Category Archives: American Play

So Holden Caulfield Made It To Adulthood. Now What?

Because of the complications of copyright, we may never see a living embodiment of Holden Caulfield on either stage or screen. Terrence McNally, however, offered us the next best thing with Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?, a work that premiered in 1971 at the Yale Rep. It combines autobiographical elements with a not-so-subtextual musing of what Holden Caulfield would have been like if he had made it to adulthood and the 1960’s. Indeed, the narrative movement conforms much to the original novel’s: a journey to New York City (this time in a plan instead of a train), a disastrous dalliance in a hotel, an ambivalent relationship with an older brother, a nervous breakdown in the rain. Now, though, the rebel without a cause suddenly has a cause.

There are some dated elements to McNally’s script (a starchy female customer at Bloomingdale’s for instance), but much of it remains surprisingly relevant in part because the playwright did not construct a realistic work. It is more of a meditation on the 1960’s counter-culture movement and its relationship to its roots in the 1950’s. In pushing his Holden-like character forward, McNally also does the same with other 1950’s icons such as James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Tommy himself embodies both the positive and negative of that counter-culture movement (in 1971 the country found itself in a pretty dark place and elements of the peace movement turned to violence for political purpose). One can hear echoes of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when he reflects, “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” The play and character walk the razor’s edge between the wave and the place where it broke, between Woodstock and Altamont.

It is in that ambiguity that the plays finds its resonance, particularly a year into the Trump Era. In a time when the old idealism is lost, when a sense of loss and abandonment is profound, and when desperation builds to an overwhelming force, it requires no great act of imagination what troubling path some might choose.

Of course, what is needed to convey this 1971 work in 2017 is a creative team that can navigate its extremely treacherous currents. Fortunately, Starting 5 Productions has done just that. Director Laura Braza and her design team have just done that. Scene designer Zach Serafin constructed one of the better sets I have seen on an off-off-Broadway budget that both tells the (expressionistic) story and conveys a certain beauty of the underground in its own right. Braza, further, keeps the the production moving at pace without sacrificing emotional depth.

The ensemble moves seamlessly from the ridiculous to the realistic. Emily Kitchens, playing numerous roles, does a hilarious job as an oblivious Pat Nixon. Portraying Ben Delight, Daniel O’Shea finds nuance in the role of the gentleman beggar. Emma Geer infuses Nedda Lemon with a melancholy that informs even her happier moments. When she admits to her deep unhappiness in her final scene with Tommy, we can just hear her heart break.

The lynchpin of all of this is Tommy, played by the exceptional David Gow. Gow does not so much embody the role as devour it. The danger of Holden or Tommy is that either could easily be reduced to a sociopath. The necessary approach, therefore, is to embrace the damaged child  that is Tommy, that he has been damaged by the family, nation, world, and his own dreams. Gow pulls back from the bombast and hubris that often colored individuals from the counter-culture and instead fills his Tommy with vulnerability and despair. Even as he sits in the airplane drinking champagne looking across at America, an elegiac note sounds in his voice. When in the play’s coda, he loses everyone, we know, from Gow’s careful construction, that these are in fact losses that he cannot bare (despite his seeming bravado to the contrary). Yet, he finds puckish fun in the more surreal elements; he offers a vaudevillian physical battle with Mrs. Nixon as a blind handicapped girl at a photo op, a dead-on parody of James Dean, and a wonderfully demented performance as a Trotskyite Marilyn Monroe. This last left parody behind in the rear-view window and entered the realm of the sublime. Throughout, Gow finds the humanity that underscores all the character’s actions, and thus finds the tragic in the play’s final moments.

Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? performs through December 17. More information can be found here: https://wherehastommyflowersgone.weebly.com

Oedipus el Rey Tells a Familiar Tale in Startling New Ways

I haven’t had a chance to sit down until now and reflect on Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey at The Public Theatre until now (three days before it closes). So I will keep this brief.

The play tells Sophocles’s infamous story through the twin lenses of modern American society and Mexican folk tradition. What is startling is how well the original holds up AND gains immediacy and relevance in its movement through time and space. Alfaro puts on stage what Sophocles puts off stage, including a particularly long and brave and compelling scene between Oedipus (Juan Castano) and Jocasta (Sandra Delgado) when they unknowingly violate the laws of both gods and men.

The play is spare and yet full. The ensemble cast performed superbly, and the more mystical effects were both of the New World and Otherworldly.

Afterglow Marks a New Era in Gay Theatre

S. Asher Gelman’s Afterglow, now playing at The Loft at the Davenport Theatre, is an innovative work that represents a new chapter in the American LGBTQ theatrical tradition. As the marketing material makes abundantly clear, there is a moment (or several) erotically charged moments during the course of the production. What separates Afterglow from its predecessors is that this act occurs at the beginning of the play and not its conclusion.

Why does this matter? Traditionally, the arc of the gay play in the years and decades immediately following Stonewall focused on a protagonist who was struggling with (usually his, sometimes her) identity and the narrative explored how said protagonist learned to embrace the self and accept and offer love in a relationship that was forbidden either legally or culturally. The final erotic act was liberating but also transgressive in a heteronormative context.

By placing the erotic moment at the beginning of the play, Gelman acknowledges the history of his sub-genre and moves beyond. Where does gay theatre go now? (And this answer is obviously complicated by uncertainty created by the Trump Administration). What is so bracing, so refreshing, so compelling about Afterglow is how clearly it demonstrates that a gay couple, free of stigma, suffers the same trials and tribulations of all couples. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” Here, the gay couple behaves as a human couple, and some may dismiss it as simply imitative of the heterosexual. But what Gelman dramatizes is clearly human. Ultimately, the play, while having special appeal and resonance to a gay audience, speaks to all.

Afterglow is a character study of three complicated, flawed human beings. We begin in the immediate aftermath of a three-way sexual encounter between married couple Josh (Brandon Haageson) and Alex (Joe Chisholm) along with the younger Darius (Patrick Reilly). Such activities are designed by the couple to spice up their marriage. Extramarital sex is allowed, but extramarital emotional commitment is a no-no. Of course, in tragic inevitability, Josh falls for Darius. Josh tries to maintain his marriage (they will also soon have a child through a surrogate) while keeping Darius a part of his life. The consequences are inevitable and predictable. Which does not mean they are not emotionally searing because, alas, we have all been party to similar events.

Gelman is careful not to put any villains on his stage; he is also careful not to put any heroes there as well. Josh, an extroverted artist, and Alex, an introverted scientist, have very different personalities. Josh needs  more attention than Alex can provide. Similarly, he has no plans to fall in love. Darius, for his part, is not looking to break up a home and is quickly overwhelmed by his interactions with both men. Communications break down, misunderstandings mount, and the heart and mind war with one another. And so the play concludes as far from erotic celebration as possible. Afterglow‘s question is one that the theatre has wrestled with for centuries: how, once we fall in love, do we maintain the fire of that love across the years? Josh and Alex, like so many before them, have failed to find an answer. The dark epiphany is the audience’s heartbreak.

All three member of the cast portray their flawed characters simply and honestly. Gelman also serves as director and provides space for his characters and words to breathe. Ann Beyerdorfer, the scenic designer, deserves especial commendation for transforming the tiny Loft space into the lived-in world of Josh, Alex, and Darius.

More information about the play can be found here: http://afterglowtheplay.com

Mary Jane Has Soul

I hate plays and films about people with incurable diseases. There is only one narrative trajectory they can possibly have. The protagonist has little agency and is often a victim. The messages of such productions is often maudlin or saccharine or a combination of the two. They are designed to make you cry etc. I say all of this just to demonstrate what Mary Jane had to work against with me as audience- member. That I not only liked it but thought it was an incredibly compelling piece of theatre indicates the achievement of the playwright, director, and actors. It is a great play and production. And, yes, it did make me cry (a little).

First, playwright Amy Herzog wisely focuses her attention not on the patient (a never-seen three-year-old child) but on his primary caregiver. the titular Mary Jane. Second, Herzog dramatizes the struggles Mary Jane has both concerning the care of the child but also issues surrounding that care (trying to maintain a job, navigating the bureaucracies of the medical establishment and the city). Finally, the playwright carefully deconstructs how this loving, smart, and competent woman is slowly overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead of her. She never whines nor laments. She keeps trying to maintain her resilience and, yes, her cheerful disposition, but that slowly breaks down (as her son moves from home care to the ICU).

In this, Herzog has found a gifted collaborator in director Anne Kauffman, who maintains a laser-like focus on the journey of Mary Jane. While we feel her travails throughout, she is never a victim. She always maintains some small agency.

And, of course, the play rests on the shoulders of its incredible cast. Carrie Coon, who was the best thing in the might Leftovers cast, invests her portrayal of Mary Jane with subtlety and nuance throughout. Exhausted but never defeated, she fully expresses the brutal struggles of her character and yet we never sense anything less than full love for her son. She is ably supported by an all-female ensemble. Liza Colon-Zayas embodies two medical professionals who are grounded and dedicated, supportive and realistic. The deep subtext of Colon-Zayas conversation with Coons in the hospital is streaked through with both hope and fatalism. Equally poignant is Susan Pourfar as another mother, Chaya (from the Orthodox Jewish community), who has a child with similar disabilities. It is a fascinating scene where Mary Jane discover what they share and what is distinct for each of them. Actresses for years on end will be employing this scene in their workshop classes. Finally, Brenda Wehle as a Buddhist nun shares the stage with Coons for the play’s elegiac conclusion. Herzog quietly but persistently has crafted a story of faith and inquiry, wondering aloud about our place in the world and the purpose behind our bonds to another. That she never telegraphs her inquiry but we realize slowly that this is what we as the audience are being asked to contemplate is a masterful turn of writing.

If it may be said that a work of art has a soul, then this is such a work. Mary Jane only has a few more performances. Catch it while you can.

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.