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.

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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: The Ferryman

There is an extensive dramatic literature about strife in Ireland. So, crafting a drama that takes a fresh angle, and tells that story in a new way is no small accomplishment. That’s exactly what playwright Jez Butterworth has achieved in The Ferryman, an enormous family tragicomedy set during “The Troubles.” Specifically, the play is set in rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, late summer 1981. The Carney farmhouse hums with activity in preparation for the annual harvest. A day of hard work on the land and a traditional feast finds the family inexorably – and tragically – drawn back into the arms of the Irish Republican Army.

Director Sam Mendes deftly weaves together the everyday and mystical elements that Butterworth has weaved into this complex tapestry of a play. Paddy Considine plays household head Quinn Carney brilliantly, sharply etching the bright lights and deep darks of this deeply-conflicted central character.

The Ferryman is above all an ensemble show. Butterworth has given each of its many characters a distinctive personality, Mendes has given structure to this often chaotic household, and every member of the ensemble plays the hell out of their part no matter how large or small. A particular standout is the luminous Fionnula Flanagan as Aunt Maggie Far Away, a mostly catatonic elder family member, who, when she comes to life, comes blazingly to life.

Does The Ferryman earn its 3 hour and 15 minutes running time? Not 100%. There are times, especially in Act III, where it feels like Butterworth is luxuriating in a moment too much. But it is still, overall, a rewarding production of a richly written play. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

This is one tight little machine of a play, never letting up for much of its hour and a half. Even more, while it is dense and thematically packed, the play simultaneously retains a razor-sharp focus on character. This makes it particularly compelling. The Lifespan of a Fact is based on the true story of “What Happens There” an essay by John D’Agata (played here by Bobby Canavale) about the Las Vegas suicide of teenager Levi Presley. Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), assigned to fact check the piece, ignites a debate on the blurred lines of what passes for truth in literary nonfiction.

The play doesn’t directly address the present administration’s excessively unhinged grasp (or lack thereof) of what constitutes a fact. The closest it comes to that is Fingal warning D’Agata that, in this day and age, playing fast and loose with fact leads directly to unscrupulous or gullible people developing conspiracy theories. That said, its intelligent examination of the very nature of truth feels exceedingly timely. Radcliffe and Canavale are formidable as these two strong personalities, and Cherry Jones (“formidable” could be her middle name) is just as terrific as their editor Emily.

Director Leigh Silverman keep the tension, and propulsion, going in every moment. The Lifespan of a Fact rigorously explores the nature of accuracy in journalism, and the dangers of taking literary license when writing non-fiction, even if the aim is getting at deep truths. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Bernhardt / Hamlet

As a director, I have always practiced diversity in casting, and have long been persuaded of the justice of gender parity in casting, which, more often than not, means that women will be playing men. So the idea that a great actress should play Hamlet seems quite natural to me. I’m very much looking forward to Glenda Jackson playing King Lear later this season. However, I still feel that I’m in the minority here – a growing minority, to be sure, but I find I have to defend that line of thinking more than I’d like. More than feels right.

So just imagine, then, when well over a century ago “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt let it be known she’d be playing Hamlet. It wasn’t 100% unheard of – Bernhardt herself had already played Lorenzo de’ Medici. But this was, you know, Hamlet! Ever-agile playwright Theresa Rebeck has fashioned a highly entertaining portrayal of the struggle Bernhardt faced in bringing her Hamlet to life.

Rebeck illuminates why a woman is an ideal choice to play the role, while also giving us insight into the artistic challenges facing Bernhardt in particular in making the role align with her decidedly majestic approach to acting. She also looks at the broader social situation in which playwrights offer Bernhardt roles that treat her as some ideal, rather than a complex human being – roles which would of course be a complete bore to play. Thus, Hamlet. As Bernhardt, Janet McTeer is scintillating and mesmerizing, just like you would want “The Divine Sarah” to be. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Head Over Heels

It’s an ancient and powerful idea that the ultimate “safe space” for queer people is the wilds of nature, the “pastoral” landscape. We can go all the way back to the Idylls of Theocritus around 300 BCE, which are rife with shepherds falling for pretty boys. In Shakespeare, the meeting of love and gender fluidity often happens in the forest. For the pastoral’s continued power, you only have to look at the way that queers have latched on such sentiments in Bernstein & Sondheim’s “Somewhere”: “There’s a place for us / Somewhere a place for us / Peace and quiet and open air / Wait for us somewhere.” To say nothing of Dorothy telling Toto: “Somewhere, over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true.”

Well, the ever-witty Jeff Whitty (bookwriter of Avenue Q and Jake Shears’s Tales of the City) had the bright idea to take one of the most event-packed pastoral romances ever written in the English language, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and pair it with the music of one of the greatest all-female rock bands of all time, The Go-Go’s. Sidney’s romance takes its name from a bucolic region from Greek mythology – where, incidentally, all of Theocritus’s horny shepherds frolicked. Whitty has taken considerable liberties with Sidney’s intricate plot, generally to the purpose of giving the winning hand to the women, the transgender and the androgynous.

You can take it all as a silly, happy, perky joyride, and have a perfectly good time. Whitty is a master of both satisfying theatrical structure and the one-liner, and the Go-Go’s spiky guitar pop hits just the right tone. But it’s deeper and more subversive than that. Classical comedies always end in marriages. While some couplings at the end of Head Over Heels are nominally heterosexual, none retain classical or even traditional gender roles. Plus the chorus boys are encouraged – by the way they are styled and Spencer Liff’s fleet-footed choreography – to be just as pretty, fey and gay as the ones in Theocritus.

The cast is consistently superb. The most plum roles in the show are the ones that have the richest gender story, and the people in those roles make a full meal of them. Bonnie Milligan is a hoot as buxom beauty Pamela finding her hidden desires. Andrew Durand, as doofy shepherd Musidorus, is both hilarious and touching when he dons Amazon garb to pursue the hand of his aristocratic lady love. Rachel York is every inch the fierce ruling royal as Queen Gynecia. Most fabulous of all is Drag Race Peppermint as the oracle Pythio. She is the first trans woman in a lead on Broadway, and the way Whitty plays Pythio’s story out gives her ample opportunity to be both over-the-top and moving. She handles it with all the sass and grace which made her such a fan favorite. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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.