Zoe Wilson (center) and Barbara Walsh (rear), along with, clockwise, Ito Aghayere, Chinaza Uche, Theresa McCarthy, Patrick Boll, Marc de la Cruz in Three Days to See
For most people the name Helen Keller evokes one of two things. Either they think of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the movie The Miracle Worker or they immediately remember the worst jokes about the young woman, who, though born with the ability to see and hear, lost both senses in infancy due to illness.
In Three Days to See, a new theater piece based on Keller’s extensive writings from adulthood that opened last night in a Transport Group production off-Broadway, director-adapter Jack Cummings III gets past both of these generalized impressions about Keller early on. Working on a stage that’s bare except for half a dozen folding tables and chairs (scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey), the show’s seven person ensemble bounds onto the stage to tell litany of the jokes about the woman that many folks learned in grade school.
After this, and working from Keller’s recollections of her earliest experiences with her teacher Anne Sullivan, Three Days pushes past the two most memorable moments in Miracle Worker: Keller’s first verbalizations at a water pump and the battle royale in the Keller family dining room when Sullivan refuses to let her charge use her hands to eat.
It’s a shrewd move on Cummings’ part, and one that theoretically, should open theatergoers to what follows, a theatrical collage that illuminates Keller’s experiences, social and political stances, and thoughts on her place in the world.
Unfortunately, rather than allowing his talented company to simply recite from Keller’s work or re-enact moments that she chronicled, Cummings has conceived the work as a movement-dance piece (musical staging by Scott Rink), and thus, the dinner table brawl unfolds like a cartoon battle as Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” thunders underneath.
When Keller decides to leave the lecture circuit for a more lucrative career in vaudeville, the show’s soundtrack turns to the iconic overture to Gypsy, and when Keller, during a sojourn in Hollywood, gets to take her first ride in an airplane, the “Out of My Dreams” ballet from Oklahoma! plays while the company breeze around the stage holding Zoe Wilson aloft as if she herself had taken wing.
This clichéd (remember “Out of My Dreams” contains the lyric “I long to fly”) gimmickry undermines the sensitivity and insight in Keller’s writings, which encompass everything from her thoughts on racial inequality to the suffragette movement. When she discovers that her German publisher has been altering her writing to appease the Nazi government, her ability to blend anger with compassion in her letters chills.
The music choices have secondary, and equally adverse, effect on the production. Throughout the show, the company has to strain to be heard over or keep pace with the pre-recorded pieces. This becomes most notable late in the production when Leonard Bernstein’s bombastic overture to Candide plays, while the ensemble intones Keller’s thoughts on what she might do if she were granted a wish to experience the world visually for 72 hours. The sequence comes at the show’s approaching two-hour mark, and during it, each of the company members sound exhausted rather than excitedly inspired.
When the actors have the chance to simply speak Keller’s words, Three Days does have the ability to move audiences. Barbara Walsh delivers Keller’s memories about Sullivan’s death with poignancy, and Theresa McCarthy blends school-girlish glee with sad regret as Keller recounts a romance that ended badly. Similarly Marc de la Cruz and Chinaza Uche bring an encounter between Keller and Alexander Graham Bell to life with touching delicacy.
Throughout R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design uses a plethora of colors to gently shape space, indicate locales, and accentuate mood, and it’s difficult to not wish that Three Days to See was as graceful and subtle as his work.
---- Andy Propst
Three Days to See plays at Theater 79 (79 East Fourth Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.transportgroup.org.
Colin Quinn in The New York Story
Colin Quinn misses the “old” New York. You know, the one that so many of us loathed and loved before 42nd Street began to look like a mall in middle America and places like Whole Foods took up residence on the Bowery.
Toward the end of his new show, The New York Story, which, directed by Jerry Seinfeld, opened last night at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, Quinn delivers a heartfelt and very funny eulogy to this New York.
Before Quinn gets there, however, he first wants to explore the roots of how New Yorkers came to have their distinctive personality, and to do this, he turns the clock back to its original inhabitants, the Lenapes. “And they’ve already got a bit of that New York attitude. They’re cocky, walking around with their shirts off, pecs hanging out, smoking tobacco.” Then, of course, the Dutch arrive and “set their tone, which is sort of irritable, as New York people are.”
Quinn continues in this manner with each wave of immigrants: the British, Germans, Jews, Puerto Ricans, et al., and with each successive group, Quinn offers a mix of cunning insight about the character of New Yorkers and some old-fashioned ethnic humor. It’s not mean-spirited and actually sort of refreshing in an age that Quinn describes as one where “people are walking on eggshells carefully, trying to make sure they don't offend anyone."
Quinn’s seemingly off-the-cuff and often hilarious reveries about the melting pot of cultures that has been part of the city’s history also set the stage (which, designed by Sara C. Walsh, evokes an era of the city’s past: a grimy stoop, clothes hanging out to dry, etc.) for the last portion of the piece and its slightly bitter edge. As Quinn rightly observes "You can't celebrate diversity and have no differences at the same time."
The comedian’s not advocating a return to a time when people wouldn’t get on the last car of a train, would carry “mugger money,” and even, “would literally write signs to criminals. ‘No radio in car.’” But in a time when areas of the city are becoming virtually indistinguishable from one another, it’s rough not to wonder if he’s onto something with The New York Story, which, by the end, is impressively both a great piece of comedy and social commentary.
---- Andy Propst
Colin Quinn: The New York Story plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cherrylanetheatre.org.
Peter Land, Tori Muray, and Kim Maresca in Ruthless!
Watching folks being evil can always be so much fun, can’t it? And, if you’re unconvinced by the idea, drop in to St. Luke’s Theatre, where a revival of the 1992 musical Ruthless! has just opened.
With book and lyrics by Joel Paley, who’s also directed, and music by Marvin Laird, the show mashes up backstage stories familiar from Gypsy and All About Eve with elements of The Bad Seed, which charted a mother’s realization that her tween daughter was a murderess. In the case of Ruthless!, it’s perky suburban housewife Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca), who comes to find that her hell-bent-on-fame daughter Tina (Tori Murray) has killed in order to get the lead in the school play. At Tina’s side and egging her on in her ambition--and felonious plotting--is talent agent Sylvia St. James (Peter Land), a woman with secrets and an agenda of her own.
Paley’s book, streamlined to one act for this new production, borrows from other movie-making traditions, and in the process, the show becomes not unlike a loving Carol Burnett Show send-up of Hollywood tropes. Paley includes a revelation about Judy’s true identity and interjects the presence of Tina’s sarcastically sage theatre critic grandmother (Rita McKenzie channeling both Ethel Merman and Joan Rivers).
The problem with the new one-act structure is that some elements of the show, which might have at one point felt fully developed, now feel as if they are extraneous. The most notable example is the character of Eve Allabout (zestfully played by Tracy Jai Edwards), a woman with her own dreams of being in the spotlight. Audiences get an undeniable kick out of the references to Mary Orr’s infamous Eve Harrington once Allabout has been introduced, but given that she never achieves any sort of fame on her own (as is the case in Eve), one can’t help but wonder why she’s part of the action.
Trims to the book also mean that some of Paley and Laird’s amusing and brashly razzmatazz numbers can feel as if they are over-extended, given the relative brevity of the book scenes on either side of them, This is particularly true of “Teaching the Grade,” a number delivered by Tina’s frazzled drama teacher, played with comic bitterness by Andrea McCullough. Some of the problem with the musical material, too, stems from John Grosso’s sound design that grossly over-amplifies the cast and the show’s two pianists.
Ultimately, though, the mock evil spirit of Laird and Paley’s writing and the talents of the show’s three principals overcomes any reservations or resistance that arises. Murray, as the pint-size wannabe starlet, combines appropriate cloying sweetness with powerhouse vocals. As the girl’s mom, Maresca delivers a spot-on caricature of a vapid June Cleaver-like mom and marvelously transforms into an overblown self-entitled woman. And, Lane sashays and poses to laughable effect as the Tina’s mentor.
Josh Iacovelli’s scenic design, which brings Judy and Tina’s suburban home among other locales to life, sparks with some witty touches, and Nina Vartanian’s costumes perfectly match the over-blown nature of the humorously wicked show itself.
---- Andy Propst
Ruthless! plays at St. Luke’s Theatre (308 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: ruthlessthemusical.com.
A scene from in SeaWife
A rousing new musical has docked at South Street Seaport this summer. Featuring a book by Seth Moore and music by The Lobbyists (actor-musicians who comprise the show’s ensemble), SeaWife takes audiences on a oceanic and psychological journey,which despite some rough patches, ultimately proves to be a terrific theatrical excursion.
Narrated by a scalawag named Caleh (appealingly played by Tony Vo), the show charts the life of a nineteenth century whaler, Percy from his birth in New England, through early adulthood adventures and romance in Florida, and finally a life on the ocean. Moore bifurcates his tale and director Liz Carlson follows suit in casting. During the show’s first act, Percy is played by the boyishly clean-cut Tommy Crawford, and during the second act, wizened and bearded Will Turner assumes the role, as well as the character’s new nickname, Gravesight.
Echoing the character’s transformation, The Lobbyists have created a superlatively tuneful and terrifically atmospheric score that’s filled with period-sounding songs, primarily chanteys, during the first act, and then, turns to a more rock sound during the second when the central character’s journey becomes more rooted in his psyche. It’s an impressive score for strings and percussion albeit one that becomes something of a leviathan for the musical itself. There are just too many numbers in both acts which simply slow the action.
Carlson’s environmental staging, however, buoys the action. SeaWife unfolds in a space that scenic designer Jason Sherwood has rigged with ropes and pulleys to evoke the seafaring milieu and has backed the stage with furniture and bric-a-brac to evoke a history-filled nineteenth century tavern, which lighting designer Jason DeGroot both cloaks shadows and jolts into a rock concert-like vibrancy.
Also pulling audiences into SeaWife and through its musical eddies is the tirelessly energetic work of the company. Crawford makes Percy an engaging romantic hero while Turner proves wonderfully moving as the introverted and emotionally tortured incarnation of the character. In the title role, Eloise Eonnet plays a spitfire pioneer woman of sorts with aplomb, and there’s fine work, too, from the multiply cast Alex Grubbs, , and Raymond Sicam III, who not only juggle roles but play myriad instruments (as do the principals) for this ambitious journey back in time.
---- Andy Propst
SeaWife plays at the South Street Seaport Museum's Melville Gallery (213 Water Street). For more information and tickets, visit: nakedangels.com.
Gideon Glick in Significant Other
(Photo courtesy of the company)
Jordan, the quirky and looking for love hero of Joshua Harrison’s new play Significant Other, can’t suppress a growing feeling of desperation that he might never meet “Mister Right.” And as this late-twentysomething watches his three best pals from college each take a trip down the aisle, Jordan panics. Maybe he’ll never find the man with whom he can share his life.
Significant Other, which opened last night at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, proves to be a dark romantic comedy about millennials who’ve come of age in the era of gay marriage, and just as he did with Bad Jews a few seasons back, Harrison peppers the play with biting, sometimes scabrous, humor, as well as a touch of whimsy.
Take for instance Jordan’s paean to a co-worker that he’s crushing on. After seeing the guy emerge from a swimming pool at an office party, he describes what he saw in minute detail: “His biceps have just the lightest little hint of muscle. One single vein runs up each arm in this beautiful line, like a Miro painting, not quite straight, but it draws your eyes immediately to the canvas.” It’s actually a bit rough to take such hyperbole seriously, and yet, there’s something curiously aching about it.
The same can be said of each of Jordan’s girlfriends who wed during the course of the show. Kiki, played with a sense of entitled crassness by Sas Goldberg, begins the play with a lengthy description of how she came to meet the man she’s just about to marry. She only found romance after learning to love herself. There’s something terribly off-putting about the navel-gazing that she indulges in. Still, there’s a grain of truth in it.
For Vanessa, played with dry aloofness by Carra Patterson, true happiness only comes after she dumps the married man that she’s been dating. He, of course, allowed her to have someone without really committing. What’s incredibly funny is the transformation that takes place once she’s found her mate. Hearts and flowers seem to float around her head: a tribute to Patterson’s work.
The third woman to wed, and the marriage that rocks Jordan to the core, is Laura, who, at one point, was Jordan’s roommate. Played with sensitivity and quiet command, she’s the woman who could be Jordan’s soul mate. Unfortunately, he’s not straight. Nevertheless, when she marries Tony (John Behlmann, who in a bit of terrifically conceived double-casting also plays the co-worker Jordan lusts for), it’s the final straw. He melts down and fireworks ensue at her bachelorette party.
There’s one other woman in Jordan’s life, his grandmother Helene (the estimable Barbara Barrie), and her life as a widow, only seems to accentuate the loneliness that Jordan sees before him. Even if you find true love, you end up alone should your partner predecease you.
Smoothly and fluidly directed by Trip Cullman, the show blisters repeatedly and then, tugs at the heartstrings. Along the way there are lapses into utter absurdity, like the night that Jordan spends by himself debating whether or not to click “send” on a pretty pathetic email he’s written to his co-worker. While he’s thinking about all of this, he calls each of the women. Not surprisingly, he gets each one’s voicemail. They’re doing busy with their partners.
Throughout all of this it’s up to Gideon Glick to bring the comically pathetic and painfully heartstick Jordan to life, and the performer fully embraces the character’s extremes. Theatergoers roar as he writhes on the floor pondering that email, which he really shouldn’t send and wince when he has the showdown with Laura. It’s an impressive turn that demands audiences’ attention and asks for their pity.
Harrison makes a nod to Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic?, using a quote from it at the beginning of his script, and indeed, this very unromantic comedy does follow in that show’s footsteps. It also, and probably more importantly, follows in those of two other plays, Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band, which paints a dire picture of gay men trying to make connections in the days just before Stonewall, and Harvey Feirstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, which explores how a gay man discovers love and creates a “modern family” in a world pre-AIDS. Watching Significant Other, one feels both the bleakness of Crowley’s work and the utter romanticism of Feirstein’s blending.
---- Andy Propst
Significant Other at plays at the Laura Pels Theatre (111 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.