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Atlantic Theater Company’s Production of “Between Riverside and Crazy”

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

I attended a performance this afternoon of Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play, “Between Riverside and Crazy.”  It was not clear to me whether this was a preview or whether the production has actually opened, but everything went very smoothly and the cast and technical crew certainly have everything under control.

I was very entertained and impressed by this story of an elderly African-American former NYC police officer, retired on a disability pension and struggling along in his rent controlled Riverside Drive apartment.  Other characters are the officer’s son, his son’s girlfriend, another friend of the son who is living in the apartment as a guest, a “church lady” who pays a visit, and a police lieutenant and his police detective fiancé who come to dinner.  This seven-member cast provides lively entertainment in a drama that has moments of comedy and is fast-paced and engaging under the direction of Austin Pendleton.  The set by Walt Spangler provides an excellent representation of one of those big old Upper West Side Manhattan rent controlled apartments.

Stephen McKinley Henderson creates an unforgettable character as “Pops” Washington, the retired cop.  He has been given witty dialogue and he makes the most of it.  Victor Almanzar is amusing and horrifying as an ex-con junkie friend of Pops’ son, and Ray Anthony Thomas is solid as the son, Junior.  Rosal Colon as Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu, provides much of the comic relief as well as some of the pathos.  Michael Rispoli and Elizabeth Canavan play the police officers who are charming at first.  Finally, Liza Colon-Zayas is a “church lady” with an agenda.

I wouldn’t call this a “deep” show, but I think there are many interesting messages buried in it as it explores the perspective of somebody in the position of Pops who is determined not to become a victim of the system that he has come to detest.  This was very much worth seeing, and I hope it draws full houses for the rest of its run.

Cultural Diary – January 27 2014 through February 9 2014: From Marc Andre Hamelin to Bill Finn

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Didn’t expect to see those two names in the same headline? Well, I’m multicultural…. I’ve been so consumed with writing about legal developments that I now have a backlog of cultural events upon which to comment, so here goes:

On January 27, I attended a recital by the Canadian-American pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, the recital auditorium under the main stage. Hamelin likes to play unusual repertory, so the biggest single piece on the program was Nicolas Medtner’s Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 “Night Wind”. He is also a composer, so we got to hear the New York premiere of his “Barcarolle.” Finally, for the second half, reverting to the core repertory of every serious pianist, he played Franz Schubert’s Impromptus, D. 935. On the one hand, this was an exceptionally fine recital in that the pianist brought his usual magical technique to the diverse array of works, playing with intense concentration mixed with the requisite humor and wistfulness when called for. On the other hand, the Medtner was a bit of a “black hole” in the middle of the recital. There is a reason almost nobody plays Medtner in public. Despite the high regard in which he was held by such as Rachmaninoff, it is difficult to give sustained attention to his music. The themes are not memorable enough to sustain such attention through a long and convoluted development. Perhaps the first movement of his sonata is in sonata form (I don’t know) but it is difficult to follow this as a listener without a score in my lap, because it all seems so diffuse and wandering. There were many distinctive parts to arouse interest, but the whole just seems to sprawl. I don’t think one could blame Hamelin for this — he always provides about the most persuasive case one could imagine for anything he plays — and he has recorded all of Medtner’s sonatas and much of his other music, so I would treat him as authoritative in this repertory. It’s just repertory that I find less absorbing. Hamelin’s own piece, the Barcarolle, seemed to owe heavy debts to Debussy, and I thought it slow going at times. I would certainly want to get better acquainted with it. The Schubert was absolutely magnificent. Robert Schumann had observed that these four impromptus could together make up a monumental piano sonata, and Hamelin treated them that way. Each is a masterpiece, and each received the treatment it required. This was totally effective playing, sensitive to nuance and variety of sonic color. I can’t imagine these pieces being better played. The audience’s ovation earned three encores: a Debussy piece, a weirdly fantastic take on Chopin’s Minute Waltz, and a virtuosic etude by de Schloser that is a genuine rarity — probably because few pianists can manage to play it. But Hamelin can play just about anything. (Proof of this statement: Try his complete recording of Godowsky’s take-offs on the Chopin etudes – a total wow and you won’t believe that one pianist is responsible for what you are hearing.)

January 29, I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” a play based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe adapted for the stage by Roy Williams and directed by Leah C. Gardiner. This story achieved a fair amount of fame as a result of a movie based on the story that made a splash decades ago. This production puts a different slant on the story by having an extraordinary young black actor, Sheldon Best, played the lead role which Tom Courtenay, a white actor, played in the film. The essence of the story is that a young, somewhat aimless tough guy gets caught in a robbery and sent to a reformatory, where his talent for running is discovered and leads to his extended training for a long-distance race against students from a private school. He is encouraged in this by the authorities of the reformatory, including one particular counselor, but conflict emerges from his fear that he is being “used” and, ultimately, this leads him to make a difficult and controversial decisions as the end of the race draws near. I thought this staging was superb, and the performance by Sheldon Best was pure magic. According to the bio in the program Best is a graduate of Brandeis University and has already performed in a wide variety of stage productions both in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., ranging from classical theater (Romeo & Juliet, playing Romeo, at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival) to the most contemporary stuff, like a production of The History Boys. He’s also been on CBS TV’s “Person of Interest.” Be on the lookout for him. Very impressive! The rest of the cast was fine, too, but Best really stood out.

The American Symphony Orchestra presented “This England” at Carnegie Hall on January 31. The program was intended to show a range of British music from mid-20th century by composers whose music is infrequently encountered on American concert programs. None of the music could be deemed totally neglected — I have recordings of everything on the program — but I had never heard any of it performed live prior to this concert directed by Leon Botstein. They began with a suite from Sir Arthur Bliss’s music for the British film “Things to Come”, which was based on work of George Orwell. This was the most “listener-friendly” piece on the program, as one would expect from a 1934-35 film score, falling close to the category of “easy listening” and being at times so simple-minded that I found my own attention wandering. Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, 1932) followed, with the excellent Piers Lane as soloist. Lane has been a mainstay of Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series, and has a serious interest in unusual repertory for his instrument. The Bridge piece has moments of interest, but using the word “rhapsody” to describe a piece can frequently be a sign of formlessness and sprawl, and such was the case here. Lots of interesting moments, but they didn’t add up to a really coherent musical statement. After intermission, we heard Robert Simpson’s “Volcano,” a brief tone poem for brass and percussion which is avowedly pictorial and which did not hold much interest for me. I first became aware of Simpson as a leading biographer of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen as well as being an important Bruckner scholar, and over the years I’ve acquired recordings of most of him symphonies and other major pieces. I wish the ASO had played a symphony instead, because I found those to be works of great substance, but the length of this program limited them to a shorter piece. Finally, the one real masterpiece on the program, William Walton’s Symphony No. 2, which I have long enjoyed on records and despaired of ever hearing in live performance (unless I happen to travel to England and really luck out with the concert schedule). I love this piece, but I was really let down by the ASO performance, which I found underpowered and lacking the requisite virtuosity from the orchestra. Whether this is a function of limited rehearsal time, the leadership from the podium, or the limitations of the players (who don’t have the kind of full-time working relationship of an orchestra that plays together week in and week out) is hard to say, but, especially compared to my favorite recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, this one seemed to lack impact. Szell takes everything faster, which keeps the occasionally loose structure from falling apart and gives sharper point to the complex rhythms. There is a big fugal passage in the last movement that is a highpoint of the piece, but the ASO strings seemed to be struggling to stay together during that episode, which the Cleveland strings take in their stride in the recording. I would urge anybody who was at the concert and hearing the Walton symphony for the first time to withhold judgment until you’ve heard a recording by a major orchestra. I don’t know if the Szell is still in print – it was a 1960s Columbia stereo that achieved brief CD reissue, coupled with the composer’s Hindemith Variations (another fine work almost never played) and the Partita for Orchestra. We really should hear more Walton in U.S. concert halls. I would love to hear what Alan Gilbert and the NYP would do with this piece. I would also highly recommend Walton’s Symphony No. 1, especially in the old RCA recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony, which has been intermittently available on CD.

On February 2, I was back at Carnegie Hall for a performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Theodora” by conductor Harry Bicket, the Choir of Trinity Church, and The English Concert, an early music ensemble, with soloists Dorothea Roschmann as Theodora, Sarah Connolly as Irene, David Daniels as Didymus, Kurt Streit as Septimius, and Neal Davies as Valens. This is a tale of Roman times, when the governor of Antioch is trying to stamp out the heresy of Christianity. Theodora is a proud Christian who will not be swayed to honor the gods of Rome, and Didymus is a Roman soldier secretly in love with Theodora (and secretly a Christian). Tragedy ensues, at great length. (This three-act oratorio, when performed uncut, is as long as a Wagner opera, and some impatience in the audience express itself in early departures, especially during the second intermission.) Theodora was not a success at its first performance. The program note by Janet Bedell suggest that the subject matter had something to do with this, mid-18th century Brits having little interest in works celebrating early Catholic martyrs, but I suspect it is also the heaviness of the last act and the absence of the more rousing elements – especially choral – that made such works as Judas Maccabeus and Messiah such monster hits in the composer’s lifetime. In any event, this was all-star casting with expert direction from the podium, spot-on choral singing, and an instrumental group that provided a rich, colorful framework for the vocal acrobatics. I found it totally absorbing through the entire, lengthy proceeding. But I rather suspect this is a piece that would work best on recordings, where one could take it one act at a sitting and not be overwhelmed by its length.

Looking for an extremely unusual and effective theatrical experience? Imagine Tolstoy’s great novel “War and Peace,” stripped of the war scenes, leaving only the soap opera of the home front, transformed into a rock musical, played in large space decked out in the style of a Russian night club, with musicians and singers distributed throughout the space, the singers in constant motion, threading their way through the space and around platforms surrounding the audience. This is “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” currently playing at Kazino, a large tent-like structure raised on a vacant lot on West 45th Street near 8th Avenue. The adaptation and music is by David Malloy, as directed by Rachel Chavkin and commissioned and developed by an outfit called Ars Nova. It is super-fine, and super-charged, and loads of fun. The program book and production are designed to help the audience quickly sort out the numerous characters and their relations to each other, and then the fun begins. Some of the members of the cast play musical instruments from time to time, and there is singing and much athletic running about. The title characters are played by David Abeles (Pierre) and Phillipa Soo (Natasha), but the character who emerges as the most memorable and central to the plot is Anatole, a Polish aristocrat played by Lucas Steele who is the brother-in-law of Pierre and who makes it his goal to seduce his friend Andrey Bolkonsky’s fiancé, Natasha, while Bolkonsky is off with the Russian army fighting the forces of Napoleon. Lucas Steele as Anatole is HOT, HOT, HOT. And I don’t mean just because he is handsome and talented; I mean because he radiates an intensity that is positively electrical. He’s helped in this by the plotting and dialogue, of course, but Mr. Steele is ideally cast in this part. Also quite effective: Blake Delong in the dual role of Andrey Bolkonsky and his father; Nick Choksi as the saturnine Dolokhov, Grace McLean as Natasha’s aunt Marya, Amber Gray is Helene, wife of Pierre and sister of Anatole, and Brittain Ashford as Sonya, Natasha’s cousin and confidant. But everybody is truly excellent in this, and conductor Or Matias keeps it all together and constantly driving forward. It’s a long show, even without the war scenes (yes, a War and Peace without General Kutuzov or Napoleon Bonaparte), but it never seems long because the staging is so lively and absorbing. A total hit that should run forever… I was there on February 5.

Interesting coincidence. Sid Caesar, the great TV comedian of the 1950s, passed away the other day, just as City Center Encores! was reviving a show that was written specifically for his talents, “Little Me” – book by Neil Simon (who wrote for Caesar’s TV shows), lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and music by Cy Coleman. The show is based on a novel by Patrick Dennis (famous for “Mame”) which purports to be the autobiography of the great fictional entertainer Belle Poitrine, reminiscing about her life and loves (all seven of her loves, some of whom she even married). In the original production, Caesar portrayed all seven, requiring quick costume changes and changes or characterization (appearance, gestures, costumes), of which he was a master. Although the show was a success, it was not a big hit and faded from view after its initial run. This revival cast Christian Borle, star of the ill-fated “Smash” TV series and Tony winner for Peter and the Star-Catchers on Broadway, playing all the Sid Caesar roles with great success. Veteran Judy Kaye was superb as the elderly Belle, reflecting on her past, and Rachel York was stunning as the young Belle. The cast was packed with excellent people, as is the norm for Encores!, with the extraordinary dancers being a special highlight. Somehow, choreographer Joshua Bergasse managed to recruit an outstanding crew. (Bob Fosse was the original choreographer for the Broadway production.) Rob Berman led the excellent Encores! orchestra, and John Rando created a production that managed to feel complete even without any elaborate sets or many props. I’m glad to have had a chance to hear a live performance of this piece. It’s not a great work – Cy Coleman went on to do many extraordinary shows – but many of the songs are quite attractive, and I’m inspired to go back to the original cast album.

I attended the matinee performance of “Little Me” on February 8, and topped off the evening with an excellent program at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which presented the conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra at Washington Irving High School. ECCO was started by a bunch of Curtis Institute students who enjoyed playing together and wanted to keep doing so after going their various professional ways. Now several years out of school, they are members of major symphony orchestras, established chamber ensembles, but make a commitment to come together a few times a year to rehearse a program and present it in various venues, including PSC now for several years. Their performances are always a highlight of the series. They are a true democracy, rotating seats so that everybody gets a change to play first-desk and to deal with solo passages at some point. They are also innovative in programming, mixing new music with established repertory. For this program, they gave a stylish rendition of Mozart’s Divertimento in B, K. 137, followed by the NYC premiere of David Ludwig’s “Virtuosity: Five Microconcertos for String Orchestra,” Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, Judd Greenstein’s Four on the Floor, a string arrangement of a motet by Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (an Italian Renaissance master), and concluding with a string orchestra rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet. The entire program was wonderful because of the total commitment and high technical skill of the players, as well as their collective interpretive insights. The Ludwig piece gave the first desk in each section a chance to shine in solo passages, and they truly shone. I found both Ludwig and Greenstein were worth hearing, challenging in some respects but not straying too far from the mainstream of tonal contemporary composition. The arrangement of the Satie, originally a piano piece, for string orchestra by a former member of ECCO, Michi Wiancko, superbly captured the piece’s mystery. I’ve heard Debussy’s orchestration of this piece, which also uses some wind instruments, but this all-string arrangement was fine, with the inspired idea of having the theme assigned to different sections rather than keeping it in the heights as the piano version might suggest. Hearing a rich string orchestra sound transformed the Ravel Quartet into a much “bigger” statement without losing any of the delicacy and gossamer of the quieter passages. I would account this concert a total success.

Finally, and a bit off the beaten path, on February 9, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, NYC’s LGBT synagogue, presented its annual “Shabbat Shirah” concert at Merkin Hall. This year the program was a tribute to CBST member William Finn, a prominent member of the Broadway community whose musicals have brought LGBT issues into the mainstream, especially through his three early shows that were combined to make up Falsettos. For this occasion, Finn helped to assembly a group of performers who have taken part in various productions of his shows, with a fine young pianist, Joshua Zecher-Ross, as musical director, and Shakina Nayfack as overall director. The result was a marvelous program that ranged over Finn’s achievements, including selections from the Falsetto shows, Stars of David, Elegies, A New Brain, LIttle Miss Sunshine, Royal Family (a work in progress), and Songs of Innocence and Experience. This was a one-of-a-kind event that could not be topped, especially when one includes Mr. Finn’s performance of a song conceived for the occasion!

So, my past few weeks were packed with cultural events. This week has provide a bit of a break, but my cultural calendar resumes Saturday night at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series with a concert by Jonathan Groff, whose work on “Spring Awakening” caught my attention and whose current venture – the HBO series “Looking” – is bringing him to an entirely new audience beyond his Broadway theater achievements. I look forward to this with much anticipation. Also on the schedule in weeks ahead: A Man’s a Man, Werther (Metropolitan Opera), Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, Prince Igor (Met Opera), Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony (quick, get tickets, this is going to be so exciting on March 1), Goerne and Eschenbach performing Schubert’s Schoene Mullerin at Carnegie Hall, Enchanted Island (Met Opera), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and that takes me up through Spring Break.

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.

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.

“Good Television” at Atlantic Theater Company

Posted on: June 7th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I have a big stack of theater and opera programs stretching back over the spring, waiting to be written up as a diary entry, but I want to jump the line because I just got home from seeing a terrific new play off-Broadway that deserves attention and, since in the nature of things such plays presented by repertory companies have limited runs, I want to do my part and get the word out.  The play is “Good Television,” written by Rod McLachlan and directed by Bob Krakower, presented by Atlantic Theater Company at their smaller, experimental subterranean theater on West 16th Street in Manhattan.  Tonight’s performance (Thursday, June 6) was sold out, undoubtedly due to the sterling review in yesterday’s NY Times.

The premise: A TV reality show based on attempting to treat addicts of various kinds.  The line producer is an addiction counselor who, accompanied by a team of camera/sound people, films interviews with the addict, family members, and other important people in the addict’s life, hoping to achieve an intervention that will result in the addict going into treatment, straightening out their life, and providing a happy ending to the series.  Of course, you know something like this is not necessarily going to run smoothly, there will be complications, and so we end up having a gripping show!

I thought everything about this production was superb – the writing, the directing, the acting, the sets, the music, the lighting…. just everything.  The length is just right for the material, about 100+ minutes with one intermission, and the production is well paced to grab your attention and hold it.  The cast are all standouts, but I was especially impressed by Zoe Perry, who plays the long-suffering sister of the addict, Clemmie (Clemson) MacAddy, who is compellingly portrayed by John Magaro.  But the central characters are the sister, Brittany, and the producer/counselor, Connie, played by Kelly McAndrew.  The rest of the cast are excellent as well — Jessica Cummings, Talia Balsam, Andrew Stewart-Jones, Luke Robertson, and Ned Van Zandt — but I was especially impressed by Ms. Perry, who was excruciatingly good.

Don’t hesitate – limited run – highest endorsement!