Category Archives: 2015-16 New York Theater Season

“Cagney” – Toe-Tapping Story of a Movie Tough Guy’s Life

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

Cagney, the new off-Broadway musical is a toe-tapping delight. You might not think that possible, if you only know James Cagney from his iconic gangster movie roles of the ‘30s and ’40.

But Cagney actually had learned how to dance as a child, and got his start in show business in the chorus of a Broadway musical, Every Star, which featured military personnel in which Cagney played a woman.  From there he went on to a variety of musicals and plays on Broadway and then into vaudeville before Hollywood called.

He was signed by Warner Brothers Studio (where he was joined by Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, and others).

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Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The musical is framed as a series of flashbacks. Jack Warner, the head of the studio, played by Bruce Sabath, opens the show with a delightful number “Black and White” which reflects the studio’s history of producing many films in the cheaper black and white format. From there we move backstage at the Screen Actors Guild ceremony where Cagney received a Life Achievement Award.

Warner is to introduce Cagney which the actor views as ironic; he battled the studio head during the years of the “studio system,” for control over his own career. Later Cagney was a union activist servings as president of SAG. Warner, of course, hated the idea of a union.

The show continues more or less in chronological order, introducing us to his mother and brothers (his sister, Jeanne, is strangely missing), a girl, Winnie, who became his wife, and a variety of celebrities.

The weakest part of the show is the appearance of the celebrities – some his Warner Brother co-workers and others like Bob Hope. The performers are not particularly true to the appearance and sound of the celebrities and the interactions seem forced.

Of course, there is the almost required scenes about the blacklist; Cagney was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his failure when he tried to produce films that he felt passionate about. They flopped and he went back to Warner Brothers.

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Robert Creighton, left. Photo by Carol Rosegg

What does work extremely well in the show a meeting with Eddie Foy, Jr. (Cagney was part of the 1950s film, Eddie Foy and the Seven Little Foys), the scenes with Winnie and with Warner. I also enjoyed the Cohan numbers and the USO scene; Cagney worked hard with the USO during WWII.

Robert Creighton displays his multiple talents in this show. He wrote the music and lyrics for about a third of the show; Christopher McGovern did a third and the final part is Cohan. The songs are effective; standouts include “Black and White,” “Crazy ‘Bout You,” “Falling in Love,” among others.

Creighton is also a dynamite singer, dancer and actor. In a small theater, you really see

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Ellen Zolezzi as Winnie. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

him up close.  Ellen Zolezzi is also terrific as Winnie (and some other characters). Another standout is Bruce Sabath as Jack Warner. He, too, also plays other roles. The remaining cast members – Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Josh Walden – perform multiple smaller roles.  All are excellent singers and dancers.

The book by Peter Colley is serviceable and keeps the show moving.

The direction by Bill Castellino and the delightful choreography by Joshua Bergasse help maximize the show’s potential.

For those who want a more intimate musical experience, Cagney is a worthwhile choice. I was astonished to hear a gentleman behind me, who was certainly in his ‘50s, ask his seat mate “Who is Jimmy Cagney?”

Cagney is at the Westside Theatre 407 W. 43rd St, New York City. For tickets contact telecharge.com.

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

“Long Day’s Journey” – A Classic Play Receiving a Thought-Provoking Production

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Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night” is a classic of American theater. O’Neill is considered America’s first great playwright – and even today may be our greatest. It also offers spectacular roles for actors, including a role that older actresses view as the Mt. Everest of roles.

Given the many challenges it presents, it is a wonder that the play is revived as often as it is. But the chance to portray Mary Tyrone keeps the play returning.

This revival at the Roundabout Theater’s American Airlines Theater features a stellar cast that scale the mountains the play presents. The play also presents challenges for the audience; it runs almost four hours with just one intermission and it is an emotional roller-coaster. Of course, given Broadway prices, it is also a bargain; the cost per minute is the lowest on Broadway.

Jessica Lange is the box office name probably driving this production, but she is joined by Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr. as members of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.

Long Day’s Journey has an interesting history. It is viewed as an autobiographical play and was completed in the mid-‘40s. O’Neill, however, sealed it and signed an agreement with his publisher that it would not be published until 25 years after his death.  His third wife allowed the play to be published in 1956, three years following his death and productions soon followed. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.

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Jessica Lange. Photo by Joan Marcus

The play is set during one day at the Tyrone’s Monte Christo Cottage (the name for the O’Neill family cottage which still exists in New London). It is summer 1912. James Tyrone is the patriarch of the family, who emigrated from Ireland. He is an actor who found the role that he could tour with forever and make money, but he resists spending it, always looking for the ”bargain” which often turns out to be no bargain. Also at the house is his wife, Mary who has battled morphine addiction for years but has been apparently “clean” since her last stay at a sanatorium.  The older son, James, is in his thirties, and like Biff Loman in Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman is still “finding” himself. He acts but prefers bars and whorehouses.  Edmund is the younger son; a reporter and promising writer who is ill with consumption.

From morning until almost midnight, the old arguments, regrets, recriminations, slights and hatreds are brought to the surface. You can easily see how this work must have influenced Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

We learn so much about the events of the past that have led this family to this point, the dynamics of the family, and the tragedies that have befallen each of them.

It’s easy to see Edmund’s tragedy – during that day, the diagnosis of consumption is confirmed and given the realities of the time, the audience knows it is probably a death sentence.

James’ tragedy is his lack of direction and underlying dislike of himself.  He has become an actor at his father’s urging; he knows he will never be as good as his father was, he doesn’t know what else he can do, and it is all too easy to drown his disgust with booze and women.

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John Gallagher, Jr. and Jessica Lange. Photo by Joan Marcus

But it is the older Tyrones who rivet our attention. James is filled with regret though he masks most of it with an exaggerated sense of self. He still wants to be the star and center of attention. The dream part that made the easy money also stunted his growth and reputation as an actor.  The one night stands across the country for years has taken its toll, the uncertainties of acting profession has reinforced his frugality to the point that he always takes the cheapest option even when it comes to the health of his wife and children. Even with the seriousness of Edmund’s diagnosis, James is not willing to send him to a private, top rated sanatorium but instead is choosing the free state-run facility.

 But it is Mary, around whom all three men revolve. Mary Tyrone has battled addiction for many years – since a hotel doctor gave her the medication following the birth of Edmund.  Now, she has apparently been “clean” for months, but there are disturbing signs that she has relapsed. The three men tip-toe around the issue. They observe her constantly for signs of backsliding which makes her nervous and defensive. She too has her backstory.

Overall this is an excellent production, directed by Jonathan Kent. The set design by Tom Pye captures the waterfront cottage and he is added by the lighting by Natasha Katz and the sound design by Clive Goodwin. Jane Greenwood’s costumes reflect the formality of the period. Men wore shirts and dress pants even while cutting the hedges.

So that leads us to the outstanding acting. From Colby Minifie who plays the maid and has a substantial scene with Mary late in the play to the four principals, all are excellent.

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John Gallagher, Jr. and Michael Shannon. Photo by Joan Marcus

John Gallagher, Jr. plays the consumptive Edmund.  I found him riveting both in his long scenes with his brother and later his father or when he stands still in the corner observing the others. It is likely that he will be another victim of his father’s frugality.

Michael Shannon, who many know from HBO’s Boardwalk, is the older, dissolute James, Jr. He projects a man who is dead behind the eyes, though he is still breathing.  His anger at his father is deep seated. He develops his role slowly, and it not until later in the play that he shows you the explosive anger, so like his father’s.

What can we say about Gabriel Byrne? This fine actor gives us James Tyrone in all his dimensions – bully, miser, loving husband, and uncertain actor. Like the others he is full of regrets and anger at both himself and at others. He can’t quite “own” his choices, so must blame others. Byrne shows us James that at times we want to hug and at other time shake.

Mary Tyrone is a challenge for any actress, but Jessica Lange just about masters it. At times her Mary has a tinge of Amanda Winfield, but you can see her slowly descend into her morphine. The costumes by Jane Greenwood give her a ghostly presence; even when she is in the room, it sometimes seems she isn’t really there. You are fascinated in how she rounds out the performance with gestures that absolutely capture the nervousness of the addict.

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Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange. Photo by Joan Marcus

Overall, while this production may not be the definitive production of this play, it is a very, very good production.  Director Jonathan Kent and his production team create the right atmosphere:  the seaside, the barrenness, the anger and the sadness. To handle the multiple issues of this play, requires a director of great insight and sensitivity; Kent possesses this.

At the end, you are left reflecting on these lines from Mary: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

A Long Day’s Journey into Night is a Roundabout Theater production at the American Airlines Theatre, 227W. 42nd St. through June 26. For tickets visit roundabouttheatre.org.

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Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne. Photo by Joan Marcus

 

“The Father” – Puzzling and Frightening

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Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

I’ll admit that I am still puzzled by The Father by French playwright Florian Zeller that is now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on West 47th Street to June 10.

Is it meant to be a surrealist play?  Is the playwright attempting to have us experience what the central character, André, played by Frank Langella, is experiencing?  Is it a take on the classic play and movie Gaslight?  And finally, do today’s theater audiences who are often over 55, really need to see another play about the horrors of what use to be called senility?

Zeller is little known in the English speaking world, but at least some critics consider him a major literary talent and a hot commodity. He has won numerous awards and written many plays but few have been translated.

Christopher Hampton, whose works have garnered four Tony nominations, has translated this work which was first produced in England.  Among Hampton’s other works is the book and lyrics for the musical Sunset Boulevard, as well as the translation of Les Liaisons Danereuses for which he won an Oscar for best screenplay.

André is aging and succumbing to memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s; it is difficult to tell.  He lives alone – or does he? Is it his apartment or his daughter’s? Was he tap-dancer or an engineer? Is his daughter married or not?  Perhaps she is moving to London to live with a new love.

Little is sure to us as we apparently experience André’s world.  Which of these things are true may not matter or they may matter a great deal.

The audience is also left wondering about two characters who appear periodically. Sometimes they claim to be his daughter and her husband/lover. Other times the woman claims to be his caregiver, but does he have one?

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Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If it all sounds confusing it can be. During the first part of the play, the audience spends time trying to get its bearings.  It opens with André’s daughter, Anne, played by Kathryn Erbe arriving after he apparently has insulted (possibly hit?) a caregiver. She is exasperated and tells him, she will be moving to London.  There is talk about her sister, whom André cruelly says was magnificent and the one he loved.

But what we think we know is quickly turned on its heels. Soon she is interviewing another potential care-giver. André is charming and all seems to be going well. Yet even then, he makes a cruel remark about the woman.

Soon, strange things happen.  Another woman followed by a man, billed simply as Woman and Man show up in the apartment. The woman claims she is Anne.  André becomes puzzled and upset by all of this.

By then, you have a sense that André is in some stage of dementia and that the author is playing out his confusions and emotions.  He can be charming; he can be cruel.  He recognizes people and things and then doesn’t.  He’s confused about what is reality.

It is role made for an actor like Frank Langella – a consummate stage performer (I just recently watched yet again his Prospero on the dvd of The Tempest done at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival).  He has a complete bag of tricks and can keep all eyes on him.  At times, some of his mannerisms—when he is “being charming” remind me of Olivier. To say that he can “chew the scenery with the best of them” is not an insult or criticism but admiration for his talents.

You are upset with him and his random cruelty to his daughter and others, but you also sympathize with this vital man slowing losing everything.  There is one moment in the play, I won’t reveal the details, where the audience gasps in horror and our fears and sympathies immediately focus on him.

The surrounding cast is good. Kathryn Erbe is the classic “sandwich generation” woman

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Kathryn Erbe. Photo by Joan Marcus

trying to juggle career, spouse/lover and care for her father. She is exasperated and concerned; loving and wounded. The other actors have less to do and less defined roles but each is good.

Doug Hughes, former artistic director at Long Wharf directs this piece with understanding. He keeps the mood swinging as it must be swinging for André.

The scenic design by Scott Pask gives us a lovely Paris apartment although I felt the symbolism of how it changes over time, too obvious.  Donald Holder’s lighting adds to our mood as does the music and sound design by Fitz Patton.  Catherine Zuber has created costumes that would be at home on the streets of Paris.

It is hard to say that The Father is enjoyable, since it plays out before us, the greatest fear of many aging Americans. But it is emotionally intense, and the opportunity to see Langella exhibit his formidable talents is always one not to be passed on.

The Father is a Manhattan Theater Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., thought June 10.  For tickets visit Telecharge.com

THE FATHERSAMUEL J. FRIEDMAN THEATRE 261 W. 47TH ST.

Frank Langella and  Hannah Cabell.Photo by Joan Marcus

“She Loves Me” – A Favorite Show but Not a Favorite Production.

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Laura Benanti  and  Zachary Levi. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Roundabout Theater is doing a fine revival of the musical She Loves Me at Studio 54.  And yet…..

This Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock musical, with book by Joe Masteroff, has become a musical theater classic even if its original Broadway run was much too short (302 performances).  It is based on the play The Little Shop Around the Corner, which was made into successful film with James Stewart and Margret Sullavan and then a musical with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime. In the more modern era it was the basis of the film, You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

The story is set in Budapest in the 1930s where Georg Nowak is manager of a parfumerie. When Amalia Balash is hired over his objections, they immediately butt heads.  Both are single and both are corresponding with a “dear friend” whom they met through a lonely hearts advertisement.  You can guess the rest.  Several subplots include the Don Juan salesclerk and the woman clerk he is on-and-off with, the shop owner and both the messenger boy and the clerk who just wants to keep his job.

I saw the original production (Barbara Cook, Daniel Massey, Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley, Ludwig Donath, Nathaniel Frey and Ralph Williams) at the Shubert Theater in New Haven during its initial pre-Broadway tryout.  I was totally enchanted with the story, the music and the performances. The two-LP original cast recording was a favorite.

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She Loves Me Studio 54  Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In 1993, Roundabout Theater had a successful revival directed by Scott Ellis that ran for close to 400 performances. It featured Boyd Gaines, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, and Sally Mayes among others.

Now Scott Ellis is directing this revival.  He has broadcast that this is “new” version of the show and certainly, the night I saw it, the audience loved it.

I wish I was as enthusiastic.  The cast is very good, the set and costumes are terrific, the orchestrations are good, the voices overall are excellent, but something about this production bothered me.

Ellis has lost the subtlety of this show.  Everything has been broadened out, played for hearty guffaws, overplaying moments that should be more controlled.  It’s lost some of its sweetness.  Maybe that’s what today’s audiences want,  but for me, it subverted the real mood of the show.

Perhaps I am not recalling correctly the other productions, I’ve seen – including a fine one directed by Mark Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse in 2010. But I don’t think so.

First of all the positives.  The cast is vocally terrific though some of the other aspects of

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Gavn Creel and Jane Krakowski. Photo by Joan Marcus

the performances are lacking charm.  Laura Benanti plays Amalia but lost some of the charm of the character. I found I wasn’t rooting for her, as much as should have. Zachary Levi follows up his Broadway debut in First Date with a fine performance as the confused and reticent Georg.  Gavin Creel plays the lothario Steven Kodaly with true egotism though he misses on some of the charm that Jack Cassidy brought to the role.  Michael McGrath is terrific is Ladislav, the clerk who only wants to keep his job.  Byron Jennings is outstanding as the owner, Mr. Marczek who is facing his own mid-life crisis.  You are touched by his performance.  And Jane Krakowski is excellent, if much too attractive, for Ilona Ritter, the clerk who is easily taken in by Steven Kodaly.  Nicholas Barasch is also excellent as the messenger/delivery boy, Arpad.

Next, let’s applaud the set by David Rockwell.  It gives us the outside of the elegant show and then reveals the inside.  It is easy to see what the audience applauded the set and later when it is changed into the “romantic café” applauded again.  Jeff Mahshie’s costumes reflect the 1930s in their design and sensibility.  Donald Holder’s lighting has created the seasonal changes and the atmosphere of the period.

The music direction by Paul Gemignani and the new orchestrations by Larry Hochman are fine.  Today’s Broadway orchestras are smaller than those in 1964 but the musicians succeed in capturing both the 1930s feel to the show and the middle-European schmaltz so much a part of the Viennese musical tradition.

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Zachary Levi and Michael McGrath. Photo by Joan Marcus

My biggest problem was with the choreography by Warren Carlyle.  It broke the mood and often went for broad strokes and moves rather than subtle touches.  The most egregious example is the song “Ilona” in which Kodaly tries to convince Ilona to stay with him. Should the audience be laughing loudly at this a gentle and seductive tango? Should some of the moves be reminiscent of “Dancing with the Stars”?  I refer to Kodaly’s imitation of a pawing bull and Ilona’s split which then results in Kodaly pulling her across the floor?  I shook my head in both dismay and dislike. It broke the mood. Also, no matter how feverish or upset she is, would Amalia really jump on the bed like a five year old during “Vanilla Ice Cream”?  Again, I think not.

Highlights of the production include Jane Krawkowsk’s rendition of Ilona’s “A Trip to the Library”  and Byron Jenning’s entire performance, particularly “Days Gone By”.  But many more of the songs were good but not as great as they could be.

If you have never seen this delightful, romantic show, you will certainly enjoy this production of She Loves Me, but for some of us, we wish it were the perfect production we were hoping for.

She Loves Me is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street, through June 12. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.

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Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. Photo by Joan Marcus

 

“Blackbird” – A Disturbing, Haunting Drama

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Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

By Karen Isaacs

 Blackbird, which is now getting a belated Broadway production starring Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams, is a disturbing play.  It will alternately have you horrified and unsettled.  It exemplifies what drama should do for an audience.

David Harrower’s play debuted in 2005 at the Edinburgh Festival and went on to London, where it won the Olivier award for best new play, and to productions around the world.  Jeff Daniels starred in the Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway production in 2008.

This two character piece focuses on a meeting between Ray (Jeff Daniels) and Una (Michelle Williams) fifteen years after a traumatic event.  They have a complicated history.  When Una was 12 and Ray 40, there was a sexual molestation; a one-time thing.  Ray was arrested and jailed and has now rebuilt his life.  Una is now an adult and has sought Ray out.

But why?  You are never quite sure why Una comes to Ray’s workplace and barges in.  Is it to seek some sort of revenge?  To try to understand or rehash the past?  To make him suffer? Or hidden beneath the surface, is there something else?  The possibilities are endless.

She is certainly the aggressor in this meeting – controlling the space and the conversation.  Ray is confused by her appearance and her motives.  He has rebuilt his life, even changing his name, and he does not want to lose that.

During the course of several hours, tensions and emotions run high.  Una alternately attacks Ray and reminisces about the events.  She had a 12-year-old’s crush on him, a neighbor whom her father invited into the house.  She talks about planning ways to see him, wanting him for herself, and fantasies that are typical of the young adolescent.

Ray was a loner, perhaps uncomfortable in relationships, and he was drawn to Una and her

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Michelle Williams. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

admiration.  In many ways he treated her like an adult and viewed her that way; he claims he felt a love for her.  One night, he takes her to a seaside resort and they have sex.  He leaves her in the room to go out for cigarettes, but now tells her that he became horrified at what he did, and drove around.  When he goes back to pick up, he couldn’t find out her– she went out looking for him –  so he took the ferry back to the mainland.  Una was taken in by a couple and her parents and the police were called.

It is interesting that Daniels wants to revisit this role which is emotionally draining. When he first performed it in 2008, he was probably too young for Ray; now he looks the part of a 55 year old man – a little paunchy, a little gray, and tired.

Michelle Williams plays Una as all nervous energy – you expect to see her explode.  She fidgets, moves around the room, stands awkwardly and at times still seems like an adolescent.  We learn very little of her present day life exception that the neighbors and town folk pointed her out and gawked at her during her teenage years and that she has undergone much therapy.  Was this meeting a therapist’s idea?

As Williams plays her, Una is many ways both angry and jealous.  She is jealous of Ray’s new life and is very interested to know whether he is in a relationship (he is) and what his woman friend looks and acts like. The thought may cross your mind that Una is still a little bit smitten with Ray and unconsciously she may want to rekindle the relationship.

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Jeff Daniels. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Daniels plays Ray as a man initially wary and trying to control (not totally successfully) his panic. He feels cornered by her presence and unsure if she has talked or told anyone who now knows him about the past. He sees his world falling apart. His portrayal deepens in many ways – to anger, regret, memory and exhaustion.

Joe Mantello has directed this piece with finesse; he is also revisiting this piece, having directed the off-Broadway production. At times, it seems as though both performers start on too “intense” an emotional level which gives them very little room for building the emotions.  But it also works by letting them at some point move into exhaustion.

The set and lighting by Scott Pask and Brian MacDevitt recreate a sterile company break room – all white, hard surfaces and glaring florescent lights. Even the debris of other employees’ food wrappers adds to the feeling.

Blackbird now at the Belasco Theater, 111 W. 44th Street through June 11, is a challenging, well acted play that may have you questioning your own reactions to it.  Tickets are available through Telecharge

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Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

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“The Humans” – A Family Drama over Thanksgiving Dinner

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The two sisters — Sarah Steele as Brigid and Cassie Beck as Aimee share a moment of laughter.  Photo by Brigitt Lacombe

By Karen Isaacs

 The Humans opened off-Broadway at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater last fall to very positive reviews.  It had a limited run, but now the production has moved to a relatively small Broadway house – the Helen Hayes – with its cast intact.

The Humans, written by Stephen Karam who is a younger playwright of much promise. I’ve seen his Speech & Debate; his Sons of the Prophet won a number of awards and was a 2012 Pulitzer finalist.

It is Thanksgiving and three older members of the Blake family have traveled into New York City from Scranton (Karam’s home town) to spend the holiday with their two daughters.  Making the trip are Eric (Reed Birney) and his wife, Deidre (Jayne Houdyshell), long married and in their early 60s, plus his mother Fiono or “Momo” (Lauren Klein) who suffers from dementia; Eric and Deidre are her caregivers.

They arrive at Brigid’s, their daughter, new apartment of which she and her boyfriend, Richard (Aaron Moyaed) are incredibly proud. Only a young NYC couple would find the below ground, Chinatown apartment acceptable.  The woman living above seemingly stamps or drops heavy objects randomly, the trash compactor goes on and off making loud noises and the boiler also makes noise. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee (Cassie Beck), a lawyer.

The first part of this one-act 95-minute play is about setting the scene. We learn a lot; money is tight; Eric works for a private school as an equipment manager for the athletics department. He has done so for years and it allowed his daughters to attend the school.  Deidre is an office manager, underpaid and under-appreciated.

We also learn that Richard is a graduate student in social work while Brigid (Sarah Steele) bar tends to pay bills but is an aspiring artist – later we learn she is a composer.  Aimee is a lesbian who suffers from colitis.

The family is awkward with each other – they don’t really know Richard, Eric doesn’t like the apartment or its location, and Aimee and Brigid squabble as sisters do.

As the play progresses, the problems this lower middle class family have multipled to an astonishing degree. It begins to be like a soap opera.

That is part of the problem.  Karam seems to be “piling on” the problems and complications. He even manages to bring in Sept. 11.

Aimee in addition to her illness, is being let go from her law firm probably because of it, her girlfriend has left her, and she may need surgery.

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At the end, Eric (Reed Birney) and Brigid (Sarah Steele) each feel alone. Photo by Brigitt Lacombe.

But the biggest problem/complication is revealed near the end of the play.  Eric has been waiting to tell his daughters some disturbing news. He has been fired from the school and will not be getting a pension. The reason?  He apparently had a liaison with a female teacher.

The cast is uniformly good and the set by David Zinn absolutely reveals a quirky NYC apartment that only young New Yorkers would accept.  Fitz Patton deserves credit for the variety of sounds that emanate from above and outside the apartment.

Birney and Houdyshell are terrific as the parents, even if I did not believe that Birney would have had an affair. They are a blue collar couple, scrimping and saving and making do.  They care for Fiona because there is no money to pay for assistance. Deidre puts her faith in religion, but cannot totally hide her bitterness. Eric just seems worn out; he is gray.

Cassie Beck as Aimee draws on our sympathies; she has so many problems, and seems so vulnerable. Sarah Steele as Brigid has the optimism of youth; though she too has her problems; she recently learned that the recommendations a professor is writing for her various grant applications are halfhearted, at best.

Richard is the odd man out in this group.  He seems to have no real problems; he’s in his late 30s but goes to school, doesn’t work and at 40 will be able to tap the trust fund his grandmother left him.  No worries about student loans. Yet, despite his upper middle class background, he seems lonely – his parents are in two different places and he obviously, doesn’t want (or wasn’t invited) to visit either for the holiday.

Despite their problems, this family loves each other and tries to support and help each other. They accept Richard, but he is mainly an observer to the family dynamic.

Joe Mantello’s fine direction gets beneath the surface of the characters and creates a true reality– you feel as though you are eavesdropping on their lives.

The Humans combines a superb cast with insightful comments about the societal and economic conditions facing the lower middle class and those that strive to leave it behind.

It is at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 w. 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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Reed Birney, Sarah Steele, Jayne Houdyshell and Arian Moayad. Photo by Brigitt Lacombe.

 

A “Fiddler” that Touches the Heart

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The iconic bottle dance. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Fiddler on the Roof is such a classic musical that is done in so many places by so many groups that it is hard to get excited about yet another production; even one directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Danny Burstein.

But after seeing this production at the Broadway Theater, I am excited. It is a marvelous production that moved me more than many productions I’ve seen – even the excellent production directed by Rob Ruggiero at Goodspeed a few years ago. I thought that set a high standard, but this production easily out does it.

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Danny Burstein as Tevye. Photo by Joan Marcus

You may not have heard of Danny Burstein who plays Tevye, but you should have.  He is one of those consummate Broadway performers who doesn’t have a recognizable name but if you are a New York theater aficionado, you have seen him give memorable performances time after time after time. He has played Herr Schultz in Cabaret, Buddy in Follies, Luther Billis in South Pacific and Adolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. That doesn’t include his work in straight plays from Chekhov to A.R. Gurney to Lanford Wilson.

He is joined by an overall excellent cast.

Since, almost everyone has seen Fiddler, do I really need to go into detail about the story of the milkman Tevye living in a small village (Anatevka) in Czarist Russia, his wife and his five daughters, three of whom find husbands before the musical ends? He is an everyman.  He is wise beyond his education, and though deeply tied to tradition and his Jewish faith, also willing to change with the times.

Sher has framed this piece in modern times.  It may have been to help modern audiences get into the story or to show its relevance; after all TV shows about finding your roots get large audiences. So as the show begins we see a wooden sign that says “Anatevka” and then a bearded man in a red winter jacket enters. He is carrying a book and reading what turns out to be the story by Sholem Aleichem. He walks to the front of the stage, takes off his jacket and he is Tevye as he begins “Tradition.” As he talks and sings, we see the fiddler on the roof and the house slowly rises in the background.  Soon he is joined by the rest of the cast.

From there the story begins; we always realize this is a theatrical production – but that doesn’t take away from the power of the show.  The cast members wheel on and off trees to help set the scene.

It is the performances that make this production special.

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Tevka (Danny Burstein) in center. Golde (Jessica Hecht) center bottom and Fruma-Sarah (Jessica Vosk) above in the dream sequence. Photo by Joan Marcus

Let’s start with Burstein.  His Tevye is worn out at times but not old; he is still a vital man who has optimism for the future. Yet you see his yearning for and understanding emotional connections.  It makes the song “Do You Love Me?” even more touching. You see him struggle with the new ideas that his daughters force him to accept; that he is willing to move away from tradition to more modern ideas reflects his awareness of the world around him.  Often, Tevye is played by an actor who is more an actor than a musician or such a major star that the show loses its balance.  Burstein is an accomplished singer as his many musical credits attest. So his musicality adds to this characterization.

Playing his wife, Golda, Jesssica Hecht gives a nuanced performance though her voice cannot compare with Burstein’s. But the role has minimal musical numbers and therefore, her limited vocal experience doesn’t harm the performance.

As the three older daughters who all break tradition in their choices of husbands, Alexandra Silber as Tzeitel, Samantha Massell as Hodel and Melanie Moore as Chava, each mines the characters for the core elements.  All of them have both the acting and singing talents to make these characters come alive which they demonstrate right from the beginning in “Matchmaker, Matchmaker.” The scene (and song “Far From the Home I Love”) where Hodel says goodbye to her father as she leaves to join her husband in Siberia is touching.

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The iconic bottle dance. Photo by Joan Marcus

As the three suitors (and later husbands), Motel, the tailor as played by Adam Kantor combines the acting and singing requirements most effectively. I could quibble that he plays Motel as too afraid of speaking to Tevye, always cowering. But that is a minor quibble.

Ben Rappaport plays Perchik, the radical student who arrives in the village and woos Hodel.  His acting is fine, but he does not have the vocal chops to make the most of “Now I Have Everything”.

Nick Rehberger is Fyedka, the young Russian (and Christian) soldier with whom Chava falls in love with. It would have been good to see a little more depth in the characterization though his is a more minor character.

Alix Korey gives us a fine Yente and Adam Dannheisser is effective as Lazar Wolf, though it is not the best performance of that role I’ve seen.

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Chava (Melanie Moore) and Fyedka (Nick Rehberger). Photo by Joan Marcus.

The costumes by Catherine Zuber remind us that we are watching a performance; they seem too varied for the poor people living in Anatevka, especially the wedding dress for Hodel.

Michael Yeargen’s set is fluid and flexible. The opening is very effective.

One question that always arises is the choreography: Jerome Robbin’s choreography is so iconic in parts (as also happened with West Side Story) that even when it is new, it seems not.  Hofesh Shecter has taken inspiration from the Robbins work – in fact, in the program it says that the entire production is “inspired by the work of Jerome Robbins.”  But he has created his own choreography. Of course, he has kept the iconic hat dance in the wedding scene.

Sher also has paid homage to some of Robbins staging, particularly in the next to last scene as the villages depart Anatevka for an uncertain future.  As in the original they go around in a circle carrying their belongings. But then he brings us back to the present.

A final quibble about this production: the curtain call does not give Burstein a proper “moment.”  He comes out last but then instead of a second bow – or another bow by the principals – the cast goes into a closing dance. It deprives him of the standing ovation he richly deserves.

This Fiddler on the Roof will send you from the theater both thoughtful and filled with warmth.

It is at the Broadway Theater, 1681 Broadway (between 52nd and 53rd St.). Tickets are available from Telecharge.

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Leaving Anatevka. Photo by Joan Marcus

“Noises Off” Backstage Farce about Farce

Noises OffAmerican Airlines Theatre

From left: Megan Hilty, Daniel Davis, Kate Jennings Grant, Frederick Fellowes, David Furr and Andrea Martin. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Noises Off is a farce about the problems of putting on and then continuing to perform a farce.  Confused?  You might be at the beginning, since the play opens with the cast rehearsing a scene and the director coming down the aisle to correct some business.  But you will soon catch on.

Roundabout Theatre has assembled a fine cast for this production that runs through March 6 at the American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street.

The premise of the play is that a well-known older actress (Dotty Otley) has invested in a touring production of the farce Nothing On; it will tour the provinces and enhance her bank account, she hopes. In this typical British farce, there is great deal of innuendo but little sex.  Instead there’s a lot about sardines (which seemingly are carried on and off stage frequently), door slamming, etc.

So first of all we see parts of the play’s first act at three times: the technical rehearsal right before opening, a month into the run, and the closing night (two months after opening).

What has caused the production to deteriorate over that period and affected the performances are the multiple relationships and misunderstandings among the cast.

But even during rehearsals, some of these performers have issues that exasperate the director, Lloyd Dallas.

So let’s see what is going on.  Lloyd, the director, is apparently having affairs with both the assistant stage manager, Poppy, and Brooke Ashton, a very voluptuous young actress.  Dotty, the leading lady, is having an affair with Garry Lejune, an actor in the company who is substantially younger than Dotty.  Then there is Seldon Mowbray, an elderly actor known to drink who has a minor role and appears to be hard of hearing.  Dotty has encouraged Lloyd to give Seldon a role. Belinda is an actress who seems to know all about the various relationships among the cast, Tim Allgood, the company and stage manager, and Frederick Fellowes, an actor whose wife has just left him.

The causes of much of the confusion is that Garry suspects Dotty is having an affair with Frederick, while Lloyd is trying to keep Brooke in the cast and spend some time with her.

Act one sets this all up; we see parts of the first act of the play which is not going at all smoothly in the technical rehearsal (the rehearsal aimed at smoothing out entrances, exits, lights, the set, props, etc.)  Doors don’t open or shut properly, Dotty has trouble remembering which props to enter or exit with, etc. Tim has been awake for 48 hours putting up the set and is dead on his feet. Adding to Lloyd’s exasperation is that Garry starts questioning the motivation for carrying a box off-stage in an extremely inarticulate way, Brooke stops the action when she loses a contact lens, and Frederick also stops the rehearsal for inane reasons, but always apologetic.

Act two shows us backstage a month later.  Lloyd is making a surprise visit to see Brooke who is threatening to leave the cast, Poppy has some important news to share with Lloyd, and Dotty is locked in her dressing room because Garry thinks she is cheating on him when in reality she had been trying to cheer up Frederick.  Due to all of this, various sabotages occur that make the on-stage performances (which we don’t see) even less comprehensible.

The shorter third act, shows the closing performance, where all pretense of doing the play seems to have disappeared.

Noises Off has always been a favorite comedy for me. It’s written by Michael Frayn, better known for his more serious plays (Copenhagen, Benafactors), novels, screenplays and translations of Chekhov and other Russian plays.  I’ve enjoyed multiple productions and the 1992 film that starred Carol Burnett as Dotty, Christopher Reeve as Garry, Michael Caine as Lloyd, John Ritter as Frederick, Julie Hagerty as Poppy and others.

I wish I could rave about this production.  It has a terrific cast: Andrea Martin as Dotty, Campbell Scott as Lloyd, Megan Hilty as Brooke, Tracee Chimo as Poppy, and among others, Rob McClure as Tim.

As directed by Jeremy Herrin, there is a lot of physical comedy; perhaps even too much. In act one, Brooke crawls down the stairs, in act 3 Garry falls through the bannister.

But it is some of the performances that most bothered me.  Farce requires exaggeration; no one will dispute that, but in this case some of the performances were so exaggerated and idiosyncratic that they did not work.  Unfortunately Megan Hilty as Brooke is most subject to this direction.  Brooke isn’t just a voluptuous, slightly inept actress but someone whose stylized walk, stance, gestures and line readings go way beyond caricature.  Yes, Lloyd may have cast her for her figure (the role requires a sexy young woman), but you cannot believe any, even a semi-professional company, hiring her.  Garry, played by David Furr, also at times is too over-the-top.

 Even Andrea Martin, a gifted comedienne, is given too much physical humor.

Yet, sometimes it works.  Rob McClure’s Tim literally shakes when he has to substitute on stage for Seldon.  Daniel Davis gets every bit of humor out of Seldon, the veteran actor who drinks and is hard of hearing.  Campbell Scott plays the put-upon director without every going overboard even as chaos reigns around him. And Tracee Chimo as Poppy has that look of quiet desperation.

The difference between farce and burlesque can be subtle and I got the distinct feeling that director Herrin crosses it multiple times in this production.

Derek McLane has given us a fine set: the first and third acts are the set for the Tudor style house of the farce; act two shows us the backstage of the set.

But even this less-than-perfect production of Noises Off is good fun with lots of laughs.

Noises Off is at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street through March 6. Tickets are available roundabouttheatre.org

 

Noises OffAmerican Airlines Theatre

From left, Daniel Davis, Kate Jennings Grant, Andrea Martin. Campbell Scott and Megan Hilty. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“The Body of an American” Requires You to Think

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

 How do war correspondents and photojournalists cope with the constant barrage of violence, tragedy and human suffering that they record and present to the world on a daily basis? After all they jump from one disaster/war zone to another.

That is part of the question asked and discussed in the play The Body of an American now at Hartford Stage through Jan. 31.  The co-production with Primary Stages’ Cherry Lane Theater in NYC will transfer to the off-Broadway theater beginning in February and running through March 20.

This is not an easy play – the subject matter and the way it is presented requires your involvement.

It is based on reality. Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson won the Pulitzer Prize for a photo he took in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, (The incident was the basis for the film Black Hawk Down). American and other forces were trying to keep the peace between opposing clans and alleviate starvation.  A black hawk helicopter was downed killing all, but one soldier was carted through the streets by mobs and his body attacked.  Watson photographed it.  The photo went viral, as they now say, and some say it caused the US to be more reluctant to fight al-qaeda, who was involved in the activities.  Watson has said that although the soldier (David Cleveland) was dead, he heard the solider say “If you do this, I will own your forever.”

Those words haunted Watson. Playwright Dan O’Brien had contacted Watson, after Watson’s book, Where War Lives, was published.  O’Brien thought there was a play in Watson’s experience and the two emailed sporadically back and forth before finally meeting in the arctic region of Canada.

This play is about their relationship as much as it is about Watson and the effect the photo had on him.  It also is about the role of the war correspondent/photojournalist in our society, as a witness to man’s inhumanity to other men.

In this 90 minute piece, scenes and time mutate constantly.  After a brief opening scene where both actors are playing Paul, we go to a NPR interview with Watson by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  Soon we are in Mogadishu when Paul takes the photo.

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

From there we go back and forward –to Indonesia where Watson lives, Canada, and we see O’Brien from Wisconsin to California and more. Michael Cumpsty is Paul – he becomes other  characters occasionally, but Michael Crane is not only Dan but Terry Gross, David Cleveland’s brother, Watson’s interpreter when he took the photo, Mother Teresa (Watson met her)  and others.

This play has already received the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play, the PEN Center USA Award for Drama and the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize.  Yet while the issues are fascinating, this play left me with multiple questions.  Watson clearly has PSTD from his experiences, but it unclear why O’Brien seems to also suffer. While his family may have been dysfunctional, we are not told anything that would seem horrendous.  Other questions are left unanswered, particularly about Watson’s marriage.  He gives us conflicting information in talking with Dan, in phone conversations and with a psychiatrist he sees.

In fact, though it is just 90+ minutes, at times it seemed to drag despite fine performances. Cumpsty makes us feel Watson’s conflicting emotions about what he did and his career in general.  He is truly haunted by those words, but is not sure what they really mean.  Crane gives us an equally fine performance as O’Brien.  But the playwright doesn’t convince me that these two men would be friends. At times it almost seems like O’Brien is stalking Watson.

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Michael Cumpsty and Michael Crane. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Director Jo Bonney has done a fine job in keeping the play moving which is cinematic in scope with what you could see as fade outs, flashbacks, and more..

Bonney is aided by the fine projections by Alex Basco Koch (which include the prize winning photo), sound design by Darron L. West and lighting design by Lap Chi Chu.

The Body of an American is one of those plays that you will continue to think about and to talk about.  Isn’t that what good theater should do.

The Body of an American is Primary Stages’ Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St., New York City through March 20. For tickets visit primarystages.org.

Young Vic’s “A View From the Bridge” Diminishes Power

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Phoebe Fox, Russel Tovey and Mark Strong. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

By Karen Isaacs

Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge is an epic tragedy – almost from the beginning you realize things will not go well and that only one person can prevent it but he cannot see or acknowledge the errors of his thinking.  It has definite Greek tragedy overtones though it deals with ordinary people not kings or gods.

I have fond memories of several productions of this play that I’ve seen over the years. Long Wharf’s 1982 production starring Tony LoBianco as Eddie and Rose Gregorio as Beatrice, directed by Arvin Brown, transferred to Broadway and garnered two Tony nominations – for LoBianco and as best revival.  I also saw the Greg Mosher directed revival in 20xx with Liev Schreiber as Eddie, Jessica Hecht as Beatrice and Scarlett Johansson as Catherine.

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Mark Strong and Phoebe Fox. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

The play tells the story of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks in the early 1950s.  He lives with his wife, Beatrice, and his 18 year-old niece, Catherine, the daughter of Beatrice’s sister whom they have raised. Catherine is turning into an attractive young woman and is beginning to want independence – a job, to go out, to have boyfriends.  Eddie seems very protective of her.  The play, which like all good tragedies takes place over a limited time span of a few weeks, centers around the arrival of two “submarines” – two Italian cousins of Beatrice – who are entering the country illegally and staying with them.  Times are tough in Sicily, and the older brother Marco has three children, one of whom is ill.  He hopes to stay in the country three to five years, sending money home to support his family.  His younger brother, Rodolpho, is more carefree and different.  He is a blond, mentioning that the Vikings had visited Sicily centuries ago, and we learn that he like to sing, and can both sew and cook.

The story is narrated by Alfieri, a lawyer who comments on the inevitability of what will happen.

Catherine and Rodolpho are attracted to each other; each are young and carefree. She shows him around the city, they go to movies, and have fun together.  Eddie is not pleased.  He wants Catherine to find a “better type” of man.  He does not like that she has accepted a job working for a large plumbing contractor – he wants her working in Manhattan.

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Phoebe Fox and Nicola Walker. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

His dislike for their attraction to each other, causes him to believe that Marco is “not right” – a subtle way of saying that he is gay.  He also believes that Marco is only interested in Catherine to get citizenship.

Things are not good between Eddie and his wife; it is clear that they have not been intimate for many months and that she feels Catherine acts too freely around Eddie – appearing in just slip, etc.

It is not a secret from the audience what is going on.  Eddie has an unacknowledged attraction to Catherine.

Given that, it is no surprise that the entire family is engulfed in tragedy and that Eddie destroys both himself and others.

The Young Vic production directed by Ivo Van Hove won raves in London and got much critical acclaim here.

Unfortunately, I am not one of the admirers of this production.  It seems too much like a typical case of a director (here the very “hot” Van Hove) putting his concept over the actual play and in doing so diminishes the work.

This is a concept production.  The stage set is minimal – a low clear box surrounds an abbreviated playing area. Audience members are seated in a number of rows on each side of the stage – somewhat disconcerting for those of us in the main auditorium.  As the play opens, the set is covered like a box that slowly rises, so first of all we see feet.

For reasons unclear to me, the actors are all barefoot.

But Van Hove, who is Dutch, has made some other questionable decisions as well.  Some characters have been eliminated and the total lack of set sometimes confuses us as to where we are – in the apartment, on the docks, on the street.  The ending rugby scrum, may have a symbolic purpose – but it also makes it unclear what really happens.

Also found the box – which could be a reminder of a boxing ring – distanced me from the actors and the drama.

The British cast is excellent.  Most of them maintain a good facsimile of an American accent though not necessarily Brooklyn which we might have trouble understanding.  It is strange that the two immigrants have no trace of an accent.

Mark Strong does an excellent job as Eddie – he believes what he believes and he refuses to see what is obvious to everyone else.  Nicola Walker as Beatrice somehow seemed unwilling to accept the obvious conclusions.

But the most misguided characterization –which must be blamed on the director – is that of Phoebe Fox as Catherine.  First of all, her costume is totally inappropriate for the period of the play; her skirt is so short that when at one point she is on the ground, her underwear is clearly visible.  Secondly, Catherine is played like Lolita;  it is hard to imagine that an 18-year-old girl brought up in a conservative Italian-Catholic community,  would jump and wrap her legs around her father figure.

So while, others may be standing and cheering this production, I found it amazingly unmoving.  The catharsis that you expect from a great tragedy is lacking.

The problem to me is that Van Hove decided to make this a Greek tragedy without recognizing that Arthur Miller had already done that for him.  All he had to do was be faithful to Miller’s script.

A View from the Bridge is at the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 45th Street through February 21. Tickets are available through telecharge.

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Nicola Walker, Michael Zegen and Mark Strong. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

 

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