New York (May 2017)

New York

  • Indecent, 5/9/17 (Tue), Broadway,
  • Groundhog Day, 5/10/17 (Wed), Broadway
  • A Doll’s House Part 2, 5/10/17 (Wed), Broadway
  • The Emperor Jones, 5/11/17 (Thurs), Off Broadway,
  • The Golden Apple, 5/12/17 (Fri), Encores!
  • Oslo, 5/13/17 (Sat), Lincoln Center
  • The Great Comet, 5/14/17 (Sun), Broadway
  • Sleep No More, 5/14/17 (Sun), Off Broadway

A busy week in New York. One friend asked me during my stay to see Come From Away, a musical about a tiny Canadian town that welcomed passengers stranded after 9/11, a show he characterized as important and necessary because of its pro-immigration stance. I then reminded him that the entire reason these people were diverted to Canada in the first place was because of acts by immigrants to the US. That shut the conversation down quickly. No way was I going to see that schlock (though I actually did hear good things about it later).

Indecent: Yiddish lesbian plays don’t pop up too often, so this one caught my eye. Indecent looks back on the creation and subsequent history of God of Vengeance, a Yiddish drama by Sholem Asch produced in Europe in 1907. The older show tells of a pious Jewish man who profitably runs a brothel in his basement. He tries to protect his daughter from the illicit activities below but is shocked when she falls for one of the workers. The original producers in Warsaw were upset by the depiction of Jews in the show as pimps and hypocrites, especially when the father throws the Torah down in disgust at his daughter’s affair. They felt it would only inflame anti-Semitism in the nation. It opened nonetheless and toured Europe to some notoriety. The problem was different in its later production in New York: after an uneventful Yiddish-language debut downtown, an English-language version staged on Broadway had critics in arms over a kiss scene between the women, staged dramatically in the rain. Questions of propriety and censorship and sexuality are overwhelmed ultimately by the fate of the Jews themselves in Europe, beyond which everything else paled. A line of impatient Jews at Ellis Island is echoed by the line of Jews at a concentration camp, and a chilling bit of dialogue at the end brings the theme into sharp focus: when reminded years later that audiences walked out of his show in New York, the play’s author laments bitterly, “Six million of my audience walked out.”

Actors are seated rather eerily on an empty stage staring out at us as we enter the theater, with the show’s title projected on the back wall in English and Yiddish (I assume – the lettering was in Hebrew). Similar subtitles emerge throughout the show. A narrator steps forward and introduces us to the actors, all of whom will play multiple roles, and guides us through the action. The minimal sets and small props provided some striking moments, including the final scene of the Yiddish show played repeatedly from varying perspectives, a beautiful image of actors with sand pouring out of their jacket sleeves, and the unexpectedly poetic kiss scene in the rain at the end. Great performances all around, especially the narrator and lesbian prostitute. The music added a wonderful touch in the distinctive sound of the Klezmer band, which included some of the actors. Other songs were interpolated to varying effect: “Oklahoma!” seemed a bit strange, but “’Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” fit perfectly. With a nonlinear presentation that shifted back and forth in time and space, the direction recalled Kneehigh or Simon McBurney at their best. A very worthwhile production.

Groundhog Day, about the sour newscaster who continues to relive the same day until achieving “enlightenment”, is one of my all-time favorite movies, and this musical version would have been high on my must-see list even without the raves it had received in London. The film has been seen as a Buddhist metaphor of sorts with the newscaster living many lives until he finally gets it right, and there’s probably something about the groundhog, who realizes spring only when he stops seeing his shadow. But all that aside, it’s a fantastic piece of entertainment that, unusually for Hollywood, doesn’t over-explain or take the obvious path. I was super-curious to see what the creators had done with it. I hadn’t been wild about the composer’s previous much-lauded hit Matilda and knew I had to temper my expectations, but I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. I was excited as well by the casting of Andy Karl, who had given such a terrific manic performance in On The 20th Century and seemed just the person to take on Bill Murray’s iconic film performance.

Sadly the show didn’t live up to the hype. The book was basically the movie on stage with small tweaks (topical references, cell phones, final scene). That’s not necessarily a bad thing given the brilliance of the movie’s scenario, but there was a sense of playing it safe rather than envisioning the show for a new medium. The car scene, for example, where the newscaster Phil takes his drinking buddies out on a wild ride, was out of place here other than as a riff on the film. For all the frantic lighting and movement, this did not feel organic to the show. The writers in general failed to find a sound or voice to justify bringing the material to the stage; they didn’t show much imagination. We shouldn’t have to know the source material to enjoy a musical (or play or movie or anything), and I wonder how audiences that have not seen the film would respond. Still, there were plenty of good laughs throughout, and the central concept is so strong that the book is impossible to dislike.

The real problem was the music, which was useless, and the lyrics, which were worse. The songs hammered away at points (“You must love life” etc) that the book made with great subtlety, rendering them irrelevant. The songwriter also chooses crudeness over wit, throwing around words like “shithouse” and “asshole” or references to an erection in a bid for cheap laughs. He relies largely on rhymes to do his work for him, and not even proper rhymes at that. The songs added nothing to the show that wasn’t already there, making me wonder if the show might not have been better off without music at all (or at least this music). That was particularly true for the much-born-again Phil, whose character didn’t benefit at all from being musicalized.

On the plus side, the staging was creative and fun, making adept use of a revolving set. The suicide sequence in particular was riotous as Phil popped unexpectedly in and out of the various scenes, and the meaningless car scene was at least amusingly staged. The beautiful snowfall at the end recalled Indecent‘s closing rainfall. On the acting side, Andy Karl was superb. He was the only component in the show that veered from the film: this was not a mere attempted imitation of the inimitable Bill Murray, but a more energetic presence that practically sought to be nasty, a perfectly valid interpretation that worked wonderfully in context. He was the show’s single biggest asset. He had a brace on his left leg after suffering an injury in performance several weeks earlier, but that didn’t seem to hold him back at all. Barrett Doss was fine as his love interest, and others, though hardly developed as characters, were good enough.

All is all, the show made me warier than ever of musicals for musicals sake. They’re losing me quickly. It was pleasant, but is that enough at these prices? Unfortunately the show itself is cursed to repeat itself every night every night as well, and this time with no hope for redemption. I’ll stick with the movie.

A Doll’s House Part 2: Theater folk have enjoyed speculating for years what might have happened to Nora after the events in the Ibsen play, and there was at least one musical version by Comden and Green that offered its take. I was happy to consider the dot-dot-dot at the end of the play as the final word and hadn’t give much thought to this or any sequel, fearing a PC version of Nora as the modern woman or such. But the unexpected raves just a few days earlier piqued my interest, and the cast sealed the deal.

It proved a smart reconsideration of the source material. The play that ended famously with a slam of the door here begins with a door opening: Nora, last seen leaving her home and family, has come knocking on the door several years later. She has survived the male-dominated world of business and become a successful author, while evidently having no contact with her husband or children in the interim. Now, however, she needs help: she is in serious difficulty because she was never properly divorced and has come to ask her husband to grant her one. Unfortunately things aren’t that easy, as explained by each character – Nora, Torvald, the now grown-up daughter and the maid – from his/her own viewpoint.

The show builds on the story organically, offering a feasible scenario while respecting the character traits established in Ibsen. Each character gets the opportunity to argue his/her side in extended speeches. The dialogue was brilliantly constructed and the speeches extremely well argued, bringing Ibsen’s concerns into the 21st century. The only sour note was the words like fuck that, as in Groundhog Day, were played for laughs, especially as voiced by the long-serving maid. Why is this language supposed to be funny when old people say it? It was entirely out of character here – would a servant really address the former mistress in this way? – and just called attention to itself.

The cast of four was superb all around. Laurie Metcalf and Jane Houdyshell were both spectacular; I hope the Tony voters were watching. Chris Cooper was excellent in every way as Torvald, and Condola Rashad as the daughter was beautifully cool and cutting beneath the smiles (though since she was a black actress, I initially thought she was adopted). The show doesn’t depend on a knowledge of the original, though obviously that helps. It is a superior play in a superior production.

The Emperor Jones: A bizarre play in expressionistic style about an escaped convict who has conned his way into the emperor’s seat on a small island. He tries to leave when his game is caught, but is faced with demons real or imagined that eventually drive him insane. He is ultimately captured and killed. With no real story, this is a strange early work from the usually naturalistic O’Neill, who was heavily influenced here by German post-WWI expressionism. That was reflected as well in the bizarre costumes and sets, like the tall creatures resembling toothpaste tubes carrying around branches to torment the would-be emperor.

The show is famous for having given black actors key roles way back when, but the casting here didn’t do it justice. The star (who was also in Globe’s Titus) was overly act-y. Less would have been more in his case. His mad scene was more impressive for its intensity than its believability. In fact, the acting overall was spotty, making for an interesting show in historical terms but not too memorable otherwise.

The Golden Apple: An Encores! staging of a cult show that hasn’t been staged since the early 1950s. It didn’t take long to figure out why. It’s a takeoff on the Iliad and Odyssey reset in the US. It uses strained humor that might have worked in a 30-minute parody, such as character names like Ulysses and Agamemnon for normal Americans. That’s funny only in the context of comparison with the original (e.g. a man named Paris judges pies at a bakeoff and gives a golden apple to the winner), not much to hang a show on. It seemed to be trying to make a point at the end with Ulysses singing about the meaning of life, but that was just dumb after all the silliness.

The show is through-sung, maybe the first major musical to do so, but the songs weren’t up to the task. The Copland-influenced music itself was interesting and muscular, with some striking melodies played wonderfully by the on-stage orchestra. “Lazy Afternoon” is deservedly the only standard, but some other melodies were worth hearing. In contrast, the lyrics were trite. They tried too hard to rhyme every single line, using just one or two rhyme schemes throughout in a tiresome technique (“Lazy Afternoon” was a fine exception). They were self-consciously jokey, trying too hard to be clever. I was tired of the songs long before they ended. It made me wonder how much of the amazing Candide is really by this writer (he died during its creation). The production number was good fun if not overly imaginative in its staging.

Mikaela Bennett was astonishingly good as Penelope given that she is still a student, Ryan Silverman had a powerful voice as Ulysses, Lindsay Mendez as Helen gave a fantastic rendition of the most famous tune (I wish the lyrics had continued at that level), and N’Kenge was memorable as the seer. Barton Cowperthwaite as the salesman Paris danced wordlessly throughout, easily the most dynamic dancing I’ve seen on Broadway since An American in Paris. The show, which had only five performances, used a simple set, though they did manage to fly Paris down in a balloon. Actors ditched the scripts entirely this time rather than holding them, suggesting that the concert pretense that characterized the Encores! series has been dropped. This was worth seeing once for satisfying my curiosity, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a general viewer out for a good time. Some forgotten shows should stay that way.

 

Oslo: My second Norway-based show this trip after Dolls House 2. An imagined account of the Norwegian-engineered secret talks between Israel and the PLO that led, we know now, to nothing. The play puts together a highly plausible account of the behind-the-scenes negotiations, where Arabs meet a Jew for the first time and Jews realize the utter passion (however misplaced) of the Palestinians. The idea that the sides can become friends if they just get together is sweet; bummer about the reality. The show also shows the struggles by the low-ranking Norwegian diplomats to win approval from their ministry for talks, since failure would be disastrous for them, dangerous for the Israelis (who are breaking the law by meeting the PLO) and literally deadly for the Palestinians. The show ties these strands together with great skill. If it didn’t happen this way, it should have.

The play is long and very talky, but dialogue at that level is okay by me. The affair was dramatized credibly and entertainingly. I was intrigued by the revelation that the Palestinian negotiator, who often left the room to, as he said, confirm details with Arafat, was not actually speaking with Arafat at all but simply staring at a wall until an appropriate period had passed. Whether or not that’s factual, it rings true given subsequent events.

There was typically smooth staging by Bartlett Sher, with a shift of chairs and the use of lifts bringing in desks to take us swiftly from Oslo to Tel Aviv to Washington to outside the negotiating room to inside and more. Characters were sharply delineated, benefiting from solid acting, especially by the main Palestinian and Jewish negotiators. The evening passed very quickly. Strongly recommended. (As a side note, it made me recall what an idiot that I, and everyone, was at the time for thinking that Arafat was taking any of these talks seriously. And history is already repeating itself. The hope-filled ending of the show is an eye-roller, though it probably does reflect the dreamy desire of the Norwegians to think they accomplished something. But enough politics.)

The Great Comet: A sung-through pop musical based on a love story in one section of War and Peace. It’s an unlikely hit that reportedly started in a tiny theater, its popularity boosted in good part by its star, the singing sensation Josh Groban. That said, it was nominated last week for 12 Tonys, the most of any show this season, so it’s no mere star vehicle. It’s hard to imagine its roots, since this is not a small show by any means. The show envelops the audience, with the stage thrust out into the theater and stairs coming from every direction plus a runway that ran right beside and around me. Audience members were seated behind and around the performers, who engaged directly with the crowd throughout. The performers ran around almost constantly, creating a sense of anticipation as to where the next character would pop out.

The narrative was fairly straightforward, though the lyrics were not always easy to pick out amid all the singing and screaming (I had to look up a Wikipedia synopsis at intermission). A woman waiting for her betrothed to return from the war falls in love with a vain, handsome rogue (is there any other kind?) and vows to elope with him. Her friend Pierre, an aristocrat in a state of depression, realizes in horror that she is the very woman that his friend Anatole has been going on about. He reveals to her that Anatole is already married. Shocked, she attempts suicide, but is guided back to health by Pierre.

The book comments on the characters as well as embodying them in narrative, a dynamic and engaging approach (though it did drag toward the end). The opening number is very savvy, introducing all the characters in an imaginative 12-days-of-Xmas-type countdown (with “And Pierre is in tears” as the partridge in a pear tree). The wide variety of musical styles includes attractive melodies throughout in Russian-inspired style played by Russian-sounding instruments, some by the actors themselves. The wild scene at the ball, which bursts out all over the theater with acrobatics and Russian dance, is a particular highlight. There are some lowlights as well, but the director keeps things moving quickly. I wasn’t always sure what was going on, but it was fun trying. The characters are pretty bumbling: someone shoots at Pierre point-blank in a duel but missed, and Natasha can’t manage a simple suicide. I was surprised that all worked out in the end given all the drama involved.

The lyrics are often straightforward narrative, a mixed bag (the story shouldn’t need that), but often irresistibly eclectic, like the Act II opener offering information from letters (“We’re Russian, so we write letters, we write letters”). The lyricist won’t be winning prizes for poetry, but the quirky approach fits the show’s tone. While the show was more circus than theater, it worked in its own way.

Groban proved himself eminently stageworthy as Pierre, with a great voice and strong presence. He also played accordion and piano, and had one of the few dialogue scenes in the show (I wish there were more). He was an all-around performer who justified the hype. (I was glad to hear that he was wearing a fat suit and not just fat, a nice case of low ego.) He was equaled by a very good Denée Benton as his friend Natasha and exceeded by Lucas Steele in a genuinely standout performance as Anatole. The mother was also memorable in her fury. I’m not sure if this show would work without its dizzying staging, but it was an experience. Recommended.

Sleep No More: I had never gotten around to seeing this wordless show since I was waiting to go with a non-native English speaker, and now I got my chance. I had seen a similar show by this company in London, The Drowned Man, around four years earlier, and the style is much the same.

The “theater” is an old hotel with the rooms acting as performance spaces. Audiences must wear masks at all times and are asked not to speak, then led without further instruction into the space, where we are allowed to wander freely. Unmasked performers act out scenes silently and simultaneously in multiple rooms over several floors, and it is up to us to piece together the story, a one-hour affair performed three times in succession to give us a chance to revisit interesting scenes or view new ones. The only clue, provided in the title, is that the show is based on Macbeth, and while a knowledge of that show is helpful, audiences still have to decide which actor is playing which part, which of the many scenes are relevant, which of the characters to follow as they bolt off in different directions and more. Letters and notes with quotes from Shakespeare or other information are left lying around, characters provide tantalizing clues to individual audience members (I was dragged alone into a room and anointed the next king), and many false leads are there to lead us astray.

There is plenty of violence, screaming, crazed dancing, male and female nudity (including both bath and shower scenes), and other oddities like a dwarf tailor, empty rooms with blood-spattered sheets, a dead baby in a birdbath and so forth. I actually missed the ending (someone was hanged, I hear) when I wandered into the lounge, where an excellent jazz singer was performing. But I doubt I missed much.

While this is more of an experience than a coherent piece of theater, it’s certainly engaging in its incredible attention to detail and close choreography of far-flung events in varying spaces that come together at amazingly precise times. If nothing else, it’s never boring. I don’t feel any need to revisit it, but have no problem recommending it to foreigners looking for theater pieces more challenging than Cats.

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