Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off-Broadway: If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet
Roundabout at the Steinberg Center
written by Nick Payne
directed by Michael Longhurst
Thursday, Sept. 27

British director Michael Longhurst and designer Beowulf Borritt have placed a neat junkpile centerstage for If There Is…. To define a scene's location, the actors pull a fridge, a TV, or a bike from the pile. Scene over, the furniture gets shoved into a water tank at the footlights. It's all part of the consumer culture that's clogging up the environment, and also part of the mess that the play's characters have made for themselves. For If There Is… is another drama where a feckless relative visits a stressed-out family to egg along the crisis.

Cast in that catalytic role, film actor Jake Gyllenhaal takes the Brando approach to stagework, disappearing fully into the part by burying himself under fussy, tic-filled physicality. In response, the rest of the cast gives Kim Hunter-like performances, quieter but stronger and more subtle. Their psychological realism lends substance to the underwritten characters. The effectiveness of the production almost masks the conventions of the script. But If There Is… is the same realistic, episodic family drama that Off-Broadway companies always produce.


If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet plays at the Steinberg Center, closing on November 25. Tickets?


Friday, September 28, 2012

Off-Broadway: Job

The Bats at the Flea Theater
written by Thomas Bradshaw
directed by Benjamin Kamine
Sept. 22, 2012

Thomas Bradshaw, always provocative, has never been so bold as he is here, in his adaptation of Job. The biblical book tackles the cause of suffering, depicting a seemingly heartless wager between God and Satan over the strength of Job's faith. When pressed to account for Job's suffering, God refuses: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth?” Without losing any of the tragic amplitude of the original, Bradshaw turns this into a radical commentary on authority. Job, a successful owner of livestock, sits in judgment over a small fiefdom, mercifully adopting victims of rape and, more disturbingly, be-handing thieves. This mortal world is all bushy beards, animal sacrifices, and declamations in a pseudo-Biblical style. Heaven is superficially different―pressed khakis, wine glasses served on trays, and genial conversation―but its God is just as stern when He delivers His verdicts.

In past shows, Bradshaw has staged explicit and often violent sexual acts, seeming simply to enjoy provoking audiences. But in Job, these horrific acts purposefully underscore the fraught nature of human existence. Castration and necrophilic rape suggest that Bradshaw is personally horrified by (and drawn to) sexual degredation as a dramatic tool, though he also engages the tragic tradition of blinding as the ultimate metaphor for suffering. But Job's suffering, when it occurs, is neither tragic nor heroic, it's just pathetic. As his life becomes unbearable, he laments in plaintive tones that distract God from His silent meditation practice. To end the distraction, God descends from Heaven for His empty self-justification. Job's body, property, and status restored, he returns to ordering amputations.

A casual reading of Job easily sets it up as an allegory for the '07-08 economic catastrophe. Wall Street (Job) is hobbled but, once bailed out by the Government,  returns to its merciless behavior. Common humanity is unchanged throughout: hungry, violent, and fearful. Bradshaw's previous shows have presented a satiric worldview, which would reinforce this reading. But the difference with Job is that Bradshaw seems to believe that hierarchy is fixed and authority is inevitable as well as selfish. Maybe that view stems from the source material, but Bradshaw hasn't altered or subverted it. The show's only irony (though it's a deep one) is a tragic fear for physical frailty and a tragic pity for the exploited. That would seem to be Bradshaw's own position, since it doesn't correspond either to God or Job.

Benjamin Kamine's production of Bradshaw's script pads its runtime to 60 minutes by staging some exhilarating primitive Orientalist dances as well as horrific dumbshows of rape and murder. The Biblical atmosphere is richly evoked, Cecil B. DeMille by way of Peter Brook (if you can imagine that). In the title role, Sean McIntyre uses a deep baritone to stentorian effect, and plays smartly in a flat, Brechtian style that fits the play well. As God, Ugo Chukwu is smooth and casual, a being used to ultimate power. But his earthly manifestation at the show's climax is the evening's own tragic flaw. The problem partly is the costume, an unimposing mask and cloak, and partly Chukwu's voice, which lacks the raw vigor of divinity speaking from the whirlwind. It's a gravely disappointing moment, but Bradshaw's play has enough strength and depth to overcome this.


Job plays at the Flea Theater, closing on October 7. Tickets?


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Theater: New Shows (Sept. 25 - Oct. 1)

Ars Nova will be transformed
into a Russian salon not unlike this one.
Dress accordingly.
The stages are revving up for the autumn season. So with plenty to choose from, I'll shine the spotlight this week on Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. That's a fantastic title. Tasha & Pete are two protagonists of War and Peace, Tolstoy's epic about Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. This show adapts a small, lovely segment of the novel into a pocket-opera that fuses Russian folk and classic music with “electro-pop” music. The staging, by the sharp Rachel Chavkin, promises to turn Ars Nova into a Moscow salon, its tables set with vodka and dumplings! Imaginative, theatrical, and forward-looking, this sounds like a cool evening.

where: Ars Nova
first night: Monday, Oct. 1

And here's the rest of the week's new shows:

where: MCC at the Lortel Theater
first night: Thursday, Sept. 27
Judicial conservativism seems like a great subject for modern American dramatists, but DGG is the first play I've come across about the movement. Michael Cristofer (Intelligent Homosexual's Guide…) plays a right-wing justice whose pro bono work leads to conflict, internal and external.

where: Minetta Lane Theater
first night: Thursday, Sept. 27
An autistic teen gets thrown out of his rhythm when an estranged relative visits. That sounds formulaic, so let's hope the Midwestern creators (writer Deanna Jent and director Lori Adams, both unknown to me) devise new theatrical tools to get the audience into the strange mind of the protagonist.

where:  The Flea Theater
first night: Saturday, Sept. 29
A.R. Gurney in realistic mode bores me silly, but when he gets theatrical and political he gets my attention. Heresy is him in the latter manner, adapting a passion play for election season. Mary and Joe visit Homeland Security to learn from Pontius Pilate (Reg E. Cathey, always good) why their son Chris has been arrested.

where: Primary Stages at 59E59
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 25
A dishwater drama about a small-business inheritance to be split between siblings. The script is by Hallie Foote, who mines the same Last Picture Show milieu as her late father Horton. Their quirky, quotidian realism has come into fashion in the last decade, though I can't see why.

where: The Secret Theater
first night: Friday, Sept. 28
Four magic words: “After the robot uprising…” LIC's Secret Theater has become The Place for science fiction onstage. The venue's latest follows a nanny-bot across a post-apocalyptic world of the 25C, after humanity quashed the robo-revolution. See you there?

where: Broadway (Booth Theater)
first night: Thursday, Sept. 27
Albee's alcohol-soaked masterwork just played a stupendous run in '05 but it's good enough to stand another viewing. This Steppenwolf production got hossanahs a few seasons ago; with Pam McKinnon (Clybourne Park) directing Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, it's not hard to guess why. This is only Letts' second NYC stage appearance, tho' his scripts (like August: Osage County, which earned Morton a Tony nom) have made his reputation rock-solid.

Last chance!
Bullet for Adolf
where: New World Stages

Fly Me to the Moon
where: 59E59

where: Signature Theater

where: Theater Row

Monday, September 10, 2012

Theater: New Plays (Sept. 11-17)

This week's spotlight is Through the Yellow Hour by Adam Rapp. His spiky pessimism may not be for all audiences but his grungy style and horror-movie tone feels more contemporary than many glossy works of realistic drama. Rapp pursues his imagination down dark alleys, as in this week's debut Through the Yellow Hour. Set in a US that's been attacked (but by whom? from without or within?) and its populace terrorized, a feral woman comes out of hiding to change the world.

where: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
first night: Thursday, Sept. 13

But there's plenty more to see if that doesn't strike your fancy.

where: 59E59
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 11
Rip-snorting swing jazz from the WW2 era is the main draw of this bio-musical. A pair of twins play Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, bandmates whose rise to fame caused their family and band to rupture. The drama was filmed a few years later in The Fabulous Dorseys, which this staging takes footage from.

where: Roundabout on Broadway (American Airlines Theater)
first night: Friday, Sept. 14
The musketeer with the long nose returns to Broadway, a mere five years after his last visit. This time, the ultra-talented Douglas Hodge dons the prosthetic schnozz; he impressed New Yorkers in La Cage aux Folles a few years back, but Londoners knew his work in Pinter & Shakespeare as well.

where: BAM Opera House
first night: Friday, Sept. 14
I'm ashamed to admit I have no desire to see this modernist masterpiece, a seminal work of the 20C. Usually I love the dilation and abstraction of time that occurs during a play. And coupling that conceptual theme with Einstein's theories of spacetime is a brilliant idea. But I've always been underwhelmed by Robert Wilson's work and I've given it so many chances. Go, and tell me that I'm missing out.

where: The Culture Project
first night: Saturday, Sept. 15
Produced during W. Bush's first term, this piece seemed a theatrical tonic in that bitter conservative era. Astonishing and effective, it shapes interviews, letters and court documents about innocent death-row inmates cleared by DNA evidence into a galvanizing work of journalistic theater. Agitprop can be incredible theater.

where: Broadway (Cort Theater)
first night: Thursday, Sept. 13
Paul Rudd, shorter but also more confident onstage than you'd figure, leads Ed Asner, Michael Shannon, and Chicagoan Kate Arrington to Broadway, a solid line-up for a straight drama. It's a rather dark comedy about faith and Florida, whose sober tone and weighty themes stick with you longer than the plot.

where: Theater Row
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 11
Stephen Sondheim gets top billing here, since this musical features his work. But this show is a set of SS's songs removed from their context and slotted into a new story by Craig Lucas & a writing partner. Their subject is a neighboring pair of lonely urbanites and their romantic fantasies. It sounds pretty un-Sondheim, but may possess its own satisfactions.

where: Cherry Lane Theater
first night: Wednesday, Sept. 12
A quirky comedy about a set of night watchmen who must comfort one of their own after he's lost his cat. Every part of that description—from quirk to cat—should raise your guard. But the Playwrights Realm have a good record of producing writers worth getting to know, so they deserve the benefit of your doubt.

where: Classic Stage
first night: Friday, Sept. 14
A trio of works from Beckett's twilight years—when he'd gone past abstract, beyond abstruse to obscure. Dark, dark stuff. But the staging might be worth your time, with DC doyene Joy Zinoman directing in collaboration with the Cygnus Ensemble, a famously tight chamber orchestra whose style should match Beckett's well.

Last chance!
New Girl in Town
where: Irish Repertory Theater

Space Captain: Captain of Space
where: Kraine Theater

Friday, September 7, 2012

Sci-Fi Theater: Space Captain

The Kraine Theater
written by Jeff Sproul
directed by Lindsey Moore Sproul

Happily, this Flash Gordon rip-off doesn't begin and end by parodying the cheap movie serials of the Great Depression. For one thing, it bounces exuberantly between live action and filmed location shots. Add the styrofoam “puppet” spaceships, which fire be-glittered popsicle sticks for laser blasts, and the production's aesthetic playfully echoes the high-tech/low-fi future of pre-WW2 SF. The bigger surprise is that the playwright Jeff Sproul takes his characters (semi-)seriously. Space Captain Rocky Lazer loses his two-fisted confidence when he realizes his love interest may be turned off by his patronizing attitude. To be a better hero, he must better himself. In fact, every character grows―something Flash, Ming, and the rest never did. Director Lindsey Moore Sproul, unfortunately, is more comfortable with Airplane-style hijinks. A stronger hand would've cut the plot's repetitions, picked up the pace, and even staged the actors better. Most importantly, she would've demanded a stronger end to the arc of damsel Jean Jarvis. Alicia Barnatchez gives a witty performance, but finally her part never rises above the role of Rocky's love interest. That fix would add sass to the show's snappy pleasures.


Space Captain: Captain of Space plays at the Kraine Theater, closing on Sept. 15. Tickets?


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Theater: New Shows (Sept. 4-10)

A low-wattage week, maybe due to Labor Day. But that doesn't diminish my spotlight pick, Strange Tales of Liaozhai. An evening of Chinese folk tales (that alone should be enough to hook you) gets treated via semi-abstract puppetry (which should tempt you even more). The auteur is Hanne Tierney, who manipulates silks, lanterns, & bamboo poles with a complex system of counterweights. Her collaborator, Jane Wang, has composed a modernist score, which she'll perform live on toy pianos & constructed instruments (which should close the deal).

where: Here Arts Center
first night: Thursday, Sept. 6

And here's the rest:

where: Fourth Street Theater
first night: Friday, Sept. 7
It's hard to keep the pulse of theater in Eastern Europe. So take the opportunity to check the English-language premiere of this Serbian trilogy, written just before the Kosovo War of '98-'99. It's a epic & a comedy, covering a family's diaspora from their home city during the Cold War. The playwright, Biljana Srbljanovic, has a strong rep but expect dramaturgical quirks due to cultural differences.

where: Friedman Theater
first night: Tuesday, Sept. 4
MTC mounts a Broadway revival of An Enemy of the People, Ibsen's noble-minded classic. A doctor discovers a toxic contaminant in a resort-town's spring-water. The local authorities want to shut him up, lest he wreck the spa's reputation. Swap a shark for ground seepage and you've got Jaws!

where: 59E59
first night: Wednesday, Sept. 5
An Irish comedy―which is to say, a black comedy―about a corpse who wins a fortune at the racetrack. The Great Recession has hit Ireland particularly hard, and this import finds some mirth in the Celtic Tiger's collapse. By Marie Jones, whose Stones in His Pockets was fondly received a decade ago.

where: New York Theater Workshop
first night: Wednesday, Sept. 5
Kathleen Chalfant takes the lead in this drama about an essential theme of our time, genocide. In this case, the subject is the Armenians, victims of the Ottoman Turks in WW1. Press materials imply that RDH is of the “family secrets unearthed” subgenre & offers a sense of redemption―neither of which suggest a strong drama.

Last chance!
The Best Man
where: Schoenfeld Theater

where: New World Stages

Saturn: A Play about Food
where: The Wild Project