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Review: Constellations

Constellations Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

I love how this show manages to quickly shift genres, from farce to tragedy, without feeling forced. Constellations turns on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which suggests that a potentially infinite number of parallel universes exist simultanteously. British playwright Nick Payne has applied this brain-teasing idea to the most basic of stories, a love story.

It all starts out quite comically, showing how this relationship doesn’t get started in several universes, as one or the other of the couple is married, or expresses no interest in getting together. In a decidedly non-linear fashion, we build to an extended tragic scene in which the couple faces disease and mortality. And then we end up with what is perhaps the most sweetly romantic of the scenes.

This flexibility makes for a very satisfying evening of theatre, giving us a more that usual portion of the things we look for in stories. Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal play the lovers at the heart of this puzzle, and both prove to have impressive stage chops. They enchant with their easy chemistry, and impress by conquering the sheer technical difficulty of executing subtle but revealing shifts in an often repetative and circular script. Plus, Gyllenhaal has an English accent every bit as solid as his sister Maggie’s in the BBC mini-series The Honourable Woman.

Scenic designer Tom Scutt keeps it simple but evocative. The stage is bare of furniture or large set pieces, it’s populated only by an extensive collection of white balloons of various sizes, which, depending on how lighting designer Lee Curran frames them, suggest subatomic particles, neurons, lamps, planets or whole universes. Director Michael Longhurst manages the complex proceedings with great precision and clarity. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Elephant Man

Elephant Man, The Booth Theatre

This proves – as no doubt it was intended to – that Bradley Cooper is a bona fide stage actor with considerable chops, not just a slumming movie star. Often, when a star of Cooper’s magnitude shows up on Broadway, the best news that can be expected is that they didn’t suck, but didn’t quite hold the stage either. Not the case here: Cooper is the real deal.

Based on the life of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man tells the story of a 19th-century British man who became a star of the traveling freak show circuit. When a concerned doctor named Treves (Alessandro Nivola) takes Merrick in, the “elephant man” surprises him, not only with his quick intelligence, but also with his very human hunger for approval.

While Merrick’s deformities might seem to cry out for prosthetics (as were used in the 1980 David Lynch film of the same name), playwright Bernard Pomerance insists that he be portrayed by an able-bodied actor contorting himself into Merrick’s posture. Cooper is more than game for this, and pulls it off more naturally than any other actor I have seen in the role.

It doesn’t hurt that this is easily director Scott Ellis’s best work to date, finding as he does the humor and style in this often grim story. This is the most incisive direction I’ve seen from him, and he is much assisted by Timothy R. Mackabee’s fluid set design. Victorian in its details but minimalist in its fundamental conception, Mackabee’s approach is a marvellous marriage of imagination and function.

Pomerance has made the play as much Dr. Treves’s story as it is Merrick’s. Alessandro Nivola is excellent as the already deeply conflicted doctor, who is only driven further into confusion by Merrick’s predicament.

This may read like an unqualified rave; I have to admit that the play itself, while smart and engaging, is not one of my all-time favorites. Still, when faced with a production as immaculate as this one, it does prove hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Side Show

Side Show

This rarely happens with musicals, but the reason to see this impeccably staged show is the director: Bill Condon, the man who arguably did the most to revive the movie musical with his script for Chicago (2002) and his script and direction of Dreamgirls (2006) (while also writing and directing such queer-themed films as Gods and Monsters and Kinsey). His love of musical theater is obvious, so it was probably only a matter of time before he entered the Broadway arena. With Side Show Condon successfully translates his storytelling magic to the stage.

Side Show follows the true story of the conjoined Hilton twins, Daisy and Violet, who went from being attractions in the titular fairgrounds, to being the highest paid performers on the vaudeville circuit, and stars of the cult film Freaks. Condon brings the combination of polish and precision that marks his film work to bear, to impressive effect.

Condon has worked with composer Henry Kreiger and lyricist/bookwriter Bill Russell to reshape the piece to be sleeker and more cogent than before (so I’m told, I don’t know much about the original production). Certainly a message – own who you are, whatever the world thinks – comes through clearly, without feeling preachy or trite.

I do know that one of the most loved elements in the first production was the chemistry between the women playing the twins, Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. Here Emily Padgett plays the fame-craving Daisy and Erin Davie as the shier and more retiring Violet. They blend beautifully, communicating that essential sense of twin-ness, while creating decisively individual personalities.

I can see what people saw in the original, but I’m even more impressed at the grace with which Condon has applied his gifts to the stage. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Passion of the Crawford

Joan 0035

In this riveting evening of lip-synch, there’s a lot of people up on that stage, even though there’s only two bodies. John Epperson lip-synchs an interview Joan Crawford gave in 1973 in New York’s Town Hall. Or is it Epperson as his drag persona Lypsinka as Crawford?

Not to mention that some of the additional audio is Faye Dunaway portraying Crawford in Mommie Dearest, and some other cues are extracted from films where Crawford is portraying yet another “somebody else.” And then there’s the interviewer, lip-synched in most performances by Steve Cuiffo (Hairspray lyricist and generally brilliant man of the theatre Scott Wittman will perform the role November 18 through December 1).

Epperson provides further, fruitful complications. This is no straight-up impression or imitation. Instead, Epperson’s gestures and expressions provide a constant, running commentary on what Crawford’s saying – and what she isn’t. For example, whenever the subject of “the children” comes up, Epperson executes an almost ritualistic dusting of the hands.

Epperson has structured the evening so that it does indeed play like a passion play, an “imitation of the Christ,” with spiritual themes, struggles, and, finally, uplift. In a costume by Ramona Ponce and crimson jewelry by Robert Sorrell, Epperson resembles a particularly regal and sanguine version of Crawford. The interview might be the centerpiece, but the keystone of this show is Crawford’s reading of Max Ehrmann’s prayerful poem “Desiderata”, which opens with: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” Not qualities often associated with Crawford’s persona or reputation.

In the most Lypsinka-like portion of the evening, Epperson answers multiple ringing phones. Unlike the original version of this popular Lyp routine, though, all of the voices are Crawford or Dunaway – certainly no Bette Davis exclaiming “You didn’t!”

This is lip-synch as high art. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

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

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Review: Lypsinka: The Boxed Set

Lypsinka Box Set

Lypsinka long since turned the drag queen craft of lip-synching into high art. In The Boxed Set, the artist otherwise known as John Epperson refines and reconnects the various pieces he has been doing since the 1980s, in a sort of greatest hits collection. He has done this compilation before, and this time around the thematic strains about identity, gender and madness have just gotten clearer and stronger.

Thank goodness, though, that increased clarity has done nothing to diminish the fundamental strangeness of the Lyp’s audio collages. One of the great pleasures of Epperson’s brand of lip-synch is the way it doesn’t so much tell a story as paint a picture. An Ethel Merman outburst next to a Dolores Gray tune, next to Faye Dunaway channeling Joan Crawford, next to the Crawford herself, next to a Vegas bopper you’ve never heard of – these juxtapositions are the very things that make both the surrealism and the sharp insights happen.

Those things, and the very precision of the lip-synch. You can’t do the things Lypsinka does without meticulous attention to the basic craft of lip-synch, and her talent in this arena is unparalleled, awe-inspiring. And Epperson’s background in dance just adds to the meticulous construction.

Sometimes Lypsinka will play a moment straight, but just as often she takes a wisp of irony in the original and puts it under a magnifying glass with a look, a sneer, or even a limb that seems to be rebelling against her brain. But never doubt that even that rebellion is under Epperson’s laser-sharp control.

What can I say? This is 5-star, 10s across the board, the gold standard of drag queen artistry. This gets my very highest recommendation. What haven’t you bought your tickets yet? For those tickets, click here.

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

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Review: The Real Thing

Real Thing

This play has a reputation as being one of the most accessible plays by the notoriously cerebral British playwright Tom Stoppard. I understand why, since the love story at its center, despite many intellectual and moral turns, ends up being rather sweet. Still, as much as I found to enjoy in The Real Thing – and as much as I certainly appreciate Stoppard’s insights and intelligence – if this is Stoppard at his most accessible, I’m truly never going to be his biggest fan.

The play follows Henry (Ewan McGregor), a playwright whose marriage to actress Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) is slowly, almost painlessly dissolving. After Henry’s mistress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) leaves her husband so that she and Henry can begin a new life together, the new couple struggles to figure out if their relationship is indeed “the real thing.”

It’s a tricky business balancing these people’s crisp exteriors with the constantly shifting feelings underneath, and McGregor and Gyllenhaal do a decent job of playing surfaces against depth. Nixon also makes a solid impression as Henry’s haughtily smirking, somewhat older wife. Sam Gold’s direction tends toward the cool and restrained, which has the benefit making moments of deep emotion stand out in sharp relief.

The reputation I mentioned above is definitely earned – this is a significantly warm play from the author of such flinty pieces of intellect as Jumpers or Travesties. Perhaps seeing Stoppard’s even more emotionally engaging Indian Ink very recently has made me extra alert to the cooler colors in The Real Thing. On balance, if you’re a Stoppard fan, The Real Thing is not to be missed. If, like me, you’re not, it’s interesting but certainly not essential viewing.

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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