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Talley’s Folly – Review

talley's folly

The curtain-less stage, set for Talley’s Folly (by Jeff Cowie) is impossible to ignore. The southern weathered boathouse littered with rusted and discarded objects begs for the arrival of Miss Havisham. The small apron of the Laura Pel’s stage is festooned in large cartoon-like flowers, setting the stage if you will for this realistic play that knows it’s a play.

Lanford Wilson’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize play begins with eliminating the fourth wall. Matt Friedman (Danny Burstein) walks through the house and onto the stage and announces how long the play will be and why he’s there. He repeats his opening speech (at a higher speed) for latecomers. For audience members who cling affectionately to the fourth wall, this is somewhat terrifying. But before we have time to rethink our choices, a halting and delicate story unfolds and we are immersed, enthralled and utterly smitten. We meet Sally Talley (Sarah Paulson) whom Matt has traveled to woo. Theirs is not an easy courtship. In fact at times it would seem that whatever courtship there is only exists in Matt’s mind. Sally is a lovely blonde woman from a wealthy family that is less than thrilled with the existence of the obviously Jewish and vaguely European Matt. That the play takes place during World War II is interesting but not all that relevant. The family’s attitude is timeless as is the story of Matt and Sally. To outline what occurs between them in the course of 90 minutes would deny potential audiences the real pleasure of this play.

Mr. Burstein who if truth be told, owns any role he plays, is Matt Friedman. True the role will always conjure its creation by Judd Hirsch’s (in 1979), but Mr. Burstein is not in anyone’s shadow. He is larger than his physical self yet not in anyway overblown. He plumbs the humor while swallowing the pain. Matt Friedman could easily become pitiable, but Burstein never allows that to occur. Ms. Paulson could easily become set dressing in his presence but under Michael Wilson’s direction they shine equally upon the stage. While we at times we become frustrated by Sally, we never once doubt her. The actors capture the realism and the poetry of Matt and Sally; we ache for them and we cheer for them.

The Roundabout Theatre’s Talley’s Folly opens on March 5th

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The Endurance Of No-Neck Monsters

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The squalling band of no-necked monsters in Tennessee William’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof makes their presence known. They screech and howl and run amok in an attempt to get on our very last nerve. And oh what a fine job they do. They evoke a mental “get the hell off the stage” audience response. They are to Cat what the Save the Soul mission band is to Guys and Dolls: a loud grating interruption of what we came to see. And that is the point. We are to experience those no-neck monsters, as do the primary adult characters. Their mother is a familial terrorist and her children are her weapons. It is a testament to Mr. Williams that his monsters still horrifying in the 21st century.

The 1950s (when Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was written) was a period known for “seen but not heard” children. Adults enjoyed a post-war life and children had their place, and that place was often upstairs in their rooms. Children were introduced to adults (whom they called by their surname) and were ushered out of the room/party. The manners and behavior of a child was a direct reflection of the parent. The fifties were nothing if not the exaltation of propriety. Manners and appearances mattered (which goes a long way in explaining girdles and white gloves.) For children this manifested itself in a clear understanding of limits. Adults belonged to the world and knew best. It was a frustrating but secure paradigm in which to grow.

Just imagine the shock of the 1950s adult (children did not attend the theatre) audience upon seeing those no-necked monsters. Those grating little characters were hauled out and scattered like confetti on a parade. There they are playing Dixie at the airstrip to greet Big Daddy (who reacts with the same horror/disgust of the audience.) There they are “performing” at Big Daddy’s birthday party to which adult friends have been invited. (Big Daddy voices our wishes and asks for an intermission.) There they are barging into bedrooms and demanding adults engage in play. And there they are repeating hateful remarks to their aunt. It’s enough to evoke a gasp. That it still does that today is remarkable.

Children are not sequestered today. In fact if anything the world has become theirs and adults are seen but not heard. Adults can often not be heard over the din of children in restaurants, theatres, museums and funerals. Babies and children are not so much integrated into adult lives, as adults are integrated into the lives of children’s. We’ve created retail empires for babies and children. Broadway has discovered the steady income stream of children and the white way is dotted with flying people and talking teapots. Infants and children unfamiliar with the term “indoor voices” are dining out at 7:00, 8:00 and even 9:00 PM. They don’t shy from the highest end restaurants either. A simple dress code of: No Pull-Up Pants would put an end to that; but we digress. The point is that the world has changed tremendously since Mr. Williams created those no-neck monsters. Yet they still have the power to horrify. That is partly due to the scenic background of their terrorizing. They are clearly in an adult environment. The house in which they are running rampant is stately; there is no great room, there are no toys. It is clearly adult space.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is about living and dying and truth telling. The struggles within and between the characters are fascinating. The children are a reflection of the vulgarity of their parents: Gooper and Mae (the least interesting characters in the play.) The no-neck monsters’ antics threaten to get in our way as we try to learn about the adults. But by the middle of the play they are gone. Put to bed (or out to pasture); they are gone and that’s when things get really interesting.

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2013 in Childhood, Cultural Critique

 

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The Other Place – Review

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We are who we think we are. Thoughts grow and change over time, but we remain a composite of our memories and our ideals. What happens when those factors don’t grow or change but dissipate? Not in one fell swoop, but slowly and then with ferocious speed that sputters and slows only to resume its pace once more. Who are we when our memories ooze and morph like the innards of a lava lamp? When an illness has no exact start time, how do we differentiate between who we were before and who we are now?

Those questions are just some of the powerful and profound concepts delivered in the mere 80 minutes of The Other Place (Manhattan Theatre Club.) Written by Sharr White with a delicacy and excruciating insight rarely seen in concert with such powerful playwriting. The play is told with many flashbacks and to great psychological thrilling effect. Things are seldom what they seem and that’s what makes Mr. White’s writing so fine. Life is messy, human behavior is diagnosable but not predictable.

Laurie Metcalf is Juliana, a brilliant and accomplished scientist who currently works for a drug company. The drug she’s helped to create is for (yes) dementia. We are introduced to her in her very best condition as she reenacts her first diagnosable episode. She is a somewhat unreliable narrator and it is through her eyes that we view her marriage and her diagnoses. The introduction of her husband Ian (Daniel Stern) and the strength of her doctor (Zoe Perry) helps us to tease apart the narrative. It is an achingly real and raw narrative with a substantial dose of complexity. We learn of the layers of loss and regret and are left wondering how to separate psychic pain from a psychic degenerative wound. Ms. Metcalf is captivating. She is a lithe vibrant powerful woman who must devolve into a heap in a very short period of time. No matter how exacting the writing, in a lesser actor’s hands this feat could go terribly wrong. Ms. Metcalf is on stage the entire time and it is simply not possible to avert one’s eyes. She is wonderfully matched in intensity and artistry by Mr. Stern and by Ms Perry and John Schiappa who play multiple roles. It is a tight and complementary ensemble.

The fluidity of this production is due to the grace of Joe Mantello’s direction. On paper The Other Place might be indecipherable. But with spot on sound (Fitz Patton), lighting (Justin Townsend), precise video (William Cusick) and a pitch perfect set (Eugene Lee & Edward Pierce) the story unfolds gracefully and beautifully.

This is a play whose power and artistry linger. If there was any flaw (and it can be argued there wasn’t) it’s a little tidiness towards the end. It is a rare night at that theatre in which your mind and your soul are put so thoroughly through their paces.

The Other Place opens January 10th.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Picnic – Review

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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 Uncategorized

 

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The Anarchist – Review

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The Anarchist is a brief (in length and run) new play by David Mamet. It features two characters on stage for an uninterrupted 70 minutes. Cathy (played by Patti LuPone) is a convict serving her 35th year and Ann (played by Debra Winger) is a wardenesque woman serving her last day at the penitentiary. They are together performing the dance of “I’d like to be released now please.” And the dance is not well choreographed.

Cathy proclaims her interest in Christianity as an indication of her worthiness of release. This device is a bit blurry. She was born and raised by Jews (who it would appear gave her the name Catherine) and has discovered the New Testament in prison. Does she speak with the fervor of a tent preacher to impress the cross wearing Ann? If not, why work so much of the theology into the dialogue?  A sense of urgency is implied with the device of Ann’s last day, but why? Ann is not particularly lenient or empathetic. Maybe Cathy’s chances for being sprung will improve with a new administrator. If there is dramatic tension it’s buried too deeply to detect.

Mamet’s dialogue seems to have undergone a conversion as well. A Sunday school teacher would be pleased. However the rhythm is still quintessential Mamet. Ms. Lupone is comfortably at home in this musicality. She is at complete ease and utterly graceful with the dialogue. Ms. Winger is much less so and is not served well by Mr. Mamet’s direction. He has created a wooden and opaque portrayal in her Ann.

There are certainly interesting ideas conveyed throughout the play. Cathy’s (Weather Underground) crimes promise to evoke mixed feelings in audiences of a certain age. The psycho/social scholar will be intrigued with the debate over rehabilitation. There is also much to gain from watching Ms. LuPone stripped of song and embracing her dramatic roots. But watching The Anarchist is more akin to watching a (good) poetry reading than a play. Inserting dramatic tension into the script, recasting the role of Ann, and not having the playwright as director might result in a nice little play.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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