Review: Of Mice and Men

OF MICE AND MEN Franco, O'Dowd--_ Photo by Richard Phibbs

This play isn’t as relentlessly dark as I remembered it to be, there’s plenty of humor, and long stretches of camaraderie. Still, there’s no denying that Of Mice and Men belongs solidly in the genre of Tragedy. The play follows the unlikely pair of George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd), migrant workers in 1930s Salinas Valley of California, who dream of one day having land they can call their own. George is pugnacious and practical, Lennie mentally “slow”, sweet-tempered (but when he’s not, he’s not) and monstrously strong.

Of course the question on everyones mind is: how did James Franco do? He’s primarily known as a sexy movie star, albeit one of a very iconoclastic bent. Well, he’s actually pretty damn solid! The first scene was a little worrying – George was really raking Lennie over the coals when he should have just been scolding him with just a hint of annoyance. After that scene, though, Franco finds his groove, giving us the classic Depression “worried man” most of the time. He really catches fire, though. when George discovers his dreams just might be possible.

Chris O’Dowd, an actor known in the film world for his comic chops, is absolutely stunning, incredibly grounded in the role that could easily be all over the place. Sure there’s lots of comedy in Lennie’s part, but it only works if you play it with totally honesty and vulnerability. On that score, O’Dowd totally delivers. The marvelous Jim Norton is heartbreaking as the elderly and sentimental Candy.

Director Anna D. Shapiro skillfully navigates Steinbeck’s plot which is equal parts surprise and inevitability. The play is tightly constructed, but occasionally drifts into cliché. That only happens a few times, though, and overall this is a strong representation of a play that still resonates. Recommended.

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Review: Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway

ann hampton and liz callaway

The power of siblings harmonizing is on glorious display in performances of the legendary cabaret act Sibling Revelry, which hadn’t been seen in New York in over 15 years. Verifiably legendary at that – it’s so broadly influential that two drag queens in Pennsylvania make it their schtick to perform the Callaway sisters’ entire act.

About that harmonizing: Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway have seemingly quite different voices. Liz has a muscular yet elegant Broadway soprano, and Ann has a wide-ranging jazz monster of a voice.

And yet, when they harmonize, the blending is utterly seamless, sometimes to the point of not being able to determine who’s singing what vocal line. You can hear this best in a medley of “The Sweetest Sounds” and “I Can See It” early in the show. They also have great comic chemistry, doing a barbed version of Cole Porter’s “Friendship” that’s as hilarious as it is mellifluous.

Both sisters get a chance to fly solo for stretches of the show. Ann shines with an emotional and detailed reading of the tender Ford & Cryer classic “Old Friends”, and Liz does a version of “Meadowlark” from Stephen Schwartz’s The Baker’s Wife that can hold its head up with any other version of the song, which is saying a lot since it’s a favorite of the likes of Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley.

It’s also clear that the sisters have a lot of gay men in their circle! When word got out some 18 years ago that they were putting this show together, oh boy did they get phone calls offering suggestions of duets they absolutely must do together. They include a bunch of these suggestions in what they call they “The Huge Medley”. As the roughly 10 minute medley came into its eighth or so minute, I turned to my husband and said “This is getting so gay!!” I won’t give away the exact songs – they’re just too delicious – but let’s just say they involve major gay icons belting their brains out. So gay and so fun!

There’s all kinds of reasons this show is so beloved by cabaret fans, and it’s wonderful to have it back. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Mystery of Irma Vep

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This is easily Ridiculous Theatre legend Charles Ludlam’s most-produced play, and the fantastic production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre richly demonstrates why. The Mystery of Irma Vep is an affectionate parody of horror stories and thrillers from Shakespeare to Alfred Hitchcock. From the secret crypts of Egypt, where mummies cast enthralling charms, to the murky moors of Mandacrest Mansion, where werewolves and vampires are constantly creeping around, this highly theatrical spoof, if done well – as it is here – is truly astonishing.

On the most fundamental level, it’s really important that somebody is doing a full-scale revival of a play by Charles Ludlam in New York City. The Ridiculous Theatrical Company was one of the most profoundly influential queer theater companies of the last half-century and Ludlam was the playwright, leading actor and driving force behind that Greenwich Village institution.

But there is something else that makes this a really authentic wonder. Ludlam wrote this two-hander for himself and his lover Everett Quinton, as an expression of their love for the theatre, and each other. Quinton, who continued running the RTC for ten years after Ludlam passed, is directing this production, filling it with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as a surprising amount of warmth and romanticism.

Irma Vep is, above all, a tour de force for two actors who have to do insane amounts of costume and character changes, some of which are nearly instantaneous. Robert Sella and Arnie Burton are ideally suited for this show, with technique to spare, and a willingness to go to the very limits of camp without ever leaving their character behind.

I’ve directed Everett as an actor on two separate occasions, and came away from both experiences learning so much from him about the making of theatre, Ridiculous and otherwise. So I am not at all surprised that a Ludlam classic directed by him (with two sensational actors) is easily one of the best shows in town, certainly the funniest. Highly, highly recommended – this is truly essential theatregoing.

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Review: Lucie Arnaz

Lucie-Arnaz-photo-by-Agustus-Butera

The daughter of Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame, Lucie Arnaz has forged a career of her own, including originating the role of Sonia Walsk in the hit Broadway musical They’re Playing Our Song. In “Spring Is Here”, her new cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle, Arnaz focuses on love in all its shades and phases, from light to dark, from promiscuity to devotion.

She covers the promiscuous side wonderfully with a sensuous take on “When in Rome”. Arnaz strikes me as a saloon singer, which is a good fit for the Carlyle – the performer most associated with the Carlyle, the late Bobby Short, always described himself as just that.

One of the most entertaining moments in the show is a song for which Arnaz herself wrote the lyrics, about a time when she was single, during the run of They’re Playing Our Song, and dating two dashingly handsome men of the theatre. Well, turns out they’re both gay and closeted! Arnaz found this out just as she was going away for the weekend with one of them, and on the train trip she wrote the bitingly funny “I Don’t Like It Already”. After the song she commented that over time she dated so many closeted men that she felt like she was wearing cedar chips.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the evening is Arnaz’s rendition of “Just a Housewife” from the musical Working. The song is an emotional powerhouse in the first place, and Arnaz gives it extra dignity and ruefulness. Really lovely.

Arnaz got winded about two thirds of the way through, not, I think, because she lacks stamina, but because the show itself is several songs too long – perhaps 20 minutes worth. Small quibble, that, when you’re spending that time with such a talented and witty host. Recommended.

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Interview: “The Fifth Beatle” tells story of Beatles gay manager

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Brian Epstein, the man who brought the Beatles to the world, was gay when it was a felony to be so in the U.K., Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, and from Liverpool when it was just a dingy port town. The Fifth Beatle (Vivek J. Tiwary, writer, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, artists) is a critically acclaimed, #1 best selling New York Times graphic novel and forthcoming feature film recounting the untold true story of Epstein, the brilliant visionary who discovered the Beatles in a cellar in Liverpool, nurtured, protected, and guided them to international stardom, and died extremely successful and painfully lonely at the age of 32. I chatted with Tiwary recently about the queerer elements of Brian’s life and The Fifth Beatle

I hear The Fifth Beatle is associated with a particular charitable cause.

The Fifth Beatle is associated with Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org). I’ve been researching the Brian Epstein story for 21 years, literally more than half my life, but I’ve been working on the Fifth Beatle for about seven years. My wife and I got married nine years ago, and during our engagement, we decide to align ourselves with Freedom to Marry. We were very excited to have found each other and be getting married – surprisingly so, since we’re both fairly nontraditional people. We never thought that marriage would mean that much to us, but we were surprised to find out it meant a great deal to us.

But it was also difficult, because we have a lot of gay and lesbian friends who were being told they couldn’t be married. Many of them were people who had been together longer than my wife and I had. So it was important for us to get involved in that fight. In lieu of wedding presents we made a large donation to Freedom to Marry, we highlighted them in our first toast as a couple. We made sure that the organization was an important part of our married lives together. So my history with Freedom to Marry goes back before I even started working on the Fifth Beatle. It’s an organization I have a deep and emotional connection to, and that feels very right for the Fifth Beatle.

There’s a line in the book, during a television interview where Brian’s being asked about the Beatles’ romantic lives, and Brian said “I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will be one day and someday I might too.” It was viewed as a throwaway joke at the time, but really it was a pretty heavy thing that he said – people who knew him well realized he was saying something quite dangerous for that time. Because forget about getting married, he was worried about staying out of jail, should his sexuality be discovered – that’s the way things were in 1960s England. If there had been marriage equality in the 1960s, it would clearly have made a huge difference in Brian’s life, it might have even saved his life.

Was it well know to people close to Brian that he was gay, and when did it become generally known?

It was really only known to people in his inner circle – the Beatles, other clients, his family, his closest friends (some of whom were gay themselves). Brian didn’t have a lot of friends, Nat Weiss (who became the Beatles U.S. legal representative) was certainly his closest friend and confidant. So it was a very small inner circle. People who worked with him day in and day out at his family’s Liverpool record store NEMS, didn’t know, for example.

It really was that dangerous at the time, I think today it’s hard to imagine what it was like. A junior person at NEMS could have reported him to the police and he would have gone to jail! The matador analogy that runs through the book, represents that dance with danger and even death. By pursuing a career that pushed him so far into the public eye, he was really playing a dangerous game.

He died in 1967, there were major steps toward repealing England’s anti-homosexuality laws in that very same year. But it was only many years later that it became widely know than he was gay, close to decade after his death before it became common knowledge.

How important a source was Nat Weiss for that side of Brian’s life?

Without question he was the number one source, he knew the gay side of Brian’s life best. Nat passed away just a few months ago. He was very aware of the book, and the screenplay for the film, but didn’t live to actually see it on newsstands. He was a huge source to me, as well as a great friend. He was a New Yorker, and so I had the good fortune of meeting Nat some 10-15 years ago, he was at my wedding, we spent a lot of social time together. I really miss him.

Brian’s lover Dizz, is he representative of a real person or is he a composite?

No, he’s definitely a real person, his name was John Gillespie, and his friends called him Dizz as a play on the similar name of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Yeah he was a real personal, a real hustler, a real blackmailer – everything Dizz does in the novel, he does in real life. I show the blackmail as happening during a television interview, when really it happened at a party. Other than that, though, he’s a very real character, I’m sorry to say.

One of my favorite lines in the book, comes when Brian is having the Beatles try on their collarless Edwardian suits and he says “The Beatles are in trouble if queers have no place in rock and roll”. Is that truly from the mouth of Brian Epstein?

John Lennon remembered Brian saying that, according to my research – though obviously at this point neither of them are around to verify it.

Many of the captions in the graphic novel illustrate scenes with lyric by the Beatles, but many others use lyrics from the American Songbook. And British Songbook for that matter – I was particularly moved by the use of Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All”, which alludes to similar life experiences between Coward (who was also gay) and Brian. For you, what’s behind the use of those Songbook songs?

Well the Coward song serves, among other functions, as a counterpoint to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” providing a very contrasting view on the same subject. Above all, those Songbook songs were songs that Brian loved. Ironically Brian was not a huge fan of contemporary pop music – he liked showtunes and classical music. So those songs were really more in line with his personal taste. The truth is, he viewed the Beatles as great composers, on a par with the music he loved: Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Irving Berlin.

What’s in the future for The Fifth Beatle?

We’re working on a film version, I’ve written the screenplay, we announced at the end of last year that Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On, Down with Love) and Bruce Cohen is co-producing (Milk, Big Fish, Silver Linings Playbook, Oscar winner for American Beauty). The most exciting thing is that Apple Corp. on behalf of the Beatles have signed off on the project and allowed us to do a deal with Sony TV who control Beatles music. We are literally the first and only film about the band in history to be granted full access to their music catalog, and we are very proud of that.

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Review: A Raisin in the Sun

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This play is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of the American theatre, and director Kenny Leon has given a solid, understated account of it. Set on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun follows the conflicting dreams among three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee (Denzel Washington), his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo), his sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) and matriarch Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson). When Lena’s deceased husband’s life insurance money comes through, everybody has different plans for it, which makes for much of the show’s dramatic conflict.

As I said above, this is a very strong production, and would make a great introduction to this important play. To my personal taste, it’s a little too understated. Sometimes this is a good thing, as with the manner in which Denzel plays Walter’s defeated retreat into alcohol. More often, though, it’s just playing something quietly instead of with the percolating energy so evident in this play.

Denzel, while being the biggest underplayer in the bunch, does deliver a remarkably nuanced reading of Walter Lee, finding his hurt and frustration where other actors have just found braggadocio. LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s Lena follows a laudable modern trend of playing Lena as something of a dynamic force of nature, rather than the “mama on the couch” that became a stereotype of early productions of Raisin.

Anika Noni Rose is perhaps a bit too resentful as the intelligent and rebellious Beneatha, but when the script calls for her to explode in Afro-centric celebration, she does so with great panache. Sophie Okonedo gives perhaps the most remarkable performance of the evening as Walter’s stoic wife, Ruth, showing layers of desire and compassion that make her character the most dimensional one on stage. A masterpiece, masterfully done, if a bit too quietly. Recommended.

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Review: Mothers and Sons

Mothers and Sons John Golden Theatre

In Terrence McNally’s often funny, always thoughtful new play Mothers and Sons, mother Katherine (Tyne Daly) pays an unexpected visit to the New York apartment of her late son’s ex-partner Cal (Frederick Weller), who is now married to another man, Will (Bobby Steggart) and has a young son. She has something of her son’s to give Cal, but things get more complicated the longer she stays.

This is one of those plays where the characters are all well-educated and well-spoken, and the terrific ensemble – rounded out by Grayson Taylor as the couple’s son Bud – deliver what could easily come across as stiff with great nuance and fluidity. Daly above all is impressive as the highly complicated Katherine, who seems to aspire to misanthropy, but is just too decent at the core to truly hate people that much.

As many McNally plays are, this is a think piece. There are many thing about gay life in general, and her late son Andre in particular, that Katherine will never get (perhaps she’s willfully trying not to). Cal tries to get through to her what life with Andre was like, both the good and the bad (when Andre was dying with AIDS). AIDS does hover over this play, but I wouldn’t call it a full-on AIDS play, compared to, say, The Normal Heart.

All this makes Mothers and Sons sound much heavier than it actually is – McNally writes with an extraordinarily light touch, and all the characters are witty, which makes for a great deal of humor. And, in spite of its darker insights and emotional moments, the play is essentially quite sentimental as it imagines new configurations of family. This is a really good, smart gay-themed play. Recommended.

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