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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 Uncategorized

 

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Heroes – Review

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Inmates make for the most interesting bedfellows and nowhere more so than in Tom Stoppard’s Heroes. This (2005) translation of Gérald Sibleyras’ play is a story of French veterans who create intriguing (and in one case; unnatural) alliances. At first glance these men have only two things in common; they are veterans and they live in a veterans’ home. But as the (quite funny) play unfolds we discover their shared threads and the ties that bind.

The men; Gustave (Jonathan Epstein,) Phillipe (Malcom Ingram,) and Henri (Robert Lohbauer) are fully formed and complex characters whose rapid exchange of one-liners and bon mots are entirely believable. A three person play devoid of bells and whistles hinges upon the believability and artistry of the players. Deftly directed by Kevin G. Coleman these actors inhabit their roles so completely an distinctly as to set a production standard.

Gustave, Henri and Phillipe are battle scarred, yet they are not bound by their wounds. Henri, who has inexplicably chosen to live in the rest home for twenty five years, is actually the most physically adventurous of the three. Phillipe, who spends as much time unconscious (due to skull shrapnel) as he does conscious, wants desperately to stay alive. And Gustave, dear aristocratic, rigid, scathing Gustave is besotted by a bronze dog.

These men would never have socialized on the outside. (Their carefully executed variations of a British accentt indicate their class distinctions.) Yet like the soldiers they once were, they are together in the trenches with a common enemy; Sister Madelene. It is this alliance and their allegiance to each other (and the dog) that make theirs a story worth telling. It is the honesty of their connection that is compelling. Which is why, without the spot on performances of these three actors the play could slide into Grumpy Old Men (+1) sentimentality.

The final moment of this production is proof of that temptation. The actors are directed to climb atop chairs and emulate flight. It was an inconsistent choice for such an honest production.

Heroes is playing at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, MA) until September 1st.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road – Review

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Somebody wants some supper fixed
And somebody wants some love
And there’s just no time to write a song to say what I’m thinking of
But tomorrow I hit the road
Gonna let loose of this heavy load and FLY!

Few shows capture a time period as perfectly as Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road. It was a feminist anthem, performed at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in the late 1970s and is being (briefly) revived as part of the Encores! Off-Center series at NY City Center.

The tale (based upon Ms. Cryer’s experiences) is of singer Heather Jones and her attempt at finding her own voice. Today is Heather’s birthday, she’s 39, which her manager Joe urges her to keep to herself. He would prefer she not mention being a single mother or express anger or upset the men in the audience. He wants her to be successful and then she can sneak in the real. Set in a theatre, during the rehearsal for this evening’s opening night, adds to the overwhelming believability of this show. Unlike many “showbiz” shows, we are watching real people have a real experience. The songs are seamlessly woven into the narrative creating almost an operatic quality.

It can be challenging to sing and say words so steeped in a movement or time period. Singing rock together with ballads is not for everyone, particularly with the original recording artist sitting in the front row. But Renee Elise Goldsberry (Good People, Rent, Lion King) transcends even the highest expectations. Her voice has a quality not often found today; it is devoid of belting and breathiness and filled with richness and feeling. Her sound is reminiscent of female folk singers of the 1970s, a delightful auditory nod to the time period. There is nothing anachronistic about her performance however. She is fresh, real and present. She sings of growing up in the 1950s and being told to smile. “If you smile in just the right way you’ll make a pretty wife and someone will take care of you for all your pretty life.” When Ms. Goldsberry sings these words we don’t think of sepia toned photos of a little girl in front of the family car. Her interpretation makes us think of Facebook photos showing girls in identical suggestive poses.

Fredrick Weller (Glengarry Glen Ross, Take Me Out) is perfectly cast as the layered manager Joe. His delivery (of some of the funner lines) is timed to the millisecond. He is infuriating and endearing and a wonderful counterbalance to the “artist” energy on the stage. Theirs is a friendship that you suspect and hope will go the distance, despite (or maybe because of) their differing viewpoints. The friendship itself is serenaded in the showstopper Dear Friend. Joe wants Heather’s act to play the Troubadour, and he feels that her reading her divorce decree out loud is not the ticket to success. But Heather’s been down this road before. She has recorded a hit song that now makes her physically ill in its sweetness. She works on a soap opera where she’s undoubtedly polished and pushed into a mold. She has some experience with being put in a package and sold. The (fabulous) band and her female back-up singers are only too glad to help her deliver the real. Christina Sajous (Spiderman, Baby It’s You) and Jennifer Sanchez (West Side Story, Ghost) create a perfect sound and harmony with Ms. Goldsberry. Jason Rabinowitz (acoustic guitar) breaks the audience and Ms. Goldsberry’s heart with a solo performance of In A Simple Way I Love You.

It is always a bit risky to revive a period piece that was not a runaway hit. But under the deft direction of Kathleen Marshall and with a cast to beat the band, this production may actually surpass the original (which this reviewer saw and committed to memory as a very impressionable woman in training.)

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Education By Degrees

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Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.

Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.

Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?

We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.

 
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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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At Last

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Picture it, New York City 1961. Grown people in girdles and fedoras could stumble into any one of dozen of night clubs and hear standards or jazz performed at the highest level. They would sit at their tiny tables; a shaded candle casting them in a flattering glow, sip their Manhattans while wrapped in a haze of cigarette smoke and either bop or swoon to sophisticated stylings. Sitting last night in the Cafe Carlyle, wrapped in Marcel Vertes murals, those halcyon days were brought back to life by William Blake. Resplendent in his black velvet jacket and beatific smile, Mr. Blake brings the best of the past back to life with his flawless show, Echoes of Etta: A Tribute To Etta James.

The audience danced in their seats to the rocking numbers ably backed by the swaying singing synchronicity of The Peaches (Ashley Betton, Shira Elias and Stephany Mora). The Peaches and the audience’s upper bodies were given a break periodically when Mr. Blake turned to the standards made famous by Ms. James. Pianist and co-creator Michael Thomas Murray joined Blake in duets to wonderful effect. Their strong smooth voices complemented each other and created something rich and large. The band (
Oscar Bautista, guitar; 
Mike Shapiro, drums; Frank Canino, bass)
 filled the stage and filled the room. Together they created a magnificent sound one rarely stumbles upon today. This fact was confirmed towards the end of the show when the curtained doorway parted. Jammed into the entry of the club were half a dozen people drawn to the sound. Their faces were a mix of joy and absolutely awe.

While the Etta James songbook is an ideal canvas for Mr. Blake’s range, he is not an impersonator but in fact the real thing. With the power of a rocker and the soul of a jazz singer he brings a tender strength to ballads and a growling ferocity to blues. There’s little doubt his talent could take him wherever his heart desires, but for the sake of those yearning to come taste the wine, and to come hear the band, let us hope Mr. Blake never leaves the cabaret.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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