Review: A View From the Bridge

Fabulous Retro Playbill

This may be a little briefer than usual. I’m going for a no-frills review of a no-frills show. Director Ivo Van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, direct from London’s Young Vic, strips the play down to its essentials: actors walk around barefoot, in costumes that don’t look particularly period-specific, without props, without furniture, in a simple white box of a set. You’re left with a pure, searing drama. And boy, is it powerful.

It’s been on Broadway numerous times but the plot, set in 1950s Brooklyn, was new to me. It’s a family drama: Longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) adores his niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox). So much that it’s disturbing, actually. When two illegal immigrant cousins come to stay at his place, Catherine falls for one of them. This is a problem: for Eddie, for Eddie’s relationship with Catherine, for Eddie’s relationship with his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker), even for Eddie’s relationship with the neighborhood.

It’s an outstanding piece of writing from Miller, that’s for sure. It was written as a two-act drama, but this production is an intermissionless piece that runs just under two hours. Scenes transition nearly instantly, with one conversation turning into another in a flash. Sounds confusing but in fact it’s easy to follow. The production feels like it’s had all the fat cut out of it, and you’re left with something lean, filling, and tasty.*

Perhaps if I’d been more familiar with the piece, I’d have more to say on the smart directorial choices Van Hove has made, or the excellent cast, or the cuts to Miller’s original. As it is, I don’t have too much to say, except that it’s all terrific. In fact, my biggest problem was probably just the venue. Now, I love Broadway theaters as much as the next obsessive theater blogger, but you’ve got to imagine the production is far more powerful in an intimate setting. (As I recall, the Young Vic is a lot smaller?) They should have blackboxed the heck out of this production, as far as I’m concerned. Something about the distance of a Broadway theater kept me a little at bay. There are seats available onstage, and perhaps that’s the ideal way to experience this Bridge. But that’s annoying. Isn’t it a bad thing if only a small percentage of an audience experiences the production the way it was meant to be? If you have a decent mezzanine seat, as I did, and feel like you’re missing out, then there’s something wrong here.

Nevertheless, it’s a great show, and I’m glad I saw it. Those wonderful Brits**. Don’t you love it when they take an American classic and show us how it’s done?

My Grade: A-
Ticket Price: $34.50
Worth it: Yes
Running Time: 1 Hour, 55 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes (orchestra and stage) and No (Mezzanine)

* EWWWWW. Is that a meat reference? Gross. I can’t believe I put a meat reference into my review. Obviously I’m still a vegan. Tofu forever!

** Actually Ivo Van Hove is Dutch, but let’s not let facts get in the way of my point. The production is British, anyway.

Best Musical Tony Nominees, 2015

First, let me apologize for the unexpected intermission. If Previous Julia (that’s Julia 2014, or PJ as I call her), Future Julia (the me of 2016 — FJ) and me (Jules) had a discussion on why I’ve been so disinterested in blogging over the past few months, it might go something like this:

PJ: So wait, I started this blog in March of 2014 and you have already lost interest by April of 2015?
Me: Well, no, I– I’ve been really busy—
PJ: What on earth happened? Did you come up with another ridiculous, expensive and time-consuming hobby along the lines of boardgaming (2013)/homebrewing (2006)/sewing (2014)/knitting (2009)/whatever?
Me: Erm– Well, yes, but—
FJ: Oh you won’t believe her latest ridiculous hobby. She’s trying to swing dance!
PJ: Oh, hmmm, actually I’ve always wanted to learn to swing dance. Maybe I should take it up. Am I good at it?
FJ: Not remotely good at it. And Jules still hasn’t been doing anything for me either in terms of saving money.
Me: Wait, why are Past and Future Julias both so judgy? Can the three of us talk about something more pleasant? Like my desperate longing for Fun Home to win Best Musical on Sunday?
PJ: Wait, Fun Home MIGHT NOT WIN? It swept all those Drama Desk/Lortel-type awards in 2014!
Me: I know. I’m feeling blindsided too.
FJ: I know who won!
Me: You are always so cagey with your information, FJ.
FJ: Anyway, Jules, can you please buy a subscription to Playwrights Horizons? And start working out more?
Me: I could tell Past Julia the same thing.
PJ: I hate working out.
FJ: Me too.
Me: Me too.
PJ: Anyway, Jules, please start blogging again. You’re embarrassing me.

(Yes, I really do talk about Previous Julia and Future Julia all the time. Usually I’m complaining about PJ failing to do nice things for me. Or sometimes I announce that I’m leaving FJ to deal with my problems later.) Anyway, enough with that nonsense. Shall I get right into it, then? Here are my thoughts on the Best Musical Tony nominees of 2015.

2015-04-09 20.01.05Fun Home
“Now THAT’s a musical!!!” — My first thought when the lights came up after seeing this remarkable show on Broadway.

In fact one of the reasons I’ve felt so inclined to start writing again is that I’ve been unable to stop talking about Fun Home in the runup to the Tonys. It’s a little embarrassing. The #juliaspeeches have really revved up since the Tony nominations came out, because it’s recently come to my attention that this show may not win the Best Musical Tony. Apparently the favorite is actually An American in Paris. (WHAAAAAT? But more on that in a minute.)

What makes it so good? For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with a closeted father and the dawning realization that she was gay, too. Fun home is the family’s nickname for their funeral home, the family business.

Has musical theater written all over it, doesn’t it?

Maybe not, but the authors — Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) — have done a phenomenal job of dramatizing the story. Alison is played by three terrific actresses: Beth Malone as our 43-year-old narrator, Emily Skeggs as a college-aged Alison, and Sydney Lucas as a child. The story jumps around quite a bit, but no matter: the storytelling is sharp, crystal-clear and compelling as hell. Despite the seriousness of the show’s themes — you find out early on that Alison’s father committed suicide just a few months after Alison came out in college — it’s not a heavy or preachy show like some I could name (cough cough, The Visit, cough cough); it’s a joy to sit through. That’s because Fun Home handles its coming-of-age themes with wit, creativity, and intelligence. Plus the songs are great! (Is Jeanine Tesori a gift from the Broadway gods, or what?)

And the production is outstanding too: in addition to Three Fantastic Alison Bechdels (or T-fab, as I like to call them), you have Michael Cerveris giving his customary textured, intense, affecting performance as Alison’s miserably closeted father Bruce. And you have the always wonderful Judy Kuhn as Alison’s long-suffering mother Helen. It’s performed in the round at Circle in the Square, and for the most part the staging (by Sam Gold) plays even better than it did at the Public in 2013. (There are a few moments I couldn’t see, but mostly it was fine.)

I told my roommate, who doesn’t care for musicals at all, that this is the type of show I’d take him to see if he’d let me. I don’t think it would sell him on musicals, but if he saw Fun Home, I feel like he’d have a better sense of just what a musical can do. A terrific musical can turn an ordinary moment in life into a magical, joyous, seemingly spontaneous expression of emotion, realization, or connection. It can take a philosophical, thoughtful, deeply personal graphic novel and make it into a coming-of-age story for all of us. And it can make us laugh and cry while doing so.

This is what you call a terrific musical.

2015-04-15 19.51.17The Visit
My wordiness and exuberance come to a screeching halt when I think about The Visit. When people have asked me about it, I can’t get much beyond merely saying: “Well, it’s bleak.” I wasn’t familiar with the play beforehand, but it’s about a rich old lady (Chita Rivera!) who comes back to her hometown to exact revenge on the teenage boyfriend who jilted her.

Already bleak, but then there’s the John Doyle production, full of drab colors and sad faces. It’s heavy-handed too. (For example, there’s a coffin used as a prop throughout.) You do have the wondrous Ms. Rivera onstage, and that accounts for something indeed: at 82 she can still command a stage and win over an audience with just a few words. But no matter how much I liked her (and the rest of the cast, including Jason Danieley and Roger Rees), I couldn’t warm up to the show. I just wish it gave me a little something to hang onto. I constantly felt the Brechtian distancing techniques pushing me away, so much so that I couldn’t feel for any of the characters at all. Even when the show seemed to want me to.

All that said, this is probably the last new Kander and Ebb show on Broadway, and it feels wonderfully unapologetic and uncompromising. It’s far from their best, but it does remind you just why we are so lucky that they decided to write musicals together. Thanks, fellas.

Something Rotten!
This one is fun. I keep thinking of Spamalot as a kind of equivalent show: it was similarly funny, with a terrific cast, an audience-pleasing tone, and a shiny, happy sheen to it. In a weaker year Rotten! might well have won the Best Musical prize (I think it’s quite a lot better than Kinky Boots, for example), and even if it wins this year, it’s a decent choice.

I also think that the book (by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, whose An Utterly Impartial History of Britain is also hilarious) is continually clever, with a ton of great one-liners and an inventive original story. Two brothers in Renaissance England, Nick and Nigel Bottom, want to get out of Shakespeare’s shadow, and set out to write the world’s first musical comedy in order to steal the spotlight. High jinks ensue, as do lots of jokes, as do a truckload of musical theater and Shakespeare references. The songs (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick) are winning, the cast is great, and it all just… works. Again, it’s a fun, happy, crowd-pleasing show and I hope it keeps all my friends at the St. James employed for several years to come.

On Tony Sunday, Something Rotten! will be performing the big Act One showstopper “A Musical.” The big problem with “A Musical” is that this number is so incredibly good that really nothing else in the show can come close to matching it. (“Oh No!” I thought when I heard that was what they’d be doing for the Tony broadcast. “They’re giving the whole show away!”) But it’s probably the right call, and I would imagine the song will sell a ton of tickets. It’s a big, splashy, clever production number: a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) tries to explain what a musical is to Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James), who has obviously never heard of such a thing. “The crowd goes wild every time,” as they say in the song, and at the James it frequently earns a well-deserved standing ovation. To be honest, I think “A Musical” actually makes a pretty good argument for the musical as an entertainment — sure, it’s not deep, but this number embodies pure glee, technical expertise, dancing, winking humor, and a big ol’ cast. You’ll see what I mean when you see it Sunday.

But after that, the rest of the show was a bit of a letdown. Which is an odd thing to say, because I was giggling throughout. It’s still funny, the audience ate it up, and again, it has a wonderful cast (especially Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani as the brothers Bottom, Christian Borle as Shakespeare, and Brad Oscar as the soothsayer). It’s a good show. I liked it a lot. It just doesn’t reach the heights I had hoped for in “A Musical”.

An American In Paris
Now I haven’t seen An American in Paris yet. Why not? Well, I don’t particularly care about ballet, or corny, idealized visions of postwar Europe, or another jukebox Gershwin show, or a movie musical from the 1950s, or gamine French girls. But the mere fact that “I haven’t seen it” hasn’t stopped me from unfairly bashing it to anyone who will listen. I hope to go see it soon, so I can either A) eat my words or B) start bashing it fairly. I think it’s just that I always hope the Best Musical Tony goes to a NEW MUSICAL. It’s really nothing against An American in Paris.

I agree with you if you are thinking that I am totally embarrassing myself with my disdain for a show I haven’t seen yet. What will be even more embarrassing is that it’s very possible I’ll end up completely changing my mind on this one. (For an example of this, check out my Rocky review. I totally bashed that one before seeing it too.)


The Winner

Today I found myself wishing Avenue Q had never won the Best Musical Tony over Wicked. Or Gentleman’s Guide over Aladdin and Beautiful, for that matter. Because those two shows winning gives me hope. If it were the case that the more commercial hit always won, it would be one thing. Just as an example, look at just a few recent years when the bigger hit beat what I would consider to be the more deserving show:

  • 2009: Billy Elliot beats Next to Normal
  • 2005: Spamalot beats both The Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • 2002: Thoroughly Modern Millie beats Urinetown (This one still stings.)

I could go back a lot further, too. It happens a lot. The problem comes when the Tony voters sometimes get it right. And it has a real impact on the life of a show. Because of its win, Gentleman’s Guide has probably lasted a lot longer than it would have otherwise. So I’m crossing every finger and toe that the voters get this one right. But as I keep reminding myself, Fun Home’s artistic accomplishment is not dependent on what happens Sunday.

So I’m going to drink a heck of a lot of champagne and hope that the predictions are wrong. Let’s go Fun Home!

Review: The Realistic Joneses

CAM00371When he was little, my nephew Zach told me that his “favorite thing about the zoo is the animals!” I thought of this after seeing The Realistic Joneses, because my initial reaction after seeing Will Eno’s acclaimed new play was that “my favorite thing about this play was the dialogue!”

If that intro doesn’t make it obvious enough, then I’ll just go ahead and say that this play is all about the interaction, far more so than plot or character. Four characters (portrayed by a quartet of terrific actors), married pairs of neighbors who share the surname Jones, bump into each other at the store, wander over to each other’s houses, and just chat about stuff. They’re John and Pony (Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei), new to the neighborhood; and Bob and Jennifer (Tracey Letts and Toni Collette), who are struggling with Bob’s terminal illness. Serious thoughts, funny exchanges, minor annoyances, moments of romance and intimacy, glasses of wine together. This play is full of little moments; the question is do all these moments really add up to something?

Before I get into that, I thought I’d try to explain what I’m talking about when I discuss Mr. Eno’s dialogue. Going entirely from my memory — I’m not going to start taking notes for a blog, that would be ridiculous — here is an illustrative exchange (you can find more in the NYT review linked above):

John: (peeking at Bob’s watch): Is that the real time?

Bob: It’s a WATCH.

Or another:

Pony: I wish I had a sweater on.

Bob: Do you want me to get you a sweatshirt?

Pony: Oh, I’m not cold. I just wish I had a sweater.

Or this one (which is probably totally inaccurate, but honestly people. I wasn’t taking notes. I can’t start taking notes at plays like a huge dork. I’m sure Mr. Eno’s version is way better.)

Bob: I won’t get the wrong idea.

Pony: What’s the wrong idea?

Bob: I don’t know. I just want to make sure I don’t have it.

Imagine 95 minutes of dialogue like this. One witty exchange and the characters make a hairpin turn to another topic. Another clever interaction, and they’re on to the next subject. Pony at one point admits to lacking much of an attention span; I felt like she might have been speaking for the play itself. To be fair, the meandering lets up a little bit towards the end of the show, though it never disappears entirely.

All that said, this play did feel like a bit more than the sum of its parts. Of course the cast helped quite a bit. Marisa Tomei is bubbly and likable, but Michael C. Hall, portraying her husband, is hilarious and lovable. His comic timing is just perfect, and he has a way of zoning out mid-conversation that is both scary (the character is clearly ill) and very, very funny. Toni Collette’s role is a little less showy (she seems to be the only grownup among the four), but whenever I see her perform I’m reminded just what a terrific actress she is. Finally, Tracy Letts always manages to be a wonderful actor (in this, just as he was in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and playwright (August: Osage County) without making me want to throttle him for being so annoyingly talented.

Still though, I’d have liked a bit more clarity. A bit more depth. I get that these characters, written as they are, would only refer obliquely to an affair, or an illness, but I’d have liked to see a little more explicit conflict. Talk about the affair, people! Explain your illness! Say how you feel! Too often I felt like I was only getting a glimpse of the story, and I’d have liked more. I had friends who saw the show and didn’t like it much because “nothing really happens.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but they definitely had a point.