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The Old Friends – Review

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What constitutes binding ties? Are they marital, familial or just familiarity? Horton Foote looks to untangle this question in the posthumous premiere; The Old Friends. Set in 1965 outside of Houston, Texas six adults are locked in a combustible and static pattern of interaction. The (often alcohol fueled) attacks and schemes are delivered daily. They may be dressed slightly differently from day to day, but they are the same greed, jealousy and loneliness inspired displays. These displays make for some phenomenal scenes and performances but are difficult to absorb.

Julia (Veanne Cox) is married to fabulously wealthy Albert (Adam LeFevre). Her mother Mamie (Lois Smith) lives with them. The play opens with the family awaiting the arrival of Julia’s ne’er do well brother and his wife Sybil (Hallie Foote.) Sybil arrives alone, freshly widowed and destitute. Mamie is distraught but not for reasons one might assume. Her son is dead and so is her plan of living with him (evidently life with her daughter is a virtual living hell, or so we’re told.) Small, stunned, nondescript Sybil is left alone in the living room when tornado Gertrude (Betty Buckley) arrives. In perhaps the greatest character study of pure narcissism ever to hit a stage, Gertrude goes on the most delicious rant about how she’s been treated at the cocktail party. Julia has been hitting on her man Howard (Cotter Smith) who incidentally is the brother of Gertrude’s late husband. There sits newly widowed Sybil looking and being treated like part of the furnishings. She’s better off to be frank, as there is an odd vortex at work here. Unlike Mamie’s reported mistreatment we actually see all the other wretchedness. These people are caught in an interpersonal dance that one might expect on a remote island not amongst people with the means to escape. Julia and Gertrude fight over the same men over and over again. They are not related and have gobs of money. Why are they locked in this mode, dragging everyone in and down with them? It’s not clear.

What is clear is that these parts are written with actors in mind and director Michael Wilson makes the most of that. Betty Buckley’s Gertrude will be the standard for every subsequent performer. It is no easy feat to portray drunkenness and keep a character interesting. Ms. Buckley is riveting and uses her voice (not surprisingly) in the most powerful way. The soft raspy sadness that bubbles up after one too many, the controlled and uncontrolled rage and the lyrical flirtations make for a vocal symphony. Howard (or probably any other human) is no match to her passions and fervor. He is merely there to keep away the loneliness (as we learn in a confession reminiscent of a 3:00 AM Judy Garland phone call) and she will fight to the finish to keep her fear of loneliness at bay. Howard however has been pining for Sybil for years. He seems a bright and interesting guy and it’s hard to see why he’d be holding a torch for such a meek and mousy woman. Perhaps it’s simply the result of thirty years in the presence of Gertrude and Julia. Julia (who seems to go after Howard in some sort of non-sibling rivalry with Gertrude) is loud and boozy as well. She just wants to have a good time and feels everyone is standing in her way. Her wig, physique and mannerisms often hint to Carol Burnett’s poignant portrayal of Eunice. Again, why don’t these people leave? This question hangs in the air as a trip to New York City is cancelled by Gertrude. Why didn’t they just go without her? How does a woman who’s not even related hold the reins so firmly?

We never really discover what the ties are. The ending of the play is so abrupt as to suggest that there are no answers to be had.

The Old Friends is playing (August 20 – September 29) at the Signature Theatre

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Theatre

 

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End Of The Rainbow – Review

The Belasco is an ornate wonder of a theatre.  The walls are covered in dark pastoral murals, the ceiling in stained glass coats of armor.  Carvings and drapery cover every other surface.  All of the lushness stands in somewhat stark contrast to the excruciatingly discomfort of the seats.  It’s as if the theatrical experience was forgotten in the act of creating the spectacle.  The Belascon’s current inhabitant; End of the Rainbow might well be suffering the same condition.

The play, by Peter Quilter captures the essence of the final months of Judy Garland’s life.  Quilter understands the contradictions and complications that were at work.  But directed by Terry Johnson, this production isn’t so much a play as it is a version of Beatlemania.  There is far too much tribute singing both in the recreation of the concert performances and (in a bizarre break in character) to stir a rousing ovation at the end of both acts.  Less singing might make this a more interesting play.  The problem however with knowing exactly how something ends is how then to make it dramatic.  Sometimes that can be accomplished with very fine acting.

Tom Pelphrey is spot on as Mickey Deans, Judy’s very young soon-to-be fifth (and last) husband.  Mr. Pelphrey has the unique ability to walk the tightrope between sinister and charm.  (Someday I hope to see him in How I Learned To Drive.)  Michael Cumpsty portrays Judy’s sometime accompanist, Anthony.  His is the most compelling and beautiful portrayal.  The only emotional resonance of the show comes from his two minute speech, downstage in a single spotlight.

Tracie Bennett doesn’t so much play Judy as she does impersonate Miss Garland.  It is terribly distracting to experience a full-length play built around an impersonator.  It is immaterial to assess whether someone is a good Judy Garland impersonator or not.  The fact remains that if anyone could even come close to the magic of the real Judy Garland, we would not still be talking about her (and her completely irrelevant fifth husband) 40+ years later.  Keeping that sad fact in mind, a performer is further ahead to take a page from Meryl Streep’s book, and capture the essence of an icon, not create a pale imitation.  It might sound like a minor issue, but the difference (to an audience) between acting and impersonation is tremendous.

The set of this production (William Dudley) is of the Ritz Hotel (London) and melds beautifully into the ornate theatre.  There is a very charming band set behind a scrim that is revealed to create the concert hall.  There is a bit of awkwardness with the transitions on stage.  A garment rack wheeled onto the stage to indicate a dressing room is silly and seems like a leftover device from a work shopped performance.

I was struck by some of the script’s painful yet accurate insights and think Mr. Quilter could have the makings of a gem, in the right hands.  However he probably needn’t bother.  In its current form, this show will be a huge success.  The audience went wild for Ms. Bennett’s rendition of one of Miss Garland’s worst performances on record.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Who Wants To Be A Producer?

When they offered tickets to Hugh Jackman’s staged concert at $250, I was concerned.  When they raised the price to $350 I felt a spell coming on.  I cast no dispersions on Mr. Jackman.  I have seen him perform live (at the Tony awards) and he is a gem.  I am also a believer in a free economy and can often be spotted muttering; “people will buy whatever you sell them.”  Yet, there is something about the pricing of these tickets that is disturbing me beyond all reason.

I am not an economist (to such an extent, I hear only white noise when people discuss long-term investments,) but I feel in my bones, that there is something “off” about a $350 ticket to a performance of anything.  I will defend Mr. Jackman’s producers’ right to charge whatever people will pay, but I have trepidation.  I’m worried about what this will (continue to) lead to.

For decades, people have paid extraordinary sums to attend concerts.  Even un-scalped tickets have been in the triple digits for quite some time.  I’ve long suspected it is due to the rarity of seeing what you’ve been hearing.  In that vein, Mr. Jackman’s ticket pricing is almost normative, however I’m willing to wager that his audience is thinking; “Broadway show” not “Concert.”  Therein lies the concern.  If in fact we are creating/supporting a theatre audience who will pay $350 for a concert, is this helping or hurting Broadway?

How do we support a rich creative process for producing new theatrical works of art in a world in which a producer can charge $350 for a concert on Broadway?  In 1961 a ticket to see Judy Garland concert (a comparison, no doubt The Boy From Oz would appreciate) was $7.00.  In 1961 the average Broadway theatre ticket was between $5.00 and $9.00.  I don’t pretend that this 1:1 ratio does or should still exist.  I would however, urge us to detect a trend in the amount of offerings (and pricing) of 1961 Broadway and that of 2011.

When jukebox, comic book and made-from-t.v.-or-film musicals, are bringing in millions, is there still room for new book musicals?  Do they even belong on the main-stage any longer?  Every couple of years we are graced with an inspiring wonderful new musical.  The Light In The Piazza (2005,) Spring Awakening (2006) and Passing Strange (2008) come to mind as shocking in their originality and magic.  These shows bubbled up like a tree growing in Brooklyn; defying all odds.  If you are a producer how much are you willing to risk?  A million dollars invested in a Hugh Jackman show or a jukebox musical cast with contest winners will guarantee a healthy return and perhaps a step onto the stage at the Tony awards.  Isn’t that prospect a little more enticing than ponying up a million dollars for something which artistically makes one’s heart sing, but comes with no prospect of a $350 ticket?  Where does this leave/lead us?

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Theatre

 

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Zing Zing Zing Went My Heartstrings

I certainly have extolled the splendors of New York in the summer before.  However, I’ve shopped before too.

The weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day are just glorious.  The vibrancy of the city stays intact but the extraneous noise that affects our fine city’s livability seems to ebb rather dramatically.  Restaurants are available during peak time; at the last minute.  The streets are quieter and more manageable.The frantic sense of having to shore and gear up to navigate any external activity seems to fade as well.  What’s left is all the deliciousness that the city has to offer, presented in an appealing and manageable manner.

I watched the thinned workday crowd come up from the subway (another less than hundred people coming off of the train) on Friday morning.  I did this while sipping my cappuccino (from a real cup) and picking at an apple gateau in the atrium of Alice Tully Hall.  The weight of my demitasse and the taste of the caramelized apple transported me instantly to Paris.  (This is not an affront to my city, as we all know, Paris is really just New York in french.)  I was loathe to leave, but there were two tickets in my name at the Walter Reade.  Singing In The Rain was not going to watch itself.  Do you remember when movies were fabulous and filled with talent and movie theatres were lovely and special and going to the concession stand did not remind you of a bad night in prison?  Come to the Walter Reade (but not all at once, I like it partially empty.)  The theatre is immaculate and designed for viewing pleasure.  Imagine that!  The espresso(!) was $2 and the popcorn $4.  You know; what it’s actually worth!  I was tickled to see children in the theatre (there’s a sentence that should never be quoted out of this context!)  It speaks volumes about Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds that nary a peep uttered from these very small children.  See what actual entertainment (vs. dummed down corporate product placement) can do for a child.  The audience burst in spontaneous applause several times.  Seeing Mr. O’Connor scale the walls in Make “Em Laugh (on the big screen) was thrilling.

How does one top a morning like that?  By having lunch at Alice’s Tea Cup, that’s how.  Usually sheer madness at lunch when school is out, the wait was all of 5 minutes on this holiday weekend.  A pumpkin scone, a salad and a pot of tea.  Is there anything more wonderful?  Unless it’s the two EXTRA helpings of jam I insisted upon.

The next day was equally splendid and started with a walk/run along the Hudson at Riverside Park.  The breeze and beauty of the morning could only be topped by Judy and Vincent’s first movie.  The close ups of Miss Garland on the large screen are enough to warm even the coldest heart.  Sitting in the Walter Reade (thank you Lincoln Center 50th anniversary musical weekend celebration) and hearing the laughter around me, I was warmed all over.  MGM was magic to me as a child, but magic that I always experienced alone, on a black and white portable television.  How fabulous to discover that I am not alone.

On my way to lunch (in the West Village) I witnessed the shoring up of the West Side of my city.  The Macy’s fireworks were coming to the Hudson (Happy 400th Hudson!) and boy was it gonna draw the masses like salt leeching liquid.  By the time I traipsed back downtown for dinner at Balthazar (no waiting, no attitude, no kidding) with our dear friends, the throngs had started to descend.  At 8:30 (on our way to our own rooftop to view the fireworks) the streets were filled.  Lawn chairs and coolers littered the sidewalks.  Every cement surface held a human.  Looking down on the westside highway (from 39 flights above) I took in the sight of a blanket of humans.  It was a glorious show.  From our vantage point we could see New Jersey’s fireworks as well as all 6 barges on the Hudson.  Magic.

However no holiday that celebrates patriotism or dead war veterans would be complete without a picnic.  An empty Riverside Park, a couple of blankies, a basket full of Fairway and a Yankee Game on a genuine transistor radio!

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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