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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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)


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


The Real Thing

The Real Thing

If you went to high school with me, then you know I fell in love with Ewan McGregor when I was 17-years-old, saw “Moulin Rouge” for the first time, and my young mind exploded. You also know that I had a Seth Green phase earlier in high school, but let’s move past that for the moment. After I proceeded to watch as many of Ewan’s films as I could the following year, I eagerly awaited the moment to see him in a live play (since I tried and subsequently failed to see him in Guys and Dolls when I was studying abroad in England). So yes, I admit, Ewan was the primary reason I wanted to attend the newest revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.

Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a playwright. His current play is about a woman who cheats on her husband, starring his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and an actor named Max (Josh Hamilton). In real life, Max is married to Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). When we learn that Henry and Annie are actually having an affair, art begins to imitate life. Or is it the other way around?

Sadly, this production left me wanting in many ways. I wasn’t invested in these characters, emotionally or intellectually. They don’t need to be sympathetic (which they aren’t) for me to be invested, but I still have to want to go on a journey with them. Instead I felt left behind. This was in part due to the story itself being confusing at times (intentionally), and it can be hard to follow because the language is so dense. But that aside, I couldn’t connect to the style itself. It was very presentational and plotted out. Rather than discovering on the line, all of the words seemed planned. If a character had a big speech, it was performed like he or she had memorized it and had reached the appropriate time to recite it. It did not feel spontaneous.

Matt and I were discussing that maybe this was because of the slightly heightened, highly intellectual language, but on the other hand, Shakespeare is heightened and poetic. Even if you don’t catch all of the metaphors, subtext, and meanings in the first hear-through, you are still with the characters. You’re discovering things together, in the moment, no matter the density of the words. For example, when I saw the revival of Stoppard’s Arcadia a few years back, I went in blind, and while I was desperately confused at times (lots of math talk in that play), I still felt like I was there with the characters, going through something with them, trying to figure it out together.

The Real Thing won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1982 and Best Revival of a Play in 2000. It took home the Drama Desk, and the leads won Tony Awards in both productions. I mean, it makes sense! Stoppard is one of our most popular playwrights, known for his intense, philosophical, beautiful dialogue and topics. And I love all four of these actors in their other works. I think the root may be a direction/style choice. I’m curious what the previous productions did differently that made them so successful.

This play is about love, marriage, and in/fidelity. It’s about the feelings that are left unsaid, acting the opposite, playing it cool. We find out rather quickly that the first scene is a performance, a play within a play, but come the second scene in “reality,” it still feels like a performance. This might have been the point, as it partly represents the lack of honesty being shared among the characters, but then again, there needs to be a contrast. There are only a couple of moments with that kind of truth sprinkled in (Ewan has a touching moment alone onstage in the second act that I appreciated). I don’t mean that the characters need to show this truth to each other, but the vulnerability could be shared with us. Someone should be honest with the audience and make that connection, if only for a moment, because we want, we need the real thing.

The Real Thing
Written by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Sam Gold
American Airlines Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor


Cabaret

Cabaret

Last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night of the revival of Cabaret. And when I say revival, I mean that in the most literal way possible. As you may already know, Roundabout Theatre Company has remounted the Sam Mendes production that opened in 1998 and ran until 2004 (starring the late Natasha Richardson). Sadly, I missed it the first time around. Originally I had questioned the choice of putting up the same show. In my book, the point of producing a revival is to revisit a classic in a new way, to find a different angle. But boy, am I glad they did so I could see it now. It’s rare to get that kind of opportunity. Cabaret is back and once again it’s starring Tony-winner Alan Cumming as the Emcee, and together they are tearing it up at Studio 54.

Cabaret itself isn’t a flawless show – it’s long and certainly drags on in parts. There are a few songs that don’t need to be there (the pineapple song anyone?). Although you could argue that every seemingly unnecessary number contributes to the story as a whole. Every piece has a place in the puzzle – pieces that slowly build (or more appropriately, collapse) the world around us. For example, the songs Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz share aren’t particularly strong, but we need them in order to grow close to these characters and care about their relationship, so we can be even more distraught when things come crashing down.

It’s remarkable to me that a musical I’m so familiar with (Oh! How nice of you to ask – I was in it my senior year of college) can still be so chilling. Like the first time a swastika is revealed, you can practically hear the silent gasp emanating from the audience. And even though I know it’s coming, it’s still a punch in the gut. The same goes for “If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song),” and basically, let’s be honest, the entirety of Act Two. It’s a one-two punch, over and over again. The fun, crazy world that is initially created is shattered as reality sinks in. That’s the beauty of Cabaret. It’s enough to make you almost forget what’s coming. It’s all fun and games with the Emcee, but the moment the kick line kicks into a goose step, we know there’s no going back.

The majority of this seamless shifting in mood can be credited to the wondrous Alan Cumming who is still ridiculously sexy, sensual, and sleazy in the role. Plus he sounds fantastic. His Emcee is a performance everyone should be lucky enough to witness. He makes it feel like a private show just for you, full of seedy antics and entertaining songs, and at the same time, creates a dark, mysterious sense of foreboding of what’s to come.

All of the supporting characters are also excellent, particularly the Kit Kat Club dancers, Fraulein Kost (Gayle Rankin), and the newly Tony-nominated Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (played by Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, respectively). And even though the critics can’t agree, I will vouch for Michelle Williams. She impressed me. I’m not sure how I feel about her take on the character (although this could very well be a director’s call). Sally Bowles is larger than life, especially in Act I, and Michelle’s Sally is much more reserved and fragile. I think that fragility should be bubbling under the surface but not necessarily for the entire story. That fear and heaviness seems to be there from the start, rather than the somewhat-oblivious, party-loving girl. Still, it was interesting to see something new. And her performance of “Cabaret” is extremely powerful. I bet her performance as a whole will only get stronger and stronger as she gets more comfortable on stage.

All in all, I give Cabaret two thumbs-up. You should definitely try to see it, especially if you missed the last revival. And even if you didn’t, why not get chills all over again?

Cabaret
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by Joe Masteroff, Directed by Sam Mendes, Co-Directed by Rob Marshall
Studio 54, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Alan Cumming and the Kit Kat Club Dancers


Dinner with Friends

Dinner with Friends

I love the playwright Donald Margulies. I love his dialogue, his style of writing, his sense of humor, and what he has to say about relationships, marriage, and friendship. His plays consistently hit me in the gut and make me think (Dinner with Friends, Time Stands Still, Collected Stories). But this production of Dinner with Friends made the material feel stagnant. I was very excited to see it and took my dad for his birthday, but it simply didn’t sit right with either of us.

The play follows two married couples and the changes that occur within their friendship when one of the couples announces they’re getting a divorce. I think it was primarily the direction that I didn’t see eye to eye with, but occasionally it may have been the acting as well. I typically very much enjoy Pam McKinnon’s directing (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), but this fell flat for me. Not all of it by any means! I don’t want to give the impression that the production is bad. Certain parts I was very much involved in and couldn’t tear my eyes away, but then on a dime, I’d fall out of it. And as my dad pointed out, the humor wasn’t landing as much as it typically does in a Margulies play. Yes, it may be a tragic story, but there is, more often than not, comedy found within the tragedy.

Margulies is all about the scene work. It’s about the conversation, the witty, often biting, back-and-forth between characters. It’s day after day of conversation after conversation, and I eat it up. There is a major sense of realism with his writing, meaning when something feels out of place or false I’m taken out of it. If there is random blocking or awkward staging, if we stray from the “reality” for even a moment, I’m gone and have to work my way back. Sometimes it’s an odd delivery of a line or facing out instead of directing one’s words TO the other character. The second scene, for example, was problematic (as Charles Isherwood also states in the Times). The couple getting a divorce is having a very tense conversation that snowballs quickly into an intense argument. They are standing on opposite ends of the stage, cheating out, and talking at each other. Instead of feeling their pain, I was just thinking about how obviously they were cheating out. Quite often the blocking (or lack thereof) didn’t serve the actors. Even in the top of Act II when we open on a flashback 12 years earlier, the new set doesn’t do anything to help the scene. The actors are practically stuck in a line with limited space to move and play.

Jeremy Shamos, though. Man, is he good. This isn’t news (Clybourne Park, The Assembled Parties), but honestly, I could watch him do the whole play by himself. In the last scene, although it doesn’t quite redeem some of the weaker parts of the show, he instantly draws you in – right along with what his character is going through. His work is always so natural and effortless. The moments we get to spend with him bring the sad humor, depth, and punch in the gut I’m looking for when I’m in the mood for some Margulies.

Dinner with Friends
Written by Donald Margulies, Directed by Pam McKinnon
The Laura Pels Theatre through April 13th
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel
Pictured: Marin Hinkle and Jeremy Shamos


Bad Jews

Bad Jews

First, let me say that I did not care for this show. Second, I should also say right off the bat that I am most definitely in the minority. Bad Jews has received rave reviews and audiences love it. My theatre buddy that evening (and fellow Jew) was my brother’s girlfriend, Allison (of Accessories by ASH), and she loved the show, too.

So what’s wrong with me you ask? Well, let’s back up a bit. We start in a fancy New York City studio with Jonah and his first cousin, Daphna (actually named Diana, but she’s super Jewish so she’s Daphna now, don’t bring it up) after their grandfather’s funeral. They are soon to be joined by Jonah’s brother, Liam, who arrives late (missing the funeral) with his Shiksa girlfriend, Melody. Tensions are immediately high, yes due to the death in the family, but primarily because Daphna is “that cousin” who gets in your face about everything. She and Liam can’t stand each other. Jonah would prefer to stay out of the drama as much as possible. As the fighting enters into the wee hours of the morning, these four characters brawl over their feelings toward Judaism, marrying outside the faith, how to best honor their grandfather, and above all who should receive Poppy’s Chai necklace that he’s had since the Holocaust.

Now I went into this play thinking I was going to see a slapstick comedy about Jews. The play does have some good laughs (there is one bit with Molly Ranson as Melody and I could hardly breathe), but this is no farce. There are serious issues being covered, and very intense words are shared. Thoughtful questions are raised and interesting perspectives put out there, but the way in which they are approached is what put me off. I want to hear these arguments but not from these people. For example, the second Liam is introduced he is a jackass through and through with no redeeming qualities. Why do we start with him there? There isn’t anywhere for him to go if he’s already so terrible.

It’s hard to watch people fight for close to two hours. It’s hard to watch unlikable people tear each other down with cruel words. Some of what these characters say is exactly that: cruel. They are bullies, pure and simple. There are two monologues in particular that are full of hateful words directed at another person in the room. Luckily there comes a point when someone steps in, but I as an audience member didn’t see why we had to watch it. Charles Isherwood calls it savage humor, and apparently it’s just not my style. I only felt a consistent sense of unease.

Maybe the discomfort I felt during the show is part of the playwright’s intention; perhaps he wants to ruffle some feathers. But instead, I felt like Jonah – stuck in the middle and not wanting to get involved.


Bad Jews
Written by Joshua Harmon, Directed by Daniel Aukin
The Laura Pels Theatre through December 29th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tracee Chimo, Philip Ettinger, and Michael Zegen