Friday, November 21, 2008

Intermission Talk: November 24, 2008

Veterans & Newcomers Combine

To Warm the Boards for the Holidays

by Tony Vellela

Like the best holiday eggnog, where the milk, sugar and eggs need to get jolted with a strong dose of brandy, four offerings on the Great White Way get the mixture right, and will provide a welcome holiday kick.

The much-anticipated transfer from the West End of Lee Hall and Elton John's "Billy Elliot" fulfills its advance promise to a very large degree. Its young performers are permitted to shine, because the material they sing, dance and act honors their talent, and lets them inhabit believable young people. Set during conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's England of 1984, the residents of the northern mining towns have learned that the government plans to shut down the coal pits, and with that move, shut down their livelihoods, and their lives. Young Billy is an eleven-year-old average kid being raised by his widowed dad, who like Billy's older brother is a miner. His cheerfully forgetful Grandmother, herself the widow of a miner, is sometimes like a second under-age child in the household. Billy, like the other lads in town, takes a weekly boxing class in the shabby community hall. One afternoon, he is asked to stay late to turn the keys over to the girls' ballet class teacher, who assumes he's there to dance. Ever obedient, he joins in reluctantly, only to have it lead to an unkindled talent no one suspected was there.

That Billy would eventually grow into a real dancer by show's end never is in doubt. But the plight of the despairing miners does not result in a happy ending. Billy comes up against the prejudices of a town, and a family, who see his chosen career path, instead of the one that leads underground, as less than manly. What distinguishes this tale is the realistic depiction of a boy who has no control over his life, but for most of the story, does not fight back, nor does he know how to. When the life-weary ballet teacher [Haydn Gwynne, who finds the conflicts within her character's options] arranges an audition for Billy at the Royal Ballet School, the police raids that engulf the neighborhood stymie Billy's secret plan to sneak out of the house and ride the train to London. It is only when his father, [Gregory Jbara] witnesses his son's prowess that he gives in, and changes from adversary to advocate. Billy's brother continues his vehement objections that the lad is too young to know what he wants, and that he owes an obligation to his heritage of being born into a mining family.

In the few scenes when she is allowed to participate, Carole Shelley, as the Grandmother, lights up the proceedings without shifting the balance. This veteran Broadway performer used her authentic British accent in 1965 to tickle audiences as one half of the Pigeon sisters in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Here, in one of her character's more lucid moments, she shows Billy that some people need to settle for very small pockets of joy when their lives are defined by oppression. Recalling how her usually drunk and abusive husband would transform whenever they went dancing, she nearly floats above the floorboards, demonstrating her younger self in "We'd Go Dancing."

There's much to applaud in this splendid production, including a truly ingenious set design by Ian McNeil that takes the shell of the community hall, and pulls out large units from its walls like bureau drawers, along with rising and falling room sections, all with an unobtrusive rhythm that matches the grace of ballet. And the choreography by Peter Darling covers the widest palate from "Swan Lake" to Music Hall hoofing, punctuated by the lockstep routines of muscular coppers with nightsticks and plexiglass shields.

So what's not to like? Well, this is a coming-of-age story set in a Broadway musical, set in a wrenching political climate. What it wants is more brandy, that is, more of the hard stuff. The first twenty-five or so minutes present dance pieces, like a coming attractions trailer for those who might have been put off by the newsreel footage of the real miners' strike that is meant to give us background and context. But the reality of the newsreel often gets lost or softened later, because it 'lives' in a Broadway musical. That balance is possible. See another coming-of-age story about a young teen trapped in the midst of political turmoil, the stunning "Serafina," for a very commendable example in which the politics does not at all subsume the entertainment value.

The other aspect that threatens to undercut the experience is the misguided notion that authenticity would suffer if, God forbid, we should be able to understand what everyone is saying behind those thick and thicker accents. See Williamstown's summer of '07 revival of "The Corn is Green" as an example of how this can be done.

But the dancing ! The dancing ! As Billy, Trent Kowalik, who performed the role the night I attended [and who alternates with two other Billy actors] is nothing less than fierce in his 110% commitment to those moves. His lightning-quick movements in Act Two's "Electricity" provide the same elation one felt when Idina Menzel's Elphaba soared above the rest of the world in "Wicked." Billy's move to New York was worth the wait.

Before Billy moved into the Imperial Theatre, the multi-dysfunctional Weston family from "August: Osage County" spilled out over the footlights, cussin' and clawin' and screaming' and such. After they up and moved to the Music Box, some newcomers took up residence in the Weston's Oklahoma homestead, including two accomplished actors in the roles of the matriarch Violet [Estelle Parsons], and her Brillo-tough sister Mattie Fae [Molly Regan].

Estelle Parsons photo by Joan Marcus

"Violet and Mattie Fae are different manifestations of damaged goods," Estelle declares one night backstage, after yet another compelling performance. "Both of them were neglected and abused." Molly agrees, pointing out that "Mattie Fae and Violet both had a very abusive childhood. One of their mother's boyfriends came on to Violet, and Mattie Fae fought him off with a claw hammer."

Estelle, an Oscar winner for "Bonnie and Clyde," and Molly, one of Steppenwolf's founding members, had both seen the Tracy Letts Pulitzer Prize winner before joining the cast at the end of this summer. "I saw it in Chicago," Molly stated, while Estelle "saw it at the Imperial, before it moved. I couldn't understand the audience's reaction - there was a lot of laughter. It was like the audience ran away with it." Other reports indicated that the production had gotten a bit loose, and based on a recent viewing with the current cast, that problem has been more than corrected.

Molly Regan photo by Joan Marcus

Each of these women talks about another role they've done, that some have compared this work to, but with different conclusions. For Molly, "the role closest was Big Momma in 'Cat,' because they are both ruthless, strong, territorial, and possessive of their favored child." She performed the Tennessee Williams role at Steppenwolf, where "August" originated. Regarding comparisons to Albee's Martha, Estelle finds them "completely different. Martha is a garden variety alcoholic, but she is a functioning person. She operates within a life. Violet rarely functions. She has hallucinations. She lives in a house with the shades pulled down and taped shut." And at eighty, Estelle shows no signs that the rigors of the part, with its volcanic outbursts and rapid ascents and descents on that lengthy staircase have slowed her down. "The physical challenges were not so great. I've been a runner all my life. I hike and climb, and ski, and I dance."

If you haven't seen this new classic, give yourself a treat. And if you have, take it in again, and enjoy these two great actors bring their personal, inspired interpretation to these steely sisters.

Sisters figure in another holiday show, as part of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Installed for a limited run at the Helen Hayes, this stage version of the perennial Christmas movie favorite has been a smash on the road, under the deft direction of Walter Bobbie, A newcomer to the Gotham Yule pool of traditions to enjoy, it joins the spectacular Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall, celebrating seventy-six timeless years at America's most elegant Art Deco palace. These two musical feasts offer a traditional and a new gift to all those jaded Janes and Jameses who might need to sneak in and enjoy the pleasures of feeling good for a while, even if they tell their friends they were really picking out what to wear to the Bunker.


TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.

Monday, November 03, 2008


Miller & Chekhov & Calder -? oh, my!
Mamet & Krieger & Shanley ? oh, no.


Arthur Miller was a great playwright. Great playwrights employ words to create their work. Therefore, Arthur Miller employed words to create his work.

This basic syllogism is almost entirely dishonored in the current revival of All My Sons, the post World War II drama that cemented Miller's reputation as one of our most meaningful theatre artists. The perpetrator of the dishonor is director Simon McBurney.

Recipient of innumerable awards as, what his Playbill biography calls a "theatre maker," he might have seemed a daring, in the positive sense, choice to bring back this sixty-year old play if one felt it needed a revisionist jolt. Jolt it does, but not in a positive sense.

McBurney does not practice artifice here, but artisanship - he "makes" a presentation by taking the elements of this solid, moving piece, pulling them apart, and then recombining them with elements from other styles and forms. So, the stage is "set" with a broad platform covered with blatantly artificial grass, a young tree, three chairs, a chain link fence that delineates a backyard, and at center rear, a white frame '40s era screen door. Visible in the wings are the cast, who take up seats there when not needed on stage, a device Miller chose not to use, in the shadow of the premiere of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" a few short years earlier. The director brings out the entire cast before the play begins, and John Lithgow, the actor playing the acknowledged central character of Joe Keller, greets those in attendance. On one recent night he assured everyone that the bandage on his hand was not causing him any pain. Then, he launches the proceedings, and everyone retreats to the wings.

Joe, and his next door neighbor partner Bert Deever, converted their machine parts factory during the War to manufacture airplane components for the duration. Joe and his wife Kate [Dianne Wiest] have two sons, Larry and Chris, who both enlisted. One day a batch of defective cylinders gets through the assembly line, and pilots die as a result. When the faulty parts were discovered, the government brought charges against the owners, but Joe was acquitted after testimony that he was sick the day the shipment was approved. Deever is still in prison.

And - Deever's daughter Ann had been engaged to Joe's son Larry, who has been missing in action for years now, the war being over [it is 1947]. Ann and Chris have fallen in love, Kate cannot come to terms with the idea that Larry may be dead, and Joe continues to play his role as beneficent employer and gregarious Big Man on the Block. When Ann and Chris [Katie Holmes and Patrick Wilson] decide to reveal their plans, her brother shows up to intercede because he believes his father's version, that Joe set him up by choosing to say home that day, rather than incriminate himself. And then all the old wounds are ripped open, and even the neighbors, led by Becky Ann Baker and Damian Young, turn against Joe.

Miller takes a half dozen very human stories scaled to their time and place, and extracts universal truths and provocative timeless questions, questions about love and loyalty, about deception and self-deception, and about profit and patriotism. In an interview, McBurney said he thought the play was "about society." And from that reductive POV, he proceeds to layer all manner of external prompts and gimmicks, to cheapen the messages, to undercut the beauty of the language and to assault us with his pyrotechnical prowess, one imagines because he does not have faith in the raw text to deliver the goods.

The goods, on their own, are quite deliverable. His impositions range from almost perpetual ominous underscoring meant to tell us when to feel the sense of the ominous, the appearance of black clouds drifting across the rear scrim of the Schoenfeld when newsreel footage and stock images of the forties are not being projected, the off-stage plucking of a few guitar strings to remind us that the missing Larry liked to play that instrument, and a premature fevered pitch of performances that destroy the natural, graceful arch of Miller's story-telling. This is Miller done as amateur opera.

And the loser, apart from those who are new to the play and had hoped to experience its power, is Arthur Miller. Time after time, the lyrical muscle of his words is drowned by either entirely unnecessary underscoring, or by a hyper-active acting style that subsumes what the characters are thoughtfully saying. One example: Chris and his mother Kate struggle with what good it does to revisit all the suffering and accusations of the past, and she wonders what they can do now, after all that has happened. Chris finally flings four words at her that encapsulates Miller's core message - "We can be better !" In this production, the words are barely audible.

Actors welcome challenges, and it is easy to see the lure of working on a classic Miller play with a credentialed iconoclastic director. Lithgow, a bit too urbane for the factory owner character, almost wallows in the artsy-ness of it all. Wilson keeps trying to ground his grounded Chris in reality, despite the abstract world he is living in. Holmes is pretty. Only Wiest and Baker reach deep inside the work and words Miller has given them, and take a firm hand to their performances, giving us real people.

In a climatic moment, a letter is presented that ties together all the weary threads of this magnificent saga. After the performance that I saw, two women walking up the aisle were questioning each other : "What was the letter all about ?" "I don't know. Was it important ?"

Anton Chekov's The Seagull, in revival at the Walter Kerr, opens with much the same stage design elements: a bare black stage, dotted with a few trees and tree stumps. Disaffected young actor Konstantin, on the country estate of his actress mother Arkadina at the close of the 19th century in Russia, proclaims that the theatre "needs new forms." Happily, director Ian Rickson trusts Chekhov enough not to piddle with the master's words and work, giving us a charming and faithful experience as it was meant to be experienced.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Arkadina) and Peter Wight (Sorin) -- Photo by Joan Marcus

Stage star Arkadina [Kristin Scott Thomas], her younger lover, the poet Trigorin [Peter Sarsgaard], her son Konstantin [Mackenzie Crook], their stage-struck young neighbor Nina [Carey Mulligan], along with Arkadina's dissipated brother, and the estate workers, are enduring the humid summer as the acclaimed actress takes up residence for a vacation.

Chekhov always insisted that this play and others were comedies, but the tragic turns of events, coupled with the languid atmosphere, usually defeat efforts to find the route to that outcome. Rickson succeeds. And the key to it is to achieve a sense of remove from the details, which the playwright seemed to suggest in various ways, to give us a glimpse of how those in orbit around a 'star' are constantly at the mercy of the shifts in her moods, large and small. Uta Hagen, who played Nina with the Lunts in the 1930s, once told me that this play is about frustrated love and loss and frustration about finding a place, and making a mark as an artist, and then how easy it is to put a pin in that, and destroy it. She felt is was as true now as it was when it was presented in 1898.

At its heart a mother-son, generational rebellion story with the melodrama of stagecraft the jumping-off point for all their lives, The Seagull endures because Chekhov selected that universe in which to place these hapless creatures. The plot points include the son's efforts to write a 'modern' play [a surprisingly accurate precursor of performance art], his mother's dismissal of that play, the son's jealousy of his mother's attentions to the poet-lover, and the seduction and destruction of young Nina by the poet, who is loved by the son. This does not present as comedy fodder, admittedly.

But Rickson starts with the assumption that we will recognize the character traits in these people that most everyone shares, and that we can then proceed to the business of watching them go at each other and themselves. The dramatic moments take care of themselves. The comedy moments must be offered in a way that we witness them, and not experience them personally - then we can laugh at those aspects of the characters without laughing at ourselves.

The set and costume designs by Hildegard Bechtler frame the events perfectly, sticking to a black and brown and beige pallet, with brass and olive green accents. The paint is peeling away from the walls, so we can see the state of the disrepair that is testimony to Arkadina's poverty pleas, however exaggerated they may be.

Overall, there is a balance between drama and comedy in act one, that gets upended in act two, when there is a straining to pull in more light moments. Scott Thomas migrates into a kind of two-dimensionality at that point, to the degree that we mistrust the intended few 'real' moments with others, unless she really has no true identity. One noteworthy acting choice is made by Zoe Kazan, as the pessimistic Masha, daughter of the estate manager, Sorin, whose unrequited love for Konstantin drives her every action. Kazan plays her as an undiscovered, unappreciated female beat poet, all angles and sneers, and brings a fresh, but not contradictory interpretation to the role.

Peter Sarsgaard (Trigorin) and Zoe Kazan (Masha) -- photo by Joan Marcus

Like Miller, Chekhov lets us expand outward from the details of the text into the broader world inhabited by anyone seeing these plays. Unlike the Miller revival, this one at first lets us in, so we can then expand outward.

And yet ANOTHER revival has taken up residence on the Broadway boards, this one the twenty-year-old extended sketch Speed-the-Plow, by David Mamet. If it were being pitched as a screenplay, in the Hollywood upper echelons of movie-making where it takes place, it might be described as Oleanna meets Glengarry Glen Ross in Tinseltown, the other two also being Mamet titles. Like Oleanna, this one pivots on a young woman who starts out as a sympathetic observer and seems to morph, overnight, into a calculating barracuda. Like "Glengarry," this one is fueled by machine-gun fire dialogue, testosterone-driven ambitions and crass materialism. And like Tinseltown, there is a lot less here than meets the eye.

Bobby is the new head of development at a major film studio. Charlie is his Tonto, who views himself as the real talent. Karen is an office temp assigned to Bobby on his first day on the job. Charlie brings Bobby a hot property, a commitment from a box office dynamo to star in a formula buddy movie picture for them, but the commitment expires the next morning. Bobby's gratitude extends to assuring Charlie he will get a producer's credit on the film. Bobby's boss, who does not yet know about any of this yet, wants him to do a 'courtesy read' on an esoteric apocalyptic novel that preaches hope, to judge its screen-worthiness. Bobby requests a meeting to break the dynamo news that afternoon, which is set up, then moved to the next morning. When the two men joke about their ability to bed Karen, Bobby asks her to read the novel and come to his home that night to report on it. To his amazement, she convinces him that it is a more important property to film than the buddy movie. This news the next morning threatens Charlie's chance at moving up. He suspects that Karen has manipulated the situation to move into the business, fascinating Bobby with her overnight wiles, a charge Bobby resists. In the end, Charlie and Bobby wind up in a drag-out fight on his office floor, and Charlie verbally assaults Karen about her motives, which she insists are pristine.

What is not pristine is Mamet's motive. Like Oleanna, this piece demonizes the young woman character, and never justifies that choice. Plot and structure holes bigger than the Hollywood sign shred credibility. One example : if the studio exec meeting had not been cancelled, there would be no opportunity for Karen to turn Bobby. Okay, so maybe his intention is to choose empty entertainment over substantive message—got it. Jeremy Piven [Bobby] and Raul Esparza [Charlie] are treading familiar turf here, having conquered the brazen bad boy types - Piven on HBO's "Entourage" and Esparza most recently in the revival of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming." As the temp, Elisabeth Moss uses the reserve she brings to her role on AMC's "Mad Men," but nuances it by extracting far more complexity from the character than Mamet seems to have invested in her. She is a revelation, and should be tapped for more stage work, such as Alma in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, or Laura in his Glass Menagerie. She is the reason to see this production.

There is no reason to see Romantic Comedy," taking up a valuable slot on the schedule of the Manhattan Theatre Club. John Patrick Shanley selfishly allowed this rag-bag burlesque musical to eat up resources, money and talent when new work goes begging for an opportunity to be produced. Henry Kreiger's music, when it can be separated from Shanley's inane lyrics [he also wrote the book and directed], might be catchy on their own. The story line is not worth trying to reconstruct. The overall effect resembles a three-ring circus of musical, cabaret and revue sequences all colliding in the sandpit where the animals should be entertaining us.

A far, far more creative, entertaining and unique circus is in town, and it should not be missed. Appearing at the center of the Whitney Museum's current exhibit "Alexander Calder - The Paris Years 1926 - 1933," is the fantastic, in every sense of the word, film of the Calder Circus. Serving as a centerpiece for an extensive collection of Calder's diverse, remarkable artistic output, the documentary captures Calder pulling the strings as his pint-sized marionettes, toy animals and people, circus props and special effects bring out the child-like wonder in all of us. The museum generously offers a delicious menu of his most captivating creations, including his ingenious wire sculptures of Jimmy Durante, Calvin Coolidge, John D. Rockefeller, Lindbergh's plane arriving in Paris, and all four extant wire sculptures of Josephine Baker. In collaboration with the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Whitney show runs until February 15, 2009. Don't put it off - it is one of the most original shows in town.

TONY VELLELA, the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, writes and produces the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies". His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Dramatics, Rolling Stone, and several other publications.