We love seeing live theater. And New York City Theater is a compelling draw. Broadway has once again reopened and audiences are coming back. Masks are still mandated but concession stands are once again open. People were so happy to be there that mask compliance was not an issue.
While many plays have moved to one-act (no intermission), we are seeing longer plays with 1-2 intermissions again.
We continually update this blog each time we visit New York City theater. We have included older plays as they are often revived, or go on the road. Besides, it brings back memories.
The Minutes. Steppenwolf Theater’s playwright/actor Tracy Letts has written and stars in another wonderful and timely play. It is about a small-town mayor and council who are apparently complicit in covering up a story that may expose a myth about the town. All this plus subplots regarding the mysterious disappearance of the councilman that exposed the myth and whether a new member will stand up to the pressure or succumb to the pressure of his colleagues. A fun 90-minute play, although the ending left us less than satisfied.
Hangman. The time was 1965. The place: Britain. Death by hanging has just been outlawed. What does an executioner do now that his job is no longer available? He “retires” back to run his pub where he is a local celebrity and barflies flock in to see him.
The story revolves around a prisoner who maintained his innocence about killing a young woman before being hung a year previously. Was he guilty or was there another killer out there?
Enter a mysterious London visitor who has a creepy conversation with the former executioner’s 15-year-old daughter promising to drive her to see her friend. Then the daughter goes missing. Is it true that the prisoner who was previously executed was really innocent and the visitor was the real killer? Did he take the daughter? Well, you will have to see the play to find out.
The Girl from the North Country. Bob Dylan’s music attracted us (well one of us) to want to see this play. It was a chance for Tom to reprise some of his favorite high-school age music and while simultaneously catching up with some of the music that led to Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
While there was little in the score to address his nostalgia, many of the songs were beautifully poignant and the singers who delivered them had wonderful voices. Unfortunately, however, few of the songs related to or advanced the plot.
In spite of the music disappointment, we felt the plot was compelling, many of the characters were sympathetic and the acting was very good. However, we would have preferred if some of the songs had been pruned and more time was spent on developing some of the primary characters.
The Lehman Trilogy. Three entrepreneurial German Jews came to America and settled in Antebellum Birmingham Alabama. They opened a textile and clothing store to sell to poor and middle-class citizens and slaves. The play shows how the brothers gradually expanded their business into raw cotton, then progressively coffee, railroads, oil, and tobacco. They opened a New York City branch where they gradually moved their business and evolved into a “middleman” trading company and ultimately a bank. The story progressed through three generations of Lehmans who progressively grew the business and managed it through the depression. The family dynasty culminated with Bobby who became intrigued by and ultimately hired a speculator to open a highly speculative financial trading business for which the company ultimately became known, through the infamous leadership of Dick Fuld who led the company into the catastrophic bankruptcy that spurred the global, 2008 financial crisis. This fast-moving play was totally engaging and very well acted—at least until the third act when they tried to cram more than 50 years into a contrived scene that attempted to summarize the go-go years that led to the company’s collapse.
Morning Sun. A wonderfully acted, if somewhat difficult to follow and interpret three-actress (Edie Falco, Blair Brown, and Marin Ireland) play. It is set around three generations of women (grandmother, mother, and daughter) living in an apartment and talking about their lives, the choices, and mistakes they made. Through words, and the actors playing additional characters that played a role in their lives, they exposed long-held grievances against one another. All of this against an apparent theme of loneliness and isolation (as evidenced by numerous mentions of Edward Hopper and presumably his picture with which the play shares a title.)
Is This a Room? This play is a word-for-word transcript (with redactions emphasized) of an actual FBI interrogation of a woman Air Force interpreter who is suspected of disclosing classified information. The agents alternatively intimidate and soothe the woman who either is or appears to be naive and guileless. What do the agents actually know and what are they guessing? Is the woman innocent or has she done more than she lets on? It was an interesting approach to theater that yields less suspense and less illumination than we had hoped.
Lackawanna Blues is a one-man play in which writer/director/performer Ruben Santiago-Hudson tells the story of Miss Rachel, a black woman who grew up picking tobacco in Virginia. Through hard work and indomitable inner strength, she ended up owning two boarding houses in the late 1940s through 50s in the prosperous industrial town of Lackawanna New York. She ended up taking in a collection of former criminals, mentally ill patients, prostitutes, gamblers, orphaned and injured animals, and especially a young boy (the primary role played by Santiago-Hudson) and putting them on a productive path. While the play was a bit longer than necessary, it was a nice touching story with convincing acting and backup guitar from Bill Sims Jr.
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Temptations. We enjoyed hearing the group’s incredible songs, listening to the harmonies, and watching the moves. And it was fascinating to learn the back-set stories about the personalities of the members, the virtually inevitable strains that this type of life put on relations with colleagues and families, and how, after replacing member after member, the group kept pumping out hit songs to become the Number One R&B group in history. But as enjoyable and as interesting as all of this was, the play seemed to lack the energy and we did not engage with it quite the way we did with Tina (which we saw in London). We are glad we saw it, but in the end, it wasn’t among our favorites of the genre.
Betrayal is a revival of a Harold Pinter Play that pits husband vs wife vs. former best friend and best man. And all of this over an affair that lasted a mere six years. The primarily (but not exclusively) reverse chronology was somewhat disconcerting and the staging approach of having all three characters on stage when two are meeting and speaking of the other adds drama. It was interesting for a show with no real plot, that was all about the interactions among the characters. But we didn’t find it especially compelling.
Ink. Have you ever wondered how Rupert Murdoch made his move into the big time, from his first small Australian newspaper to London’s Fleet Street—and then into U.S. newspapers and television? This engaging and strikingly staged show portrays the one year from his purchase of London’s The Sun tabloid through its process of continually stretching and increasingly shredding the British concept of journalism to his success of building one of the largest subscription bases in the country. Although Murdoch certainly set the initial tone for the paper, it was his hand-picked Managing Editor that pioneered many of the practices that have since come to define sensationalist “journalism.” We especially enjoyed the production’s staging.
Hillary and Clinton. John Lithgow and the always wonderful Laurie Metcalf star in this (probably?) fictional episode in the 2008 primary when a dejected Hillary speculates about becoming Obama’s running mate, firing her campaign manager, and relying more heavily on a husband with whom she has not yet fully reconciled from his many indiscretions. A wonderfully acted, fun, and funny escapade.
To Kill a Mockingbird. Wow!! With Harper Lee’s novel, Aaron Sorkin’s playwrighting, and Jeff Daniels’ acting, there was no chance that we would miss this play—despite its modest reviews and a lawsuit over Sorkin’s liberal reinterpretation of the novel’s structure and sequence. Are we glad we got tickets! We were amazed by the incredibly powerful and poignant production. And then there was the inspired use of the 40-year-old Celia Keenan-Bolger who brought to the role of six-year-old Scout Finch, the wise-beyond-her-years narrator. A must-see play that we will not soon forget.
Fiddler on the Roof. We all know the story of Fiddler, with its pre-revolutionary Russian Jewish village’s focus on—and perpetual challenges to—tradition. But how does it translate into Yiddish? Actually, quite well, at least with continual translations on the side of the stage. The play continues to deliver its wonderful blend of pathos and humor and the songs are still lovely. We certainly enjoyed it and there is something to be said for staging the play in the language the people actually spoke. Overall, however, we did often find ourselves torn between reading the words and watching the action on the stage.
Network. Another stage production of a story that is familiar to many of us from the movie. It portrays the trauma of a struggling television network news program that suddenly finds itself vaulting to the top of the ratings after its soon-to-be-laid-off anchor announces that he will soon kill himself on the air. The network execs, thrilled with the ratings, encourages and manipulates him and his increasingly psychotic populist ravings until they threaten to derail a planned buyout of the network by a Saudi-financed conglomerate. While Tom found the slightly updated 1970s-era plot, with its corporate greed and conflict between populism and corporatism to be timely, Joyce didn’t feel that it translated well to the present. We did, however, agree that Ivo Van Hove’s sets and direction, and especially Bryan Cranston’s emotive acting were superb.
What the Constitution Means to Me: Heidi Schreck wrote and acted in this semi-biographical play. It was based on a high-school contest in which she won an American Legion contest by giving a speech on the title of the play and speaking extemporaneously on an amendment chosen at random. Her success resulted in a speaking tour of American Legion posts that ended up paying for her college. The first, and weakest part of the play was basically a review and update of that experience. Much stronger was when she spoke of a legacy of her family’s intergenerational violence against women and the limited legal remedies that were, and in some cases still are, available to women. Better yet was when she brought a high school constitutional scholar onto the stage and the two staged a multi-part debate on whether the constitution should be retained (and amended) or repealed in favor of creating a new document based on “positive rights” rather than the “negative rights” embodied in the current document. Interesting but we were glad it was a short play. Making this a little harder were the confining theater seats which provided meager leg room…even in the orchestra section.
Waverly Gallery is simultaneously funny and profoundly touching. The stellar cast included comedy legends Elaine May, Joan Allen, Lucas Hedges, and Michael Cera. The play centers on the progression of dementia of Gladys (Elaine May), a former globe-trotting lawyer, who retired to own an art gallery—and the burden that dementia imposes on her family. The comedy of Ms. May’s timing was priceless. More impressive yet, is the interaction between May and her long-suffering daughter played by Joan Allen. Wonderful performances that left us grateful that neither of us had to suffer such afflictions from our own parents.
Lifespan of a Fact: This highly topical play was written well before former President Trump made the question of “what is truth” so topical. The very funny comedy revolves around a critical issue—what is more important; emotional truth in an essay that tells the tragic story of a boy’s suicide, or the precise facts used in the telling of the story. And what types of facts can be shaded and what type cannot. The issues were made all the more relevant, and the story more compelling, by a compelling and powerful combination of actors: Bobby Cannavale as the essay’s somewhat supercilious author, Daniel Radcliffe as the nit-picking, but very persuasive fact-checker assigned to the article, and Cherry Jones as the editor who has to moderate between them and decide which facts must be correct and which can slide.
American Son is another all too topical play in which an 18-year-old black boy, the son of an estranged interracial professional couple, has gone missing. The action occurs at a police station where they are able to learn that the car was involved in an incident, but not much more. The tension leads to confrontations with the police officers, mutual recriminations between the parents, and ongoing insights into the challenges faced by a privileged black boy growing up in a white environment. Tensions only grow as the parents get new information, one bite at a time, over the course of the long night. Yet another very powerful play.
The Ferryman: This was a huge winner that combined the joy of a rural Irish harvest dinner celebration with some quirky characters (especially the unexpectedly literate uncle; the cantankerous aunt and the only occasionally lucid and winsome grandmother), a quasi-functional wife; a latent love affair; a few unwelcome guests; and a very dark, eventually dominant background story surrounding the IRA. Even with the large cast and various subplots, we had no trouble following the characters or the story. Even after more than three hours, we had no real lapses of attention. An incredible play with a wonderfully diverse ensemble cast and a fascinating interplay of plots all of which wove seamlessly together.
School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play: This play is a cuttingly funny Off-Broadway comedy-drama by Jocelyn Bioh, a Ghanaian actress/playwright. It portrays life in a Ghanian girls boarding school and the way beauty, and especially light-colored skin plays such an important role in the girl’s self-identities. These issues are examined within the context of the catty environment of a clique in which girls—and especially the clique’s leader—can be exceedingly cruel as a means of disguising their own insecurities. The ending also exposes the deceptions and the lies that can often be so easily justified in pursuit of one’s goals. It is, as the subtitle suggests, supposed to be similar to the movie and Broadway musical “Mean Girls” which we have not seen. A fun play with a number of lessons that are not easily, or fully learned.
Dear Evan Hanson. We walked away loving the show. This sensitive production starred Noah Galvin in a very compelling performance with a strong supporting cast in a profile of a lonely high school student who accidentally finds himself weaving a comforting if totally fabricated story surrounding a classmate’s suicide. An excellent production.
Hello Dolly. We were able to get one of the rare chances to experience the indomitable Bette Midler in this role. Just seeing this legend playing a role she was born to play was itself worth the high ticket price. Co-star David Hyde Pierce, the incredible choreography, and fabulous sets and costumes were icing on the cake. Too bad that many of the numbers and sight gags dragged on so long. It would have been fabulous if the Divine Ms. M retained the range and projection of her earlier years, but this was too much to hope for.
The Band’s Visit. This show tells a small story of a small Egyptian band that mistakenly ends up in a tiny, remote Israeli settlement. The story focuses on the relations formed between the individual band members and the townspeople who took them in for the night and the ways in which they changed the individuals. Very sweet, although we felt that it would have been more satisfying with less music and a deeper exposition of the people and their relationships.
The Parisian. Uma Thurmond plays a beautiful and charming, but also ruthless and philandering, Washington wife who will stop at nothing to help her husband score the desired judgeship during the Trump administration. The fun show earns a number of cheap, but juicy laughs with several snide references to Trump and his administration. Not a lot to it, but good fun.
Jesus Hopped the A Train. This Off-Broadway drama provided contrasting philosophical and religious perspectives on justifications and remorse for murders committed by two very different inmates in adjoining cells. One committed eight cold-blooded murders before turning to god—not so much for redemption as to better understand himself and to take responsibility for his actions. The other purposely wounded a cult leader (who subsequently ended up dying from an infection) and effectively prays for mercy, but is non-committal about religion and God. Fascinating, although the first act could be cut by about 15 minutes.
A Doll’s House Part 2. Something of an unofficial sequel to the classic Ibsen play of the return of an independent, modernized version of Nora who returns to the home she left 15 years ago. This version, starring Best Actress winner Laurie Metcalf, and a very worthy and convincing cast of Chis Cooper, Jayne Houdyshell, and Condola Rashad, has the prosperous Nora returning to ask for a favor that ends up with probing discussions of the institution of marriage and who owes what to whom. Totally engaging.
Indecent. A recollection of the trials and lessons from the production of a 1903 Yiddish play that provoked political charges and a trial for obscenity (for two females kissing) and the perseverance of the company that staged it in the early 1920s. Previous Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel’s examination of the company’s struggles is used to demonstrate the need to fight against political censorship of art in today’s political environment.
Sweat. Pulitzer Prize winner, Lynn Nottage’s take on the trauma of a rumored, and eventually actual, factory closure on its employees and other residents of a struggling Rust-Belt city. A tremendously powerful play that demonstrated the trauma of loss, the very different and very personal ways each individual responded to it, and how it can turn friends against each other, and themselves. It is a shame that the lack of Tony wins resulted in its almost immediate closure.
Oslo. A Best New Play Tony Award winner that provides the incredible, inter-personal dynamics of the negotiations that led to the groundbreaking Oslo Peace Accords, which resulted in the Israel and PLO’s agreement on terms of peace and mutual commitments to recognize each other. The play, while certainly discussing the high-level issues involved in the negotiations, didn’t delve into these details. It focused primarily on the process and personal risks are taken by a Norwegian think-tank president and his upper-mid-level career diplomat’s wife, in coordinating and facilitating a series of secret, back-channel negotiations between ever higher-level representatives of Israel and the PLO; and on how the initial polemical antipathy between the parties gradually evolved into serious negotiations, and in the end, even friendship between two of the opposing negotiators. An intriguing, educational, and in many ways, entertaining perspective on one of the most difficult political situations of our time. If only the theater’s sound system didn’t make it so difficult to hear the entire dialogue.
Little Foxes. The most recent revival of the Lillian Hellman play in which three adult Southern aristocratic siblings fight to capture their own unfair shares of a pending business deal. Although all the adult actors are strong, the spotlight is on the strong-minded ruthless sister who plays hardball not only with her two brothers but also with her own moneyed and ailing husband and their daughter. The night we saw it, Laura Linney played the domineering Regina while Best Featured Actress, Cynthia Nixon played the weak, slow-minded, perpetually tipsy Birdie. While both played their roles to a tee, the actresses rotate roles nightly. Although it is tough to imagine how, each is supposed to be superb in playing either role, albeit in very different ways. We just wish that we could, as the critics suggest, see each playing both roles.
The Great Comet. A particularly inventive adaptation and exciting staging of an adaptation of War and Peace in which singer Josh Groban plays a Russian nobleman soldier who, while at war, almost lost his fiancée to a handsome rake. Although we had difficulty understanding most of the lyrics, the vaguely Russian music and dancing and the way the cast danced, sang, and circulated through the audience were certainly fun. Entertaining, but not our type of show.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. We saw the 2002 production with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. The 2016 production, starred Ben Whishaw, Teagle Bougere, and Sophie Okonedo. It was directed by Ivo Van Hove, who directed last season’s incredible revival of Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which we loved. This production was almost as powerful, especially Whishaw as the righteous John Proctor, Okonedo as his accused wife, and Bougere as the self-righteous judge. Although set in the era of the Salem witch trials, Miller wrote the play as an indictment of the McCarthy Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. While the frightening play is almost as relevant to today, its impact was only slightly blunted by the mechanistic following of the cultish teenage girls and an artificially dramatic fire-and-brimstone-like scene that was intended to show the power of the devil. Probably a B in our book.
Eclipsed. A tale of women’s survival during the Liberian Civil War and the very different ways in which different “wives” of a rebel officer dealt with the trauma. Two of the wives accepted their roles as slave/wives, while another chose the more highly valued position (at least in the eyes of the officer) as a fighter in the resistance. The play revolves around the future of a younger woman, captured as a wife, who is torn between the two means of survival. It ends with another dilemma for all the women—what to do when a settlement is reached and the rebellion is dissolved. A very powerful play.
The Father. A star vehicle for Frank Langella, a cantankerous, obstreperous old man who may, or may not be suffering from dementia. Although his malady is obvious at first, each subsequent scene raises questions as to whether he is being tricked into believing he has the malady. And then come other twists to make you question whether the play may be presenting alternate realities mixed together. In the end, one is left with more questions than answers—but with a much more profound empathy for both the victim and his family.
An American In Paris. We added one evening of fantasy and pure entertainment into a series of very good, very thought-provoking, but ultimately depressing plays. This musical, with memorable music and familiar songs from George and Ira Gerswhin (songs including I Got Rhythm, S Wonderful and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, as well as the eponymous An American in Paris). The music, built around a rather flimsy “boy meets/gets girl” theme was complemented by dreamy ballet and a continually changing series of beautiful (and in at least one case, dazzling) modern art-themed sets. Good for a mind-suspending musical, but we typically favor more thought-provoking fare.
Hamilton. We saw the original production when we happened to buy tickets just after the announcement of its Broadway opening. Who would imagine a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers with a Latino and black cast? Or a quiz show-like format for a rap cabinet debate between Jefferson and Hamilton that actually explained the controversy surrounding the establishment of a central bank and the federal government’s assumption of states’ war debts. And then there was the wonderful comic relief provided by King George’s rap monologues. And this doesn’t even begin to hint at the dazzling choreography, the engaging songs, or the cast’s incredible energy. While the entire cast was wonderful, Lin-Manuel Miranda was particularly noteworthy as Hamilton (not to speak of the creator of the show’s book, music, and lyrics). The only caveat: you won’t understand many of the words (or at least we didn’t). Although this barely diminished our enjoyment of the show, it does help to have read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton before you see the show.
A View from the Bridge. Raw, unvarnished power in this classic Arthur Miller portrayal of Eddie Carbone, an Italian-American longshoreman who is unable to make the transition from doting uncle and adoptive father of an adoring girl to one willing to give the young woman away to the man of her choice. A situation that is complicated by the fact that the prospective husband is one of two of his wife’s illegal immigrant nephews that Eddie and his wife are housing. The power of the play comes not from surprise: The outcome is foretold before the first word is spoken, by the funeral dirge that sets the mood for the inevitable tragedy that the on-stage narrator foretells in virtually all of his appearances. The power comes from a combination of this inevitability, the roles of an ill-perceived desperation and exaggerated sense of “honor” in driving the final conflict, the innovative staging, and acting (especially in the cases of Mark Strong as Eddie and Phoebe Fox as his niece). Although we have seen this play before (although not, unfortunately, in the latest Broadway production), it was not to this effect.
Fun Home. Your normal story of a lesbian girl growing up in a household led by an overbearing, academic, homosexual pedophile, funeral director/English teacher father in a funeral home—and set to music. The story was compelling: the coming out of a teenage girl, the father who demands perfection from his children to compensate for his own failings and the trauma of the long-suffering wife. But why did it have to be set to music? While a few of the songs were engaging, others vainly struggled to advance a series of deep, important narratives via tortured songs. Pretty good, but it could have been so much better without music.
The Humans. A Thanksgiving dinner where the loving family members gradually lay out their disappointments; culminating in an admission that throws everybody (except the two people most directly involved) for a loop. Good, but not especially memorable.
Fool for Love. A Sam Sheppard play starring Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell as two passionate, but mutually repellant lovers who, as we learn from a strange, story—vehemently denied by a ghost sitting in the corner—have the same father and different mothers., An engaging story, but without the fire that we have come to expect after Arianda’s performance in “Venus in Fur”.
The Flick. An Off-Broadway production that won a Pulitzer Prize for its slice-of-life portrayal of the ups and downs in the relationship among three employees of one of the few remaining, independent, film-based projection movie theaters in Wooster Mass. The show nicely portrayed the gradual integration (and ultimate expulsion) of an insecure nerdy college student (who had recently made a half-hearted attempt to commit suicide) into a trio of employees who included a fellow-but much lower-income college student projectionist and a third non-college employee who is struggling with the growing realization that he is unlikely to ever rise above his current station in life. An interesting portrait of the relationships of three very different young adults, but only barely worth the 3:45 hours required for the action to unfold—nearly the same time required for both of our favorite plays of the trip combined.
Alive! 55+ and Kickin’. We read such as great review of this concert, that we decided to see it for ourselves. We were among the youngest in the audience and some of the few that were not affiliated with one of the church groups that came in from New Jersey, Pennsylvania Connecticut, or New York. The concert began with a number of gospel and religious songs and then, short stories about how performers overcame their own hardships and then sang songs from artists including Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, as well as a few inspirational Broadway tunes (such as The Impossible Dream). Many of the stories and songs were around themes including redemption, second chances, faith, and perseverance. Many were accompanied by supporting signers using synchronized, exaggerated, stereotypical hand gestures, such as those representing the sun shining down, listening, rocking babies, and so forth. Although some of this got old over the 2.5 hours of the concert, virtually all the singers had incredibly strong and wonderful singing voices. Just as important, the Mama for the Arts Foundation, which organizes these concerts, plays a vital role in giving people who have overcome hardships, opportunities to pursue their passions for singing, while also making some money. Just as importantly, while we were ready for the concert to end, the vast majority of the audience seemed fully appreciative and engaged right to the end.
Hand to God. The acting, especially by Steven Boyer, the Tony-nominated lead actor, is very good. But what can you say about a play in which a devil-possessed hand puppet terrorizes a bible school in which all the boys and men lust after the puppet teacher? In which the only way of subduing the rogue puppet is by seducing it by a lusty female puppet? Strange, obnoxiously funny, and a bit gruesome at the end, with a touch of moralizing on man’s need for the devil to allow him to do what his repressed soul will not allow.
The Audience. A winner. The wonderful Helen Mirren reprised her role as Queen Elizabeth II in her weekly meetings with the eight Prime Ministers (from Winston Churchill through David Cameron) who served under her realm. Although the actual meetings are confidential and the content unknown, those portrayed in the play dealt with actual and controversial issues of the time (including the Sinai War, Margaret Thatcher’s austerity policies, and Charles and Diana’s disintegrating marriage). It portrayed relations that were warm (especially with Harold Wilson) and testy (as with Eden, Thatcher, and Major) and conveyed the very real limitations imposed on the Queen in a constitutional monarchy. A very engaging play and a very convincing portrayal of the Queen over more than six decades.
Skylight. The alternatively contemplative, scathing, and passionate reunion of a financially strapped young teacher of disadvantaged youths and a wealthy older businessman with whom she had an affair until it was discovered by his wife, who has since died. Although the psychological explorations and the pent-up emotions were interesting, the most impressive aspect of the play was the extraordinarily high levels of energy and emotion sustained by both actors (and especially Bill Nighy) throughout the play.
Airline Highway. The comic-tragic tale of a pre-death New Orleans-style funeral celebration for Miss Ruby, a terminally ill, honorary matriarch of a rundown motel in which she and most of the guests live. The love and mutual caring of the residents come out in a party that provides a middle-class teenage visitor with the unvarnished slice of life experience for a sociology paper examining a specific “sub-culture”. Interesting and generally engaging, if not entirely fulfilling.
Fish in the Dark. This play was about an attempt at extracting humor from the death of the playwright/star’s (Larry David’s) father. And to our total surprise, it worked. While the play isn’t likely to lead you to answers to life’s mysteries, it is quite funny and there are some great lines.
This Is Our Youth. This is a story of an evolving, long-term friendship of two very different early-twenties stoners (Michael Cera from Juno and Kieran Culkin): one a self-absorbed, overly self-confident drug dealer and the other an insecure, unemployed young man struggling to find himself, establish a relationship with girls and resolve a tempestuous relationship with his father. Interesting characters, interesting dynamics between the friends, and each of their very different types of dysfunctional relationships with girls. But boy, judging from this play, growing up in today’s world is certainly more difficult than when we were young. Surprisingly—or not—we saw more younger people in this audience than we are used to seeing. While we did like the play, we saw even better ones subsequently.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. There was no napping possible with this incredible play—if not for the play itself than for the lights on the set. It is about the life of an autistic math whiz teenager struggling to solve the mystery surrounding the killing of a neighbor’s dog and adapting to his parent’s messy divorce. The plot is totally engaging and the actors (especially Alex Sharp, in his first Broadway play since graduating from the Julliard in May) are totally convincing. The set, meanwhile, is a multimedia extravaganza that both advanced the plot in ingenious ways and conveyed the sensory overload that must have overcome the youth as he made his way—on his own—from his father’s home in Swindon England to his mother’s home in London. A tour de force and one of the best plays of this trip—although our next play is a strong contender for best play of our trip.
Disgraced. This is a very interesting play about a man, whose father was born in India in an area that a year later became Pakistan and a mother who was born the year later when it was Pakistan. Although raised in Islam, he renounced his religion and joined a Jewish law firm. He and his WASP artist wife host a black women colleague and her very secular Jewish arts husband for dinner. Things turn badly quickly as the discussion turns to religion and previously repressed Islamic and Jewish loyalties reemerge. The play poignantly questions whether it is really possible to bury traditional faiths and loyalties. The apparent answer offered by this Pulitzer-winning play is disturbing. Although some of the setups and a few of the actions seem a bit contrived, this barely diminishes the play’s power.
Stocks and Bones. Bill Pullman (who we have really enjoyed in other plays) and Holly Hunter (who we loved in several movies like Broadcast News) stared in a David Rabe play that shows the trauma in an idealized mid-20th century family (symbolically named Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky) faces when their son returns from Vietnam blind, with PTSD and an inability to forget the Vietnamese girl that he left. The family, unable to accept the disruption ultimately finds peace in a very disturbing way. At least this is what we think happened since interpretation was difficult. Also difficult was understanding Mr. Pullman, who, I am sure under direction from the author or director, seemed to mumble many of his words and was in a role that didn’t seem to show his acting abilities.
You Can’t Take It With You. We went with the expectation of a night of entertainment, and a chance to see James Earl Jones—who we always enjoy seeing. It was, as you would expect from a Kaufman and Hart play, light. The first act was a trifle light; the second an over-the-top farce; and the third topped it all off with a nice (albeit somewhat contrived) feel-good bow in which Jones, in a single monologue, solves all the world’s problems. The play was OK and very light, but we generally do prefer a bit more meat in our plays and from actors of the quality of Jones.
Of Mice and Men. Although James Franco was the big draw, Chris O’Dowd, with his convincing and touching portrayal of the mentally challenged Lenny, was the star that made this production shine. The entire theater was engaged in every minute of the production and, for one of the first times in a long time, the protracted standing ovation was very, very well deserved. A thoroughly engaging production in which the end, which was never in doubt (even for those who have not read the book or seen a previous production), was still touching. By far, our favorite of the trip.
The Realistic Joneses. The cast (Tracy Lets, Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette, and Michael C. Hall), along with the Times review, were enough to draw us to the play. To us, however, it had little more going for it. Two of the characters (Tomei and Hall) continually uttered inane lines and we could not buy into the relationship between the two couples. Okay as light entertainment, but little more than a trifle.
Buyer and Cellars. A cute fictional send-up of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate, where an unemployed gay actor is hired to be the caretaker/salesperson of her fictional underground private shopping mall. The premise was funny, the actor engaging and many of the lines were extremely funny. While we both felt that it would have benefited by being slightly tightened, it was a fun way to spend an evening Off Broadway.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Okay, it is a very light musical comedy with a totally improbable. This having been said, it was so much fun as to make us happy to suspend disbelief and get into the spirit of the “plot” and enjoy the unexpected ending. Although we understood perhaps one-third of the words of the songs, it didn’t matter. The plot is very easy to follow. Great light fun.
After Midnight. A musical review of Harlem in the early 1930s played by a 16-piece band and sang and danced, in elaborate costumes, by more than 25 entertainers. Songs included Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. I’ve Got the World on a String, Stormy Weather, and many more. Singing (including Vanessa Williams) was good, but the band, the costumes, the choreographer, and the dancers made the show.
I’ll Eat You Last. Bette Midler as Sue Mengers, the laceratingly witty, chain-smoking, perpetually stoned female Hollywood super-agent and power broker who, at least as characterized by Miss M, epitomizes what we view as the Hollywood style: aggressive, incredibly confident, and always the center of attention. Bette Midler did a great job in engaging the audience. Too bad she was overlooked for a Best Actress nomination.
Vanya and Sonia, Masha and Spike. This play sounded like a good prospect for an evening out. Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce, Tony-nominated for 6 Tony awards including best play. Much of the audience seemed to really enjoy the play. We did enjoy parts of the play, especially the housekeeper and the David Hyde Pierce character. Overall, however, we saw the play as a piece of light entertainment. Perhaps we would have enjoyed it more if some other actress, or even actor, played the role of Sigourney Weaver’s Masha.
The Assembled Parties. A generally pleasant play with some interesting twists and very good acting by Judith Light. Overall, however, the transition between the first and second acts was very confusing, forcing the audience to fill in a number of blanks. While Tom was somewhat more willing to overlook the play’s many lapses, neither of us was particularly impressed–other than by Ms. Light, who was at least nominated for a Tony.
Great Jazz Women of the Apollo Theater. The Apollo Theater is on the list for most of our New York visits. The show that was playing during our visit was part of the institution’s Jazz at the Apollo Festival, and paid homage to some of the most famous women in jazz–all of whom performed at, and some of whom got their starts a,t the Apollo. The theater, along with a band and supporting chorus, backed up some of today’s best female jazz singers in singing renditions of some of the originals (including Aretha Franklin, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holliday’s favorite songs. And in a few breaks from the vocals, some fun, crowd-pleasing tap dancing. Overall, a pretty good show, but not one of our Apollo favorites.
Other Desert Cities. Wow. A Christmas get-together turns into all-out family warfare when a left-leaning daughter presents her right-wing parents with a draft of a book that threatens to expose—and publicly blame her parents for—a deep, dark family secret. Playwright Jon Robin Baitz’s dialogue is fast and smart and the acting by the entire cast—and especially by Stockard Channing and Judith Light—is convincing and compelling. We were totally engaged from beginning to unexpected end. We would be amazed if it is not at least nominated for Best Play.
Venus in Fur. The play is ostensibly about an actress who cajoled and cried her way into a reading for the director long after her alleged appointment and after auditions had stopped for the day. It is actually about two people, reading a script in ways in which the distinctions between the real people and the play’s characters and between power and submissiveness were continually and confusingly blurred. The power of the evening, however, was less in the play than in the acting, with Nina Arianda’s brilliant performance and the interaction between her and co-star Hugh Dancy, as they shifted seamlessly and continuously between characters, emotions, and even genders. She will have to be a favorite for a Best Actress Tony.
Relatively Speaking. The concept—three one-act comedies by three of the country’s funniest writers (Ethan Cohen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen) and directed by John Turturro—was better than the execution. The Cohen play, where a mental patient turned the tables on his psychiatrist, was interesting, at least till the play cut to the patient’s parents. The May play was, for us, the funniest and most poignant, with the spoiled rich matron (Marlo Thomas) totally unable and unwilling to cope with the sudden death of her husband., The Woody Allen play, while generating laughs throughout the theater, seemed like a Borscht Belt routine full of disconnected fast gags, but with a plot so thin and ridiculous as to be off-putting.
Cotton Club Parade. The performance entailed more than a dozen songs accompanied by singers of classic songs (including Stormy Weather and It Don’t Mean a Thing) and all types of dance. Although most of the numbers were engaging, a number of the tap sequences were our (and judging from the applause, much of the rest of the audience’s) favorites. Although the music and the dancing were the stars of the evening, the huge, recently renovated City Center theater played a strong supporting role, with its soaring ceilings and ornate detailing.