Review: Bad with Money

BEN_RIMALOWER_is_BAD_WITH_MONEY_-_Production_Photo_4_-_Credit_is_Dustin_Mark

Director Ben Rimalower is making a second career of turning life’s lemons into the lemonade of serio-comic one man shows, which he performs rather than directs (Aaron Mark directs Rimalower, and you have to give Mark credit for having the requisite boldness to direct a director). First there was Patti Issues, which detailed his complex relationships with both his heroine Patti LuPone and his own father. Now, in Bad with Money, he goes into his even more complex relationship with cash and credit.

While Rimalower again brings wit and humor to the story – especially jokes and references designed to tickle theatre fanatics and insiders – the tone here is a bit more shaded and muted. He’s come to some kind of resolution in his relationship with Patti and Daddy; not so much with his addictive desire for the more, more, more than money can buy.

As such, Bad with Money isn’t as quite as breathlessly entertaining as Patti Issues. Neither does it have any particularly deep insights into the consumer culture that so grips Rimalower. This isn’t a huge problem, and in a way makes for a more truthfully ambivalent story. While his stories about going into prostitution are salacious and mostly fun, the stories about charging a boss’s account and dipping into a show’s budget are more dark and poignant.

It’s a complex story, involving lots of travel around the country, a large cast (though Rimalower only acts out a handful of the people he mentions), name changes and the difficult ebb and flow of a life in the theatre. It testifies to Rimalower’s skill as both writer and performer that very nearly every moment is crystal clear. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Spectacular and marvelously fresh and inventive, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time explores the mind of an incredibly intelligent but socially inept young man with what seems like high-functioning autism or Asperger’s. When the neighbor’s dog is killed with a pitchfork – or a “garden fork” as they call it in this British import – 15-year-old Christopher sets about finding out who did the dastardly deed, with unexpected results. This is based on a popular young adult novel, so everything turns out for the best in the end, even if we get to some decidedly uncomfortable places in the middle.

Director Marianne Elliott has fashioned staging for Curious Incident that is relentlessly, busily ingenious – even as it successfully tells a very human story. Against designer Bunny Christie’s austere black-and-white grid, video designer Finn Ross composes rich and varied moving images, exploding the grid’s rigid order. The video and set really take off in the second act, as the frantic chaos of London’s transportation system shocks the hypersensitive Christopher.

But all of this would be for naught if it weren’t for dramatist Simon Stephens’s briskly energetic adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel, and especially for Alex Sharp’s remarkable performance as Christopher. Sharp’s quirky body language and clipped vocal delivery eloquently conveys the truth of a boy whose inner life isn’t in line with ordinary psychology – while remarkably tugging at our sympathies at every possible turn.

All in all, a truly phenomenal and invigorating evening in the theatre. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Indian Ink

Indian Ink Laura Pels Theatre

This is definitely one of the warmer plays by the notoriously cerebral British playwright Tom Stoppard. Indian Ink follows fictional Modernist English poet Flora Crewe (Romola Garai) as she visits India in the 1930s, where her intricate relationship with Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) evolves against the backdrop of Gandhi’s nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly, often called the “Salt March”. Fifty years later, in 1980s England, her younger sister Eleanor (the ever-luminous Rosemary Harris) is at pains to protect her controversial sister’s name and legacy.

Stoppard wrote Indian Ink shortly after his highly acclaimed play Arcadia, which also tells intertwining stories split by wide divides of time. I like Indian Ink a bit more than the better-known Arcadia – the terrain of India, removed from the buttoned-up world of the English gentry, gives a more open feel to the play, and a wider and more varied aesthetic canvas on which to paint. Director Carey Perloff keeps all of that complicated interweaving crystal clear.

Garai may not be the ideal Crewe – there’s little of the Modernist rebel that’s in Stoppard’s lines in her demeanor – but she does a more than creditable job, showing dynamic range in Flora’s reactions toward the diverse personalities that disturb her while she is trying to recover her strength. Overall, a nuanced and moving performance.

Harris is never less than magnificent, but she’s given little to do here. Eleanor is decidedly more conservative and properly “English” than her sister, which severely limits the range of what Harris can openly express. You can bet, though, that Harris has worked out a more dynamic inner life for Eleanor – you can see it clearly in the odd warmth she gives this chilly woman.

I do certainly appreciate Stoppard’s insights and intelligence, but I’m never going to be his biggest fan. Even with that, I found much to actually enjoy in Indian Ink. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Riding the Midnight Express

Riding the Midnight Express BILLY-HAYES

In Riding the Midnight Express, Billy Hayes has created a riveting one-man show, detailing his time in Turkish prisons and his daring escape, taking pains to make clear the distinctions between the movie version of Midnight Express and what actually happened. Hayes had been smuggling hash out of Turkey for some time before he was arrested in Istanbul in 1970. A combination of over-confidence on his part and changing international politics landed him in prison for 5 years.

One of the major misunderstandings caused by Oliver Stone’s sensationalist screenplay for Midnight Express is that Hayes holds any resentment towards Turkey for what happened to him. He still loves the country and that’s one of the major keynotes of this one-man show.

Further, the phrase “riding the midnight express” refers to the long, difficult journey Hayes faced after he escaped from prison, which is not detailed in the movie at all (it ends when he walks out of the prison). In the one-man show, this is actually one of the more compelling parts of the evening.

His story is packed with innate drama, and, with the help of director Jeffrey Altshuler, Hayes delivers it with an easy combination of personal charm and sly, subtle theatricality. Hayes has shaped his story into a well-crafted evening, but his real emotions about the story he lived through keep coming through, which makes it all the more gripping. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

This play celebrates the joy of being different, being yourself, more than almost any other play out there, which long ago earned it a special place in my heart. The Sycamores are a family of happy eccentrics (who have always reminded me of my happily eccentric family), led by easy-going paterfamilias Grandpa Vanderhof (magnificently played here by James Earl Jones). When youngest daughter Alice (Rose Byrne) invites her fiancé’s straight-laced parents over for dinner, Grandpa and company find they must heartily defend their unusual way of life.

Director Scott Ellis has kept the proceedings appropriately fast-paced and light-hearted, paying careful attention to making distinctions among this household’s wide variety of personalities. David Rockwell’s set perfectly captures both the eclectic chaos and the liberated spirit Grandpa’s philosophy has unleashed.

Jones has always been capable of a light touch, it just isn’t what is usually asked of him. You Can’t Take it With You gives him ample opportunity to apply such a touch – this is, after all, a man who relishes relaxing into life. And the result is wonderful: gentleness backed up with kilowatts of reserved power.

This is definitely an ensemble show, though, and what an ensemble! It’s lucky that Rockwell has designed such a massive set, and surprising that the scenery hasn’t been entirely chewed away at the end of every evening (I mean this as a compliment, by the way). Julie Halston, as a soused actress, has one of the smallest parts in the show, but treats it like a full meal. Annaleigh Ashford hits the show’s sweetly hilarious tone most effortlessly as the forever en pointe would-be ballerina Essie.

The title refers to the money that 9-to-5ers and salarymen are forever chasing after, and to the fact that, in the final analysis, money has little to do with finding happiness here and now. And that’s a message that’s just as needed now as it was in 1938. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Pride

Pride

It is not at all surprising that this movie is already being adapted into a stage musical. For one thing, Matilda‘s Matthew Warchus directed it (with great feeling and nimbleness, I might add). Also, it’s the latest in a line of British movies that highlight a transforming encounter between working-class heart and queer fabulousness: The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, etc. All of which have gone on to be highly successful as musicals. It doesn’t hurt that Pride, to my mind anyway, is the best of the lot.

Pride is inspired by a true story: In the summer of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s government was brutally facing down the striking National Union of Mineworkers – also the background of Billy Elliot. In Pride, we follow a London-based group of gay and lesbian activists who raise money to support the strikers’ families. Specifically they set their sights on the tiny mining village of Ollwyn, Wales and set off to make their donation in person.

The story is told through the eyes of Joe (George MacKay), a closeted barely-not-legal photographer, who falls in with the group almost by accident on London Gay Pride 1984. The leader of the group, Mark Ashton, cuts a passionately romantic figure, especially as played by the almost-too-pretty Ben Schnetzer. The combination of music and politics makes me very emotional, and the idea of solidarity between labor and queers really hits me where I live.

Bill Nighy is as restrained as I’ve ever seen him as Ollwyn labor elder Cliff, which makes the one time he lets his eccentricity peep out all the more effective. But this is also no place for a star turn – in keeping with the collectivist spirit of labor, this is decidedly an ensemble film, with a very large ensemble indeed, and all the better for it. I’ll just say it: Pride is simply one of the best films I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Love Letters

Love Letters Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow 2 photo by Carol Rosegg

Sentimental but often acerbic, minimalist but very rooted in realism, Love Letters portrays two friends, the artistic Melissa Gardner and the eloquent Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, who exchange notes, cards and letters with each other for over 50 years. It’s designed to be performed by two actors reading the letters from their seats, which makes it incredibly simple to produce – no set, two actors who don’t even have to memorize their lines – and as such has been incredibly popular in regional theatres. Hire two stars, hold just a handful of rehearsals, and start selling tickets!

It doesn’t hurt that this deceptively simple play is actually pretty darn good, a detailed look at two very different WASPs falling in and out of love. This is a world that Gurney knows well, and has chronicled better than any other playwright this side of Thornton Wilder.

For the first stretch of this Broadway run, Melissa is played by Mia Farrow, Andrew by Brian Dennehy. Farrow emphasizes the flightier side of this wild child – a choice that doesn’t really work for me, but I have to admit that Farrow commits to it and plays it for all its worth. Dennehy’s interpretation suits me much better; in his hands, Andrew’s love of writing (letters and otherwise) comes across as deeply sincere. No stuffed shirt he, but rather a sensitive and smart soul.

Love Letters is a rewarding evening of theatre, but I wouldn’t call it a deeply satisfying one. Worth seeing with these two, anyway.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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