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: 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.

Review: The Waverly Gallery

This play is about Alzheimer’s. That is the major thing you have to be aware of, because if you’ve known someone with the affliction, this can be hard going. The Waverly Gallery is a very good play about Alzheimer’s, with some lighthearted stuff to make it all easier to take (until it isn’t). And at the heart of this revival is a stunning performance from the legendary Elaine May as the person suffering from Alzheimer’s, one Gladys Green.

One of the things that makes The Waverly Gallery more bearable – but ultimately more tragic – is that Gladys has a wonderful personality: intellectual, kind and generous. After working as a lawyer and social activist in her younger days, Gladys operated a small art gallery in Greenwich Village for many decades. The play finds her still running the gallery in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the disease is affecting her more and more, and focuses on the effect of her decline on her family, especially her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges, who underplays the part marvelously).

May has the gargantuan task of inhabiting this vital, bright woman who thinks she’s still in full command of her faculties, while also showing us, scene by scene, exactly how much she’s losing her grip, bit by awful bit. It takes a razor-sharp mind to convey that change over the course of an evening, and May is sharp as a tack – even if Gladys isn’t – giving us a mesmerizing portrayal of fragility and decline. Recommended.

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: Straight White Men

This play is never less than fascinating. When I think of the phrase “straight white men” my first thought is the awful old straight white men who pull the levers of government and business in this country. Or the too-loud, too-cocky douchebags that infest New York City streets, wearing their blue shirts and brown shoes directly from work to the nightclub. Smartly, those aren’t the “straight white men” playwright Young Jean Lee has chosen to focus on. Instead, we spend time with an apparently more virtuous set of liberally-mind brothers, who gradually reveal their true, um, colors.

Lee fakes us out in several ways. She gives everything the appearance of a naturalistic family drama, but really the structure of the play has more to do with Beckett than with late O’Neill. In place of the vaudeville routines in Waiting for Godot, we have stylized roughhousing and the performative traditions that siblings create with one another.

The quiet engine of the play is the character Matt (Paul Schneider) who does temp work for a social service organization and then does the cleaning-up “women’s work” that neither his brothers or father will do. The moments when the action stops so we can watch Matt doing these jobs in real time are some of the most riveting moments of the play.

You see everybody’s worried about Matt, who doesn’t seem worried about much, but has an unexplained crying jag during Christmas celebrations. Novelist brother Drew (Armie Hammer) thinks Matt should see a therapist to treat what he perceives as Matt’s depression. Banker brother Jake (Josh Charles) admires what he understands to be Matt’s ideals, but encourages him to sell them better. Father Ed (Steven Payne) thinks throwing money at the problem of Matt’s student loans will solve things.

Lee seems to be driving at the idea that, in the United States, straight white men’s value is largely measured by capitalist success. This point she explores quite intelligently. But all Matt is doing, from his point of view, is trying to stop solving the unsolvable and do little things that would be immediately useful to others.

The biggest problem with Straight White Men is that I have just stated Matt’s POV more clearly than ever happens in the play. I understand trying not to provide easy answers for an audience, but I think Lee has landed closer to murkiness than the provocative ambiguity she was aiming for. The end of the play both leaves too much hanging, and, structurally speaking, ties thing up too neatly, straining for a symmetry that the subject and play both resist.

These are quibbles, though, with a thought-provoking and brilliantly acted play. I should also mention that transgender legend Kate Bornstein and two-spirit writer Ty Defoe have roles to play as well (though they were way too underused for my taste). Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: This Was The End

Full disclosure: I’d consider two of the performers in Mabou Mines’s This Was The End an artistic aunt and uncle (even though I’ve never met them). Paul Zimet was in the Open Theatre with my artistic mentors Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman. Black-Eyed Susan was in the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose one-time Artistic Director, Everett Quinton, I have directed (and been very inspired by) on a couple of occasions. This Was The End is closer to the Open Theatre’s work: abstract, highly visual, experimental, more concerned with theme and image than story.

There are fragments of a story here, the story of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In the play, Vanya asks, “What if I live to be 60?” In This Was The End, director Mallory Catlett probes for answers to that question, along with four luminaries of avant-garde theater all over the age of 60. This Was The End explores themes of loss, memory and aging in a deconstructed yet visceral way.

Zimet, as Vanya, is every bit as amazing as I remember him being (in videos of the Open Theatre’s early 1970s work). In one particularly breathtaking monologue he interacts with onstage sound designer / audio-visual manipulator G. Lucas Crane, imitating the way Crane distorts Zimet’s recorded voice with uncanny precision and accuracy. Sometimes he urges a rhythm to Crane with a spontaneity that feels like jazz improvisation.

Black-Eyed Susan brings whimsy and emotion to the proceedings, while never veering too far from the show’s bittersweet tone. She, like Sonya, the character she plays, injects a ray of hope into Vanya’s dark world. The other actors, Jim Himelsbach and Rae C. Wright are virtuoso actors on a par with Zimet and Susan. If you have a taste for challenging, somewhat abstract avant-garde theater, it doesn’t get much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

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