Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Margin Notes: The Karpovsky Variations

Barbara Broughton, Rivka Borek, J. Anthony Crane, and
Chris Thorn as Great Momma Rose, Julia Karpovsky,
Barry Karpovsky, and Harold Karpovsky. Photo by
Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography.

Seen on: Monday, 5/16/22.
My grade: C+

Plot and Background
In the wake of the death of her estranged father Lawrence, Julia tries to reckon with her memories of him, her desire to be his musical equal, and her struggle to connect with her Jewish identity, as she keeps crossing paths with her father, her uncles, and her great grandmother Rose across airport lounges. Adam Kraar's play had a reading as part a Jewish Plays Project festival, was further developed at The Playwrights' Center and the New Group Theatre, and now has its world premiere with Boomerang Theatre Company.

What I Knew Beforehand
That it dealt with themes of Jewish identity and klezmer music.

Thoughts:

Play: Julia wants to play us a song, but she can't find the notes for it: "If I could play you this song, you would love me." Her driving need in the play is two-fold: recapture the sound of klezmer music that her great grandparents knew in Poland, and through that sound gain her father's recognition and love; her father, a gifted but lapsed clarinet player who is now a nomadic journalist, able to be pinned down for conversations only in airport lounges while he waits for his connecting flight. Her father, who will never explain his antipathy toward his own musician father, nor why he can't come home for holidays, why he cannot give his brothers or his only child the space for them to exist concretely, groundedly, in a non-liminal space. Her father, who cannot even accept the gift of a pan of home-made kugel (though one should point out how inappropriate that is as a carry-on item on a transpacific flight). Julia is descended from a line of "wandering Jewish minstrels" and wants to follow that path, seemingly as nomadic as her father but pronouncedly more unhappy, less able to thrive in that rhythm.

Playwright Adam Kraar's notes on the performance style say that the transitions of the play should be "fluid, musical," that the form of the play is "jazz-like," the tone "similar to klezmer. Unfortunately what kept striking me during the performance was how decidedly unmusical the production is. There is a static stiffness, an unfamiliarity, unstructured pauses and interruptions. I wanted to feel the dialog had been choreographed, a slanting harmony and conversation of the instruments of the three brother's bombastically different personalities, the contrasting tenor of Maxine, the outsider, and somehow a combination of Julia's memories and Momma Rose, who remembers and loves them all, to bring them all together into something like music. Something like the song Julia is trying to play us. Too many scenes felt like they went on too long without making a significant enough contribution to the theme to justify their length, too many emotional beats are struck and struck again without significant contextual alteration. 

This play advertises itself as being at least in part about excavating a Jewish identity; however, I felt very few notes actually touched on that notion. Julia's fixation on her distant father is barely about how he didn't raise her Jewish, but more about how he never taught her to play the clarinet the way he could, the way he kept assuring her he eventually would.

I wanted to engage with this story. I wanted to recognize the characters, recognize myself in this family of descendants of the diaspora, of Jews who perhaps don't practice much but still hold certain tenets sacred. I wanted them to stop carrying the kugel pan sideways. I wanted more from this than I got.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W21: The LightHouse Series (Group 1), Harmony, The Vagrant Trilogy, Into the Woods, Try This On For Me

5/09/22: The LightHouse Series (Group 1)
What: SoHo Playhouse's new play competition (I'm only seeing Group 1, which includes the plays What I First Desired, In a Relative Way, Tuam, The Gospel of Efunroye, A Ladder to the Moon, and Gayby).
And? An interesting combination of styles and storytelling, from noir to hip hop to fragmented narrative to historical speculation to poetic fantasy to stand up comedy. 



5/10/22: Harmony
What: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene presents Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman's new bio-musical about the popular six-man German singing group, the Comedian Harmonists, whose success was cut short when the Nazis rose to power.
And? It felt like it was written by someone who knows nominally how Musicals About Real People are supposed to go, with workhorse dialog to get us from A to B, and then another song, applause, rinse, repeat. But for a true story with stakes this high, the scenes and songs just feel inert, the character choices generic. The singing is all truly excellent, which we definitely need for a show about a tight six-part harmony group, and even some of the dancing is fun, but overall I was underwhelmed.

Blake Roman, Steven Telsey, Zal Owen, Danny Kornfeld, Eric Peters, Sean
Bell, and Chip Zien as Chopin, Lesh, Harry, Young Rabbi, Erich, Bobby,
and Rabbi. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.


Margin Notes: Try This On For Me


Seen on:
 Sunday, 5/15/22.
My grade: B+. Experimental and Intriguing.

Plot and Background
The New York Neo-Futurists, an artistic collective building original work, present the world premiere of Lee LeBreton's immersive/interactive play, which takes its audience through a surreal flea market on the hunt for the perfect outfit.

What I Knew Beforehand
Just the premise, which is how I like it.

Thoughts:
 
You enter a room framed with clothes on clothes on clothes: racks of them in all colors hugging each wall, a display of mannequins adorned with hats, scarves, jewelry. The performers greet you quietly as they putter about the space, sorting and hanging more clothing on the racks, inviting you to seat yourself in any of the variety of comfy chairs around the space which frame the piano and the three small platforms with additional racks of clothes, old suitcases, hat boxes. You've been told you might get to leave with something but you don't know what that means yet. And then the show begins.

The three creators/performers of this show have had to straddle multiple identities in their lifetime: queerness, transness, Blackness, Brownness, feminine, masculine, youth and maturity. The phrase "Try This On For Me" refers not only to one element of the interactive experience--audience members trying on articles of clothing on display in the space--but also to trying on new identities, and sometimes just trying on new ideas. What does it mean to put on a hoop skirt and promenade slowly through a space, shoulders back and hands wafting? What is the acceptable shoe for a young man with feet too small to fit in conventional men's dress shoes? What clothes free you? What clothes tell the world who you are? Show creator Lee LeBreton frames these questions as three criteria: is it comfortable? is it legible (does it say who you are)? is it desirable (does it make you feel sexy/attractive)? These questions Lee asks himself, and then the performers ask us as well, about the clothes we wore to the show. They tell us stories from their childhood, from their now-hood, the challenge of finding outfits to meet all three criteria, to help them safely navigate the intersections of their identities. And when the audience is invited to peruse the racks for themselves, we can ask again of a new item we might acquire: is it comfortable? is it legible? is it desirable?

The day we went one of the three performers was in isolation, unable to be in the space with us but present in pre-records of her sections, and finally on FaceTime to introduce her to the audience and what we found. I'm pretty impressed with how smoothly they made this pivot, such that I began to question if it were planned or no (I still think no, but that they had enough warning to make quality recordings of Nicole Hill's sections). The work is engaging and introspective, inviting the audience to self-examine in equal measure to their reaction to the stories we're being told.

And I love my new jacket.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Another Hundred Nominations (2022 Tony Noms)

In prep for today's Tony nominations I made a list of what shows from the season I'd seen, and was a bit blown away by just how many new plays we were lucky enough to see (even if most of the exciting new work I've seen this Winter/Spring season has been Off-Broadway, rather than On). Meanwhile, in the category of  Life Is Short, there are a few shows from this season I am missing (American Buffalo, MJ, Macbeth, Diana, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the last two thirds of Plaza Suite), so I have a lack of opinion when it comes to those specific works. By my count, for this season we had 13 new plays, 9 new musicals (I'm not sure where Little Prince resides, and it wasn't nominated for anything, so I guess it resides nowhere), 8 play revivals, and 4 musical revivals.


Anyway, let's get to it.

Plays

It's disappointing to see a few stunners shut out (Thoughts of a Colored Man, the Is This a Room/Dana H rep, Pass Over, and the fun POTUS) for Best Play. Of the list of nominated plays (Clyde's, Hangmen, The Lehman Trilogy, The Minutes, and Skeleton Crew), I'd definitely keep Lehman (which is the most nominated play of the season) and Skeleton, and add in Pass Over and Thoughts. I'm on the fence with Clyde's. For the Best Revival of a Play category, I feel mostly fine about the list (no opinion on Buffalo).

Skeleton Crew. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Is This a RoomPass Over, and Birthday Candles are shut out completely, which is a damn shame (so is Chicken & Biscuits, but eh). All three productions featured fine performances and lovely scenic (okay, the second two more than the first) and lighting designs, and the writing for Pass Over is particularly good and should be honored. Meanwhile, the Best Play nod is The Minutes's sole nod.

Musicals

The Best Musical category is slim enough this year that six out of the nine new musicals got a nomination (not up in that category are Flying Over Sunset, Diana, and Mrs. Doubtfire). Honestly I'm not overly impressed with the crop of new musicals this season, and I'd be astonished if A Strange Loop doesn't walk away with a win here (it also leads the pack with 11 nominations overall, though MJ and Paradise Square aren't far behind). Best Revival of a Musical is a similarly thin category, with Funny Girl being the only revival out of four possible contenders not nominated (in fact, its only nomination is for Jared Grimes for Actor in a Featured Role).

A Strange Loop.



Acting

People are already hot-take-ing Beanie Feldstein and Katrina Lenk being left out of the Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical category, but for how divisively both their performances have been received, it's not a big shock. Otherwise I don't see any big surprises in the Musical acting category, though it's very nice to see both L Morgan Lee and John-Andrew Morrison recognized for A Strange Loop as well as Jennifer Simard for Company. What is a shame, though, is when you have ensemble casts where are truly no weak links, like the casts of A Strange Loop or Six, but are unable to nominate the whole group because we don't have a Best Company or Best Ensemble category. Meanwhile the acting categories for plays are STUFFED: all three actors from Lehman are up for Leading, three actors from Take Me Out are up for Featured, two actresses from POTUS are up for Featured (yay Rachel Dratch!). And when it comes to Leading Actress in a Play, I find myself in the Kimmel-ish position of wanting everyone to win.

Six.



Design

As mentioned earlier, I'm bummed that the design work for Is This a RoomPass Over and Birthday Candles were left out in the cold. I'm also quietly bewildered that Fly Davis's scenic design for Caroline, or Change wasn't recognized but Beowulf Boritt and 59 Productions's design for Flying Over Sunset was. I am pleased to see the scenic design for both Hangmen (Anna Fleischle) and Lehman (Es Devlin) recognized. 


The Lehman Trilogy.

See ya at the Tonys next month!

Weekly Margin 2022, W20: Our Brother's Son, The Minutes, The Bedwetter, The Cherry Orchard

What: A new play about a family grappling with old secrets and a new medical crisis.
And? The crux of the conflict of this play is that one character who has not only failed to endear himself to his family, but has also betrayed some of them, now needs a kidney transplant, and that some of his wronged relations are viable donors--donors who are not sure they want to donate a kidney to save his life. I saw this play the day the SCOTUS draft leaked. And all I could keep thinking about is that right now you cannot force a person, even a corpse, to give up any part of their body to save someone else. It is a crime to do that. Unless, of course, the person has a uterus, and then all rights to body autonomy can be forfeit. That's what our Supreme Court is trying to do. To deny people with uteri the same rights as a corpse. We are still still paying for the 2016 election and the travesties it has wrought, and we're making so many young people who had no hand in that election pay too. This is real tangible damage and I feel as helpless and furious and depressed as I did that November.

"Why aren't you talking about the play, Zelda?" Because it was not great, Bob. It was clumsily written, clumsily directed, clumsily acted, and the biggest choice in the scenic design was such a statement, but I don't think it was a statement connected to the content of the play. Also, even if it was a throwaway line, it did feature a white man explaining to the one person of color onstage that Thanksgiving celebrates a genocide, and her being confused, and that leaves a pretty bad taste in the mouth.

Listen, if my past almost-twenty years of NY theater-going has taught me anything, it's taught me that art is subjective, that you can't removed live performance from the context of the world hosting that performance, and that the most important element any of us can bring to our subjective experience of art is ourselves and who we are in that moment.



5/05/22: The Minutes
What: Another return of a show whose initial run was cut short by the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Roundabout presents the Broadway transfer of Steppenwolf's production of Tracy Letts's play about the town council of Big Cherry conducting their weekly meeting while being strangely cagey about the events of the previous week's meeting. Very underbelly of small town (mostly) white America.
And? Letts's tone for this is simultaneously tense and folksy, as newcomer councilmember Peel tries to unravel what happened at the meeting he missed but keeps being rebuffed by every other member, each with their own agenda. I know part of the name of the game here is colonialism and appropriation (the pageantry of the councilmembers re-enacting Big Cherry's dubious origin story being the centerpiece of that narrative) but even the moments within that that are meant to induce knowing chuckles still leave a bad taste in the mouth. Of course, as the mystery finally reveals itself, that bad taste becomes the deliberate top note, if you will (Jesse Green keeps using this metaphor in his reviews this season and I'm stealing it). And I'm still reckoning with what to do with the (extremely spoilerly) denouement. Great cast, especially Austin Pendleton as the bewildered misanthrope Oldfield, and understudy Joshua David Robinson as the eely Blake.

Jessie Mueller, Noah Reid, Jeff Still, Tracy Letts, and Cliff Chamberlain as
Ms. Johnson, Mr. Peel, Mr. Assalone, Mayor Superba, and Mr. Breeding.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.