Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Intermission Talk, October 21, 2009

October 21, 2009

"After Miss Julie," "Bye, Bye Birdie,"

"The Lady With all the Answers,"

"Oleanna," "Memphis" and

"Wishful Drinking"

by Tony Vellela

Have you heard the one about the well-educated, seemingly secure taskmaster with the power to change the course of lives, who enters into an intense, sexually-poisoned relationship with a secretive, ambitious subordinate? Which 'one' is that - "Oleanna" or "After Miss Julie?"

"Oleanna," one of the twentieth century's most celebrated theatrical frauds, returns to haunt once again, after doing its duty to embellish playwright David Mamet's reputation as a man unafraid to tackle 'controversial ideas.' When it opened off-Broadway in 1992, the Playbill featured a face-front, seated, bespeckled man with a bull's-eye on his chest. He was meant to represent the college professor who at first meets with a young, female student when she claims to miss the meaning of his classes, and then, later, finds that she has charged him with attempted rape because he grabbed her arm to keep her from leaving without resolving her difficulties. The bull's-eye was the most honest element of this two-character seesaw with one side stuck up in the air, and the other stuck down in the dirt. Tortured aesthetes claim this charade asks provocative questions about gender politics, freedom of speech, the tone-deaf occupants of the Ivory Tower, and, oh - I don't know - why students have to buy their professors' textbooks. Even the addition of sleek, solid furniture, self-propelled ascending and descending window blinds, and the slasher red sofa as the only 'color' on the set, can't pretty up the ugliness of a writer pandering to an audience seeking meaning where only the pandering exists. Who's got the lipstick? Where's the pig?





"After Miss Julie," is a sorely wrong-headed self-indulgence by Patrick Marber, whose credit proclaims the play as 'A version of Strindberg's Miss Julie.' And what would the correct adjective be that should modify 'version?' In this dance of death, our Julie has been teleported from the kitchen in a Swedish country district manor house in the 1880s, to the kitchen of a large country estate outside London, in 1945. Marber has kept the basic relationship between Missy and her servant, here called John. They lust after each other once the obey-me rituals have exhausted themselves, even while the third character, kitchen servant Christine, watches her all-but-formalized engagement to John dissipate, bifurcate, immolate, enervate, evaporate and get the gate. As the bloodless Julie seems to seduce the willing manservant ['kiss my shoe,' she commands, then pulls it away twice before he grabs her foot], their separate agendas emerge - his, to move up and out of this estate, hers to be a reckless, wanton woman living on the edge, with him. Even though this play is 'a version' of a true classic, it deserves to be experienced on its own merits, few though they are. Here they are: [a] Jonny Lee Miller, as John, navigates his self-made powerless/powerful tightrope with acrid, virulent sensuality; [b] Marin Ireland, late of 'reasons to be pretty,' as Christine, lets us see the layer of emotion under the servant's veneer of deference, and [c] a smashing kitchen set, complete with copper pots on the walls, a butcher block and loads and loads of stuff on wooden shelves. Sienna Miller's Julie, in her dominatrix-act, owner's daughter mode, steps with the deliberative heel-to-toe of the most transparent B-movie sirens, from Mary Astor and Linda Darnell, to Janis Paige and Hillary Brooke - toughie broads with hearts of steel wool. When her emotions get the best of her, so to speak, she sputters and screeches. This [original] story pulls things out of the air, such as John's idea of them moving to New York to open a nightclub, or Julie's speech which proclaims that they could live 'on the Upper East Side. Or the Upper WEST Side.' This, in 1945 - when the UWS was not what it is, and not what she thinks it was. This would be a jokefest, a parody, were it not so sad that the Roundabout has bankrolled an entirely useless, and artistically sophomoric enterprise, even given the fun of ogling that kitchen.

Or - maybe you saw the one about the middle-aged cultural icon who makes it to the top, only to find that she's really at the apex of a roller coaster bathed in a very bright follow-spot? Which 'one' is that - "Wishful Drinking" or "The Lady with All the Answers?"

Carrie Fisher [the real person daughter of Hollywood royalty and terrific writer] and Ann Landers [the fictional persona of syndicated advice columnist Eppie Lederer] are the snazziest pair of Queens to hit the boards in quite a while. Fisher's "Wishful Drinking," at Studio 54, earns a place on that tiny, tiny list of great one-person, humor-laced, autobiographical confessionals that purport to let us listen to the shouts and whispers that have punctuated the life of a famous person. Billy Crystal did it. So did Stritch. And now, here comes Carrie, pulling us, with little resistance, by the nose, from her Tinseltown fractured fairy tale childhood when Mom Debbie Reynolds and Dad Eddie Fisher were still America's dream couple [the Angelina and Brad of their day, she points out], and down along the candy-colored pathway past the departure of Dad to the arms of Elizabeth Taylor, the starring role as Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" trilogy, the tragi-comic marriages, mental problems, drug detours, sex-doll inspiration, and finally, to that place in her life we like to call 'Survivorland.' In two well-paced, rollicking acts, Fisher, clad in silk pajamas, robe and no shoes, prowls the stage like the abandoned daughter of Phyllis Diller and Rodney Dangerfield. And, boy, can she write ! This is not a one-liner festival. She knows how to regale a tale, embellish with relish, invoke a joke. Director Tony Taccone and scenic/lighting/projection designer Alexander V. Nichols provide generous, skillful and innovative support. The show opens with Carrie's rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again." And one line from that song sums up what she's doing, in a magnificently witty, self-deprecating, and non-stop joyful style: "I'll tell the world about it now." And she surely does.





Ann Landers was another female phenomenon. For more than three decades in mid-20th century America, this plain-spoken but remarkably resourceful woman answered questions great and small, serious and silly, with 90 million readers downing her column with their morning coffee. David Rambo's charming play "The Lady With All the Answers," at the Cherry Lane, gives Judith Ivey a wide berth to roam among those decades of letters, set in the tasteful [if you like hotel lobby decor] living room/office of her Chicago high rise apartment. It's 1975, and she's trying to compose "the most important column of my career," wherein she reveals to readers that she and her happily married husband of 36 years are divorcing - he's fallen for a woman younger than their daughter. While the piece slides in and out of letter-reading, and anecdotes about Ann's A-list retinue of experts in all fields, it is Ivey's depiction of this mannered, near-libertarian matron, listening to light jazz on the stereo, and diving into a secret stash of chocolates, that fills out the evening in such a satisfying manner.

Visiting with Carrie and with Ann will be that much more satisfying if one admits to being alive when Beaver's brother Wally was still in junior high. But if not, you can still bask in the glow of two brilliant actors with the skills, talent, discipline and courage to carry a one-woman show without dropping a single beat, pick-me-ups in our time of humorless letdowns.

Finally, maybe what you were thinking of was the one about the pulsating, fast-moving, spirits-lifted musical? That's got to be "Memphis," 'cause it sure ain't "Bye, Bye Birdie."

"Memphis," it seems, is one of this season's wild cards, and it more than lives up to that designation. Set in the title city some time in the mid '50s, the simple storyline tracks a goofball [a '50s word] go-getter who follows the pounding beat, down the steps and into an underground nightclub in the segregated black part of town. Passion for the music sparks passion for the club's singer, and both of these passions put him in foreign, dangerous territory. While unexpected plot developments are as rare as the house losing at the blackjack table, it's the style of the thing that comes up aces.



Photo Credit: Jason Bell


The two leads make all kindsa music together. Chad Kimball is the white boy seduced by the rock-a-billy beat most white folks never heard before, and Montego Glover is the black singer who is seduced by the zeal, fervor and raw nerve of that guy, as he lands [connives] himself a DJ slot on the most traditional [read Perry Como] radio station in town. Glover pulls down walls with the power of her vocals, recalling Jennifer Holliday in the original "Dreamgirls," from which this production has borrowed more than a few power points for its presentation. Other unwitting sources include "Hairspray," and any 1940's picture where lovers from different sides of the tracks try to meet in the middle. Together, Kimball and Glover ramp up the voltage even higher, recalling other dynamic duet duos as diverse as Ashford and Simpson, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, and the Airplane's Grace Slick and Marty Balin. They deliver the goods.

And a surprising level of musical theatre virtuosity also infuses the four-star cast, with a special treat coming in Act Two, when Cass Morgan, as Kimball's Mama-who-objects-but-is-reconciled, gets a chance to show off her always-thrilling vocal chops. Even harder to accomplish these days is choreography that does not telegraph its moves after the first sixteen bars. Sergio Trujillo's dance routines force you to scan the stage to enjoy all the sub-sets going on, and, one suspects, co-orchestrator Daryl Waters ["Jelly's Last Jam," "Noise...Funk"], played some role in making "Memphis" the place to be for hot rock and roll, hotter musical numbers, and the hottest boy-girl match-up since ... who? Annie and Frank? Fanny and Nicky? Anna and the King?

Not hot is "Bye, Bye Birdie," the tepid tuner from 1960 currently hyper-ventilating at the Henry Miller's Theatre. Even in 1960, this gum drop of a show was dated, taking as it were the real-life drafting of Elvis Presley as the fictional story's inspiration. Despite a really catchy score, this show was less in need of reviving than the princess phone. Both John Stamos and especially Gina Gershon [this season's Stockard Award], could use a pair of GPS's to locate the right notes and keys [throw in a third for Bill Irwin, another achingly bad choice for the role of the beleaguered Dad]. As the lucky teen-ager chosen, as a marketing ploy, to receive hip-swiveling Conrad Birdie's last kiss before his hair is shaved off, Allie Trimm shines with a genuine small town sweetness [she was one of the best assets of last season's teen desecrator, "13"]. The real stand-out is former Nickelodeon star Nolan Gerard Funk, as the fresh-faced fleshpot Conrad. Funk sings with a testosterone-laced gusto, moves like an oscillating ocelot cub, and has one all-around heckuva good time up there. Not so, nearly everyone else in this wearisome production.



On Book

To re-acquaint yourself with August Strindberg's reckless harridan, pick up any collection of his great, classic plays, including "Miss Julie." There are paperbacks, hard cover versions, or single playscripts - leaf through to see that the translation is accessible without being so contemporary that the characters sound like they were living in, say, 1945.

Because 'Memphis" and "Bye, Bye Birdie" both use rock 'n' roll it various forms, you might like to trace the story of that music on the musical theatre stage. "The Theater Will Rock - A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig," by Elizabeth L. Woolman, gives a generally comprehensive overview of this exciting, and often tattered genre. She draws from a wide range of sources, and includes culturally important, but now nearly obscure shows such as "Dude" and "Your Own Thing."

And if you can find it, bask in "Playwrights, Lyricists, Composers on Theater," a collection of commentaries by dozens of theatre greats, edited by Otis L. Guernsey Jr. Okay, so it's more than three decades old. Believe me, it will be more engrossing that many revivals from thirty years ago.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies." He has served as theatre journalist and critic for dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine and Theatre Week. His play "Admissions," [Playscripts], won Best Play at the NYC International Fringe Festival. He teaches at HB Studio in the Village.

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