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A Watering Hole

A Watering Hole 
 Conceived and Created by Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon 
 Signature Theatre on 42nd Street 
 Playing through August 8, 2021 

 The best thing about writing this review is writing a review. Like so many New York theatre addicts, the slow but deliberate reopening of our theatres is among the most treasured events in the opening up of our city – traditionally America’s theatre center. So, when one of my favorite off-Broadway theatres, Signature, announced it was offering what they described as a “grand experiment [that] deviates from the norm, presenting a new kind of theatre,” I rushed to buy my ticket. After all, the whole project was under the direction of one of our greatest living playwrights, Lynn Nottage. 

Alas, some of the best laid plans… “The Watering Hole” is a sort of contemporary art exhibit. Groups of only four people are guided by a Signature staff member through a series of displays, some simply poems on large sheets of cloth, others use video and other electronics to illustrate a poem or an idea. There are no live actors, other than recorded voices and people in videos. Each installation was designed by an up-and-coming playwright/visual artist, personally selected by Ms. Nottage and Ms. Haymon. 

As I expected, the themes center on the personal experiences of African-American, Latino, and, in one case, disabled, artists, related to water. This could be a fascinating creation, but unfortunately none of the exhibits are particularly notable and many times I could not wait until the Signature staff member took us to the next installation. The poetry was frequently mundane and there was very little that was intellectually stimulating. To be fair, several of the exhibits focused on our ability to appreciate the power of reflection, essentially asking us to concentrate on the nothingness. 

Some of the installations had references to the challenges of the pandemic. Others were personal narratives – perhaps the most interesting was a video in which a young physically disabled man tells the story of learning to swim when he was a child. Another is a memory of what it was like to open a fire hydrant in the city to splash around in water on a hot summer day. The audience sits around a fire hydrant than eventually sends mist into the air. 

For me, a former professor of theatre for 20 years, the most interesting aspect of this experience was to see all of the parts of Signature’s three-theatre complex including areas that are hidden from audiences. One of the installations put each attendee into a backstage dressing room. Eventually, participants get to sit on all three stages. While others listened to a narration, I examined the fly-galleries and stage equipment – I don’t think that was Signature’s intent, but it certainly makes you anxious to join the audience when their real season begins this fall. Some of the sites are almost eerie. Signature’s beautifully conceived lobby is stripped of all of its chairs and tables. Instead, there are three modern art ships in a huge empty space – there is none of the hubbub that makes that space come to life every night during the season – a reminder of what we missed during the last 15 months. And maybe that is the most profound message of this disappointing “grand experiment” – we yearn for the real thing and, barring any unexpected changes, it’s almost here.

 

A Christmas Carol Reimagined

 

 

 

‘Tis the season for holiday regulars.  Among the most produced seasonal treats are literally dozens of A Christmas Carol movies and TV shows. So is there a reason to pay $35 for yet another retelling of this classic Dickens creation?  My answer is yes!  Use your live-theater savings. The Jefferson Mays “Christmas Carol,” directed by Michael Arden, is truly remarkable.  If you think there is little that could make this worn-out story compelling, think again. This one is truly fascinating.

 

Jefferson Mays is well known for his appearances in film and television playing unforgettable characters.  But theatre fans know that Mays is truly a master of playing multiple parts in a single play.  On Broadway, he became famous portraying the transgender host of a secret gay soiree in East Germany during World War II and during the Russian occupation in I Am My Own Wife.  “My Own Wife,” as in A Christmas Carol, is a one-man show or, dare I say, a multiple-men and -women show played by one man. He took a comic turn playing nine characters in the musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  He won Tony Awards for both multiple roles. 


Mays gives an amazing performance in this beautifully realized production.  The script is an edited version of Dickens’ actual words.  Mays narrates and plays every character as convincingly and distinctly as any fully cast version.  He celebrates Dickens’ writing while turning this story into a compelling portrait of redemption.  I challenge you not to see his portrayals as filling the stage with distinct and fascinating personalities.

 

The production is also beautifully and creatively realized by director Michael Arden.  It is staged in a Broadway theater with full sets and costumes and very evocative lighting.  In this time of stay-at-home orders, theatre enthusiasts have longed for the feeling of live theater.  There are many staged readings and Zoom adaptations available, most as fund raisers for closed down theatre companies and charities that benefit theatre personnel in these difficult times.  But this production was the closest to a live theatre performance that I have experienced since last March.  My living room felt like an actual theater and I was as involved as I am during a regular season in NYC theaters. Truly as Tiny Tim reminds us “a Merry Christmas to us all.”

P.S. This is also a fund-raiser for non-Broadway and regional companies.

Link:

https://www.onthestage.com/show/a-christmas-carol3/a-christmas-carol-29316/tickets/5fdb7715d23d670003977c13?v=co&_gl=1*t29ovk*_gcl_aw*R0NMLjE2MDg4MzM0NTAuQ2p3S0NBaUF6NGJfQlJCYkVpd0E1WGxWVnJ1VTNIekFuRmd4N0ktcHBNanFSRmZYYkZxNnhRVVZFVGtTc1V6N0dZZUk0Q0xNYUJOVnp4b0NGYW9RQXZEX0J3RQ..&_ga=2.87453400.1928918011.1608833404-1977140785.1606802258&_gac=1.186747610.1608833450.CjwKCAiAz4b_BRBbEiwA5XlVVruU3HzAnFgx7I-ppMjqRFfXbFq6xQUVETkSsUz7GYeI4CLMaBNVzxoCFaoQAvD_BwE

 

 

Mank on Netflix

 

The blurb on Netflix that describes “Mank,” its recent much advertised must-see, claims “Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and the alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he races to finish “Citizen Kane.”  Unfortunately, the film does not live up to the expectations that its advertising creates. 

 

While this film by Director David Fincher and his father, the screenwriter, Jack Fincher, was pleasant enough to watch, it was very disappointing.  The Finchers seemed more concerned with giving it a style that reminds you of (but does not really replicate) the films of that period than they cared about revealing the central character or his work. Fincher, who passed away in 2003, left a script that depicts Hollywood in the 1930s exactly as legends have convinced it existed.  Every character is a larger-than-life version of Hollywood excesses.  Almost every scene ends in a witty punchline, but the scene itself has not told us anything we did not already know (or imagined) –with no substance.

 

Director Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt seem only to be concerned with giving this portrait the “feel” of a movie from the time it portrays. Black and white pseudo-film-noir leaves little room for a “reevaluation” of Hollywood in this period.  Instead, we get a series of jumbled scenes and flashbacks that reaffirm the exaggerated depictions of the likes of Louis B. Mayer and Marian Davies.  Gary Oldman gives a credible performance as Mankiewicz, but Fincher’s script gives Oldman very little depth to reveal.  Mank struggles to finish the first draft of Citizen Kane, but we are never let in on what he struggles with.  Instead, there is a constant stream of Hollywood bigwigs who affirm that his work is brilliant, as anyone who has seen Citizen Kane knows.

 

Aside from a brief encounter with Orson Wells about Mank getting screen credit for the script, there is no portrayal of their work together.  Nor is there any real description of any of the reactions of any of the producing parties on the content of the script. Yes, there is oversized wonderment at Mank’s portrayal of William Randolph Hearst, but no exploration of Hearst’s theoretical power to ruin the people behind Mank’s thinly vailed depiction of the media mogul.

 

However, watching the film is quite pleasant.  Mankiewicz’s wit and the short scenes that go from his drunken bedroom to Hollywood in its heyday are quite entertaining, if not informative.  Strangely, watching this Netflix offering felt very much like watching a 1930s musical.  Just when you expect something serious to happen, you get a witty closing line from Mank, in lieu of a hummable song.  This film was disappointing, but distracting in a time when distraction has its own value.

Dana H. adapted from interviews with Dana Higginbotham by Lucas Hnath
At Vineyard Theatre on East 15th Street

BS Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 90

This was one of the most unusual theatre experiences I have had in some time.  The mother of playwright Lucas Hnath (“The Doll’s House, Pt. 2”) was kidnapped and held by a mentally ill Aryan Brotherhood ex-convict in 1997.  In 2015, Hnath asked a friend, artistic director of The Civilians theatre company, Steve Cosson, to interview his mother and record her as she described her five months under the control of her captor.  This one-person play has actress Deirdre O’Connell lip-syncing the recording of the playwright’s mother telling her story.  Ms. O’Connell’s performance is truly amazing. 

For me, it presented a new dimension to acting.  Usually an actor’s voice is an essential part of making an audience believe what it is seeing.  As a college director with inexperienced actors, I asked my performers to match their physicality to their voice — feel and show what you are saying.  For Ms. O’Connell, she not only had to match the physical mouth gestures to the recorded voice of the mother of the playwright (which she does flawlessly), she had to create this other person’s physicality and, as good actors must, communicate an understandable interpretation of the character’s words and thoughts. The way Dana H said her lines had to drive how Ms. O’Connell acted those lines.

 “Dana H” really is not a play.  It’s a reenactment of the retelling of a story that is fascinating — a Christian chaplain attempts to save a suicidal criminal and becomes his prisoner.  He drags her all over the southern states and seems to have an immunity to law-enforcement intervention.  The story might be unbelievable were it not for the fact that we are hearing the voice of the actual victim.  And Ms. O’Connell’s portrayal is absolutely believable and insightful.






West Side Story


West Side Story

West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents
The Broadway Theatre at 52nd and Broadway

Score: B

OK, I’ll start with the inevitable question: Is it worth seeing?  My answer is a qualified Yes! 
I need to start by admitting that I am a bit of an Ivo van Hove fan, the director of this Broadway production -- a rethinking of one of the masterpieces of musical theatre.  I have seen four of his works – each a reexamination of a classic – and, in each case, I found his work fascinating (I must qualify my enthusiasm by admitting that I did not see his much-rebuked Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”). 

I went into the Broadway Theatre with some trepidation.  The press and commentaries made it clear that Mr. van Hove’s production would not hold to the Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and style.  The original “West Side Story” was the culmination of the integration of dance, music, and story – an achievement that completed a revolution in American musical theatre that Agnes de Mille started in “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”  The elements in Robbins’ original version were so completely unified that it was almost impossible to rethink his approach to the Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents’ and Robbin’s creation.  I know this to be true.  I tried in a college production I directed.  So, while I found major weaknesses in the current production, it was still fascinating and emotionally satisfying.

Let’s start with one of the flaws.  The choreography by Van Hove’s Amsterdam partner, Anne Teresa de Keermaeker, is very disappointing.  It appears that Ms. Keersmaeker has tried to restrict the dancing to the type of movement these characters would actually reveal.  So, the music and dance that was written to tell a story becomes an unimaginative exaggeration of contemporary street movement.  Adapting a classic needs to be a rethinking of the original, not an abandonment of its core.

That said, Mr. van Hove has substituted one of his favorite techniques to explain the meaning missing in the dance – video projections.  During the dances, we see the clues to the meaning of the music projected on a screen that is the full size of stage in the rear.  This does distract from the weaknesses of the choreography, but it also increases the awareness of the less-than telling movement on the stage.

If you saw van Hove’s extraordinary use of live action video in “Network,” you know that he can make mixed media work.  The only two realistic sets are Doc’s bodega and the clothing shop where Maria and Anita work.  They are both three-walled box sets that open up at the rear of the stage while the action of the scene is projected on the full-stage screen, making the viewer feel almost like watching a TV movie.  At times, the actors are found in the theatre’s backstage rooms and stairs that visually match the setting of the scene.  This technique is frequently quite effective, giving the extreme emotions an appropriate size and forcing the audience to pay closer attention to the content of the scenes.

However, at other times, the video is distracting.  There are several scenes, particularly in first part of the show, set on the streets of New York.  While the characters playing the scene downstage are not moving, for some strange reason, the projected view of the street that dominates the picture at the back of the stage is moving.  One of the first rules of directing is that the viewer’s eye will always go toward movement. So, rather than becoming involved in the intimacy of characters’ interactions downstage, we are forcibly attracted to the moving projection upstage.  The totally pathetic choreography of “America” is camouflaged by pictures of the real contemporary Puerto Rico – its poverty and its vulnerability to natural disasters – but Mr. van Hove is not content to remind us of our current government’s disassociation with its colony; he mixes in shots of the controversial wall at the Mexican border.  Huh? The only wall blocking Puerto Rico is an ocean.

This production is played without an intermission and that decision certainly makes the tragic ending all the more powerful.  But it also means that Mr. van Hove has to modify the text and music to make the show short enough for an audience to comfortably tolerate its length (one hour and forty minutes).  “I Feel Pretty” has been entirely cut and many of the dances have been edited.  Given Sondheim’s own disowning of some his work on WSS – as he said in a 2010 interview, "It embarrasses me," he said. "It's very hard for me to listen to some of those songs." “I Feel Pretty” is like something his early supporter, Oscar Hammerstein, might have written and it is unquestionably unSondheimian.  However, shortening of the dances is an unexpected relief, given the state of the choreography.

The performances are pretty good although all of the voices are comparatively small, even with the help of good sound engineering.  This is probably intentional.  Mr. van Hove wants a truthful, contemporary feel – belting a song is unrealistic.  This naturalistic vocalization is frequently effective, but there are dramatic moments that lose their power even with artificial amplification.  Isaac Powell is an appropriate Tony, handsome and looks na├»ve.  His voice is pleasant but too small for the dramatic musical conclusions.  Shereen Pimentel is a totally believable Maria and she has the strongest vocal cords.  Anita is no longer the swaggy sarcastic tough-girl of the past.  Yesenia Ayala plays her convincingly as a strong and independent realist.

There is a large orchestra by today’s standards under the wise direction of Alexander Gemignani.  One of the most interesting adaptations in the show is the transformation of “Gee, Officer Krupke” into a serious commentary on the psychological damage the characters’ environment has unleashed upon these men.  In the original, this song was the required comic relief in the second act.  In van Hove’s version, there is no relief and that is one of the production’s true accomplishments.

The Sharks all look Latino; the Jets are mixed Whites and Blacks – an interesting portrait of contemporary gangs.  Unfortunately, Ms. Keersmaeker does not reflect those differences in her choreography, something Jerome Robbins made into a defining and truthful element in his dances.  It’s tough to turn current Broadway singers into threatening gang members, but the makeup and costume designers have allowed us to accept their menacing look. And Mr. van Hove has underlined the visual updating of the text with a gay man working in, and accepted at, the Puerto Rican dress shop.

Even with these reservations, I recommend this production.  It’s absolutely more interesting and moving than the lame production by author Arthur Laurents several seasons ago. Mr. van Hove’s focus on the story and its amplification in projections draws the audience into the terrible actions set against a story of unconditional love.  And that is what the other collaborator, William Shakespeare, had in mind.


A Soldier's Play


A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street

Score: A-

Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” currently receiving its first Broadway production in a revival by Roundabout Theater, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.  Plays about the African Americans were pretty rare on Broadway in 1982 and most plays about and by Black people were usually produced by “specialty” theatre companies.  “Soldier’s Play” was first produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, a theater producer and educator that still thrives.

Last year, another play by an African American playwright won the Pulitzer Prize. As I reflected after seeing Fuller’s near 40-year-old portrayal of Black men in the military during World War II, I could not stop thinking about last year’s Pulitzer winner, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s insightful and very disturbing “Fairview.” The two plays could not be more different.  However, the way that each dealt with the audience’s role in assessing intra- as well as inter-racial issues haunted me.

Set in Fort Neil, Louisiana, in 1944, Fuller’s play is a commentary on the oppression of Black men by a white society that, in the 1940s, would not even allow them to risk their lives in the company of White men.  While Fuller portrays the unrestrained racism of White “superior” officers, he also weaves a complex “whodunit” murder mystery around issues of intra-racism. His very well constructed plot reveals each soldier with a different sense of self, their place in society (positive and negative), and, the level to which they desire or reject “whiteness.”

Ms. Drury’s play could not be more different on the surface.  At first, in the style of a situation comedy, we see an African American middle-class family preparing to celebrate the birthday of an elder.  In the second part of the play, the Black actors repeat the same scene as four White actors enter the scene commenting on, and eventually disrupting, the Black actors around a game that asks, “What race do you want to be?.” Finally, the main character comes down stage and orders the White members of the audience to leave their seats and come on stage while the people of color in the audience (and the cast) sit in the audience viewing them.

Much has been written about the power and controversy surrounding Ms. Drury’s awaking of her audience to the difference between viewing and being viewed.  And that is why I had such a strange reaction to the “Soldier’s Play” revival.  It is easy for a white New Yorker to disassociate him- or herself from the bold racism of the White characters in Mr. Fuller’s play.  So, we are left to respond to the intra-racial issues that he so deftly raises.  We fall into the trap of using our White sensitivities to evaluate and even judge the complexities of a Black soldier’s experience in what seems to be a long-ago but disturbingly contemporary set of circumstances.  As observers, how should we respond? We, who are not Black; who can only perceive a play with our White perceptions. 

Were there not commentaries going on in our heads not unlike the White intruders in Ms. Drury’s play?  Are those internal remarks our imposition of our view in lieu of our ability to fully understand what the Black couple sitting in front of us was observing?  There has been no shortage of challenging plays from African American playwrights produced on- and off-Broadway in the last few years.  However, it took a very traditional well-made play, written 40 years ago by Mr. Fuller, to stimulate my thinking about the issues raised by Ms. Drury. 

Frankly, I didn’t like “Fairview,” but in some ways that proves Ms. Drury’s intention.  At least she made me (and my White compatriots) feel uncomfortable.  By comparison, Mr. Fuller’s play made me feel comfortable, and that disturbs me.

BTW:  The Roundabout production of “A Soldier’s Play” is near perfect. All of the acting is top-notch, lead by David Alan Grier and Clair Underwood.  Director Kenny Leon has done a good job of balancing the racial commentary with a skillfully woven “whodunit.”  The real credit for the play’s success rests with Mr. Fuller’s commands of the elements of drama.  As I stated above, even though the play raises interesting internal commentaries, the production is comfortably enjoyable, at least for this White viewer.



A Watering Hole

A Watering Hole    Conceived and Created by Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon   Signature Theatre on 42nd Street   Playing through August 8, 2...