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: Oklahoma!

Director Daniel Fish’s new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, in the broadest terms, does Act I as a picnic (where chili can actually be consumed over intermission), and Act II as a hoedown. The music (in Daniel Kluger’s very reduced orchestration) is performed in a style consistent with the Grand Old Opry in 1943, the year of the musical’s premiere. Fish’s staging sometimes recalls that Opry, especially in the way he has performers use standing mics.

I’m thinking Fish mostly wanted to stage the musical as simply as possible, letting the thematic points in Hammerstein’s mind rise to to the surface as naturally as possible. Fish does spice his minimalist approach with – by now fairly standard – postmodern techniques and touchs, sometimes pointlessly but more often to provactive effect. Through these effects Fish shows the main story of a tense love triangle in 1906 Oklahoma is even more complex and fraught – in many ways – than earlier productions suggested.

But the biggest joys in the production are the secondary comic characters. Mary Testa is perhaps the grittiest Aunt Eller ever, with her willful blindness to dangers, early in the show, explained in a later monologue about “toughness” that she and Fish underline in the most successful way. But Testa’s abundant comic gifts aren’t in any way held back, and she’s easily the strongest singer in the show.

Ali Stroker’s hilarious take on Ado Annie is surely the horniest ever, which makes her paring with the oddly sensual James Davis (playing the dim but sweet Will Parker) just about perfect. Overall, an imperfect but often insightful revival, which is rarely less than compulsively watchable. 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: Kiss Me, Kate

It’s hard to go wrong with an evening of Cole Porter sung well, whatever shape that takes. If that shape happens to be a sparkling revival of what is arguably his best score, Kiss Me, Kate, all the better. Roundabout Theatre’s new Broadway revival is just such a creature, a fine example of the delicious pleasures that traditional musical comedy can offer.

Kiss Me, Kate follows exes Fred Graham (Will Chase) and Lilli Vanessi (Kelly O’Hara) during out of town tryouts for a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew that Fred has devised as a vehicle for them. They spar onstage and off, reflecting the fractious relationship of the characters they play in the Shakespeare.

The biggest pleasure here, unsurpisingly, is O’Hara’s gorgeous renditions of Porter songs. Her “So In Love” nears being a definitive version, but her “I Hate Men” is a revelation for other reasons: she’s not in a rage, but instead calmly laying out why men are awful. That’s part and parcel of a general reimaging of the show to empower Lilli, which also involves some tweaks to book and lyrics by the brilliant Amanda Green.

Another standout is Warren Carlyle’s choreography, some of the best I’ve evver seen from him. In “Bianca” he has Corbin Bleu althletically tapping up and down steep sets of stairs. A truly stunning “Too Darn Hot” has flashes of Fosse and “eccentric dancing” woven into a dazzling tapestry of dance that is Carlyle’s own. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Miz Cracker

Drag as a feminist act – that’s what Drag Race alum Miz Cracker is aiming at in her new cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, “American Woman.” After appearing on the aforementioned reality show, Cracker noticed that her audience had shifted from mostly gay men to mostly women. This gave “her” pause – it makes sense to make jokes about gay sex if you’re speaking to gay men, but should you still be doing the same kind of act if your audience is women by more than half?

Cracker is “sorry / not sorry” for giving you a feminist TED talk with jokes, pop songs and choreography. Oh, and while we are on the subject, Le Miz gives you all of those New York drag traditions we love – Lypsinka-inspired lip-synch collage, cartwheels worthy of Candis Cayne (who was just at the Beechman last week), and even House of Ninja vogue moves – in ample supply. The “not sorry” comes with thought that “wouldn’t you have enjoyed algebra more if ‘teach’ threw in some costume changes?”

It’s not that drag queens can no longer do “funny pussy songs,” Cracker suggests, but they should maybe think a second about what it means to a woman to celebrate her pussy – and then does just such a number to illustrate what she has in mind. And so on through more and more serious feminist themes.

I saw her first performance of this show ever, and it still had some wrinkles. There’s an opening collage of beautiful powerful women of all types (wittily set to Smetana’s “My Fatherland”), but it’s overlong and doesn’t quite make sense, due to the fact we haven’t been clued into the feminist bent of the show yet. It would be more moving post-show, where it would make an effective crossover while Cracker changes outfits for the meet and greet. Plus, there are many repetitions that could easily be trimmed.

All in all, though, a remarkably intelligent and entertaining evening of drag. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Karen Mason

This diva’s big, expressive voice is one of Broadway’s most under-utilized treasures, and her new cabaret act “For The First Time” puts it on impressive display. She’s long been one of New York’s most beloved cabaret artists, but she’s been away for more than a year, touring North America in a first-class tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, playing – as she puts it – “the up for anything, party-loving Madame Giry.”

The new act marks her return to NYC, and pays tribute to “firsts” throughout Mason’s career. Above all it celebrates the songwriters she feels honored to have known personally. Some of these songs were written for her, some she was the person who sang the first demos. And some she includes just because she likes them. The “first” that truly unites all the songs in the show, however, is the fact that Mason has never sung any of them on a cabaret stage before.

Mason is a songwriter’s favorite, I think, because she generally sticks closer to the melody of songs than many contemporary Broadway performers. Its not because she’s trying to create any definitive version of these songs, but because she trusts the talent of the people she’s working with, and tells exactly the story the song sets out to tell.

Highlights include the little-known Barbra Streisand ballad “If I Close My Eyes,” by Billy Goldenberg and Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and two great comic numbers: Shelly Markham’s “Things I Learned Along the Way” (with specialty lyrics skewering the current occupant of the White House) and Sheldon Harnick’s priceless operetta pastiche “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” (hilariously detailing the geometry of a woman scorned). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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