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.



Isn’t It Romantic – 6.5

Cleverly takes the piss of the rom-com genre in genial, lighthearted fashion. Doesn’t do much more, but if you enjoy Rebel Wilson (whom I wouldn’t have known from Melissa McCarthy) in a fantasy with Liam Hemsworth and some New York locations, it’s a pleasant way to kill time.

The Oscars

As the Oscars approached the big reveal for Best Picture, I thought things had gone remarkably well. There had been excellent musical numbers by major artists: Queen, Bette Midler, Gillian Welch, Lady Gaga. The presenters had largely acquitted themselves just fine without a host, and we had been spared the embarrassingly condescending and time-wasting bits involving “regular people.” Unusually, there had been surprise winners to my liking: Free Solo, which I had been touting for months, edged the favored RBG, perhaps a worthier subject but an inferior movie; and my choice for Best Actress, Olivia Colman, upset the unanimously-predicted Glenn Close. I had no skin in the game for the craft awards, but it was refreshing to see such diversity among the winners. All of the eight Best Picture nominees had received awards, so I wouldn’t have to feel sorry for a movie’s being “snubbed.” (Why I should feel sorry for any movie nominated for an Oscar is another matter.) Roma, Bohemian Rhapsody and Black Panther had each received multiple awards, fueling my speculation as to which way the Academy was “leaning.”

Then Green Book happened. It was not quite as confusing as Moonlight’s win over La-La-Land, and it did already have a Golden Globe under its belt. Nevertheless, the surprise was palpable and the controversy immediate. You will note from my personal Top Ten, which clocks Green Book in at #5, just behind BlacKkKlansman and Bohemian Rhapsody, that I am a fan. Viggo Mortenson was my Best Actor choice, Mahershala Ali clearly deserved his Oscar – unless, like me, you don’t consider his role to be “supporting” – and I fell in love with Linda Cardellini; so in terms of acting it’s hard to complain. But complain the critics did. The depiction of race relations was simplistic. Italians were stereotyped and demeaned. Dr. Shirley’s heirs objected to his portrayal. Blacks were somehow not appropriately presented. I don’t quite get any of the objections, but an aura of Political Correctness was applied and found the film retrograde and wanting. But hey, this wasn’t a documentary. What movie “based on a true story” doesn’t take liberties, often immense? To my mind, all the characters came out of the story looking good, kinder and smarter than they started. The only characters that took a hit were the Southern racists, and I haven’t heard complaints there. Almost everyone I know loved Green Book and recommended it. It was the “feel-good” movie of the year. Should that disqualify it?

There was a real split among moviegoers I talk to. Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody were “really fun.” Roma and The Favourite – the critical darlings – were “disappointing.”  The Times mentioned today that the audience rating for Green Book on Rotten Tomatoes was A+, while the Metacritics score was near a historical low. What’s wrong with having a movie that everyone loved, with great acting and a story with substance – it doesn’t hurt to remember the open bigotry that existed in our country not so long ago – get the Best Picture Award? It’s ironic that in the year the Academy tried to institute a Best Popular Picture Award and had to back away, the Best Picture Oscar went, after all, to the best popular picture.

The Front Runner – 7.5

A fascinating look at recent political history, turning on the question whether a candidate’s “zipper problem” should outweigh the substantive benefits he could provide the country. Of course, the question seems a bit quaint and dated, given the personal foibles of our current president, but it was certainly alive a decade later when Ken Starr and the Republicans were going after Bill Clinton. Hugh Jackman and Vera Farmiga were both excellent as Gary and Lee Hart, although JK Simmons came across as the Farmers Insurance spokesman. Most interesting was the personality of the candidate, who could stubbornly believe that the people didn’t care about his personal life. Since Hart is still with us, you have to assume Jason Reitman didn’t take too many liberties. As for depictions of the press, I thought their mob action was overdrawn until I saw actual footage of much, much worse in Maria by Callas.

Maria by Callas – 4

If you’re an opera fan – or, better, a Maria Callas devotee – there’s plenty here to savor: biography, interviews, soaring music and endless views of La Diva. If you’re not, there’s a lot of scratchy recordings, pictures of Maria getting into limousines and out of airplanes, old newsreel-style clips and not much insight into why she was considered such a phenomenon or so controversial. Not finding her particularly attractive in personality or looks, I was more taken by the sideplot and glamor of Aristotle Onassis.

Bohemian Rhapsody – 8

I give this a zero for originality and a 100 for hitting all the right chords, and when the chords in question are booming ’80s arena-rock anthems by Queen, you’ve got a head start on a really fun movie. It’s also a feel-good movie, despite the difficult private life and AIDS-related death of the lead character, Freddie Mercury, largely because all the people around him are wholesome, loyal and talented. The other three band members don’t change, don’t do drugs, don’t backbite, and they all contribute musically and write hit songs. Freddie’s wife is selfless and sweet in an impossible situation, and his eventual male lover is centered and mature. (Compare all this with the Temptations’ story, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.) I was never a Queen fan, but here their music is winning and powerful – maybe partly because we never have to listen to a song in full. Ironically, their first label head, played in full disguise by Mike Meyers, refuses to release “Bohemian Rhapsody” because it’s too long, while the movie of the same name can’t manage to fit it all in, either. My only cavil was the attention wasted on Mercury’s bite. Whenever he wasn’t singing, it looked like Rami Malek was fiddling with his retainer.

The Happy Prince – 6.5

Rupert Everett’s paean to Oscar Wilde’s final, desperate days is mainly interesting for its connection to Oscar Wilde. “The Importance of Being Ernest” was in the back of my mind the whole time I watched Wilde’s dissolution in turn-of-the-century Paris and Naples. Coming on top of Collette, I’m getting familiar with the period, not to mention the disadvantages dealt to women and gays. An unrelated thought: how nice it must be to be able to cast Colin Firth, Emma Watson and Tom Wilkinson in secondary roles in your project.

NY Fall Entertainment

Our fall entertainment schedule in New York began and ended with audience singalongs. At “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” the elderly crowd at the 59E59 Theater heartily joined in on “God Bless America” and many other Berlin classics. They weren’t as put off by Hershey Felder’s unpleasant looks and persona as I was. A much younger crowd at sold-out Madison Square Garden on our last weekend danced and sang along with the much more charming Billy Joel, as he ran through his catalogue from the ’70s. His voice was more mature but still strong, his hits all brought back memories to me, and they seemed to resonate with many around us who hadn’t been born when they first came out. As for my musical taste, it’s still rock’n’roll to me.
Another musical we saw fit somewhere in between Irving Berlin and Billy Joel: “Oklahoma!” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs were at the same high level as the other two, and it was fun to hear them again. Unfortunately, Daniel Fish’s attempt at a new look at the story can only be described as a misdirection. Departing from the original, Curly shoots Jud in cold blood, then is promptly acquitted so he can go on his honeymoon in an obvious miscarriage of justice. This leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s stomach, one that was foreshadowed by a feral dream dance sequence to start the second act. You don’t feel any better about the peddler Ali, who is stuck with a cackling hen for a wife, or even Ado Annie, who is fated with a husband dumber than a cornstalk. To play “Oklahoma!” as such a total downer takes the fun out of all the bright, cheery music that has gone before – music that dramatically does not support the second act’s depressing turn.
“Girl from the North Country” also featured some good music – this time by Bob Dylan – and was also depressing, but intentionally so, as it took place in Duluth mid-winter during the Depression. There wasn’t much of a story, just a collection of characters who interacted in a boarding house before it went bankrupt. The vibe was reminiscent of last spring’s “Carousel,” although unlike that show and “Oklahoma!” the African-American lead was actually portraying an African-American. Half the Dylan songs were unfamiliar, some were shoehorned into the plot, and many weren’t played in full; the result was I left wondering if I would have preferred a Dylan concert.
We saw five straight plays – all of which I was glad to have seen, none of which was a Michelin three-star worth the trip. The one getting the most attention was “Waverly Gallery, partly because of its author, Kenneth Lonergan, but largely because of its superb cast, led by 86-year-old Elaine May, playing an 85-year-old heading into dementia. As much as I didn’t like cheap jokes at the expense of the aged in Albee’s “Three Tall Women,” I somehow never minded May’s doddering, and the more reviews I read the more I admire her performance. Joan Allen, Lucas Hedges and Michael Cera were treats in their own right. The autobiographical play was more a meditation on a family situation than a dramatic engine, but it prompted one’s own meditations – and it was easy to hear as the characters all had to speak up to accommodate Grandma’s fading hearing.
“Lifespan of a Fact” benefited from equally strong performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Bobby Cannavale, a wonderfully mismatched pair. (Cherry Jones, as referee, wasn’t given as strong a role.) The plot was more a conceit than a story you could actually believe, but after a career of working with fact-checkers at TIME I enjoyed the ring the actors sparred in: should the article/essay be bound by literal facts when it was telling a bigger truth? Or, for example, how would you handle a piece by Hunter Thompson?
“Emma and Max” was another three-character drama, written and directed by the movie director Todd Solondz. The New Yorker called it “ham-handed,” which means it wasn’t subtle, which means I could understand it. It had the most inventive set of the plays we saw; the characters were cliches, but ones I appreciated; and the plot was linear and, in its way, hard-hitting. The whole thing could be described as small-scale, but given the size of the Flea Theater and the $15 ticket price, “Emma Max” represented the best value of our trip.
“Uncle Vanya” at Hunter College didn’t cost much more and, played informally in the round, was a memorable introduction, for me, to a theater classic. The Vanya character was a powerhouse, quite the opposite of Wallace Shawn in “Vanya on 42nd Street,” which we started to watch via Netflix. Chekhov, of course, doesn’t need my review.
The only disappointing play was “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a star vehicle for the estimable Janet McTeer. I spent most of the evening quibbling over nits that didn’t make sense or didn’t seem right. The whole thing had an air of artificiality, exemplified by the character of Alphonse Mucha, whom I subsequently studied in the Metropolitan Museum bookstore. In sum, I didn’t get a sense of Sarah Bernhardt or enough Hamlet.

A Star Is Born – 7

If you like watching Bradley Cooper (with Sam Elliot’s voice) and Lady Gaga (with and without makeup), you’ll find plenty to like in this movie, which owed its feeling of longeur partly to overlong closeups of the two stars. If you’re looking, however, for credible characters, gripping story or particularly good music, you may be disappointed, as I was. The dramatic peak arrives one-third of the way in, when Jack calls the starry-eyed Ally onstage to sing a song they have never rehearsed, to heartwarming effect. Everything curdles after that. Jack’s descent into drugs and alcohol made no emotional sense to me, let alone his suicide after a seemingly successful stint in rehab. And Ally’s looks and songs lose their authenticity, and her final memorial to her husband’s memory is totally forgettable. OK, so maybe A Star Is Born is not meant to be a feel-good movie. Somehow the depressing turn doesn’t jibe, however, with all the closeups of our glamorous stars.