Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Sometimes I just love a show, flaws and all. This was definitely true of American Idiot (can't wait for the tour) and iHomo (we are in such need of serious conversations about unions right now). And now Itamar Moses's Completeness at Playwrights Horizons, which unfortunately just closed.

It seems so long ago now, but Hurricane Irene scrapped one of our NY weekends. Luckily, Lisa and I were able to reschedule Bluebird (Simon Russell Beale!) and Master Class (Tyne Daly!), but Book of Mormon make-up tickets on a weekend weren't available until December. But that meant I had time to see Completeness. (Lisa got a ticket for the Hair tour instead, and her complaints about Diane Paulus's changes to the show were more entertaining and better thought-out than the production was.)

Wow, did I bury the lede for this review! Completeness is a romance for the XKCD crowd. I wonder if non-science-nerds find this show's jargon off-putting, or if actual computer scientists and microbiologists find the dialogue too scientifically simplistic. I'm in no place to judge that because I work at a university, married an engineer, edit scientific books, and am addicted to theater. Also, I own one of the shirts worn in the show and another one looked familiar. Yeah, Moses wrote this play pretty much for me exactly.

Mostly the science problems as metaphors for relationship dilemmas work very well for me. They are generally on the right line between being obvious and too on-the-nose, and I find the dialogue clever and realistic--and often hilarious. But every once in a while it feels kind of lazy, as though Moses thinks the audience might get lost and/or he just couldn't bother to rewrite it better. But I love the idea of trying to tackle romantic problems the way one would a failed science experiment, where the data from each failure refines the approach to the next iteration. And the opposite idea that we can never truly account for every variable in science or in life. That sometimes we rely on intuition and inspiration and take leaps of faith based on the imperfect information available to us.

At the top of the show, computer science grad student Elliot (Karl Miller) twists his girlfriend's complaints about their relationship into an excuse for ending it so he can pursue the adorable woman he hangs around the computer cluster to stare at awkwardly. Molly (Aubrey Dollar) is a microbiology grad student who flees a romantic relationship with her advisor to take up with Elliot, whom she has also been eyeing from across the computer lab. Science is both an excuse for and method of flirting for them, and those science-heavy speeches are definitely the highlight of the script and where the actors' work shines most.

Miller's performance is a revelation. After the show, I texted my husband to tell him that I fell in love with his stage counterpart--both the character and Miller's performance in the role. I know he's been with the show for a long time (originating the role at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa), and it shows in his completely naturalistic acting. He's the most exciting new-to-me actor I've seen in a long time, and I hope he'll be in many, many more NY productions. Dollar was great with the overly excited, jargony speeches and in the flirty parts. I found her a bit acty at other times, but she is certainly better here than she was in Lucy Thurber's Bottom of the World at Atlantic Stage 2 (also, this is a better play).

The dialogue for the exes is in desperate need of rewriting. Heavy slash-and-burn rewriting. It's really dreadful in both wording and sentiment. Meredith Forlenza and Brian Avers, who play multiple roles in the show, just can't overcome the material they're given as the exes. They are much better as the enticing characters who threaten to break Elliot and Molly up. Also, kudos to them for being so charming that I managed to not groan audibly or throw my program on the floor in disgust during the fourth-wall-breaking idiocy (overly long to boot!) in the second act. Like the terrible cell-phones-in-the-theater diatribe at the beginning of Tony Kushner's iHomo, this scene MUST be deleted in future productions.

I'm so sad that I couldn't get back to the city to see Completeness again. Luckily, I think the play will do well regionally, so I'll probably be able to enjoy it again before too long. In the meantime, I'm on the lookout for the script so I can find out from my CS and bio friends how accurate the scientific descriptions of data crunching algorithms, traveling salesman problem, and trial-and-error with yeast experiments are.

And I'm praying to the theater gods (is there a patron saint for theater-goers?) that Karl Miller will stick around New York because I am completely in love with everything about his performance and need to see him in everything he ever does. Yup, I'm adding him to my bucket list.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Anything Goes

[This is a guest review by Lisa.]

I know Sutton Foster was miscast as Reno Sweeney, but I just can’t bring myself to care. She sings and dances the crap out of Anything Goes, and I’d happily watch her do it again and again. I had wanted to see this show since the moment it was announced, so I was ecstatic when theatre buddy Mel said she was willing to pony up for the good seats. If you can’t tell, I was predisposed to like this show. And from the opening strains of the overture I had a smile on my face that didn’t leave until long after the show ended. (It probably disappeared during the less-uplifting Follies, which we saw that evening.)

There are plot twists, mistaken identities, and hijinks all over the place on the way to a typical everything-works-out happy ending. While Billy is trying to woo Hope from Lord Evelyn, Lord Evelyn becomes enthralled with Reno, who is trying to help Billy woo Hope. Meanwhile Hope’s mother Evangeline is being pursued by Billy’s boss Eli Whitney, but she is busy trying to talk Hope into marry Lord Evelyn. In spite of all of the confusion it’s not actually that hard to follow the plot, and in this Cole Porter show the plot is hardly the point anyway.

As Mel has already stated, when it comes to sexy and edgy, Sutton Foster comes across as neither. She’s cute as a button and looks like she is having the time of her life on stage. Still, she lacks the edge that evangelist turned nightclub singer Reno should have. She was too happy in the opening number, smiling her way through the beginning of I Get A Kick Out of You right after Billy Crocker tells her doesn’t really get a such a kick out of her (as anything more than a friend--but what great friends they are). And I expected more from the seductive Blow Gabriel Blow at the top of Act II. But all of that somehow doesn’t matter. Plus, the title number was AMAZING: Sutton Foster and the rest of the cast sang, danced, and tapped their asses off in a very extended and much appreciated version of the song Anything Goes.

I apparently saw Colin Donnell in the forgettable Johnny Baseball at the A.R.T. last year, and now I’m sad I don’t remember it because his performance in Anything Goes is anything but forgettable. He is absolutely charming as stow-away Billy Crocker who is trying to romance Hope Harcourt out from under Lord Evelyn Oakleigh while pretending to be Public Enemy Number One, all the while avoiding his boss, who thinks he is back in New York. His numbers with Laura Osnes as Hope Hartcourt (Easy to Love, It’s De-lovely, and All Through the Night) are as de-lightful and sweet as his number with Sutton Foster (You’re the Top) is fun. Laura Osnes moves and sings like a Disney princess.

Jessica Stone as Erma is all sass and sexy fun as the not-so-faithful girlfriend of the true Public Enemy Number One and travel companion of Moonface Martin, aka Public Enemy Number Thirteen, in disguise as a minister. Moonface is more caricature than character, but I don’t know if that’s how the character is written or directed or both. In any case, Joel Grey is exceedingly endearing in his portrayal of the hapless guy.

Adam Godley is hilarious as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, the fiance of Hope Harcourt with the secret past who would rather be with Reno. The Gypsy in Me was seriously goofy. John McMartin and new-to-the-show Kelly Bishop as Eli Whitney and Evangeline Harcourt were well cast, although I’d like to see Bishop in something where she has more to do (I loved her as Grandma on the Gilmore Girls). The rest of the ensemble was equally impressive and enjoyable to watch.

This show is just pure fun. Porter has a way with words that makes me giddy and I have happily integrated this cast recording into my rotation of albums I listen to frequently. Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is jaw-droppingly spectacular. Whether there are two people on stage or twenty, the dancing is phenomenal. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are wonderful, and I think Foster has more gorgeous outfits for a two-and-a-half-hour show than I would actually take with me on a week-long cruise.

All in all I had a blast at this show and highly recommend going to see Anything Goes.

Rent at the New Rep

I don't like Rent. But I like the New Rep's production of it.

For the pre-Wicked generation, Rent seems to be most people's first musical-theater obsession. Middle-class teens, and the adults they have since become, talk about how the show changed their lives. It seems to have popularized the practice of seeing a production thirty times or more, and it's encouraged newer shows to institute a lottery for a hardcore fanbase among cash-strapped students who would rather spend their money on tickets than on food.

But I don't get it. Sure, some of the songs are lovely (Seasons of Love) or cathartic (Take Me or Leave Me). And there are soundbite messages to inspire (No day but today! Measure your life in love!). And it's always nice when nontraditional, heavy subject matter is wrapped up in musically palatable pieces sung by attractive people so it can be embraced by the masses (here AIDS and addiction; see also mental illness in Next to Normal).

Still, I don't get it. A group of self-obsessed, obnoxious, so-called artists live in squalor, stealing electrical power for their squats from "the man" and generally being useless in the East Village in the early 1990s. Aside from fierce drag queen Angel and her new paramour Collins, there's not a likeable character in the bunch (well, at least Maureen seems to care about the homeless in the tent city, and Joanne is employed even if she is totally p-whipped). But really, for pretty much the entire show (first the movie musical and then on Broadway its closing weekend) I just wanted to punch Mark in the face.

Perhaps if creator Jonathan Larson hadn't died just before its opening there might have been additional changes along the way to strengthen the show. On the other hand, the show also owes much of its success to the mythos of that sad but perfectly-timed news story. So, we're stuck with what we have.

None of this is the New Rep's fault. And to their great credit, I enjoyed the show. Given my dislike for the show in general, I wasn't planning to see this production. But Lisa likes Rent and wanted to go. And when I saw the enticing cast list, I caved and we got tickets. (Thanks, Todd, for the great seats!). This makes I think the fifth show I've seen Danny Bryck in, and aside from that very strange circus-themed collection of performances at the Cambridge YMCA (with the Monkees' Peter Tork in the live band), I've enjoyed them all. And, seriously, I feel sorry for every human on the planet who didn't get to see Bryck as Hedwig. I was also excited to see local star Aimee Doherty as Maureen (I couldn't quite picture it in advance, but she killed in the role--much better than Eden Espinoza on Broadway). And I was happy to see Passing Strange's excellent Eve Kagan and Cheryl D. Singleton again (both wonderful here as well).

Kudos especially to Nick Sulfaro for a shockingly brave performance as Angel. And to John Ambrosino for making me kind of not hate Mark (besting Adam Cantor from Broadway's closing cast). Really the only one not up to snuff was Robert St. Laurence as Roger, who unfortunately is one of the larger parts. Other than him, the entire cast was great, and they sounded so good when they all sang together. Once again, I loved the New Rep's set design (by Kathryn Kawecki). And bravo to director Benjamin Evett for making the show so enjoyable, especially for such a cynical non-Renthead like me. I'm not planning to see the slightly tweaked off-Broadway production, but I do suspect I would like it better in its more intimate home. The huge Broadway stage definitely did not serve this story well.

Rent is playing at the New Rep in Watertown, Mass., through October 2. If you like this musical, I recommend seeing this great production of it.

Edited to add: Lisa just reminded me that the sound for both Passing Strange and Rent were terrible. They need a sound designer stat if they're going to continue to do musicals. The performers and the audience deserve much better. Also, both shows were much whiter than the original casts, which is a shame.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Cripple of Inishmaan (and tour)

Tadhg Murphy and Laurence Kinlan from the tour. Photo by Robert Day.

[Here's a review of a show I saw more than two years ago then again this year on tour. I figured since it's the best thing I've ever seen on stage, I'd better at least say something about it here.]

As you may have noticed, I've seen a ton of shows, by a lot of authors, presented by a bunch of Broadway teams and off-Broadway and regional theater companies. So far this year, I've seen 58 different productions. So I hope it carries some weight when I say that the Atlantic Theater's presentation of the Druid's 2009 production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Atlantic Theater Company is the best thing I have ever seen on stage.

If you've read any of my previous reviews, you may also have gathered that even when I love a show, I always have at least a few complaints. Not so with Cripple. The production at the Atlantic was flawless in every aspect, from casting to set design to script. I'm so in love with it that I saw it again when ArtsEmerson brought the Druid tour to Boston. It was still excellent (though not perfect), and I'm so glad I got to experience it again.

McDonagh is a fecking brilliant playwright. He may be my favorite playwright, in fact. (I also love the less-violent but also profane Conor McPherson a ridiculous amount.) McDonagh's work is shockingly dark, blisteringly funny, brutal, curse-strewn, and more than a little twisted. (I have still not recovered from reading The Pillowman and cannot even imagine surviving seeing it performed. The Lieutenant of Inishmore is the opposite--it wrecked me when I read it, but on stage I found it more bearable--and very funny.) If you have not seen his brilliant movie In Bruges, go rent it. Now.

This description of Cripple is shamefully stolen from because I am incapable of brevity:
In 1934, the people of Inishmaan learn that the Hollywood director Robert Flaherty is coming to the neighboring island to film a documentary. No one is more excited than Cripple Billy, an unloved boy whose chief occupation has been grazing at cows and yearning for a girl who wants no part of him. For Billy is determined to cross the sea and audition for the Yank. And as news of his audacity ripples through his rumor-starved community, The Cripple of Inishmaan becomes a merciless portrayal of a world so comically cramped and mean-spirited that hope is an affront to its order.
As in all McDonagh works, the characters are ridiculous, outrageous, and oversized but underneath the over-the-top action and bloodshed there are somehow hauntingly human truths about what we need from other people and what they give us (and vice versa). I don't know of another playwright that makes horrible people so vulnerable and horrible situations so funny. Also, the fake-blood budgets for his plays must be enormous!

The entire cast of the Atlantic production was spot-on, but Aaron Monaghan was really completely brilliant as Cripple Billy (Tadhg Murphy was also so, so good in the tour). My heart hurt for him the entire show. (And my ankle had sympathy pains for the way he had to walk. I'm sure there was some sort of costuming trickery with his shoe, but it really did look like he was walking--or shuffling, really--on his ankle for the entire show.) Kerry Condon was also excellent as Slippy Helen, possibly the most difficult of the characters to keep real and even a little bit likable. No, really, everyone in this cast was perfect. And it had brilliant direction by Garry Hynes and charming set design by Francis O'Connor.

I was so disappointed when this didn't transfer to Broadway, as had been rumored. I'm so, so glad I had the chance to revisit it on tour. And I'm very grateful for the kinds of works that ArtsEmerson is bringing to Boston.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Off the hook (Funny Girl, Lysistrata Jones)

Bobby Cannavale; Lauren Ambrose (photo: Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

I'm not a fan of the musical Funny Girl. Well, perhaps that's unfair to say. Maybe the movie is nothing like the stage version (as with Hair). In any case, I'm generally uninterested in seeing the upcoming revival. The gorgeous Lauren Ambrose (excellent in the recent Torchwood: Miracle Day TV series and, of course, on Six Feet Under) seems like a crazy physical choice for the homely Fanny Brice. And my boss, an obsessed opera fan who knows way more about vocal technique than I do, is convinced Ambrose can't sing the role. But I love her and the idea was interesting enough that I thought I might force myself to see the show.

But now they've cast Bobby Cannavale as Nicky Arnstein, so I'm off the hook. I didn't like him in either of the plays I've seen (Trust at Second Stage and The Motherfucker with the Hat on Broadway), and I'm even less interested in his singing. So, yay, there's one bound-to-be-pricey show that I don't have to fit into my budget and schedule. I am very much looking forward to the reviews, though.

I also plan to skip Lysistrata Jones because I get enough antifeminism in real life. I mean, have you seen the ad? I just ... I'll have to rant about that in a separate message. For now, behold this stunning (in a bad way) spot they're using to try to sell tickets. #doingitwrong