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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'The Killing of Sister George' -

Margot White and Caitlin O’Connell in The Killing of Sister George
(©Marielle Solan)

Murder is announced both in the title of Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George and in its first lines of dialogue. Strange, then, that the new production of this 1964 drama, which opened last night at Theatre Row in a production from TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, is just so lacking in any real sense of menace.

The play’s a wily exploration of the relationship between June (Caitlin O’Connell), an actress on a radio series, and Alice (Margot White), her flat-mate (implicitly but never explicitly her lover). On the radio serial, Applehurst, June plays the perpetually sunny “Sister George,” but when not in character, she’s anything but. Alcoholic and prone to fits of temper, June has almost completely subjugated Alice, who in her own pert, sunny way, does manage to get around the ferocious friend-partner.

The “murder” at hand is not, however, literal, but figurative. Sister George is being written off the program, and the character’s demise only fuels worse behavior from the actress.

It’s the kind of role that could inspire whiplash-inducing fireworks, but in Drew Barr’s tepid production, O’Connell’s June compels Alice to eat the butt of a cigar and threatens to make the child-woman Alice drink bathwater, but she does so without any sense of danger or self-centered cruelty. It’s almost as if the beatific Sister George were putting on the act of being a harridan, and not feeling particularly comfortable in doing so.

And though O’Connell never fully embraces the mean-spirited loopiness of June’s behavior, White revels in ambiguities that are ever-present in Alice. With big round eyes and a beaming smile, White can make Alice look like a five-year-old stuck inside the body of a 20something. But when those eyes narrow, and White lowers her voice, there’s an intriguingly conniving, very adult person present on stage, and once Alice has begun to see that she might extricate herself from June’s home, you can’t help but wonder who’s manipulating whom.

Facilitating Alice’s exit is Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris), a BBC exec, who comes to the women’s home to deliver the bad news about Sister George’s fate. Harris plays, and this is an awkward turn of phrase, straight woman to the two combatants with a gentle good humor that charms. Rounding out the company is Dana Smith-Croll, who plays a neighbor in the apartment building (a supposed psychic), who may or may not have her own designs on June.

Scenic designer Narrelle Sissons captures the off-kilter world of Marcus’ script with a cleverly abstract rendering of the flat that June and Alice share, and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger also provides some flourishes that can throw theatergoers off-guard, but it’s not enough to instill a sense of danger in this uneven revival of Marcus’ complex play.

---- Andy Propst

The Killing of Sister George plays in the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: tactnyc.org.

'Can-Can' - A Musical Souffle Bows In Jersey

Kate Baldwin in Can-Can
(©Matthew Murphy)

The ingredients for a splendid musical souffle are all present in Paper Mill Playhouse’s new production of Can-Can, which opened over the weekend. At this juncture, the creators of the show, which has been billed as a pre-Broadway tryout, have some small adjustments to make before their concoction is perfectly light and fluffy, but even with a few quibbles, the production stands out as a fine example of mid-twentieth century craftsmanship, combined with a contemporary sensibility.

To begin, there’s a fantastic score by Cole Porter. For this musical, set in late nineteenth century Paris, he crafted a couple of his most famous tunes, including “C’est Magnifique,” “It’s All Right With Me,” and “I Love Paris.” There are also some hidden gems, including “Never Be An Artist” (a comedy number in the spirit of Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate) and "If You Loved Me Truly." Finally, for this version of the show, for which Joel Fields and David Lee have written a new book based on Abe Burrows’ original, a heartbreakingly beautiful tune, “Who Said Gay Paree?” has been unearthed. The number was dropped from the production in 1953, and with its restoration, the show’s second act gets an emotionally powerful start.

Can-Can also boasts a sextet of Broadway vets as its stars, starting with Tony Award nominee Kate Baldwin as “La Mome Pistache,” the woman who runs a dance hall, Bal du Paradis, in the Montmarte district in Paris. Baldwin, who has been doing some heavy dramatic lifting of late in musicals, notably Michael John LaChiusa’s Giant a couple of seasons back, gets to play a gayer character here, and she seems to be reveling in Pistache’s love of the risqué (in dance and in life).

That’s not to say that everything about the character’s tale is happy. Early on in the show, she discovers that a former lover and now sitting Parisian judge, Aristide Forestier (Jason Danieley), wants to do everything in his power to shut her club down because of its salacious entertainments. The couple’s on-again and off-again romance becomes the crux of the show, and Baldwin rises to the challenges of the arc, even as she delivers Porter’s songs with soaring passion. She’s particularly impressive in finding new shades in “I Love Paris,” and when she gets to deliver comedy songs like “Live and Let Live” and “Never Give Anything Away,” her performance brims with zesty sauciness.

Danieley, similarly, delivers a deftly turned performance as the initially uptight Forestier, who slowly comes to find that maybe Pistache’s way of approaching the world isn’t all that bad. It’s a role that requires some split-second changes in character (the poor man is buffeted throughout) and Danieley, who like Baldwin sounds terrific, takes on the character's shifts with decided aplomb. Further, he and his co-star share a marvelous chemistry. There’s love there but also an edgy wariness that makes it a little unclear whether or not this golden age tuner will reach any sort of happy end.

Alongside the central couple is another, Claudine (Megan Sikora) and Boris (Greg Hildreth). She’s a seamstress who aspires to be one of Pistache’s dancers, and he’s a struggling sculptor who’s sponging off of her wages. Sikora---in a role that made Gwen Verdon a star---dances sublimely, and there’s a smile-inducing drollness to her turn. Hildreth makes Bulgarian Boris a pompous joy throughout, and there’s delicious schadenfreude to be had when his truly atrocious creations are panned by an unscrupulous critic Hilaire Jussac (a glowingly oily Michael Berresse), a man who uses his power in print to manipulate both couples.

These five performances, along with Michael Kostroff’s puckish turn as Pistache’s maître d, and Porter’s songs are enough to make Can-Can, a beguiling experience, but thanks to Fields and Lee’s new book, which adds some dramatic weight to the central characters’ stories, there’s a genuinely satisfying tuner in the making.

There are just a couple of things that need tending as the creative team hones the production. Principally, some of Patti Colombo’s dances early on are clumsily conceived, notably “Quadrille,” which, though bounteously diverse in terms of the styles and athletically performed, comes across as being as chaotic as the subsequent raid on Pistache’s establishment. There’s also an Apache dance that never catches fire. The choreographer’s work that follows, though, is impeccable. Colombo has staged the title number so that it is, quite literally, a showstopper, and for a number late in the second act, she’s devised an ingenious way of making dancers look like marionettes.

And though scenic designer Rob Bissinger, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, and lighting designer Michael Gilliam conspire to make sure that show looks like a Toulousse -Lautrec painting that has sprung to life. There were some small technical glitches on opening night in Bissinger’s design that, while never halting the show, undermined the fluidity of co-book writer Lee’s staging.

These complaints, it must be repeated, are minor, and as Paper Mill begins its 2014-2015 season with one show already en route to Broadway (Honeymoon in Vegas opened there a year ago), it looks like the theater has another terrific offering in the pipeline for the Great White Way.

---- Andy Propst

Can-Can plays at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. For more information and tickets, visit: papermill.org.

'You Can't Take It With You' - Intoxicating Screwball Comedy

Rose Byrne and James Earl Jones in You Can’t Take It With You
(©Joan Marcus)

Should you find yourself in Times Square around 10:30pm any time in the next few months and you see people floating down the street, don’t be surprised. Most likely they’ve just come from Scott Ellis’ intoxicatingly beguiling new production of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s comedy, You Can’t Take It With You, playing at the Longacre Theatre.

It’s pretty easy to be charmed by this show the moment you walk into the theater and catch sight of a small, two-story house---that looks like it might belong out on the prairie somewhere---crammed between two dreary gray tenements (grand scenic design from David Rockwell). Clearly someone’s decided not to sell. Once the show’s begun and the interior of that small house is revealed, filled with a plethora of goofy items like a skull that serves as a candy dish, you’ll know who’s not sold: it’s Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), a man who, for 35 years, has spent his time visiting zoos and attending commencement exercises after chucking his life as a go-getter in the business world.

Vanderfof, or Grandpa as he’s known by his family and everyone else who surrounds him, has instilled his sense of joie de vivre in his family, including daughter Penny (Kristine Nielsen), who has spent eight years writing various scripts plays because a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the house and she decided she might as well take up playwriting. He husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), plays with Erector Sets and puts together fireworks in the basement with the help of Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr), a lodger in the house who simply came by one day to deliver ice and has now lived there for nearly a decade.

Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), one of Penny and Paul’s daughters, fancies herself a dancer and rehearses ad infinitum in the home in between making batches of candy, which her husband Ed (Will Brill) delivers to her customers after tucking in special flyers that he’s printed up (his mini press is his favorite gadget).

Yes, they’re a quirky bunch and Paul and Penny’s other daughter, Alice (Rose Byrne), who has a job on Wall Street, is painfully aware of her family’s idiosyncrasies. So much so that’s she’s avoided bringing her boyfriend, Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz) to meet them. He’s the son of the president of the firm where she works, and Alice is quite convinced that her family’s behavior would botch the relationship. Unfortunately, the time is at hand where the two clans must meet, and the crux of Hart and Kaufman’s deft comedy is what happens when Tony brings his folks (Byron Jennings and Johanna Day) over a night early (just to ensure that they get a true sense of what Alice’s family is like).

It’s screwball comedy at its finest, and under Ellis’ keen direction, the large company (19 in all) deliver pitch-perfect performances. Eccentricities are embraced, but never turned into caricatures. Further, the sense of genuine good nature and affection simply flows through the entire production, so much so that theatergoers might find themselves thinking that a few days with the clan might be an ideal getaway.

Particular standouts are Ashford’s zestful turn as aspiring dancer Essie; Nielsen's deliciously nuanced turn as dilettante Penny (who when stuck on one play returns to her life as a painter); and Jones’ rendering of the head of the crew, which is simply superlative, an adroit blend of devil-may-care ease and profound gravitas. Also impressive is Byrne’s work as Alice. She manages to communicate both the character’s desire to be “normal” and the fact that she was brought up in a household where nonconformity is the norm.

Beyond the central clan, there are equally shrewd turns in the roles of the family’s hangers-on. Not just Kerr’s goofy DePinna, but also Reg Rogers’ hysterically dour Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s dance instructor, Crystal Dickinson’s spirited Rheba (the family’s maid), and Marc Damon Johnson’s eager-to-please Donald (Rheba’s boyfriend).

There’s similarly solid work from Jennings, Day and Kranz as they play the upstanding Kirbys confronted with the outlandish behavior, and in a play from an era in which small, one scene parts were the norm, Julie Halston and Elizabeth Ashley shine, playing, respectively, an alcoholic actress whom Penny brings home after they have met on a bus, and as a down-on-her-luck member of the Russian aristocracy whom Kolenkhov invites over.

Spot-on period costumes from designer Jane Greenwood add further credibility to the performers’ already impeccable work, and lighting designer Donald Holder bathes the entirety of the show in a warm, natural glow, anticipating the sensation that this delightful production inspires.

---- Andy Propst

You Can’t Take It With You plays at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com.

'Scenes From a Marriage' - Watching and Hearing a Couple's History Collide With Its Present

Dallas Roberts, Roslyn Ruff, Alex Hurt, Susannah Flood, Tina Benko, and Arliss Howard in Scenes From a Marriage
(©Jan Versweyveld)

Any relationship---platonic or romantic---is informed by its history regardless of what is happening in the present. Director Ivo von Hove, working with a script by Emily Mann, makes this reality blazingly and electrifyingly apparent in Scenes from a Marriage, which opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop.

Like Ingmar Bergman’s drama (which was first a six hour television mini-series and later a three hour theatrical film) on which the piece is based, the show focuses on Johan and Marianne, but unlike Bergman’s creation which had just two performers in the central roles, von Hove’s stage adaptation uses six, each paired to show the couple at one point in their marriage.

Audiences first meet lawyer Marianne and professor Johan in one of three scenes which are performed in tiny makeshift spaces in the New York Theatre Workshop’s capacious East Fourth Street home, which has been reconfigured into a vast circle that’s then been trisected to create these three distinct playing areas (Jan Versweyveld serves as the show’s production designer, and beyond the scenic concept, offers harsh, often distancing lighting). The sequences that are performed liked this comprise the first act of the show and depict the couple at three moments in their marriage, each in a different decade.

In one, the 20something Marianne and Johan cope with the question of abortion after she has announced she is expecting their third child. For the scene that features them in their thirties, the two fight about the rut into which they’ve fallen, both in terms of their obligations to their families and their sexual relationship. When theatergoers meet the oldest incarnation of the couple, Johan announces that he’s leaving Marianne; he’s fallen in love with a younger woman.

Because the actors are all performing these scenes concurrently in spaces that have not been sound-proofed, there is a kaleidoscope- or collage-like effect as they unfold. For instance, even as one is experiencing the middle-decade sequence, one can hear the younger incarnations fighting about the idea of an abortion. Similarly, there is a common central area, visible through glass which also allows theatergoers to peer into the other scenes, making it so that one can’t help but sense how the other events from the couple’s life together are affecting the present moment that they are seeing.

Once the first half of Scenes From a Marriage has concluded---and after a thirty-minute intermission in which the theater space is transformed into an open, sparsely furnished circular playing area---theatergoers watch the dissolution of the marriage. Marianne serves divorce papers on Johan. And though there’s reconcile-driven sex, the separation is ultimately formalized. But there are still ties between the two, and the play concludes with them reconnecting after they have both remarried.

For the first half of this portion of Scenes, all six performers battle, make love, and cajole one-another concurrently. As with act one, von Hove’s conceit makes the notion that the divorce is happening not just for the eldest pair, but also for the younger ones, tangible. In many regards, it’s like a high-adrenaline non-musical variation on Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Folleis, where audiences encounter younger and older incarnations of the show’s characters.

By the end of Scenes From a Marriage, though, von Hove only uses one pair of performers, Tina Benko and Arliss Howard, who play the pair in their forties. It’s an odd, and strangely unsatisfying, end to the show that has so masterfully allowed past and present to blur and inform one another. It’s hard not to wish that one were glimpsing the others on the peripheries of the space as Marianne reflects on marriage with her mother (a delicate performance from Mia Katigbak) or as Marianne and Johan, either out love or habit, share a tryst while their new spouses are away.

Throughout, Benko and Howard, along with Susannah Flood and Alex Hurt (the young couple) and Roslyn Ruff and Dallas Roberts (the middle couple), rise to the challenges---emotional and technical---of the production. In the tight spaces in which the first scenes of the production are offered, the actors’ concentration and commitment astonishes, particularly when they move to the aisles performing literally inches from audience members and as they contend with the cacophony coming from the other scenes.

Once the battle royale of the second act has begun, deftly orchestrated by von Hove, they spiral around the space with controlled abandon, often switching from the actor who has been their primary partner in the previous scenes to terrific (and telling) effect. Among the most effective throughout are Benko, who is perhaps most striking as her Marianne attempts to deter Johan from leaving by seducing him. Equally compelling is Hurt’s take on the youngest of the Johans. There’s something that simultaneously steely and delicate about his performance that makes it entirely understandable why Marianne was drawn to him.

Beyond Katigbak (who also plays one of Marianne’s clients), the show features three other performers. Erin Gann and Carmen Zilles prove terrific as an unhappily wed couple who are astonished by the seeming bliss that Marianne and Johan enjoy early on. And Emma Ramos plays one of Johan’s students (and lovers) with zinging intensity, both when she needles him about his poetry and later when she confronts him about what has gone wrong with their relationship.

---- Andy Propst

Scenes From a Marriage plays at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East Fourth Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nytw.org

'The Money Shot' - Neil LaBute Skewers Hollywood

Fred Weller (foreground) and Gia Crovatin (background) in The Money Shot
(©Joan Marcus)

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.