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Culture Beat – Prototype Opera Festival; Met Fledermaus; NY Philharmonic; Lincoln Center Theater “Domesticated”

Posted on: January 19th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I have been so busy with LGBT legal developments over the past month that I have neglected to blog about my various cultural expeditions, so I’m going to play catch-up here with a few brief comments about the events I’ve attended since mid-December.

On December 17, I saw Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Domesticated,” a play by Bruce Norris which seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by the hit network TV show, The Good Wife. A public officeholder confesses publicly to patronizing a prostitute and is forced by circumstances to resign his position, resulting in all kinds of stresses on his marriage. This issue has received enough treatment now to raise the question whether another play has anything to contribute. What struck me about this one was that the playwright seemed to have sympathy mainly for the politician, unless the dialogue he wrote for him in the second act is intended to caricature his views, because, having been relatively mute through Act I, the politician spews forth a stream of invective in Act II, the main burden of which is that things seem to be rigged against men in public life who can’t win if they stray even once from the straight and narrow. Anyway…. I thought the show as a whole was rather depressing, although certainly the cast gave it their all.

Next up was the New York Philharmonic’s last performance of a run of five of Handel’s Messiah, which I attended on December 21 with one of my students who won a raffle conducted by the LGBT student group to raise money for a gay charity. The Philharmonic, exhibiting a singular lack of imagination, has fallen into doing Messiah every year for the week before Christmas. As if we don’t have enough Messiahs of every variety in New York City during December. . . At least with the NYP one can be sure that there will be a well-drilled, well-schooled choir in attendance, first rate soloists, and an interesting guest conductor. This year they invited Andrew Manze for his NY Philharmonic debut. Manze, who first came to public attention as an early music specialist, has been doing more conducting of mainstream orchestras, serving since September 2006 as principal conductor of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, and preparing to take up a similar post with the North German Radio Philharmonic in Hamburg, Germany beginning next season after his Swedish gig ends. Manze brings insights from the early music movement, which is useful in Messiah, so this account was fleet and ship-shape. Matthew Muckey, a fine young member of the Philharmonic’s trumpet section, was outstanding in “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” The soloists -Joelle Harvey, Tamara Mumford, Allan Clayton, and Matthew Rose, were all superb, but I was especially taken with Rose, whose marvelous recording of Schubert’s Winterreise I had recently heard. His bass voice was startlingly big compared to the other soloists. I noted that Manze, unlike some other early music practitioners, does not go for excessive speed, and at times indulged much more “romantic” sorts of interpretive moves than I would have expected, especially in the instrumental overture and the Pastoral Symphony. It was altogether a satisfying Messiah, if in some ways a redundant one. The Philharmonic could do us all a favor by injecting some more variety into holiday season concert-going by finding other suitable music for that third week in December. They are releasing next year’s schedule soon. Will it include yet another run of Messiah?

My next outing, with my usual concert/theater companion (who had been away on a business trip for much of December), was the Prototype Festival’s NY premiere presentation of the one-act opera, “Paul’s Case,” with music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Mr. Spears and Kathryn Walat, heard on January 9. Robert Wood conducted the American Modern Ensemble instrumentalists and a fine cast headed by Jonathan Blalock in the title role. The opera is based on a Willa Cather short story about a Pittsburgh teenage boy in the early 20th century who suffers the torment of being “different” from his contemporaries – concerned for poetry and music and art and a bit of a dandified dresser, he suffers ridicule and dismissal for not being a “real boy.” Thus oppressed, he steals enough money from his employer (he is working in a boring retail clerk job) to fund a trip to New York City, where he falls in with a Yale student down from New Haven for a slumming weekend, but he eventual perishes in the snow as he runs out of cash and has to leave the sumptuous hotel where he had stayed. Today, he would undoubtedly fall into bed with the Yalie, “come out,” and become a gay liberationist. But this is all subtext in the Cather story, and the composer/librettist appropriately leave it as subtext to be true to the period. Blalock impressed me a few years ago when he sang an important role in the Ft. Worth premiere of my friend Jorge Martin’s opera “Before Night Fall” (get the recording!!) and he was most impressive in this intimate “black box” opera production. The music was rather minimalist and at time monotonous – I found myself nodding off a bit toward the end of the Pittsburgh segment — but it really came alive when the action shifted to New York. The same performers who provided the supporting roles in Pittsburgh changed their costumes to become the New York performers, and Michael Slattery particularly impressed as the Yale freshman down for his wild New York City weekend. The inventive production was directed by Kevin Newbury, who used a few key props to establish the scenes.

On January 10 it was back to the Philharmonic for a bit of a hodge-podge program led by Alan Gilbert in anticipation of the Philharmonic’s upcoming tour. There would seem to be little thematic sense in bringing together Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and First Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Except, of course, for the fact that the NYP plays all these pieces well, and perhaps the contrast between the Symphony and the Gershwin provided a refreshing second half to the program. Shostakovich’s concerto, which received its American premiere from this orchestra in the 1950s with the dedicatee, David Oistrakh, and then-music director Dmitri Mitropoulos, who left a CBS recording done a few days after the concerts that has never really been surpassed, has now become a frequently-played showpiece for young violinists. Lisa Batiashvili, one of the legion of extraordinarily gifted young violinists now gracing concert platforms worldwide, brought plenty of passion and high technique to her playing. I thought that perhaps in the context of this program the orchestra did not spend lots of time rehearsing the Beethoven symphony, which came off as untidy in spots, especially in the first violins. They last played the symphony in 2012, so perhaps they didn’t pay so much attention to it in rehearsal. The Shostakovich concerto was last done by this orchestra in 2012 as well, and the Gershwin they played this past summer during their Vail, Colorado, residency. In other words, this program harked back to the “lazy programming” characteristic of the Maazel administration, when it was rare, apart from the very occasional premiere, to hear anything at the Philharmonic that had not been played within the previous five years. (The Fidelio Overture managed to evade this, having last been played by this orchestra a decade ago.) Each of these pieces is worth playing, of course, and a joy to hear, and otherwise this year the Philharmonic’s schedule has a fair degree of variety in it, so I won’t complain to hard. But when you put this together with the Messiah from December. . .

The next afternoon, I was at the Metropolitan Opera with my usual opera-going companion to attend a matinee performance of Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” performed to a new English libretto by Douglas Carter Beane. The Met rationalizes performing this piece in translation because it is really an operetta with lots of dialogue, but sometimes the English sounds a bit odd sung to Viennese strains. The production is lavish and seems to work well enough. In an age of countertenors, Orlovsky is no longer a “pants” role for a woman, so we had Anthony Roth Costanzo, one of my favorite young singers, as the Prince, although I agree with the Times critic that he seemed a bit stretched by the vocal range of this part. His acting and dancing was spot-on, however. The entire show seemed very well cast, with Christopher Maltman a superb Eisenstein, and Danny Burstein doing a well-crafted comic turn in the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer. Adam Fischer’s conducting was not quite as frothy as one usually encounters in this piece. The sets were worthy of applause.

On January 18, I attended my second Prototype Festival production, “Thumbprint,” a world premiere of a one-act opera by Kamala Sankaram (music) and Susan Yankowitz (libretto), directed by Rachel Dickstein, with Steven Osgood conducting. Although I was laboring under a bad cold, which distracted me at times with the business of breathing and stifling coughs, I was quickly drawn in by the intense drama of a young woman, Mukhtar, in a Pakistani village, who gets pulled into a situation where she is subjected to an “honor rape” by men from another village who accused her young brother of looking the wrong way at one of their women. Mukhtar, at first devastated and resigned to being damaged goods and perhaps fading away locked up in her room, is encouraged by her parents to fight back, and finds the courage to go to the police and testify against her assailants. She is lucky to appear before an honest judge who believes her story and convicted the leader of her assailants. Composer Camala Sankaram was glorious singing her own music as Mukhtar, and Theodora Hanslowe was superb as the mother. (I have a soft spot for Hanslowe, since her father was one of my favorite professors when I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the 1970s.) The remaining cast, playing a variety of roles, was also superb: Steve Gokol as the father and the judge, Many Narayan and Kannan Vasudevan as, among other things, the assailants, and Leela Subramaniam as the younger sister among other parts. The production was in a rather larger space than “Paul’s Case,” which had been presented at HERE. This production was at Baruch College, and used projections and props to create the Pakistani setting most evocatively. The music was a piquant mix of eastern and western motifs, using some ethnic instruments as well as western ones to produce the requisite exotic sounds. I hope this will receive lots of productions. It should be within the range of university music departments, and deserves wide exposure.

I also saw several movies over the course of the holiday season — The Book Thief, the Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Saving Mr. Banks — but have let time go by without comment and won’t bother to comment here, other than to say that every film I saw had some redeeming features and that 12 Years a Slave struck me as a particularly important production. I haven’t seen all the films nominated for Best Picture by the Motion Picture Academy this year, but if I were voting I would vote for 12 Years a Slave.

Current Theater: Metropolitan Opera’s “Rigoletto”; Atlantic Theater Company’s “The Night Alive”; Lincoln Center Theater’s “MacBeth”

Posted on: December 4th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Over the past several days I’ve had three intense, but very different, theatrical experiences.  On Saturday night, I finally caught up with the Metropolitan Opera’s “new” production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which was introduced last season.  Then on Sunday afternoon I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s presentation of the Donmar Warehouse production of Conor McPherson’s “The Night Alive.”  Finally, last night, I was at a performance of Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” presented by Lincoln Center Theater.   All were interesting and exciting in their own ways, but Shakespeare wins the prize.

And I’m tempted to write in reverse chronological order, because I found Jack O’Brien’s concept and direction so compelling.  This is a brilliant rendition of “MacBeth,” much enhanced by Mark Bennett’s extraordinary musical score and sound effects and the innovative sets and lighting.  This is not to slight the cast in the least, because I found them brilliant as well, but this production struck me as a total concept.  The choreography — almost constant movement by the cast members — was as important in signaling character and relationships as the text itself.  I found Ethan Hawke compelling as MacBeth.  Early reviews suggested that he was mumbling his way through the script, but that was not my impression at all.  His was a very physical performance, full of highly communicative gesture and vocal manipulation.  When he was performing soliloquies, he frequently spoke very quietly, presenting the soliloquy as the character musing to himself, and so close attention had to be paid to pick up all the words, but I would never say he was mumbling.  He was surrounded by an extraordinary cast.  Daniel Sunjata as MacDuff was fierce and fiery, Jonny Orsini as Malcolm, heir to the Scottish throne, was mercurial in his mood changes.  Anne-Marie Duff as Lady MacBeth was ideally cast, I thought, sinuous in her plotting.  Brian d’Arcy James, a favorite of mine from the TV series “Smash,” was excellent as Banquo.  The ghosts — Francesca Faridany as Hecate, Malcolm Gets and John Glover and Byron Jennings as the three “sister” witches — provided wonderful comic relief, especially John Glover.  Who can top John Glover?  I’ve never been disappointed by any performance I’ve seen by him.  I could easily find myself listing every cast member, such was the excellence on display.  This rendition of Shakespeare learned its lessons well from the pioneering films by Kenneth Brannagh, avoiding the stilted recitation of iambic pentameter characteristic of earlier American efforts and embracing a naturalistic reading of the text that made it highly comprehensible, even amidst all the movement and bustle.  I was stunned to see how many empty seats there were last night.  I suspect that the early mixed-to-negative reviews had their effect, as well as the competition from gaudy musicals on Broadway, but this production is the real thing – a masterpiece, highly entertaining, worthy of its distinguished author.  It should be selling out.

By contrast, I find it difficult to write about Conor McPherson’s latest effort, “The Night Alive,” because I found it so puzzling.  This is one of those “slice of life” plays where the audience spends much of time puzzling about who is who, what is going on, and why one should pay attention.  The central focus in this long, intermissionless presentation, is the ne’er-do-well Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, living in a ground-floor studio apartment in the large Edwardian House near Phoenix Park in Dublin owned by his uncle Maurice, played by Jim Norton.  There are but three other characters: Aimee, played by Caoilfhionn Dunne, whose identity and status is puzzling for much of the play; Doc, a hapless, somewhat witless friend of Tommy, played by Michael McElhatton, and Kenneth, played by Brian Gleeson, who materializes part way through the play and is soon established as having some prior relationship with Aimee.  Things don’t start to come clear about the relationships of these characters until one nears the end.  The cast, with the exception of Norton, is intact from the prior production in London at Donmar Warehouse, so they know their characters quite well and have developed the relationships in advance of this U.S. run.  Which makes it no less confusing for the theater-goer confronting this for the first time, since one has no idea why these characters have the relationship they do, only learning bits of their back-story well into the piece.  At the end, I was not sure what had been accomplished, other than depicting the interaction of a particular motley group of characters.  Perhaps there’s more there….  It was a pleasure to see Hinds, who has turned up in so many interesting movies and plays, and who I particularly remember from his star turn as Julius Caesar in the first season of the TV mini-series “Rome.”

Finally, going in reverse order, the Met’s Rigoletto, in a production conceived and directed by Michael Mayer.  The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, currently principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, is making his Met debut this season in this production, and I thought he led a buoyant performance, although it didn’t reach the end until well past the advertised time, which I put down as much to the overly-long intermissions as anything else, since tempi tended to be very forward-moving.  The orchestra played well for him.  Mayer’s concept is to place the story in Las Vegas in 1960, the Duke being some kind of authority figure at a grand casino where Rigoletto hangs around as a sort of court-jester type.  Sparafucile and his sister Maddalena are what they are in the original: hit man and prostitute.  There is some playing about with other characters.  Monterone, in particular, is presented as Arab shiek in Middle Eastern dress with suited bodyguards with Muslim headwear in tailored western suits.  Well, it could work, but with that name?  (I suspect Mayer’s guidelines from the Met included a requirement that no matter what updating he did, the Italian text could not be tampered with — but that didn’t inhibit the subtitle writer!!).  At the end, a 1960s vintage Cadillac is parked by Sparafucile’s place, with custom license plates identifying the car as his, and this is where Gilda, daughter of Rigoletto, is stashed after the murder — in the trunk.  My opera-going companion asked why Rigoletto, who was given the car keys by Sparafucile in order to drive the body to be dumped in “the river”, didn’t immediately drive her to an emergency room upon finding her stabbed and bleeding in the trunk.  Well, this is opera, not real life.  The only staging business that I thought was wrong was in the second act when Gilda is about to make her confession to Rigoletto.  He asks the crowd of men who have been hanging around outside the Duke’s quarters to leave, but they stay huddled at the back of the space, obviously overhearing everything.  And then Gilda sings about the fierce, forbidding look in Rigoletto’s eyes before she begins to confess her promiscuity with the Duke — but as she sings this, he is standing at the far end of the stage with his back to her.  It’s as if Mayer staged the scene without regard to what the characters are singing — a frequent problem with these “updatings” of operas.  All that said, I found that the concept worked very well most of the time, pumping some new life into the old standard.  But Rigoletto’s life really comes from the music, especially the big solo numbers, and these were handled well.  As to casting, the only disappointment for me was Matthew Polenzani as The Duke – Not because of his singing, but because the Duke has to be charismatic for the plot to work, and Polenzani doesn’t really project that kind of charisma.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Rigeletto was a revelation, totally transforming himself from the dashing Russian with the sharp cheekbones and mop of startling white hair into the old, shlumpy Italian court jester, balding, humpbacked, physically clumsy.  It was an incredible bit of acting, and he sang the role with authority.  Sonya Yoncheva as Gilda was fine, projecting the naïve love for the Duke.  I thought Stefan Kocan as Sparafucile was brilliantly cast, and practically stole every scene he was in.  Oksana Volkova as Maddalena seemed a bit light of voice for her part, but did the physical acting of the seductress well.  Secondary roles were all well taken.  The physical production is spectacular, but so specialized that I don’t think it will wear well.  Once one has seen this concept, one is not likely to be eager for a repeat, so this is not likely to be a production that is brought back regularly.  I think more traditional productions tend to have much more staying power (see, e.g., the Met’s Rosenkavalier and La Boheme).  But I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad it is packing them in, since the Met needs the patronage, as its more risky productions have left vacant seats this year, or so I’ve heard.

Recent theatrical and concert doings – “Little Miss Sunshine”, Orchestra of St. Luke’s & Ivan Fischer, “And Away We Go”

Posted on: November 25th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last Wednesday I attended a perform of William Finn and James Lapine’s new musical show, “Little Miss Sunshine,” at the Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway.  This show as inspired by the movie of the same name from several years back.  Mr. Lapine directed.   I thought the production was well-designed, given the limitations of the small stage, but I did not think this story was crying out for musical treatment.  It seemed more like a play with songs than a musical, and the music was not up to the high standard Mr. Finn has set in some of his earlier shows.  The cast seemed to be working very hard, but without much real effect.  I was delighted, however, to see in the supporting case Wesley Tailor, one of my favorites from the TV series “Smash.”  (He played “Bobby,” a member of the musical ensemble.)  One of my sadnesses at learning that “Smash” was not renewed for a third season was not getting to see more of the entertaining supporting characters such as Mr. Tailor, so I was happy to see him in this show, although I think his talents could be better used in a more substantial role.

On Thursday evening I was at Carnegie Hall for a subscription concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with guest conductor Ivan Fischer and piano soloist Jonathan Biss in the Schumann Piano Concerto.  St. Luke’s was playing up to their high standard.  The program opened with Leo Weiner’s Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3, composed during his first year of study at the Budapest Conservatory.  It is a reasonably well-made student piece, but not distinctive enough to hold my attention through-out its four brief movements, and despite my general interest in exploring new repertory, I’m not sure this is a piece that deserved exposure at Carnegie Hall.  The Schumann Concerto came next.  I’ve found that this piece, rather low-key for a romantic period piano concerto, works best when the pianist and conductor adopt an interventionist approach, putting some flair and punch into the music.  But that’s not really Biss’s style (although it is clearly Fischer’s style).  I found a mismatch here.  Biss’s playing was very smooth, flowing, technically immaculate, but not particularly dramatic in terms of accents, phrasing and dynamics.  Fischer, on the other hand, was wont to pump things up again, so the tuttis and the solo passages seemed to be coming from different universes, or so it struck me that way.  After intermission, Fischer led an absolutely delightful rendition of Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches, a collection of five short pieces channeling the spirit of Hungarian folk music without actually quoting folk tunes.  I thought this performance was really inspired, especially Fischer’s rendition of the fourth, usually translated as “Slightly Tipsy” but called “A Bit Tipsy” in the printed program.  Most of the recordings I’ve heard of this music have been rather straight-forward, the conductor evidently believing that just playing what was written was sufficient to convey the intended mood, but Fischer exaggerated the lurching tempos, which was great fun.  Bartok intended this movement to be funny, and Fischer clearly shares that sense of humor.  Finally, a performance of Mozart’s Symphony in C, No. 40, K. 551 (“The Jupiter”), which really knocked my socks off.  I am used to hearing this as a very majestic essay in classical form, but Fischer hears it as a very dramatic, romantic piece, and got the orchestra to play it that way.  From the first sharp chords at the opening, I knew I was in for something different, and I came away convinced that this symphony is much better than I had previously thought.  My own rankings of the final three Mozart symphonies composed in 1788 has been to put the G Minor [#40] in first place, followed by the Eb (No. 39) with the old Jupiter bringing up the rear.  Now I’m rethinking that order.

Finally, on Saturday I caught a matinee preview performance of Terrence McNally’s latest, “And Away We Go,” at the Pearl Theatre Company, again off-Broadway.  Since this is a preview, I won’t say very much because a review would be inappropriate while the author and director are still making adjustments.  But I can say that I didn’t find the overall concept very convincing, although I was intermittently amused and even moved.  The rapid changes of time and place (all on the same unit-set with the performers in the same modern street clothes) did not work for me.  But it may work for others.  And perhaps by the time it opens it will be tightened up some.  This performance ran rather longer than advertised, without an intermission, which became a bit wearying.

Busy Culture Week: Kill Your Darlings, A Time to Kill, Peoples’ Symphony Concerts (Borromeo Quartet & Richard Stoltzman), Thor

Posted on: November 10th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A little bit of this, a little bit of that….  I already wrote about the Ned Rorem 90th Birthday Concert that I attended on Tuesday night (Nov. 5), but wanted to mention my other expeditions of the week.

On Monday night, I saw “Kill Your Darlings” at Film Society of Lincoln Center.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale based on real events.  It focuses on Allen Ginsberg’s first year as a student at Columbia University, and the crowd he fell in with, some of whom went on to become part of his literary circle as “the Beats”.  But the focus of this is the radicalization of Ginsberg, who came from a somewhat sheltered New Jersey suburban childhood and fell in with a “rad” crowd centered around a wild young man enchantingly portrayed by Dane DeHaan, who steals the film right out from under Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Ginsberg).  Also notable are Ben Foster as William Burroughs and Michael C. Hall as a slightly older man who is obsessed with DeHaan’s character and comes to be a rival to Ginsberg for his affections.  A little curious internet snooping after seeing this film confirmed for me that the main lines of the story depicted in the film are accurate, but not all the details by any means.  I’m a sucker for “historical” films, however, and I also loved the score by Nico Muhly (who seems to be everywhere these days).

On Wednesday night I saw a performance of “A Time to Kill,” a Broadway play based on the novel of the same name by John Grisham.  When I read the book, many years ago, I thought it was a fantastic inside look at criminal defense work that should be read by law students.  I was surprised when somebody tried to turn it into a film, which did not turn out particularly well, and even more surprised when I heard somebody was turning it into a play (Rupert Holmes).  I don’t think this material translates well either to screen or stage.  The strength of Grisham’s novel is the inside look it gives at the procedure of putting together a defense of a capital murder charge, and much of the interesting detail goes by the wayside, since a film or play has to focus on characters and plotting.  And although some of the characters are interesting in their own right in the novel, that is mainly because of the back-stories Grisham gives them, much of which perforce is omitted from the dramatizations.  The plot itself is pretty far-out and unconvincing much of the time.  One keeps thinking “that couldn’t really happen, could it”?  On Thursday morning the Times ran the announcement that the play would be closing in two weeks.  If the actors received that announcement before Wednesday’s production, maybe that helps to explain the somewhat listless performance.  I was sitting in the first row of the rear mezzanine, and the overwhelming majority of seats up there were empty.  The closing notice was no surprise.

Thursday night I attended a farewell party at Bar-Tini for Brad Snyder, who has stepped down as Executive Director of the LGBT Law Association to take up a development position at the LGBT Community Center.  Brad has done wonders for LeGaL, professionalizing the office operation in many ways, putting together great annual dinner programs and CLEs, and most importantly in terms of my involvement working a visual transformation on Lesbian/Gay Law Notes and initiating the monthly Law Notes podcasts.  I’ll really miss him, and so will the organization.  His interim replacement while a search is launched for a permanent successor will be Matt Skinner.

Last night I attended Peoples’ Symphony Concert’s program at Washington Irving High School.  The Borromeo String Quartet caused a bit of a stir by performing from laptops instead of sheet music.  As their first violinist explained, this made it possible for them to play from full scores instead of individual parts, which they deemed advantageous.  The laptops were fitted out with foot pedals that they used to effect the “page turns” (actually just advancing a page on the pdf’s that were exhibited on their screens.  In the first half they gave us a suitably serious performance of Beethoven’s “Serioso” String Quartet, Op. 95, and the first NY performance of Lera Auerbach’s String Quartet No. 7, which was written for them.  The Auerbach piece is just modernistic enough to be a little challenging for the audience, but not off-putting to anybody who stays current on new music trends.  She has mastered writing for this combination of instruments, and the finale, in particular, ended with a real haunting repeated melody that kept playing in my head after the piece was over.  I hope they get to record it.  (The concert was taped; I suspect this was to be able to provide Auerbach with a recording of her piece.)  After intermission, Richard Stoltzman joined the quartet for a performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, one of that master’s last works.  As a longtime fan of Stoltzman, I’m sorry to report that unless this concert was an outlier, he is no longer up to performing in concert.  Although he’s only 70 — not a really great age as clarinet players go, as far as I know — the breath control is no longer dependable, the fingers are a bit stiff, and the results are sometimes distressing.  His tone on high notes was shrill and metallic, and there were little hesitations at the start of arpeggios and scales that seemed to me more about technical weakness than interpretation.  These problems were particularly evident when it came to long sustained notes in the sublime adagio movement; he had difficulty sustaining them with any kind of quality.   The third movement – menuet and trio – was the least problematic, but that was partly because Mozart doesn’t use the clarinet during the trio portion.  As an encore, they played a movement from another clarinet quintet that Mozart abandoned; Kitchen announced that musicologist Robert Levin completed the movement from Mozart’s surviving sketches.  It struck me as interesting without being special, and that may explain why Mozart abandoned the project.

Finally, for a little mindless diversion this morning before getting to the office, the newest film in the “Thor” series, with Chris Hemsworth as the title character.  If one had not seen the first film, one would be very puzzled about who these characters are and what is going on.  Even with that, the plotting was minimally comprehensible most of the time, the 3-D effect was minimal, and the screen was filled up with CGI more than people a lot of the time.  Lots of noise on the soundtrack, too.  In other words, I got what I was expecting – some mindless, fast-paced entertainment.  The guy who plays Thor’s evil brother stole all his scenes, Anthony Hopkins was almost unidentifiable as Odin, Thor’s father.   Well, it’s a franchise.  If the film does well, there will be a third Thor….

 

“Big Fish” Takes Time to Get Interesting (caution, plot spoilers)

Posted on: October 30th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended a performance of “Big Fish,” the new musical show with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and book by John August, last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.  The big draw, of course, is to see Norbert Leo Butz doing his thing – big production numbers, dancing, etc.  But through the long first act, my impression was that this was a piece of fluff, all about the production numbers, with supporting stars Bobby Steggert and Kate Baldwin being wasted in roles that didn’t really call upon their many talents.

I changed my mind during the second act.  I found more drama and interesting themes emerging, gradually supplanting the production numbers and resulting in a show that, by its conclusion, was quite affecting.

Essentially, this is a story about the relationship of a man with his son, how the son as a youngster judges his father harshly as a confabulator, only to discover, after he grows up and his father lays dying, that in fact the man had substantive, heroic qualities about which he had not cared to speak.  The son comes to appreciate his father just as he loses him, but takes lessons in how to raise his own son, born shortly after the father’s death.  And both Steggert and Baldwin end up having much more to do in the second act.  By the end, although I still felt that Steggert, in particular, was not given enough material to work with here, the overall balance tipped in favor of the show.

Susan Stroman handled direction and choreography, and the individuals responsible for sets, lighting, costumes and sound did a great job, although I think Mr. Steggert could be miked just a bit louder to be heard over the orchestra.  Instead of putting the orchestra in a pit, it is arrayed behind a solid scrim at the back of the stage, so it is actually projecting much louder than a pit orchestra out into the auditorium — and there is the usual unfortunate Broadway amplification as well, so the singers need to be amped up to be heard.  One wonders how Broadway got along back before electric amplification – maybe people were just better listeners in the acoustic theater age.  I think they could play with the balances a bit more as the run progresses.

Would I recommend this show?  Yes, with the reservation that the first act is too long and the fluff goes on too long before it finally gets into some substance, but once it does it is really quite moving and involving.   Butz does some of his best acting when he’s lying in bed, portraying a man slowing fading away from cancer.

Weekend Culture – “The Landing”, Garrick Ohlsson at PSC, ASO’s Classics Declassified Mendelssohn 5th at Symphony Space

Posted on: October 28th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Busy cultural weekend for me.

Saturday afternoon I attended a performance at the Vineyard Theatre of “The Landing,” a new musical by Greg Pierce (book and lyrics) and John Kander (music).  This is Kander’s first full-length show with a new collaborator since the passing of his former writing partner, Fred Ebb.  It is a modest three-part show with a four-member cast, on this occasion Julia Murney, David Hyde Pierce (uncle of Kander’s collaborator), Frankie Seratch (‘the kid’), and Paul Anthony Stewart.  Each of the three revolves around a 12-year-old boy, a precocious math nerd in the first piece (“Andra”), a nephew spending the summer with the weird relatives in the second (“The Brick”), and a child adopted by a gay male couple in the third (“The Landing”).  At first I didn’t think the shows had much to do with each other, but on reflection I guess seeing the world through this 12-year-old’s perspective is interesting.  Is Kander “written out”?  The music struck me as serviceable but not memorable, as I didn’t think any of the songs could have much of a life outside the framework of this show.  The energetic cast did a great job of putting over the material, well directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Josh Rhodes.  It was an entertaining few hours, but nothing really deep.

Saturday evening I attended the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts program at Washington Irving High School.  Garrick Ohlsson provided an exciting piano recital, with programmed music by Brahms, Liszt, Debussy and Chopin, and two encores by Scriabin.  Hearing Ohlsson always makes me nostalgic, because he played the first piano recital I attended as an undergrad at Cornell in 1970.  (He had recently won the Warsaw Chopin Competition and was making his first big splash in the US music scene.)  He remains an exciting performer more than 40 years later, and I found much to enjoy Saturday night.  His Liszt was phenomenal, sweeping, with wide dynamic range, but always under control.  The Debussy showed his wide array of tonal colors.  But some of the best playing, as usual, came with the encores, a “Poem” and an “Etude”.  Ohlsson is the thinking person’s virtuoso, and live up to that reputation on Saturday.

Finally, Sunday afternoon I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Declassified program, devoted to Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony, known as the “Reformation Symphony” because the event that inspired its composition (300th anniversary of the Augsberg Confession) and the dominant role given to Martin Luther’s hymn, a Mighty Fortress is our God, in the last movement.  Leon Botstein’s lecture went on much too long — he has little sense of time when he is doing these, the one weakest element in this series — but included some interesting stuff, particularly the focus on material from the original draft of the symphony that the composer edited out.  (This was an early work of the composer’s 19th-20th year that was not published until after his death, and had only one or two performances in his lifetime.)  Botstein thought two of the excisions were unfortunate, so reinserted them for the orchestra’s performance of the complete work.  I disagree with Botstein; I think Mendelssohn was correct to see that the two excised portions were out of character for the work and delayed its progression, and thus were correctly removed.  Assuming Mendelssohn, unlike Bruckner, did not make these cuts under pressure from youngsters who knew no better, I don’t think we should question is final judgment.  That aside, the performance of the symphony was thrilling, despite some less than immaculate ensemble from the strings.  The winds covered themselves with glory.  This piece deserves to be performed more frequently.  The last time I heard a live performance, to my best recollection, was Michael Tilson Thomas with the Boston Symphony when I was a student in the mid 1970s!  Indeed, that may be the only live performance I’ve ever heard.  Let’s hear more of it!

“Jericho” – A New Play by Jack Canfora, at 59E59 Theaters

Posted on: October 25th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended a performance of “Jericho” a few days ago, then was surprised to see a review in The New York Times the following morning.  Was I attending the official opening?  If so, I wasn’t aware of it, and perhaps the critic from The Times had attended an earlier performance.  In any event, I agreed with the review.  This is a very interesting and thought-provoking play.

Jack Canfora is the author, Evan Bergman the director.  The production at 59E59 is under the auspices of The Directors Company.  The play is set in the NY suburb of Jericho and in Manhattan circa 2005.  On the surface, one might see this as just another dysfunctional Jewish family drama, but it is more, goes deeper, and starts with stereotypes but gets beyond them.  The widowed matriarch of a Jewish family, Rachel is preparing to welcome her two sons – one with wife, the other with new girlfriend – to her annual Thanksgiving dinner in the house in Jericho where the boys grew up.  Of course, all is not well in either son’s relationship, either with his mother or his wife or girlfriend, or there wouldn’t be a play in it, right?  And I don’t want to be handing out plot-spoilers here, so I won’t say more about the plot.

The acting is superbly done.  I was particularly taken with Noel Joseph Allain, the married son who has become more involved with Judaism to what would appear extreme lengths, by the standards of his mother, his wife, and his brother.  Allain gives a subtle performance, to the extent that one has difficulty pinning down his character, but that is part of the allure of the play.  Jill Eikenberry plays the mother, not quite a stereotypical Jewish guilt-tripping mother, but the spinner of plots that will be familiar with anybody who knows this genre.  Andrew Rein plays the other son, whose non-Jewish girlfriend, played by Eleanor Handley, is in many ways the central figure of the play, as the only one with the distance to be a somewhat objective observer of what is going on.  Kevin Isola plays a psychiatrist, but more than a psychiatrist, in his interactions, real or imaginary, with his patient, the girlfriend.  And Carol Todd plays the wife of the older son, trying to cope with the drastic changes in their relationship brought on by his increased affinity to Judaism (and Israel).  Oh, and 9/11 and its impact on members of the NYC community plays a role in this story as well.

From this description, it might sound like this is a play that would mainly be of interest to Jews, particularly New York Jews, but I think there are universal themes being played out that can capture the interest of just about anybody.  This one is definitely worth a visit.

The New Season Begins – Opera, Symphony, Film, Theater

Posted on: October 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

My new culture season is duly launched.  As of last night, I’ve taken in: “Anna  Nicole,”  apparently the last production of New York City Opera, presented in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 21; the new film “Don Jon” by Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the AMC Theater on Broadway at 84th Street on September 29; a memorial celebration for my friend, the late Ari Joshua Sherman, at the DiMenna Center for the Arts that same evening, September 29; my first New York Philharmonic subscription concert at Lincoln Center on September 28; the new Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Booth Theatre on October 1; and the American Symphony Orchestra’s “New York Avant-Garde” concert at Carnegie Hall last night, October 3.

Herewith a brief summary of these experiences as the season really gets under way.

New York City Opera has been an important part of my cultural life ever since I arrived in the city in the fall of 1977.  I have particularly appreciated their staging of new works and works that are not central to the repertory, since the mainstream stuff is available in generally superior performances from the Metropolitan Opera.  It isn’t so much that City Opera was less expensive to attend, but that it was usually more interesting to attend, even when they were putting on standard works such as “La Boheme” or “Carmen,” since they usually found an interesting “twist” that made them seem like new works as well.

But a series of management mistakes, and the heavy fundraising competition of the Met, together with the impact of the Great Recession on charitable donations, has put the City Opera into a financially untenable position.  If there had to be a last production, I’m glad it was a new opera, a premiere for New York, and something that lived up to most of the advance hype.  Although I found Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score to be serviceable rather than memorable, the libretto by Richard Thomas would have made an excellent play with incidental music on its own, and the production directed by Richard Jones with the music conducted by Steven Sloane was consistently entertaining and attention-grabbing.  From one perspective, this might seem a trivial piece of musical theater fluff about a gold-digger who was famous for marrying an elderly billionaire and then battling his family in court for her intestate inheritance as a surviving spouse, but it had an awful lot to say as wry satire about our celebrity-obsessed society and the dangers that these “no-talent” celebrities run into as they encounter the hangers-on, exploiters, and – in this case—hostile “in laws.”   Too bad there is unlikely to be a film from this production, but I think there may be one from the original English production at Covent Garden.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is reportedly his first attempt at scripting and directing a major motion picture – starring himself – and I think Gordon-Levitt pulls off the Woody Allen act with aplomb.  He impersonates a “dumb jock” Jersey boy obsessed with his body, his car, his pad, his boys (friends) and his girls (sex objects).  He haunts the suburban nightclubs looking for chicks to score, and because he’s a self-confident, sexy hunk, he can have almost anybody he wants.  But the sex is not satisfying – there’s really no emotional connection – and he’s convinced that masturbating to pornography is more satisfying.  As a result, even though he’s having sex several nights a week with real women, he’s getting off to porn several times a day.  Something has to give.  And there’s the story, when he happens upon somebody to whom he’s attracted who doesn’t want to jump into bed without some personal acquaintance.   Of course, this isn’t a perfect film.  No film is.  But it is dramatically credible, well written, acted, and directed, and I found it compelling – at least to the extent that my mind never wandered, as it tends to do if a film bogs down in slow, talky, lassitude.  This one never does.

The New York Philharmonic initiated its subscription season with a program that could easily be criticized as semi-pops concert fare: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Light, not challenging, virtuosic, catchy tunes and rhythms, etc.  But, as expected from this orchestra conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert, everything was so well-played, and the program was actually so canny in terms of constructing a concert program that “works,” that it was a pleasure to attend.  I might have wanted the Ravel to be slightly faster in pacing, but the moderate tempo made it easier to appreciate the subtlety of orchestration, and then to remark to myself about how whoever was responsible for the orchestration of the Bernstein piece really knew their Ravel!!  This is a bit of a question, actually: Bernstein followed Broadway tradition of having the usual experts translate his piano score into an orchestration for a standard B’way pit orchestra, and various other hands were involved in extracting the dances, knitting them together into a continuous piece, and expanding the orchestration for a symphony orchestra.  Of course, the musical ideas are Bernstein’s, but it’s unclear to what extent the orchestration is.  He didn’t even conduct the world premiere, although he subsequently recorded the piece with the NYP, and surely he approved the final orchestration and probably tweaked it. . .  As for the Tchaikovsky, Yefim Bronfman, who is the orchestra’s “artist in residence” this year, was reportedly playing it for the first time in public!  Hard to believe, not just because it was such a well-conceived and executed performance, but because he was born and educated in Russia and is famous for his Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich concerto performances. Every young pianistic firebrand is expected to have this concerto in his or her active repertory.  But for whatever reason, he hadn’t gotten around to Tchaikovsky until the NYP asked him to do it to start off this season.  Magnificent!  He and Gilbert should get right into the recording booth together.

Ari Joshua Sherman, know to his friends as Josh, passed away last spring in Vermont.  He had not let many know that he was seriously ill, and the NY friends were used to long periods between sightings after he and Jorge had shifted their principal residence from W. 108 Street to Addison, VT.  Jorge arranged two events for friends to remember Josh, one in Vermont and the other at the DiMenna Center (housed in the basement level of the Baryshnikov Center on W. 37 St.).  The event was a worthy tribute and remembrance, including performances of music that had been important to Josh, who was an enthusiastic chamber musician (violin) and music lover, interspersed with readings from the memoirs he had worked on over many years.  So sad that a long-time friend is gone, but consoling that he had such an interesting and productive life.

Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” put him on the Broadway theater map, but I find it a lesser work than some of his subsequent plays.  This performance is really mainly about Cherry Jones, one of our greatest living actors, whose portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in this production is a completely convincing one.  Talk immediately began about Tony nominations as soon as previews began, and this is now expected, regardless what happens the rest of the season.  Zachary Quinto as her son Tom is not so totally successful.  I thought it took him some time to warm up at the performance I attended, not really coming alive fully until well into the first act, but burning on all cylinders in the second.  Celia Keenan-Bolger was extraordinary as Laura, the shy daughter, and I thought her performance was right up there with Cherry Jones in terms of accomplishment and vivid characterization.  I enjoyed Brian J. Smith as “Jim, the gentleman caller,” who appears only in the second act, but then for an extended scene with Laura that provides great comic relief and emotion combined.  Smith was just right in this part.   In short, this was a performance that worked very well, performed on a set that worked very well, with fine incidental music by Nico Muhly, in a wonderful conception of the script directed by John Tiffany.  The show, whatever its flaws, was certainly worth reviving in a production of this quality as a showcase for these fine actors.

Finally, the American Symphony.  At first it appeared this concert might be lost to the Carnegie Hall stagehands’ labor dispute, which had cause cancellation of the opening night gala the prior evening.  But the union had made its point and was content to hold back for a while and allow the season to begin with the ASO while continuing to negotiate, and I just heard that a bargain was struck on Friday.

Leon Botstein’s program, “New York Avant-Garde”, took as its point of departure the famed “Armory Show of 1913” that formally introduced New York to the new “modernism” in visual art.  Botstein suggests that this program had echoes in music that first began to be expressed in New York concert halls after World War I, in a burst of musical modernism that extended to the end of the 1920s.  This showcase for the avant-garde presented music by George Antheil (A Jazz Symphony 1925), Charles Griffes (Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918), Aaron Copland (Organ Symphony 1924), Carl Ruggles (Men and Mountains 1924), and Edgard Varese (Ameriques 1918-21).  The particular Carnegie connection was that the first and last of these pieces were first performed at Carnegie Hall during the 1920s, the Varese in a performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who would later in his career found and conduct the ASO.

I thought the concert was very successful, especially given the uncertainties of the day that had resulted in some juggling of last-minute rehearsal time.  The ASO secured the services of three excellent soloists.   Pianist Blair McMillen was a joy to hear and to watch as he threw himself body and soul into the Antheil Jazz Symphony, which is not quite a piano concerto but at times seems to think it is one, with extended piano cadenzas that McMillen tossed off insouciantly.  Randolph Bowman, principal flutist for the Cincinnati Symphony and the ASO’s summer seasons at Bard College, was excellent in the sumptuous Griffes piece.  Stephen Tharp pulled out all the stops (couldn’t resist that) in the Copland, whose organ part was originally conceived for Nadia Boulanger’s American tour and appearances with the Boston Symphony and New York Symphony.  This first half of the concert was just one thrill after another.

I was a bit less thrilled by the second half.  I’ve never quite “gotten” Ruggles.  Although at times I find his orchestration to be interesting, I don’t get a feeling of organic flow to his compositions, which to me are an essential part of music.  It feels too static, too granitic, although on this occasion I had a more favorable reaction to the middle movement – Lilacs – which actually seemed to flow in the hands of the ASO string players, who made a warm sound amidst the pounding brass of the outer movements. 

The first time I heard Ameriques at Carnegie Hall, Christoph von Dohnanyi was conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.  On that occasion, it struck me forcibly how strongly influenced Varese was influenced by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which was first performed shortly before World War I broke out.  I was less struck by the resemblance at the ASO concert, perhaps because Botstein’s interpretation was less overtly aggressive than Dohnanyi’s. 

Overall, however, I thought this was a useful concert for bringing to light music that doesn’t get played very much, and the orchestra did a marvelous job of pulling it together and making it work.

Salon/Sanctuary’s Production of “The Heirs of Tantalos”

Posted on: September 20th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last night I attended the first performance of “The Heirs of Tantalus” presented by Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, a relatively new organization that puts on early music events in New York City.  I had attended one of their concerts last year – a music/dance program starring countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo that was really wonderful – but all their other events last season posed calendar conflicts for me, so this as my first return.

The location was a novelty for me – The Broad Street Ballroom, at 41 Broad Street.  I think this is a former bank building.  The ground floor space has the kind of high ceilings and ornate columns typical of old bank buildings in New York.  The building has been transformed to various uses, apparently, including a school and residences, but this large ground floor space is an auditorium without fixed seating or stage.  Platforms at the east end of the room served for a stage, and chairs were arrayed in rows.  The acoustics were good for the music, not so good for speech, necessitating the actors wearing head-sets for amplification that was a bit startling, since the actors were moving about the room but the sound was coming from large speakers suspended from the ceiling above the stage area.

Salon/Sanctuary does not yet totally have their act together in terms of the logistics of presenting an event like this.  The entrance seemed a bit disorganized, and they did not beginning admitting audience members until about 20 minutes before the advertised showtime.  Ushers did not seem familiar with their task, and the entry was confusing for somebody who bought a ticket in advance online.  They also need to figure out how to start their shows on time.   The same problems of amateurism afflicted the printed program book, which illogically placed cast biographies before the texts and translations for the musical numbers, failed to mention that the program would be in two acts with an intermission, and failed to indicate who composed each of the numbers.   The program page indicated that the music was drawn from works by Handel, Monteverdi, and Alessandro Scarlatti, and a lengthy essay mentioned operas by Monteverdi and Handel and a Handel cantata, but made no mention of Scarlatti.  While one could easily hypothesize which pieces were by Monteverdi, an early Baroque composer, and some of the other numbers seemed characteristically Handelian, the failure to identify what was by Scarlatti was unfortunate, as his music would sound similar to a Handel cantata from that composer’s early period when he was living in Italy or the early English years when his production focused on Italian opera.  In any rate, it is amateurish not to make these identifications in the program.  Furthermore, the texts and translations were in small print that was difficulty to follow in the dimly lit hall, and one text was misplaced in terms of the performance sequence.  More care in the future would be advisable.

All that said, the musical performances were very good for the most part.  Soprano Jessica Gould’s intonation was occasionally suspect, and she took some time to find the volume necessary to be heard clearly over the instrumental ensemble, but once that was accomplished her renditions of the music were most enjoyable and dramatic.  Countertenor Jose Lemos is a real discovery.  I love the countertenor voice and am delighted to add another to my list of excellent countertenors.  He handled the florid music with great skill and communicated real passion.  Bravo!  The instrumental ensemble, members of The Sebastians Chamber Players led by Jory Vinikour at the harpsichord, were excellent in every respect, producing a bright, focused sound and playing with great incisiveness and sensitivity to the changing moods of the music.

The production was conceived as an exposition of the overlapping plots of Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea” and Handel’s “Agrippina” using arias and duets (from those and other works) interspersed with translations of verses by Aeschylus, Europides and Suetonius, arranged to illustrate thematic links between these history-based plots and the mythological stories of the Greek House of Atreus, descended from Tantalus and involved in the mythology of the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Three actors, Steven Rattazzi, Ethan Peck, and Florencia Lozano, presented the spoken interludes between musical numbers.  They moved about the hall, walking across and aisles and in the front and back, spotlighted when they spoke and otherwise out of view.  I had the feeling that they could have used much more rehearsal – especially for their unison recitations, which were a bit uncoordinated.  At times it seemed as if they were reading material with which they were not intimately familiar, resulting in some peculiar line breaks and odd emphases.  This was more of a problem with Rattazzi and Lozano.  Mr. Peck, unlike the others, appeared to have memorized a large portion of his text and went beyond reading to acting, which was much more effective.  The others clung more to their sheaves of paper and too often sounded like they were reading rather than acting.  Perhaps by the second performance on Saturday this will be less of a problem.  Erica Gould directed the stage action, and I had the sense that more time was spent on rehearing how they would move about — which seemed to go very smoothly — than with how they would deliver their lines.

Viewed overall, I thought it was a successful evening of early music, worth attending.  It will certainly inspire me to search out recordings by Mr. Lemos, if such exist, and to check out available video recordings of Mr. Peck’s work.  (He is the grandson of actor Gregory Peck, and I was very impressed by his presence, voice, and acting ability.)   This year’s Salon/Sanctuary program line-up looks very promising, and I may actually be able to get to some of the productions.  I hope their logistical performance will improve as they gain experience.

Ethan Coen’s “Women or Nothing” at Atlantic Theater Company in NYC – warning plot spoilers!

Posted on: September 19th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Warning: Plot Spoilers!

Ethan Coen’s new play, “Women or Nothing,” has a limited run at Atlantic Theater Company’s West 20th Street theater space in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood.  I attended the September 18 evening performance.  The play officially opened a few days earlier.  Maybe I was a bit prejudiced by having read the NY Times review, but then again I didn’t agree with everything that critic said.

The show raises ethical/moral issues about an interesting situation: a lesbian couple wants to have a child.  Gretchen (played by Halley Feiffer) is a lawyer, Laura (played by Susan Pourfar) is a concert pianist.  Gretchen argues that they should not get anonymous sperm through a fertility clinic, because she wants more control over the genetic heritage of their child, which is going to be borne by Laura.  She concocts a scheme to bring Laura together with one of Gretchen’s co-workers at the law firm, a tall, handsome, intelligent man named Chuck (played by Robert Beitzel), the father of a delightful girl, with the idea that Chuck and Laura will have one-time sex, Laura will get pregnant, and Chuck will move, as scheduled, to Florida a few days after their meeting, where he is planning to relocate to be near his daughter (who is in the custody of his ex-wife).  Chuck will never know that he has fathered a child; he is being “used” as a sperm supplier.  Flag ethical issue, about which Laura expresses some concern.  As the play opens, Gretchen is scooting around their living room, removing all photographs that would inform a reasonably intelligent guest that the apartment is occupied by a lesbian couple.  She stacks the framed photos on an upper shelf in the closet by the entry, and replaces a large painting of Laura at the keyboard with a large painting of a reclining nude woman.  Chuck doesn’t know that co-worker Gretchen is a partnered lesbian, and the idea is to keep him in the dark about that.  Chuck shows up for a dinner date with Gretchen, but Laura answers the door, and has concocted a story about being a neighbor who was in the apartment on some errand while Gretchen was delayed.  There ensues a very talky scene two during which Laura and Chuck exchange volleys of dialogue, resolving into them being attracted to each other a heading towards the bedroom.  All going according to plan.  Blackout.  (As originally conceived, the play would be in one act with four scenes, but after the printed Playbill went to press, and shortly before the official opening, they decided to insert an intermission at this point.)

After intermission, the fourth character shows up, Laura’s mother (played by Deborah Rush).  Mother is an outrageous, opinionated woman who, previously unbeknownst to Laura, frequently cheated on her late husband.  After much doorbell ringing and banging on the door, Laura comes from the bedroom to let her in.  Mother is bearing a birthday gift for Gretchen, and heads towards the bedroom.  Laura, panicked, heads her off, the Mother (Dorene) concludes Laura is cheating on Gretchen with another woman.  Comic (to the audience) dialogue ensues as Dorene is the dispenser if sage (but irrelevant?) advice, but Laura’s secret is revealed when Chuck wanders shirtless into the living room.  (Comment:Aactor Beitzel has a gorgeous body, briefly diverting attention from ongoing dialogue between Dorene and Laura until he pulls his shirt on!!)  Dorene immediately figures out what is going on and falls into the deception plan.  At one point, Chuck and Dorene are alone in the living room while Laura is taking a cellphone call from Gretchen in the bedroom.  Dorene learns that Chuck is not the biological father of his daughter; due to a history of depression in his family, he insisted that his wife be inseminated from an anonymous donor.  So much for Gretchen’s plan to get “great genes”?)  After Dorene and Chuck both leave, secrets intact, Gretchen and Laura have their little birthday celebration followed by blackout.  When the play ends, we don’t know whether Laura is pregnant (although it is made clear that the sex was great and Chuck “came” twice in Laura without a condom, evidently).  We also know there are tensions in the women’s relationship, and we suspect that if Laura is pregnant and has the child, it is going to strain the relationship even more.  Gretchen is selfish and manipulative.  Is Laura bisexual?  Who knows.

OK, so I thought the first act was too long and especially scene two between Chuck and Laura should be tightened up.  The second act was riveting, and there was plenty of interesting humor, much of it generated by the various secrets being kept by various characters.   The ethical issues loomed over the play – especially the way Gretchen and (a reluctant at first) Laura are treating Chuck in a way that overlooks the human dimension.  They are actually appropriating his sperm in a deceptive scheme that is quite despicable as a matter of ethics.  Will they get away with it?  Will Chuck, who seems to have fallen a bit for Laura, really not get back in touch after moving to Florida?  Will Laura actually have a child, and will the child inherit the strain of depression running in Chuck’s family (from his mother and her mother before her)?  The play ends with big unanswered questions.  There is one really gaping factual hole in the plot:  This is evidently set in contemporary New York City involving intelligent, professional young adults in their 30s.  Is it plausible to think that on a first acquaintance they would have UNPROTECTED SEX?  That Chuck, who was so concerned about the possibility of passing on genetically-based propensity for depression that he prevailed on his wife to get anonymous sperm to conceive their own child, would jump into bed with a nice single woman and have unprotected sex that could produce exactly that result??

I guess it is worthwhile seeing because: (1) it is entertaining, especially in the second half, (2) it raises questions and makes you think, and (3) the acting, directing (David Cromer), lighting (Bradley King), costumes (Sarah Laux), set (Michele Spadaro), music (Daniel Kluger), etc., were very well done up to Atlantic Theater Company’s high standards.  As to acting, all four players were superb, but Deborah Rush steals every scene she is in.  Wow!   I would certainly recommend it, although various audience members may be offended by various aspects of the story.