Review: The Heidi Chronicles

2015-03-05 14.49.25The other morning over coffee I chattered to my roommate about all the possible reasons I didn’t warm to The Heidi Chronicles. “Maybe I just don’t go for Broadway plays that much anymore. The theaters are too big.” “Maybe Hamilton ruined me for theater for awhile, because it reminded me how much I can potentially like a show.” “Maybe I was jetlagged.”

Or, maybe The Heidi Chronicles, a Pulitzer-prize winner from 1989, hasn’t really aged very well?

But I don’t like suggesting things like that. Because this play, about a woman’s journey from a high school dance in 1965 to a successful career as an art historian in 1989, is a longtime favorite of many. And there’s lots to like about it: it’s smart, it’s witty, it’s got tons of heart, it’s an interesting portrait of feminism, and it avoids cliches in plot as well as characterization. Heidi meets feminists and becomes one herself, falls in and out of love, grapples with having it all, and copes with loneliness and depression. It’s a lovely rumination on what kinds of problems smart, likeable, hardworking women had to face from the sixties to the eighties. (And what we still face today, in fact.)

The new Broadway production stars Elisabeth Moss (who I know and love from Mad Men) as well as Bryce Pinkham (who I know and love from Gentleman’s Guide) and Jason Biggs (who I don’t know at all). Ms. Moss is well-cast as Heidi (who is every bit as hardworking and bright as Peggy Olson), but the guys were a little less of a good fit. Bryce Pinkham seems to have kept a bit too much of his merry musical comedy persona in the role of Pete, Heidi’s gay best friend. He’s as charming as ever, but something about him seemed stagy. I found Jason Biggs, who plays the role of Heidi’s longtime love Scoop, to be even less convincing. He lacks the charisma that might explain why Heidi has trouble letting go of him; to me he just seemed like a bit of an obnoxious pest.

My largest problem was with The Heidi Chronicles itself, though. Because the play covers twenty-five years of Heidi’s life, most scenes are necessarily laden with exposition. And the dialogue can be extremely witty, but I found its sensibility a bit hard to connect to. This exchange is one of many that flew over my head, for example:

Scoop: … Where did he go to school?
Heidi: Trinity.
Scoop: Trinity? Trinity what? Trinity, Cambridge? Trinity, Hartford? Trinity, the lower school?
Heidi: Trinity, Hartford.
Scoop, aghast: You’re sort of living with an editor who went to Trinity College, Hartford!

Huh? Is Trinity Hartford bad for some reason? This seemed like dialogue written for people who went to Yale, and I found a fair bit of this kind of thing in The Heidi Chronicles. This sort of thing kept me from really connecting with the play. (Read: I kept getting bored.) But on the other hand, it has great moments like this:

Heidi: Actually, I was wondering what mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters.
Scoop: What do you mean?
Heidi: I mean, why the fuck are you so confident?

Here’s where The Heidi Chronicles shines; I’d have loved lots more this kind of thing. We see a broad arc of Heidi’s life encompassing many years. But even though she keeps telling us she’s sad (and we get a whole long speech about it in the second act), we don’t really take the plunge into her her world to comprehend why she’s so unhappy. Just why does she struggle so much with relationships and contentment? Or to say it another way: I liked Heidi, but I never really felt like I got her. And I’d have liked to.

But the play I’d like to have seen isn’t the play Ms. Wasserstein wrote, of course. What we have instead is a survey on feminism, with a lot of intelligent things to say about growing up, compromising, friendship, and loss. But it never really takes off. For me, it wasn’t enough to justify Broadway prices; I’d rather just read the play. But then again, maybe I was just jetlagged.

My Grade: C+
Ticket price: $49
Running Time: 2 Hours, 35 Minutes
Worth it: No
Standing Ovation Watch: 40-50%

Review: An Octoroon

2015-03-03 19.29.55One of my huge theater regrets of 2014 was not seeing An Octoroon. It was a highly acclaimed, sold out, award winning production! And I dillydallied on buying tickets and missed my chance to see it. Turns out, though, I needn’t have fretted. It’s returned and is now playing at Theatre For A New Audience, and I was able to snag a ticket.

The other reason I needn’t have fretted: I didn’t like it.

Call me crazy. In all fairness, I may actually be crazy, because An Octoroon has a ton of merits, and it’s easy to see why people have been so impressed with it. It’s a modern take on an 1850s melodrama by Dion Boucicault (called The Octoroon). An Octoroon‘s playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, has framed the original story with an autobiographical introduction in which a character called Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Austin Smith) is told by his therapist to attempt an adaptation of the melodrama to grapple with his depression.

What follows is extremely clever. To begin with, the production toys with blackface traditions by putting Mr. Smith in whiteface (he’s an an African-American actor) to play the hero; meanwhile certain white cast members wear blackface and redface makeup. It also combines the traditional, formal style of 19th-century melodrama with modern dialogue, giving us historical as well as contemporary perspectives on race and theater. Plus quite a bit of it is extremely funny. (More on that in a moment.) And finally, the production has astonishing, exciting moments. (Particularly the bits with cotton balls. Well done, director Sarah Benson!)

Still though. I could not stop yawning throughout. Sure, it’s punctuated by terrific moments. But as far as I was concerned? It was boring. I seem to be allergic to melodrama, no matter how cleverly it’s packaged. I didn’t care about any of the characters. The dialogue was frequently extremely stodgy (I know, I know, he did it on purpose. That doesn’t make it any less tiresome, though.) I also found Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s writerly touches (he’ll occasionally interject and comment about the weakness of Boucicault’s writing, for example) irritating. The whole thing felt like a bloated gimmick. Even as I saw just how clever it was, I continued to feel utterly disengaged.

Except when Minnie and Dido are onstage. When these two opinionated female slaves appeared, the whole show came together. They are extremely funny supporting characters (played to hilarious effect by Pascale Armand and Maechi Aharanwa) who speak like they’re on a reality show. (“Who ghetto now, bitch?” is just one memorable example. Or, referring to another slave: “She is so fake!”). They are so darn funny and appealing that I started to forget my qualms with the show.

If the whole play had been like that, I think this would be a very different blog post. And judging by the audience’s rapturous reception, I’m in a tiny minority here. (Many were laughing throughout; I wasn’t.) So call me crazy. But I just didn’t care for An Octoroon.

My Grade: C
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $62
Worth it: No
Standing Ovation Watch: 90% yes