By Karen Isaacs
Authors have, for decades, attempted to write sequels to classic works. It’s tricky business with many questions that need answering. Should a sequel be done? After all, if the original author wanted to do one, he or she would have. Do you try to emulate the original author’s voice? How do you determine what does happen? Should it be what seems most logical for the feel and the period of the original work? The period when the sequel is written?
A Doll’s House – Part 2 by Lucas Hnath has attempted to tell us what has happened to Nora, Torvald and the other characters in Ibsen’s classic play. It is set 15 years after the famous door slam.
If you don’t recall the original play, it is a multi-layered play about Nora and Helmar Torvald over the Christmas holiday in 1879, Norway. A secret that Nora has been concealing from Helmar comes to light which causes her to look at herself and her marriage in a new light. This results in her leaving both her husband and her three young children with the famous door slam that is said to have reverberated throughout the world.
Scholars have debated Nora’s action and the reasons behind it. In the course of the play, Ibsen raises a number of issues that go well beyond those of the rights of women and married women in particular. Depending on which of these multiple issues you focus on, your view of Nora’s choices will vary and so will your sense of what might have happened to her and those she left behind.
Hnath focuses on just four characters: Nora; her husband, Torvald; the nurse-maid Anne Marie; and the daughter she left behind, Emmy.
Nora returns to the same apartment that she had left after having contacted Anne Marie. No one is home except Anne Marie. It seems that Nora has a problem. She has assumed that Torvald divorced her after she left. Therefore she has lived and acted as a single woman, signing contracts and having relationships, all of which would be possible illegal for a married woman to do without her husband’s permission.
She has also become a writer whose works argue that marriage is oppressive to women; she has become a feminist whose works are both well-known and generate angry reactions. Apparently, a local judge has been looking into Nora’s past after his wife took her message to heart and left him. Thus, the reason for the visit.
During the course of the play all four of the characters get their say. The family had presumed Nora dead; after all they had neither heard from or of her in the years since. Each harbors resentments – to her and she to them. She doesn’t understand why Helmar never got the divorce which was much, much easier for a husband to attain. Anne Marie spent years picking up the pieces Nora left behind – caring and raising her three children. The two boys are out of the house, but Emmy the youngest is still at home and resents missing out on a mother. Torvald resents that Nora never allowed him and them as a couple to work through the problems she saw in the marriage.
Hnath and director Sam Gold has combined 19th century sets (though very bare) and costumes, with 21st century language (the F-bomb and others go off from all the characters) as well as interesting body language choices for Nora. The frankness of the discussions seems inappropriate for the late 19th century.
No matter how you react to the play and Hnath’s view of Nora – and I will discuss my reactions – you will be thrilled by the performances, even if you disagree with how the characters are written. Laurie Metcalf as Nora, Jane Hoydyshell as Anne Marie, Chris Cooper as Torvald and Condola Rashad as Emmy are all magnificent.
But, despite how good they are, for me Hnath took the wrong track with his play. First of all it is too comedic in both writing and direction. He has created a Nora that is totally self-centered which is how many students view her when they first read the play. But if you explore Ibsen’s themes more thoroughly, I don’t think you can see her in that one-dimensional light. Nora is a more complex person that just a self-centered, self-involved individual. Leaving her family was for multiple reasons.
By going for the laughs – a gentleman sitting next to me was loudly guffawing through much of the play – he has detracted from what might have been a very interesting discussion of how a woman, relatively sheltered and unaware of how society worked, survived and prospered. How did others react to her? What stumbles occurred along the way? Did she have any regrets or was she totally unintrospective.
None of these are answered and while A Doll’s House, Part II is an enjoyable evening particularly because of the fine acting, it could have been so much more. Hnath seems to rely too much on our knowledge of the play and our viewpoint of it.
A Doll’s House – Part II is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street through July 23. For tickets, contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Movies into Broadway musicals. The trend continues with Groundhog Day starring Andy Karl. The musical will not make you forget about the film, but it does provide a diverting evening in the theater featuring a terrific performance by Andy Karl and some clever “sleight of hand” illusions.
You won’t leave the theater humming the tunes or anxious to see it all again, but you will have enjoyed it.
The musical keeps the basic plot of the 1993 movie which starred Bill Murray as the TV weather forecaster Phil Connors who gets caught in an interesting time-warp. He works for a Pittsburgh TV station and is sent to cover the Groundhog Day activities in Punxsutawney, home of one of the most famous of the groundhogs. He’s done it all before. Add to the fact that Phil has a healthy ego who enjoys the celebrity status he has achieved although it has gone to his head a bit; he is not the nicest of guys.
In the film, he arrives in Punxsutawney with his producer, Rita and a cameraman, Chris. On Groundhog Day he wakes up and does a half-hearted and somewhat snide on-camera presentation and then wants to immediately leave. Rita wants to stay but soon a blizzard (which Phil had predicted would not hit the area) has closed all the roads. The next morning, Phil awakens to find it is Groundhog Day again and that cycle is repeated many times with Phil becoming upset, depressed and angry. Finally the cycle is broken when Phil becomes a nicer, friendlier man.
The musical retains the central idea but has made significant changes. The producer Rita is no longer an experienced producer whom Phil has worked with before and for whom he may have feelings. Now she is a total surprise to Phil; she’s young and this is her first time producing a segment. While Phil does eventually develop feelings for her, at first he finds her enthusiasm annoying. The musical is also stuffed with a variety of “colorful” local characters.
The problem is that much of the show is repetition of the events of Groundhog Day. So we see the sheriff misplacing his gun, the “cute” teenage couple giggling and excited to see Phil over and over again. The time warp seems to go on 10 or more times. How many times is it funny or interesting to see the mundane lines repeated?
So despite the endless loop of repetition, the show offers some good performances and some respectable, if not highly creative, songs by Tim Minchin who did the same for Matilda. Let’s just say that the music/lyrics are serviceable with only one song “Nobody Cares” that I’m interested in hearing again.
What will keep you wondering is how Phil can be in so many places almost simultaneously. I won’t spoil the illusion, but you see Phil singing one song and a moment later he is waking in bed to start the day over again. In film, that would easy to accomplish; on the stage it will have you oohing and aahing.
Andy Karl carries the show; he manages to make even the irascible Phil somehow sympathetic and likeable. Right now he is doing that with a brace on his left leg; theater fans know that he hurt his knee right before the opening night. After missing a few performances, he returned with the brace which has to be awkward, heavy and tiring. It’s not clear if any choreography was changed to accommodate his injury, but he certainly moves around the stage a great deal.
As Rita, Barrett Doss does a good job as the overly gung-ho producer who doesn’t really know how to handle Phil. John Sanders manages to find a variety of emotions for Ned Ryerson the old friend and insurance agent that Phil meets on each reiteration of the day.
While the movie was almost a dark comedy, here that element has been lost. Despite Phil’s increasing depression and agitation at the repetitions of the day, it all remains too perky and happy. In the middle of the second act, there is the “big” dance featuring the entire company that simply seems both out of place and a delaying tactic to get to the final curtain.
All the production elements are very good including the scenic design by Bob Howell (he also did the costumes) that includes a wild car ride among its effects. Matthew Warchus as directed it efficiently.
See Groundhog Day for Andy Karl’s performance. He has the potential to be a long-term presence on Broadway and a major star.
It is at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
When Anastasia opened at Hartford Stage a year ago I enjoyed it but felt it needed work. Yet I believed the show would attract an audience due to its fairy tale romance qualities, the popularity of the animated film of the 1997 and the top-notch people involved.
It’s now opened on Broadway. The pluses that delighted me at Hartford, continue to entrance. But while changes were made, the weakness of this show is its less than stellar book and a score that is ho-hum.
This is a show that young girls and women will love: it combines elements of Cinderella, My Fair Lady and Gigi: the story of a young woman transformed into the equivalent of a princess.
The basic story of Anastasia, the thought that the Tsar’s youngest daughter escaped execution, has been the basis of plays, films and even a musical (Anya) in 1965 for years. It was a gold mine for mentally disturbed women and con artists who could coach them with information. Anastasia’s grandmother lived in Paris surrounded the refugee Russian nobility. Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for the role in 1956. It is based on a kernel of truth: there was a search for Anastasia and a number of imposters tried to claim the money. In the 1920s Anna Anderson, who claimed to be an amnesiac gained notoriety for her claim to be Anastasia. Most of the versions take some elements from her story and the 1952 French play by Marcelle Maurette.
The book of the show by Terrence McNally has been substantially changed from the film; gone are the animated animals and now we have complex villain in Gleb, a Communist official whose father was at the execution but who becomes attracted to Anastasia.
The musical moves from the opening at the court to the streets of St. Petersburg to Paris. The basic outline remains the same: we see the royal family before the revolution when the Dowager Empress gives her youngest granddaughter a music box before she leaves for Paris where she lives. The revolution arrives and the royal family is captured and later killed.
Soon we are in the midst of the Communist regime of the mid-1920s. A young woman is sweeping the streets; she has no memory of her past. Two men (Dmitry and Vlad) – both of whom live by their wits — know that the Dowager Empress has offered a reward for finding Anastasia; they decide to look for someone to impersonate the Princess and find the young woman. In a My Fair Lady like story, they tutor her and groom her so she can pass; occasionally she recounts a memory that surprises them.
They escape Communist Russia and travel to Paris – after some narrow escapes – where they manage to arrange a meeting with the Dowager Empresses’ companion and then the Dowager herself, who has become weary of the parade of imposters. Do you really need for anyone to tell you the ending? It is predictable.
Composer Steven Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, A Man of No Importance, Once on this Island and more), have kept some of the songs from the film including the Oscar-winning “Journey to the Past,” “Once Upon a December,” “A Rumor in St. Petersburg,” “Paris Holds the Key” and a couple of others. Many others have been added – some work really well and some seem to detract. I did like “My Petersburg,” “A Secret She Kept,” and “We’ll Go from There.”
The plusses of this show are all in the production elements, as they were in Hartford.
The production is opulent; every aspect of the production will take your breath away. Let’s start with the set by Alexander Dodge. He creates the court of Imperial Russia, Paris, and a wide variety of places in between. Particularly ingenious is his handling of the train on which Anya and her companions ride to escape Communist Russia.
Then we can praise the costumes by Linda Cho – the gowns of Imperial Russia and later the gown for the Dowager Empress — are elegant and opulent. But she goes beyond that to create authentic 1920s costumes as well. Her costumes are supplemented by the wig and hair design by Charles G. LaPointe.
Let’s praise the sound design by Peter Hylenski and the lighting by Donald Holder. I
marveled at some of the lighting effects Holder achieved including one scene where only Anya is in color.
But the highest praise must go to the video and projection design by Aaron Rhyne. His designs create three-dimensional images of St. Petersburg – the winter palace, the cathedral and so much more – Paris and the various scenes in-between.
Certainly Darko Tresnjak’s direction and concept is brilliant. He has his production team create wonderful effects, he transitions the multiple scenes and locations splendidly, gives us ghost-like flashbacks, plus he draws the best from his performers. He is aided by choreographer Peggy Hickey who creates everything from court quadrilles to folk dances and even a ballet.
Most of the performers are also terrific. Mary Beth Piel plays the Dowager Empress with both elegance and touching emotion. Derek Klena is fine as Dmitry but doesn’t really create a three dimensional character until the second act. John Bolton is Vlad, who is part comic figure and part somewhat tragic one. Ramin Karimloo is dynamic ats the villain-like character Gleb. He makes him more than just a villain; there is undercurrent of conflict between his commitment to the Party and his attraction to Anya. Caroline O’Connor plays Lily the Dowager Empress’ companion. She is excellent and brings both pathos and comedy to the part.
Christy Altomare has the difficult job of transforming a somewhat typical “Disney princess” into a real woman. She succeed partly, yet I never quite believed in her or even cared about her. She seems to lack a “spark” that the role requires. She is very effective in her songs, particularly the act one closer “Journey to the Past.”
But the problem is that the musical seems to be split between the more serious first act and act two in Paris. Two comic numbers featuring the Dowager’s lady in waiting are back to back in the second act. They seem a total distraction and interruption of the flow of the somewhat predictable plot. I was surprised they had survived the transition from the original production; at least the first of them, needed serious pruning. The momentum is also halted by an extended ballet sequence that seems overlong.
If so much was right with Anastasia, why wasn’t I totally enchanted? But the real problem for me was that I never became emotionally involved in the show; I can see My Fair Lady multiple times and always root for Eliza and even the semi-romance with Higgins. Here I wasn’t invested in the show or the characters. They seemed more two-dimensional. Pleasant but not emotionally engaging. Formulaic but well done.
Certainly it is a show that romantics and all those enchanted by Cinderella stories will enjoy. And the production values are certainly worth Broadway prices.
Anastasia is at the Broadhurst Theater, 235 w. 44th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
“Indecent,” the new play by Paula Vogel blends music, dance, song, scenes from the famous Yiddish play “The God of Vengeance” and the history of the play so seamlessly that you are entranced.
It weaves these multiple stories plus episodes from the life of its author Sholem Asch to create a multi-dimensional piece performed by a true ensemble. Six actors are assigned multiple roles based on age — the two older play an older characters, the 40ish actors play characters of that age and the younger performers play the younger characters. Yet you never are confused about who is playing which character.
With the exception of Richard Topol who plays the stage manager/narrator (as well as other characters), the program simply lists them as “actor”.
The piece was directed by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who has been with the project since its beginning. It had its world premiere at Yale Rep in 2015 and won numerous awards from the Connecticut Critics Circle. It then played off-Broadway before now making it to the Great White Way.
During its travel, the same cast has remained with it as well as the same production team and musicians.
The Broadway production is stronger than the one I saw at Yale. Yet it retains the essence of the story.
For most theatr-goers, the incidents which the play recounts will not be familiar. It involves the novelist/playwright Sholem Asch who wrote initially in Yiddish and his play The God of Vengeance.
This play delves deeper than just the history of the production of this work and its author. It raises an issue that every minority who is looked down upon by mainstream society faces: Should the less-than-admirable aspects of our group be revealed for those who already denigrate us?
Indecent covers the period from the play’s writing and first reading in a Warsaw literary salon in 1907 through WWII and even beyond.
At that time, in what was called the Jewish Enlightenment, many Eastern European Jews were promoting literature written in Yiddish. But many of those who promoted this also wanted positive portrayals of the Jews living in Eastern Europe.
At the first reading, God of Vengeance was controversial; the young Asch writes a play that includes a Jewish owned brothel, a love affair between the owner’s daughter and one of the prostitutes, and the “shocking” treatment of a Jewish scroll. It showed a side of Jewish life which many did not want told.
The men start reading the play but are soon horrified. The play tells the story of a Jewish man who runs a brothel, his wife is one of his former prostitutes and he has a virginal daughter. But the daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes to her father’s horror.
Yet the play was produced in Berlin with the great actor Rudolph Schildkraut as the father, St. Petersburg, Moscow and other locations throughout Europe in both Yiddish and native languages. In New York City’s lower east side, the play had various successful productions for more than 15 years.
Asch and some of the performers in the actors (including Schildkraut) emigrated to the US and in 1923, the Provincetown Playhouse in New York (known for producing the works of Eugene O’Neill) produced an English production.
It is here that the story of The God of Vengeance turns. The producer wants to bring it to Broadway, but feels the story must be revised to fit the up-town audience; Asch lets the producer do it, but never reads the changes. His English was very limited and he had turned his attention to writing novels. Many felt the new version makes the play even more controversial; instead of a love story between the prostitute and the daughter, the prostitute is simply trying to recruit the daughter the life. A Rabbi files an obscenity complaint and the entire cast, producers and theater owner are all arrested and convicted of indecency. (The conviction is later overturned).
During the course of the 100 minute play, a very talented cast of six plays a variety of roles.
Max Gordon Moore portrays Asch as a man of conviction though flawed. He admits he agreed to the cuts for the Broadway production without reading them and refuses to testify at the company’s criminal trial. Katrina Link is luminous as the prostitute Manke who falls in love with the daughter – on stage and with the actress in real life. Her commitment to the work is clear. Adina Verson plays not only Asch’s wife but also Rifkele, the daughter. Tom Nellis plays I.L. Peretz, the salon host but also the actor Rudolph Schildkraut with elegance and grace. Mimi Lieber plays the mother in Asch’s play and Steve Rattazzi plays the producer, the Rabbi and others.
Richard Topol serves as both the stage manager and the defender of the piece. His portrayal is heart-breaking as the young man from the provinces who first hears the play read and is totally transformed by it and is the stage manager/defender during its controversial production.
The movement choreographed by David Dorfman adds an elegant touch, especially the very graceful Tom Nellis.
The play begins as if the characters have been packed away for years, perhaps even buried and it moves among the various scenes with props pulled from old-fashioned suitcases.
Taichman as director has a sure hand at managing the multiple scene changes and characters in the play. She is aided by her production team – lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, costume designer Emily Rebholz, sound designer Matt Hubs and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez.
Three fine musicians – Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva (both of whom composed the music) and Travis W. Hendrix – provide an accompaniment that is reminiscent of klezmer music.
Indecent is a fascinating play that any theater lover should see. It explores a piece of theater history as well as raising challenging questions about the role of literature for minority populations.
It is at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. For tickets visit Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Two outstanding actresses are alternating roles in the current revival of The Little Foxes now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are each playing Regina and Birdie in this excellent production directed by Daniel Sullivan.
I only saw one performance, so this review will focus on Linney as Regina and Nixon as Birdie. Regina is the larger and showy part; but Birdie has an exceptional scene in the third act that any actress would want to perform.
Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes gives us a tale of greed and duplicity as two brothers and a sister try to build their fortune in the post-Civil War south. The Hubbards are striving upward mainly by stepping all over people. Ben and his brother, Oscar, have built wealth by overcharging, cheating and general unethical business behavior.
Their sister, Regina, has married a banker but she wants more. She wants to move to Chicago and be part of society there. These are people who have “made it” and have no compassion. Whatever they want they will take, by any means necessary.
The play opens at Regina’s home. Her husband has been at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for five months with a heart condition, but it seems that only their teenage daughter, Alexandra, and the two loyal black servants, care. Regina certainly doesn’t except that she needs her husband to provide $75,000 so that she can be an equal partner with her two brothers in a deal with a northern business man. They plan is to build a cotton mill in the town; it will make then rich.
But Horace, Regina’s husband, has not responded to her letters and has said nothing about agreeing to invest. She and the brothers are nervous; the deal must be completed soon. So among the family squabbling and negotiations she decided to send her daughter to Baltimore to bring Horace home. This is after she has forced her brothers to give her more than one-third of the ownership; she knows they don’t want outsiders involved.
While the brothers are antsy for the deal, they are also suspicious that Horace doesn’t want to participate. Plus Oscar is unhappy that Regina’s larger share is coming from his portion. But he has another plan in mind; in fact, he has two. His ne’er-do-well son, Leo works at the bank and through snooping knows that Horace has more than enough bonds in a safe deposit box that could be used to consummate the deal. Neither of the two older men are averse to “borrowing” those bonds. Yet Oscar has another plan up sleeve: he wants Regina to agree to Alexandra marring Leo.
Once the ill Horace arrives home, exhausted, Regina badgers him to get him to agree. He’s angry when he learns that Ben and Oscar have promised the factory owner low wages and no strikes.
Two weeks later, Horace is still not doing well (he has a serious heart condition) and he still has not agreed to provide the money. But he has discovered the bonds are missing from his safe box and he knows that Leo took them. He tells Regina that while he won’t force the brothers to give her a share, he will leave her the bonds in his will: she can then collect the $80,000 from her brothers. This is nowhere near the riches she has her heart set on. After an act of unmitigated cruelty the play ends with Regina being subtly threatened by both her brothers and Alexandra.
Regina is the central role in this play; she can be charming when she wants to be, but she also has an iron will and a cold heart. She will not be thwarted. As Linney plays her, there is not a spark of human kindness in her veins. Her very erect posture shows us she will not bend to anyone – her husband, her brothers, or her daughter. She will get what she wants. If there is a criticism of Linney’s performance, it would be that it is almost too cold; the charm seems so obviously fake, that you don’t see why Horace fell for it long ago or why the Chicago industrialist falls for it in the first scene.
Birdie is a sympathetic character and can be symbolic of the Southern gentry that have seen their wealth and status diminished to those who have no ethics. She is bullied and abused by her husband, ignored by the rest of the family and often shrinks into the background simply observing the machinations of the Hubbard siblings.
But Cynthia Nixon gives us such a multi-layered performance, that even when she off to the side, you can barely keep your eyes off of her. She may be defeated, but there is a spark of life and determination in her. Nixon mines this for the scene in act three where she tells of how she has survived and counsels Alexandra to avoid her fate. Rather than just pity her, you want to cheer her.
Richard Thomas is outstanding as Regina’s husband, Horace. He doesn’t appear until act two (this is a three act play), but he absolutely convinces you both of nearing death and of his realizations about Regina. He is a man who knows he will die soon and want to make right what he can; this includes thwarting Regina. Thomas doesn’t overplay the illness, and thankfully director Sullivan has staged his final moments out of sight of the audience; diminishing what can be a melodramatic moment.
In fact this entire cast is very good. Michael McKean gives us a steely Ben who will bide his time to get back at Regina; Darren Goldstein is Oscar, the brother that both Ben and Regina out-maneuver; you see that he has less of the polish than the others and thus his bully nature is clearer.
In addition Michael Benz gives us the pampered Leo as the youthful cad-in-the-making that he is. His opposite is Francesca Carpanni as Alexandra. She seems to have missed her mother’s manipulativeness, except with her ominous curtain line. The two servants, who often seem the most aware are given fine performances by Caroline Stefanie Clay and Charles Turner.
The production values are excellent from the impressive mansion by Scott Pask complete with a curving staircase that allows for wonderful entrances, to the costumes by Jane Greenwood, the lighting by Justin Townsend, and the sound by Fitz Patton.
What is most impressive is the way director Daniel Sullivan has kept the play from becoming an over-wrought melodrama. Everything is held in check and balanced.
I can only imagine how the production with Nixon as Regina and Linney as Birdie might be. I suspect it would be equally good.
The Little Foxes is at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. It will run through July 2. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Take two Broadway stars – both genuine stars beloved by musical fanatics and a story of two powerful women – and you have War Paint.
The two stars, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole each have two Tonys plus numerous nominations. The two powerful women are Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Both were pioneers. Each built a corporation in her own name, and together made the wearing of cosmetics respectable for “ladies.”
The bulk of War Paint takes place in the 1930s and 40s, the heyday of the Arden and Rubenstein brands. They were NOT friendly competitors. Each had overcome an impoverished background: for Rubenstein it was the shtetl of Poland and for Arden it was a farm in Ontario. Rubenstein promoted the image of the scientist who created her own products; Arden’s image was of the society, WASP blue blood.
The show alternates between the two of them, showing their successes, their problems, their competitive urges, and their downfalls. Both faced challenges when WWII limited the availability of ingredients needed for their cosmetics; Arden created a red lipstick to match the red on the Marine Corps chevrons. Women in the Corps were required to wear the “Victory Red” lipstick and nail polish as part of their uniforms. Rubenstein also succeeded during the war after appealing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Afer the war, each faced questioning by a Congressional committee about the ingredients in their products and the sometimes extravagant claims made for them. It led to regulations requiring ingredient labels on the products. Women learned that the products themselves often cost only pennies while the elaborate packaging (Arden’s included silk ribbons and glass jars) cost much, much more.
Both ended up losing the companies they had built in part because in the 1950s they refused to change and accept the more youth-oriented culture and the need for lower price lines. Soon Charles Revson had outshone them with Revlon. Yet both brands continue today; in fact, Arden’s headquarters are in Stamford and her famous “Red Door Spa” still is on 5th Avenue in NYC as well as other places.
Each also faced discrimination due to the gender and to their backgrounds. In a poignant moment towards the end of the show, Rubenstein is rejected for a co-op apartment because of her Jewish heritage and Arden is rejected for membership in an exclusive “society” club for her lower class background.
In addition, each found that men often assumed that they were figureheads whose
successes were engineered by the men who surrounded them. For many years, Arden’s husband (Tommy Lewis) was head of marketing, but she was careful to keep publicity about the relationship to a minimum. As she said, “The moment they credit you, they discredit me – you’re in pants.”
Two men figured prominently in both their lives. Arden’s husband eventually went to work for Rubenstein after Arden replaced him with Rubenstein’s former head of marketing (Harry Fleming) and they divorced.
The show depends on the two leading ladies and they both deliver. Lupone plays Rubenstein with a heavy eastern European accent that can make it difficult to understand lines. It is especially noticeable in the songs where Lupone has always had a tendency to garble words. But she creates a feisty woman willing to be direct and make difficult decisions. Her competitiveness is born out of her background of being denigrated for her religion in Poland and her immigrant status in the U.S.
Ebersole’s Arden is equally competitive but cloaked in a more genteel ladylike garb. While she can belt with Lupone, her voice is also more lyrical to match the character. If Lupone’s Rubenstein is dramatic and “artistic,” Ebersole’s Arden is gracious and polite.
Yet underneath the exteriors, each had steel core. It is what led to their downfalls; neither was willing to acknowledge the changes in society. Both stuck with their original concepts of making cosmetics acceptable to middle class women. At one point one of them says that teens and young women did not need make-up they had youthful beauty on their side.
The show was written by Doug Wright, a Tony (and Pulitzer) winner in his own right with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. They are best known for the Tony nominated musical Grey Gardens.
If you don’t walk out of the theater humming the tunes, it may partly be due to the lack of reprises. You don’t have the opportunity for a melody to be reinforced. It will take hearing the CD to decide it the score is merely serviceable of it goes beyond that.
The two ladies are ably assisted by Douglas Sills as Harry and John Dossett as Tommy, each of whom has his own Tony nominations. Sills has the more flamboyant role as the handsome and gay Harry. Both men hold their own on the stage with these to magnetic women.
The remainder of the ensemble play multiple roles. Erik Liberman stands out as Charles Revson, who saw the marketing possibilities of television and created his own brand.
Michael Greif’s direction minimizes the confusions as we go back and forth between the
stories of the two women. By using a small ensemble, the minor characters are unable to develop any specifics; they seem interchangeable – shop clerks, society women, customers, etc. He keeps the spotlight firmly on the two leads.
Christopher Gatelli did the minimal choreography but is also responsible for the choreographed walks on the stage.
The set by David Korns features a backdrop of various cosmetic bottles, vials and others which are cleverly lighted by Kenneth Posner; Posner also creates several other interesting effects.
Catherine Zuber must have had a ball creating the numerous costumes which reflect trends from the late’20s to the ’50 and for a variety of personalities. Rubenstein was more dramatic in her apparel while Arden fitted into the upper class society matron style.
War Paint may not be a great musical but it gives us the opportunity to see two great stage performers show off their talents, with two strong supporting men in the cast and a story about the obstacles women have faced. That makes it worth seeing.
It is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
Thank heavens for Kevin Kline! His performance in the revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, now at the St. James Theater is worth studying over and over again.
This play, written when Coward was in his early forties, is a comedy about an actor who is a leading man known for romantic comedies. In a few days he is leaving on a tour of Africa but before then there are various complications including a young woman who thinks she is in love with him, a young playwright who wants advice, his estranged wife, and his director, producer and the producer’s wife. His secretary, butler and a housekeeper try to keep things running smoothly.
It is half romantic comedy, and half farce and Kline and the fine cast assembled by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel are all up to the task.
Garry Essendine (Kline) is an aging romantic lead who has incorporated the mannerisms and life style of the characters he plays into his own life. That is to say, he is not only almost always “on” but he can overdo it a bit with affected gestures.
The play opens one morning with a young woman (Daphne) coming out of the guest bedroom in his pajamas and robe. She has obviously stayed the night, because as she explains she had lost her “latch key” (house keys) and he had let her stay. When he finally emerges from his bedroom, he has no recollection of the young woman and it takes him a while to get her to leave. She proclaims undying love and it is clear that Essendine had said some such dialogue to her the night before. But he acts the scene of his renunciation of her as though it were a stage play.
During this time, the stoic secretary (Monica) has arrived to try to keep things in order and the valet is on hand. The apartment is soon bustling as the estranged wife arrives from France. She’s concerned that the wife of the producer is having an affair with the director. The five of them – Essendine, his wife, the director, Morris and the producer, Henry – have been friends and colleagues for years. Essendine and Liz, his wife are afraid that Joanna, Henry’s wife, will destroy the group.
Soon, Roland Maule arrives. It seems that Essndine answered his own phone and made an appointment to see the young playwright. Maule really seems very strange – high strung, nervous and vacillating between attacking Essendine for doing “just light comedy” and groveling. His play is quite bad and he is told to go away, write twenty plays, discard them and perhaps the 21st will be good enough to be produced.
But that are not all of the complications that begin to exasperate Essendine. Maule
returns unexpectedly and refuses to leave. He is fascinated observing the goings on. It also seems that Johanna has arrived the night before, having “forgotten her latch key” – she is wondering around in his pajamas and robe but is much more demanding than Daphne was and seems to have no intention of leaving. Of course, Liz, Monica and Essendine try to hide her presence as her husband and Morris arrive – her husband and lover. Added to the developing chaos is the return of Daphne who has convince her grandmother to arrange an audition for her with Essendine.
Soon, everyone is proclaiming that they have booked passage and will be accompanying him to Africa.
Coward’s drawing room comedies require a deft hand. They are easily overplayed or the sophisticate witticisms can seem pretentious. With this cast, they sound utterly natural. The dialogue must be conversational and not feel forced in any way.
Kline, Kate Burton and Liz, Kristine Nielsen as Monica and the rest of the cast excel in carrying it off. It’s high comedy, it’s farce, but it must seem natural. Timing is everything, but it must not seem forced.
Kline is the ideal actor for this role; he has the good looks to be a romantic leading man, and he can lift an eyebrow to make a point with the best of them. He doesn’t sound like Coward (who originated the part) yet gets all the laughs without seeming forced or trying. Just watching him sit and listen to the others is a class in acting and reacting.
Kristine Nielsen as the unflappable secretary – she’s seen it all before – is the counterpoint to the mayhem that is going on. Yet she manages to not let her stoic nature become unresponsive or boring.
As Liz, Kate Burton has a difficult job – she must convey amusement at Essendine’s peccadillos, but also concern and motherliness as she and Monica must manage the goings on. Underneath you must wonder if she is still in love with him. Although hampered by some unflattering – but period appropriate hats and costumers – she manages it all. She seems cool, calm and collected at all times.
As Roland Maule, the young aspiring playwright, Bhavesh Patel creates the wild eyed demeanor of a potential madman.
Cobie Smulders conveys how dangerous to the five-some is Johanna, Henry’s wife. She is sophisticated and cool and calculating; you must understand why Essendine and Liz have feared her but she must also convey a sense of determination to get her own way and to settle old scores. She has never felt accepted by the group.
Tedra Millan captures the essences of Daphne with a high pitched voice, the enthusiasm of a school girl and the determination of an English debutante.
David Zinn has created a beautiful duplex as Essendine’s home complete with 1930-40’s details. It seems so appropriate for the character. The costumes by Susan Hilferty reflect not only the styles of the period, but the glamour of the characters. Fitz Patton’s sound design adds to the show though I would have preferred some Coward songs to those used. Justin Townsend’s lighting is very good.
I’ve seen several productions of this play including Frank Langella’s performance in 1997. Kevin Kline is the best Essendine that I’ve seen. I would gladly see this production again and again.
Present Laughter is at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. It runs through July 2. For tickets visit ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
A clever idea that goes on for two hours when it would work best if it were 30 minutes at most, is the problem with The Play That Goes Wrong, now at the Lyceum Theater. BUT some will find it a riotous laugh fest. It depends on your enjoyment of extreme slapstick.
The British hit (it won an Olivier award, the equivalent of a Tony) with its cast intact, can provide some silly fun. But even silly fun can become tedious if it is over-extended.
Last year’s revival of Noises Off is a much better play than this concoction.
The conceit is that a student theatrical group is putting on a production of a typical Agatha Christie-like murder mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. It is opening night and not only are the actors pretty untalented but parts of the set keep falling down.
The show really focuses on physical comedy. Doors slam into people more times than you can count; people trip, fall, doors stick, windows are climbed through, and just about every other type of pratfall occurs, not once, not twice but multiple times.
I can only hope the cast has good health insurance; several have suffered multiple concussions doing the show in England.
The show opens with the “director” played by Henry Shields, appearing before the audience to welcome us and to apologize that the expected show is not the one we will see. Of course, that show is professional and better known. Even before he is doing this, we see various stage hands and the lighting/sound board operator running about trying to prop up the flimsy set of an old-fashioned English manor house. They even enlist an audience member to help.
Into the mystery we go. It appears that Charles Haversham has been murdered in his study on the very night of his engagement to Florence Collymore. So who could have killed him? The suspects include the fiancé who really loves Haversham’s younger brother, Cecil; Cecil himself; Florence’s brother, Thomas, an old friend of Charles’; and the long-time butler, Perkins.
Soon the detective, Inspector Carter, arrives to start trying to solve the case.
Simultaneously, the entire production begins to totally fall apart.
Let’s first talk about the actors. It’s difficult for a good actor to play someone who can’t act; but this young group of well-trained and experienced performers, pull it off.
We have the butler, Perkins, who not only has an emotionless voice but tends to put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, after looking at his hand where it is obviously written. Jonathan Sayer carries it off with deadpan accuracy.
Then there is David Hearn who plays Cecil Haversham. It is delightful to see him react to the audience’s reaction. At first startled, he soon begins to bask in the glow of the approval and attempts to maximize it, adding bits of stage business and communication with the audience.
Bob Falconer plays Trevor, the sound/stage board operator who too often misses cues because he is looking on his phone, the computer, or trying to locate a CD. He finds it when it accidently plays during the production.
Of course, Shields turns up as Inspector Carter; he is very good. The two women are Charlie Russell who plays the fiancé (Florence); she manages to get dragged through the window among other things. Plus, when she is knocked out, the stage hand Annie, played the night I saw it by Bryony Corrigan, takes over. When Florence comes to, Annie refuses to give up the role; they battle on stage, often echoing themselves.
In fact the entire cast is very good.
Special applause should go to Nigel Hook who created the scenic design as well as the stage hands who must keep putting the set back together. There is one scene where the balcony begins to tilt; it hangs in the air through shaking and slowly angling like the Titanic.
If you love physical, silly comedy and enjoy it for extended periods, you will find The Play that Goes Wrong hilarious. If that is not your favorite OR if you like it only in small doses, then you may find the play goes on too long.
It is at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
“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.