Monday, May 17, 2010

Intermission Talk for May 15, 2010

Collected Stories, La Cage aux Folles, Promises, Promises, The Addams Family and a truly Great Master, Monet
by Tony Vellela

Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, at a time when they were not speaking to each other, both told me the same thing: 75% of whether a production will succeed depends on casting. Now, I've heard the same sentiment attributed to others, and it's possible that neither of these theatre giants came up with these wise words on their own. But there it is, and currently on the Great White Way eight times a week, the truth of those words can be clearly seen.

On the positive side, Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" glows and bristles in all the right places because Linda Lavin knows what to do and how to do it, to make her character work. On the negative side, Kelsey Grammer in "La Cage Aux Folles," and Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenowith in "Promises, Promises," (for different reasons), manage to steer those revivals off-course, altering the charm that their characters, as written, possess.

Ruth Steiner, in the Margulies play, has convinced herself that the life she has constructed, as a successful and highly-regarded short story writer, and NYU professor, provides all she needs. Year after year, she chooses a student to work as her assistant, handling scheduling, some household chores, and basic secretarial tasks. When we first meet her, she is just choosing a student whose class compositions show promise and insight. Lisa, as performed unremarkably by Sarah Paulson, toadies her way into Ruth's life, evolving from the bumbling heroine-worshipper to the heiress-apparent. She finally publishes a first novel, in which she appears to have leeched, and barely disguised, basic circumstances of the youthful history and unresolved emotions of her trusting mentor. Lisa parrots back what Ruth taught her, that a good writer must write about a subject that moves her, and that she must give expression to the circumstances of those with no voice. Ruth points out that, not only is Ruth a person WITH a voice, a writer, but that Lisa's 'subject' is in fact Ruth's life. "You have stolen my life!" Ruth says, when all the chips are finally on the table. And like the professor in David Mamet's hopelessly flawed "Oleanna," or John Proctor in Miller's brilliant "The Crucible," Ruth wants the destiny of her identity left to her alone.

Margulies is a master weaver of lives, which are set in fairly conventional situations. When this play was first produced off-Broadway, with the legendary Uta Hagen as Ruth, the tale had a different resonance, as Hagen depicted Ruth with an already-hardened vision of the rest of her life, and a settled reconciliation with the decisions that she made. That was a defensible interpretation. With Lavin, this Ruth can be seen as having real regret when she confesses that she wishes that she had found a man who met her standards, to father children for her. Lavin's work, together with Margulies' craft, makes "Collected Stories" a rewarding, gratifying theatrical experience. Do not miss it.

You can certainly miss "Promises, Promises," a sixties musical from Neil Simon [book], Burt Bacharach [music] and Hal David [lyrics], based on the screenplay for the 1960 multi-Oscar winner "The Apartment." That Best Picture picture effervesced with wit, winking at the 'boys will be boys' prevailing attitude on Mad Ave. Men's working-late liaisons. Billy Wilder and his longtime writing partner I. A. L. Diamond, concocted the premise: an enterprising, single, eager beaver (Chuck) uses his most valuable resource, a studio apartment he makes available for his various bosses to use when the wild calls, to enhance his career prospects. When he discovers that the company cafeteria waitress he's been pining for (Fran), has been warming his very sheets with his very boss, clashes of conscience, sentiment and cynicism circle around him like vultures in a Peckinpah pic. So, okay - the picture had Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and the Wilder directorial golden touch. Why describe the movie in such detail? Because it was a true product of its time, an era when sex, unlike little children a hundred years earlier, was not seen but was heard about. It was 1960.

The original musical premiered on December 1, 1968, and took place in that year. Result? Bacharach's score echoed what was on the radio. Michael Bennett's choreography featured the all-elbows-flapping, all-knees-jerking style that filled nightclubs and frat houses. And everybody loved it, including me.

Revive it? Why? Another casualty of the rush to mimic the "Mad Men" craze? The original musical starred the youngish Jerry Orbach and the even younger Jill O'Hara [Google for credits], and both the musical and the movie relied on having the sorta nebbish-y Chuck rescue the kinda vulnerable Fran from her battered emotions. Sean Hayes just doesn't measure up to the vocal demands of this show [Orbach, remember, had already created the El Gallo role in "The Fantasticks," starred in "Threepenny Opera," was ... well, he was a singer]. And O'Hara could become the confused, hapless girl-kid who needed a strong hand to keep her from falling on her face, or into bed. Despite all her tremendous gifts, vulnerability is not something Chenowith projects. She may be considered this generation's Ethel Merman - another Broadway powerhouse never known for portraying vulnerable women. So the balance is off - kinda sorta backwards. [The only redeeming element is the ten or twelve minutes when Katie Finneran as a booze-bolstered pick-up channels a sober Joan Cusack character in two hilarious scene-ettes.] To put it another way - this show is 2010's "Bye, Bye, Birdie" revival.

Paring down and tarting up "La Cage aux Folles" was/is a refreshing idea. We get to see the real seediness that makes this transvestite nightclub such a threat to conservative 'family values' types in the south of France, circa 1970s. This concept was imported from London's daring Menier Chocolate Factory, and stars Douglas Hodge as Albin, stage name Zaza, the 'female' half of the performing team that have been together for decades. They have even raised the son of 'butch' partner Georges' once-only hetero romp twenty years ago. Hodge shines. Sorry to say, Kelsey Grammer, as the manager-partner Georges, who runs their club, does not. Once again, casting someone whose name can be read in big letters on the marquee, but who cannot really sing, deflates some of the joy from this rollicking production.

This is a Jerry Herman show, [music & lyrics], and it is the show that he had, unknowingly I'll venture, been auditioning for, for all the years that led up to it, with megahits such as "Mame" and "Hello, Dolly!" laying the foundation for story and songs. Zaza is Dolly is Mame. The club features a chorus of down-at-heel chorines in jocks and bangle beads, working as hard, and displaying as little talent, as the ladies in the Kit Kat Klub line. Candidates for a slot in RuPaul's Drag Race they are not. The original show, in its 1983 world, memorialized the rapidly-growing numbers of AIDS victims, with its message of bold defiance of convention, intolerance and condescension. The Act One closer "I Am What I Am" still resonates as a bold, defiant Gay Rights anthem.

Grammer, like so many straight men playing gay roles, gives it 110% of the gossamer mannerisms, the light-in-the-loafers, heavy-lidded posturing that is akin to sober actors tripping over their shoelaces when playing drunks. And not even all the liquor in the La Cage club can keep you from realizing that off-key is off-key.

Overall, it is a production that creates new interpretations that liberate Harvey Fierstein's fairly conventional libretto from the overdressed, spangles-on-steroids previous versions, and is a tribute to director Terry Johnson, who got little support in the way of avoiding the predictable from choreographer Lynn Page. It's also another opportunity to see ravishing Christine Andreas, outrageous Robin de Jesus and enthralling Veanna Cox in supporting roles. And Hodge, in his less antic moments, when he is not channeling Dame Edna, displays a tender sweetness that reveals why Georges would have fallen in love with the high-spirited lad who dreamed of one day kicking up his heels, center stage.

In "La Cage," Georges' son wants to marry the daughter of an ultra right-wing pol, and invites them for a meet-and-greet dinner, that goes bad, then good. That same exact premise has been shamelessly appropriated by "The Addams Family." There's very little good to say about this box office blockbuster that boasts an advance on the strength of Nathan Lane's rep, Bebe Neuwirth's sheen and the ever-enduring attraction of the Charles Addams ghoulish cartoon family. If you've never seen Nathan, he once again unleashes those unruly eyebrows. Beyond that, it's a train wreck in a blizzard at midnight. Put another way, it's the 2010 version of "Young Frankenstein."

Aside: great musicals can come from cartoon characters, such as "L'il Abner," "Thurber Carnival," "Annie," and the perennial "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." All it takes is original thinking, and a dose of creativity.

And despite the unfortunate need by others to define her in terms of her father, sister and niece, the remarkable Lynn Redgrave, who passed away last week, was indeed a creative original. When we first met eighteen years ago, she was planning ways to celebrate turning fifty, eager to meet new challenges with verve and nerve. The years that followed would have defeated most others, but Lynn forged ahead. Along with her dazzling list of impressive credits [starting with her stunning performances early on, in the films "Georgy Girl" and "Smashing Time," and up to recent roles, from the acerbic Joann at the Kennedy Center, in "Company" to the laconic housekeeper in the film "Gods and Monsters"], she launched into a new career, as a playwright. It started with "Shakespeare For My Father," part tribute, part eulogy, for her dad Michael, patriarch of the royal Redgraves, Britain's acting family version of our Barrymores. It was, she often said, an act of desperation, because she was not getting offered good roles, so she decided to write a part only she could play - herself. In recent days, many many people have also attested to Lynn's ability to make you feel like you were a close friend, however infrequently you spent time together. Like all those others, I will miss her greatly.

If, like me, you have also not [yet] seen "Red," consider spending a fascinating ninety minutes at the Gagosian Gallery to experience a once-only exhibition of a timeless master. Titled "Claude Monet: Late Work," the gallery has gathered paintings and sketches from three continents to present this moving homage, that combines priceless examples from two periods from his later life, the first as he was rendering fine, delicate depictions at the dawn of the last century, and the second from his post-1914 period, as he moved into a more bold, assertive style.

While each painting can stand alone in its beauty, the gallery has painstakingly assembled and displayed together, those that belong to a series of evolving visions, adjusted perspectives and changing conditions. Examples of the evolution of creative genius from both periods grip one's imagination and attest to the brilliance of Monet's iconoclastic vitality. Two of his most beloved subjects, the lily pond and the Japanese bridge, both of which he installed on his country estate in Giverny, France, reveal how perceptions are 'colored' by so many elements that remain largely esoteric even to ourselves. The gallery, at 522 west 21st street, is open to the public, for free. Details are available at

One of the most memorable paintings is "L'All ee de Rosiers," 1920-22, on loan from the Musee Marmatton Monet, Paris, which pulls you in to a child's secret tunnel of overhanging blossoms, but makes no promise that you will find your way out again. And from time to time, don't we all want to get lost in such a world, almost hoping we won't ever escape?

On Book

Lynn Redgrave's two stunning plays based in part on her life, "Shakespeare for My Father," (acting edition, $8.95) and "Nightingale," offer excellent examples of how a solo show for a woman of a certain age can be compelling, challenging and inspiring. And to learn some of what she learned from her legendary dad, there's "The Actor's Ways and Means," by Sir Michael Redgrave.

With a foreword by John Lahr and a preface by Martin Scorsese, "Kazan on Directing" pulls back the asbestos curtain to reveal how the Great Gadg delivered some of the American theatre's greatest works, honoring the intentions [for the most part] of the mid twentieth century's most significant playwrights - Miller, Williams, Inge. Editor Robert Cornfield collected script notes, journal entries, commentaries to writers and others, and letter excerpts, to make this a fascinating study of his creative mind, at work, at play, and all too often, at war with itself.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre "Character Studies." His award-winning play "Admissions," produced three times in New York, all directed by Austin Pendleton, is published by Playscripts. He has also written several other plays and musicals, three books, teaches at HB Studio, and conducts private coaching sessions. His documentary "Test of Time" was a CableAce Award-winner.


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