Review - Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance)

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I suppose Richard Foreman doesn't have many talkbacks after performances of his plays because, really, how many times can you respond to an audience member asking, "What the f***?"

But then, he might regard such a question as a badge of honor. Conventionality was never a strong point for this legendary playwright, director and designer.

Whether they realize it or not, Foreman's work is often the template from which satirists would spoof the wildest forms of abstract, avant-garde theatre. If you've seen his work before you probably know already if you're interested in seeing Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance). If you haven't, and you're the sort who would like to be exposed to all that American theatre has to offer, I would strongly suggest a visit to The Public to see the work of an original who has lasted long enough to make his inventiveness seem almost cliché.

As with the other 50+ theatre pieces Foreman has created since founding the Ontological-Hysteric Theater back in 1968, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes provides a tapestry of visuals and sounds that enhance a mood rather than convey story.

The set, typically Foreman, is decorated with an eclectic mish-mash of objects, including framed glossy headshots, framed black boxes, candelabras, chandeliers, wires stretched the length of the stage and random letters painted in white on the black walls.

The text is primarily spoken in a weary southern monotone by Rocco Sisto, an actor who, fortunately, can command attention through a wealth of distraction. His character is haunted by the words of a shabbily-dressed passer-by, "Go to Berkeley, make film."

On the other side of the stage, two mindlessly coquettish prostitutes in flapper garb, played by Stephanie Hayes and Alenka Kraigher, ponder if the advice was not a reference to the California city, "But possibly the long dead Irish philosopher of idealism, Bishop George Berkeley himself, whose view of reality might be poetically re-imagined as a vision of the world in which experience itself was but a thin film, spread in illusionary fashion upon human consciousness."

While they debate over that one, Nicolas Norena makes random entrances carrying various items such as a mirror, drums, flowers and an oversized playing card while dressed as the iconic advertising symbol, the Michelin Man. (As Anna Russell would say, I'm not making this up, you know.)

A detached voice occasionally commands, "Hold it!" At other times it lets out an, "Okay." An alarm clock buzzes, gunshots are heard and lights flare out into the patrons' eyes.

At one point I faintly heard the voice of an operatic tenor vocalizing in the hallway and I honestly couldn't figure out if it was part of the play or an actor preparing for another show.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Nicolas Norena and Rocco Sisto; Bottom: David Skeist, Alenka Kraigher and Stephanie Hayes.

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"Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable."

-- Leonard Bernstein

The grosses are out for the week ending 5/12/2013 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: JEKYLL & HYDE (11.2%), THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL (9.2%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (7.6%), JERSEY BOYS (7.0%), NEWSIES (6.6%), ORPHANS (6.5%), ROCK OF AGES (5.7%), ANNIE (5.0%), WICKED (2.6%), THE LION KING (2.4%), PIPPIN (2.1%), THE NANCE (2.1%), VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE (1.7%), ONCE (1.6%), THE BIG KNIFE (0.9%), LUCKY GUY (0.9%), CINDERELLA (0.8%), KINKY BOOTS(0.5%),

Down for the week was: MAMMA MIA! (-6.4%), MACBETH (-1.6%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-1.5%), ANN (-1.2%), I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS (-0.9%), THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES (-0.8%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-0.5%), CHICAGO (-0.4%),

If Betty Comden and Adolph Green were both born in Bombay, Singin' In The Rain might have wound up resembling The New Group's new musical, Bunty Berman Presents.... Not that Ayub Khan Din (book, music and lyrics) and Paul Bogaev's (music) Bollywood-set musical comedy is on the same level as that masterwork, but the spirit of silly 1950s MGM hijinks abounds throughout the evening. It's got laughs, it's got tunes and it offers a fun, mindless time.

Stepping in for another actor who was injured in previews, Din himself plays the title character, a legendary 1950s Bollywood filmmaker ("Wasn't I the first producer to put six monsoons in one picture?") who has been bombing as of late because his studio's regular leading man, Raj (Sorab Wadia), has grown a bit old and flabby to play handsome young heroes. Knowing that it would break his pal's heart to fire him, Raj disappears, so Bunty makes a deal with infamous gangster Shankar Dass (Alok Tewari), who will finance his studio out of bankruptcy in exchange for making his son the new star.

But Raj reappears in various disguises to help train Saleem (Nick Choksi), the talented young flunky whose job is to serve everyone's tea, to become the studio's next star. Saleem is anxious for the job because the leading lady, Shambervi (Lipica Shah), is his childhood crush from the old neighborhood, though she refuses to acknowledge that past life now that she's a star.

While the book only lightly spoofs the Bombay film industry (An upcoming project is described as, "A story with a social conscience, ten songs and a spectacular dance with elephants."), the show is crammed with old-fashioned belly laughs, the more than occasional groaner and some time-honored sexual puns. (When Raj, disguised as "Fatima, the Blind Soothsayer of Sind," starts referring to his balls... well, you know the bit.) A few gags do give off an "Are they really doing this?" vibe, like the moment when Bunty and his cohorts disguise themselves as women completely covered in black burkas to secretly listen to the audience's reaction to their new film, or when Raj pops out of one of his hiding places, an elephant's anus. (I'll spare you the Mein Kampf joke.)

The fluffy lyrics are pleasant, if predictable, but the music really succeeds in capturing the spirit of 1950s Hollywood musicals. The melodies of "Let's Make A Movie" and "It's Great To Wake Up In Bombay" are catchy as all hell. There's a nice bluesy torch song for Gayton Scott, who's terrific as the button-down secretary with a thing for the boss (Yes, there's a scene where she enters looking like a knock-out in a tight dress.) and an enchanting fantasy dance number for Choksi and Shah, who make for a charming pair of young romantics.

Given the circumstances, Din does well as Bunty but the role would work better with an actor with sharper presence and a stronger singing voice. Wadia's vain, but loyal Raj is a bundle of comic energy, performing even the silliest of routines with crackling timing and flair.

While The New Group's Off-Broadway mounting, directed with traditional musical comedy buoyancy by Scott Elliot, is certainly entertaining, Bunty Berman Presents... would most likely benefit from a larger production that can replicate the overblown glamour of its setting. But as it stand now, the show still delivers a fun night out.

Photos by Monique Carboni: Top: Ayub Khan Din and Company; Bottom: Nick Choksi and Lipica Shah.

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"Gossip is the lube by which this town slips it in."

That's about the cleanest quip I can quote you from John Logan's dishy I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers; a ninety minute solo piece that turns a visit with one of Hollywood's first superagents into something resembling a stand-up comedy act, except the star stays seated on her comfy couch all night.

That star, of course, is Bette Midler; not in concert, but acting on Broadway for the first time since she last told Tevye to ditch the matchmaker because she wanted to marry Motel.

Not planning a brunch, but nevertheless lounging in her caftan, the conceit of the play has the woman who became one of the left coast's most powerful career-molders ("Why be a king when you can be a kingmaker?") finding her own career a bit on the skids. It's 1981 and after already losing some high-profile clients, she's been informed by lawyers that her crown jewel, Barbra Streisand, will no longer be requiring her services. Ensconced in designer Scott Pask's sumptuous rendering of Mengers' Beverly Hills home (It used to belong to Zsa Zsa Gabor, she tells us.) she waits for a phone call from the star herself.

Her love for movies developed when she was a little girl, learning English from Hollywood offerings after her Jewish family escaped to America from Hitler's Germany. ("That's why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead.") The risk-taking attitude she acquired from dealing with anti-Semitic neighborhood kids served her well in her climb up the William Morris ladder.

As far as the dirt goes, there are plenty of anecdotes involving her professional dealings with names like Gene Hackman, Sissy Spacek, Faye Dunaway, Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen. And the names of successful films Ms. Streisand turned down act as punch lines.

But I'll Eat You Last is far more interesting when she's describing how her profession fits into the off-screen machinations of the industry, particularly when describing the exclusive dinner parties she hosts, where alcohol-loosened tongues provide vital deal-making information.

As directed by Joe Mantello, Midler slips perfectly into the role of a bawdy fast-talking quipster. Her comic sense is impeccable and her ingratiating star quality is the kind that sucks you in with the promise of a good time. The blonde wig and oversized glasses she wears are authentically Mengers, even though they do make her look like a decadent Gloria Steinem.

Oh, and if you're a good-looking gentleman sitting near the front... be prepared.

Photo of Bette Midler by Richard Termine.

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