Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Intermission Talk

June 29, 2009

by Tony Vellela

"Norman Conquests," "Mary Stuart,"

"Waiting for Godot" & "9 to 5"

Ever wondered what they're saying about you in the next room? Playwright Alan Ayckbourn takes that universal question and crafted three hilarious plays to answer it. [In fact, he crafted five, but more about that later.] "The Norman Conquests", Tony winner for Best Play Revival, shows us three separate views of the same star-crossed weekend at a Victorian house in England, in July, 1977.

"Table Manners," appropriately set in the dining room, "Living Together," the living room setting, and "Round and Round the Garden" all take place between Saturday evening and Monday morning. And during that time, the three siblings who grew up in the house suffer planned and unplanned mild indiscretions that up-end everyone's lives. The catalyst? Norman, the husband of sister Ruth. Norman has orchestrated a 'dirty weekend' with unmarried sister Annie, who has arranged for her brother Reg and his rigid wife Sarah to mind mother, confined to bed upstairs. And the (un)wild card in all this is socially inept Tom, the village vet, and Annie's clueless suitor.

Got it? Don't even try, because the genius of these three plays is that each one stands alone as a brilliant comedy about six people who listen to each other but don't hear what's being said, resulting in that rarest of theatrical commodities - a truly witty comedy that does not rely on inflicting pain on someone, on crude body functions references, or on unearned physical mishaps. And the invisible hand pulling all the multitude of strings, and keeping them from getting hopelessly tangled, is director Matthew Warchus, whose wizardry earned him the Tony Award for Best Director of a Play. You can see these plays in any order, or only see one or two. Best advice: see them in the order listed above. But be prepared to laugh in spite of yourself, because once again, playwright Ayckbourn, who has turned out more than 70 plays, stitches and weaves and stirs and jostles every possible comic combination. Norman wants to seduce every woman in sight, including his wife, and his relentless, almost manic need to "make you happy" succeeds, at least with every member of the audience.

Set around the same time period [1980] as "Norman Conquests," the musical "9 to 5" is yet another screen-to-stage transfer. This one's based on the smash picture of the same name, wherein three underappreciated female workers in a corporate office setting plot revenge on their boss, leading to a merry menu of mayhem. It was written by Patricia Resnick, who captured the ebb of the feminist movement's assault on the workplace, and who contributed the book to the musical. And drawing from her winning performance in the film, Dolly Parton came up with the music and lyrics. Although she penned the catchy title tune, she's a bit out of her element doing an entire Broadway score, but her best work here are the songs written for Doralee, her movie character. Now, if you loved the movie, you will like the show. The degree of "like" depends on how much you need a big, brassy musicals fix.

There are notable elements, particularly the performance of Megan Hilty, who captures the no-nonsense gutsiness of the Doralee character. Other roles, created on screen by Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman, are mimicked by Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block and Mark Kudish. And Ms. Janney, late of "The West Wing" as C.J. Craig, very appreciated Presidential aide, manages to pull out some spot-on moments as the leader of this inadvertent triumvirate.

On the minus side of the ledger, the entire show seems like the concept to bring it to the stage was to take one part "How to Succeed," one part "Three's Company" and one part seventies T-V variety show, add [loud] music, and a sneer-and-snigger factor large enough to satisfy any Penthouse reader, and then put it out there. And like "Legally Blonde," this is a show that snubs its nose at the critical community, because it will fill those seats for a long time.

The time is drawing near when three true theatrical gems will disappear, so be warned. Two recent revivals, "Waiting for Godot" and "Mary Stuart," won't make it through the summer, both in final weeks. "Godot," [pronounced correctly in this production as "GUH - dough"] is about the best incarnation of the Samuel Beckett classic likely to grace the Broadway boards. Directed with his typical grace and humor by Anthony Page, it counts Bill Irwin, Nathan Lane, John Glover and John Goodman as its pitch-perfect cast. And Page takes full advantage of this ensemble's depth of knowledge when it comes to finding humor, and delivering it without having a laugh overwhelm the text.

Peter Oswald's new version of Frederick Schiller's "Mary Stuart" is both lean and steely, two adjectives that easily fit the central characters, two monarchs whose clashes set a course for the western world. Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth struggle with their advisors, their co-conspirators and their consciences, in a titanic battle of wiles and wits. The most apt word to describe this production is breath-taking.

And if you need to relax, let out a sigh and have a modern work of masterful writing, creative staging, tuneful musical numbers, and an insanely-wild premise wash over you, get yourself down to the Golden Theatre before Labor Day and see "Avenue Q." I mean it.

On Book

Now, the 'later.' You can certainly have a good time reading the "Norman" plays, but you should also know about Ayckbourn's "House & Garden." Written in 1999, this pair of comedies uses the same device - first, in "House," we meet and chuckle at a group of delightfully daffy Brits inside the summer sitting room, between 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. on a Saturday in August. Then, in "Garden," we meet ... get it ? These have been written with the same clockwork precision as the Norman plays, and are just as satisfyingly riotous.

If really great lyric-writing gives you a thrill, pick up "Grey Gardens" and see how it's supposed to be done, how lyrics not only advance the story, but also give added texture to the 'voice' of the character singing the song. Michael Korie's "GG" haunting lyrics tell great stories, and can be very instructive for anyone planning to sing songs, write songs, dance to songs, or listen to songs.

Finally, great directors, like Warchus, have styles, rules, taboos, methods or none of the above. One of the American theatre's most celebrated stage directors, who dominated the mid-century Broadway landscape, was Elia Kazan. The new "Kazan on Directing" compiles notes, lectures, essays and interviews with the legendary director, and features a foreword by John Lahr and a preface by Martin Scorcese. Kazan shaped, enhanced and brought to life some of the classic works of Arthur Miller, William Inge and Tennessee Williams. This is a worthy companion to Kazan's own autobiography.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, "Character Studies." He has covered theatre for forty years for a wide variety of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor and Dramatics Magazine. His award-winning play "Admissions" was published by Playscripts. He teaches at HB Studio in the Village.

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