Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Plays With Plenty of Passion

Dominic Fumusa in Passion Play.

So many theater folks have bemoaned the lack of new hits on Broadway this fall that I wonder if anyone's noticed all the fabulous new plays that were part of the Off-Broadway landscape, usually for runs that were far too short.

TheaterMania's list of the 10 best shows of '10 includes six Off-Broadway shows. Besides Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, the entry that I contributed, two of my other faves, New York Theatre Workshop's hypnotic The Little Foxes and Simon McBurney's soul-stirring A Disappearing Number, also made the cut.

If I could have picked all 10 myself, I also would have included Middletown, Clybourne Park, A Bright New Boise and In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards.

In general I'm not a fan of year-end best and worst lists (I'd rather just focus on what I can look forward to next year), but a couple of others that I enjoyed are the picks from Time Out New York's three staffers, which demonstrate a diversity of stage offerings, and the often maligned Charles Isherwood's list in New York Times, also a celebration of bright, new and largely Off-Broadway plays.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sparkling Venice: "Like a Wild Animal"

Lily Rabe and David Harbour in Merchant.

The first time I saw David Harbour on stage I couldn't help noticing that he's incredibly beautiful. It didn't take long to realize he's also very talented and smart (a Dartmouth grad, to boot). The production of Virginia Woolf he did with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner on Broadway remains vividly etched in my mind even though I saw it more than five years ago, as does that episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent in which he played a religious nut who kills his family.

So I was happy to see that he was one of the new cast members joining the Broadway transfer of The Merchant of Venice, replacing Hamish Linklater as Bassanio, and was glad to have the chance to talk to him about his role. My favorite quote of his is about working with Al Pacino: "He is like a wild animal, sort of like a dog that you don't actually know how to train. But I love that because that's when something inspired actually happens."

The show's even stronger than it was in Central Park this summer (or perhaps I was just better able to focus since I wasn't melting in 95 percent humidity). Either way I found Harbour's performance quite thrilling. In Bassanio's first scene with Antonio, the one where Bassanio convinces him to borrow money for him, Harbour touches the back of Byron Jennings' neck in a way that's both intimate and manipulative, and it demonstrates the power Bassanio has over his friend. A really interesting choice.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pee-wee at the North Pole?

Pee-wee and Globey in The Pee-wee Herman Show.

Anyone who's caught Pee-wee Herman's Broadway show and isn't a polar bear or a penguin might have noticed that the theater was freeeeeezing! Even though I saw it on a moderate November afternoon, I kept my coat on the entire time. Well, according to an insider (and when I used this term it means I heard it second- or third-hand), Paul Reubens wants the theater to be that cold so that his Pee-wee makeup doesn't run.

And here I thought he was just eternally youthful!

Pee-wee's big Broadway debut is one of several shows that I recently reviewed for Cititour. Here's a rundown of some highlights and lowlights, in descending order:

The Pee-wee Herman Show

The Pitmen Painters

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


Overall, though, I can't complain. I've seen some fantastic stuff this year, even just this week. In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards was a knockout, as was the National Theatre's Hamlet, with the terrific Rory Kinnear, which I watched with critics and audiences at Cinema 1 2 3 Thursday night, and tonight I begin my three-part journey to The Great Game: Afghanistan.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Minor Break

Tracee Chimo and David Duchovny in The Break of Noon

Someday I hope to have as transformative an experience at a Neil LaBute play as I did when I saw The Mercy Seat with Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber. It was the day after a snowy Christmas back in 2002 (I had to look up the year or I would have sworn it was closer to 2005), and it remains my favorite post-9/11 play.

Not to sound like a Grinch as we embark on the holiday season, but I wasn't in a very merry mood after seeing David Duchovny in LaBute's current offering, The Break of Noon, which has little to recommend it beyond a memorable closing monologue and rising star Tracee Chimo, who was part of Circle Mirror Transformation's stellar quartet a year ago.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Haunted by Rapp's Ghosts

Sarah Lemp and Nick Lawson in Ghosts in the Cottonwoods.

Had the pleasure of introducing a friend to the work of one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, Adam Rapp, last week when I was assigned to review the New York premiere of the first full-length play he ever wrote, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, presented by the plucky young Amoralists troupe down at Theatre 80.

Sitting in that packed house full of members of the X and Y generation was the closest theater experience I've had to a rock concert since Rock of Ages, which essentially is a rock concert. Among the opening-night crowd I spotted Sam Waterston (not surprisingly) and Annie noticed America Ferrera.

Annie usually just drinks wine, but she needed a martini after this show, a bloody tale of a backwoods family homecoming that ends in brutality. I was transported, felt like I'd been put through the wringer, my usual response to Rapp's plays, so while I enjoyed a margarita, she sipped her martini at Simone and asked me to fill her in on what I knew of Rapp's oeuvre which, for what it's worth, is quite a lot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Favorite Mistakes

Shannon in Mistakes Were Made.

Here's my love letter to the marvelous Michael Shannon ... also known as my review of Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made. I didn't expect the Oscar-nominated actor to be such a scintillating comedian, but he brings much-needed vitality to Craig Wright's musty play.

The first time I saw Shannon onstage he was starring in a gonzo piece of playwriting -- also at the Barrow Street Theatre. And since it wasn't written by Adam Rapp, it could only have been by Tracy Letts. The show was Bug, and it's actually too bad it played before New York City's bedbug crisis took hold. It would be even more more tense and disturbing to watch now.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Political Hangover ...

Marin Ireland and O'Connell in In the Wake.

No, I'm not talking about last night's election results, I'm referring to In the Wake, Lisa Kron's ambitious new play (here's my Time Out New York review) that begins during the chaotic mess of the 2000 presidential election and follows its main character, Elle, through the next several years -- her personal life imploding as the U.S. spins woefully out of control. It's a smart, compelling drama that doesn't quite knock one out of the park but does offer an array of intriguing characters, including six high-caliber roles for women.

The most memorable is Judy (played by Deirdre O'Connell), a woman from a disenfranchised Kentucky family who, even though she works in relief aid, doesn't believe that voting will change the system. She was able to escape her upbringing because she was smart and lucky, she argues. And she cites the failure of her niece, whom she'd taken in, to finish high school as proof.

Is Judy right? Maybe, but it's also possible that her niece sensed her aunt's defeatist attitude and assumed from that that her efforts would never amount to anything. This is a prime example of Kron challenging her audience to debate the merits of each character's self-awareness, and one example of why I found In the Wake so stimulating.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Arthur and MacArthur

Earlier this week a Facebook friend announced that "In my head all day, Richard Harris has been whining about a cake." This of course sent me to my iTunes library because I suddenly had to hear his full seven-and-a-half minute rendition of "MacArthur Park," with that wonderful lyric about the the consequences of not writing down the recipe to a favorite pastry. It was actually one of the first MP3s I illegally downloaded from Napster in the day (growing up, we had the 45 single at home). But, I soon realized, the only thing that could possibly be better than listening to him try to sing the words would be watching him put his whole body and soul into the number.

And wouldn't you know, there happens to be a YouTube video of Harris singing "MacArthur Park." Not the whole song, unfortunately, but some nifty clips, along with a report on the how he came to record the song. His ex-wife is even featured as a commentator.

What makes his rendition of the song so great is that he acts-sings it as if it were a musical theater number -- fitting since he played King Arthur in the movie of Camelot and later on the Broadway stage. And wouldn't you know, YouTube also has a clip of Harris performing the title song in an early-'80s revival, which was taped for HBO.

In my family's pre-VCR days I can remember going through our local TV Guide and circling all the times it scheduled to air, so I could watch it again and again. If I watched the whole show again today, I fear my critical response wouldn't be quite so kind, but it's delightful seeing Richard Harris put all he's got into this number. Unfortunately, it's not possible to embed it here, so you'll just have to go to here to watch it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Van Hove Effect

Christopher Evan Welch and Elizabeth Marvel in The Little Foxes.

I'm a relatively new convert to avant-garde downtown theater scene, and when I see shows as captivating as director Ivo van Hove's Little Foxes, I wonder what took me so long. He certainly seems to command the respect and admiration of the actors he works with, including Christopher Evan Welch, who won an Obie for a van Hove-directed Streetcar Named Desire and reunited with him to play Horace in Little Foxes. During our interview, Welch spoke of van Hove with the fervor of a true believer.

And I'd just like to add that I love the trailer that New York Theatre Workshop has assembled for the show. It captures the dark mood and almost creepy Dark Shadows atmosphere of the production.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plath Plus Film Minus Poetry

Elisabeth Gray in Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath.

Someday I'm going to write a play about a fictional meeting between Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and see if Charles Busch is available to play Sexton. (If she hadn't committed suicide in her 40s, Elaine Stritch would be a good choice to play her in her later years.) Sexton may not have been as great a poet as Plath, but she was a volatile drunk and mother who had an affair with the shrink treating her for depression, and I think her she'd be a great subject for a bioplay.

Which brings me to my review of Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, a new Off-Broadway play that arrives in New York via the Edinburgh Fringe. The funny and subversive production has a lot going for it -- a capable star and nicely integrated film clips -- but her life unfolds as if it were a Lifetime movie (minus the happy ending).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wonderful Will

Playwright Will Eno

Among the fun things I've gotten to do in recent weeks is interview the wonderful Will Eno, whose new play, Middletown, which arrives Off-Broadway at the Vineyard next week, is very good. If The New York Times called him "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation" for Thom Pain (based on nothing), I think this show will make him a rock star.

I haven't stepped on the amateur stage in years, but reading his work makes me want to come out of retirement. The language is so sublime, his sentences are poetic and beautiful, yet they seem almost ordinary and effortlessly constructed. Somehow you feel the urge to say them as you read them. Sample (from Middletown): "You get the mail, it's a clothes catalog. Maybe you leaf through it, maybe think, 'Hey, I could buy those pants.' Then you think, 'But then it'd just be me, again, in a different pair of pants.' "

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Emerald From the Isle

Janie Brookshire and Shawn Fagan in Wife to James Whelan.

Some of the "lost" plays that I've seen over the years I suspect weren't accidentally misplaced but intentionally tossed aside -- because they weren't very good. Manhattan Theatre Club's recent revival of Accent on Youth, for example, was a painful experience.

But I was happy to discover that's not the case with Teresa Deevy's excellent Wife to James Whelan, which truly was lost (the late Irish author's nephew discovered the manuscript in an envelope). The 70-year-old play is a masterful character study about gender and class conflict, and it's just the first Deevy plays in the works at the spunky little Mint Theater Company.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Keep on Truxton

Among the pleasure of the new AMC series Rubicon is that it's shot in New York and the cast includes a fine bunch of New York stage actors, including Dallas Roberts, Christopher Evan Welch and Michael Cristofer (left), who plays the most intriguing and eccentric character on the show, Truxton Spangler, the big boss of government think tank API. He's also the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Shadow Box and the subject of this piece, I wrote for TheaterMania.

On another AMC note, I saw this Hollywood Reporter story about a new series called The Killing that the network is planning, but I hardly think it's only the fifth original series AMC has aired. Not that I blame anyone for forgetting about its misguided remake of The Prisoner but, even though it was much longer ago, Remember WENN, delightful little comedy by Rupert Holmes that also featured a terrific cast of New York actors, is definitely worth remembering.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dutch Treat

With his gangly body and bulging eyes, Dutch standup Micha Wertheim has a body built for comedy. And he uses all of it in his New York fringe festival show Amsterdam Abortion Survivor, to generally favorable results, I thought.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Since I go to the theater less in the summer, I try to use the extra time to catch up on movies. If I can't be in Central Park watching a terrific ensemble of actors speak Shakespearean verse as if it were their everyday vernacular or catching a new Off-Broadway show, filling those humid nights with a good movie in the comfort of an air conditioned movie theater, or my living room, is a great place to be.

Aside from a brief foray into the black-and-white coffers of Dark Shadows at the start of the summer, I've been on quite the Hal Hartley kick, rewatching the brilliant Henry Fool and wishing I hadn't wasted my time on the disappointing The Girl From Monday. But as I delve further into his canon it's getting increasingly difficult to find copies of his early films to rent or borrow.

In 2010, it seems that all I should have to do is go to Netflix to get any film in my mailbox in a day or two. But Netflix doesn't have The Unbelievable Truth or Flirt. I found the former at the NYU library, but is it possible that Flirt and a masterpiece like Trust, Hartley's first film with Martin Donovan, were never released on DVD?

Trust and Surviving Desire are available on Netflix via the "watch instantly" function, and while I love the many video clips available on YouTube, I haven't been able to make the transition to watching movies on my computer. Thankfully there's still the good old public library, which has both Flirt and Trust on VHS. Glad I didn't give up that VCR yet.

Still, I hope that not only will those films find their way onto DVD but that the ones that have already been released will be reissued with better prints and maybe even audio commentary from Hartley and his cast. One film he could star with is the enchanting millennium oddity The Book of Life, his only film to star Donovan and Thomas Jay Ryan, my favorite Hartley interpreters. The evocative image above is one of the film's final shots.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Returning to the Beginning

Since embarking on a freelance career earlier this year, I've found myself returning to my past and again contributing to Back Stage, the publication that gave me my first post-collegiate job in 1993.

It's been a lot of fun, especially since I'm calmer and more confident in my writing ability. Here are my pieces on actors' websites and Facebook pages.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Passing On Secrets of the Trade

I do hope John Glover will write his autobiography one day. He's a great raconteur, and there aren't many people in the entertainment industry he hasn't worked with. If you ever get the chance, ask him about the first time he saw Isabella Rossellini on the set of White Nights. In the meantime, you can see him play mentor to a theatrically ambitious Noah Robbins in Jonathan Tolins' Off-Broadway play Secrets of the Trade and read my article about him and the show.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Show and Tell

With a possible repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell once again stirring up the gays in the military debate, Marc Wolf has brought his solo show Another American: Asking and Telling back to New York for a limited engagement. He's still very passionate about the show and the topic , as I learned during an interview for Time Out New York.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Twilight Traffic Jam

What does it take to bring down the website of the mighty Hollywood Reporter? Vampires. The advisory below was affixed to the Hollywood Reporter email newsletter that I received late Sunday/early Monday.

"Due to our release of 'The Twilight Saga: Eclipse' movie review, THR.com is experiencing traffic levels that can occasionally make accessing the website difficult. Thanks for your patience."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pulitizers Past and Present

A Pulitzer Prize doesn't guarantee eternity, as Frank D. Gilroy's The Subject Was Roses, now being revived by the Pearl Theatre Company, proves.

Interestingly, only six Pulitzers for drama were handed out in the 1960s, and two of those went to musicals, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Fiorello!, the driest decade ever for the award honoring the best American play of the year. Was there really such a dearth of great new plays, or was the cultural divide creeping into the equation? Is it, as Ben Brantley points out in this New York Times piece about 2010 recipient Next to Normal, one shouldn't expect cutting-edge honorees from the Pulitzer board?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


I was quite surprised to be asked to review The Irish Curse, Martin Casella's quirky and endearing comedy about the tribulations of being small down there. But Matt Lenz's production is a delight, thanks in large part to a terrific cast led by Dan Butler and Austin Peck.

Coincidentally, my theatergoing highlight of last week was another new play featuring a cast of five men -- Jon Marans' The Temperamentals. The story of gay rights pioneer Harry Hay and the men who founded Mattachine Society in 1950, it is incredibly moving and provocative, both as both a love story and a historical drama. Thomas Jay Ryan and Michael Urie give performances that shouldn't be missed.

Something else that shouldn't be missed (but I will have to) is the upcoming post-show discussion with Barney Frank on May 3. Still, the politician I'd most like to see respond to the play is former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who's listed as a future guest. Hay begins the play as married father sneaking off to clandestine meetings with his group and his lover. McGreevey should be able to relate.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Delicious and Delightful

Rescue Me (a postmodern classic with snacks), Michi Barall's Iphigenia in Tauris riff is utterly delightful — and not just because I got some Entenmann's chocolate chips for showing up.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All in the Family

Suzanne Brockmann

Like Suzanne Brockmann, I'd never heard of the film star William Haines until I read that the popular novelist and her husband, Ed Gaffney (who writes under the pen name Will McCabe), were writing and producing the play Looking for Billy Haines, in which the openly gay actor from the '20s and '30s figures prominently. As I'm just as passionate about books as I am about theater, I welcomed the chance to talk to them about their new venture for TheaterMania.

It's a true family affair, starring their son, Jason T. Gaffney not as the title character but as a young gay actor who takes inspiration from him. And believe it or not, only a slight change of pace from the military-themed romantic suspense novels Brockmann is known for.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Secret Success

Compared to Watergate, the fight to publish the Pentagon Papers looks more like a schoolyard scuffle than an actual battle.

Still, I couldn't help being smitten by New York Theatre Workshop's L.A. import Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers. The combination of old-school newspaper reporting and radio drama was an enchanting bit of nostaslgia, and then there's the nostalgia factor of a cast that includes Peter Strauss and Larry Bryggman.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Snarl It With a Song

Can't say that I've seen more than the occasional episode of the TV show Glee, although theater and non-theater acquaintances alike seem to think I should be watching it. Perhaps it's the high school memories that I don't want to relive — a time when I desperately wanted to be a soloist but my pitch problem made that a big problem.

The play Glee Club isn't set in a high school, although the behavior of the men in the organization is decidedly ninth grade. It also isn't much longer than my high school music class.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Trouble in New York City

I respectfully disagree with Jonathan Reynolds' assessment that politics is the reason he's had such trouble getting his abortion play Girls in Trouble produced. Having seen and reviewed it, it's fair to say the only reason to produce it is that it offers a political viewpoint almost never seen on the New York stage. A playwright with liberal leanings wouldn't be so lucky. That still won't turn a rant into a play populated by characters that resemble human beings, but it will make it stand out.

If you're interested in seeing a play that provokes discussion about a touchy issue, in this case race, check out Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park at Playwright Horizons. His characters nearly manage to out-carnage God of Carnage in the second act, and they keep you laughing and thinking all the way.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Reborn in Extinction

What is it about the detectives on those USA Network series that enables them to cultivate such fans? It was a treat to see Tony Shalhoub of Monk fame play a very different character in Teresa Rebeck's hilarious The Scene a few years ago, and now Psych's James Roday should delight fans by sporting facial hair and stepping outside his TV persona in tone and type in the promising if not quite fully realized Extinction, an Off-Broadway play by Gabe McKinley, the brother of onetime New York Times theater columnist Jesse.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Twice the Mackers

I've been in a sort of Macbeth maelstrom lately. For one of my final assignments for RT Book Reviews, I talk to Shakespeare scholar turned thriller writer Jennifer Lee Carrell about her new novel Haunt Me Still, in which a celebrated Shakespearean director goes on a quest to undercover a centuries-old manuscript of the cursed Scottish play. (Have to admit I prefer the U.K. title, The Shakespeare Curse, though not her billing as "J.L. Carrell." So they didn't think British readers would be turned off by a book with "Shakespeare" in the title unless it was written by a woman?)

And in the current Time Out New York, I interview Bill Cain, who co-created a short-lived TV series that I loved, Nothing Sacred, and is the author of Equivocation, now at Manhattan Theatre Club, a play about Shakespeare, the Gunpowder Plot, recent American politics and Macbeth. I look forward to seeing the play, which I've only had a chance to read, especially now that I've seen production shots, like the one above, that remind me of the John Doyle Sweeney Todd. And I owe a shout-out to the guy who first told me about Equivocation a year ago. His enthusiasm for the play was infectious.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Man of Many Colors

Nothing like a job layoff to throw you off your game, and that's what I was faced with this past month. How's that for a lead-in to my review of a solo show in which actor Michael Aronov showcases the many sides of his personality? He has stage presence and then some, and if you go, you may end up becoming part of the show.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Not Yet Royalty

Evan Enderle, Megan Tusing and Scott Sowers in Princes of Waco.

There's a lot of promise in Robert Askins' Princes of Waco — and in these troubled times promise and hope mean a lot — but I thought this new play at Ensemble Studio Theatre still has its share of growing pains.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Robert B. Parker Dies

Robert B. Parker

How sad to read about the death of Robert B. Parker, whose private-eye novels featuring the one-named wonder Spenser always seemed to find a home on bestseller lists.

I enjoyed talking to him a couple of years ago about his foray into the young adult market with a book called Edenville Owls, although I suspected he was eager to be done with our conversation so he could watch his beloved Red Sox play a spring training game. Incidentally, he has a peripheral connection to theater, one of my other favorite blogging subjects. One of his sons, Daniel T. Parker, is an L.A.-based actor who's performed with the Actors' Gang.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Moon Over Wambaugh

Joseph Wambaugh

When I mentioned interviewing ground-breaking crime writer Joseph Wambaugh to a few friend and colleagues, their replies ranged from "Is he still writing?" to "Is he still alive?"

The answer is a big yes to both those questions, as the evidence shows, and I recommend checking out his new novel, Hollywood Moon.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Critical Healing

Sayra Player, Peter O'Connor, Judith Hawking and
Sarah Nina Hayon in Sexual Healing.

Let me tell you, it's no fun sitting in the audience of a play like Sexual Healing and realizing you've been assigned to review a show that's choking before it even gets out of the starting gate. I don't have the same problem watching a bad movie. If it's a big Hollywood blockbuster like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I can even scoff because so much money in the pursuit of awfulness. Even if that's not the case, in the time it's taken the film to get to the big or small screen, I can convince myself that cast and crew have moved on to other, if not necessarily better, projects.

But when the performers are right in front of you, not even gracing a Broadway stage but crammed into a tiny black-box theater, the mercury in my empathy meter soars off the charts. But I found a little consolation and a lot of laughs in this piece by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune piece. Clearly, it is a critic's moral imperative to protect theatergoers from bad plays. We're doing God's work.