By William Wolf
THE PRICE Send This Review to a Friend
Playwright Arthur Miller always probed character as well as circumstance and “The Price,” a Roundabout Theatre Company presentation directed by Terry Kinney, is a fine example. Set In New York in 1968, it starts simply as a cop silently surveys the cluttered, abandoned furniture store of his late father. By the time the play is over, we have been given a searing portrait of two estranged brothers and their alternate pursuits in life, plus revelations about their father, marriages and the era from which those under inspection emerged.
The cast in this revival is a major attraction. Mark Ruffalo thoroughly inhabits the character Victor Franz, who became a policeman and is inching toward retirement. He might have pursued other dreams had he not had obligations toward his father, but the force has been his life. Jessica Hecht is superb as his dissatisfied wife, Esther. She is torn between her marriage and her longing for a financially better existence and blames Victor for not chasing more opportunities for gain.
Miller had the gift of injecting humor into drama. In this case, that comes early with the appearance of Danny DeVito as Gregory Solomon, a second-hand furniture dealer who arrives to survey what’s up for sale in the place, which scenic designer Derek McClane has packed with all sorts of antique leftovers. DeVito is very funny as he maneuvers to pay as little as possible for the lot. He adopts a Yiddish accent, which lapses at places, but that doesn’t matter. It is a showy role for him and he seizes the opportunity and gets laughs with Miller’s lines, augmented by his own take on the character.
As they amusingly haggle to the exasperation of Victor, along comes Tony Shalhoub as Victor’s brother, Walter, who is a successful, affluent doctor, a profession he attained by walking away from home constraints—the opposite path of the resentful Victor, whose efforts to get in touch with Walter over the years were ignored.
The brothers are the equal inheritors of whatever money the store contents can bring. The figure will be minimal, but Esther sees Victor’s share as helpful. When Walter, after intruding on the negotiations thus far and bargaining with Solomon for a better deal, offers to turn over his share to Victor as a gesture of reconciliation, Esther shows eagerness for Victor to accept. But old animosity and pride are impediments. Throughout her performance Hecht is excellent with facial expressions revealing her feelings and frustrations.
We know an explosion is due evoking the hostility going back years, and when it comes the dramatic sparks fly and Ruffalo and Shalhoub make the most of their confrontation. The play is yet another example of how Miller could expertly probe into lives and situations with precision and heart. “The Price” succeeds as biting family drama. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300.? Reviewed March 26, 2017.
JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE Send This Review to a Friend
The Joan of Arc, as energetically portrayed by Jo Lampert in David Byrne’s new rock musical “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” is no poetic character gently pondering her faith and course of action. This Joan is a powerful, muscular fighter who looks as if she can wage battle with the best of them from the get-go. She is a woman who fits the over-the-top rock score provided by Byrne, who also wrote the lyrics and book. The result is a loud, exuberant pageant, complete with a burning at the stake simulated with special effects.
The trouble is that the score becomes repetitive and frankly, boring, after a while. Lampert’s performance as Joan achieves stature in the context of Byrne’s rock-vision, and those playing multiple roles as soldiers and others pack the work with further energy. But the music and lyrics fail to achieve emotional involvement. Only at the end when Mare Winningham appears as Joan’s grieving mother Isabelle to appeal for Joan’s exoneration does the musical generate intense feeling.
This Public Theater presentation, directed by Alex Timbers and choreographed by Steven Hoggett, makes an attempt to connect martyrdom with today’s challenges. That’s obvious from what greets the audience members before the start.
The curtain bears a giant sign: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Recognize the words?
They were spoken by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to justify silencing Senator Elizabeth Warren. Although Warren has not yet been burned at the stake, she has endured the enmity of the Republican leader for daring to speak her mind.
So much for references. “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire” is an ambitious effort to present the saga of Joan in a different manner—via rock music and direction attuned to the method --but It achieves more visual than emotional impact. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed March 16, 2017.
THE PENITENT Send This Review to a Friend
Playwright David Mamet pinpoints a moral issue in his play, “The Penitent.” Should a psychiatrist who has treated a murder defendant who has been his patient give up records of the relationship that are demanded in court proceedings? Charles, the psychiatrist, played grimly by Chris Bauer, doesn’t think so in relation to the defendant known as “The Boy” and resists.
The play, presented by The Atlantic Theater Company, unfolds in episodic scenes between Charles and his wife Kath, portrayed by Rebecca Pidgeon, and Charles and his lawyer friend Richard (Jordan Lage) and another attorney (Lawrence Gilliard Jr). The structure is simple but aspects added to the main moral issue grow complicated, including Charles’s attitude toward religion.
The most interesting scenes involve face-offs between Charles and Kath. Charles has been battered in the press for something that he has written and is misunderstood as anti-homosexual. His stand on principle is also under attack, and Kath complains that she is suffering because being his wife has also put her under attack and shunning by friends.
Kath urges that he stop resisting and do what is demanded of him. She cannot abide his stance and rails against his stubbornness as not caring about her feelings.
Of course, we discern basic problems in their relationship, and there are revelations to come, including a confession from Kath after she has been hospitalized with what seems to be a breakdown.
Even though the play runs only about 75 minutes, it seems to go round and round at times in repeating the issues laid out for us. Although one can be absorbed, there is thinness in this Mamet play, which lacks the bite of his better works.
My main enjoyment came from watching Pidgeon, whose work I have admired, particularly on screen, as in a remake of “The Winslow Boy” and “The Spanish Prisoner.” Her performance in “The Penitent” gives the play a consistent edge.
Neil Pepe’s direction unfolds the succession of intimate scenes effectively, but there is nothing that he can do to whitewash the fact that the play itself, although always interesting, is Mamet light. At the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 212-691-5919. Reviewed March 5, 2017.
LINDA Send This Review to a Friend
Although Penelope Skinner’s play “Linda,” set in London, is overstuffed, she hits on important issues about women in the workplace and at home, and a super-charged performance by Janie Dee In this Manhattan Theatre Club presentation as the woman around whom the play is built is an attraction in itself.
Dee plays Linda, who has worked her way into an important position in a company that sells beauty products. The play begins with her giving a pitch that lacerates the idea that women show their age early and pleading for a different approach is sales aimed at older women. Her smartly-conceived speech sums up neatly the liberation-driven need for women to climb out of the traditional view that tars them with early obsolescence in comparison with how men are regarded.
Linda’s boss, Dave (John C. Vennema), doesn’t take kindly to her attitude. Instead, he is partial to the approach of a much younger, ambitious woman in the firm who rivals Linda, who is already being regarded as getting over the hill.
Meanwhile, we get a portrait of Linda’s home life as wife and the mother of one daughter and the step-mother of another. But she is driven by her desire to get further ahead professionally and make a contribution toward the advancement of women, and having already won an award for her talent, she is all-consumed with work while she struggles with domestic chores as well. Her husband, a teacher, acts above-it-all and is consumed with his own life. The author stacks up complex complications for everyone, with the result that the play, even while touching on vital themes, seems overwritten.
The cast members all make vital contributions, but it is Dee who holds center stage and commands our attention and admiration. The playwright doesn’t give the character of Linda much warmth. Dee is always on fire in the role as Linda battles for survival professionally and personally. The one time when she lets herself go gets her into deep trouble. Someone with her constant edge would be tough to live with, but Linda appears to be written that way, and Dee is consistently dynamic in a performance that epitomizes the problems women face in having it all. She earns every bit of the curtain call applause she inspires.
Skinner has written a pertinent drama, and Lynne Meadow’s direction skillfully accents issues touched along the way. Walt Spangler has designed a smart-looking revolving set for home and office action. At City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed March 5, 2017.
WAKEY, WAKEY Send This Review to a Friend
In Will Eno’s effective but terribly sad play “Wakey, Wakey,” a Signature Theatre presentation, we meet Michael Emerson as Guy, who is confined to a wheelchair and faces his inevitable death. He is certainly not ready to go, but contemplates death by ruminating about life. And therein we see the heart of the play, the putting a value on living while one exists, and thus being able to face the end of life with resignation.
“Is it time?” Guy asks fatalistically at one point. No, it isn’t time yet, and there is more of an opportunity to philosophize, even as he grows weaker.
Guy’s contemplations include telling us that every day 100,000 people die somewhere, and it was 100,000 the day before and another 100,000, the day before that. Call it perspective.
Emerson’s performance is remarkable. What he does with facial expressions will leave you deeply moved. As the end approaches his face is wracked with a combination of pain, bewilderment and fatalism, all fused to poignant dramatic effect.
The author, who also is the director, energizes the play with projections, some that Guy clicks onto a screen. Shots of Guy’s childhood and those of other children make the point of life’s span. We see animal life, including a mass of penguins waddling along as if in a procession. Toward the end, bubbles fall on the audience from the ceiling, as if to celebrate life.
Eno has added a character, Lisa, played sympathetically by January LaVoy, who acts as Guy’s care giver. Or she may be more than that—symbolically leading Guy in the transition from life to death.
“Wakey, Wakey” is highly sensitive theater that may touch raw nerves of those who have lost or are in the process of losing a loved one. On the other hand, it can also provide a note of courage and understanding. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed March 3, 2017.
BROADWAY BY THE YEAR--THE 1920S Send This Review to a Friend
As creator/writer/director/host Scott Siegel pointed out, the 1920s gave rise to a major change in the musical form as well as birth to numbers that earned a place in the American Songbook. The evidence was entertainingly on display at The Town Hall in the exploration of the 20s last night (February 27th) in this latest of the Broadway by the Year series, now in its 17th year.
Operettas were popular at the time, and the show got off to an appropriate start by William Michals singing “Song of the Vagabonds” from Rudolf Friml’s 1925 “The Vagabond King.” He did it the old-fashioned way—without a mike. Michals, who has a rich, glorious voice, needed no amplification as he wowed the crowd with the first of his numbers.
As Scott noted, a major shift was instituted by the 1927 “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein work that combined music and story in a new way for Broadway. Carolee Carmello and Robert Cuccioli enchantingly sang “Make Believe” from that show.
Both Carmello and Cuccioli proved stalwarts of the program. Carmello contributed a tender “Someone to Watch Over Me” from the 1926 “Oh, Kay!” and a powerfully impassioned “The Man I Love” from the 1924 “Lady, Be Good.” Cuccioli, ever appealing, sang “My Heart Stood Still” from the 1927 “A Connecticut Yankee,” “With a Song in My heart” from “Spring Is Here (1929) and “What’ll I Do?” from “Music Box Review” (1923).
The casting of theater notables for this edition of the series was impeccable. When Beth Malone sang “Love Me or Leave Me” from “Whoopee!” (1928), she looked as if she had stepped out of the decade. She also did an Al Jolson-style delivery of “Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’bye) from “Bombo” (1921), and had already shown her ability to change dramatically with her emotional delivery of “My Man” from “Ziegfeld Follies” (1921).
Jill Paice was another plus, impressively contributing the durable “More Than You Know” from “Great Day” (1929), “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” from “Blackbirds of 1928” and “A Ship Without a Sail” from “Heads Up” (1929).
Mary Testa is always a prime performer and she came through anew with versatility. She was a powerhouse singing “Find Me a Primitive Man” from “Fifty Million Frenchmen” (1929). Siegel, who on occasion likes to get into the act, came at her with a giant caveman-like prop club and the bit was hilarious. Testa also showed how good she could be with ballads, interpreting “I’ve Got a Crush on You” from “Treasure Girl” (1928) and the poignant “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” from “Show Boat.”
Dancing adds spice when included, and tap dancer supreme Danny Gardner starred in and choreographed two numbers. The first act ended with “’S Wonderful” from “Funny Face” (1927), as he was stylishly abetted by dancers Bailey Callahan, Mindy Moeller, Danelle Morgan and Katie Walker, who are Rockettes. The ladies returned to back up Beth Malone in starting the second act with “Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’bye).” Gardner tapped ingeniously with Brent McBeth and John Scacchetti in “I Want to Be Happy” from “No, No, Nanette” (1925). They incorporated into the number seated assistant Holly Cruz as the object of their attention, and she gamely got into the spirit tapping together a pair of shoes given her and rhythmically sauntering off stage with the guys at the finish.
I can never say enough about William Michals. He used a mike to movingly sing “Lover, Come Back to Me” from “The New Moon” (1928), but was unamplified again in delivering an all-powerful “One Alone” from “The Desert Song” (1926). (Singing without a mike, which used to be the norm in the theater, will be celebrated by Siegel and company at The Town Hall on May 1st with “Broadway Unplugged.”)
As usual since the start of the Broadway by the Year series, Ross Patterson was musical director, always a demanding task with such varied programming, as well as played piano brilliantly as leader of his Little Big Band, which on this occasion included Tom Hubbard on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums. Siegel’s assistant director and assistant stage manager was Rick Hinkson, with the aforementioned Holly Cruz and Joe Burke as production assistants. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-840-2824. Reviewed February 28, 2017.
DEAR WORLD Send This Review to a Friend
These days elements of past works strike a contemporary chord if critical of authority. It just takes a negative remark directed at a president to elicit a laugh. In “Dear World,” a concert revival (February 25-March 5) by the York Theatre Company as part of its Musicals in Mufti series, the fictional 1945 plot of greedy businessmen who threaten ruin in Paris by digging for oil evokes comparisons with the Trump administration’s plans to dismantle regulations to prevent companies from fouling the environment.
“Dear World,” a 1969 musical based on Jean Giraudoux’s play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” as adapted by Maurice Valency, has music and lyrics by Jerry Herman with the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. A new version is by David Thompson. On Broadway the role of Countess Aurelia, the “Madwoman” of the title, was played by Angela Lansbury. The role in the 1945 play itself, that of an oddball woman living in the basement of Paris neighborhood bistro, has been a lure for actresses in France and here. (Katharine Hepburn played her in the film version.) Now, in the concert offering of the musical in the York Theater Company presentation, Tyne Daly is Countess Aurelia.
As fans of the Mufti series know, the productions are bare-boned with a week of rehearsals, and participants use scripts to aid in their dialogue and songs. At the performance that I saw, Ms. Daly was a bit tentative at first but soon moved solidly into the role and by the time she sang a major number, “I Don’t Want to Know,” she was in good form, as was also the case when she later movingly sang “And I Was Beautiful.”
“Dear World,” whether as straight drama or musical, has always been problematical for its mix of reality and flights of fancy in the imaginative plot and bizarre characterizations. Its best quality is charm, and the cast in the Mufti production handily conveys that aspect of the work as it progresses.
Daly, of course, is always fascinating to watch. There are other attributes. Alison Fraser is a hoot as Madame Constance, the Madwoman of the Market, and Ann Harada is amusing as the Madwoman of Montmarte. Kristopher Thompson-Bolden is graceful and sympathetic as the Mute who talks in sign language.
Nina, appealingly played and sung by Erika Henningsen, is the young love interest infatuated with Julian, portrayed by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who is helping to foil the businessmen’s scheme. The villainous would-be exploiters, played by Peter Land, J. Bernard Calloway, Stephen Mo Hanan and Gordon Stanley are wickedly funny signing “Just a Little Bit More.”
The welcome revival has been directed by Michael Montel with musical direction by Christopher McGovern, also on piano. At The York Theatre Company at St. Peter’s, 54th Street at Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820.
IF I FORGET Send This Review to a Friend
Steven Levenson’s play “If I Forget,” a Roundabout Theatre Company production, is a family drama rich in both laughs and angst. Snappily acted by a sharp cast, the drama unfolds against a background of debate about the relationship of Jews to their culture and religion, as well as to Israel. That theme is worth exploring more, but while interestingly posed, it is overwhelmed by problems encountered in the Jewish family being depicted.
Levenson is skilled at mixing seriousness with laugh lines and that renders “If I Forget” consistently entertaining. Daniel Sullivan’s direction makes the most of the comic elements, abetted by performers who extract the maximum out of Levenson’s brittle dialogue and observations. But there are aspects that don’t ring true. More about those later.
(Before the play, located in a residential neighborhood of Washington, D.C., begins, we see an elderly man, whom we later know as Lou Fischer (Larry Bryggman), sitting in a chair reading. What is it that directors and playwrights hope to achieve by such useless staging? This is just a personal gripe of mine expressing annoyance at the frequently used gimmick and doesn’t affect the heart of this play.)
When we get into the action that begins in July, 2000 and continues into the following February, we find Michael Fischer (Jeremy Shamos) upset that his 19-year-old daughter has gone on a trip to Israel. His wife, Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), sees it differently. Fischer is more realistic about their daughter, who has a serious eating disorder, is depressive and, as we ultimately learn, has to be institutionalized.
But the daughter’s trip is used to illuminate Michael’s attitudes toward Judaism. He is a professor of religious studies who has no use for conventional emphasis on Jewish identity and religion. He is on a tenure track, yet has published a controversial book that gets him in trouble, a book that maintains the Holocaust should be downplayed, not continued as a touchstone of Jewish life.
His father, Lou, before he is stricken with a paralyzing stroke, has a poignant, impassioned speech in which he chides Michael by detailing his World War II experience of what he saw in the liberation of Dachau. It is the opposite of what his son believes. Michael gets a strong speech of his own in another part of the play when he rants about the behavior of prominent Jews in the context of what’s going on in the country and the world.
Especially interesting in the family relationships is the interplay between Michael and his sisters, Holly and Sharon. Holly (Kate Walsh), who has a sharp tongue and whiplash behavior, isn’t much of a thinker and nourishes the idea of establishing an interior design business. She has cards printed, but that’s it. Walsh’s performance could well be noticed at awards time, as is also the case with Shamus as Michael.
Sharon (Maria Dizzia), a teacher, has an affinity for the family store, contemptuously referred to at one point as now just a bodega, and it turns out that she has a special interest there. Financial worries, including taking care of the stricken Lou and Michael’s never-to-get-better daughter touch off a huge argument when the suggestion of selling the business arises.
During the play we witness loud arguments between Holly and Michael, and yet there is a bond between them, a bond that we also feel within the family despite the confrontations. Humor is sprinkled throughout, sometimes thanks to the characterization of Joey (Seth Steinberg), the rebellious, snarky teenage son of Holly and her husband Howard. Accused of acting like a thug, Joey proclaims, “I am a thug.”
Unfortunately, the author goes astray on occasion. Howard (Gary Wilmes) is a lawyer, yet he gets himself into unbelievable trouble that a lawyer could have contained before it reached the heights that create a financial and marital crisis. His letting a situation get out of hand in the way depicted is beyond stupid.
Also the ending of the play comes across as gimmicky, with the views of the ill and disturbed daughter who had gone to Israel used as a touchstone for solemn group chanting about Jewish history to drive home the point of continuance.
Flaws aside, this family drama comes across in its way as more vital and enjoyable than the justifiably lauded and admirably fine-tuned exploration of a different sort of family in“The Humans.” At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed February 25, 2017.
THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA von KANT Send This Review to a Friend
The plays and films of the late German author and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) were steeped in the atmosphere of his country as well as distinctive artistic works unlike those emanating from other creators. “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” first staged in Germany in 1971 and then adapted for a 1972 film, was among Fassbinder’s prolific output.
An American version with a translation by David Tushingham and direction by Benjamin Viertel has surfaced as a presentation by Third Space at the New Ohio Theatre, and the atmosphere, as one might expect, is far from the Germanic ambience of the original. However, it stands on its own as an interesting and absorbing weird drama involving love, dominance, passion, anger and other emotions stemming from the set-up.
Before the show begins we see Caroline Gombé as Petra von Kant lying motionless and silent on the floor of her apartment. We also see Alex Spieth moving about in the background of the large stage as she fusses with food and dishes and other objects. We soon learn that she is playing Marlene, Petra’s assistant whom Petra dominates and orders around, with Marlene watching what goes on in the apartment and responding accordingly with an array of facial expressions but no dialogue.
Petra is a clothing designer, and she falls for a model, Karin Thimm, played provocatively by Betsey Brown, who uses Petra to advance her career and manipulates Petra with her sexuality. Their turbulent relationship forms the essence of the drama.
Petra has a young daughter, Gabrielle, played skillfully by Jody Doo, who has to act younger than she is, but masters the task with adjusting her voice and body movements to a teenage mode and is amusing to watch.
Others in the cast are Lenore Harris and Mariana Parma, but the focus is primarily on Petra, Karin and the ever-observant Marlene, who endures her own trauma. The bitter tears in the title are no exaggeration, as Petra explodes in grief when she is losing Karin.
A problem with the play is that with all the heat generated it is difficult to feel deeply for Petra. That is due to the oddball nature of the work itself, and the aura of strangeness that hovers over events and characterizations. The effect is often that of camp, but in fairness, there was that aspect in many of the Fassbinder ventures. It falls on the performers to capture our attention and get us to enjoy much of what we are watching, and they certainly succeed at that. At the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St #1E. Phone: 212-675-6446. Reviewed February 25, 2017.
EVERYBODY Send This Review to a Friend
The road through life and the path toward death are examined in the unusual and provocative staging of “Everybody,” a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins presented by Signature Theatre. Under Lila Neugebaur’s direction, the drama, clearly inspired by a 15th Century morality play, is encased in a free-wheeling staging that has an entertaining sweep but somewhat defuses whatever messages are intended by an effort to be extra showy.
In London I saw a similarly inspired drama titled “Everyman,” written by Carol Ann Duffy and presented by the National Theatre. It was much more focused, with a view of a man’s life under inspection as he heads toward a confrontation with death. His pursuit of material values was under examination with a review involving family, friends and various characters representing passion, vanity, sensuality, goods and other aspects of the life he has led. (See my review via Search under Special Reports.)
In “Everybody”—is the genderless title a nod to political correctness?—the cast is exceptionally talented. There is a gimmick—those playing various allegorical roles draw lottery balls at each performance to see which parts they will have. Thus they have to memorize all the roles to be ready for their assignments. These versatile cast members include Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisha Michelle May. Other casting in the play is constant.
At the outset Jocelyn Bioh makes the customary announcement about turning off cell phones. She seems to be going on too long, as if she is trying to turn the slot into an egotistical performance. But soon she morphs into God, as she leads us into the play that unfolds before a long row of chairs, with cast members coming forth from among the audience members and from the sidelines.
We meet the ever-amusing Marylouise Burke as Death, who seems to enjoy being the Grim Reaper, whom we all—Everybody-- will eventually face. The playwright has created other characters symbolizing Friendship/Strength, Kinship/Mind, Cousinship/Beauty, Stuff/Senses and All the Shitty Evil Things.
At the performance I saw the key Everybody was played by the vibrant Lakisha Michelle May. She is the one whose life is examined in relation to the others, and who is slowly but surely being led to omnipotent Death. As the journey progresses she meets the various allegorical figures in the review of her life and relationships. She attempts to enlist them to accompany her on her journey but one by one they say no thanks and drop out.
The problem with the play is that lots of the above emerges as muddled and there is need for a much clearer focus. Exactly what is the moral? Live life to the fullest while we’re here? Build solid relationships? Abide by correct values? On the other hand, the production is consistently entertaining given the collective enthusiasm and skill of the cast and the inventiveness of the direction. The theater is alive with action, not only on the stage, but enveloping the audience. Toward the end, there is a striking appearance of two large puppet skeletons, manipulated to show closeness as they approach each other from opposite sides of the stage.
“Everybody” is an entertaining production, with loads of implications about human behavior communicated by solid performances, but the play needs sharpening. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed February 24, 2017.