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


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


Violet

Violet

I have to say that amongst a season full of typical Broadway spectacle, it is refreshing to have a simple, understated musical as one of the options. Violet is an ultimate bare bones production: minimal staging on a minimal set. Don’t go expecting big dance numbers (the closest thing to that is the gospel number near the end). And don’t go to see money all over the stage in the form of flying carpets or a moving boxing ring. This musical is, at its core, a character study.

Based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, Violet is the tale of a disfigured woman (Violet, played by Sutton Foster) and her path to self-love. Growing up in North Carolina, Violet was raised by her widowed father and fell victim to a freak accident when her father’s axe blade came loose and struck her across the face. Thirteen years later, she embarks on a long bus journey to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the hope of being spiritually healed. On the way, she meets and grows close to two soldiers, Monty and Flick, forming an unexpected love triangle.

Even though Violet is being categorized as a revival for Tony season, this is actually the first time it has been on Broadway. There was an Off-Broadway run in 1997 for which it won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical. After a successful concert performance at City Center Encores! this past summer, it has officially made the leap to Broadway thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company (check out some highlights here).

I decided to study the score in advance of seeing the show, listening to the cast recording countless times. There are some incredibly beautiful songs with lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical, Caroline, or Change). Since I became quite familiar with the music, I went to the theatre particularly curious about the book. Unfortunately it was not as fleshed out as I’d hoped (although this may be due to the fact that the musical has been cut down to one act). The love story is somewhat lacking; I never really got on board with the triangle. I think a large problem is that aside from Violet, we don’t get much development from the other characters. Flick sings in the end, “I’m not at all the man you first laid eyes on,” but I didn’t see a change. This is by no means a comment on Joshua Henry’s performance, which is smooth as silk. I think it’s more the script that leaves me wanting. Monty, the other male lead (played by the talented Colin Donnell), remains rather bland and two-dimensional throughout as well.

Here’s the real scoop though: Sutton Foster’s a star. Did you hear? There’s this actress who was the understudy and got bumped up to the lead role in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, and no one has looked back since. She deserves every Tony Award she will ever receive (two so far), every bit of praise and bit of attention she’s ever gotten. But truly, this isn’t news. Sutton shines in everything she touches, even as a character trying to hide herself from the world. From her hunched physicality, drawn-in shoulders, shielded eyes, wry humor, and using her hair as a barrier, you know who Violet is in an instant. Like in the Off-Broadway production, no make-up is used to create the scar. It is left entirely up to the imagination, and Sutton does all the work you need. This is the posture and behavior of a disfigured girl, ashamed to show her face because of how the world has treated her, and watching her transform over the course of the show is magnificent.

I hope to go back and see it again. I only saw the seventh preview or so, and I’m told it’s undergone several changes. Based on the glowing reviews the show received on Sunday night, I’m guessing things have only headed in the right direction. So even though the book felt thin to me and at times the stripped staging didn’t do much to help, I remain a huge fan of the score and this beautiful story of a girl finding herself. Oh, and of course – Sutton, Sutton, Sutton.

Violet
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Brian Crawley, Directed by Leigh Silverman
American Airlines Theatre, Closing August 10th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Joshua Henry, Colin Donnell, and Sutton Foster