Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sunday In The Park With George is a Play About and A Work Of Art

This show is spectacular. 
Sunday In The Park With George is a well known and seen musical. Start with a difficult, dissonant score by Stephen Sondheim and then add a definitive, widely viewed and heard recording by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin and you have the recipe for a disappointing revival. But the show in the newly restored Hudson Theater is the opposite of disappointing. It borders on revelatory.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford
Sunday In The Park With George is a musical about the fanatical drive of the artist Georges Seurat to create. And, in particular, to create his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Jake Gyllenhaal inhabits the character of Seurat with a fervor that is masterful and eloquent - and a voice that handles the score wonderfully. Annaleigh Ashford is Dot: his muse, lover, model companion and yet a distant second to his art.
This Sunday In The Park With George breaks past of its boundaries and is a joyful experience. This is a triumph of the actors and director, because most of the show isn’t about joy, it is about obsession, drive and containment.
The score mimics Seurat’s use of pointillism by creating harmony out of distinct notes. In Seurat’s paintings you have to step back to get the full effect. In this version of Sunday, the music is somehow less remote. The musical method of hammering single notes, endemic in the score, is used more sparingly by director Sarna LaPine. Instead, some of the songs blend the music together allowing the meaning and emotion to sail through.
And that emotional depth is where Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Ashford shine extra brightly. Seurat is captive to his art, expressing through it all of the emotions he cannot otherwise express. Even more challenging, his art isn’t emotional when you are close to it. You have to step back and view the whole to see the warmth and love. Mr. Gyllenhaal captures the love of the artist for his work and the dreams that people will judge him not by his actions, but by artistic results. And the disappointment when they cannot see what he sees.
In the first act, Seurat draws and paints a variety of individuals strolling in the park as his relationship with Dot grows and then grows apart. The vignettes reveal much about of the repressed and rigid class differences in Paris at the time. Propriety rules their lives, except for George and Dot. George is ruled by a passion for art, which can manifest as disinterest in his fellow man. Passion for George, and life itself, rule Dot. When these two cannot resolve their differences it isn’t a rejection, but rather an acceptance of their differences, a bittersweet acceptance.
At the end of act one, these individual interactions and sketches resolve into the painting as portrayed in a Tableau Vivant on stage. And then, the beauty and love Seurat had for these characters and their moments of individuality is obvious. And stunning.

The second act of Sunday takes place in the present - when a much younger George, perhaps the great-grandson of the painter, is delivering an artistic installation. Here Mr. Gyllenhaal plays the artist who has lost the fervor of creating art by the overwhelming pressure to fund art. It takes a trip back to Paris and the visit of the spirit of Dot to inspire him again. (And yes, for once, the Chromolune is handled amazingly.)
If you can, go see Sunday In The Park With George. It is one of those shows people will talk about for years. But be warned it is still Sondheim, and the people that hate his work won’t be persuaded by these.
(more pictures below - because I loved it)
Sunday In The Park With George | Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, Book: James Lapine | Director: Sara Lapine | Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Phillip Boykin, Mattea Conforti, Erin Davie, Claybourne Elder, Penny Fuller, Jordean Gelber, Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney, Ruthie Ann  Miles, Ashley Park, Jennifer Snachez, David Turner, Max Chernin, Mayann Hu, Michale McElroy, Jaime Rosenstein, Julie Foldesi, Laura Irion, Andrew Kober


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Disconcerting and Disquieting: Kid Victory Is Good But Isn’t Easy

Kid Victory is the new musical from John Kander and Greg Pierce at the Vineyard Theater, and it is a doozy. It’s best to deal with the biggest item up front – this is NOT a musical that everyone will love.
Brandon Flynn
It is a fairly up and perky musical about a terribly conflicted story. Kid Victory is the story of Lucas’ reactions, upon his return to his family after being held in captivity for a year by a psychotic and probable sex criminal.

Yeah, there’s that. 
Brandon Flynn plays Lucas with fantastic depth, not just when acting but in reacting and even in repose. It is not the type of story one expects in a musical. Worse, there is the additionally layering of the fact that Lucas was flirting with the assailant before he was abducted - which isn’t the type of grey area normally explored in happy musicals.
The viewer’s ability to live with that particular story in a musical will define if you like the Kid Victory or not.  If you find the idea offensive, you might not be able to get past it. I very nearly walked out early, but I am glad I didn’t.
Kid Victory follows Lucas’ return to his home and small hometown after the experience. His parents (Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jankins) are dealing with his return, by not dealing with the experience. They try to help integrate him immediately back into his old life, which is impossible. His old friends and church acquaintances, which have taken on a large part of his parents’ life since his abduction, offer, too enthusiastically, to help. It is more than he can take.
Lucas takes a job with the town Bohemian, Dee Roscioli as Emily. Here he finds a sanctuary and friend. Little by little, we learn what happened to Lucas.  He meet a man in an online game, Michael (wonderfully creepy Jeffry Denman). The fact that Lucas met him willingly, although didn’t go with him willingly, is at the root of Lucas’ inability to deal with the abduction. There was also the unspoken, but obvious sexuality that was assumed in their meeting.
Kander and Pierce’s music is oddly out of place, and yet perfect for Kid Victory. Some numbers are whimsical and others are love songs of yearning, completely at odds with each other and the reactions we should have. They adds to the emotional dissonance of Kid Victory, which keeps the viewers from ever really being comfortable. For example, after some of the songs, the audience really wants to applaud, but is it appropriate to applaud in this environment?
Brandon Flynn and Dee Roscioli
Director Liesl Tommy has handled a truly odd show deftly. I can’t imagine Kid Victory ever finding a large audience, but I thought that about Next To Normal so my radar on that isn’t great. Ultimately, Kid Victory is a very good show, but not a great one - and I fear a great one would be needed to overcome the audience's squeamishness about the topic.
Kid Victory at The Vineyard Theater| Playwrights: Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Greg Pierce | Director: Liesl Tommy | Cast: Ann Arvia, Joel Blum, Laura Darrell, Jeffry Denman, Brandon Flynn, Daniel Jenkins, Dee Roscioli, Karen Ziemba, Blake Zolfo

A Tedious Loss of Faith In Man From Nebraska

Man From Nebraska is the 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist play from the amazing author Tracy Letts, author of August: Osage County. The audience’s enjoyment of this piece will depend on one’s tolerance for silence as identifier for desperation. For me, it the images and quiet desperation between the main characters was magical for 30 minutes, tedious for the next 30, then just annoying. Your mileage may vary.
Reed Birney is an amazing actor, and here – as Ken – he gives another fantastic performance as a man who has lost his faith. Unfortunately, it is the fantastic performance of a very passive man. While completely believable, sometimes you just want to slap him and scream, “Wake Up!”.
Annette O'Toole and Reed Birney in Man From Nebraska
The piece starts with Ken and his wife, Nancy, (Annette O’Toole – in an oddly written role) playing small vignettes with the minimal conversation. Nancy speaks a sentence or two and finds a comfort in their regular routine. Ken rarely speaks, but the audience can sense an undercurrent of dread and angst, even if Nancy can’t. Finally, but randomly, Ken breaks down one night and confesses to his wife he doesn’t believe in God anymore. In the middle of Baptist Nebraska, this terrifies Nancy.
Ultimately, after a lot of slow conversations with deep pauses, Ken decides to venture abroad in search of something. The Man From Nebraska finds a lot of the same angst in London, until he befriends Tamyra (a luminous Nana Menash) and adventure ensues. Ms. Boras gives a wonderful performance and livens the stage every moment she is on it.
Reed Birney and Nana Mensah in Tracy Lett's Man from Nebraska (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Without giving too much away, a rather obvious turn of events tumbles Ken back into his original life, but he is now transformed. Spiritually transformed, since his outward demeanor is passively the same.  All is tidied up by the final curtain. But it was a long slow slog back to the beginning.
In most traditional ways, it is a great play. The acting was perfect, the pace delivers what was piece calls for. Man From Nebraska is probably a great show, just not an enjoyable one.
It was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and the quiet, deliberate pace and mannerism will resonate with many people. The sets (Takeshi Kata), with one amazing exception, mimic the show; they are minimal and understated, showing up to emphasis the distance between people. Director David Cromer has succeed in delivering exactly what he wanted. The acting is uniformly first rate and the pace is very much at one with the show. If it sounds interesting, or if you are a Reed Birney fanatic, see it.
Man From Nebraska | Playwright: Tracy Leets | Director: David Cromer | Cast: Reed Birney, Annika Boras, Heidi Armbruster, Tom Bloom, Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Annette O’Toole, Kathleen Peirce, William Ragsdale

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fade Fails On Too Many Levels

Full Disclosure: I am from Los Angeles and have friends – male, female, gay, straight, minority and white – that work in Hollywood. You may want to discount anything I write after this as coming from an insipid asshole – I am sure the playwright would.

Did you know that people in Los Angeles are vapid, sun worshipers that are too stupid to carry on a conversation, yet devious enough to stab each other in the back to get ahead? They only drive because that way they can be alone with their stupidity and as they plot to climb the studio ladder on  shoulders of their betters? That Hollywood is both a neighborhood and a suburb (as is all of Los Angeles) and is made up of only misogynist men and backstabbing co-workers (of both sexes)? Of course you do, you watch New York Theater and it is a constant source of humor.

Well, if you want to watch an hour and half of ranting about the evils of Los Angeles, coupled with complaints about appropriation and use of stereotypes of Hispanics, then rush down to the Cherry Lane Theater and watch Fade.
Annie Dow and Eddie Martinez in Fade @ The Cherry Lane Theater
I get it. I get that Fade is using the protagonist’s own stereotypes to comment on how we as a society are blind to our assumptions while often vilifying the actions of others. The “mote and the beam” set in Hollywood’s treatment of minorities. However, Spielbergian beating us about the head and shoulders to drive these points home is a bit much. And, the author’s visceral hatred of Los Angeles and the people in it are tiresome and distracting.

Fade is about a Mexican writer, Lucia, invited to work on a television show about a Latina lead. Lucia was hired in order to give the show authenticity. Annie Dow does fine work at Lucia. She seethes with righteous anger at the system, and tries to befriend the only other Hispanic on the lot, a janitor named Abel (wonderfully played by Eddie Martinez). Lucia’s original clumsy attempts to bond with Abel, because he is the only Hispanic she sees, are handled deftly by both actors. 

Lucia is frustrated because the (white, old, lazy) men in the writer’s room don't respect her and treat her like the help. It sounds particularly tone deaf as she explains how this is insulting to Abel, as he cleans her office (get it – irony). Ultimately she gets a chance to write and introduce to the show a three dimensional Hispanic man, and she goes to Able for help - because in her 24 years she has never met an actual person. They bond over Abel’s troubled past which he makes her promise not to use.

In a plot point so predictable it is painful, she uses Abel’s story for her own writing. She gets ahead in her job and moves up, because Hollywood rewards cheats. She becomes a power-bitch herself, dresses in pumps and power jumpsuits and loses the sweet girl from Mexico she thought she was.

I don't know if it is an economy of writing style, or a purposeful choice based on Lucia’s point of view or a habit from writing TV shows, but the plot as given is a problem in Fade. The only time Abel tells Lucia anything about himself, she immediately uses it in exactly the way she promised not to. Since months have passed, we can assume other things were said, but we don’t really see any of it. So when he gives his big reveal, you know she will make it her own. It is a bit like those old who dunnit TV shows, where the biggest guest start is the murderer.

Fade has some great acting, but a lot of sloppy stereotyping. Fade is stereotypically insulting against: Hispanics in general, Latina women in particular, white men and the city of Los Angeles. I enjoyed parts of the show, but I cannot recommend it. I kind of feel like this is an elaborate trick to see if someone will call out the show for stereotyping, even though it was written by an excellent Latina writer.

Fade | Playwright: Tanya Saracho | Director: Jerry Ruiz | Cast: Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez

Monday, February 6, 2017

Hi Fun and Deep Thought with HI-FI | WI-FI | SCI-FI at La Mama

Have you always wondered if you would like “Experimental Theater”? If so, then HI-FI | WI-FI | SCI-FI is the show for you. It is an interesting, fun, and easy show to watch and enjoy.  And yet there is a undercurrent of disruption and anger just below the surface that is refreshing.

Valois Mikens and Agosto Machado: photo Minji Lee

Robert Patrick wrote all four pieces at different times, one is a World Premier.  The first two pieces, Action and Camera Obscura, address personal interactions in a digital age, which is amazing when you realize they were written over 25 years ago.
All in the Mind. Like Camera Obscura, is presented primarily via digital projection. It is a verbal history of the future where mankind has moved to a shared sensatory experience and telepathy. It works much better than it reads.

Simultaneous Transmissions was written immediately after the Vietnam War, but seems more relevant now than ever. The final piece, Anything is Plausible, is a love letter and warning from the future.
HI-FI | WI-FI | SCI-FI is a lot f fun, played beautifully by all actors, with particular emphasis on the work of three leads - Agosto Machado, Valois Mickens and John Gutierrez. Directed by three different people, Billy, Clark, Jason Trucco and Il Kyu Park, the show works well as a singular whole.
Playwright: Robert Patrick | Directors: Billy, Clark, Jason Trucco and Il Kyu Park | Cast: Agosto Machado, Valois Mickens, John Gutierrez, Yeena Sung, Harold Lehmann, Kang Man Hong

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Yen Lunges At You

The MCC Theater production of Yen will either grab you hard or annoy you even harder. Yen is  is a gritty story, which rips at yoru heart and assaults your ears and eyes. If you enjoy that, it is a terrific show – I loved it. If difficult working class British accents punctuated by set changes filled with electronic music and flashing images sounds terrible, then you should avoid it.

Justice Smith, Ari Graynor and Lucas Hedges in Yen
Lucas Hedges and Justice Smith play  half-brothers Hench and Bobby, left to fend for their own in public housing by a mother who is pursuing a new husband. At 16, Hench is the nominal adult of the duo. His brother Bobby is 14 and registers on the lighter side on the ADHD / Autism scale. The boys consume on-line porn, violent video games and subsist on stolen food in between visits from their grandmother, which hasn’t happened in weeks. They inhabit their mother’s council flat with Taliban - a loud and angry dog, cooped up in the boy’s bedroom.

Ari Graynor, as the mother, shows up haphazardly to sleep off the occasional bender, borrow money, or steal things to sell. Manipulative and jealous of Hench’s relationship with his brother, she plays the boys off each other in an emotional game where there are no winners.

A love interest arrives in the form of Jennifer (Stefania LaVie Owen), a girl from the estate housing across the street. Jennifer's father died and her mother collapsed under the pressure. Unable to survive at home, they moved to Feltham. They now survive, unhappily, in her uncle’s apartment. Jennifer shows up on the boy's doorstep one day to rescue Taliban, but ends up trying to rescue the boys and herself. She becomes a sort of Wendy, casting the brothers in the role of the petty criminal lost boys.
Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges

The acting in Yen is fantastic. Lucas Hedge does a slow burn and walking desolation that is moving and real. He pops to life in rapid bursts to save his brother, but those bursts quickly burn out, leaving him even more deflated. Jennifer awakens something new that Hench can’t begin to express. His life has been so devoid of love and denuded of affection that he doesn’t have the physical vocabulary for it. Stefania LaVie Osen is properly enigmatic and as wistful as a damaged girl can be. Jennifer is hope personified for the boys - so pure it cannot last. Ari Graynor is a terror as a mother, until you see the terrified child-like woman underneath. Finally there is the portrayal of Bobby by Justice Smith: he is wound up like a puppy on cocaine. I found it scarily real and heartbreaking – but fair warning, others might see overacting.

Yen is played out in a sad sitting room of a council flat in Feltham, and with top notch scenic design by Mark Wendland. The downfall of a British play can be the accents. I lived for a bit not far from Feltham, and the accents were very well done, even down to Stefania’s Welsh bite - Stephen Gabis was an excellent dialect coach. Director Trip Cullman doesn’t hurry the show, but viewers expecting a steady stream of action will be disappointed. Those viewers that are willing to see the human dramatic tension underneath will be richly rewarded by Yen.

Yen | Playwright: Anna Jordon | Director: Trip Cullman | Cast: Ari Garynor, Lucas Hedges, Stefania LaVie Owen, Justice Smith