Posts Tagged ‘public theater’

Performance Diary: FUN HOME, MARIE ANTOINETTE, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and Robert Kraft at Joe’s Pub

October 31, 2013

October 19 – The musical Fun Home at the Public Theater is a rich intense meal of a show. It’s an adaptation of the award-winning graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the great cartoonist best-known for her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” about growing up in a funeral home, coming out as a lesbian, and her relationship with her father, who was a closeted gay man and committed suicide not long after she came out to him.
funhome panel
Jeanine Tesori wrote the score, which is quirky and deep and includes fantastic roles for young kids, not unlike “Caroline, or Change.” And the book and lyrics were written by Lisa Kron – I enjoyed seeing traces of Kron’s own family memoir, 2.5 Minute Ride, show up here. The first half of the show is a little lumpy and awkward as the story jumps around in time, portraying Alison at three different ages – the 9-year-old daddy’s girl (Sydney Lucas) who is transfixed at the fleeting sight of a butch lesbian, the college girl (Alexandra Socha) whose life is transformed by her first fling (Joan, played by Roberta Colindrez – “Tako” from Girls), and the adult cartoonist (Beth Malone), who spends a lot of time standing on the sidelines watching her earlier selves.

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But the musical numbers are as unpredictable and specific as Bechdel’s fantastic writing (a commercial for the funeral home, a Partridge Family tribute, a lovesong to that butch lesbian called “Ring of Keys”). And once grown-up Alison sits down for the car ride and conversation she never had with her gay dad, I was an emotional wreck. Michael Cerveris (below, with Sydney Lucas) is spectacular as mercurial Bruce – brilliant, kind, demanding, secretive. David Zinn’s elaborate set especially serves to reveal depths of Bruce’s character beyond words – his love of beauty, his attachment to surfaces and masks.

funhome production shot

Afterwards, Andy and I stumbled out into the lobby, where a whole other emotional experience unfolded. Bechdel was in the house, and we got to meet not only her (Andy could barely contain his fanboy delight) but also Edie Windsor, who’d already seen the show once before and loved it so much she went back, with her publicist, the indefatigable Cathy Renna. Chatting with two legendary lesbians topped off the evening spectacularly. 10-19 alison bechdel andy

October 20 – I’m not really sure what David Adjmi’s play Marie Antoinette is really about, other than retelling the historical tale of the French monarch’s rise and fall in 21st century language, a la Sofia Coppola’s movie. But it does provide the occasion for an amazing performance by Marin Ireland in the title role (below, with Marsha Stephanie Blake and Jennifer Ikeda). I’ve seen Ireland give any number of admirable performances, including her previous gig at Soho Rep in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, but I’ve never seen her undertake such a stylized role. It’s pretty great, beautifully directed by Rebecca Taichman. All the actors are superb – there’s a tiny Cassandra-like role for A Sheep, and the production was lucky enough to land David Greenspan to play it. The production design has been stripped down from previous incarnations at the American Repertory Theater in Boston and the Yale Rep. It’s pretty bare-bones but suitable to the intimacy of the Soho Rep space.

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 October 23 – I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along ever since I saw the original Broadway production, somewhat misbegotten, poorly reviewed, and quickly shuttered (though the cast album holds up very well even now). I’ve seen it onstage again several times, and I was happy that I had an evening free to catch the screening at the Ziegfeld of the live broadcast of the recent London production staged by Maria Friedman. Many have touted this as the best production of the show ever, including Sondheim himself. There are a few things it does extremely well – it establishes from the first scene that the entire show consists of what in 12-step circles is called “a searching moral inventory” by the central character, Franklin Shepard: how did you get to be you? How did it happen? A key image that no other production has introduced is Frank (played by Mark Umbers) clutching a red-bindered copy of his friend Charlie Kringas’s play at the end of the opening scene. As the show moves backward in time, we see this script show up again and again, symbolizing the numerous opportunities Frank had to pursue the artistic ideals he had when he was a kid and the myriad times he chose to postpone or override them in favor of commercial interests or other people’s values.

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Although it’s always been subliminally obvious, this production makes unmistakeable that Mary (Jenna Russell) has been in love with Frank from the moment they met on a tenement rooftop in New York City. Russell, who played Dot in the London revival of Sunday in the Park with George (which subsequently came to Broadway), gives an excellent performance, as does Damian Humbley as Charlie. (Pre-show backstage footage reveals that, underneath his wig and glasses and shambolic Charlie attire, Humbley is one hunky Australian actor.) Otherwise, though, I found the production to be pretty mediocre – overacted, cartoonish, a few ideas pounded home relentlessly. I still think the best version of Merrily was James Lapine’s production at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 starring John Rubenstein, Chip Zien, and Heather MacRae. And the second-best was Lapine’s staging last year for the Encores! series at City Center with Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Elizabeth Stanley, who was a revelation as Gussie.

October 30 – Speaking of the Franklin Shepards of the world…the last time I had contact with singer-songwriter Robert Kraft, it was the mid-1980s, and he was excited because Harold Prince (producer and director of many Stephen Sondheim shows, including Merrily We Roll Along) had taken an interest in developing a musical by him for Broadway, a show called Metropolitan Serenade. Robert recorded three albums during this period, full of whimsical and tuneful original pop-jazz compositions. I remember he did a show at the Bottom Line with Patti LuPone singing songs nominated for Academy Awards. Then he moved to Los Angeles and vanished from my radar. I was vaguely aware that he had gotten involved with Hollywood in some capacity as music director, but I never knew the details (I’ve since looked them up on Wikipedia).

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A couple of years ago we became Facebook friends, and then suddenly here he is, doing a gig at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of a boxed set of his studio albums and a never-released live album. He sat at the piano and played a bunch of his songs from 30 years ago – “Who’s Seducing Who,” “Out with My Ex,” “False Start,” “Café Society” – accompanied by a former student, Katie Theroux, on upright bass. I learned from the show that he’d collaborated with his buddy Bruce Willis (who was in the audience at Joe’s Pub) on the movie Hudson Hawk and he was nominated for an Academy Award for a song he wrote for the movie version of Oscar Hijuelos’s lovely novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. (I also learned from him that Hijuelos just died recently – sad.) I will probably buy the boxed set when it comes out in December, to have CD versions of beautiful ballads such as “Bon Voyage” and “Rosette.” Robert apparently spent almost 20 years supervising movie music for Fox Filmed Entertainment…but what about that Broadway show?

Performance diary: Harry Kondoleon’s ZERO POSITIVE at the Public Theater’s New Work Now

September 13, 2013

9.11.13 — The Public Theater’s New Work Now series has started including a play from the past, and this year’s selection was Harry Kondoleon’s Zero Positive, which Joseph Papp originally produced in 1988. Published in M. Elizabeth Osborn’s anthology The Way We Live Now, Zero Positive was part of the second wave of plays about AIDS, a lyrical and theatrically free-wheeling step beyond informative first-line dramas such as As Is and The Normal Heart. It’s one of the strongest plays in the body of work by Kondoleon, who sadly died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 39. The original production was a troubled one in that the playwright became dissatisfied with the actor in the central role, Reed Birney, and fired him, which made the director, Mark-Linn Baker, resign in solidarity. Birney’s replacement was no slouch – David Hyde Pierce – and director Kenneth Elliott picked up the pieces, but the show didn’t make much of an impact, and the play remains one that is more admired than produced.

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Sarah Benson, artistic director of Soho Rep, assembled a fantastic cast for this one-night-only reading, which served the purpose of establishing that the play has lost none of its emotional resonance in the intervening years. Himmer lives with his father, Jacob Blank, a poet and philanderer whose estranged wife has very recently died, sending him into a grief-stricken time warp. Himmer’s BFF Samantha arrives with the news from her doctor that she and Himmer have both tested positive for HIV. Their friend Prentice, who is probably infected but is opposed to taking the test, insists, “It doesn’t mean anything.” Himmer knows different. “It’s a death sentence,” he says – a bit dramatic but not an untypical response in the dark ages before new treatment options made HIV manageable.

As a tribute to his mother, Himmer decides to put on a verse play called The Ruins of Athens he’s found among her papers and approaches his actor friend Patrick for help. Patrick is so spectacularly self-absorbed he can do little except complain about how his brilliant auditions never get him hired. He does know a woman named Debbie Fine who’s recently come into several million dollars from her family, and he enlists her to bankroll putting on the play. When Debbie Fine arrives, Jacob mistakes her for a nurse, she plays along, and they improbably fall in love. She makes a big donation to a local hospital to convert a conference room into a solarium that serves as theater for the play, in which they all perform.

I got to have a conversation after the reading with Benson, who told me she came across Harry Kondoleon’s plays when she was a young theater artist in her teens and twenties growing up in Scotland and eager to learn about American theater. We talked about what a strange play Zero Positive is – how it begins in a kind of living-room naturalism but then progressively departs from the mundane reality of clothes and food (the stage direction “It is lunchtime. It is always lunchtime” is a classic Kondoleon) until it arrives at a timeless theatrical zone. A toy train set figures heavily in act one and poetically implants a disorienting sense of scale. Each of the five scenes takes a slightly different form, almost becoming its own play. The fourth scene in particular becomes a kind of existential way station – the characters are ostensibly having an indoor picnic in the bare hospital room that will become their theater, yet they end up acting like they’re outdoors. And Kondoleon’s writing rises to exquisiteness as each character reveals something of his or her essence.

Debbie Fine describes her generic life before meeting Jacob Blank: “I had other boyfriends. We did things together, looked at movies, ran around tracks, ate unusual flavors and discussed fluctuations of all kinds.” Jacob, who seems crusty and cruelly remote until her arrival on the scene, surprisingly announces, “My childhood was only good, glorious I’d go as far as to say. I found two pearls on the open clam of my arrival: I called them my parents. They called me their prize.” Himmer reveals in one outburst his bedrock weltschmerz: “Enough of all these flowers – flowers are no more than, at their best, bright little sex organs hoodwinking insects into their sticky business and passing themselves off then hypocritically at holidays as fit subjects for centerpieces.”

Rehearsal for the original production at the Public Theater: Edward Atienza as Jacob Blank, playwright Harry Kondoleon, director Mark-Linn Baker, and Reed Birney as Himmer

Rehearsal for the original production at the Public Theater: Edward Atienza as Jacob Blank, playwright Harry Kondoleon, director Mark-Linn Baker, and Reed Birney as Himmer

Director Kenneth Elliott, David Hyde Pierce as Himmer, and Kondoleon

Director Kenneth Elliott, David Hyde Pierce as Himmer, and Kondoleon

Benson, who directed Reed Birney in a blazing award-winning production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, was aware of his unhappy history with the play and attempted to provide closure by casting him as Jacob Blank, but ultimately he wasn’t available and the great Larry Pine played the role in the reading. Himmer’s barely contained hysteria was suitably conveyed by the great Taylor Mac – the first time I’ve ever seen him not in elaborate drag (he returns to the Public Theater later this fall with a revival of Lear de Bessonet’s terrific production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan). Two wonderful actors, B.D. Wong and Ana Reeder, played Prentice and Debbie Fine, and two young actors new to me, Gayle Rankin and Arian Moayed, played Samantha and Patrick. Moayed (who appeared on Broadway in Bengal Tiger in Baghdad Zoo) blew me away with his quick-study portrait of Patrick, a tricky role to pull off with his two crazy a capella songs and easily parodied actor-ish narcissism. Tony Shalhoub played this role originally, magnificently, but I found Moayed especially touching in scene 4, when his self-centeredness became a poignant existential cry: “I just want a big part. I just don’t want to come on with very little to say and then go off. I’ve done that. I want to make a difference. I want to know when I go off it makes sense that I came on in the first place.” Don’t we all want that? And Rankin, playing a role first performed by Frances Conroy, assumed a transcendent radiance when Samantha, as the goddess in the play-within-the-play spoke lines that connected all the dots from ancient Greece to the AIDS epidemic to the aftermath of 9/11:

I answer your call

although the city is alive in death

with screams for salvation barely audible

as the walls are torn down to

the merry whistle of the flute.

Death’s caprice is playing there;

empires dissolve in song.

Many longtime Kondoleon fans and followers attended the reading. A bunch of us went out to dinner afterwards (Stephen Soba and his partner Jonathan, Mitchell Lichtenstein, Rita Ryack and her partner Porter, Ellen and Judy Dennis) for delicious food and wine at Aroma, where we reminisced about Harry and exchanged notes on the real-life experiences that fed into the writing of Zero Positive. We were all very grateful to Jonathan Lomma, the William Morris agent who represents Harry’s work, for instigating this return visit to a beautiful play.

9-11 zero positive posse on doorstep

Performance diary: I’LL EAT YOU LAST, HERE LIES LOVE, and MURDER BALLAD

May 14, 2013

One of Broadway's biggest stars is back — as one of Hollywood's biggest star-makers! BETTE MIDLER returns to Broadway as the legendary Hollywood superagent in I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A Chat with Sue Mengers.  For over 20 years, Sue's clients were the talk o
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  I’m enough of a diehard Bette Midler fan that I would pretty much pay to see her recite the alphabet. I’ll Eat You Last, the one-woman play by John Logan (subtitled “A Chat with Sue Mengers”), is not nearly that minimal, and yet walking away from the show, which made me laugh and entertained me well enough for 90 minutes, I couldn’t help thinking, “What a strange little nothing of a play.” When the curtain rises, after flurry of name-droppy celebrity voicemails, the first words out of her mouth are “I’m not getting up.” And she doesn’t. Playing the semi-legendary super-agent, she doesn’t do much more than sit on the sofa drinking and smoking and telling stories about her famous clients – the first time she saw Barbra Streisand sing in a crummy nightclub, how she pestered William Friedkin into hiring Gene Hackman for The French Connection, how Steve McQueen ruined Ali McGraw’s life and career. I suppose in Hollywood this might pass for substantial drama, but on Broadway it seems like pretty thin soup. It is reasonably well-staged by Joe Mantello, with an amusing little bit of audience interaction. And when I think back on the final moment of the play, when the star wanders offstage in a marijuana haze, what registers strongest is the sadness the playwright mentions in his program note, and I have some appreciation for the fact that the play does have an emotional core that makes its impact, weirdly, by never being mentioned or addressed. No matter what kind of life you’ve led, it’s over all too soon, close friendships evaporate, and things that were once all-important now seem pretty inconsequential.

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5.11.13 Another figure from recent history radiates from the center of Here Lies Love at the Public Theater, the musical about Imelda Marcos that began life as a concept album by David Byrne in collaboration with Fatboy Slim.

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The 2-CD album featured a parade of female pop stars singing the songs: Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, Martha Wainwright, Florence Welch, Nellie McKay, Kate Pierson of the B-52s, and Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond, to name the most famous. The show is staged by Alex Timbers, who blew up the Public Theater with Les Freres Corbusiers’ production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and works similar magic here, casting the show as a karaoke disco party with the audience on their feet, the singers performing to tracks, and everybody constantly shifting all over the room. It’s a little hectic but a lot of fun for everyone, and an ingenious solution to a show that would never have withstood some kind of stodgy conventional mounting.
Here Lies Love Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
It’s really a series of fairly mundane pop songs running through the basic outline of La Marcos’s rags to riches life. The political history of the Philippines during the Marcos era is pretty crazy and we get a breezy recap with no real depth or analysis. It’s sort of Evita crossed with The Donkey Show but beautifully performed by a knockout cast of mostly young Asian actors, snazzily dressed by Clint Ramos, with choreography by Annie-B Parson that meshes impeccably with Timbers’ multimedia staging. Nothing gets belabored. Ruthie Ann Miles is sublime as Imelda. And the title song, which opens and closes the show, becomes an instant, persistent earworm. I’ve heard worse.

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The show has been extended through June 30, and I overheard an usher saying that it’s likely to be extended again through July.

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5.12.13 Ben and Tom (above) offered to take me out to dinner-anna-show for my birthday, and I picked Murder Ballad at the Union Square Theatre, because the musical by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash got such rave reviews when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center space. We all left underwhelmed by Nash’s score, which wants to be Next to Normal, and Jordan’s play, which tries to sustain crime-story suspense and poker-game symbolism but boils down to a generic boy-girl love triangle. Trip Cullman went to great lengths to dress this tiny rock musical up with an environmental staging, plunking the action in the middle of the theater, audience on both sides and seated amidst the action in a barroom setting with cabaret tables that the actors climb all over throughout the show.
murder ballad seating chartThe actors are appealing and hard-working – Will Swenson, John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and (replacing Karen Olivo) Caissie Levy. But despite the fact that they’re singing nonstop (there’s virtually no spoken dialogue) at least half the time I could not make out the words coming out of their mouths. I left with much more appreciation for the simple composition and delivery of the songs in Here Lies Love, which offered the audience the kindness of letting the words be heard. We had a yummy meal afterwards at Craftbar.

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Theater review: THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL… (iHo, for short)

May 20, 2011

My review of Tony Kushner’s new play — (take a breath) The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures — at the Public Theater has just been posted on CultureVulture.net.  Check it out here and let me know what you think. I had a lot of mixed feelings about the play, but only admiration for the superior performances by Michael Cristofer and Linda Emond (below).

And by the way, if you’ve seen the play and are hungry to know more about it, the 16-page study guide that the Guthrie Theater produced as an audience education tool for the world premiere in 2009 is still available as a PDF online. It’s kind of a masterpiece of dramaturgy.

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