Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys to close on Broadway

The Scottsboro Boys is closing on Dec. 12, six weeks after opening night? I just can't believe it. I'm crushed.

According to Playbill, producers Barry and Fran Weissler and Jackie Barlia said:

"It's a show we felt we had to produce and we're proud and grateful to have brought this last great musical from Kander & Ebb to Broadway. We encourage anyone who loves challenging, provocative and original new musicals to see us in our final two weeks at the Lyceum."

Well gee whiz guys, if you felt you had to produce it couldn't you at least have given it a chance to build an audience? Doesn't a challenging, provocative work need time for the buzz to spread? Couldn't you plow some of the profits from Chicago into it to keep things going a little longer?

Like I said in my review, The Scottsboro Boys is a thoughtful, tuneful and powerful story about injustice. It gives voice to a group of 1930s Southern black men in a way that I found original and compelling and entertaining in the highest sense of the word. It also brilliantly uses the format of a minstrel show to illuminate the era's racism.

I have to wonder if we're seeing a trend toward quickly pulling the plug on a show.

It happened last fall with the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs and last week with Elling, both of which closed a week after opening night. The Weisslers also produced the British play Enron, which had a very short life on Broadway this spring.

Are these shows so undercapitalized that they're basically being fronted on a wing and a prayer? (The Scottsboro Boys played to 59.8 percent capacity last week, with an average ticket price of $63.43.) Sometimes I think there's the mentality that we'll throw up a show and see if it sticks. If not, we'll get out quickly and move on to the next one.

Compare that with Passing Strange, which I don't remember exactly burning up the box office but the producers, including The Shubert Organization and Elizabeth McCann, at least kept it going for five months, through the Tony Awards. It won Best Book of a Musical and now has an afterlife in regional theatre.

Or Memphis, which started out slowly but has built an audience since winning the Tony for Best musical. Or Next to Normal, another musical about a difficult subject that will have been on Broadway for nearly two years by the time it closes in January, and has just started a national tour with Tony winner Alice Ripley. Or Fela!, another innovative musical, about someone little-known to most Americans, that's concluding after just over a year on Broadway.

I feel bad for the incredibly talented cast of The Scottsboro Boys, as well as for the rest of the creative team. Your work - hilarious, insightful, heartfelt - moved me so much. It was a thrilling and memorable evening of theatre.

Time Stands Still

Time Stands Still at Broadway's Cort Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

In Time Stands Still, James Dodd and Sarah Goodwin are a reporter and a photographer who have spent their working lives moving from one world hot spot to the next. Now the couple is at a crossroads, both personally and professionally.

Laura Linney's Sarah has been badly injured in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Fearless and focused, she's eager to get back into the action. For James, played by Brian d'Arcy James, things have gotten a bit fuzzy. He's shaken by the incident and ready for a change.

Added to the mix is Eric Bogosian as Richard Ehrlich, the couple's friend and a magazine photo editor. His current girlfriend is the much younger Mandy Bloom, played by Christina Ricci in her Broadway debut.

I thought Bogosian was good as the clearly smitten Richard. He's supportive of Sarah and James but fighting his own uphill battle against the public's dwindling appetite for news from places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ricci's Mandy, an event planner, seemed mismatched with Richard. I understand an older man falling for a younger woman, just not this woman. Ricci plays her as sweet and perky but she also seems to be someone who's not much interested in the larger world.

What I think playwright Donald Margulies does well in Time Stands Still is explore how the media views itself versus how it appears to outsiders. I don't think there's anything very revelatory but he creates characters who, at least to me, were recognizable.

While I've never reported from a war zone, I know the adrenaline rush that comes from working on a big story, as well as the certainty that you're doing something vital. As Sarah explains when Mandy asks how she can take pictures of the wounded instead of helping them, "If it weren't for people like me, the ones with the cameras, who would know? Who would care?"

Despite the media critique, at its heart Time Stands Still is a love story. (I can see this becoming a popular play for regional theatres - four actors, one set: the couple's cozy apartment, designed by John Lee Beatty.)

Linney and D'Arcy James are terrific as two people struggling to come to terms with changes in their life together. I previously saw D'Arcy James in Shrek - a musical I was mixed about - and it was hard to get a take on him under that ogre costume. But here, I enjoyed him so much - he just exudes warmth.

It seems ironic that Sarah and James, who've have been through so much in so many dangerous places, find their relationship at its most stressful when they're in the peaceful and comfortable confines of New York City.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Pitmen Painters

The Pitmen Painters, at Broadway's Friedman Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I was so looking forward to The Pitmen Painters, a play by Lee Hall based on the story of British miners in the 1930s who discover that they have a talent for art.

Hall wrote about miners in Billy Elliot, which I enjoyed. Plus, I have friends in northern England, so I'm familiar with the area and the accents. I even went down in a mine once, in Yorkshire. And did I mention that How Green Was My Valley is one of my favorite novels?

Well despite a fine cast, The Pitmen Painters left me kind of cold. There were too many moments where I was a bit bored, too much speechifying about art and politics and too little emotion. I wanted more insight into who these men were and what they loved about painting.

When the play begins, the miners' education association has hired an instructor, Robert Lyon, played by Ian Kelly, to teach them art appreciation. It soon becomes clear that most have never even seen a painting before. (Not all are miners - there's a dentist's assistant and a young man on the dole).

The interaction between Lyon and the men is funny and I did laugh. At the same time, I felt a little uncomfortable because I thought Hall based the humor on the miners' lack of sophistication. It's not their fault that they had to leave school at age 10 to help support their families.

Lyon decides that rather than have his students sit passively while he lectures, they really need to learn by doing - and after all, doesn't art belong to everyone, even the working class? So he encourages them to start painting.

Maybe Hall has compressed things, maybe there were other lessons in between. Because the miners progress from never having seen a painting to creating these terrific works of art. It's like there's no intermediate step.

Eventually, the men attract the attention of the affluent Helen Sutherland, played by Phillippa Wilson, and their work is exhibited. (In real life they were known as The Ashington Group.) Hall uses their growing fame to explore some interesting issues, like the fickle relationship between artists and patrons and the miners' reaction to this very different world.

As Oliver Kilbourn, the miner about whom we learn the most, Christopher Connel is very appealing and sympathetic. I thought the parts of the play where he talked about his life, how he came to work in the mines at a very young age, were among the most compelling.

Overall, though, I think the play got bogged down in discussions about what is art and who creates it and what does it all mean to the point where it started to feel like an academic exercise. I never felt the joy of painting like I did the joy of dance in Billy Elliot. There's not much passion in The Pitmen Painters.

One thing I did enjoy - in the end, a piece of artwork is created from scratch. The concrete act of watching someone draw a picture made for more enthralling theatre than some of the abstract discussions during the previous 2 1/2 hours.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Broadway show pulls the plug

If you go to the Facebook page for the Broadway play Elling you'll find some people who are extremely disappointed that it's closing on Sunday, only a week after opening night. They had tickets for later in what was advertised as a 20-week run.

Here are two examples, the first from England and the second from Australia:

"If this is true can we have a valid explanation as to why since I have booked my flights and hotel and I am traveling from England to see this. It's one hell of a waste of money if the play has closed. Incidentally, it is money I can ill afford to lose. I am not a happy Brendan [Fraser] fan at present."

"I'm shattered about the news of it's closure. Was only going to the US to see the show. I had no idea that shows close all the time, as someone on this board said previously. All booked & paid for. I don't want to go now."

According to the most recent statistics from The Broadway League, in the 2008-2009 season international visitors accounted for 21 percent of the 12.15 million Broadway admissions - the highest ever. Overall, tourists accounted for 63 percent of all ticket purchases.

I'm not sure what, if anything, can be done. The producers are under no obligation to keep open a play or musical that's losing money. The average paid admission for Elling last week was $22.03 and it only took in $145,070.

The problem is, something like this hurts the Broadway brand, as well as all of the other businesses in Times Square that rely on tourist dollars.

Perhaps there ought to be a little truth-in-advertising when you buy a ticket, stating in big, bold type that there's no guarantee how long the show will run or whether the actor you came to see will be in it that day.

I know to a lot of theatre fans, that's obvious. Of course you realize the producers can pull the plug at any time. An actor can go on vacation or become ill.

But clearly, some people don't know. If you look at the marketing material for Elling, it says: "20 weeks only. Now on Broadway." If you're a Brendan Fraser fan in England or Australia, you probably think it'll be there for 20 weeks.

So, what will those disappointed fans in England and Australia tell all of their friends, family, neighbors and coworkers about their experience? My guess is they won't have much that's good to say.

I hope they decide to see something else on their trip to New York City but I'm not optimistic. I bet they'll think twice about ever buying another ticket to a Broadway show. The Great White Way has lost some goodwill.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Elling, at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

In the critical shorthand, Elling is a Norwegian version of The Odd Couple with a twist: two mismatched patients at a mental institution try to make a go of it as roommates in an Oslo apartment.

As the title character, Denis O'Hare is small, fastidious, nervous, fearful of venturing outside. Brendan Fraser's Kjell Bjarne is his opposite: big, with a booming voice and a bit of a slob, he's outgoing and desperately wants to meet a woman.

Helping the pair is a social worker, Frank Asli, played by Jeremy Shamos, who checks on them but also gives them the tough love they need. Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious as several characters, including the pregnant upstairs neighbor, Reidun, and Richard Easton is poignant as Alfons Jorgensen, an elderly poet who befriends them.

This was my first time seeing any of these actors onstage and I really enjoyed all of the performances. O'Hare and Fraser were especially great to watch. They created memorable, quirky characters without making them too cutesy or over the top.

We're never quite sure what the problems are with Elling and Kjell Bjarne. Elling seems to have had a very strong attachment to his late mother and Kjell Bjarne seems to have been "different" all his life. (From my front-row seat in the left orchestra, I saw a little more of Fraser than I'd anticipated in a scene where the two exchange underpants. But not in a bad way!)

No matter their history, the people they encounter accept them for who they are. Elling is not only about finding your way in the world, it's also about making a family - maybe not the one you were born into but one that's just as caring and loving nonetheless.

Scott Pask's scenic design is sparse - the apartment has a couple of beds, a table and chairs, an armoire. There are some nice touches, like the tiny Norwegian flags on a tiny Christmas tree. It's snappily directed by Doug Hughes. I don't know where costume designer Catherine Zuber got Kjell's hat but I love it!

Elling started out as a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen, then became a movie and received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and finally, was adapted for the stage by British writer Simon Bent.

This isn't a deep play but it's sweet and it tells the story of its two main characters with humor and affection. I was so sorry to learn today that it's closing on Sunday, only a week after opening night. I wish Elling had found a bigger audience.

For me, the joy came from watching Elling and Kjell Bjarne slowly gain confidence as they interact with the outside world. At first, I was afraid I was laughing at them but really, I was rooting for them to succeed.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys, at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

It's been more than 30 years but I can still remember the first time I saw a Kander and Ebb musical, the movie version of Cabaret.

There were parts of the story, set in Berlin as the Nazis are rising to power, that made me uncomfortable. But it also made me realize that a musical could explore a serious subject while still be entertaining in the best sense of the word. Cabaret was thoughtful, tuneful and powerful.

Watching The Scottsboro Boys, the final work from songwriters John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, I felt the same way. The story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in Alabama in 1931 is profound, moving and immensely entertaining musical theatre.

The Scottsboro Boys is told as a minstrel show, a format in which, traditionally, white performers in blackface would mimic African-Americans. Here, minstrelsy is turned on its head: black performers imitate white characters. And it's used not to ridicule black people but to illuminate the era's racism, which it does with chilling effectiveness.

John Cullum, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Broadway debut, is the only white cast member. Looking like Southern gentry in his white suit and top hat, he's the interlocutor, urging the nine to sing and dance.

The ensemble numbers, like "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey," that opens the show, were rousing and the choreography by Susan Stroman, who also directed, was thrilling.

But knowing what they represented, it made me uneasy to applaud. These were people being forced to "put on a show." And I think that was the point. The minstrel show, as hard as it was to watch sometimes, demonstrated how black men were viewed - as buffoonish objects of entertainment for white audiences.

Still, there's an important distinction in The Scottsboro Boys between how the nine are depicted when they're "performing" and how we see them when they're alone, in jail. (Beowulf Borritt's very simple set uses planks and silver-painted chairs to form cells, a courthouse and a train.)

Book writer David Thompson makes them far from stereotypes as their case winds its way through the legal system. He treats them as individuals and their stories with dignity and compassion. We learn about their lives, their hopes and fears, in a way that I found compelling.

The Scottsboro Boys focuses on Hayward Patterson, played by a spellbinding Joshua Henry. He's a proud, defiant man who won't be cowed into pleading guilty to something he didn't do. When he sang the gorgeous ballad "Go Back Home," it took my breath away.

But to me, the most heartbreaking was the youngest, Eugene Williams, portrayed with astonishing self-assurance by 12-year-old Jeremy Gumbs. His tap dance to the song "Electric Chair" was searing and nightmarish.

As Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play the white characters - sheriff, guards, lawyers, the attorney general - with outrageous, hilarious exaggeration. Likewise, Christian Dante White and James T. Lane are terrific in dual roles as two of the nine - and as their female accusers.

McClendon has a memorable turn as Samuel Leibowitz, the Jewish lawyer from New York who was a tireless advocate for the Scottsboro Boys. He's wonderful in "That's Not the Way We Do Things," which cleverly points out the sometimes patronizing attitudes of Northern white liberals. (Speaking as a Northern white liberal myself, it made me chuckle.)

And just as the musical shines a light on racism, it also exposes the era's anti-Semitism. In "Financial Advice," there's a derisive reference to Jewish money paying for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Hard to hear, yes, but historically accurate and reflective of how Jews were viewed by white Southerners.

What The Scottsboro Boys did so well was remind me that the struggle for civil rights in this country occurred from the bottom up, sparked by ordinary black men and women who had simply had enough.

These were poor people, arrested while riding the rails to look for work in the middle of the Depression. Some of them couldn't read or write. But as the musical reveals, they left a legacy - one that stunned me and left me incredibly moved.

The Scottsboro Boys is a thoughtful, tuneful and powerful American story.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter,
Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54 on Broadway

Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

I can't think of a more whimsical, romantic, magical theatre experience than Brief Encounter. It's like watching a 1930s movie come alive onstage - visually heightened and with all the boring parts left out.

The play, a production of Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, has been adapted with tremendous imagination by Emma Rice from the David Lean film, which was based on Noel Coward's Still Life.

Alec and Laura meet in a railway station cafe. He's a doctor who comes to her aid when she gets a cinder in her eye. Even though they're married with children, they are instantly drawn to each other. They're proper and reserved but there's no denying the spark between them.

As Alec, Tristan Sturrock is absolutely dashing. He's the opposite of Laura's detached husband, played by Joseph Alessi, who doubles as the stationmaster. Hannah Yelland's Laura is beautiful and so expressive. You can see in her face how conflicted she feels.

Watching their relationship develop reminded me of how incredibly sexy those old movies could be without the lovers getting completely undressed and jumping into bed.

After they've been out on a lake - in a rowboat onstage - Laura takes off her blouse to let it dry. Alec helps her put it back on and buttons it for her in a way that's completely chaste yet the underlying emotion made me feel positively tingly.

But this isn't merely a staid retelling. Brief Encounter is truly unique and captivating.

You get into the mood even as you walk into the theatre. Uniformed ushers, dressed like old-fashioned hotel bellhops, walk up and down the aisle. A quartet of singers and musicians are performing.

And I love the way Noel Coward's songs, which I'd never appreciated before, are performed by the supporting characters, who are pursuing their own love affairs. Alessi's stationmaster lusts after Annette McLaughlin's Myrtle, who runs the restaurant; Dorothy Atkinson's Beryl, the waitress, flirts with Gabriel Ebert's Stanley, who sells chocolate bars.

The projection design by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll allows actors to step into and out of the movie in a way that seemed magical. Simon Baker's sound design makes the wind howl and the ground rumble and the waves crash. Neil Murray's design and costumes made me feel like I was looking at a big toy train station come alive.

But the special effects never felt gimmicky or threatened to overwhelm the love story at the heart of the play. A great show transports the audience and that's what Brief Encounter did so beautifully for me.

And if after 90 minutes you don't want it to end, you can join the cast for a rollicking concert at the back of the theatre. At the performance I attended, they played "We Are Family," "Time After Time" and "Don't Stop Believin'."

I could not help but go out into the cool night air smiling.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

La Bete

La Bete, at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

I was a little wary going into the revival of La Bete, knowing the work, which first appeared on Broadway in 1991, was written in rhyming couplets and set in 17th-century France. I was afraid it might be hard to follow or seem a little musty.

Well, I'm happy to report that I was enthralled for the entire 1 hour and 45 minutes. The performances were wonderful and I loved David Hirson's play, which is funny, thought-provoking and entirely accessible.

Without being preachy, La Bete raises questions about artistic integrity, the debasement of culture, even the fickle nature of arts funding, that resonate today. And it does so while maintaining a terrific sense of humor.

A highbrow theatre troupe, under the patronage of a princess, is forced to accept a lowbrow street performer into the company. It's a situation Hirson uses to explore just how far we're willing to go in order to be entertained.

The rhyming dialogue, witty and clever, was delivered so naturally that I got into the rhythm of it immediately. And a couple of times I even guessed the word that was coming next - which was kind of fun.

Under a lesser creative team, I can see where this might not work as well. But director Matthew Warchus has a trio of superb comedic actors - Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and making her Broadway debut, Joanna Lumley of Absolutely Fabulous.

Rylance is brilliant as the buffoonish, outrageous Valere. He delivers a 20-minute monologue in which, among other things, he's insulting, vulgar, childlike, apologetic and full of himself without seeming to realize it. What an amazing clown - and I mean that in the highest sense.

Hyde Pierce, as the principled - and perhaps a bit stubborn - playwright Elomire, is repulsed by Valere. His facial expressions, his body language, the props he uses all convey increasing disbelief and exasperation, while hardly getting a word in edgewise.

Lumley, wonderfully regal, enters in a shower of golden confetti. She's infatuated with Valere, her newest discovery, and demands that he join the troupe or they will lose her patronage. As for Elomire, his work has become tiresome and doesn't amuse her so much anymore.

With gorgeous period costumes and a massive book-lined study of a set, both designed by Mark Thompson, you can tell that this is a very comfortable company of actors, happily settled on a grand estate. They've got a lot to lose.

Stephen Ouimette, from Slings and Arrows, provides a voice of reason as Bejart, Elomire's assistant. He reminds him of what it was like before, when they were sleeping in haylofts, traveling from town to town. "Life is compromise! We learn to live with that which we despise."

The strength of this production is that while I was laughing so hard, it gave me so much to think about. In the end, here's what it comes down to for me:

Would it really hurt to give in to the person who controls the purse strings? It's not so terrible to simply give the audience what it wants once in awhile. Don't we all enjoy a bit of light entertainment? As awful as Rylance makes Valere, you can't take your eyes off of him.

And yet ...

In our desire to laugh or be shocked or frightened, isn't there a point at which we go too far? (Think about Network or those Jackass movies.) The impassioned Elomire, offended at being asked to lower his standards, warns, "We're measured by the choices that we make."

I'm so disappointed that La Bete is closing on Jan. 9, a month ahead of schedule. I wish more theatergoers had given it a chance. This is a play that will stay with me for a very long time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Amtrak's questionable Wi-Fi filter

I was on Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express this afternoon, returning home from a wonderful weekend in New York City.

AT&T's 3G wireless can be a little spotty on the train so I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi to check my Twitter feed.

I clicked on a link to a critic's notebook by Charles McNulty, who writes about theatre for the Los Angeles Times. He reviewed Gatz and Angels in America, both off-Broadway.

This is the message I got:

"The page you tried to visit cannot be accessed because it contains content belonging to the category of: Adult. AmtrakConnect blocks access to selected sites that are known to utilize high bandwith or that may contain content that could be considered questionable by some of our passengers."

I was pretty shocked. What "adult" content could there possibly be in a theatre review from the very mainstream Los Angeles Times?

When I got home, I read the reviews and I could not find anything objectionable, not one word or photograph that could be considered "questionable" by anyone. Certainly nothing that would have gotten the page tagged as "adult."

The only thing I can think of is, the Angels in America review mentions AIDS. Maybe that was the trigger for Amtrak's filter? If so, that would be very sad. Or maybe it was McNulty's use of the phrase "hot-blooded" in the Gatz review?

I simply don't know.

Now, I realize that Internet filters are imperfect. Maybe this was just a glitch. Or maybe I'm missing something here. I've sent an e-mail to Amtrak and I'll post an update when I get a reply.

Update: I got reply from Amtrak apologizing and explaining that there was a glitch in the automatic content filter. Typically, they have no issues with links on the Los Angeles Times. I still don't know what, if anything, specifically triggered the "adult content" block. It would have been interesting to find out.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Providence - a theatre capital?

I'm shaking my head in disbelief at the results of this survey conducted by Travel + Leisure magazine. The magazine's readers ranked 35 U.S. cities on their culture, shopping, restaurants, nightlife.

According to visitors, Providence was rated second, just behind New York, in the theatre/performance art category. Chicago, San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul rounded out the top five. Residents ranked Providence third, behind New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Chicago and Houston were fourth and fifth.

Ahead of Chicago? Ahead of Boston? Really? (To be fair, those cities do outrank Providence in the overall culture category.)

Sure, we have some fine local theatre companies, like Providence's Tony-winning Trinity Rep and the Gamm Theatre next door, in Pawtucket. And there's the Providence Performing Arts Center that brings in touring productions of Broadway shows.

But seriously, here's this week's theatre section from Time Out Chicago. And here are the theatre listings from The Boston Globe.

I'm sorry, but you can't compare Providence's offerings to either of those much larger cities. (I have nothing against high school, college or amateur theatricals but we're talking pro or semipro here.)

There's hardly enough theatre in Providence to fill one weekend a month. I wish there were more!

Monday, November 8, 2010


Mauritius at the Gamm Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

In Mauritius, playwright Theresa Rebeck puts a contemporary spin on a timeless literary theme - the search for a legendary object of great significance and value.

Half-sisters Jackie and Mary, whose mother has just died, are fighting over a family heirloom: an album that holds a pair of rare 18th-century postage stamps from the island of Mauritius, a former British colony in the Indian Ocean. Flaws in the stamps make them even more valuable.

Amanda Ruggiero's Jackie, their mother's caregiver, says the stamps were left to her. Casey Seymour Kim's Mary, who left home as a teenager years ago and never returned, maintains that because the stamps were part of her paternal grandfather's collection, they are part of her inheritance.

Left with a pile of bills, Jackie is desperate to sell the stamps and make a fresh start. Mary, facing Jackie's accusations of abandonment, is defensive and rather uptight. Where Jackie is diffident, Mary is brassy - almost to the point of being grating.

Jackie feels she's owed the stamps as payment for everything she's put up with. To Mary, who knows their history and spent hours poring over them as a child, they're a link to her beloved grandfather.

But they're not the only ones who covet the stamps.

There's Jim O'Brien's Phil, owner of a rundown stamp store who can't be bothered to examine Jackie's album - it's not "Antiques Roadshow," he tells her dismissively; his thuggish friend Dennis, played by Steve Kidd, does look and hatches a plan to sell the stamps to Richard Donelly, a businessman whose hardened exterior melts when he sees them.

What I loved about Mauritius is that it's terrifically suspenseful. There were plot twists that took me by surprise. I was riveted, wondering what would happen next. And it was fascinating to watch Ruggiero's Jackie transform from an insecure young woman, unsure of what she has, to a tough negotiator.

Still, as much as I enjoyed the play, there were a few things about Mauritius that bothered me.

When someone comes into Phil's store with a weathered album, wouldn't he at least look at it? And once Jackie realizes the value of what she has, why doesn't she put the album in a safe-deposit box instead of carrying it around everywhere, clutched tightly to her chest? I chalked it up to her innocence - and grief.

More importantly, I felt like Rebeck was teasing the audience a bit with what she reveals and doesn't reveal about the characters' histories. In the end, that frustrated me more than anything.

We never learn what forced Mary to leave home and why she stayed away, although Rebeck hints a few times that she's going to tell us. Dennis has a tantalizing line alluding to how Mary's grandfather might have come into possession of the stamps but it never goes anywhere. Likewise, something happened long ago between Phil and Sterling that remains unexplained.

But maybe the back stories don't really matter. Perhaps the stamps - sought after for different reasons - are the most important characters.

Reviewing the play in the New Yorker during its 2007 Broadway run, John Lahr called Mauritius as "Mamet for girls." And it does remind me of Mamet - the profanity, the rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, people in desperate situations, the deal-making and everyone trying to get the upper hand.

I thought of another comparison: The Maltese Falcon. What Sam Spade says in the movie about the statue you could also say about the two square-shaped slips of paper at the heart of Mauritius. They are "the stuff that dreams are made of."

Friday, November 5, 2010

On the verge of a trip to Broadway

I got a sinking feeling reading the reviews last night for Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown knowing that I have a ticket to see a Broadway musical widely considered a mess.

It's one of 11 shows - 10 on Broadway and 1 off-Broadway - that I'll be taking in during my two trips to New York City this month.

For an out-of-towner, especially one who can't get to the city that often, the selection process can be a gamble. Sometimes I have friends who've seen a show and rave about it. Sometimes I'm making my decisions before opening night or even before previews begin.

Honestly, I'm not sure how I'll feel about my choices by the end of November or whether the results will affect my next round of theatergoing.

While I use discounts, I'll pay full price if I think a better seat is worth it. And my aging knees require the extra leg room in the orchestra section. So we're not talking about an inconsequential amount of money.

Fortunately, I'm in a situation where I could just eat the ticket and go see something else that got a better reception from the critics. It's not going to break the bank.

Maybe it's me putting on a brave face but despite the pans, I'm still curious about Women on the Verge - if only to see for myself what everyone's talking about. I'm still looking forward to seeing Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti onstage again. I will do my best to sit back and enjoy myself. I will NOT have a nervous breakdown over it.

Picking a show is a tough decision for a tourist. Do you go with the safe choice or do you take a chance? I hope I'm always willing and able to take a chance. That's part of the excitement of being a theatre fan - and sometimes the disappointment.

And I'm pretty easy to please. Being in New York City, on vacation and away from the responsibilities of daily life, is always a treat for me. A show has to try really hard for me not to be entertained.

I love being in New York and I love going to Broadway. If Women on the Verge doesn't work for me well, it's an opportunity to hone my critical skills and see why - and to be part of the conversation.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Kevin Spacey, now a Commander of the British Empire

Congratulations to Kevin Spacey, artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre, who was presented an honorary Commander of the British Empire today by Prince Charles for his services to drama.

"He (The Prince) was just extraordinarily generous about the work we've done at the Old Vic over these past seven seasons that I've dedicated myself to the revival of this brilliant, wonderful theatre and for all the belief that I have that arts and culture are a hugely important part of our lives."

Kevin's had his share of criticism in the beginning of his tenure and not all of the plays he's chosen have been successful. But things have begun to turn around. The theatre has won praise for its education and outreach programs and for fostering new talent.

I have to admire him for taking on the financial challenge of running a commercial theatre, opening it up to young, diverse audiences and for taking risks with productions like the revival of The Norman Conquests.

He told Britain's The Stage in 2006, "I’m here trying to build something that is bigger than me and I want to have last long, long, long after I’m gone.”

Of course I have a personal connection, too. I will be forever grateful to Kevin for a gracious note he sent me in response to a fan letter I wrote. The chance to see him on stage in A Moon for the Misbegotten was the impetus behind my first trip to Broadway.

Hopefully I'll get to see him again when he returns to New York in 2012, to play the title role in Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He's one of the few actors for whom I would gladly lift my Shakespeare moratorium.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Absurd Person Singular

Absurd Person Singular at Trinity Rep
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I laughed my way through Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests on Broadway. So when I saw a work by the prolific British playwright on Trinity Rep's schedule, my excitement level went sky high.

Set in the mid 1970s in London, Absurd Person Singular takes place in the kitchens of three married couples hosting Christmas Eve parties in successive years. And once again, I laughed all the way through. (If you ever get a chance to see an Ayckbourn play, take it!)

Director Brian McEleney keeps everything moving at a brisk clip and the cast really nails Ayckbourn's slapstick humor.

Sidney (Stephen Berenson) and Jane (Angela Brazil) are desperate to make a good impression so they can obtain a bank loan to expand their grocery store. Geoffrey (Fred Sullivan Jr.), married to the depressed Eva (Phyllis Kay), is a successful architect who boasts about his womanizing. Ronald (Timothy Crowe) and Marion (Anna Scurria) are the snobby banker and his wife.

Ayckbourn has a great knack for bringing out the absurdity in the most ordinary people and mundane events, making comedy out of situations that on the surface don't seem funny: alcoholism, depression, financial woes.

He paints a great portrait of the tension - beneath the surface and boiling over - that exists during these holiday get-togethers: the frantic preparations, the small talk, the silly party games and the person who always has too much to drink.

While I don't think there's any deep message in this play it is interesting to see the changes that occur over the three acts. Marriages are strained, the way the couples relate to each other changes, fortunes rise and fall.

One of the things I appreciated most about Absurd Person Singular is what it leaves to the audience's imagination.

There's a ferocious-sounding dog in Act II that we never see. And at a couple of points during Act I, the actors leave the stage. The only sound is the chatter of partygoers in the adjoining room.

When that happened it was surprising and kind of unsettling - I was staring at an empty set for a minute. Yet at the same time I found it kind of thrilling as I wondered what would happen next.

At the theatre, I don't think you can ask for anything better than that.