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Tag Archives: The Manhattan Theatre Club

The (T.V.) Guide Of Casting

Betty

It’s late July and the first whispers of Broadway’s 2013-2014 season can be heard. Unlike a sighting of back-to-school displays, this prematurity is welcome. Even if one loves the summer and is ensconced in a villa or beach hideaway, paradise can get a bit tedious. And if you’re of the school that there is never enough sand, seafood and sangria it’s nice to think of how you will assuage yourself once the leaves turn. And let’s face it, anticipation is more than half the fun.

If you’re a lover of (what I call) main stage Broadway and swoon at all things Llyod Weber, there’s almost always something to look forward. It’s also almost a sure bet that revival lovers will be happy. But what’s more of a gamble, and therefore a bit exciting, is news of new works, fabulous directors or stellar stage performers. Both camps of theatregoers; main stage and not-so-main stage often experience FOMO (fear of missing out) in extreme form. The line for the cronut is nothing compared to the virtual line for an “insert celebrity name here” show, jukebox musical, or made from TV, or film show. Nothing creates buzz like buzz, and most main stage shows have a marketing machine to beat the band. A quieter, no more attractive frenzy occurs over the not-so-main stage offerings as well. The bragging rights are comparable as well. In brownstones, penthouses and rent control classic sixes, you can hear any of the following; “Cumming’s Macbeth? We saw it before it went to Broadway. Of course Patti was great in Gypsy, but the Encores! production was quite different. You wanna see flying? You MUST see Peter and the Starcatcher.” (Somewhere in apartments we couldn’t afford or dare to enter there are similar conversations of theatre so obscure & avant-garde that knowing their titles is as good as seeing them.)

John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Defiance), James Lapine (Sunday In The Park With George, Into The Woods), Doug Hughes (Inherit The Wind, Mauritius, A Man For All Seasons) will be collaborating in various configurations at The Manhattan Theatre Club. These names are guaranteed to perk the imagination of any theatre lover. The Manhattan Theatre Club often achieves a delicate balance of risk and sure thing. They produce new work and attract stellar performers. The new work is often very good and the performers are often well cast. (Hardly minor points!) It’s not surprising then that the casting for Mr. Shanley’s new play evoked in me a Scooby-Doo type response. The new work will star Brian O’Byrne (Doubt, Defiance, The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and Debra Messing (television star). Now there are plenty of accomplished stage actors who found fame in sitcoms, but (according to her resume) Ms. Messing doesn’t seem to be one of them. Acting on camera is an entirely different endeavor than acting on stage. (You can test this at home by pulling up the one live show of Will & Grace. While it is still edited it is raw enough to discern where each actor’s comfort zone lies.) This is not to suggest that people can’t surprise us in the most delightful way. I love nothing more than hearing the voice in my head shout; “Crikey, would you look at that! He/she is GOOD!” And (for the right price) I’m willing to give any performer (within reason) the benefit of the doubt. But this casting does have me wondering.

I would love to be a fly (or a less disgusting insect) on the wall during the creative meetings. I’d also love to eavesdrop on the editorial meetings in which celebrity opinion pieces are chosen over journalism. What can I say; I love to witness verbal jousting! I’m absolutely certain (she says while adjusting her rose colored glasses) that at least one person pipes up in these meetings; “Do we really need to go the celebrity route?” before being pelted with cronuts.

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Posted by on July 20, 2013 in Media/Marketing

 

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The Assembled Parties – Review

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Anyone who has even suffered the slightest twinge of real estate envy should stay away from the Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Assembled Parties. The play, set in a lavish 14-room apartment on Central Park West (designed by Santo Loquasto) would make even the 1% pea green with envy. This imperfect play by Richard Greenberg takes place in two discreet times periods; 1980 and 2000, on the same day. At times the two acts even feel like two discreet plays. This is not a unique theatrical phenomenon and can work, but it’s a terrific hurdle to clear. Recently, the device was used in Clybourne Park and there wouldn’t have been a play without it. The key to its effectiveness is to create two acts, or time periods of equal force.

The first act is a rapid and rotating collage of a family assembled on Christmas. Christmas could easily be replaced by Thanksgiving or Passover for this Jewish family, as it’s just an excuse to gather and overeat. The curtain rises on Julie (Jessica Hecht) in the kitchen (the size of most living rooms) with her eldest son’s friend Jeff (Jeremy Shamos). Jeff is young and socially out of his league in the presence of the glamorous (former movie actress) Julie. She speaks in a cadence not usually found in nature and is dressed in a jumpsuit created by her mother (a renowned designer.) Julie teases Jeff with obvious affection and Jeff seems on the edge of pinching himself throughout. He is a first-semester Harvard Law student, the son of first generation Jews and he’s spending Christmas at the captain’s table. Julie’s husband Ben (Jonathan Walker) appears and we learn of another (much younger) son who is upstairs with a cold. The set then starts its rotation and the apartment and the family dynamics unfold. We meet Julie and Jeff’s two sons; Scott (Jake Silberman) and Timmy (Alex Dreier). Ben’s sister Faye (Judith Light) arrives with her husband Mort (Mark Blum) and her lumpish daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld). Director Lynne Meadow has the women characters use pronounced accents & Ms. Blumenfeld’s is beyond enjoyable. Shelley grew up (and stayed) in Roslyn, an unambitious and perhaps intellectually challenged 30-year-old single woman. Her blank face and very low center of gravity is a wonderful counter to the rapid fire speech and movement of her extended family. And the first act does move. Just when we’ve learned something new, the set rotates once again and more story unfolds. Faye is not happy, in that; “I miss Miltown” way. Ms. Light (as we saw in Other Desert Cities) is superb at portraying complicated women entirely at ease with their shortcomings. She is splendid and is given an embarrassment of riches of one-liners with which to work. You could create a fabulous twitter feed out of her zingers (both English and Yiddish) and pronouncements. This is not to suggest that her performance relies upon these quips. Not at all. But one does wonder if Mr. Greenberg wrote these gems with Ms. Light in mind.

That niggling little thought got in my way during the sedate second act. The curtain opens to a non-rotating large living room set that bares no resemblance to the fist set. We spend several moments wondering if the family (what little there is left of it) has moved. The husbands have died and Scotty (who looked a bit flush in the first act) died in 1981. Ms. Light delivers the line that informs us that Scotty died from AIDS; from a blood transfusion in a New York City hospital in 1981. Now it’s possible that if we combed medical records from 1981, this might have actually happened; but it probably would never have ever been identified as such. Scotty had just spent time overseas and could have easily been killed off by a myriad of diseases. That this implausible death was created and spoke of by Ms. Light (a longtime AIDS activist with a famed association with Ryan White) was distracting. There are other distracting theatrical devices that unfold in the second act which weaken the impact of what should be a moving play. One definite asset to the second act is Mr. Silberman; ill at ease as Scotty in the first act he flourishes as grown-up Timmy.

It’s clear in the first act that the character of Timmy is a device. His little boy self, ensconced in Star Wars sheets is ignored by his parents (on Christmas) and his existence is never explained (it’s not customary to have two children 20 years apart.) Yet the other characters or so wonderfully and fully formed. Mr. Greenberg captures the subtleties of middle-class New York Jews so perfectly and to utter delight. There are cultural conflicts and tensions beautifully and delicately rendered. None of these illuminations are delivered in a “The More You Know” public service announcement, but as real and integral dialogue.

There is much to love about The Assembled Parties. The performances alone are worth the very fast 2 1/2 hours.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Ruined – Review

This weekend I went, somewhat begrudgingly, to see Ruined at The Manhattan Theatre Club.  I knew nothing about the play except that it had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn Nottage.  That was enough to get me in the door.  Once in the theatre (at City Center) I saw the gigantic wall poster of the play’s synopsis.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted those key cringe inducing Eve Ensler nouns and shuddered.  I felt lightheaded at the very thought of two and a half hours of “women as victims” narrative.  Well, in for a penny in for a pound as they say.  I had my ticket and a pocketful of gourmet jelly beans, so into the theatre with me.  My equilibrium began to return the moment I stepped inside.  The stage is enormous and the house is small; and excellent combination.  The stage was set dramatically and expansively, every inch was performance space.  I took my comfortable sixth row seat and spun my head like an owl.  The house was filled with actual theatergoers.  The interracial crowd was tourist-free; another good sign, nary an M&Ms shopping bag in sight.  Sitting in the row directly in front of me was Philip Seymour Hoffman (or Phil as his friends call him) and Laila Robbins (not together;) another very good sign.  A few rows ahead of me, Lynn Whitfield sat down.  Things were looking up.  The last time I had been at a performance with such a healthy percentage of actor to commoner ration was August Osage County.
Never underestimate the veracity of good omens.  This play is enormous.  Yes, it is a play set in a war torn far off locale, and yes there are unspeakable horrors brought upon women, men and children.  But there is nothing treacly or sentimental or preachy about Ruined.  It is a beautiful story about the human spirit, that brought me to tears (twice) not out of pity for the characters, but out of admiration for their strength.  There are wonderful moments of laughter, and there is music, gorgeous, poetic music.  The play is set in a taverna/brothel, and the music is live and an integral part of the play.  Kate Whoriskey directs this play at a perfect pace.  There is never one moment of downtime or distraction, I was riveted to every moment and motion on stage  The play is mostly led by female characters who were beautifully developed.  The male lead; Russel G. Jones, broke my heart.  He is Herbie to Saidah Arrika Ekulona’s aptly named Mama.  It does not belittle Ruined to draw this Gypsy comparison.  Both Mama’s live off the “talents” of their girls and both
have a traveling salesman wooing them.  Mr Jones’ Christian, like Herbie, is driven by decency, and in Ruined this male character trait is most spectacular.   Ms. Ekulona is a dynamic actress and finds every nuance of Mama, I could not get enough of her.  Condola Rashad (yes, Mrs. Huxtable’s daughter) was a delightful surprise.  She does a very fine job in the difficult and demanding role of Sophie.  It is when she sings that she really comes to life.  A capable singer, she is heartbreaking singing the songs of Lynn Nottage.  Enough can not said about the play itself.  My only concern about it is that now that it has won the Pulitzer, community theatres across America will tackle it.  Human Rights organization will build fundraisers around it.  But without the gorgeous direction of Ms. Whoriskey, the play could be cheapened. Produced on the expansive stage of the MTC and staged in such a realistic manner, there is a degree of intimacy that is a key component to the experience.  This play should not be “watched” it should be experienced.  In the wrong hands it quite possibly could deteriorate into a Congo Monologue.  Please see it now while it is as it should be.  The play and the performances will stay with you and you’ll feel better for having seen it.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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