Posts Tagged ‘michael mayer’

Culture Vulture: best theater of 2014

December 22, 2014

There was a time when I saw over 200 shows a year. I went to everything I could. I was insatiable. That time is long past. I don’t feel the need to see everything “to keep up,” but I still love going. Here is my list of my ten favorite shows of 2014:

curious-huge1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – I dragged my heels about seeing Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about an autistic kid with high math skills and low social skills but Marianne Elliott’s staging dazzled me with major contributions from Bunny Christie’s visual design, Steven Hoggett and Scott Graham’s choreography, the superbly contained lead performance by Alex Sharp (above), and Ian Barford’s deep, moving work as his loving, imperfect father.

2. The Ambassador – John Tiffany’s theatrical staging at BAM of a suite of songs about Los Angeles written and performed by Gabriel Kahane (below), the most interesting singer-songwriter I’ve encountered in recent years (Adam Guettel meets Ben Folds, brainy dense lyrics with high conceptual vision and pop friendliness).
AMBASSADOR-articleLarge3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Director Michael Mayer did a fantastic job of blowing up John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s beloved up-from-Squeezebox rock musical to fit a Broadway house and helping Neil Patrick Harris more than fill Hedwig’s stacked heels. Special kudos to Mike Albo and Amanda Duarte for the faux-Playbill framing the show as the aftermath of Hurt Locker The Musical.

intimacy cast
4. Intimacy –
The New Group’s Scott Elliott staged Thomas Bradshaw’s outrageous suburban family play, a smart and shocking comic book about the prevalence of pornography in American culture, with brave performances by game actors, none more than David Anzuelo in a role requiring him to be naked and erect every night.

5. Indian Ink –
The long-delayed New York debut of Tom Stoppard’s 1995 play about sisters, art, and the ownership of memory got a splendid production at the Roundabout by Carey Perloff with a luminous leading performance by Romola Garai with help from Firdous Bamji and the great Rosemary Harris.

6. This Is Our Youth – The terrific cast (Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson) made Kenneth Lonergan’s play about overprivileged lost white kids compelling, in Anna D. Shapiro’s Broadway staging.

scenes from a marriage
7. Scenes from a Marriage –
the great Flemish director Ivo van Hove exerted his usual inventiveness in transferring Bergman’s film to the stage at New York Theater Workshop with an immersive set design by Jan Versweyveld and excellent performances by Arliss Howard and Tina Benko (above), Susannah Flood, Alex Hurt, and Mia Katigbak.

8. Cry, Trojans! –
The Wooster Group managed to go even deeper, weirder, and more complicated than ever with this adaptation of Troilus and Cressida with eerie costumes by Folkert de Jong – hard to love, impossible to forget.

9. St. Matthew Passion – Peter Sellars’ grave, exquisite production of Bach’s oratorio at the Park Avenue Armory showcased the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle’s direction with several great performances, especially by Mark Padmore as The Evangelist (below).


10. Red-eye to Havre de Grace – This intimate musical spectacle at New York Theater Workshop about the last days of Edgar Allen Poe was a welcome introduction to the quirky talents of writer-director-designer Thaddeus Phillips and composer-performers David and Jeremy Wilhelm.

Other pleasures:

Audra McDonald’s fierce turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

Sting’s tuneful original score and David Zinn’s monumental set for The Last Ship

Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons

Anna Teresa de Keersmaker’s season within the Lincoln Center Festival

Landfall, Laurie Anderson’s collaboration with Kronos Quartet at BAM

The original cast recording of Dogfight, which made me wish I’d seen the show at Second Stage

Top theater of 2011

December 19, 2011

NEW YORK THEATER: Top Ten Productions of 2011

1. JERUSALEM – Jez Butterworth’s dense, lyrical, astonishingly original play superbly directed by Ian Rickson, centered on the justly legendary performance of Mark Rylance (above) as half-man half-myth Rooster Byron, with help from a sturdy ensemble cast and production design by the artist known as Ultz.

2.  THE SELECT (THE SUN ALSO RISES) – Elevator Repair Service’s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway lived up to the company’s high standard for wit, depth, theatrical liveliness, and tech savvy. Great ensemble performance directed by John Collins, with a special shout out to lead actors Mike Iveson and Lucy Taylor, supporting performers Kate Scelsa, Susie Sokol, and the amazing Kaneza Schaal, and production designer David Zinn.

3. THE WOOSTER GROUP’S VERSION OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ VIEUX CARRE — an unlikely match and another beautiful triumph for Elizabeth LeCompte and her brave actors, led this time by Ari Fliakos as the author’s stand-in with all subtext stripped away.

4. THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT – Stephen Adly Giurgis’s play kept me laughing really hard at the most heartbreaking scenes, where cruelty and romance kept morphing into one another. Top-notch cast, though for me the revelation was Yul Vazquez as the scene-stealing cousin.

5. OTHER DESERT CITIES – Jon Robin Baitz’s taut play, a showcase for five excellent actors beautifully directed by Joe Mantello (I preferred the Lincoln Center cast with Elizabeth Marvel and Linda Lavin).

6. SLEEP NO MORE – British theater company Punchdrunk’s ambitious mash-up of Shakespeare and Hitchcock made for the year’s single most original theater experience, a dreamscape sprawling over 100 rooms in two adjacent former warehouses in Chelsea.

7. THE ILLUSION – Signature Theater’s Tony Kushner season ended with Michael Mayer’s gem-like staging of this lyrical bit of poetic philosophy featuring memorable performances by Lois Smith, Henry Stram, and Peter Bartlett.

8. BURNING – Thomas Bradshaw’s haunting, provocative play working the raw edges of sex, race, and politics staged with gleeful perversity by Scott Elliott.

9. THE PATSY & JONAS – the incomparable actor and playwright David Greenspan had another banner year with his own play Go Back to Where You Are at Playwrights Horizons and this quirky double-bill of solo virtuosity.

10. SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK – I saw the final performance that could legitimately be said to reflect the work of director Julie Taymor (above), with its mind-boggling sets by George Tsypin and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and I thought it was terrific. Sue me.


•    James Macdonald’s production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman at BAM, headed by the formidable trio of Alan Rickman, Lindsay Duncan, and Fiona Shaw (below);

•    David Leveaux’s smart revival of Tom Stoppard’s towering Arcadia

•    Taylor Mac’s collaboration with the Talking Band, The Walk Across America for Mother Earth at La Mama, a perfect tribute to the recently departed champion of idealistic experimental theater

•    The Book of Mormon, thanks to the fearless Trey Parker and Matt Stone and the clever Casey Nickolaw

•    Daniel Sullivan’s lucid Shakespeare in the Park staging of All’s Well That Ends Well

•    David Lindsay-Abaire’s troubling but sticky Good People – Frances McDormand justifiably got the reviews and the awards but let’s not forget Patrick Carroll’s exquisite supporting performance

•    Nina Arianda’s scintillating howdy-do in David Ives’ Venus in Fur (above right, with Hugh Dancy)

Performance diary: AMERICAN IDIOT

April 21, 2010

April 16 – OK, American Idiot. Spectacular staging by Michael Mayer, who masterminded Spring Awakening, my favorite musical of the last 10 years and one of the most exciting and influential Broadway shows in recent memory. Mayer has his usual weaponry with him: dazzling set by Christine Jones, an art installation I’d be happy to visit on its own, pocked with 37 TV sets creating a Big Brother rec room from hell; state-of-the-art theatrical rock-concert lighting by Kevin Adams; smart original choreography by Steven Hoggett (who organized the memorable movement stuff in Black Watch); real rock ‘n’ roll played by an onstage band (with arrangements by Tom Kitt of Next to Normal fame); fantastically energetic performances by a young cast of all different sizes and shapes.
That much was exciting to me for about half the show. But ultimately the Green Day songs just didn’t hold up as theatrical storytelling for me. I don’t know the album, so the words weren’t familiar to me, and they don’t really read from the stage. The songs are peppy and melodic but eventually they start to run together – there’s one strand of angry white-boy blare and another strand of acoustic emo ballad. Mayer has taken Green Day’s catalogue and shaped a storyline to thread the songs together, focusing on three main characters: John Gallagher’s Johnny aka Jesus of Suburbia, who flees the suburbs for the big city to make it as a musician but has more success as a junkie and a half-hearted lover (his girlfriend, the impressive Rebecca Naomi Jones, is known only as Whatsername); Will, who would have joined that expedition but got his girlfriend pregnant so stays home planted on the sofa watching TV (the sadly underutilized Michael Esper); and Tunny, who (in a witty sequence) gets mesmerized by an Army recruitment video, goes to Iraq, gets his leg blown off, and comes home with a wheelchair and his nurse-wife.  (Tunny is played by Stark Sands, for me the finest performance in the show and he gets to do an aerial ballet with his Extraordinary Girl that isn’t exactly like “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” — see below.) Unfortunately, these stories come off as too generic to be really interesting – they’re sort of generational archetypes, like the characters in Twyla Tharp’s Billy Joel show Movin’ Out. Recognizable and forgettable at the same time.

I wanted to love this show but couldn’t quite get there. Still, I admire Michael Mayer’s fierce devotion to channeling the defiance, anger, confusion, and hormonal power of youth into an alive theatrical canvas. And I respect the conceptual arc of the show – the title starts off as a reference to George W. Bush and his misguided “redneck agenda” but winds up referring to Johnny himself, who has to face the consequences of his own idiotic actions and consider what else is possible now.

From the deep archives: Michael Mayer

April 20, 2010

On the occasion of the Broadway opening of American Idiot, I resurrected an interview I did with director Michael Mayer in 1998 for The Advocate — back before Spring Awakening, when he’d just directed the fantastic revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge starring Anthony LaPaglia and Alison Janney.

Michael Mayer is in a quandary. We’re sitting in a Chelsea diner near where he lives with his Jewish doctor boyfriend, and he’s brooding over the morning’s New York Times. On one hand, there’s an article announcing that Triumph of Love, the musical that he’d nurtured since its conception and that became his Broadway debut as director, would be closing after an all-too-brief run. On the other hand, there’s a two-column full-page ad for his revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge quoting the rave reviews it had just received.

Sad as it is to watch a favorite show go down the tubes, just having two shows on Broadway at the same time is enough to establish 37-year-old Mayer as a director to watch. He’s been on a roll since 1993, when his former New York University classmate Tony Kushner invited him to direct a student production of Perestroika, the second part of Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning gay epic Angels in America, at their alma mater. The Broadway producers were sufficiently impressed to hire Mayer to direct the national touring company of Angels the following year, which put him on the map. Since then he’s worked almost nonstop, frequently with prominent gay writers such as Craig Lucas (Missing Persons) and the late Howard Ashman (the revue Hundreds of Hats).

Staging both an intimate vaudevillean musical and a Greek tragedy transposed to ‘50s Brooklyn would be a fun challenge for any director, and Mayer feels his secure gay identity has been an asset to both projects. What interested him about James Magruder’s translation of  Triumph of Love, Pierre Marivaux’s gender-bending 18th-century comedy about a female Don Juan who woos both men and women in pursuit of her true love, was “the cultural flypaper aspect of camp sensibility.” Throwing in Tin Pan Alley references and openly acknowledging the diva worship that surrounds a star like Betty Buckley, Mayer and Magruder were “amusing ourselves, which is what gay people have always done, because who else will do it?”

Meanwhile, Mayer brought a ‘90s bluntness to View, whose main character, consumed by an illicit passion for his niece, projects his sexual confusion onto his wife’s Italian immigrant cousin, whom he brands as queer. “In the ‘50s the audience had no distance from Eddie’s psychological problems,” says Mayer. “You couldn’t acknowledge homophobia because there wasn’t anything else going on in the culture. The difference now is that we’re more visible.”

Growing up in Bethesda, Md., Mayer experienced his share of  “typical suburban homophobia: being called faggot, being shoved every day in the hall, things written on my locker.” Luckily, his parents were supportive. “I mean, hello — when I was 8, I woke up one morning to find the double-album Judy at Carnegie Hall on my pillow.”

Those memories of gay adolescence will come in handy next spring when Mayer directs John C. Russell’s Stupid Kids, “a queer re-telling of Rebel without a Cause featuring two gay teenagers, a boy and a girl, who form a union that is their safe haven in a world that is at best indifferent and at worst really hostile.” Lest anyone pigeonhole him as one kind of director, though, Mayer’s also working with lesbian playwright Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) on a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

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