Monday, February 07, 2011

Intermission Talk for February 7, 2011

The Three Sisters Can't Take Blood from A Stone, because The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore or at Other Desert Cities
by Tony Vellela

Blame the father. When General Prozorov, a widower, moved his four children from Moscow to the small garrison town where he was put in charge of a brigade of soldiers, the kids got cut off from the world they were educated and socialized to thrive in. Eleven years have gone by, and for ten of them, they at least enjoyed the glow of being in the area's most vibrant household, where gatherings overflowed with music and games, discussions and the free exchange of ideas. Dad died a year ago. Since that time, while the only brother settled into a lovingly looked-after only male role, the three sisters have gradually grown more and more weary of this life without father. The glow is almost gone.

When we meet the adult Prozorov siblings in Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," it's the dawn of the twentieth century in rural Russia. Any optimism that might accompany a new century is not matched by the principals' inability to act on their collective goal - to high-tail it out of there and get back to the intellectual, vibrant, society-driven and romanticized Moscow they remember as children.

The Classic Stage Company's revival, aided by outstanding set design concepts, envelops its audience in this masterwork. As the story progresses, each sister fails to realize her dream. Olga, the eldest, is fulfilled in her post as a schoolteacher, but dreads the prospect of being headmaster. The surrogate mother, she remains suitor-less. Masha, the middle sister, has trapped herself in an ill-conceived marriage to Olga's high school teacher colleague, whom she initially thought of as smart and stimulating because he was educated. Now, he's just boring. And Irina, the youngest, settles for marriage to a baron, which ties her to the vagaries of her husband's military assignments. All three, during the four and a half years that pass, must confront the realization that they will not journey somewhere over the rainbow, that even their modest diversions of birthday parties and holiday celebrations cannot fill the vacuum in their emotional lives. It may be worst for Masha. She is tortured by her barely-consummated affair with Vershinin, a married-with-children lieutenant colonel with a psychotic wife, a romantic man who shares her passions intellectual and carnal, but not her will to abandon their stagnant station for a new life together.

The lone brother Andrey garners loving attention from the sisters, who project onto him their vision of a young man taking Moscow by storm, with a university post and a reputation as a musician and sought-after bachelor. Instead, he sets lower sights, marries Natasha, a local farm girl who adores him, and contentedly secures a position on the county council. Once we meet his wife, it suggests that Chekhov might have considered titling this work "Three Sisters and a Sister-in-Law."

In Natasha, Chekhov gives us the embodiment of someone whose strivings are not encumbered by idealistic assessments of false modesty, who does not indulge superiority complexes shaped by education rather than accomplishments, who compartmentalizes her roles of wife, mother and mistress [both manager of the household and adulteress with the town's most influential man]. And in this production, Marin Ireland powerfully creates a woman who has all these compartments fully stocked, and draws from them unabashedly, as befits someone untrained in nuanced behavior.

So much stands out in this sterling production, as this dream cast makes joyful use of Austin Pendleton's vaunted ability to permit actors to grow into their roles. [full disclosure: Pendleton directed my award-winning play "Admissions."] His casting choices reflect a keen understanding of the need to show how all these characters slide in and out of primary moments, how they tamp down high emotions to keep within their societal expectations, how their views of time evolve and how artifice and integrity can become corrosively fused, held together by fear and weakness.

Every performance supports the others. The sisters -- Jessica Hecht's Olga, Juliet Rylance's Irina and Maggie Gyllenhaal's Masha -- show individual talents and personal scars, while effortlessly becoming intimately close sisters who can soothe feelings, push buttons and pull no punches. Peter Sarsgaard wisely chooses to make Vershinin an officer whose wounded life makes him an easy recipient for Masha's fantasies of escape, a man less dashing than his Moscow counterparts, and would not have commanded Masha's attentions if she had met him after successfully getting back to town. Josh Hamilton's Andrey shows us what happens when a person with no strong drives becomes the object of others' projections, and whose lack of interest in his sisters' societal aspirations makes him, at least for a few years, a perfect match for the unpretentious Natasha. And stage veterans Roberta Maxwell, George Morfogen and Louis Zorich are added delights in smaller roles.

But if there is a first among equals in this cast, it is surely Ireland. By choosing not to hide the impulses she feels as she feels them, and not deny the immediacy of her judgments, her Natasha, the only one of the four woman who winds up 'having it all,' shows the contrast between the real and the ideal, between imagining and acting, between romantic love and mutual needs. Her Natasha does storm into a room, because that is what she feels the moment calls for. Because when one steps back and looks at the landscape of the play, one thing becomes clear -- no Natasha, no play.

One of the characteristics that make for a great actor is fearlessness. Add to that a high intelligence level employed skillfully to honor the intentions of a great script, and finally, in some instances, a willingness to risk looking foolish, all of which Ireland possesses. And currently, at the Laura Pels Theatre, such a combination also comes to life eight times a week in Tennessee Williams' controversial "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," directed with care by Michael Wilson. And the actor responsible for sparking this real event is Olympia Dukakis.

Written by Williams in 1961-62,and victimized by ill-conceived productions and by a critical press that had almost collectively decided that he was no longer a playwright worth serious consideration, "Milk Train" belongs at or near the end of the line of his great 'needy older woman- purchasable younger man' yarns. Here, Flora 'Sissy' Goforth, former chorus girl and widow of four husbands, three of whom have turned her into one of the world's richest women, has holed herself up in her indulgently-outfitted mountaintop villa on Italy's Divina Costiera. She's writing her memoirs while she's still got time, and there's not much left.

With only an always punctilious, often unctuous young Vassar grad, recently widowed, as her dictation transcriber cum personal assistant Blackie [the estimable Maggie Lacey], and a minimum of put-upon staff, Sissy has fashioned a regimen fueled by liquors, black coffee and various pharmaceuticals, legal and illegal. She's had her entire security-fortified collection of villas and surrounding land wired to pick up and broadcast her recollections, wherever she is, recorded for Blackie to take down. This fussy routine gets torpedoed when Christopher Flanders, a young-ish, semi-louche poet type [a somewhat subdued Darren Pettie] scales the cliffs, outruns the attack dogs with only a few minor scrapes and wounds, and inserts himself into Flora's cloistered, tightly-controlled universe.

The author's notes indicate that the setting should suggest a 'semi-abstract' style, and the designers [Jeff Cowie: set; Rui Rita: lights] have delivered on that instruction. Director Michael Wilson exerts good judgment in not messing around with what the playwright wanted the style and sensibility to be. As the last sweet days/hours of Flora unfold in August, 1962, the random bits of her memories, abetted by a frienemy, lovingly named the Witch of Capri [Edward Hibbert outdoing himself in campy, staccato movements and line deliveries], reveal a defiant octogenarian, determined to guarantee that future generations have access to her life story, with all its riches as a reflection of American and world societal and cultural significances. She was there, and she wants you to damn well know it.

Flanders, known in recent years among gilt-edged society folk as the Angel of Death, due to his propensity for turning up near the end of the lives of rich, lonely women, eagerly readies his role as sympathizer and source of comfort, and not until she can hear the Grim Reaper whispering in her ear does Flora shed her scales, deactivate her personal emotional alarm systems and seek out his talents, but not before one last performance as a Geisha seductress, complete with embroidered kimono, lacquered black wig and two fans deftly slung open with the sharp wrist movements of a karate chopper. She has done this before, a lot.

And here is where Olympia Dukakis excels. Her Flora comes forth with the very best of Mae West, Totie Fields, Leona Helmsley, Elaine Stritch, Phyllis Diller, Gwen Verdon and Sophie Tucker - bawdy, merciless, sensual, witty, charming, calculating, vulgar, sly and cold-blooded, with the proportions constantly shifting to suit the moment and the audience, of many or one.

This piece, rewritten often until he got it to his satisfaction, has been labeled one of Tenn's lesser works. Unfortunately for many new pieces also running now, it stands out by comparison as superior to pretty much all of them, including Lincoln Center's production of "Other Desert Cities," by Jon Robin Baitz. This attempt at balancing the liberal view that the Reagan-era die-hards masked their deepest feelings of sympathy for the welfare of America's most unfortunate takes a little from this play ["A Delicate Balance"] and a little from that one ["After the Revolution"], gaudies it up with elements from a sensational tabloid news story [the rich-boy Alex Kelly Connecticut fugitive rapist case], and dresses it up with a giddily A-list cast, each of whom knows how to gut a cliche. Because, for instance, Linda Lavin has never met a zinger she can't deliver, and Thomas Sadoski won't let a two-dimensional role keep him from finding a little bit of complexity to chew on, there are moments of acting virtuosity. Baitz owes them big-time.

And, a curious aside: both Ireland and Sadoski performed the same generous feat for Neil LaBute in "reasons to be pretty." Don't let anyone tell you actors are not creative artists.


'Less is more,' the familiar adage goes. Playwright Tommy Nohilly not only ignores it, he has decided that much, much, much more is not enough. Presented by the New Group, his "Blood from a Stone" unspools in the living room of a nondescript frame house in a lower middle class, blue collar Connecticut neighborhood. Vagrant son Travis [a tempered Ethan Hawke] has decided to spend a few days with his disagreeable family before heading west to carve out a new life in California, aided as much as possible by pain-killers in very frequent ingestions.

By the time this Yule-week saga ends, its plot points assault us with drug abuse, battered spouse(s) syndrome, a couple of casual adultery hook-ups, grand larceny, chronic addictive gambling, collapsing ceilings, and just about everything else except the kitchen sink. Oh, wait. At one point, the sink does develop a leak. Unfortunately, it would take more than a plumber to fix all the plot leaks in this rambling, wearying downer.

So how about treating yourself to a real 'upper?' On Sunday, February 20, at 2 PM, the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College continues its Theater Series with "American Big Band." Featuring a cast of 20 singers, dancers and musicians, this welcome joyride strings together music by Big Band icons such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington, using the premise of a series of radio broadcasts from those great '30s and '40s star-filled sites - Harlem's Cotton Club, Hollywood's Palomar Ballroom and Billy Rose's Music Hall.

Now, if you are old enough to have your parents talk about Saturday night dance hall dates, or if you've seen Betty Hutton, Jane Powell or early Frank Sinatra pictures on AMC-TV, OR if you're caught on to the swing dance resurgence, this will be like a stress-free vacation. And on March 20, they follow it up with another show, this one built around the Gershwin musical " 'S Wonderful." Indeed!

On Book

What Have You Done? by Louis Zorich
For some insight into how Olympia Dukakis turned into 'Olympia Dukakis,' her autobiography chronicles the journey from her challenge to become accepted coming from her first-generation Greek-American status, to Oscar-winner for "Moonstruck." Her zeal and intensity flares up through so many milestone moments in her life, with her marriage to actor Louis Zorich providing an anchor to creating a successful professional and personal life. And Louis, ["The Three Sisters"] makes his own contribution to reading pleasure with his hilarious compilation What Have You Done? He's collected horrendous and hilarious audition stories from six generations of actors, and provides not just entertainment but inspiration to those new to the profession who think that once you've made it, you've made it.

Anton Chekhov: A Brother's Memoire
The personal life of Anton Chekhov comes alive in a rare biography written by his brother Mikhail. Titled Anton Chekhov: A Brother's Memoir, the close-in recollections and comments about the masterful playwright offer true insights into where many of the aspects of his masterworks came from. When plays such as "The Three Sisters" are endlessly scrutinized, they often overlook the influences that made the writer the writer. Fortunately, Mikhail's book has been translated by Eugene Alper, to give us some of that rich backstory.

The Complete Plays Anton Chekhov Laurence Semelick
To immerse yourself into the writer's works, pick up [carefully - it's kinda heavy], "The Complete Plays: Anton Chekhov," translated by Laurence Senelick. This is a lovingly- compiled anthology that offers, along with the familiar canon, some early plays, even untitled or unfinished ones, so you can track his remarkable development, and make your own connections between his brother's observations, and Anton's output.
And if you're serious about seeking out substantial material that offers insight into Tennessee Williams, you can thank Margaret Bradham Thornton for compiling and editing "Tennessee Williams: Notebooks." Throughout his life, Tennessee diligently filled journals and notebooks almost daily/nightly with short histories of each day's events, usually accompanied by a sharp remark or candid personal judgment that make the notebooks far more than a ship's log of the life and career of a genius. It is not about the genius; it is by him. And now, it's for all of us to share.

TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS series about theatre, "Character Studies." His award-winning play "Admissions" is published by Playscripts. He has taught at HB Studio, the New School, Columbia University and regional arts centers. He has written for dozens of publications about the performing arts, from The Christian Science Monitor and Dramatics Magazine, to Rolling Stone, Parade and the Robb Report. Information on private coaching, and his small-group sessions [max. size = seven] for actors, directors and playwrights can be obtained by writing to

The Three Sisters, translated by Paul Schmidt
Three Sisters
by Anton Chekhov. Translated by Paul Schmidt

The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams
Acting Edition, $8.95 (Call 212-944-0595 to order)



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