By William Wolf
HEISENBERG Send This Review to a Friend
If you examine the symbolic play title “Heisenberg,” you get the essence of what playwright Simon Stephens apparently is doing-- defining what is essentially a love story in the framework of a scientific theory. In 1927 German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) introduced his quantum mechanics uncertainty principle. In the play “Heisenberg” a relationship develops between an unlikely couple and uncertainty as to what will or will not develop is the underlying theme.
The working out of the playwright’s musings, under the snappy direction of Mark Brokaw in this Manhattan Theatre Club presentation performed with a good part of the audience seated on stage, is in the hands of two terrific actors, Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker. The interplay begins when Alex Priest (Arndt) and Georgie Burns (Parker) get talking in a London train station when she impulsively kisses him on the neck. Their dialogue as they get acquainted is consistently sharp and entertaining.
The two couldn’t be more different. Alex is a butcher in his 70s and rather reserved, while Georgie is a much younger, brash American in her 40s. She manages to track down Alex after they part. As the play progresses in stages we gradually learn more about both.
Alex , suffering a romantic loss when a woman left him, has retreated into a life without a new relationship. Georgie, who is from New Jersey, has a son who has rejected her and disappeared from her life. She longs to find him, and when she eventually gets the nerve to ask Alex for money to go back to New Jersey to try to find her son, he surprises her with the funds.
Georgie is given to making up stories as we see her live-wire, sometimes very kooky personality. She is aggressive in her pursuit of Alex, who step by step is seduced by her likability and flair and the new opening that has been presented in his life.
Every part of the way is marked by the uncertainty about what will happen next. Their story unfolds in segments delineated by quick blackouts, after which the action progresses in various locales within a very simplified, bare set minus any frills. The focus is all on their lively conversations.
All lies in the writing and acting, and the stars are commanding. Parker, in a role very different than some of the parts she has played, is amusingly flamboyant and a dynamic force that little by little brings Alex out of his shell. Finally, when we see Alex and Georgie in New Jersey, one grasps an inkling of their further closeness in a beautifully conceived ending.
There is no uncertainty that this is a captivating play offering two highly appealing performances. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 18, 2016.
ORWELL IN AMERICA Send This Review to a Friend
Writer George Orwell never made it to the United States, but now he does in a fictional imagining of what it would have been like had he come here on a book tour. “Orwell in America,” written by Joe Sutton, stars Jamie Horton as Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Blair, and Horton gives the play a terrific lift with a performance that soars.
The time period is post-war 1940s and the book Orwell is promoting on a lecture tour is his classic “Animal Farm.” The action flips back and forth between his sessions with Jeanna de Waal as Carlotta, assigned as his publicist and handler by the publishing house, and his addressing the theater audience as if it were his lecture audience.
Orwell is having a difficult time, given his position as a socialist in a country beset by the Red Scare, with many not being able to tell the difference between socialist ideals and Communism under Stalin. He appears as an intellectual author in a non-intellectual climate.
What Horton does exceedingly well is build a portrait of Orwell as a rigid man and thinker minus the gift of personal appeal needed to win peple over to his ideas. (I leave it to historians as to whether this portrait is accurate, but it works very well in this drama.) As the play progresses, we get to feel we are seeing the real Orwell.
Much praise is due his stage partner de Waal. She turns in a very impressive performance as Carlotta, an attractive young woman who is trying to figure out what makes Orwell tick, and is often exasperated by his attitude toward audiences. She argues with him a lot, and he makes sexual advances to her in a nice way, but while she tries to please in friendly fashion, she knows better than to succumb. De Waal touches all the dramatic bases just right, and Orwell develops respect for her.
Director Peter Hackett manages the scenic flow tidily and keeps the focus where it should be at all times. Recorded voices are heard from the back of the theater to pose baiting questions to Orwell as if attending one of his appearances. At awards time attention should be paid to this major acting accomplishment by Horton. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-3200. Reviewed October 18, 2016.
HOLIDAY INN, THE NEW IRVING BERLIN MUSICAL Send This Review to a Friend
Pack a load of Irving Berlin songs into a show, with a pleasing singing and dancing cast and chorus, and how can you go wrong? This Roundabout Theatre Company’s presentation, in association with Universal Stage Productions, a reworking of the film “Holiday Inn,” is an enjoyable stage treat, with winsome leads and a talented troupe that can generate audience applause with exhilarating dance numbers.
Sure, the story, with a book by director Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge and set in the 1940s, is corny, as was the story in the film and as stories were in a host of entertaining past musicals, but the performers in this show can make characters reasonably believable even in the most far-fetched situations.
Take Bryce Pinkham as Jim Hardy, a song and dance man who partners with ambitious Lila Dixon, played with brassy show biz flair by Megan Sikora. Pinkham is warmly engaging as he carries a good part of the production—you may remember him for his outstanding work in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” Jim proposes to Lila, but the lure of going off with Jim’s best friend, dancer Ted Hanover, to appear in Chicago’s famous Pump Room, has more appeal than Jim’s vision of settling down in the Connecticut farm that he has bought. (Cue jokes about Connecticut.) Corbin Bleu, who plays Ted, is a sensational dancer with a sturdy personality.
Jim is dejected but throws himself into his new life. The problem is that the farm house is a shambles and the bills have piled up to threaten loss of the property. There to help is acerbically perky caretaker Louise, who cracks wise and wants to fix Jim up with Linda Mason, who used to own the place. On the night I saw the show the role of Louise, usually played By Megan Lawrence, was performed by Jenifer Foote. I have no basis for comparison, but Foote was a thorough delight as she infused the musical with her likability and talent for comedy, as well as a bit of conspiracy.
As for Linda, who teaches school, Lora Lee Gayer, who has a thrilling voice, makes her believable and enjoyable to watch as love blooms slowly between her and Jim. And wouldn’t you know, Linda once thought of becoming a performer. The plot thickens when Ted shows up and wants to take her to Hollywood for a movie role, a deal engineered by Lee Wilkof as old-fashioned, ever-ambitious agent Danny. Thus Ted is trying to steal yet another gal from Jim. Meanwhile, Lila has gone off with a rich Texan. Of course, she’ll be back.
With economically tough pressures, a decision is made to turn the huge farmhouse into Holiday Inn, and Louise arranges for Jim’s chorus pals to turn up. The idea for putting on shows to pay the bills is launched. The plot chestnut provides the set-up for the musical to span several seasons and pile on more Berlin numbers in addition to those that juiced up the show in the beginning. Naturally, the classic “White Christmas,” here written by Jim, is introduced and sentimentally worked into the relationship between him and Linda and later repeated.
Choreographer Denis Jones provides some sprightly dance routines, especially one rope-jumping tap number executed with great skill. Alejo’s Vietti’s costumes are attractive, and except when dancers cavort in hokey get-ups to look like turkeys in a Thanksgiving motif. Greenberg’s direction has plenty of spirit, with the numbers cleverly woven into the story and projecting the plot forward with emphasis on keeping the entertainment gears moving.
The real star of the musical, with no disrespect meant to the fine cast, is Irivng Berlin, with his enduring music and lyrics. Berlin left us in 1989, but his vast output of songs live on, whether exemplified by those from the film Holiday Inn, or other numbers added to spice this production.
Get a load of just some of Berlin’s contribution here: “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Blue Skies,” “Heat Wave,” “It’s a Lovely Day,” “Plenty to Be Thankful For,” “Nothing More to Say,” “Shaking the Blues Away, “Let’s Take an Old Fashioned Walk,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Easter Parade”—and more. In the hands of worthy performers and with an excellent orchestra conducted by Andy Einhorn, “Holiday Inn” is welcome fun. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed October 15, 2016.
STUFFED Send This Review to a Friend
Based on this first-time play, one can say that Lisa Lampanelli is better at standup than at being a playwright. She is on to a good topic with ‘Stuffed” (additional material by Ashley Austin Morris), but unlike the problem of overeating that the characters discuss, this production presented by WP Theater is low on calories.
Lampanelli, who also is one of the stars, has good company-- Ann Harada, Zainab Jah and Jessica Luck. Together they have ensemble appeal. Lampanelli, who has lost considerable weight with the aid of surgery, looks so much different than she has in her best known comedy work, easy to catch up with on Youtube. She appears here with a mix of blonde and blue hair.
The author has written a heap of dialogue dealing with attempts to deal with the desire to eat more than one should and the difficult effort to diet. The performers gossip together about the issue, and each one gets to tell a personal story.
At points, Lampanelli steps forward to address the audience with a flash of a standup approach. She tosses in some of the vulgarities for which she is known, topping it off at the end with a declaration that she’d perform oral sex for a muffin.
The trouble is that even though the show, which has no intermission, is not especially long, is lightly directed by Jackson Gay and is occasionally funny, after a while a feeling of repetition sets in, and one can conclude that the subject has already been covered enough in this offering. At the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway (at 76th Street)+. Reviewed Oct. 17, 2016.
THE ENCOUNTER Send This Review to a Friend
Those who remember radio days when studios featured dramas with actors doing different voices and others providing sound effects in inventive ways may find Simon McBurney’s more sophisticated one-man show reminiscent of that radio era. However, those old shows were generally a half hour or an hour long. McBurney holds us in his power when we put on the earphones provided and we are inundated with his complicated adventure tale with his voice in various ranges and locations, coupled with a mountain of sound effects through clever technology. The show is one big aural onslaught that, as intriguing as it can be, goes on so long (nearly two hours without an intermission) as to leave one in a state of mental exhaustion.
The show has a sneaky start. McBurney, who seems to be a technician fussing with various props, comes on stage unassumingly, and only gradually do we realize that he is the star and the show has been under way. The event is a Complicitite production conceived and directed by McBurney, co-conceived by Kirsty Housley and inspired by Petru Popescu’s book “Amazon Beaming,” which deals with American journalist Loren McIntyre’s adventures in the Amazon, including interaction with an Amazon tribe. Much credit is due sound designers Gareth Fry and Peter Malkin.
This is heady stuff to pound into our ears as McBurney assumes the role of McIntyre, as well as that of a narrator and other characters. Time frames are mixed. At one moment McBurney is telling bedtime stories to his young daughter. At another, the versatile actor is dealing with wild animals. We always see him on stage, moving about energetically—he must be thoroughly exhausted after every performance. We never know whether his voice is recorded, or whether he is actually speaking, as his lips keep moving.
His voice frequently changes in tone, and sometimes he is whispering into one of our ears, or even blowing into it on another occasion. The sound effects are stupendous, whether coming to us full force or rippling delicately. McBurney puts on one admirable, original performance revealing anew the talent that has earned him an international reputation. But he is far from alone as he seems on stage. Check the program to see the impressive array of voices that have gone into the presentation.
No question about it—this is Broadway’s unique show at the moment. Whether you will leave with great admiration for McBurney and the audio magic being performed, or leave with a headache, or perhaps both, depends upon your outlook and endurance capacity. But this sure is a very different experience from customary theatergoing. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 6, 2016.
BATTLEFIELD Send This Review to a Friend
There is magic on the stage of BAM’s Harvey Theater, not the sleight-of-hand kind, but the magic attained by directors Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne and their superb cast of four in “Battlefield,” their pared version of the nine-hour “The Mahabharata,” which was staged at BAM as a major theatrical event in 1987 in the adaptation written by Jean-Claude Carrière. The Sanskrit epic narrative from ancient India dealing with the ravages of war provides similar food for thought in the shortened 1 hour 10 minute form as adapted by Brook and Estienne in this Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord production.
The simplicity of the staging belies the depth of what unfolds as cast members portray key characters and also transform themselves into various reincarnations that express the poetic imagination inherent in the epic. Inescapably, the handwringing over war’s death and destruction contained in the exquisite writing registers today in light of the extensive killing in our times. It would be wonderful to report that the pain dramatized in “Battlefield” is outdated. Unfortunately, the anguish over what we are asked to feel in this production leaps across the years. It also makes for a very special theater experience.
Jared McNeill is especially effective in the role of Yudhishthira, who is informed by his mother, Kunti, beautifully portrayed by Carole Karemera, that the man whom he considered his enemy and killed was really his brother. We also see Sean O’Callaghan playing the King Dritarashtra, who is blind, moves about in his private darkness and is filled with remorse over the suffering that has resulted from war. Ery Nzaramba is also excellent as another member of the ensemble.
Helping to establish the shifting moods of the play (also abetted by Phillippe Vialatte’s lighting design) is the musical accompaniment on drum by Tosh Tsuchitori, whose hands beating on the compact instrument underline speech and action, often with haunting results. Tsuchitori was also in the fabled original production.
Various pieces of cloth, shawls, and other material are deftly used as props by the cast members to create impressions, and in one case, a rare example of humor, McNeill takes a such a bundle and asks a few audience members in the front row if they will distribute the garments to poor people. In the course of the banter he identifies the poor as perhaps those sitting high in the balcony.
“Battlefield” becomes consistently mesmerizing, enveloping the audience in a total experience with a flow of talk and movement of great smoothness. By the end, the cast stands in stillness, as if waiting to see how long it will take for the spell to lift and for the audience to recognize that the journey is over and begin to applaud. This fascinating outgrowth stemming from the original coup is yet another feather in the cap of the renowned Peter Brook, now 91 years old and still making his mark. At the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street. Phone: 718-636-4100. Reviewed October 2, 2016.
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
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.