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: 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

Stage Kiss, and why I left at intermission

2014-04-19 11.14.28I’ll begin this blog with a confession. This past Sunday I left Stage Kiss at Intermission and didn’t come back. The comedy felt forced, the actors seemed awful and I kept thinking “Geez louise, why is everyone laughing?” I would still have stayed, though, except that it was Sunday night — with a ridiculously busy week at work looming ahead — and I felt under the weather. (This may be why I was so grim and humorless.)

My roommate pointed out that it was a great way to waste three hours (train to midtown, show, train home) and $30 (TDF). Fair point. Now I can’t even really assess the show very well.

Anyway I wanted to bring this up because I later read that the actors were supposed to be dreadful. I mean, clearly they were pretending to be pretty terrible in the show-within-a-show (I caught that much). But it seemed to me like they were bad throughout. I suppose they (especially Jessica Hecht) were trying to portray a loopy, a-few-screws-loose quality and it read as “bad acting” to me. Apparently Ms. Hecht is a wonderful actress. (I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her in anything else.) I wish I’d stayed to gauge what they were really doing there. My guess is that that brand of comedy just doesn’t quite speak to me.

In any case, it brings to mind this whole concept of lousy show-within-a-show tropes. I’m tired of them and don’t think I ever liked them too much to begin with (Noises Off and other shows of its ilk notwithstanding!). Who wants to see actors pretend to be bad? I see enough bad theater as it is. I want to see GOOD show-within-a-show material. Like for example, the musical Taming of the Shrew in Kiss Me Kate. Or the Murder of Gonzago. Or The Small House of Uncle Thomas. More of that, please.