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


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)


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


Hand to God: A New American Play

Hand to God

All I want to do is tell you everything about this play, but I won’t. I’m actually barely going to review it. I don’t want to spoil anything about this new show. Well, not so new; Hand to God has had a long journey to Broadway. First it ran at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in 2011 and then last year Off-Broadway at MCC Theater. I remember hearing about it both times but never made the effort to see it. Now it’s made the leap to Broadway, and I encourage you to make ALL of the efforts.

I’ll tell you a few things to whet your appetite. Hand to God takes place in the small town of Cypress, Texas. A teacher there is trying to help the kids connect to Jesus and religion through puppetry. Then we meet the soft-spoken Jason, one of the students, whose hand puppet Tyrone may or may not be possessed by the Devil. Yup.

It’s a first-rate cast: Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, and the mind-boggling Steven Boyer as Jason (and Tyrone). I hope he wins all the Tonys. The set is spot-on; the script fresh and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a cross (ha) between The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, but it’s not a musical. A word to the easily offended: like in Mormon, there is some outrageous humor. It can be crude, sexual, and full of cursing. But man oh man, is it funny. You won’t believe some of the stuff you’re seeing and hearing. You may just blush in your seat.

This new Broadway play will make you laugh. It’ll make you think. It might make you squirm a little bit. It’ll definitely make you appreciate good theatre. Just trust me – you’ll enjoy it. Hand to God.

Hand to God
Written by Robert Askins, Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Booth Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Boyer


Constellations

Constellations

Picture a fight you have with someone and how it can go ten different ways. If you had only said something different or used a different tone of voice, you may have ended up with an entirely different outcome…or not.

This is exactly what Nick Payne’s Constellations explores. Not just the concept, though; the 70-minute play examines the actual possibilities, the numerous pathways two characters can take in their relationship – all the potential ways a conversation can go when they first meet at a BBQ, when they consider spending the night together, when they’re faced with life-altering events.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland and (Golden Globe Winner!) Ruth Wilson as Marianne give wonderfully warm, generous, and connected performances. Watching this play is like being in an acting class with them because they’re playing these scenes over and over with a new interpretation each time. It’s all about tactics. When an actor approaches a scene, he or she has to figure out a) what do I want? and b) how am I going to get it? That’s what these two are doing in real time. They do eventually shift out of a certain scene and into another as they move forward in time (or do they?), but even when they’re saying the exact same words as the time before, it’s still fresh. And I believed them each time. The audience adapts to the new circumstances just as quickly as the characters do, and that is a testament to the writing.

When I go down the rabbit hole of thinking about other universes and how many lives I might be leading elsewhere, I start to get dizzy. The play asks questions like: do we have control over our fate? Does free will exist if we are just one version of ourselves and all the other “choices” we could make are simply playing out in another universe? And what about time itself? Are the past and future merely fabrications, only kept alive in our own minds?

There is an element of the play building on itself – the sound and lighting designs (both enticing) growing more intense and cutting – as things develop and the story(ies) become more clear. I did think, however, that it was building to something, and I don’t know if that something ever arrived. Should there be a catharsis of some kind? Is there an ending? How can there be an ending when there are over 50 stories potentially being told? Because of this, the play as a whole feels somewhat incomplete. Unfinished even.

But maybe that’s exactly the point.

Constellations
Written by Nick Payne, Directed by Michael Longhurst
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Closing March 15th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson


Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult

You can always count on Kneehigh Theatre for a whimsical treat for the soul.

When I first heard St. Ann’s was presenting the theatre company Kneehigh’s production of Tristan & Yseult, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Plus I got to see it with Shannon, one of my favorite people, who was visiting from Chicago last week (to launch Brontosaurus Haircut Productions!). Kneehigh’s style is right up our alley so we were eager to drink in the performance. I’m sorry to say that the run ended on Sunday night, so unfortunately I can’t recommend that you go see it (slash I’ll keep this brief). But here’s the trailer to give you a taste.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Kneehigh is their seamless threading of storytelling with dance, music, and physicality. It’s consistently innovative, exciting, and unexpected. I got to see Brief Encounter at Roundabout Theatre Company in 2010, and while I don’t recall specifics (except the swinging on chandeliers), I definitely remember how it made me feel. I remember being awed, thrilled, and challenged by the acrobatics, ideas, and designs. It was simply beautiful (here’s the clip reel).

Their newest production is the story of Tristan and Yseult, your classic case of star-crossed lovers. We are greeted by a group of self-declared “Lovespotters,” who also introduce themselves as the unloved in this world. They are all dressed in uniform track jackets, hoods up, carrying around notepads and binoculars as they search for signs of love (this ensemble also doubles as the characters of the main story). I loved the unloved. They were like the minions in “Despicable Me” – working in unison, saying random things, singing and stomping around, and called names like Steve and Kenneth. They’ve also been known to croon sappy love songs and modern pop songs with the kick-ass band at the Club of the Unloved.

Even though I can’t recommend this particular play, I can tell you to keep your eye out for Kneehigh shows. We went on a journey of love, heartbreak, song, and dance as these characters sailed on ships, battled, and flew in the air. The storytelling is quirky and light until you realize just how heavy-hearted things can be.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult
Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Closed December 14, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo