Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Margin Notes: The Flick

Matthew Maher as Sam. Photo by Joan Marcus.
The Flick

Seen on: Sunday, 5/10/15.
My grade: B+. Not my type of play, but truly excellent at what it does.

Plot and Background
The various misadventures of three employees at a single screen crumbling movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts. A floor perpetually littered with popcorn and soda cups, and three humans struggling to overcome their own internal blocks in communication. Originally produced at Playwrights Horizons last year, The Flick won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That production, cast intact, has transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've read a number of Annie Baker plays, but hadn't seen any yet. I knew that this one was rather controversial in its run at Playwrights Horizons because of its many many pauses and resulting long running time.


Play: As I've said before, I generally prefer shows with actual plots, which this doesn't really have. BUT, if you go in knowing that, I think you won't be disappointed. The play is as much about its three misfit characters as it is about the relic of the theater, one of the last bastions of 33mm projectors against the rising tide of digital, and the struggle of people on the fringe of life to feel like they matter. The play was well-constructed in terms of character development and revelation, and if not hopeful at its core, at least it had a sense of humor about it. Sam Gold directed this play perfectly - everyone talks about the pauses, but they weren't just voids of sound or space - there wasn't an empty moment. If no one was speaking, there was action; if there was neither action nor word,  it was still with a specific purpose.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Margin Notes: An American in Paris

Robert Fairchild and Leanne Cope as Jerry and Lise.
Photo by Angela Sterling.
An American in Paris

Seen on: Wednesday, 5/13/15.
My grade: B. Lovely ballet, a story I could take or leave.

Plot and Background
Three new friends in post-war Paris - the American artist Jerry, the Jewish American composer Adam, and the textile heir/would-be nightclub singer Henri - are all in love with dancer Lise, though none of them knows it. Lise herself feels an attraction for Jerry, but also feels beholden to Henri and his family for their protection of her during the war. As all prepare for an upcoming ballet that will feature Lise's debut starring role, secrets are revealed and loyalties questioned. This production, inspired by the 1951 Gene Kelly film, originally played at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris last year, where it ran about half an hour longer.

What I Knew Beforehand
I remember somewhat the film on which it is based (Gershwin songs, Gene Kelly singing with children, a dream ballet, yes? Yes) and had heard this production was stellar.


Play: I think the show got a bit overhyped for me, unfortunately, and I respected the craft in the show more than I invested emotionally in the story of it. But let me go back a pace. A large part of the show is told in ballet - the two leads are ringers, which helps tremendously - and that is pure loveliness. Wonderfully staged and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon among the fluid set pieces, the show is never more captivating than in its dances. However, the story itself, fleshed out a bit by Craig Lucas from the film, never quite captures the heart. The romance of Lise with any of the three gentlemen isn't all that interesting. The story, indeed, is at its strongest when focusing on the three men together. Their varying perspectives - romantic optimism, dry melancholy, and a mix of denial and suppressed suffering - paint a fair portrait of a city recovering from Nazi occupation and a devastating war. And their different approaches to love and what it means could make for a very good play, if it weren't trapped within all the rest of the musical going on around it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Margin Notes: In Flight

Jackson Thompson and Danielle O'Farrell as Ted and Marty.
Photo by John Hoffman.
In Flight

Seen on: Monday, 5/11/15.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Marty runs The Omega Traveler, an in-flight magazine for a major airline, and is using her background in literary journals to try to bring a sense of poetry and adventure to an otherwise dry arena. Trying to hire two new writers with that particular flair, battling creative control from her boss at the airline, and also exploring that little thing we call a personal life, Marty must confront the question of what is more important - poetry and distance, or reality and experience? Written in rhymed couplets, Jenny Lyn Bader's new play is produced by Turn To Flesh Productions, which specializes in new plays dealing with modern themes, written in classical styles.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen a few of Turn to Flesh's previous productions and had a generally favorable opinion of them. I knew this was a new play entirely in rhyming couplets. I think that's it.


Play: There's a lot to be admired here - the craft of the thing, the fact that the rhymes didn't feel forced, and that I caught only a few slant rhymes when listening for it. And the idea of it, of trying to reincorporate a sense of poetry, of vivid imagery, of time actually spent describing a thing, into a travel magazine, to reintroduce the romantic notions of travel and experiencing life ("An in-flight magazine - but it's intense!") - this was all very appealing and infectious. Marty's struggle to find a balance between the ethics of poetic perfection and a flawed reality, a dream versus a life lived, was elegantly placed against the office she never leaves, opting instead to send out writers to report on places she's never been. However, the seemingly randomly-inserted subplot of corporate corruption felt shoe-horned in, and more a means to an end (the acquiring of magazine control) than an actual character- or idea-exploration. The argument with Melanie didn't enlighten us further to Marty's arc, nor really to anyone else's. And I could argue that she was too quick to forgive spoiler for spoiler, but why ruin the fun for you?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Margin Notes: The King and I

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara as the King and Anna.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.
The King and I

Seen on: Saturday, 5/9/15.
My grade: A. Lush and lovely production.

Plot and Background

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew the show, of course, and the movie even more so. And I knew that Bartlett Sher's revival of South Pacific, while still not a show I'll ever love, was still an extraordinary production. I went in with similar expectations for this show.


Play: As with Bartlett Sher's LCT revival of South Pacific, this was an admirable and gorgeously done production - but it still didn't make me love the show. But again as with SP, this is definitely the way to see a show you don't love. Sher took advantage of the vast sweep of the Vivian Beaumont's thrust stage to give us an expansive space of light and dark, of connection and uncrossable divides. He also managed to well-craft dialogue-less moments, notably the romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha. Armed with the choreography of Gattelli/Robbins, and a distant echo of the iconic moments from the film, he delivered a full and rich view of a trying-not-to-be-but-still-kind-of-is-racist musical.

Margin Notes: The Perfect Wife

Gwenevere Sisco and John Lenartz as Kathy and Paul.
Photo by Patrick Taylor.
The Perfect Wife

Seen on: Sunday, 5/10/15.
My grade: B-. Weak script bolstered by good design and some good performances.

Plot and Background
After her estranged father Paul slipped into dementia, Kathy returned to be caretaker - and much more than she bargained for, as Paul recognizes her as his late ex-wife Natalie more frequently than he does as his daughter, all grown up. Though Kathy's sister Sarah attempts to intervene, Kathy's and Paul's codependency runs too strong a current for her to divert. Per the program, "The Perfect Wife​won the 2012 Stanley Drama Award from Wagner College, was a semi-finalist in the National Playwrights Conference, and chosen for the 2013 nuVoices Play Festival at The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. Karen L. Lewis (WGA & Dramatists Guild) has had productions and readings regionally and off Broadway and has won various awards."

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I have worked with the director, Audrey Alford, and the actor, Gwenevere Sisco, before, on a play I wrote, and consider them both friends. Gonna do my best to remain objective.


Play: I'm going to be honest, I wasn't really wild about the script. There was too much Exposition as Argument, where two characters argue by telling the other things they already know, for the benefit of the audience. And I think it ultimately hurt the actors' ability to build character, with nothing but angrily expositing to drive them. And the climax, I think, ought to have felt inevitable, unavoidable - instead, it just sort of ... happened, and it didn't feel earned. And then the play ended. For all that, I admired the portrayal of dementia in the character of Paul - the sudden unexplained swings of mood and memory felt honest - painful and heartbreaking and unfixable. I certainly felt for the impossible situation in which Kathy found herself, as well as the incommunicable gulf between her and her sister. Director Audrey Alford navigated the lines of tension between her characters well, orchestrating between moments of sweet calm and wild calamity.

Margin Notes: Finding Neverland

Matthew Morrison and Laura Michelle Kelly as J.M. Barrie
and Sylvia Llewlyn Davies. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Finding Neverland

Seen on: Thursday, 5/7/15.
My grade: B-

Plot and Background
Playwright J.M. Barrie, struggling to write a new play that's not just a rehash of his earlier work, encounters widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four precocious sons and finds not only inspiration for Peter Pan, but a family that needs him as much as he needs them. This musical, commissioned by Harvey Weinstein and based off Miramax's film by David Magee and the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, was originally produced at Curve in Leicester in 2012. A revised version (with new writers and creative team) ran at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts in 2014. That production transferred - with some recasting - to Broadway this spring.

What I Knew Beforehand
I'd seen the film on which this is based, and wasn't that wild about it, but I'd also heard good reviews from some friends of mine, so I tried to go in with an open mind.


Play: I don't quite know how to evaluate this show. It sometimes works. It almost works. And then it stops working. So many songs end with the cast wearing expressions of exultation that the song itself did not reach or earn. And the scenes themselves are generally so overacted by the supporting players - it must be a choice, but a highly questionable one - that each line feels like an absurd declaration into a vacuum, with no connection to the rest of the show. There is definitely a problem in the writing - the lyrics are in general not interesting enough to be memorable, and the music, while not badly done, doesn't help elevate them. (there are a few exceptions, like "The Dinner Party," "Stronger," or "When Your Feet Don't Touch the Ground") But I wonder if the problem may actually just be that Paulus was the wrong director for this piece, though I've liked her other work tremendously. The staging of the songs feels slightly wrong, the scenes have no grounding in reality - not even in Barrie's heightened reality - and there's very little chemistry or consistency of tone. But then - sometimes there are moments of magic, of transcendence, that help excuse some of the annoying bits beforehand (see discussion in design). Oh and for God's sake, we all agree that Cheers joke was so far beneath them that it may already be buried underground?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Margin Notes: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Zachary Fine and Andy Grotelueschen as Crab and Launce.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
Two Gentlemen of Verona

Seen on: Saturday, 5/2/15.
My grade: B. A fun production of a bad play.

Plot and Background
Proteus and Valentine are best friends in Verona. Valentine travels to Milan and falls in love with Sylvia, who is also being pursued by Thurio. Though Proteus has pledged himself to Julia and exchanged rings with her, when he follows his friend to Milan, he too falls for Sylvia and seeks to sabotage Valentine's chances. Julia, meanwhile, because this is a Shakespearean comedy, puts on men's clothes and follow Proteus to Milan and witnesses his faithlessness. Some messed up gender politics ensue. Fiasco Theater has become known for its semi-deconstructed productions - often of Shakespeare - with minimal cast and sets, much character jumping and instrument playing, and a healthy sense of play. This production was originally produced by Folger Theatre in Washington DC last year.

What I Knew Beforehand
I haven't actually read the play, though I've certainly seen monologues performed from it. I knew some of Fiasco's work - I loved their Cymbeline and I had a mixed response to their recent Into the Woods.


Play: We need to start off by acknowledging what an absolutely problematic play this is. Fiasco certainly did, with their various scholarly quotations analyzing the work included in the program. It's called Two Gentlemen of Verona, and that term for either man could be used at best with a raised eyebrow. Proteus is a bad friend and a worse boyfriend, Valentine may be a slightly better one, but he still counsels the Duke with a "No means yes" wooing tutorial, and is all too willing to hand over Sylvia to a man who, not five minutes ago, threatened to rape her. What the hell, Shakespeare? That aside, this was still a fun production, but yeah, I wasn't rooting for any characters in this mess (well, maybe Crab and Launce. But certainly none of the lovers). The play travels at a pleasantly brisk pace, transitions smoothly running over Paul Coffey's musical accompaniment, and the character shifts happening smoothly and cleanly. Chemistry between performers is strong, and there's a good deal of fun to be had. But wow, Proteus is such a dick.