TJ & DAVE: Improv Extraordinaires

TJ & Dave

Last month, I went to The Town Hall theatre to check out TJ & Dave for the first time. You comedy fans out there may have heard of these guys. I hadn’t until my improv class instructor told us about them. TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi are a comedy duo, performing together since the early 2000s. Master improvisers, their shows entail the two of them making up a one-hour play on the spot. Yup, a whole play. Just TJ, Dave, and three chairs. Their tagline is, “trust us, this is all made up.”

After doing a little research, I realized I knew these two individually but not as a team. TJ you might recognize from the Sonic commercials. And Dave was Stew on the forever-fabulous “Strangers with Candy” which aired on Comedy Central back in 1999. If you know me personally, you’ve likely heard me quote this gem of a show starring Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert (maybe you’ve heard of him?). Dave played the butcher who Jerri Blank’s mother is having an affair with. The show is crazy, weird, and offensive. I highly recommend it.

But I digress. Back to TJ & Dave’s show! They were great. It feels silly to tell you about the story since it will never exist again. What surprised me was that it wasn’t just funny but also ended up being quite an insightful portrayal of human behavior. You can immediately identify with these characters (or you’ve at least met someone like them). It’s realistic, relatable, and sometimes has moments so perfect that it’s hard to believe it was made up that second. Their pacing, introduction of new characters (there were eight in this show), and the right usage of callbacks (references/shout-outs to earlier jokes) were super cool to witness. Plus I appreciated that they weren’t afraid to sit in silence at times. It got me all the more excited to take Level 2 at Magnet Theater, in which we start to study long form improv.

TJ & Dave are in the city occasionally, but their home base is Chicago, so if you find yourselves out there, look ‘em up! I think Colbert says it best, “”One of these guys is the best improviser in the world. And the other one is better.”


The Humans: A Hilarious and Haunting Family Portrait

Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, and Arian Moayed (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Smile Option 1

This, y’all. What a well-made play. A Roundabout Theatre Company production currently running at the Laura Pels, and now expected to transfer to Broadway in the spring, The Humans is a new play by Stephen Karam, whose play Sons of the Prophet (a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist) was also staged at the Roundabout back in 2011.

Thanks to the fantastic direction by Joe Mantello (you can always count on him) and an extremely strong cast, everything about this piece feels so…real. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. Time and time again, I keep coming back to that one – real.

First let me give you some context. The Blake family has gathered together for Thanksgiving dinner, this year at their younger daughter’s new apartment in lower Manhattan. Brigid has moved in with her older boyfriend, Rich, and the place isn’t bad by New York standards. It’s a ground floor apartment, and they have a second floor in the basement of the building, both fully executed by set designer David Zinn (see photo below). Sure, there are bars on the windows, and the trash compactor is crazy loud, and who knows what the hell the neighbors are doing upstairs, but hey, it’s home! They’ve just moved in, and their stuff hasn’t made it to the apartment yet, so it’s a very bare bones Thanksgiving, adding to the creepiness vibe of the place as the thumps get louder and louder upstairs. Brigid’s older sister Aimee is there, and their parents, Erik and Deirdre, have trekked in from Pennsylvania with their grandmother “Momo” who is suffering from the beginnings of dementia. The evening is full of prepping for dinner, exchanging gifts, complaining about the noise, and getting to know the boyfriend (watch a clip here). Because it’s a play (and we all know how plays work), we can guess from the start that this isn’t going to be the smoothest of family dinners, but the way in which the plot unfolds is so seamless that it doesn’t feel the least bit contrived. Nothing in the entire 90 minutes seems false or forced. Things unravel like a sweater as old reflexes kick in, snide comments are exchanged, and secrets are revealed.

Whatever these actors did to prep for these roles worked. It’s as if they really grew up together in the same home. The dynamic of each relationship has been so well developed. As tensions rise and fall, each character alternates taking on the role of mediator or instigator. It’s so familiar it’s almost like watching your own family up there – maybe not the same relationships or secrets but in the way they speak to each other. The history between them is just as strong as what’s being said in the moment. Whenever Brigid makes a rude comment toward her mother, I didn’t sit there thinking, “She’s a mean person.” Rather I saw the layers of their relationship and understood that they have a history to which we are not privy. We may not get the whole story in this play, but we know it’s there, and the actors definitely know it. AH – all of them are so good! I don’t feel the need for other adjectives! All I’ve got is GOOD and REAL.

Oh, also, don’t let me give the impression that this is a heavy, all-intense family drama. That’s definitely part of it, especially as we build to the haunting climax, but this play is crazy funny. Other things I loved? It’s told in real time. The characters overlap and interrupt each other the way people really talk. They overhear one another’s conversations, but it doesn’t feel like a convention. We are truly flies on the wall witnessing raw, real moments between family members as they snap at each other and love one another hard. The Humans is so relatable it’s painful at times, and when I wasn’t laughing, I was struck by the inner workings of this family. I found myself continuously surprised as other elements were looped in toward the end of the play, even moments of pure terror. And when the lights went out, my hair was standing on end.

The Humans
Written by Stephen Karam, Directed by Joe Mantello
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing January 3, 2016
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Cast: Cassie Beck, Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Sarah Steele, Arian Moayed, and Lauren Klein
Credits: Set Design: David Zinn, Costume Design: Sarah Laux, Lighting Design: Justin Townsend, Sound Design: Fitz Patton

Top: Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, Bottom: Reed Birney, Arian Moayed, and Jayne Houdyshell (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Top: Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele, Bottom: Reed Birney, Arian Moayed, and Jayne Houdyshell (Photo: Sara Krulwich)


Sylvia

Sylvia

Meh Option 1

If You Can’t Take It With You didn’t secure Annaleigh Ashford as one of the best physical comedians out there right now, Sylvia certainly does. I might even venture to say that she’s my generation’s Carol Burnett. It could be too soon to tell, but here’s what I know: every gesture, each sound emitted, and even the slightest tilt of her head is jam packed with comedy gold.

Fresh off her Tony win, the star is back on stage with the first Broadway production of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, playing the title character. For those of you who are not familiar with the play, now would be the time to mention that the title character is also a dog. Sylvia is about a love triangle but not your average one. A man named Greg (Matthew Broderick) finds a stray dog in the park (Ashford) and brings her home, much to the dismay of his wife, Kate (Julie White). Robert Sella also stars, covering several roles, each one funnier than the last. The twist of Gurney’s comedy is that Sylvia can talk. Well, not in the sense of, “Oh! A talking dog!” Rather, she has conversations with people, but they’re not necessarily communicating. She is still a dog after all. When she barks, she says, “Hey.” “Hey! Hey! Hey!” The fact that this remains laugh-out-loud funny throughout the play is impressive. It’s hard to describe why it’s so amusing to see a human behaving like a dog. As Greg finds himself going through a mid-life crisis and Kate finds her marriage falling apart before her very eyes due to the furry arrival, Sylvia is hoping to find a permanent home on the couch.

Broderick is his usual self on stage. Just like in It’s Only a Play, I was quickly bored with his flat inflection. Every line sounds the same, and he looks stiff as a board up there, especially next to Ashford who’s jumping around and running and scratching and hey-ing. (Fun fact: Sarah Jessica Parker, Broderick’s wife, played Sylvia in the Off-Broadway 1995 premiere.) Julie White, in what could be a one-note role as the aggravated wife, is delicious as usual. And Sella, whose work I was unfamiliar with, was delightful to watch transform as he fills in the edges of the small ensemble.

My opinion on the play itself keeps shifting as I work on this post. Some days I think it is paper thin with the same gimmick over and over, but fortunately in this production, Annaleigh is so skillful that it doesn’t get old. On the other hand, the play is pretty darn cute, and it made me miss my old pup, Kirby (below). It may be a simple story, but it is about something real: the love between people and their dogs.

Kirby 2Kirby

Sylvia
Written by A.R. Gurney, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cort Theatre, Closing January 24th, 2016
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick


Cloud Nine

Cloud Nine

Smile Option 1

The last time a major production of Caryl Chuchill’s Cloud Nine was seen in New York was in 1981 so I was very pleased to catch the revival at Atlantic Theater Company. This lovely, touching performance is running through November 1st, and I do think it’s worth your time.

Cloud Nine was a popular play to study back in college, especially in my Contemporary British Feminist Playwrights class when I studied abroad in England. How does one sum up this play? It’s about family, love, and sex. Even more so, it’s about oppression and putting people in boxes, forcing them to meet certain expectations, particularly gay people and women.

The first act is set in colonial Africa during the Victorian era, and then the second act jumps forward to 1979 in London. However, the characters have only aged 25 years, something my older seatmates across the way had a little trouble grasping, but don’t worry, we talked it out during intermission. This storytelling twist provides a unique opportunity to view this set of characters in two contradicting worlds, yet ironically, the standards and expectations of society seem not to change much between the two time periods. And as we watch this in the year 2015, we find that the topics of LBGT rights and feminism are just as ripe.

Cloud Nine is point blank and subtle all at once. It’s controversial and ordinary. It’s goofy and serious. Done in the round, this production, directed by James MacDonald and featuring a smart, excellent ensemble, accomplishes just what I think the play intends. I would love for you to go and tell me what you see. Do you think it makes a point? Do you think the point has been made before and it’s becoming trite? Or is this old play still bringing something new to the table?

The older folks sitting by me asked, “Is Caryl Churchill a feminist?” “Yes,” I replied. “Ohh, did she hate men?” I hope they are able to come away from this piece recognizing that those are two different things.

Note: the seating is not very comfortable. The bleachers that were constructed to allow for a more intimate, in-the-round performance are not ideal. The Atlantic is encouraging audience members to bring a pillow or small cushion to make their seat more comfortable. Usually I’m the first to complain about bad seating (my back issues makes me an easy target), but I did okay! It’s not a reason to skip the show.

Cloud Nine
Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by James MacDonald
Atlantic Theater Company, Closes November 1st
Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
Pictured: Lucy Owen and Chris Perfetti


The Gin Game

The Gin Game

Meh Option 1Do you know this play? I had never heard of The Gin Game until it was announced for this season. Written by D.L. Coburn, the two-hander (a play with only two characters) ran on Broadway in 1977, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, and I was surprised to learn that it won the Pulitzer in 1978 for Drama. Thanks Wikipedia!

Now James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson star in the second Broadway revival, and albeit engaging and laugh-out-loud funny at times, the piece didn’t resonate with me. Perhaps I’m not the right demographic. When you boil it down, the title hits the nail on the head – The Gin Game basically consists of two elderly people playing gin for two hours. The conversation certainly wanders to other topics like their families, struggles, and lives before coming to the same nursing home, but the play lacks an event. Tensions rise as they bicker and fight over round after round of gin, but it doesn’t build to anything.

Jenn and I couldn’t help but wonder how successful this play can be, regionally let’s say, without powerhouses like Mr. Jones and Ms. Tyson in the roles of Weller and Fonsia. These two are royalty, and at 84 and 90 years old, respectively, carrying a two-person play is crazy impressive. However, if Mr. Jones weren’t up there, for example, Weller would be way less endearing of a character since, essentially, he verbally abuses Fonsia for the duration of the play, pushing and poking at her until she finally snaps back.

Here’s what I’ll say: if you’ve never had the chance to hear that voice live or see either of them perform, then go check it out. But the ticket is for them, not the play.

The Gin Game
Written by D.L. Coburn, Directed by Leonard Foglia
Golden Theatre, Closes January 10, 2016
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson


Fun Home

Fun Home

We interrupt our normally scheduled programming (aka the chronological order of the shows I’ve seen) to first talk about Fun Home because it’s too important. I’ve been waiting for this show all season. I know this might sound a little over-the-top, but I can’t help myself: it’s flawless. End of story. A musical like this only comes around once in a while (you can see highlights here). Consider me officially obsessed.

Some backstory: Fun Home is based on the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. The name Bechdel might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Bechdel test or the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Nevertheless, you’re about to get to know Alison and her family very well as she looks back on her childhood and teenage years, building a timeline and attempting to unlock (and draw) the mystery of her father. We meet her at three different stages: Young Alison is nine or so, Medium Alison a freshman in college, and current-day 43-year-old Alison.

Present-day Alison doesn’t quite narrate; rather she excavates her past with the audience in tow. As she sifts through her dad’s old things, she pieces together memories to literally draw from them and make a cartoon. And then she captions the different moments, casting a new light or interpretation on them whenever possible. “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay.” Through her eyes, we quickly fall into this world of memories. It’s additionally effective because the production is performed in the round; company and audience, we’re all in this together. The set pieces spin and shift and disappear through the floor as we move through time. Like the recent production of The Glass Menagerie, the design does an excellent job of creating a memory piece (shout-out to Associate Scenic Designer Tim McMath who designed our gorgeous Summertime set).

And within the in-the-round theatre, we meet fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and the fact that they’re based on a real family makes the experience all the more visceral. Each performance is more fantastic than the last. The chillingly good Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris loses himself in Bruce, Alison’s father – his inner pain radiating from every move, every smile or outburst, every awkward attempt to connect or push people away. The same goes for Tony-nominated Judy Kuhn’s poignant, understated performance as Alison’s mother, Helen. And the three Tony-nominated women who play Alison each bring something unique and beautiful to the role. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas plays Young Alison, and all I want to know is where did this girl come from?! She’s stellar and changes everything when she sings THIS (it will also be the Tony performance on Sunday). Emily Skeggs brings an infectious, wide-eyed joy to Medium Alison as she discovers her sexuality. And Beth Malone as adult Alison is the center of this show, keeping everyone and everything grounded. From the moment she starts speaking, you know you’re in good hands.

Here is one of my theories about musicals. If it has a bad score, it dies, it’s forgotten. If it has a great score and not the strongest book, it’s forgiven. As long as it’s got that score, people let the bad, typically contrived, book slide. So when a musical comes along with a book that’s just as strong as the score, if not stronger, it leaves a mark. Shows that meet this criteria stand out (think Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal). So bless you Lisa Kron for this book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori – whose music doesn’t always click with me – for writing a beautiful score that I’ve been listening to nonstop since Monday evening. The story weaves seamlessly in and out of song and spoken word (hear the nominee hopefuls discuss the music and lyrics here).

And just a quick word about the subject matter and gay characters. I won’t delve into this too much because I fear I’m not eloquent enough to discuss how important and enormous it is to have a lesbian character be the lead of a musical. It’s unheard of. So instead I’m going to quote an LA Times interview I just read with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Fun Home began Off-Broadway:

Fun Home, Eustis believes, has the potential to do for lesbians what Angels in America did for gay men: “Take a marginalized group and say, ‘No, you are actually center stage.’ The art form…depends on empathy. It has been magical watching Broadway audiences at Fun Home. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, I know a lesbian.’ They are identifying themselves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve identified with someone, you can’t think of them as the other anymore.”

As for Sunday’s awards, there are legit races this year with no clear frontrunner in multiple categories. And as far as Best Musical goes, Fun Home wins in my book, hands-down, but An American in Paris (truly gorgeous, review to come) may have the edge. We’ll have to tune in to find out how the chips fall. Regardless of who wins, this is an intimate, heart-wrenching, funny, true-to-life story of love, self-denial, self-discovery, and above all, family.

Caption: Get your tickets, and come on home.

Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel, Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson
Pictured: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and the Cast of Fun Home

Fun Home


It Shoulda Been You

It Shoulda Been You

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but It Shoulda Been You is not the way to go this season. The premise is promising – an old fashioned wedding story of families colliding with a modern twist – but this brand new musical comedy misses the mark.

It’s Rebecca’s wedding day, and nothing is going well. Her mother and the groom’s mother aren’t getting along, her ex-boyfriend has gotten wind of the nuptials and is on his way to crash the ceremony, and her sister Jenny, always the bridesmaid, is expected to keep everything together (click here for highlights).

The book is weak and offensive. I suppose I might be more forgiving if the score were likeable, but the songs, after an hour and a half, were like nails on a chalkboard to my ears. The lyrics also include gems like, “How you pulled that out of your hat is making me smile like a Cheshire cat.” The music is made up of random notes following one another, trying to force a melody. I was looking forward to Lisa Howard’s 11 o’clock number because that woman has pipes, but I sat there thinking, this is what she has to sing every night?

Speaking of my excitement for Lisa Howard, I was so psyched for her to finally have a lead role on Broadway, but there’s a terrible subplot about her weight and her mother’s rude comments. The book is packed with fat jokes, Jewish jokes, black jokes, gay jokes, and alcoholic jokes, but none are smart. Mostly they made me cringe, and I’m not easily offended. I’m typically fine with that style of humor (The Book of Mormon, anyone?), but when written poorly, it just comes off as mean.

What a waste of talent. It’s a fantastic cast full of big names (Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka), and the brilliant David Hyde Pierce at the helm directing, so I can’t help but wonder what went wrong here. I’ll give it this much: there’s a surprise in the show that neither Matt nor I saw coming, and I don’t know the last time I was that genuinely surprised by a plot shift. But it doesn’t save the show by any means. For a brief moment I did think, “Oh, this will help the story,” but it only made it more convoluted.

But really, the show’s tagline is, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be home by 10.” I mean, what? Their best foot forward is how short the show is?! That’s not gonna cut it for me. It shoulda been better.

It Shoulda Been You
Book & Lyrics by Brian Hargrove, Music by Barbara Anselni, Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Lisa Howard