Category Archives: American Play

American Brecht

The play that sold me on Suzan-Lori Parks as earning a place in the American theatrical pantheon was not – unlike probably for most folks – Top Dog/Underdog but Father Comes Home from the Wars (which premiered at The Public in 2014). I loved the inventiveness of that work and how she threaded the needle of both Homeric Epic and American Realism. I also loved Jacob Ming-Trent as Dog.

The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A, now playing at The Signature,  is equally inventive, if not more so. Always daring, always pushing the envelope, always bravely dramatizing controversial material, Parks strives to inculcate the principles of Brecht within an American vernacular. She succeeds. Indeed, at intermission, I often found myself referring to the heroine Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) as Mother Courage, though that is not the most precise parallel.

In a world both recognizable and strange, Hester is an abortionist (hence the letter A branded into her). Abortionists are the untouchables of this society, performing a necessary function and yet marginalized and vilified. Hester works to earn enough money to pay for her son’s release from prison, which, because of an overly complex and incompetent bureaucracy worthy of Terry  Gilliam’s Brazil, seems an ever more remote possibility. Adding to the the pessimistic mood, her son is in prison because of an accusation and trumped up charges courtesy of the Mayor’s wife.

What follows is a spiraling tale of revenge and tragedy (in the Ancient Greek sense of the term). Hester has her hope destroyed, which unleashes her dark program of revenge. Parks walks a tightrope in her construction in echoes of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. In her trajectory, Hester commits both good and bad deads, is understandable and monstrous, worthy of pity and terror. Parks, like her predecessor, manages in the course of the evening to coax the audience to abandon its standard ethical compass and finally view Hester within the very specific context of her life and world rather than judge her from the comfort and privilege of a bourgeois point-of-view. In one regard, the play demands: how we can possibly judge her? She is neither saint nor sinner, but a product of her own history. The message is clear. Parks and director Jo Bonney want us to emerge from this theatrical experience and apply that same principle to those marginalized in our own world.

And that theatrical experience is often dizzying. The work conveys the terrible cost of a society bound by hierarchies of class and gender. Prostitution is another profession that has been institutionalized. Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango) has some limited perks and influence because the Mayor is her sole “client”; as the play progresses, she too learns how powerless she truly is. The bond of women (particularly lower class women) remains the one ray of light in an otherwise dark landscape. That the women have their own language that the men do not understand further enhances the image that they are a conquered people communicating under the noise of the colonizing power.

Despite the bleakness, the play is often funny. There is a monologue near the end of Act I that deliriously ups the comedic absurdity with each and every breath. It is a moment of artistic virtuosity and exemplary craft. The production includes a number of songs, that, in Brechtian fashion, comment more upon the action than give voice to the characters’ emotions.

Stand-outs in the cast include Kalukango, who deploys the tartness of her character to hide and then reveal the wisdom and underlying humanity of her character, and Ralph Nash Thompson as Butcher, who delivers the above mentioned monologue. But the evening belongs to Lahti, who travels the spectrum of ridiculous hope to deep despair to cold anger with ease.

Fucking A is not always an easy play to sit through, but it is a vital, necessary evening of theatre that further cements Parks’ earned reputation as one of our leading playwrights.

For more information about the production, please follow this link: https://www.signaturetheatre.org

Millenium Retreats

[Note: I had the opportunity to travel to London in July. What follows is one in an occasional series to report on the theatre productions I attended while there.]

As much as I love New York City theatre, I love London theatre more. It saddens me to report, then, that I found the most recent theatrical season there — at least based upon my own experiences — to be wanting. Angels in America by Tony Kushner at The National exemplifies this state of affairs.

While there, I could only manage to swing tickets for Millennium Approaches (I will have to see Perestroika via NT Live at my local cinema). I love this play. I saw soon after it transferred from the Public Theater back in the 1990’s. I believe it to be one of the most important American plays ever; it is also certainly a recent classic of the world stage. It powerful, resonant, funny, poignant, and painful. The HBO adaptation directed by Mike Nicholas was a rare transfer to the screen that did the original justice. On a bad day, The National does good work; on a great day, it shoots for the stars. The National knows this play. It provided an important foundational production before it even came to New York. So that this production was lackadaisical is both surprising and deeply disappointing.

Director Marianne Elliott comes to this production on the heels of her work on War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. As a consequence of only seeing Millennium, I could only glimpse at the angel effects that would receive greater play in Perestroika. The first part of the play, which offers the growing struggle between the realism and the magical of magical realism, felt extremely claustrophobic. I was unclear why the powers that be chose to perform the play on the Lyttelton stage and not the Olivier (which is unconstrained by a proscenium and allows for a more epic and less naturalistic scope). I understood that Elliott was slowly opening up her space as the evening went on, but I found the choice to constrain the energy of the show rather than setting free.

On a personal note, I came to New York City to attend university in September 1985 and lived in the city that Kushner describes. Elliott here too does not capture the feel of the time or place. The rawness and grit of New York pre-Bloomberg is missing; the set reflects the gentrification of the 21st century and so the danger and the counter-cultural excitement is missing.

It is with the acting that the production most lagged. James McCardle fails to capture the hyperkinetic energy and driving guilt of Louis. Nathan Lane has been pursuing more serious roles of late (such as his recent portrayal of Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh), but I found him an unconvincing Roy Cohn. After all, Cohn is a man Donald Trump counts as a mentor, and the cold reptilian nature of the man (both as historical figure as Kushner character)  should be front and center. Lane let too much heart leak through. That he shines in the small comic role of the ghost Prior simply reinforced how out-of-place he is as Cohn. I am all for actors getting out of their comfort zones and working muscles they do not normally use, but the casting choice here upset the balance of the play. And then there is Andrew Garfield. I wanted to like him. I was rooting for him. I enjoy most of his non-Spiderman film work. I do not pretend to understand his comments about his sexual identity while working on this production, but he just did not “get” Prior. He was indicating his way through the part, obviously putting on a fey voice rather than organically incorporating it into the character. There is a moment late in the evening when Prior is being examined and we get to witness the full extent of the damages to his body. With both Stephen Spinella and Justin Kirk, this is a moment of horror. Here, it was more on the order of “well, Garfield is really fit”.

As Joe Pitt, Russell Tovey really hits it out of the park. He poured confusion, pain, and conflicting priorities into his character. I don’t know why, but I am also surprised by the depth and nuance Tovey brings to his stage work from History Boys to A View from the Bridge. I should just realize he’s a great stage actor. And he had in Denise Gough as Harper an able scene partner who could match him complexity for complexity. Again, though, when Joe and Harper Pitt occupy the core of your emotional heartbreak, your Angels in America is in trouble.

I want this production of Angels of America to be good because I want all productions of Angels in America to be good. So perhaps I am being ridiculously optimistic that this is just a slow windup to a fantastic Perestroika. I am not holding my breath.

Millennium Approaches for Millennials

As a member of a Generation X and a university professor, I often wonder and worry about the world being left behind for succeeding generations. “Not much of anything” would appear to be the answer if Alex Riad’s new play The Floor is Lava serves as a guide. A sense of existential despair pervades every nook and cranny of this work and speaks to a larger crisis of the generation.

A uniformly superlative cast ably directed by Jessica O’Hara Baker propels the narrative forward. Tom (a wily wicked Ian Poake) was the high school misfit who in a few short years has found himself the beneficiary of a Gatsby-esque rise to the height of wealth thanks to an innovative social media tool he created. He hosts a holiday party/business launch party and has invited his high school friends: Sean (Vin Kridakorn), Matt (John DiMino), and Kat (Molly Collier). Long-festering bitter discontent fueled by drugs and a particularly expensive single malt will manifest itself over the evening. There is always a danger when writing about the travails of those with wealth and privilege: are their problems “first world” problems, and are we asked to feel sorry because it rained during their week in Aruba? Riad avoids that trap. Yes, his characters have access to wealth, but the world they inhabit seems to offer little conciliation regardless of economic class. Even the one character who offers some hope occupies an ambivalent space in that regard.

The play nonetheless feels like it is in need of another rewrite. The mechanics of getting Character A off stage so Characters B and C can have a  two-hander scene feel forced.  The motivation for Sean to be there in the first place is never fully explored (but, let’s face it, the motivations for Peter and Jerry to be on that park bench in Albee’s “Zoo Story” are strained). And the coda feels too neat and runs against the mood and tone of the rest of the piece. But these are for the most part craft issues which can be easily resolved in a rewrite.

There is abundant good in the play, and that comes from the artistic side of its creation. In articulating a clear authorial voice, expressing complex thematic concerns, and undertaking an emotional deep-dive, Riad demonstrates that he has a command of his medium that much older writers would envy. With The Floor is Lava, he marries the concerns of both Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and John Steinbeck while building a piece uniquely his own.

Tom’s improbable success has not granted him any wisdom or the tools with which to engage the world. He is still that sad-sack kid back in school. That he has crashed into the the domain of the one percent has not made the rest of the super-wealthy all that glad to have him in their company. They hope for his fall, and when it arrives, they rejoice in it. Sean is that extraordinarily bright kid who does well in all his classes and extracurriculars. He is never going to be in the one-percent, but he will be in the next level down that expertly executes the one-percent’s decrees. Tom revels in the world of social media, while Sean despises it (I wish Riad could have personalized this for the character a bit more). Tom and Sean and were once best friends, but have since had a falling out. Their arguments are visceral and raw. The final clash and ultimate emotional collapse delivers a wallop thanks to the honest and unadorned performances of both Poake and Kridakorn. Additionally, Kridakorn never shies away from the dark and ugly parts of his character as he unsuccessfully struggles with depression.

DiMino as Matt has a fascinating journey of his own. In his first scene, he comes across as the stereotypical North California stoner. In his second scene, though, he reveals hidden depths. The play is set in San Jose. Matt, the slacker of the group, has never attained the stereotypical success of his friends. In a confrontation with Sean, he tears into his friend for this idea of achievement. Steinbeck’s Monterey, made famous in Cannery Row, is only 70 miles from San Jose. Matt offers a full-throated defense of the kind of life Steinbeck celebrated: of simple living; of doing something that you love; of freedom from money, ambition, and acquisition. But that Steinbeckian Monterey seems an impossible distance away from Riad’s San Jose. And Matt must at the end confess that he will never been taken seriously by anyone else; you can read the terrible pain of that in DiMino’s face.

I would say this moment represents the playwright at his most-self-assured, but there is another moment that exceeds even this one. Kat gets to confront Sean as well. She laments the place of women in Silicon Valley, indeed all of corporate America, and how she is stuck cleaning up the mess created by Sean and how it left man-child Tom defeated. It is a powerful condemnation of how the nation at large has a double-standard with regard to women, not just in business but in politics and all other institutions. Collier, who plays Kat, is in rare form here. I have followed her work for years, and she just keeps getting better and better with each year; and she started at a high water mark to begin with. Here she does the impossible. She speaks for the struggle of all women, and yet she elides that larger macro argument with a deep personal investment that reaches to very core of her character. Universal and specific at the same time — an extremely difficult feat to pull off, and Collier pulls it off with panache. She becomes the hero the piece, and I kind of wishes the play ended with her scene.

Riad has a lot going for himself here. I would advise that he trust his instincts, let the characters breathe and worry less about logistics. What we have here is a very good play on its way to becoming a great play. And when it is done: wow.

The Floor is Lava, produced by The Farm Theatre, is currently playing at Planet Connections: http://planetconnections.org/2017-full-productions/the-floor-is-lava-presented-by-the-farm-theater/

The Power of Political Theatre is Often Its Simplicity

In Ancient Greece, poets (such as it was believed with Homer) would travel from city to city and recite epic poems in the palaces in the public squares. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea of adding a second voice and thus theatre was born. Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall — which recently had a limited run in New York and is set to perform in other cities across the nation — is a theatrical work in only this most elemental sense. Rather than detract from its power, this strategy only serves to heighten the works power.

The setting is a prison in El Paso, Texas; it is late 2019. Rick, played in the New York run by the user-intense James Badge Dale (The PacificRubiconThe Departed) is being held for crimes that, at the beginning of the play, are unspecified but apparently monstrous. Rick is ex-military, ex-law enforcement, and ex-Trump voter. His rationale for his support is refreshingly complex. Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU) plays Gloria, a professor doing research on Rick and the criminal event in which he was involved. While her character has been given a rather perfunctory backstory, she serves as witness and confessor (who may not accept the supplicant’s confession).

The vast majority of the play is taken up with Rick telling the story of how he ended up in prison. Alas, I cannot say much more than that as it would give away the punch-in-the-gut ending. Here, Schenkkan has crafted his work so that narrative is argument, and argument is narrative. As we come closer and closer to the events that unmade Rick. it is clear that the playwright is borrowing another aspect from Greek theatre: the inevitability of tragedy.

Building the Wall is an unapologetic cry against the policies of Trump and Trumpism. The President’s kleptocratic impulses and obstruction of justice are venial sins in comparison to what Schenkkan charts. The playwright honestly and sincerely — and thus chillingly — finds a great darkness and evil at the very heart of this administration’s policies. Sometimes it is difficult to look at this play, but look at it we must. As the recent controversy surrounding Shakespeare in the Parks production of Julius Caesar illustrates, art often provides the clearest moral lens on the actions the state allegedly takes on our behalf.  Building the Wall then is more than just a warning. Again, borrowing from the Greek, it is a portent of the (possible) terrible things yet to come.

Looking Ahead to the 2017-18 Season

Excited to subscribe to the Signature Theater’s 2017-8 Season. That means two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks (In the Blood and Fucking A) and three by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the A TrainOur Lady of 121St Street, and a new work). Woot.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent Brings the Theatrical Past Back to Glorious Life

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, now on Broadway after completing a run at the Vineyard Theatre, does something extraordinarily unique. While there have been plays dating back to Aristophanes that have celebrated the power of the theatre, this is the first play that I can recall where a play (in this case God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch) is the main character. Vogel’s play follows Asch’s as it is conceived in Warsaw, crisscrosses Europe on tour, comes to the United States where it encounters overwhelming resistance when it opens on Broadway, and returns yet again to Europe. Along the way, God of Vengeance intersects with the history of the Jewish diaspora and Western theatre.

Vogel created Indecent with Rebecca Taichman, the director, and the collaboration between the two has forged a compelling, indelible work of theatre. Working with a cast of seven (that feels much larger) and three musicians, Taichman gives the play an epic feel as it moves from continent to continent, and historical calamity to historical calamity. Asch’s play came out of the Yiddish Theater; Vogel and Taichman honor its heritage and avoid the hegemony of English. Utilizing a storytelling tool that Brian Friel developed for his Translations, Taichman depicts the trials and tribulations of characters trying to communicate across linguistic barriers. Asch’s achievement is only further highlighted by the challenges of language.

The heart of God of Vengeance is how an impossible love is found in the most trying of circumstances; the daughter of a brothel owner falls in love with one of the prostitutes. That love – that impossible love – brings down the wrath of, well, everyone else in the world. Vogel’s wonderful conceit is that just as that love is the hope of the world of God of Vengeance, so too is God of Vengeance the hope of the world of Indecent. It is the love of the play that drives stage manager Lemml (an excellent Richard Topol) to fight for the play even when the forces arrayed against it are overwhelming. Two poignant scenes – for vastly different reasons – stand out. First, after the company is arrested for indecency during the production’s Broadway opening night, Lemml has a conversation with Eugene O’Neill. The godfather of American playwriting bestows his artistic blessing on God of Vengeance; that endorsement speaks volumes to the power of Asch’s work. The second occurs after Lemml has returned to Europe, to Poland. Under the radar of the Nazi occupiers, he mounts a production of the play in an attic in the Lodz Ghetto. Vogel and Taichman have crafted a stunning moment in understatement here. The power and beauty of the play, the essential hope represented by the play in the face of adversity, becomes necessity. I am not ashamed to say that, after decades of theatre-going and developing the cynical persona of the New York theater-goer, I shed tears during this scene.

Taichman deploys the techniques of the Yiddish theater to tell Indecent’s story: music, dance, bare-bones sets, and tight ensemble work. The play moves seamlessly across the years and miles. There is not much in the way of star-turns for the cast of chameleons for together they bring God of Vengeance to life. Nonetheless, Tom Nelis (who has a mad number of skills including the ability to an Irish jig) and Katrina Lenk (whose character would go to prison for the play as written not for its watered-down commercial version) are stand-outs. If Indecent has a weakness, then it would be that it has three endings. The scene in Lodz, emotionally, feels like a fitting conclusion, but there are two codas that simply do not rise in power to the aforementioned moment.

One final thought: God of Vengeance, before it moved to Broadway, played at the Provincetown Playhouse following O’Neill’s Hairy Ape. This innovative and fertile time in theatrical history is currently being played out for New York audiences with Hairy Ape’s revival at the Park Avenue Armory. How fortunate we are to have that lighting caught in a bottle and given a second life here in 2017.