Review: Golden Boy

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In Golden Boy, I can see more clearly than ever the influence of playwright Clifford Odets on my favorite 20th Century American playwright, Tennessee Williams. In this tragic drama Odets hits on a theme that would be central to Williams work: the struggle of the fragile, precious artistic spirit to survive in brutal circumstances.

In Golden Boy that struggle takes place in the body and soul of Joe Bonaparte (played with great “body and soul” by Seth Numrich), a young, gifted violinist torn between pursuing his beloved music or earning big money as a prize fighter. Odets’s 1937 drama is surprisingly fresh – sure, there’s the odd line here or there that seems a little corny, and the last two scenes wrap up an otherwise compelling plot in a contrived and melodramatic way (though the actual dialogue is moving). But in general, Odets works over some really big ideas with great intelligence and sensitivity.

Director Bartlett Sher helps this immensely by evolving a sharp contrast between the humble, thoughtful demeanor of Joe’s father (played by Tony Shalhoub with the deepest humanity I’ve seen him display in any medium), and the brash, cruel, even hateful attitude displayed by one and all in the boxing world. Odets only portrays two people in the boxing business as interested in Joe for himself, his trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and his manager’s mistress Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski), and Burstein and Stahovski indeed give the most impressive performances of the evening after Numrich and Shalhoub.

Sher seems to be on a mission to revive the reputation of Odets, adding this to his similarly affectionate revival of the playwright’s Awake and Sing a few seasons back. Seeing as Odets is probably the biggest theatrical influence on Williams outside of Eugene O’Neill, I’m all for it!

For tickets, click here.

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Review: Jackie Hoffman’s A Chanukah Charol

ChanukahCharol049.jpg.644x3600_q100Jackie Hoffman’s schtick is telling hilarious self-deprecating jokes about the sad state of her career. So has she changed her tune with A Chanukah Charol, turning the satire outward to spoof Charles Dickens? Nope, not really – she’s actually done something more creative, using Dickens’s hoary holiday chestnut as a frame to…well, continue telling hilarious self-deprecating jokes about the sad state of her career. She was already at “bah, humbug,” anyway, right?

Jackie starts having problems with a too-responsive synagogue audience in Queens, and storms backstage, where she has visions after combining Ambien with the rabbi’s Manischewitz. Replacing Jacob Marley with Yiddish theatre and film star Molly Picon – and that’s only the beginning of the celebrity substitutions – Jackie combines some of her strongest material with a frame that actually has some serious things to say about family, and what she (or anyone) is willing to do to be famous.

I’ve long known that she is one of the country’s best comic actresses, and this vehicle shows it even better than her legendary cabaret acts at places like Joe’s Pub and 54 Below. Jackie is continuously gaining confidence, shading her bitter comedy with moments of humble seriousness. Her cabaret shows have long been one of my very favorite things in the whole world, and this narrative variation really takes it to another level. Acid humor that never gets all the way to self pity, a great character actress who just gets more depth while never losing her razor edge – long may Jackie roar!

For tickets, click here.

Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

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I liked Glengarry Glen Ross more than I thought would. That is, I didn’t like it that much, but I didn’t hate it. It’s no secret that I’m not in any way, shape or form a fan of playwright David Mamet, in fact I’ve really detested some of his shows.

As a matter of fact, my expectations were decidedly low for Glengarry. Theplay has a reputation as being the sine qua non of “manly straight man” Mamet territory, which I generally find really boring (in this area, Sam Shepard does everything Mamet does, but better, with genuine fire and wit). This, however, is better than Mamet’s other work in this area; I have long thought Mamet is a good comic writer, and Glengarry, as desperate and mean as its characters are, is essentially a comedy – it is certainly the most spirited and animated Mamet play I’ve ever seen.

Even the tragic things that happen to some of its characters happen in the context of a comic world. That is, while the stakes are indeed high, nobody falls from a great height, these schlemiels are almost already finished from the word “go.” That comic world is a fly by night real estate office in 1983 Chicago (Mamet himself worked in a real estate office in Chicago in 1969).

Al Pacino plays Shelly Levene, the only character whose fall is sad rather than laughable, but he’s more pathetic than really tragic. Pacino knows this, and plays Levene as a delusional sad sack who half realizes that his best days are behind him, and weren’t that great. Bobby Cannavale, charismatic and sexy as always, puts in a solid performance as Richard Roma, a slick up-and-comer who also seems to be the only person to see the good in Shelly.

So, yes, now that I’ve seen Glengarry, I can see the good in Mamet. Not the great, not even the marginally insightful, but the good. The other side of that: as far as I can tell, he wrote this well exactly once, which doesn’t justify his reputation. Finally my estimation of him remains the same: a talented, quirky comic writer who wilts when he gets serious and yet somehow still gets called a genius.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

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Back in the days when Justin Bond mostly performed as Kiki DuRane of Kiki & Herb, that deranged duo would always do Christmas shows that were the most hilariously blasphemous and vitriolic thing in town. Now that Justin Vivian Bond has shed the DuRane persona and stands ever more firmly center stage (and in the center of the gender specturm), v’s Christmas show naturally takes a much different form.

In “Snow Angel”, this year’s Christmas show, JVB’s own persona is plenty big enough and v’s wit is spontaneous, an acidly funny stream of consciousness – what do you know, hilarious blasphemy and vitriol still come pretty naturally to Justin! The stories v tells now are more personal; now, instead of toying with Kiki’s complicated fictional relationship with Christianity, Bond can actually put v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. And the music can be performed with less irony and greater feeling – after singing Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Made in America”, JVB specifically said “I hate post-rap irony, so I did my best to be sincere.”

There’s a lot of songs by Melanie Safka (of “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” fame), and Melanie’s dangerously earnest passion defines the tone of this act. The musical backing from Brett Every on piano and Nath Ann Carrera on guitar is sophisticated, warm and rich. Amber Martin on backing vocals can stand up to Bond’s titanic vocal power, a very tall order. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the arrangements – if anything they are redolent of folk rock and chamber pop – but there is a powerful sense of improvisational give and take.

Bond is one of the most original and potent performers of our time, whom I think everybody should see at least once. Or more often – there’s something new and freshly rewarding about every single performance.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Mystery of Edwin DroodThis revival is the best taste of good old-fashioned musical comedy fun so far this season! Or more accurately, good old musical hall fun, since Rupert Holmes, the musical’s author and composer, has set the Dickens whodunit in the context of a Victorian British musical hall. There, a raucous troupe of variety performers mounts a staging of the unfinished novel. Each performance ends differently, depending on what the audience decides.

I had a thoroughly good time, rarely thinking this could have been written or directed in a different way. And whenever I did, I decided it would be quibbling with a show that succeeds remarkably well on the modest terms it sets. For example, there’s a patter song that’s almost incomprehensible; however, the lyrics aren’t the point of the song, the sheer spectacle of speed is the point, so who cares!

Director Scott Ellis makes fine use of an irrepressibly energetic and committed company, headed by the incandescent Chita Rivera and Jim Norton. Gregg Edelman seems to be having a blast playing the dotty Rev. Crisparkle, Will Chase seems totally at home as the moustache-twirling Jasper, and Stephanie J. Block positively glows playing the “pants role” of the doomed Drood.

Drood is intended to be silly fun, and nobody in the creative team or cast spends any time pretending otherwise. Set designer Anita Louizos, for one, has created a lushly inviting facsimile of a late 19th Century British music hall, which lends the proceedings warm support. Likewise, costume designer William Ivey Long has convincingly captured the luxury of Victorian costuming. The musical Christmas Story oversells its good cheer, this Drood doesn’t have to, it actually is that entertaining.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Dead Accounts

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I’m something of a Teresa Rebeck fan. I’ve long enjoyed her sparkling, cutting dialogue – she gets to the heart of important issues with a wicked, satirical sense of humor. She’s softened her satirical knives for her latest, Dead Accounts, turning in a more straightforward comedy, albeit on serious themes, and with a handful of sharp jabs.

This seems to have befuddled the New York critical establishment, who either expect something more provocative from her, or just plain don’t get her at all. From my own point of view, Rebeck is currently on an artistic incline, each new work better than the last. And yes, that means that I like Dead Accounts more than her much-lauded Seminar (although I liked that well enough).

In the new play, prodigal son Jack (Norbert Leo Butz) returns to his Cincinnati family home after working at a big bank in New York. The play is thematically focused on the contrast between a New York mindset and a Midwestern one, while the plot hinges on the mystery of what happened to Jack in New York, and where did he get all this money that he’s throwing around.

For my money, Dead Accounts a great big success. The plot is complex but coherent, the tone just right to keep us intellectually on point, without descending into obvious tragedy or melodrama, or the too-caustic approach of Rebeck’s least-successful plays.

Jack is a big juicy Omaha steak of a part, and Midwestern-born Butz chews it thoroughly, as is his wont, to terrific effect. Jack O’Brien has directed with his usual razor-sharp attention to detail. The ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, acquits herself very well as Jack’s stressed-out sister Lorna, and Jane Houdyshell is, as always, a delight as the dotty but deeply Catholic matriarch Barbara.

But in the end, this is Rebeck’s achievement, and it’s a considerable one. Like I said, I’m a Rebeck fan, and Dead Accounts has everything I love about her work. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

Review: A Christmas Story

ChristmasStory0088The 1983 film A Christmas Story – about a 1940s Midwestern boy named Ralphie and his quest to get a BB Gun for Christmas – has never been totally my thing. I would see a scene while surfing through channels, get a chuckle or a crooked grin out of its droll humor, and then move on to another channel, not really engaged. I think I managed to see well over 80% of the movie this way, and I don’t think it was an altogether bad way to see it, given the plot’s episodic structure. But obviously it didn’t stir much enthusiasm in me.

Still, I found what I had seen mildly entertaining, so I am just a bit miffed that the creative team behind the Broadway musical version seemed to have missed the boat in their interpretation. What gave the movie its charm was a coolly wry tone, poking affectionate fun at unspoken truths about childhood and Christmas. In the musical, wry has been traded for wacky and broad, which sits very uneasily on this story and these characters. The creative team have taken the quirky film and turned it into something pretty generic and boring, despite a certain desperate, frantic energy.

I can’t say that I hated it, however. The kids in the cast – and there are a lot of kids in this cast – are marvelously talented, especially the diminutive Luke Spring, who executes tap-dancing pyrotechnics that would put many adult dancers to shame. Why that tap number – or an offensive Asian stereotype late in the show – is there in the first place, is a much murkier issue.

Johnny Rabe as Ralphie, and Zac Ballard as his little brother Randy, actually come pretty darn close to capturing the tone of the film, as does Dan Lauria as the narrating, grown-up Ralphie. John Babbo puts in one of the show’s most committed, focused and energetic performances as the bully Grover Dill.

Do I think this is the best possible stage representation of the film, or the best work of anybody involved? No. But I also don’t think it’s heinously bad. So there, nyah.

For tickets, click here.