Monday, April 28, 2008

Play of the Week for April 22, 2008: AFTER ASHLEY

After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo

Typically, there are three human responses to a traumatic event: Fight, flight or freeze. In post-9.11 America, there are more lucrative options. After Ashley, Gina Gionfriddo’s hilarious and keenly intelligent play, follows the fate of one family struck by violent crime—a witty and prematurely wise teenager, Justin, his kind of lost and messed-up mother Ashley, and his father Alden, an earnest, bleeding heart liberal journalist.

Ashley, struggling with her husband, her job and her students, takes Justin’s advice to get out of the house and do something new. Not long after, a recording is heard of Justin making a frantic call to 911. His mother’s been brutally murdered by the homeless man his father hired to do the lawnwork.

Three years later, as his father writes a bestseller about his martyred wife and lands a TV show, Justin lives with a fake ID in bitter, lonely exile somewhere in central Florida. When Julie, a pretty, intelligent co-ed picks Justin up in a bar, he’s hostile and contemptuous. But through his connection to her, he finally confesses his own guilt about his mother’s death and reveals the darker side of Ashley, caught on video tape. Finally given the chance to bring down his father’s empire of lies, Justin resorts to deception, blackmail, and degradation; he believes he must destroy his mother in order to save her.

Gionfriddo’s ambiguous ending leaves us to crawl out of the rubble on our own. She raises serious questions about the way we live in the aftermath of trauma, the dubious powers of language, memory, and meaning when tragedy becomes a cultural cliché and a growth industry. As for that old devil truth—it’s a noun that can seldom be trusted when used in the singular.

Scenes/Monologues: Great scenes for a young man & young woman (late teens), young man and woman in her mid-thirties.

Full-length play: Dark Comedy.
Cast: 4 men, 2 women. Setting: Unit Set.
Acting Edition, 2007. $7.50

Recommended by: Helen

Order After Ashley now

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Intermission By Tony Vellela
Discovering New Talent

One of the great adventures of going to the theatre is the excitement of "discovering" someone early in their career. This season has its fair share of [fairly] newcomers who have people talking about their current work, and their future potential.

Disney's The Little Mermaid is playing host to a pair of talented trail-blazers. If you have ever treated yourself to one of M-G-M's greatest musicals, Singin' in the Rain, you've seen the teen Debbie Reynolds bursting out of every frame. Playing Ariel at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Sierra Boggess has every bit of energy, vocal power, agility and charm [not to mention physical resemblance] that Carrie Fisher's mother had at the start of her still-going-strong career. And also in the swim of things with Boggess is the riveting young Brian D'Addario, as the feckless Flounder. This young man has the self-assured presence of the pre-pube Mickey Rooney. His fearless timing is glorious.

At right is Patti LuPone as Mama Rose, with Sami Gayle (center) and Emma Rowley (left). Photo courtesy Joan Marcus

Two blocks south, at the St. James Theatre, Emma Rowley has taken the fairly short role of Baby Louise in Gypsy, and found the true emotions of the young girl who grows up to confront her Momma, and confound the entertainment world as the stripper who made herself a star. Watch Rowley watching Baby June in those Newsboys moments, and you can see the true feelings inside the little girl who couldn't do anything right, and what eventually drives her to do anything she wants. This is an actor who sings and dances, and will move into great roles when she hits her twenties and thirties.

In the Heights is brimming with young, hot talent in that sweeping Washington Heights set, but behind the scenes, another up-and-comer keeps it all moving and alive. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler delivers more moves per minute than any other show in town, keeping music, lyrics, characters and costumes in a continuous state of perpetual motion. It's no surprise that the entire cast dances like a collection of individuals instead of a robotic chorus, because Blankenbuehler has worked [Contact, Steel Pier] with Broadway's reigning terpsichorean royalty, Susan Stroman, who has told me more than once how she invents a backstory for every person on stage, thereby giving each actor something to work with. The best choreographers are story-tellers.

Of course your eye travels to Patti and Nathan, Kelli and Harvey, but widen your gaze, and see who else is doing what else on that stage. Make it an experience of discovery, which gives you another set of great memories. Were you there when Nathan bumbled on stage, cigarette smoke swirling around his befuddled head, in The Common Pursuit?

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Gypsy - Have a Momma, Mister Laurents
by Tony Vellela

Great classic works are so well-crafted that they can endure various interpretations, and still deliver a powerful experience. And one of the best-ever musicals, from Arthur Laurents [book], Stephen Sondheim [lyrics] and Jule Styne [music] is the indominable Gypsy. The newest revival, starring Patti LuPone at the St. James, is directed by Laurents, and he may have gotten right what is most important in pulling off this intricate piece – balance.

Laurents told me years ago how disappointed he was with the original production, because Ethel Merman’s brassy persona came to define what everyone thought Madame Rose ought to be. [Arthur Miller said the same thing about Lee J.Cobb’s influence on most future Willy Lomans – a burly, stocky man with a lumbering gait]. It wasn’t until Laurents directed Angela Lansbury in the role that the dramatic potential of Rose’s character emerged.

This time, he’s got a truly balanced cast – a brassy stage diva who can also act, a Herbie with the sentiment to match the times, and a Louise with the sweet-and-sour mix that makes her three-dimensional by the final scenes.

They called it a musical fable, and in this staging, with minimal set pieces and the orchestra behind a scrim on stage, the bare bones of the story stand out. Laurents frames the stage with a dilapidated proscenium draped with a torn curtain, and it stays in place until the final moments, when it flies up at the point when Rose’s dream of glamour and fame are finally called out, revealed for what they are founded on – personal ambition and a need for attention. Her time, not her ‘curtain,’ is up.

Balance throughout the piece permits the unbalanced Rose in “Rose’s Turn’” to feel like the climax that it is, for whenever a Rose starts off frantic, intense and crazed, she’s got nowhere to go – no arch, no story. But this Rose, along with this excellent Herbie [the sterling Boyd Gaines], start out playfully, with teasing and testing, and it shows us that he loves her for who she can be, not just a monster stage mother, but at heart, one of the kids. That’s why she can work so well with children - she never had her own childhood, and however deadly serious the stakes are with dismal bookings and leftover Chinese for breakfast, Rose is playing. And Herbie is in love with THAT Rose.

Laura Benanti holds her emotions in naturally, a learned response rather than a survival technique, until the bottom falls out when the act’s ‘star,’ Baby June, elopes with one of the ‘boys’ in the line. Then, Louise begins to grow into the steely woman who is her mother’s equal, and then some. They are both opportunists, but Louise has the benefit of watching what her mother did wrong, and learning from it.

You can’t miss the biggest voice in Broadway during the numbers, but watch for little acting moments where LuPone invests true character behavior in what Rose does. Sitting down to read the dismissive note that June leaves, LuPone’s Rose looks up to find the ‘light’ from the billboard. Obviously [if you think about it], this woman not only corrals the kids and battles for billing, she also makes up the dances, teaches the songs and builds the sets. Look for the paint stains on the dreary raincoat early in the show, and watch it reappear when Rose lunges into “Rose’s Turn,” tearing it [her long, weary past] off her unappreciated body, and letting that defiant action propel her into her searing, overdrive breakdown. “It’s really a show about family,” Laurents told me years ago. And he has skillfully kept all the parts of this piece – music, dance, lyrics, comedy, pathos, relationships and façade – in balance, until the sheer weight of Rose’s pathetic pretense causes it all to crash in on itself. It’s as if Laurents is appealing to us : “Let Me Entertain You.” He’s done that, and so much more.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Play of the Week: April 7, 2008: CHICKEN

Chicken by Mike Batistick

Looking for a play with a dark side? Humor with an edge to it? Even if you are, Batistick’s “Chicken” may compel you to turn on your flashlights, start a bonfire, and set off the signal flares to keep from getting lost in its murky depths.

To describe "Chicken" as a play about cockfighting is much more than the easy explanation it may seem to be. Wendell and Floyd are lifelong friends who live in a Bronx apartment so cluttered with piles of junk it seems like an endless forest. Behind every moment lies the promise of locating a long-lost set of near-mythic blades, known as Mexican short knives, which would provide an edge for the finder and his rooster.

The characters themselves seem to have been plunked in this situation as a cosmic joke designed for the amusement of cruel gods. Despite their long history, once it's revealed just how much they've taken from one other, it's clear that their relationship is as brutal as any cockfight they've ever seen or participated in.

Cast: 4 M, 2 W.

Scenes/Monologues: Great scenes for men and women with one good monologue for a man.

Recommended by: Hans

Order Chicken by Mike Batistick Now! Acting Edition: $7.50

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Play of the Week, March 28, 2008
Bad Jazz by Robert Farquhar

BAD JAZZ by Robert Farquhar

Ever found yourself at a bar, saying lines from a play you were working on? Maybe you’ve gone on a bender to help you learn more about your alcoholic character. Or maybe you’ve fallen desperately in love with your scene partner, only to have it all end with the final curtain call. At the very least, as an actor, you have probably searched for parallels between your personal experiences and those of a character.

In “Bad Jazz,” Robert Farquhar experiments with what happens when reality and theatrical art become blurred. As his characters put on a play, the boundaries between the play and the play-within-the-play are jostled and blurred until the world of the stage and the real world are almost indiscernible. The actress playing a prostitute comes to rehearsal strung out after a night of turning tricks; the actor playing a junkie shoots heroin backstage; the relationships of the characters in the play merge with those of the actors playing them.

In scenes ranging from loving to cruel and from sexy to violent to violently sexy, we are presented with a group of highly passionate artists who are willing to sacrifice almost anything for their art. If you are looking to explore darker sides of yourself, this play is filled with opportunities to play with extreme emotions and frustrations that actors experience both on and offstage. Method actors beware!!

Plus, the play’s got an enormous fake penis.

Scenes/Monologues: Scenes for a man and a woman or for two men. Monologues for women (20s/30s) and men (any age).

Bad Jazz by Rober Farquhar October, 2007. Paper: $12.95

Recommended by: Aynsley