By Karen Isaacs
John Lithgow is one of America’s outstanding actors. He’s created numerous roles and won multiple awards, most recently an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on “The Crown.”
His wide ranging talent is on display at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where his one-man play, Stories by Heart is until March 4.
Go see it.
As an audience member said, “I could listen to him read his laundry list.”
A small part of the show is about his father, Arthur Lithgow who was an actor, director, artistic director and founder of various theater groups mainly in the Midwest. He founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (which continues to this day), worked with a group of actors who became well known, but always managed to have it end in disaster – feuds with boards of directors, financial difficulties, and more. But the family would pull up stakes, move on and start over.
Yet Stories by Heart is really Lithgow presenting two short stories to us. The first is by Ring Lardner, “Haircut.” It is essential the thoughts and words of a small town barber, circa 1925 talking to his customer who sits silently in the chair. With no props, Lithgow recreates the old-time barbershop experience from the hot towels, to the stropping of the blade, the lather and more. He even creates wonderful sound effects. But the story which begins as a pleasant tale of small town America and one of the men of the town, slowly turns into something more. Before our eyes, we begin to realize that while the barber tells the story of this man who liked to play practical and cruel jokes on women and weaker men, rather than feeling disgust at his antics, sees nothing wrong in them. It becoming chilling to realize that he is complicit in the casual cruelty.
Lithgow gets it all right – the body language, the accent and more. He seems transformed; I began to picture him as this round-faced, medium sized, bald man with the white jacket. That is talent.
In the second half, he talks about his father’s last years and how, when his father was recovering from surgery and seemed to have given up, Lithgow stayed with his parents for several months, caring for them. He tells of finding the thick book of short stories from which his father had read to him and siblings, and his decision to reverse it: he would read to his parents.
It was with delight that he found parents chose the same light story that he and his siblings had loved: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. This silly comic story about a man whose uncle (Fred) always gets them into various pickles is a laugh fest. Here Lithgow gives us multiple characters from Uncle Fred, to the nephew, to the nephew’s friend and others.
Again he is marvelous. He does so much with his voice, his eyes, his gestures his posture. We see the characters and we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, all due to Uncle Fred.
This two hour production is delight for anyone who enjoys seeing talented actors demonstrate their skills.
For tickets, visit Roundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
It’s the semifinals of the US Open and the it pits the perennial number one tennis player in the world, the American Tim against a talented younger Russian, Sergei who has had difficulty living up to his potential.
The two know each other well since they are both on the tour. They have played each other with Tim usually winning.
But this match seems different. A rumor is circulating that this tournament will be the last for Tim; he will retire after the Open.
As the match begins – and as it goes on, we see interactions both present and past not only between the players but between each of them and the woman in their life. For Tim, it is his wife Mallory, a former tennis player who left the tour due to injury and now does some coaching. Though he may be the “golden boy” of American tennis, their life has not been always golden. But now they have a young son.
For Sergei, he has struggled on the tour but now he is with Galina, a very determined lady. They aren’t married, but Galina strongly believes in Sergei’s talent and the money that it brings.
The play is structured as tennis sets – and this match goes five sets. The set designed by Tim Mackabee is a tennis court – we see the sideline, the playing surface and the bank of stadium lights. As they are playing, for the most part the two stand on each side of the stage, facing the audience. On the sides are the players’ boxes and the scoreboard.
At times as the game continues, we have scenes between Tim who is 34 and Sergei, between Tim and Mallory and Sergei and Galina. Through these, playwright Anna Ziegler helps us fill out the characters and their history. Tim and Mallory recall the first time they met, and parts of their life since. Tim and Sergei “banter” or on-up each other over various tennis accomplishments. Tim has been top while Sergei hasn’t made it into the top 10, despite talent.
It would spoil the play to reveal too much of either man’s history, or of how the sets go. Let’s just say it is a closely fought match.
But this play is about more than just tennis. It is about ambition, courage, national attributes and expectations, and gamesmanship by all four. It is about how you continue on when things aren’t going well; how you overcome loss (and not just of matches), and how you determine when to let go. It is also about how you motivate yourself.
For Sergei and Galena there are the interesting, but somewhat predictable comments about the Russian soul, such as (I paraphrase) “for Russians there is the impossibility of happiness.”
Wilson Bethel plays Tim and Alex Mickiewicz plays Sergei. Bethel has been a longtime tennis player (and actually gave tennis lessons) but Mickiewicz looks just as authentic as they serve, return serve and play out the points in the match. Each is excellent. Tim is Tom Brady like while Sergei is any one of a number of volatile, occasionally misbehaving professional athletes. Zoë Winters plays the earnest Mallory while Natalia Payne is the more conniving and volatile Galina.
Neither playwright Anna Ziegler not director Gaye Taylor Upchurch break any new ground in this work. At 90+ minutes, it is interesting and will leave you something to think about afterwards.
The Last Match is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, NYC through Dec. 24. Tickets are available at Roundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
The curtain rises on the first scene of Time and the Conways now at Roundabout’s American Airlines theater through Nov. 26 and you will assume you are in for a typical ‘20s-‘30s British drawing room comedy.
The set by Neil Patel is a large, well-furnished room with a door to a hallway. Sounds of gaiety emanate from off-stage. Soon four young ladies enter, the four Conway sisters who vary in age from late teens to mid-twenties. The occasion is Kay’s 21st birthday party and they are going through costumes for a charade. But all is not exactly as it seems. It is 1919, a year after WWI ended; their father has died a few earlier in a bizarre accident, and one of their brothers is about to be demobilized from the army.
Though this is a well-to-do family, they are not the “idle rich.” One sister (Madge) is a school teacher and ardent socialist, Kay is an aspiring writer/novelist, only the oldest sister (Hazel) seems to live a life of ease; her goal is a successful marriage and living in London. Carol, the youngest is still in her teens. Their elder brother (Alan) works as clerk for the township. It is clear he has the least ambition of them all.
When Mrs. Conway enters (Elizabeth McGovern) she seems almost as young and vivacious as her daughters. By the time the scene has ended, Robin has returned home and quickly decided to marry one of Hazel’s friends (Joan). A dour young man (Ernest) who is new to town has been introduced brought by another friend, Gerald. Hazel recognizes Ernest as the man she has seen around town and has felt as though he was stalking her.
The scene changes with the help of a set coming down from above and moving forward. It is 1937 but the set looks exactly like the earlier one. Now the entire family has gathered again, well almost of them, the youngest daughter is missing. Life has not necessarily been easy for some of the Conways.
The reason for the gathering? Mrs. Conway has money troubles and the question is what to do. The house is not worth what was it was (this is still the depression) and she has not necessarily been careful about her funds. We learn what has happened to the siblings in the almost twenty years. Madge is now head of a school and is not only adamant about not helping to support her mother, but seems very angry with her. Kay is a journalist working on magazines without the illusions or ideals she had as a budding novelist. Alan is still working the town, He’s the one that has been keeping a watch on his mother.
The marriage between Robin and Joan has deteriorated; he drinks and has left her with minimal support for their children. His big dreams have come to naught. Gerald is now Mrs. Conway’s solicitor.
Hazel is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Ernest who is cold and sneering. She may have money but she is dominated by her husband who obviously has little regard for her or the family.
Act two takes us back to the 1919 party, as the guests leave and we see the seeds that will lead to the 1937 situation. Why Madge is so angry with her mother, why Ernest views the family so negatively and why Joan made the wrong choice.
J. B. Priestley is best known for his layered works that examine British society (and all societies) in both a political and philosophical framework. This play which was written in 1937, uses the Conways to illustrate the actions and ideas that led Britain to the situation it found itself. At the same time, he is also discussing the philosophical concept of time.
His theories of how different dimensions link the past, present and future are woven into the plot of this play. The ending, when Kay realizes that Alan is the happiest of them all – and had the least ambition, is fascinating. Alan tells Kay (they are still in 1919) that in the future he could tell her something that would help her.
Tony winner Rebecca Taichman has directed this play keeping it in both the time and style of the period and the drawing room comedy. She allows the audience to slowly explore the depths of Priestley’s play. In this she is aided by the period costumes by Paloma Young and the effective lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Matt Hubbs.
One of the attractions of this production is the return of Elizabeth McGovern to the New York stage. McGovern, who most recently played Lady Cora in Downton Abby, is an experienced stage actress. She handles the role expertly. Her Mrs. Conway is almost as youthful (dare we say flighty) as her young daughters in the first act and by the time we get to 1937, she is still not truly mature. Her way to deal with difficulties is to ignore them or engage in wishful thinking.
It is hard to fault any of the supporting cast members. Gabriel Ebert has the challenge of imbuing the duller Alan with a sense of longing and quiet desperation. He does this so well, that your eyes are constantly drawn to him. Brooke Bloom as Madge, Charlotte Parry as Kay, Anna Barysknikov as Carol and Anna Camp as Hazel are all excellent. Steven Boyer as Ernest shows the lower class striver with a huge chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to have an ounce of humanity in him.
Time and The Conway is at Roundabout’s American Airline Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street through November 26. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
One of the hardest things for most people to do, is to realize that the choices we made in life were not forced but voluntary. That often they satisfied some deep-seated need.
In Arthur Miller’s The Price which is getting an outstanding production at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, Victor Franz, a NYC police officer is forced to confront those truths. He must let go of the resentment and belief that the choices he made in life were forced upon him by others. He willingly made them.
It is 1968, Victor Franz is waiting for an antique dealer to arrive. He is finally selling the furniture and artifacts that were his father’s, though the father died 16 years before. But for some reason, it has been undisturbed until now the building has been sold and will be torn down. All he wants is a “price” for the collection of tables, chairs, bureaus, lamps and more that remain. It is clear that at one time, his father was prosperous.
Soon his wife, Esther, stops by and from the conversation we learn a lot: He and his brother have not spoken since the father’s death, the brother (Walter) is a successful physician. Esther, more than Victor, harbors resentment towards the brother, but also envies his affluence. She argues that Victor should not share the proceeds from the sale with Walter. Victor has been trying to contact Walter to let him know about the appointment with the dealer, but he is unsure if Walter got the message or will bother coming.
Soon, Gregory Solomon arrives. He is the dealer though he is in 80s and retired. He is also a talker. He talks in circles, frustrating Victor who wants him to “give me the price.” Through this talk we learn that the father had gone bankrupt during the depression and after his wife died had seemed unable to care for himself; Victor had moved him to take care him, but there was little money. He says they ate garbage.
Act one ends with the arrival of Walter. Act two explores the dynamics between these two estranged brothers. Victor dropped out of college to take care of his father and joined the police force for the security. He had given up the opportunity to pursue his interest in science. Walter, the younger, had stayed in school, contributed little to the father’s upkeep and become successful. But he had suffered a crisis a few years earlier and has developed a different perspective.
The climax of the plot is that at one time Victor had asked Walter for a loan of $500 to continue in school. Walter had told him to ask his father. Walter knew, though Victor would not acknowledge, that the father had managed to keep some money – several thousand dollars. Yet he did not offer it to Victor.
This 1968 play revisits themes that Miller developed in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons. Except in this play the father is dead, although there is a father figure. The play revolves around father-son and brother relationships. How parents often favor one child over another and what that can do to both of them. How brothers can become estranged.
But the play really deals with the choice we make and how often we convince ourselves that there was no choice.
Victor slowly begins to realize that he sacrificed for his father, not because it was the right thing to do or that there was no other option, but because it satisfied some need of his.
This production is blessed with four outstanding performances. Each of the performers mines fully the emotions, the baggage and the back stories of their characters. While you may initially view one of the brothers as the hero and the other the villain, by the end you see them as both complex human beings and feel compassion for both of them.
That is due to the find performances of Mark Ruffalo as Victor and Tony Shalhoub as Walter. They get far below the surface of their characters and show us every aspect through their gestures, voices, bodies and eyes. Too often, Walter is portrayed as both selfish and self-involved. Here you see him as a man shaken by the events of the last few years. You also see that he had more realistic view of his father than Victor had. Ruffalo burrows beneath the self-righteousness of Victor as he slowly begins to acknowledge truths that he had suspected but had pushed down.
Jessica Hecht balances Esther’s resentment of Walter and of Victor, with her realism. She keeps repeating a line that “she did not believe what she knew.”
As the antique dealer, Danny DeVito has the comic role and it makes good use of it. While, occasionally he goes overboard – spitting pieces of hard cooked egg repeatedly, it does help to break the tension.
Director Terry Kinney has managed his talented cast with expertise and has assembled a fine production crew. Each element – set design by Derek McLane, costumes by Sarah J. Holden, lighting by David Weiner and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—make major contributions to our enjoyment and understanding of this play.
The Price may be considered by some to be “lesser” Miller, but it reminds us that even “lesser” Miller is so much better than so many other works.
It is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through May 14. For tickets visitRoundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
A recurrent trend in musicals is to take a well-known Hollywood musical and adapt it for the stage. Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical, is just such a property that is now at Roundabout Theatre’s Studio 54. This version began life at Goodspeed in East Haddam in the fall of 2014.The stage version has a book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge
The film was known for starring the top song (Bing Crosby) and dance (Fred Astaire) men of the period. It combined Irving Berlin songs – some old, some new – in a plot about two show business partners who break up. Jim (the Crosby role) wants to quit show business to marry the sexy girl (Lila Dixon) in the act; he’s bought a farm in Connecticut sight unseen and plans to become a farmer. Ted Hanover (the Astaire role) wants to make it big in Hollywood and convinces Lila to go along for one last big engagement that may get him to California.
The big engagement at Chicago’s Pump Room keeps getting extended while Jim is back in Connecticut struggling with a dilapidated house and a lack of farming skills. But he does meet an attractive schoolteacher (and former aspiring singer/dancer) whose family owned the property. Plus he meets Louise, a jack-of-all-trades handy woman with a sense of humor. Soon he’s behind in his mortgage. With a little help from Linda Mason, the schoolteacher, and Louise, he hits on a plan: Enlist his show business buddies who are off on holidays and have nowhere to go, to turn the farm into an Inn complete with rooms, food and entertainment. The gimmick? It will ONLY open on holidays.
Complications have to develop. Lila wants no part of rural life; she is still dreaming of Hollywood until a Texan with money entices her to relocate there. Jim and Linda are obviously meant for each other but some bumps in the road must appear. In this case it is Ted, again. He had lured Lila away for that one last gig. Now he shows up at the Inn totally inebriated on New Year’s Eve and dances with Linda. Soon she is all he can think of – she is the “perfect” partner to get his show business dreams on the road again. So while Jim and Linda are making slow but steady progress in the romance department, Ted ss about to swoop in and offer her a chance at a Hollywood screen test.
Yet, it all ends happily. What else could you expect from a 1940s move musical? What was different, it that this was one of the few films were Astaire does not get the girl.
What other changes from the movie? One number which has become controversial — a number for Lincoln’s Birthday that was performed in blackface — has been removed, as well as one or two other songs. BUT lots of great Irving Berlin songs have been added. So while “Easter Parade” was in the original we now also have “Blue Skies,” ‘What’ll I Do?” “You’re Easy to Dance With,” “Let’s Take an Old Fashioned Walk,” and “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” among others.
Turning a classic movie into a stage show creates some problems. Special effects, even with today’s stage technology is more limited as are playing spaces and sets. Yet this production overcomes most the obstacles.
Is it a great musical? Not really, but it is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment in large part due to the outstanding cast.
Bryce Pinkham is Jim, and brings his terrific voice and winning personality to the role. He adds charm to the part of the earnest idealist. His renditions of “Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today” and “White Christmas are all spot on. You believe he is heart-broken over losing Lila, no matter how suitable the audience can see she is from the very beginning, his awkwardness around Linda and his frustration when Ted once again appears to be taking away his girl.
Corbin Bleu is Ted. He doesn’t try to capture the suavity of Astaire but projects a less polished and sophisticated energy in the character and in the dancing. Plus he has a very good singing voice.
Lora Lee Gaynor is girl next door Linda who once had show business aspirations. She develops all the complexities of the role: the lonely school teacher with ties to both the farm and show business. Her number with Jim of “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” is a standout.
The more comic elements are carried by Megan Lawrence as Louise. Plus, she gets a chance to show off her singing and dancing. Her comic timing is terrific. Megan Sikora plays Lila brings out her “dumb blonde” and gold digger aspects to good comic effect. But she makes her likable which is necessary for the plot. Morgan Gao also adds humor as the young boy, Charlie who pops up to deliver messages from the bank and make some wise comments.
Gordon Greenberg has directed the piece with affection and steady pacing. This is a show that keeps moving aided by the choreography by Denis Jones. Two dance numbers are standouts – one involves jump rope and the other includes firecrackers; a homage to the Astaire fourth of July number in the film. It’s more impressive on the stage.
Contributing to the effects of the show are costumes by Alejo Vietti, set design by Anna Louizos, lighting design by Jeff Croiter and sound design by Keith Caggiano.
Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical is at Roundabout’s Studio 54 Theater, 254 W. 54th St., through January 15. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
As I was watching the Fiasco Theater’s “intimate” production of Into the Words now playing at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, I felt out of place. Many in the audience were laughing heartily and enthusiastically applauding. I was not. And the acclaim was not universal — there were more than a few empty seats after the intermission.
In fact, I was trying figure out why this iconic work — which has just had a very excellent film adaption — was being given a SNL treatment.
In part I blamed John Doyle. For those don’t remember, director John Doyle has mounted several classic shows with limited casts and no orchestra. Instead he used a piano and had the actors play various instruments. Obviously when they are performing their roles, they cannot play. In this production, the result is a score and orchestrations that seem more like amateur groups than Broadway. While it worked to some extent in Doyle’s Company and to a lesser extent in his Sweeney Todd, it does not work here.
When you re-imagine a classic work, one rule should guide the creators — does the re-imaging add to the meaning of the work and does it fulfill the author’s intentions and the themes and tone of the work. OR does it subvert what the authors intended or diminish the work. This is true whether you are setting Othello in South Africa, A Doll’s House in 21st century suburbia, or Oklahoma1 in Alaska.
By the way, this production originated at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey.
Here, it is not that the directors have changed the time or period of the piece, so much has they have changed the tone. This production is played for laughs — not smiles or gentle amusement but laughs. It has become a parody of itself.
I wonder how Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine really feel about it.
I did not have an objection to the cast of 11 playing multiple roles — the fact that the actress (Emily Young) playing Little Red Ridinghood also plays Rapunzel did not upset the flow of the piece. After all the two are never on stage at the same time. Nor did I strongly object to two men playing Cinderella’s step-sisters. But the two princes riding around on children’s hobby horses just made it seem ludicrous.
So apart from the misguided approach to the show, were there things to like?
Yes. The setting was imaginative and worked for the show. Chandeliers hung high above the stage, with pieces of musical instruments on the side walls. The costumes — which are minimal — are clever and do delineate the characters. Even though performers are playing multiple roles, you never are confused about what character is being portrayed.
The performances are good — these are talented young people. The Fiasco Theater is an ensemble company that was started by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA program. They can act, move and sing well. I particularly enjoyed Patrick Mulyryan as Jack and Jessie Austrian as the Baker’s Wife and Ben Steinfeld as the Baker. By the way, the latter two only play a single role each.
But somehow, the schtick and gimmicks drain the emotion from this piece.
So, I may be a curmudgeon, but this is one Into the Woods that I did not enjoy.
Into the Woods by the Fiasco Theater Company is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater on W. 46th St. It runs to April 12. For tickets contact Roundabout.
Inside notes and comments about Connecticut and New York Professional Theater
By Karen Isaacs
Woody Sez: The show about the life of Woody Guthrie now playing at TheaterWorks has proved so successful, its run has been extended to Sept. 21. This show features terrific performances as the talented cast of four recount the life of Guthrie, who helped create the folk music revival in the ’50s and influenced singers from then until now. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or visit http://www.theaterworkshartford.org.
Connecticut Repertory Season: The Connecticut Repertory Theater at UConn at Storrs will offer both new plays and well-known ones in their up-coming season. The opening play, Olives and Blood is by UConn professor Michael Bradford and is about Spain after the Spanish Civil War. It runs Oct. 2 to 12. From Nov. 20 to Dec. 7 is the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes runs Feb. 26 to March 8 and the season ends with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, April 23- May 3. In the smaller, second theater, the season includes British playwright Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Oct. 23-Nov. 2 and the Split Knuckle Theatre Company’s Band of the Black Hand, March 26 – April 5. For tickets call 860-486-2113 or visit http://www.crt.uconn.edu.
Still Time: Westport Country Playhouse is presenting a fine production of the British comedy Things We Do for Love through Sept.7. It’s unpredictable and beautifully directed and acted. For tickets call 203-227-4177 or visit http://www.westportplayhouse.org. A full review is posted on my blog: 2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.
Hartford Stage Discounts: Hartford Stage offers StagePass, a subscription program geared to young adults, 21-35. The season subscription is just $99 for all six shows plus A Christmas Carol. In addition, StagePass subscribers can bring up to three guests to each show for just $20 each. To take advantage of StagePass, call 860-527-5151 or complete an online form at www.hartfordstage.org. All StagePass subscription purchases require valid state identification.
Evita: The Bushnell Broadway series opens with the touring company of the recent Broadway revival of Evita from Sept. 23 to 28. Caroline Bowman, who was in the original cast of Kinky Boots stars as Eva Peron with Tony nominee Josh Young as Che and Sean MacLaughlin as Peron. 860-987-5900 or visit http://www.bushnell.org
Broadway News: August saw the musicals Rocky, Newsies and Bullets Over Broadway close. Only Newsies could have been considered a hit. Emma Stone will take over the role of Sally Bowles in the revival of Cabaret on Nov. 11 playing through Feb. 1 Stone had been rumored to play the role for the opening. The show has extended through March 29. For tickets visit http://www.RoundaboutTheatre.org. One of the big box office hits for the new season is the Terrence McNallly comedy It’s Only a Play which has racked up multi-millions in presale tickets. The reason: It reunites Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (The Producers) as well as an all-star cast including Rupert Grint, F. Murray Abraham, Stockard Channing and Megan Mulally. Previews have begun and it only runs 18 week. Tickets are available at http://www.telecharge.com. Audra McDonald will now close Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill to Oct. 5. At that point, the show must make way for Hugh Jackman and the play The River. For tickets to Lady Day visit Telecharge. McDonald won not only a Tony but the completing recording of the hit show has been very successful.
Live from… You can now see Broadway and London shows on television and in local movie theaters. Following the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts in local theaters, The Royal Shakespeare Company, England’s National Theater and even Broadway is following suit. Here are some up-coming productions. From London you can see the Royal Shakespeare production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Sept 3 (check http://onscreen.rsc.org.uk/), the National Theater production of Medea on Sept. 4, Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire with an air-date of Sept. 16 and Skylight (Oct. 23) Check http://www.NationalTheatreLive.org.UK for specifics. The new musical From Here to Eternity will air Oct. 3. Check http://www.fathomevents.com. PBS will air Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Sept. 26, Nathan Lane in The Nance on Oct. 10 and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on Oct. 17. Check http://www.cptv.org or http://www.thirteen.org for exact dates and times.
This content courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.com.