Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Two at Second Stage

In the past couple months, I’ve seen two plays at the Second Stage Theater Company:  Mary Page Marlowe and Straight White Men.  Both were interesting, by and large well-acted, yet neither fully succeeded, for different reasons.

In Mary Page Marlowe, deep character development with no end but death was made more interesting by having multiple actors playing the eponymous woman at various ages — and not in chronological order.  By and by we saw her life, one scene after another adding to our understanding, just not in order so that, perhaps, we could understand her better than people who knew her all her life — in order.  And since it’s so very well done, it almost worked.

Straight White Men, however, is flawed. Again, interesting character relationships, but to no resolution.  Is this why the playwright/director/producer decided to blame it on the audience during the pre-show by blasting electronic percussion at an offensively high decibel level, then making a theatre curtain out of a glitter ball to flash strobe lights at the audience?  At least last year’s exceedingly unpleasant production of 1984 forewarned the audience that there’d be migraine-inducing effects.  But the audience of Straight White Men was assured that they were being abused to make a point:  That some LBGTW+, as explained by two pointless characters, often felt as uncomfortable as the audience did just by being in non-LGBTW+ society.  The relief at the end of that 30-odd minutes was so great we were bound to be glad of the play, right?  Talk about hitting the audience over the head with a baseball bat to send a message. Which, by the way, does not appear to be the point of the play at all.

Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts, directed by Lila Neugebauer.  Hereafter “MPM.”

MPM was largely about one woman’s life of not dealing with her alcohol and sex addictions.  We first meet her as her first marriage is coming apart.  It takes a while, with this not chronological play, to learn something about why.  When we meet her mother (passionately brittle work by Grace Gummer) and father (sympathetically portrayed by Nick Dillenburg), we feel the gap between these young marrieds just after WWII.  When we meet the mother again distancing herself from her 12-year-old daughter with alcohol and a sharp tongue, we see the beginning of Mary’s rugged road.

Mary is played by six excellent actors:
·         Mia Sinclair Jenness at the age of 12
·         Emma Geer at the age of 19
·         Tatiana Maslany at the ages of 27 and 36
·         Susan Pourfar in her 40s
·         Kellie Overbey at 50
·         And Blair Brown in her 60s-70s.

Geer and Brown were the only Marys who got to smile.  The 19-year-old (Ms. Geer) in hope of a different life from that of her mother, and Ms. Brown at having made it through to sobriety and her third and favorite husband, Andy, sweetly played by Brian Kerwin.

·         Tatiana Maslany is so good that her lack of theatrical experience was negligible.  Already broken, her Mary is tough, aloof, and protective.

·       Susan Pourfar is a New York actor I have followed for some time, from a far off Broadway production of Turn of the Screw, to Tribes and most recently Mary Jane at New York Theatre Workshop.  She never disappoints. Here her Intensity disguises her pain and perplexity.
Kaylie Carter, Ryan Foust, and Susan Pourfar as Mary Page Marlowe
·         The harshest scene in the play and probably in Mary Page Marlowe’s life, was the aftermath of a particularly dreadful time when Mary hit rock bottom, presumably precipitating the end of her second marriage.  Kellie Overbey is devastating, first in her quiet acceptance of her guilt and just deserts, and finally in her fury.  Her husband, very well played by David Aaron Baker, cannot deal with this Mary and his floundering marriage.

·         Blair Brown’s Mary, having survived her life and three marriages, is the only Mary with a real smile. 

·         Kayli Carter is excellent as MPM’s daughter Wendy, a put-upon (and she really is!) teenager and a concerned young adult losing patience with her alcoholic mother. 

All in all, MPM offers good direction, good acting, good design, and a just slightly off script by the always interesting Mr. Letts.

Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee, directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Hereafter “SWM.”

The Premise:  The father, Ed, has his grown boys over for the Christmas holidays, harking back to the days of the boys’ youth, while their mother was still alive. 

Entertaining as SWM sometimes was, with some very nice ensemble work and an excellent scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, it didn’t seem to know where it was going.  Witness the pre-show, which we were told was part of the play.

The Players:

·         Armie Hammer is the youngest brother, Drew.  He is tall and handsome and OK, but this actor’s lack of theatrical experience shows.  Without an editor to cut away, Mr. Hammer did not flow from one scene to the next, even though the play, unlike Mary Page Marlowe, was in chronological order.  Not that he made mistakes, or if he did I was unaware.  Unfortunately, he was not alive on stage.

·         Josh Charles is excellent as middle brother Jake, unctuous to cruel, living in the moment as well as in the past, frequently “fighting” with his younger brother Drew. 

·         Paul Schneider as the eldest brother Matt was quietly full of surprises and quite marvelous. I am not familiar with this subtle actor’s work but will be paying attention in future.

·         Stephen Payne as Ed, the father, seemed a little uncertain of his lines early on (as the third actor to play this role in rehearsal and previews), but strengthened as the evening wore on. Mind you, his final scene was quite unbelievable, but that’s the fault of the writer, not the actor.
Payne, Charles, Hammer, Schneider.  Photo by Sara Krulwich.
Matt is presently underemployed and living with the father, who is happy to have his company.  While the others leave their messes behind, Matt cleans up after everyone.  He says more than once, “I just want to be helpful.”  That he does a great deal of work to make everyone else comfortable, things his mother would have been doing had she been alive, was barely noticed and not meaningful to his brothers or even his father.  This of course is insulting to the boys’ mother, and all mothers.  Matt’s brothers wonder why, with his brains and college degrees, he’s not doing more with his life.  They don’t get him at all.  He is not behaving like their notion of a privileged straight white male.

Strong relationships of a lifetime between the brothers are powerful and hilarious.  If one says something unforgivable and others leave the room, somehow they come back to dance it off in delightful choreography by Faye Driscoll.  After all, family is family and it seems they’ll always get along in the end.  Until they don’t and the ‘different’ one, with unaccustomed ideas and conclusions, is left out in the cold.  These three sons have no resemblance to “My Three Sons” of 1960s television. 

By the end it seemed to me that the play had moved on to gender issues.  Matt started being what he considered truly useful when the mother died, and he took care of the youngest brother the way the mother would have — talked him down from hysteria, encouraged him to take a shower (you’ll feel better) and then to have a sandwich (ditto).  Throughout Matt played the mother’s role of feeding the men and cleaning up after them.  Her loss, which clearly affected each man, made Matt step into her place.  And none of the other men in the family had any respect for what he was doing — to them Matt had become a loser if he lacked ambition and didn’t use his intelligence and training to do something “bigger.”

Since that was the most interesting thing to come out of the play, I do not understand why the writer and director decided to disguise this by implying in the obnoxious pre-show that the play was about LGBTQ+ issues and punishing the (largely white) audience with overly loud electronic muzak and glaring strobe lights. 

Theatre and politics go together, but this pairing ended in a nasty divorce.

Note regarding a truly annoying and unfair trend in Playbills:  In the (not so distant) past, the cast list was in order of the actors’ appearances, making it easier for the audience to figure out who played what if they didn’t already recognize the players.  Lately the listing has been alphabetical by the performer’s last name, which means that if you didn’t already know the actor’s name, you won’t learn it from the program.  For instance, in MPM, there are six men in the cast.  One male character had a full name listed, so was easily identifiable as the father of the main character.  All other male character names showed just a first name, so if you missed a mention from the stage in each man’s sole appearance, you were out of luck.  I recognized Brian Kerwin as MPM’s third husband, therefore spotted him in the program as “Andy.”  For the first two I have no clue, and there were three non-husband male characters.  If we’re not identifying characters by “married lover” or “guy at the dry cleaners” in the character list, how can we know the actor name?  Until Playbill goes back to listing characters in order of their appearance so we can figure out those actors we don’t already recognize, I will continue to complain about this to all and sundry.

It’s been a while since Molly spoke her mind.  I will try to catch up this summer, as I did last summer, and fill you in on theatre-going not mentioned since April (!) of this year.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to search for scraps of paper on which she scribbled her thoughts about other plays….

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Martin McDonagh in a Hanging Mood at the Atlantic Theater Company

Hangmen made me thirsty, especially after the shock of the first scene.  I had read scenic designer Anna Fleischle’s comments on the challenge of this three-setting play, first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London, then here in New York to occupy the small space of the Atlantic Theater Company (formerly a church on West 20th street where I’m 99% sure I saw a delightful Much Ado something like thirty years ago).  Each setting had to be independent of the other two, and yet permanent in a limited space. 

The first scene is a humdinger.  A young man is about to be hanged (it’s England in the early 1960s, Lancashire), screaming his innocence every step of the way.  There are arguments and recriminations and accusations and a rope and a noose and a WHOOSH —- from the stage and then from the audience as the air rushed out of them when a trapdoor dropped the protesting young man and he disappeared below the stage.  Hanged.  Horror.

After that opening, the scene is handily turned into a pub — the comfy corner sort with a warm wooden bar and a landlady truly pulling those pints of ale — with the jailhouse set rising to hover above as the pub’s ceiling while the memory of that gallows never leaves anyone in the pub.

As is the norm with playwright Martin McDonagh, there is laughter, guilt, laughter, guilt, horror and fear.  Hanging is now a punishment of the past in England, although the hangman the audience saw doing his job in that first scene — and whose wife runs this pub — doesn’t believe the moratorium on hanging will last.  A young reporter tries to get numbers from him — how many men — maybe women –— had he hanged?
Hangmen Syd and Harry (Photo Ahron R. Foster)
Harry the hangman’s former assistant Syd, played by Reece Shearsmith, with whom Harry had fallen out, shows up casting doubt on the guilt of that last pathetic young man hanged, who had been convicted of killing a young woman on a beach.

Harry the hangman is a guy next door sort of fellow and is played by the wonderful Mark Addy.  He’s a hale-fellow-well-met sort of hangman in the pub:  bigoted, bitter, judgmental but funny. Everything that happens onstage is played with simplicity and realism, from the ridiculous conversations among the pub’s regular drunks to the searing doubts cast by the former assistant Syd.  Harry’s wife Alice (Sally Rogers) owns the pub and has a complicated relationship with her husband — similar, perhaps to any difficult transition when one spouse’s retirement creates chaos at home.  Harry and Alice live above the pub with their teenage daughter Shirley, whom Harry calls “Mopey.”  And they have a spare room.
Mooney and Shirley (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
The entire small cast is superb, from Gaby French as Harry & Alice’s teenage daughter to an unrecognizable Maxwell Caufield as the hangman’s greatest rival, also now a publican. 

McDonagh, in concert with his sharp director Matthew Dunster, heats it up at the end of the first act, when the creepy Mooney (who prefers the term “menacing”), a southern stranger (as in from down London way), tries to rent the spare room from Alice.  Johnny Flynn does fine work as Mooney insinuates himself in with the ladies of the family, while scaring the bejesus out of the audience. Instead of becoming a boarder (which thought fills the audience with dread), Mooney has a one-sided shouting match with Alice and storms off.  Meanwhile the “mopey” daughter has gone out without a word. 
Mark Addy as Harry and Johnny Flynn as Mooney (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
Was the last hanged man truly innocent and is this menacing Mooney the real killer?  Where’s daughter Shirley gone?

Act 2 opens with Syd fanning the flames of fear. The police are called in when Shirley does not return, and the young reporter Harry had treated so rudely in the first act comes in to assist in finding the girl.  In return for a newspaper story about Shirley, he gets all those numbers he wanted. Connections, relationships, false or misleading, confuse us all as the tension mounts with everyone wondering where’s Shirley?  Mooney returns and …. No, I cannot tell you that.  Suffice to say that all the stops are pulled out in Act 2, with another rope, another noose, lightning (courtesy Joshua Carr, lighting designer), thunder, and another hanging question.

Hangmen is oddly lacking in blood (my first McDonagh was The Lieutenant of Inishman, which was the bloodiest play I’d ever seen) and may not be McDonagh’s best, but this mystery thriller is a roller coaster ride of a good evening in the theatre.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch In Bruges.

Molly is Musing .... a 2018 update

2018 has been a tough year for Molly so far.  January brought a death, as January is wont to do.  My eldest cousin — firstborn of my generation as well as first to die.  He comes to mind frequently.  There is always much to talk to him about.  Maybe he’s listening somewhere, but we’ll never know until it’s too late to blog about.  My personal fantasy is that he has joined family members who preceded him to a golf course somewhere (at least two foursomes hovering about), from which exercise they return “home” where my Nana is eager to feed them.  It’s a choice.

Update on Cats:  Millie lost a few teeth to the dentist, but otherwise my little three-some is well. 
Chick and Millie watching ....

Little Grey

Little Grey escaped her former captor and insists on living free so long as I feed her twice a day.  She claimed my garden and chased away a big black cat in the warm weather, but they are now buddies, sharing food and lodgings.  Of late there’s a third DSH daily, and an occasional visit from a mixed breed who appears to be part Siamese.  Later in the evening there had been an opossum, but most recently there are two young raccoons.  The opossum always walked or ran off in a different direction from the cats, but the raccoons seem to be sharing the same squat as Little Grey and her feline friends.  What next, this human wonders.  The animals are all getting along fine.  Humans, on the other hand….

2018 is not fun. And I’m not even thinking about politics!  Perhaps it’s because Spring refuses to actually Spring but rather hide away from these chilly days.  
barely budding

My job, which is a very good job, is nonetheless trying to kill me.  I keep trying to get rid of things at home so that my “heirs” will only inherit good things, not clutter.  I’ve barely written a word since my last post here in early March, until last night when I went to my local for a couple pints.  Thus inspired, I scribbled based on barely legible scratches and kept going from memory of the theatre I’ve seen this year.  Little by little, bit by bit, I’ll post Molly’s musings on those.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to talk theatre.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

What will we tell the Children?

Last month, I saw the Friday night performance of the closing weekend of The Children at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club.  It was a limited run from London’s Royal Court Theatre, and I am grateful to have come to my frugal senses in time to order a ticket.  Like the last production I saw that was directed by James McDonald — at BAM, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone the set was in a box of sorts, so while I was slightly concerned with the height of my rear mezzanine seat (would I miss any downstage action?), once the play began, I got it all.  The box, rather like an adult-size diorama, was designed by Miriam Buether and represents the downscale home away from home where a long-married couple, Robin and Hazel (played by Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay) have lived since parts of the coast of England fell into the sea and what was left was irradiated by a failed nuclear power plant.  It just so happened that the couple who inhabit the diorama formerly worked at said nuclear power plant before their retirement to a lovely country house where they kept cows and chickens. All of which are now irradiated.

Into this kitchen/living area comes an unexpected visitor with whom the couple had worked decades before. This is Rose, played by Francesca Annis.
Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay, Francesca Annis.  Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich (NYT)
For the next hour and three quarters, we wonder what the visitor is doing there, so close to the irradiated land.  The dynamics between the threesome vary between old friends and old enemies, particularly when it’s just the two women.  When the man enters the picture box, well, that’s interesting.

They reminisce, they argue, they tell tales of children and cows.  When we finally learn why Rose is there, we’re shocked, but not appalled.  Fair’s fair.

The playwright, Lucy Kirkwood, was unknown to me. She will be no longer, as this was fine, intricate writing with interesting living characters (all of them in their 60s) telling a layered story of personal relationships, personal loss, and personal responsibility, as well as societal predicaments.  This is a thoughtful play with plenty of laughs since, after all, people are pretty funny, and the actors are terrific as is the precise direction by Mr. McDonald.
Rose, Robin, and Hazel (Credit:  Royal Court Theatre)
Scenic design by Ms. Buether and lighting by Peter Mumford are fitting and fabulous, atmospheric, and, on occasion, frightening.  I especially liked the surface between the set diorama and the orchestra, which I slowly realized was filled with water, rather like a moat.  Reflective water, still, and then rising water.  Rising and rising…. 

Back in February 2017 at BAM [http://mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2017/08/what-i-did-those-missing-months-of-2017.html], the last James McDonald-directed play I saw shared similarities with The Children, in another Miriam Buether scenic and Peter Mumford lighting design, as well as in attitude toward the future.  Fallible and arrogant humans have made a mess of things and will suffer the consequences.  No zombies, no robots, no aliens.  Just humans and the results of their hubris.  Terrific stuff. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off to continue scribbling about some other performances this winter....

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Magic of Music at the Belasco

Music is mysterious.  It pulls emotions out of us, it urges us to remember for good or ill, pleasure or pain.  It riles us up, it calms us down.  Among other neurologists, Oliver Sachs particularly has written about music’s healing capacity.  Music therapy for people with dementia has been shown to awaken lost energies and memories.

The odd story of Farinelli and the King is an example of music’s magical power.  King Philippe V of Spain, while some days brilliant, was just as often deeply disturbed, hiding in his room, fearful of other people, holding conversation with his goldfish Alfonso.  When his wife Queen Isabella heard castrato Farinelli sing she believed he could help her husband, so the two made the arduous journey (this was early in the 18th century) from England to Spain for this great experiment.  Surely hearing Farinelli’s glorious voice could awaken the king from his coma-like state.

This play is based on the real relationship and real story that Farinelli, a great castrato of the 18th century, gave up his opera career to live with the king and queen of Spain for nine years, singing to keep the king’s humors level.  In addition to my interest in the subject matter, the play itself more than held my attention and I cared very much for the characters as written by Claire Van Kampen.  It is most beautifully produced with fine musicians and actors gracing the stage.  Ms. Van Kampen is also the musical arranger, so clearly knows her subject.  Jonathan Fensom’s designs immediately draw us into the London theatre, the Madrid palace as well as the house in the forest we experience later.  

John Dove’s direction pulls all these marvelous elements together for a musical and engaging evening.

Mark Rylance plays King Philippe V.  Mark Rylance is a genius. Funny, endearing, sometimes frightening and heartbreaking. Philippe is at his best away from the responsibilities and clutter of court and city life, out in the forest where he wants to hear the stars singing. Don’t we all. When Jonathan Fensom’s scenic design transports us to the forest, we too wish to stay.
Mark Rylance as King Philippe V
Queen Isabella as played by the engaging Melody Grove is practical, powerful and passionate.  She is the one who brings the audience along on this journey, making us root for her goals to save her husband.

Dan Crane acts Farinelli with sensitivity and grace, while Iestyn Davies, a countertenor, sings Farinelli. 

It’s an interesting conceit:  When the scene calls for Farinelli to sing, Mr. Davies enters the stage dressed exactly like Crane’s Farinelli, and begins to sing and act his aria, prowling the stage.  Crane’s Farinelli remains, silent, not too close to his alter ego, not too far, communing with the inner spirit of the singer Farinelli.  At least that’s what it looked like to me, and I was riveted.  Crane seems to be subtly reflecting what’s going on inside the singer Davies.

This was oddly fascinating to watch and oddly not disruptive to the action.

Conflict external to the king’s distress is largely supplied by the King’s wily and seemingly advanced Doctor Cervi, deftly played by Huss Garbiya.  The doctor (and Isabella and the King) are in constant conflict with the king’s minister De La Cuadra, coldly and beautifully played by Edward Peel. 

Queen Isabella originally found Farinelli performing for London theatrical manager John Rich, who is wittily and convincingly played by Colin Hurley

Like the Globe’s last production here at the Belasco Theatre, the set design is in two levels, the gallery wrapped around and above the playing area on three sides so that audience members may sit on the stage surrounding the players, while the upper back gallery is occupied by the excellent musicians.  We can see all, yet they don’t draw attention from the players.  It is imaginative and impressive and very well used.  In the second half, Mr. Rylance adds a third level as the King chats with the audience as if they were denizens of the forest. 

If you’ve read what I’ve written in past months about the musical passions of Indecent and The Band’s Visit, you may wonder about the music in Farinelli and the King.  A harpsichord plays the audience in, and is joined in the half hour before the play starts by a violinist, a cellist, and a lute player.  These and more musicians accompany much of the action for the evening and afford great pleasure. 

This play was not as effective for me as it will be for opera lovers.  The formal style of operatic singing awakens no passion in me.  Although I intellectually know how powerful the music is (and I know we cannot know what a castrato really sounded like), I was not brought to any emotion by the singing.  Mr. Rylance’s performance as the troubled king showed me, however, all I needed to know about that music’s effect.

Finally, I must mention the fabulous hair and wigs by Campbell Young that helped set us in Madrid or the forest and truly complemented the character development.

Farinelli and the King plays at the Belasco only until March 25, 2018.  Performances are marvelous in a brilliant design, and the play stands on its own without plays of a similar “type” to compare it to — in any case, nothing and no one compares with Mark Rylance.  If tickets are still available, get to the Belasco and hear the singing of the stars.
Mark Rylance as audience at the Delacorte in 2015.  Photo:  Matt Hennessy

~ Molly Matera, signing off to contemplate a new year.  Be happy and healthy.