Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Bacchae (Shakespeare in the Park)

The Bacchae
The Public Theater

August 22, 2009

Euripides (writer)

Joanne Akalaitis (director)

A great production of The Bacchae transforms the theater from a secular stage into a temple dedicated to a primitive god whose only demand is submission. Joanne Akalaitis, a director of alienating theater and a pillar of American experimental drama, should be a good match for the complex, ferocious show. But she delivers a production that's notable mostly for its moderation. The music, by Philip Glass, is all driving drums and pensive horns. And David Neumann's choreography, sign language as much as dance, helps the audience focus on the lyrics of the chorus's long speeches.

But the show's too cool to engage us on a primal level. In the lead, Jonathan Groff makes Dionysis a seductive, slightly sinister presence but he can't handle the transition to vengeful god. The play's climax lies with Joan MacIntosh as the mother and unknowing murderer of the King of Thebes. But after an hour of chilly and remote drama, she plays her scene in hysterics. Her performance is partly the translator's fault too: who could find the emotional truth in a line like “Ah, I cannot look! And yet look I must at what these hands have done”? The Bacchae is a play of intoxicating heat; Akalaitis and company give it a chilly distance instead.


The Bacchae plays at the Delacorte Theater (Central Park at 80st Street), closing on August 30. Tickets?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coney Island Avenue (NYTW)

Coney Island Avenue
SixDollarsInMyPocket Productions
August 11, 2009
Charles L. Mee (writer)
Anjali Vashi (director)

This review comes too late to encourage audiences to see Charles Mee's Coney Island Avenue, which closed last weekend. Too bad, because it was a pretty good production by an exuberant young company. It moved quickly, it was never boring, and it had that over-caffeinated, go-for-broke artistic sensibility that's best Off-Off-B'way in the thick heat of August.

To bring Brooklyn to life, director Anjali Vashi unpacked her toolbox of experimental devices: modern dance (popular, modern, and ballet), recorded and live music, backdrop projections, ambient noise, no fourth wall. She'd suggest the borough's bustle by placing intense conversations or focused speeches in front of scenes involving violent, mimed activities. She'd insert beats that lacked context, like a girl in a bikini hunting for her lost top or a dancer in googly antennae scuttling around like a cockroach. All she forgot was projected text, a la Brecht.

But to what end? Mee's script (available online) offered nothing specific to Brooklyn, except an obligatory quote or two from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There was no plot or theme holding the montage structure together, no sense of setting or character. Most big cities have hipsters, immigrants, carnivals, and folk songs; just look one borough over. Vashi and her company of diverse actors, dancers, singers, and bodybuilders made the stage into a fun place, but it never felt like home.


Coney Island Avenue played at New York Theatre Workshop (83 East 4th Street), closing on August 16.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Lifetime Burning (Primary Stages)

A Lifetime Burning
Primary Stages
August 8, 2009
Cusi Cram (writer)
Pam MacKinnon (director)

A Lifetime Burning is one of those dramas about rich New Yorkers in crisis: not my favorite genre. But it's got a few saving graces, especially a performance by Jennifer Westfeldt that spackles over the cracks in her character. She's Emma, a blonde socialite in a swank Soho apartment (gorgeously decorated by Kris Stone) who's fabricated an impoverished East Harlem childhood for her glossy new memoir.

The reason Lifetime works as a play is that playwright Cusi Cram actually dramatizes her characters' intelligence. Where most playwrights suggest smarts by plugging characters' mouths with facts and wit, Cram's therapized New Yorkers deduce each other's motivations by observing behavior. Cram provides fodder for these deductions by nesting flashbacks within a confrontation between Emma and her bourgeois sister. The structure works better than the plot itself, which climaxes with Emma confessing her most recent spiral was triggered by a romance (with a teen from East Harlem—see how that connects?) that ended in date rape and, later, an abortion.

Emma's a little too diffuse to be a great role, but Westfeldt draws the loose strands together. Her seesawing emotions and febrile impulsiveness imply that Emma's white-hot intellect is inseparable from the curdled chemical cocktail of her mind. And director Pam MacKinnon is one of the Off-Broadway's best: the show's a la mode tone is essential to its pleasure, while its momentum keeps the playful structure clear. In its brisk 90 minutes, A Lifetime Burning satisfies an audience without testing our patience.


A Lifetime Burning plays at 59E59 (59 E. 59th Street) thru September 5. Tickets?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Al's Business Cards (Theatre Row)

Al's Business Cards
At Play Productions
August 6, 2009
Josh Koenigsberg (writer)
Laura Keating (director)

It's not easy to write a good comedy, so I'm willing to forgive the length of Al's Business Cards (55 minutes). Writer Josh Koenigsberg has the mechanics of humor down, spinning a smart plot from a simple situation. He riffs on a gag from Seinfeld—half-Indian Al Gurvis is mistaken for Hispanic, while Eileen Lee, despite her name, isn't Asian at all—but where Jerry and the gang took aim at America's boorish behavior, Koenigsberg draws out deeper issues.

In its short runtime, ABC touches on cultural identity, immigration, home ownership, divorce and addiction. By rooting the story in the cultural moment (and not just thru pop references), Koenigsberg increases our stake in Al. It helps, of course, that Azhar Khan is so affable as Al, a schlub who makes one dumb remark for every two smart ones and is self-aware enough to aspire to more.

At heart, ABC is an unlucky comic romance. Al meets Eileen, a real estate broker, after their local NJ printer has mixed up (and misprinted) their business cards; he mistakes her flirtatious hustle for romantic interest and gets drawn into her disastrous love life. As Eileen, Lauren Hines plays well with Khan and rattles off her banter with flair. Director Lauren Keating keeps the momentum up, even when scenes drag and supporting actors flag, and gets mileage out of an obviously tight budget. In its too-short hour, Al's Business Cards may be about as substantial as a sitcom, but it's an honestly funny sitcom.


Al's Business Cards plays at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) until August 22. Tickets?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Columbine Project (Actors Temple Theatre)

The Columbine Project
Actors Temple Theatre
Aug. 5, 2009
Paul Anthony Storiale (writer/director)

On the tenth anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, Paul Anthony Storiale means to provide fresh insight into a shocking story. But his play, The Columbine Project, is a fumbling and wooden mess that tosses out the same confusion of answers that the talking heads on a 24-hour news network would offer.

The title suggests that Storiale was inspired by the drama-journalism of The Laramie Project, a suspicion reinforced by the montage structure that mingles interviews, court transcripts, re-enactments of 911 calls, and fictional dramatic scenes. Storiale indicts everyone and no one: blithe parents, bullying jocks, winking school administrators, incompetent officials and cops, hormonal teenagers,
video games, and the murderers' own sub-Nietzschean philosophy.

The show's worst moments are the fictionalized scenes, for which Storiale should have his dramatic license revoked. They resemble generic TV versions of teen life and digress to offer shaggy ironies (one of the boys was born on September 11!). The actors display the worst cliches of their craft, like staring off into space above the audience's heads when they're saying something profound. As the show goes on, a white spotlight means to give these moments even more gravity. The show finally hammers itself home with a speech that begins, “The world changed on April 20, 1999.” and ends with an acoustic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. No matter what Storiale's intentions were, theater this clumsy is a disservice to the victims' memories.


The Columbine Project has an open run at the Actors Temple Theatre (339 W. 47th St.) from July 27.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Slipping (Rattlestick Th.)

Phoenix Rising / Rattlestick Theater
Aug. 3, 2009
Daniel Talbot (writer)
Kirsten Kelly (director)

Slipping, now playing at the Rattlestick, has my favorite kind of mistakes: those of inexperience. Daniel Talbot's emo drama about high-school queer confusion wears its youth like a t-shirt logo. It's all very serious—high schooler Jake has just moved from SF to Iowa after his father's suicide—with its best beats involving a sicko conflation of sex, love, and self-loathing. Self-mutilation is key to the plot, which also flashes back to a secret relationship that poisoned Jake's psyche.

Talbot, like many inexperienced playwrights, toys with standard modern dramaturgy (non-linear structure, direct address) but he also misreads his own story. Slipping wants to be a straightforward romance, right down to the thinly-drawn male ingenue whose love will heal Jake's psychic wounds. But Talbot leans instead on his protag's grief and self-loathing, turning the play into a melodrama. There's not enough contrast between the hero's dark California past and his sunny Iowa present. A more seasoned playwright would also find some optimism in Jake's youth, and lift the dour off the perfunctory resolution: at 17, this kid's not irrevocably damaged.

Still, I can see why the Phoenix Rising Company produced Slipping: it's fresh-faced and sexy, and with scenes of adolescent kanoodling and tortured love, it's nicely theatrical. Its lead role offers many opportunities a hot young man (in this case, Seth Numrich) to emote. And stealing the show is gloomy, rangy Adam Driver as the jock ex-boyfriend who isn't sure whether he wants to kiss Jake or punch him. Slipping is passably entertaining, and its playwright shows some promise.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mother (The Wild Project)

The Wild Project
July 29, 2009
Lisa Ebersole (writer)
Andrew Grosso (director)

What I can't figure is, why comedians Buck Henry & Holland Taylor agreed to be in Lisa Ebersole's Mother. When an actor picks a bum script, the problem, ironically, is that tempting lead role: what makes the show a great vehicle also leaves the show's dramaturgy behind as roadkill. But Mother's got nothing like that to offer its cast. The script isn't a complete washout: the dialogue sounds natural and the family dynamics are richly layered. But what there is of a plot is a dysfunctional WASP get-together.

The direction's invisible; the set's serviceable. Ebersole plays the daughter and Haskall King plays the son: both are wooden. But Henry and Holland flash their wit, helping to suggest there's more driving their characters' spaciness and petulance than just senior moments. Of course, the script deals out a few last-minute revelations to explain their behavior. But they've been shoehorned in for drama's sake, far too late to energize the drifting, aimless play.

Mother seems more like an playwrighting exercise (“write a scene in which every character has a subtext”) than a drama. Ebersole's naturalistic dialogue apes Harold Pinter, but without the fury that makes Pinter so vital. And she teases us with a subplot involving a feud with a rival family—is she fusing Mexican-style kidnappings with 21st-century corporate financiers? No, she's just dangling another plot thread in front of us. Mother isn't about anything; after 75 minutes of gathering yarn, it leaves the audience wondering why good actors pick dull scripts.