Monday, March 28, 2011

Praise for Critics

Late, great theater journalists Gussow and Kuchwara

I don't usually get choked up reading about critics and other assorted theater journalists (even though I am one), but this tribute to Mel Gussow and Michael Kuchwara by Howard Sherman, the soon-to-be-former executive director of the American Theatre Wing, is so well written and moving that it's hard not to. Thanks, David and Jason, for bringing it to my attention.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All Albee in D.C.

A T-shirt from the Edward Albee Festival.

The only thing as good (or better) than seeing great theater in New York is seeing great theater out of town. My grandfather always said that food tastes better when you dine out, and the same is often true of theater. Perhaps that's because many regional theaters just have more actual space for their spaces — large lobbies where audiences can congregate and not feel suffocated by the hordes. Perhaps it's also the excitement of getting to see the work of actors who don't normally perform in New York.

Those two elements contributed to my enjoyment of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and At Home at the Zoo, the two plays that Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage is presenting in full productions as part of its Edward Albee Festival. The rest of the two-month-long event includes readings of all the other plays in his canon. And I love theater people with a sense of humor, so of course I had to snap up the official festival "Team Edward" T-shirt (pictured above), which riffs on the Twilight phenomenon. Someone who works for Arena Stage said that Albee loved the shirts.

As for the productions, both were subtly ferocious; I noticed I was leaning in to the characters as if I were part of their conversation. Definitely not something I expected to do during Pam Mackinnon's Virginia Woolf, because I have such vivid memories of the last Broadway revival where Kathleen Turner and company raised the roof with their high-decibel (but also effective) performances.

I'd never seen Tracy Letts act onstage before — only had the pleasure of enjoying his playwriting with shows like Bug and August: Osage County (talk about plays that raised the roof). Somehow he plays George as both milquetoast and a commanding presence. In the same vein Carrie Coon captures Honey's etherealness while also showing that she's a heck of a lot savvier than the others think. All four characters (Amy Morton played Martha and Madison Dirks as Nick) are considerably less glamorous than they were in Anthony Page's Broadway production, which makes their struggles, conceits and failures resonate that much more forcefully.

At Home at the Zoo was just as much of a treat because I didn't see it when it was presented in New York by Second Stage a few years ago as Peter and Jerry, and I'd never seen a production of The Zoo Story, which is part two of these combined one-acts. James McMenamin is quite captivating as Jerry, who seems like a relatively normal, if overly talkative, character when he first approaches Peter in the park. You can feel him fighting and losing his battle with his demons as the show reaches its climax.

The one moment that jarred me out of the play was a Stephen King reference that obviously was added well after the play's Off-Broadway premiere in 1960. Originally, Jerry asks Peter if he prefers Baudelaire (a French poet) or J.P. Marquand (a popular early 20th-century novelist). In the current production, he replaces Marquand with Stephen King. I'm guessing it's because the assumption was made that not many audience members would know who Marquand was — although I question how many of them would know the name Baudelaire. It seemed out of place because Albee's plays feel both timeless and rooted in the era in which they were written. Change just a word or two and you notice the difference.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Normal Joys

Let's go over how shallow I am. When I first heard that a production of The Normal Heart was coming to Broadway, I wasn't terribly excited. Not that I didn't like the play. But I'd read it and seen the Off-Broadway revival about 10 years ago and didn't feel a strong need to see it again. Then I read the announcement that Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory is joining the cast and suddenly ... it's must-see theater!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Birmingham on My Mind

The Birmingham Stage Company's Skellig at the New Victory Theater.

It intrigues me when different parts of my life come together around a certain thing or theme. As I was making my way through Catherine O'Flynn's beautifully haunting second novel, The News Where You Are, I was assigned to review the stage version of David Almond's award-winning, and equally beautifully haunting, children's novel Skellig at the New Victory Theater.

The common denominator is Birmingham, England. O'Flynn's novel is set there, and Almond's play was presented by the Birmingham Stage Company. Not sure if this means I'm due for a trip to the Midlands (I haven't even been to Birmingham, Alabama, although I have a friend from college who lives down there now.)

You can see my Skellig review on the Time Out New York website. News Where You Are I read purely for pleasure and enjoyed as much as I did her first novel, What Was Lost. O'Flynn writes incisively and poetically about people with solitary lives and the space they occupy in the world. Almond focuses on children finding their place in the world; O'Flynn on elderly people dealing with theirs.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

General Francisco Franco Is Still Dead ...

Steven Rattazzi, Steven Hauck and Chad Hoeppner in Spy Garbo.

... but he's onstage at 3LD Art & Technology Center in Spy Garbo (played by the wonderful Steven Rattazzi), along with double agents Wilhelm Canaris and Kim Philby. But what could be a devilishly clever production often plays like a bewildering academic lecture. I reviewed this multimedia fantasia for TheaterMania.