“Smart People” at Long Wharf Will Cause Mixed Reactions.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Lydia R. Diamond’s play “Smart People” now at Long Wharf Theater through April 9 is a two hour discussion or race and gender: it is sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking and sometime pedantic.

How you will react to the play will depend on how insightful you feel the points made are.

It is set in Cambridge, between 2007-2009 which coincides with the candidacy and election of Barack Obama and the run of Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

A little quibble, early in the play a character refers to “he” and who will vote for “him”. If you haven’t read the program notes, you may think it is referring to our current President.

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Peter O’Connor. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

We meet four people — all well-educated, three of them and possibly the fourth, have a connection to Harvard.  We have Brian White (yes, he is Caucasian), who is neuroscientist. He is aiming for tenure but his research is ruffling feathers exacerbated by his outspokenness in the media. His research is attempting to prove that a racism is inherent in the brains of people.

Ginny Yang is a brilliant psychologist who received tenure at an amazingly young age. Part Chinese and part Japanese, her research and clinical practice revolve around the problems of Asian-American women in the U.S.

We also meet two African-Americans. Valerie Johnston is an aspiring actress with an MFA.  Jackson Moore is a physician who is in a neurosurgery residency program.

We meet each of these characters in brief scenes that establish them. We see White teaching a freshman level course which he views as “punishment.”  He feels most of the students are stupid. We see Yang in a therapy session with a Chinese woman who keeps reverting to Chinese.

Moore is responding to being questioned by an older physician about a toe amputation he did; he responds angrily. And Johnston is in rehearsal of “Julius Caesar” and finding the director overly controlling.

Soon White and Yang are interacting and Moore and Johnston are interacting. At times it takes on the feeling of a romantic comedy. Johnston and White also interact.

We learn how each views the world through the prism of their race, gender and experiences. We see Yang encountering sales clerks who she views as not taking her serious as a customer.  Even when Johnston first meets Moore (she is in the ER for a cut on her forehead that requires stitches), she asks if she will merit seeing a doctor.

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Peter O’Connor and Ka-Ling Cheung. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What is most interesting about the characters is that they often conform to the stereotypes: Moore gets angry and often seems to lose control; it is clear that he sees a racial undertone to the criticism he receives. Johnston decides to clean houses to pay her rent while waiting for her acting break. Yang is an overachiever who admits she doesn’t “do nurturing” well, and White, despite his views and research on racism, blunders around often inadvertently sounding very racist or condescending.

While very well acted, the play does not really shed any new ideas to the discussion. Even Yang’s comment during a dinner party where White and Johnston and Moore are discussing race is obvious. She draws attention to the fact that while those three are arguing/discussing they are ignoring not only her as an Asian -American but also the realities of other minorities in the US — Native Americans, Latinos and other.

It is true that in America, most discussions about race are centered on the two.

My concern is that people will leave this play feeling that they have had a meaningful discussion of these issues. The issue of what is called “implicit bias” based on subtle cognitive processes below the conscious level is an interesting field of discovery; though it does seem to offer an “easy answer” to bias – we can’t do much about it because it is inborn and unconscious.

The cast four are excellent and work well together. Ka-Ling Cheung is Ginny Yang whose Chinese patient views as “white”. Tiffany Nichole Greene is Valerie Johnson while Sullivan Jones gives us the combative Jackson Moore and Peter O’Connor is the sometimes fumbling Brian White. Director Desdemona Chiang has kept the scene shifts, storylines and combinations of characters moving cinemagraphically.

You will either the find this play, disturbing and thought provoking, or you may, like me, view it as pretending to be more meaningful than it actually is.

Smart People is at Long Wharf Theater, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through April 9. For tickets visit Long Wharf or call 800-782-8497.

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Tiffany Nichole Greene and Sullivan Jones. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

“Significant Other” Explores What Happens When Your Friends Marry

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Gideon Glick, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Lindsay Mendez. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 “Significant Other” the play now at the Booth Theater had a successful Off-Broadway run during the 2014-15 season. Its author, Joshua Harmon, wrote “Bad Jews” which has been very successful throughout the world.

This play about four 20-somethings, has two distinctly different moods in its two acts. Quite honestly, I was tempted to leave at intermission; I just didn’t see the humor in the first act that the young audience members were finding hysterical.

But I’m glad I stayed, for the second act was more poignant and heartfelt.

The play focusses on Jordan Berman, beautifully played by Gideon Glick. Jordan is a gay man who has not had much luck with romantic relationships. Right now he has a crush on Will, a hot, new employee at work.  But Jordan does have three women friends: Kiki, Vanessa and Laura. Each is single. The three women are his best friends and he is theirs. They hang out together, gossip, bitch and complain about jobs, romances, and life in general.

But what happens when marriage “breaks up that old gang of mine?”

First it is Kiki who marries, but since she was the kookiest of the group, it did not really disturb the balance. Then it was Vanessa. Now it was just Jordan and Laura – the two who were the best of friends. In the meantime, Jordan tries to establish a relationship with Will, but it fails. In fact, Will takes another job in Brooklyn, of all places.

Jordan’s real crisis comes when Lauren gets engaged and begins planning her wedding. While Jordan has been upset that his role in the weddings has been limited to doing a reading; he has attended the showers, the bachelorette parties and all, but was never asked to be a bride’s man or another more prominent role.

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Lindsay Mendez, Gideon Glick. Photo by Joan Marcus

He realizes that he is alone. Now each of the women turn first to their husbands to complain or talk, not him. They spend time with their spouses or other couples, not him. His aloneness is compounded by his awkwardness in establishing other relationships. His attempts at cultivating Will were fumbling; advised not to send a rambling email, he resists for a while and then succumbs. The other gay man at work is all that he dislikes, yet the guy seems to be the only one left for Jordan.

Even his Grandmother (the wonderful Barbara Barrie) who he visits regularly is slowly sinking into dementia.

The first act stresses the humor, body part jokes, ribald conversations of the four friends and the initial weddings. But the second acts focusses more on Jordan and we more clearly see him feeling isolated and friendless.

What elevates this play is the fine acting. Gideon Glick who has extensive credits both on Broadway and television, shows us all the dimensions of Jordan – social awkwardness, the neediness and the basic decency.

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Barbara Barrie and Gideon Glick. Photo by Joan Marccus

Of the three friends, Sas Goldberg as Kiki has most awkward role – her character is not only stereotypically “kookie” but she also has some of the most explicit lines and actions. Of the three friends, it is probably the least developed character.  Rebecca Naomi Jones plays the “middle” friend – the second to marry.  She does a very good job. Laura, seems the most developed of the three characters and is the last marry. Lindsay Mendez gives her a sense that she is the most like Jordan but also the most grounded of the three women.

Barbara Barrie – who plays Jordan’s grandmother – gives us a touching portrayal of a woman, living alone, who is slowly losing touch with reality.

Luke Smith and John Behlmann play a variety of characters – the three husbands, the hunky Will and Joshua’s fellow employee. They do such a good job that you are tempted to believe they are played by different actors.

Trip Cullman has directed this in a way that doesn’t always meld the two distinct emotional tones of the two halves of the play.

Overall, Significant Other, will probably appeal most to younger theater goers, but older people will certainly sympathize with Jordan.

Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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Gideon Glick and Lindsay Mendez. Photo by Joan Marcus

“Come From Away” –A Musical that We Need — It Touches the Heart

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Photo by Matthew Murphy.

By Karen Isaacs

 Now, more than ever, it seems we need things that remind us of the innate goodness of people, of their willingness to sacrifice and help others, to be neighborly.

Come from Away is a musical that does just that, not in a saccharine, manipulative way, but with truth and heart.

How did anyone think the story might be a good idea for a musical? It is about the city of Gander, Newfoundland and the people in it and the surrounding towns who on Sept. 11, 2001 suddenly had 35+ jets land with more than 7000 passengers. American airspace had been closed, and jets flying from Europe were told to land there. No one had any idea how long they would be on the ground. But these passengers needed to be fed, housed, clothed and befriended.

The citizens of Gander showed what true goodness is like as they came together to gather supplies, cots, bedding, food, medicine, toothbrushes, deodorant and more.

The authors, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, have skillfully created a multitude of characters including town residents and passengers. They have intertwined these stories so we slip smoothly from one to another. We are never bothered that one performer is playing multiple roles and we always know who each actor is at a given moment.

They have also avoided for the most part easy stereotype characters. In fact, they drew their stories from stories of the actual passengers many of whom returned for the 10th anniversary and have kept in touch with the townspeople they met.

Yes, there is the gay couple, the Arab man, the British businessman who meets a divorcee from Texas, the woman whose son is a NYC firefighter and more. But these seem like surprisingly well rounded characters. The one pilot we meet is the first woman Captain for American Airlines. Among the citizens are the Mayor, the woman who runs the Humane Society, the school teacher, the school bus driver, the air traffic controller and more.

They don’t sugar coat the story either. The town’s school bus drivers are on strike and for many hours refuse to suspend the strike to ferry passengers from the airport to the various surrounding towns that have offered to assist. (Many passengers were on the planes for 24 hours before being allowed off.)  There is the Arab man who is detained and questioned; later his offers to help with the food are summarily dismissed until near the end; he says he is an executive chef for a hotel. There’s also the African family who are afraid they are being kidnapped, and the African-American man who is worried he will shot when told to go and take barbeque grills from backyards or that his wallet will be stolen.

This is a true ensemble, in fact most of the songs are listed as sung by “the company.” Some of the performers are Canadians making their Broadway debuts while others have extensive New York credits. Many have been with the show during major parts of its development. One of its very earliest stops was at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals where it had staged reading.

COME FROM AWAY, Jenn Colella Photo by Matthew Murphy

Jenn Colella. Photo by Matthew Muphy

Because it is such an ensemble piece, and the actors play multiple roles, it is difficult to single out individuals. But Jenn Colella is terrific as the American Airlines captain, particularly in a song about the problems and discrimination she faced in becoming a commercial pilot. Q Smith as Hannah is touching as the mother whose son in a NYC fire fighter. Robert Hicks plays multiple roles and creates individuals in each instance. Chad Kimball, one half of the gay couple – the other half, Caesar Samayoa is also great – opens the number simple titled “Prayer” which includes several pieces.

I enjoyed watching the romance develop between Nick (Lee MacDougall) and Diane (Sharon Weatley.

The songs fit into the show perfectly and I’m looking forward to hearing the cast CD which also available.

Praises to director Christopher Ashley who has handled the multiple stories beautifully and Kelly Devine who is created with the musical staging, which I assume also includes the choreography.

Beowulf Boritt has created a simple but atmosphere set aided by the lighting design of Howell Binkley. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes help us keep the characters straight.

Seldom is the orchestra singled out in a review, but this group of musicians, located on the stage are terrific and after the curtain calls, gives the audience a rousing, impromptu concert.

The music and the orchestrations blend music of various genre including traditional folk type music with more Broadway music.

Come from Away is a production I encourage you to see. It is worthwhile. For tickets, contact Telecharge.

NH Symphony’s “My Fair Lady” Was Mostly Loverly

By Karen Isaacs

 A concert version of “My Fair Lady” was the New Haven Symphony’s Pops concert this past weekend in Hamden and Shelton.

It’s a first for the Symphony.

The results were quite good, but there is room for improvement.  I hope the misses can be taken care before next October: The Pops will present a concert version of “Guys and Dolls.”

The positives: It was well-sung and well played. The musical direction was by the Pops conductor Chelsea Tipton and the staging, etc by Wendy Morgan-Hunter.

As would be expected, the orchestra sounded great and Tipton set the appropriate tempi.

The singing was also excellent. Gary Harger was Professor Higgins; he not only did NOT imitate Rex Harrison but he sang more of the role; Frederick Loewe actually had written music for many of the songs that Harrison performed as singspiel (talking/singing). It was nice to hear the music.  He also gave us a well-rounded characterization of Higgins. George McTyre played both Colonel Pickering and Alfred Doolittle and did well in both parts. His Pickering perhaps could have been more dithering but his Doolittle was great; and he kept a somewhat Cockney accent.

Freddy Eynsfordd-Hill was sung by Charlie Widmer who tenor voice scored with his one big number, “On the Street Where You Lived.”

Lisa Williamson was Eliza. She had a soaring soprano and did a fine job with the acting part of the role.

The last member of the cast was Michael Constantino who did the narration and sang some harmony and smaller bits. His narration was enthusiastic.

Now to some of the things that need improving. The first was the narration – not Constantino who was good, but the actual script. While none of it was wrong at times it left out too much and emphasized things that weren’t important.

The orchestra was, as I said, excellent but it seemed that it was smaller than usual.

Overall Morgan-Hunter’s direction was fine; it was limited because the performers were sitting between their numbers. My one objection was how she staged the ending. George Bernard Shaw on whose play “My Fair Lady” is based, was adamant that this was not a romance or a happy ending. Lerner and Loewe fudged it a bit, having the curtain come down with Eliza returning to Higgins. In fact the stage directions say that Higgins is slouched in a chair with his hat over his eyes and he stays that way. When he realizes that Eliza has returned, he says, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers.” Curtain. She has Higgins and Eliza holding hands and looking in each other’s eyes.

Some other quibbles. I missed a chorus — Loewe had written some lovely counter melodies for Mrs. Pearce (the housekeeper) and the maids to sing.  They add much to the score as well as the chorus in the Ascot Gavotte.

Charlie Widmer as Freddy sang the part well, but his acting was lacking. Perhaps a singer with more musical experience as opposed to more classical music would have been able to round out the character.

But probably my biggest complaint was with Lisa Williamson as Eliza. She sang beautifully thought at times with too much vibrato, and did well enough in the acting. But to sing “Just You Wait” –which comes while Eliza is still speaking with a Cockney accent and then not to use it in the song – is just plain wrong.

Kudos to the Symphony for this first show. I look forward to more of them.

“Assassins” at Yale Rep – Is it Sondheim’s Best Musical?

Assassins_600x600 By Karen Isaacs

Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman musical that opens at the Yale Rep on Friday, March 17, may not be familiar to the casual theater goer. But for director James Bundy, it is a show that he has wanted to direct for many years.

One reason, Bundy said, is that he felt it would resonate with the audience.

Assassins is staged as a revue; the characters are the men and women who made successful and unsuccessful attempts on the lives of US Presidents.

“I was particularly drawn to it when we were planning this season because of the tenor of national politics, which are driven in part by the kind of anger and resentment, as well as the pursuit of fame and celebrity, that is so prevalent in our contemporary political culture,” Bundy explained. He added that when he scheduled the piece last spring, he had no idea who would be the Presidential nominees or who would be the winner of the election, but he felt the idea of the show would still be relevant.

The show itself was written in the late 1980s and was based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., an aspiring writer of musicals. Sondheim has said he read Gilbert’s script of a show about presidential assassin as a panelist for the Musical Theater Lab. Later, he asked and gained permission to use the basic idea though in a very different form. The original script had a typical plot about a fictional character.

The musical that Sondheim and Weidman developed is more of a revue, set in a carnival arcade shooting gallery where the different assassins interact despite wide variations in their historical time period. They added three non-historical characters: the Proprietor who owns the shooting gallery and provides the guns; the Balladeer who serves as the narrator; and Billy, Sara Jane Moore’s son, the son was real but the name was changed.

The show brings together the well-known assassins – Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth – with those that have been lost to history such as Charles Guiteau (President Garfield’s assassin) as well as some who made attempts on the lives of Presidents, and in one case, a President-elect.

In explaining his reasons for doing the show, Bundy said, “our job as artists is to notice what is going on around us.”

He describes Assassins as a “classic” and said that as such “it connects vividly to the preoccupations of any period. Although there are ways in which the specifics of the show are fixed in time, and the history is unknown to some of us, the fixations of the characters are utterly current.”

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James Bundy. Photo by Joan Marcus

Bundy said the Yale production includes a 13-piece orchestra playing the original Broadway orchestrations. But he also said the production which is about the American Dream invites “a theatrical interpretation that combines our national iconography with originality and contemporary perspective.” These include digital design with contemporary and folk art.

Whether it be Oswald, Booth or Byck (attempted assassin of Richard Nixon), what the show points to, Bundy said, is that “political violence has been part of American culture for more than 150 years – as have the strains of entitlement, misguided rage, and gun culture that fueled the phenomenon.”

The press release on the show points out, Assassins is about nine people who, “united in disillusionment and alienation, take what they believe is their best – and only – shot at the American Dream.”

Bundy agrees with Sondheim, who has often stated that he viewed Assassins as his most “perfect” musical.  In an interview with the Globe (London) in 2014, Sondheim said “John Weidman [the librettist] and I knew what we wanted to do, and we did it.” He added it that it fulfilled his expectations.

Explaining what he finds so intriguing and perfect about the show, Bundy said, “The creators were able to write in different genres and create a prismatic view of our nation’s history and character. In less than two hours, they raise gripping questions about who we are and what we tried to do.”

They were, he said, able to create a range of audience reactions from laughter to horror to sadness.

He also liked that Sondheim and Weidman took risks in combining the surreal and the documentary, the comic and the tragic.

The music embraces all American musical genre that reflect the periods of the assassins. Thus the shows as songs that sound like folk and revivalist numbers as well as those that reflect the ’60, ‘70s and ’80.

The show opened off-Broadway for a limited run at Playwrights’ Horizons in 1990 but did not get a Broadway production until 2004, again a limited run this time at Roundabout Theatre. A production scheduled for after 9-11 was shelved. In the Broadway production, a relatively unknown Neil Patrick Harris played both the balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Initially, while many critics liked the show and admired Sondheim and Weidman’s brilliance, a number were put off by the subject matter and unsure whether the authors were condemning or glorifying the assassins. Some missed the obvious satire in the piece.

In the Globe interview in 2014, Sondheim said, ““Nobody at the end of the show should feel that we have been excusing or sentimentalizing these people. We’re examining the system that causes these horrors. The US Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t guarantee the happiness. That’s the difference. These are people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way.”

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Rehearsal

The Yale production which runs through Saturday, April 8 has assembled a cast that includes Broadway veterans Stanley Bahorek as Guiseppe Zangaria who appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, Stephen DaRosa as Charles Guiteau who received a Connecticut Critics Circle award for his performance in These Paper Bullets!,  Austin Durant as the Proprietor and P.J. Griffith as Leon Czolgosz. Robert Lenzi who was in Tuck Everlasting and South Pacific on Broadway plays John Wilkes Booth.

Other cast members include Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer who is a 3rd year student at the Drama school

Assisting in the production are Andrea Grody as music director. She is fresh from the off-Broadway debut of the musical The Band’s Visit which received rave notices. David Dorfman is doing the musical staging.

The production team includes Riccardo Hernandez who has created the sets, Ilona Somogyi the costumes, Yi Zhao the lighting.  Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes are the sound designers and Michael Commendatore is the projection designer.

Assassins runs Friday, March 17 to Saturday, April 8 at the University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven. For tickets, visit Yale Repor call 203-432-1234.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.

 

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The Connecticut Critics Circle has sponsored an awards program and ceremony for professional theater in Connecticut for over 20 years.

Each year the ceremony has greater attendance and more theater professionals attending.

The ceremony costs money and the Connnecticut Critics Circle needs YOUR HELP!

Pleasse check out the kickstarter page for the terrific benefits that donors can receive and make a donation today.

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“Man from Nebraska” – Touching Play with Outstanding Performances

MAN FROM NEBRASKABy TRACY LETTS

Directed by DAVID CROMER

Annette O’Toole and Reed Birney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

By Karen Isaacs

 Reed Barney and Annette O’Toole are giving a master class in acting at Second Stage in Tracy Lett’s play Man from Nebraska.

Birney plays Ken, a middle-aged insurance agent whose life has been conventional to say the least. His life is centered around his wife, his business and the Baptist church. He has seldom gone beyond Nebraska and in his long married life, he and his wife have rarely been apart.

The Sunday routine is driving to church, church, lunch and visiting his mother in a nursing home. But that evening something happens. He wakes up and runs to the bathroom where he breaks out in sobs. His wife is terrified — is he having a heart attack? A stroke? Is it OK?

The problem he says is that he no longer believes in God. He isn’t sure when and where his faith left him, but it has. His wife cannot understand it at all, particularly when he says he no longer understands the stars.

Ken struggles to make sense of his feelings. Finally their minister suggests he takes some books and go way by himself; perhaps the separateness and the time to relax will help him regain his faith.

He takes the pastor up on the suggestion but carries it much farther than the pastor expected. Ken goes to London where he had been stationed in the Air Force. And he stays much longer than the week or so the pastor anticipated.

Act two switches between Ken’s experiences in London and his wife at home. Her daughter offers to move in with her or have her stay with the family. But Nancy stays alone almost isolating herself until the pastor again urges her to get out.

She is at loss — she expected to be a wife forever, and that she and her husband would be in lock step until death did them part. Now she is alone and confused.

MAN FROM NEBRASKABy TRACY LETTS

Directed by DAVID CROMER

Reed Birney and Nana Mensah. Photo by Joan Marcus

Ken, meanwhile, seems almost equally lost. But slowly his Midwest reserve begins to melt. He chats up the bartender in the hotel bar; he begins drinking salty dogs (it’s not clear if he never drank or hasn’t in a long while). He has an encounter with an American businesswoman who he had met on the plane but it goes nowhere for reasons you should discover in the play. But when the bartender tells him she has only been listening to him because he tips well and that she is fed up with his problems, he follows her. He is soon in her flat that she shares with her boyfriend, a sculptor.

As his stay extends — to more than six weeks, he may not spend a lot of time thinking about his faith but he is opening his mind to new ideas. Meanwhile, his daughter is extremely angry with him, and the pastor’s father tries to court Nancy.

He returns home when he learns of his mother’s death. He is changed in ways we don’t really know, but his thinking is totally different. When his daughter says that her husband says that he (Ken) will go to Hell, Ken replies that then the husband is a fool.

The ending is tension filled and nearly heartbreaking. But I won’t spoil the last minutes.

This is a play where more is said by silence and expressions than by words. These Midwesterners aren’t talkative people and what they do say is often trivial. Yet we are given a total picture of this man and his life and his wife’s as well.  Yet the silence doesn’t become pretentious as Pinter sometimes does. It seems natural for these characters.

Lett has shown us a world and lives that may not be our own, but that we know well. These are the people who do what is expected, follow the rules and live the lives they are expected to live. But what happens if they begin to question those lives and those rules? What if they begin to wonder as in the Peggy Lee song, “is that all there is?”

Lett doesn’t offer easy answers and we don’t know what actually Ken has discovered. His reserve remains intact.  But we know his life and his wife’s will be different — perhaps more open, more questioning or more adventuresome.

David Cromer has directed this play with a deft hand; he never over emphasizes what is going on; he lets his actors present this world to us. The first act has numerous short scenes – often mostly silence – and the changes in props are handled invisibly. Although I understood why Cromer did, it was still disconcerting when late in the play, the stage crew was very visible changing the set and props.

The scenic design by Takeshi Kata works well – including the cloud like structure that hangs in the back and with lighting of Keith Parham can be many things.

But what makes this play so moving is the performances of the entire cast, but particularly Reed Birney and Annette O’Toole. They don’t have to say a word to let us into their emotions. Neither strikes a false note. I just sat and marveled at their expertise.

The rest of the cast rises to the bar set by these two. From  Annika Boras as their judgmental daughter to William Ragsdale as Parson Todd to Nana Mensah as the bartender and Max Gordon Moore has her boyfriend and the others – all are excellent.

Man from Nebraska is an unsettling play but also a very touching one. Please make an effort to see the extraordinary performances.

It is at 2nd Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd Street through March 26. Tickets are available at 2nd Stage.

MAN FROM NEBRASKABy TRACY LETTS

Directed by DAVID CROMER

Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore and Reed Birney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

“If I Forget” Buries Interesting Issues in Soap Opera Complications

If I ForgetLaura Pels Theatre Roundabout Theatre

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 If I Forget, the new play at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, sounds intriguing. Yet, I found it dissatisfying.

Why?  Playwright Steven Levenson has crammed so many ideas and plot elements into the play that you are left dizzy trying to keep it all straight.

The premise of the initial theme is relevant: what does it mean to be a Jew in the America of the 21st century?

The play is set in 2000-2001, before 9-11 in the family home in Washington, DC.  The three adult children — a son and two daughters have gathered because their 75- year-old father, widowed a year before, is not doing well.

If I ForgetLaura Pels Theatre Roundabout Theatre

Jeremy Shamos and Tasha Lawrence. Photo by Joan Marcus

The three are recognizable types.  The son (Michael), is a professor of Jewish Studies living in NYC. He has a non-Jewish wife (Ellen) and one daughter. Holly is the eldest child; she is married to an attorney in the area and is living a very upper, upper middle class life. She doesn’t work though she is thinking of opening an interior design studio. And then there is Sharon, the youngest child. She teaches but has been taking care of Dad; before that had moved into the house to help take care of her dying mother.

Each represent a different type of Jew:  Michael, despite his profession, views himself as an atheist and never attends services. Holly observes but only attends services on the High Holy days while Sharon has become quite observant.

In addition, Michael, who has been recommended for tenure, has just written a non-academic book that is controversial.

Adding to the family concerns and debates include what to do about the property the family owns in Washington. It was a family store for generations, but the father retired a number of years ago and it is now a dollar store run by some Guatemalan immigrants who pay below market rent. The neighborhood is gentrifying and the property is worth millions. Did I mention that their father was one of the US soldiers who helped liberate Dachau?

Certainly that might seem enough for a two act play: the family dynamics (lots of hurt

If I ForgetLaura Pels Theatre Roundabout Theatre

Kare Walsh and Jeremy Shamos. Photo by Joan Marcus

feeling and sibling rivalries), the differences in views on their religion and what Michael’s book espouses, and the problem of the property.

But Levenson has felt necessary to add even more. So many that it seems slightly preposterous that all of these are converging on this one family. Even Job deserved better.

I can’t go into all the details, but let’s say that Michael’s daughter has an increasing interest in Judaism and is mentally frail. Holly’s teenage son is going through typical teenage behavior, but the real problem is that her husband also has a secret.  And Sharon?  She feels taken advantage by her siblings as well as having a secret regarding the store.

The superficial debate that escalates in the second act which takes place in 2001 after the father has had a stroke, is what to with the property. It could pay for Dad’s care which is going to require live in, full-time health. Sharon wants to keep the property since it has been in the family since the 1880s, but she also does not want to increase the rent to market rates.  Holly believes she and her husband can take over the property, renovate it, pay rent and use it for her nascent business. Of course, she has no really business or interior design experience. Michael is caught in downward cycle of his career because of the book.

It is difficult to quickly explain Michael’s thesis though he does frequently in very academic terms. From what he says, it relates to how the Holocaust has been used to bind American Jews to Israel and to each other; it is easy to understand why it was taken out of context and why it caused such anger.

Director Daniel Sullivan has infused the production with as much reality as possible given all of the complications. Set designer Derek McLane uses a revolving, two level set to show us both the living and dining rooms of the house as well as the upstairs bedroom that was apparently their mother’s. The costumes by Jess Goldstein effectively delineates the differing characters, from the teenage son’s bagging pants (the fashion of the time) to the women’s apparel that telegraphs their personalities and characters.

Jeremy Shamos as Michael is really the center of the play. The role is partly stereotype; the favored son who is geographically distant from the family. The intellectual/academic who is often oblivious to the realities; except that at times he is the most realistic of all;  the women including his wife seem particularly unrealistic.. Shamos gives a nuanced performance that helps you feel both annoyed by and sympathetic to Michael.

The women are less fully developed. Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) as Michael’s wife is the least fully rounded of the characters; she is given to little do in the play and seems more a symbol of Michael’s feelings about his religion than anything else.

Maria Dizzia has the unenviable task of playing Sharon, the youngest and most annoying of the family members. Sharonboth plays the victim and uses passive-aggressive tactics against her siblings in an effort to get her way.

As Holly, Kate Walsh is another women who seems removed from her family’s reality and has been sheltered by her husband. Lawrence’s performance captures that type of woman.

Seth Steinberg does an excellent job capturing the teenage Joey. He is by turns tuned out and tuned in. Every parent of a teenager will recognize his behaviors. It is a role that has few lines but lots of reaction which he captures beautifully.

As the father and grandfather, Larry Bryggman has his moment in the first act talking about his army experience; it is riveting.

Overall, If I Forget can confuse you. You finding it engaging whether you think it just too much like a soap opera or a thoughtful piece. I, for one, felt the real issues got lost in all the complications.

If I Forget is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, through April 30. Tickets are available at roundabouttheatre.org.

If I ForgetLaura Pels Theatre Roundabout Theatre

Photo by Joan Marcus

Glenn Close as Norma Desmond Is THE Reason to See “Sunset Boulevard”

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Glenn Close and Michael Xavier. Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Glenn Close is giving a consummate performance as a great diva in the Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard.

 She is, of course, playing Norma Desmond, the silent film star who is consumed by delusions that she can, at the age of 50, make a comeback in the Hollywood of the late 1940s. This musicalization of Billy Wilder’s classic Oscar winner of 1950, has the perfect part for a musical comedy diva of a certain age.

The musical – with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics and book by Don Black and

Sunset BoulevardPalace Theatre

Glen Close

Photo by Joan Marcus

Christopher Hampton – first appeared on Broadway starring Close in 1994. The show had a complicated history that included major revisions between the London and Los Angeles productions, several lawsuits – most notably by Patti Lupone and Faye Dunaway –and a slew of well-known women playing Norma including Lupone, Betty Buckley, Diahann Carroll and Petula Clark. The Australian company included Hugh Jackman as Joe.

In a year (1994) in which there were only three musicals of any distinction (the revival of Showboat and the new musical Smokey Joe’s Café) Sunset did win the Tony for outstanding musical, book, music, lyrics as well as awards for Close and George Hearn who played Max. But it lost out on choreography, direction, sets, costumes, lighting and more.

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Sunset BoulevardPalace Theatre

Photo by Joan Marcus

he show closely follows the film. Norma Desmond is an aging silent movie star living in a Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard taken care by her butler/chauffer Max von Mayerling. She still believes she could return to the screen and has written a massive screen play about Salome which she is convinced that Cecil B DeMille will film with her as the star. Mayerling protects her and reinforces that she is still both remembered and beloved by her fans.

When Joe Gillis, a floundering Hollywood script writer puts his car in her garage (to keep it from getting repossessed), the two meet. Norma hires him to edit her script though it appears she won’t let him cut or change much. He finds himself moved into the room over her garage and soon her constant companion. Whenever he makes a move to leave, she threatens and cajoles him to stay. During the course of the play, Joe becomes more entangled with Norma; tries to extricate himself through a relationship with a studio assistant, and finally learns some truths about Norma.

The show, like the movie, is framed by Joe’s death.

As typical of the Webber shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s, this features a lot of music. It’s not totally sung-through; there is some minimal dialogue, but nearly 40 numbers. Only two of them are even vaguely memorable and the melody for the most well-known, “With One Look,” is repeated endlessly. Despite all the song, in fact it seems as though there are really only two or three melodies in the entire show.

What the show had going for it and still does in this revival, is the stellar performance of Glenn Close, one of the largest orchestras on Broadway, some spectacular costumes and a real car on stage.

But is that enough?  It’s hard to say.

This show originated in London at the English National Opera. The four main actors are repeating their roles here.

The real attraction is Glenn Close as Norma Desmond. The night I saw it, the audience was ready to applaud anything she did; they were obviously devoted fans of the show and Glenn Close.

In the musical, Norma is 50 years old (which was the age as Swanson when she played it)

Sunset BoulevardPalace Theatre

Michael Xavier & Siobhan Dillon. Photo by Joan Marcus

but now Close is almost twenty years older. Yet she still looks great and handles the score well. Her voice does seem to show its age in comparison to the CD of the original production. It sounds moreweary some of the time, lacking some of the strength. Yet she scores with the two major numbers – “With One Face” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”

As Joe Gillis, Michael Xavier seems much too young and naïve in the first act, but he does develops the character in the second act. His voice is good, if not great.  The problem for any actor in this role is in the first act. Joe has been around Hollywood for a while and is not a 20-something naïve or idealistic script writer. He knows the score, so how come he doesn’t see what is happening and how Norma is manipulating him and get the heck out?

Sibohan Dillon plays Betty Schaeffer, the studio assistant who begins to develop a relationship with Joe. It is a somewhat thankless role focusing on youthful naiveté and enthusiasm. It’s a good performance but not ground-breaking.

As the faithful servant, Max von Mayerling, Fred Johanson is also good. Again, he is very good but doesn’t break any new ground with the role.

Lonny Price has done the direction on a stage that has limited depth due to the on-stage, large orchestra.

Tracy Christenson created the costumes including a number of expensive looking outfits for Norma.  I’m not sure any surpass the original costumes.

One problem with the orchestra on stage, is that your eye is often drawn to it rather than some of the on-stage performers as well as occasionally overwhelming the sound of the performers.

This show is for those who love the movie, the role of Norma Desmond, who have memories of Glenn Close in the original production, or who are devoted Webber fans.

Sunset Boulevard is a limited run through June 25 at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

Sunset BoulevardPalace Theatre

Photo by Joan Marcus

“Napoli, Brooklyn” – Attempts More than It Achieves

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

By Karen Isaacs

 Napoli, Brooklyn is getting its world premiere on Long Wharf’s main stage through March 12 in a co-production with New York’s Roundabout Theatre. It will open at its Laura Pels Theater in May.

The play is set in Brooklyn in the fall of 1960. It centers on the three daughters of Luda and Nic Muscolino, both immigrants from Italy. The daughters range from 16 to early 20s and each is not only very different but “a type.”  Vita is the eldest daughter with a strong independent streak who is willing to speak her mind without regard for the consequences.  Tina is the middle girl who dropped out of school and works in a box factory. Francesca is the youngest; still a teenager she already knows she is a lesbian.

Nic, their father, is a violent and angry man who lashes out and resorts to attacks against his wife and his daughters. His abuse is not just verbal but also physical. Luda, his wife, is worn down but resigned to the situation. Their Catholic faith plays a major role in their lives.

While playwright Meghan Kennedy talks a great deal in the program notes about multiple ideas, none of these really resonate in this play which could be any made-for-TV movie. She tries to bring in the civil rights movement (Tina is friends with a black woman at work), the women’s liberation movement (The Feminine Mystique) wasn’t published until 1962), and the current debate over immigration.

She has set the play around the mid-air collision of a United Airways and a TWA jet; the United plane crashed in Park Slope killing all 128 on board and six people on the ground; the resulting fire destroyed 10 apartment buildings. It happened just nine days before Christmas.

The only apparent reason for bring the crash into the play is to have a spectacular first act curtain, and to supposedly motivate some changes in Nic and Connie, Francesca’s friend.

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Alyssa Bresnaha. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Early in the play, Luda, again for reasons that never become clear, is both angry with God and also upset because she can no longer cry when she cuts into an onion. We learn about some of the recent events in the family: Francesca and Connie are planning on running away (to France) by stowing away on a boat; they seem physically attracted to each other. Vita is in a convent, but she is not planning on being a nun; Luda sent her there to be “safe.” Tina, who appears stoic and placid is making a friend at work with Celia, the married African-American woman. There’s even a hint that Luda enjoys flirting with Albert Duffy, the butcher who is Connie’s father and is apparently widowed.

We also learn that Nic’s reaction when Francesca cut her long hair was so violent that Vita stepped in between, threatened her father and was beaten by him resulting in severe injuries. That’s why Luda has sent her away – to be safe from her father.

After the crash, Nic has apparently totally changed – rather than angry and violent, he appears placid and easy-going. Connie has changed her mind about leaving with Francesca because her brother was killed in the crash, and Celia is bunking on the couch since her husband was killed also. It seems too coincidental that though only six people on the ground were killed, two were intertwined with the family.

It is these odd events that keep you guessing and finally leave you dissatisfied. Because, though it is all neatly wrapped up at the end; you don’t necessarily believe any of it.

The cast, under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, does its best to make these characters believable and their actions motivated.  Alyssa Bresnahan does yeoman’s work as the mother, keeping a slight accent. She does her best to help us see why this woman stays and protects her daughters.  Jason Kolotouros gives us a Nic that is a stereotype of the violent, angry man. He reminds us of Stanley Kowalski but without the redeeming features that Stanley can have. His final decision seems totally out of character.

Local resident Jordyn DiNatale is the teenage Francesca. She captures the gawkiness, the certainty and the neediness of the character. She tries so hard to make her father like her; even hinting at her lesbianism as though that would make him view her as the son he always wanted.

Christina Pumariega is the stoic Tina who slowly begins to assert herself. Of the three daughters she seems the most passive; yet, she too begins to reveal an independent streak.

As Vita, Carolyn Braver plays the character as the emerging feminist, though that term was not particularly used.

Graham Winton, Ryann Shane and Shirine Babb play the three other characters: the butcher Albert Duffy, his daughter Connie; and Tina’s work friend, Celia. They do the best they can with roles that are only minimally developed and whose actions seem unmotivated.

Lighting designer Ben Stanton did an excellent job including putting Christmas lights all around the theater; as well as the lighting effects for the plane crash. In addition, the lighting helps define and identify the various locations in the play. Fitz Patton, the sound designer contributes to the effect.  Eugene Lee’s set shows us a typical apartment that also can turn into the factory, the butcher shop, the convent and more.

Napoli, Brooklyn is a play that attempts to do a lot more than it succeeds in doing. It creates some characters that you can care about, but then leaves too many questions dangling. It is at Long Wharf Theatre through March 12. For tickets visit Long Wharf.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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