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Picnic – Review

picnic

There are theatrical experiences so real, so raw that it is only when the house lights go up that you remember where you are. Time passes imperceptibly and there is no one to your right or left, just those people up on the stage. Such is the mesmerizing effect of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Picnic (by William Inge.) Directed by Sam Gold and with an ensemble cast only dreamed of in parlor games, Picnic is a feast.

The set (Andrew Lieberman) is brilliant, designed with the (harmless) voyeur in mind. The Owens house is front and center with many rooms visible. Scenes play in and out of the house and across yards and we watch from across the way. We watch Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) long for what’s best for her daughters Madge (Maggie Grace) and Millie (Madeline Martin.) We watch the Owens boarder Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) grasp at a chance for happiness. And Mrs.Potts (Ellen Burstyn) watches them because it makes her feel alive and gives her respite from a demanding invalid mother. There are men who propel the motion of their lives as well. Howard (Reed Birney) has been a steady presence in Rosemary’s life and Alan (Ben Rappaport) may just be Madge’s future. It is Hal (Sebastian Stan) who comes to upend their lives.

Picnic really is the story of women and how they live within the social confines of the 1950s and manage their desires. Flo, a single parent for many years, knows her daughters can have more than she ever did. She sees the artistic and intellectual gifts of her youngest Millie. Her elder Madge is stunning and Flo recognizes her beauty for the commodity it is. She is blunt with Madge about the shelf life of such an asset. Madge doesn’t see the point in being pretty, although she certainly does manage to have a great deal of fun with her looks. She’s savvy enough to realize that her sister has far more than she ever will. Flo sees Al as Madge’s ticket to the good life and encourages her daughter to fake passion to gain his commitment. Rosemary, the ‘spinster school teacher’ of a certain age is coming up right to the edge. She is a ball of fire and energy and is filled with more life than the women half her age. She senses (as Flo does about Madge) that it’s now or never.

It is this urgency of both Flo and Rosemary that provide the most powerful moments of the play. The power and anguish unleashed is unsettling. There is an impulse to turn away. But watching Ms. Winningham and Ms. Burstyn together is not to be missed. And to watch Ms. Marvel in what can only be called a Tony worthy performance is amazing. Ms. Marvel is unrecognizable physically. Normally a lovely and graceful, erect woman, she is curved and springy as Rosemary. In her wig and costume she is reminiscent of an energetic Eileen Heckart. It is her performance and her scenes with Howard that will linger. Their relationship and Rosemary’s longing are played out in a stirring dance sequence (Chase Brock choreographer.)

If there is any weakness in this magnificent production it is that of the ingenue casting. Watching Madge struggle with the superficiality of her ‘gift’ would be more compelling with a more layered actress. Casting Ms. Grace was an interesting stroke of realism, but might have missed to mark just a bit. Mr. Stan conveys a splendid mix of ingratiating grifter and wounded soul, but physically he may not be ideal. There isn’t enough difference in presence between Hal and Al to fully grasp Madge’s attraction. But as this play belongs to the grown women, it’s a minor point.

For all of its very raw and heartbreaking moments, Picnic is an uplifting play. Witnessing people finding their way and grasping joy is always inspiring. And there may never be a stronger ensemble and director than that of this production.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Look Back In Anger – Review

Look Back In Anger was written by John Osborne in 1957.  It was considered the first of the anti-drawing room plays and introduced to the stage the “angry young man.”  Fifty five years later, he is still quite angry. The play has been produced recently at home (London) and abroad, it has also been made into a film.  This Roundabout Theatre production directed by Sam Gold is a four character interpretation of the play.

Jimmy (Matthew Rhys) a working class university graduate is married to Alison (Sarah Goldberg) the daughter of a colonel.  Jimmy runs a sweets stall with Cliff (Adam Driver) who also lives with the couple.  Later they are joined by Alison’s actress friend from childhood, Helena (Charlotte Parry.)  The fifth character, the most prominent of players, is the set.  The stage at the Laura Pels is reduced to a depth of six feet.  It is the bleakest and filthiest of sets you are likely to ever see.  Dishes, laundry, trash, and food litter the floor and a stained mattress is propped in a corner.  The filth only grows as the play progresses.  The (relatively) tiny stage and the use of a lit “offstage” work to reinforce the utter claustrophobia of the characters’ lives.  Having the actors sit on the aisle (on the edge of the audience) is not distracting but it also does not add anything.  It is just one device that is employed to add elements of realness and rawness to this production.

Jimmy is a character you have seen portrayed often.  He is filled with self-loathing and expresses it through verbal abuse and absolute derision for those he loves.  He is above all else, a victim.  His regal looking wife Alison spends much of the first act in an open dressing gown, half-slip and bra.  She dutifully irons her husband’s underwear as he hurtles insults her way.  To avoid boredom, Jimmy also goes after Cliff, often physically.  While these goings on are certainly tedious, the performances are riveting.  The actors are so thoroughly immersed in their characters it is impossible to remember their past performances (of which I’ve seen several.)  There is a comfort with their characters which is rarely seen.  This is a very physical play, with much wrestling (fight direction by Thomas Schall) in a very small space.  Not once, did any of the tousling look staged.  There is also much silliness, mostly in the form of animal imitations, which would look forced and moderately humiliating in lesser hands.

Helena arrives later in the play, looking groomed and radiant and reminding us that not everyone lives amidst such squalor.  Discovering the way in which her friend is living and taking into consideration Alison’s yet to be announced pregnancy, she arranges to send Alison back to her family.  I have to admit that I did not see that coming.  I wasn’t necessarily hoping for Alison to stay with Jimmy, I’m just not sure of her motivation to leave.  Needless to say, Helena and Jimmy start up an affair.  I say “needless to say” from a theatrical perspective, not a psychological one.  It’s not clear what either of these women see in Jimmy.  Now if they had fallen for his friend Cliff, I could understand.  Cliff is the only sympathetic character around.  He is loving and filled with an inexplicable optimism.

The house lights are used throughout the production to create mood, or anti-mood as the case may be.  Both acts begin with full house lights.  There are several minutes of silent action that occur fully lit.  The effect is lost on an audience who would rather talk amongst themselves.  Call it Pavlovian, but the full house simply would not silence until they were plunged into darkness.  Their talking was actually less distracting than was my empathy for actors being ignored.  The curtain-less (does anyone use curtains anymore?) six foot deep stage feels like a thrust, and the fully lit “wings” add to the intimacy.  I found so much full lighting and lack of “off-stage” just a wee bit distracting.  The acting really speaks for itself here.

The staging itself is beautiful, as is the acting, but the play simply left me cold.  While Cliff is a most sympathetic character, nothing much happens to him.  As the play came to a close, the previously excruciatingly well behaved woman seated next to me started to rustle in her purse.  I could not discern what in the world she would be doing, until she brought a tissue to her nose.  “Oh,” I thought, “she has a cold.”  No.  She was crying.  Did something sad happen?  Now, I am not made of stone.  I have been known to well up over curtain calls.  But I found nothing particularly moving about these characters, or their lives.  I had a bit of trouble believing that anyone would actually make a salad while sitting on the floor and toss the unused bits around the floor.  If the play was making the leap into surrealism, I would have been fine.  But clearly the claim to fame for this particular play and production is its realism.  However, I would see it again for the performances alone.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Theatre

 

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Seminar – Review

Not all writing is the same.  To write effective fiction (plays, stories, novels,) one must create a believable world.  The writer starts with nothing and creates a reality.  It can be a lonely and torturous task fraught with countless potential missteps.  It is no wonder that there is a robust cottage industry of workshops, salons, colonies and retreats for these people.

One of these workshops is the setting for the new Theresa Rebeck play Seminar.  Four young(ish) fiction writers are gathering weekly in an upper west side apartment to reap the wisdom and guidance of a larger than life writer/editor.  The bombastic arrogant tutor, Leonard (Alan Rickman) creates a centrifuge where only the talented survive.  The four writers; Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell and Hettienne Park are easily recognizable types.  Kate (Rabe) is our Bennington graduate host.  She lives in her parent’s nine room rent – controlled apartment, presumably alone.  Rabe is an absolutely delightful actress.  (The part of Kate is somewhat mannered and at times Ms. Rabe’s similarity to her mother was staggering.)  Martin (Linklater,) Kate’s friend from high school is quiet, insecure, stewing in his own juices.  Douglas (O’Connell) is an amusing blowhard with a family name, connections and penchant for unknowingly inventing words.  Izzy (Park) carries her sexuality like a miniature chihuahua.  She is never without it and uses it as if she’s invented it.  Three guesses which one of these people is the one with the earth shattering talent.

Seminar, directed by Sam Gold hits every performance note perfectly, yet it did not move me.  The acting is superb, without question.  And while, talking about writing is tantamount to dancing about architecture, that wasn’t entirely the issue.   Let’s be clear though, navel gazing gets old fast, particular on a large Broadway stage.  I think it was the cleanliness that left me cold.  All but the last 20 minutes of the play are set in the sprawling overly decorated apartment.  We never meet the rightful “owners” nor know anything about them.  But would parents who sired a Bennington writer and have called the upper west side home for decades, really decorate with color coordinated books?  I understand the point designer David Zinn was making, particularly at the reveal of Leonard’s dark loft groaning under the weight of thousands of books.  But believability was sacrificed to make that particular point.  None of the writers spoke of jobs or any means of support.  Where on earth they did come up with 5,000 dollars each for this seminar?  The only character who convinced me was Douglas.  He’s been around the block.  He is not a novice, having done his time at Yaddo and currently in conversations with The New Yorker.  Making a connection with Leonard is a solid investment for Douglas and one no doubt paid for by his family. For the most part, the characters were too predictable as were their sexual dalliances.  It was all a bit too tidy.

Taking nothing away from the performances or even the production as a whole, the play left me cold.  However, I also walked out on Midnight in Paris.  Please do not let the fact that I don’t consider “look how clever I am” to be a sufficiently entertaining premise, prevent you from enjoying this very solid and beautifully acted production.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 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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