Cynthia Darlow and Kristin Griffith in The Fatal Weakness
George Kelly tucks some pretty contemporary ideas into his 1946 comedy, The Fatal Weakness, which opened last night in a marvelously satisfying revival from the Mint Theater Company.
Kelly seems to be setting the play up to be a variant on Clare Booth Luce’s The Women as he introduces Mrs. Ollie Espenshade (Kristin Griffith), who, as the play begins, is fretting about the letter she’s just received. It’s informed her that her husband of nearly 25 years has been having an affair. Once Mrs. Espenshade’s best friend Mabel (Cynthia Darlow) has arrived to dispense wisdom---in the form of some particularly astute zingers---about men and the institution of marriage, Kelly's peter appears to be even more certain.
But then, Penny Hassett (Victoria Mack), Mrs. O’s daughter, visits and shares some of her own ideas about wedded bliss. She doesn’t necessarily think divorce is a bad thing, and she tells her mother that she has been straightforward with her husband about it all. Penny wonders why two people should stay married if they’ve found that they’ve grown apart. After all, as she puts it, marriage, “if it's persisted in it can become a habit.”
Ollie---a romantic at heart who shows up at strangers’ weddings ---doesn’t understand her daughter’s perspective, and at the same time allows Mabel to have her husband followed to see if the report she has received is true. It’s a terrific dual response to the news, and sets the stage for Kelly’s exploration of what “fatal weaknesses” bedevil his characters. (To say any more would spoil a lovely surprise.)
Ably directed by Jesse Marchese, the production shimmers thanks to Griffith’s performance that combines flightiness, sweetness, and even a bit of steeliness to terrific effect. Similarly Darlow’s performance delights. She beautifully delivers each of Mabel’s world-weary sage wisecracks with flair, and Mack imbues Penny with a deft combination of entitlement, arrogance and haughtiness, moderating them all with gentle charm so that the character never becomes unpalatable.
The same can be said of the two men in the show. Cliff Bemis makes for a jolly Mr. Espenshade and Sean Patrick Hopkins' turn as Penny’s good-natured and thoroughly exasperated husband Vernon proves amusing and touching. Finally, there’s fine work from Patricia Kilgarriff, who plays the Espenshades' maid. The actress gets some laughs of her own, both thanks to Kelly’s script and her own ability to arch an eyebrow at just the right moment.
The performances are made all the richer by Andrea Varga’s detail-rich costume designs that capture both the period and character. The other design elements---Vicki R. Davis’ scenic design, Christian DeAngelis’ lighting design, and Jane Shaw’s sound design---are more than serviceable, but in each instance, there’s a slight misstep. For instance, Davis has paneled the Espenshades' sitting room in what looks like brushed aluminum (a baffling choice), and DeAngelis’ design takes a twee turn late in the production. These, however, are minor quibbles with a terrific production that demonstrates, yet again, how invaluable the Mint is to New York’s theater scene.
---- Andy Propst
The Fatal Weakness plays at the Mint Theater (311 West 43rd Street, Third Floor). For more information and tickets, visit: minttheater.org.
A scene from Juárez: A Documentary Mythology
(Photo courtesy of the company)
There’s something of a red herring to be found in the new show from Theater Mitu, Juárez: A Documentary Mythology, which has just opened at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. At one point, one of the performers recreates a moment from the process that was used to develop the piece where he explained the company’s goals: “These interviews will make up the text in performance. . . . We are just now starting to look into the mythology that surrounds these cities; the stories people tell to make sense of things...”
The problem is that with this description of mythology (partnered with the generally held belief that such tales are used to explain physical phenomena), the show, which explores the history of the Mexican border town that has been plagued with drugs and violence, seems horribly lacking. During the course of the 80-minute piece assembled from myriad conversations that the company had with residents of the city, theatergoers learn a great many facts about what has taken place in Juárez over the course of the past thirty years or so. But in terms of the “whys,” the show falls a little short.
To be sure, there are terrific details about the surge in violence, but they tend toward the cut-and-dry side of the equation. For instant, a surge in “femicides,” the murder of women simply because they are female, is attributed to the fact that as increasing numbers of women joined the workforce, men were displaced, begetting the violence. A horrific notion, but hardly “mythic” in the popular sense of the word.
If, somewhere in the script for Juárez, a less standard definition for the concept---“a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event, arising naturally or deliberately fostered”---were brought to the fore, the piece and the production could be considered an unqualified success. Because, in this sense, the work of the company, under the direction of Rubén Pollendo, is marvelously on target.
The pool of interviewees for the production was wide and the collage of tales and snippets of thought are both telling and informative. For instance, there’s an extended monologue, broken into parts, about a kidnapping and ransom. In these sections, the show’s stagecraft is impeccable. Equally compelling is story that comes late in the show about a woman who confronted Mexican President Felipe Calderón about the killing of her two sons, who had been labeled gangsters by the government. The person who shared the tale with the company, a research librarian, introduced it by saying: “And I said, this should be… an opera…” and as the narrative unfolds, it’s underscored by a plaintive aria that’s part of lead sound designer Alex Hawthorn’s consistently excellent soundscape.
The sound design is also an integral part of how the men and women of Juárez come to life in the show. Theatergoers first hear actual tape from the interviews and then the performers simply continue---making no attempt to assume the persona of the respondents---the answers that they gathered. Combined with the visuals of the production, which unfolds on basically a bare stage supported by a few projections, the technique gives the production a genuinely documentary feel, keeping theatergoers at an engaged distance so that they can take in all of the information that has been so carefully gathered. Then, after the show ends, it’s up to them to try to make some sense of what it all means. Interestingly, that’s when the real myth-making might begin.
---- Andy Propst
Juárez plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place). For more information and tickets, visit: rattlestick.org.
Phillip James Brannon, Jessica Frances Dukes, Benja Kay Thomas, and Lance Coadie Williams in Bootycandy
Prepare to laugh long and loud during the course of Robert O’Hara’s new comedy Bootycandy, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons. You should also prepare for a few cringes as this bracing and biting play voraciously cuts through racial and sexual stereotypes, and (this may be the best surprise), the show also has a moving emotional core.
The show seems to reach its comic pinnacle very early on as Lance Coadie Williams channels the outrageousness of Flip Wilson and the intensity of Eddie Murphy as he plays a preacher who’s having to confront vicious rumors that are spreading through his congregation. It’s a hilarious parody that’s topped in short order as four women (played by two actresses, Jessica Frances Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas) swap phone calls to gossip about the name that one has decided to give her daughter: Genitalia. Actually, it’s a bit longer, Genitalia Lakeitha Shalama Abdul, and she will be growing up with two siblings who have equally unusual names.
O’Hara’s ability to build a joke shines beautifully in this sequence as Dukes and Thomas flip between characters (abetted beautifully by some of Clint Ramos’ funniest costume designs). He’s not only covering the name that has been chosen. He goes after gambling, the pettiness of families squabbling over money, and even smoking.
Audiences eventually meet Genitalia as an adult as she and her partner, Intifada, share a destination divorce. It’s a raucous affair as the two women spit epithets at one another, and the playwright’s ability to lash an audience with an unexpected laugh line has lost none of its steam. Further, the scene is certainly in keeping with the incisive gay humor that has been part and parcel of the play, but because by this point, audiences have come to realize that there’s a fascinating, moving, funny, and pungent narrative through-line to Bootycandy, Genitalia and Intifada’s antics on the beach feel oddly out of place ... an interruption.
At the heart of this play is O’Hara’s tale about Sutter (beautifully played by Phillip James Brannon). Theatergoers initially meet him as a grade school age kid who’s asking his mom some pretty provocative questions. “Mommy what’s a period?” and “Mommy why do I pull myself back and wash?” Sutter’s tale returns to the stage, in a nonlinear fashion. In one, he’s an adult with a best bud, Roy (Jesse Pennington), a straight guy who’s thinking about experimenting with gay sex. Sutter’s treatment of his pal’s always-drunken interest signals the dark back story that O’Hara’s created for this character, and slowly audiences come to realize why Sutter has such conflicted feelings about his homosexuality as an adult.
In the play’s most painful (yet still uproariously funny) scene, Sutter, as a teen obsessed with Michael Jackson, Jackie Collins, and musicals, tells his folks that he was followed home from the library by a man. His parents react not with concern but accusations. His mom wants to know what he did to attract the guy. Sutter’s father’s solution is that the boy should play more sports. Further, Sutter needs to drop out of the school musical he’s been cast in: The Wiz.
The “blame the victim” aspects of the scene and the behavior modification that’s suggested seem cruel by the standards of 2014, but for the period in which the scene unfolds (seemingly the early 1980s), such reactions were all too common (regardless of race, socioeconomic background or geography). And, the fact that O’Hara can inspire laughs with the scenario is particularly impressive. The same can be said of one of the show’s final scenes in which Sutter and a pal seduce (or are seduced by) lonely straight frat type.
O’Hara resorts to an odd piece of metatheatrics to wrap up Sutter’s tale, but it’s not entirely unexpected because the first half of Bootycandy ends with a “symposium” in which the performers play various incarnations of the playwright, discussing their impetus behind the scenes that have preceded. And, once the show’s final scene has played out, in which the final details of Sutter’s journey to manhood are cleared up, the laughs come, even as heartstrings are pulled.
Throughout, the ensemble, under the guidance of the playwright who has also directed, offer up performances that are both detail-rich and pitch-perfect comically. The same is true of Ramos’ scenic design, which literally spirals to a host of locations that brim, each of which is delicately and astutely enhanced by Aaron Rhyne’s projection design. Japhy Weideman’s lighting design provides smile-inducing pizzazz as necessary and there are some nifty surprises tucked into Lindsay Jones’ soundscape.
---- Andy Propst
Bootycandy plays at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: playwrightshorizons.org.
Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks in And I and Silence
Naomi Wallace charts a friendship forged in the face of adversity in And I and Silence, which opened last night at the Pershing Signature Center. Bringing to mind an American riff on Jean Genet’s The Maids, the play, which touches on intriguing issues of race and gender equality, has moments of both gentle comedy and drama, and is performed with sensitivity by a talented four person ensemble. Unfortunately, while there is much to admire and contemplate in this 90-minute piece, it’s a show that almost consistently engages the mind, but never fully captures the heart.
Wallace affords theatergoers with the chance to witness the relationship between Dee and Jamie from two perspectives. Initially, they are seen as two 20-something women, just released from prison and hoping to make a new life for themselves as domestics in an unnamed (presumably Southern based on their accents) city in 1959. The play then flashes back to the moment when the two women met for the first time, as teenagers, while they were incarcerated. And I and Silence continues to alternate between the two periods, and what emerges is one tale of hope and another of sad desperation.
It’s the prison side of the tale that is the hopeful portion of Silence. Dee and Janie have had little chance in their formative years, but while they are together in prison, they envision a future for themselves in which they can make their way in the world by serving as maids. In these portions of the play, Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs, as Jamie and Dee respectively, charm. Both actresses capture the characters’ girlishness beautifully, and they modulate their performances with a preternatural hardness that’s both sad and frightening.
Once they have been released and established a home (after a fashion) in a dingy apartment (scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides the abstracted environment that serves as both home and prison), the young women follow through on the plans that they made, but while they have some success at securing work, it’s never lasting. And as their existence becomes increasingly bleak, Dee looks back on their time behind bars, saying: “We weren't hungry. Could use our minds for other things. Now, we got nothing.”
In these portions of the play, Samantha Soule (Dee) and Rachel Nicks (Jamie) deliver performances that start with a delicate shimmer of hopefulness, and as the play progresses, their work takes on a disturbing darkness and bitterness, qualities that are intriguingly echoed in the Elisheba Ittoop’s atmospheric soundscape.
Both pairs of actresses ably traverse the poetic sections of Wallace’s script with finesse (Jamie and Dee have a habit of lapsing into playful rhyming that brings to mind what young girls might chant while jumping rope). Further, the performers gracefully segue into and out of the power games that Wallace builds into the training that African-American Jamie, whose mother was a maid, gives Caucasian Dee for her future life as a domestic.
Director Caitlin McLeod’s seamless and fluid staging also has a subtle tension to it, particularly when the actresses playing the younger incarnations of the characters are glimpsed in the shadows while the adult characters are center stage. McLeod’s fine work, however, does not compensate for some of the lapses in Wallace’s script. For instance, while Jamie and Dee reference the segregation of the prison, it’s never quite clear how the two manage to spend as much time together as they do.
And I and Silence ends with both the younger and older incarnations of the characters sharing the stage together for the first time with guarded optimism blending with utter despair. Theoretically, it's meant to inspire shock and a deep sense of tragedy, but ultimately, all that one can feel is admiration for the deliberate and intelligent craftsmanship of the moment and the entirety of production.
---- Andy Propst
And I and Silence plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: signaturetheatre.org.
Kate Kreisler and Brian Avers in Poor Behavior
Theresa Rebeck wants to explore some pretty big ideas in her new play Poor Behavior, which Primary Stages opened last night at the Duke on 42nd Street. Among the concepts that are tucked inside this snapshot of two couples' dreadful weekend in the country are questions about what constitutes good and bad, as well as ones about morality. Daringly performed and capably directed by Evan Cabnet, the show should provoke both laughter and introspection. But, Rebeck's haphazard plotting and two-dimensional characters mean that theatergoers can never fully invest in the story or its broader implications.
Set in a comfortable and fashionably appointed country home just outside of New York (deliciously realized by scenic designer Lauren Helpern) that belongs to Ella (Kate Kreisler) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), Poor Behavior starts with a late-night drunken argument between Ella and Ian. After the two have been somewhat calmed, Peter and Maureen retreat to their bedrooms, and Ella and Ian are left to share an intimate moment as Ian mourns his father's passing and the guilt he feels over having not returned to his native Ireland to say goodbye.
Maureen, prone to hysterics and, according to her husband, frequently suicidal, catches Ella consoling Ian. Glimpsing the tenderness that her husband and hostess share sends Maureen into a tailspin, and in short order, she confronts him about his fidelity and regales Peter with the news of her discovery of a seeming affair. It's small wonder that tempers flare all the way around over the next twenty-four hours as Ella attempts to assuage Peter's suspicions, and Ian derails in the face of a barrage of accusations and slurs from his wife.
Audiences might be able to empathize with their plight or seriously consider what Rebeck attempts to explore if the characters were anything more that abstractions of archetypes. But they're not. Ian's a fiery Irishman disillusioned by America and the dream that he believed it promised. Peter's a seeming milquetoast having conquered (seemingly) anger management issues. Ella's a tough-as-nails pragmatist. Maureen's a privileged neurotic.
Theatergoers have to assume they all work for a living, but Rebeck never reveals anything about what they might do when they're not shouting at one another. Worse still is the confused backstory that she creates for how they all know each other. We learn, repeatedly, that Maureen dated Peter's brother, which could explain the genesis of the friendship. But when one factors in Ian's description of how fond his late father was of Ella, it appears that they might have known one another socially before their respective marriages.
The lack of any concrete details that would make these characters or the situation even vaguely plausible only makes Rebeck's plot machinations particularly tougher to swallow. This is particularly true when a pair of earrings becomes the equivalent of the damning handkerchief in Othello.
All that's left for theatergoers are the savory, bravura performances. Each performer appears to be having a great time letting loose for two hours or so. Sadly, though, the ensemble's work is not enough this excursion into poor behavior a rich or satisfying experience.
---- Andy Propst
Poor Behavior plays at the Duke on 42nd Street (). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.