Old Times: Not the Best of Times

Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Sorry for my absence, y’all. I’ve been here:

The beauty of packing

Moving day!

This is what 13 hours of shopping looks like.

Thank goodness for large elevators.

Don’t worry; I haven’t gone far! Only about 10 blocks west of my last place, but a new apartment nonetheless. Which means for the past two weeks all I’ve been doing is packing and cleaning and tossing and taping and unpacking and IKEAing and building and burning cash, on repeat it seems. Soon, friends. Soon our home will be livable.

FrownAnyway, because of the move delay, I didn’t get to write about Old Times before it closed last week, but here’s a quick note about the production. You may have already seen my #InstaReview on Instagram (p.s. follow me). Harold Pinter was back on the Broadway in this revival, and I was left feeling the same way I did last time at No Man’s Land: unfulfilled. And to be blunt with you: bored. The same thing happened when I saw The Birthday Party many moons ago during my semester abroad in London.

A two-sentence synopsis: Married couple Deeley and Kate are hosting Anna, an intriguing friend of Kate’s from years before. Together they reminisce and discover unexpected connections among them, all the while trying to maintain the upper hand in the conversation. I didn’t care for the characters in present day, much less their past. There was no forward momentum. Old Times is power play after power play, but I felt like we were in a stalemate the whole time. Each pause was so weighted, and every line meant so much. It’s exhausting having that much subtext, and I love subtext! It’s delicious when a character says one thing and means another; that’s real life. However, here it was tiring, despite the very talented cast. Too much subtext and not enough substance. The design was attractive, but what did it mean? It gave me the impression that we were floating in limbo. The play gave that impression, too. It’s a cat and mouse game, but I didn’t know who was chasing whom. They certainly weren’t chasing my attention.

I’ll be completely honest with you: I don’t know the ultimate reason that Old Times didn’t appeal to me. The common denominator here could be Pinter, end of story. Another part of me wonders if there is still a chance for Pinter and me; if I need exactly the right combination of director, cast, and story. Regardless, Pinter is in the canon for a reason, and I know I enjoyed reading his plays back in school. That love should be able to translate to the stage. But it seems Old Times was not the right time for me.

***
Old Times
Written by Harold Pinter, Directed by Douglas Hodge
American Airlines Theatre, Closed November 29, 2015
Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission

Cast: Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly, and Eve Best

Credits: Set Design: Christine Jones; Costume Design: Constance Hoffman; Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman; Sound Design: Clive Goodwin; Music: Thom Yorke: Hair Design: Amanda Miller; Production Stage Manager: Nevin Hedley

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Futurity: A Thrilling Indie-Rock Brechtian Fever Dream

Futurity

Caption: César Alvarez and the cast of Futurity (Photo: Ben Arons)

I had difficulty connecting with Futurity at the start. I liked that it was quirky but thought it was maybe trying too hard to be “different” or “out of the box.” Then again, there were these pearls of wisdom that kept multiplying as the show progressed, and I found myself getting more and more involved. This is a show that gets you talking. Jenn and I spent the whole walk from Avenue B to Broadway discussing the issues brought up: slavery, war, fighting for change, progress, changing people’s minds, using art as a weapon, if art makes things better, if it even makes a difference. Pieces like this spark conversation and hopefully forward movement.

But let me pass you over to our guest blogger today, Jenn Haltman. Jenn is my uber-talented friend and partner in crime (well, art). I got excited by the idea of Jenn sharing her thoughts rather than I as she clicked with the show in a more significant way. I think I got there; I was just a little late to the party. Here’s Jenn and her very own doodle (note: she looks just like me but with longer hair).


Jenn Stick Figure

Soho Rep and Ars Nova have combined forces to co-produce Futurity, which makes a lot of sense. Soho Rep perennially produces bold new theatrical voices, and Ars Nova has a very heavy musical component to its programming. They were smart to look beyond their respective, intimate home theatres and present this work at the Connelly Theatre to allow for the space needed for the breadth of this story. I went in knowing nothing about the production except that it was originally produced at A.R.T. in Boston in 2012 (there is even a concept album on Spotify).

Futurity opens with The Lisps (an indie, experimental band) coming out on stage in front of a traditional velvet curtain, riffing about things they talked about backstage and setting up the characters of the show, causing us, the audience, to wonder what we are about to see. Is this a concert? A musical?

They go on to tell a fictional story about the real Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician known as the first computer programmer. We follow her correspondence with fictional character Julian Munroe, a young Civil War soldier. Ada and Julian are played, respectively, by The Lisps band members Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez. Through letters, the two forge a relationship based on their shared love of math and science, and they develop the “steam brain,” a thinking machine intended to improve society and eliminate war. Together they examine the idea of collective conscience, morality, and the question of whether or not a machine would think ceasing war and slavery is in fact the ultimate moral choice.

Alvarez also wrote the book and lyrics, and he co-wrote the music with Tunis and the incredibly talented percussionist Eric Farber (also a member of The Lisps) who plays various “contraptions” in the piece. They are joined by a wonderfully diverse cast of ten actors who play the ensemble of soldiers in addition to providing the impressive live accompaniment.

Since Futurity is framed as a musical within a concert, I was able to step back and appreciate the craft of it alongside the storytelling. As I watched the advancement of Ada’s invention against the ever-growing Civil War, it forced me to think about how each person plays a role in “advancement.”  It allowed me to value the inventor with the same weight as the soldier and how we all contribute what we can to a cause. One song in particular called “How Much” movingly shows the cost of war. The inimitable Karen Kandel plays The General, and her rallying of the troops about why they need to fight shows us both how far and how little we’ve come as a country. The set design by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders is subtle yet transformative (especially the reveal in the second act!), and David Neumann’s choreography is simple yet evocative. Director Sarah Benson (a favorite of mine) expertly shapes this sprawling vision with heart and intellect.

Tunis and Alvarez periodically step out of character to remind us of the construct of the evening, and this is where the Brechtian influence is most clear. German director Bertolt Brecht believed that plays should provoke self-reflection and action by the audience to improve the world around them. If everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end of the story, then the audience is left feeling complacent and not compelled to act. In true Brechtian style, Becca and I left talking about how the play reflects the world around us and what that means. With so many plays I’ve seen of late, I’ve walked out of the theatre thinking about my laundry or to-do list than what I just witnessed. Futurity will likely not leave me for a very long time. It’s proving to be a hot ticket, so if you can get your hands on one before it closes November 22nd, do it!

***
Futurity
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps, Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez, Directed by Sarah Benson
Connelly Theatre, Closing November 22nd
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Cast: César Alvarez, Andrew R. Butler, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, Eamon Goodman, Karen Evans Kandel, Kristine Haruna Lee, Mia Pixley, Jessie Shelton, Kamala Sankaram, Darius Smith, Storm Thomas, and Sammy Tunis

Credits: Choreography: David Neumann; Set Design: Emily Orling and Matt Saunders; Percussion and Contraption Design: Eric Farber; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Costume Design: Emily Orling; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Props: Noah Mease; Fight Choreography: J. David Brimmer; Music Direction: César Alvarez


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)


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


Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Talk about the opposite end of the spectrum from this year’s blockbuster movie “Into the Woods.” The film, with its starry cast, lush sets, and special effects, may leave you thinking that this is the production value required of such an epic piece. But what you can witness at the Roundabout Theatre Company right now makes a strong argument for simplicity. By returning to its core – cutting the expensive costumes and even a full orchestra – we see these characters, raw and available, for all their faults, dreams, and wishes.

This is Into the Woods stripped bare. Fiasco Theater has gone back to basics with a much beloved show, throwing away the many interpretations we’ve seen over the years and starting from scratch. What do these characters want? What are they really saying/singing? The company takes the book scene by scene, lyric by lyric, and re-approaches them as if it were new material. And the hard work shows (highlights here). As someone who knows ITW very well, I heard lines in new ways, saw things I’d never noticed before, and to top it off, didn’t find myself missing the old ways. With a minimal set and only a few instruments, this small ensemble creates an entire world for us to behold, and like a fairy tale, many things are left up to the imagination. Take all the prop stand-ins: the hen is a feather duster, the cow a man (an absolute stroke of genius), the horses toy sticks, Rapunzel’s hair a yellow yarn hat, and so forth. Most of the accompaniment relies on Musical Director Matt Castle on piano, but the cast also doubles as the pit, stepping in to play cello, xylophone, bassoon. A few also play multiple roles: Rapunzel is Little Red, Jack’s Mother is Cinderella’s Stepmother, etc.

The orchestrations are unique and beautiful. In an odd way, losing the full orchestra highlighted the music even more. Who knew I’d been craving Sondheim music played only on guitar? The staging is also full of surprises. You never know what’s going to be transformed next. The set is stunning, the stage basically the inside of a piano. Up the proscenium sides are keys, along the wings are the insides of actual pianos, and the back wall is filled with strings that turn into the woods (no pun intended) themselves.

The cast is not that strong vocally (except for a few stand-outs), but it’s actually a testament to the innovation behind the production itself that this doesn’t take away from the show. Of course I missed having a certain power behind a few voices, but they make up for it. There is heart behind each and every performance. Nothing feels glib or mocked; it’s genuine and full of love for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph] This production also serves as a defense of what I wrote about in my movie review. Rapunzel’s death is so, so, so key to the plot, not just for the Witch’s arc, but the arc of the show in general. When that scene is done correctly, it changes the air in the room. Her death, and Jack’s Mother’s, sit in the space, the weight heavy on us, as the two actresses leave those costume pieces behind and move back into roles that live on. These deaths drive the characters, they drive the remainder of the second act, and they drive the message of the show.

It’s likely you’re not interested in seeing a show you’ve already seen or one that you can go see for $15 at a movie theatre (or on DVD soon enough), but I assure you, despite being an old favorite, this Into the Woods is brand new.

Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Co-Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing April 12th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The cast of Into the Woods


Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

I’ve never been one to seek out a jukebox musical. Story is too important to me, and more often than not, that little detail falls to the wayside in this style of show. Not familiar with what a jukebox musical is? I guarantee you know one. It’s when a musical’s score is populated by songs that are already written. Typically a show will stick to one artist or band (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Movin’ Out, American Idiot), or it’ll be an entire genre (Motown, Rock of Ages, The Marvelous Wonderettes). Most of the time a plot is “applied” to the music, while others are turned into a biopic, the story of how a band came to be. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, if you haven’t guessed from the title, is one of the latter. It’s not a story based on Carole King’s music; it is Carole King’s story – how she got started in the music business, her path to fame, her hit songs with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, her heartbreaks, friendships, and everlasting kindness.

The reason this show is the success that it is? In my mind, aside from the music obviously being so damn good, it’s Jessie Mueller. Hands down. She won the Tony last year, and I was psyched to see her on stage again. I missed her Broadway debut in the Harry Connick Jr. flop, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but I did see her as Cinderella in Into the Woods at Shakespeare in the Park and in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Despite Clear Day’s lack of success, Mueller made a splash and thankfully hasn’t left us since. That voice! I don’t know anyone else who makes a sound like that. And it seems she can do anything with it, shifting from style to style effortlessly (check out her pipes on Seth Rudetsky’s “Obsessed”). I suggest you catch her before her last performance on March 6th, and check out show clips here and here. And while you’re at it, watch this to see when Carole herself came to see the show, surprising the cast, after very publicly announcing that she would not be coming to see it.

Anyway, back to the show. The book is so-so. There are definitely enough songs to fill a two-and-a-half-hour musical, but there might not be enough story. Actually, that might not be the issue; I was never bored. I was frustrated with the writing itself, the actual dialogue. It’s a little cheesy for my taste, and a few scenes are written so poorly that I was actually in shock that they made it this far without being revised. But who knows, maybe it’s just me. The book is formulaic, but it’s what we’ve come to expect with biographical jukebox musicals. For example, once Carole and Gerry are on a roll writing hit after hit, the convention is set up in which they write a new song, talk about who should sing it, and then…enter The Drifters! Or The Shirelles! This happened time and time again, but I liked that each time a group sang one of the songs, a different ensemble member was featured with the solo. “The Locomotion” in particular was GREAT.

Aside from its weaker points, Beautiful comes with a chic set, Tony Award-winning sound design, fun costume changes, and King’s canon is smartly used. It’s a hoot to hear how music changes from the ’60s into the ’70s. And no matter how cliché the script can feel, it’s still lovely to watch Carole grow and gain confidence as a performer and as a human being.

Ya know, since I don’t attend many jukebox musicals, I’m not used to being in a house with an audience that has a vocal reaction every time a new tune begins. I could tell how hard the woman next to me was trying not to sing out loud. There were ladies a few rows down from us full out dancing in their seats. It was distracting at first, but once I leaned into it and accepted that it’s simply part of the drill with such classic tunes, I found myself bopping right along with ‘em.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath, Words and Music by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Man, and Cynthia Weil, Directed by Marc Bruni
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Jessie Mueller