Review: Straight White Men

This play is never less than fascinating. When I think of the phrase “straight white men” my first thought is the awful old straight white men who pull the levers of government and business in this country. Or the too-loud, too-cocky douchebags that infest New York City streets, wearing their blue shirts and brown shoes directly from work to the nightclub. Smartly, those aren’t the “straight white men” playwright Young Jean Lee has chosen to focus on. Instead, we spend time with an apparently more virtuous set of liberally-mind brothers, who gradually reveal their true, um, colors.

Lee fakes us out in several ways. She gives everything the appearance of a naturalistic family drama, but really the structure of the play has more to do with Beckett than with late O’Neill. In place of the vaudeville routines in Waiting for Godot, we have stylized roughhousing and the performative traditions that siblings create with one another.

The quiet engine of the play is the character Matt (Paul Schneider) who does temp work for a social service organization and then does the cleaning-up “women’s work” that neither his brothers or father will do. The moments when the action stops so we can watch Matt doing these jobs in real time are some of the most riveting moments of the play.

You see everybody’s worried about Matt, who doesn’t seem worried about much, but has an unexplained crying jag during Christmas celebrations. Novelist brother Drew (Armie Hammer) thinks Matt should see a therapist to treat what he perceives as Matt’s depression. Banker brother Jake (Josh Charles) admires what he understands to be Matt’s ideals, but encourages him to sell them better. Father Ed (Steven Payne) thinks throwing money at the problem of Matt’s student loans will solve things.

Lee seems to be driving at the idea that, in the United States, straight white men’s value is largely measured by capitalist success. This point she explores quite intelligently. But all Matt is doing, from his point of view, is trying to stop solving the unsolvable and do little things that would be immediately useful to others.

The biggest problem with Straight White Men is that I have just stated Matt’s POV more clearly than ever happens in the play. I understand trying not to provide easy answers for an audience, but I think Lee has landed closer to murkiness than the provocative ambiguity she was aiming for. The end of the play both leaves too much hanging, and, structurally speaking, ties thing up too neatly, straining for a symmetry that the subject and play both resist.

These are quibbles, though, with a thought-provoking and brilliantly acted play. I should also mention that transgender legend Kate Bornstein and two-spirit writer Ty Defoe have roles to play as well (though they were way too underused for my taste). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Carmen Jones

Once Anika Noni Rose starts her sultry take on “Dat’s Love” (to the melody of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen), you know at least one thing: this Classic Stage Company revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones is going to be an evening of beautiful music, beautifully sung. Not in a purely operatic way, but in that style sometimes called “legit,” somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

In adapting Bizet’s opera for the Broadway stage, Hammerstein moved the action from early 19th Century Spain to the American South during World War II. In Hammerstein’s version, Carmen (Rose) is a passionate but fickle and reckless parachute factory worker who desires – and is desired by – many men, including an airman and a prizefighter.

While I’m a great aficionado of opera, I’ve always been ill at ease with the pervasive misogyny and toxic masculinity in the repertoire. Carmen is a big offender in this area, with men vying to possess Carmen, and Carmen herself being portrayed as a “man-eater.” Hammerstein, one of the most humane writers in American literature, helps matters greatly with his more sympathetic portrayal of all involved, but that only makes her murder by the one she loved most all the more senseless, and not “tragic” in any larger sense. Still, the music is irresistible, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Hammerstein’s warmth and wit.

John Doyle’s direction is well within his minimalist, story-centric approach. Sometimes things get a little too still for my taste, but that also means when Bill T. Jones choreography bursts through it’s all the more powerful. It’s finally Rose’s show, though, and she is magnificent. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: This Was The End

Full disclosure: I’d consider two of the performers in Mabou Mines’s This Was The End an artistic aunt and uncle (even though I’ve never met them). Paul Zimet was in the Open Theatre with my artistic mentors Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman. Black-Eyed Susan was in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose one-time Artistic Director, Everett Quinton, I have directed (and been very inspired by) on a couple of occasions. This Was The End is closer to the Open Theatre’s work: abstract, highly visual, experimental, more concerned with theme and image than story.

There are fragments of a story here, the story of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In the play, Vanya asks, “What if I live to be 60?” In This Was The End, director Mallory Catlett probes for answers to that question, along with four luminaries of avant-garde theater all over the age of 60. This Was The End explores themes of loss, memory and aging in a deconstructed yet visceral way.

Zimet, as Vanya, is every bit as amazing as I remember him being (in videos of the Open Theatre’s early 1970s work). In one particularly breathtaking monologue he interacts with onstage sound designer / audio-visual manipulator G. Lucas Crane, imitating the way Crane distorts Zimet’s recorded voice with uncanny precision and accuracy. Sometimes he urges a rhythm to Crane with a spontaneity that feels like jazz improvisation.

Black-Eyed Susan brings whimsy and emotion to the proceedings, while never veering too far from the show’s bittersweet tone. She, like Sonya, the character she plays, injects a ray of hope into Vanya’s dark world. The other actors, Jim Himelsbach and Rae C. Wright are virtuoso actors on a par with Zimet and Susan. If you have a taste for challenging, somewhat abstract avant-garde theater, it doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Boys in the Band

Director Joe Mantello has uncovered something important about Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. At its base, it is a drama about an alcoholic dysfunctional family, much like Long Days Journey into Night. Unlike that play, however, there is much humor and hope in this chosen family, so much so that a character who has drunkenly said the most venomous lines, exits with a truly affectionate “Call you tomorrow!” See, the play, contrary to its reputation, portrays gays as better than straights. Boys is, at its root, about a group of exciting, vibrant men fighting like hell – against heavy opposition – for self-respect and love.

Michael (Jim Parsons), a recovering alcoholic, hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his Upper East Side apartment, with six of their closest friends. The evening begins with this group of friends celebrating, singing and dancing; when left to their own devices these guys are happy. But when the world comes knocking in the form of Michael’s straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) — or the form of toxicity between Michael and Harold that emerges when Michael falls off the wagon — staying happy seems like a steeper climb.

The big news for this production is a cast packed with movie and TV stars who are all openly gay, something that would never have happened in 1968 when the play premiered. Quinto’s performance as Harold is astonishing – he completely disappears in the role, and gives us a Harold with a greater sense of fun then I’ve every seen before, something that gives depth to the role. Parsons is terrific as guilty Catholic Michael. Matt Bomer, as Michael’s handsome friend with (occasional) benefits Donald, is his usual charming self.

I would be remiss if I didn’t report that Bomer gives us full backside nudity early in the show. It’s a testament to the high quality of his and Parsons’s performances that we’re able to get the important exposition that’s happening while Bomer’s fully or half-nude. The other standout performance is Robin de Jesús, who gives us a breathtakingly heartfelt interpretation of flaming queen Emory.

This is a revelatory production that casts an insightful eye toward both gay history and plain old human psychology. Essential gay viewing, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: My Fair Lady

Bartlett Sher directing tasteful yet thoughtful revivals of “Golden Age” musicals at Lincoln Center’s Beaumont Theatre – by this point it’s definitely “a thing.” This time Sher has turned his sights on Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady. Based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the plot goes like this: When self-important phonetics expert Henry Higgins bets his colleague that he can teach a Cockney flower girl to act and speak like a lady, he gets more than he bargained for: Eliza Doolittle provokes his interest, his anger, and ultimately, his passion.

This astutely executed My Fair Lady is yards closer to Shaw’s witty spirit and proto-feminist point of view than any other production I’ve seen. Pygmalion presents a much pettier Higgins than is found in the My Fair Lady book, and a much more self-possessed Eliza – and Sher leans toward that every chance he gets.

The excellent Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie on Downton Abbey) is central in this approach: his Higgins captures all of the man’s childishness and prejudice, which makes his rare moments of kindness all the more startling. Lauren Ambrose is a fittingly strong-willed and vocally expressive Eliza. The most showstopping performance, however goes to Norbert Leo Butz, who fills Eliza scoundrel father Alfred with pointed glee. He really brings the house down with his delivery of “Get Me To The Church on Time” positively bursting with kinetic energy.

There’s always a great danger that My Fair Lady might play as romanticizing what essentially is a manipulative, borderline abusive relationship – that certainly happened in the film version. That is far from Shaw’s original intention, and Sher has largely succeeded in saving My Fair Lady from its worst impulses. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Gentleman Caller

Wow, the prose in The Gentleman Caller is purple! That’s not a negative; when your two characters are Tennessee Williams and William Inge, two gay literary lights know for their loquacity, purple captures something important about them. It also means that the play, while loosely based on fact, isn’t exactly realistic – but it was Williams’s own Blanche DuBois who said “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” So let the queer magic begin!

The play takes place in 1944, while a “known” but not yet famous Williams is having out of town tryouts in Chicago for the play that will become known as The Glass Menagerie. In the first act, Tennessee is visiting his family in St. Louis, and agrees to be interviewed by local arts reporter William Inge. At this point Inge is firmly in the closet as both gay and playwright.

In playwright Philip Dawkins’s telling, they size each other up pretty quickly and engage in a game of sexual cat and mouse. Whether Inge and Williams ever had sex is open for debate. Dawkins hedges his bets by presenting some awkward sexual lunges at each other: awkward because of booze for Williams, awkward because of innate awkwardness (and booze) for Inge. But these never quite end in consummation.

This is less a story about them having a sexual or romantic encounter, and more about their artistic sensibilities colliding, and them sharing some queer warmth and mutual support. Director Tony Speciale has staged the play somewhat athletically, and with a strong sense of what Williams described as “plastic theatre” – a theatre that is simultaneously sculptural and kinetic. This is especially true in the sexual byplay, but pervades every moment of the production.

Juan Francisco Villa clearly relishes playing Williams as an unbridled sexual and verbal Dionysus, while Daniel K. Isaac captures both Inge’s tightly-wound nerves and the surges of emotion and desire that well underneath. It took a while for my ear to tune to the purpleness of Dawkins’s prose, but once it had, The Gentleman Caller had many pleasures to offer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Summer and Smoke

Now, while this is a very good Tennessee Williams play, I think it’s much less compelling than his later, rarely performed rewrite The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Both tell the story of Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the years before World War I. But Eccentricities gives us an Alma who is noticeably more self-possessed, while in Summer in spite of her best efforts, she is buffeted by the decisions of others.

Eccentricities also cuts a borderline offensive subplot about a Mexican father and daughter, and replaces overheated histrionics with something simpler and more genuinely touching. Thus, when somebody mounts Summer and Smoke, I always feel a momentary pain that they didn’t do the play that both I and Williams himself felt was better. Still, Summer and Smoke is actually a quite solid melodrama, the closest thing to a bodice ripper Williams wrote, while still having the penetrating insight into human psychology that never left him.

Director Jack Cummings III has shorn the play of anything but the most important elements. There are no props, and the actors don’t even mime using them, they just make a single gesture that confirms what the dialogue suggests. Cummings focuses on a fiercely precise rendering of language and characters, two of Williams’s greatest strengths.

This is another one of those plays that has to have a strong performance in the lead role to make sense. Marin Ireland is easily the best Alma I’ve seen, fully understanding that while Alma might not know herself too well, she is otherwise nobody’s fool. We see not only every self-controlling thought but also every uncontrollable emotion, which is truly dazzling and moving – and so Alma.

The play’s action is driven by Alma’s passion for the ne’er-do-well boy next door, young Dr. John Buchanan, who breaks all kinds of rules in the pursuit of pleasure, but feels intensely guilty about doing so. Nathan Darrow has exactly the languid charm needed to give life to this decidedly lost soul. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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