Monday, February 13, 2012

Intermission Talk

“Porgy & Bess” needed

“Wit” to travel

“The Road to Mecca”

by TONY VELLELA

Back in 1995, when she was appearing with Jude Law and Kathleen Turner in “Indiscretions” on Broadway, I had a wonderfully candid conversation with Cynthia Nixon. The topic under discussion was acting styles. We’d just been sharing our experiences with Uta Hagen. “I’d always been a very emotional actor,” she confided. “I would go right into the emotions of the character, rather than the circumstances. I would ‘pump’ the emotions. Now I see that it’s kind of a dead-end way to work.” She had just completed a series of sessions with the HB co-founder, and noted that “Miss Hagen expects you to think on stage as the character . . . to have many circumstances in your head, and so many maps of where you might go, that you can explore any territory the character might lead to.”

The “Indiscretions” cast: Jude Law, Cynthia Nixon, Roger Rees and Eileen Atkins.

Today, Nixon is starring in the revival, and Broadway premiere of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Wit,” portraying a cancer victim confronting her mortality. And were she alive, I believe Miss Hagen would be proud of her former student. And while some of the specifics of cancer treatment have evolved since the play opened in 1998, off-Broadway, the core of its compelling story involves how any of us faces our impending demise. Dr.Vivian Bearing, [Nixon], with her PhD. in 19th century metaphysical poetry, would seem to be a good candidate for growing thick armor as her situation becomes more and more compromised. The brilliance of Edson’s writing becomes apparent as Bearing’s personal, closely-guarded fears bump up against her fierce intelligence and scalding sense of humor. Previous high-profile Bearings [Kathleen Chalfant off-B'way and Emma Thompson in an HBO film], projected an obvious toughness of spirit, which suggested that, whatever the details of the story’s conclusion, it would be one chosen by the central character. Nixon’s ‘persona,’ though, reflects a less galvanized spirit, even at times fragile. Her ‘victimhood’ is apparent from the get-go, not diminished because of her railing against all manner of institutional ineptitude, against the approach often taken by medical professionals who seem impervious to human feelings, or by the comfort she may have expected from the poetry of John Donne she holds so dear, in and out of the classroom. Like all of us, she cannot dictate or direct the details of our final moments of life.

At rise, with her bald head, she resembles an alien refugee from “Close Encounters…”. She first-person narrates the story, employing the sharp wit her IQ and usually rarified company would suggest. But here, in the world of diagnoses and observations and X-rays and meds and hospital dressing ‘gowns,’ her IQ doesn’t come into it at all. And whenever she does locate an opportunity to roll out a smart-as-a-whip caustic comment, it does not find a place to land. This professor, so comfortable in her role as celebrated teacher, must now try to do her own learning – which is, learning to suffer. Because director Lynn Meadow surrounds Nixon with a first-rate ensemble [including the always spot-on Michael Countryman, the happily understated Carra Paterson, and Suzanne Berish so effective in the pivotal role of Bearing's early-career mentor], the sense of ‘reality,’ such as it may be in a narrated play, registers as strongly as a death sentence.

The current revival of “Porgy & Bess,” [not comfortable, despite how many others are, with calling it 'The Gershwins' ...] features scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Having seen some of his other work, it should not have been a surprise that this time out, he would also forge an overpowering abstract element in which the musical takes place. As in “The People in the Picture,” [a mile-high picture frame] and “Parade,” [a mile-high dead tree], to name a few, this effort also puts experimental concept above the needs of the story. Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina, in the late 1930s, an enclosed courtyard of ramshackle tenements, clotheslines, cobblestones and a well, here has been transformed into a vertical lumberyard. For comparison, take Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” which also requires a feel for the Italian-immigrant neighborhood where the apartment hours is located, in Brooklyn. When we first meet Eddie, he strides home through small knots of friends, a member of a community. So, too, when his betrayal is revealed, do we see how that same community shuns him. Catfish Row should also be seen as that kind of enclave, heads popping out of windows, doorways open, broken stairways leading to broken lives. But Hernandez’s barren design robs us of that vital component, the interrelationships among the hard-scrapple folk who collectively suffer indignities large and small. Other faults have been found with this production, including the weakening of the score and the tinkering with the book, which also deserve mentioning. Another example of this re-imagining has turned the almost mournful solo “Summertime” into a kind of young-couple romantic duet, draining it of its ability, at the very top of the show, from depicting the enervated quality of life now, and the wrenching aspirations a young mother has for her child. The set design places this at once delicate and brutal story inside a wooden diorama, robbing it of a critical element in creating the vitality and spark it is capable of.

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis as Bess and Porgy.

And then there’s Audra. Ms. McDonald again demonstrates that her greatest gift is the ability to generate, in almost any situation, a breathtaking fearlessness. Notice that quality in her duet with Porgy [the solid Norm Lewis], “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” It mirrors her eye-popping outcry as Ruth in “A Raisin in the Sun,” when she decries her boundless joy at the prospect of leaving behind “these Goddamned cracking walls – and these marching roaches! . . . Hallelujah! and good-bye misery.” When Sportin’ Life [David Allan Grier, whose sly cunning is balanced with his powerful vocals] teases his way into her latent weakness for ‘happy dust,’ we can see past and present Bess doing battle, the expressions of doubt and commitment and fear and hope crossing her face like lines on a map. Her wrenching calls for help as Crown reclaims her go unheeded, but they are undercut by the lack of a true, real-looking ‘place’ where the action goes down.

Opera? Musical theatre work? A definitions distinction I’m not qualified to parse. If you don’t expect to have an opportunity to hear this score and experience this tale live, it’s a rich, rewarding event. Like so much of what comes back labeled as revival, this one also suffers from the commercial expectations a more manageable production might lead to, as well as the ever-growing mania for imprinting a classic work with the distortions visited upon it by willful directors, book re-writers or designers. Must that be the case? Ain’t necessarily so.

Bucking this pernicious trend, the respectful revival of Athol Fugard’s 1985 chamber-piece drama “The Road to Mecca” gives us what one could imagine the playwright had in mind. In this instance, he brings us to a remote hut along a back road in the small Karoo village of New Bethesda, South Africa, circa 1974. A spirited widow, Miss Helen descends from the original Dutch settlers, and embodies their flinty independence. Her pastor, Marius, is also an Afrikaner. The third character, a schoolteacher named Elsa, from English stock, came into Helen’s life when her car broke down a few years back.

Last things first. Thanks to the sensitive, careful and caring set design by Michael Yeargan, Helen’s circumscribed world within that hut tells us so much about its inhabitant, a sculptor, lover of literature and of nature, and a woman of great resourcefulness. Notice the books that have replaced one of the legs on her well-worn chaise. Miss Helen has painted her walls the colors of a blazing sunset. Artwork, found pieces, carvings, masks and other items of interest bedeck her walls. And the absence of electric lights accounts for more than two dozen candles of varying sizes and thicknesses that reside on almost every flat surface.

As Miss Helen, Rosemary Harris knows her way around a feisty persona, but tempers her with the self-doubt that has frozen her in place and time. When Marius and his congregants threaten to take her home and her land, she writes to Elsa to come to her aid. After her eight-hour drive, Elsa finds Helen’s reticence to spilling out the facts nearly exasperating. As Marius, who was portrayed in the original New York production by the playwright, Jim Dale creates a folksy charm about him that seems to hint at some underlying deception. And Carla Gugino’s Elsa provides another opportunity for this insightful and perceptive young woman to shine. Twists are twisted and turns are turned. A seemingly little, personal tale of crisis becomes a solid foundation to examine what independence means, what responsibility to ourselves and others entails, how age does not always bestow total wisdom and when to negotiate, as Prof. Bearing does in “Wit,” the consequences of coming to the end of one’s journey.

In The Wings

Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts continues its Solo Sessions series with a presentation of Steve Solomon’s “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish, I’m in Therapy!” If you missed its two-year off-Broadway run, you can book tickets for this April 1 at BrooklynCenterOnline.org.

The Judy Garland world of tributes and recreations continues, this time via a property titled “End of the Rainbow.” Hopping the Atlantic from an acclaimed London run, it will star Tracie Bennett, recreating her role as Judy, as the show traces the singer’s last two years, from the iconic Palace Theatre concert to her death in 1969.

Another entertainment giant, Charlie Chaplin, has inspired a new musical about the silent film star’s life and career. “Becoming Chaplin” may look more viable now that a motion picture, “The Artist,” has successfully recreated and celebrated the mute world of those early pictures. Originating at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, the musical is expected to have its voices heard next season.

The 1991 indie fave “Dogfight,” which starred Lili Taylor and River Phoenix, has spawned an eponymous musical set to heat up Second Stage this summer. The ’60s-era story follows a young, and shy waitress and a Marine on the verge of being shipped out to Vietnam. The romantic tale features music & lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a book by Peter Duchan, and the show was awarded the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre. Joe Mantello directs.

Finally, for readers from out-of-town, here are two resources to seek out which will help you navigate your Broadway getaway: [1] Created by veteran Broadway producer, The Broadway Hotline was launched the first of this month, as a one-stop phone service to answer all questions to make it easier [and possibly cheaper!] to make tracks to the Theatre District. This toll-free hotline = 1-855-SEE-BWAY = operates seven days a week, from 10 AM until showtime, and offers advice and answers about ticket prices and bargains, parking, geography of the streets and avenues, the consequences of there’s a snowfall closing streets and businesses, and more. It’s like having a hotel concierge you can summon at the touch of your phone pad. For more info: www.The BroadwayHotline.com. And [2], when you check in, ask the desk clerk for a copy of the Winter 2012 edition of Playbill that features information on current shows, including discount coupons for many of them. For more info: www.playbill.com.

On Book

To enrich your understanding of the context of two of the shows reviewed above, here are three books that do just that. The discussions about the origins and original intentions of the creators of “Porgy and Bess,” check out “Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre,” by Herbert Keyser. This handsome overview includes a substantive, well-written chapter on George Gershwin, and others on the creators who shaped the world the Gershwins flourished in. For the libretto, pick up Stanley Richards’ “Ten Great Musicals of the American Theatre.” You can see for yourself what the original book and lyrics were, and compare them to the revisal now on display.

Athol Fugard has become of the more heralded playwrights of the last century. After you take in “The Road to Mecca,” and also “The Blood Knot,” now at the stunning new Signature Theatre center, familiarize yourself with some of his other works. Four of his plays are collected in an Oxford University Press, but any other collection will do.

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TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the theatre series ‘Character Studies’ for PBS. His award-winning play “Admissions” is published by Playscripts, and “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre” by Art Age Publications. His feature stories about the performing arts have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Dramatics Magazine, Theatre Week, Parade, Rolling Stone and dozens of other publications. He is currently teaching very small, private sessions on plays, musicals, characters in them and for actors, directors, designers and dramaturgs, an examination of the creators’ intentions when preparing to work on a production, along with one-to-one coaching. He can be reached at tvellela@nyc.rr.com.

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