Gideon Glick in Significant Other
(Photo courtesy of the company)
Jordan, the quirky and looking for love hero of Joshua Harrison’s new play Significant Other, can’t suppress a growing feeling of desperation that he might never meet “Mister Right.” And as this late-twentysomething watches his three best pals from college each take a trip down the aisle, Jordan panics. Maybe he’ll never find the man with whom he can share his life.
Significant Other, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, proves to be a dark romantic comedy about millennials who’ve come of age in the era of gay marriage, and just as he did with Bad Jews a few seasons back, Harrison peppers the play with biting, sometimes scabrous, humor, as well as a touch of whimsy.
Take for instance Jordan’s paean to a co-worker that he’s crushing on. After seeing the guy emerge from a swimming pool at an office party, he describes what he saw in minute detail: “His biceps have just the lightest little hint of muscle. One single vein runs up each arm in this beautiful line, like a Miro painting, not quite straight, but it draws your eyes immediately to the canvas.” It’s actually a bit rough to take such hyperbole seriously, and yet, there’s something curiously aching about it.
The same can be said of each of Jordan’s girlfriends who wed during the course of the show. Kiki, played with a sense of entitled crassness by Sas Goldberg, begins the play with a lengthy description of how she came to meet the man she’s just about to marry. She only found romance after learning to love herself. There’s something terribly off-putting about the navel-gazing that she indulges in. Still, there’s a grain of truth in it.
For Vanessa, played with dry aloofness by Carra Patterson, true happiness only comes after she dumps the married man that she’s been dating. He, of course, allowed her to have someone without really committing. What’s incredibly funny is the transformation that takes place once she’s found her mate. Hearts and flowers seem to float around her head: a tribute to Patterson’s work.
The third woman to wed, and the marriage that rocks Jordan to the core, is Laura, who, at one point, was Jordan’s roommate. Played with sensitivity and quiet command, she’s the woman who could be Jordan’s soul mate. Unfortunately, he’s not straight. Nevertheless, when she marries Tony (John Behlmann, who in a bit of terrifically conceived double-casting also plays the co-worker Jordan lusts for), it’s the final straw. He melts down and fireworks ensue at her bachelorette party.
There’s one other woman in Jordan’s life, his grandmother Helene (the estimable Barbara Barrie), and her life as a widow, only seems to accentuate the loneliness that Jordan sees before him. Even if you find true love, you end up alone should your partner predecease you.
Smoothly and fluidly directed by Trip Cullman, the show blisters repeatedly and then, tugs at the heartstrings. Along the way there are lapses into utter absurdity, like the night that Jordan spends by himself debating whether or not to click “send” on a pretty pathetic email he’s written to his co-worker. While he’s thinking about all of this, he calls each of the women. Not surprisingly, he gets each one’s voicemail. They’re doing busy with their partners.
Throughout all of this it’s up to Gideon Glick to bring the comically pathetic and painfully heartstick Jordan to life, and the performer fully embraces the character’s extremes. Theatergoers roar as he writhes on the floor pondering that email, which he really shouldn’t send and wince when he has the showdown with Laura. It’s an impressive turn that demands audiences’ attention and asks for their pity.
Harrison makes a nod to Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic?, using a quote from it at the beginning of his script, and indeed, this very unromantic comedy does follow in that show’s footsteps. It also, and probably more importantly, follows in those of two other plays, Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, which paints a dire picture of gay men trying to make connections in the days just before Stonewall, and Harvey Feirstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which explores how a gay man discovers love and creates a “modern family” in a world pre-AIDS. Watching Significant Other, one feels both the bleakness of Crowley’s work and the utter romanticism of Feirstein’s blending.
---- Andy Propst
Significant Other at plays at the Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.
Arliss Howard, Mary McCann, and Jason Ritter in Ghost Stories: The Shawl & Prairie du Chien
Think of the two short David Mamet plays that opened last night at Atlantic Stage 2 as summertime thrillers for the brain. Both Prairie du Chien and The Shawl, being presented under the title Ghost Stories, want to conjure creepy feelings in theatergoers, and while heebie-jeebies may only come fitfully in Scott Zigler’s handsomely executed production, there are performances to savor. And, as usual, there are a few cunning linguistic tricks up Mamet’s metaphorical sleeves.
The evening opens with Prairie, set in a railroad parlor car (Lauren Helpern’s damask-walled unit set gracefully serves both pieces) in 1910, reveals four passengers as they travel through the Midwest. Two of them are engaged in a game of gin that unfolds with a quite tension on one side of the car. On the other side of the car, a character known only as “Storyteller” (Jordan Lage) passes the time with a man known only as “Listener” by telling a story of lust and apparent murder.
The tale involves a woman married to a jealous store keeper on the East Coast, and the events that transpire after an act of infidelity. Rather than overselling or pushing the narrative, Lage delivers it with languid insistence. In a way, it becomes almost as soothing as the sound of the trains wheels that are heard just underneath it.
Originally written as a radio play, Prairie relies on Storyteller’s ability to paint the pictures with Mamet’s words and his voice, and overall Lage succeeds in drawing both theatergoers and Listener (Jason Ritter) in. The trouble is that both the twists of Storyteller’s yarn, which might have had period (in the time the play was set and for original audiences) shock appeal, seem clichéd by 2015 standards. Further, the eruption of violence between the unnamed cardplayers (Nate Dendy and Jim Frangione) ultimately feel horribly contrived.
What ultimately impresses most about Prairie are both Lage’s controlled delivery and Zigler’s gorgeously rhythmic staging, which balances the two halves of the action to perfection.
More successful and deliciously sly (even as it’s predictable) is The Shawl, which centers on John (Arliss Howard), a charlatan psychic who’s trying to teach a young man, Charles (Ritter), the tricks of the trade. One client, Miss A (Mary McCann), serves as the guinea pig for Charles’ tutelage. She also becomes the fulcrum on which men’s relationship pivots.
While there’s little surprise in what John ultimately reveals to Charles about how he manages to divine certain details about Miss A’s life (it’s all a matter of observation and common sense deduction), theatergoers can revel in Howard’s splendidly deliberate delivery. His ability to use pauses to both humorous and telling effect astonishes. Arliss also revels in Mamet's beautifully wrought language, using repeated words and phrases to give insight into both the man and his supposed "art."
McCann also offers a terrifically calibrated turn as the simultaneously vulnerable and steely Miss A, making her a formidable challenge for Howard’s wily would-be seer. And, as the young man who tries to use both his mentor (and seeming lover) and the woman to his own advantage, Ritter gives a performance that has a icy heat to it. He makes Charles an appealing creature and also one to be wary of.
Lighting designer Jeff Croiter’s cloaks both The Shawl and Prairie du Chien in dim, but never murky, atmosphere, and costume designer Linda Chu’s costumes provide telling character details in both plays, which provide an amiable divertissement for a summer evening.
---- Andy Propst
Ghost Stories: The Shawl & Prairie du Chien at plays at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.
Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed in Guards at the Taj
Rajiv Joseph’s new play Guards at the Taj, which opened last night at the Atlantic Theater Company, unfolds like a kind of grotesque Waiting for Godot. Exploring a myth about the building of the Taj Mahal in the 17th century, the play suffers from awkward tonal shifts, but thanks to two immaculate performances and a beautiful staged production, it’s a show that proves curiously haunting
The heroes of Joseph’s drama are two imperial guards who are standing outside the famed edifice while it is being erected. Huge walls surround the structure, and as the play opens, the men along with the rest of the population are awaiting the moment when it will be revealed. The guards---Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed)---are, theoretically, to stand their watch silently, but Babur’s natural ebullience and gregariousness mean that’s he’s fundamentally incapable of obeying the order. Further, these qualities conspire to engage Humayun in conversation.
As they stand at their post in front a solid wall of stone (designer Timothy R. Mackabee’s transforms beautifully), their banter encompasses everything from their dissatisfaction with their lot in life to fantasies about what it might be like to have a higher rank in the service to the notion of a flying contraption that could take a person to the stars.
As they talk, Humayun also brings up a rumor that has been circulating. The architect for the Taj Mahal has offended the emperor by asking that the artisans who have been part of its construction be allowed to tour it in order to see what they have created. In retaliation, according to Humayun, the emperor has decreed that after the building has been unveiled, the workers, 20,000 in all, will have their hand severed off, so that “Nothing so beautiful as Tajmahal shall ever be built again.”
It doesn’t take theatergoers long to figure out who will be responsible for undertaking this task, and in the second scene of Guards, Humayun and Babur are reeling from having to carry out the emperor’s horrific decree in a dimly-lit dungeon (lighting designer David Weiner’s work encompasses both the darkly creepy and the dazzlingly bright daylight with grace) that’s brimming with blood-red water.
Joseph’s script, which has a heightened period lyricism to it and also crackles with contemporary colloquialisms, asks audiences to both laugh and shudder at the men and their plight. Particularly during the piece’s first two scenes, the gallows humor, the oppressiveness of the society in which they live, and Babur’s optimism combine to make it nearly impossible to not think of Samuel Beckett’s bedraggled tramps in Godot.
Once the men have begun to comprehend what they have done, though, Joseph’s play veers into a more concrete reality as the men argue about the ramifications of the deed and their friendship begins to crumble, particularly after a nascent urge to rebel surfaces in Babur. Overtones of dark existentialism remain, but as the play wends toward its sad conclusion, it becomes increasingly heavy-handed, and then, during its final scene it becomes ungainly surreal.
What remains constant, however, are the two terrifically detailed and superlatively moving performances that Metwally and Moayed, working under the careful direction of Amy Morton, deliver. Metwally plays Humayun as a kind of wizened, quietly patient, and melancholy older brother to Moayed overeager adolescent-like Babur. As the play progresses, though, both men are adept at taking on qualities that theatergoers have come to associate with the other; Moayed’s turn begins to have a palpable gravitas while Metwally’s becomes more infantile. It’s rough not to pity both of these poor souls.
They are performances to savor, as is Joseph’s play, which, though uneven, raises not only existential questions, but also ones about the difference between the elite of society and those less fortunate who live beside (under?) them.
---- Andy Propst
Guards at the Taj at plays at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.
Josh Walden, Robert Creighton, and Jeremy Benton in Cagney
The new musical Cagney, playing at the York Theatre, aptly resembles the screen legend whose life story has inspired it. The tuner’s a sweetly sturdy affair, and let’s face it, even when James Cagney---rugged, yet diminutive in stature---was playing the nastiest of gangsters, there was something sort of amiable about him.
With a book by Peter Colley and songs by Robert Creighton (who also stars in the title role) and Christopher McGovern, Cagney takes a standard approach to the biography at hand. The show begins in 1978 when Cagney’s receiving the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and it's being presented by Jack Warner, the studio executive who gave the actor his start in the 1930s. Over the years, their relationship soured, and their reunion backstage at the ceremony sets the musical into flashback mode.
From this point forward, the piece charts the Cagney biography chronologically, from his hardscrabble life in New York during the depression to his initial successes in vaudeville to finally his screen successes. Eventually, Cagney rebels against playing the same sorts of roles over and over and breaks away from Warner, and when his attempts to make his own films fail, he returns to the studio, where Warner gives him a comeback role in White Heat.
Alongside with this career trajectory, Colley’s book charts the actor’s one great love, to dancer Willie Vernon, whom he meets in vaudeville and marries, and his appearance in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
It’s a hefty life story to fit into one show, and Cagney can simultaneously feel both glancing and too-in-depth. An example of how the show can do both can be found in Cagney’s relationship with Willie. While the first act focuses squarely on their courtship, the second act contain almost nothing about their marriage, which lasted for 64 years until his death.
Similarly, each act contains a montage number during which writers pound out the screenplays for the movies that Cagney will star in. For film fans, each sequence provides a quick trip down memory lane (particularly when Mark Pirolos always-graceful projections reveal the iconic posters for the films). However, these montages, while seemingly intended to illustrate the grueling schedule enforced on stars by the studio system, only read as cleverly souped-up lists that ensure Cagney’s extensive filmography has been covered.
Ironically, the show’s most successful sequence---a USO montage in which the company performs a medley of George M. Cohan songs---is also one of its chief drawbacks. After his success playing songwriter-performer Cohan on the screen, Cagney takes to entertaining troops during World War II, and to illustrate these efforts choreographer Joshua Bergasse has created a genuinely rousing tap number. What’s unfortunate else in the show, solidly, but unsurprisingly, directed by Bill Castellino, captures theatergoers’ attention in the same way.
Creighton, throughout, captures Cagney’s basic essence while also dancing and singing up a storm. To both his credit and that of songwriter McGovern, their period pastiches stand up well when compared to the Cohan classics; particularly enjoyable are Creighton’s ballad “Falling in Love” and McGovern’s “There’s Nothing I Wouldn’t Do for You,” a vaudeville number that introduces Ellen Zolezzi’s splendidly engaging Willie.
Zolezzi, like her castmates Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, Bruce Sabath, and Josh Walden, assumes multiple roles throughout Cagney, and the ensemble as a whole delivers unevenly as they morph from scene to scene. Particularly troubling are the wan impersonations that are offered of stars from Cagney’s sphere, such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Bob Hope and Greta Garbo.
The presence of these characters, like so many other elements in Cagney, only whets theatergoers’ appetites for the real thing, and by the end of the show, which maintains a consistent appeal while never fully catching fire, one simply wants to dart home to dive into one’s video collection or fire up Netflix to revisit the star’s canon, and perhaps search through Amazon to see what print biographies exist for the man who played stocky hoodlums whom audiences can’t help but love.
---- Andy Propst
Cagney plays at Saint Peters Church (619 Lexington Avenue). For more information and tickets, visit: www.yorktheatre.org.
Jim Parsons in An Act of God
If you’ve ever had suspicions that “God has a screwed-up sense of humor,” a trip Studio 54 for David Javerbaum’s An Act of God will confirm them. The show is a genial theatrical diversion for the summer starring The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons in the title role and takes theatergoers on a merrily off-kilter theological journey.
The premise for this comic routine (remember “an act of God” could be considered “God’s act,” as in stand-up) couldn’t be simpler. After thousands of years, the Almighty has decided he’s tired of being a one-hit wonder and has come to Earth to offer up a new and improved set of commandments. As he offers up his new top 10 “thou shalt not” list, he revisits familiar tales from the Bible to clarify what’s contained in the Good Book.
Thus, alongside such pronouncements as “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate,” God sets the record straight (pun fully intended) on the story of Adam and his partner’s Fall in Eden. God, seated center stage on a white couch which is the center piece of Scott Pask’s scenic design that resembles the Guggenheim inverted and turned on its side, also illuminates the other tales. When he talks of Noah, theatergoers learn he got very different instructions than the ones we commonly think of. And, as for Book of Job, God believes that to be “the funniest book in the Bible.”
Parsons’ whimsical deity bemuses and his performance brims with so much homespun charm that it almost seems impossible that God could ever have a malicious or vindictive bone in his body. That’s not to say that there’s not a wicked quality to Parsons’ smile, but when it’s accompanied by a twinkle in his eyes, it’s kind of like having his Big Bang Theory character silently utter “Bazinga.”
In fact, Parsons, clad by costume designer David Zinn in a white robe that looks like it’s been draped with one of Carol Channing's signature necklaces, delivers such an endearing, and gently Southern-fried, performance that when God has to show his wrath, it all feels a little incredible. This becomes most noticeable when he must unleash his anger toward Michael (the always-sweet Christopher Fitzgerald), one of the two angels/wingmen who share the stage with him. (Tim Kazurinsky is also on hand and plays Gabriel with a gentle, beatific air.)
Late in the show, Michael questions God on some of the trickier points of his behavior, and well, God’s not at all happy with the queries. Both Parsons and Fitzgerald rev themselves up for the confrontation. Despite their best efforts (and those of projection designer Peter Nigrini whose work illustrates God’s wrath beautifully) , the exchange comes across as contrived.
This quibble, however, does not undermine the good-natured show, which, after God has announced his next project---a collaboration with Steve Jobs---sends one out into a summer (or late spring) night with a smile along with a modicum of the satisfaction in knowing that sometimes God might just be messin’ with ya.
---- Andy Propst
An Act of God plays at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.roundabouttheatre.org.