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.

Review: The Boys in the Band

Director Joe Mantello has uncovered something important about Matt Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. At its base, it is a drama about an alcoholic dysfunctional family, much like Long Days Journey into Night. Unlike that play, however, there is much humor and hope in this chosen family, so much so that a character who has drunkenly said the most venomous lines, exits with a truly affectionate “Call you tomorrow!” See, the play, contrary to its reputation, portrays gays as better than straights. Boys is, at its root, about a group of exciting, vibrant men fighting like hell – against heavy opposition – for self-respect and love.

Michael (Jim Parsons), a recovering alcoholic, hosts a birthday party for his friend Harold (Zachary Quinto) in his Upper East Side apartment, with six of their closest friends. The evening begins with this group of friends celebrating, singing and dancing; when left to their own devices these guys are happy. But when the world comes knocking in the form of Michael’s straight college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) — or the form of toxicity between Michael and Harold that emerges when Michael falls off the wagon — staying happy seems like a steeper climb.

The big news for this production is a cast packed with movie and TV stars who are all openly gay, something that would never have happened in 1968 when the play premiered. Quinto’s performance as Harold is astonishing – he completely disappears in the role, and gives us a Harold with a greater sense of fun then I’ve every seen before, something that gives depth to the role. Parsons is terrific as guilty Catholic Michael. Matt Bomer, as Michael’s handsome friend with (occasional) benefits Donald, is his usual charming self.

I would be remiss if I didn’t report that Bomer gives us full backside nudity early in the show. It’s a testament to the high quality of his and Parsons’s performances that we’re able to get the important exposition that’s happening while Bomer’s fully or half-nude. The other standout performance is Robin de Jesús, who gives us a breathtakingly heartfelt interpretation of flaming queen Emory.

This is a revelatory production that casts an insightful eye toward both gay history and plain old human psychology. Essential gay viewing, and highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Summer and Smoke

Now, while this is a very good Tennessee Williams play, I think it’s much less compelling than his later, rarely performed rewrite The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Both tell the story of Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the years before World War I. But Eccentricities gives us an Alma who is noticeably more self-possessed, while in Summer in spite of her best efforts, she is buffeted by the decisions of others.

Eccentricities also cuts a borderline offensive subplot about a Mexican father and daughter, and replaces overheated histrionics with something simpler and more genuinely touching. Thus, when somebody mounts Summer and Smoke, I always feel a momentary pain that they didn’t do the play that both I and Williams himself felt was better. Still, Summer and Smoke is actually a quite solid melodrama, the closest thing to a bodice ripper Williams wrote, while still having the penetrating insight into human psychology that never left him.

Director Jack Cummings III has shorn the play of anything but the most important elements. There are no props, and the actors don’t even mime using them, they just make a single gesture that confirms what the dialogue suggests. Cummings focuses on a fiercely precise rendering of language and characters, two of Williams’s greatest strengths.

This is another one of those plays that has to have a strong performance in the lead role to make sense. Marin Ireland is easily the best Alma I’ve seen, fully understanding that while Alma might not know herself too well, she is otherwise nobody’s fool. We see not only every self-controlling thought but also every uncontrollable emotion, which is truly dazzling and moving – and so Alma.

The play’s action is driven by Alma’s passion for the ne’er-do-well boy next door, young Dr. John Buchanan, who breaks all kinds of rules in the pursuit of pleasure, but feels intensely guilty about doing so. Nathan Darrow has exactly the languid charm needed to give life to this decidedly lost soul. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Travesties

The plays Tom Stoppard wrote in the 1960s and 1970s are too clever by half, and Travesties is no exception. I mean that as only half a compliment: Stoppard spends so much time showing off his erudition and technical skill as a writer that it’s quite easy to lose the thread of his characters and themes. And those themes are often so compelling on their own that you wish the man would, I don’t know, take a breath. What Stoppard actually has to say – in this case about art, war and revolution – is very intelligent, so it’s worth the effort. But, really

Thank goodness, then, that director Patrick Marber has engineered a production that leans heavily on fun, visceral, and visual excitement. Travesties examines Zurich circa 1916 though the eyes of a dilettante working at the British consulate named Henry Carr. Zurich was the largest city in Switzerland, which remained neutral in the World War then raging everywhere else in Europe. As such it was a magnet for expatriate artists like Irishman James Joyce and Romanian Tristan Tzara.

The cast is uniformly terrific, the best being Seth Numrich as Dadaist poet Tzara. He thoroughly embodies both the smirking suavity Tzara displayed socially, and the feral charisma he brought to performing his poetry. Dan Butler is an appropriately steely Vladimir Lenin (also in Zurich at the time, plotting the Bolshevik revolution), and Butler’s fellow Frasier alum Patrick Kerr is acidly hilarious as hyper-intellectual butler Bennett. Tom Hollander as Carr ably carries the majority of scenes with marvelously nutty brio. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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