Review: In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

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While I enjoyed In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, I don’t think I’m its audience. For various reasons, I know a bit more than your typical theatergoer about feminism and the history of sexuality, so while Ruhl’s play revealed a few salient details I wasn’t aware of, I wasn’t as shocked or titillated as the rest of the audience seemed to be.

Set around 1880, a time when electricity was just beginning to be used in the home, In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, follows Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris) and his wife (Laura Benanti) and the good doctor’s experimental electrical therapy, essentially using what would become known as a vibrator to treat women (and some men) suffering from “hysteria”.

Much of the humor in the play derives from the typically Victorian failure of Dr. Givings — and everyone around him — to recognize that the effects of his devices are actually sexual, that the “paroxysms” they experience are actually orgasms. Once the “joke” of that has passed, Ruhl does indeed use this fact to pursue some interesting investigations into human psychology. She rambles as she does so, however, and In the Next Room feels too long by nearly an act.

I think Ruhl intended Benanti’s character to be the lens through which we see the story, and has made her guilelessly curious about all things. In doing so, however, she has made Mrs. Givings too unselfconscious; her husband finds her free of neuroses, but it’s not believable that a psychiatrist of that era would have found her mentally healthy.

Benanti does the character no favors, either, playing her very broadly, as though she was going for every laugh in sight (which is strange, given Benanti’s marvelously restrained performances in Nine and Gypsy). By contrast, Cerveris plays the doctor’s simultaneous curiosity and obliviousness with a light touch.

There are some interesting ideas and moments of great humor and lyricism in In the Next Room, but in the end it didn’t give me much of a charge, or prod me to much thought.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Fela!

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Fela! dances, shimmies, shakes, pulses, thrusts and explodes in a way never seen on Broadway before. About Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and his tumultuous life as political activist and innovative musician, this “musical” is less a book musical and more of a wholesale reconstruction of a unique place and time.

Director/choreographer Bill T. Jones takes us to Fela’s nightclub, “The Shrine” in Lagos, Nigeria, on a hot summer night in 1978. And he really takes us there — set designer Marina Dragihci has covered every available inch of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre with colorful, funky, Afro-centric decoration. The very hottest of today’s Afrobeat bands, Antibalas, is jamming the entire time the audience is entering. Throughout the evening, the imagery never stops, and neither does the groove.

Actually, we get “The Shrine Plus”: surely Fela’s club never featured lights as dynamic as those designed by Robert Wierzel, or projections as powerful as Peter Nigrini’s. Plus, Jones has Fela telling big chunks of his life story in a more or less chronological fashion, which would have never happened at a real evening in the Shrine, which were very spontaneous and pot-fueled.

That said, the evening actually isn’t structured enough — the attempt to catch the wild atmosphere of the Shrine means that somewhere in Act II our interest slacks, in spite of a tremendous 11 o’clock appearance of the incomparable Lillias White as the deified spirit of Fela’s mother Funmilayo.

Also, this is decidedly “Fela’s Fela,” Anikulapo-Kuti presented as he himself would have wished, as a folk hero. A few important faults go unreported: Fela’s attitude towards his 27 wives, and women in general, veered wildly between worshipfulness and genuinely shocking sexism. We are only shown the worshipful side.

Further, he wrote songs against condom use and portrayed AIDS as a “white man’s disease” — while in a deeply ironic turn, he died of the disease himself in 1997 (it bears saying that his family has been deeply involved with AIDS advocacy ever since). AIDS is not even mentioned in the show, save for a slogan on a coffin at show’s end. Given that Jones did a groundbreaking dance about AIDS in 1994 called Still/Here, this omission is odder still.

Still, Fela! is an energetic, exciting part of an ongoing infusion of new ideas and approaches into the Broadway musical. For that alone, it is well worth seeing.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: A Little Night Music

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This musical, set in the very earliest years of the 20th century Sweden, is as optimistically romantic as Stephen Sondheim ever got. Even here there are generous helpings of his wry cynicism, but never enough to truly darken the sweetly swooning mood. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music the story follows lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson) and his renewed entanglement with glamorous actress Desirée Armfeldt (Catherine Zeta-Jones) after many years apart.

Director Trevor Nunn has taken Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler at their words, going directly for the sharp humor and heartache that are right there on the surface. As usual for him, he catches the majority of the verbal cues, but misses some of the musical ones; for example, there is a choral quartet of singers that are never visually established as a quartet, instead muddily mixing in with the rest of the ensemble. That said, he has given Night Music a warmly emotional reading that I found seductive.

Hanson is suitably worldly and bighearted as Fredrik, and Zeta-Jones (in her much-touted Broadway debut) gives us an appropriately larger-than-life Desirée. Angela Lansbury is superbly cast as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s former courtesan of a mother; it’s beyond delightful to see her at work in a musical, in a role that gives full reign to her intelligence and droll wit.

I also particularly enjoyed Erin Davie as the tart-tongued Countess Charlotte. She played young Little Edie in Grey Gardens — it’s great to have her back on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre playing another hilarious, high-strung eccentric. Night Music is probably the Sondheim show I like the most throughout, and it’s a real pleasure to see this solid and good-humored production on Broadway.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Michael Feinstein and David Hyde Pierce

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Yet another duo cabaret act from Michael Feinstein, after two terrific match-ups with Cheyenne Jackson and Christine Ebersole (the show with Jackson was so successful that it was subsequently made into a terrific studio album). The previous shows were studies in contrasts, with Feinstein playing more or less the straight man to his more flamboyant partners.

This latest act with David Hyde Pierce finds Michael in the hot seat, playing the romantic next to Pierce’s classical, restrained, hilariously deadpan persona. Pierce goes quite literally Classical with “Ill Wind,” a Mozart concerto set to ludicrous, tongue-tripping lyrics by English comedian Michael Flanders.

Immediately after, Feinstein sits down at the piano and goes into an instrumental version of Cole Porter’s “So in Love” that sounds like Romantic composer Rachmaninoff. This segues into the rip-roaring John Oddo arrangement of that song that was such a hit in the Cheyenne show (and CD). Oddo, perhaps best known as Rosemary Clooney’s music director, is also music director here, and did all of the arrangements. It bears saying from time to time that there are few things in cabaret finer than a John Oddo arrangement.

This pattern holds for most of the evening, Michael belting out showstoppers like “I Wanna Be Around” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” while David patters through stuff like his big number from Spamalot, “You Won’t Succeed On Broadway (If You Don’t Have Any Jews).” There’s one breathtaking exception, when Pierce sings the brief “Your Face” by out composer John Kander. Written in the 1960s, it tenderly describes his lover’s face as he sleeps. Pierce delivers it with such warm simplicity, that—well, if it doesn’t make you kvell, you’re just not gay.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Lost Lounge

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The Lost Lounge, the latest from downtown lesbian troupe Split Britches, is hardcore group performance art. How much you like the show therefore depends a great deal on how much you like performance art. If you love it, this is some of the very best performance art out there. If you don’t love it, you may find a thing here or there to enjoy about The Lost Lounge, but ultimately it won’t be your cup of tea.

I like, but don’t love, performance art, so I had a good, but not great, time. It helps a lot that Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, the couple at the heart of Split Britches, are skillful and charismatic performers. The subject of The Lost Lounge is the loss of many things that made New York special; I think that it hurts the show that we don’t really get a sense of the things lost, just a generalized sense of angst over their loss.

The show is at its best when Shaw (the suavest butch anywhere) and Weaver (a wry, tough, self-aware femme) sing and dance through the pain, when they deadpan their way through a faux Louis Prima & Keely Smith number (Vivian Stoll providing the music), or put their backs into Stormy Brandenberger’s evocative choreography. This is exceptionally well put together performance art, that maybe needs to dig a little bit deeper and think a little bit harder.

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Review: Race

Originally reviewed for

Rich white man Charles (Richard Thomas) has been accused of raping a not-rich black woman, and hires a law firm led by partners Jack (James Spader) and Henry (David Alan Grier) with associate Susan (Kerry Washington). Sounds like a promising set-up for a David Mamet play, right? Think again.

The most compelling thing about the production is the opportunity to see Mamet as directed by Mamet. In general, I think it’s a mistake for a writer to direct his own work. In the case of Race, though, Mamet’s direction clears up one very important thing about performing his plays: Don’t let the rhythm hypnotize you.

Yes, as everybody says, this playwright picks his words very carefully. But there is not some great mystery in this, no right rhythm that overrides the sense of what he’s written. The words mean what you think they mean, and they’re spoken in the way a real human would say them. Sometimes they dance, but just as often they halt and change directions. Spader in particular masterfully delivers the lines with maximum economy and impact.

That said, there’s a lot more economy than impact in the writing of Race. In terms of content, the play, while smart, isn’t even up to insight of a third rate episode of Law & Order. I’m thinking in particular of a (first-rate) episode of L & O: Criminal Intent (co-written by playwright Teresa Rebeck), dealing with a street gang run with the precepts of Marcus Aurelius, that digs a lot deeper than Race does. Mamet wrote Race because he could, not because he needed to, or had anything really new to say to us.

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Review: Our Town

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Director David Cromer’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s haunting evocation of a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the last century is intimate, even a bit claustrophobic. Between the years of 1901 and 1913, change comes slowly to the town of Grover’s Corners, and a stage manager (originally played by Cromer himself, now Jason Butler Harner, with great dryness) shows us scenes of the townspeople’s daily lives, loves and deaths.

Cromer, however, has the cast dress in 21st century rehearsal clothes, with only slight evocations of period dress. No noticeable Yankee accents, either.

He’s staged the action amongst the audience, sometimes having actors performing within inches of a given audience member’s face. It’s hard to single out any one performance for praise in this production, so strong is the sense of ensemble playing. Cromer’s aim seems to be to make the play as immediate as possible, and he’s succeeded admirably.

This approach also strips away the sentimentality of most productions of Our Town. Most noticeably, many of the town’s adult males are portrayed as hard-nosed, grimly provincial and even intolerant, instead of most productions’ strong silent types with hearts of gold.

This brings into stark relief the plight of alcoholic church organist Simon Stimson (Jeremy Beiler) — in this production he reads as distinctly gay, but completely repressed, destroyed by a complete lack of any avenue for expression of his true nature. Except, that is, through the tortured, dissonant piano music he plays at various points throughout the evening.

Cromer has even made the evening’s biggest chestnut, a scene late in the play bidding farewell to Grover’s Corners, into something freshly exciting, even sensual.

This Our Town may be innovative, but it’s also highly successful. On Wednesday, December 16, performance #337 will make this staging the longest-running Our Town in the 71-year worldwide history of the classic play. The announcement was made by Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and the literary executor of his uncle’s intellectual properties.

According to Tappan, there have been “tens of thousands” of productions/licenses of Our Town that have been performed in more than 26 countries and translated into 22 languages.  The longest-running of those productions was the original 1938 Broadway version. Personally, I heartily hope that Tappan was right when he said, “this production will most certainly have a lasting effect on future versions of Our Town around the world.”   

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Ragtime

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Ragtime dials the clock way back, looking at the emergence of ragtime in the 1900s. It doesn’t tell the story of that music’s evolution; instead, it uses it as a metaphor for the convulsive changes then happening in America. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s epic novel set in New York’s combustible melting pot, Ragtime in fact weaves together three distinct stories — those of a sheltered New Rochelle housewife, a indomitable Jewish immigrant on the poverty-stricken Lower East Side and a passionate young Harlem piano player.

I didn’t see the 1998 Broadway debut of Ragtime; my first exposure to it was Stafford Arima’s 2005 production at Paper Mill Playhouse. The Arima production and this one (directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge) share a heated minimalism, as well as a lead actor, Quentin Earl Darrington as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker. In both productions, Darrington makes Coalhouse the soul of the show, playing him with real danger, passion and sorrow.

Other standout performances include Christiane Noll giving a surprising wryness to the WASPy “Mother” and Bobby Steggart as surely the most earnest (and cutest) “Young Brother” ever. Robert Petkoff brings great humanity and humor to the role of Orchard Street artist turned filmmaker Tateh. Derek McLane’s set is a masterpiece of functional elegance and flexibility. Santo Loquasto’s costumes tell a story all by themselves, especially his vaudeville costumes for Evelyn Nesbit.

As for the show itself, I’m not in love with the tendency of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist to do “stand downstage center” arias. Ragtime’s strongest moment are the ensemble numbers, including the rousing title song (which Dodge has stage with great intensity and intelligence) and “New Music.” All in all, a very strong entry in the musical season.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Understudy

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Is The Understudy a love letter or a poison pen letter to the theatre? Playwright Theresa Rebeck looks at one of the most infamous positions in the theatre: the understudy. The play, Rebeck’s best and funniest in years, certainly celebrates what the theatre is capable of, but it also has piercing insight into hard show biz truths.

It’s fitting that the “understudy rehearsal” which makes up the play is for a Broadway production of a newly discovered play by Franz Kafka. The Understudy reveals the ways in which show business is like one of Kafka’s nightmare bureaucracies — everybody is standing in for somebody else more powerful.

We may initially think that Harry (rubber-limbed Justin Kirk) is the titular understudy, but Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, looking great in a tight t-shirt) the minor movie star whose role Harry’s “covering” is himself understudying the role of an even bigger movie star, the unseen Bruce. And Roxanne (Julie White, hilarious as always) may be a much-loved (in more ways than one) stage manager, but she also has acting ambitions herself. Rebeck even hints at the idea that commercial theatre as a whole is a much-abused “understudy” of the movie industry, aping its moves and jealously eyeing its bigger paychecks.

Beyond all this, however, we get to see glimpses of the dream that motivates all three characters. Harry has a great instinct for tone and physicality, Jake, real passion for the philosophical seriousness of Kafka, Roxanne, penetrating insight into the possibilities of cross-gender casting. When all three do the Kafka play’s finale, an absurd yet passionate dance, it’s a moving homage to what the theatre can do when humble artistry triumphs commerce-driven nerves.

For tickets, click here.

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