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A Real Boy

I was attracted to the concept of A Real Boy the moment I read the log line: Puppet parents adopt a human child. (This is not a spoiler. Even the most inexperienced of theatergoers is bound to notice this attribute of Max’s parents the moment they shuffle into his kindergarten classroom on their little wooden feet, strings and control handles attached.) The play lands some of the anticipated satirical punches, but it’s hard to make the argument that the darkly comic work is a total success.

To be clear, I can accept even the highest of concepts provided the writer stays within the boundaries of his own mythology.  Unfortunately parameters that are drawn in the first few minutes are broken almost immediately when a character who is supposed to live in a black-and-white world enters wearing blue glasses.  This is only the beginning of the muddled thoughts that swirl around what it means to be “puppet”.  How much do you or we acknowledge your “other part”: the obvious human member of Actors Equity who sometimes participates in a scene whenever tiny hands won’t do?  Do humans evolve into puppets simply with enough exposure?  If so, how does that translate in families with members who are not exactly mainstream?

The unclear vision of the Puppet Universe is just the beginning of playwright Stephen Kaplan’s challenges.  As the plot moves along, he creates a serious case of metaphorical whiplash. He can’t seem to make up his mind exactly what point he’s trying to make. The untraditional family stand-ins in for children with disabilities, transgender persons, and mixed race families and more before moving on to a vague “you be you.”   Any one of these statements could have been profound if followed through with conviction. Together they come up as ideological ambrosia salad.  And that’s before adding multiple snide asides about home schooling, ambitious local politicians, and online MBAs.

The cleverer sections of the work are hindered by the direction of Audrey Alford who, with the help of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer,  manages to ensure that every seat in the house becomes partial obstructed view.  Audience heads throughout the theater are constantly jostling for a position around the pillars, down to the floor, and over to a critical stage piece on the side.  I missed several important visual cues because they were not in my line of sight. This is fairly inexcusable given the the current configuration of the theater is about 60 seats.

ARealBoy3

Brian Michael in A REAL BOY at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

Ms. Alford has also made some curious casting choices.  At the performance I attend, young Max is played by 20-something Kelley Selznick, a talented puppeteer, but not particularly gifted actress.  Max’s mother, Mary Ann Myers, is played by Jason Allan Kennedy George making his theatrical debut.  He’s fine in the role, but I found the selection of a tall male for the part a distraction from what more obviously makes Mary Ann different from other members of the PTA.  It is also hard to figure out how Max would find comfort with Miss Terry, played at a near-vibrating pitch by Jenn Remke.  More successful is Brian Michael, striking all the right notes as Max’s father distraught father, Peter Myers.  Breaking the tension with great timing is Jamie Geiger in the role of Principal Klaus.  And of course there are the all-important puppets created by Puppet Kitchen Productions, close to blank canvases the better to project your own vision of what different means to you.

For lovers of live theater seeking an unconventional production, A Real Boy has enough artistry to make it worthy of the $25 ticket price.  It is brought to 59E59 by Ms. Alford’s Ivy Theatre Company in association with Athena Theatre, which is known for it’s unorthodox psychologically-based dramas.  Performances run through August 27.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=293.

The Terms of My Surrender

N.B. This review is based on a late preview.

As film personalities on Broadway go, Michael Moore lands somewhere between a shining Bradley Cooper and a shunned Bruce Willis.  Stringing together personal accounts and observations, Moore makes some forceful motivating statements in The Terms of My Surrender. Unfortunately, these powerful moments are diluted by muttered off-the-cuff remarks and self-indulgent digressions.

Terms of My SurrenderMichael Moore

Michael Moore ©️Joan-Marcus

To be sure, there is plenty of anti-Trump rhetoric.  Moore has made it clear as a frequent talk show guest that he considers Mr. Trump an entertainer, unqualified to hold public office.  The show’s Playbill includes a somewhat sarcastic personal invitation to the President, written in Russian, to attend any performance.  But while Moore clearly has liberal leanings, he also recognizes that many of the issues about which he is concerned have roots before January of 2017.  He digs into his private vault of stories going back to the early 1970s to illustrate a number of social injustices and troubling trends that have only been magnified in the light of recent events.

Fans of Moore’s documentaries will likely enjoy learning about his formative years, when a combination of intellectual curiosity and a rabble-rousing nature led to the important discovery that anyone can make a difference.  These amusing and inspiring highlights are further enhanced by projections and videos by Andrew Lazarow making his Broadway design debut.  Tossed in are rapid sight gags (some of which work), a potentially funny game, a disturbing phone call, a needless interview, and a physical bit I won’t spoil in case it comes together after more rehearsal.  This piling on of elements resulted in a runtime of well over two hours on the night I attended.  That’s at least 30 minutes longer than necessary or desirable for Moore to make his point.  By the time he announced the terms of his surrender, I’d forgotten that was even the title of this work.  Moore is a bright and witty guy, but in this case he desperately needed an editor.

Director Michael Mayer, who was behind the vivacious and colorful revision of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, appears not to know what to do with what is essentially a monologue.  The stage seems to be unfamiliar territory under our hero’s feet.  One can almost sense the stage manager’s queues as he moves robotically from podium to desk set to faux living room.  At least there is plenty of distraction provided by David Rockwell’s backdrop of a magnificent and impressively functional American flag.

While I wish The Terms of My Surrender was a stronger piece, it has enough to recommend it.  Admirers of Moore’s films should take the time to see what he does with the live medium.  And those looking for a call to action in a polarizing political climate might well find one among his tales.  The limited run at the Belasco Theater is scheduled to end October 22.  Tickets and information are available at http://michaelmooreonbroadway.com.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day August Wilson TheatreAs Broadway musicals go, the small scale charmer of a flick Groundhog Day doesn’t seem the most obvious of inspiring sources.  The comedic drama relies heavily on Bill Murray’s ability to deliver a stinging blow that is somehow forgivable.  With the film’s move to the stage, that burden falls on Olivier Award winner Andy Karl as weatherman Phil Conners.  He is charismatic and a joy to watch, but his wonderful performance isn’t quite enough to balance out the slightness of the material.  The overall experience is theatrical cotton candy: ultimately sweet and instantly vanishing.

Director Matthew Marchus has done a wonderful job of bringing to life the near cartoon-like nature of the movie.  It is rare in the second paragraph of a review to call out those in tiny print such as video designer Andrzej Goulding, Finn Caldwell who created the car chase movement, and Paul Kieve who conceived the illusions.  Yet it is those behind-the-scenes team members who best exploit the story’s limitations with imaginative results that are in direct conflict with the general “wowness” one expects to see on the Great White Way.

Karl pulls off the slights of hand and other body parts with wonderful energy.  His song-styling brings out the most in the accompanying gleeful lyrics.  Unfortunately, Barrett Doss as Connor’s love interest Rita Hanson does not reach his level of skill.  Despite a number in which she recites the highlights of her story, the character remains thinly drawn.  It is simply not believable that this woman could pull this man out of his destructive cycle.  The rest of the cast is solid and there are some terrific running gags.

The lack of balance between the two main characters is one of several key points in Danny Rubin’s book that seem to rely on memories of the original (which Rubin co-wrote with Harold Ramis) to bring them to fruition.  I’m not at all sure that someone who has no familiarity with the movie would completely follow the plot.  The content is also problematic in that it is too risqué for general family viewing and it doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to be a full adult experience.  Additionally, I had a personal problem with the scenes poking fun at alcoholism.  Surely we live in a time when drinking and driving is not the stuff of lighthearted jesting.

The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are spirited, although there are a few numbers that add to the running time more than the storyline.  I was not alone in questioning the selection of “Seeing You” as the song chosen for the Tony broadcast.  I can understand not wanting to give away the funnier moments including “Stuck” (featuring some hilarious healers).   But there are other songs that reveal Phil’s slow evolution from his sarcastic womanizer beginnings that are more entertaining and well executed by the company.

Groundhog Day offers plenty of smiles and a striking lead in Andy Karl.  It’s important to remember that the movie version was a modest success that earned about $70M in its initial run.  It  has been only through the eyes of film history that it became a classic and gave rise to the term “Groundhog Day” meaning the feeling of repeating the same experience.  It should therefore not be a surprise that the show is a mild entertainment and perhaps not the best fit for $200 per ticket territory.  It is scheduled to play at the August Wilson theater through January 7, 2018.  (http://www.groundhogdaymusical.com/tickets/).

In & Of Itself

Regular readers of this column know I pride myself on my no spoiler policy.  In the case of In & Of Itself , I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted to.  Is that because there is no plot?  Or because there are six plots?  As star Derek DelGaudio would likely agree, it all depends on how you look at it.

I was initially attracted to this production not because of Mr. DelGaudio, but by the notion of an event produced by Neil Patrick Harris and directed by Yoda… I mean four time Emmy winner and puppeteer extraordinaire Frank Oz.  What sort of mystery tour could possibly have attracted the backing of these two unique talents?  I’ve now taken the wild ride and my conclusion is “Of course.  Yes.  This one.”

7 - Derek DelGaudio in IN & OF ITSELF (c) Matthew Murphy

Derek DelGaudio in IN & OF ITSELF (c) Matthew Murphy

When attempting to describe the solo performer to me, my friend Jeremy called Mr. DelGaudio a magician.  True, DelGaudio has won the Academy of Magical Arts Award three times.  Nevertheless, I don’t believe that term really fits this storyteller/ fantasy travel agent.  He uses slight of hand the way most people in society use verbal persuasion.  It’s like Spalding Gray and Ricky Jay had a love child.  There are no rabbits or white doves in sight, though there is an elephant if one knows where to look.  Certainly I have never witnessed anyone else execute an illusion so profound and intimate it made someone cry, as happened to my friend.  (OK, I teared up a little too, but only cuz she was.)  I can’t imagine the self-preservation routine DelGaudio has developed in order to render this piece 8 times a week.  I’m going to need a visit to 16 Handles after just writing about it.

The direction by Frank Oz seems effortless, which is what’s required it in order to float through this evening.  There were a few occasions during which I wanted to look both in front and behind me, which was frustrating and perfect.  For once the term “production designer,” assigned to A. Bandit — the performance art collective founded by DelGaudio with artistic producer, Glenn Katino — is earned since the set would fit right in at MOMA.  Lighting by Adam Blumenthal is mood-transformative despite his techniques being unmasked in DelGaudio’s opening.  Original music by composer and Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh hits all the right notes in all the meanings of that phrase.

Even in the season in which I saw Indecent, Sweat and Dear Evan Hanson, In & Of Itself rocked me to my core.  Be among the lucky ones to grab yourself a ticket for the run — now extended through September 3.  Visit http://www.inandofitselfshow.com/#home, especially if you can picture yourself clearly on the steps of the landmark former Union Square Savings Bank having a fairly personal post-show conversation with 199 strangers.

At least that’s what happened to me.

And it was magical.

Project W

ProjectWAnyone looking to fill an evening this week with good theater that supports a great cause and an even better movement should head over to the Cherry Lane for the Project W Theatre Festival.  Running June 6-10, this series of staged readings turns the spotlight on professional theater women in creative and business roles.  Pay-what-you-wish donations will be given to Planned Parenthood of NYC, which provides reproductive healthcare and educational programs to women and their families throughout the five boroughs.

The opening night selection, The Club written by Amy Fox and directed by Suzanne Agins, was a chuckle-filled meditation on the importance of nurturing friendships over time.  Four women who were roommates in college gather to celebrate one’s long-awaited pregnancy.  Over the course of the evening, they are forced to address the cracks that have developed in their relationships.  While none of the characters resonated with me — likely due to generational differences —  the overall tone and themes rang true.

When done well, staged readings can allow an audience the thrill of filling in the visuals. The rendition of The Club was a terrific example of this performance art.  The ensemble —  Cindy Cheung, Jolie Curtsinger, Emily Donahoe, Melanie Nicholls King, Eileen Rivera and Jason Liebman as the lone compassionate male voice —  had familiarized themselves with the lines well enough to interact with sincerity and listen with intensity.  Their ease made the banter flow, which was essential for this particular offering.

Festival producer InProximity was founded in 2008 by Ms. Curtsinger and Laurie Schaefer Fenton to highlight the candid, deep work of emerging female voices. Even in the year in which luminaries Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage have finally brought their brilliant works to Broadway, gender disparity in the arts remains.  It is important to cultivate opportunities to shine a light on the talented women of professional theater.

What was missing from a production billed as part of a “festival” was any element of celebration.  No one greeted the audience, welcomed the talent to the stage or delivered a word of thanks.  Even the donation basket sat quietly unattended on a side table.  Given the presence of co-founder Curtsinger in a leading role and her organization’s commitment to the development new works — a process that can take years of workshopping and rewrites —  I had also expected some form of feedback request.   The lack of interaction was a letdown and a lost opportunity to build camaraderie around a critical issue.

The Project W lineup continues the rest of the week with

Halcyon written by Danielle Mohlman and directed by Maureen Monterubio on Wednesday, June 7

Still Life written by Barbara Blumethal-Ehrlich and directed by Shelley Butler on June 8

Honor Killing written by Sarah Bierstock and directed by Pamela Berlin on June 9

The Flora and Fauna written by Alyson Mead and directed by Stefanie Sertich on June 10.

All performances take place 8PM in the smaller house at the Cherry Lane Theater.  For more information visit http://inproximitytheatre.org.

Building the Wall

If you admire our 45th President, you will likely consider Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall a bunch of liberal hysteria.  If on the other hand you are of the opinion that Mr. Trump’s policies have been injurious to the country, witnessing this production is like having someone poke a finger into the wound and fish around for the bullet.  The event is deeply painful and one can only hope to slightly feel better when it’s over.  For lovers of dramatic art, the extreme discomfort is offset somewhat by the exceptional lead performance delivered by James Badge Dale.

What often makes dystopian fiction palatable is that it takes place at a distant time or in a parallel universe.  This unpleasant tale unfolds in an El Paso, Texas prison in autumn, 2019.  Rick, the character portrayed by Mr. Dale, has been sentenced to death.  Over the course of 90 minutes we learn the details of his crimes through the questioning of Tamara Tunie’s Gloria, an historian who has come to capture Rick’s side of the story.

BuildingTheWallThough obviously embellished, Schenkkan’s premise is firmly rooted in current headlines.  There are references to true life incidents from as recent as February of this year.  Unfortunately, his dialogue — no doubt hastily written — is not realistic and often sounds like a PowerPoint lecture.  There is an additional challenge in having only one of the characters with something concrete to say.  The events are all in the past, with no action or dramatization of scene.  We get a few flashes of insight into Gloria, but for the most part Ms. Tunie is stuck asking, “why”.  Alot.

Thankfully, the focus is on Rick, who in the hands and mouth of Mr. Dale acquires depth that isn’t on the page.  One only has to flip through Dale’s IMDB photos to appreciate his chameleon-like range.  Confined in space and time, Rick attempts to take us on his journey from ex-military blue collar worker with a GED to a felon on death row.  Each step in his descent is made to sound completely reasonable, as is often true of Trump’s fans on the 6 o’clock news.  Perhaps that is part of the problem.  The play doesn’t stray far enough from a fairly predictable path until the last few irony-tinged lines.  As a result, it doesn’t give us much to think about except the faint hope that the worst will indeed be in the rearview in two years.

Director Ari Edelson, Founder of theatrical incubator The Orchard Projects, adds some essential physicality to Rick’s yarn spinning.  Tunie is little more than a coatrack.  Antje Ellermann’s set is suitable for its purpose.  Passages of time are defined by Tyler Micoleau’s subtle shifts in shaded lighting though Bart Fasbender’s tedious music and sound detract from rather than build tension.

Building the Wall has already played in four cities and is scheduled to be in New York through July 9.  If you wake up one morning feeling too good, you can likely score a $20 ticket and revel in Mr. Dale’s performance.  We may be in a political crisis, but there are more imaginative and helpful conversations on this topic than the one offered here.  Visit http://buildingthewallplay.com for details.

Indecent

Theater aficionados have long considered Paula Vogel a treasure.  Her plays — including Pulitzer Prize winner How I Learned To Drive — are generally unnerving and always thought-provoking.  Her work has given voice to the typically powerless: those who have been oppressed and abused.  Her teaching at Brown and Yale has nurtured another generation of powerful female voices, including Sarah Ruhl and the most recent Pulitzer winner, Lynn Nottage (for Sweat.)  With this impressive biography it is hard to believe that Indecent marks Ms. Vogel’s Broadway debut.  Fortunately it is an impressive one, with a story made more poignant by recent cultural shifts.

The events depicted stem from the development of another play: Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance.  As newly inserted and much needed program notes explain, Ms. Vogel first read Asch’s piece as a graduate student.  The tender and natural love scene between two women moved the budding gay rights activist to her core.  Nearly thirty years later, director Rebecca Taichman stumbled across God of Vengeance and, as a descendant of a Yiddish poet, longed to understand why it had eventually been renounced by its creator.  She reached out to Vogel and the two eventually had the opportunity to collaborate on Indecent, exploring the entire lifecycle of the groundbreaking and controversial piece.

It took 7 years and 40 drafts for Indecent to finally land on Broadway.  The results are as significant and disquieting as Asch’s was in its time.   Here is a play that takes place at a time when immigrants remade the City of New York landing just when immigrant populations are being targeted by a fresh wave of intolerance and xenophobia.  Director Taichman said in an interview with The New Yorker, “My heart is broken at how much more relevant this play is today than when it opened at Yale, a mere year and a half ago.”

Indecent

Production photo by Carol Rosegg

It is fitting that Vogel and Taichman share “created by” credit.  Vogel’s words and Taichman’s vision are so deeply entwined it is impossible to imagine how one would work without the other.  We are taken on a 50 year journey that starts in Asch’s bedroom with a reading and ends with his retirement from theater.  The actors play multiple roles much as they would have in a touring troupe of that period.  Beautifully crafted exchanges are interspersed with lilting traditional Jewish music composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva.  Dialogue beats are enhanced with projections in Yiddish, German and English designed by Tal Yarden.

The cast works so seamlessly together that it is difficult to call anyone out.  Richard Topol has been nominated for his featured role as Lemml, the stage manager who often serves as our narrator.  Katrina Lenk has also received nods, perhaps because she plays the graceful “older women” in the play within.  However she, along with Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson are named simply “Actor” in the Playbill.  Truly grace and strength course through every performance.  Most of the ensemble transferred to The Cort Theater from a run Off-Broadway.  Perhaps that explains why they seem so comfortable portraying a long-term well-respected road company.

This wrenching and precious play is currently set to run through September 10 at The Cort Theater.  If you value theater that will change you, visit http://indecentbroadway.com for tickets and information.