Review: Love Letters

2014-09-15 18.51.38Just to illustrate how clueless I am: I walked into the Brooks Atkinson to see Love Letters and saw the pictures of actors like Carol Burnett, Martin Sheen, and Angelica Huston over the box office window. “Wow!”, I thought to myself. “This show sure has a star-studded cast! I hope I don’t get any understudies!” As everyone besides me knows, though, Love Letters is actually a two-character piece, and the other actors will be performing in the weeks and months to come. To be fair I think I knew that at one point. Anyway, if Sherlock Holmes can forget that the earth revolves around the sun, I can forget how many characters are in a play I’m going to see. Though It seems like a stretch to even call it a play: the entire performance consists of Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy seated at a table, reading fifty years’ worth of love letters.

Let me just say upfront that the whole thing didn’t feel like it should have been on Broadway. An evening at Symphony Space, yes. But I do not think I’d be happy if I had paid full Broadway prices to watch two people read out a story. That doesn’t mean I disliked the show, though. Actually I found Andy and Melissa’s love story to be warm, sad, funny, and ultimately very moving. Andy is a smart and ambitious working-class kid. Melissa is wealthy, defiant, and troubled. They meet as young children and fall for each other nearly from the start, though for various reasons (class differences, teenage hangups, other relationships) their love story is mostly conducted through letters.

Brian Dennehy does well — as usual — but his character is fairly stodgy. Mia Farrow as Melissa is really the star here. First of all, she’s incredibly funny. Melissa is frequently snarky towards Andrew, telling him when his letters are boring or threatening to moon him when he’s being a prig. Even better, Ms. Farrow has a wonderful fragility to her that fits Melissa’s damaged persona beautifully: her occasional breakdowns make perfect sense.

2014-09-15 18.57.34There were a few things about the story that frustrated me, though. Andy and Melissa really do just keep missing each other in terms of romantic connections. Feels a bit forced. It just seems like some of the characters’ problems are tossed in for plot reasons rather than sprouting organically. I had this kind of problem with another Gurney play currently running here, The Wayside Motor Inn. Still though, I found myself thinking about Andy and Melissa’s story for days after I saw Love Letters, and that’s always a nice thing.

Still though, I’m not sure it needed to be a play. You’d get most of the same joys from an audiobook or podcast production. Let’s hope they produce one someday! (If they haven’t already. Again, I’m fairly clueless sometimes.)

My Grade: B
Running Time: 90 minutes
Ticket price: $43 on TDF
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Show Me Charts

I had hardly started writing my latest review (Love Letters — I’ll get to it) but it was going well. Really well. “This is fascinating,” I thought! Of course, what I was writing about had nothing to do with the show. To make a long story short, an anecdote about TDF in my review got me wondering about how often I use TDF. So I created a Google Spreadsheet to tally where I’ve bought every theater ticket in 2014. This expanded into a bonanza of spreadsheet fun. So perhaps this discussion deserves its own post? And I’m giving you wonderful blog readers plenty of nerdy charts to go with it. Never think you deserve anything less!

Let’s start from the beginning, with how many shows I’ve seen in 2014 from month to month.

That’s a total of 52 shows as of 9/17/14, which is pretty impressive for a layperson (though I doubt any theater folks would have trouble beating that). It’s no surprise that the spring was the busiest time of year, though I’d have guessed April and May would beat out March.

Despite my affinity for musicals, I seem to see far more plays.

All right, now on to the good stuff. How much do I spend on theater? (Mom, don’t look at this chart.) The tally so far this year is $1,701.29. Sounds about right to me. Here’s how that financial outlay breaks down from month to month.

As you can see, the springtime (the end of the Broadway season) is lots more expensive than the summer (fringe and festival season). Of course, I’m also going to see more during the spring. My overall average ticket price as of now is $32.72 per show, which got me to wondering how much more shows in the spring cost me than shows in the summer. Here’s my average ticket price from month to month.

What interests me is that the average went way down in April, despite having seen so many Broadway shows that month. I think this can be attributed to two factors:

  • Jada must have taken me to see a few shows that month, and
  • I bought two Broadway tickets for $25 each, thanks to Roundabout’s Hiptix program.

In any case, my overall $32.72 per ticket average is a lot lower than normal box office prices. That’s because I rarely buy from directly from the box office, and almost never from any online vendors such as Telecharge and Ticketmaster. If I buy online, it’s usually directly from the theater (for example, bam.org or publictheater.org). Here’s where I get my tickets:

Note: the above chart says that I got one ticket through Broadway.com. True, but this was only because a friend had a gift certificate. NEVER, NEVER buy tickets through Broadway.com. They often charge $30 or more in service fees. PER TICKET.

Anyway, another factor keeping my average ticket price fairly low is that I don’t see everything on Broadway. Much as I’d like to! I just can’t afford it. The following chart lists the ratio of Broadway to Off-Broadway in the shows I see.

Caveat: I’m a bit lazy about this terminology, so I listed nearly everything that isn’t Broadway as Off-Broadway. I’m not actually comfortable with this kind of categorization (I don’t think of BAM as Off-Broadway, or the Armory, or Queen of the Night). Perhaps it’s better to think of this chart as Broadway/Or Not.

Now I started wondering how much I spend on Broadway, vs. Off-Broadway. Interestingly, my average Broadway ticket costs me $31.05, while my average Off-Broadway (aka Other) ticket costs average out a bit higher at $34.56. Probably what skews that one is that my most expensive show of the year — Here Lies Love, which set me back $106.00, was an Off-Broadway show.

The final (and perhaps most important) chart: was all this worth it? The chart below illustrates my conclusions. For the most part, the answer was yes. I saw 38 shows that were worth it, and 13 shows that weren’t. If 74.5% of my theater expenses were worth it, and 25.5% were not worth it, that means I wasted $433.83 on theater this year.

Now that I’ve put all this into a spreadsheet, I’ll try and keep up with it over the months to come. This is a topic that I really should have saved for the end of the year, but as you can see, I can’t really control myself when it comes to charts.

Review: Bootycandy

2014-09-14 14.28.39All I knew about Bootycandy was that it was a very funny, very raunchy series of vignettes about growing up gay and black in America. Already I was intrigued: it would undoubtedly have an entirely different perspective than many of the plays I attend. (Like many other theatergoers, I see a lot of shows written by white guys. Often dead white guys.) Though I was a little worried about the raunchy stuff. Was this show going to be more than this prim and proper librarian could handle?

As it turns out, I could handle it just fine — it wasn’t THAT raunchy — and as I’d hoped, Bootycandy proved to be a pretty rich theatrical experience. You think it’s just a series of comedic sketches at first: playwright/director Robert O’Hara skewers life in a black family, growing up gay, wedding ceremonies, the theatrical establishment, and more. Quickly, though, it becomes clear that this show is even cleverer and more ambitious than you had thought. Each sketch is interwoven with the larger whole, with callbacks to prior moments and clues that might be explained a later scene. Plus it’s writerly. By that I mean there are many nods to the writing process or to norms of theater. In one scene, for example, four different cast members come out as different representations of Sutter (Phillip James Brannon), who is himself a stand-in for the playwright, Robert O’Hara. See what I mean? Writerly.

The other thing you need to know about Bootycandy is that it’s joyous. Without spoiling too much, I just point you towards the scene “Genitalia”, titled after the name a young mother decides to give her baby. Two actresses perform four characters in this scene, to hilarious effect.

On the other hand: I didn’t entirely warm to the play. To begin with, O’Hara’s comic sensibilities didn’t always jibe with mine, so I wasn’t laughing quite as hard as many in the audience were. And I felt that many — actually most — of the sketches went on far too long. In fact, I suspect the whole thing would have been punchier had it clocked in at 90 minutes rather than 2:15. What’s more, it frequently felt a little too self-referential. At one point the cast comes onstage to tell the author’s stand-in that a plot twist was too harsh and unearned. If I had joined them onstage, I would have said that I didn’t mind the plot twist but all the self-conscious writing references were slathered on a bit thick.

Even so, I’m very glad to have seen it, mostly for its raucous humor and big ideas. Even if this show doesn’t always work, it’s a big success for Playwrights Horizons. Artistically speaking, of course.

My Grade: B-
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission)
Ticket price: $36.50 on TDF
Worth it: Basically*
Standing Ovation Watch: No

* – Worth the $36.50? Yes. Would it be worth much more than that? No. And to see Bootycandy I actually gave up a fun, beery afternoon with a friend on her last day in town, so in terms of time it wasn’t necessarily worth it. Any other day,  though, and the answer would have been a more straightforward “Sure.”

Review: This is Our Youth

2014-09-11 11.18.15I’m bored with reviews! How about a show timeline instead?

Monday, 5:30 pm: I listen to last week’s episode of Maxamoo podcast, in which Isaac claims that This is Our Youth is one of the five best plays of the 1990s, and also one of the rare plays that’s just as much fun to read as it is to see. Based on this assessment, I get really excited about seeing the show Tuesday night (and a little embarrassed that I am not already familiar with it.)

Tuesday, 7:58 pm: My friends Karen, Rachel and I are told by the house manager at the Cort Theater to go across the street to the bathroom at the Chipotle, because we might not get through the line in time for the performance. And then we sat down behind tall people and had to crane our necks to see the center of the stage. Honestly, Thomas Lamb! What’s your problem with women and short people?

Tuesday, 8:07 pm: This is Our Youth begins. It’s a three-character play starring Michael Cera, well known to all of us as George Michael Bluth and a million other variations on that same role. His role of Warren is no different: he’s awkward, sweet, hesitant, and fumbling. Ungainly physicality and flawless comic timing. (You’ve seen Arrested Development. You’ve got the idea.) It also stars Kieran Culkin, who is dynamic, funny and likable as drug-dealing Dennis, Warren’s charismatic best friend.

Tuesday, 9:15 pm: At intermission, Rachel admits she’s having a bit of trouble connecting with the play. It’s about a young man (Mr. Cera) who has just been kicked out of his home, and in a fit of revenge has stolen $15,000 from his father. When he arrives at his friend Dennis’s (Mr. Culkin) apartment, they plot to try and get the money back (and to get Warren a bit of romance while they’re at it). But that’s just the plot, which isn’t really what this show is about. As the title indicates, this is really a piece about being young, wondering who you’ll be in the future, trying to connect, not knowing where to go or how to act, feeling aimless. For Rachel, this kind of rumination-as-drama wasn’t totally compelling; I can see why she thinks so. I’m a bit of a sucker for memory plays, however, and even though this isn’t precisely a memory play, it has many of the hallmarks of one. Right up my alley.

Tuesday, 10:15 pm: At the end of the show, both Karen and Rachel agreed that Tavi Gevinson as Jessica, Warren’s feisty love interest, was the weakest performer of the three. “It’s like she just got out of acting school,” Karen said, referring to her heavy use of mannerisms. True, her performance is a little more affected than the other two, but I found her likable. Perhaps that’s because the Jessica/Warren scenes — with their anxious flirtations and hilarious arguments — just felt a little more interesting than the Dennis/Warren scenes. Especially in the first act. It’s when Warren is trying to woo Jessica — somewhat successfully — that this play is at its strongest: both a contemplation on what it’s like to be young and a dynamic interaction between two characters.

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Ticket price: $39 on TDF
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50 (Rachel says it was more like 25% standing, 25% getting ready to leave)