Thursday, April 18, 2013

10 plays in 6 days

4/7 - Spring Fling: The Morning After

A mixed bag of six one-acts, alternating neatly between skits and actual plays or attempts at plays, starting with the weakest of the bunch, a Little Mermaid wedding-night sketch called Beyond The Sea by Joe Tracz, which felt like an after-midnight Saturday Night Live sketch without the talented guest stars.  Very light fare, and not very well-acted.  But if the producers wanted to set the audience up for a sucker punch, it was perfect, because the next piece was Mud Hole by Hilary Bettis. “She’s really fucked up,” said my friend Ann when it was over.  “Yeah, isn’t it great?” I replied.  It starts out at an episode of Young Amish In Love before doing a hit-and-run on everything you’re expecting, and it’s a textbook example of how to do a short one-act right—with the entrance of each new character, the play shifts gears and opens up into something different and, ultimately, darker.  Watching it was like being embraced by Cinderella, and when I tilted my head up for love’s true kiss, I got so professionally mugged that my bruises looked like birthmarks.

Hello Ms. by Heidi Schreck felt like a collection of scenes from an unfinished full-length play, or a proposal for a full-length play, which was not as clever as it thought it was, and whose only structure was chronological.  But this play is probably why the evening got a New York Times review, because one of the actors in it was Annie Baker (aka this month’s Nicky Silver), playing Gloria Steinem.  She certainly looked the part, and played it with a sense of entitlement which, on the part of the actress, felt more like a character revelation than a character choice.  I just wish the thing had a beginning, middle and end, instead of a lot of middle.  Possible approach: the final words of the play are “We sold out,” referring to the first edition of Ms Magazine.  Me, I would have played on those words throughout the entire piece and made it the unifying theme: selling out.  But then I always think in puns.

Coach Darling by Krista Knight was cleverly staged, well-acted and smartly written, except for one thing.  I might have missed it, but I didn’t hear the title character’s last name mentioned aloud once during the play, so the “Oh yeah!” moment at the end was not as strong as it could have been.  And yeah, if I had turned on a flashlight and read the title of the play about halfway through, then my laugh would have been a lot bigger when the coach name-checks his kids as “Wendy, Michael and John.”  Like I say, I could have missed it, or it didn’t register because I was paying more attention to Amanda Sayle’s detective than I was to anything else.  But if it wasn’t spoken, it should have been, and at least three times. (Rules of Threes: mention it three times and people remember it.)

The last two pieces, if I had been scheduling the show, would have been reversed.  Thanks For The Bowl With The Soup In It, Helen! by Nick Jones would have been the perfect closer: an upbeat, funny, sharply-observed monologue on The Roommate From Hell with a great performance by Allyson Morgan.  Instead, the final piece was Us: A MEMORY by Janine Nabors, a dark little time-trip through the good and bad of a couple’s life together which was a deliberately sobering downer.  Me, I would have ended on the upper.

4/9: Happy Birthday by Anita Loos

When I saw that Hanna Cheek was in this, I figured, even if it was bad, I would have a great time watching her trying to make it good.  Plus, y’know, Karen Ziemba.  Not knowing anything about the play, I figured she was the lead.  Having seen the play, I can say with confidence that (a) she would have played the lead 20 years ago and (b) I still think she’s in her 30’s.  But then I think the same way about myself, which is why I need all day Saturday now to recuperate from my Friday nights. 

The play is a clever riff on the old saw that wine reveals the soul as a mirror reveals the person.  Helen Hayes did it originally, and it won her a Tony.  Katharine Hepburn was interested in filming it, but you can see why it didn’t get made: there’s no judgment about the evils of drinking here, and nobody walks onstage equal-timing alcohol with sobriety.  It’s set in a bar; everybody drinks.   And the only spectre is the guy who gets so smashed he becomes violent.  Which is again, thematic.  It’s actually a delightful eveling, brightly played and smartly directed as both an ensemble piece and a star turn for the lead part, played with determined glee by Mary Bacon.  But as fun as it was to watch her, I couldn’t help wishing it was 20 years ago and Karen Ziemba was doing it.  Or next year and Hanna Cheek was.  

 4/11: Julius Caesar, Royal Shapespeare, BAM.

This is miles away from the stolid sausagefest that is your typical Julius Caesar—continents away, in fact.  Set in modern Africa, with a killer set and an opening ten-minute crowd scene that establishes the energetic and almost celebratory atmosphere that’s maintained throughout the entire evening, this is by far the most emotionally riveting production of the play that I’ve ever seen.  Everybody’s on edge.  The only way Paterson Joseph’s Brutus could be described as stoic is if, in this version, the word “stoic” means “a man who doesn’t spit when he yells.”  And maybe because of this naked openness, the Rome of this production is filled with nothing but manipulators.  Nobody’s honorable—not Brutus, who’s like a glad-handing quarterback trying to buck up his front line every time one of his passes falls short—not Ray Fearon’s Mark Anthony, who will promise anybody anything to get what he wants—and certainly not Cyril Nri’s Cassius, who gets publicly dissed by Caesar and is a live wire of frustrated action.  Another virtue of this production is that it really makes you feel for Cassius, who’s not as popular as Brutus, and whose advice (which Brutus never takes) is never wrong.  To continue the football image, Cassius is the sideline coach who keeps sending in plays, and Brutus is the quarterback who keeps calling audibles. 

I had only one irksome moment, at the end.  When everybody’s carrying AK-47’s, it seems more than a little incongruous to ask someone to hold a machete while you run on it.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just put a gun to your head and pull the trigger?  Unless of course you’re out of bullets.  Which could have been easily indicated, but it never was.  (Consider this a play call from the booth for future modern dress productions of JC.)

4/12: The Big Knife, by Clifford Odets

The curtain rose and just the setting and the placement of the actors made me lean over to my friend Jessica and whisper: “Oh—right!  This is that Jack Palance  movie!”  Which is how I know The Big Knife, notable for being Rod Steiger’s first movie as well as one of the few films where Palance plays the lead.  (Opposite Ida Lupino, no less.  And directed by Robert Aldrich.  So Fifties you could die, right?)

The theme is one that was probably devastating in 1949 and looks old hat now: see how Hollywood makes your dreams come false.  It gets a little heavy-handed at the end (but then the big challenge with Odets is fitting the square peg of his Obvious into the round hole of our Naturalism), and although there are some fine moments, this production is not really satisfying except as a really solid example of how raising your voice does not actually raise the stakes.  And the stakes are always high in an Odets play.  Plus he writes dialogue like it’s sweaty poetry.  There’s something vulnerable under the slangish patter; those verbal tics are armor against despair and failure. Treating his words naturalistically is like deliberately walking away from the only door that leads you into his characters, and makes you look like you’re in a different play.  Bobby Cannavale and Marin Ireland are in that different play.  As opposed to Reg Rogers as Smiley, who is neck-deep in an Odets play—he has it down.  So does Chip Zein as Nat Danziger.

Cannavale, alas, does not—there’s a lot of fuming, but very little struggle, in his performance.  He sprawls like a ragdoll on a low chair or stands dead center with his hands in his pockets—which, for a man who is supposedly haunted by the past, desperate for the future, and fighting for his life, is the textbook definition of “uncercutting.” Marin Ireland snaps into focus now and then, but most of the time she’s an uncertain bystander.  Rachel Brosnahan has a self-aware sharpness that’s totally undercut by a Betty Boop voice that I just started to understand five lines before her scene ended.  And on a scale of 1 to 10, Richard Kind comes in at 10 and stays there, which is a fine piece of work until he needs to up the ante and you don’t care a bit because 12 is just 10 with feedback.

Ultimately there’s enough good in this to make it difficult to say where the dissatisfaction lies—is the play at fault or is it the production?  I’d go with the production, and Doug Hughes’ direction, if only because the lasting image I have of the evening is Bobby Cannavale standing there like a lounge lizard waiting for his next dance partner, instead of pacing like a prisoner in a cell of his own making.  Watching him made me think of Jack Palance in the movie (which is bad, I know).  And once I started thinking about the movie, I began to imagine what that would have been like with, say, Paul Newman in the lead.  Which is much worse.  But it helped pass the time till the next scene with Smiley Coy, and I was brought back to what was actually happening onstage.