The 2016 Tony Awards: An Affair to Remember

Customarily, I’m not one to be caught up in the competitive suspense generated by the Tony Awards, or for that matter in the many competitions between artists that excite most of us. How can you choose between a great orange and a great apple? The choice has little to do with the quality of the fruit; it has to do with my own personal preference, with what I feel like in the moment.

Way back in the last century, when I was a high school drama teacher, my students and I would faithfully enter all the play competitions. They were great for providing enthusiastic audiences for our work, and certainly when we won, it was a tremendous ego boost for hard-working and talented kids in need of approval. For most of us it was almost as much a kick without the win. We worked hard to focus on the time we had spent together, the joy brought to us by the work and the discovery of new ideas and attitudes, the making of new friends, the excitement of performing before an approving audience, and the pride in bringing to them the insights of our too-often-forgotten playwrights. No one was allowed to feel like a “loser,” because no one was. (For confirmation, see the related discussion below of The Crucible.)

There were certainly no losers in Sunday night’s Tony Awards Show. If you missed this one, you missed a goodie. All right, so maybe we all knew who the “winner” was destined to be, and clearly Hamilton has earned every kudo it gets. But the entire Awards Ceremony was filled with the finest and juiciest apples and oranges to be found in any market anywhere.

Choosing all that fruit must have been a tough job for Tony voters. This was an astoundingly refreshing New York Theatre season. I knew that even before I embarked on my spring play-going binge, and long before the May 23rd announcement of this year’s Tony nominees. There have often been trips when I took risks on new works I’d never heard of, some terrific, and some duds. I’ve enjoyed the majority, walked out on a few, and was frequently indifferent to the rest.  But this time I knew I had a 100% solid treat in store: I was pleased and surprised to find six straight plays I was eager to see, as well as The King and I, which I’ll eventually come to in these pages.

Of course everyone asks if I’ve seen Hamilton, but alas that one will have to wait until the price drops well below the reported current levels of $850 and up for tickets for the foreseeable future. (Or… for the cheapskates among us who act fast enough, we could probably save some by flying out to Chicago, L.A. or San Francisco, where new productions will open over the next few months.) Barring that, I will have to be satisfied for now with reading Ron Chernov’s Alexander Hamilton, the book that inspired the musical, and listening to the entire script/score on the Original Broadway Cast Album … over and over and over.

There were even four or five additional straight plays offered this spring in New York, on and off-Broadway, that I thoroughly regret not being able to see. Still,  it  didn’t surprise me that of the six I did choose, four of them earned Tony nominations: The Crucible, The Father, The Humans, and Blackbird. The latter two will be the subjects of my next journal entry. And if The Effect had been presented in a Broadway house instead of off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre, it would surely be among the nominees for the 2017 Tony’s. Instead, watch for it in the Obies. The last of my six choices, was a fine production of John Patrick Shanley’s largely autobiographical Prodigal Son, which is also in my journal pipeline. It’s about a teacher and the student whose life he turns around, which is what drew me in. It too contained a performance that was well worthy of Tony consideration. Good example there: That it was not ultimately nominated does not make it any less worthy (except, of course, to the financial futures of those involved) Come back later for details.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the 2016 Tony Awards Ceremony itself. With all of us so deeply affected by the horrific attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, it was a tough year to watch something so blatantly cheerful. But it turns out that almost nine million people did tune in, more than at any time in the last fifteen years. Sure, we all wanted to get a glimpse of what has turned into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, this thing we’ll not any time soon get near unless we’re willing to give up a week’s pay, this thing called Hamilton. But most of all, I believe that in the face of the devastating and inexplicable events in Orlando, we needed to find some joy… somewhere! And boy did we find it on the Tony’s.

It was abundantly clear Sunday night that the object of Theatre, and significantly also of Theatre Education, is to provide us with joy and insight. That goes for players and audience alike. With that in mind, here are what I consider to be the most satisfying moments in the entire 3½-hour presentation. Mind you, there were plenty more. I am limited only by length consideration.

MY FIVE FAVORITE MOMENTS

  1.  The opening, in which host James Corden stood in silence, with his back to the entire theatre community, and then spoke on their behalf to the camera, to the nation at large, and particularly to all those directly affected by the Orlando murders:

“All we can say is you are not on your own right now. Your tragedy is our tragedy. Theater is a place where every race, creed, sexuality and gender is equal, is embraced and is loved. Hate will never win. Together, we have to make sure of that. Tonight’s show stands as a symbol and a celebration of that principle. This is the Tony Awards.”

2.  The immediate appearance, and every appearance thereafter, of the cast of Hamilton, expressing a seriousness of purpose sensitive to the day’s events, along with the unbounded, infectious Technicolor joy of the human spirit that will never fail to get us through the bad days. Implicit also was a clear respect for American history, and for the ordinary people who came out of nowhere to piece our complicated democracy together. Their stubborn passion was captured and reflected on the faces and bodies of every actor in this astonishing cast … and passed on as a gift to a grateful audience.

3.  The gentle moment when Blair Underwood walked down the aisle thanking Marie Maniego, his Petersburg, Virginia high school drama teacher, for her inspiration, and then planted a kiss on the forehead of a surprised Marilyn McCormick, winner of the Tony’s “Excellence in Theatre Education Award.” That and the dynamic performances of the youngsters in “School of Rock” went a long way toward reminding us that few of the performers on stage and in the audience would be here were it not for the inspiration and dedication of a most likely unrecognized “high school drama coach.” Bravo!

4.  Frank Langella wins his fourth Tony, a tie for the most ever earned by a male actor. Having just written of The Father, I took considerable delight in this one. Reminding us that there is more truth than fakery in theatre, he used his acceptance speech to express his personal anguish over his own brother’s dementia: “My brother is very much alive in me every time I play André in The Father. He’s doing well. He goes in and out. But I’m not alone in this.” He then went on to a moving tribute to the Orlando victims:

“I’m now a 78-year-old man, and I react to things a lot more profoundly than I did when I was 60, when I was 50 or 40. This constant violence and sense of madness that seems to be pervading this country is terrifying. … I urge you, Orlando, to be strong. I’m standing in a room full of the most generous human beings on earth, and we will be with you every step of the way.”

5.  The high point of the evening: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s heartfelt sonnet, evidently scratched out on a piece of paper only hours (minutes?) earlier, and delivered with tears in lieu of his expected acceptance/thankyou rap for the best musical score.   Yes, of course we all loved the production numbers from all nine of the nominees for best musical. But what will we remember?   … This:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done.
She nudges me towards promise by degrees.
She is a perfect symphony of one.
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us,
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised. Not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed
or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story.
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

© Lin-Manuel Miranda

 

 

COMING UP NEXT: Blackbird, and The Humans.

(I know, I said that last time. But this time I mean it. Come on, could I NOT have written about the Tony’s?)

 

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On Florian Zeller’s THE FATHER

It’s always a risk to see a new show in its early previews. Generally, it takes time and experience in front of an audience for a cast to settle into the meat of their work. But Frank Langella is a different story:  He consistently appears at home in any role from the get-go.  There was no way I was going to miss his performance in The Father during this spring’s New York binge trip — preview or no.

A commanding and versatile actor, Langella can fill a stage with his presence, even if he’s playing a sick old man with Alzheimer’s disease.   Way back in 1977 he terrified my children and earned my wife’s not entirely pure attention in Broadway’s Dracula. I do believe she’d have freely offered her jugular to the man (under different circumstances, of course).  I’ve not seen Langella anywhere since, on stage or on screen, where he has not been powerfully and touchingly convincing, be he lover, villain, or super hero.   He was of course brilliant in Frost/Nixon, Starting Out in the Evening, Sherlock Holmes, The Mark of Zorro  (Yeah, yeah, I know, but have a look at the cast!),  and going back 46 years, in The Diary of a Mad Housewife.   Despite his more lucrative film career (64 movies), thankfully he remains committed to the stage.

IMG_0291The Father is one of four plays I attended in New York this spring that are up for Tony’s this coming Sunday night. The others are The Humans, Blackbird and The Crucible (the last two for best revival of a play). In addition, Langella himself is up for Best Actor … Mind you he already has three actor Tony statues at home, for Frost/Nixon, Seascape and Fortune’s Fool.  By the way, this is the 70th year the Tony’s have been awarded, and this show is far superior in entertainment value and generosity of spirit to that other awards show on the West Coast.  (I’m just saying….)

            The Father:  No — not the Swedish classic by August Strindberg (although Langella was on Broadway for that one too back in 1996). This one is by a hot young French playwright named Florian Zeller, and was translated into English by veteran playwright Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). It comes to New York with a considerable pedigree, including the best new play awards in both Britain and France.

This is the story of André, seemingly a retired dancer living with his daughter in a Parisian apartment. But not even that is necessarily so:  The play takes André’s own point of view, and André is increasingly suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome. His brain is beginning to disintegrate. As we watch him retreat into a perceived reality that makes no sense even to him, we quickly learn not to trust André’s perception of the world around him. Who exactly is Anne, for instance? Is she his own daughter, who wants to sell their apartment, get married, move to England, and move her father into a colorless assisted living facility where he will die alone?   Or is she his own private nurse, on whom he is emboldened to attempt seduction?

Zeller weaves a tangled web indeed, but the play itself somehow falls short of the tragedy in André’s soul. The man is surely in agony.   The final scene certainly captures the horror and terror of his condition at the end of a relentless downward path, largely with considerable help from Langella. But somehow the play felt too clever to let us really feel it. It was having too much fun with its own larger question: What’s real and what’s only the perception of a diseased mind?  So much that it got in the way of a powerful story.

“Fun?” you say? Yes, there are plenty of laughs to balance out the fear, and the play is sometimes described as a tragic farce.  But “Farce?” Let’s face it: When it’s playing to an audience of folks already terrified they’re showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, the laughs can feel pretty shallow.   It’s a risky choice for an evening out.

As to the problem inherent with attending previews? The price used to be more attractive and provide incentive. …not so much anymore. And when my friend and I saw it, the cast had had under their belts only one night of playing to an audience. Langella shone … as I knew he would. The rest of the cast? Not so much. They had their lines down cold, but they lacked the connection to the material that guarantees our full involvement with their characters.   I’m sure they have it by now. But alas, the play will close on Broadway on June 19, come what may, just five days after it might or might not win two “Best” Tony Awards.

Ah the ironies of Broadway! The old battle between art & commerce rears its ugly head once again.  And the winner is … ?

There is more to come from Mr. Zeller.  A companion piece, The Mother, has played in London, and his newest play, The Truth opened there in March to enthusiastic reviews.  They’ll no doubt be along. The Father will probably see light in regional productions, and may prove more gripping in more intimate venues. I may try it again, even without Langella.

COMING UP NEXT: Tony Nominees The Humans, and Blackbird.

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On THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME

Time out here briefly for a quick digression: The National Theatre production of  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will close on Broadway on September 4, in only three more months. I confess  I have not actually seen the New York production, which won Tonys last year for best play, best design, best actor and best director. However, three years ago, I was fortunate enough to see the virtually identical original at the Apollo Theater in London, (… only weeks before the ceiling collapsed in mid-performance. … No, really!!) (See my 24Oct13 entry).  The one in New York is at the Barrymore Theatre.  And I just can’t let that production go without giving it a plug.

IMG_0929This is an experience no died-in-the-wool theater-goer should miss – the play, that is, not the ceiling collapse.   And you may not have to miss it. On August 1, tickets go on sale at the Kennedy Center for a run there this October 5-23. They’ll go fast. But I’m going to take a wild guess that Washington is the first city in a yet-to-be specified national tour of American cities. (You heard it here first.) So if it comes anywhere close to you, jump on it. The National Theatre also broadcast their original performance to U.S. movie theaters in 2012 and 2014. I hope we’ll get lucky enough for them to broadcast it again after the tour. Even so, this is one to see live on stage.

Why all the fuss? Well for one thing, when it opened in New York in 2014, critic Ben Brantley of the NY Times called it “…one of the most fully immersive works ever to wallop Broadway.” And Brantley doesn’t often gush.”  For myself, I have to add that it may well be the most thorough exploitation of the power of theatre I have ever personally seen on a stage. It has everything Aristotle ever dreamed of: Plot, Character, Language, Thought, Rhythm and  spectacular Spectacle!  More importantly, my wife Joan, a self-described fussy critic, labels Curious Incident (along with War Horse) as one of the most amazing plays she’s ever seen, citing the appeal of both plays to her core values.  More on that below, but I can’t top that.

Curious Incident is based on the bestselling 2003 novel of the same name by Mark Haddon –all the rage at the time. It was narrated in the first person by a fifteen-year-old boy showing symptoms suggesting autism and Aspergers syndrome. Christopher Boone’s unique computer-like brain is taken up with numbers and complex formulae.  He hates the color yellow and can’t stand to be touched.  With no social skills or ability to relate to others, he is looked upon as a freak. Yet despite his condition, he embarks on a journey to uncover the murderer of his neighbor’s dog.

Both the book and the play read like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, fast and furious, and full of suspense, strange characters, and an odd formality.  In fact, I’ve always felt Holmes himself was more than a little autistic.  The title  actually comes from a Conan Doyle short Holmes mystery story, Silver Blaze, about the disappearance of a valuable racehorse.

The book was touching, funny, human, empathetic, and at the same time convincingly realistic!  And because it was entirely an interior monolog, it was also deemed impossible to bring to the stage. Adaptor Simon Stephens and director Marianne Eliott,  also the director of the other “favorite play,” War Horse (See my entries of 9May11 and 21Jan12) … met the challenge brilliantly. They abandoned the outside world all together, and turned a virtually empty stage into the inside of Christopher’s brain, using projections, lasers, and one extraordinarily athletic actor. Alex Sharp took the 2015 Tony for playing Christopher, a role now being played by the (I am told) equally talented Tyler Lea.

The result of all this: While Christopher’s condition is never identified in the play as autism or Asperger’s, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time offers us a significant insight into how an autistic mind experiences reality, and by extension, how a “normal human mind” perceives reality. But above all, the play is a genuine work of high theatrical art that could never be matched on regional stages with more modest budgets.   See it when you can.

 

COMING UP NEXT: Two plays that will competing for the honor of Best Play at the 2016 Tonys, on June 12;  The Father, and The Humans.

 

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On Lucy Prebble’s THE EFFECT

It was recently announced that the limited New York run of Lucy Prebble‘s “new” play, The Effect, has been extended all the way through September 4.  Furthermore, discount tickets are available online.  Lucky audiences! … and a great motivation for me to chat about it. It is one of seven plays I experienced on a recent theatre binge. It was a favorite for provoking some deep questions about who and where I am, and how I could know that, as well as for providing ample laughter to make the answers palatable.
Or in this case, I should say the struggle for answers. This play is more about the questions … like “Can you tell the difference between who you are, and a side effect?”

Ms. Prebble is a British playwright, heretofore primarily known for her more abstract play, Enron, about the scandal and collapse of the big American energy corporation. It enjoyed great commercial success a few years ago on both sides of the pond, despite a tepid N. Y. Times review at the time.  Critics now agree that Prebble, at only 35 years old, is one to watch.

IMG_0286And now comes her The Effect, co-produced by London’s National Theatre, where it successfully played in their little Cottesloe Theatre in 2008, and earned a “Best New Play” from the UK’s Critics Circle. To make it even more enticing to an out-of-towner with a theater habit like myself, it was in the Barrow Street Theatre, down in the West Village.   Over the years it has become my favorite 199-seat off-Broadway house, where prices are but a tiny fraction of a Broadway hit like Hamilton – a major consideration when embarked on a binge.

Furthermore, it was directed by one of my favorite directors, David Cromer. A few years back, in this same theater, Cromer had both directed and played the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, after which I vowed to seize every opportunity to see his work. He followed that up with an extraordinary production of Nina Raine’s Tribes (See my entry of 22 Jan 2013). I wasn’t about to miss this one, and instincts paid off!

The Effect is about a medical research experiment, a clinical trial to determine the emotional effect of a new anti-depressant drug on two young volunteers, Connie and Tristan. They are asked to refrain from any activity that would “normally” excite an emotional response (like sex, for instance). But human chemistry being what it is, the warning goes unheeded. Or maybe that’s not the case at all: Maybe their behavior or attraction to each other is the result of the drug taking effect? And of course, since it’s a double-blind trial, the subjects have no idea whether they’re getting the real drug or a placebo.

The immediate question stems from the premise of the blind trial, a  tool that many researchers won’t indulge in any more because of ethical considerations.  If it’s a life-saving drug being tested, for instance, how can one patient be given the possibility to survive while the other will be knowingly denied the drug and allowed to die?  And who gets to decide that?

It seems a simple little paradox, but from there, the play brings up bigger and way more complex questions: What is human? What is identity? How does the brain work? What is love? Can human emotions be quantified, treated? Can what we feel be real? What’s more “real”: my view of the world when I’m “lucid,” or my view of the world when I’m under the influence of alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, or a drug? Can medical science be developed to “fix” us? Can a placebo be as effective as a drug? Just how does a “state of mind” differ from the “chemistry of the brain,” if at all?

But all that’s just the beginning. The Effect is also an intriguing personal drama, and a hilarious comedy about two very likable people, their joys and their “love,” and their confusion and pain.  Inevitably, The Effect is also a love story.  Or is it?  Do Connie and Tristan really fall in love, or is it just the sex?  Or is it only the effect of the drug,  if indeed they received the drug and not the placebo.

Clearly the experiment will not have the indented results, nor will the play pretend to answer all the concerns it raises. The young couple’s story is reflected in the two more mature doctors who are conducting this “objective” trial, who have their own issues with relationships and depression. And that raises the stakes even more in the second act.

Significantly, the four outstanding actors (Susannah Flood, Carter Hudson, Kati Brazda and Steve Key) turned in the most honestly revealing and convincing performances of all in this spring’s seven-play-in-four-night binge. They were terrific, and they had tough competition.

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On THE CRUCIBLE

 

Be patient. It takes a while to tell this story.*

I have directed Arthur Miller’s The Crucible twice, and I’ve recently been eager to direct it again. You don’t always get what you want, but a guy can dream. Still I count myself fortunate to be among the probably tens of thousands of teachers and directors around the world who have taken on this play.

In the late 1960’s, I was a young English teacher in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, new to “the drama club” when I put my first production together. It wasn’t great, but it was memorable for two reasons: In the middle of the play, the rear wall of the courtroom completely collapsed, prompting Judge Hathorne to bang his gavel and declare “The court will adjourn while we take a brief recess for courtroom repairs.” The curtain was quickly shut, and the play resumed in less than three minutes.  Fast thinking. You gotta love it.

Later, after the curtain call, and all but one of the cast had gone downstairs to dress, I found the young man who had played the conscience-torn Rev. John Hale kneeling alone on the stage. Not the sensitive, crying type at all, he asked me “What have we done?” as the tears rolled down his face. The question was existential, coming deeply from within his own heart, only in part generated by the injustice of the Salem hangings, and that of the McCarthy communist witch hunt that inspired Mr. Miller. I sat with him for a while, alone on the floor at center stage, talking of the ongoing enigma of human morality and intolerance.

We were interrupted by a girl yelling “Come out here: Gary fainted as he was getting into his car.” Gary was Deputy Governor Danforth, as close as the play gets to a villain. Sure enough, there he was, collapsed on the ground, hyperventilating and dehydrated. After a few minutes of breathing into a paper bag and some water, he said he was fine. Still, I wanted him to get checked out in the emergency room. At his insistence, his girl friend drove him there, and I followed. They kept him isolated in the hospital overnight for observation.

When they finally let me in to visit the next morning, he was just fine, as evidenced by his enthusiasm for the bath he was about to receive from a beautiful young nurse before his discharge. Apart from that, all he wanted to talk about was how his character could have been so blind to obvious truth: “I just don’t get it. He thought he was doing the right thing!  They all did!”

By that night, both boys had recovered fully and were back on stage, but students don’t often have reactions to high school theatre experience quite so intense. They sure scared the #@(% out of me. More importantly, they convinced me that drama experience as a tool in secondary education can far exceed sitting at a desk.
I settled in for a long career as a theater educator.

A few years later, some other teachers, good friends and myself opened up The Peacham School, an alternative school enrolling some 50 students in grades 7-12, in which drama was a key component of our curriculum. Naturally, The Crucible was an early choice to fit into an interdisciplinary history/literature/ethics project, about half of whom would be in the play. This time I designed a touring set which would not fall down. Among the cast was a 16-year-old “juvenile thief” who’d been deemed a hopeless case. The local police had delivered him to us, with the proviso that if we agreed to take him, he could either enroll, or go to a detention facility. So under the threat of incarceration, the lad eventually embraced the role of  the Rev. John Hale.

And now, jumping to the present, we come to the crux of this whole discussion.  You’ve gathered by now that I am no doubt a lifelong Miller fan, and I’ve seen most of his plays more than once.  I was particularly eager to see last season’s View from the Bridge, directed by the hot new director, Ivo van Hove, fondly labeled the “Belgian invasion” on the American stage.  Sadly, I was unable to get to New York when it was playing. But there was no way I was going to miss van Hove’s The Crucible.

IMG_0256Since the day it was written, The Crucible’s themes of self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and our smug human willingness to grab onto convenient beliefs have never failed to be “of our own times.” (…although perhaps the current American electoral process is an especially good time to be reminded of what we are.) But van Hove did not yield to the temptation of “updating” his material, creating instead a study of universal human behavior. His people all believe themselves in the right. Even the usual “villainess” Abigail Williams (Saoirse Ronan, Academy Award winner for the wonderful film, Brooklyn) appears to have reason for her aberrations: suggested sexual abuse and the resulting tinge of madness.  We “get” her, as we do everyone else in the play.

The costumes are a kind of  timeless nondescript mixture of modern and medieval.   It’s a big wide-open relatively empty stage, on which anything can happen and does, sometimes realistic, sometimes spiritual, sometimes shocking.

SPOILER ALERTS: At least two of those occasions will take your breath away.   The first pulls us entirely away from conventional narrative story-telling.  Suddenly, we seem to be injected into Abigail’s head, as she is elevated from the stage by a giant illuminated cross.

… And then there is “the dog” — a gorgeous, very large, wolf-like German shepherd. Emerging alone from the wings onto a completely empty stage, he looks like he might have escaped his trainer and was crossing to the other side. But half-way there, he stops, sensing the audience. He comes slowly down center and stops, and sits. For what seemed like a full two minutes, (but probably wasn’t), he quite literally “scanned” the audience, his eyes sweeping from left to right over and over, in condemnation, as if to ask, “Who are you people? Do you truly believe you are not beastly, that you are not a part of my world, that you were put here to hold dominion over us?   You fool!  You are merely one of us, and not very good at it at that.”   Then he stands, and walks off, looking over his shoulder again at the last minute, as if to … pity us? … One of the simplest, most electric moments I have ever experienced in an audience.   That dog has a mighty impressive trainer! Did I imagine his thoughts? Of course… Maybe. But he convinced me!

No doubt about it. This was/is an ingenious production with bold choices! Not all of van Hove’s choices are to everyone’s liking. Fellow directors are particularly notorious for claiming better approaches.   But that’s not the point, is it? And this? This is theatrical manna from heaven.

But here is the clincher: Remember that lad I spoke of who played Hale at the Peacham School — the “hopeless” case juvenile delinquent? Well just for fun I shot him an e-mail to tell him I was going to see The Crucible in New York. I promised to let him know how the professional Hale (Ben Whishaw) fared compared to his own performance some 40 years earlier. Now 57, a seasoned trial lawyer in Oklahoma City, the man got on an airplane and came to New York to see the play with me. After the matinee, we spent the evening reminiscing about the old days and challenges. He elicited tweets from other former Peacham students and cast members, and he vowed to come back to New York with his wife and daughter to expose them to the play that had changed his life. The next day, he flew back to Oklahoma in time for a heavy trial.

How magical can The Crucible get?

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Lanie Robertson’s LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR & GRILL

I’ve saved the absolute best of what I took in on my recent five-day New York Theatre binge, for last.  I had in fact planned the whole trip around this performance, and was most grateful the run had been extended.  An old friend and college roommate joined me for the evening, and we both came away feeling it was one of the highlights of our theatre-going careers.

IMG_1883Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill was staged at the Circle in the Square, in a deep horseshoe configuration. The small stage was at the open end of the horseshoe, where we were lucky enough to be seated about twelve feet from Audra McDonald’s microphone. We were able to watch her entire performance in intimate profile, just as if we’d been crammed into that tiny Philadelphia bar to hear one of Billie Holiday’s final performances.

You might well ask how can one performer be so very talented as to garner six “Best Performer” Tony Awards (a record) since 1994, when she won for playing Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel at the age of 24.  … Especially when the competition with both talented veterans and newcomers has been so fierce … And especially since the more she won, the more the judges must have been thinking, “She’s had enough awards. Let’s give it to someone else this time.”  The answer is, they couldn’t.  Audra McDonald is simply that good in this role, just as she has been in her other numerous and varied performances in concert and on stage, screen, and TV.

And from the time “Lady Day” entered at the top of the horseshoe at the Circle in the Square, clearly “under the influence,” we knew that.  As she stumbled her way down to the stage, alternately spewing both love and rage at the audience, we were already under her spell.  Her pianist, Jimmy Powers, wonderfully played by Shelton Becton while leading a dynamic jazz trio, sat practically on top of us.  He bore all the wild mood swings, tirades, and gratitude she vented on him with admirable patience and skill, and he more than once rescued us all from the doldrums of the blues.

Lady Day herself, Billie Holiday

Lady Day herself, Billie Holiday

Although Holiday is widely considered one of the greatest jazz voices of all time, I had been only vaguely familiar with her career. I recently picked up a CD of her best known songs, and have grown to love them. What a remarkable performer she was: Wracked by alcohol, drugs, racial discrimination and life’s hard knocks, she toughed it all out, persisting against long odds, and never once yielding to self-pity or victimhood. Only months after her appearance at Emerson’s in 1959, she would die in New York of cirrhosis and heart failure.

McDonald, whose voice is if anything even richer than Holiday’s surviving recordings, brilliantly covered fifteen of her familiar songs, including What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Crazy He Calls Me, God Bless the Child, ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness, and especially, Strange Fruit.  I have never heard or witnessed a more moving rendition of the latter song than hers.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees …

I think I must have been an idealistic college boy when I was first deeply moved by Josh White’s rendition of this song.  But the masses first heard it introduced back in 1939, from Billie Holiday.  It would later be associated with the Civil Rights protests of the 1960’s, and was further popularized by Nina Simone in 1965.

Strange Fruit has weighed heavily on our hearts and consciences  for generations.  I was once told it had been penned by Langston Hughes, which seemed to make sense at the time.  But ironically, Holiday was given it by a white schoolteacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol, who had been haunted by Lawrence Beitler‘s graphic photograph of an infamous 1930 lynching.  Incidentally, Meeropol and his wife were the same couple who much later would adopt their sons Robert and Michael, after the boys’ birth parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed as Russian spies in 1953.

When “Lady Day” decided to sing Strange Fruit, the song reached millions of people.  In 1999, Time Magazine dubbed it the “Song of the Century.”  And when Audra McDonald sang it in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, her cheeks soaked with tears, it deeply and agonizingly moved everyone of us in the audience.  In an interview, McDonald pointed out that Holiday could never sing a song to which she was not emotionally attached, and it was clear to all of us that these two great voices had merged into a single great spirit.

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A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER, Book & Lyrics by Robert L Freeman, Music & Lyrics by Steven Lutvak

IMG_1893The scuttlebutt on this one started back in 2012, when it premiered at the Hartford Stage, followed by a run at the Old Globe in San Diego.  It was widely touted as the musical comedy that would match Book of Mormon for sheer belly laughter.  And preview audiences agreed that lead actor Jefferson Mays, who had won a best actor Tony in 2004 for I Am my Own Wife, was outdoing himself for this one.  Sure enough, the show did win the 2014 Best Musical and three other Tony’s.  Mays was again nominated and lost only to wunderkind Neil Patrick Harris’s Hedwig.

Be that as it may, just as soon as Gentlemen’s Guide… opened in New York last November, friends-in-the-know were reporting back that it was a not-to-be-missed gem.  And they were right.  It was also a fast cure for the serious doldrums I had fallen into having seen The Maids the same afternoon.

There’s not a whole lot to the story itself.  Young ne’er-do-well Monty Navarro, delightfully played by fellow Tony nominee Bryce Pinkham, learns he is the heir to the estate of Lord d’Isquith, should he survive the eight heirs who come before him.  All eight are quickly dispatched in clever and hilarious ways until he succeeds in becoming Lord d’Isquith himself, or does he?   The hook is that Jefferson Mays brilliantly plays all eight d’Isquith victims, young and old, male and female, which often requires impressive, lightning-fast costume changes.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, think back to (or look up) the classic old British Ealing Studios comedies of the 1950’s, led by Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring the masterful Alec Guinness.  Both that film and Gentlemen’s Guide… were based on an old novel, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal.  Both the film and the musical exhibit a very wry and literate kind of satire, hilarious and horrifying at the same time, but not horrifying enough to be “sick” humor.  It’s primarily based on old-fashioned melodrama, with its sight-gags, dead-pan takes, and outrageously choreographed speedy movements.  Seriously, don’t spend any time looking for depth or relevance here.  It’s all about energy and fun.  Still, Mays has captured that same sense of silly sarcasm at which Guinness excelled, making contemporary fun of racists, prigs, class war, religion, and politics, but set in post-Victorian England in 1909.  His extraordinarily pliable face and near-perfect sense of comic timing make him irresistible.

I confess to waiting for Jefferson Mays to come back from an undoubtedly well-deserved vacation before getting a ticket to Gentlemen’s Guide … I’m sure his stand-in was brilliant while he was gone, but with Mays’ and Pinkham’s help I laughed louder and longer for this show that I have for any other in a long time.  Well actually, the laughter in Book of Mormon was as loud and long, if a bit guiltier (See 8/2/11 Post).

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Jean Genet’s THE MAIDS

Cate Blanchett is an Australian stage and film actress with two Academy Awards (most recently for her appearance in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine), three Screen Actors Guild Awards, three Golden Globe Awards and three BAFTA Awards.  Isabelle Huppert is a veteran star of French cinema (Three of my favorites: Amour, Entre Nous, The Piano Teacher, and check out her new one: Abuse of Weakness).  And together they are The Maids, Jean Genet’s disturbing 1947 drama currently at City Center as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival.   It is this year’s offering from the Sydney Theatre Company, the same team which over the past few years has brought us Hedda Gabler, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Uncle Vanya.  Miss Blanchett has served frequently as both actor and director with the company.  Her husband, Andrew Upton, is its current Artistic Director, a playwright, and in part responsible for this adaptation of The Maids.

As I found my seat, I realized just why a Lincoln Center Festival event was being presented on the main stage at City Center: clearly to maximize audience numbers for its limited run. Understandable, as the giant 2,257-seat auditorium was completely sold out. However, the production design made extensive use of a large overhead screen, and side glass walls featuring spy video cameras and more as an important part of its impact. Cameras projected intrusive facial and bodily close-ups and specifics of the chaos in the room up onto the screen. Those who could see them responded heartily. But I would estimate that some 300+ people in the balcony sat in muted ignorance with “obstructed views” not advertised as such, left out of the “jokes” and a significant part of the production’s impact. theater

I was one of them. So let this be my reminder TO NEVER SIT IN THE BALCONY AT CITY CENTER! … at any price, and especially for an intimate, quality presentation. This was a three-character play, not an extravaganza. They should know better, despite the box office pay-off! (That’s not going to happen.)

So there I was, mad as hell and missing a lot. And anyone who knows Genet’s work knows that this is not a fun play. It was based on a sensational Parisian murder case where two sisters, maids, viciously killed their employer, for no apparent reason. Taking off from there, Genet, who held that the whole social order was only an illusion, imagines an elaborate game of role-playing that brings into question what’s real and what’s mere appearance, play-acting. The maids are despicable human beings playing degrading games.   Genet himself was a thief and prostitute, a repeat offender who had to be rescued from life in prison by Sartre and Cocteau, two of my college-years stars when I was introduced to existentialism. Of course The Maids became hugely popular with the existentialists and communist revolutionaries of the late 40’s and 50’s.   Genet’s work is meant to shock, to degrade, to confuse, to offend, to alter the social structure, to change the rules of theatre. No, not fun at all. But very, very impressive.

All that being said, this was clearly a rich and masterful production of Genet’s work, and well worth getting to New York to see before it closes (tomorrow). It was one of the few purposeful, valid uses of screen projection on stage I’ve ever seen (what little I could see of it). I can guess that the camera work must have covered the reality of close-up decaying flowers and faces under the make-up, adding dimension to the “existential” disparity. Do I have that right? The rich, wide, attractive Parisian drawing room-like set in white, accented by the clothing and flowers to be scattered all over the place, evoked the decadence and the sham of the upper classes. Most of all the high-energy commitment of the two stars was spectacular, as was that of Elizabeth Debicki, making her American stage debut as their “Mistress.”

It was a privilege to have been with them to share in this adaptation of Genet’s writing, and to benefit from some prodigious levels of acting talent. But it did leave me badly wanting to see something funny, or to have a bath. … on top of being really mad at the Lincoln Center Festival for offering me the illusion of the pie and distributing the reality of the crumb.

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Scott Organ’s PHOENIX

It’s getting harder to find Monday night performances in New York, these days.  And since a lot of people look for the opportunity, when most shows are dark, it’s also hard to find a good seat in whatever’s open.  But early in my New York planning, I came across Phoenix, a new play by Virginia/Brooklyn playwright, Scott Organ.

IMG_1880        Among others, it’s a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, where a friend is Production Manager, and it’s staged at the Cherry Lane Theatre, an old favorite venue.  It had apparently managed to catch the eye of the right people, including Julia Stiles and James Wirt, who are appearing in it.  And I heard the film of the play is already in preproduction. So putting it all together, it sounded promising.

        [BUZZER!] … NOT! Turns out the movie project is an entirely separate enterprise with completely different personnel and actors.  I don’t know whether Mr. Organ is doing the screenplay, but hopefully he’ll have more to say, or rather, more happening, by that time, than he did in his stage play: Once again: a two-character play (relatively cheap to produce in today’s economy).  The woman is pregnant after a one-night stand, but wants nothing to do with the man or a baby.  She confronts the man, who inexplicably wants to accompany her from New York to Phoenix, where she plans on an abortion.  He does show up there despite her discouragement.  There’s lots of clippy chatter, or should I say endless banter, between them, until finally, everything ends up back where it started.  I do have to admit that some of the banter was very clever and funny. It just didn’t seem to lead us anywhere.

Naturally, AFTER I had bought my discount ticket, the play officially opened, and the reviews came out, pretty much warning me to stay away.  Since I don’t always listen to the critics, I didn’t stay away.  And I pretty much agree that I could just as well have missed it.  The two actors were agreeable enough, and Julia Stiles has a nice competent, good-looking persona that makes you listen, admire and respect.  But the production seemed oh so slow and self-important. This was not one of my crap-shoots that paid off.

What really captured my interest, though, that I had never seen before in a professional New York context, was the response of the director, Jennifer DeLia, on whom the critics seemed to heap most of their scorn.  This was her first off-Broadway directing gig, and she did not take kindly to the criticism. Hitting back at them point by point under the show description on www.broadwaybox.com, she explained her views on art and presumed to help readers understand the true depths of a play that remains misunderstood by ignorant New York critics. She sums it all up with the following statement:

       “We have thought through every decision made in this not-so-conventional piece and those of us involved couldn’t be more proud of our embracing the existential quest these two characters are on—as Bruce learns some of the biggest news of his life on this journey—and as Sue opens up to a man for her first time after seeing how honest and humble he is. I love that art is subjective and “cheers” to those who are uncomfortable while watching our play. And an even bigger “cheers” to the majority of our audiences who are quite sophisticated, have imagination, and appreciate the exploration of the many layers to Sue’s and Bruce’s psyches and, as well, to the production.”

Huh?

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3 Plays at THE NEW YORK INTERNATIONAL FRINGE FESTIVAL

I was delighted to find that I would be in New York for its International Fringe Festival this year. This is its 18th Year, and I had never been before. The timing allowed me to expand my week’s viewings by three more plays, albeit untried and untested, to be selected from two hundred productions in eighteen obscure venues scattered over the Lower East Side of Manhattan.   That’s a lot, but nowhere near the size or scope of the Edinburgh Fringe currently underway in Scotland, the largest arts festival in the world. By contrast, if you didn’t know, you’d never even realize this one was here.

I was eager to catch Phil Horst’s Well Adjusted, first presented a few years back at Four County Players, in Barboursville, VA. I’d seen and enjoyed it then, and it has been remounted for the Festival with the mostly same cast, and with Marty Moore returning as director.   But each production is apparently given five performance dates and times, and unfortunately, our schedules didn’t match. Hopefully, audiences will be both ample and wildly enthusiastic enough to launch Phil on a much-deserved writing career. Check the schedule for two remaining performances: www.welladjustedplay.wix.com/fringe2014

IMG_1869I selected my three plays based on my schedule and the professional appearance of their publicity cards, which is to say pretty much at random. Coyote Katie’s Return, by and with Alison Crane, advertises itself with a colorful publicity card. Other than to say the story involved a missing Southwestern girl turned feral who had been raised by coyotes, and the attempt to make a commercial spectacle of her, I’ll stop right there. But the publicity card was fantastic!

 IMG_1877        The 8th Fold makes reference to the ritualized folding of the American flag at a military funeral. Unofficially, the eighth fold is “a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.”  But that’s not exactly what the play is about.

It’s a musical by Gianni Onori and Ava Eldred, about four boys whose fathers have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and how they must deal with their own sadness and anger and move on with their own lives. It’s a British entrant to the Festival, but the producers have found four American extremely well trained vocal talents to bring it to life here.  I found the songs to be beautiful, if a bit monotonous after a while.  And there’s no denying the play’s sincerity, or the talents of the singers and the small orchestra that accompanied them. The play itself lacks levity, frequently strays from its message and loses focus just as its adolescent characters are prone to doing. One of them in particular, busy fixing everybody else’s problems, is way too cock-sure of himself to be believable.   The script has a ways to go, but it does showcase some fine singing talent; at least it’s about something, and it is very, VERY sincere!

IMG_1866        My third selection was Bohemian Valentine, by and with Mateo Moreno: A girl who dies; as a result a depressed, disconsolate boy who wants to commit suicide; and then a second girl, who also wants to end her life, but ends up on the edge of the roof, saving the day. There you have it. Pretty good acting.

Audiences for all three show ranged from 15-50 people. I gather that to find something really polished and powerful at the Fringe Festival is a distinct rarity. I was there shortly after the festival opened, so there was little word-of-mouth to go on. I understand after the first few days it gets much clearer what not to miss and what could possibly be by-passed, but by then the best may be sold out. Word travels fast; the venues are small and choices have to be made. Besides, however you look at it, all of these dedicated playwrights, along with their directors, casts and crews, worked very hard to make it all happen. And you can rest assured, at whatever level they are writing and performing this time, they will get better.

The New York International Fringe Festival runs through Aug. 24 at various theaters; .

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