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.
By Karen Isaacs
One of the hardest things for most people to do, is to realize that the choices we made in life were not forced but voluntary. That often they satisfied some deep-seated need.
In Arthur Miller’s The Price which is getting an outstanding production at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, Victor Franz, a NYC police officer is forced to confront those truths. He must let go of the resentment and belief that the choices he made in life were forced upon him by others. He willingly made them.
It is 1968, Victor Franz is waiting for an antique dealer to arrive. He is finally selling the furniture and artifacts that were his father’s, though the father died 16 years before. But for some reason, it has been undisturbed until now the building has been sold and will be torn down. All he wants is a “price” for the collection of tables, chairs, bureaus, lamps and more that remain. It is clear that at one time, his father was prosperous.
Soon his wife, Esther, stops by and from the conversation we learn a lot: He and his brother have not spoken since the father’s death, the brother (Walter) is a successful physician. Esther, more than Victor, harbors resentment towards the brother, but also envies his affluence. She argues that Victor should not share the proceeds from the sale with Walter. Victor has been trying to contact Walter to let him know about the appointment with the dealer, but he is unsure if Walter got the message or will bother coming.
Soon, Gregory Solomon arrives. He is the dealer though he is in 80s and retired. He is also a talker. He talks in circles, frustrating Victor who wants him to “give me the price.” Through this talk we learn that the father had gone bankrupt during the depression and after his wife died had seemed unable to care for himself; Victor had moved him to take care him, but there was little money. He says they ate garbage.
Act one ends with the arrival of Walter. Act two explores the dynamics between these two estranged brothers. Victor dropped out of college to take care of his father and joined the police force for the security. He had given up the opportunity to pursue his interest in science. Walter, the younger, had stayed in school, contributed little to the father’s upkeep and become successful. But he had suffered a crisis a few years earlier and has developed a different perspective.
The climax of the plot is that at one time Victor had asked Walter for a loan of $500 to continue in school. Walter had told him to ask his father. Walter knew, though Victor would not acknowledge, that the father had managed to keep some money – several thousand dollars. Yet he did not offer it to Victor.
This 1968 play revisits themes that Miller developed in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons. Except in this play the father is dead, although there is a father figure. The play revolves around father-son and brother relationships. How parents often favor one child over another and what that can do to both of them. How brothers can become estranged.
But the play really deals with the choice we make and how often we convince ourselves that there was no choice.
Victor slowly begins to realize that he sacrificed for his father, not because it was the right thing to do or that there was no other option, but because it satisfied some need of his.
This production is blessed with four outstanding performances. Each of the performers mines fully the emotions, the baggage and the back stories of their characters. While you may initially view one of the brothers as the hero and the other the villain, by the end you see them as both complex human beings and feel compassion for both of them.
That is due to the find performances of Mark Ruffalo as Victor and Tony Shalhoub as Walter. They get far below the surface of their characters and show us every aspect through their gestures, voices, bodies and eyes. Too often, Walter is portrayed as both selfish and self-involved. Here you see him as a man shaken by the events of the last few years. You also see that he had more realistic view of his father than Victor had. Ruffalo burrows beneath the self-righteousness of Victor as he slowly begins to acknowledge truths that he had suspected but had pushed down.
Jessica Hecht balances Esther’s resentment of Walter and of Victor, with her realism. She keeps repeating a line that “she did not believe what she knew.”
As the antique dealer, Danny DeVito has the comic role and it makes good use of it. While, occasionally he goes overboard – spitting pieces of hard cooked egg repeatedly, it does help to break the tension.
Director Terry Kinney has managed his talented cast with expertise and has assembled a fine production crew. Each element – set design by Derek McLane, costumes by Sarah J. Holden, lighting by David Weiner and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—make major contributions to our enjoyment and understanding of this play.
The Price may be considered by some to be “lesser” Miller, but it reminds us that even “lesser” Miller is so much better than so many other works.
It is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through May 14. For tickets visitRoundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
“Significant Other” the play now at the Booth Theater had a successful Off-Broadway run during the 2014-15 season. Its author, Joshua Harmon, wrote “Bad Jews” which has been very successful throughout the world.
This play about four 20-somethings, has two distinctly different moods in its two acts. Quite honestly, I was tempted to leave at intermission; I just didn’t see the humor in the first act that the young audience members were finding hysterical.
But I’m glad I stayed, for the second act was more poignant and heartfelt.
The play focusses on Jordan Berman, beautifully played by Gideon Glick. Jordan is a gay man who has not had much luck with romantic relationships. Right now he has a crush on Will, a hot, new employee at work. But Jordan does have three women friends: Kiki, Vanessa and Laura. Each is single. The three women are his best friends and he is theirs. They hang out together, gossip, bitch and complain about jobs, romances, and life in general.
But what happens when marriage “breaks up that old gang of mine?”
First it is Kiki who marries, but since she was the kookiest of the group, it did not really disturb the balance. Then it was Vanessa. Now it was just Jordan and Laura – the two who were the best of friends. In the meantime, Jordan tries to establish a relationship with Will, but it fails. In fact, Will takes another job in Brooklyn, of all places.
Jordan’s real crisis comes when Lauren gets engaged and begins planning her wedding. While Jordan has been upset that his role in the weddings has been limited to doing a reading; he has attended the showers, the bachelorette parties and all, but was never asked to be a bride’s man or another more prominent role.
He realizes that he is alone. Now each of the women turn first to their husbands to complain or talk, not him. They spend time with their spouses or other couples, not him. His aloneness is compounded by his awkwardness in establishing other relationships. His attempts at cultivating Will were fumbling; advised not to send a rambling email, he resists for a while and then succumbs. The other gay man at work is all that he dislikes, yet the guy seems to be the only one left for Jordan.
Even his Grandmother (the wonderful Barbara Barrie) who he visits regularly is slowly sinking into dementia.
The first act stresses the humor, body part jokes, ribald conversations of the four friends and the initial weddings. But the second acts focusses more on Jordan and we more clearly see him feeling isolated and friendless.
What elevates this play is the fine acting. Gideon Glick who has extensive credits both on Broadway and television, shows us all the dimensions of Jordan – social awkwardness, the neediness and the basic decency.
Of the three friends, Sas Goldberg as Kiki has most awkward role – her character is not only stereotypically “kookie” but she also has some of the most explicit lines and actions. Of the three friends, it is probably the least developed character. Rebecca Naomi Jones plays the “middle” friend – the second to marry. She does a very good job. Laura, seems the most developed of the three characters and is the last marry. Lindsay Mendez gives her a sense that she is the most like Jordan but also the most grounded of the three women.
Barbara Barrie – who plays Jordan’s grandmother – gives us a touching portrayal of a woman, living alone, who is slowly losing touch with reality.
Luke Smith and John Behlmann play a variety of characters – the three husbands, the hunky Will and Joshua’s fellow employee. They do such a good job that you are tempted to believe they are played by different actors.
Trip Cullman has directed this in a way that doesn’t always meld the two distinct emotional tones of the two halves of the play.
Overall, Significant Other, will probably appeal most to younger theater goers, but older people will certainly sympathize with Jordan.
Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Now, more than ever, it seems we need things that remind us of the innate goodness of people, of their willingness to sacrifice and help others, to be neighborly.
Come from Away is a musical that does just that, not in a saccharine, manipulative way, but with truth and heart.
How did anyone think the story might be a good idea for a musical? It is about the city of Gander, Newfoundland and the people in it and the surrounding towns who on Sept. 11, 2001 suddenly had 35+ jets land with more than 7000 passengers. American airspace had been closed, and jets flying from Europe were told to land there. No one had any idea how long they would be on the ground. But these passengers needed to be fed, housed, clothed and befriended.
The citizens of Gander showed what true goodness is like as they came together to gather supplies, cots, bedding, food, medicine, toothbrushes, deodorant and more.
The authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, have skillfully created a multitude of characters including town residents and passengers. They have intertwined these stories so we slip smoothly from one to another. We are never bothered that one performer is playing multiple roles and we always know who each actor is at a given moment.
They have also avoided for the most part easy stereotype characters. In fact, they drew their stories from stories of the actual passengers many of whom returned for the 10th anniversary and have kept in touch with the townspeople they met.
Yes, there is the gay couple, the Arab man, the British businessman who meets a divorcee from Texas, the woman whose son is a NYC firefighter and more. But these seem like surprisingly well rounded characters. The one pilot we meet is the first woman Captain for American Airlines. Among the citizens are the Mayor, the woman who runs the Humane Society, the school teacher, the school bus driver, the air traffic controller and more.
They don’t sugar coat the story either. The town’s school bus drivers are on strike and for many hours refuse to suspend the strike to ferry passengers from the airport to the various surrounding towns that have offered to assist. (Many passengers were on the planes for 24 hours before being allowed off.) There is the Arab man who is detained and questioned; later his offers to help with the food are summarily dismissed until near the end; he says he is an executive chef for a hotel. There’s also the African family who are afraid they are being kidnapped, and the African-American man who is worried he will shot when told to go and take barbeque grills from backyards or that his wallet will be stolen.
This is a true ensemble, in fact most of the songs are listed as sung by “the company.” Some of the performers are Canadians making their Broadway debuts while others have extensive New York credits. Many have been with the show during major parts of its development. One of its very earliest stops was at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals where it had staged reading.
Because it is such an ensemble piece, and the actors play multiple roles, it is difficult to single out individuals. But Jenn Colella is terrific as the American Airlines captain, particularly in a song about the problems and discrimination she faced in becoming a commercial pilot. Q Smith as Hannah is touching as the mother whose son in a NYC fire fighter. Robert Hicks plays multiple roles and creates individuals in each instance. Chad Kimball, one half of the gay couple – the other half, Caesar Samayoa is also great – opens the number simple titled “Prayer” which includes several pieces.
I enjoyed watching the romance develop between Nick (Lee MacDougall) and Diane (Sharon Weatley.
The songs fit into the show perfectly and I’m looking forward to hearing the cast CD which also available.
Praises to director Christopher Ashley who has handled the multiple stories beautifully and Kelly Devine who is created with the musical staging, which I assume also includes the choreography.
Beowulf Boritt has created a simple but atmosphere set aided by the lighting design of Howell Binkley. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes help us keep the characters straight.
Seldom is the orchestra singled out in a review, but this group of musicians, located on the stage are terrific and after the curtain calls, gives the audience a rousing, impromptu concert.
The music and the orchestrations blend music of various genre including traditional folk type music with more Broadway music.
Come from Away is a production I encourage you to see. It is worthwhile. For tickets, contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Reed Barney and Annette O’Toole are giving a master class in acting at Second Stage in Tracy Lett’s play Man from Nebraska.
Birney plays Ken, a middle-aged insurance agent whose life has been conventional to say the least. His life is centered around his wife, his business and the Baptist church. He has seldom gone beyond Nebraska and in his long married life, he and his wife have rarely been apart.
The Sunday routine is driving to church, church, lunch and visiting his mother in a nursing home. But that evening something happens. He wakes up and runs to the bathroom where he breaks out in sobs. His wife is terrified — is he having a heart attack? A stroke? Is it OK?
The problem he says is that he no longer believes in God. He isn’t sure when and where his faith left him, but it has. His wife cannot understand it at all, particularly when he says he no longer understands the stars.
Ken struggles to make sense of his feelings. Finally their minister suggests he takes some books and go way by himself; perhaps the separateness and the time to relax will help him regain his faith.
He takes the pastor up on the suggestion but carries it much farther than the pastor expected. Ken goes to London where he had been stationed in the Air Force. And he stays much longer than the week or so the pastor anticipated.
Act two switches between Ken’s experiences in London and his wife at home. Her daughter offers to move in with her or have her stay with the family. But Nancy stays alone almost isolating herself until the pastor again urges her to get out.
She is at loss — she expected to be a wife forever, and that she and her husband would be in lock step until death did them part. Now she is alone and confused.
Ken, meanwhile, seems almost equally lost. But slowly his Midwest reserve begins to melt. He chats up the bartender in the hotel bar; he begins drinking salty dogs (it’s not clear if he never drank or hasn’t in a long while). He has an encounter with an American businesswoman who he had met on the plane but it goes nowhere for reasons you should discover in the play. But when the bartender tells him she has only been listening to him because he tips well and that she is fed up with his problems, he follows her. He is soon in her flat that she shares with her boyfriend, a sculptor.
As his stay extends — to more than six weeks, he may not spend a lot of time thinking about his faith but he is opening his mind to new ideas. Meanwhile, his daughter is extremely angry with him, and the pastor’s father tries to court Nancy.
He returns home when he learns of his mother’s death. He is changed in ways we don’t really know, but his thinking is totally different. When his daughter says that her husband says that he (Ken) will go to Hell, Ken replies that then the husband is a fool.
The ending is tension filled and nearly heartbreaking. But I won’t spoil the last minutes.
This is a play where more is said by silence and expressions than by words. These Midwesterners aren’t talkative people and what they do say is often trivial. Yet we are given a total picture of this man and his life and his wife’s as well. Yet the silence doesn’t become pretentious as Pinter sometimes does. It seems natural for these characters.
Lett has shown us a world and lives that may not be our own, but that we know well. These are the people who do what is expected, follow the rules and live the lives they are expected to live. But what happens if they begin to question those lives and those rules? What if they begin to wonder as in the Peggy Lee song, “is that all there is?”
Lett doesn’t offer easy answers and we don’t know what actually Ken has discovered. His reserve remains intact. But we know his life and his wife’s will be different — perhaps more open, more questioning or more adventuresome.
David Cromer has directed this play with a deft hand; he never over emphasizes what is going on; he lets his actors present this world to us. The first act has numerous short scenes – often mostly silence – and the changes in props are handled invisibly. Although I understood why Cromer did, it was still disconcerting when late in the play, the stage crew was very visible changing the set and props.
The scenic design by Takeshi Kata works well – including the cloud like structure that hangs in the back and with lighting of Keith Parham can be many things.
But what makes this play so moving is the performances of the entire cast, but particularly Reed Birney and Annette O’Toole. They don’t have to say a word to let us into their emotions. Neither strikes a false note. I just sat and marveled at their expertise.
The rest of the cast rises to the bar set by these two. From Annika Boras as their judgmental daughter to William Ragsdale as Parson Todd to Nana Mensah as the bartender and Max Gordon Moore has her boyfriend and the others – all are excellent.
Man from Nebraska is an unsettling play but also a very touching one. Please make an effort to see the extraordinary performances.
It is at 2nd Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd Street through March 26. Tickets are available at 2nd Stage.
By Karen Isaacs
If I Forget, the new play at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, sounds intriguing. Yet, I found it dissatisfying.
Why? Playwright Steven Levenson has crammed so many ideas and plot elements into the play that you are left dizzy trying to keep it all straight.
The premise of the initial theme is relevant: what does it mean to be a Jew in the America of the 21st century?
The play is set in 2000-2001, before 9-11 in the family home in Washington, DC. The three adult children — a son and two daughters have gathered because their 75- year-old father, widowed a year before, is not doing well.
The three are recognizable types. The son (Michael), is a professor of Jewish Studies living in NYC. He has a non-Jewish wife (Ellen) and one daughter. Holly is the eldest child; she is married to an attorney in the area and is living a very upper, upper middle class life. She doesn’t work though she is thinking of opening an interior design studio. And then there is Sharon, the youngest child. She teaches but has been taking care of Dad; before that had moved into the house to help take care of her dying mother.
Each represent a different type of Jew: Michael, despite his profession, views himself as an atheist and never attends services. Holly observes but only attends services on the High Holy days while Sharon has become quite observant.
In addition, Michael, who has been recommended for tenure, has just written a non-academic book that is controversial.
Adding to the family concerns and debates include what to do about the property the family owns in Washington. It was a family store for generations, but the father retired a number of years ago and it is now a dollar store run by some Guatemalan immigrants who pay below market rent. The neighborhood is gentrifying and the property is worth millions. Did I mention that their father was one of the US soldiers who helped liberate Dachau?
Certainly that might seem enough for a two act play: the family dynamics (lots of hurt
feeling and sibling rivalries), the differences in views on their religion and what Michael’s book espouses, and the problem of the property.
But Levenson has felt necessary to add even more. So many that it seems slightly preposterous that all of these are converging on this one family. Even Job deserved better.
I can’t go into all the details, but let’s say that Michael’s daughter has an increasing interest in Judaism and is mentally frail. Holly’s teenage son is going through typical teenage behavior, but the real problem is that her husband also has a secret. And Sharon? She feels taken advantage by her siblings as well as having a secret regarding the store.
The superficial debate that escalates in the second act which takes place in 2001 after the father has had a stroke, is what to with the property. It could pay for Dad’s care which is going to require live in, full-time health. Sharon wants to keep the property since it has been in the family since the 1880s, but she also does not want to increase the rent to market rates. Holly believes she and her husband can take over the property, renovate it, pay rent and use it for her nascent business. Of course, she has no really business or interior design experience. Michael is caught in downward cycle of his career because of the book.
It is difficult to quickly explain Michael’s thesis though he does frequently in very academic terms. From what he says, it relates to how the Holocaust has been used to bind American Jews to Israel and to each other; it is easy to understand why it was taken out of context and why it caused such anger.
Director Daniel Sullivan has infused the production with as much reality as possible given all of the complications. Set designer Derek McLane uses a revolving, two level set to show us both the living and dining rooms of the house as well as the upstairs bedroom that was apparently their mother’s. The costumes by Jess Goldstein effectively delineates the differing characters, from the teenage son’s bagging pants (the fashion of the time) to the women’s apparel that telegraphs their personalities and characters.
Jeremy Shamos as Michael is really the center of the play. The role is partly stereotype; the favored son who is geographically distant from the family. The intellectual/academic who is often oblivious to the realities; except that at times he is the most realistic of all; the women including his wife seem particularly unrealistic.. Shamos gives a nuanced performance that helps you feel both annoyed by and sympathetic to Michael.
The women are less fully developed. Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) as Michael’s wife is the least fully rounded of the characters; she is given to little do in the play and seems more a symbol of Michael’s feelings about his religion than anything else.
Maria Dizzia has the unenviable task of playing Sharon, the youngest and most annoying of the family members. Sharonboth plays the victim and uses passive-aggressive tactics against her siblings in an effort to get her way.
As Holly, Kate Walsh is another women who seems removed from her family’s reality and has been sheltered by her husband. Lawrence’s performance captures that type of woman.
Seth Steinberg does an excellent job capturing the teenage Joey. He is by turns tuned out and tuned in. Every parent of a teenager will recognize his behaviors. It is a role that has few lines but lots of reaction which he captures beautifully.
As the father and grandfather, Larry Bryggman has his moment in the first act talking about his army experience; it is riveting.
Overall, If I Forget can confuse you. You finding it engaging whether you think it just too much like a soap opera or a thoughtful piece. I, for one, felt the real issues got lost in all the complications.
If I Forget is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, through April 30. Tickets are available at roundabouttheatre.org.