Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Well Acted and Beautifully Displayed: Betrayal is Still Remote

 In the latest revival of Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s prose manage to overshadow the excellent actors in this new revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  Despite wonderful sets, great acting and an array of perfect moments, Betrayal will still divide theatergoers into two camps.

There are “serious” theatre people, whether they admire Harold Pinter or not, who will judge this play against some ideal of a Harold Pinter project.   Are the pauses long enough?  Are the sub-textual multiple levels of Betrayal properly conveyed? Is it up to snuff.  And then there are the visceral audience members; those who desire to be entertained and moved by the story on stage.  For these audience members, Betrayal won’t fully explain what all the fuss is about.

Betrayal opens with a pair of ex-lovers, Emma and Jerry, meeting years after their affair ended.  Emma’s marriage to her husband Robert has just ended, and she wants to warn Jerry that she has admitted to their long term, but now long over affair.  Emma knows it is important to warn him, since Robert and Jerry have been friends since before Robert and Emma’s marriage.  For the Pinter-ites among us, this scene describes the triple Betrayal immediately that plays out in the show.  Emma has betrayed her husband for years.  Jerry has betrayed his best friend for years.  And now Emma has betrayed the unspoken trust of their mutual lie.

It is a superbly acted scene with Rachel Weisz as Emma and Rafe Spall as Jerry.  The two sit isolated in a pub and their nervous familiarity defines the uncomfortableness that comes with expired intimacy.

The play then moves to a meeting between Jerry and Robert, an equally excellent Daniel Craig, where it is revealed that Emma actually told Robert about the affair years ago.  Jerry now feels doubly a fool, first carrying on a clandestine affair that wasn’t very clandestine and secondly believing a lie told by his ex-paramour with no other reason than to make him look foolish to his friend. For the non-Pinter-ites among us, this reserved British embarrassment is what drives the rest of the play.

Daniel Craig & Rachel Wiesz as the married couple at the heart of Betrayal
The play runs in reverse chronological order, revealing how the affair fell apart, how Robert found out about the affair and how the whole thing started.  It might be argued that Emma was a pawn in a male dominance game between these two men, but Rachel Weisz’ Emma is too strong a character for that.  If that was ever the motivation for either man, Emma had long since coopted the power herself.  But Ms. Weisz doesn’t portray Emma as some emotionally powerful sex kitten.  Quite the opposite, Rachel’s Emma is powerful because she is emotional, open without being needy and loving without the societal norms that most people have.

Daniel Craig’s Robert is a cuckold who isn’t defined by the deception.  Robert is a publisher that doesn’t particularly like modern prose, an analogy for the husband who doesn’t particularly like marriage.  He is aloof from his business and seemingly aloof from his wife’s infidelities.   It is a difficult role to pull off without being bitter, yet still capable of emotion.  Mr. Craig does an excellent job of it.  Robert obviously loved his wife and was great friends with Jerry.  If he still is, or if it is just habit is hard to read, as it should be.  Mr. Craig grace under pressure is wonderful – although that 1970’s hair is so dreadful as to be distracting.

Rafe Spall is excellent as Jerry.  Seemingly driving the action, he has an oblivious loving wife and family (unseen), a beautiful lover and a best friend / business associate that knows nothing.  Jerry is living the playboy life.  As it unfolds that he has disappointed his lover and hasn’t been fooling his best friend, his bearings are lost.  The bewildered result is well earned, as revealed through the play.

So there you have it.   For the Pinter-ites, we have an exquisitely acted treatise on the upper classes’ sexual politics.  For your average theatergoer we have a very well acted, but ultimately dry play about sexual betrayal that somehow doesn’t seem to register with these characters emotionally.  For most of us, it is a curiously distant play on a subject that should be immediate.

Mike Nichols does an admirable job directing the show to make it accessible to all.  Many of the long, lingering pauses and unsaid questions are handled speedily, without any loss of meaning or ambivalence.   Betrayal is a speedy 90 minutes, leaving the audience questioning, as it should.
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Rafe Spall

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Winslow Boy is Jolly Good Fun and then Gets Amazing

The Winslow Boy begins as a trifle, a play that hasn’t be revived on Broadway for 60 years because it doesn’t have much to say.  It is an English drawing room comedy / drama about manners, honesty and reputation.  It seems so dated that the audience enjoys it as a museum piece; nicely designed, beautifully acted, cleverly humorous and utterly removed from the present day.  But slowly, so slowly that you don’t even notice until the second act, The Winslow Boy evolves.  Intended or not it acquires new depth in our age,  It is about standing up to faceless bureaucracy when it is almost impossible and always useless.  The analogy is subtle, but it is there.  And your heart goes out to these hopeless romantics, fighting for justice in a hostile venue.
Spencer Davis Milford, Zachary Booth, Roger Rees, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio & Alessandro Nivola
The story is fairly straightforward.  Youngest child Ronnie Winslow has been expelled from Naval College for theft.  Father Arthur Winslow fights to clear his son’s good name.  The fight for a fair trail is waged against an entrenched military command on the eve of World War I.  The military, the government and the public all believe there are more important things to do that quibble over a boy that might or might have been treated fairly by a military school.

But for Arthur Winslow, his good name is at risk.  Arthur has worked his entire life for his family, position and name only to retire and have his family’s reputation tarnished.  Accepting this stain, which he feels is false, is something he cannot bear.   The story of The Winslow Boy grows as Arthur carries on the fight long past sensible people would give up.

As Arthur Winslow, Roger Rees is great.  His command of the family is masterful, and everyone agrees with him, until the consequences start adding up.  The monetary cost to fight this is large, and imposes hardships on everyone in the family.  The emotional costs are even more dire.  Mr. Rees does a great job allow Arthur’s motivation to be more than just vanity.  The show takes place over the course of 2 years, and Rees’ Arthur falls more ill as time progresses.  This will be his last great endeavor, his last chance to make a mark.
Roger Rees, Michael Cumpsty, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio & Charlotte Parry

As Grace, Arthur’s wife, Mary  Elizabeth : is very good.  She keeps a firm eye on her husband, her children and the house.  Even when she doesn’t fully understand or agree with her husband, she manages.

But the standouts in the show are Charlotte Parry as daughter Catherine and Allesandro Nivola as solicitor Sir Robert Morton.  Together or apart, these two actors tear up the stage.  Ms. Parry’s Catherine is a complex young woman of principals, with a capital P.  She is a suffragette, yet lovingly engaged to a young military man.  She is the emotional rock of the family, and just as strident in their defense as Mr. Winslow.  Miss Catherine is not one to be crossed lightly.

Allesandro Nivola plays a very upper class Sir Robert Morton, solicitor and member of the House of Commons, who takes on the case of Ronnie Winslow.  Sir Robert’s diction and his style are impeccable, his bearing imperious.  Sir Robert takes over the case swiftly, with motives that are not clear.

Each of these actors alone is wonderful, but watching their scenes together is splendid.  Sir Robert’s introduction into The Winslow Boy presses the pace forward and Catherine Winslow throws herself into the maelstrom.   Ms. Parry and Mr. Nivola articulate positions that are neither opposed nor complimentary.  Neither is entirely sure of the other, but both have Mr. Winslow’s full support.

Lindsay Posner directs this brought over from The Old Vic in London.  He does a wonderful job with the pace of the show, which progresses organically.  The first few scenes play out more slowly than current American audiences are familiar with, and then the show moves along, gather speed and intensity, without losing the humor or emotion.  Excellent.
The Winslow Boy
Playwright: Terence Rattigan
Director: Lindsay Posner
Cast: Michael Cumpsty, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alessandro Nivola, Roger Rees, Charlotte Parry, Zachary Booth, Spencer Davis Milford, Chandler William, Henny Russell

Friday, October 11, 2013

And Miles To Go – An Unexpected Trip

And Miles To Go, a new play by Chad Beckim, starts with a bang and then sideswipes your expectations.  And it does all this in a refreshing and bracing way.

Devika Bhise and Randy Danson
Randy Danson opens the show with an announcement just off the stage.  Audiences are prepared for the spiel about cell-phones and candies, but Ms. Danson upends that expectation right away.  Ms. Danson’s character, Adele Priam, a schoolteacher at a high school targeted for closure, is addressing the inspection committee.  Her contempt is barely veiled at first, and then she gets going.

The lights go down and when they come up next we are in Ms. Priam’s classroom before school.  The audience is prepared for an updated “Up the Down Staircase” or “Dangerous Minds”.  The scene is laid out as expected; a teacher in a low income, hardscrabble school is thrown in with 3 difficult teenagers and life lessons result.

But And Miles To Go doesn’t take the expected road here, as Partial Comfort Productions rarely do.  Instead Randy Dansons’ Ms. Priam is angry and tired and has no patience for the young adults.  Deprived of the ability to discipline and stuck with students who have no respect for authority and no desire to learn, they are trapped in a room for the day.

To say more would give away the story and it would be better if you experience it.  But Ms. Priam wasn’t always like this. A few of the other teachers and school employees talk to her, this morning of her 40th anniversary.  And we are shown the woman and teacher she used to be.  The three students (Gabriel Millman, Devika Bhise and Keona Welch) aren’t in this class to be taught or learn life lessons – it is a question why they are there at all.  Starting as little more that stereotypes of students, they fill out the roles nicely, playing what they are given.

Ms. Priam’s chief antagonist is the principal, Ms. Winkfield-Porcher - played by Maria-Christina Oliveras.  She is a tough woman and the distrust and lack of respect between these two powerhouses in the school is obvious and insurmountable.

Randy Danson carries the role of Ms. Priam excellently.  She is not just the tired teacher, but speaks for an entire group of people who don’t know what happened to this generation when they weren’t looking.  To the question of "is it her or is it the kids" (every generation questions the ones that follow) the play doesn't give an answer, although it drops plenty of hints on both sides of the argument.
Gabriel Millman, Devika Bhise, Randy Danson, Brain D. Coats and Keona Welch

Director Hal Brooks handles the abrupt changes in tone eloquently.   It always feels organic and unforced.  Throw away bits of information only hint at what was lost.  He and playwright Chad Beckim have heeded the advice to edit mercilessly and it pays off in And Miles To Go.
And Miles To Go
Playwright: Chad Beckim
Director: Hal Brooks
Cast: Randy Danson, Andy Prosky, Jeff Wilburn, Stephanie Barry, Tre Davis, Brian Coats, Devika Bhise, Keona Welch, Gabe Millman

Jericho is Fantastic

Jericho is a smart, funny and moving new play by Jack Canfora; go see it immediately.  The show deploys a number of well worn tricks – one character breaking the fourth wall, a stage littered with detritus that used to create scenes and then placed back in the pile – and combines these with completely new tricks and an intelligent script to deliver a fully satisfying evening.

L-R: Jill Eikenberry, Carol Todd, Andrew Rein, Kevin Isola, Eleanor Handley, and Noel Joseph Allain in JERICHO by Jack Canfora, directed by Evan Bergman and produced by The Directors Company, at 59E59 Theaters
It is the story of Jessica, an emotionally scarred survivor who's husband died in the 9/11 attacks.  She has become accustomed to using her wit as her defense mechanism; Jessica is literate, funny and well aware of her own problems. She has begun dating a man, Ethan, who is ready to become more involved with her.  Eventually after a scene that plays with touching hesitancy, she agrees to accompany Ethan to his family’s Thanksgiving in Jericho, Long Island.

Kevin Isola and Eleanor Handley in JERICHO
But Ethan’s family is well saddled with their own complications.  His brother Josh and sister-in-law Beth are in the middle of   Josh is becoming more religious after 9/11 and doesn’t really know how to share his newfound commitment with his more secular family. Their mother Rachel (in a beautiful turn by Jill Eikenberry) is a widow with an empty house and a plan.  Everything comes together during the Thanksgiving visit and then shoots apart with the strength of an explosion.
a marriage breakdown.

Family, especially family at holidays, can be an easy joke.  Jericho pulls the payoff part off, but never goes for the easy out.  These characters confront the same demons, but perceive them in different ways.  Even the expected twists and turns don’t show up quite as expected.

The cast is perfect.  Eleanor Handley brings Jessica to life as funny, charming, self-confident and one step away from a mental breakdown.  It’s been four years, but she still talks with her dead husband.  And he talks back.  In this case, the “he” is played by Kevin Isola, who is a charming phantom - idealized into hunkiness.  Aware he is a manifestation of Jessica’s mind, Mr. Isola still manages to be exceptionally real as Jessica's conscience.  In the hands of lesser actors, this balance could turn to melodrama or farce.  In Jericho is does neither, the relationship helps us to define Jessica and we understand how it gives her a safety valve.
Noel Joseph Allain and Carol Todd in JERICHO

Noel Joseph Allain plays Josh, a character that is both opaque and annoying.  He can’t hide his contempt from the two people that know him best, his wife and brother. But he still loves them and wants them to understand. Mr. Allain’s Josh is simultaneously frustrating and frustrated, but never ventures into caricature.  Jopsh is well balanced by Carol Todd as Beth, his wife.  Beth doesn’t get to be funny or glib (although she is), she is trying to understand why her marriage is dying and what happened to the man she loved.

Andrew Rein does a neat trick playing Ethan, the man that pulls all this together, but is surprised when it blows up.  Ethan is just a guy trying to make it through dinner with his new girlfriend and maybe take the relationship a littler further.  He is unprepared for the fireworks, but in true oldest son fashion tries to smooth everything over.

Beautifully directed by Evan Bergman, Jericho moves at a nice pace - never too fast, never slow.  The decade plus that has passed, it has removed the immediacy of 9/11.  And Jericho doesn’t use the tragedy as a cheap plot device. Yet neither is does it shy away from what happened.  It even addresses the sad looks and quiet awkwardness that the subject brings up.  This isn’t a show about 9/11, or survivor guilt, or Jewish mother jokes – although all are addressed. It is a show about people, trying to connect, trying to move on and trying to make sense of life, with all its craziness.

PlaywrightJack Canfora
DirectorEvan Bergman
CastNoel Joseph Allain, Jill Eikenberry, Eleanor Handley, Kevin Isola, Andrew Rein, Carol Todd

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

2.0 Brings a Updated View to Life

TWO_POINT_OH now playing at 59E59 theaters is a fascinating new play.  It is based on a futuristic premise, but addresses the current problem people have trying to connect with each other.  Science Fiction is one of the hardest genres to do well in the theater, but TWO_POINT_OH handles it beautifully.  Much of the credit has to go to the cast and creative crew that bring a future both immediate and believable.

Jack Noseworthy (on screen) and Karron Graves in
 TWO POINT OH at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by  Jimmi Kilduff
The story follows software billionaire, Elliot Leeds, and what happens after he dies.  His plane goes down, but Elliot has left a unique software program behind.  He has left a virtual reality version of himself embedded in the computer, to interact with his wife Melanie.  In a super wired mansion (ala Bill Gates’ home), this Elliot 2.0 can appear on-screen, tracking his wife’s words, movements and physical changes.  Always pre-occupied when alive, Elliot 2.0 has time to be the (almost) perfect husband.

Jack Noseworthy does an outstanding job, bringing this Elliot to life, solely via big screen.  The program’s “humanity” develops at a believable pace, transition as the program learns.  It is a rather thankless role, playing a computer simulation, but Mr. Noseworthy does it excellently.  Elliot 2.0 comes to understand his shortcomings as a husband and tries to correct them.  He also appears to his old partner, Ben Robbins.

James Ludwig plays Ben and shows us fully rounded individual.  Ben is neither all saint nor all sinner.   Ben was Elliot’s computer geniuses partner at the founding of the company, and he refuses to interact with Elliot 2.0 as anything other than a complex program.  Albeit a program that is both pushy and needy.

Karron Graves has a much more difficult time with the role of Melanie Leeds, the widow first, and then manipulated wife.  Ms. Groves does an excellent job with grief, too excellent.  The character of Melanie runs the full gamut of emotions, from love to annoyance to despair to incredulity.  And while Ms. Graves pulls each off wonderfully, the swings do pull the tone of TWO_POINT_OH abruptly.

L-R: James Ludwig and Antoinette LaVecchia in
TWO POINT OH at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by  Jimmi Kilduff
Both Antoinette LaVecchia, as the new company’s CEO, and Michael Sean McGuinness, as a sensationalist newscaster, provide some great laughs in a believable way.  Ms. LaVecchia in particular grabs hold of her role and plays it as wildly as possible, without going over the top.

As version 2.0, Elliot can finally see how technology, now making his “life” possible, interfered with his physical marriage before his death.  For us, there is no second chance, and the moral of the story is that delaying your real life for the vibrating phone or the immediate facebook post is rarely a good trade.  TWO_POINT_OH makes the point subtly, but elegantly.

David Bengali does a great job with the media/projection design, leaving the audience to question what was done live and what was pre-filmed.  Credit also goes to Mr. Noseworthy here; some in the audience wondered if he was actually performing (and were pleasantly relieved at the curtain call).  Done poorly, this design could have sabotaged the show, but Mr. Bengali does a stand out job of using the technology without letting it overwhelming the show.

TWO_POINT_OH’s tough stretch is rather early in the first half when Melanie has a breakdown over her husband’s death and then deals with his “return”.  Once we are past that writer Jeffrey Jackson and director Michael Unger can let the piece open up and take flight.
Playwright: Jeffrey Jackson
Director: Michael Unger
Cast: Jack Noseworhty, Karron Graves, James Ludwig, Antoinette LaVecchia, Micahel Sean McGuinness

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Big Fish Is Flashy but Limp

Big Fish is, unfortunately, both the name and a sad metaphor for the new musical now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.  It pops up on stage, huge and magical, where it flops around for a while before dying a slow and painful death, right before our eyes.  This is through no fault of the cast, who valiantly try to breath lightness and humor into the lead weight of a story.

If you, like me, have fond memories of the movie, then the failure of its adaptation is puzzling at first.  Big Fish is the story of Edward Bloom, a southern salesman who is addicted to spinning yarns about his life.  He is the life of the party, and a man who can entertain anyone, but can’t connect with his son.  Norbet Leo Butz works hard to make Edward Bloom likeable.

In the movie, two men played Edward – Albert Finney as the older dying Edward, and Ewan McGregor as the young man trying to make sense of the world.  Here Mr. Butz does both turns, and therein lies the problem.  Edward’s son Will (an underused Bobby Steggert) just wants a dad.  But Edward can’t be just a dad.  He has to hold forth on his adventures, which are always are larger than life and obviously truth challenged.
Big Fish Cast in a Giant Hoe Down

Edward is entertaining to a fault, but chooses to ignore his son’s request – even when young will actually begs him to just talk to him.  In the movie, it is easy to divorce old Edward from the younger actor who is discovering his youth.  On stage it is hard to empathize with a father who can’t be bothered to even listen to his son.   It is awkward to watch dad ignore his sons request and instead tell him another story of how great he was.

The vignettes in which Edward retells a story are entertaining.  There are giants, witches, mermaids and Edward always the hero.  But the sheer number of them, recanted at the distress of the son, soon become numbing.

And in the second act, Edward starts dying.  And, like Evita in full Andrew Lloyd Webber glory, Edward does not go quickly.  Depending on your view of Edward, this lengthy and song studded death is either sad or annoying, but in any case it goes on too long.  Ultimately, Will’s only chance to reconcile with his father is to accept Edward as he is; shallow, self-absorbed, but funny.  The moral of the story is that asking your father to be a parent is selfish.

Edward’s wife is played by Kate Baldwin, and is excellently used in Edward’s fantasy flashbacks.  She is a strong presence on stage, bringing some humility to Edward’s life (if only by repeating that he can’t help who he is).  On the other hand, Krystal Joy Brown is criminally underused as Will’s young wife – her wonderful voice never even heard.

The sets, arguably the star of the show, are excellent and transforming.  But the wonder of the sets cannot sustain interest for two full acts despite the great work by scenic design by Julian Crouch.

I wanted to love this show: the actors are great, I liked the movie and hoped for some magic on Broadway.  Instead the transfer to the stage highlights the limitations of the story.  Big Fish just doesn’t work as a stage musical.  
Big Fish
Director: Susan Stroman
Cast: Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, Bobby Steggert, Krystal Joy Brown