Review: Burn This

I heard a rumor that playwright Lanford Wilson intended Burn This to be a satire of straight people. Whether that’s true or not, the current revival is the strongest production of the play I’ve ever seen because it’s the one that comes closest to satire. A gay dancer dies in a boating accident in mid-1987, bringing together his dancer roomate Anna (Keri Russell) and his older brother Pale (Adam Driver), who begin a tempestuous relationship. The key performance in this revival, however, is the terrific Brandon Uranowitz as Larry, Anna’s gay roommate. The self-possessed yet compassionate way Uranowitz plays the role moves the play’s center of gravity so that we get a clearer picture of the absurdity of how the heterosexual characters comport themselves.

While part of this conception belongs to Uranowitz, director Michael Mayer definitely helped steer him in this direction – Mayer is always very smart about carefully working through ideas about sex and gender in his productions, and you can feel that same intelligence at work here. It has the side benefit of skewing the whole play to be played more comically, which, if my sources are right, is what Wilson was going for.

The role of Pale is a big juicy piece of actor meat, and the big, meaty Adam Driver makes an appropriately full meal of it. Here again, I can feel Mayer urging him to consider the contrast between what Pale really feels and what he thinks he’s expected to feel. Burn This will never be my favorite Lanford Wilson play – his cycle of plays about the Talley family and his early masterwork The Madness of Lady Bright are far superior – but this is the best rendition it’s likely to get. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist

I don’t know how familiar playwright and actor Byron Lane is with the legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Charles Ludlam’s approach to playwrighting and acting, but his Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is Ridiculous Theatre to a “T.” To wit: we are presented with absurd, campy and ridiculous situations (about serious themes) which the actors deliver with real emotion and total commitment. The themes are as serious as can be: suicidal tendencies, finding your place in the world; the situation is completely preposterous: suicidal gay man Walt (Lane himself) finds that his ex has put out a “roomate wanted” ad on Craigslist that is answered by the titular Tilda.

Swinton promptly takes over the place in both physical and spiritual ways. Lenk’s virtuouso portrayal is the evening’s centerpiece, playing to Swinton’s other-worldly persona with deliciously shameless flamboyance. According to this broadly satirical version of the film star, she was in Dances with Wolves as all of the wolves, and what she was in Die Hard is just way too fun to give away.

Lane, for his part, knows exactly when to under- and over-play Walt’s simpering despair for the best comic effect. Jayne Entwistle and Mark Jude Sullivan clown expertly in multiple roles – mostly Walt’s demanding, judgemental family. While there’s a whiff of a message about self-esteem, this is largely a surreal lark played for the laughs, which it delivers in marvellous, hysterical abundance. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: What the Constitution Means to Me

As a teenager, playwright and actress Heidi Schreck won her college tuition money in Constitutional debate competitions at VFW’s and other similar institutions across the country. In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck revisits those competitions to examine how her feelings about the document have changed – and how it has long failed to protect the bodies and lives of oppressed peoples like women and immigrants. And how, under conservative courts and administrations, such protections as those people have are consistently rolled back.

That may sound like material for an essay or a lecture, but Schreck makes exciting and frequently entertaining theatre out of this thorny subject. She does this mostly by bringing an intensely personal point of view to it, interjecting pop culture references from her teen years and today. Also, she uses what can be exciting and theatrical about the performance side of lectures, speeches and debates – time limits, spontanteity and conflict, for a start. It’s not for nothing that her director Oliver Butler co-founded a theatre company called The Debate Society.

There’s a lot that’s sneaky about What the Constitution. For one thing, it’s a full-on play disguised as a solo performance art show. In fact, at one point Schreck acidly observes that “I know some of you think I’ve gone off on a tangent but I promise you I haven’t. In spite of what some people think, this show is actually quite carefully constructed.”

In this play’s most important other role, Mike Iveson plays a VFW moderator, but his role morphs in surprising, effective and satisfying ways. And there are additional cast members whose function is such a delightful surprise I won’t spoil it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: True West

A “straight boy play” that’s actually funny! More than that, a play that consciously caricatures many myths of the of the American heterosexual boy-man-child. Sam Shepard, True West‘s late playwright, was always more of a surrealist satirist than people give him credit for. He’s not celebrating the macho bad boy like Mamet or LaBute, but ruthlessly dissecting him. Shepard never lost an affection for the myth of the lonely cowboy, or the menacing trick of the Pintereque pause; however, he is also smart enough to know that they are myths and tricks, and clever enough to show them as such, again and again.

True West is about what happens when two adult brothers, aspiring screenwriter Austin (Paul Dano) and theiving drifter Lee (Ethan Hawke), cohabit in their vactioning mother’s house. Roles are reversed, hereditary alcoholism indulged, and general chaos wrecked as they try and live up to what they’ve seen in the movies, especially Westerns. Director James Macdonald does a great job balancing the play’s symbolic and psychological components ‒ rightly placing a slightly stronger emphasis on the the symbolic, comic aspect of the show.

Austin initially presents as a milquetoast, but Dano finds darker colors from the very beginning. As he unravels under the pressure of Lee’s more obvious insanity, Dano shows terrific slapstick chops. Lee at first seems to be the kind of “man-boy with brooding menace” role that Hawke is known for, but Lee’s own transformations offer a whole other set of comedic opportunities, and Hawke takes full advantage.

The play is not what you would call “fully woke” ‒ it was written in 1983, for goodness sake ‒ but is certainly more evolved and self-aware than most straight male centered drama of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chasing the New White Whale

There’s a visually impressive production of a impassioned new play about heroin abuse in the commercial fishing industry now playing at La MaMa ETC. Chasing the New White Whale uses the framework of Moby Dick to tell the story of New England fishing captain Robby Foerster, who is committed to old fashioned institutions of fishing – hook fishing, independent boats – but runs afoul of heroin addiction.

Both the play, by Michael Gorman, and the direction, by Arthur Adair are ambitious and aesthetically complex. A mysterious contingent of ghostly whale hunters and modern day commercial fishermen inspired by Ahab’s stowaway crew, “Fedallah and the Phantoms,” is a particularly effective device. Donald Eastman’s set makes very inventive use of boats that increase in size and height as the play progresses – later ones move on wheeled scaffolding.

While it is a compelling production, it’s not quite successful in what it sets out to do. The publicity material describe how Robbie “falls deeply into addiction after a fateful first encounter with heroin” – but we never see this “fateful” moment. There is a character called the Chaplain who recalls the long sermon in Moby Dick, baldy stating the plays themes in brief sermonettes. These little lectures are well performed and staged, but are simply not dramatically effective – too much telling, not enough showing.

The acting company, however, is uniformly strong. Alan Barnes Netherton’s portrayal of Foerster is intense and intelligent. Meredith Nicholaev is another standout in her soulful rendering of Robbie’s friend and sometime accountant Therese.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: American Son

Regarding #BlackLivesMatter, this play hits every piece of information you need to know, and every raw nerve you need to know about. In American Son, in the middle of the night, black mother Kendra (Kerry Washington) is frantically trying to discover news of her missing son at a Miami-area police station.

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, whose plays are frequently produced in Florida, is also a trial attorney in that state, so he writes from a direct knowledge of the issues. He offers no easy answers, but shows us every facet of this thorny situation, with great empathy. It’s very much an issue or “thesis” play, a kind of play originated by Alexandre Dumas fils with his Camille, and brought to maturity with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In that vein, American Son is as smart and gripping as they come.

Most thesis plays have characters that speak uncomfortable truths with great clarity, and in this play that is the late-appearing Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee). The part is relatively small, but Lee clearly knows what a plum it is, giving a performance that I sincerely hope is remembered at awards time.

The main draw here is of course Kerry Washington, and she is as good as I’ve ever seen her. Kendra is the largest and most complex role in the play, and Washington deftly navigates every turn. She and the remainder of the cast are ably aided by director Kenny Leon, who gets the tension high where it needs to be, while giving needed moments of breathing room in this tight coil of a play. 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 – though in this Broadway transfer that’s more organically incorporated into his mannerisms. Urie’s 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.