Review: Junk

Films taking shots at shady dealings in the world of finance are many, The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street being just the ones that come quickly to mind. Playwright Ayad Akhtar is working territory familiar from these films, and very entertainingly at that. He hews closest to Stone’s 1987 Wall Street – both are loosely based on the exploits of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. But where Stone’s film was a moralistic and occasionally sentimental melodrama, Junk is a satirical tragicomedy, as cold, hard and gleaming as steel.

In 1985, Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) – a fictional composite of Milken and several other financial sharks – is the guiding force at investment firm Sacker Lowell. He specializes in making financial magic with junk bonds, working with the counter-intuitive theory that “debt is an asset.” Most interestingly, Akhtar has the eloquent Merkin frame his assault on previously standard financial practices as an attempt of an ethnically diverse group of underdogs to beat the entrenched WASP plutocracy at their own game. It’s a fresh take on this familiar story, and rings intriguingly true.

Akhtar up to this point has built his reputation on small domestic dramas that, while touching on the way politics and religion impinge on our daily lives, have focused on the psychological and the personal. Junk is a big jump into the kind of political epics more commonly associated with British drama, from Shakespeare to David Hare, and is a bracing success.

Director Doug Hughes handles that epic breadth with great aplomb, moving the large cast around John Lee Beatty’s glittering set like pieces in a cocaine-fueled chess match. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Bright Colors and Bold Patterns

The laughs come fast and furious in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, writer / performer Drew Droege’s monologue that bristles against the mainstreaming of gays. The character Droege portrays, Gerry, is a flashy and colorful sort, arriving at a pool party ahead of the wedding of his old friend Josh to the more conservative Brennan (we never meet any of these characters, we just hear Gerry’s opinion of them).

The wedding invitation says, “Please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns,” which really steams Gerry. The play’s strongest thematic point is that gay marriage should not turn the bright rainbow of gay culture into something a whole lot more beige. Both Gerry and Droege have a stand-up comedian’s sense of how to most gleefully go for the jugular, which provides much of the show’s humor. Michael Urie, currently starring in the marvelous Off-Broadway revival of Torch Song, directs here with an assured hand, keeping things crisp and tight.

Gerry is “a hot mess,” and “a lot” for sure, but again the play’s point is being “a lot” should be celebrated, and “a hot mess” at least forgiven. This though, is where I have a quibble with the play. Gerry is finally a bit too self-pitying and cruel to make that point stick. If we are going to make the argument that the world needs our bright and bold gay color, wouldn’t it be better to have someone who exhausts you with their exuberance rather than their neediness and bitchiness? More Rip Taylor and less Paul Lynde I guess I’m saying.

It’s still largely a fun gay old time, however. Drew Droege has a wonderful way with witty one-liners, both writing them and delivering them. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes

I’ve lived in New York for a long time and I’ve never seen the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. I mean, sure, I’ve seen the Rockettes in other settings – I even saw the summertime New York Spectacular they did at Radio City a while back. But never the Christmas Spectacular itself. This year I decided to remedy that situation.

It is everything I had hoped. It is first and foremost spectacular, driven by the amazing unison dancing of the Rockettes themselves, but hugely abetted by Radio City’s stunning hydraulics system and dazzling projections by Obscura Digital and batwin + robin. It is also unapologetically schmaltzy and sentimental, but all that sweetness is cut by a strain of jazziness – both in the music and dancing – that runs throughout. The sheer virtuosity of all involved also elevates it above mere treacle.

Of course the Rockettes are the star of the show. The opening number “Santa’s Reindeer” totally whets the appetite for what follows. Highlights include a “Here Comes Santa Claus” number where Santas keep multiplying – I’m thinking the entire adult company suited up for this one – and a finale satisfyingly full of high kicks. Some of the best numbers, though, are some of the oldest ones: “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” which has been a part of the show largely unchanged since 1933, a “Living Nativity” which has evolved considerably from that time to this, and a somewhat newer but still classic delight called “Rag Dolls” which at one point features a teddy bear in a pink tutu.

Director/choreographer Julie Branam has pulled together a daunting number of elements and collaborators to put together an extravaganza that can hold its head up in the tradition of Rockettes’ legendary holiday-season shows. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Torch Song

Harvey Fierstein first became famous playing drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the central character in the play he wrote for himself, Torch Song Trilogy. As someone who covers a lot of gay theatre, most productions of this play I’ve seen make the mistake of casting someone in their 40s or 50s as Arnold, when Fierstein himself was in his 20s when he played the role. What a treat, then, to see Michael Urie, only in his 30s, perfectly cast in this fine revival.

Torch Song follows Beckoff from 1971 through 1980 as he negotiates finding love, and losing it. Instead of aping Fierstein’s gravely growl, Urie switches between his normal voice and, for added sissy sass, a variation on that cartoon queen Snagglepuss, even. His knack for comedy is wickedly sharp, especially in a hilarious backroom scene. He also plays less to Arnold tragic side, which oddly makes all the heartbreak he goes through that much sharper.

The last act is by far the juiciest part of the play, and Mercedes Ruehl makes a ferocious late entrance as Arnold’s mother. Also terrific is Michael Rosen as Arnold’s pretty younger boyfriend Alan, and Jack DiFalco as David, the smartass gay teen Arnold is planning to adopt. The production doesn’t get everything right – the design for 1971 looks and sounds like a few years later than that – but it gets very close. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Band’s Visit

There is much being said about how innovative The Band’s Visit is, but I think it draws its strength from the ways in which it is very traditional. This musical marries very traditional musical theatre structure, courtesy of Itamar Moses’s sturdy book, and traditional Egyptian classical music, whose roots go back well over a thousand years. To be totally accurate, maybe only half of David Yazbek’s marvelous score is Egyptian classical, with the other half is a gleefully eclectic mix, including the cabaret-ready cool jazz “Haled’s Song About Love.”

The Band’s Visit follows an Egyptian police band that specializes in Egyptian classical, as they get lost on their way to a gig at an Arabic Cultural Center in Israel. With no bus until morning and no hotel in the small town where they are stranded, locals take the musicians in for the night.

Their interactions open up emotional issues for all involved, especially with the tentative yet still intense flirtation between band leader Tewfiq (Tony Shaloub) and local café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk). Dina, you see, is a big fan of Egyptian culture, especially classical chanteuse Umm Kulthum and movie star Omar Sharif, so Tewfiq is a natural focus of fascination for her. Similarly the band’s resident Casanova, the Chet Baker-worshiping Haled (Ari’el Stachel), helps awkward teen Papi (Etai Benson) approach a girl he likes (in between putting the moves on the limited population of single women in the town).

Though the ensemble work is terrific, with Lenk and Shaloub the definite stand outs, the real star here is David Yazbek’s masterful score. He shows that he can create beautiful, affecting music in any idiom he sets his mind to, while never losing sight of the need for theatrical effectiveness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: M. Butterfly

I’ve been told that this play revisal is much cooler and more cerebral than the original 1988 Broadway production, and you know what, I’m totally okay with that. Playwright David Henry Hwang is dealing with some very complex issues in M. Butterfly, and I’m more interested in exploring those with him than getting caught up in his hapless leading character’s emotional journey.

M. Butterfly, inspired by historical events, follows married French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owens) as he falls in love with jīngjù (aka “Beijing opera”) performer Song Liling (Jin Ha). Hwang has substantially revised his script, so that we learn that Song Liling is actually a man much earlier in the game. That narrative tension removed, it is much easier to follow the complicated turns that the forward rush of history forces on Gallimard and Liling’s relationship.

Director Julie Taymor, known for her use of spectacle to tell stories, here puts a greater emphasis on acting, to very good effect, underlining how much politics is very, very personal. As a matter of fact, when she uses spectacle in this production, she falters. The set is made up of moving panels – put simply, there are too many of them and they are too automated. Their lack of smooth functioning ends up being a major distraction. The spectacle that does work as it should is choreographer Ma Cong’s marvelous evocations of jīngjù and yàngbǎnxì (Maoist Revolutionary Operas).

The most outstanding thing in the production is Jin Ha’s performance as Song. He is every bit the character conjured by Hwang’s revisions, all steel and chrome under the velvet and lace, and all longing and confusion even further down. Clive Owens is such a fine actor that you lose sight of his matinee idol looks and really invest in him as the socially awkward Gallimard. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Time and the Conways

This sturdy, smart play from 1937 is equal parts philosophical rumination on the “time” part of the title, and rigorously observed family drama about “the Conways.” In 1919, at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), the titular upper-middle class British family see a sunny future ahead – I mean, the worst war in human history had just ended, how could it ever get as bad as that again? Then we jump to 1937, in what is either the actual future, or Kay’s dark premonition, or both.

In addition to its philosophical and “family psychology” themes, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is rich with political thoughts that range from the most idealistic socialism to the most mercenary capitalism, which speaks loudly to the anxieties of 2017 America. Director Rebbeca Taichman, fresh off her Tony win for Indecent, is an ideal match for this thoughtful material. Just as with Indecent, she creates several coups de théâtre that express Priestley’s ideas in breathtakingly simple theatrical moments.

The star in this production is Elizabeth McGovern, much loved as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Gratham, Cora Crawley. Here she plays family matriarch Mrs. Conway, a “monster mother” type familiar in American dramas from such characters as Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield or O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone – well-intentioned perhaps, but blinded by self-interest to the ways she damages her children. McGovern plays the positives here, going full-force into Mrs. Conway’s often unwarranted optimism to heartbreaking effect.

But as with the Williams and O’Neill characters referenced above, Mrs. Conway is not the central character of Time and the Conways. Though the play is in many ways an ensemble show, Kay is the character who holds the story together. Parry does a marvelous job with this sensitive, troubled yet hardy soul. The outstanding performance, though, is Gabriel Ebert as the quietly thoughtful and stoically content Alan. Quiet as Alan is, it’s clear when he does speak that much more is going on inside his head than those of the rest of the family combined. Ebert reflects every nuance, and gives a performance that shines from inside. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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