By William Wolf
NO MAN'S LAND Send This Review to a Friend
Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” in repertory with “Waiting for Godot,” reflects Pinter when he playfully indulges with enigmatic takes offering skillful actors the opportunity to explore a work’s meaning and the rest of us the chance to do the same as audience members. Certainly the present cast is impressively up to the task, which makes for an entertaining evening punctuated with a touch of menace.
At the outset of the play set at Hampstead Heath, London, in the summer of 1975, we meet Patrick Stewart as Hirst and Ian McKellen as Spooner. Hirst is the sullen man of the house and Spooner would appear to be a pickup encountered in the park. That immediately raises a question of possible homosexuality, although that may not be the case at all. Both men commence drinking heavily, pouring one glass after another as they banter with the playwright’s amusingly obtuse dialogue.
What exactly is the relationship and where is it headed?
Subsequently, we meet the other two characters, Billy Crudup as the brash Foster, and Shuler Hensley as the tough, imposing looking Briggs. They conjure up impressions of being employees of Hirst, bodyguards or maybe minders controlling him. Pinter’s shifting dialogue and the physical moving about under the direction of Sean Mathias keep the situation intentionally confusing. A note of menace is struck at the end of act one when Spooner is locked in the darkened room to spend the night.
A highlight is the juicy dialogue between Hirst and Spooner when Hirst suddenly acts as if he and Spooner have been acquaintances from long ago. Each echoes pretensions of being poets of some achievement, and Hirst floors Spooner with very funny revelations that he had an affair with Spooner’s woman at the time, who was sexually eager for Hirst’s affection and lovemaking. Spooner is aghast and attempts to retaliate with some information of his own. What are we to believe? Are the pair merely sparring in a game meant to take advantage of one another? Did they know each other, or is it only an act?
Ultimately, Spooner demeans himself by, on bended knee, begging Hirst to allow him to be his literary servant with a promise to make everything easier in his life. Hirst seems indifferent. It is an upsettingly sad scene. By the play’s end the four are left on stage together, as if they are fated to spend the rest of their lives in this state, mysteriously bound to one another. Or are they?
The questions continue to challenge and bewilder. But the main attraction is the opportunity to enjoy colorful performances by the two leads, and the other two as well.
Good acting goes a long way, especially when the play may not be Pinter’s best. But it is indeed a strong vehicle for these showy performances. At the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 6, 2013.
WAITING FOR GODOT (McKELLEN AND STEWART) Send This Review to a Friend
I’ve lost count of the number of “Waiting for Godot” performances I’ve seen over the years. He has yet to arrive, and still doesn’t show up again in this latest production. Those who do show are the pros Ian McKellen as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and they are quite a pair mining the essence of Samuel Beckett’s great, classic play exploring humankind’s struggle for existence, the need to go on and the need for not being alone.
Beckett’s play is as rich in humor as it is in symbolism, and McKellen and Stewart are experts at extracting every bit of comedy from the text. Under the direction of Sean Mathias, they are like a couple of old vaudevillians playing off one another and that makes the key bonding moments all the more poignant when they switch gears. At one point at which they held each other closely on the night I attended, there were noises of audience members uttering approving isn’t-that-sweet “ooohs.” The final image of the companions who can’t live without one another in the bleak landscape they inhabit is wrenchingly moving.
But along the way there are moments of hilarity. Mckellen as Estragon is the scruffy, more forlorn one, with Stewart as Vladimir, more the motivator. Estragon, with his battle with his tattered, ill-fitting shoes and his amusing lapses of memory, is the more vulnerable. He weighs going it alone, as does Vladimir, but always, despite talk of hanging themselves, they carry on together looking for hope and salvation—waiting for the mysterious Godot to arrive. A boy messenger shows up to say Godot isn’t coming that day. (The boy was played by Colin Critchley at the performance I attended. Aidan Gemme is cast in the part on different occasions.)
The solitude is also interrupted when the domineering Pozzo arrives with a rope attached to his slave Lucky, a pathetic creature who is dragged along and who performs menial chores for his enslaver. I find Shuler Hensley’s Pozzo a bit too overbearing, and don’t find Billy Crudup’s Lucky as pathetic as some other Luckys I have seen. But Beckett’s points about inhumanity and servitude are dynamically made.
The production, of course, is basically defined by the performances of McKellen and Stewart, and they are a memorable combination in their balance between being funny and moving, and in giving line readings that make Beckett’s text come through effectively. It is a pleasure to encounter actors who speak with such resounding clarity.
I do question the curtain call dancing around that the stars do, as if to celebrate the grand time they have had in the show. While this is an audience pleaser, it undercuts the mood at the end of the play, and it might be preferable to allow the audience to leave on the tone Beckett set rather than on the exuberance of McKellen and Stewart romping about in
celebration. That’s a quibble. This is definitely a “Godot” to see and savor. At the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 27, 2013.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Send This Review to a Friend
Adapted from the popular film written by Michael Arndt, the new musical “Little Miss Sunshine,” a Second Stage Theatre presentation with a book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by William Finn, is an amiable romp with many pleasures, thanks largely to an appealing cast and some inventive staging by Lapine as director. While not the smash the creators may have hoped for, the production offers plenty of ingredients to appreciate and enjoy.
Young Hannah Nordberg as the diminutive Olive, who gets a chance to participate in a California talent pageant, is a delight. Not aiming for cutesy, she has a sharp edge as a spunky, resourceful kid. Trained to deliver a sexy number by her horny grandpa, she is a riot when she does her dance. She manipulates her little figure, with rear shakes and bumps, and assorted other sexy movements like a grown-up trooper and does it all terrifically to achieve a high point in the show choreographed by Michele Lynch.
Olive’s parents. Sheryl and Richard, are played by Stephanie J. Block and Will Swenson,
and they handle their roles with warmth. Sheryl is a nurturer and Richard has visions of achieving success with his carefully worked out self-help plan, by which he guides his own life. But nothing much has been happening for them, a condition explained in song, and they hope for something better by sheer determination encouraged by Richard.
As for the rest of the entourage, there is Sheryl’s brother Frank (Rory O’Malley), who has tried suicide as a result of losing his male lover to another, and Dwayne (Logan Rowland), Olive’s older brother, who has decided not to speak as a result of his pent-up frustrations in aspiring to be a pilot. Most colorful is Grandpa, zestfully played by David Rasche, who likes to use profanity and brags about his past sexual prowess. Olive is all ears, much to the chagrin of her parents. The Little Miss Sunshine competition provides the family with a chance to pile into a decrepit van and head from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, in a race to get there in time.
The set and projections, designed by Beowulf Boritt, convey one big road map as the motif, and by using movable chairs, the family configures into their van at various stages.
There are a few detours the trip could probably do without, including a flashback to when the parents were courting, although that does produce a good song. Another detour that one could definitely do without occurs in a men’s room where Frank encounters his lost love.
Among the highlights are the appearance of Olive’s pageant contest competitors, an amusing, spirited contingent consisting of Alivia Clark, Victoria Dennis, Miranda McKeon and Leonay Shepherd. They are hilarious. Adult cast members also include Josh Lamon, Jennifer Sanchez and Wesley Taylor, each in double roles.
This is a show that can extract funny moments from a death (Grandpa’s) and a secret maneuver to kidnap his body from the hospital to avoid wasting time with paperwork and stash it in the back of the van until funeral arrangements can be made.
As for the music, the pleasant score services the wacky story efficiently, and some amusing lyrics are a plus. At the Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-246-4422. Reviewed November 26, 2013.
THE COMMONS OF PENSACOLA Send This Review to a Friend
Amanda Peet’s drama staged by The Manhattan Theatre Club and directed by Lynne Meadow amounts to a group of good actors in search of a play. There’s not much that’s solid here in this tale of a wife and mother who knew more than she admitted about the dealings of her Madoff-like con man husband in prison, and the anger of a daughter at the discovery of lies told, as well as the daughter’s frustration in struggling with her own life.
Although there is a lot of upset raging, one is hard-pressed to feel any emotional involvement. The play is simply not compelling enough for that. The main pleasure—and that is not to be underestimated—is enjoying the acting by Blythe Danner as Judith the wife and mom, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Becca, the emotionally charged daughter going through a crisis of her own. They are two pros, abetted by the other competent cast members—Zoe Levin, Ali Marsh, Michael Stahl-David and Nilaja Sun.
The setting is a retirement condo in Pensacola, Florida, at Thanksgiving, and the drama is performed without intermission. Judith is living in the condo, and she is not in good health, evidenced in part by the array of pills she tries to keep track of, and a particular annoying condition. I can appreciate fart jokes, but the flatulence from which Judith suffers, evidenced by the occasional fart, is more embarrassing to the play than to Judith. It seems entirely gratuitous in the context of the general situation, and an actress with the dignity of Blythe Danner deserves more consideration than the playwright affords her.
Becca’s problems consist of having no viable career, the unfaithfulness of her boyfriend and, as central to the story, her anger at the duplicity of her mother, who has stashed cash in her freezer from her husband’s ill-gotten gains. Her feeble excuse is that she loved the man. The ending, involving Becca doing a broadcast interview with mom is weak and unconvincing. But at least we have these fine actresses on hand. At the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed November 25, 2013.
A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER Send This Review to a Friend
When I have viewed the British film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” over the years, it never dawned on me that the same subject would turn up as a Broadway musical. Now it has, much to my delight and, I expect, the delight of many, many others who will wisely head for this effervescent, clever show. It is grand fun from start to finish, with winsome acting and oh-so-smart staging by director Darko Tresnjak. The credits are many, including an army of above-the-title producers together with Green State Productions, in association with The Hartford Stage and The Old Globe. I hope all concerned enjoy well-deserved success.
The story, as fans of the film know, involves a schemer who decides to do away with a succession of those standing in the way of his inheriting a title. Enjoyment lies in seeing how they meet their fate. On screen, Alec Guinness triumphed playing the various victim roles. In this musical the marvelous Jefferson Mays takes on the multiple parts, male and female, and he is a wizard at embodying the various types. He is great fun to watch.
One must not underestimate Bryce Pinkham as Monty Navarro, the plotter. Pinkham oozes devilish charm, and sings well too. The key women with whom he is involved are striking. Lisa O’Hare is fetching as Sibella, his long-time girlfriend even though she marries another. She is a superb singer, as evidenced near the outset with her number “I Don’t Know What I’d Do,” and she is a looker too. Lauren Worsham as the smitten Phoebe is also attractive and has a prime voice, evidenced in a duet with Monty titled “Inside Out.” Jane Carr is outstanding as Miss Shingle, the lady who sets the tale in motion. Praise is also due the supporting cast and singers, all of whom add to the overall élan.
The charming set designed by Alexander Dodge has a music hall aura, and the book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, with music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, fit the early 20th century era perfectly. Some of it will obviously remind you of Gilbert & Sullivan. There’s amusement in the way the various victims die, and in one case, when weights lifted crash down, we see a severed head fly off to the side the stage. Jolly good fun. There’s also a nifty plot twist at the end.
The entire show zips stylishly along. This is the freshest movie to hit Broadway in a while. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed Novemeber 22, 2013.
TWELFTH NIGHT (GLOBE) Send This Review to a Friend
A joyful production of ”Twelfth Night,” running in repertory with “Richard III” as Shakespeare’s Globe productions, sparkles with excellent acting by its cast, male actors playing women as in the Bard’s time. This is a special showpiece for its star Mark Rylance, but there are other treats as well under Tim Carroll’s clever, efferescent direction.
As with “Richard III,” audience members arriving early are treated to viewing the dressing and make-up rituals with the cast, with the costuming an elaborate procedure due to the period dress. This time we can watch Rylance be made up and costumed for his role as Olivia, and a pretty sight it is. We could also see Stephen Fry being prepared for his impressive turn as Malvolio.
Both actors are memorable in their respective roles. Rylance is especially good when throwing tantrums, turning on Olivia’s feminine wiles or showing impatience. It is every bit a tour de force as the performance as delivered playing Richard, but totally different, of course, because of his expert gender crossing.
Fry is great as Malvolio, first showing the preening egotism that leads to his being mischievously and cruelly set up for derision. He gets the most out of the comic moments as he falls into the trap prepared for him, but when all is exposed, he turns the corner with a combination of anger and resentfulness that makes us feel for him in spite of the well-earned ridicule. It is one of the best Malvolio performances I can recall.
The entire production has a lightness that makes for a merry experience. Samuel Barnett is an appealing Viola, and Paul Chahidi is fine as Maria. Angus Wright is a repeat scene-stealer as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Particularly amusing is the way the men as woman practically glide across the stage instead of taking deliberate footsteps.
At the end, as is done in “Richard III,” the company takes a dancing curtain call, a bit of a show unto itself. It as if the troupe is celebrating an evening of triumph, and a well-justified celebration at that. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 21, 2013.
THE MUTILATED Send This Review to a Friend
I don’t recall having seen the Tennessee Williams play “The Mutilated” on Broadway in 1966, but with Margaret Leighton and Kate Reid in the lead roles, the production had to be a lot different than the revival being presented now at the New Ohio Theatre with Penny Arcade and Mink Stole as the two women. This one, also set in a seedy New Orleans quarter, is enjoyably funky, filled with rowdy humor. However, at a crucial point it creates the loneliness and sadness that Williams was so good at communicating.
While Williams also called for the use of music, this production, directed by Cosmin Chivu, goes to town before the play begins with jazz hot numbers by the Tin Pan combo
as supporting cast members mill about and dance in colorful costumes, thus setting a lively tone at the outset at the flea bag Silver Dollar Hotel. When the play itself begins, Penny Arcade appears as Celeste, a blowsy, busty prostitute who shoplifts and bums money from whomever is sucker enough to lend her any. She’s a real piece of work, this Celeste, and Penny Arcade brings her avant-garde reputation into the mix with a stamp that helps give the play individuality, especially when she makes the most of very funny lines juiced with hilarious expressions.
Celeste has been pals with Trinket, a sad, lonely woman with a secret who is played by Mink Stole, also with her avant-garde reputation to burnish. But they have had a falling out since Celeste blabbed about the secret. Celeste wants to visit Trinket, eager to drink some of the wine Trinket habitually imbibes, but Trinket demands that she go away. Will they ultimately bury the hatchet?
The secret talked about is that in battling cancer Trinket had a mastectomy. She has felt so mutilated that she has refrained from sex. Talk about such surgery back when Williams wrote the play was not as candid as it is now. The very title “The Mutilated” indicates the shame Trinket feels. Mink Stole succeeds in creating a portrait akin to other of Williams’s women, and there is a moment in the play when we are made to feel tenderly for her as a counterpoint to the comic exuberance the production evokes.
For the most part the stage crackles with the bawdiness of the quarter, the assortment of
character types, the threat of things getting out of hand with sailors on the town and
an overall amusing low-down ambience.
When done on Broadway as part of a double bill in 1966, the reviews were harsh and the production flopped. This fresh interpretation has enough going for it to make us take a new look at the Williams work. Too bad he is no longer around to weigh in on it.
Too bad he isn’t still around—period. At the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street. Phone: 888-596-1027. Reviewed November 17, 2013.
RICHARD III (GLOBE) Send This Review to a Friend
As part of the effort to give the audience the feeling of Shakespeare as originally performed, the Shakespeare Globe production of “Richard III,” performed in repertory with “Twelfth Night,” has a stage with side and rear seating. For further intimacy the audience is invited to arrive a half hour before curtain time to watch the process of actors being dressed in the elaborate period costumes and having makeup applied. On the night I attended a number of people were standing near the stage fixated on the star, Mark Rylance, who returned glances with friendliness and was already starting to walk about in character as the bulky costume was being completed. By the time the play
started one could willingly transport mindset to the original Globe.
Rylance is startling in his performance as Richard. He plays him not only as a totally wicked character, but with self-awareness that he is an evil S.O.B. and a delight in being nasty, emphasized on occasion with a playful, mean-spirited laugh. His tone is established early as he walks to the side to offer a flower to a member of the audience seated side-stage, then gleefully pulls it back in a defining personality moment.
Later, after pretending sadness as he holds a victim’s severed head, he casually tosses it aside. Those who campaign to rehabilitate the memory of Richard would have no reason to be pleased by this portrait, but as theater, the brilliant Rylance nails the characterization perfectly with this particular interpretation.
As was the case in the Bard’s time, male actors played the women’s parts. Thus Queen Elizabeth is effectively portrayed by Samuel Barnett and Lady Anne is well acted by Joseph Timms. The entire cast is very much up to the demands of the work, and it is a pleasure to hear the lines spoken so clearly, with the line meanings coming through more than we often find. This is a major company giving a major performance.
But the stage mainly belongs to Rylance, and when after piling up his victims Richard is finally undone it is a cause for celebration. In fact, that is what he entire cast does, joining in a vigorous dance of joy as part of a curtain call, with even Richard recovering to dance and clap along with rest resulting in the inevitable standing ovation. At the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 15, 2013.
THE JACKSONIAN Send This Review to a Friend
Playwright Beth Henley ranges far from the tone of her celebrated “Crimes of the Heart” with “The Jacksonian,” a dark, unpleasant work with bizarre characters and a nasty undercurrent. Fortunately, in this offering by The New Group of the Geffen Playhouse production, there is a cast worth watching even as one may recoil from what is going on. The direction by Robert Falls extracts the essence of Henley’s work with efficiency and atmosphere.
The play, set in 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, is framed from the viewpoint of teenager Rosey Perch, tensely played by Juliet Brett, who is upset at the marital problems of her parents and expresses a longing for them to get back together after their separation. The scenes unfold at The Jacksonian, a motel, with a division between a bedroom and a bar.
Rosey’s mother, Susan, is hysterical and probably in need of a psychiatrist, with Amy Madigan effectively playing her accordingly. Ed Harris as her husband Bill is an abusive, demented dentist who is barred from practice as a result of his having pulled all the teeth from a patient’s mouth. He is warm towards his daughter, who visits him and presses for him to return home, which he wants to do despite the total hostility from his wife for his having abused her and for the loser that he has become.
The bartender, Fred, played in mumbling fashion by Bill Pullman, committed a crime for which another is condemned, and Rosey has knowledge of what he has done and thereby holds power over him with what she can expose. He is very creepy and gets Rosey to touch his privates (thankfully behind the bar instead of in front of the audience).
The effervescent moments in the play come from Glenne Headly as Eva, who is desperate for love and marriage, first with Fred, and then in a crazy bedroom scene with Bill. Eva chatters on and on, but is attractive and flaunts her body, partially stripped as she and Bill head for sex but become sidetracked with Bill’s love of inhaling oxygen and chloroform, which he carries with him along with dental tools. He gets kicks out of examining Eva’s mouth, pulled wide open to reveal her tongue and her teeth. When he talks about her feeling no pain, we wonder what he may be planning. But the high they have causes Eva to pass out.
What happens when Bill’s wife bangs on the door and he hastily pulls his pants on and admits her after he has shoved Eva into the bathroom becomes the climax of the drama. The result is ugly, followed by Rosey’s further report of what happens, and a tender dramatized moment of her remembering when she and her dad were close and talking about his going home, something that now can never occur.
You can contemplate what Henley may be trying to say in her mostly morbid play. You can also leave with the satisfaction of having seen good performances, particularly by Harris, Madigan and Headly. At the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 15, 2013.
ALL THAT FALL Send This Review to a Friend
An opportunity to see two extraordinary performers doing memorable work should not be missed by serious theatergoers. I refer to Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in “All That Fall,” a radio play by Samuel Beckett. Yes, Beckett wrote this for radio, not for the theater, and it was first broadcast in 1957. In this splendid and unusual staging directed by Trevor Nunn and first done in England, the scene is set as a radio studio. Microphones are in view, with the actors seated at the side until their turn to speak with scripts in hand as they would in a radio broadcast. In a concession to theater staging, appropriate costuming adds visuals to the performances.
The tone of the work is very much identifiable as Beckett, with his concentration on the eternal struggle in life, bleakness alleviated by hope. Eileen Akins plays Mrs. Rooney, a woman in the Irish countryside who plods along with a sharp tongue and crotchety complaining. Everything poses problems, whether trudging along or getting in and out of the automobile that is the lone stage object. She annoys others and spouts words of wisdom, although she would probably be the last one to attach significance to what she utters. The characterization is rich in humor, thanks to Beckett’s writing and the exquisite performance by Atkins.
Her mission is to meet her husband at a train station. As Mr. Rooney, who is blind,
Gambon sits quietly at the side of the stage until he joins that drama and adds the power of his acting in joining forces with Atkins. He is clearly troubled by something that has happened on the train, but avoids speaking about it. He and Mrs. Rooney head for home, and it is a touching sight to see them interdependent in their elderly physical state. When Rooney is finally able to confront what happened horribly on the train, he breaks down in tears. Watching Atkins and Gambon at this point, one sees a summary of so much of what Beckett’s writing is about with respect to the human instinct to carry on despite the obstacles. Husband and wife are bound to each other in emotional stress and unity leavened by their ability to laugh together.
It is a pleasure to hear Gambon’s commanding voice and experience his transformation into this sad elderly man, and to enjoy the way Atkins provides nuances to her lines in her seamless portrayal. Acting students could do well to take a lesson from them. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed November 14, 2013.