plus K. raves over Between Riverside and Crazy (her summer home), while J. celebrates Pride Films & Plays’ adaptive reuse of an abandoned space.
Call me parochial: the best thing I saw in New York, at the off-Broadway Barrow Street Theatre, was directed by one Chicagoan and co-starred another. (And next up at Barrow Street are two more Chicago boys: The T.J. and Dave Show runs June 4-7). The theater itself looks like something out of our own theater scene, located as it is in a still-working settlement house with the ladies’ room in the basement, to get to which you have to walk past a washer-dryer combo whose sign sternly instructs audience members not to use the machines without permission. I guess New York audiences find free laundry irresistible, even if it means stripping down at intermission.
But on with the show: Lucy Prebble’s The Effect follows the fortunes of a man and woman testing an experimental drug which makes them feel like they’re in love. So, are they, or is it just the drug, and does it make any difference? Meanwhile, the two doctors supervising the experiment are themselves ex-lovers, and the play involves teasing out the various definitions of love as well as conventional and unconventional attitudes toward depression. Under David Cromer’s direction, the play is sexy and funny and fast and loud, and also incredibly touching. Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson are utterly believable as the young couple whose emotions are getting the better of them, and Kati Brazda and Steve Key (a member of the American Blues ensemble) gracefully portray the more complicated relationship of their middle-aged keepers. Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections give us an extra shot of intimacy in the bedroom scenes without interfering with stage acting of the very highest quality. Bravo! Through September 4.
Equally exciting was Ivo Van Hove’s version of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Van Hove, who won raves for his production of Miller’s A View from the Bridge earlier this year (and who has been Tony-nominated for both), has abandoned the conventional reading of the play as a parable of the 1950s witch-hunt for Communists and directed it as a straightforward account of religious fanaticism and the damage it can do in a community struggling with scarcity. Where there’s not enough to go around, the director seems to say, people turn on one another. Without over-stressing the matter, he makes clear this is a reading of contemporary society: costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic dresses the actors in a sort of suspended-period modern dress, with the accusing young girls in knee socks and kilts a la Catholic schoolgirls and the adults in shapeless sweaters and slacks. And yet somehow this makes the play feel more like it’s taking place in 18th-Century Salem than any amount of bustles and knee-breeches.
Jan Verswyveld’s set and lighting and Philip Glass’s music combine to make the production eerie rather than didactic: we don’t exactly know what’s going on. We understand the girls are lying but we also see that they’ve somehow unloosed forces beyond their, or our, control. Ben Whishaw (as John Proctor) and Saoirse Ronan (as his schoolgirl lover and the accuser of his wife) produce suitable sexual heat, but the play really belongs to Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth, whose wifely virtues of loyalty and honesty are twined around her neck to destroy her. She’s the kind of quiet that’s more penetrating than the showiest yell, and you can’t take your eyes off her. Ciaran Hinds continues his streak of charismatic evil-doers as the willfully blind Deputy Governor who allows the entire situation to spin out of control.
I wonder if the Dutch Van Hove was able to see the play so clearly because the insane religiosity portrayed is so similar to that of the Dutch Reform church—from which, as it happens, Puritans borrowed much of their absolutist thinking. Whatever the source of his insight, he’s taken a great play and made it a great new play. Open run.
I am sorry to report that Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, is a waste of an enormous amount of talent. Apparently director and book-writer George C. Wolfe could not make himself comfortable with presenting the racist jokes and stereotypes of the original show, even at a remove of 100 years, and so instead of a musical he offers us a sort of living slide show about the struggles of black performers in early years of the 20th Century. Despite having plenty of dramatic potential in the stories of two pairs of partners who achieved success together and then double-crossed each other, Wolfe wrote not a play but a textbook, and even Brian Stokes Mitchell’s plummy voice can’t conceal the fact. Likewise, Wolfe glances at a subplot concerning the ingenue’s gunning for the diva’s position but makes nothing of it. The moral of the story is: if you’re embarrassed by what you’re presenting, don’t present it; don’t (you should pardon the expression) whitewash it, or blackface it, or turn it into an historical pageant.
Before I saw the show, I was irate that Audra McDonald had not been nominated for a Tony; once I saw it, I could see why: she’s perfectly adequate as the self-regarding diva, and of course her voice is glorious, but the side-by-side comparison with ingenue Adrienne Warren was a little too close to life for comfort. And Warren did receive a well-deserved Tony nomination: she’s tiny and has a magnificent voice and can dance up a storm and is going to be a huge star. Billy Porter (of Kinky Boots fame) is charming as producer Aubrey Lyles, but Mitchell’s over-earnest portrayal of co-producer F.E. Miller gives him nothing to play against. Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry as Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle have more rapport, but their partnership peters out instead of being ripped apart. That may be true to life, but it makes for lousy theater.
Listen: anybody should be able to write a backstage show; take 42nd Street or All About Eve as your model, and Bob’s your uncle. But if at the same time you feel constrained to stick to the facts, and/or you’re afraid that presenting accurate history will require sacrificing the hard-won dignity of your performers, then you can’t do the job.
Savion Glover’s choreography is okay, and the dancing is the best part of the show; but here, mistakenly, is where the show’s creators chose to be true to history. Percussive dancing has come a long way since 1921, and I was looking for something more innovative. The dancers are good (McDonald gamely tapping with the rest, though she’s pregnant) but the result is leaden.
Now: will somebody please take all these gifted people and write a show for them? Open run.
One Man Left On
Frank Langella is nominated for a Tony for his performance in The Father, a play by the Frenchman Florian Zeller translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Doug Hughes, and he deserves the accolade. Often a shameless over-the-top ham, here Langella restrains himself and presents a painfully honest portrait of a man struggling with dementia. (Kathryn Erbe of the Steppenwolf ensemble does the best she can with the thankless role of the daughter who cares for him even though he doesn’t care for her.) But the play is unrelievedly dark, and the playwright doesn’t bother to tie up ends he’s deliberately loosened in earlier scenes. During leaps back and forth in time, Erbe tells her father that she’s moving to London and then asks why he keeps mentioning London but later seems actually to have gone to London; so who’s confused here, and to what purpose? The device of using multiple actors to portray the same characters (to evoke Langella’s character’s confusion) is somewhat more successful but it’s not enough to sustain interest. And, after a near-perfect portrayal of his character’s deterioration, in the final scene Langella wails “I want my mommy!”—which feels gratuitous, inauthentic, a bridge too far. But for the most part Langella is at his very considerable best, and he’s the only reason to see The Father. Tickets currently on sale through June 12; presumably the show will extend if Langella wins the Tony.
Plus J. recommends Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, and has to be forcibly restrained from singing himself.
We review Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and the horse it rode in on, namely Writers’ Theatre’s new Jeanne Gang-designed home. Then K., suffering from an excess of enthusiasm, recommends two shows in Rogers Park: Rent at Theo Ubique and Pride & Prejudice at Adapt Theatre, while J. restricts himself to a single pick: After All The Terrible Things I Do (a/k/a his autobiography) at About Face.
Savannah Quinn Hoover as Mimi and Patrick Rooney as Roger in Theo Ubique’s production of Rent. Photo by Adam Veness.
The first time I saw Rent I was underwhelmed; that’s because I didn’t see it done by Theo Ubique. Now I understand what all the noise has been about: the gorgeous choral harmonies of Jonathan Larson’s score make its La Boheme-inspired story of freezing artists and wannabes resonate with those of us who aren’t freezing. Director Scott Weinstein, Choreographer Daniel Spagnuolo and—especially—music director and pianist Jeremy Ramey make the lives of the downtrodden a treat for eye and ear.
The show is flawlessly cast: Matt Edmonds as Mark, who spends the show documenting everything with his video camera instead of experiencing it, has the perfect imperfect face and a voice which makes melody out of even Larson’s least melodic songs, including the title number. Patrick Rooney as Roger, sulking in his tent like a contemporary Achilles, has the classic floppy-haired tragic romantic look, and is complemented wonderfully by Savannah Hoover’s Mimi. And Aubrey McGrath deserves a special acknowledgment: he plays drag-queen Angel, a part written for a Latino actor, with such life-giving energy that any and all prejudices—for or against drag queens; for or against casting against ethnic type—simply melt away. Without naming every single member of the cast, I can’t do justice to its quality: suffice it to say, go.
Through May 1 at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park.
Plus, J. picks I’ve Got the World on a String, the Harold Arlen revue at City Lit.
A one-man piece about music and depression at the Neo-Futurists; a 5-plus hour epic about the 20th Century at the Goodman. Jonathan holds forth.
Satchmo at the Waldorf, Court Theatre, through February 7: Terry Teachout’s look at the life of Louis Armstrong, told as the reminiscences of the entertainer himself, is both funny and sweet-sad. In this Midwest premiere, the show rests entirely on the shoulders of Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays not only Armstrong but his manager Joe Glaser and his nemesis Miles Davis. On opening night, Henley had a few stumbles with the text, but his Armstrong is pitch-perfect, literally: as soon as you hear his voice you know you’re in good hands. He’s also outrageously good as Davis, portrayed here as a clueless stoner whose naysaying about Armstrong’s persona meant he just didn’t get what was going on. The only weakness in the performance is Henley’s version of Glaser, Armstrong’s friend and ultimate betrayer: what’s supposed to be Chicago-New York-Jewish-gangster patois sounds more like Middle American Generic White Man. And don’t go expecting music: a few moments of scratchy recording are all we hear. But the show, under Charles Newell’s direction, is still a delight.
What I Learned in Paris, Congo Square Theatre, through February 7: In this show—part rom-com, part door-slamming farce—Pearl Cleage pays homage to Noel Coward’s Private Lives by bringing together an ex-husband and ex-wife on the eve of his wedding to Wife #2. The setting, though, is quite different: it’s Atlanta in 1973, and Maynard Jackson has just been elected the city’s first African-American mayor. As J.P. Madison jockeys for position in the new administration and struggles for an impossible level of respectability, in walks ex-wife Evie, who is anything but respectable. Shanesia Davis is spectacular as the convention-defying, loving-but-scheming, feminist-but-man-keeping Evie, and the rest of the cast plays up to her level. Darren Jones is particularly fine as J.P., who imagines he’s leading and is actually being led—by the nose. And I’d like costume designer Marci Rodgers to come home with me and make all my clothes so I look like Evie. A feminist romp among the African-American elites—it could hardly be more fun. Thanks to director Daniel Bryant for coming home from New York long enough to knock this one out of the park.
The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, City Lit Theater, through February 21: I’d hoped this adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel would feel more like a critique of today’s Gilded Age; but it was hard to remember that when Jacquelyne Jones was on the stage, which is virtually the entire time. Jones plays Laura Hawkins, an impoverished Southern belle who sets out to conquer 1870s Washington and succeeds until she encounters the man who loved and ruined her in 1860s Tennessee. Disaster, needless to say, ensues. Paul Edwards’s adaptation is superb in clarifying and maintaining the momentum of a complex story, and Jones’s performance is so rich that we mostly don’t care what happens as long as she’s still there to be watched. This is a going-to-be-a-big-star performance. The rest of the company, under Adam Goldstein’s direction, is fine in the classic City Lit manner, playing numerous roles and conveying shifts of time and location with ease. If you don’t carry in with you the notion—or, perhaps, the hope—that Twain somehow skewered today’s Congress, you won’t be disappointed. And, to be fair, the portrait of a Congress for sale and at the mercy of lobbyists rings true and contemporary; it’s just not ugly enough to seem to be a real critique. That’s what happens when life outstrips art, or truth is stranger than fiction.
. . . and totally fail to disagree. What Carole King hath put together, let no man put asunder!