Thursday, April 15, 2010

Intermission Talk for April 15, 2009

Intermission Talk
by Tony Vellela

"Lend Me a Tenor," "Next Fall,"

"The Glass Menagerie" and

"A Behanding in Spokane"

If there were a Tony Award for Best Entrance by an Actress in a Comedy, Jan Maxwell would be a shoo-in for a nomination, for her explosive door-opener in "Lend Me a Tenor." [Unfortunately, the other shoo-in would be Valerie Harper in the now-closed "Looped," where her Tallulah Bankhead's bombastic "F#*k LA" brings, or brought, down the house.] Maxwell plays the zealous, jealous Italian wife of a world-famous tenor, set to make his American debut at a Cleveland opera house in 1934. Anthony LaPaglia fills out the role of the divo Tito Merelli, in more ways than one.

To bastardize Sondheim, 'farce isn't easy.' It requires a far-fetched plot, over-the-top characters and at least five doors. Ken Ludwig's creation, originally produced on Broadway in 1989, fills the bill in all three categories. Result: lotsa laughs. Lotsa. When the tenor imbibes a bottle of sleeping pills washed down with vino, the opera company's general manager [Tony Shaloub, using some of his left-over Monk befuddlement], decides to roll the dice with a far-fetched idea. His assistant Max [a captivating Justin Bartha, recently seen in the blockbuster comedy picture "The Hangover"], knows the opera, has watched all the rehearsals, and can sing. Out comes the blackface - the attraction is "Otello" - and amazingly, no one can tell that this young acolyte is not the star, though he is thin as a strand of spaghetti and twenty years younger.

Mayhem ensues, as every female in the far-fetched plot wants to bed Tito, and even the bellboy schemes to get into his bedroom, to sing eight bars of anything, and get discovered. Which brings us back to Tito's wife, ready to scaloppini any female trying to play hide-the-cannoli with her husband. Maxwell's performing range is greater than Tito's vocal range, and once again, she knows how to extract each and every single possible miniscule moment of gold from any word or action she is called on to deliver. Here, her pedal-to-the-metal energy nearly consumes all the oxygen on stage whenever she's there.

The cast also includes Mary Catherine Garrison as the Girlfriend, and since the plot is set in 1934, she may have chosen to channel the ditsy, second-lead comediennes of that era. Una Merkel comes to mind. Garrison pulls it off.

But the best news about this sprightly production is the discovery that Bartha, looking like Harold Lloyd's younger brother, has real stage comedy chops. When he asks Tito for advice on his singing, the tenor tells him to begin by limbering up. Bartha's unhinged gyrations out-gyrate the pros - think John Turturro's Barton Fink trying to look like he can dance. Bartha's choices are decisive, and director Stanley Tucci's loose hand on the till, in this instance, pays off handsomely.

Tucci could have enhanced things by instituting cuts to pare down the running time, because tedium creeps in when exposition leads to repetition. Ludwig's script played more energetically in the original production, I seem to recall. But Bartha, plus Maxwell, equals more than enough guaranteed laughs to compensate.

The Queen of Compensate, at least a finalist, is Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams' masterwork "The Glass Menagerie." The most recent revival now re-playing at the Laura Pels Theatre, boasts one of Amanda's best reincarnaters, Judith Ivey. This version, imported from the Long Wharf's last season, and directed by Gordon Edelstein, alters the original text. Here, we find Tom squirreled away in a seedy hotel room, living with a whiskey bottle, a typewriter, and not much else. At rise, he ambles into the room, and spends the next five or six minutes, wordless, settling in for a writing session, and throughout the evening, when he is not 'in' a scene, he is 'writing' the play somewhere on stage. It is a device without a justification. And, it is a device WITH a consequence - it weakens the rhythm. To allow for these added minutes, the text has been surgically cut [by Edelstein?], with a few of the most notable lines gone. Experimenting with new styles to keep a classic 'fresh' is no sin; altering the text borders on desecration.

What remains, however, is Judith Ivey. She's aided by Keira Keeley's appropriately fragile Laura, and Michael Mosley's high self-rated Gentleman Jim. Patch Darragh carves out a few moments of budding queen behavior himself. But it is Ivey's instinctive compulsion to compensate for all the slings and arrows life has jabbed her with, that shows us a mother who can't stem the bleeding fast enough. Her pronouncements of baseless hope and improbable plans, spoken with the certainty of a child reporting a monster under the bed, seem entirely logical in Ivey's delivery, with just enough Southern seasoning to make it all sound like she's about to serve up fried chicken and black-eyed peas. It may be that Ivey's Texas roots have blessed her with a higher level of ease bringing this complex, steely, lost woman to life. Whatever the reasons, she manages to pull off a contradiction: holding things together while slowly falling apart.

Something else that slowly falls apart is the latest challenge from writer Martin McDonagh, "A Behanding in Spokane." In series television, when the premise really veers so far off course that it appears the creators have run out of ideas, it's called 'jumping the shark,' so named because of an episode of "Happy Days" when Fonzie water-skied over that sea creature. In theatre, it may now be called 'behanding.' This airless clump of uninspired segments cannot possibly be the product of sustained craftsmanship, where a writer agonizes over what to say and how to say it. The comic book story line has an aging Christopher Walken ricocheting from town to town, from coast to coast to coast, in search of his severed hand, brutally sliced off when he was just a wee lad. He's also an outside-the-law lowlife who still lives with his mother. Two grifters [Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan] try to pass off the hand of a recently-deceased African-American fellow, while the chatty desk clerk [Sam Rockwell] keeps walking in and out like a 3-D pop-up personifying heartburn. Sure, Walken is reliably quirky. But isn't he always?

Perhaps McDonagh is trying to present a 21st-century melodrama, given the raised stage platform and horizontal curtain. Perhaps he believes this is a clever satire on Hollywood b-movie caper flicks. Or perhaps he has reached that stage of his career familiar to those who have followed David Mamet, when he believes that he can get away with lazy writing, liberally dosed with racial, sexual and misogynist epithets trying to pass as humor. [Aside to Ms. Kazan: you need not accept every offer that comes along now - you have made a very good impression heretofore, but this choice diminishes the great and growing rep you had been building.]

There is building and there is destroying in Geoff Nauffts' impressive and economical new play "Next Fall," - new to the Main Stem, having enjoyed a much-lauded off- Broadway run last season. The most accomplished product yet to come out of Naked Angels, this tale of spiritual questioning in the land of gay pride benefits from truly sensitive performances all around. Adam [Patrick Breen] meets Luke [Patrick Heusinger] and manages to nearly sabotage a genuine love story, despite the age difference, [Adam is half a generation older], and a yin-yang imbalance their friends question. A shopworn but reliable device - someone is hospitalized and near death - brings Luke's parents and Adam's friends together in a waiting room. Some of today's urgent unresolved issues, including visitation rights for gay partners, careers versus jobs in a recessionary economy, self-identity in conflict with one's religion and the role of a belief in God in a sustained relationship, all glide in and out of these life stories. The parents [Cotter Smith and Connie Ray] and the friends [Maddie Corman and Sean Dugan] spar and comfort, all the while waiting for the ending they all fear. Nauffts falls into near-sitcom back-stories and dialogue rhythms for the women, but overall, with a great job by director Sheryl Kaller, "Next Fall" marks a new entry on the list of serious American playwrights who have earned that distinction.

On Book

The contemporary and historic universe of gay drama is covered nicely in two books, one a collection and the other an analysis. "Out Front," edited by Don Shewey, gathers eleven of the most influential recent plays that have come to be labelled 'gay-themed.' Among the playwrights are Emily Mann, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Kondoleon, Terrence McNally and Kathleen Tolan. And Shewey's introduction connects many more dots leading up to the volume's pub date, 1988.

Going further back, and looking deeper, is Mario DiGangi's "Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama." DiGangi looks at a much wider array of writers, and brings his own informed, thoughtful and valuable insight into the discussion, and serves as a worthy foundation for the Shewey collection.

To gain an even better insight into a topic you thought you understood, try "His Brother's Keeper: The Life and Murder of Tennessee Williams." Written by Tennessee's brother Dakin, this chronicle examines the younger brother's views of the older brother's success, and eventual downfall, despair and death. Co-written with Sheperd Mead, the book manages to offer yet another, and arguably more closely-observed opinion about the Edwina/Amanda business. And you thought you knew all there was to know about Tennessee!


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series "Character Studies," about theatre. He has been a theatre journalist for dozens of publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Parade, Dramatics, Rolling Stone and Saturday Review. His play "Admissions," directed by Austin Pendleton, was awarded Best Play at the NYC International Fringe Festival, and is published by Playscripts. He teaches at HB Studio in New York, conducts private script and text analysis sessions and has served as a guest lecturer around the country.


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