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


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


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


Wilkommen to Cabaret, Emma Stone!

Cabaret

Now THAT is how you play Sally Bowles. I mean no offense to the very talented Michelle Williams, but this was the burst of energy that was needed last year whenever Alan Cumming departed the stage.

Yes, I went back to see Cabaret. Yes, I went because I’m a huge Emma Stone fan. When the revival was announced, she was actually originally slated to be the first Sally but had to back out due to scheduling issues. Man, am I glad they were able to work her out as a replacement.

If you recall from my review last spring, the trouble I, and others, had with Michelle’s interpretation was there was too much vulnerability and fragility too early. When we first met her, it was like Hitler had already taken over, the game already lost. Act 1 is supposed to be a party and we’re all invited, but she was playing the end at the beginning. Of course Sally is troubled and distressed and has serious issues to work through, but she, like the rest of the characters, is in total denial, and that should carry through until close to the end of the show. And arguably, even then, when facing the reality head-on, she still turns the other way. But until that point, Sally Bowles is the life of the party. Like (random reference alert!) Angelina Jolie’s character in “Girl, Interrupted,” she’s the girl you want to hang out with even though she’s going to be a terrible influence on you.

I like to jokingly take credit when I predict that someone is going to be a star. When I saw “Easy A” for the first time, I said to my roomie, “That girl is going to be the next ‘It’ girl.” Mostly because of this clip which I still watch on a regular basis. Cue Oscar nomination.

Emma Stone is absolutely infectious as Sally (here is an all-too-brief montage). How can I explain it? She makes you…lean in. She takes her time with her lines in such a way, it’s as if every word she says is going to be the one to change your life. She tells her stories and delivers her jokes slowly but surely because she knows you’re gonna wait.

And then to see all that fade as the world around her begins to crumble is all the more effective. Her emotional journey is powerful and her physical transformation also striking. By the end, once that fur coat is gone, we see a frail woman. Her petite frame revealed, she looks small and defeated but is still holding on by the grit of her teeth. Her desperation to cling to the status quo is actually pathetic and even harder to watch knowing she is also plagued with self-awareness. To all the people out there who claim that musicals don’t hold the same weight as plays, I ask them to watch the last scene between Sally and Cliff in Cabaret.

The poor thing had the flu this week (aren’t I fancy with my inside information?), but I think the sickness, if anything, gave her more drive. She struggled through her songs in the best way possible, giving it her absolute all, particularly for the 11 o’clock number.

See her if you can, performing through February 15th. Until then I will be crying out from Astoria, Emma: bleibe, reste, stay!

Cabaret
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by Joe Masteroff, Co-Directed by Sam Mendes, and Rob Marshall
Studio 54, Closing March 29, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emma Stone and the Kit Kat Girls of Cabaret


Side Show

Side Show

The musical about conjoined twins brings double the thrills and double the heartbreak.

As I’ve tuned into the word of mouth and critical response this season, I’ve noticed that there are two camps of thought regarding the revival of Side Show. The buzz was nothing but positive early on, it got a great Times review, and many loved it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, I’ve talked to people who couldn’t stand it – from the updated book to the direction of the entire piece. Whether or not this divisive response is a sign of good theatre is a conversation for another day. Instead, I’m here to tell you I’m in the first camp. I liked it! Quite a bit (watch a sneak peek here).

Side Show is based on real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, and their lives in the side show and vaudeville worlds of the 1930s. It had a brief Broadway run in 1997 starring Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner (watch them sing on Rosie O’Donnell’s old show here). The current revival is a revised version which started out at La Jolla Playhouse and then had a successful run at the Kennedy Center last summer. Now, I never saw the original, but I’m relatively familiar with the cast recording. I couldn’t sing the whole thing through from memory, but I recognize most of the tunes. All that to say, I’m not loyal to the original as I know some are. A friend of mine was very unhappy with all of the changes and found herself missing what it once was. About 60% or so has been revised: new songs, new scenes, the works.

The book is not without its flaws. The love stories get a little sloppy, but for some reason, it didn’t bother me. Things get melodramatic at times, which has never been a preference of mine, but it rides the edge nicely enough and never fully collapses into that style (like The Last Ship). A major flashback has been added to Act 1, filling in the girls’ backstory and how they ended up in a side show in Texas as the rightful property of the ringmaster. If there was one section that didn’t grab me as much as the rest, it was this scene. I understand the significance of including it, but the way it was told didn’t grab me. Harry Houdini stops by for a bit, and the action comes to a halt.

The two love interests, Terry and Buddy, who rescue the girls from the side show and make them vaudeville stars, kind of blend together. Basically, they’re underwritten. I suppose you could argue that it’s because they’re not the focus – we’re here for the twins and the twins alone. But come to think of it, the way the male romantic leads are written is similar to how many female roles are written in the canon. Not much to them, no real defining characteristics, there only to serve the purpose of the main (male) characters (Cosette, anyone?).

Flaws aside, the freaks are awesome in this. We begin with the side show and the charged opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” In the original, the choice was made to have everyone look “normal.” Kind of like in Violet – no make-up is used to display Violet’s terrible facial scar. It’s left up to the imagination and drives home the point of “they’re just like everyone else.” In the revival, there is nothing left to the imagination. The costumes and make-up are fantastic, and I think the message still comes through.

But let’s get to back to Daisy and Violet. Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are the heart of this musical. These two actresses are so in sync with each other that when the sisters are at odds, it’s all the more effective and challenging to watch them struggle (hear them talk about the experience of sharing a hip here). The Act One Finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is worth the price of admission in my book. Their voices together – oof, such power in their sound. Chills down my spine. The same goes for the Act 2 Finale, “I Will Never Leave You.” Both songs are show stoppers, combined with beautiful voices that lock in together perfectly.

Freak shows speaks to the inner part of us that wants to see people who look different or grotesque. I think it’s for the same reason drivers slow down on the highway to look at an accident. Ultimately, Side Show is a heart-breaking story about being different and longing for acceptance. Everyone can relate to feeling like a freak and wanting to be loved. It’s not a mistake when the spotlights on stage turn to shine on us for just a moment during the reprise of that taunting opening number. So come on, folks. Come look at the freaks.

Side Show
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell, Music by Henry Krieger, Additional Book Material and Directed by Bill Condon
St. James Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emily Padgett and Erin Davie