Tag Archives: Acting

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/

Link

http://www.npr.org/2017/05/20/529146027/whos-afraid-of-a-diverse-cast

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http://www.playbill.com/article/2017-tony-award-nominations-the-great-comet-and-hello-dolly-lead-the-pack

A Muted Response to a Classic

Following up on his contemporary morality play Red Speedo, playwright Lucas Hnath comes to Broadway with A Doll’s House, Part 2 currently playing at the Golden Theatre. As the title suggests, this play is a follow-up to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece, which concluded with a door slam heard around the world. The production, however, is such a mixed bag that – depending on the focus – the individual audience member can either have a satisfactory evening at the theatre or a terrible one.

First to the good: Laurie Metcalf and Jayne Houdyshell. Metcalf roars through the production as Nora, investing the 15 years between the shutting of that door and her return with pathos, urgency, nuance, and good humor. Her scenes with Houdyshell (recently of The Humans) crackle with wit and an undercurrent of tension and loss. A play constructed around these two would have been quite satisfying indeed.

Next to the troublesome: Condola Rashad as Emmy (Nora and Torvald’s daughter) offers a winning presence, but she cannot resolve the contradictions written into her role. Often it seems that Hnath has written her a line for the purpose of being funny, even if it is out-of-stop with an aspect of her character expressed in a previous line.

And finally to the not so good: Chris Cooper. Cooper is an actor I have long-admired on film from Lone Star to his award-winning performance in Adaptation to Capote, but here he seemed completely at sea. I understand he has experience on stage, but he came across as unsure in the medium. His instrument, compared to his co-stars, was weak. Alas, in the preview I saw, he even called for line. He struggled to create a character with a clear narrative arc, and he failed to be a strong scene partner for Metcalf.

The fault though lies with the script. Metcalf and Houdyshell simply steamrolled over the play’s weaknesses, while Cooper could not resolve them with his process. Like Red Speedo, this work dramatizes Hnath’s concern with ethical behavior accompanied by staccato Mamet-esque dialogue. However, the play simply did not know what it wanted to be, or even when it wanted it to be. First, period costumes mixed with extremely knowing and irony-laden contemporary speech. Tom Stoppard made this work with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as his piece was an absurdist work of theatre engaging with Shakespeare’s while Shakespeare’s was in process. The lack of naturalism in both works played well with each other. Ibsen’s however is so period specific and so naturalistic that Hnath’s play has not more weight than one of those shallow Hollywood No-Fear-Shakespeare-esque retellings of a classic text. And while there is some attempt to explore the ramifications of Nora’s original decision to leave hearth and home, the stakes are extraordinarily low. Finally, Hnath’s play robs the original Nora of her power and agency. She returns. She walks back through the door. She seeks Torvald’s help on a matter that is too convoluted for here and never quite convinces in its urgency. I believe that Hnath wanted to build upon the proto-feminist impulses inherent in the Ibsen, but the results rob Nora of her remarkable pioneering feminist achievements.

Sam Gold, who seems to be everywhere now, keeps the proceedings brisk and provides a an appropriate sense of claustrophobia with his staging and set.

For fans of Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2 will provide a fun evening at the theatre. For fans of Ibsen, it will not.

Quick Thought about Fences

Much has already been written about Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of Fences, which has recently been released on blu-ray and streaming services. Washington took a little heat for his direction, but basically I think he did a fine job in his freshman effort behind the camera. He demonstrated a solid understanding of what a director does: strong craft, not much artistry, and little fuss. He got out of the way so that the play could be seen and heard.

Viola Davis rightly earned numerous plaudits in the role of Rose Maxson. She deserved an Oscar, but for Best Actress not Best Supporting Actress (a discussion for another time). Washington was necessarily volcanic as Troy, though I still cannot get the indelible impression James Earl Jones made in the Broadway premiere. Unsung in much of the criticism is Stephen McKinley Henderson. An excellent stage actor (he recently starred in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy), he added much to the role of Bono. Fences offers a number of three-hander scenes between Troy, Rose, and Bono, and Henderson more than held up his own end. He deserves great praise as well.

“To have that concentration to act well is like lugging things up staircases in your brain. I think that’s a thing people don’t understand. It is that exhausting. If you’re doing it well, if you’re concentrating the way you need to, if your will and your concentration and emotional and imagination and emotional life are all in tune, concentrated and working together in that role, that is just like lugging weights upstairs with your head…And I don’t think that should get any easier.” Philip Seymour Hoffman