By William Wolf

WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?  Send This Review to a Friend

We’re back again with the Gabriel family in Play 2 of “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” written and directed by Richard Nelson, especially known for his “The Apple Family” plays. As before, the Gabriels walk on stage bearing food, and positioning furniture, before sitting at the table of the home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. and also engaging in the process of preparing dinner.

As in the first time around in “Hungry,” the cast members, with perfect ensemble acting, are more impressive than the dialogue the author has provided them. On this occasion, there is a little more bite to the conversation, as the impeding election rears its head, but not with any especially deep discussion beyond the appreciation of how toxic it is and the sense of fear about the state of society and the world that permeates the atmosphere and forecasts an uncertain future.

What also comes across is the combination of concern about finances and the feeling left in the room by the one who is not there, the late Thomas, a novelist and playwright who has left bereft his third wife Mary, a retired doctor (the excellent Maryann Plunkett). During the course of the gathering she reads from notes assembled while searching through her husband’s writings, in effect giving him an unseen presence at the table.

Conversation is generally on the quiet side, which stresses the intimacy and Chekhovian tone. Members of the clan include Thomas’s brother George, a piano teacher and cabinetmaker played by the always impressive J. O. Sanders, along with George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) and Thomas’s mother, Patricia, portrayed by Roberta Maxwell with a mix of sadness, worry and spirit. There is Joyce, Thomas’s sister (Amy Warren), who designs costumes, and Karen, Thomas’s first wife (Meg Gibson), an actress and teacher who is there as a boarder.

This is an intellectual lot, and one might expect conversation to sparkle more than it does, save for some laugh-eliciting outbursts. The time is very current, Friday, September 16, 2016, precisely at 6:30 p.m. During the play’s 1 hour and 40 minutes the characters move about quite a bit, which is a blessing because in theater in the round (or three quarters in this case) backs are frequently turned to the audience, which leaves some straining to hear quiet talk at such moments.

Nelson has built a following with his plays, and fans now await the third in this series. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed September 25, 2016.

MARIE AND ROSETTA  Send This Review to a Friend

George Brant has written a play about two real-life singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) and Marie Knight (1925-2009). It emerges as a thin if likable drama that enables us to enjoy the main attractions, the terrific singing by Kecia Lewis as Tharpe and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Knight. Step by step they unleash their powerful voices singing a mix of gospel, rhythm-and-blues, soul, swing and touches of rock.

One is taken aback at the outset when we see a stage filled with coffins. The women are in a funeral parlor, lent them for the night to sleep in and rehearse for an impending performance. The scene is 1946 Mississippi and blacks have trouble finding any respectable places to stay in this era of segregation.

The plot, such as it is, involves Sister Rosetta, considered a pioneer in advancing musical forms toward the rock era, having discovered Marie as a person of promising talent. When she heard her singing with Mahalia Jackson, whom Rosetta considers a rival, she snatched Marie away to train and work with her with a view to becoming a hit performing duo, just as they sang together in real life. The dramatic structure has Rosetta bringing out the soul in Marie, who at first is rather conventional and stiff with a more classical bent.

Their rehearsing amounts to one dynamic show for us in the audience. It even looks as if they are really playing piano and guitar, although the music is performed by Deah Harriott (piano) and Felicia Collins (guitar).

The dialogue between the women can get sharp at times, what with the anecdotes Rosetta recounts, and the personal revelations by Marie. But the singing is the real treat, as we hear such numbers as “Where Were You When They Crucified My Lord?,” and the very non-religious, sexy “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa.”

“Marie and Rosetta,” an Atlantic Theater Company presentation directed with feeling by Neil Pepe, is an impressive tribute to the two singers who contributed so much to the musical world with their creativity, performing and recording. At the Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 212-691-5919. Reviewed September 20, 2016.

HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN!  Send This Review to a Friend

Only moderately entertaining, “How to Be an American!” is a show in the York Theatre Company’s staged concert performances series designed to premiere new musicals. Wrapped in a patriotic motif, the work subtitled “A Political Cabaret” has been written by T. Cat Ford and is directed by Bill Castellino. It is really a satire on political corruption during the era of power wielded in New York by Tammany Hall.

The best parts of the offering are the appealing performances by D.C. Anderson as Rev. Dr. Parkhurst, Tim Jerome as George Washington Plunkitt, Dan Manjovi as Aaron Jefferson Levi and Frank J. Paul as Tony Caponi, all largely reading from scripts. They collectively get into the spirit of an old-fashioned political revival meeting aimed at those to be cajoled and bribed into “voting often” to guarantee the election of Tammany favorites.

There are some clever touches, such as the slogans of corruption celebrated, and members of the audience become involved, with persons selected to show how different disguises can be used to vote repeatedly. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Star Spangled Banner” are used to package the corruption in patriotism. “Tammany” is the catchiest of the other numbers.

Author Ford adapted the musical from “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall—a Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics.” Musical direction is by Ryan Touhey, with cast members playing instruments.

Although amiable and bright in spirit, the musical lacks sufficient wit to make it more than a pleasant satire on how immigrants to the United States could be molded into dominated voters for those holding onto power so that elections could be manipulated. Read what you like into the contemporary political scene. At The Theater at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed September 19, 2016.

FIORELLO!  Send This Review to a Friend

The musical "Fiorello!" is cherished by many theatergoers, some who remember the original Broadway staging, and now the praised Berkshire Theater Group's production has been brought to New York in a largely enjoyable, intimate version. The show, of course, honors the colorful, legendary New York Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, remembered as an energetic, active leader who fought corruption, raced to fires and read the comics over the radio when there was a newspaper strike. He is romanticized in the musical's book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, but the music by Jerry Bock and witty lyrics of Sheldon Harnick are chief attractions. The most famous song is probably the hilarious "Little Tin Box," with political cronies making fun of the explanations by politicos being investigated that high living on meager salaries could be explained by frugalities like saving on lunches and putting the money in a little tin box. I am pleased to report that in this production the number is as uproarious as ever.

Directed by Bob Moss, the enthusiastic company puts plenty of spirit into the show, which follows La Guardia from his early days through serving in World War I, his period as a populist Congressman, initial defeat for mayor, and the decision to run for mayor again, this time destined to be elected. We follow his marriage to Thea (Rebecca Brudner), and the yearning of his assistant Marie (Katie Birenboim), who harbors a deep love for him through the years. We also get to meet the men around his campaigns, folks who come to him for help and his enemies, all very well portrayed.

Despite the appealing acting by Austin Scott Lombardi in the title role, it must be faced that he looks nothing like La Guardia, who was a short, stout, gruff little guy. Lombardi is a handsome leading man type, which works nicely in the love scenes. But his turning on the heat as the political La Guardia is at odds with the image. In the original Broadway production Tom Bosley was a close fit.

However, it should be noted that many of today's generation don't know much about La Guardia and thus have no comparison and can better enjoy Lombardi's looks and interpretation and go with the appeal of this staging.

There is some snappy choreography by Michael Callahan, and the small stage is used to advantage with much skill. The book can get heavy at times, true also in the original. However the larger Broadway staging, counterblanced with an eyeful of broader numbers helped overwhelm the weak spots.

But whatever quibbles one may find here, this staging is an admirable, welcomely enjoyable opportunity to see this show that has been so beloved by many. There are numerous numbers that grab you, such as "Politics and Poker," "The Name's La Guardia," "I Love a Cop," "When Did I Fall in Love?" and "The Very Next Man." Instead of an orchestra there is talented Robert Frost on the keyboard, with Alev Goce Erem on violin. Much praise is due scenic designer Brendan F. Doyle for the very clever miniture buildings moved about and suggesting the look of Manhattan.

One more pertinent observation: Labor problems and political corruption depicted in the course of the musical bio don' t go out of style. At the East 13th Street Theater, home of the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Reviewed September 10, 2016.

A DAY BY THE SEA  Send This Review to a Friend

Every production by the revered Mint Theater Company carries the expectation of a fine staging. When British playwright N.C. Hunter’s 1951 play “A Picture of Autumn” was revived by the Mint, I wrote that the company has lovingly revived Hunter’s work and brought out the richness in his drama. So it is with the Mint’s reaching back to revive Hunter’s “A Day by the Sea,” performed in London in 1953 and staged in a brief Broadway run in 1955. The new production is impeccable, especially with respect to the acting and directing.

In writing about “A Picture of Autumn” I also noted that Hunter “surely must have been thinking of Chekhov.” The same can be said about his “A Day by the Sea.” The writing, the acting and the tone of the skillful direction by Austin Pendleton inevitably remind one of Chekhov’s works. In “A Day by the Sea” the author is dealing with lost hopes and British characters destined to play out their lives in disappointment.

When “A Day by the Sea” was staged in London, there were critics who also made the comparison with Chekhov, and that did not sit well at a time when the theater was aflame with the “angry young man” syndrome that swept into popularity. In that trend Hunter, with his traditional style, lost popularity, and it is a tribute to the Mint to yet again call our attention to an important writer from the past. (Hunter died in 1971.)

In “A Day by the Sea” set in coastal Dorset, we meet Laura Anson, a 65-year-old widow played with dug-in firmness by Jill Tanner. Laura has a son, Julian, who is in the Foreign Service posted in Paris, and returns to visit his mother and take part in a family picnic. As written by Hunter and portrayed by Julian Elfer, he is a man who while burying himself in his work and having achieved a limited level of status, feels unfilled both in his job and in his private life. He has a lackluster personality and meager socializing ability that hinders him in his professional relationships. In a tense, anger-producing scene during his visit, he is informed that he is being recalled from Paris to a lesser position in London.

A key element in the plot is the situation that develops between Julian and Frances Farrar, who arrives on a visit. Frances, who was orphaned as a child, was raised in the Anson household, and after growing-up, shocked with her trail of then considered scandalizing relationships, her having married a much older man, who died, and then a much younger man, who committed suicide. This is the first time she has been back after many years. When they were young, Frances was in love with Julian and hoped to marry him, but he was oblivious to her feelings.

The Frances we meet at the present stage of her life is intriguingly played by Katie Firth as a worldly woman, who now has two young children whom she has brought with her. She exhibits sophistication beyond that of the inadequate Julian. When he is made aware of her past feelings for him, he suddenly comes to the conclusion that he wants to bring her the happiness she is lacking. One of the play’s best and most poignant scenes is when Julian manages to stutter out a marriage proposal to her, but one lacking a display of romantic passion. Firth is splendid in the manner in which she rejects him, not with cruelty, but with the certainty that a such a marriage wouldn’t work, and we know that to be true, based on the excellent acting and the writing that defines their disparate characters.

Other characters are also well-defined and impeccably portrayed. For example, veteran actor George Morfogen plays Uncle David as an elderly presence who borders on senility but with outbursts of comments that indicate some connection with reality. Helping to care for him is the acerbic doctor (Philip Goodwin), who loves his booze. An especially sympathetic character is Miss Mathieson, the governess of Frances’s children, impressively acted by Polly McKie.

As the play unfolds, we get an overall portrait of people whose lives have reached a point of stasis, with little hope for significant change, although perhaps Julian will be propelled into a brighter future. But basically they are who they are and the future may not be very different from what we see at this gathering at the family home by the sea. The Mint Theater Company has captured Hunter’s vision with perfection.

(Historical note: When “A Day by the Sea” was staged in London it starred John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike, Irene Worth, and Ralph Richardson, with Gielgud directing. The Broadway production starred Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, with direction by Cedric Hardwicke.)

At the Beckett Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed August 29, 2016.

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA  Send This Review to a Friend

Whenever I see a Shakespeare play in an updated setting I always wonder whether there is a useful purpose to the modernization. So it was when John Glover as Cressida’s uncle, Pandarus, was seated with a laptop computer at the outset of this Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Troilus and Cressida” (July 19-August 14). But in the final stage of the drama the updating usefulness became loudly apparent.

Instead of hand-to-hand combat among Trojans and Greeks, the fighters turned up with so much modern weaponry unleashing powerfully simulated, automatic gunfire that someone nearby in the park might have thought there was a terrorist attack in progress.

Does this directorial gambit by Daniel Sullivan help illuminate the Bard’s difficult play, not one of his best, but a challenging one to mount? Well, it does make for blazing action. The battles in a way overshadow the thwarted love story that is key to the plot.

Andrew Burnap makes a handsome Troilus, the Trojan who falls in love with Ismenia Mendes as Cressida. But their love is upset when Cressida is bartered to the Greeks for the release of a prisoner, and she has to find a way to survive in her unwanted situation.

Meanwhile, grudges surface and battles loom, focusing attention elsewhere. Among the stalwarts are Bill Heck as Hector, Louis Cancelmi as Achilles (he took over the role when David Harbour was injured), Alex Breaux as Ajax and Corey Stoll as Ulysses.

Glover plays Pandarus with a severe limp, which commands attention, and he also locates humor in the portrayal. The production is dynamic, but overlong (some three hours), and director Sullivan obviously has worked hard to find ways to keep our attention, especially with the gunfire onslaught that erupts with appropriate, smoky scenic effects.

Since “Troilus and Cressida” is rarely performed in comparison with Shakespeare’s more popular plays, this mounting provides a chance to freshly evaluate it. On that score alone, it is worth seeing. There is also an interesting addition—Spanish subtitles are projected on both sides of the stage. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, accessible by entering at 81st Street and Central Park West, or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue. Reviewed August 10, 2016.

CATS  Send This Review to a Friend

My late mother, Charlotte, had a cat that would ring the doorbell. Even watching her do it, I found it hard to believe. The cat figured out that if she jumped onto the railing at the back door of the ground-floor apartment and tapped the bell with her paw, my mother would come to let her in. The smart feat came to mind as I watched the actor-cats cavorting or slithering about the stage in the current revival of “Cats,” intact with the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” My mother’s cat might have been gloriously at home amid the simulated ones in this showy musical.

Let’s face it. This is above all a spectacle with appeal to those who get theatergoing kicks from costumes, lighting, cast members roaming the aisles to sing to spectators, and assorted scenic stunts. It is a treat for youngsters, and addresses the curiosity of members of a generation who have never seen the show but have repeatedly heard its most famous song “Memories.” There is another breed of theatergoer who prefers something more sophisticated. You know which camp you are in.

This show, again directed by Trevor Nunn, is among the most steadily choreographed productions on Broadway at the moment, with hot shot Andy Blankenbuehler (“Hamilton”) credited with the choreography “based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne.” The excellent cast of principals and supporting cats, decked out in the colorful assortment of costumes designed by John Napier, who is also the scenic designer, are almost constantly on the move. (My eyes kept navigating to the cat in the tight-fitting, plain bronze-toned body suit--consistently a knockout.)

The show is enlivened by individual turns that are appealing by any standard. The iconic “Memory” now gets its due from impressive Leona Lewis, an imported British singing star. As Grizabella, chosen in the hocus pocus of a plot as one chosen to ascend to everlasting cat heaven, Lewis leaves her firm imprint, although Betty Buckley’s blazing original performance lingers in my mind.

Another outstanding performance comes from Georgina Pazcoguin of the New York City Ballet as Victoria, the white cat, who provides élan and some fancy footwork. Quentin Earl Darrington makes an impressive Old Deuteronomy, and Tyler Hanes is is especially effective as Rum Tum Tugger. Chritsopher Gurr connects with the audience as the cat who sings about his long career on the stage, and manages to be both amusing and poignant.

The thrust of “Cats” is to offer as many as possible individual personalities, and although the costumes are elaborate, there is the wisdom to let the individual faces be cat-like expressive rather than use excessive make-up adornment. Interestingly, unlike what sometimes occurs in a show, the second act is much stronger than the first, because that’s when we get the preponderance of the individual personality performances.

Scenic designer Napier has decorated a good part of the sides of the theater to resemble junkyards, where cats presumably would congregate. But nothing about the show is a junkyard, as it delivers what it promises to its fans-in-waiting. At the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 3, 2016.

QUIETLY  Send This Review to a Friend

At first all starts out “Quietly,” as the title of the play by Owen McCafferty says. Robert (Robert Zawadzki) is tending bar at a typical pub in Belfast, Ireland, where the play is set. Jimmy (Patrick O’Kane) enters and is served a pint as he awaits an arrival for an intended meeting. But don’t be fooled. By the end of this intermission-less 75 minute drama, an Abbey Theatre production presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre in association with The Public Theater, emotions will have exploded against a back story of Irish history, deftly revealed under the intense direction by Jimmy Fay.

O’Kane as Jimmy, through actions and angry comments, is clearly a human time-bomb of emotions ready to explode at any moment. His barely suppressed fury is evident. We wonder for whom he is awaiting and why. There is conversation between him and Robert about the soccer game they are watching on the television screen that we do not see, and there is talk about a past match. Robert is of Polish origin and is rooting for the Polish team against the British players.

The suspense builds as stoic Declan Conlon playing the mysterious Ian arrives and we see the palpable tension between him and Jimmy. There is a quick initial burst of violence as Jimmy head-butts Ian, who does not attempt to retaliate. The play settles into verbal confrontations between the two men, while the bartender quietly looks on without interjecting himself.

What is the story between Jimmy and Ian? Why the hostility? What happened to fuel the gulf between them?

It would be a spoiler to say more, as step by step we get the information going back to troubled Protestant-Catholic battles of 1974 and come to understand what is motivating these two men, Jimmy driven by anger, Ian standing in mostly in poised control of himself for the mission he is on in this planned meeting.

The skill of the writing, the acting and the direction combine to mesmerize the audience in the relatively brief time span. By the end, one is ready to applaud what has emerged as a riveting theater experience and food for thought about past events that may remind one of unrelated happenings going on now elsewhere in the world. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-727-2737. Reviewed July 29, 2016.

BUTLER  Send This Review to a Friend

Although the situation and confrontations are rather far-fetched, “Butler” is an entertaining, meaningful drama set in the state of Virginia at the outset of the American Civil War. Sharp writing by playwright Richard Strand and superb acting create tension and sparks, enabling an audience to get caught up in what is clearly an anti-slavery treatise.

The play, presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company and smartly directed by Joseph Discher, takes place at Fort Monroe, a Union bastion. We meet newly-arrived Major General Benjamin Butler, based on the real Union commander and played to the hilt by Ames Adamson, who overflows with bluster aimed first at Lieutenant Kelly, a stalwart Benjamin Sterling. The lieutenant reports that an escaped slave demands to see the general. Butler does not take kindly to demands and keeps exploding with outrage as the conversation thickens and the lieutenant attempts to navigate the relationship with his commander.

When we finally meet the slave, Shepard Mallory, who has shown up at the fort with two fellow escapees, there is an entertaining face-off between him and the general. John G. Williams portrays Mallory as a determined, arrogant individual who stands up for his rights and refuses to bow and scrape before the general, who has the power to send him back into captivity, which the laws at the time regarding slaves as property dictate that he should do. It is apparent that Mallory most likely would be executed if sent back.

The situation becomes a face-off between these two strong characters, and the playwright pumps plenty of witty lines into the discussion. While it may be hard to believe that such a confrontation could occur, the back and forth is vibrant, amusing and poignant. What Mallory wants is to serve the Union side while achieving his freedom. Butler is appalled at the slave’s nerve, but also duly impressed, especially by Mallory having learned to read and being clever with words, most notably with reference to the key term “contraband.”

The issue is forced when Major Cary (David Sitler) of the Southern side turns up to demand that Mallory be returned. Thus another confrontation ensues, with Butler, who has no use for the arrogant Cary, trying to find a way out despite his exasperation with Mallory, who won’t take no for an answer. When Butler tells Mallory he will be allowed to escape, he refuses to go, exclaiming that he would have no chance to survive on the run.

Williams’s acting as Mallory is so winsome that one may especially root for him to prevail, and also can be sympathetic to Butler, who, despite his short temper and thundering speech, is shown as a basically decent human being trapped in his time as the Civil War starts to unfold.

“Butler” provides plenty of food for thought, along with the fine performances, the issues raised and the humor that flourishes even when the stakes are so seriously high for so many. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed July 28, 2016.

AUSTIN  Send This Review to a Friend

Add “Austin” to the list of dysfunctional family plays, but I’m afraid the play itself is not too functional. The drama by Edla Cusick, directed by Ed Setrakian, is built around Austin Cassidy, a failed mess of a husband who is an alcoholic trying to recover and exasperates his wife by turning up with promises that this time all will be different, and yet we --and she-- know it will not.

The setting is mostly in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. To further complicate matters, Austin’s brother, Martin (James McCaffrey), is having sex with Austin’s wife, Petra (Rochelle Bostrom). I should also mention that Austin also has gay tendencies, coupled with suicidal tendencies. What a Cassidy casserole! There is also AJ Cedeño as Andy, who in the process of helping Austin with rehab teaches him to garden. Austin has a daughter, Dory (Michaela Waites).

Thomas G. Waites gives his heartfelt all in the title role, but his performance is so consistently and hysterically over the top that one is hard pressed to believe anyone could stand ihs presence for more than a few moments. The tone, for all of the sincerity in Waites’s acting, undercuts possibilities to sympathize with him. Playing Austin more moderately as a tortured soul might have been far more effective.

It takes 90 minutes with no intermission for all of this to be worked out, but in the end, despite the intensity, it is hard to care much emotionally for what has happened. At the Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed August 5, 2016.

  

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