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.

Review: Saint Joan

When I first read Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, it gave me the impression of telling the story of Joan of Arc as if she were another thoroughly modern young Shavian heroine, like Major Barbara Undershaft, Vivie Warren or Eliza Doolittle. The characters portrayed in Saint Joan may have been French folk of the Late Middle Ages, but they sounded like early 20th-century English business people talking on the street. I enjoyed this quality, as it made the story crisply accessible, and signaled that Shaw (as usual) had social commentary on his mind, not just history.

Director Daniel Sullivan wisely has these medieval French people speak in American or Mid-Atlantic accents, except for the handful of characters who are actually English, like the Earl of Warwick, played with oily charm by Jack Davenport. Sullivan also understands that, although Joan met a tragic end, Shaw never stopped writing comedy, and applies a needed light touch.

Of course, the actress playing Joan defines any production of Saint Joan, and in this case we have Condola Rashad who does solid, thoughtful work. I’ve seen far too many bad puns about fire in reviews of Saint Joan, so believe me when I say I mean no such thing when I tell you Rashad gives her a slow steady burn. She is aided by a superb supporting cast, particularly Patrick Page as a terrifyingly calm and methodical Inquisitor, and John Glover as an archbishop as politically cunning as he is theologically astute. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

The title of this enormous theatrical adventure is a bit misleading. Sure, an adult Harry Potter is a significant part of this play, but it really belongs to his son Albus Potter and Albus’s best friend, Scorpius Malfoy (that’s right, a Potter and a Malfoy are best friends). And just who is that cursed child? At times it seems to be Scorpius, at others Albus himself, and at yet others somebody else entirely.

As for Harry, he’s a investigator for the Ministry of Magic, a husband, and the father of three school-age children – Albus is a middle child, and has all of the neuroses that go with that. Albus feels, arguably correctly, that his father has done serious wrong to some people in his battles with dark forces. Albus and Scorpius set out to correct those wrongs, but only succeed in making things worse. Right, that’s all the plot you’re going to get from me, there’s far too much good stuff that shouldn’t be spoiled.

You need somebody adept in theatrical magic to make this dazzle as it should, and director John Tiffany fits the bill perfectly. When wonder can be created using simple means, that’s the way he goes, but he isn’t shy about going big and high-tech when that’s the better path. Movement director Steve Hoggett, a frequent Tiffany collaborator, makes great fun working swirling capes for all they’re worth. Pop composer Imogen Heap is also an ideal choice for this material, since her work is always full of rich feeling and mysticism.

As Albus, Sam Clemmett gives a marvelously shaded performance, capturing both his pain and youthful sense of wonder. Scorpius is a much more colorful character, a witty but awkward nerd, and Anthony Boyle goes deliciously over-the-top (sometime to the point of unintelligibility) without ever losing this emotional thread of this lonely boy. Byron Jennings gives his usual excellent all to two surprising characters in part two. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Three Tall Women

I’ll call it: chances are very good that Dame Glenda Jackson is going to get a Tony nomination for her spectacular performance in Three Tall Women. In the current Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s 1991 play, Jackson plays a wealthy widow looking back on her life, first to a captive audience – a 56-year-old caretaker and a 26-year-old legal professional – then in an impressionistic dialogue with herself at those women’s ages.

Jackson returns to the Broadway stage after a 30-year absence, giving a masterful performance that is by turns imperious, hilarious and mesmerizing. Laurie Metcalf also rivets your attention with her drolly nuanced take on the middle-aged role. Alison Pill has much less to work with in the remaining role, but she acquits herself well in this impressive company, no small feat.

Joe Mantello’s direction is supremely tidy. He’s cast the play with talent that’s beyond incredible, and he just lets the actors go about their work while keeping them out of each other’s way. Honestly I think that its really easy for Pill and Metcalf to throw their focus to Jackson – they’re as excited to see her do her stuff as we are.

Mantello’s work dovetails beautifully with Miriam Buether’s elegant and functional set design. The set suggests taking steps in and out of “reality” in a marvelously understated way. The production is exquisite in every possible way: visually, intellectually, emotionally, artistically and on and on. Very highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Stories By Heart

I had a deeply personal reaction to Stories by Heart. It’s above all John Lithgow’s love letter to his father, and the love of storytelling that his father conveyed to him. About half of it is Lithgow talking about those issues, and the other half is Lithgow performing literary short stories that his father read him as a child. My parents were also great tellers of great stories, so I strongly identify; for me it was H. G. Wells and C. S. Lewis, for Lithgow, Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse. Lithgow’s love for his father is palpable in this piece, and I found that particularly moving.

The Ring Lardner story “Haircut” throws a bit of a curve: it starts out as a tale of charming small town life which Lithgow himself freely admits “slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder.” P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” is pure literary comfort food in which the titular Fred, a loopy English Lord, has a madcap adventure that starts by simply trying to get out of the rain.

Lithgow is marvelously specific in the physicality he gives these short stories, realistically pantomiming an early 20th Century “two bit” shave-and-a-haircut in the Lardner. By the same token, he gives a ridiculously stylized personality to all of the crazy people (and parrots) we encounter in the Wodehouse.

This production is lively and vivacious, due in equal parts to Lithgow’s native theatrical intelligence and Daniel Sullivan’s canny direction. Stories by Heart is thoroughly sincere and sentimental, which I find very refreshing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Farinelli and the King

This gentle play with music is essentially a vehicle for two of the world’s greatest talents, actor Mark Rylance and operatic countertenor Iestyn Davies, both the very best at what they do, and at the peak of their talents. Rylance stars as King Philippe V of Spain, at a point in his life where he is plagued with what we would today call mental illness, some mix of depression and delusion.

Enter Farinelli (born as Carlo Broschi, played by Sam Crane and sung by Davies), brought in by Queen Isabella Farnese (Melody Grove). Farinelli sings, and the king’s spirit significantly lifts. Call it music therapy, centuries before the fact.

Rylance is of course the main draw here, and he is unsurprisingly magnificent. Some people call him mannered, but I think the way in which he applies his undeniable mannerisms is masterful and deeply intelligent. It is to me what great acting should be, the actor’s own personality and / or persona applied with precise thought and detail – and deep emotion and vulnerability – to the given circumstances of the piece.

Davies singing, however, is the soul of this love letter to the power of music, and he is every bit as terrific. He may be physically incapable of replicating Farinelli’s unearthly castrato voice, but he is without a doubt as subtle and feeling a musical interpreter as the man he plays. He sings Handel almost exclusively here, and I would have liked to have heard more by Porpora (Farinelli’s mentor, who gets the only non-Handel aria here), or even better composers like Hasse or Vinci, who are undeservedly forgotten today, but very important at the time. Still, there is no denying that Davies caressing Handel’s gorgeous “Lascia, ch’io pianga” is the perfect way to close the evening.

John Dove’s marvelous staging, set among Jonathan Fensom’s sumptuous set and costumes, rises to the level of his collaborators. I have a minor quibble with the script itself, which falters toward the end with an entirely non-historical love triangle between the two titular characters and the queen. It rings false, and breaks the gentle spell that the show casts until that point. It’s really unnecessary. It also contributes to the general error in the portrayal of Isabella Farnese, a far more formidable figure than suggested by the sentimental way the role is written. Not a big problem, though. A real pleasure of a show, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Children

This drama begins after a tragedy, since the worst has already happened – a Fukushima-level or worse nuclear plant disaster in a coastal English town. The play’s story largely follows a trio of people dealing with the aftermath. Though not without humor, The Children is heavy going, but intelligent and humane enough to reward the effort.

Given the nature of the disaster, it is no coincidence that all three characters are nuclear engineers. It is also thematically important to the play that they are all retired scientists. Married couple Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), who worked at the plant, are visited by old friend Rose (Francesca Annis). Rose has some highly personal issues to settle with both of them before she moves on to a larger issue later in the play (which I won’t spoil).

This quietly naturalistic three-hander is inevitably all about the acting, and it is truly superior. Annis brings to Rose a fading sensuality – she is quite self-conscious that the sexuality which played a big part in her life is on the wane. Cook is given a rogue of a man to portray, but anchors all the performance to Robin’s surprisingly ethical core (Sidebar: there was a significant portion of the play that felt a bit, well, anthropological to me, since the way straight people deal with sex roles has always been fundamentally strange to me).

Hazel is the character on whom the plot and theme both hinge – she has the biggest arc – Deborah Findley gives great nuance to a woman who is simultaneously rigorously practical and helplessly selfish. James Macdonald’s direction is so seamless that not a single moment seems writerly or forced, and as easy as that may sound on paper, I can tell you it’s devilishly difficult. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Junk

Films taking shots at shady dealings in the world of finance are many, The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street being just the ones that come quickly to mind. Playwright Ayad Akhtar is working territory familiar from these films, and very entertainingly at that. He hews closest to Stone’s 1987 Wall Street – both are loosely based on the exploits of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. But where Stone’s film was a moralistic and occasionally sentimental melodrama, Junk is a satirical tragicomedy, as cold, hard and gleaming as steel.

In 1985, Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale) – a fictional composite of Milken and several other financial sharks – is the guiding force at investment firm Sacker Lowell. He specializes in making financial magic with junk bonds, working with the counter-intuitive theory that “debt is an asset.” Most interestingly, Akhtar has the eloquent Merkin frame his assault on previously standard financial practices as an attempt of an ethnically diverse group of underdogs to beat the entrenched WASP plutocracy at their own game. It’s a fresh take on this familiar story, and rings intriguingly true.

Akhtar up to this point has built his reputation on small domestic dramas that, while touching on the way politics and religion impinge on our daily lives, have focused on the psychological and the personal. Junk is a big jump into the kind of political epics more commonly associated with British drama, from Shakespeare to David Hare, and is a bracing success.

Director Doug Hughes handles that epic breadth with great aplomb, moving the large cast around John Lee Beatty’s glittering set like pieces in a cocaine-fueled chess match. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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