Review: Macbeth

2014-06-21 07.58.01“It’s like Sleep No More, but with ACTUAL SHAKESPEARE!” That was my main thought immediately after entering the Park Avenue Armory for Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, in town until June 22. That’s because this production isn’t just a performance of Macbeth; it’s an experience. Upon walking into the Armory, you’re encouraged to wander around through all the rooms in front: they’re stunning, high-ceilinged, wood-paneled — your basic gorgeous 19th century design. In each area you can read information on the various clans of tenth-century Scotland as well as the history of the Armory building. Eventually you wander into your own clan room, and are led into the theatre with the rest of your group. (I was a MacDuff, as you can see from the playbill.)

At which point Macbeth really begins to astonish. You’re led through a barren, moorish field, which sets a very dark and foreboding tone after the pageantry of the clan rooms. After being led past a Stonehenge-like stone circle, you’re brought to bleachers on either side of the action. The production (directed by Rob Ashford and Mr. Branagh) itself is a proudly muddy 2 hour performance with lots of drums, dramatic lighting, rain, and of course, much blood and gore. It’s a passionate, intense production with few lulls. Parts go by so fast that I would find myself getting frustrated: Stop running around and let me listen to the words for a few minutes, people! Sitting in the last row might have been part of the problem. But this production was so busy dazzling and astonishing me that I had a hard time finding my way into the emotion of it.

2014-06-19 10.28.20That might also be because of the style of Kenneth Branagh’s performance, which is incredibly Shakespearean.  Traditionally when I describe someone as Shakespearean I mean they have an outsized stage persona, a fierce energy. (Love him or hate him, Al Pacino was certainly “Shakespearean” in this sense in The Merchant of Venice.) But at the moment I’m thinking of this term in a different way: as a consummate member of a Shakespearean acting troupe. Mr. Branagh’s line readings are always impeccable, he’s committed, he has a deep understanding of Shakespeare, he doesn’t hog the stage, he has diction for miles. What he doesn’t have, in my view, is the ability to disappear into a character the way some actors do. He doesn’t give you the chills. His Macbeth was not worlds away from his Hamlet, or even his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, simply because he brings the same intelligence and understanding to every role.  Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth gave a more outsized performance; to me she suited the production a little better than Mr. Branagh did.

It might be too late to see this Macbeth; it closes tomorrow, and I had to wait many hours in line to get a ticket. I had mixed feelings about the production, just because I feel like the (literally!) splashy parts tended to outshine the story itself. But it’s one of the more creative theatrical endeavors I’ve seen this year, and features a simply stunning use of theatrical space. Well worth a few hours in line.

My grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Ticket price: $21 at the box office
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: The Who and the What

2014-06-18 18.58.58Before I even start on the play, may I just say a few words on the theater? I think all of my friends should go see a show at Lincoln Center’s Clare Tow. Lovely rooftop terrace, intimate theater, affordable bar, $20 tickets. Honestly folks: I’m not sure there’s a better deal.

And the play ain’t bad either. The Who and the What is a new production from Ayad Akhtar, who wrote the 2013 Pulitzer-prize winning Disgraced. Like Disgraced, this show deals with culture clashes, but this time from an explicitly religious angle. Zarina (Nadine Malouf), an ambivalent Muslim woman from a devout family, writes a novel about the prophet Muhammad’s very human urges and spiritual confusion, causing a firestorm within her family. The Who and the What is really about the role of women in the Quran and Muslim society, and is the kind of play that reminds me how fortunate I am by comparison.

It’s also a softer play than Disgraced, which has a shocking violent element to it. I could more easily predict the plot twists, and despite some cutting insults and tense moments, nothing about The Who and the What feels like it cuts to the soul. I also think I’d have liked it better if it made me a little more uncomfortable in my own position, and less righteously indignant about another culture. But I don’t want to lose the thread here: this play is thought-provoking; it’s involving; it features lively characters and great use of humor. All this with a 2 hour running time (and that includes an intermission).

One more thing: Zarina’s book is supposedly an incisive and daring portrayal of Muhammad, but the excerpts, to my ears, sounded more like The Red Tent, which I recall as an occasionally steamy summer read featuring biblical characters. I’d have been more convinced about Zarina’s novel had it sounded more like The Testament of Mary, a novel and play from Colm Tóibín that really does feel subversive. Maybe I’d have been more interested in a story told from the woman’s perspective (Zarina’s novel is told from Muhammad’s point of view).  But then perhaps I’m only saying that because I’m familiar with the Bible, but not the Quran.

(Edited to add, 6/21/14)

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Ticket price: $20 on
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: Blink

CAM00542In theory, I really like romantic comedies. In practice, they’re usually horrible. However Blink (playing until June 29 at 59E59‘s Brits Off Broadway festival) is a non-horrible romantic comedy. In fact I’ll go further and say it’s a good romantic comedy. It’s also a totally dysfunctional one. Jonah (Thomas Pickles) lives downstairs from Sophie (Lizzy Watts). Things get weird when the two of them establish an odd voyeuristic relationship before they ever meet.

This show is an exercise in storytelling: the actors describe their lives and the events that led up to their meeting, addressing the audience directly. We don’t get much dialogue between Jonah and Sophie, but the actors interact with each other frequently, acting as characters in the other’s story, interrupting each other with comments, even occasionally telling stories jointly.

By the end I felt like the plot twists were more about symmetry in storytelling than the actual choices or actions these characters would have taken. No matter, though. The writing is dynamic; the characters are fascinating and tragic; the plot twists are fun. Plus the actors are compelling and likeable. Mr. Pickles (who has the best name ever) especially has a poofy-haired, off-kilter quality that makes his bizarre (read: creepy) actions almost endearing.

Blink reminded me of Midsummer: A Play With Songs, another two-hander romantic comedy imported from London and Edinburgh. Last year I recommended that play to friends as a good “date” play and was later told it was too racy and weird and awkward for any kind of normal date. (Oops!) I suppose Blink might be another one that’s too awkward and weird to be a good date play. But who cares. Go see it anyway. It might not be a good date play, but it’s a a great conversation starter.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Ticket Price: $22 on TDF
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No


Review: Donogoo

2014-06-14 09.05.08

In theory, Donogoo sounds like just the kind of show I’d love. A forgotten 1920s French hit? Yes please! The storyline sounds great, too: a few unsavory businessmen in Paris decide to invent a city in Brazil as a moneymaking scheme. (Sort of a Fordlandia meets The Lost City of Z meets The Way We Live Now.)

But I found it deeply boring. That’s not the entirely the fault of the production: the actors were mostly capable, and I loved the clever use of animated projections (in lieu of physical sets). The problem lies with playwright Jules Romains, whose work has simply not aged well, and director/translator Gus Kaikkonen, whose pacing in this production is what I’d call “glacial.” Every scene takes ages to get to the point. Every idea is discussed far more than it needs to be.

The Mint, for those of you not familiar with it, is dedicated to bringing worthy but neglected plays back to life. I absolutely loved their production of London Wall earlier this spring. Even when the Mint Theatre fails, I tend to think of it as a worthy enterprise. How fascinating to see what kind of play was a big hit  in 1920s France! How grateful I feel that not every show is so boring!

My Grade: C-
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $4.50
Worth it: No
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Tony Awards 2014

My roommates told me I’d be expected to write up a post on the Tonys, so I thought I’d do just that. As ever, I had a great time watching them: I went to my friend Vanessa’s house and enjoyed lovely snacks, chitchat and commentary throughout. Between the two of us, Vanessa and I had seen nearly all the nominees, so we had lots of opinions. “I’m having so much fun!” was basically my mantra all evening.

Then as I was biking home, I started thinking. What a strange event the Tonys is! It’s all about the supportive, creative, wonderful Broadway community, but it’s also a three hour commercial for an enormous corporate moneymaking enterprise. All the huge production numbers just reminded me of how much I can’t afford to see. I know that with rush and discount and TDF, it isn’t impossible to get affordable tickets. But it isn’t easy, either, not when you have a 9-5 job. I never thought of myself as someone who would have expensive tastes, but last night I was reminded that theatergoing is really the rich man’s entertainment. Well, at least the Tonys themselves are free.

My own personal Tony awards are as follows:

Most awkward host: True confession: I’ve never really warmed to Hugh Jackman the way most people have. I don’t really like his singing voice. I didn’t like him all that much in Les Miz. Anyway, the word that comes to me when I think of his work last night? Cheesy. Don’t get me wrong. I understand that he’s a committed, balls-out performer. He’s definitely impressive at hopping endurance (WHY was he hopping?) But his audience interaction feels forced, doesn’t it? And his jokes certainly aren’t very funny. (The Bridges of Ashley Madison County, har har. I was just as confused as Kelli O’Hara.) Neil Patrick Harris, please come back next year.

Most bizarro moment: The LL Cool J Music Man rap. My first thought was that “I can’t believe there’s rap on Broadway and Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t involved! GET HIM ONSTAGE!” Vanessa, meanwhile, said “What are they even DOING?” I didn’t mind it, exactly, but it was just one of those moments in which I felt like the Tonys were trying to appeal to people who are simply never going to be interested. For my part, I’d have much preferred a Bridges performance.

Most irritating omission: The best book and best score Tonys weren’t even televised! This is absolutely insane. I wanted Robert L. Freedman and Jason Robert Brown to have their moments. Honestly. These people would exclude Rodgers and Hammerstein from their telecasts because they aren’t movie stars.

Second most irritating omission: We didn’t get to see Audra McDonald as Billie Holliday.

Most endearing nominee: I’ve said before that I absolutely loved Kelli O’Hara in Bridges of Madison County and have been speechifying for weeks about how much I hoped she would win. That all changed in an instant, when Jessie Mueller (of Beautiful) started dancing with Hugh Jackman. And all the sudden I was completely won over and forgot everything about every other nominee. And I was absolutely delighted when she won, of course. Later on I decided I’m still a bit disappointed that Ms. O’Hara didn’t win after that phenomenal performance, but that doesn’t take away from how adorable Jessie Mueller is.

Best musical number: I’ve said before that I have a soft spot for Gentleman’s Guide, and I’m elated that it won. Well deserved! They also get my award for best performance of the evening with their performance of “I’ve Decided to Marry You”. Here’s the thing. Tony numbers are rarely as good as they are in the theater. Most of the time, that’s because the producers don’t trust the show and try to do too much (there are several obvious examples from last night: Rocky, Violet, After Midnight). For Gentleman’s Guide, we had a delightful single scene, staged beautifully. I’d love to see more of this kind of thing. I understand the producers want to give everyone the chance to perform on the Tonys, but trying to do too much usually backfires. Another great number: “T’aint nobody’s business” from Bullets Over Broadway. It’s the best song from the show, and it looked great. Trust me, it’s even better in the theater.

Best awards show: I don’t watch the Oscars, or the Emmys, or the Golden Globes, or any other stupid awards show. That’s because they’re almost always bloated, ridiculous spectacles. I suppose the Tony show is the same. But anyway even at its worst, it is so much more entertaining than those other shows. Fantastic and talented live performers; wonderful acceptance speeches; a celebration of my favorite art form. This show fails a lot, of course. That’s usually when it’s trying to do something that doesn’t reflect theater’s best attributes. (Don’t try to be the Oscars, Tonys! The Oscars are terrible.)

This morning, my roommate John asked me if I watched the Tony awards every year. I was a bit stunned: I haven’t missed Broadway’s biggest night since 1994. Even when I lived in Ireland! (Who would ask such a question! Does he even KNOW me?) I got to attend the Tonys once, when I worked at the offices of Jujamcyn Theaters. We all got tickets as a perk. It was a thrill, but I honestly prefer to watch from home. I have a date with the sofa every Second Sunday in June for the rest of my life. Here’s to a spectacular 2014-2015 season: I can’t wait to see the battle between Fun Home and Honeymoon in Vegas. And all the other shows I don’t even know about yet. And all the exciting Off-Broadway shows we’ll be getting, like Hamilton and who knows what else. Bring it on!

Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

CAM00531[1]Boy does Daniel Radcliffe ever know how to fake a limp! His character, Cripple Billy in The Cripple of Inishmaan, has such trouble walking that his leg pops out awkwardly every time he moves. His hips and shoulders get into it too, as if his whole body is protesting every step. This is like the Porsche of fake limps.

To be honest it’s a little distracting. But it does speak to Daniel Radcliffe’s commitment, which I’ve long found impressive. If you watch the first Harry Potter again, it’s pretty obvious he isn’t a natural when it comes acting, but over the years he clearly worked hard, took tons of lessons, made risky choices, and has become a solid actor. By the end of the Harry Potter series I liked him more than I ever thought I would.

Before this blog post turns into a manifesto on Daniel Radcliffe, though, shall I discuss the play a bit? The Cripple of Inishmaan is an early dark comedy from Martin McDonagh — it might be the most audience-friendly of his shows. This London import (from director Michael Grandage) is the first Broadway production of Cripple, though it was here a few years ago off-Broadway too. It’s about a tiny community off the coast of Ireland in the 1930s, and is filled with comic interactions and dotty characters. The plot has to do with Billy’s longing to leave Inishmaan any way he can.

The play is funny mostly because of the hilariously blunt things these people say to each other (Billy is constantly being harassed for his disability, for example). It’s almost refreshing to hear such lack of tact, because the tone of it all is fairly good-natured, or so it seems. We see a few flashes of darkness later, especially in one jarringly violent scene. The play feels slight, though, and I think it would have worked better if it were shorter and intermissionless. There’s not really enough to sustain two and a half hours.

In any case, this show is still worth seeing (especially if you get the $27 balcony ticket and bring your trusty binoculars), because this is a really strong production. The marquee and Playbill cover might lead you to think this is star vehicle for Mr. Radcliffe, but it’s actually an ensemble piece. So it’s a good thing that the cast is all-around terrific, especially (Tony nominee!) Sarah Greene as Billy’s spitfire love interest Helen, who is constantly on the warpath about something or other. Daniel Radcliffe’s limp is the flashiest part of his performance, but he’s convincing and sweet throughout.

Oh and when I googled “Cripple of Inishmaan excerpt” I found this. It’s the whole play! Online! How is that not copyright infringement?

My Grade: B+
Ticket price: $27
Worth it: Yes
Standing ovation watch: A smattering

Review: Fly By Night

2014-06-01 19.28.49I listened to the latest episode of Radiolab on my way to Playwrights Horizons last night. It’s all about objects and the mystical hold they can have on people. I don’t know if I could have had a more fitting introduction to the new musical Fly By Night, because this show echoed Radiolab both in its subject matter and in its treatment.

It’s the story of two sisters from South Dakota who move to New York City in 1964 and end up falling for the same guy, but it’s told in that nonlinear style you’ll recognize from the podcast. A character will sing a song, for example, and then the narrator comes out and says something like “Wait, let me back up and tell you how he got there.” This show jumps around a heck of a lot, but ultimately everything  fits together like a puzzle. My comparison only goes so far, though. That’s because Radiolab often grounds itself with a reality check from Jad and Robert, but Fly By Night soars — as only a musical can — unchecked into its on musings on timing, fate, soul mates, and yes, the power of objects. (It’s like Radiolab on Ritalin.)

Unfortunately. Because I hate that stuff. Any show that tosses the term “soul mate” around is probably going to get me shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Plus there’s an actual psychic making doomy-but-accurate predictions. Plus there’s a ridiculous death in the second act. Common sense doesn’t hold much sway here: characters are constantly acting in bizarre fashion just because it serves the plot to do so. For example, aspiring actress Daphne (Patti Murin) needs money for headshots, so she up and sells the car her waitress sister Miriam (Allison Case) uses to get to work. This is just because there’s a plot contrivance in store that requires Miriam to walk to work. A Broadway show in Fly By Night rehearses for 11 months, just because the plot requires it to open on a particular November day. One more: Harold’s dad (Peter Friedman) is old, sad, and lonely after his wife’s death. They’d met right after World War II when both were young. Suddenly it occurred to me that since this show is set in 1965, Friedman’s character would actually only have been around 40 or even younger. But the plot requires him to be old and lonely, so he is.

Do I sound grumpy? If I do, it’s just that I’m particularly disappointed because of the talent on display. There’s a lot to like here. This musical is at its best in moments of humor and levity: it’s got lots of kooky and comical one-liners, some appealing and tuneful songs (especially Mr. Friedman’s big act two song), and a likable cast. Allison Case’s performance reminded me a lot of her performance in Hair (but I liked her in Hair, so no complaints here), and Patti Murin as her sister Daphne was also very appealing, though her character’s modern persona doesn’t strike me as remotely 1960s.

I wonder if this show is going to be reworked further. For Fly By Night to appeal (to me anyway), the authors (Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick, and Will Connolly) would have to ground it in real life a lot more, though I understand that may compromise its quirky appeal. Still, though: if these characters don’t seem like real people, why are their destinies supposed to matter to us?

My grade: C
Ticket price: $55
Worth it: No
Standing ovation watch: Yes