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An Enemy Of The People – Review

Boyd Gaines and Richard Thomas sparring with seething and faltering restraint may be the finest five minutes on Broadway this year. There is a moment so powerful that the full house holds its collective breath. What good fortune that there is more than five glorious minutes to An Enemy Of The People.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz has adapted this Henrik Ibsen play, which was previously adapted by Arthur Miller. While there are many sparks of modernity in the dialogue it is still clearly Ibsen’s treatises. Mr. Gaines’ Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the voice of the playwright, driven by his pursuit of truth in black and white. Mr. Thomas plays his brother and town mayor Peter Stockmann. The mayor has an enormous investment in the small town’s baths business. He is also the benevolent benefactor arranging for his brother’s employment with the baths’ administration. The bohemian medical brother with his boisterous family is in stark contrast to the restrained top hat and walking stick mayoral brother. Their differences grow starker as the good doctor receives confirmation of his suspicions of water contamination in the baths. It is then that all hell breaks loose.

Many will experience the positions and platforms of journalism, politics and economics to be achingly timely, but in fact they are timeless. The shifting positions and arguments sound excruciatingly familiar but that is because they never change. The masses are not necessarily equipped to lead. Truth may feel more important than commerce, but eating is important. Loudly chanting rhetoric doesn’t make the rhetoric true. People tend to worship the one wearing the fanciest hat. Where these powerful themes fall short is in their obvious biographical nature. It becomes challenging during some of the more heated tirades to see past an angry playwright. The ending moment of the production reinforces this response.

It is through the powerful and nuanced performances which include; Gerry Bamman(Alaksen,) Michael Siberry (Morton,) John Procaccino (Hovstad) that the whole becomes flawless. Directed elegantly by Doug Hughes, the characters and action seem to float. The staging and sound (David Van Tieghem) of the town meeting scene is simply fantastic. The audience, with very little fanfare, seamlessly morphs into the townspeople. We are not just being told how mob mentality develops we experience it firsthand. John Lee Beatty’s set is starkly apt and very cleverly designed. It’s less of a set and more of a world.

This Manhattan Theatre Club production should be seen for the very fine performances, intriguing themes, splendid production, and believe it or not; the laughs.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Theatre

 

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The Columnist – Review

The Columnist, by David Auburn, is based upon the true story of Joseph Aslop.  The play, directed with breathtaking precision by Daniel Sullivan, spans approximately fifteen years (1954 – late 1960s.)  The storyline is tightly woven into the time periods.  We experience the cold war, the Kennedy administration and; (the elephant in the room) the Vietnam War.

There is a reason this period of time is often used as a backdrop; it is simply riveting.  Movies and television have played with the cultural and political extremes of the period.  There’s no “playing” in The Columnist.  This is a true story.  There seems to be many plays about real people that are little more than monologues impassionedly delivered to the balcony.  This is not one of those.  This is a well-crafted story with three-dimensional characters.  The play works so solidly that you needn’t know the people were real.  (Clearly many in the audience had no framework for “real” as the murmuring explanations of the Kennedy assassination would indicate.  Really?  How many times did the actors declare it was November 1963?!  What are they teaching in high school?)

John Lithgow is Joseph, perhaps it’s more accurate to write that “he plays Joseph” but to this viewer he was Joseph.  Mr. Lithgow is entirely comfortable in the skin of a man not entirely comfortable in his own skin.  Joseph is a popular columnist (syndicated in 190 newspapers – are there still 190 newspapers in this country?)  He is well-educated and talented conservative columnist with the ears of the nation’s leaders.  He also prefers the company of men, leading to a blackmailing incident that is a bit of a thread throughout the play.  Joseph does marry; a lovely widow and perfect hostess for his many parties; Susan (the dreamy Margaret Colin.)  Ms. Colin is almost unrecognizable as Susan, not physically; she’s as beautiful as ever.  She is every inch the Susan as Mr. Lithgow is Joseph.  Their family unit is rounded off by Joseph’s brother Stewart (Boyd Gaines) and Susan’s daughter Abigail (Grace Gummer.)

Mr. Gaines has a wonderful role in Stewart.  His interactions with David Halberstam (Stephen Kunken) allow us to see the wheels turning and the guards shifting.  Stewart, unlike his brother, relishes intimate connections.  (We suspect Joseph hosts Robert McNamara and Westmoreland partly to avoid personal dinner table chitchat.)  It is on Mr. Gaines’ face and in his posture that we see the weight of life’s events.  Ms. Gummer on the other hand becomes lighter and freer as she grows into a turbulent time.  She (brilliantly) evolves from a child to a woman.  Her relationship with Joseph creates some of the more joyous moments of the play.

There is a school of thought that cautions that it’s never good news for a play when it’s the set that is mentioned.  Rubbish.  The dramatic seamless transitions of time and space are intricately linked to the magic of John Lee Beatty.  “Seamless” is the operative term as so many shows introduce their lumbering sets with the sound of pulleys, wheels or grunting stagehands.  The Columnist set is brilliantly used to support the play and the actors.  The same is true for Rocco Disanti’s projection design.  A favorite moment is when the overhead typed words melted into falling snowflakes.

The Columnist is perfectly performed and produced (by Manhattan Theatre Club) and is a breath of fresh air in the “true politics and figures as characters” category of theatre.  The story is compelling and the tempo never falters.  The play does not however pack much of an emotional wallop.  There is a moment, delivered without any sentimentality by Ms. Gummer that creates a bit of a lump in the throat, reminding us of this absence.

The Columnist is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until June 24th.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Pipe Dream – Review

N.Y. City Center Encores! is back to its old self with its production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream (1955.)  Fully choreographed (Kelli Barclay,) with a perfect set (John Lee Beatty) and costumes (Toni-Leslie James) that by all rights should be in my closet, Encores! once again, does not disappoint.

Pipe Dream is based on two John Steinback novels (Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday) and has a certain grittiness that one may not always associate with Rodgers & Hammerstein.  To be perfectly candid, I often suffer from insulin depletion at declarations of climbing every mountain, or of the corn being as high as an elephant’s eye.  I’ve always been more of a; boy like that, sit down you’re rocking the boat, you’ll never get away from me, kinda gal.  And while Pipe Dreams is by no means a perfect show, it has lured me onto Team R&H.

The theme of the show is that of the world of work, and not the button downed briefcase carrying kind.  Much of the show takes place in both a house of…well, a house of female comfort and a flop house.  There are some simply beautiful songs; Everybody’s Got A Home But Me and Suzy Is A Good Thing (which opening notes are reminiscent of the opening to Bali Hai.)  There are also one or two songs that simply fall flat.  However, with a strong producer (back in 1955) it’s clear that this show could have been work-shopped into something wonderful.

With any show that does not come complete with recognizable tunes or story, or has not come directly from a film or comic book; casting is key.  Marc Bruni (director) hit a trifecta with Leslie Uggams, Tom Wopat and Stephen Wallem.  Mr. Wopat and Ms. Uggams are in great voice and simply devour their characters.  Mr. Wallem is an extremely enjoyable character actor (with a very good singing voice) and captures the character of Hazel perfectly.  The male and female romantic leads; Will Chase and Laura Osnes are not as suited to their roles.  Romantic leads are never that interesting to play, and without a certain spark, or electric magnetism, they are not very interesting to watch.

The real star of any Encores! production is the thirty(!) piece orchestra, directed by Rob Berman.  At a time when paired down orchestras are being divided and sequestered into basement rooms with tiny monitors of the stage (across the street) it is phenomenal to see a full orchestra on the stage.  When the curtain rose to reveal the elevated orchestra I heard a young girl gasp.  If there is anything that is less than positive about Encores! is that the run is always far too brief.  Pipe Dreams plays until April 1st.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Theatre

 

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We Live Here – Review

We Live Here, by Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia,) and directed by Sam Gold is in previews at The Manhattan Theatre Club.  Set in a beautifully designed (John Lee Beatty) New England home on the eve of a wedding celebration, family secrets and raw anguish are revealed.

The play opens with the mother (an almost unrecognizable Amy Irving) opening her daughter Ali’s wedding gifts.  To save her the trouble.  A brittle, insecure, youngest daughter Dinah (Betty Gilpin, daughter of Jack Gilpin) arrives to almost zero acknowledgment by her mother.  Supposedly, mommy is simply overwhelmed by the details of the small family wedding.  The bride Ali (Jessica Collins) arrives with her fiance Sandy (Jeremy Shamos) whom the parents suspect is gay.  He enters carrying lilacs.  There is a marked tension and dislike between the sisters, who are 11 years apart.  Daddy (Mark Blum) beloved peacemaker and Greek philosopher, rounds out the family.

While still in the throws of awkward family reunion and meeting the fiance, young Dinah’s older boyfriend Daniel (Oscar Isaac) arrives.  He is not exactly every parent’s ideal.  Daniel is faculty at Julliard, where Dinah studies piano.  He is also the ex-boyfriend of Ali’s deceased twin sister.  Small town, that New York City, eh?  This stretch of realism in the plot is barely noticeable however.  There are much more gaping distractions on hand.

The first act is definitely the stronger of the two, but the script could use (more?) time in workshop.  While there are exquisitely crafted moments (due in large part to the brilliance of Mr. Gold) and very believable dynamics, there are equal amounts of misses.  There are very lofty writing aspirations at play (pun intended.)  Bobbing and weaving around the mythology of Adromeda, is not interesting.  It should either of been fleshed out or dropped as a theme.  (My vote is for “dropped” as it’s an odd device in a play about identical twins.) The backdrop of the wedding, while utilitarian, is flawed in its execution.  This is a family of New England intellectuals preparing for a small wedding.  They would not be engaged in (last minute) handwritten, place cards, (last minute) dress fittings, (last minute) slide shows.  Slide shows?  The fiance is a Guggenheim winning portrait artist.  Slide shows also don’t particularly jive with the mother (last minute) selecting which flowers (from their own garden) they will use for the wedding.  All of these silly incongruities would not be so distracting if it weren’t for the fact that they are a warning.  The number one rule for any writer (particularly one in their 20s) is “go with what you know.”  Throughout the play, we have the distinct feeling that the playwright is only in passing acquaintance with her characters.

Dinah’s anorexia is considered “cured” yet, her bridesmaid dress (purchased very recently) no longer fits.  She also does not eat.  Yet, she talks about her “recovery” in a very (unintentionally) fictionalized manner.  It’s very hard to believe much about her, when her most defining characteristic is unconvincing.  Is she or isn’t she?  It’s not that she doesn’t know, it’s that the playwright never decided.  We believe she would want to be invisible and therefore develop anorexia, but the psychosocial accuracy is missing.

We discover that Althea’s twin sister Adromeda killed herself (it was implied earlier) after Ali slept with Daniel (back in high school.)  The means not entirely justifying the ends for you?  Well, it seems that Andromeda had stopped taking her Lithium and had been locked in the piano room for days, and her parents chose this exact time to leave all the girls alone for the weekend.  Still not convinced?  Well, it seems the family KNEW she had stopped taking her Lithium, but were pleased she was writing music again, particularly in time for the college application process.  Okay, maybe they are crazy enough to have a slide show at a small family wedding.

To think that I had thought it irresponsible to send a daughter off to Julliard in the throws of an eating disorder.

A flashback is used to tell us Daniel and Ali slept together.  It wasn’t needed, but it did add a wonderful haunting element; having the relentless piano playing of Andi (behind closed doors.)  The flashback device is used as the transition for a tipsy Ali and Daniel getting on his motorcycle together.  The inevitable accident occurs.  Ali is only banged up, but (very briefly) noted is that the cellist Daniel, has seriously damaged his hand.  The moments after Ali is brought home from the hospital are almost unbearably sad.  The writing and acting of the parents is simply excruciating.  My heart just broke for them and their pain.  Sobbing and sniffling, I thought “yes!, go with what you know!”  Clearly Ms. Kazan, has a true gift, demonstrated by those real, raw moments on the stage.  What she and the play need(ed) was some serious work-shopping, and a merciless editor.  Why does the fiance travel (on the eve of his wedding!) with his easel and paints?  Why are gifts being sent to the parents when the couple already lives together?

The ending to this play with real potential, was very disappointing.  Sandy leaves Ali.  Maybe.  Why?  Because she slept with her sister’s boyfriend in high school?  Because she rode on a motorcycle with him?  It’s not clear.  Why is the last scene, the sisters snuggling together promising to be there for each other forever?  We never find out why they had such a distant relationship.  We never find out why the family treats Dinah’s musical gifts (Julliard!) as a whim.  As we wait on the edge of our seats for these illuminations, the play actually ends with the line; “Look the sun is rising.”  Sigh.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Theatre

 

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