By Karen Isaacs
Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.
So how did the season measure up?
My top plays:
The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse
Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage
Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage
Meteor Shower at Long Wharf
Endgame at Long Wharf
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
My top musicals:
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks
Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed
Gypsy at MTC
He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels
The top touring shows:
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell
The King & I at the Bushnell
An American in Paris at the Bushnell
A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell
Shows that pleasantly surprised me:
Absolute Turkey at CRT
Bilox Blues at Ivoryton
Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels
Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..
Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.
The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.
Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.
Among the Disappointments.
Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities. Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.
Assassins at Yale Rep. I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.
The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.
Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf. More soap opera than compelling drama.
Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.
But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.
By Karen Isaacs
In September 1993, an event occurred in the White House Rose Garden that gave the world hope for a Middle East peace: it was the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Yasser Arafat were photographed shaking hands and later the two shared the Nobel Peace Prize. President Clinton looked on.
The back story that led to that historic occasion is the subject of the new play Oslo at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Playwright J. T. Rogers makes it very clear in his notes that this is not intended to be an absolutely accurate portrayal of the “back channel” negotiations that occurred in Oslo. He admits that locations and chronology has been changed and compressed. He has removed some characters and as he says “some of those who remain have been assigned different roles than their actual counterparts…the words they say are mine.”
But accepting that this is not a documentary, it is still a compelling though long (about three hours) drama. At times it reminded me of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods, another play about unconventional diplomatic negotiations. I saw the play first last August when it was produced at Lincoln Center’s smaller theater. The response was so enthusiastic it reopened this March in the larger Beaumont Theater. I was eager to see this play again.
For while the signing of the accords was at the White House, the US had very little to do with the entire process. That was the doing of Norwegian diplomats and Terje Rod-Larsen, director of the Fafo Institute and the husband of an official in the foreign ministry. It was his theory that for negotiations to be successful, rather than put everything on the table at once, the two parties should start with one issue and when that is resolved, go on to the next. He also believed that personal relationships are a necessity for success.
Some research assured me that Larsen, was indeed head of the Institute which focused on Labour and Social Research as well as Applied International Studies. He had a PhD in sociology.
At the end of 1992, two unofficial representatives of the Israeli government met with Ahmed Quiri, finance minister of the PLO and Hassan Asfour at a manor house outside of Oslo. Larsen insisted that the four men meet and talk alone; in the evenings he expected them to join him and his wife, Mona, over food, drink and non-business talk of families and backgrounds mixed with humor.
It was an auspicious start. The two Israelis, economists, had no authority but were reporting to the deputy foreign minister who had sent them on his own imitative. The PLO delegates had more authority and standing, but were angry and skeptical.
Over the course of months and months of meetings, the four men began not only to establish personal relationships but to hammer out an initial draft of an understanding that dealt with such issues as Jericho and the Gaza Strip.
As Mona states early in the play, it took nine months. The movement was in fits and starts. The issues were enormous. The PLO representatives wanted the Israeli negotiators to be government officials; finally that happened when Uri Savir, director-general of the foreign ministry joined the talks.
In the play, senior Norwegian officials were also in the dark about this effort for months; when the foreign minister Johan Jorgen Holst learns of the act ivies of Larsen and Mona, he is not necessarily thrilled. It is dangerous effort and could alienate the US.
Praises to director Bartlett Sher and the entire cast. Sher and his cast not only keep the pace moving and the tension building – even though you know from the outset that the agreement was reached – but they mine the humor that is necessary to keep this from being dull. His entire production team has worked in concert to fulfill his vision.
The cast returned to this play after a hiatus; their performances have deepened and sharpened. If each was good the when I saw last August, they are even better now. Director Bartlett Sher has also adjusted his staging to the larger playing space without losing either intimacy or pace.
Particular praise must be given to dialect coach Elizabeth Smith – she and the cast maintain a variety of accents – primarily Norwegian, Arab and Israeli – while remaining understandable at all times. The accents never become stereotypical but always sound authentic.
Let us heap praises on the cast. Jefferson Mays is one of my favorite actors and again as Larsen he turns in marvelous performance. Not only with the accent but the depths of the character from his certainties to his ego to his doubt. Jennifer Ehle matches his as his wife, Mona. She is steady, calming and truly diplomatic. Michael Aronov is fantastic as the Uri Savir who takes over the negotiations for the Israeli government. Dariush Kashani as Hassam and AnthonyAzizi Quiri are also outstanding. In fact, there is no one in the cast that can be faulted. Each actor whether playing one role or more, creates fully rounded characters that you know and relate to.
Oslo is a play that is well worth seeing. In fact, it is worth seeing twice.
For tickets visit Lincoln Center.
By Karen Isaacs
Authors have, for decades, attempted to write sequels to classic works. It’s tricky business with many questions that need answering. Should a sequel be done? After all, if the original author wanted to do one, he or she would have. Do you try to emulate the original author’s voice? How do you determine what does happen? Should it be what seems most logical for the feel and the period of the original work? The period when the sequel is written?
A Doll’s House – Part 2 by Lucas Hnath has attempted to tell us what has happened to Nora, Torvald and the other characters in Ibsen’s classic play. It is set 15 years after the famous door slam.
If you don’t recall the original play, it is a multi-layered play about Nora and Helmar Torvald over the Christmas holiday in 1879, Norway. A secret that Nora has been concealing from Helmar comes to light which causes her to look at herself and her marriage in a new light. This results in her leaving both her husband and her three young children with the famous door slam that is said to have reverberated throughout the world.
Scholars have debated Nora’s action and the reasons behind it. In the course of the play, Ibsen raises a number of issues that go well beyond those of the rights of women and married women in particular. Depending on which of these multiple issues you focus on, your view of Nora’s choices will vary and so will your sense of what might have happened to her and those she left behind.
Hnath focuses on just four characters: Nora; her husband, Torvald; the nurse-maid Anne Marie; and the daughter she left behind, Emmy.
Nora returns to the same apartment that she had left after having contacted Anne Marie. No one is home except Anne Marie. It seems that Nora has a problem. She has assumed that Torvald divorced her after she left. Therefore she has lived and acted as a single woman, signing contracts and having relationships, all of which would be possible illegal for a married woman to do without her husband’s permission.
She has also become a writer whose works argue that marriage is oppressive to women; she has become a feminist whose works are both well-known and generate angry reactions. Apparently, a local judge has been looking into Nora’s past after his wife took her message to heart and left him. Thus, the reason for the visit.
During the course of the play all four of the characters get their say. The family had presumed Nora dead; after all they had neither heard from or of her in the years since. Each harbors resentments – to her and she to them. She doesn’t understand why Helmar never got the divorce which was much, much easier for a husband to attain. Anne Marie spent years picking up the pieces Nora left behind – caring and raising her three children. The two boys are out of the house, but Emmy the youngest is still at home and resents missing out on a mother. Torvald resents that Nora never allowed him and them as a couple to work through the problems she saw in the marriage.
Hnath and director Sam Gold has combined 19th century sets (though very bare) and costumes, with 21st century language (the F-bomb and others go off from all the characters) as well as interesting body language choices for Nora. The frankness of the discussions seems inappropriate for the late 19th century.
No matter how you react to the play and Hnath’s view of Nora – and I will discuss my reactions – you will be thrilled by the performances, even if you disagree with how the characters are written. Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Jane Hoydyshell as Anne Marie, Chris Cooper as Torvald and Condola Rashad as Emmy are all magnificent.
But, despite how good they are, for me Hnath took the wrong track with his play. First of all it is too comedic in both writing and direction. He has created a Nora that is totally self-centered which is how many students view her when they first read the play. But if you explore Ibsen’s themes more thoroughly, I don’t think you can see her in that one-dimensional light. Nora is a more complex person that just a self-centered, self-involved individual. Leaving her family was for multiple reasons.
By going for the laughs – a gentleman sitting next to me was loudly guffawing through much of the play – he has detracted from what might have been a very interesting discussion of how a woman, relatively sheltered and unaware of how society worked, survived and prospered. How did others react to her? What stumbles occurred along the way? Did she have any regrets or was she totally unintrospective.
None of these are answered and while A Doll’s House, Part II is an enjoyable evening particularly because of the fine acting, it could have been so much more. Hnath seems to rely too much on our knowledge of the play and our viewpoint of it.
A Doll’s House – Part II is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street through July 23. For tickets, contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Movies into Broadway musicals. The trend continues with Groundhog Day starring Andy Karl. The musical will not make you forget about the film, but it does provide a diverting evening in the theater featuring a terrific performance by Andy Karl and some clever “sleight of hand” illusions.
You won’t leave the theater humming the tunes or anxious to see it all again, but you will have enjoyed it.
The musical keeps the basic plot of the 1993 movie which starred Bill Murray as the TV weather forecaster Phil Connors who gets caught in an interesting time-warp. He works for a Pittsburgh TV station and is sent to cover the Groundhog Day activities in Punxsutawney, home of one of the most famous of the groundhogs. He’s done it all before. Add to the fact that Phil has a healthy ego who enjoys the celebrity status he has achieved although it has gone to his head a bit; he is not the nicest of guys.
In the film, he arrives in Punxsutawney with his producer, Rita and a cameraman, Chris. On Groundhog Day he wakes up and does a half-hearted and somewhat snide on-camera presentation and then wants to immediately leave. Rita wants to stay but soon a blizzard (which Phil had predicted would not hit the area) has closed all the roads. The next morning, Phil awakens to find it is Groundhog Day again and that cycle is repeated many times with Phil becoming upset, depressed and angry. Finally the cycle is broken when Phil becomes a nicer, friendlier man.
The musical retains the central idea but has made significant changes. The producer Rita is no longer an experienced producer whom Phil has worked with before and for whom he may have feelings. Now she is a total surprise to Phil; she’s young and this is her first time producing a segment. While Phil does eventually develop feelings for her, at first he finds her enthusiasm annoying. The musical is also stuffed with a variety of “colorful” local characters.
The problem is that much of the show is repetition of the events of Groundhog Day. So we see the sheriff misplacing his gun, the “cute” teenage couple giggling and excited to see Phil over and over again. The time warp seems to go on 10 or more times. How many times is it funny or interesting to see the mundane lines repeated?
So despite the endless loop of repetition, the show offers some good performances and some respectable, if not highly creative, songs by Tim Minchin who did the same for Matilda. Let’s just say that the music/lyrics are serviceable with only one song “Nobody Cares” that I’m interested in hearing again.
What will keep you wondering is how Phil can be in so many places almost simultaneously. I won’t spoil the illusion, but you see Phil singing one song and a moment later he is waking in bed to start the day over again. In film, that would easy to accomplish; on the stage it will have you oohing and aahing.
Andy Karl carries the show; he manages to make even the irascible Phil somehow sympathetic and likeable. Right now he is doing that with a brace on his left leg; theater fans know that he hurt his knee right before the opening night. After missing a few performances, he returned with the brace which has to be awkward, heavy and tiring. It’s not clear if any choreography was changed to accommodate his injury, but he certainly moves around the stage a great deal.
As Rita, Barrett Doss does a good job as the overly gung-ho producer who doesn’t really know how to handle Phil. John Sanders manages to find a variety of emotions for Ned Ryerson the old friend and insurance agent that Phil meets on each reiteration of the day.
While the movie was almost a dark comedy, here that element has been lost. Despite Phil’s increasing depression and agitation at the repetitions of the day, it all remains too perky and happy. In the middle of the second act, there is the “big” dance featuring the entire company that simply seems both out of place and a delaying tactic to get to the final curtain.
All the production elements are very good including the scenic design by Bob Howell (he also did the costumes) that includes a wild car ride among its effects. Matthew Warchus as directed it efficiently.
See Groundhog Day for Andy Karl’s performance. He has the potential to be a long-term presence on Broadway and a major star.
It is at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
“Indecent,” the new play by Paula Vogel blends music, dance, song, scenes from the famous Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance” and the history of the play so seamlessly that you are entranced.
It weaves these multiple stories plus episodes from the life of its author Sholem Asch to create a multi-dimensional piece performed by a true ensemble. Six actors are assigned multiple roles based on age — the two older play an older characters, the 40ish actors play characters of that age and the younger performers play the younger characters. Yet you never are confused about who is playing which character.
With the exception of Richard Topol who plays the stage manager/narrator (as well as other characters), the program simply lists them as “actor”.
The piece was directed by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who has been with the project since its beginning. It had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 2015 and won numerous awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle. It then played off-Broadway before now making it to the Great White Way.
During its travel, the same cast has remained with it as well as the same production team and musicians.
The Broadway production is stronger than the one I saw at Yale. Yet it retains the essence of the story.
For most theatr-goers, the incidents which the play recounts will not be familiar. It involves the novelist/playwright Sholem Asch who wrote initially in Yiddish and his play The God of Vengeance.
This play delves deeper than just the history of the production of this work and its author. It raises an issue that every minority who is looked down upon by mainstream society faces: Should the less-than-admirable aspects of our group be revealed for those who already denigrate us?
Indecent covers the period from the play’s writing and first reading in a Warsaw literary salon in 1907 through WWII and even beyond.
At that time, in what was called the Jewish Enlightenment, many Eastern European Jews were promoting literature written in Yiddish. But many of those who promoted this also wanted positive portrayals of the Jews living in Eastern Europe.
At the first reading, God of Vengeance was controversial; the young Asch writes a play that includes a Jewish owned brothel, a love affair between the owner’s daughter and one of the prostitutes, and the “shocking” treatment of a Jewish scroll. It showed a side of Jewish life which many did not want told.
The men start reading the play but are soon horrified. The play tells the story of a Jewish man who runs a brothel, his wife is one of his former prostitutes and he has a virginal daughter. But the daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes to her father’s horror.
Yet the play was produced in Berlin with the great actor Rudolph Schildkraut as the father, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other locations throughout Europe in both Yiddish and native languages. In New York City’s lower east side, the play had various successful productions for more than 15 years.
Asch and some of the performers in the actors (including Schildkraut) emigrated to the US and in 1923, the Provincetown Playhouse in New York (known for producing the works of Eugene O’Neill) produced an English production.
It is here that the story of The God of Vengeance turns. The producer wants to bring it to Broadway, but feels the story must be revised to fit the up-town audience; Asch lets the producer do it, but never reads the changes. His English was very limited and he had turned his attention to writing novels. Many felt the new version makes the play even more controversial; instead of a love story between the prostitute and the daughter, the prostitute is simply trying to recruit the daughter the life. A Rabbi files an obscenity complaint and the entire cast, producers and theater owner are all arrested and convicted of indecency. (The conviction is later overturned).
During the course of the 100 minute play, a very talented cast of six plays a variety of roles.
Max Gordon Moore portrays Asch as a man of conviction though flawed. He admits he agreed to the cuts for the Broadway production without reading them and refuses to testify at the company’s criminal trial. Katrina Link is luminous as the prostitute Manke who falls in love with the daughter – on stage and with the actress in real life. Her commitment to the work is clear. Adina Verson plays not only Asch’s wife but also Rifkele, the daughter. Tom Nellis plays I.L. Peretz, the salon host but also the actor Rudolph Schildkraut with elegance and grace. Mimi Lieber plays the mother in Asch’s play and Steve Rattazzi plays the producer, the Rabbi and others.
Richard Topol serves as both the stage manager and the defender of the piece. His portrayal is heart-breaking as the young man from the provinces who first hears the play read and is totally transformed by it and is the stage manager/defender during its controversial production.
The movement choreographed by David Dorfman adds an elegant touch, especially the very graceful Tom Nellis.
The play begins as if the characters have been packed away for years, perhaps even buried and it moves among the various scenes with props pulled from old-fashioned suitcases.
Taichman as director has a sure hand at managing the multiple scene changes and characters in the play. She is aided by her production team – lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, costume designer Emily Rebholz, sound designer Matt Hubs and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez.
Three fine musicians – Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva (both of whom composed the music) and Travis W. Hendrix – provide an accompaniment that is reminiscent of klezmer music.
Indecent is a fascinating play that any theater lover should see. It explores a piece of theater history as well as raising challenging questions about the role of literature for minority populations.
It is at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. For tickets visit Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Take two Broadway stars – both genuine stars beloved by musical fanatics and a story of two powerful women – and you have War Paint.
The two stars, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole each have two Tonys plus numerous nominations. The two powerful women are Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Both were pioneers. Each built a corporation in her own name, and together made the wearing of cosmetics respectable for “ladies.”
The bulk of War Paint takes place in the 1930s and 40s, the heyday of the Arden and Rubenstein brands. They were NOT friendly competitors. Each had overcome an impoverished background: for Rubenstein it was the shtetl of Poland and for Arden it was a farm in Ontario. Rubenstein promoted the image of the scientist who created her own products; Arden’s image was of the society, WASP blue blood.
The show alternates between the two of them, showing their successes, their problems, their competitive urges, and their downfalls. Both faced challenges when WWII limited the availability of ingredients needed for their cosmetics; Arden created a red lipstick to match the red on the Marine Corps chevrons. Women in the Corps were required to wear the “Victory Red” lipstick and nail polish as part of their uniforms. Rubenstein also succeeded during the war after appealing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Afer the war, each faced questioning by a Congressional committee about the ingredients in their products and the sometimes extravagant claims made for them. It led to regulations requiring ingredient labels on the products. Women learned that the products themselves often cost only pennies while the elaborate packaging (Arden’s included silk ribbons and glass jars) cost much, much more.
Both ended up losing the companies they had built in part because in the 1950s they refused to change and accept the more youth-oriented culture and the need for lower price lines. Soon Charles Revson had outshone them with Revlon. Yet both brands continue today; in fact, Arden’s headquarters are in Stamford and her famous “Red Door Spa” still is on 5th Avenue in NYC as well as other places.
Each also faced discrimination due to the gender and to their backgrounds. In a poignant moment towards the end of the show, Rubenstein is rejected for a co-op apartment because of her Jewish heritage and Arden is rejected for membership in an exclusive “society” club for her lower class background.
In addition, each found that men often assumed that they were figureheads whose
successes were engineered by the men who surrounded them. For many years, Arden’s husband (Tommy Lewis) was head of marketing, but she was careful to keep publicity about the relationship to a minimum. As she said, “The moment they credit you, they discredit me – you’re in pants.”
Two men figured prominently in both their lives. Arden’s husband eventually went to work for Rubenstein after Arden replaced him with Rubenstein’s former head of marketing (Harry Fleming) and they divorced.
The show depends on the two leading ladies and they both deliver. Lupone plays Rubenstein with a heavy eastern European accent that can make it difficult to understand lines. It is especially noticeable in the songs where Lupone has always had a tendency to garble words. But she creates a feisty woman willing to be direct and make difficult decisions. Her competitiveness is born out of her background of being denigrated for her religion in Poland and her immigrant status in the U.S.
Ebersole’s Arden is equally competitive but cloaked in a more genteel ladylike garb. While she can belt with Lupone, her voice is also more lyrical to match the character. If Lupone’s Rubenstein is dramatic and “artistic,” Ebersole’s Arden is gracious and polite.
Yet underneath the exteriors, each had steel core. It is what led to their downfalls; neither was willing to acknowledge the changes in society. Both stuck with their original concepts of making cosmetics acceptable to middle class women. At one point one of them says that teens and young women did not need make-up they had youthful beauty on their side.
The show was written by Doug Wright, a Tony (and Pulitzer) winner in his own right with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. They are best known for the Tony nominated musical Grey Gardens.
If you don’t walk out of the theater humming the tunes, it may partly be due to the lack of reprises. You don’t have the opportunity for a melody to be reinforced. It will take hearing the CD to decide it the score is merely serviceable of it goes beyond that.
The two ladies are ably assisted by Douglas Sills as Harry and John Dossett as Tommy, each of whom has his own Tony nominations. Sills has the more flamboyant role as the handsome and gay Harry. Both men hold their own on the stage with these to magnetic women.
The remainder of the ensemble play multiple roles. Erik Liberman stands out as Charles Revson, who saw the marketing possibilities of television and created his own brand.
Michael Greif’s direction minimizes the confusions as we go back and forth between the
stories of the two women. By using a small ensemble, the minor characters are unable to develop any specifics; they seem interchangeable – shop clerks, society women, customers, etc. He keeps the spotlight firmly on the two leads.
Christopher Gatelli did the minimal choreography but is also responsible for the choreographed walks on the stage.
The set by David Korns features a backdrop of various cosmetic bottles, vials and others which are cleverly lighted by Kenneth Posner; Posner also creates several other interesting effects.
Catherine Zuber must have had a ball creating the numerous costumes which reflect trends from the late’20s to the ’50 and for a variety of personalities. Rubenstein was more dramatic in her apparel while Arden fitted into the upper class society matron style.
War Paint may not be a great musical but it gives us the opportunity to see two great stage performers show off their talents, with two strong supporting men in the cast and a story about the obstacles women have faced. That makes it worth seeing.
It is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
Thank heavens for Kevin Kline! His performance in the revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, now at the St. James Theater is worth studying over and over again.
This play, written when Coward was in his early forties, is a comedy about an actor who is a leading man known for romantic comedies. In a few days he is leaving on a tour of Africa but before then there are various complications including a young woman who thinks she is in love with him, a young playwright who wants advice, his estranged wife, and his director, producer and the producer’s wife. His secretary, butler and a housekeeper try to keep things running smoothly.
It is half romantic comedy, and half farce and Kline and the fine cast assembled by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel are all up to the task.
Garry Essendine (Kline) is an aging romantic lead who has incorporated the mannerisms and life style of the characters he plays into his own life. That is to say, he is not only almost always “on” but he can overdo it a bit with affected gestures.
The play opens one morning with a young woman (Daphne) coming out of the guest bedroom in his pajamas and robe. She has obviously stayed the night, because as she explains she had lost her “latch key” (house keys) and he had let her stay. When he finally emerges from his bedroom, he has no recollection of the young woman and it takes him a while to get her to leave. She proclaims undying love and it is clear that Essendine had said some such dialogue to her the night before. But he acts the scene of his renunciation of her as though it were a stage play.
During this time, the stoic secretary (Monica) has arrived to try to keep things in order and the valet is on hand. The apartment is soon bustling as the estranged wife arrives from France. She’s concerned that the wife of the producer is having an affair with the director. The five of them – Essendine, his wife, the director, Morris and the producer, Henry – have been friends and colleagues for years. Essendine and Liz, his wife are afraid that Joanna, Henry’s wife, will destroy the group.
Soon, Roland Maule arrives. It seems that Essndine answered his own phone and made an appointment to see the young playwright. Maule really seems very strange – high strung, nervous and vacillating between attacking Essendine for doing “just light comedy” and groveling. His play is quite bad and he is told to go away, write twenty plays, discard them and perhaps the 21st will be good enough to be produced.
But that are not all of the complications that begin to exasperate Essendine. Maule
returns unexpectedly and refuses to leave. He is fascinated observing the goings on. It also seems that Johanna has arrived the night before, having “forgotten her latch key” – she is wondering around in his pajamas and robe but is much more demanding than Daphne was and seems to have no intention of leaving. Of course, Liz, Monica and Essendine try to hide her presence as her husband and Morris arrive – her husband and lover. Added to the developing chaos is the return of Daphne who has convince her grandmother to arrange an audition for her with Essendine.
Soon, everyone is proclaiming that they have booked passage and will be accompanying him to Africa.
Coward’s drawing room comedies require a deft hand. They are easily overplayed or the sophisticate witticisms can seem pretentious. With this cast, they sound utterly natural. The dialogue must be conversational and not feel forced in any way.
Kline, Kate Burton and Liz, Kristine Nielsen as Monica and the rest of the cast excel in carrying it off. It’s high comedy, it’s farce, but it must seem natural. Timing is everything, but it must not seem forced.
Kline is the ideal actor for this role; he has the good looks to be a romantic leading man, and he can lift an eyebrow to make a point with the best of them. He doesn’t sound like Coward (who originated the part) yet gets all the laughs without seeming forced or trying. Just watching him sit and listen to the others is a class in acting and reacting.
Kristine Nielsen as the unflappable secretary – she’s seen it all before – is the counterpoint to the mayhem that is going on. Yet she manages to not let her stoic nature become unresponsive or boring.
As Liz, Kate Burton has a difficult job – she must convey amusement at Essendine’s peccadillos, but also concern and motherliness as she and Monica must manage the goings on. Underneath you must wonder if she is still in love with him. Although hampered by some unflattering – but period appropriate hats and costumers – she manages it all. She seems cool, calm and collected at all times.
As Roland Maule, the young aspiring playwright, Bhavesh Patel creates the wild eyed demeanor of a potential madman.
Cobie Smulders conveys how dangerous to the five-some is Johanna, Henry’s wife. She is sophisticated and cool and calculating; you must understand why Essendine and Liz have feared her but she must also convey a sense of determination to get her own way and to settle old scores. She has never felt accepted by the group.
Tedra Millan captures the essences of Daphne with a high pitched voice, the enthusiasm of a school girl and the determination of an English debutante.
David Zinn has created a beautiful duplex as Essendine’s home complete with 1930-40’s details. It seems so appropriate for the character. The costumes by Susan Hilferty reflect not only the styles of the period, but the glamour of the characters. Fitz Patton’s sound design adds to the show though I would have preferred some Coward songs to those used. Justin Townsend’s lighting is very good.
I’ve seen several productions of this play including Frank Langella’s performance in 1997. Kevin Kline is the best Essendine that I’ve seen. I would gladly see this production again and again.
Present Laughter is at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. It runs through July 2. For tickets visit ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
A clever idea that goes on for two hours when it would work best if it were 30 minutes at most, is the problem with The Play That Goes Wrong, now at the Lyceum Theater. BUT some will find it a riotous laugh fest. It depends on your enjoyment of extreme slapstick.
The British hit (it won an Olivier award, the equivalent of a Tony) with its cast intact, can provide some silly fun. But even silly fun can become tedious if it is over-extended.
Last year’s revival of Noises Off is a much better play than this concoction.
The conceit is that a student theatrical group is putting on a production of a typical Agatha Christie-like murder mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. It is opening night and not only are the actors pretty untalented but parts of the set keep falling down.
The show really focuses on physical comedy. Doors slam into people more times than you can count; people trip, fall, doors stick, windows are climbed through, and just about every other type of pratfall occurs, not once, not twice but multiple times.
I can only hope the cast has good health insurance; several have suffered multiple concussions doing the show in England.
The show opens with the “director” played by Henry Shields, appearing before the audience to welcome us and to apologize that the expected show is not the one we will see. Of course, that show is professional and better known. Even before he is doing this, we see various stage hands and the lighting/sound board operator running about trying to prop up the flimsy set of an old-fashioned English manor house. They even enlist an audience member to help.
Into the mystery we go. It appears that Charles Haversham has been murdered in his study on the very night of his engagement to Florence Collymore. So who could have killed him? The suspects include the fiancé who really loves Haversham’s younger brother, Cecil; Cecil himself; Florence’s brother, Thomas, an old friend of Charles’; and the long-time butler, Perkins.
Soon the detective, Inspector Carter, arrives to start trying to solve the case.
Simultaneously, the entire production begins to totally fall apart.
Let’s first talk about the actors. It’s difficult for a good actor to play someone who can’t act; but this young group of well-trained and experienced performers, pull it off.
We have the butler, Perkins, who not only has an emotionless voice but tends to put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, after looking at his hand where it is obviously written. Jonathan Sayer carries it off with deadpan accuracy.
Then there is David Hearn who plays Cecil Haversham. It is delightful to see him react to the audience’s reaction. At first startled, he soon begins to bask in the glow of the approval and attempts to maximize it, adding bits of stage business and communication with the audience.
Bob Falconer plays Trevor, the sound/stage board operator who too often misses cues because he is looking on his phone, the computer, or trying to locate a CD. He finds it when it accidently plays during the production.
Of course, Shields turns up as Inspector Carter; he is very good. The two women are Charlie Russell who plays the fiancé (Florence); she manages to get dragged through the window among other things. Plus, when she is knocked out, the stage hand Annie, played the night I saw it by Bryony Corrigan, takes over. When Florence comes to, Annie refuses to give up the role; they battle on stage, often echoing themselves.
In fact the entire cast is very good.
Special applause should go to Nigel Hook who created the scenic design as well as the stage hands who must keep putting the set back together. There is one scene where the balcony begins to tilt; it hangs in the air through shaking and slowly angling like the Titanic.
If you love physical, silly comedy and enjoy it for extended periods, you will find The Play that Goes Wrong hilarious. If that is not your favorite OR if you like it only in small doses, then you may find the play goes on too long.
It is at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Charming is a word that can sometimes be used to damn something with faint praise.
Amélie, the new musical based on the successful French film, is — there is no other way of putting it — charming. Not in a cloying way, but with a sweet innocence.
The movie — which was released in 2001, told the story of a young waitress who goes about helping and doing good deeds for others. Her goal is to bring happiness to others and with her imagination and personality she not only succeeds but finds love herself. It became a worldwide hit and was nominated for a number of Oscars, yet audience reactions were mixed. Some loved it for its sweetness and charm (there’s that word again) while others hated it for its simplicity.
The new musical was adapted by Craig Lucas (book), Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe (lyrics) and music by Daniel Messe. Messe is the founder of the musical group Hem and Tyson wrote the lyrics for the recent Broadway show Tuck Everlasting.
The show also tries to maintain a Gallic sensibility.
The problem with Amélie is that nothing really happens. I never saw the film, so I can’t say if the musical adaptation is the problem. But there is no conflict, no problems, not even any deep-seated yearnings by Amélie. She seems like a pleasant young lady with an active imagination and the soul of a Girl Scout.
That and the eccentric characters that habituate the Montmartre café where she works are not enough to fill two hours of entertainment.
Perhaps if the show featured outstanding music, or innovative music, or if dance had played a major role, the show might have been better.
You can’t fault the performers. Phillipa Soo, who won acclaim in Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) has a lovely singing voice. Unfortunately she has been saddled with a character that needs a large dose of charisma to keep our attention. She just doesn’t radiate star power.
With the exception of Adam Chanler-Berat who plays Nino, the love interest and Maria-Christina Oliveras who plays a fellow waitress, all the other performers play multiple roles. Too many of these are brief cameos that leave little room for character development; the blind beggar, the rock star, and more.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the musical is Dufayel played by Tony Sheldon. Dufayel is a painter whose studio Amélie can see from her room. He paints over and over again a replica of Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party, but he is never satisfied with the girl drinking a glass of water.
In some way Amélie touches everyone’s life, even his. But it is all so gently done that the show lacks drive.
What is good about the show? First of all, the cast is talents and achieves as much possible from the material. Tony Sheldon adds an acerbic bite to his portrayal of Dufayel. Adam Chanler-Berat is earnest as Nino, the love interest. But it is telling that a few hours after leaving the theater it is difficult to remember details of the characters, the performances or the songs. They have all faded away.
Pam MacKinnon has directed this and has tried to maintain some Gallic sensibility but even that seems lost. The scenic and costume design by David Zinn is serviceable as if the lighting and sound. Puppets – including a garden gnome – are well designed by Amanda Villalobos. But just the inclusion of the puppets seems like a bit of misplaced whimsy.
As I was watching the show, I recalled another show, Amour, that was big on French charm and had a plot that seemed to defy reality. But that show had a some conflict and sadness in it.
Amélie is a show where the biggest question is why does someone collect photos discarded from those substation photo booths, and who is the man in multiple photos that have discarded all over the city.
Amélie is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 19 W. 48th Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
“Sweat” – Lynn Nottage’s new play that has transferred from off-Broadway is a chilling tale of the plight of working class people. It is a story all too familiar to residents of “the rust belt.”
A family owned industry that has provided good paying jobs with benefits for generations to the working people of a community first tries to force draconian union concessions, then locks out the workers and hires cheaper, non-union replacements, and finally, almost inevitably departs for a foreign location.
So what happens to the people on the plant floor? They, and their parents and grandparents have given their blood and their sweat to the company, making the executives rich and gaining a secure middle class life for themselves.
The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly in the local bar where a number of the workers hang out. But it opens in 2008 in a drab, office like setting with cinder blocks walls. In two separate rooms we meet two young men: Jason and Chris, an African –American. Each is being questioned and talked to by a man, who we realize is their parole officer. Each has just gotten out of jail for an incident in 2000. Somehow these two young men – in their early twenties – know each and were both involved in the incident. Each is having difficulty adjusting to life on the outside and to getting a new start. But Jason has Aryan nation symbols tattooed on his face and neck, while Chris has almost completed his bachelor’s degree.
The play then flashes back to a series of scenes over months of 2000. Over the course of months, we see the all-too-familiar events play out. Three women hang out at the bar, celebrating birthdays and other events: Cynthia is Chris’ mother—she’s hardworking and ambitious, but married to Brucie who has fallen into addiction. Tracey is Jason’s mother; she too is hard-working but has an “attitude.” Jessie, the third friend seems more like a mediator between the two though she does tend to drink way too much. The bartender is Stan, who had worked in the plant until he was injured on the job.
This is a working class bar. People come in after work and the talk mostly is involved with the work. Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband, had worked at another plant until the owners demanded concessions, the union went on strike, the workers were locked out, replacements were hired, and now the company refuses to talk with the union, even though it is willing to capitulate.
In the months that follow – the same scene begins at the plant where Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie work. Even Chris and Jason get jobs there; Chris for the summer to make enough money to go to college and Jason sees it as his future.
For them, it seems like a way into middle class. For Oscar, the bar assistant who is Colombian but born in the U.S., it seems like a closed system. To get a job you have to know someone. The jobs tend to go to the families who have spent their lifetime in the plant.
The rumors begin of the plant owners asking for concessions. Then there is an opening for a supervisor which both Cynthia and Tracy apply for. Cynthia gets the job which creates a fracture between the three women. Tracey believes Cynthia was promoted because of her race.
As the rumors flow, machines begin disappearing until the day the employees are locked out. Soon replacements are hired, including Oscar.
Jason reacts with increasing anger until, one night when Oscar comes back to the bar to get his remaining things, violence occurs. Unfortunately, Stan is an unintended victim.
This is why Jason and Chris were in jail.
In the last scenes, we see what has happened to Cynthia, Tracey, Chris, Jason, Oscar and Stan, as well as Jessie.
All have suffered devastating losses.
Director Kate Whoriskey has assembled a terrific ensemble for this play and then directed them with a master’s touch. They work seamlessly as an unit. Johanna Day has, perhaps, the showiest role as Tracey who is outspoken and abrasive. She speaks her mind. Day creates a character who we are both annoyed with and sympathetic towards. Michelle Wilson gives as a Cynthia who is more refined and determined. With that determination, she and her son, Chris (played by Khris Davis) seem cut from the same cloth. You know why Chris is striving to better himself. Will Pullen’s Jason also seems so obviously related to his mother, Tracey. Pullen gives us the angry and impulsive young man whose resentment seems to ooze from every part of him.
James Colby as the bartender, Stan, is the voice of reason while John Earl Jelks as Brucie is the warning of what can and is about to happen. Carlo Albán gives us a sensitive Oscar, the outsider who just wants a piece of the dream.
The set by John Lee Beatty creates the typical neighborhood bar – a little run down – yet a place the workers feel at home. It is bolstered by the lighting by Peter Kaczorowksi, the sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen and the costumes by Jennifer Moeller.
Sweat is a disturbing and moving portrait of working class America today. It is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street for a limited run. For tickets visit telecharge.