Posts Tagged ‘54 below’

Culture Vulture: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Christine Ebersole, IDA, and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

January 25, 2015

1.22.15 Stephen Adly Giurgis, last seen on Broadway with The Motherfucker with the Hat, rises in my estimation with every new play he writes. The general description of Between Riverside and Crazy makes it sound, as Mr. David Zinn quipped, like a sitcom starring Doris Roberts and Fyvush Finkel: an intransigent old guy battles to hang on to his huge rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. The actual play is much darker and deeper than that. The intransigent old guy is Walt Washington, aka Pops, a recently widowed black ex-cop (played not by Fyvush Finkel but by the magnificent Stephen McKinley Henderson, veteran of many August Wilson plays) engaged in a years-long lawsuit against the NYPD after being shot by an off-duty cop. Pops shares his apartment with his ex-con son Junior (the always-great Ron Cephas Jones, such a master of understatement that he can look like he’s doing nothing), Junior’s bodacious girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colon), and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), a friend of Junior’s fresh out of jail and trying to stay clean and sober. I can’t think of anybody who writes better dialogue for these kinds of contemporary urban characters – it’s energetic, funny, profane, and Stan Mack-like in its lifelike verisimilitude, right up there with Wilson and Mamet. And like those artists, he writes big messy great roles that actors love to fling themselves into, especially the kind of actors who make up the LAByrinth Theater Company. But beyond the living-room sitcom veneer of the play lie deceptive mythological and literary depths. If you think you’re watching a strictly naturalistic play, it can seem wrong that Walt’s old partner, Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), are two white people who show up to load up the plot with problems in act one and then return in act two to magically take them away. But the way Giurgis maneuvers them – and a ring that turns out to figure heavily in the plot – indicates that we’re dealing with something grander than kitchen-sink realism.


It’s not a stretch to find traces of both King Lear and Shylock in Pops. And I haven’t even mentioned the Church Lady and her impact on Pops’ life (she is played by the ferocious Liza Colon-Zayas, above with Henderson, one of LAByrinth’s most valuable assets). Many surprises, many rewards. I loved the show, which ran last year to rave reviews at the Atlantic Theater Company and has come back for a second run at the Second Stage, in a production well-staged by Austin Pendleton with a tricky, effective set designed by Walt Spengler.

Andy wasn’t as crazy about the play as I was (he enjoys referring to it as Between Broadway and Bonkers, and our friends Judy and Bea had mixed feelings as well, but we had a vigorous and enlightening conversation about it over dinner afterwards at Nizza on Ninth Avenue.

1.23.15 I love seeing Christine Ebersole perform, but I didn’t love her new show, “Big Noise from Winnetka,” at 54 Below. I don’t really need to hear her sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Landslide,” or “Woodstock” – anybody can sing those songs. I don’t really need to hear her sing gospel or “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” And I wasn’t crazy about hearing her sing a club version of “The Revolutionary Costume of the Day” so fast that the clever lyrics got lost in the mix. I think it’s cool that her family is multiracial – a bond with NYC’s First Family she acknowledged through a convoluted story – but I didn’t really need to have her bring her older son onstage to tell a rambling self-involved story and sing a so-so song.

In plays and musicals, Ebersole has proven to be a smart and nuanced comic actor, and previous cabaret acts have featured better, less familiar material. I was happy that at least she ended the show singing “Will You,” one of the two gorgeous ballads she introduced in the musical Grey Gardens, which she sings like no one else can.

Dave and George liked the show better than I did – they’d never seen her before. Afterwards, we came back to my house and watched the Netflix DVD of Ida, the fantastic low-key Polish film nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. It may seem weird that this small, quiet film about a young nun on the verge of taking her vows in 1961 would also get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. But the striking cinematography is the major pleasure of the film – it’s shot in black and white, at odd angles, with the actors almost always off center or low in the frame, the camera never moving (until the very end of the film) so it’s one meticulously composed shot after another.

We watched the DVD extra Q&A interview with director Pawel Pawlikowski, who explained that their DP got sick and had to drop out of the production after the first day of shooting and he had no choice but to go with young camera operator Lukasz Zal, who was 29 and looked 19 but who contributed to making a film that inevitably invites comparisons to Dreyer and Bresson is its concentrated lighting and imagery. The movie is streamable on Netflix and definitely worth watching for many reasons, including the two leading performances. Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays the title character, has never acted before; Agata Kulesza, who plays the very interesting character of her aunt, a Communist former state prosecutor, is a renowned Polish stage actor.

1.24.15 Let the Right One In was an amazing, beautiful 2008 Swedish film – a vampire story not like any other. It’s not something you would automatically expect the National Theatre of Scotland to adapt to the stage, but I’ll see anything staged by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, the guys who created The Black Watch, Once, The Ambassador, and a bunch of other terrific shows.

let the right one in
Adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne, Let the Right One In made for some fun penny-dreadful theatrical effects and a lot of creepy tension. I’d forgotten about the whole love story between the vampire Eli (played by the suitably unusual Rebecca Benson) and Oskar, a perennial bullying victim (Cristian Ortega). But ultimately I’m not sure this ranked as an especially necessary stage production. I like going to St. Ann’s Warehouse and hanging out afterwards in Dumbo. We had a good meal at Superfine and then came home and listened to some albums by Olafur Arnalds, the Icelandic musician who composed the lovely, ominous original score for Let the Right One In.

I also spent a couple of evenings last week devouring Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words, a book put together by Canadian broadcasting personality and folk musician Malka Marom, who interviewed Joni for the first time in 1973 around the time of Court and Spark and then again in 1978 around the time of Mingus. Recently she decided to make a book out of these intimate conversations and met with Joni again to fill in the blanks. There’s not a lot of news or major revelations (Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me as I Am had more of those), but Joni Mitchell is almost always fascinating in interviews — she’s pretty uncensored and unfiltered talking about other people, especially people she dislikes or who piss her off, but she’s also unafraid to talk very specifically and engagedly about her work, about music, writing, painting, and poetry. Aside from a couple of great quotes I’ve already posted on my blog, I tucked away little bits of trivia — her story about meeting Mae West at a New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles at Ringo Starr’s house, and the time she met Nina Simone: “She came running through the shopping centre calling my name, ‘Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell!’ And she came up to me and grabbed me. She’s a big woman, swung me off the ground, kissing me, going “‘Ethopia’, girl! ‘Ethiopia’!” Swinging me around in circles, this big barrel of woman.”

joni in her own words

Performance diary: Adam Guettel at 54 Below

February 20, 2013

2.19.13 — Adam Guettel is a fucking great songwriter and a fucking great singer (and super-handsome), so his gig at 54 Below is a rare treat for anyone who’s a fan of his work. His output is small but high-quality, and the show includes beautiful bits from Floyd Collins, his song revue Myths and Hymns (staged at the Public Theater under the title Saturn Returns), and of course the great Broadway musical The Light in the Piazza, as well as sneak previews from works-in-progress based on two films (Danny Boyle’s Millions and the Jack Lemmon classic Days of Wine and Roses). Guettel had two guest singers, both of them excellent — Whitney Bashor and Steven Pasquale performed a suite of three songs from Piazza (they’ve both been in the show) by themselves and a few duets with Guettel. All this music is complicated and tricky, far from any standard pop music or show tunes, but these wizardly singers made it sound effortless if dazzling. The incomparable music director Kim Grigsby (of Spring Awakening fame, among others) leads a crackerjack three-man band from the piano bench. The show runs through February 23, with two shows Friday and Saturday nights. I highly recommend it. I hope they record it and put it out on CD, as they did with Norbert Leo Butz — I missed Butz, heard it was great, and picked up a copy of the album (Memory & Mayhem) while I was at the club. If you’re not in New York, go to YouTube and look up Guettel — there are a few tasty treats on view there, including the Live from Lincoln Center broadcast of The Light in the Piazza.


Performance diary: Under the Radar and other January miscellania

January 26, 2013

1.22.13 — Before the moment passes, I want to make brief notes about the Under the Radar Festival. Mark Russell, former maestro of PS122 in the East Village, has been running this parade of cutting-edge shows for several years. I’ve occasionally dipped into it but this year actually bought a pass and saw three shows:

Elevator Repair Service’s ARGUENDO. In contrast to their last three shows, which were epic adaptations of literary classics (by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway), the work-in-progress Arguendo is a chamber piece whose text draws verbatim from testimony before the Supreme Court about whether nude dancing is a First Amendment right (based on a 1991 case challenging an Indiana state law). ERS director John Collins let it be known in a program note (and in a fascinating talkback after the performance with law professor Bill Araiza) that he has developed a deep fascination with Supreme Court proceedings, and this case of course is an especially entertaining sample. It was fun to watch ERS company members Mike Iveson, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams (below) impersonate the various Supremes. Iveson and Williams also took on the roles of the opposing lawyers, and Kate Scelsa appeared in a prologue and epilogue as a topless dancer who attended the hearings as an interested party. Watching the show was a little like having sex with a serious fetishist – an entertaining visit to a world you probably don’t want to live in.


The Debate Society’s BLOOD PLAY. This show got a lot of attention when it had a run at the Bushwick Starr last year, and I was happy to check out the company, whose key members are playwright-performers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and director Oliver Butler. It was more of an actual play than I expected, albeit a weird comic drama in the Mac Wellman vein: theatrical, rich language, creepy, unusually structured. A Jewish couple new to their neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, host a cocktail party in their finished basement attended by another couple and a local door-to-door photographer; meanwhile, their pubescent son camps out in the backyard communing with supernatural forces. The period seems to be the 1950s, based on the music and the costumes and the language. The host makes a string of wacky invented cocktails involving strange ingredients, and the hostess leads everybody in a variety of quirky invented party games, all of which gave the actors plenty of opportunity for exaggerated cartoonish performances. Ultimately, I’m not sure what it all added up to, and it was one of those shows where the actors and the audience are all meant to feel smarter than the characters, which bugs me.

minsk ticket

Belarus Free Theatre’s MINSK 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker (or MINKS 2011, as my ticket said). This was my first exposure to the much-acclaimed political theater who made their US debut in 2011 with Being Harold Pinter. Founded in 2005 by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada (a married couple) with Vladimir Shcherban, the company prides itself on its adversarial relationship with its country of origin. A program note says “BFT was formed in Europe’s last surviving dictatorship and every member of the company has, at one time or another, been imprisoned, threatened or mistreated by the authorities, or they live in fear for their safety. They have all lost their jobs. In retaliation, they defiantly produce, devise and perform plays which highlight repression in Belarus and educate others.” I know nothing about life in this particular corner of the former Soviet Union, and I gained from this performance a picture of how Soviet-style state control mechanisms impact everyday lives in Belarus, especially youth, students, workers, and gay people. These performers clearly have quite a bit of physical and spiritual bravery, and even if their theatrical methods aren’t exactly ground-breaking to savvy New York theatergoers, I still found the piece compelling. My old dear friends Elinor Fuchs and Jim Leverett attended the same performance; extremely savvy theatergoers (both teach at Yale), they had seen BFT’s earlier work and liked it better.

I suppose I was comparing Minsk 2011 to the show I’d seen earlier in the week at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Opus No. 7, created and performed by the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory from the Moscow Theatre School of Dramatic Art. It had some ingenious design elements and theatrical moments, but I left underwhelmed by the content and frustrated by the staging: with the audience facing a long shallow space, many crucial images appeared at the opposite side of the theater from where I sat, so I missed them completely, and the projected subtitles were badly lit and difficult to read. There were two separate pieces: “Geneaology,” an imagistic piece about young Russian Jews searching for their ancestors, and “Shostakovich,” a portrait of the composer as tortured cultural hero. My theatergoing companion John Werner came up with a perfect one-sentence summary: “The show seemed like two separate student projects without anything particularly new to say about old themes chosen for their potent impact (the Holocaust, freedom of artistic expression in Soviet times).”

My friend Jonathan Lerner, now a writer but briefly a dancer in his youth, took me to see The Men Dancers: from the horse’s mouth, an ever-changing vaudevillean piece created by his old colleagues Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham. The format is simple: a number of dancers (or people from the dance world) get some version of 5 minutes to sit centerstage tell a personal story from their life in dance, and between stories three dancers simultaneously perform some movement of their own (with occasional duets), punctuated every so often by a promenade of several dancers across the stage. It’s a simple score that didn’t wear out its welcome. The show is usually a mixture of every kind of dancers, but this all-male-cast edition was a special tribute to Ted Shawn and his male dance troupe. The performers ranged from a teenager who performed in the original Broadway cast of Billy Elliott to some distinguished elders – David Vaughan talked about how he became Merce Cunningham’s archivist, and retired NY Times dance critic Jack Anderson (who gets around with a walker now) and his husband George Dorris brought tears to my eyes talking about their long careers as dance critics, aficionados, and life partners. It was a very down-to-earth, modest community event at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. I ran into the handsome and talented Sean Curran, who was there to greet his former colleague in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, the terrifically talented and beefy Arthur Aviles, who was definitely a highlight of the show, twirling across the stage in several dresses before a final spin entirely naked, as is his wont.

I was excited to hear about Tales of Joni, a revue at 54 Below of Broadway singers doing Joni Mitchell songs, so I took my friend Ben Seaman for his birthday Thursday night. Boy, was that a fizzle. There were a few charming performers, notably Gabrielle Stavelli (who did a nice job with “Woman of Heart and Mind”), Lisa Asher (who led a rocking full-group rendition of “Raised on Robbery”), and Annie Golden (whom I always find appealing). But many of the arrangements by musical director Mark Hartman came off ham-fisted, reducing Joni’s sophisticated melodies to flat-footed blues or translating her guitar strumming into piano chord-pounding as if they were Billy Joel songs. And Nicholas Rodriguez, the one male singer in the bunch, epitomized narcissistic theater/cabaret singing at its worst, showing off his big voice at the expense of the songs. Ugh.

all the rage

In 2005, the veteran Broadway actor and singer Martin Moran debuted his one-man show The Tricky Part, based on his beautifully written and emotionally wrenching memoir about the consequences of being sexually molested from age 12 to 15 by a much older man who was his camp counselor. Now he has created a second solo show, All the Rage, that picks up where the other one left off, chronologically and spiritually. It’s a sort of Spalding Gray-like monologue about loss, death, life purpose, dreams, and anger, delivered with the same beguiling mixture of writerly detail, grace, and humor that characterized The Tricky Part. It plays at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater upstairs from Playwrights Horizons on W. 42nd Street. It opens officially Wednesday January 30, and I highly recommend it.




Performance diary: Jenifer Lewis at 54 Below

July 25, 2012

“Only in New York”: that’s the kind of vibe that 54 Below, the recently opened cabaret in the basement of Studio 54 that calls itself “Broadway’s Nightclub,” strives to create. And my first time there tonight, it worked. The headliner was Jenifer Lewis, a mouthy comic singer and performer who’s toiled in New York theater, spent five years on a TV show called Strong Medicine, and once toured as backup singer for Bette Midler. Along the way, she acquired an adopted daughter and became a poster girl for bipolar disorder. All of that figures in her act, much of it special material created for her by her musical director, Marc Shaiman, who’s a gifted composer and arranger but more than anything else is kind of a great diva wrangler (Bette being his first and foremost diva). He’s a superb accompanist, in that he’s a nimble piano player but also strikes the perfect balance on stage between invisible partner and sweet all-purpose straight man. Well, straight man who’s as gay as they come. The original material will not be covered by other singers any time soon — “Black Don’t Crack,” about how female celebrities of a certain age don’t have to submit to Botox-face the way their white counterparts do, and “Sang Bitch,” a tribute to other beloved performers. The cover songs are surprising and, I have to say, very well-sung. Imagine Kiki and Herb with less onstage drinking and better pitch. The show, directed by Scott Wittman (Shaiman’s partner in crime and life), runs through Saturday July 28.


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