New York Theater

Seeing eleven plays (with one rain-out) in four weeks gave me, if nothing else, a better sense of my taste in theater. If only I could relate that to reviews I read, going forward.

There were two shows I left without a complaint, Kiss Me, Kate and Caroline’s Kitchen – one a relatively straightforward revival of a classic Broadway musical, the other a typically old-fashioned British farce. The latter was part of the Brits off Broadway series at 59E59 Theater, where we also saw Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, which was cringe-worthy amateurish, easily the most forgettable of our theater experiences. In contrast, Caroline’s Kitchen had a slew of interesting characters, a topical plot with manageable tangles and new laughs for every actor who entered the single set. Being British, the play was wonderfully acted, of course.

One might have hoped the same for King Lear, imported from London with Glenda Jackson (and Ruth Wilson), but here the director wasn’t content to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. He mixed Elizabethan costumes with a handgun and made one duke a deaf-mute, requiring an aide to be constantly signing onstage. Even more central, Lear was played by an 82-year-old woman, shrunken from her small stature to begin with; so we never believed that this could have been a king commanding a country. Without that tragic fall from power, what is Lear?

Ink was another disappointing import. In place of characters were caricatures. I felt I was watching a graphic novel (not that I’ve ever actually read a graphic novel), or a script designed to get us from one musical number to the next – except there was only one musical number. The story was devoid of surprise or suspense. It was a simple morality tale that we were already too familiar with. It also suffered from unintelligible dialogue (at least until we got hearing-assist devices at intermission) and an over-the-top screaming performance by Jonny Lee Miller as editor Larry Lamb.

The other disappointment was American, albeit adapted from the Greek: Hadestown. It was what it was, and my disappointment was more due to the Times review calling it the best musical of the season. Had I seen it Off-Broadway without expectations I might have felt differently. (I do note, however, that it wasn’t even nominated as Best Musical by the Drama Desk panel.) One problem was the music, which wasn’t melodic and didn’t appeal to me. Since this was basically an opera, that was a big issue. Second was the frenetic pace: every moment people were jumping around, lights were going off, stagecraft was being displayed. Hadestown is in the lineage of Rent and American Idiot, but without the good music.

For good music, nothing beat Kiss Me, Kate. Cole Porter’s score, I don’t have to say, is “wunderbar,” and Kelli O’Hara is the musical comedy standard for our decade. The plot shows its age, but in a charming way – particularly the pair of gangsters collecting a gambling debt – and the love/hate relationship between the leads is timeless. Best of all was the clever choreography (deservedly the Drama Desk winner), which further made Hadestown (and Rocketman) look mediocre.

All My Sons was the dramatic equivalent, vintage-wise, of Kiss Me, Kate; and unlike Lear (or last season’s Oklahoma!), I suspect it was presented pretty much the way Arthur Miller intended, the reason for its revival being the presence of Annette Bening and Tracy Letts in the lead roles. They were both superb, and the son has been nominated for a Tony, as well. The rest of the cast was not as uniformly good, but this was a play of ideas, and the ideas came through loud and clear.  Responsibility to your family vs. society played out slowly and thoughtfully here, whereas responsibility vs. pandering to society was presented glibly in Ink.

The other classic revival we saw was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Irish Rep. Here was a history lesson (abetted by the exhibition in the upstairs lobby), a jaundiced view of Irish republican uprising and a searing view of human nature. I felt almost as though I were back in college, and all the better for it.

Perhaps it was having seen the O’Casey, or perhaps it was the new all-American cast, but The Ferryman somehow seemed less authentic than other plays about Irish troubles I have encountered. This is not to say it was not enthralling, from opening to close, and the way the story unfolded to a dramatic finish was masterful. I came away with a list of quibbles, however (detailed elsewhere on Riffs). Watching the children perform was an unalloyed pleasure.

The other play in the league of The Ferryman, at least in terms of commercial firepower, was Aaron Sorkind’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is powerful (I needn’t say), and the book has been translated to the stage adroitly. Celia Keenan-Bolger, despite the age issue (41-to-6), is captivating as Scout; and the race relations issue, unfortunately, seems just as relevant today as 1935 or 1960. Jeff Daniels, also unfortunately, is no Gregory Peck, which kept me from going over the moon over our $375-ticket evening. Someone who loves Jeff Daniels might feel quite differently.

Faced with an empty weekend, we followed that day’s Times review to Something Clean, a Roundabout black stage production, our furthest venture off-Broadway this season. It was just what you look for in small theater: three actors, all excellent, playing characters trying to make sense of their lives and their relationships, in this case dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse by their (offstage) college son. Selina Fillinger is a playwright to watch, and Kathryn Erbe’s performance, always onstage, acting one way toward her husband, another, a split-second later, to the assault center counselor, was pitch-perfect.

So, what did I learn? I liked the slower plays, where there was space between the lines and characters, where I wasn’t constantly assaulted and wasn’t straining to hear what someone said. All My Sons and Kiss Me, Kate were written in an era where attention spans were longer and visual gimmicks weren’t required. Hadestown and Ink were the other end of the razzmatazz spectrum. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. Or, maybe, just old.



NY Theater, May ’18

Our ambitious program of eight shows in five weeks got off to a disappointing start: both Harry Clarke and Three Tall Women were well reviewed but left us cold. Billy Crudup and Glenda Jackson, the respective stars, gave flawless performances, but neither was a character we wanted to spend time with. They were both self-centered and led lives we couldn’t relate to. Gay romance, the subtext of the former, is a bit too much with us these days, at least in movies and theater; and senility and infidelity, which propelled the latter, don’t enthrall. Three Tall Women also had two dubious performances supporting Dame Glenda. We never really figured out Allison Pill’s role, not was she convincing as a law-firm associate, if that was her job. And Laurie Metcalf was a total disaster: she overacted without creating a character and made me uncomfortable watching her. Unfortunately, both plays were performed without intermission, so we had to sit through their entireties. Conversely, they were over sooner.
Our faith in theater-going was restored the next week by Lobby Hero. Kenneth Lonergan’s play was seemingly simple: two security guards and two cops performing a roundelay in an apartment lobby late on two consecutive nights. Yet that little world contained four well-defined, slightly caricaturish characters whose relationships were constantly amusing. And then something happens offstage that causes each one to weigh principles against self-interest, and guess which wins. The performances were stellar: one wonders whether Michael Cera fidgets his hands in his pocket in real life, his acting persona is so consistent. One also wonders if Lonergan reprised this play with Cera in mind, he was so perfect for the role. But the others were just as compelling. My definition of a good play is one that makes you laugh and makes you think, with characters you care about.
In one week we saw two musicals, Escape to Margaritaville and My Fair Lady; against all expectations it was the former that made our day. Every minute of the Jimmy Buffett show was a total kick: the songs were great, but just as much fun was how they were set up. The plot was nothing to be concerned about – you knew what was going to happen and it was not to be taken seriously. The game was watching J.D. complain about Jesus (Hay-zeus) taking the salt shaker, then five minutes later when the troupe broke into Margaritaville, the song, hearing J.D. sing out, “searching for my lost shaker of salt,” after a chorus of “My Head Hearts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus.” The actors were having fun, and so were we. I found Tully, the Buffett character, a bit artificial in the last act, but the women leads were excellent.
As for My Fair Lady, of course I knew what to expect, but the music and staging are so great that shouldn’t matter. What mattered was the lack of magic, the lack of chemistry between Higgins and Eliza, and the unconvincing portrayal by both of them. I hate to say that Lauren Ambrose wasn’t pretty or cute enough to play Eliza, but you look at her so much you like to be charmed. And the shadow of Rex Harrison loomed doomingly over Harry Hadden-Paton, who seemed too young and too volatile for the part. Diana Rigg seemed a visitor, and Freddie seemed to have wandered in from another play. It’s hard to say why nothing connected, but I never felt an emotional tingle all evening, and when I clapped, it was dutiful rather than enthusiastic.
In other revival news: Jessie Mueller’s performance as Julie Jordan was almost enough to overcome the dated book and other uneven performances in Carousel (and the cramped confines of the Imperial Theater). Her face was innocent and sweet and her singing voice was thrilling: “If I Loved You” was transporting. The rest of the cast was confusingly polyglot, despite the efforts of set and costume to place events in Maine of 1900. Lindsay Mendez’s Carrie Pipperidge sounded like a refugee from Brooklyn, Renee Fleming from the opera and Joshua Henry from a politically correct casting agency. Billy Bigelow is such an unsympathetic character to begin with, having a black man play him with attitude dissipated the ambivalence you needed to feel about his situation. The dancing was nice, but there was too much of it, and it was too repetitive, for my taste. Finally, the whole bit about “after you’re dead you can go back to earth for one day of your choosing” stuck this play back in the 1940s, not in a good way.
Beast in the Jungle was a charming mix of dance and play, called a “dance play.” The story took liberties with the Henry James novella, mostly to create excuses for dance numbers, but stayed true to the themes of love and longing and lost chances. In a small theater, the Vinyeyard, and played without an intermission or a program(!), it had the feeling of an experiment, but the talents at work, notably Susan Stroman for dance and Fred Kander for music, were first-rate. The orchestra played unseen above us – I didn’t know they were there until their curtain call – while the six-woman corps de ballet filled the small stage in numerous guises. I liked all the principal actors – Paul Friedman, Tony Yazbeck and Elena Dvidorodenko – (Siri didn’t). The book was ham-handed at times, but it always felt like a way to get to the next dance, a la Margaritaville, and there were no subplots to distract us from the overpowering presence of love.
I forgot to review Mlima’s Tale, a short Lynn Nottage work at the Public Theatre that better fit the Henry James title. An actor with sinuous, gleaming black body played Mlima, a big-tusked African elephant that is poached for its ivory. We follow the tusks on their route to Southeast Asia and China, courtesy of corruption, greed, vanity and general disregard for the law. The tale is a familiar one, and the stagecraft is clever, as a handful of actors assume the various roles. In the end, it was a bit too didactic to be engaging – like Junk last fall. There was nothing to criticize, but I wasn’t swept away.
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are notable first off for their tidy structures, their clever stagecraft (see Norman Conquests). A Brief History of Women – terrible title – follows this pattern: four distinct playlets all take place in the same setting, twenty years apart, with one character, an attractive but self-effacing man, appearing in all of them, more as an observer of the human condition around him than an active force. The other constant in Ayckbourn’s work is the commonness of his characters and plots: regular people, but my aren’t they silly and look at what knots they get tied in. The acting in Brief History, as was to be expected from the British troupe, was impeccable, and it was fun to see each performer take on four quite different roles. There was no particular point that I could detect – just, here is one life, not special or extraordinary, and here are the unexpected, slightly dramatic moments that changed its course along the way.
As a late add-on we went to the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Othello.The night was beautiful, as were the costumes and stage set, and the principal actors were all excellent. I especially liked Corey Stoll’s Iago, a modern character from House of Cards, who lessened the distance from Shakespeare to us. Although I had read the first two acts beforehand, it was still a challenge to grasp the dialogue, which betimes made me feel I was taking a test, rather than enjoying a play. And the play troubled me at two points: how was it so easy for “honest” Iago to convince Othello that Desdemona was untrue, especially so shortly after their nuptials; and why didn’t Desdemona “use her bean” and remember that she had lost her handkerchief while mopping her husband’s brow. Nevertheless, it was a fine reminder of an important work in Shakespeare’s canon. (Aside: seeing this two days after seeing Joshua Henry play Billy Bigelow in Carousel was a bit disconcerting: while we were meant to ignore the fact that Henry was black, it was all-important to recognize the blackness of Othello.)
In sum: it was not an especially rewarding theater season, with only Lobby Hero and Escape to Margaritaville making me glad I was at the theater instead of, say, watching the Twins or Warriors win a game on TV.

New York Theater ’17

The month before the Tony Awards we checked into the New York theater scene with a vengeance. I can’t say we’ve been overwhelmed so far – seven down, two shows to go – but we’ve mainly had a good time. I think in the future, though, I will be a little less taken in by the superlatives I read in the New York Times, which have accounted for most of the tickets we bought this May.
Ranking shows in order of excellence, I would start – no surprise – with Dear Evan Hansen. What stands out is the lead performance by Ben Platt, a guaranteed Tony winner. He puts so much soul-baring energy into the role of the unpopular, insecure high school senior who lives with a lie that you feel as much for the actor as for the character by performance end. The story is simultaneously up-to-the-minute with social media playing a leading role and eternal with teenage angst the dominant emotion. Each of the other seven characters was well drawn, fun to watch and skillfully acted; the set was clever and distinctive; and the music was heartfelt and unobjectionable, if not memorable. My only reservation: I admired and respected the play, rather than loved it. In a way, I felt I was watching a Social Studies case study. Maybe if I were a teenager I would have identified and felt I was inside the play, instead of outside it.
Groundhog Day didn’t create that kind of distance: weatherman Phil Connors was very much in a familiar world, with his cynical humor and cardboard characters – not to mention his previous incarnation by Bill Murray in the movie of the same name. With novelty not in the cards, my admiration here focused on the way the stage version recreated moments from the movie and repeated them without repetition. Andy Karl was fine in the Murray role, but I don’t see why he is being mentioned in the same breath as Ben Platt for the Tony; and his love interest paled in comparison to Andie McDowell. I’d call it a totally fun night at the theater, but not a classic.
Samara wasn’t quite a musical, but I bought tickets because I had read that Steve Earle had written the score. Furthermore, he was the narrator and stood next to us as we sat on our milk crates at the edge of the stage, if you can call it that. It turned out that Earle’s score was not country-rock tunes but a dreamscape played on a deconstructed piano and Uillean pipes. This was our foray into experimental theater, off-off-Broadway. Characters had titles, not names – the Messenger, the Manan – the venue and time were indeterminate, and the plot was somewhere between Greek myth and Beckett. Unfortunately, the acting was less than professional – especially the 14-year-old Messenger – which together with the bare stage gave a school production feel. We certainly felt that we were in the presence of Art, but like much modern art it didn’t mean much to us.
We saw Come From Away after writing the above, so its placement here is not its ranking. It’s not as deep as Evan Hansen or as fun as Groundhog Day, but it’s the emotional, feel-good musical of the year, no question. Much like the NYTimes reviewer, I found it a bit sophomoric, or Canada-nice, at the start, but my cheeks were wet with tears by the end. The story is heartwarming – how the residents of Gander hosted 7,000 travelers grounded after 9/11 – but what was most remarkable was the ability of 12 actors to create several dozen memorable characters among the hosts and the guests. Like the other musicals, there weren’t any “songs” worth remembering, but the singing and the acting were just fine.
The best play we saw was merely Off-Broadway, If I Forget at the Roundabout Theatre. It had at least three things going for it: one was the sibling dysfunction, much like August: Osage County, The Humans and many other similarly wrenching family plays. A secondary part of that was the issue of the aging parent: who cares for him, what do we do with him? But what struck the loudest chord for me was the story line centered on Jeremy Shamos’s character, the professor of Jewish Studies who is readying his manuscript, Forget the Holocaust, for publication when Zionist protestors, without reading the book or understanding the argument, derail its publication, his pending tenure appointment and, seemingly, his family’s future. The fourth conflict – seen previously in Movie TK – involved the immigrant tenant paying below-market rent in a gentrifying neighborhood; it provided the handy, if hardly satisfying, resolution to the play’s dilemmas.
More notable and heavier with Tony nominations were Oslo and A Doll’s House Part 2, but both were large disappointments. I would have been happy to leave halfway through each, although Doll’s House was so short (1:15) that I wouldn’t have gained much. Oslo, like If I Forget, hit my Middle East (Israel) nerve, but not in any satisfying way. The ultimate problem – not the playwright’s fault – is that the entire play is the unprecedented struggle to reach the Oslo Accords, a seeming breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but what is there to cheer? This tentative agreement went nowhere and the two sides are not just back to square one, they are off the playing board. The thesis of the play was an empty promise. How the actors got to this dead end was the second big problem: almost every speech was yelled, not spoken. Sitting in the front row – maybe we were too close to the action? – I wanted to yell out myself: would you all stop screaming at each other and just speak your lines…please. It’s “based on a true story,” but it’s hard to believe diplomats would treat each other this way – so undiplomatically. Yes, I know it’s Arabs and Israelis, but if that’s the way they are (and it may be), who wants to watch this? (As for the Tonys, Michael Aronov, who is nominated as Featured Actor, is the worst offender – and least historically accurate, I’ve read. Anthony Azizi, not nominated, would have been a better choice. No quarrel with Jefferson Mays’ nomination for a difficult role in a weak field, but Jennifer Ehle is but an afterthought in the much stronger field of Leading Actress. Her expression hardly changed from its Mona Lisa smile that, along with her pseudo-Norwegian accent, struck us as Meryl Streep light. Coincidentally, Meryl herself sat three rows behind us at Evan Hansen.)
It’s harder to explain my dissatisfaction with A Doll’s House, Part 2, which everyone else seems to love. It never connected, and I was more or less unhappy throughout. It took the characters from Ibsen’s original, but they weren’t at all the same. I had just re-read A Doll’s House that afternoon, and I didn’t recognize Nora or, especially, Torvald. The best character, Anne-Marie, played by a Tony-nomination-worthy Jayne Houdyshell, is a cipher in the original, so it is impossible to make a comparison. The only original character, Emma, played by also-nominated Condola Rashad, is working from a blank slate, but it is hard to envisage her as a 19th-century 23-year-old. In essence, the play’s problem for me is its anachronism. That this is intentional is signaled by the only two props on stage: an au courant Ming Aralia plant and a box of Kleenex Expressions. The dialectic on marriage – and that is the substance of the play – is very modern and not terribly profound. When Emma complains to Nora that her mother’s proposed alternative to marriage – bouncing from man to man with no stability or security – doesn’t strike her as desirable, she misses the entire point: it is not an either-or dichotomy; instead, a woman should have a choice, and not be condemned to a failing marriage. Somewhere along the way Torvald has become a reasonable, understanding individual – which hardly seems the likely result of Nora’s desertion. Fifteen years of running the bank, leading the community and ruling his family, not to mention fifteen years of aging, would probably have made him more obdurate and self-important, and more defensive vis-a-vis Nora – not so willing to sacrifice his position to grant her the divorce she seeks. As for Nora, it is a challenge in the original play to accept her overnight transformation from dutiful songbird to self-seeking feminist. It is even harder to believe that she has now become a wealthy and self-confident author of women’s books. Laurie Metcalf’s performance was consistent with the anachronism of the play: her mannerisms and expressions were engaging, but very much of today. Chris Cooper, whom I’ve loved in movies, seemed miscast as Torvald, who should have had a more prominent backbone, not the puffy face and slitted eyes of Cooper (is he sick?, one wonders). No Tonys there.
I’ve saved my Tony awards for Little Foxes, if only because the stars are brightest and the roles showiest. Laura Linney arrives with the reputation, and a role that allows her to dominate the men around her, by both honey and vinegar, and screams for recognition. Cynthia Nixon is even better in the featured role of the sister-in-law emotionally crippled by her husband. It would be fascinating to see the actresses exchanging the two roles, which they do in alternate performances, but presumably since Linney has the bigger name she has been nominated as Leading Actress and Nixon as Featured. It wouldn’t surprise, or disappoint, me if both won, although I suspect Nixon has the better chance. (I didn’t see Sally Field or Cate Blanchett, two of Linney’s competitors, but they certainly have reputations as sizable.) The play itself falls easily into the canon of classic American drama, alongside Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, in which human weaknesses lead inexorably to a resolution, never a happy ending. Regina is both the central character and the villain, and while you can’t feel too sorry for her you can’t despise her, either. Greed, for money and position, is the driver, which means that there will be winners and losers, or maybe just losers. Hope, if any, lies in the daughter; but she may be there just to keep the landscape from being too bleak. Little Wolves might be the better title.
The Play That Goes Wrong is in a category of its own, one without consideration by Tony nominators: the British Farce. We felt we were in London’s West End as the bumbling detective sorted out murder suspects in the manor house drawing room. It was silly, but silly fun, and the cast was appealing. (The nearest recent comparison would be A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which we saw last year and found cloying and disappointing.) The stagecraft was another star, with walls falling and prats falling at a furious pace and actors mugging engagingly.
The prize, however, for mugging, in both senses, must go to Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis at Shakespeare-in-the-Park. When Caesar strode onto the stage dressed as Donald Trump the full house erupted, and when Calpurnia spoke with a Slovenian accent the audience collapsed in amazement and delight. Of course, when Marc Antony called upon the Roman crowd to hear her, it turned out that at least 50 members of the audience were actually performers in the play. The production was such a rollicking tour-de-force that we little cared that the play’s condensed second hour had little of the excitement and memorable language of the first. John Douglas Thompson as Cassius stood well above the other actors (although the absence of Brutus meant three others, in domino effect, were playing out of position). The casting of so many black actors as Romans (including the entire corps of conspirators, save one) was hardly noticeable, but changing Marc Antony to a woman was a distraction, and I didn’t go for Elizabeth Marvel’s snarky, snaky interpretation of the role. The evening, with helicopters overhead, dogs barking in the distance, and audience members in and out for bathroom breaks, was a little like the 17th-century Globe experience and was wonderful.
As a PS to our month-plus of New York theater, we finished up with The Antipodes at the Signature Theatre, a new two-hour talkie from Annie Baker, author of The Flick and John. Eight Hollywood screenwriter types sat around a conference table trading stories, apparently gestating a new TV series. There was verisimilitude in the project and in the characters, although it was reality of the absurd. I found every minute of it hilarious. Oh, and there was Sarah, the administrative assistant, who spoke Valley Girl and signaled the passage of time by wearing a new outfit every time she popped in from offstage. I don’t know how the play would work in a bigger theater, but it felt right at home in the intimate space of the Linney Stage.

Broadway 2015

We have spent five weeks in New York going more to the theater than movies – especially since we were shut out of the Apu Trilogy on Memorial Day – so I thought I could use this space for a brief recap of what we’ve seen on the boards in a variety of venues: Broadway, Lincoln Center, Public Theater, Circle in the Square, Playwrights Horizons, New World Stages – four musicals, three dramas, all worthy, only one disappointment (Grounded, with Anne Hathaway).

Far and away our favorite was Hand to God, the story of a repressed Texas boy and his sock puppet. Every moment was hysterical, the acting was uniformly stellar, and we were overwhelmed by the creativity of the puppetry. It was a little like Ted, if it were live and Mark Wahlberg played Seth MacFarlane’s part as well as his own.

More conventional but just as funny was Qualms, Bruce Norris’s new play just about to open. Jeremy plays the odd-man-out in a get-together of swingers at the beach. It recalled a Terence McNally ensemble piece, with sex the only topic on the agenda.

As for the musicals, Fun Home deserves all the accolades it is getting, but I was only 3/4 engaged, maybe because of the unfamiliarity of the music, the staginess of the production in the round, or the lead character’s announcing the ending at the play’s start. The King and I was a total delight. Perhaps no one could have matched Kelli O’Hara’s brilliance, but Ken Watanabe was a puzzlement: he had great stage presence but came up short in the acting, singing and speaking English departments.

An American In Paris featured extraordinary dancing, but a little dancing goes a long way with me, and the story – never a strong point – reminded me too often of the movie, which I saw recently and didn’t like. The familiar Gershwin songs were wonderful; the less familiar ones not so much. We also saw Clinton The Musical, which I would describe as a hoot. Written by an Australian Ph.D student living in England, it felt more like a Hasty Pudding theatrical than Broadway production, but the songs were cute and the portrayal of a bouncy, perky, power-hungry Hillary was charming.

The only disappointment was Grounded, Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of a fighter pilot reduced to running a drone at an Air Force base in Las Vegas. Her performance was a tour-de-force; the problem was the play. I never figured out what its point was. It was better, in any event, than The Heidi Chronicles with Elisabeth Moss, which was the other play of this season we saw on our previous visit.

In honor of the recent, rather boring Tony broadcast, I will herewith hand out my awards for the above shows, which don’t vary much from the official results.

Best Actress in a Musical: Kelli O’Hara was transcendent. I melted every time she sang, above all on “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Best Actor in a Musical: Robert Fairchild’s effortless dancing, fine singing and pleasant personality made me forget Gene Kelly’s smarmy original.

Best Actor in a Play: Steven Boyer gave the most moving performance we saw, and the performance of his hand puppet Tyrone was not far behind.

Best Actress in a Play: Geneva Carr gave a performance beyond her years as Boyer’s mother, expressing a gamut of emotions as widow, mother, teacher, lover, confused Texas blonde.

Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Sydney Lucas and Emily Skeggs were nuanced, age-appropriate Alison Bechdels.

Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Brandon Uranowitz did well with the sympathetic underdog role in American in Paris.

Best Featured Actress in a Play: Sarah Stiles made homely beautiful and had the season’s best sex scene.

Best Featured Actor in a Play: Jeremy Shamos and John Procaccino stood out, but not too much, in the wonderful ensemble cast of The Qualms.

Best Set Design: The ship in The King and I.

Hamlet – 4

Britain’s National Theatre production starring Rory Kinnear was broadcast in Hahn Hall as part of UCSB’s Arts and Lectures series and disappointed for two reasons. One was that I couldn’t understand half the dialogue and Hamlet’s s’s and f’s sounded like lisps. One is more forgiving of live theater, but when it is a prerecorded presentation going around the world one would hope to concentrate on the performances rather than constantly be thinking, what did he say?
The second disappointment was Nicholas Hytner’s conception, dressing the characters in contemporary clothing and setting the play in a modern police state. Yes, there are numerous references to spying and “informing” in Shakespeare’s text, but what did this transposition gain us? The dialogue remained Elizabethan, so there was always a disconnect between speaker and what was spoken. Nor did the police-state allusion illuminate. If anything, it was distracting to have the Secret Service men speaking into their headphones and Ophelia hiding a microphone in her bible.
Ironically, it is easier to draw contemporary lessons when Hamlet is presented of its own time, just as the human figure can be sexier when scantily clothed than when shown nude.

Theater: A View from the Bridge

The contrast, on back-to-back nights, between Donald Margulies’ new play, Time Stands Still, and a revival of the Arthur Miller chestnut, A View from the Bridge, made me reflect that a golden age of drama, like the Greeks experienced or like the Rodgers and Hammerstein era of the musical, has passed. Margulies’ work was facile and shallow, presenting issues and emotions scattershot, at sound-bite length; while Miller set a simple table and let it play out at length, without diversion, into tragedy.
Both plays were set in a Brooklyn living room; both were animated by an arrival from overseas; and, for my purposes, both starred actors famous from film (viz. Scarlett Johannson and Laura Linney). Maybe because the 1950s were a simpler time, it was easier to write a play with timeless punch. The inclusion of lawyer Alfieri in the role of Greek chorus added as well to the timelessness of the play. More likely, it is Miller’s brilliance as a dramatist that has not been replicated. I think of Tom Stoppard as a living author whose work may still be shown fifty years hence. No one else.
And after paying $117 plus Ticketron charge for the evening, I am reminded again how superior a value a good movie is.