Review Roundup for October

If you’re wondering where I’ve gone: nowhere! But I have been really busy at work lately, and had quite a few baseball games to watch over these past few weeks. Plus I’ve been taking dance lessons! Plus I’ve been sewing! Plus I’ve been keeping an eye on Sycamore!

But of course, I’ve managed to sneak a few shows in as well. To eliminate the backlog of shows I had planned to write about, I’ll just spit them all out in one go. My apologies for this: All of these shows deserve a full post. But I was getting so far behind!

Starting with the most recent:

2014-10-21 18.49.56The Fortress of Solitude: “Was that show wankery? Because the book was wankery,” my friend Jeremiah said. I instantly wanted to defend the new musical’s many assets: a fantastic score, wonderful cast, lively choreography, evocative characters. The new musical (based on the Jonathan Lethem novel) is set in the 1970s and is about two boys (one white, one black) growing up in Brooklyn long before it became trendy. Dylan is a smart kid whose hippie parents relocate from Berkeley; his best friend Mingus is the son of a coke-sniffing backup singer who once had aspirations to be the next Marvin Gaye. The Fortress of Solitude beautifully evokes this musical era, with splashes of R&B, 1970s funk, hip hop, and some traditional Broadway mixed in, too. The music (by Michael Friedman) is just outstanding. Now Fortress of Solitude has got a lot of problems, too: the most prominent is the unclear storytelling that had me wanting to find the plot summary on wikipedia to find out all the stuff that wasn’t clear in the show. The (sometimes sexual) relationship between Dylan and Mingus also feels forced — I never understood why these boys connected so deeply with each other. It’s certainly a flawed musical, but it’s nevertheless an entertaining one. And hey, at least it’s not wankery.

My Grade: B Running time: 2 Hours, 45 minutes Ticket price: $40 (with Public membership) Worth it: yes Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

2014-10-21 19.07.41The Old Man and the Old Moon: I saw this show two years ago at the Gym at Judson, and remember liking it. But I hadn’t planned to see it again, until Cheryl offered me a free ticket. This family show is an adventure story about an old man willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find his wife. The results of his adventure are more or less disastrous — but all turns out well in the end. The show, written and performed by the handsome (erm, very handsome in fact) and talented young gentlemen of Pigpen Theatre, contains all sorts of low-budget theatrical tricks — lots of puppetry, lighting tricks, and the like. It’s also got some terrific songs (All these guys can play instruments as well as act and write — they’re a band as well.) But even with the quick 90-minute running time, I still found this show to drag a bit. The Old Man’s story feels aimless and the troubles he faces aren’t terribly exciting. Even when he’s fighting in a war/swallowed by a whale/discovering an underground city. I just kept thinking these guys should get to the point. What’s interesting is that I remember being charmed by all this the first time I saw the show. Perhaps it just doesn’t hold up all that well to a second viewing. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see what PigPen does next. Perhaps a show for grownups? Or maybe I should just listen to their cd.

My Grade: C Running time: 90 minutes Ticket price: $0 (comp from Cheryl) Worth it: Yes Standing Ovation Watch: Can’t remember! Think it was about 25% standing

2014-10-12 13.58.49Brownsville Song (B side for Tray): Real life kept intruding as I watched Brownsville Song at LCT3. I was thinking of my students (some of whom live in Brownsville); I was thinking of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in the play; it’s just that a show about a young black man gunned down in the street doesn’t feel like escapism right now. Brownsville Song has an incredibly wrenching opening scene, in which Lena (Lizan Mitchell, who is wonderful) mourns her grandson Tray (Sheldon Best), and informs us that the story shouldn’t begin with her grief. We then travel back in time to several months prior, when Tray was a sweet big brother, a great employee, a promising student. His death, it becomes clear, is the result of a random act of gang violence. Playwright Kimber Lee has a good ear for realistic dialogue, and at 90 minutes the story moves along quickly. To be honest, though, that opening scene had me prepared for a societal indictment that could help me make sense of all the real life issues swirling in my head as I watched the show. Instead, it’s an intimate drama of a close-knit family ripped apart by violence. I didn’t quite connect to it, though, because Tray has few flaws and seems to be more of a symbol than a real person. So this play wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. But man, that opening scene will stick with me a long time.

My Grade: B Running time: 90 minutes Ticket price: $24.75 Worth it: Yes Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: The Real Thing

2014-10-09 20.06.11Tom Stoppard intimidates me. How am I supposed to write about someone so brilliant without sounding like an idiot? Exhibit A: I saw a play of his a few weeks ago and couldn’t bring myself to blog about it. Indian Ink isn’t even Mr. Stoppard’s most intellectual piece, but I felt unqualified to say anything notable about it beyond “I liked it but it was perhaps a bit long.” So to make up for my prior silence I’ll risk sounding like a dope and tell you my thoughts on the other Stoppard production currently in town: The Real Thing.

It was my first exposure to the hit 1980s play, a story that focuses on the relationship between witty playwright Henry (Ewan McGregor) and activist actress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The original Broadway production sounds like a real knockout: Jeremy Irons as Henry, Glenn Close as Annie, and Christine Baranski as Henry’s salty first wife Charlotte. All won Tonys. (Frank Rich on the original production: “Any repeat viewings are likely to be as dazzling as the first.”) Then Jennifer Ehle and Stephen Dillane won Tonys for the lead roles in the 2000 revival, too. (Brantley on the revival: “A rare thing even in what has been an exceptionally strong season for straight plays.”) Third time unlucky: I don’t think the production currently at the American Airlines theater is going to get nearly the same rapturous reception.

I did love parts of it: this is an intelligent play, crackling with wit and ideas right from the start (the show opens with a very clever play-within-a-play). Stoppard’s thoughts on love, writing, literature, marriage, activism, and fidelity are nearly always fascinating; it’s also more accessible (read: a bit less unrelentingly intellectual) than many of his other works such as Arcadia, The Invention of Love, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. During the show I kept thinking of various friends who would like to see this play for all its interesting ideas. I also thought Cynthia Nixon gave a nice performance as Charlotte (interestingly enough, she was also in the original production as the daughter). Plus there’s the totally lovable soundtrack full of oldies: Henry loves old bubblegum pop songs (as do I).

But there’s plenty I didn’t care for. Starting with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ewan McGregor. Mr. McGregor’s Henry can fire off zingers with aplomb, but I simply wasn’t convinced he was anything more than a charismatic spokesman for some of Tom Stoppard’s musings. Ms. Gyllenhaal has an entirely different problem: first, she (along with many of the other cast members) seems to struggle with the English accent. More problematically, her stage presence lacks force. That’s partially because she seems to swallow some of her lines, but also because her Annie isn’t a believable activist, or a terribly compelling woman. I do wonder if I’d have connected a bit more with both leads in a smaller space. (I was in the rear mezzanine and had forgotten my binoculars.)

I think my biggest problem, though, is that this production just isn’t directed very well. While perusing the wikipedia entry on The Real Thing, I was surprised at how much I’d missed. For example, Maggie  — according to the stage directions in her first scene — is “very much like the woman Charlotte has ceased to be.” (She is? Nothing of the sort occurred to me when I was watching the show. To be fair, though, I frequently miss a lot of really obvious plot points when I’m watching theater.) The sets were pretty ugly; the ending lacked an emotional payoff. It just never really gelled for me.

In short, from what I understand The Real Thing was a revelation because it showed Stoppard has a heart as well as a brilliant intellect. But I don’t think this production really has enough of a heart of its own.

My Grade: C
Running Time:
2 hours, 20 minutes
Ticket Price:
$25 (Hiptix)
Worth it: Yes, because I’d never seen the play before
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: You Can’t Take it With You

2014-09-30 19.01.43“I feel like this show isn’t your thing.” It was intermission at You Can’t Take it With You and I was informing my friends Ann and Jodi of their opinions on Broadway’s newest revival. They assured me that they were in fact enjoying themselves plenty, thank you very much. (Maybe I should stick to forming my own opinions?) The three of us had decided to see You Can’t Take it With You for a few major reasons: first, it was Jodi’s birthday (happy birthday Jodi!) and we wanted to celebrate. Second, our friend and fellow NYC RedbirdJoe was in the cast. And third, who doesn’t want to see a first-class revival of a first-class comedy?

I’d actually never seen You Can’t Take it With You, though I’d read it ages ago and have always considered it my favorite of the Kaufman and Hart plays. It’s about the Sycamores, a family that prides itself on being noncomformist and creative. Put more simply: they are totally lovable weirdos. When Alice (Rose Byrne) brings her strait-laced boyfriend (and his stuck-up parents) over, lots of zany high jinks ensue.

Long story short: it’s a strong production. I mean, the cast has oodles of talent. James Earl Jones seems to be enjoying himself quite a bit as patriarch Martin. Annaleigh Ashford is great as lousy ballerina Essie. (Boy can she execute physical comedy perfectly, or what?) And I hate to pick favorites, but I’ll be unfair and pick Kristine Nielsen as the most hilarious of the bunch. She’s loopy and ridiculous as the easily distracted mother/playwright/artist/pot-stirrer Penny.

So why would I suspect Ann and Jodi wouldn’t like it? Well, I had a few reservations myself. It does feel creaky. The first act is almost entirely a set-up for the second act — which is by far the best part of the show — while the third act mostly wraps things up. Shows are structured so differently now. Even the way Alice and her boyfriend speak to each other would never fly onstage today:

Tony: Thank God I’m vice-president. I can dictate to you all day. “Dear Miss Sycamore: I love you, I love you, I love you.”
Alice: Oh, darling! You’re such a fool.

And then there’s the ending, which is definitely a little more sentimental than it needs to be. Now I’m generally a sucker for anything old-fashioned, but the earnest tone did jar me a bit. There’s a speech about prizing life over money, because you can’t take it with you, after all. I’m probably just used to the way things are written today. A speech like that in a modern play, for example, would probably be dripping in irony.

In any case, the escapist feel is a huge part of the charm of this show. It feels like a breath of fresh air; I can just imagine how transported theatergoers felt to come upon such a well-crafted screwball comedy during the long Great Depression. Having seen (and liked!) Act One earlier this year — which tells the story of Kaufman and Hart’s first meeting and collaboration — I felt particularly primed to enjoy You Can’t Take it With You. (It’s like reading In Cold Blood after seeing Capote.)

And finally, unlike practically every other old-fashioned play, this one doesn’t overstay its welcome**.  The 7pm show ended at 9:20, and we had plenty of time to go backstage and congratulate Joe on a great show (and job well done in his small role). I’m even tempted to go back in a few weeks, when (in an art-imitates-life moment) Joe’s going to go on as Annaleigh’s husband.

My Grade: B+
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with 2 (!) intermissions
Ticket price: Ann and Jodi’s treat (thank you!)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

* — There are, surprisingly enough, quite a few theater/Broadway types in the New York City Cardinals fans group.

** — HOW on earth did theatergoers in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s tolerate so many three hour shows?