you still can...two performances Saturday (11/8) at 2pm and 8pm, and one performance Sunday (11/9) at 3pm. A Tale of Two Cities plays at the Al Hirshfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street.

Read the Theatre Is Easy review of A Tale of Two Cities here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry

Jai Catalano as Todd and Matt Huffman as Henry Stuart Matis. Photo by Graham T. Posner.

BOTTOM LINE: An important issue, but that’s it- while the issue alone might be enough for some, if you are looking for engaging theater, look elsewhere.

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry is a play about a gay Mormon, Henry Matis, who committed suicide after struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his religion. Matis is only one of many gay Mormons who have committed suicide; clearly, the conflict between “same-gender attraction” and the Mormon church is one that should be discussed. And a great way of bringing awareness to this issue is through stories like those of Henry Matis. Unfortunately, playwright Roman Feeser, director Linda S. Nelson, and the company seemed to be most concerned with discussing the ISSUE, rather than telling us the story. And this is what makes Missa Solemnis (in my mind) so disappointingly unsuccessful.

The play opens with the five person cast (Henry, his two parents, his Bishop, and his lover) speaking to the audience. Knowing that this is based on true events, the opening feels very docu-drama- you get the sense that this portion of the text is taken from interviews and letters. It reminded me of The Laramie Project, in which the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed members of Laramie, Wyoming, after Matthew Shepard’s death, and then formed these interviews into a play I still remember vividly eight years later. A similar technique is used here, but the effect is little more than a series of talking heads: each character tells us his or her thoughts on Henry Matis’s death.

Unfortunately, the “talking heads” continue throughout the rest of the piece. Although the play soon switches to more traditional dialogue-based scenes between Henry and the other characters, we continue to learn about homosexuality, the Mormon Church, and the fact that they don’t go together. Nothing else is important, so nothing else is mentioned. Henry’s lover Todd is a gay man who lives in New York (that’s all we know about him). He likes Henry. Henry feels conflicted. The conversation focuses on this issue. When Henry speaks to his Bishop, they talk only about being gay and being Mormon. Shortly after we meet Henry’s mother, Henry comes out to her. Cue discussion. The next scene involves her telling Henry’s father that Henry is gay. Cue discussion. The entire play is a series of discussions about being gay and being Mormon. But after we learn that there is a conflict (if we didn’t already know this!) there is nothing else. There is a struggle going on within Henry. But we don’t see the struggle- we just see conversations about the struggle. This is most evident in the scene where Henry tells his parents he has a gun and he plans to kill himself. What happens after this new piece of information? More conversation. No raised voices. No crying. Just talk.

Included in the program is a letter from a professor at RIT about how the playwright “got the Mormonism spot on.” He writes about how Feeser “nailed the way traditional Mormons are frozen like deer in headlights when faced with anything that strays beyond the bounds of the narrow parameters of what is taught to be acceptable behavior.” He claims that the “complete inability” of Henry’s parents to deal with his increasing suicidal tendencies “is tragic and dead right.” This may be, but in order to understand this, an audience needs contrast- we need to see how other people DON’T act like frozen deer. Instead, the entire play is one long speech- it quickly becomes monotonous because it is all at the same level, in the same tone, and is directed at the same rhythm.

"Missa Solemnis" is latin, meaning “Solemn Mass." As such, it is an apt title for this play- the solemnity and seriousness of this piece is almost deadening. While some of the cast members (Matt Huffman as Henry, Warren Katz as the Bishop) are very talented and give terrific performances within the confines of the script, others seem profoundly amateur. The set design (by Marisa Merrigan) is well done. The play moves us through several locations: on one side of the stage is Todd’s bedroom, on the other side the Matis’ kitchen. Suitably stuck in the middle is a bedroom, which doubles as Henry’s bedroom (in his parents house) and Todd’s bedroom. The set makes explicit that this story is ultimately a war over where Henry should sleep, and with whom. And the lighting design was excellent: Graham T. Posner created a series of beautiful moments throughout the evening. Unfortunately, none of this makes up for the monotony of the piece, a monotony that I attribute to both the one-note script and the heavy-handed, unvarying direction.

I must be clear- I could hear several audience members sniffing back tears towards the end. I’m sure that some will find this piece incredibly moving. Certainly the line in a Newsweek article that inspired Feeser to write this play- “The people who had prepared his body for burial were struck by the sight of his knees, calloused from praying for an answer that never came”- is striking (and more memorable than anything in Missa Solemnis). And I must add that I applaud the effort to tell this story, which will hopefully create a forum for discussion. But then again, near the end of the play, when one of the characters says “let’s talk about something else,” I immediately thought YES!

(Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry plays at The TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street (3rd floor) between 8th and 9th Avenues. The show is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Performances run Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, through November 22nd. Tickets are $18. For tickets visit www.SmartTix.com or call 212-868-4444. For more show info visit www.theplayabouthenry.com.)

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Body of Water (Primary Stages)

BOTTOM LINE: If you enjoy a good mystery, particularly the mystery of life, you will enjoy this play! But don’t expect it to be easy...

You may, or may not, be familiar with Lee Blessing’s Pulitzer Prize winning, Tony nominated play A Walk in the Woods. Maybe you had the pleasure of watching your regional theatre’s production of Blessing's Nice People Dancing To Good Country Music. If you are not familiar with either of these shows then what better way to introduce yourself to Mr. Blessing’s body of work than with Primary Stages' latest production of A Body Of Water?

The play opens with two seeming strangers who appear to have lost all memory of who they are and what, when, where, why or how they got there. Sound confusing yet? Well, in the hands of any other team A Body of Water could easily be muddied and unclear. Fortunately for us however, Director Maria Mileaf lends a helping hand with expert direction, along with gutsy and heartfelt performances by the three-person cast, and a dazzlingly simple set design by Neil Patel.

I won’t say that the play is crystal clear, but I don’t think that is Mr. Blessing’s intention either. “You know this is a play with a mystery...” says Blessing (in the handy-dandy insert, loaded with great Q & A and other interesting info, provided by Primary Stages in each program). He goes on to explain that the mystery this play presents is not to be solved, but rather the point is “about learning to live inside of a mystery.” Well, Mr. Blessing, mission accomplished! The play itself is a labyrinth of truths and untruths and for my tastes it was a fun maze to not sort out, but rather just watch and see happens at the end of an hour and forty minutes.

As the performance begins, we learn that Moss (Michael Cristofer) and Avis (Christine Lahti, of Chicago Hope fame) wake up to each other as strangers, in a strange home -- albeit beautiful, with a gorgeous, giant, picture window with a view of the most serene...well... body of water and trees. Patel achieves this intriguing view, which changes with every shift of light and color (kudos to lighting designer Jeff Croiter), with a massive digital print. The cozy stage, at the 59E59 Theatre is both eerie and warm at the same time. The grandeur of the picture window, center stage, dwarfs the audience (a.k.a. fly on the wall), while making the image of water behind and around it seem somehow infinite.

This set design lends itself well to the mystery of the play. Within the first two-seconds of the play conflict presents itself when Moss and Avis stumble on stage, in delicate bathrobes, and have either a mean case of amnesia or two of the worst hangovers in the world. Cristofer and Lahti, (who joined the production late), made a charming and humorous couple on stage as their characters awkwardly attempted to figure out who they are, and why they are there. Just as it seems that Moss and Avis might have a handle on things -- enter Wren, there to undo all of the trust Moss and Avis have only barely achieved with each other, by offering the possibility of answers to be accepted blindly because, well -- if they don’t know who they are, then clearly this other stranger must be able to tell them who they are, after all she seems to know who she is -- doesn't she? The play progesses, in Groundhog Day fashion, with Moss and Avis, restarting at square one, over and over, with Wren providing varying degrees of “help” each time. While there were moments of slightly over-the-top emotions, the choices were not altogether unjustified, and certainly did not take away from the performance.

On the whole, the production is wonderful, with excellent performances by all three actors with full commitment and clarity. Being that Blessing provides such a complex script, the clear through-line, ideas, and actions guided so carefully by Mileaf are of the utmost importance. Mileaf, with a history of working together with Blessing (Going to St. Ives, which received an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Play, 2005), understands this playwright in a way that few do. She makes sense of his chaos so that we, the audience, can just sit back and see what happens.

Throughout the play, both Moss and Avis attempt to figure out who they are, and why they are where they are, as they get thrown off course by someone who offers them “truths,” as they wonder about the large body of water outside the window, asking each other “Do you think it’s all one?” Oh, Mr. Blessing, how very Zen of you.... If you try to “figure it out,” I’m almost positive you will leave the theatre with one eyebrow raised and an imaginary question mark floating above your head as you walk home. If, however, as you sit in that darkened theatre, you simply accept this strange story and live inside the mystery as it unfolds before you I promise, while you may go home pondering many things, that imaginary floating question mark will be replaced by a real smile.

(A Body of Water plays at Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street (between Madison and Park Avenues.) The show is 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. It runs until November 16 with varying show dates and times, Tickets are $60. Visit primarystages.org for specific info on show dates/times and tickets.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Road Show (The Public Theater)

BOTTOM LINE: Worth seeing (for Sondheim fans especially), but it requires some patience and/or effort, and is probably not for everyone.

I’m hesitant to say much about Stephen Sondheim’s Road Show because I saw the third preview, and it may continue to change until it officially opens. Which would not be surprising- for those who aren’t familiar with Road Show, it had two previous productions- first as Wise Guys (at the NYTW) and then as Bounce (which did not play in NY). Clearly, Sondheim continues to retool this work, as he has done with shows like Merrily We Roll Along and Follies. Road Show is a new Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by John Weidman) which is cause for celebration in itself. And while mediocre Sondheim is better than most everything else, those expecting the emotional pull and artistry of Sunday in the Park With George or Sweeney Todd may be disappointed.

Road Show tells the story of Wilson and Addison Mizner and their efforts to seize opportunities and get rich, from the Alaskan gold rush in the 1890s to the Florida land boom in the 1920s. Although I did not see Bounce, judging from the liner notes the basic plot points have remained essentially the same in Road Show. However, Sondheim has re-purposed and rewritten much of the score, so the show now has a very different feel. From what I can tell from the recording, Bounce seemed to be a show about the Mizner brothers- each had a romantic partner, making the focus of the story fall on both brothers and their struggles and triumphs. Road Show, on the other hand, feels more about Addison Mizner (Alexander Gemignani)- his brother Wilson (Michael Cerveris) is now more of the thorn in his brother’s side, and functions more to drive Addison’s story forward, since whenever Wilson comes back into Addison’s life, Addison has trouble. Nellie, Wilson’s romantic partner in Bounce, is no longer a character, and the importance of Addison’s romantic partner, Hollis Bessemer (Claybourne Elder) now seems to take on greater weight.

Ben Brantley called Bounce “distanced and calculated” and he felt that Sondheim’s craftsmanship, rather than his artistry, dominated Bounce. I felt the same thing about much of Road Show- as opposed to many of Sondheim’s other works, because the first half of Road Show did not engage me as much as I might have expected. It was well-written, and interesting enough, but it felt more like a series of scenes in which we see the misadventures of the Mizner brothers. Indeed, I felt that the show really only started when Addison met Hollis on the train to Florida. Although this happened midway through the piece, everything up until then felt like a long prologue.

Road Show is directed by John Doyle, who became known to NY audiences for directing the recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, in which the cast doubled as the orchestra (they don't here). The set of Road Show (designed by Doyle) is an enormous pile of boxes, filing cabinets, suitcases, trunks, and drawers. At times it seems like an enormous steamship, other times a city of skyscrapers, and other times just a pile of luggage on the floor of a train station. It might also be read as the caravan of a traveling theatre troupe performing their own “road show”, an idea supported by the roving ten-member ensemble, who play the various people the Mizners meet. Costumed in fabric printed with architectual sketches (again highlighting Addison’s increased importance- he is the architect), the ensemble spends most of their time as a background chorus- they sit or stand around this set, which often creates visually interesting tableaus.

To be fair, I think this is a show that will improve with additional viewings- one way of viewing Road Show ’s theme is to say that everything we do in our life- all of our stories and adventures and possessions and relationships- gradually accumulates and makes us who we are. So I think that only by seeing this show multiple times can one begin to appreciate the accumulation that takes place on stage. Nothing is thrown out- and Doyle highlights this throughout the evening.

One example of this is also one of my favorite directorial choices- characters repeatedly take piles of cash and throw it in the air to highlight a point or make a sale or just to communicate with each other. By the end of the show, the stage is covered with bills, highlighting the function of money in this story- the cash is simultaneously foundational necessity, worthless theatrical prop, and expendable commodity. And like this idea of throwing money around, much of Road Show can be interpreted as a metaphor for life in the United States. Sondheim’s Road Show is to some extent a story of American identity. Road Show veers back and both between cynicism and optimism, between scheming for money and honest work- indeed, it seems to parallel much of the double-natured characteristics of our so-called national character.

So is it worth seeing? If you’re a Sondheim fan, absolutely. Road Show has a score that is reminiscent of other Sondheim shows (Assassins, which also featured both Cerveris and Gemignani, is perhaps the most similar in tone). But it isn’t showy or immediately riveting- it is a score that requires attention. The entire cast is excellent, although I think Gemignani was my favorite- his Addison Mizner really roots the show. The design elements are all well done, and work well together. But I should be clear- Road Show does not immediately engage you, and if an audience is looking for emotional catharsis, they will probably not find it here. It goes without saying that Sondheim musicals are not for those looking for “mindless entertainment." But as opposed to some of his more “accessible” shows, like Into the Woods, or shows that work on several different levels (and therefore can appeal to broader audiences), like Follies or Company, Road Show may require some patience and effort. It has its rewards, but they are not immediately visible, much like the gold-filled Alaskan land in which the Mizners first seek their fortune.

(Road Show plays at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, near Astor Place. Show times are Sunday and Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. The show currently runs about 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org for more info (there are some changes to the above schedule) and to buy tickets. Full price tickets are $70-$80, but student tickets and general rush are available.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Language of Trees (Roundabout Underground)

Gio Perez as Eben Trumble-Pinkerstone in The Language of Trees.

BOTTOM LINE: like watching an indie movie at a small theatre. The Language of Trees is a captivating story about realistic people thrown into an extreme situation.

The Language of Trees is the second installation of Roundabout Theatre's new audience initiative, Roundabout Underground. The idea behind Underground is to bring affordable, accessible new theatre to a younger, hipper audience, while at the same time giving new artists a place to grow and develop their work. Last year's Speech & Debate was the first performance in the series, and it was welcomed with glee by both critics and audiences. The Language of Trees is much deeper in context than Speech & Debate, but it resonates with the same connectivity.

Written by Steven Levenson and directed by Alex Timbers, The Language of Trees follows a family in the midst of a crisis. Set in 2003, dad Denton (Michael Haydon) goes to the Middle East to work as a translator in the war. His wife Loretta (Natalie Gold) and seven-year-old son Eben (Gio Perez) wait for him at home. Nosy neighbor Kay (Maggie Burke) nuzzles in and offers to assist the family since Denton is away; turns out Kay is lonely and needy too. When Denton's situation overseas becomes volitile and terrifying, Loretta, Eben and Kay are left to cope and rely on each other for support.

The nature of Underground's black box theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center is intimate and personal. It's a small, dark space with low ceilings; the stage is only a few inches higher than the floor and only a few feet away from the first row of seats. As a result, it's hard as an audience member to distance yourself from what's playing out in front of you. The Language of Trees is sincere and powerful; it's impossible not to feel for these characters as they struggle to deal with loss and moving on, especially as you sit so close to the drama. With such a cozy space, the experience is much more vivid and palpable.

The Language of Trees has some wonderful moments. Levenson's script is smart and well-written, bringing the characters to life. It's not really laugh-out-loud funny, but it's touching and chuckle-inducing at times. The performances are overall great, especially Gio Perez as the precocious Eben. Physically, the clever set design uses the small space well. The lighting and direction are also well-utilized to expand the scenic necessities required to show multiple sets in locations a world apart. The production is acutely presented, and makes for a quality night of theatre...you definitely get your money's worth for a mere $20 per ticket.

The show is not without problems though: mainly some emotional holes in the plot ("shouldn't she be sadder?") and age discrepencies (Gio Perez looks more 17 than 7...you're warned now so you won't be distracted for 20 minutes like I was). But the little issues that arise are minor compared to the heart of the story. Levenson and Timbers are in their 20's. Their fresh take on theatre is energizing...they should be commended on a wonderful job with this show. The Language of Trees is provocative and engaging; it's for those who like their enterainment with a side of intellect that doesn't hit you over the head. And again, tickets are only $20.

(The Language of Trees plays at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for the Arts, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Show times are Tuesday through Sunday at 7pm and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30pm. The show runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission. Visit roundaboutunderground.org for more info and to buy tickets.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Files (59E59)

BOTTOM LINE: An important look at censorship and the power of art to transcend from one of Poland’s leading alternative companies… but, there’s still something lost in translation.

I have a good friend whose mother was regrettably made the local Censor of the Arts during the communist domination of Mongolia. Luckily her mother had the good sense to take her children to see all the shows she was about to censor beforehand. Artists have always found themselves on the forefront of a constant battle between those who demand we ask the tough questions and those who would prefer we quietly accept our political fate. Like their Mongolian brothers to the east, Poland also had to deal with state mandated opposition to any voices of dissent during that “Communist mumbo jumbo” as the production The Files puts it in Theatre of the Eighth Day’s new addition to 59E59’s Made in Poland Festival.

One of Poland’s leading Avant Garde theatre companies, Theatre of the Eighth Day (founded in 1964), found themselves the unwitting subject of secret police monitoring during their student theatre days in the '60s and '70s. They were spied on and harassed, their homes were searched, and they were constantly monitored due to their oppositional stance to the current communist regime. Recently, the police files on their activist and anti-communist student theatre days have become public record and the company explores them in their current production, The Files; a documentary theatre piece that incorporates the dim-witted secret police communiqués, letters the company wrote at the time, video footage of their famous productions from the '70s that were under scrutiny by the authorities, and the re-enactment of old texts by their now 50 year old selves.

The video footage of Theatre of the Eight Day’s productions in the 70’s, “We have to Confine Ourselves to What has been Called Paradise on Earth…?!”, “A Sale for Everyone”, and “Oh, Have We Lived in Dignity”, are incredible to behold. The theatricality and the bravery of these young actors provide a ghostly snapshot of an era of paranoia and the power of art and artists to inspire, comfort and incite their audiences. The production’s most successful moments involve their archived video footage.

In fact, I would argue that the piece works better as a documentary film then in its current theatrical form. It’s a compelling story, one that should be told and must be told, but the pacing in its current form fell flat. Maybe something was lost in translation; the recounting of letters and texts spoken in English by Polish actors would naturally slow the pace down, although when one of the actors performs a section of text in Polish, it was completely riveting. There are moments of real theatricality, the opening sequence as the older actors enter the stage while we watch footage of their younger selves being introduced behind them to rousing applause or another comic and highly physical scene with actors spying and peeping into each other’s coat pockets.

And yet…most of the play seems to settle itself into a staged reading format, with actors seated on stools at music stands reading their own letters from the past and recounting the secret police investigations of their work. In these instances the play slows down to lecture pace and it seems the company relinquishes one of its greatest assets, the strong and compelling theatricality for which they are known. When I looked at the company publicity materials of their recent productions in Poland which are so visually arresting and inherently theatrical, I wished I could have seen those shows!

There is, however, something very moving about seeing a group of artists remain devoted to their art form and to each other for over 40 years, despite many of them having to leave Poland for a time. In the U.S. companies come and go so quickly and the arts are so rarely supported, especially within the alternative downtown scene, that theatre is often the stomping ground of the young. How incredible to see actors in their 50’s still making explosive avant-garde work. And to see these actors, Ewa Wojciak, Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, and Marcin Keszycki, relating to their younger on-screen selves added a fascinating component to this production. It’s an important lesson, especially for young artists, of the need to tell our stories despite horrific odds. I just don’t know, for this particular piece, if they found their right medium.

(The Files is presented by Theatre of the Eighth Day and the Polish Cultural Institute in New York as part of Made in Poland at 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street. The show runs until November 9th, Tuesday through Friday at 8:30pm, Saturday at 2:30 and 8:30pm, and Sunday at 7:30pm. For tickets call 212.279.4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com. For more info visit 59e59.org.)