Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Side Effects

Side Effects is the follow-up to Michael Weller's excellent play Fifty Words. Both are two-person plays about the disintegration of passionate but often-explosive marriages, full of secrets and disappointments and affairs and anger. The two plays, and two couples, intersect at one crucial phone call.

My expectations for Side Effects were quite high because Fifty Words blew me out of my seat. In Words, Elizabeth Marvel and Norbert Leo Butz were both mesmerizing and painfully real--and they were so perfectly matched--so it would be difficult for another pair of actors to match their level of performance. (I think their fights on stage were so intense that both actors were injured at least once.)

So I guess I was bound to be a bit disappointed with this companion piece. I don't know how to judge whether any of this has to do with the direction (David Auburn directs Effects and Austin Pendleton directed Words), but I definitely think both the script and the casting fail to measure up. The earlier play takes place in real time, which heightened the fly-on-the-wall feeling of watching a marriage at the moment of implosion. It makes sense for this one to take place over a longer period, especially as it's hard to portray the dynamics of mental illness otherwise. But it makes this play more like a series of earthquakes: still devastating but less fiery.

Joely Richardson is absolutely captivating as an artistic, free-spirited, brilliant, sharp-tongued bipolar woman who can't (and doesn't feel she should have to) live up to the cookie-cutter perfect-wife role required of an aspiring politician's subordinate half. She has important things she wants to do on her own, and she resents that her husband's ambition means becoming a different woman than the one he married, even if her illness has changed her too.

It's hard for me to tell whether her character is supposed to be so much more sympathetic than the husband, but I suspect not. I think it just comes across that way because as her quiet, steely, ambitious but secretly vicious husband, Cotter Smith just isn't up to her level. His performance lacks nuance, so I find it hard to see (even after the play reveals his "softer side") why this couple were ever together. It's not only that his performance isn't as good as hers (she charmingly covered flubbed lines as part of her manic character and he just sort of stumbled), but I think the pairing is just off. I might like the show much better if Richardson had a different acting partner. I can only imagine how brilliant she would have been with someone better to react to. And a more dynamic pairing might have overcome some weaknesses in the script. Alas.

Anyway, the show is only about 90 minutes long. So if you have time, head over and be charmed by Richardson's excellent performance (if not her wandering accent).

War Horse

War Horse is a visually stunning, brilliantly produced puppet-based performance. But after seeing the shattering revival of The Normal Heart earlier in the day, this weak (but Tony-winning) play had no shot at moving me. If War Horse--written by Michael Morpurgo and adapted by Nick Stafford--were a better play, that would be a shame. But it's not. The play with music (completely boring music) is based on what seems to be a trite children's story (I haven't read it). Although it's boring as a play for adults, it seems like it would be horrifyingly depressing and overly terrifying as a children's story. And, if the adaptation is of equal intensity to the original, I would question the parenting skills of anyone who would let their elementary-school-age child read this (and I can't imagine it holding the attention of anyone older).

For anyone who has seen any war movie before, or has basic reasoning skills, the major events are completely foreshadowed. Nothing surprising happens in the play, especially the ending. And the characters are paper thin. But WOW, the show is beautiful to look at. I mean, the National Theatre knows how to make gorgeous, gorgeous productions. Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris direct the crap out of the lackluster material, and the acting performances are good, given the lack of material. But the only reason to see this show is for the projections, actors as set design, and (HOLY HORSE!!!) THE PUPPETS.

Erase what you think you know about puppets and go check out some of the videos of this production. You don't need to see the show, but you do need to see the amazing work the puppet designers and handlers have done. (Check out especially the one called War Horse Video Excerpts here or watch the one below.) Really, the Handspring Puppet Company and the performers who bring these horses to life are remarkable. It is that alone that won this show the Tony for Best Play.

For some reason, Steven Spielberg is making a live-action movie of this story. WITH REAL HORSES. Why? No, really, WHY??? The stunning horse puppets (and other animals) are the only thing interesting about this. Sure, the movie has Benedict Cumberbatch--so amazing in the National Theatre's Frankenstein and as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes--but in a bit part. I just don't think I love Cumberbatch enough to sit through the movie (and I love him quite a lot). Perhaps Spielberg found a way to make the story ... better? Doubtful.

The Normal Heart

Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe's revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's impassioned look at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. and his frustrated efforts to shut it down, left me speechless and openly weeping. I can count on two hands the number of times art has made me teary, much less cry. Joe Mantello as the leading crusader was really great and made an overly showy role so real. But it's Ellen Barkin's (well-deserved) Tony-winning performance as a NYC doctor treating tons of gay men dying from a mysterious, (she suspects) sexually transmitted, illness that really stands out for me. (He was good, but I'm not convinced John Benjamin Hickey gave a Tony-worthy performance. I'd rather the award had gone to Mackenzie Crook for Jerusalem.)

I was a mess from the moment Barkin began her blistering speech railing against the CDC--or was it the NIH?--for ignoring her repeated reports of this exploding epidemic for several years, followed by them denying her funding to search for the cause and cure for the as-yet-unnamed plague. I wept from then until almost half an hour after the show ended. I even tear up thinking about it. Seriously, when is the last time you cried just thinking about a performance more than two weeks afterward?

The show is not without flaws. I loved him on Brothers and Sisters, but Luke Macfarlane was pretty disappointing here. And I'm curious about the writing for the character played by Lee Pace (whom I've loved in pretty much every other role, especially on the sadly missed TV show Pushing Daisies). I have a hard time believing an ex-Green Beret would be so nonthreateningly laid-back in the face of such a crisis (and, from a purely physical perspective, so reedy), even if he were so far in the closet. Speaking of the writing, the opening scene is so underwhelming that I wondered if I would like the play at all. The scene at the end in the hospital is predictable and flat to me, too. But the projections of the names of so many people lost to the disease ended the show on a strong note--a punch to the gut, really. The phrase is overused and generally hyperbolic, but in this case I think there truly was hardly a dry eye in the house (including among the cast).

I could go on about how cool David Rockwell's deceptively simple stark-white-walls set design is once David C. Weiner's lighting design reveals what's hiding there. Or how much I loved seeing The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons in a touchy-feely (handsy, really) role, aka decidedly un-Sheldon. Instead, I will tell you why this show hits me so hard every time I think of it.

The true brilliance of this production is that it makes me want to go out and change the world for the better. It makes me want to quit everything else in my life and take up a cause (it makes a very good case for AIDS activism--which 30 years later is, depressingly, still very needed--but there are plenty enough causes to go around). Really, when is the last time a play made you want to be a better person? (Ugh, here I am crying about it again.)

I love that at the beginning of the show's run, Kramer himself stood outside the theater and handed out this letter to make people think about the real-life events depicted in the play--to make sure they saw it as more than art, as the crisis it was and still is. I love that the show has had talk-backs and discounts for young theater-goers. I love that Ellen Barkin is such a fierce advocate for the message of the play. You should find video of her Tony acceptance speech and read this interview with her. Here's an excerpt:
What about this piece grabbed you?
I just think it’s too important not to do. It was very important that this play that was such a watershed theatrical moment finally be on Broadway, and to be a spear-carrier for Larry Kramer in the war he’s been fighting for a lifetime is an honor and a privilege for me. And the addition of [co-director] George Wolfe is like, well now we’re just in Geniusville, USA, as far as I’m concerned.

You were in New York acting off-Broadway in the early ‘80s; does the play bring back memories of that time for you?
Absolutely. You cannot help but completely relive the terror and horror of what was going on then. I look at the first 41 names of AIDS victims that come up [on the set of The Normal Heart], and I had a friend on that list. It is a real, visceral remembrance of that terror. There are maybe two generations of human brings who really don’t think AIDS is an issue anymore, and it’s bad. It's bad and that’s in part because of what happened at the beginning, that it was never identified as the plague it was and still is, and then it morphed into what it is now, a huge money-making machine for the pharmaceutical companies.

You seem like perfect casting for this crusader of a woman.
It’s true. When people ask me, “How do you get up the rage every night?” I say, well sometimes I just listen to the play and other times I wake up in the morning, turn on my TV and watch my president hand over his birth certificate. Where do I get my rage? It’s free-floating, it’s blowing in the wind, it’s everywhere. It’s the perfect climate for these words to be heard.


Feast or famine

I went a full month without seeing any theater performances and then had a couple three-show weekends in a row. I should have planned better because all six shows were plays and depressing ones at that. I should have thrown in Billy Elliot (again) or some other musical for balance. It's a miracle I didn't jump off a bridge at some point along the way.

Weekend 1: The Normal Heart (Broadway), War Horse (National Theatre London at Lincoln Center), and The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (Signature Theatre/The Public)

Weekend 2: The Illusion (Signature Theatre), Side Effects (MCC), and Through a Glass Darkly (Atlantic Theater at the New York Theatre Workshop)

I've already reviewed Tony Kushner's iHomo. Other than sounding a bit stale in their overlapping dialogue (the timing for which I had expected to improve but, alas, didn't), the show is just as great as I remembered it. I'm still completely in love with Michael Esper and Stephen Spinella's performances. And Linda Emond is still brilliant.

I'm headed to Seattle/Alaska later this week, so I promise all these upcoming reviews will be short (for once). And it's going to be another month before I see another show. So when I get back, I'll try to review some of the shows I saw earlier this year (Good People, Arcadia, Jerusalem, etc.).

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sorry for the delay!

Sorry I haven't posted lately. I've been busy with visitors from out of town and trips of my own that--shockingly--didn't involve going to the theater. (What was I thinking?) But I'm making up for it this weekend by seeing The Normal Heart (about the AIDS crisis) on Broadway and War Horse (yeah, about war, but with puppets of horses) at Lincoln Center. Then Sunday it's back to The Public to enjoy Michael Esper and Stephen Spinella and the rest of the phenomenal cast of Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures for the second time. So sad iHomo is closing. I was hoping it would transfer for a longer run at a larger off-Broadway house.

After all that terribly cheerful fare, I will probably listen to The Smiths on my iPod and slash my wrists on the bus ride back to Boston. Oh, but then I'd miss the Tony Awards! And Neil Patrick Harris promised tons of Spider-Man jokes. I guess I'll have to tough it out somehow. Perhaps I'll just listen to the cast recording of American Idiot on repeat for the 5-hour ride.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Passing Strange at the New Rep

[This is the first guest review from Lisa, my theater buddy.]

It’s a musical! Or is the current term “rock opera”? I walked in to the New Rep’s production of Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange knowing nothing about this show except that there would be music and I HAD to see if it ever came to Boston. I walked out very happy I had finally seen it on stage. (I was told to wait to watch the Spike Lee “movie” version until after seeing it live, but I still haven’t done that.)

Cheo Bourne is well cast as Youth, rebelling against his mother and religion while questioning his identity as a young black man and looking for his place in the world--first in his own Los Angeles neighborhood and then abroad in Amsterdam and Germany. Cheryl D. Singleton as Mother is outstanding, especially in her final number. The four actors cast in multiple rolls (Kami Rushell Smith, De’Lon Grant, Eve Kagan, and Maurice E. Parent) also do amazing jobs in their many parts and with multiple accents. Especially good are Parent as Mr. Venus and Kagan in all of her roles but mostly as Mariana. The weakest link in an otherwise outstanding cast is Clif Odle, who just doesn’t seem to have the raw energy or vocal range to keep the pace of the show going as quickly as it should. [Stew annoyed me sometimes in the Broadway production, but I really missed him here. --Mel]

This tale has been told before (is anything really new anymore?) but the music makes it fresh and totally worth the price of admission. I enjoyed the way the music reflects where they are in the story physically. L.A.’s gospel sounds of the mother’s church and the psychedelic “Must Have Been High”; the happy, boppy tunes in Amsterdam; and the cold, harsh, angry songs in Berlin. The choreography and staging in “We Just Had Sex” is cute, clever, and so well done. I wish the director of the Philharmonic's recent concert production of Company had copied it.

The set design is simple yet effective, with the occasional use of projections to help set the scene but without ever intruding on the action. And the lighting was spectacular. [I actually prefer the New Rep’s lighting design for this show to Kevin Adams’s often-repeated neon lights (Spring Awakening) and wall of blinding white lights (Next to Normal) on Broadway. -- Mel]

While the musicians were all excellent, the sound quality for the show was mediocre at best. It got somewhat better after the first number but was never quite as good as it should have been. (And much of the audience was a little lost since the first song is so important in laying out the show.) While I did not see this show at the end of the run, I did see it more than a week after it opened. The technical issues should have been worked out already, and the problems definitely detracted from my enjoyment.

Overall I had a good time at this show and look forward to seeing the actors in future productions around Boston. However, this show could have benefited from a better sound system and faster pacing.