Benjamin Walker and the company of American Psycho
Gory, funny, gorgeous, over-the-top, and a little confused, Duncan Sheik and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's musical version of Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho has arrived on Broadway, opening last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
The tuner boasts a catchy synth-pop score from Sheik that beautifully brings back the soundscape of the 1980s (and fuses perfectly with some of the decade's big hits that are also used). Katrina Lindsay also provides dazzling costumes that make much of the production look as if oversized issues of GQ and Vogue from the period have exploded on the stage. The result? American Pyscho transports audiences back to the go-go 80s, when Ronald Reagan was president and in many circles greed was good.
Ellis' novel sought to satirize the excesses the author had witnessed by bringing one Patrick Bateman (impressively played here by Benjamin Walker) to life. By day Patrick lives a controlled and controlling life on Wall Street working in "mergers and acquisitions." When not at the office, his business is "murders and executions." The novel—curiously, fascinatingly, and chillingly—managed to make Patrick's duality all one side of the same coin. Whether desperately clutching for the newest gadget or dashing to the trendiest new restaurant or slashing away at a victim, Patrick's life was bound up in conspicuous consumption.
To a certain extent Aguirre-Sacasa's book manages to capture the dichotomous tones of its source material. During the show's opening moments, as Patrick enumerates the designer labels he plans to wear for the day and details some of his prized possessions, the sense of affluent entitlement and greed cannot be mistaken. There are also chuckles of recognition about how fleeting some of it all is. He boasts about having a—gasp—30-inch television.
As the musical progresses and audiences meet his girlfriend and would-be fiancé Evelyn (hysterically played with upper-crust hauteur and dimness by Helene Yorke), she and her gal pals mix and match couture with haute cuisine to both comic and creepy effect. As for Patrick and his pals, they're not much better, particularly as they sing and dance in frenzied reveries about their business cards.
The trouble is that as the musical progresses and Patrick's serial killing escalates, it almost becomes too cartoonish. When even Patrick recognizes that there might be something wrong, and he, Evelyn, and their entourage retreat to the Hamptons, director Rupert Goold and choreographer Lynne Page imagine it as a riff on the ubiquitous black-and-white Calvin Klein ads of the period. There is, however, one notable exception to the sort of high-gloss calming luxurious of this sequence; Patrick stands apart, Jones-ing for his life of carnage in the city.
Should audiences laugh or cringe (or both)? It's rough to tell, and that's one way in which the musical stumbles.
Also problematic are the ways in which Patrick's relationships with his mother (an underutilized Alice Ripley), executive assistant (shrewdly played by Jennifer Damiano), and business associates play out. They all fit into the musical as mere sidebars among the show's big moments. The notable exceptions are the repeated scenes between Patrick and Luis (amusingly played by Jordan Dean). Luis, a closeted gay man, has mistakenly interpreted Patrick's friendship and continually hits on his pal. The scenes, both sad and scary, are a pungent reminder of what life in corporate America was like not too long ago, in an age before Will and Grace.
Despite the unevenness of the book, the show never ceases to tantalize the eye as director, choreographer, scenic designer Es Devlin, lighting designer Justin Townsend, and video designer Finn Ross conspire to make sequence after sequence vibrate with the energy associated with some of the best and most compelling music videos of the time.
They make for an invigorating return to the ’80s, even as they serve up the tale's blood and guts. There's a duality in them that's impossible to turn away from.
---- Andy Propst
American Psycho plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.americanpsychothemusical.com.
Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe in The Father
The onslaughts of aging and their cross-generational effects have become ripe fodder for drama this season. In The Humans, an elderly woman's frailty and dementia are just part of a mix of troubles facing a clan as they attempt to celebrate a happy Thanksigiving. In the recently closed Dot, a family strove to cope with their mother's early-onset Alzheimers. In both plays, theatergoers witnessed primarily the elder person's symptoms and never had the opportunity to journey into their minds.
With The Father, which opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, playwright Florian Zeller takes audiences into the world of a man who is battling the breakdown of his memory. It's a scary, fractured ride, and also one that, despite two first-rate performances, becomes somewhat wearisome.
Set in a Paris apartment (a handsome and exceedingly mutable scenic design from Scott Pask), The Father introduces André (Frank Langella) during a painful encounter with his adult daughter Anne (Kathry Erbe). She's angry because his sharp-tongued fits of anger have just resulted in another home-care attendant quitting. As she's about to move to London to be with a new boyfriend, she needs to know that he will have someone to look after him, and even when he believes that his watch has gone missing, he can't necessarily accuse his caregivers of stealing.
After a burst of lights flared at the theatergoers (the least subtle aspect of Donald Holder's otherwise gently atmospheric design), audiences encounter André as he surprises a "stranger" in the flat. The man claims to be Anne's husband, Pierre, and he has no inkling that his wife might be heading toward London to be with another man. Not surprisingly, André finds the disconnect between the two encounters baffling and troubling. So, too, do audiences.
And so this play, dubbed a "A Tragic Farce" by its author and translated by Christopher Hampton with an ear toward blunt archness, goes; each scene contains elements that are familiar and others that contradict or only tangentially gibe with facts and events that have preceded.
Directed with gentle intensity by Doug Hughes, The Father initially intrigues, but as it moves forward, Zeller's strategy to disorient while also evincing André's mental decline becomes increasingly gimmicky. With each burst of lights and subtle—and not-so-subtle—changes in the layout of the apartment, the play becomes akin to one of those games where a viewer is asked to look at two pictures and determine what has changed from one to the other.
Throughout, though, Langella and Erbe offer commanding and moving performances as father and daughter weathering the man's illness. It's painful to watch as Langella's formidable portrayal of André become increasingly childlike and frustrated by the swirl of splintered impressions of his life that he has.
In her portrayal of Anne, Erbe balances anger and hurt with compassion and affection to marvelous effect, and it becomes particularly chilling to watch how this woman rebounds with each stinging barb that André makes about his disdain for his daughter.
Fine performances come, too, from Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, and Kathleen McNenny, who play various men and women who filter through father and daughter's worlds and memories.
Both Baby Boomers and the first tier of Gen Xers are beginning to cope with the issues and events that are revealed in The Father, and there's an indubitable pull to the material and the performances, but one can't help but wish that it had been offered up in a less distancing manner.
---- Andy Propst
The Father plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: manhattantheatreclub.com.
Phylicia Rashad and Francois Battiste in Head of Passes
A deeply religious woman's faith gets rocked to its core in Tarrell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, a concurrently engrossing and uneven new play that opened last night at the Public Theater.
McCraney transports theatergoers to a spot in the south where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico in “the distant present” to tell the story of a family whose individual and collective lives are at myriad crossroads. The clan has gathered for a surprise birthday celebration for matriarch Shelah (Phylicia Rashad), whose devoutness has allowed her to weather a host of problems in her life. Combined with her iron fist and keen will she has also made sure that almost everyone around her, including adult children, have a combination of respect, fear and love for her.
Her eldest son, Aubrey (an excellently appealing and simultaneously offputting Francois Battiste), has learned a thing or two from his widowed mother and is the favored child among her brood. He is also, audiences learn, a smooth operator and learned valuable lessons from his father, and one reason for the gathering is his interest in having his mother sell the large boarding house that her husband built to house and entertain workmen from nearby oil rigs.
Sheila’s middle child Spencer (sweetly played by J. Bernard Callaway) has never enjoyed the same sort of position in the family and her youngest, Cookie (an intense Alana Arenas), struggles with drug addiction and for all intents and purposes has the position as the family outcast.
To say that bringing these three together, along with Shelah’s doctor (Robert Joy), an old family friend, Mae (Arnetta Walker) and a feuding father and son (John Earl Jelks and Kyle Beltran) who work for Shelah makes for a rocky evening would be an understatement. McCraney has given almost all of the characters significant secrets to bear, and during the course of the night – a very rainy one at that – most are revealed, and the party ends in a shambles with Shelah, whose health is faltering, near collapse.
For this first half of Passes audiences might consider it to be a Southern riff on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or similar dramas in which families cope with their legacies and their downfalls, but after intermission, McCraney, who infused his Brother/Sister Plays with African mysticism, takes the play in a new direction, one in which Shelah must confront her God and the destinies of her children. In many ways, it becomes almost akin to a Greek tragedy as Shelah rages against the entity into which she has put her faith and in whom she has found strength.
It’s the bifurcation of the piece that makes the production both intriguing and unsatisfying. Despite solid direction from Tina Landau, a superlative physical production (G.W. Mercier’s set is a marvel of leaky rural comfort that transforms impressively), and fine performances, the two halves of Passes never completely feel as if they belong together.
Such complaints, however, can be put aside for one reason alone: Rashad’s bravura performance. Shelah, intrinsically, is a woman who can quickly shift from being kind and charming to gruff and demanding in the blink of an eye, and Rashad navigates each hairpin turn in the woman’s demeanor with terrific precision. Further when Shelah begins to rage, Rashad becomes, by turns ferocious and placating, and it’s in these moments that her fiery and fearless performance rivets, and though the path to Shelah’s final moments of self-awareness and acceptance proves to be a far from smooth one, Rashad’s exquisite performance makes Head of Passses unquestionably compelling.
---- Andy Propst
Head of Passes plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.
Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan in Bright Star
The hands of time sweep backward in Bright Star, the musical which has just opened at Broadway's Cort Theatre. It's not just that the show takes place in the early 1920s and mid-1940s that gives theatergoers this sense of traveling to the past. The show itself, with a book and score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, takes its cue from films that the characters themselves might have gone to on a Saturday night at a local movie house.
At the center of the piece is Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack), a woman with a keen intellect, whom audiences encounter at two periods in her life. As a teenager, Alice pursues and wins the love of Jimmy Ray (Paul Alexander Nolan), the son of the mayor of their small North Carolina town. In the eyes of Jimmy Ray's father, though, Alice's humble roots mean that she cannot, under any circumstances, be considered a suitable mate for his son, and so the elder man finds ways to force the two apart.
Cusack also plays Alice in her late 30s when she has become the lead editor of an influential Southern literary journal, and in these sections of Bright Star audiences witness how she, much to the surprise of colleagues, nurtures a budding young writer, Billy (A.J. Shively). The book, peppered with a terrific sense of Southern humor and genuine warmth, crisscrosses back and forth between periods and shrewdly interweaves the tales from both periods of Alice's life.
It's a sweet, romantic, sepia-toned look back to the first half of the 20th century that's beautifully supported by the score Martin and Brickell have written. Their signature bluegrass strains are supplemented with everything from jitterbug tunes to soaring musical theater ballads and the songs, played by an onstage band (augmented by pieces in the wings) that looks as if it has been housed In a rolling roadhouse (Eugene Lee provides the remarkably effective scenic design, which is warmly lit by designer Japhy Weideman) are filled with a kind of colloquial poetry.
Director Walter Bobbie, working with choreographer Josh Rhodes, deploys the slatted structure that houses the band to help give the show a sweeping cinematic feel, and although there are times when Rhodes' dances look as if they are aspiring to an inappropriate sort of edginess, a seamlessness the men's vision beautifully helps to unite the show's two storylines.
Equally important in making Bright Star cohere is Carmen Cusack's deeply felt, beautifully sung, and engagingly spirited turn as Alice. The actress melts hearts and beguiles as she delivers the show's opening number, "If You Knew My Story," and whether she's playing the coquette with Jimmy Ray when Alice is 16 or she's dryly praising Billy at 38, Cusack imbues the character with a spirit that proves simply irresistible.
Her performance is ably supported by the work of costume designer Jane Greenwood, who outfits her in terrific homespun frocks during the 1920s scenes and some lovely tailored suits worthy of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for the 1940s moments of the musical.
As her two leading men, Shively delivers an eager and ever-so-wet-behind the ears turn as Billy and Nolan offers a gently solid and thoroughly warm-blooded performance as Jimmy Ray. Both men, too, match Cusack note-for-note vocally.
Director Bobbie has a superlative array of talent for the show's myriad supporting characters, from Dee Hoty, who brings gentle gravitas to her portrayal of Alice's quiet, long-suffering mother, to Stephen Bogardus, who thoroughly charms as Billy's good-ole-boy dad. Michael Mulheren makes Jimmy Ray's dad appropriately despicable, so much so that there are faint boos as he takes his bow, while Jeff Blumenkranz and Emily Padgett score big laughs throughout as Alice's two assistants. Hannah Ellers delivers a beautifully crafted performance as Billy's childhood sweetheart ,and Stephen Lee Anderson carefully reveals the humanity that lies underneath the exterior of Alice's stern, Bible-thumping father.
Anyone at all familiar with movies from the golden age of the studio era will sense from the show's outset that all of the characters in Bright Star will reach a happy ending. Nevertheless, the appealingly tuneful journey to the show's conclusion proves to be consistently satisfying and ultimately moving.
---- Andy Propst
Bright Star plays at the Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: brightstarmusical.com.
Hank Azaria, Claire Danes, and John Krasinski in Dry Powder
High-powered financiers slug it out in Sarah Burgess' new play, Dry Powder, which recently opened at the Public Theater. Directed by Thomas Kail and performed to perfection, this new drama proves both timely and fascinating.
Reeling from a public relations nightmare that erupts after his lavish engagement event (it featured the appearance of an elephant) follows a draconian series of layoffs that his firm has instituted for a grocery store chain, Rick (a terrifically edgy Hank Azaria), the head of a private equity firm, attempts to do damage control. He sees the perfect opportunity for turning his image around in a business proposal that one of his partners has proposed. If Rick's firm acquires a small luggage manufacturer in California, and if they can seal the deal while also keeping the company's employees all based in the U.S., well, he—and his company—will cease to look like a corporate vampire.
Theoretically, Rick's quick-witted partner Seth (a charmingly ingratiating John Krasinski) has the deal signed, sealed, and delivered. When the men's fellow partner, the hardnosed and no-nonsense Jenny (played with deadpan dryness by Danes) offers up an alternative to Seth's plan, however, the chances of all parties coming to terms become less certain. Other factors come into play that pit these three, along with the luggage company's hotshot CEO Jeff (a simultaneously laidback and keenly aggressive performance by Sanjit De Silva), against one another.
Burgess has written a high stakes financial thriller and peppered it not only with sharp insights about the world of big business, but also with terrific humor. All four characters, who because of their acerbic tongues, become intriguingly likable, even as their tactics border on repugnant.
Kail's crackling staging of this big bucks cat-and-mouse game unfolds on crisply bright blue platform (scenic design by Rachel Hauck) that's surrounded on four sides by the audience. In a way, watching the characters maneuvers in this manner makes the entire show seem as if it is a battle between four chicly outfitted (costumes by Clint Ramos) 21st century gladiators. Jason Lyons' lighting design expertly helps transition the action and also plays a keen effect in highlighting the smoked glass panels that hang behind the audience and make the entirety of the theater feel as if it has become a corporate boardroom.
The twists and turns Burgess creates as the buyout of the luggage firm nears its endgame help reveal the true natures of each of the participants in the deal, and ultimately, audiences are left with a sense of having watched a contemporary American tragedy unfold.
---- Andy Propst
Dry Powder plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). For more information and tickets, visit: publictheater.org.