Molly Ranson, Tracee Chimo, and Michael Zegen in Bad Jews.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Death can bring out funny things in people. Playwright Joshua Harmon demonstrates his understanding of this truism to both hysterical and painful effect in Bad Jews, which re-opened last night in Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre after an acclaimed, sold-out run in its Underground Theatre last season.
If one looks only at its surface, Harmon's play is an excursion into twentysomethings behaving badly as it details a tumultuous evening in an Upper West Side apartment where three cousins congregate following the death of their grandfather. Befuddledly stoic Jonah (Philip Ettinger) and neurotically hypercharged Diana (Tracee Chimo), who prefers to be called by her Hebrew name Daphna, have been together for a while. They both arrived in time for their beloved Poppy's funeral rites and are awaiting the arrival of Liam (Michael Zegen), who's flying in from a ski vacation.
Liam's late arrival has pushed Daphna around the bend. She simply cannot understand how, given their grandfather's frail condition, Liam could have taken the trip in the first place, but even worse (in her mind), is the fact that he went off-the-radar after he dropped his iPhone off a ski lift. Early on she mordantly observes, before being cut off by Jonah:
"The idea that Liam just like flies off to Aspen with Melody and his like $1200 snowboard when his grandfather is dying and drops his phone off a ski lift which is in and of itself a beautiful metaphor for what money means to him--..."
This basic dynamic between ultra-religious Daphna and spiritually unconcerned Liam could give playwright Harmon more than enough fodder to fuel his comedy of bad manners as both characters revert to almost kindergartners railing against each other. But once the two have begun to struggle over one of Poppy's possessions - the small chai that he wore around his neck - the play takes on an entirely deeper dimension. Harmon's not only allowing audiences to savor deliciously bitter comedy, but he is also asking them to contemplate how people carry on the traditions and histories of their forebears.
It's a recipe for familial fireworks that has been directed with zinging precision by Daniel Aukin and is performed to perfection by an exceptional four person ensemble, led by Chimo whose turn as Daphna strikes just the right balance between haughty, self-righteous entitlement and genuine religious conviction. Chimo's skills as a comedian are also amply on display: Harmon's barbs fly from her mouth with cutting exactitude.
Matching her tongue lashing for tongue lashing is Zegen, whose work as Liam bristles with smug privilege and impatience, as well as a callow childishness that endears. As the often silent Jonah, Ettinger's work has an intensity that consistently fascinates, and, playing Liam's sunny Midwestern girlfriend Melody, Molly Ranson delivers an impeccably nuanced performance in which cheery vapidity can give way with ease to surprising shrewdness.
There's a similar dichotomy at work in the play itself, which invokes gales of laughter, while also asking theatergoers to contemplate some intriguing questions that linger well after this zestfully satisfying show has ended.
---- Andy Propst
Bad Jews continues through December 15 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday evening at 7:30PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00PM. For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.
Il Divo meets the press at Sardi's.
The global phenomenon known as Il Divo - the vocal quartet that seamlessly blends classical and pop sounds - is going through a metamorphosis of sorts this fall as they take on Broadway and its canon, with both a new CD (A Musical Affair to be released on November 5) and a series of concerts. Il Divo - A Musical Affair: The Greatest Songs of Broadway Live at the Marquis Theatre, running November 7-13.
The quartet is comprised of men from both sides of the Atlantic. Native New Yorker David Miller will be making a return appearance on Broadway - he was seen in Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme in 2002. For the balance of the group, Urs Buhler (from Switzerland), Sebastien Izambard (from France), and Carlos Marin (from Spain), the Marquis engagement will represent Broadway debuts.
At a recent press conference about their show, all of the men expressed excitement about being in New York, performing on Broadway, and tackling some of the most beloved songs in the American songbook. Izambard, for instance, described how he came to love musicals through the film West Side Story, and that Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score is represented on the album with "Tonight." As they previewed some of the songs that would be in the concert, they said that this tune, along with "Somewhere," would be performed at the Marquis.
Buhler described these sorts of numbers as part of "the older repertoire," adding "It's is sung in a much more classical way." And this, he says, fits on one side of the group's "comfort zone" (three of the four are classically trained opera singers).
Newer music is represented, dovetailing perfectly into the group's ease with pop sounds. In fact, Miller said that "Who Wants to Live Forever?" (a standard from the band Queen, which is heard in the West End musical We Will Rock You) might be his favorite in the show.
He pointed not only to the power he feels in the song, but also to his fascination with the way in which pre-existing pieces like this are integrated into the fabric of a musical: "[it's] very interesting to me because you have to look at what repertoire is already there and, then, weave a storyline through that. It's a completely different process from building a show from by creating the story and writing the book and the music."
This number, too, will span both the album and the show. Marin said that songs other songs audiences can expect are "Bring Him Home" (from Les Miserables), "Memory" (from Cats),"Some Enchanted Evening" (from South Pacific), and "Music of the Night" (from The Phantom ofthe Opera) and performed in a duet on the album with Kristin Chenoweth).
The guys threw out a mention of this Tony Award winner during the press event. One indicated, obliquely that she might be seen at one of the performances, which are slated to feature appearances throughout by Tony Award winner Heather Headley. When this news seemed to take everyone off guard, the statement was transformed, swiftly and sweetly, to a more simple statement: "There will be surprises."
Audiences shouldn't expect the guys to just cover the songs. Izambard said that as they conceptualized this new endeavor for themselves, "we didn't want to do just the Broadway tunes ... so we still have our style, and I think that we've made a lot of room for us to kind of express ourselves [in each number]."
And Buhler expanded on that notion of the group making these songs their own when he said "we want to incorporate all four voices and their different talents and ranges. And you can imagine that's not easy... we're very excited to see how the audience will react to this. Because we've changed the known format of these songs. They're going to sound a little different. They're going sound like Il Divo."
For the men's legion of fans, the prospect of hearing all of this in the intimacy of the Marquis (a far cry from the huge arenas Il Divo usually plays) tantalizes.
---- Andy Propst
Il Divo - A Musical Affair: The Greatest Songs of Broadway Live will play at the Marquis Theatre, November 7-13. For more information and tickets, visit: www.ildivo.com.
Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad in Romeo and Juliet.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
At intermission of a recent press performance of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which officially opened night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, many young women were extolling the visual virtues of Orlando Bloom (from filmdom's Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises). He's making his Broadway debut as one of the Bard's star-crossed lovers, two teens who fall in love and act on it despite their families' ongoing, blood-thirsty feud, and there's little doubt, in the role, Bloom cuts a swoon-worthy figure onstage.
At his side is the no less attractive and thoroughly elegant Condola Rashad. She's proven to be one of our most reliable stage actresses in the past three or four years, as evidenced by a Tony nomination last season for her work in The Trip to Bountiful, and one the year before in Stick Fly.
Theoretically, the coupling of these two performers seems ideal and the sort of casting that would make any staging of the brim with fiery tension. Alas, the only fire that emanates from the Rodgers stage in director David Leveaux's fussy production is quite literal. Part of Jesse Poleshuck's scenic design are a pair of long braziers that can burst into flame as they span width or height of the stage.
These combustible accoutrements are just two of the many physical embellishments in the production, which begins with a loud crash (courtesy of composer and sound designer David van Tieghem, whose music pulsates terrifically, but often drowns out the performers) and the arrival of a dove that seems to have been catapulted toward the stage from the wings (most likely courtesy of stagehand). When Romeo arrives it's via motorcycle (which has been designed by Shinya Kimura/Chabott Engineering) and for the party where he and Juliet first meet, there are some pretty nifty helium balloons that twinkle with little lights inside of them.
In fact, Leveaux appears to have spent so much time coordinating these aspects of the show that he's left the actors to their own devices, making for a wildly erratic and terribly unsatisfying theatergoing experience.
Bloom, for instance, spends a majority of his time declaiming - albeit lucidly - Shakespeare's verse out at the audience. He captures Romeo's callow amorousness well early on, when the character's in love with another young woman, and he sparks to life with anger with a vibrant edge throughout the production. But in between these two extremes, his work settles into a kind of bland woebegone puppy dog-like amiability.
Rashad fares somewhat better as Juliet. There's a musicality in her voice that's perfectly suited toward the text, and she finds winsome humor in some of the character's more impetuous declarations toward the young man she loves. Sadly, though, Leveaux has not assisted Rashad in pacing herself for the demands of the role, and thus by the end of the show's 2 1/2 hours (Leveaux has judiciously trimmed the script), a sense of exhaustion rather than tragic despair permeates her work.
Such unevenness can be found throughout the other performances as well. As Friar Laurence, the man who abets the couple in their designs because he sees their union as a way of ending the strife between their parents, Brent Carver turns in a curiously idiosyncratic performance, emphasizing odd words and stressing consonants to distracting effect.
More cohesive is Jayne Houdyshell's turn as Nurse, the woman who has raised Juliet since infancy. There's a simple shrewdness at the center of her performance that makes one of the most minor moments in the show sparkle. While Juliet waits for her caregiver to return from delivering a message to Romeo, she bitterly complains about how slow old people are. It's a moment that's overheard by Nurse, and Houdyshell proves pricelessly funny as the older woman torments Juliet about it, feigning all sorts of ailments to delay relaying her news.
Similar moments of delight can be found in Chuck Cooper's boisterous turn as Juliet's father, and even in Christian Camargo's antic portrayal of Romeo's friend Mercutio, but it's not enough to pull theatergoers through or to trigger any genuine emotion as the couple meets their tragically early ends.
This is particularly unfortunate given that Leveaux's contemporary-dress production begins with an underlying premise of racial tensions. Having cast Romeo, his family and friends with Caucasian actors and Juliet, along with her kin, with African-Americans, Leveaux sets the stage for a production that might kindle passion among both Shakespearean enthusiasts and those who are encountering the play for the first time. But, there's no real conflagration as innocent love and bigotry clash in this Romeo and Juliet. Just a minor fizzle.
-- Andy Propst
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (226 West 46th Street). Performances are: Tuesdays at 7:00PM, Wednesdays at 2:00PM & 8:00PM, Thursdays at 7:00PM, Fridays at 8:00PM, Saturdays at 2:00PM & 8:00PM, and Sundays at 3:00PM. For more information and ticketing options, visit romeoandjulietbroadway.com or call 800-745-3000.
Betty Buckley in The Old Friends.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Dropping in for a visit to Harrison, TX, courtesy of Horton Foote, can often be a sort of reassuring theatrical trip down south, and with The Old Friends, which opened last night at the Signature Center on 42nd Street, theatergoers will find that Foote provides more than a fair share of homespun, sepia-tinted charm.
Foote can also be expert at lacing his pleasantries with sadness, disappointment, and even a little venom, and these qualities are also very present in the show, which, in this beautifully performed production, proves to be both savory and satisfying combination.
At the center of the production are a quartet of actresses working at the top of their game, starting with Betty Buckley as Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff, a widow with means aplenty and a penchant for binge-drinking. She's sweet on her late husband's brother, Howard, the man who has been managing her sizable farming interests, and though she's thoroughly aware that he has little interest in her, she stops at nothing to keep his attention focused on her.
In bravura turn, Buckley seems to literally ricochet through Gertrude's wildly vacillating mood swings, creating a portrait of crass entitlement and pained denial. It's impressive work, particuarly as she never allows the character to turn into a Southern Gothic caricature (think Bette Davis in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte).
Alongside Buckley's fierce performance is Hallie Foote's delicately modulated turn as Gertrude's chief rival for Howard's affection, Sybil Borden, who's just returned to Harrison, widowed and penniless. She and Howard were once sweethearts, but she married another man when Howard refused to capitulate to her demands for a planned existence together.
These characters' reunion gives the play its title and its most sweetly melancholy side. After 30 years apart, both of them have changed, and while Howard, rendered with a touching quiet strength by Cotter Smith, is eager for them to rekindle the flame they once shared, she's wary of a second relationship at a time when she feels she might just be discovering her identity as a woman.
Variations on Sybil's kindness and Gertrude's bitchiness are found in keenly realized performances from Lois Smith, whose ease as Mamie Borden, Sybil's earthy mother-in-law, astonishes; and Veanne Cox, who plays Mamie's daughter Julia - another well-heeled Harrison alcoholic - with genteel abandon.
Cox, looking terrific in some of costume designer David C. Woolard's period costumes, purrs and saccharinely sweet-talks the folks around Julia to perfection. Further, she's equally adept when Julia proves to be something of a panther, or more aptly cougar, once Julia has gotten her claws into Tom (Sean Lyons), a young man who's come to town looking for work.
Tom also attracts Gertrude's attention as she comes to realize that she might be losing Howard, paving the way for more feminine rancor, and Julia's attentions toward the young man causes more than a little unease in her husband Albert (a surprisingly combustible Adam LeFevre).
The Old Friends, though, isn't simply an amorous potboiler. Foote enriches his tale with literal battles over territory, much as he did in Dividing the Estate, seen on Broadway a few seasons back. The nature of what constitutes "home" and ownership of one's place in the world is just as much at the center of the play as romance, and it's this dual thrust that gives the play its poignancy, particularly as Sybil attempts to recarve her own niche in Harrison, which has been realized with a trio of detail rich interiors by scenic designer Jeff Crowe.
Director Michael Wilson has staged the play with simple grace, and though his work can't always mask some of the less elegant aspects of Foote's writing, particularly ungainly exposition during the first third of the play, it does have a slow-mounting urgency that makes the show's last moments heartbreaking.
-- Andy Propst
The Old Friends continues through October 6 at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Schedule varies. For more information and ticketing options, visit www.signaturetheatre.org.
Natalie Gold and Will Pullen in Scarcity.
(Photo: Sandra Coudert)
Consisting of five plays produced concurrently in five different venues throughout the West Village, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's presentation of Lucy Thurber's The Hill Town Plays gets the fall portion of the 2013-2014 off-Broadway season off to an ambitious, although uneven, start.
Thurber's work has been a staple for the company since 2001, which has previously produced three plays (Killers and Other Family, Stay, and Where We're Born) in this loosely connected five-play cycle about a young woman's difficult childhood in rural Massachusetts and the impact that her troubled history has on her adulthood. Of the other two, Scarcity had its debut at Atlantic Theatre Company in 2007, and Ashville is receiving its world premiere as part of what Rattlestick has dubbed "The Inaugural Theater: Village Festival."
These latter two plays actually comprise the chronological beginning of the cycle, and they prove to be two of the most satisfying entries in the festival. In Scarcity, Thurber takes theaterogers into the squalid home where just-pubescent Rachel and her older brother Billy are dealing with not only the crises of youth, but also an abusive alcoholic father and a loving, but self-obsessed mother, who serves as her husband's enabler. When Billy gets a chance to attend a prestigious private boarding school thanks to a caring teacher who's just moved to the area from New York, he leaps at the chance, leaving his sister to fend for herself.
Daniel Talbott has directed this piece, playing in the tiny Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, with both a fine eye for nuance and a volcanic combustibility, and the production, packed with powerhouse performances, provides chills - and thrills - from start to finish. Particularly notable is Will Pullen as Billy. He brings a combination of sweetness and ferocity to the stage that can be, by turns, touching and frightening. Equally impressive is Natalie Gold's turn as the teacher. It's marked by a simple earnestness and ease, which makes the eruptions that come from Didi O'Connell and Gordon Joseph Weiss as the kids' mother and father all the more difficult to endure.
Mia Vallet and Tippett in Ashville.
(Photo: Sandra Coudert)
With Ashville, playing on the mainstage at the Cherry Lane, Thurber zips forward in time three or four years to paint a portrait of a girl that bookish Rachel might have become. In this play, her name is Celia, and she's having to cope with an alcoholic mom with a predatory boyfriend. Celia's learned how to balance her home life with her schoolwork as well as the other "normal" activities in her life, including binge-drinking, hanging out with the local pot dealer, and an older boyfriend, who sees her potential to break free of the small town world in which she's being reared, yet nevertheless proposes marriage in order to keep this 16-year-old at his side.
Despite a terrific central performance from Mia Vallet that's concurrently angelic and devilish, Ashville meanders as Thurber explores other aspects of Celia's emotional world, such as her nascent homosexuality. Further, the play feels overcrammed as Thurber allows Celia's acquaintances to take center stage (extended sequences in which the dealer and pals riff on nonsensical existential concepts cast a pall over the action).
Nevertheless, the production, directed by Karen Allen, never completely loses its grip on theatergoers because of Vallet; Tasha Lawrence, who delivers a meticulous turn as Celia's mercurial mom, Joe Tippett, who charms with his rendering of Celia's eager, hothead boyfriend; and James McMenamin, who delivers a gently understated performance as the dealer who helps everyone keep a foggy distance from the harshness of their lives.
With Where We're Born, at the Rattlestick Theater proper, audiences meet another incarnation of Thurber's heroine as a young woman named Lilly returns to her hometown during her early college years to hang out with the cousin who basically raised her, his girlfriend, and a couple of his best buds. Lilly's feeling the disconnect between who she was and who she's becoming, and soon finds that the conflict pushes her in directions that are dangerous for everyone concerned.
Sadly, director Jackson Gay's overly leisurely staging undermines the play's often predictable tensions. Further Betsy Gilipin delivers an overly calculated performance in the central role, which makes some of Lilly's actions seem as if they are coldly calculated and manipulative rather than the result of the character's confusion. Her work gives an already difficult tale an acrid edge that's only alleviated by the work of her cast mates, particularly Christopher Abbott who brings a palpably sad weariness to his portrayal of Lilly's cousin and MacKenzie Meehan who imbues his intense girlfriend with a girl-next-door charm.
Shane McRae and Samantha Soule in Killers and Other Family.
(Photo: Sandra Coudert)
With Killers and Other Family, at the Axis Theatre, Thurber moves forward to a period when Elizabeth, a woman who hails from the sort of devastatingly poor and violence-prone background endured Rachel, Celia, and Lilly, is in the final throes of her doctoral dissertation, living in a loving relationship in New York with a female partner.
Given the pressures of schoolwork and the discrepancy between her past and present, it's little wonder that Elizabeth wants to keep the unexpected arrival of her brother Jeff and his best bud (and her ex) Danny, who've come to get a quick infusion of cash, a secret from the other woman. And yet, like Lilly in Where We're Born, Elizabeth finds that the collision of her worlds exposes barely healed childhood scars and causes her to revert to her more uninhibited nature with tragic consequences.
It's a searing 90 minutes of theatergoing that's been directed with flair by Caitriona McLaughlin, whose work is ably supported and enhanced by some brutal fight choreography from Unkledave's Fight House (which is also responsible for the onstage violence in Scarcity). Under McLaughlin's guidance, Samantha Soule delivers in an electrifying turn as Elizabeth, ricocheting between urban poise and almost feral wildness. At her side is Shane McRae, who delivers what might be the most terrifying - and sexy - turn in a series of plays glutted with preening pugilists.
With the final play in the cycle, Stay, running at the New Ohio Theatre, Thurber returns to her central characters from Scarcity. Rachel and Billy have grown up. He's now a successful attorney, and she's an acclaimed author who has just accepted a new position as a professor at a small liberal arts college.
The pair may be adults, but they're still, on many levels, the kids that audiences met originally. He's still dealing with women issues and a propensity for violence. She's got it worse. In fact, her inner child is actually a character in the play, known as "Floating Girl," a presence that calms her as she copes with her brother's unexpected arrival and two well-heeled students who draw her into their complex relationship.
While Thurber's attempts to enhance her gritty canvas with magic realism are laudable, her efforts in Stay are largely ineffective, particularly as "Floating Girl" climbs up and down bookcases and hovers like some spook over the action. Further, an implied psychic bond that Rachel shares with her female student remains painfully amorphous throughout. Thurber appears to want to draw a parallel between the two women who come from such different backgrounds, but it's a relationship that needs further illumination.
Despite these problems, Stay, when seen as part of the whole of Rattlestick's festival gives theatergoers a complete, and generally rewarding, glimpse at a rich theatrical tapestry. On many levels, experiencing the five plays in close succession is very much like savoring a series of short stories by an author who is exploring different aspects of the same theme.
It's a notable endeavor by Rattlestick and one to which they have impressively committed their artistic and financial resources. All of the plays have been mounted as full productions, each with its own design team. The company promises a similar festival for 2014, which will investigate a series of plays by another author, and, given the successes found The Hill Town Plays, it's tough not to already be looking forward to a second omnibus theatrical experience.
-- Andy Propst
The Hill Town Plays continues through September 28 at various venues in the West Village. For more information, a complete schedule, and ticketing options, visit www.theatervillage.com.