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.

Advertisements

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: Justin Vivian Bond

I’ve often referred to Judy Collins as a river of song – it just flows out of her in a gorgeous shimmering stream. Justin Vivian Bond is more like a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful and sometimes explosive. JVB’s current show “Under the Influence” is a tribute to Collins, part of Collins’ 2019 Vanguard Award and Residency at Joe’s Pub.

V considers Judy Collins to be v’s own spiritual baby sitter and music teacher. Collins significantly if indirectly educated Justin in music – all by the songs and songwriters Collins covered. So, with only a couple exceptions, Bond performs songs written by songwriters she discovered through Collins – but which Judy herself did not sing.

Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. V turns David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” into something more rawly emotional, and fiercely sharpens the danger in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (in probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard). V’s climactic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” truly burns down the house.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Although it has a gorgeous score by Steven Sondheim – with some songs that are among his very best – Merrily We Roll Along is nobody’s best work. Nor, to be completely fair, is it anybody’s worst. And it has always been thus. The 1934 Kaufman & Hart play on which the musical is loosely based received good notices but was not a commercial success, in marked contrast to their collaborations before and afterwards. The major stumbling block is the way both play and musical are structured – telling the story of broken friendships backwards, each scene taking place a few years before the previous one.

The unfortunate result of this approach is we first see the characters as cynical and a little bit nasty, which makes it hard to identify with them. On the other hand, the payoff for this approach is that, generally the show gets progressively more optimistic as it continues. This makes a lot of intriguing thematic points, but all told makes for very unsatisfying storytelling. Merrily We Roll Along is a problematic puzzle of a show, which does manage to enlighten and often entertain, while intractably evading solution.

The current Off-Broadway revival by Fiasco Theater and Roundabout gives a very lean and clear-eyed account of this story, and does well with the music, especially considering that some of the cast are more actor-singers than singer-actors. Noah Brody’s direction leans into Merrily‘s most dynamic element, which definitely helps. 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: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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