Helen Mirren in The Audience.
Perhaps under different circumstances, Queen Elizabeth II might have made a particularly shrewd therapist. At least that’s the overriding impression that theatergoers are given while watching Peter Morgan’s marvelous new play The Audience and Helen Mirren’s dazzlingly humane, warm, and funny portrayal of the British monarch.
This description might sound a bit reductive, nevertheless it appears to be one of the goals of Morgan’s script. Late in the show, the Queen shares the stage with a younger incarnation of herself. It’s not the first time it has happened: the fleetly time-bending piece zips back and forth from the 1930s to present with agility, and in addition to MIrren as the Queen from 1951 forward, there are childhood portrayals of her by Elizabeth Teeter and Sadie Sink, who play alternating performances.
During this last encounter between the adult and childhood Elizabeth, the younger one announces that she’s learned about the role and history of the prime minister in school and from her lessons has gleaned that “Basically they’re all mad.”
Morgan’s play centers on private meetings that Queen Elizabeth has each week with her prime ministers, and during the course of these conversations, with eight (from Winston Churchill through David Cameron), matters of state are discussed, as well as personal matters. In Morgan’s imagination (remember no one knows what happens during these “in camera” sessions), the Queen becomes an advice-giver and sage counsel.
Morgan’s conceit means that The Audience, while functioning as a bio-drama, never has the feeling of being a show in which factual details are being dutifully laid out for theatergoers’ edification. Yes, all of the details--and some scandals--are referenced, from the moment that her father took over the throne to her own coronation to the unhappy marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But they, along with many others, are couched within the context of highly informal and often deliciously humorous exchanges.
Mirren’s ability to embrace the zinging wit that Morgan has given the queen is just one of the many delights to be found in her astonishing, chameleon-like performance. Audiences will most likely remember well after the curtain has fallen how Mirren manages to seemingly age and then travel back in time before their eyes. She rarely leaves the stage (which, thanks to scenic designer Bob Crowley, makes the grandeur of Buckingham Palace palpable), and as the play travels back and forth between decades, a trio of dressers all clad in black surround Mirren. When they retreat, a jaw-dropping transformation of the star has been effected. She’s outfitted in yet another period-perfect outfit (the detail-rich costumes are also by Crowley) and hairdo (designed by Ivana Primorac). It’s theatrical magic of the highest order.
The performance, though, should not be savored merely for this technique, but also for its stunning and often gentle details. One such moment comes early on when the tradition-bound Churchill (a sterling performance from Dakin Matthews) attempts to tell the monarch-in-waiting about what is expected of her. There comes a moment when his advice sinks in, and a gentle expression of defeat and hopelessness crosses Mirren’s face as Elizabeth realizes exactly what she can expect in life because of her role and what she will have to sacrifice. Mirren’s work here proves simply heartbreaking.
In addition to Matthews, there are another six masterful performers to assume the roles of prime minister. Perhaps most notable is Richard McCabe’s incorrigibly garrulous turn as the earthy Labour Party leader Harold Wilson. He charms Elizabeth (and audiences) thoroughly, and if there’s one slight flaw in Morgan’s writing, it’s the awkwardly blunt way in which he ultimately points toward Wilson as being this man as having been Elizabeth’s favorite.
Dylan Baker takes on the role of PM John Major and imbues the man with a spiky nervousness. Judith Ivey’s work as Margaret Thatcher has a gruff directness to it that feels entirely appropriate. Michael Elwyn cuts a swell figure as the dapper Anthony Eden, the man who has a central role in the Suez Crisis in the 1950s, and in his more modern counterpart, Rob McLachlan makes for a dour Gordon Brown, the man who agreed to England’s participation in the Iraq War. And in Rufus Wright, director Stephen Daldry, who has staged The Audience immaculately, finds a performer who can play both Labour Party PM Tony Blair and the sitting prime minister, David Cameron, a member of England’s conservative party.
With each of these people, Mirren’s Elizabeth listens intently, looks away in embarrassment when things get awkward, and sometimes just exudes an oddly maternal warmth (but not with Thatcher) as they deliver the news of the week. It’s a fascinating, and ultimately moving, peek behind the closed doors at Buckingham Palace.
---- Andy Propst
The Audience plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: theaudiencebroadway.com.
Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin in John & Jen.
Spanning nearly four decades and encompassing everything from the Viet Nam War to the rise of talk television in the late 1980s, Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s 1995 musical John & Jen, now being revived by the Keen Company at Theatre Row, would hardly seem to be an intimate affair. And yet, as it focuses on its titular heroine and her relationship with her younger brother and then her son (who both share the name John), the show is simply a vest pocket tuner, which, thanks primarily to sterling performances from Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan, beguiles.
Lippa and Greenwald, who co-wrote the book for this show, split the action into two parts. During the first act, audiences meet Jen (Baldwin) and her younger brother John (Ryan) as they grow up in a less-than-model 1950s household. Propelled by the abuse they suffer at the hands of their (unseen) father, the two forge what they believe will be an unbreakable alliance. Once Jen has fled to New York for college, however, John finds himself on his own, and while his sister experiments with drugs as well as the free love and anti-war movements, he retreats into finding ways to please their dad, ultimatel enlisting in the Navy.
The show’s second act flashes forward to Jen in adulthood as she attempts to raise her teenage son on her own. Mourning for the lost opportunities that she had with her brother, Jen does her utmost to mold her son (again Ryan) into the image of her brother and to finally make good on protecting someone no matter what. Naturally, as John matures into young adulthood, he can only see his mother’s actions as overprotective and stifling, and much like as she did when she was younger, he rebels.
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein, Baldwin and Ryan both plumb their respective roles, often with surprising nuance. Perhaps most impressively, neither performer cloys as they tackle the sections of the show when the characters are pre- and just-pubescent, and in Baldwin’s case, as Jen matures, there’s a sparkle of wizened impishness that surfaces. Further both are in terrific voice, traversing Lippa’s mod-sounding melodies with surety and tearing into the show’s more soaring anthems with panache.
But, even as theatergoers can appreciate Baldwin and Ryan’s work, they may find that some the show’s blatant sentimentality a bit too much to bear, from the Christmas Eve tunes that start each act to the throw-away number “Bye Room” in the second act, during which Jen’s son bids adieu to his playthings as he heads off to camp. It doesn’t help in these moments that this new production uses an orchestration for piano and cello only. Stripping the music of it original sound (which was a small combo with percussion), only means that despite its inherent variances, the score takes on a certain melancholy monotony.
Additionally, a new song for this production, “Trouble With Men,” only enhances a sense of cuteness in the squabbling siblings. In it, John jokes about the boy-trouble that Jen’s having in high school. It replaces a meatier number that carried more weight dramatically as even in antagonism brother and sister grew closer.
It’s the feel-good sense of this new song that eventually comes to permeate the show as a whole, and were it not for Baldwin and Ryan, this two-hander might be more than theatergoers could bear. But they manage to imbue the entirety of the show with a charming quality that brings to mind the sepia-toned television show, The Wonder Years, and as winter weather continues to chill New Yorkers, there’s a welcome warmth to be had in John & Jen.
---- Andy Propst
John and Jen plays at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: keencompany.org.
Jo Mei, Jennifer Lim and Francis Jue in The World of Extreme Happiness.
Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig reveals a richly dangerous universe in The World of Extreme Happiness, which has just opened in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center Stage I. It’s a bracing and ambitious piece of writing from an exciting new voice for the stage.
Cowhig plunges audiences into the darkly comic play as a woman in rural China squats to give birth in the doorway of her meager home while her husband simultaneously frets about a lost pet pigeon and berates the midwife about his need for a son. When the newborn turns out to be a girl, she’s wrapped in paper and discarded in a bucket of pig slop and left to die.
She doesn’t, though, and gets the unlikely name of Sunny. When she grows up, Sunny (Jennifer Lim) leaves her family to work in a factory in Beijing after her mother produces the male heir that her father so desperately wanted. Working as a maintenance person in a huge factory, Sunny sends her money home to support her brother (played with charming impishness by Telly Leung) and his education. She wants him to have a better life than she does.
Sunny’s existence in the big city gives playwright Cowhig the opportunity to explore a wide gamut of issues relating to life in China today, and there’s little that her voraciously wide-ranging play leaves uncovered. Primary in all of this is the plight of peasants who migrate to big cities to better their lots in life. But beyond that there’s both the legacy of Maoist policies in China as well as the aftereffects of the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989.
Cowhig also touches on how the emergence of certain capitalist principals in the country has fueled a fascination with self-help theories and also the despair that some workers feel. There are several references to suicides which bring to mind the headlines about the deaths at the Foxconn factories in 2014.
It’s a lot to cover in a ninety-minute play, and as a result, the play’s varied plot strands which often feel as if they are underwritten. Cowhig’s narrative about Sunny and her efforts to better herself comes across best. Not only is it the most fully developed, Lim brings an aching anger and resentment that’s leavened with earthy sweetness to create a character who continually captures audiences minds and hearts.
When a coworker takes Sunny to a seminar run by Mr. Destiny (played with amusing slickness by Frances Jue) who teaches self-empowerment using the sort of style associated with Las Vegas floor shows, one can’t help but feel that torn. On one level, theatergoers want Sunny to learn something from this seeming charlatan. On another, though, audiences also want this sensitive young woman to run the other way and find someone less oily to help her in her goals.
Elsewhere though, particularly when it comes to Artemis Minerva (Sue Jin Song), the arch and hard-as-nails businesswoman at the company where Sunny works, Cowhig’s writing fails to convince. Song is terrific in the role and finds ways to modulate the woman’s imperiously chilly facade. And once the play starts to delve into her past, Song’s work has an understated sadness to it. The problem is that the revelations about this woman’s familial history seem tacked on to the work as a whole.
Thankfully neither Cowhig’s ear for zestful--sometimes profanity-rich--dialogue never falters nor do any of the multiply cast performers, who also include James Saito as both Sunny’s haunted and embittered father and the tentatively ambitious man who runs the company where Sunny works and Jo Mei, who delights as Sunny’s aggressive and desperate to get ahead coworker Ming-Ming.
The show, directed with economy by Eric Ting, unfolds in a dour gray industrial environment (from scenic designer Mimi Lien) which transforms surprisingly throughout the show, and Jenny Mannis’ contemporary costume design sparks the action, providing rich character details. Lighting designer Tyler Micoleau uses color to cunning atmospheric effect, and though the show doesn’t always incite extreme happiness, it’s never anything but intriguing.
---- Andy Propst
The World of Extreme Happiness plays at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com.
Stacey Sargeant, Rebecca Naomi Jones and Libby Winter in Big Love.
(©T. Charles Erickson)
The battle of the sexes probably has never looked as pretty as it does in the Signature Theatre Company’s new production of Charles Mee’s Big Love, which opened last night. Thanks to scenic designer Brett J. Banakis walking into the Irene Diamond Theatre is a bit like stepping onto the patio of a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. It’s all gleaming white with a huge vista of sea and blue sky. Yes, there are wildflowers growing down from the ceiling (Mee’s world can often be quite upside down), nevertheless, it’s beautifully relaxing.
There’s also an awful lot of athleticism involved. The performers are frequently body-slamming themselves onto the stage floor and into walls. Yet, for anyone even the least bit familiar with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, such feats, when it comes to the highs and lows of romance, can be expected.
Both the visuals and the physicality are part and parcel of Mee’s forcedly whimsical adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, about fifty brides who flee forced marriages in Greece seeking asylum in Italy. In this contemporary vision of the ancient play, Mee only brings three of the women (and a trio of prospective grooms) to the stage, and it’s these three couples who spend their time decrying the injustices and the virtues of marriage, along the way raucously delivering tunes ranging from Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” “Summer Lovin’” from Grease, and Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”
It’s not only the nature of love that’s bandied about in Mee’s extravagant theatrical collage, the idea of asylum and the plight of refugees come into play thanks to the women’s arrival at the home of a seemingly wealthy family. The clan’s matriarch, Bella (played with stately grace by Lynn Cohen), and her gay grandson (an effervescent turn from Preston Sadler) side with the women. They should not be forced into marrying.
Bella’s son, Piero (rendered with a regal devil-may-care attitude by Christopher Innvar), however, isn’t so sure, and he tries to negotiate a deal between the two sides after the men have arrived. Piero thinks that maybe rather than 50 forced marriages, there might be a two or three couples among the horde who are actually in love with one another. He proposes that they only they marry. The most macho of the grooms, Constantine (imbued with a hotheaded doltishness by Ryan-James Hatanaka), refuses to accept. It’s all or nothing.
The most strong-willed of the brides Thyona (Stacy Sargeant) responds with an equally extreme proposal. She suggests that after the women are forced through the wedding, they kill their new mates. Her sisters, the überly romantic Olympia (Libby Winters) and the middle-of-the-road Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), halfheartedly agree. What follows? For anyone who has not encountered Big Love before or who is unfamiliar with Aeschylus’ original, the biggest joy of the show is the play’s final sequence, which precedes Mee’s moral: we must all practice compassion.
Director Tina Landau’s stylish production boasts terrific projection design by Austin Switser and Anita Yavich’s costumes, particularly the widely varied bridal gowns, are superlative. And while all of the company, which also includes Ellen Harvey and Nathaniel Stampley as a couple of happy-go-lucky houseguests, deliver with panache, it’s Jones along with Bobby Steggert, who plays Lydia’s intended, Nikos, whose performances genuinely resonate with audiences. Both actors navigate the twists and turns of the script with precision while delivering some top-notch vocals. Audiences also respond to these characters because they represent the middle-ground of love. It’s something to be approached cautiously and delicately, much like the gorgeous-looking world of the show in general.
---- Andy Propst
Big Love plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.
James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.
(Photo courtesy of the company)
There’s wondrous magic going on at Dixon Place in James Lecesne’s astonishing one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which opened last night.
The first sort of wizardry that theatergoers will find in the show is Lecesne’s performance. In the space of just seventy minutes creates marvelously etched characters, from a tough-talking, seen-it-all detective in a small town on the Jersey shore to a one-time mafia wife who has begun to have regrets about her culpability in her late husband’s activities to a German man who specializes in repairing antique clocks and watches (a man with regrets of his own).
Now you might think that actors who play multiple roles in their own shows are a dime a dozen in New York. And indeed, they are. But it’s rare that one comes across a performer as gifted as Lecesne. He seamlessly transitions between the characters as a sad mystery concerning the brutal murder of a gay teenager--the Leonard Pelkey of the play’s title--unfolds, and with each lightning-like transition, his transformation is utterly and almost mind-blowingly convincing.
For instance, Lecesne only wears a dark shirt, trousers and a pair of dress shoes during the course of the show, but when he becomes the dead boy’s aunt Gloria, he seems to have somehow slipped into an uncomfortable pair of heels. Similarly, when this woman’s awkward teenage daughter Phoebe takes to the stage, something has gone wrong in the elastic in her knee-highs.
Beyond Lecense’s attention to detail in his performance, there’s a sense of genuine affection for all of the characters (including a young man who might be the murderer). It’s not that Lecesne’s writing is saccharine. In fact, there a moments when the script allows the audience to laugh at the people he’s portraying. Take for instance a woman who is a customer at Gloria’s beauty parlor. She remembers how she first met Leonard. “Last summer I’m at the CVS browsing decongestants when I notice this kid...,” she says. It’s the kind of detail that inspires a guffaw and, in lesser hands, could signal a caricature that’s about to be revealed. By the end of her sole appearance, though, she’s a woman whom audiences have come to adore and may even feel a little sad for.
This multi-tiered response to this character and the show in general is the other sort of magic that the piece traffics in. It’s both marvelously amusing and deeply moving, often within the space of just a couple of lines. Lecesne’s gift for quick transitions between characters extends to his writing and the emotional rollercoaster of Absolute Brightness proves enormously satisfying.
The show’s success does not rest with Lecesne alone. Director Tony Speciale must be credited with the show’s graceful staging and for integrating Matthew Sandager’s still and animated projections and Duncan Sheik’s delicately evocative incidental music for piano and guitar. These elements beautifully enhance Lecesne’s work, which casts a spell that inspires a winning and warm glow from start to finish.
---- Andy Propst
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays at Dixon Place (161 Chrystie Street). For more information and tickets, visit: dixonplace.org.