Rose Byrne and James Earl Jones in You Can’t Take It With You
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.
Dallas Roberts, Roslyn Ruff, Alex Hurt, Susannah Flood, Tina Benko, and Arliss Howard in Scenes From a Marriage
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
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.