Monday, November 28, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W49: Only Gold, A Man of No Importance, Fiddler on the Roof, Leopoldstadt, Sraight Line Crazy, Merrily We Roll Along, A Christmas Carol

11/21/22: Only Gold
What: MCC presents a new musical by Kate Nash, about a king of a small country who brings his wife and adult daughter to Paris in 1928 to prepare for his daughter's wedding, and the watchmaker-turned-jeweler and piano soloist whose lives are changed by the royal family's arrival.
And? If you look at this as strictly a dance piece (directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler) underscored by Kate Nash songs, then this is some absolutely stellar storytelling. If you look at this as a musical, you're in a bit more trouble. The dialogue (book by Blankenbuehler and Ted Malawer) is very not good. The story itself is built entirely of tropes we've seen many times over. The use of Kate Nash as narrator who sometimes (but not always) sings the characters' thoughts, feels too arbitrary a device to be an effective storytelling move. The placement in 1928 Paris feels even more arbitrary. Why are we here? Where is the evidence of a generation lost to the Great War, of a city rebuilding? What, besides the love stories, makes any of this demand to take place in France? The only reason I can see for why it takes place in a specific year is to make it clear why Camille, as a woman, feels unable to pursue her music career.

But let's be kind. Let's look at it as a dance piece underscored by Kate Nash. Then, oh boy.  After hearing the pedestrian dialogue I didn't expect to invest in any of these characters' journeys, but the dances--each feeling in a way like their own individual one-acts--are a true emotional journey, a clarity of storytelling that reminds us why we love Blankenbuehler's work. This production is a true showcase for Karine Plantadit and Gaby Diaz, who play queen and princess to Terrence Mann's king. They are both utterly transcendent and vividly alive through their numbers. Heck, the whole cast is great, I just really wanted to highlight these two. I wish I could list specific songs/dances that spoke to me, but it's hard to remember the songs that were sung under the dances, so even a title list doesn't help me here. From a theater historian standpoint, it's rather charming that though Terrence Mann is cast in one of the three non-dancing roles, he still comes from a dance background (early projects for him include OBC Cats and the film of A Chorus Line); and luckily he also gets to have a great musical catharsis singing--he may not dance anymore, but his voice is still as wonderful as ever. And the framework for the space is lovely too: Jeff Croiter knows how to light dancers to show off their beauty and grace, and they glow against David Korins's romantic coppery scenic design.

Hannah Cruz and Karine Plantadit as Camille and Queen Roksana. Photo
by Daniel J. Vasquez.

What: Classic Stage presents a revival of the McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty musical about a bus conductor in Dublin, closeted and enamored of the works of Oscar Wilde, trying to stage a community production of Salome.
And? I think this musical just isn't for me. The production is fine, with some flaws (the flaws: the accent work is turrible, and the sound design isn't a lot better--I struggled to hear the cast over the instruments, and I was in the front row), but it's just not for me. John Doyle is a great actor's director, giving us fully realized humans onstage, which I always value. Jim Parsons gives a subtle and understated performance as Alfie, quietly sad and quietly hopeful. Thom Sesma, always solidly good, is a hammy delight as the butcher turned theater actor. A.J. Shively is dopeishly sweet as bus driver Robbie Fay, but the orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin don't allow his big song, "The Streets of Dublin," to soar the way it needs to. A really lovely thing to note: there is fantastic body diversity in this production, and the costume design by Ann Hould-Ward outfits them all beautifully. Yes, this, more please.

Shereen Ahmed, Da'Von T. Moody, Alma Cuervo, Joel Waggoner, William
Youmans, Mary Beth Peil, A.J. Shively, Jessica Tyler Wright, and Kara
Mikula as Adele Rice, Peter, Miss Oona Crowe, Ernie Lally, Baldy O'Shea,
Mrs. Grace, Robbie Fay, Mrs. Patrick, and Mrs. Curtin.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W48: Ohio State Murders, Chester Bailey

What: Playwright Adrienne Kennedy makes her long-awaited Broadway debut in the newly-renamed James Earl Jones Theatre. This play, originally written in 1992 as part of the Alexander Plays--a cycle of plays featuring Suzanne Alexander--shows Suzanne remembering her time as one of the few Black female students at Ohio State University, and the circumstances surrounding the violent conclusion of her time there.
And? Adrienne Kennedy is an incredible writer. She does not let the audience off the hook. This play, a poetic stream of consciousness, a monologue of memory for Suzanne where the other characters softly enter, softly exit, is unflinching in Alexander's recounting of her grief. Audra McDonald's performance is meticulous and affecting; she keeps mostly in her higher range as she speaks, in what I think is meant to be an imitation of Kennedy's own voice (pre- and post-show the sound system plays an audio of an interview with the playwright), as a nod to the acknowledged autobiographical threads in much of Kennedy's work. The design and direction by Kenny Leon echo the poetry in Kennedy's writing, with snow falling softly but unendingly through a large crack in the back wall, a space that is both a corruption of the sacred academic space and also a bird's eye view of the ravine where one of the murders took place (scenic design Beowulf Boritt).

11/16/22: Chester Bailey
What: Irish Rep presents real-life father and son Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney in the New York premiere of Joseph Dougherty's play about a young man working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1945 who suffers a catastrophic injury, and the attempts of his doctor to bring him to terms with the reality of his new existence.
And? John Lee Beatty's scenic design--creating simultaneously Chester's hospital room, Penn Station, the inside of a warship--is frankly stunning, and an excellent incorporation of Irish Rep's load-bearing columns. It's beautifully and subtly illuminated by Brian MacDevitt's lighting design and given a cavernous sense when needed by Brendan Aanes's sound design. Both Birneys gives excellent and nuanced performances. Truly, there's a lot of good here. But. I can't get past two fairly large problematic elements inherent to the writing of this play. 

One, which the NYT review also calls out, is the tired, troubling, and frankly angering bogeyman of the queer predator. Can we not? Can we please, at long last, not? Yes, when I hear a character's diagnosis in 1945 to include among his illnesses an "uncontrollable homosexual impulse," I cringe but also know that's a sign of the times. But to have it then equated without interrogation with sexual predation, I just. Can we please not?

My other issue is the romanticizing yet again of mental illness. To be clear, I'm not here to stigmatize mental illness, or to equate it with neurodiversity. But I find romanticizing delusion a rather dangerous tendency in the theater and film (areas where we have been hearing way too many stories of excusing or romanticizing toxic behavior in the name of art); it's no accident reviews keep comparing this play to Equus. That one was a problem, too.

Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney as Dr. Philip Cotton and Chester Bailey.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W47: A Christmas Carol

What: Michael Arden directs man of a thousand characters Jefferson Mays in this one-person production of Dickens's classic story about a cold man's redemption and the Christmas spirit.
And? Halloween's over, bring on the Christmas ghost story! I saw the filmed version of the George Street Playhouse's version of this production in 2020 and loved it, so I was excited to get to see in person. And wouldn't you know it, for the second week in a row I found myself inadvertently at a first preview. So my small quibbles (the sound levels are too high, they haven't perfected some of the set movement so we kept catching sight of the crew when the turntable spun forward) are ones that hopefully will be fine-tuned as the show goes on. My other issue is probably something they would call a feature, not a bug: it's very dimly lit, especially at the beginning. While this allows for a few spoilery magic tricks and creates the spooky ambiance, it also means we can't really see the work Jefferson Mays is doing (it also means, when bright light finally makes an appearance, I had to cover my face because it actually hurt my eyes). Still, it's a moving show that moves along at a 90 minute clip, and Mays is always a treat to watch in his element: playing 300 characters.

Jefferson Mays as Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo source.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Weekly Margin 2022, W46: The Rat Trap, The Piano Lesson, What Passes For Comedy, Parade

11/01/22: The Rat Trap
What: Mint Theater presents the American premiere of Nöel Coward's play about two young writers who marry, only to learn that his insecurities don't allow her to have a successful writing career at the same time as his.
And? Sometimes you see a preview performance and it feels finished and ready for critics; sometimes you see a preview performance that really really feels like a preview performance. I hadn't quite clocked that I got myself a ticket to this production's first performance but here we are. So I don't want to speak too much to the nitpicks I have with the production (cues, line readings, timing of scene changes, etc.), because those will improve with practice. The play itself though is, I think, not for me. It's just frustrating. Good dialect coaching from Amy Stoller, though.

What: The star-studded Broadway revival of August Wilson's play about two adult siblings, the descendants of enslaved people, navigating their legacy in 1937. That legacy is embodied in an ornately carved piano--carved by their great-grandfather to depict his whole family, but owned by the Sutter family who enslaved him--which Berneice is determined to hold onto, as her father died reclaiming the property, but which Boy Willie wants to sell to allow him to buy the land he farms and no longer be a sharecropper. 
And? I like the conflict of what it means to honor a legacy, to reclaim yourself from the people who tried to treat you like property. I like that both Boy Willie and Berneice have valid points (though with his flighty, frenetic energy, it's clear in the play that Berneice's more grounded and steady side is the correct one). I don't know that the direction is serving the script as strongly as it could be: the magic isn't subtle, nor are the scenic or lighting designs, and the final tableau is tidier than it should be. John David Washington seems a bit lost in some of his longer monologues (and I find myself focusing instead on Danielle Brooks's Berneice, engaged in cleaning up daughter Maretha's hair--the difference between clear and muddy intentions), but Samuel L. Jackson is an excellent storyteller in all of his monologues, and an engaging presence. And stealing the show (as he often does, let's be honest) is Michael Potts as Wining Boy, master of palaver and always with another scheme up his sleeve.

John David Washington and Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie and Doaker.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Margin Notes: What Passes For Comedy

Alain Pierre as Tory Browne. Photo by Reiko Yoo.
Seen on: Thursday, 11/03/22.
My grade: B-. An interesting argument, but an uneven execution.

Plot and Background
The Chain Theatre presents a new play by G.D. Kimble, a look in the writers room of a late night talk show in early 1960s America. After the show's host Jack Harrod says a (scripted) antisemitic slur live on air, hell breaks loose as showrunner, network head, and stars all demand answers, apologies, and a new script from the show's three relatively novice writers: Tory, a Black Harvard grad hired specifically to write for the show's Black bandleader Bunny Brown; Adam/Zep, the Jewish writer responsible for the Yiddishisms in the host's monologues (as well as the slur); and Will, a blonde-haired gentile raised in privilege who's cut himself off from his wealthy family. Tensions rise as each man's insecurities and inner furies come hollering to the surface in an examination of, well, what passes for comedy.

Playwright Kimble and director Rick Hamilton workshopped this play in the 2020 Chain Play Writing Lab before bringing it to full production here.

What I Knew Beforehand
I've reviewed for The Chain before, when they were still based in Queens. 


Play: Playwright Kimble has chosen a messy topic, and I respect that he deals with it as messily as it deserves. There's no clean finish, either in the early 60s or now, over half a century later. What Passes For Comedy is asking not just what jokes we can tell, but also who's allowed to tell them. It's significant that the antisemitic joke, though spoken by a gentile host, was penned by the staff's one Jewish writer. It's significant that Tory, the one Black writer, is the only one allowed to write for the show's Black bandleader (it's also significant that Tory, while inept at the style of joke they want for the bandleader, has been covertly writing jokes for the white host and having them pitched by the staff's gentile writer). The play digs into some complex issues within these marginalized identities as well: Tory, young and educated, is disgusted at the "shucking and jiving" that Bunny has to perform, but cannot see the battles that Bunny has won in order to get to his position and power, compromised though they may be; Tory and Zep's friendship began as the two Others at a greeting card company, but as Tory reminds Zep he has white privilege, even as a Jew, Zep grudgingly tells Tory of his history of getting beaten up by Black children on his walk to school. It's all messy, and it should be, and the only part of the argument I bristled at was, at least to my perception, a bit of imbalance in each side's attempt to dismiss discrimination against the other's identity. The 1960s is beyond too early to tell a Jew to get over the Holocaust, just as it's too early to tell a Black person to get over slavery, especially as both communities are still being actively discriminated against. But I do think Kimble, a Black playwright, did his best at balance, and I can't say I could have done better. What I wish had been said, however, is what both communities need to hear: It is not a contest. It's not Enslavement and Jim Crow vs Pogroms and the Holocaust. Pitting the Black community against the Jewish community is, besides erasing the intersectionality of Black Jews, falling victim yet again to White Supremacy, the actual villain here. Let's not forget that when two characters in the play finally come to blows, it's the old white studio head who storms out yelling the N word. 

And then of course the final beat (spoilers, darlings) hammers home the deeply uncomfortable truth: what passes for comedy? Host Jack Harrod can't say the antisemitic slur, but he can make as many Black stereotype jokes as he wants, the audience eating it all up, as Bunny's wide smile becomes a rictus of agony, his eyes filling with angry tears.

I think Kimble's play is a better script than is being served by director Rick Hamilton. It still needs some editing (the second act gets too lecture-y, and there are unearned reconciliations between Tory and Zep, and Tory and Bunny, an attempt at a cleaner exit than this argument deserves), but the story and characters move along at a clip--or rather they should, but they don't in this production, which flows a little too relaxed for its stakes. And especially in the first act, where the writers are spitballing jokes faster than they can write them down, this stuff should be fast and funny but most of it doesn't land. The writers are scripted to be spitting out punchlines almost in spite of themselves, those guys who just can't keep their mouths shut; but here they're just taking their turn without any internal conflict. When the whole cast is failing to make me laugh at lines that are objectively funny, that lands more in the director's lap for me than the actors'.