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Maple and Vine: My Favorite Year

For many Americans - okay, white suburban middle classers into traditional gender roles - the 1950s was an idyllic time when the country could rest easily with our post-war status as the world's super-power before the internal unrest of the 60s began exposing the ugly imperfections.  For stressed out, caffeinated 21st Century urbanites, a trip to the world depicted in period sitcoms like Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or the nostalgic recreation, Happy Days, might offer a welcome mental vacation to a less-complicated era of structured roles and lower expectations.  Or perhaps even a permanent lifestyle change.

That's the clever set-up for Jordan Harrison's very funny comedy of manners Maple and Vine.  New Yorker Katha (Marin Ireland) is depressed from her recent miscarriage and burning out from her high-powered publishing career.  Her plastic surgeon husband Ryu (Peter Kim) is stressing out over trying to be sympathetic to his wife's needs.

But in between scenes from their marriage, the audience is introduced to what seems like a much happier couple.  Dean (Trent Dawson) and Ellen (Jeanine Serralles) are spokespeople for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, an organization that runs a gated community where people can voluntarily live the rest of their lives in a re-creation of 1955's middle-American suburbia.  As potential residents, Dean and Ellen present us with an orientation outlining what to expect.

"In the '50s you have to go places," Dean explains.  "You have to talk to people. You pick up the phone to make a call and there's an operator on the other end and you say "Good morning." Or say you want to find something out, you go down to the library and Miss Wilkes looks it up in the Dewey Decimals. There's a separate store for meat, and fish, and fruit, and a gent behind each counter who knows your name."

"Here are some things you've never heard of," instructs Ellen: "Hummus.  Baba Ganoush.  Falafel.  Focaccia  Ciabatta  Whole grain bread...  What you get is salt."

A chance meeting between Katha and Dean spurs her interest in their six-month trial period and she convinces Ryu that it's worth a shot.  Of course, being a mixed-race couple (she's white and he's of Japanese decent), they must relocate to a more tolerant section of the community.  Being assigned a role where he spent the war years in a Japanese-American internment camp, Ryu is given an entry-level position in a box factory where he finds satisfaction in performing his simple repetitive task well above the expected pace.  Katha grabs a cookbook and dives right into her role as homemaker.  It seems that not having choices agrees with them so much that they feel comfortable with the idea of trying again to have a baby, but would it be wrong to raise a child in this environment?

Director Anne Kauffman conveys a tone that mixes dark comedy with tongue-in-cheek wholesome fantasy, but while the humor of the play is spot-on - including a climactic moment that is horrifying to the characters but hilarious to the audience - the Katha/Ryu story is a bit undercooked, as is the game-changing subplot involving Dean and Ellen which is introduced in second act.

But until the rather fuzzy ending, the terrific cast makes this one percolate.  Ireland gives another one of her tremendously detailed performances in a role that finds humor in the notion that an intelligent woman who has achieved success in a highly competitive business can find joy and serenity in a lifestyle where advanced thinking is not required.  Serralles is very funny as her instructor, pushing the belief that women can find a certain power in being a man's arm piece.  Dawson displays an Eisenhower-era, smooth professional warmth and Kim counters with a more casual, hipster cool.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Marin Ireland and Peter Kim; Bottom: Marin Ireland.

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Posted on: Thursday, December 08, 2011 @ 05:37 PM Posted by: Michael Dale

Once: Love Notes

No matter how early you enter the house for New York Theatre Workshop's production of Once, the play is already well underway.  Most of the thirteen-member ensemble, all of whom play musical instruments, seem to have long been gathered inside designer Bob Crowley's cozy Dublin pub, playing traditional folk songs, dancing a bit and singing their hearts out.  The festive mood resembles the kind of improvised jam session you might luckily stumble upon some night and never want to leave, especially since audience members are welcome to join them on stage, purchase a drink or two and linger a while.

Though patrons are gently scooted back to their seats near showtime, the causal off-the-cuffness continues for a bit but before we realize it's happening, director John Tiffany and lighting designer Natasha Katz have seamlessly brought us into the storytelling aspect of the play without ever letting go of the atmosphere of that friendly neighborhood bar.

I say "play" purposefully.  Though Once is being pushed as a musical (Enda Walsh's beautifully written adaptation of John Carney's 2006 screenplay is credited as the book), it's really a play that happens to use a lot of songs as a realistic part of the plot  The simple, bittersweet love story has a guitar-playing singer, simply referred to as "Guy" (Steve Kazee) ready to give up on music after a bad break-up, until he meets a somewhat intriguing Czech pianist called "Girl" (Cristin Milioti) who encourages him to not only keep playing, but to take out a loan, get a band together and make a studio demo recording.  Though the two grow attracted to each other, each has baggage that would have to be dealt with before a relationship could be considered.

The score by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (who starred in the film) is an attractive collection of Irish folk/rock selections (including Oscar-winner, "Falling Slowly") that, in context, were written by the characters who sing them and the tricky part of having them presented is that, although some may be inspired by events in the story, they're never specific enough to keep the plot moving.  This creates a few slow spots in act one, but Walsh and Tiffany generally do a fine job of making sure every musical moment is about something, even if it's not fully expressed in the lyrics.  By the second act, Walsh's outstanding scene work has fully become the emotional guts of the piece, so much so that many of the numbers are completed without applause buttons because the characters' reactions to the songs become more important than the audience's.  If you do insist on calling Once a musical, it's a rare musical where the spoken moments are the most memorable; particularly at a point late in the story where a climactic scene is played in its entirety for startling effect with just one sentence.

But when the music does take over, it's given a ravishing treatment.  Players not involved with scenes remain on stage with their instruments, joining in at points to give the impression that the pre-show party has never ended.  Music supervisor Martin Lowe keeps their collection of mandolins, fiddles, guitars and the like conveying the feel of an impromptu jam.  If someone is inspired to dance, choreographer Steven Hoggett's movements are done with the same sense of improvised realism.  It comes off so naturally that an isolated moment where the cast moves in unison rings false.

Milioti, who has been doing some excellent work in non-musical Off-Broadway plays, may be giving her breakout performance here; revealing Girl as an emotionally fragile young woman who can be forceful and comically direct with others but painfully timid about herself.  She worries about having a cold exterior when she bottles up the love she's fearful of expressing.  Kazee gives Guy a sturdy exterior to protect a wounded soul; the kind of man who can only share the many textures of his heart through his music.

Hours (maybe minutes) before Once opened Tuesday night, it was announced that the production has secured a Broadway theatre to move to later this season.  Hopefully, the entrancing intimacy of the play can be retained in the larger space.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti; Bottom: Steve Kazee and Company.

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Posted on: Wednesday, December 07, 2011 @ 03:28 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 12/4 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Being on Broadway is the modern equivalent of being a monk. I sleep a lot, eat a lot and rest a lot."

 -- Hugh Jackman

The grosses are out for the week ending 12/4/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.



Posted on: Monday, December 05, 2011 @ 04:44 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

The Cherry Orchard: Strange Fruit

Whether it's historic Off-Broadway theatres being replaced by chain stores and condos after their rents are tripled or beloved long-time Coney Island businesses facing eviction if they don't conform to the bland, antiseptic vision of new planners, New Yorkers are very familiar with the culture vs. commerce issues Anton Chekhov was writing about in The Cherry Orchard.

His 1904 comedy, which was interpreted by original director Constantin Stanislavski as a tragedy, has naïve Russian aristocrat Madame Ranevskaya about to lose her estate due to the hard financial times that have hit landowners since the emancipation of the serfs.  Successful businessman Lopakhin, who grew up as a peasant on the estate, proposes a plan to ward off an eviction by cutting down the property's historic cherry orchard and renting the land for summer cottages.  Ranevskaya thinks the plan unspeakably vulgar, but she has nothing better in mind, leaving her brother, Gaev, and her daughters, Anya and Varya - as well as those whose lives revolve around the doings of the estate - to either consider or completely ignore the inevitable drastic changes.

John Christopher Jones' perfectly serviceable new translation cuts out the role of the beggar and clocks in at a quick, for this play, two hours and fifteen minutes (including one intermission).  And while director Andrei Belgrader's production contains many fine contributions from his ensemble, there are also some oddball directorial choices and clashes of styles that keep the evening from gelling into a satisfactory whole.

Dianne Wiest's Ranevskaya may not offer a traditional noble bearing, but her sweet fragility is touching; her indecision about her financial choices shown to be a result of distraction by thoughts of her unfaithful lover back in Paris and her deceased son.  The plummy-voiced Daniel Davis scores highly as Gaev, making his aristocratic air a mask for insecurities and his habit of breaking into billiards lingo a security blanket.

By contrast, John Turturro's Lopakhin seems to have arrived at Madame Ranevskaya's via the L train.  His initial soft-spokeness - perhaps an attempt to fit in with those from a higher class - comes off as a bit too soft but by the time Lopakhin is celebrating his action that resolves the cherry orchard issue the man is roaring with self-satisfaction and dancing in defiant victory around the room.  Unfortunately, Belgrader also has him ripping open a chair, sending its feathers flying through the air; some staying airborne long after the moment is over and causing distraction as they slowly make their way onto the floor, or into the audience.

There's some lovely work by Juliet Rylance as Varya, the daughter who would marry Lopakhin if he would just step up and ask her, subtly indicating her growing distain for the man while acknowledging that the wealthy merchant could bring her a better life, and by Alvin Epstein as Fiers, the aged footman with a sentimental view of the past.  Katherine Waterston's Anya has a contemporary nerdy feel, but she's frequently inaudible.

As the clumsy clerk, Yepikhodov, Michael Urie is made to look a bit like a circus clown, with his short-hemmed trousers revealing colorful mismatched socks and the squeakiness of his shoes sounding like helium leaking from a rubber hose.  While the director has Turturro speaking some of his lines out to the audience, Roberta Maxwell's unappealingly hardnosed Charlotta, the governess raised by circus performers, smashes through the fourth wall to involve audience members in her antics; rewarding one "lucky" guest with a half-eaten pickle.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Dianne Wiest; Bottom: John Turturro and Juliet Rylance.

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Posted on: Monday, December 05, 2011 @ 01:23 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Jacques Brel Returns & Wild Animals You Should Know

Jacques Brel is dead and buried and entombed in French Polynesia and the Zipper Theatre, home of the very satisfying revival of Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris several seasons back is now a beloved memory, but the producers of that mounting have been keeping the 'ol carousel madly turning for nearly a year now with regular presentations of Jacques Brel Returns, up at The Triad.

This is a condensed version of the show, featuring a revolving cast made up primarily of veterans of that Zipper production, but presented on a smaller cabaret space that wouldn't hold director Gordon Greenberg's staging, so the selections, mostly solos, are generally sung downstage center directly out at the audience, with music director Rick Hip-Flores at piano.

The Belgian-born Brel first gained international attention in 1957 with "Quand on a que l'amour" ("If We Only Have Love") and, until his death in 1978, earned great acclaim for composing both captivating melodies and catchy tunes with story-telling lyrics that poetically expounded on love, life, war and class.  The original Jacques Brel..., a long-running revue of his songs with English translations by Americans Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, opened in 1968 at the historic Village Gate on Bleecker Street, which is now a CVS Pharmacy. (Thank you, NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission.)

His material requires strong acting and character work from its vocalists and on the evening I attended the 4-member company included two outstanding actor/singers, Robert Cuccioli and Natascia Diaz.

Though Cuccioli is best known for his Tony-nominated turn playing the title characters in Jekyll & Hyde, Brel offers comic and dramatic musical scenes far worthier of his talents.  He's hilarious in "Jackie", appearing as a disillusioned straight-lace longing for a taste of the trashier side of life, and "Girls and Dogs," singing mock-poetics in tribute to canine unconditional love. He can move you to tears with "Song For Old Lovers," dance a jaunty lick in "Funeral Tango" and roar with dramatic abandon in "Amsterdam," giving the first act a breathless button.

Like Cuccioli, Diaz was a member of the original Zipper cast, but she was regulated to more youthful material while chanteuse Gay Marshall was given the dramatic highlights.  On this night, though, Diaz's entrancingly smoky voice and bearing of emotionally tattered elegance tore through the painful pleas of "Marieke" and embraced "Ne Me Quitte Pas" with fragile stillness.  Her sardonic take on "The Bulls," about Sunday matadors and the women who cheer them on, displayed some dandy comic chops and her loving rendition of "The Old Folks" was warm and tender.

Broadway vet Jim Stanek took on the younger male roles, giving a zippy neurotic energy to "Madeleine," the catchy tune about a fellow who keeps optimistic while being perpetually stood up, playing "The Statue," where a dead soldier mocks those who visit his memorial, for its dark comic anger and effectively reliving the nightmare of a virgin soldier having his first sexual experience in an army whorehouse in "Next."  Young Ereni Sevasti displays a strong belt and expressive phrasing in selections like "My Childhood" and "My Death," and a charming nerdiness as "Timid Frieda."

Jacques Brel Returns does not play a regular schedule, so check The Triad's web site for dates and casts.

Photo: Robert Cuccioli.


The age limit for being a member of the Boy Scouts of America is 18 years and if Jay Armstrong Johnson and Gideon Glick looked reasonably close to that age, or if their roles were recast and written as characters that were closer to, perhaps, 16, Thomas Higgins' Wild Animals You Should Know might exude more much needed seriously-minded tension.  Instead the play tends to teeter between stale melodrama and homoerotic silliness.

As the evening begins, Johnson's buff and blonde Matthew is performing a web cam strip tease for Glick's nerdy and awkward Jacob; perhaps as a returned favor because, as we later learn, Jacob is really good at doing something that Matthew's girlfriend won't do.

As each remains in his bedroom in their suburban homes, Matthew tells Jacob that he can see out his window into a nearby house where their scoutmaster, Rodney (John Behlmann), is staring at him and then kissing another man; a sight that inspires him to set out to expose the guy by claiming inappropriate behavior on an upcoming camping trip.  (Since the state where the play takes place is never specified, it's not clear if Rodney could be accused of attempting statutory rape of a minor, and, if Matthew is the age of consent, the issue of if his alleged actions could constitute sexual harassment is never put into play.)  Matthew's twisted reason for exposing Rodney as gay would have been more effective if Higgins had revealed it from the start instead of saving it for a late discovery, but, despite the Boy Scouts' reputation for homo-intolerance, the conceit doesn't ring true since Jacob seems to be an accepted member of the organization while being openly gay.

Meanwhile, Matthew's mom (Alice Ripley in a small role) is pushing her husband (Patrick Breen) - fighting thoughts of inadequacy for being unemployed - to get more involved with their son's activities, resulting in his chaperoning of the weekend campout along with the beer guzzling Larry (Daniel Stewart Sherman).  A father and son confrontation results in the two characters actually roaring at each other in an embarrassing display of symbolism.

Director Tripp Cullman does his usual quality work with a very good ensemble, but there's little of interest for them to play and what might have been a dark drama of sexual predation turns out to be a big tease.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top: Jay Armstrong Johnson, John Behlmann, and Gideon Glick; Bottom: Patrick Breen and Alice Ripley.

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Posted on: Sunday, December 04, 2011 @ 04:31 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/27 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"Because of Mozart, it's all over after the age of seven."
-- Wendy Wasserstein


The grosses are out for the week ending 11/27/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.



Posted on: Monday, November 28, 2011 @ 03:37 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Blood and Gifts & Private Lives

In The Book of Mormon, the young Ugandan ingénue sings of a fantasy world she imagines where all the warlords are friendly.  And while in J.T. Rogers' intriguing drama of 1980s American foreign policy, Blood and Gifts, Afghan warlord Abdullah Kahn isn't exactly depicted as a saint, the author paints him as a man deeply dedicated to his family and the culture of his people who, like a typical American father, has job-related headaches (trying to secure weapons to defend his soil against the Soviets) and can't understand the music his son listens to (Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do with It").  As played by Bernard White, he is a humble and patriotic man of dignity.

And he's one of several sharply drawn characters CIA operative Jim Warnock (impossibly square-jawed and emotionally guarded Jeremy Davidson) deals with in his mission to secretly provide American arms to Afghan freedom fighters via a Pakistani Colonel (Gabriel Ruiz) at Inter-Services Intelligence without making it seem to the public back home that the government is putting weapons in the hands of unorganized rebels.  There's Michael Aronov as a gregarious Russian spy with whom he cautiously shares an occupational camaraderie, Jefferson Mays as a beleaguered and somewhat neurotic British envoy and Pej Vahdat as a menacing Afghan with a soft spot for western women and pop culture.

It's a sprawling story that covers ten years and several locales and languages, but director Bartlett Sher neatly fits it into Lincoln Center's intimate Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.  Set designer Michael Yeargan places benches at the perimeters of the thrust stage where actors not involved in scenes are seated in character, helping the audience to follow the complicated chess match of a plot by allowing those in scenes to subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) make physical references to those they're talking about.

Given the subject matter and the audience's knowledge of what's eventually going to happen in Afghanistan once the events of the play are over, Blood and Gifts is surprisingly funny and entertaining, looking at the situation with a sardonic tone that doesn't undercut the drama.  With terrific performances by its 14-member ensemble, the swift and engrossing production emphasizes how everyone involved seems fully aware that they're in an impossible situation and the best they can hope for is to be in the best position to deflect blame away when it eventually all falls apart.

Photo of Bernard White, Andrew Weems, Pej Vahdat, Andres Munar J. Paul Nicholas and Jeremy Davidson by T. Charles Erickson.


Though no one removes a stitch and the lovers are generally more talk than action, Noel Coward's Private Lives gets my vote as the English language's sexiest play.  Its leading pair, Amanda and Elyot are each terribly rich, terribly clever and terribly competitive when it comes to being the controlling force in their relationship.  What sets their sparks of incompatible irresistibility is that each sports an independent nature that abhors compromise, but they are nevertheless thrilled by each other's indomitability; even when it crosses into mutual bouts of (relatively minor) physical violence.  (Disclaimer: By no means am I saying violence is sexy when it exits the realm of mutual satisfaction.)

Having been divorced from each other for five years, Coward has the pair reunited by chance while each is honeymooning in Deauville with a new spouse.  But while Amanda's Victor and Elyot's Sybil have delusions of being in an equal partnership, neither is anything near a match, and they're abandoned when the hedonistic heroes skedaddle for a Parisian flat.

Unfortunately, director Richard Eyre's rather perfunctory mounting of the piece captures only the surface pleasures of Coward's wit and barely registers any sexual excitement.  It's a marvelously strong play and those experiencing it for the first time should find enough for an enjoyable evening, but, especially for those with memories of the elegantly steamy perfection that was the Howard Davies-directed vehicle for Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan that hit town in 2002, this is not at all a fair representation of what Private Lives has to offer

Paul Gross, the best thing about this production, seems perfectly suited for Elyot.  His casual charm and deadpan drollness lets out the playwright's musicality of language with understated ease ("Don't quibble, Sybil."), and those tricky moments when the character expresses violent tendencies ("Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.") come off lightly as fetishy play.

Gross could likely grow deeper into the role if he had a stronger co-star to play off, but Kim Cattrall's Amanda comes off as unsuitably as the product of a rural high-schooler trying her darndest to "act sophisticated."  Her high-pitched voice, which frequently tends to shriek, pushes her lines out with little dexterity, nuance or humor.  She might as well be playing Sybil, who the playwright himself described as a puppet rather than a character.  Anna Madeley does about as much as one can expect with the bubble-headed, straight line spouting part while Simon Paisley Day has a nice go at making Victor an over-stuffed shirt.  It's disappointing that the director decided not to attempt anything comical with the small role of the maid, which is played rather simply by Caroline Lena Olsson.

While designer Bob Howell's twin balcony set for the first act is merely unattractive, the hideous aquatic-themed décor for Amanda and Elyot's overly spacious love nest is a tacky eyesore.  And when a sight gag is added involving a fish bowl that has sprung a leak, it becomes all too obvious that this production has divorced itself from all that makes Private Lives a ravishing comedy of fatalistic passion.

Photo of Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall by Cylla von Tiedemann

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Posted on: Monday, November 28, 2011 @ 04:39 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

White Christmas: Back to Berlin

White Christmas is just too good a musical to be limited to holiday-time productions.  Especially when you have Larry Blank's ultra-snazzy swing orchestrations vibrantly delivering a gold-plated assortment of Irving Berlin classics and Randy Skinner's dancers heating up the floor with some sensational tapping.

Based on the classic 1954 film, the stage version of White Christmas, originally directed by Walter Bobbie, has been making seasonal regional appearances since 2004, with stints on Broadway in '08 and '09.  The new mounting at Paper Mill, directed by Bobbie's associate director, Marc Bruni, appears to be a slightly scaled down version of the Broadway production, retaining Skinner's choreography and the festive mid-50s designs by Anna Louizos (sets), Carrie Robbins (costumes) and Ken Billington (lights).

The book by David Ives and Paul Blake streamlines the plot and adds some extra Berlin gems ("Happy Holidays," "Let Yourself Go," "I Love A Piano," "How Deep Is The Ocean?") while keeping most of the film's score, including "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings," "Blue Skies," "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy" and "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."

Repeating their roles from the Broadway '09 cast, James Clow and Tony Yazbeck play Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, a pair of World War II vets who become big time Broadway song and dance stars, back in the days when being a Broadway star meant you were famous throughout the country. On the evening before they're to leave for Florida to begin rehearsing their next production, the boys catch Judy and Betty Haynes (Meredith Patterson, encoring her performance from Broadway '08, and Jill Paice), performing "Sisters" at a nightclub and, with both professional and romantic possibilities brewing, follow them to their next gig; a holiday engagement at a Vermont inn. But an unexpected heat wave has forced the financially struggling place to forego its entertainment plans after every reservation cancels, until it turns out the owner is Bob and Phil's beloved General Henry Waverly (Edward James Hyland) from their army days, so they offer to move their Broadway show to the general's barn. In the meantime a few wrenches and misunderstandings get in the way of true love, but that's all straightened out by the time the chorus is dancing through the eventual snowfall.

The four leads all deliver top-shelf musical comedy performances, with Clow's sweetly mellow baritone matched by Paice's earthier tones, including her knockout torching of "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me."  Yazbeck's street-wise charisma and Patterson's showgirl sass set off major sparks when romancing to "The Best Things Happen When Your Dancing" and rat-a-tatting atop a very baby grand in "I Love A Piano."

A major factor in getting to the heart of White Christmas is that you have to believe the old general is the kind of man who would inspire the boys to gladly do anything for him, and Hyland plays the role with a heartwarming combination of protective tough love, sincere patriotism and a healthy dose of human decency.  Young Andie Mechanic has realistic kid charm as his supportive granddaughter, but the "ringer" in the company is Lorna Luft as the wise-cracking hotel manager.  Ives and Blake re-imagined the role played in the film by Mary Wickes as a vehicle for a beloved old pro musical comedy performer, and Luft brings down the house strutting and belting a super-charged rendition of "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy."  After her number, the character says that talent like hers can't be learned, "You're born with it."  The opening night audience, no doubt in recognition of Luft's lineage, responded to the line with enthusiastic agreement.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson: Top: Meredith Patterson, Tony Yazbeck, Beth Johnson Nicely and Megan Kelley; Bottom: Jacob ben Widmar, Lorna Luft and Luke Hawkins.

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Posted on: Thursday, November 24, 2011 @ 03:06 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 11/20 & Theatre Quote of the Week

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."
-- Oscar Wilde


The grosses are out for the week ending 11/20/2011 and we've got them all right here in's grosses section.

Up for the week was: MAN AND BOY (7.0%), HUGH JACKMAN, BACK ON BROADWAY (1.2%),


Posted on: Monday, November 21, 2011 @ 03:48 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Seminar: Class Dismissed

Theresa Rebeck provides plenty of mindless fun for the aggressively hip in Seminar, a breezy and enjoyable new comedy that will especially appeal to those who love showing off their urban cultural elitism by laughing very loudly at derogatory references to short stories published in The New Yorker and howling with yuks when a pseudo-intellectual mispronounces Inigo Jones' name while passionately giving a vapid description of the Yaddo artists' colony.

And it will most definitely appeal to women who want to scream, "That's me!!" whenever they see a Jane Austin loving, Kerouac hating well-spoken but insecure female dealing with career issues by changing into her most comfy togs and binging from a gallon container of Edy's Grand or a fresh bowl of cookie dough.

The story centers on the relationship of Kate (Lily Rabe) and Martin (Hamish Linklater), two young writers who have been "just friends" since high school.  Born into affluence and living in a 9-room Upper West Side apartment that she pays very little for because it's been in the family for years ("It's socialism for the rich," insists Martin.), Kate has arranged for Leonard (Alan Rickman), a famous novelist and editor, to teach a 10-week fiction seminar at her place, at $5,000 per student.  The cost has left Martin without rent money and he begs Kate to let him stay with her until he's back on his feet.

As they did playing lovers in The Merchant of Venice at the Delecorte, Rabe and Linklater show tremendous chemistry as a pair of overthinkers who share creative and romantic frustrations.  Kate has been working on the same story for six years, always believing it needs just a little more work, while Martin hesitates to have anything he's written be seen.

Rounding out the class are Douglas (Jerry O'Connell), a people-pleasing dolt with connections, and Izzy (Hettienne Park), who might as well put "sexual manipulation" on her resume under special skills.  The four of them handily banter about Rebeck's smart and amusing dialogue, but the sparks really start flying whenever Rickman's Leonard enters the scene.

Leonard is definitely not one of those teachers interested in creating a safe environment where artists can make mistakes.  His criticisms are unapologetically blunt with a cynical grasp on the realities of the business.  He calls one student's work "whorish," suggesting the pursuit of a lucrative screenwriting career instead of seeking respect in the literary world.  ("You'll be invited to cocktail parties. You'll get to go to exclusive events at the Public Library. But you will never be on a panel. Because too many people who know shit will know: It's hollow. The work is hollow. I'd think about Hollywood.")

In Rickman's presentation, Leonard's emotionally detached nastiness - exceptionally literate bullying - is extremely funny, since we're not on the receiving end of it.  Of course, life is not as splendid for Leonard as it first appears, allowing the evening to evolve into more serious bouts with bitterness and self-reflection that also involve Kate and Martin.

Seminar may not be an especially deep play, but it's a sturdy and entertaining one, given a sharp and lively mounting by director Sam Gold.  Special mention must be made of David Zinn's set, which places scenes in Kate's apartment in front of a large painting that depicts an upward view of a skyline formed primarily in multiple shades of pink, suggesting a kind of strength through girliness.  When the unit is lifted off the stage, it reveals Leonard's extremely high-ceilinged, skylight-lit residence; an enticing display of real estate porn that, by comparison, makes all the simulated sex scenes of Burning combined seem as chaste as Mary Poppins.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe; Bottom: Alan Rickman.

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Posted on: Monday, November 21, 2011 @ 06:27 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

Burning: Oh! Theatre Row!

I don't think I'm giving away a major spoiler when I mention that toward the end of Thomas Bradshaw's Burning, there's a reference to one of the characters as having won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Play.  I'm not sure I'd appreciate the honor if I was John Benjamin Hickey, as the character referred to is one of the sleazier ones in a play filled with sleaziness.

But the moment I think this play will be remember for by those who, unlike a fairly substantial number the evening I attended, choose to remain for the second act, comes a bit earlier, when the 24-year-old neo-Nazi skinhead art gallery employee (Drew Hildebrand), starts massaging the legs of his nude, wheelchair-bound 16-year-old neo-Nazi sister (Reyna de Courcy) and, upon seeing her aroused reaction, inquires, "Do you need to experience a release?"

The line was greeted with a huge laugh from the house that night, followed by many chuckles and guffaws as big brother fingered his sis to an orgasm (blocked away from the audience's sight).  There are those who will tell you that audience members encountering edgy, boundary-shattering actions on stage will react with what's called "nervous laughter."  I've sat in enough audiences to tell you there was nothing nervous about the laugher I heard during this scene; nor the scene set in the 1980s where the stereotypically predatory gay male theatre couple (Andrew Garman and Danny Mastrogiorgio) have a threesome with the 14-year-old hustler they "adopt" (Evan Johnson).  Nor the scene where the white curator (Jeff Biehl) encourages the black painter (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who has never slept with a woman of his own race to try anal sex with a black prostitute.  ("If you don't mind my asking, does your wife let you stick it in her bum?")

No, I'm very confident in my assessment that the copious laughter I heard all night at Burning was the laughter of people saying, "We are watching a very bad play that is trying really, really hard to be shocking."

This was my first encounter with Bradshaw, whose previous work has been generally seen in smaller spaces below 14th Street and, with The New Group's premiere production, is getting his first taste of attention from a well established, midtown located Off-Broadway company.  The whole enterprise seems to be baiting customers for a rise even before they enter the theatre.  The promotional posters and post cards depict a male butt (the same model appears black in some material and white in others) with the title Burning written across it, making me immediately think of hemorrhoids.  Once inside we encounter a trio of intertwining plots, one of which concerns a one-man play about an American who goes to Cambodia for some little girl prostitution and winds up taking a virgin tyke back to America to raise as his daughter, marrying her after she turns legal.  (His plea, "I am not a pedophile!  I resisted touching her until she was twenty years old," also got some hearty belly-laughs.)  And when a character insists, "Maybe you can do this downtown, but you've got to write differently for an uptown audience," the moment seems designed to force attendees to consider the extent of their own personal hipness.

A note in the script handed to reviewers reads, "All characters should be played with the utmost honesty and sincerity...  The play should be directed in a straightforward and realistic manner," indicating that Burning is to be taken as satire.  And while director Scott Elliot's company, which includes Vladimir Versailles as a young man questioning his sexuality, Hunter Foster as the guy who's there for him when he figures it out and Barrett Doss as a prostitute who has a way with words with both customers and their wives, admirably give honest and sincere portrayals, the play itself comes off as the most ridiculous kind of underwritten melodrama, accented by numerous graphic sex scenes, mostly fully nude, and, aside from the attractiveness of the company members, pretty silly in their deadpan seriousness.

Photos by Monique Carbon:  Top: Hunter Foster and Vladimir Versailles; Bottom: Barrett Doss and Stephen Tyrone Williams.

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Posted on: Saturday, November 19, 2011 @ 05:37 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback

About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.