Fred Weller (foreground) and Gia Crovatin (background) in The Money Shot
Playwright Neal LaBute, whose plays like In a Dark Dark House, The Distance from Here, and Wrecks have taken audiences on some pretty disturbing journeys, has a more comedic agenda with his spirited new play, The Money Shot, which opened last night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production.
The play’s actually a grandchild to spoofs of Hollywood and the egos of the men and women in the movie business that date back to the era of silent films (George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Merton of the Movies from 1922 comes to mind as one early example), and it centers on Steve (Fred Weller) and Karen (Elizabeth Reaser), actors who have both enjoyed healthy careers on screen. The problem is that their currency in Tinseltown isn’t what it once was.
They’re working on a new movie together, and their European director has come up with an idea for the project that contains a scene that will undoubtedly put them back into the limelight. Money Shot takes place on the night before it's to be shot, and Steve and Karen have gathered at her luxe home (a fantastic recreation of a posh patio with spectacular views from scenic designer Derek McLane) to discuss it with their respective partners, Karen’s girlfriend Bev (Callie Thorne) and Steve’s wanna-be-starlet wife of just a year Missy (Gia Crovatin).
It takes a while for LaBute to get to the heart of the matter before the issue about the movie is on the table (even though all four refer to it), and until he does, the play treads some pretty familiar territory. Self-important and overly dramatizing Karen, for instance, cannot stop dropping advertorial comments about the products or causes that she endorses and promotes. Dimwitted, much-married, and often-rehabbed Steve goes ballistic when Missy refers to his age (he vehemently asserts he's 48 not 50), and considers answers.com, Wikipedia and Us magazine as his personal and categorically irrefutable encyclopedias.
And yet, even though theatergoers may feel that they have met these characters before, they spout the sorts of provocative barbs that audiences have come to expect from LaBute. Missy’s views on interracial adoption and banter about Nazi jokes are just two instances in which theatergoers may find themselves laughing heartily while also thinking “No, (s)he didn’t....”
Under the direction of Terry Kinney, the quartet of performers deliver robust performances that maximize the comic impact of it all. Reaser bounces with schizophrenic aplomb between Karen’s hyper emphatic emoting and her more natural demeanor. Weller gives a performance that’s marvelously self-involved and embraces Steve’s vapidity with care (a debate about Belgium and its membership in the European Union is particularly choice). Further, he manages to make Steve someone who’s not completely repugnant. Underneath his bigotry and aggressiveness, Steve’s sort of a weird puppy dog.
Crovatin, playing the quietest of the characters, finds keen ways to be present throughout, and when Missy does take center stage (be it with a spit-take or a bizarre dance routine that she performed in high school), Crovatin’s physicality proves hysterical. As Bev, a film editor who’s both bemused by the antics of the three performers and upset by prospect of what Karen’s being asked to do on screen, Thorne delivers a pitch-perfect performance. She imbues the character with an edgy intelligence and an air of superiority that never becomes overbearing. At the same time, she delivers the comedy with finesse, particularly once this Brown-educated film scholar and athlete takes Steve on, quite literally, one-on-one.
Steve and Bev’s squaring off metaphorically pits intelligence against ignorance and heterosexual against homosexual, and though there’s a heavy-handedness to this conclusion, it’s also the ideal end to a zestful contemporary comedy.
---- Andy Propst
The Money Shot plays at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street). For more information and tickets, visit: mcctheater.org.
Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy in Love Letters
A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, which opened last night at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, rests on the simplest of conceits. Theatergoers learn about a man and a woman’s life-long friendship through the letters, postcards, and obligatory notes and greeting cards that they send to one another over the course of 50 years.
The way in which the play is presented only enhances the piece’s overall modesty. Two actors sit behind a table and read the characters’ epistles to one another. As directed by Gregory Mosher and performed by Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow (who will be succeeded by other pairs of actorss as the run progresses), it’s a recipe for an amusing and ultimately deeply moving theatrical experience.
Dennehy and Farrow (later Dennehy and Carol Burnett; Alan Alda and Candice Bergen, etc.) play Andrew Makepeace Lord III and Melissa Gardner, two people whose first notes to one another come in 1937 just as she celebrates a birthday. Andrew (or Andy as he’s sometimes called) extends his acceptance to her party, and she, in due course, sends a thank you note for the Oz book he gave as a present.
As the years pass, there are other formal notes. There are also long letters in which they pour their hearts out to another. There are also awkward breaks in the lines of communication when anger has flared and one of them has stopped writing. (Both Dennehy and Farrow manage to fill the characters' silences marvelously.)
What emerges is a portrait of two people who care for one another deeply but, for a variety of reasons, just never manage to really connect romantically. One of the problems is temperamental. Andy, who eventually becomes a politician, could be considered something of a stuffed shirt. On the other hand, Melissa, who hails from a wealthier family, is more of a free spirit and also falls prey to personal demons brought on by family problems.
Dennehy, who has the less showy of the two roles, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, finding innumerable ways to reveal what lies underneath Andy’s respectable and almost impenetrable facade. It’s fascinating to watch how the actor, with just a slight change to his body position in his chair, can communicate a wealth of emotion. After a letter that’s the equivalent of “let’s just be friends” that comes while the two are in college, Dennehy barely moves and yet, Andy seems to deflate entirely.
Because of Melissa’s extreme emotional swings, Farrow has the opportunity to turn in a more flamboyant performance, and yet, it’s one that never becomes strained or overblown. Further, the actress, who is returning to Broadway after an absence of 35 years, demonstrates her keen ability to use shifts in her voice to evoke a wide array of feelings, and when she takes her voice to her lowest register as Melissa admonishes Andrew, she scores a couple of the show’s biggest laughs.
Together, Dennehy and Farrow provide a lesson in how magical simplicity on stage can be. Much like Gurney’s play itself.
---- Andy Propst
Love Letters plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: lovelettersbroadway.com.
Joe Lisi and Jonny Orsini in Almost Home
Fine moments of acting and some fine storytelling can be found in Walter Anderson’s new play Almost Home, which opened in a Directors Company production last night at Theatre Row. The show also contains its moments of awkward and self-conscious writing and performance, which ultimately undermine a potentially potent drama.
Set primarily in 1965 in Harry and Grace Barnett’s Bronx apartment (scenic design Harry Feiner recreates a dour kitchen area in the home and indicates other locations at either side of the stage), Almost Home focuses on what happens when the couple’s son Johnny returns from a tour of duty as a marine in Vietnam. It’s little surprise that he’s come back with demons, even at that early stage of the war that would stretch on for nearly a decade more.
More unexpected are the problems that he faces at home that are caused by both his father’s penchant for drinking and gambling and the unscrupulous maneuvering of Nick Pappas, a member of the NYPD who has been a friend of the family since Johnny was a kid. Harry’s problems and Nick’s conniving conspire to derail Johnny’s plans for his future. He has come home only briefly and then, plans to attend college in California. It’s an idea that thrills his mother and Luisa Jones, one of his grade school teachers who also happens to be a neighbor and close family friend.
Anderson, who has a long career in journalism and served in the Marines, knows his way around Johnny’s experiences in country, as well as Harry’s from World War II. When either of these characters begin to talk about what they saw and did while in service, Almost Home sparks with palpable veracity, and it’s little wonder that Joe Lisi and Jonny Orsini, as father and son, respectively, can sink their teeth into the men’s war stories. Their work in these moments is fierce and compelling.
Elsewhere, though, Anderson’s writing creaks of contrivances. This is particularly true of many of Luisa’s appearances, in which she only echoes Grace’s support for Johnny’s decision to go to college. Anderson, though, does have a larger purpose for including this character as things heat up for Johnny with regard to the demands he’s facing from Nick. It’s difficult to not wish that the playwright might have conceived a different sort of character, one who could provide more of a variation early on while also serving his aims at the play reaches its conclusion.
But even in a role that’s designed to simply further piece’s narrative, Brenda Pressley turns in a game performance. It’s a mixture of sunniness and spitfire will. One never questions whether this woman would have been an inspiration in the classroom. The same can be said of Karen Ziemba’s work as Johnny’s mom. She renders a portrait of a sad, worn-down loving housewife that throbs with warmth. As for James McCaffrey’s work as Nick, there’s an undeniable smoothness at work, but he fails to imbue the character with any sort of genuine menace, which only further undermines this already uneven new drama.
---- Andy Propst
Almost Home plays in the Acorn Theatre at TheatreRow (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: directorscompany.org.
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.