Len Cariou in Broadway and The Bard with Mark Janas at the piano.
A bit of theatrical lore from 45 years ago informs Len Cariou's appealing new show Broadway and The Bard, which opened last night at Theatre Row on 42nd Street. In 1969 this Tony-winning performer went directly from playing the title role in a brief run of Shakespeare's Henry V on Broadway to his first musical role, that of director Bill Simpson in Applause.
For this classically trained actor, who spent seasons at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival and at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, it was a turning point of sorts. Since that time, he has originated roles in equal numbers of musicals and plays on Broadway. His work in the classics in New York has been limited but he has continued to perform them regionally. And yes, Cariou will probably be always associated with one role in particular: that demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd.
In this new show, created by Cariou with director Barry Kleinbort and musical director–pianist Mark Janas, the performer strives to bring the classical and musical sides of his career together, offering up portions of soliloquies from Shakespeare's plays alongside show tunes that echo or comment on the Bard's words.
The concept both intrigues and works remarkably well. For instance, it's fascinating when Cariou wryly delivers Petruchio's thoughts on how he'll "tame" the shrew Kate and then follows it with a delicate rendition of Lerner and Loewe's gentler "How to Handle a Woman" from Camelot. Equally successful is a pairing of one of Berowne's speeches from Love's Labour's Lost and Bob Merrill's "Her Face," as both beautifully explore the confusion and longing hunger that can accompany feelings of love.
There are some odd disjoints in the couplings of "Broadway" and "Bard." After Cariou intensely delivers a speech from King Lear, the lightly comedic "I'm Reviewing the Situation" from Lionel Bart's Oliver! seems somehow inappropriate, even it echoes the monarch's fears about aging. The same can be said of hearing the boisterous title number from Applause just after Cariou's offered up a galvanizing interpretation of Henry V's immortal battle cry. In this case, though, the whiplash audiences feel between the two probably is akin to what the performer himself experienced as he started in on the tuner.
Regardless, Broadway and The Bard ultimately succeeds because, throughout, Cariou commands attention during the spoken portions of the piece (one longs for him to take on some Shakespeare in the city soon). And when singing, his voice has a suppleness to it that charms.
The show unfolds in an environment from scenic designer Josh Iocavelli that evokes the back stages and front of houses of myriad theaters, and Matt Berman's lighting design gently shifts through the varied moods of the selections, as does Kleinbort's gentle direction for this journey through two different, yet related, theatrical worlds.
---- Andy Propst
Broadway and the Bard plays at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.amasmusical.org.
Nandita Shenoy and Johnny Wu in Washer/Dryer
Nandita Shenoy has the makings for a pretty good sitcom in her new play Washer/Dryer that opened last at Theatre Row in a Ma-Yi Theatre production.
If she wanted it to hit the small screen, she might be able to pitch it as a contemporary urban comedy about two newlyweds trying to figure out life together in a tiny New York studio after their impetuous Las Vegas marriage. Complicating their lives are a crew of quirky neighbors and relatives.
Indeed, Michael (played with increasing exasperation by Johnny Wu) and Sonya (playwright Shenoy) have just embarked on married life together in her studio apartment. They've known each other only three months, and he's just moved in after their quickie ceremony out West. The trouble is that he's not told his mother about the wedding and has even stalled his family meeting his new bride. Further complicating matters, Sonya can't tell anyone that Michael has moved in with her. There's a clause about the space being only single occupancy in her agreement with her co-op board.
It shouldn't be any surprise that both Michael's mom (a dry turn from Jade Wu), who just goes by her professional name, Dr. Lee, and Wendee (amusingly rendered by Annie McNamara), the nosy, self-involved president of the board arrive to complicate matters for the couple. So, too, does Sonya's downstairs neighbor, the flamboyantly gay Sam (a sweetly sassy turn from Jamyl Dobson). His presence actually helps the couple scrape by as they attempt to fool Wendee about Michael's presence; for a while, Michael has to pretend to be Sonya's best gay pal.
Some might wonder what the big deal is, and why the couple just doesn't plan to sell and move somewhere else. The reason that Sonya's not looking at this option is that she refuses to give up the place because it has a washer/dryer combo.
The scenario amuses and brings to mind some classic comedies, including Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park and Three's Company. Shenoy has a good ear for dialogue and sets up some funny situations. The problem, though, is that she does this at the expense of logic. For instance, how Michael moved his boxes of stuff in past unseen doorman Felipe, remains a mystery.
Nevertheless, Washer/Dryer, directed by Benjamin Karmine, breezes along as Johnny and Sonya swerve around the complications that crop up over the course of one rather frenetic evening, and although they squabble, they do manage to reach a new and happier place in their marriage. There are, no doubt, other issues that they'll face as they wend their way through life. What will her parents make of the marriage, and what about Michael's dad? Chances are this is a couple whose lives could be in a comedic spin for a while.
---- Andy Propst
Washer/Dryer plays at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: ma-yitheatre.org.
Chinasa Ogbuagu and Hubert Point-Du Jour in Sojourners
A potentially moving play lies underneath the surface of Mfoniso Udofia's Sojourners, which opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater last night in a Playwrights Realm production.
Udofia's timely drama centers on a trio of Nigerian immigrants who are all attempting to carve out a life for themselves in the late 1970s in Houston, Texas while also grappling with issues of assimilation. There are also other struggles, particularly for Abasiama and her husband Ukpong. They are both students and expecting their first child. The trouble is that, while she carries the baby, works a job, and diligently studies, he's more interested in carousing with friends and listening to the Motown music that he holds near and dear to his heart.
Difficulties of a different sort loom for a man who has taken the name "Disciple." He has found himself completely stalled when it comes to his writing in this country. Even attempts at dictating in his native tongue and then transcribing in English prove fruitless. At one point, as he struggles to complete one sentence, he exclaims, "My Lord! How many words for almost the same thing here?!"
Their stories have the potential to be fascinating and powerful stuff. So to does that of streetwise Annamae, who has taken the apt name of "Moxie," and whose life intersects with the three others after she's met Abasiama at the gas station where the once-privileged Nigerian woman works, Unfortunately, much of Udofia's detail-rich script plays as if it were a series of overlapping monologues, many of which repeat the same information.
Further undermining the potential of the play is Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's direction which requires the performers to generally look toward the audience as they speak. This style breaks any sense of emotional connection that the characters might have with one another and only further distances theatergoers from the action.
It's a pity because the tales that Udofia's sharing are pungent, and Iskandar has a superlative four person ensemble at his disposal. Chinasa Oguagu and Hubert Point-Du Jour both spark with a genuine chemistry as the married couple and even as they bring the pair's antagonisms to uncomfortably to life. There's also fine work from Chinaza Uche, who never makes Disciple's religious zealotry caricatured, and from Lakisha Michelle May, who brings both feral toughness and lovely vulnerability to her turn as Moxie.
Beyond the performers, Sojourners benefits from Jason Sherwood's clever scenic design, which underscores how Udofia's characters are living on their own sort of personally created islands, while simultaneously allowing the show to flow between apartments, the gas station and ultimately a hospital room.
Sojourners, which Udofia labels as "the first ufot family play, may not succeed in touching theatergoers, but there's enough intelligence in the piece to make one wonder what might follow in this seeming series.
---- Andy Propst
Sojourners plays at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: playwrightsrealm.org.
Tony Naumovski, Ben Cole, and Clea Alsip in Wide Awake Hearts
Theatergoers enter a multimedia Pirandellian universe in Brendan Gall's Wide Awake Hearts, which opened last night at 59E59 Theaters.
Gall's conceit for the piece centers on the seemingly sunny relationship between a hotshot filmmaker and his actress wife as they start work on his newest project, a movie about a woman's infidelity. As the woman's costar and her onscreen love interest, the director has cast one of their oldest and dearest friends. The man also happens to be someone with whom the actress may have had an affair.
The cinematic fiction that the director creates and the perhaps-reality of this love triangle blend together in Gall's drama as scenes from both the movie and the characters' real lives play out. Gall further complicates matters by having the director hire a new editor for the movie, a woman who also happens to be the actor's on-again, off-again girlfriend.
Gall gives none of the characters names. They are simply A, B, C, and D, and this abstraction distances theatergoers from the action, allowing them instead to concentrate on the blurred layers of the script and Gall's overall agenda with the play. On one level the piece resembles a contemporary revenger's play as, throughout, theatergoers suspect that the director's motivations stem from wanting to catch and punish his wife and friend.
On another plane, the play serves an exploration of a query the director makes about people's desire to consume almost any form of popular entertainment: Given that conflict lies at the heart of any drama, he wonders, as he pitches a new television show to an unseen crowd of producers, "What is it about us that makes us want to introduce more conflict into our already conflicted lives?"
Interestingly, the director's manipulation of the people around him prompt theatergoers to wonder the same thing about the man himself.
In director Stefan Dzeparoski's sparely elegant staging, which benefits enormously from Rocco Disanti's shrewdly conceived projection design that makes the filmic aspects of the piece spring to life with a noir-like sensuality and Mike Riggs' subtly blazing lighting design, the query lingers and teases the imagination.
So, too, do a quartet of intensely delivered performances, particularly Tony Naumovski who makes the actor a marvelously brooding and gently menacing figure and Clea Alsip who brings devil-may-care allure to her turn as the actress. Ben Cole's work as the director has a seen-it-all arrogance about it that both amuses and charms, and Maren Bush brings a wearied aloofness to her turn as the editor who's a pawn in the director's cat-and-mouse game, which isn't very different from the one that playwright Gall plays in his opaque play.
---- Andy Propst
Wide Awake Hearts plays at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: 59E59.org.
Kate Arrington, Greg Keller, Linda Lavin, and John Procaccino in Our Mother's Brief Affair
Richard Greenberg offers up a trio of intertwined memory plays in Our Mother's Brief Affair, which opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway. The densely constructed piece also happens to be frustratingly sprawling, nevertheless it has the ability to amuse and stir hearts.
At its most basic, Brief Affair centers on Seth's recollections of his mother Anna's dotage and her admission of having had an affair while he and his twin sister Abby were just teenagers. Seth assumes that Anna's confession in her hospital room comes from the senility of old age, but as she relates the specifics of how she met her lover—and thanks to corroborating evidence provided by Abby—Seth has to accept that his mother did indeed have the relationship.
It's the moments when Brief Affair shifts back to Anna's middle age heyday that the play's second memory play comes to the fore. Audiences see how Anna and her lover met and watch as their trysts in Central Park become increasingly serious, ultimately leading to the moment they begin taking a hotel room. It's there that the lover makes a startling revelation about his real identity.
As for the third level of memory at work in Brief Affair, it's one that concerns Anna's own childhood and an event that has informed the entirety of her adulthood. Audiences never witness the events of this tale unfold, but when Anna relates the sad story, it almost feels as if it has come to life on the stage.
Greenberg's play flows back and forth in time as these various narratives mesh together, and in director Lynne Meadow's understated and beautifully fluid staging, what could potential confound feels crystal clear, thanks to careful shifts in Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design against Santo Loquasto's abstract, autumnally-hued set and a pair of immaculate performances from Linda Lavin, who stars as Anna, and Greg Keller, who plays son Seth.
Lavin, who delivers Greenberg's expertly phrased epigrams with a marksman's precision, glides between Anna's old age and middle age simply by removing the woman's signature Burberry coat, which doubles as a bathrobe, and shifting her posture. Keller, without the aid of any costume differentiation from designer Tom Broecker shifts between adulthood and childhood simply by changing his body language. Lavin ultimately shifts back even further in time when Anna recalls events from her own childhood, and for a few brief moments, one almost feels as she has become a teenager herself.
Alongside Lavin and Keller are Kate Arrington, who brings a certain dry-humored feistiness to her portrayal of Abby; and John Procaccino, who imbues his portray of the Anna's lover with genuine warmth and, for one brief scene, makes Greg and Abby's dad a coarsely gruff and comic figure.
They are all performance to savor, and oftentimes they are enough to help theatergoers overlook the moments when Greenberg attempts to make his play more grandiose than it probably needs to be. For instance, the problems that Abby, who has relocated from New York to California, has with her lesbian partner seem to be a distraction initially. The playwright ultimately resolves them to balance themes about growing into marriage, just as Anna did on some levels. Nevertheless, these small sections of the play feel as if they are simply literary devices.
Even more problematic are the larger political themes that come into play after the lover has revealed his identity. It's at these moments that Brief Affair takes on a rather didactic tone, and though Greenberg once again resolves them to bring closure to notions of forgiveness—of both others and oneself—the politics upset the balance of what is otherwise a thoroughly charming and compassionate novella that has found its way to the stage.
---- Andy Propst
Our Mother's Brief Affair plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: manhattantheatreclub.com.