By William Wolf
A DELICATE SHIP Send This Review to a Friend
It is amazing how much drama and personal background are packed into the totally absorbing, brilliantly acted “A Delicate Ship,” astutely written by Anna Ziegler and presented by The Playwrights Realm. All unfolds within a riveting intermission-less 75 minutes.
The set-up looks ever so calm at the start. In a wisely simple scenic design by Reid Thompson, we see a living room mounted on a low platform center-stage, with the soothing background of a river view. The scene is a Brooklyn apartment with a Christmas tree indicating the holiday season.
We observe Sarah (Miriam Silverman) and boyfriend Sam (Matt Dellapina) sitting on sofa for a quiet evening of togetherness. An interruption comes with knock on the door, and in bursts Nate (Nick Westrate), who lived in the same Manhattan building as Sarah, and we learn that they were long-time friends. We also learn that Nate is feverishly bent on winning her away from Sam.
The above description is totally simplified. In this play, characters speak directly to the audience, past and present are melded, and director Margot Bordelon keeps the author’s mixture flowing smoothly so that we get a perspective on the three characters in their thirties, their personas and the trajectory of their lives within the context of the drama that unfolds.
The playwright has created characters of substance, unlike plays in which we are asked to care about uninteresting people. Sarah is a social worker who at 33 is still unmarried and tells us what that means to a woman. Sam aspires to be a song writer, and Nate’s profession is teaching. All are capable of intellectual conversation about life and its meaning, and we get amusing examples in their dialogue.
What’s more, Ziegler has a gift for writing exquisite passages along the lines of Tennessee Williams’s lyricism. She is also economical in the manner in which she can cover so much territory by her free-flowing integration of moments in the present with the past, abetted by the way in which her characters step out of the action to speak effectively to us.
The three cast members are wonderfully up to the task. Silverman is lovely and believable as Sarah, who seems most likely to marry Sam and gives the impression of a warm, affectionate relationship in the making. Dellapina as Sam conveys a nice guy aura, who at first is bewildered by Nate, but shows his anger as the situation gets out of hand, and he summons the strength to fight for his relationship with Sarah.
The most dynamic performance belongs to Westrate as Nate, who step by step explodes into desperation and reveals a psychotic fixation on Sarah as the answer to is life if only she will marry him. His appearance is jolting to Sam as Nate details a sexual experience with Sarah that seems to have really occurred. Sarah, who clearly has no intention of being with Nate, tries to calm him but also has feelings for him as a friend and human being who shouldn’t be just tossed out of the apartment no matter how disruptive and dangerous he has become.
Ultimately, we learn what happens to all three, again via the playwright’s time-jumping. When the play’s 75 minutes have passed, I left astonished at all that had taken place, the expertise of the cast, the effectiveness of the writing and direction, and I pondered the what-ifs posed in the drama. As Sarah says early on, “What if we had just never opened the door?” At the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-729-4200. Reviewed August 31, 2015.
LOVE & MONEY Send This Review to a Friend
A.R. Gurney has written a breezy comedy about the immorality of wealth. His “Love & Money,” presented by the Signature Theatre and the Westport Country Playhouse, is getting an appropriately amusing staging under the direction of Mark Lamos.
The major treat is a delightful performance by Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham, a rich woman who is planning to move to a retirement home and giving away the furnishings and other contents of her Upper East Side New York brownstone, designed for the stage with elegant perfection by Michael Yeargan. Cornelia has also willed most of her fortune to various charities, including an organization dedicated to helping children and what she considers other worthy causes, such as Amnesty International.
Gurney has endowed Cornelia with a philosophy that having wealth is improper, given all those who struggle economically in the world, and that money breeds corruption and all kinds of problems. She is outspoken in her beliefs and of very sound mind. Although the serious point is made, the play proceeds in a lightweight manner with entertaining results.
The arrival of lawyer Harvey Abel, amusingly played by Joe Paulik, presents a monkey wrench into Cornelia’s will plans. She doesn’t want to deal with problems, and he is aghast at her indifference. Abel has to fight for her serious attention. He informs her that a young man from Buffalo claims that he is her grandson (she has two grandchildren) as a result of a secret affair her late daughter had with his late father and wants a piece of the coming inheritance to further his own desire of acquiring success and wealth.
Introducing himself as Walker “Scott” Williams, performed with flair and over-the-top charm by Gabriel Brown, he is an African-American, who says that his African-American father raised him together with his understanding wife rather than Cornelia’s daughter going through with an abortion when she became pregnant.
Abel spots him as a phony and con artist, but whatever the savvy Cornelia may think, she takes to Walker, who opens a window of pleasure into her life. All this happens very quickly and improbably, but also enjoyably, thanks to Gurney’s wit and the acting. Pamela Dunlap is colorful as Cornelia’s long-time housekeeper and cook, and Kahyun Kim is pleasing as Jessica Worth, a Julliard student looking over Cornelia’s player piano, containing a trove of Cole Porter songs, as a possible gift to Julliard. She also attracts the romantic eye of Walker.
What happens? Suffice it to say that DNA testing will not be necessary.
Anderman carries off the demanding performance as the likable Cornelia in great style, leaving the impression of her being a WASP with a conscience, as well as with a bright, wise sense of humor mingled with sadness in looking back on her life and what happened to her son and daughter. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed Augst 27th, 2015.
INFORMED CONSENT Send This Review to a Friend
Science and ethics clash intriguingly in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s smart, unusual play jointly presented by Primary Stages and the Ensemble Studio Theatre. From the superior acting to the inventive staging by director Liesl Tommy everything clicks into place to create a worthwhile work that raises serious questions and is also timely against the background of intense genetic research being done today in quest of greater knowledge.
The story is said to have been inspired by a court case involving a university and a Native Ameican tribe based in the Grand Canyon. At the core of “Informed Consent” is Jillian, a gung-ho genetic anthropologist enlivened into a believable character by Tina Benko, with quirky physical gestures and an impassioned manner of speaking as if every moment in her life and career counted desperately. She is obsessed with her work at a large Arizona university for personal reasons, but an even broader quest leads her into ethical problems that she doesn’t want to acknowledge.
On the personal side, Jillian is troubled because her mother died of early Alzheimer’s. Jillian fears that she might have inherited the gene and passed it along to her young daughter and is bent on discovering the truth.
Meanwhile, she has embarked upon a project of investigating genetic reasons why a local Indian tribe has such a high level of diabetes. Getting cooperation has been difficult, as the tribe considers its blood sacred and great effort must be made before the tribe representative, Arella, passionately portrayed by Delanna Studi, will go to bat for the study and convince tribal leaders to authorize blood sampling.
Jillian then dishonestly parlays the study into something unauthorized, going beyond the diabetes project and using the blood to trace the tribe’s origins, with results that contradict tribal beliefs. All hell breaks loose in the wake of the betrayal. But Jillian persists in her arrogant view that science is all that matters and anything goes in its pursuits.
In the upheaval that occurs, there is determination by the Indian tribe and the anthropologist, Ken, played earnestly by Jesse J. Perez, who gave Jillian her assignment, to have the blood returned and the results destroyed. Reference is made in the play to the immorality of the Nazi experiments and the notorious experiment tracing the results of inflicted syphilis on black prisoners without their consent. The moral issue is made clear.
The five-member cast includes Pun Bandhu as Graham, Jillian’s husband, and Myra Lucretia Taylor as the university’s no-nonsense Dean Hagan. There are moments when the audience is addressed directly, symbolizing everyone’s membership in the overall genetic pool. Wilson Chin’s set design and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s projection design combine to suggest a genetic universe.
Even though only 90 minutes long without an intermission, “Informed Consent” effectively addresses important, expansive ideas brought dramatically to life. At the Duke, on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Phone: 646-223-3010. Reviewed August 23rd, 2015.
JOHN Send This Review to a Friend
Although meticulously staged by director Sam Gold and effectively acted by the four-member cast, “John,” a Signature Theatre presentation written by talented playwright Annie Baker, is largely an extended bore at three hours an fifteen minutes including two intermissions and seemingly longer. The two older characters, played by appealing Georgia Engel and Lois Smith, are weirdly amusing, but the young characters are painfully uninteresting in their misery.
Baker may be after some philosophical concepts with gibberish about minds being inhabited and thoughts about being mystically watched over. Mysterious occurrences like Christmas tree lights unexpectedly going on and off and a player piano suddenly starting to deliver music perhaps have a meaning. The set, designed by Mimi Lien, is a living room and dining area overstuffed with bric-a-brac, including lit-up little houses, enough of them to supply a lifetime of models for productions of Edward Albee’s “Tiny Alice.”
The location is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Georgia Engel as Mertis runs a bed and breakfast. In an initially charming but subsequently annoying gimmick, Mertis pulls the curtain open to reveal her home, and subsequently pulls it shut to end each of three acts. The beginning of the play is excruciating in its pauses with nothing significant happening, pauses that can make those of a Harold Pinter work look speedy. The play was getting on my nerves before anything really got going.
An unmarried couple arrives at the bed and breakfast—Elias Schreiber Hoffman (Christopher Abbott) and Jenny Chung (Hong Chau). It gradually becomes apparent that they have been having relationship problems. (Is the Gettysburg historic Civil War battle location meant to symbolize the couple’s strife? If so, that’s pretentious overkill, to say the least.) Elias indicates being consumed by paranoia, convinced that Jenny is a perpetual liar, while she rebels at his suspicions. The problem is that one can be hard-pressed to give a damn about either of them, especially as their angst escalates.
The play gets a lift with the arrival of Mertis’s friend Genevieve, who is blind. Smith makes her intriguing as she talks about how having left her husband, John, she felt as though he was still inhabiting her mind and judging her for years afterward. The playwright gives Genevieve a post-second act speech to the audience about her life and Lois Smith, a veteran play-stealer, makes the most of it. Her presence helps suggest a mystical edge, as does Mertis with her reactions to Elias when he opens up to her about his problems. Also, Mertis talks limitedly of her ill husband upstairs somewhere in the house, although we never meet him.
The production and performances seem faithful to what must be on Baker’s mind with this opus, but while one can admire the acting and staging, the result can try one’s patience. I also am getting tired of plays that highlight problems of young, uninteresting and sometimes exasperating characters thrashing around in their unhappiness. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed August 21, 2015.
HAMILTON (BROADWAY) Send This Review to a Friend
Seeing “Hamilton” for a second time after having reviewed it at the Public Theater (see Search), I not only find it dazzles on Broadway, but it offers an opportunity to pay closer attention to what makes the musical click so formidably. The first time around one gets an overall view of its creativity. In a second viewing one can concentrate more on the details of the music, the rap lyrics and the production. The genius of the idea for the show, with book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also stars impressively as Alexander Hamilton, emerges with greater impact.
Who would have thought that you could take American history and package the founding fathers interracially and express their battle for independence with rap and hip-hop? Miranda did, and his foresight is being validated anew. On this return to the show I was able to listen more attentively to the lyrics, which rush at us with the breakneck speed of the show as a whole. They are oh-so clever, from the rhyming to the content, and at times speak to the present, as with the emphasized point that Hamilton was an immigrant. Take that, Donald Trump.
In addition to concentrating on the major characters, on this occasion I was able to more closely scan the great chorus of supporting dancers and singers and further appreciate them as individuals. They are amazing for how hard they work, handle the rapid costume changes and help give the show its perpetual momentum, with the wonderful choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and astute direction by Thomas Kail. Except for some well-delineated moments when the musical wisely slows for scenes with emotional pull, “Hamilton” is in constant motion.
The novelty of the casting also seems more natural in a repeat viewing. Leslie Odom, Jr. is fabulous as Aaron Burr, who in reference to Hamilton says, “I’m the fool who shot him.” Daveed Diggs makes an impressive Thomas Jefferson. Okieriete Onaodowan is excellent as James Madison. And, of course, there is the magnetic Miranda in the title role.
One major change from the time I first saw the show is Jonathan Groff as King George. I came with fond memories of Brian d’Arcy James’s comically endearing portrait of the king, exasperated by and condescending to the rebels rejecting his love (sarcastically sung). It was a high point. I am happy to report that Groff, who succeeded d’Arcy James at the Public Theater and now is cavorting effetely as the British ruler is a laugh riot with his acting and singing. He is definitely a highlight of this staging.
Moving to the larger Richard Rodgers Theatre has served to give the production more breadth. The scenic design by David Korins is basically the same—a mix of walkways, staircases and a revolving center that combine to give the show range and movement, but also allow for flashes of intimacy abetted by the lighting design of Howell Binkley. If any show deserves a larger space, this one certainly does.
The key women in the saga repeat their captivating performances, Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife Eliza and Renée Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica. Their singing continues to be first-rate, as is their penetrating acting.
I don’t want to repeat all that I wrote enthusiastically seeing “Hamilton” originally (you can get that on this site via Search). But I want to make clear how much this enthusiasm has been justified and intensified by what is going on now in the new Broadway venue. It is definitely the show to see this season. The Drama Desk, to which I belong, already gave its award to “Hamilton” as Outstanding Musical last season. Now on Broadway, “Hamilton” looms as the leading Tony Award candidate in new musical category. At the Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46th Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 20, 2015.
CYMBELINE (SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK) Send This Review to a Friend
Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” is particularly plot-convoluted and the current staging (through August 23, 2015) as part of the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park program at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, puts the emphasis on giving the audience a jolly good time. Emotional impact is subjugated to visual and verbal pleasures under the direction of Daniel Sullivan, and excellent performers, most notably Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater and Raúl Esparza, add to the overall delight. At the performance I saw on a lovely summer evening, the atmosphere was just right. There is something about seeing the play performed for a night out in the park that provides a different air than might exist in an enclosed theater, and this production makes the most of the opportunity.
There are moments of actors interacting with audience members seated near the stage. I don’t often like that sort of thing, but in this case it added to the enjoyment of the spirited interpretation and helped establish welcome actor-spectator intimacy.
Lily Rabe lives up to her impressive reputation with a radiant performance as Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, King of Britain, whose life is upended when her husband Posthumus (Linklater) is banished. Linklater does double duty playing Posthumus as a classic hero and also portraying the cloddish Cloten, the queen’s son by a former husband. As Cloten, Linklater is often uproariously funny, and we remember the humor more than the tragedy that befalls him.
Esparza makes an enjoyable gangster-style villain in the role of Iachimo, who wickedly schemes to convince Posthumus that his bride has betrayed him. This sets in motion plot convolutions, as well as gives Rabe a chance to emote in the play’s most moving moment at the news of Posthumus’s sudden hostility to her.
Another standout is Kate Burton as the queen, who storms around with ill-temper. Burton also is cast in the male role of the banished Belarius, giving her a chance to show versatility. Patrick Page finds opportunity to shine as both Cymbeline and Philario, who hosts Posthumus in Rome.
The production is mounted broadly as an eyeful, aided immensely by the elaborate costuming by David Zinn and hair and wig design by Clarles G. LaPointe. David Lander has done important lighting design contributions, with the elaborate sound design by Acme Sound partners. As for the scenic design, Riccardo Hernandez has established a set that conveys a free-wheeling aura appropriate for the play’s tone set by Sullivan’s direction.
I won’t go into all of the plotting and the outcome, worked out by the Bard with his customary talent for tidying up. See this pleasurable “Cymbeline” for yourself if you can snag a ticket. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, entrance at Central Park West and 81st Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed August 17, 2015.
AMAZING GRACE Send This Review to a Friend
Who wrote the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace”? The history books tell us it was John Newton back in the 18th century, and now we get the fact-rooted but imagined back story in the impassioned musical “Amazing Grace,” with music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, who wrote the book with Arthur Giron. Strong performances and vigorous staging within the expansive scenic design by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce carry the show appealingly despite the sometimes cumbersome long haul of the story.
Josh Young gives a stalwart performance both with respect to his acting and singing in the role of the British composer John Newton, although we see only bare reference to his musical talent in the biographical period covered. The concentration is on his arrogant slave-dealing, at first oblivious to the immorality of the trade. A horrific scene occurs with the bringing on stage in a crate desperate, humiliated blacks who are extracted, auctioned and painfully branded.
In sharp contrast to Newton is Erin Mackey, with an attractive voice, as Mary Catlett, an idealistic abolitionist running against the tide in her aristocratic surroundings. She and Newton are in love despite their different takes on life, and also separated by distance as Newton takes to the sea against the wishes of his father, played and sung effectively by Tom Hewitt.
Newton gets a taste of what enslavement is like when after his ship is sunk during a British-French battle, he finds himself in Africa under the power of the black Princess Peyai, also a slave trader, dynamically and sensually portrayed by Harriet D. Foy, who enslaves and brands him. His situation is hapless until, as a result of his wit and her greed, they form a money-making partnership, but with the princess ultimately maintaining the upper hand until a lethal battle occurs.
The major book difficulty is making Howard’s abrupt turnaround in his attitude toward slavery believable. He has mocked the Bible as hokum, even to the point of railing about how many people have died because of the book, yet he becomes repentant in an on-his-knees religious way for his sinning as a slave trader, his new views in line with those of Catlett. How did this slave trader really come to write hymns?
I have long admired the singing and acting skills of Chuck Cooper, who here plays Pakuteh, a black who as the servant Thomas in the Newton household, has helped raise Newton. In this production he is one of its greatest assets, both with his very poignant acting performance and his rich singing, especially in his powerful solo “Nowhere Left to Run.” Cooper’s character frames the show with an all-knowing narration.
He also is involved in two emotionally hefty scenes, one in which Newton sells him into slavery to save his own skin, the other after which Newton has hunted for him and freed him in order to attain redemption. By this time, Pakuteh/Thomas is a physically broken man, and at first he stands firm saying he has no forgiveness for Newton’s betrayal. I wish he stuck to his guns, but eventually, he does offer forgiveness in an embrace. After all, “Amazing Grace” is still a Broadway musical.
Under the direction of Gabriel Barre, much is made of the seagoing scenes, the various shootouts and the military aspects, with huge contributions of smoke and explosions, thanks to lighting design by Ken Billington & Paul Miller, sound design by Jon Weston and fight and military movement by David Leong. Special credit is also due to choreographer Christopher Gattelli, costume designer Toni-Leslie James and Joseph Church for music direction, arrangements and incidental music, as well as to many others.
As expected, we eventually get to the climactic title hymn “Amazing Grace,” with the entire company—a very good one of supporting performers—gradually joining in and coming front and center to sing as a chorus. On the night I attended the audience appeared to be very moved by this rousing finale. For all the flaws inherent in trying to tell this sprawling story in a meaningful way, “Amazing Grace” is quite the spectacle. At the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed August 5, 2015.
BROADWAY'S RISING STARS 2015 Send This Review to a Friend
The theater community in New York need not worry about running out of talent. That was dramatically evident in the 2015 edition of Broadway’s Rising Stars concert presented last night (July 13) by The Town Hall and created, written and hosted by Scott Siegel. Seeing at the outset the talent line stretched across the stage with the stars for the night joining in singing “Bless Our Show” from “Sister Act” was impressive in itself. All looked so fresh and enthusiastic, and afterward each person chosen from a talent hunt and described in detailed introductions by Scott received his or her own moment in the spotlight to deliver a number chosen from a show or film to reflect individual strength.
It is rare when one can say that every performer dazzled in some way. Despite their beginner status, they seemed very professional. I’m sure director Scott Coulter had a hand in getting them to give such pro impressions, with timing, body movement and knowing how to put across a song. Other input came from Vibecke Dahl as choregrapher, and Rick Hinkson was assistant director.
The individual start was strong. DJ Plunkett wowed the crowd with “Go the Distance” from “Hercules,” his impassioned voice symbolically expressing the career hopes of the night. There followed a succession of stalwarts, each in excellent voice—Christine Baird with “Once Upon a Dream” from “Sleeping Beauty” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” from “Snow White;” Anne Bragg with “Almost There” from “The Princess and the Frog;” Sarah Bishop stirring with “The Life I Never Led” from “Sister Act” and Adam Huel Potter demonstrating a strong voice with “Be Prepared” from “The Lion King.”
Malik Eccleston, backed by Rising Star company members, delivered a potent “A Dream Is a Wish” from “Cinderella.” Then came a jazzy number that was a highlight-- Paola Hernandez sang and danced to “I Wanna Be a Rockette” from the unproduced “Kicks: The Showgirl Musical.” Unstoppable determination and enthusiasm, as well as talent, were packed into the number.
Jacob Pressley revealed a leading man voice with “If I Can’t Love Her” from “Beauty and the Beast.” Ben Chavez’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from “”The Lion King” and Josh Greenblatt, backed by the company, singing “Endless Night,” also from “The Lion King,” impressively concluded the first act.
There was much audience buzz during intermission expressing amazement as how good the performers all were. ‘Better than stars,” pontificated one audience member whom I overheard. Nothing in the second act would take away from such enthusiasm.
CoCo Smith started it by tearing up the place with her explosive “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from “The Little Mermaid.” From that same source, “Her Voice” was beautifully sung by Austin Thomas. Renee Gagner meaningfully conveyed the I-still-love-him sentiment in “He’s a Tramp” from “Lady and the Tramp.” I then enjoyed Francesca Capetta’s dynamic “God Help the Outcasts” from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
The audience was strikingly won over—I was too-- by Charlie Meredith with his song-and-tap-dance rendition of “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” from “Song of the South.” The crowd cheered practically every movement.
Ally Kupferberg looked attractive in her suggestion of Native American garb for her movingly interpreting “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas.” Pepe Nufrio gave a good rendition of “One Song” from “Snow White.” Once again the theme of the evening echoed in Harriet Taylor’s fine performance of “Where Do I Go From Here” from “Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.”
Then came what was the emotional highlight of the evening. Having overcome a potential obstacle to his ambitions, Sommer Carbuccia sang a heartfelt “Proud of Your Boy” from “Aladdin," after telling the crowd that his mother was in the audience. There was special resonance to the situation, The Town Hall being populated by many parents, family members and friends of those performing. Carbuccia’s turn undoubtedly touched the hearts of many, as reflected by the ovation he received.
For a finale, the entire company, the individuals having shown their stuff, united to sing “Circle of Life” from “the Lion king,” and for good measure followed with “When You Wish Upon A Star” from “Pinocchio.”
During the evening Scott Siegel made a special point of acknowledging the excellent accompaniment the band was doing, citing music director and pianist John Fischer, Jerry DeVore on bass and Dan Gross on drums. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Reviewed July 14, 2015.
PENN & TELLER ON BROADWAY Send This Review to a Friend
The key strength of Penn Jilette and Teller (born Raymond Joseph Teller) is their ability to be immensely entertaining in dispensing their magic. It isn’t just a matter of performing tricks, at which they excel, but their instilling a great sense of fun for an audience, partly by debunking the idea of magic even while making viewers look with awe at some of what they do. That’s showmanship.
Such skills are delightfully on display in their new production, “Penn & Teller on Broadway,” elegantly directed by John Rando. They also graciously give credit to all the backstage people who are involved in the technical aspects of the show, as well as to excellent pianist Mike Jones, who at the upright adds musical flair, including before the actual show begins. Penn & Teller make a big point of involving the audience. As people enter the theater they are invited to come on stage and examine a special box as well as sign their names to a poster.
In choosing members of the audience to participate in the magic—and there is a lot of that—they don’t always choose so-called beautiful people. Appealing youngsters or an attractive woman, sure, but they also may just as likely invite a man or woman who is overweight. In one trick, humorously making a visibly phony elephant disappear, Penn asks a whole entourage of folk to come on stage to watch.
About that elephant. It is hilarious to see what is supposed to pass for an elephant looking like a doctored up cow. But there is still a how-did-they-do that wonder in watching the thing vanish.
At the start of the show, Penn—he’s the one who does all of the rapid-fire talking, while Teller looks mischievously angelical—does something counter to the usual announcement. He asks everyone to turn on their cellphones and call one another, the start of a bit in which he gets a wife to phone her husband, which we all hear.
Penn also mocks the idea of psychics, yet he does a trick that involves passing out joke books to volunteers, choosing two individuals, asking them to select a joke, and then presto, indentifying the jokes they have chosen. Neat. Penn assures the audience that there are no planted shills as he says are in some magic shows because he doesn’t want to spend money hiring them.
Teller, for all of his Harpo-like silence, contributes masterfully to the program, including apparently swallowing of needles galore, and then pulling them out of his mouth in a long strung thread. In one gambit called “He’s a Little Teapot,” Teller appears to pour water from his hands, first the right, then the left. He also charmingly cooperates with Penn on an egg trick and other "magic."
There is the customary pulling of a rabbit out of a top hat, fire-eating and the traditional sawing of a woman in half. The woman in question is attractive, statuesque Georgie Bernasek, who climbs into a long coffin-like box. There is no ordinary saw, but a giant saw wheel used for the slicing. What makes the reprise of this staple freshly and ghoulishly amusing is the mass of supposed blood splattering all over.
One part of the act audience members might recall next time they fly, is the use on stage of the type metal screener one has to pass through these days. It turns out to be a ploy for selling a souvenir in the lobby.
“Penn & Teller on Broadway” is a sure-fire entertainment hit for family theatergoing, New Yorkers and tourists alike. At the Marquis Theatre, 46th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue). Phone: 877-280-2929. Reviewed July 13, 2015.
SHOWS FOR DAYS Send This Review to a Friend
Last night when I saw Douglas Carter Beane’s “Shows for Days,” a Lincoln Center Theater presentation, Patti LuPone earned her first ovation before the show. Word was out about how on the night before she had seized the cellphone of an audience member who was texting. When LuPone came on stage in the wake of her stand against rude audience behavior, the crowd was with her, as many of us are fed up with such annoyances. She made an impassioned request to turn off such distractions in respect to her and the others who put on a play and don’t deserve rude behavior by a few who spoil it for the rest. Once at a show I attended the cellphone of a man in front of me rang--and he answered it. Brava Patti.
LuPone then proceeded in “Shows for Days” to earn another ovation for her acting, surely due her in light of her colorful performance as a local theater diva who had missed the possibility of a greater achievements, got married and was piling her thwarted hopes into the limited opportunity with struggling theater group in Reading, PA.
The show, directed by Jerry Zaks with a balance between humor and content, is framed around the reflections of the present-day Car, who recalls how as a teenager he was incorporated into the troupe and wrote his first play. (“Shows for Days” is said to spring from Douglas Carter Beane’s own experiences.) Michael Urie is charming in the role, soon winning us over as suddenly he deftly changes demeanor to make us believe he is 14. The adult Car intersperses comments at various point to winningly tie the play together.
When we go back in time it is 1973 and John Lee Beatty’s rehearsal set, located in a wreck of a building slated to be torn down, provides the right look, as do William Ivey Long’s period costumes. When Car wanders in, he first meets the bulldozing company member Sid, uproariously played by Dale Soules, given a good share of wisecracks. Next encountered is the ditzy, sometimes hysterical actress Maria (Zoë Winters.) We get to meet Clive, the gay African-American actor with the need to feed a giant ego masking insecurities, a larger-than-life character played by Lane Coadie Williams.
But the real fun starts when Patti LuPone sweeps in as Irene, who rules her roost with a firm hand, is forever acting whether on stage or off and is ingenious at coming up with ideas on how to save the theater. She also can be ruthless, even resorting to blackmail that can have painful consequences. LuPone is not just enjoyable to watch as she makes the most of the playwright’s comic zingers. She also demonstrates her extraordinary acting skills by creating a full-bodied characterization of a woman with regrets who desperately wants to be in the spotlight. Irene dallies with the younger Damien, played by Jordan Dean, who, as we learn, wants sex with Car.
The play oozes nostalgia as a memoir that might especially appeal to those who have a background in such theater groups and it takes its place alongside similar memoirs.
After a strong first act, the second act is less successful as the need to resolve plot elements sets in. Dialogue is not as funny and the drama gets a bit heavy-going as it grows more serious. Fortunately, in latter moments the spell of the piece takes hold again and, weaknesses in the work aside, we are left with affection for the play, the cast and especially for the remarkable LuPone. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed July 10, 2015.