Thursday, December 22, 2011

My favorite theatre of 2011

This year, it's easy to pick my favorite theatre. Tony Kushner's Angels in America, at the Signature Theatre, and Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, on Broadway, stood far above anything else I saw in 2011.

Each playwright takes a very different approach to writing about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City, and its devastating impact on gay men. But both tell absorbing stories brought to life by superb actors whose performances had me in tears. They are lyrical and angry and infused with humor and humanity and they will live in my heart forever.

The best of the rest:

Clybourne Park
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Bruce Norris, which I saw at Trinity Rep, draws its inspiration from A Raisin in the Sun. It examines how we talk about race in America both in the 1950s and today. The similarities and differences are at times subtle, at times in your face but always compelling. Norris's characters - why they behave the way they do - left me with much to think about.

The Mountaintop
Katori Hall's Broadway play imagines the final night of the Rev. Martin Luther King's life, in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I was riveted watching Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as a hotel maid he encounters. I thought it was a fascinating look at the civil-rights leader not as an icon but as a man.

This Broadway revival was a great reminder of how great a musical can be when its stories and characters are truly original. Through Stephen Sondehim's songs and James Goldman's book, this is a show that speaks honestly - with humor and pain and poignancy - about what happens as we grow older.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Maybe it had something to do with the rapturous reception for the endearing Daniel Radcliffe as aspiring executive J. Pierrepont Finch, but the crowd just carried me along on this one. It was hilarious and the story of what you have to do to get to the top resonates today. The Broadway revival of Frank Loesser's musical had me grinning from beginning to end.

Porgy and Bess
I saw Porgy and Bess in its pre-Broadway tryout at the American Repertory Theater. It was my first time seeing the show and hearing the Gershwin score and I was captivated. What made this musical so moving for me was the romance at its core. I thought Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis were wonderful together.

I loved Leonard Bernstein's glorious score and the story, adapted from Voltaire by Mary Zimmerman. This production originated in Chicago but I saw it at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. It was an exuberant, inventive and melodic tale about a young man's adventure-filled journey through life. There were so many twists and turns, quirky characters and shifting locations that I was enthralled.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Follies, at Broadway's Marquis Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

Because my opportunities to get to New York City are limited, I almost skipped the Broadway revival of Follies. I'd seen a fine version at Boston's Lyric Stage in 2008 and I rarely revisit a show. I figure been there, done that.

And while I like Follies, it's not my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical. It tells the story of former showgirls who return for a reunion in their old theatre just before it's demolished. While some are happy, others express regrets at how their lives have turned out compared with the dreams they harbored in their youth. That's a subject which hits a little too close to home.

But I'm so glad I gave it another chance. This is a production that speaks honestly - with humor and pain and poignancy - about what happens as we grow older.

While Follies is my fourth Sondheim musical, it's the first one I've seen with a full orchestra. And it really does make a difference. I mean, 28 musicians, that's almost a symphony. (Including 2 chellos. I didn't even know the plural of cello was celli!) They sounded so lush and gorgeous.

The Marquis Theatre is one of Broadway's newest houses but the designers - Derek McLane's set, Gregg Barnes' costumes and Natasha Katz's lighting - combine to give the appearance that Follies is taking place in a crumbling, eerie space. It was moody and ghostly and perfect.

Along with the theatre, these women are also in transition - their marriages are troubled, their children have grown up and left home. They're not as sprightly as they used to be. They're shadowed by younger actors, reminders of their former selves.

One of the things I love about Follies is watching the showgirls perform their routines from 30 years earlier. What endearing women with interesting stories, ones that they don't often get a chance to tell onstage, in movies or on TV. Some of the poignancy comes from knowing their real-life background: opera singer Rosalind Elias making her Broadway debut at 82!

It was so moving to see them parade onstage, just like the old days, in "Beautiful Girls." I loved Terri White's Stella Deems leading the troupe in "Who's that Woman?", Jayne Houdyshell's Hattie Walker belting "Broadway Baby" and Florence Lacey's film star Carlotta Campion proclaiming "I'm Still Here," with all of the witty historic and cultural references.

But the two most memorable performances were Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer and Jan Maxwell as Phyllis Rogers Stone, roommates as Follies girls who've drifted apart. Sally is married to Danny Burstein's affable salesman Buddy and lives in Phoenix. Phyllis, married to Ron Raines' distinguished-looking Ben, a former politician, lives in New York City.

This was my first time seeing Maxwell in a musical and she is the absolute definition of a triple threat. Watching her sing and dance through "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" was exhilarating. It was only about a week after she was hit by a car crossing a street in Times Square. She's simply remarkable.

I'd only seen Peters on TV and in the movies, so seeing her onstage was thrilling. As a deeply unhappy and mentally unbalanced woman, who feels her life is falling apart, she was heartbreaking. I was riveted by her rendition of "Losing My Mind."

What I've really come to appreciate about Follies is that it's a musical for anyone who loves thoughtful and original work. The themes are timeless and it's the kind of show that reveals new layers every time you see it. This was my final show of 2011 and what a great way to cap a year of theatergoing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sons of the Prophet

Sons of the Prophet, at the Roundabout Theatre Company,
Laura Pels Theatre

Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Sometimes a play connects with me for the way it depicts a slice of life. Sure, the plot might be heightened for dramatic purposes but there's still a recognizable human scale to the story. Sons of the Prophet is one of those examples.

In Stephen Karam's play, a Lebanese-American family in eastern Pennsylvania is coping with a tragedy. Brothers Joseph and Charles Douaihy, played by Santino Fontana and Chris Perfetti, have lost their father, who died of a heart attack after a car accident. He swerved to avoid a deer - actually a decoy left in the road as a prank by a star high school football player.

Because of the circumstances surrounding their father's death, the family has become a source of media attention. The play builds up to a school committee meeting where it'll be decided whether the athlete, Vin, played by Jonathan Louis Dent, can finish out the season before being sent to a juvenile detention center.

The brothers also have their hands full with their cantankerous, politically incorrect uncle Bill, played to the hilt by Yusef Bulos. Joseph's wealthy and quirky boss Gloria, played by Joanna Gleason, is badgering him about her idea for a book based on the Douaihys' distant relation to the poet Khalil Gibran. Gleason is hilarious as Gloria barges in on the family uninvited, gradually becoming more demanding and unhinged.

And on top of all that, both have physical limitations. Charles was born with only one ear. Joseph, once a competitive runner, is suffering from a debilitating pain in his limbs that has baffled doctors.

This is the fourth time I've seen Fontana and I always enjoy his performances. He expresses Joseph's physical and emotional suffering in a way that's mostly quiet and understated. This is a strong person. He also makes the wry, self-deprecating humor in Karam's dialogue seem so natural. Relating the family's run of bad luck he quips: "We're like the Kennedys without the sex appeal."

Charles is the opposite of his older brother - he's much more extroverted and social, a likeable, curious teenager with a keen interest in geography. Perfetti is a very physically expressive actor and I couldn't take my eyes off him. His body language - just the way he stretched his legs as he leaned against a table, for example - was riveting.

Both brothers are gay but where Charles seems confident in his sexual orientation, Joseph is more timid. Karam draws him out of his shell by giving him a love interest in the form of a reporter, Timothy, played by Charles Socarides. Karam also uses Timothy to make a point about the way the media jumps on a story.

It was also interesting to see Sons of the Prophet amid the allegations of child molestation involving former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. The play reminded me of the lofty position that high school and college sports occupy in some communities - to the point where winning is the only thing that matters and athletes are afforded special treatment.

But what I liked most was the way Karam illuminates the struggles of everyday life: Joseph's need to stay working for Gloria because she provides him with health insurance, his fear that something ominous is causing his aches and pains, the brothers' care for their increasingly frail uncle. Fontana, Perfetti and Bulos make the Douaihys seem like a real family. And director Peter DuBois draws great performances from everyone.

Sons of the Prophet
is an absorbing look at how we get through everything that's thrown at us in our lives - with humor, grace and resilience.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Asuncion, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater off Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I think Jesse Eisenberg intended his play Asuncion to be about the clash of cultures: what happens when two white liberal college students share their apartment with a young woman from the Philippines.

But it struck me as more of a collision of quirky characters than insightful social satire. Asuncion seemed like a younger Odd Couple with Eisenberg and Justin Bartha portraying mismatched roommates and Camille Mana as the woman who comes into their lives, a la the Pigeon sisters.

The play takes place in Binghamton, N.Y., where Bartha's Vinny is a graduate student in black studies and Eisenberg's Edgar runs a website denouncing American imperialism. Mana is Asuncion, the new wife of Edgar's older brother, played by Remy Auberjonois. For some mysterious reason, Asuncion has to hide out with Vinny and Edgar for a few days.

Mana is very sweet and endearing as Asuncion. It was interesting to see the impact she has on Vinny and Edgar and their interaction was fun to watch. Bartha's smooth and laid-back Vinny was great. But Eisenberg's Edgar felt way too frenetic. I think his character was supposed to be neurotic and socially awkward but this was too often over the top.

Still, Eisenberg can be a witty and thought-provoking writer, especially in the way he deflates Edgar's overblown cultural perceptions and brings out Vinny's latent bigotry. There's a great scene in which Asuncion compares America to a pop song. And Edgar's description of booking a plane flight to a far-flung location is hilarious.

But overall, Asuncion felt kind of slight. The satire wasn't sharp enough and the humor got weary. Not a lot really happens. It's hard to believe Edgar's brother would leave his wife in a messy, dumpy apartment for any amount of time - or that she'd agree to stay. And when we finally learn the reason, it didn't seem all that necessary.

I also couldn't figure out the relationship between Edgar and Vinny. There's one scene where, in a drug-induced haze, Vinny taunts Edgar in a way that seemed cruel. Edgar doesn't pay rent, so does Vinny let him stay in his apartment just to mock him? Or maybe it was a short-term deal and he can't get him to leave? In any event, they don't seem like friends.

(One thing about Asuncion that I absolutely loved was John McDermott's set design. From the Afro-centric posters on the walls to the dirty dishes overflowing in the sink, it was exactly the kind of place you'd expect a struggling grad student like Vinny to have.)

I've enjoyed Eisenberg's movie roles, especially his Oscar-nominated take on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. I hope he continues writing plays and acting onstage. (Although I'd like to see him in someone else's play next time.) I was also impressed by how down to earth he seemed at the stage door, taking a lot of time to pose for pictures and sign autographs. At 28, he's incredibly youthful looking, too.

And Asuncion is attracting younger audiences who seemed to be having a good time. At the performance I attended, one woman sat down in the front row and propped her skateboard up against the wall of the Cherry Lane Theatre. You'll probably never see that on Broadway!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Good riddance to Brett Ratner

Good riddance to Brett Ratner and if Eddie Murphy wants to follow him, that's fine. The dignity of my gay friends is more important than allowing Ratner to produce the Oscars in the wake of his homophobic remark.

I was reading the comments on the Los Angeles Times website when the story first broke. Although some were supportive, many were along the lines of "Why do they have to be so sensitive?"

Well, I don't know if you've ever been on the receiving end of bigotry but I have.

Years ago, I'd just started a new job when I was asked to bring some papers to a colleague. I was told that his last name was Junod, "like when you Jew someone down." I was shocked and I felt my face redden. I didn't know what to say. I'm not sure I said anything. I just took the material and left the room.

What I especially remember was the matter-of-fact way in which this person said it. There was no hatred or animosity in her voice. That was just the first thing that came to her mind, I guess. I'm sure she didn't know I was Jewish. I'm not sure she knew it was offensive.

Later, I wish I'd said something but when you're young, just starting in a job, it's tough. It's difficult to explain but you feel like you don't want to make a big deal out of it. As hurt as you are, somehow it's like you're on the defensive instead of the person who made the bigoted remark. Let's face it, they "got" you, and you know it.

That was a long time ago. Today, we need to put the bigots on the defensive.

There's no excuse for what Ratner said. He knew he was using an antigay slur. (As a fellow Jew, I'm especially ashamed of his behavior.) The press release that he came out with Tuesday night was laughable. His publicist hit all the right points but Ratner's remark flew too easily off of his tongue. (Just like a similar incident I blogged about in May.) Nobody goes from ignorance to enlightenment that quickly.

These days most people have learned to keep their racist and anti-Semitic remarks to themselves, or at least to choose their audience carefully. But too often slurs directed against gays and lesbians are tolerated. Or they're justified by people who hide behind their religion, as if God has given them the right to spew hatred against another human being.

How many times do you hear people say "that's so gay" as a synonym for something undesirable? Imagine hearing that kind of remark, or worse, in public all the time. That has to change but it has to come from everywhere - including at home, at school and in popular culture. The "f" word has to evoke the same revulsion, the same sense of crossing a line, as the "n" word. As columnist Mark Harris wrote, in 2011 you don't get a pass on homophobia.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world in which kids are bullied over their perceived sexual orientation, in which they kill themselves in despair. Many adults are afraid to come out in the workplace. We live in a country in which it's legal in 29 states to fire someone because they're gay or lesbian.

One thing I can tell you with certainty: as hurt as you feel when the bigoted remark is about who you are, it's much worse when it's directed against your friends, people you admire and love dearly. So if I seem a little sensitive about this, tough.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Other Desert Cities

Other Desert Cities, at Broadway's Booth Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've been hooked on a few nighttime soap operas over the years, most notably Dallas and Falcon Crest. But there hasn't been one recently that captured my interest until Brothers & Sisters, which ABC canceled in May after a five-year run.

So a big part of my excitement about Other Desert Cities stemmed from knowing that it was written by Jon Robin Baitz, the creator of Brothers & Sisters, and included a cast member from the series, Rachel Griffiths.

In some ways, Other Desert Cities felt like a very special episode of Brothers & Sisters: it revolves around the problems of a wealthy and prominent family. All the nighttime soap ingredients are present - drug addiction, depression, alcoholism. Family secrets are about to be revealed and a long-buried scandal unearthed. There's a black sheep, too.

Now, I don't mean any of that as a knock. Popular fiction is tough to get right and I'd rather read John Grisham than John Updike. And I liked Other Desert Cities a lot. It's a highly polished work with terrific performances. Baitz has a good ear for dialogue. The direction by Joe Mantello makes the action clean and clear. But it seemed like something I'd seen before.

Heading the family are Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing as Lyman and Polly Wyeth. He's a former actor turned Republican Party official and ambassador. She's a former screenwriter. They travel in the same circles as the Reagans. (When the scandal broke, Polly mustered all of her strength to get back in the good social graces of Ron and Nancy.)

When the play opens, it's Christmas 2004 and the family has gathered at the Wyeths' home in Palm Springs. John Lee Beatty has designed a living room that looks beautiful in a rustic kind of way, with a huge stone wall, but not especially comfortable.

The source of tension is Brooke's plan to publish a tell-all memoir which, needless to say, is upsetting to her family.

I've loved Griffiths from TV and movies and she's riveting onstage as well, playing a vulnerable woman suffering from depression who's about to let out all of this smoldering anger toward her parents. A novelist with one successful book, the memoir has enabled her to break through her writer's block. She feels compelled to publish it, no matter how much pain it causes.

As her brother Trip, a producer of highly successful reality-TV shows, Thomas Sadoski is more easygoing. Much younger, he doesn't share her intense anger. Baitz makes an interesting point here, how siblings can have widely divergent memories of their childhood and how parents can change over time so that maybe they were raised differently.

Channing and Judith Light as two very different sisters are a joy to watch as well. Polly is the picture of composure while Light's Silda is messy, an acerbic alcoholic. They're Jewish but Polly seemed pretty WASPY. Silda explains this with one of the play's best lines: "We're Jewish girls who lost our accents along the way but that wasn't enough for you, you had to become a goy."

While I liked the way Baitz explored the family dynamic, his attempt at getting political struck me as more cliched. Keach's Lyman fulminates against the generation that ruined this country with their drugs, free sex and radical politics. Brooke and Silda rail against the intolerance of conservative Republicans.

What stood out for me was the way Other Desert Cities explores the heart of this fractious family. Polly and Lyman don't share Brooke's view that her memoir will be cathartic. It forces them to come clean about secrets that they've been keeping for a very long time. (To be honest, the plot twist wasn't very original.)

Baitz gives them both powerful, emotional speeches. For all the coldness and harshness with which Brooke tries to portray them, Lyman and Polly Wyeth are caring people. The play is a testament to a parent's love for their child - no matter what. It's also a testament to what very rich and powerful people are able to do for their children.

Baitz left Brothers & Sisters after a year due to disagreements with the network over the show's direction. At the time, he decried "the demographic demands that have turned America into an ageist and youth-obsessed nation drives the storylines younger and younger, whiter and whiter, and with less and less reflection of the real America.

I'll give Baitz credit for including older characters in Other Desert Cities but he's written a play pretty similar to what he's criticized the networks for doing. It's as white as can be and not exactly reflective of the "real America."

Still, it was tremendously entertaining to see a juicy family drama onstage just like the ones that I've loved in novels and on TV. And it's always comforting to be reminded that rich people have problems, too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Chinglish, at Broadway's Longacre Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

During the year I lived in Israel, my halting attempts to speak Hebrew resulted in lots of linguistic misadventures. They weren't quite like the ones in Chinglish but similar enough so that David Henry Hwang's play resonated with me.

Daniel Cavanaugh, played by Gary Wilmes, is an affable Cleveland businessman on his first trip to China. His family owned company is trying to win a contract to make English-language signs for a new cultural center but he's got big language and cultural barriers to surmount.

To help, Cavanaugh has hired Peter, a Chinese-speaking British expatriate played by Stephen Pucci, as a consultant. Jennifer Lim and Larry Lei Zhang are Xi Yan and Minister Cai Guoliang, two of the bureaucrats he has to win over.

Chinglish is all about the misunderstandings - personal, cultural and linguistic - that result. And it features a great set by David Korins, with pieces that kind of move in and out on turntables.

There's a lot of Mandarin dialogue and it's translated into English on supertitles, which often wildly miss the mark. As part of his sales pitch, Cavanaugh shows some examples of unintentionally funny English-language signs in China. And when he explains that he directs all operations for his company, the translator tells the Chinese officials: "he's also a surgeon."

Let me just say that while I laughed, I sympathized, too. I remember a few times getting a bewildered look from an Israeli for using the wrong Hebrew word or phrase. Becoming fluent in a foreign language is tough. I also know what it's like to sit in a meeting and not understand anything that's being said. So I can understand how Cavanaugh felt.

Hwang does make some interesting points about China - especially the lack of functioning legal system. It was a good complement to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which touches on the plight of Chinese factory workers.

Probably the most hilarious scene occurs in Act II, when Cavanaugh reveals his connection to a scandal-ridden American company. Rather than being repulsed, the Chinese were impressed to a point that seemed unbelievable.

The problem is, you can only go so far with the lost in translation angle before it seems a bit old hat. (I wonder how that would be translated?) And Hwang's characters are drawn so broadly that they're really more caricatures than fully developed human beings.

I'm guessing that he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek with Chinglish. Wilmes's Cavanaugh is the naive American. Pucci is amusing as the expat who's "gone native," becoming more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. And Lim is terrific as the alluring Asian "dragon lady." Her character is probably the most nuanced. It was just hard to feel emotionally invested in any of them.

In the end, I thought Chinglish was funny and entertaining, if slight. The play is a combination sex farce, innocent abroad and clash of cultures, none of which was developed enough to be truly meaningful.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, at the Public Theater
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I've never seen anything quite like The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. A monologue from Mike Daisey, it demolishes theatre's imaginary "fourth wall" to directly challenge the audience. Its purpose is to entertain but also to provoke.

Daisey sits at a table with no props, no audio or visual aids except for some bars of white lights behind him that flash once in awhile. All he has is a glass of water and some sheets of legal-sized notepaper, which I didn't even see him referring to very often.

Interestingly, he uses a low-tech way to tell a high-tech story, mixing his history as an Apple fanboy with his experiences traveling to the factory in China where iPods, iPhones and iPads are assembled. You're just listening to him talk for nearly two hours - the oldest form of storytelling there is. The result is vivid and absorbing.

The centerpiece is Daisey's visit to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. Foxconn is the world's largest maker of electronic components and it works under contract for many companies, including Apple. There have been numerous reports about long workdays, injuries, cramped living conditions and a spate of suicides. He recounts it all in heart-wrenching detail.

Along the way, Daisey raises questions about Apple's closed operating system, which keeps a tight rein on developers, how we're all so eager to upgrade our software and hardware whenever a new version comes out - whether we need it or not. And he points out how ignorant we are of the conditions under which the gadgets we love are made.

To be honest, he isn't telling us anything we don't already know: Steve Jobs was arrogant, working in a factory is repetitive and mind-numbing and in the West, we've turned a blind eye toward how China treats its citizens. But the way he puts it together is compelling. I bought my first Apple product in 1990 and I've been a fangirl ever since, and it made me uneasy.

There were some elements of Daisey's storytelling that I didn't really like. The unrelenting f-bombs felt unnecessary. He had a habit of raising his voice at the beginning of a sentence then lowering it, which got a bit annoying. I know some of that is necessary. He's acting, not delivering a speech. But it made me wonder how much of his story was embellished. We're paying $80 for a ticket. We want drama, emotion, conflict.

I don't doubt that conditions in China are as bad as Daisey portrays them. But I couldn't believe that the Foxconn workers were so willing to talk to him (through an interpreter). China is, after all, a repressive, totalitarian country. And Daisey is a performer, not a journalist. Plays, like TV and movies, are allowed to take artistic liberties.

Daisey has performed this piece before and the engagement at the Public Theater was announced long before Jobs died earlier this month. I wondered whether he would soften his criticism of the Apple cofounder but he doesn't let up, saying that Jobs went to his death knowing about the conditions in the Chinese factory and did nothing. That felt a little harsh, like he was intentionally piling it on about someone who died so recently.

I don't think that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs will make anyone stop buying Apple products. What's the alternative? Foxconn's clients include just about every maker of computers and cell phones. And the stock of those companies is likely in the mutual funds that are part of most of our retirement plans.

But Daisey is a great storyteller and he does what theatre should do: entertain, make you think, take you to a place you've never been. And when you leave, you get a sheet of paper with some suggestions for further steps you can take, including e-mail Apple CEO Tim Cook (

Daisey says that he focuses on Apple because it's an industry leader but he acknowledges that the issue goes deeper: "We do not like to think about our relationship with China and the true cost of our labor, but that silence can only exist if we are complicit with it."

By presenting the issue in such starkly human terms, Daisey accomplishes one thing with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: He made me think about where my stuff comes from in a way that I never had to do before.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Clybourne Park

Clybourne Park, at Trinity Repertory Company
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

How we talk about race - or avoid talking about it - is at the heart of Clybourne Park, a penetrating work by Bruce Norris that made me squirm in my seat and laugh harder than I have in a long time.

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Clybourne Park is inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, about the black Younger family in 1950s Chicago. At the end of the play, which Trinity Rep staged in 2009, they're moving from their cramped apartment to a house in an all-white neighborhood.

Hansberry never identifies the white family who've sold their home to the Youngers, and that's where Norris fills in the gap. He tells their story and then in Act II, revisits the house 50 years later. What's changed is at times subtle, at times in your face, but always compelling.

When the play begins Russ and Bev are packing up for their move to the suburbs with help from their black housekeeper, Francine. Anne Scurria's Bev is flighty and talkative. Timothy Crowe's Russ is detached and irritable. There are hints about why they're leaving: a mention of a troubled son and no longer feeling welcome in the neighborhood.

One character appears in both plays and Mauro Hantman reprises his earlier Trinity Rep role as Karl Lindner, the neighborhood association representative. In A Raisin in the Sun, he offers the Youngers money to back out of the move but they refuse. In Clybourne Park, Norris has Lindner trying to persuade Russ to renege on the sale.

Norris resists the temptation to make Karl a stock villain. He acts out of fear - talking ominously about falling property values. And he would never consider himself racist, just realistic: Don't people want to be with their own kind? His very pregnant wife Betsy, played by Rachael Warren, is deaf, the perfect metaphor for a play in which people have difficulty communicating.

To bolster his case, he turns to Francine and her husband Albert, trying to get them to admit that a black family wouldn't be comfortable in Clybourne Park. It's not due to racism, of course, but because, Karl assumes, the local supermarket doesn't carry the food they eat. (He's aided in his spurious arguments by Tommie Dickie's Jim, a minister who isn't acting very Christian.)

As Albert, Joe Wilson Jr. reacts with a wry, seething humor to Karl's browbeating. But Mia Ellis' Francine is more taciturn and wary, not really knowing how to respond, how truthful she can be. The expression on her face, her body language, so clearly showed her discomfort. Listening to her being treated by Karl almost as a child was painful to watch. I just felt for her.

In Act II, we learn what's happened in the intervening half century.

In 2009, Clybourne Park is a black neighborhood that's being gentrified. White professionals are moving in and rehabilitating houses that have fallen into disrepair. The family owned Gelman's market is long gone, first replaced by a Super Value that also closed and now, it almost goes without saying, by a Whole Foods. Even the language is different: we've gone from "colored people" to "people of color."

Hantman and Warren are Lindsey and Steve, a young couple expecting their first child. They've bought the Younger home and are planning to tear it down and build from scratch. Wilson and Ellis are Lena and Kevin, also young professionals with deep roots in the neighborhood. (Lina is related to the Youngers). Scurria is Kathy, a real-estate lawyer and the Lindners' daughter. They left for the suburbs when she was born.

Clearly a lot has changed in 50 years and Norris illuminates that so well through his characters. The contrasts are fascinating: the blacks are empowered, the women are working professionals. It's the white male who feels under the microscope, his every word scrutinized. As nasty as Karl is, Steve seems more insufferable. Ellis, a student in the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, is especially impressive in this switch. Her whole demeanor is different from Francine to Lena. She's really transformed.

But as Norris shows, race is still a minefield to be carefully navigated.

Lena is wary of the white newcomers, struggling to explain the history in these houses that they're so quick to tear down. Lindsey, so earnest, explains that she wants to be part of the neighborhood. Steve bristles at his motives being questioned. They both mention all of their black friends. The word "racism" is bandied about. (Softly, of course.)

Finally, everyone lets go of their inhibitions and when that happens, well, I can't remember the last time I've laughed so hard. It was horribly offensive but at the same time, hysterical and riveting. I couldn't help myself. All I could think was, how telling that this is the point at which blacks and whites talk openly with each other, when that veneer of civility is cracked.

I've seen a few plays that try to deal with race in America but none has done it as effectively as Clybourne Park. Norris' characters seemed real to me, not caricatures created to make a political statement. I'm sure in my own sincere, well-meaning white liberal way I've sounded like Lindsey on more than one occasion.

And while their intentions are miles apart, Karl and Lena do raise the same, provocative question about why we live where we live. We may work in diverse offices but how many of us go home to largely segregated communities and social lives?

Norris ends Clybourne Park where it started, with Bev and Russ. For all of our focus on the bigger issues of race and class and changing neighborhoods, he doesn't let us forget that this is a highly personal story.

We're lucky that Trinity Rep's artistic director, Curt Columbus, worked with Norris in Chicago and was able to snag Clybourne Park for its New England premiere. This is a superb production of a terrific new American play. To see it in an intimate theatre of under 300 seats is something you shouldn't miss.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Relatively Speaking

Relatively Speaking, at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I was looking forward to the three one-act comedies that make up Relatively Speaking for two reasons: Elaine May's George Is Dead featured Marlo Thomas and Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel because, well, it's by Woody Allen!

The third, Talking Cure, by Ethan Coen, was more of a roll of the dice. I've enjoyed some of the Coen brothers' quirky movies and they've written some great screenplays, including the Oscar-winning Fargo. So the odds are pretty good that it'll be funny, right?

Well, there's no polite way to say this: Coen's contribution was the worst thing I've ever seen onstage. I'm hesitant to even call the 30-minute Talking Cure a play because that would imply something actually happening. This was more like two extended scenes that went nowhere.

In the first scene, a psychiatrist, played by Jason Kravits, is talking to a man (Danny Hoch) who's committed a violent crime. I think the second scene is supposed to show us the origin of his anger and violence - his parents are arguing at the dinner table while his mother is pregnant.

The parents at the early preview I saw were played by Fred Melamed and Katherine Borowitz. Now I'm going use a spoiler alert here: Their conversation consisted of, basically, yelling "Hitler" at each other. It went something like this: (and I'm paraphrasing): "If Hitler and Eva Braun came to dinner, you'd cook a real meal!"

I understand invoking the Nazis for shock value or dark humor but this wasn't either. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Godwin's Law applies to theatre as well as the Internet. I'm not surprised that Melamed left the production earlier this month partly over differences with Coen. Talking Cure is ridiculous, juvenile and pointless. It's a shame that the producers couldn't have found something more worthwhile from a more deserving playwright.

Ok, end of rant. Luckily the next two plays got successively better.

Next up was George Is Dead, which I liked quite a bit, although it could have used some trimming. This was the first time I'd seen anything onstage by May, a veteran actress and screenwriter and one half of the comedy team Nichols and May, from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Thomas played Doreen, a wealthy woman whose husband has just died while on a trip to Colorado. Bereft, she ends up at the New York City apartment of her beloved childhood nanny's daughter, played by Lisa Emery. Apparently, the nanny did everything for Doreen and she expects her daughter Carla to do likewise.

Thomas was almost unrecognizable in blond wig. Her voice was raspier than I remembered from That Girl. But she still has a great comic touch as a pampered, childlike woman. Emery was terrific as Carla, clearly drained by this unexpected visitor, trying to cope with her incessant demands, as well as deal with the needs of her own mother and husband. They both created memorable characters.

After intermission came Honeymoon Motel, the play I was most looking forward to seeing. I've been a Woody Allen fan ever since I was a teenager, back when he was really witty and original. Annie Hall is my second favorite movie of all time, topped only by Casablanca. Nearly 35 years later, the scenes and jokes are still vivid.

Honeymoon Motel takes place in the honeymoon suite of a cheap-looking motel after a Jewish wedding has disintegrated into chaos. The bride and groom, their parents, a rabbi, are all there, along with a few others I've probably forgotten. Even a pizza delivery guy shows up.

I don't want to give too much away but it's typical Woody Allen shtick: an outrageous situation filled with one-liners, self-deprecating Jewish humor and lots of arguing. And everyone was funny, especially Steve Guttenberg as the groom's stepfather, who's the source of all the tsuris. It was pretty thrilling to see Julie Kavner as the bride's mother. (Whenever she spoke I couldn't help but hear a little Marge Simpson.)

Usually I eat this stuff up - and Honeymoon Motel was my favorite of the three. I did laugh but to be honest, it was pretty boilerplate Woody Allen, nowhere near as good as his best movies and devoid of any memorable lines. I felt like it was something he could have dashed off in a couple hours, or maybe had in a drawer somewhere as a short story, ready to send to The New Yorker until Broadway beckoned.

So unless you're a Woody Allen completist - which I guess I am - or you have an incredible desire to see Marlo Thomas - me again - I would skip Relatively Speaking. Although even I wonder whether I should have picked something else.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop, at Broadway's Jacobs Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

When he was governor of New York, I once heard Mario Cuomo read a story to students at an elementary school. It was about two animals, one very large and the other very small. The moral: it's not your size that matters but what's in your head and in your heart.

Cuomo then asked the children, who were probably in the first or second grade, whether Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been big men. They answered, in unison, "Noooooo!" Clearly, they got the lesson - or they had been well prepped by their teachers.

If any of those now adults happen to see The Mountaintop, one thing might puzzle them - Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is over 6 feet tall. However they would certainly appreciate the message in Katori Hall's play, which draws a compelling portrait of the civil-rights leader not as a larger-than-life figure but as a man.

The Mountaintop takes the form of an imagined conversation between King and a maid in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the final night of his life. Hall's writing is conversational, graceful and honest. She's tackling a tough subject - the private thoughts of a revered figure - and she does it in a way that does not diminish him or his legacy.

This isn't a biography, so you won't hear about the Montgomery bus boycott or any of the other defining events in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans. But you will hear King talk on the phone to his wife and children, his anguish at growing violence, his concern about the plight of the poor and his opposition to the Vietnam War.

Initially I had mixed feelings about Jackson, mostly due to his age. He's 62 and King was 39 when he was assassinated. He's bigger than King and he doesn't sound like him. (Although come to think of it, how often have we heard King's regular speaking voice?)

Well Jackson won me over, and I only saw the third preview. I never felt like I was seeing an icon but always a flesh-and-blood human being. His King is flirtatious and playful, tender when talking about his family. (I met Coretta Scott King briefly when I was in high school, in 1976, and I could just imagine her on the other end of the phone.)

But he's also facing criticism for speaking out against the war. He knows the FBI is following his every move. He's weary and worried about who would carry on his work should something happen to him. You can tell from his voice the toll that all of this has taken.

As Camae, the maid who brings King a cup of coffee and stays to talk, Angela Bassett is a powerhouse. Hall is from Memphis and the character is loosely based on her mother, who was forbidden from attending King's final, prophetic Mountaintop speech and always regretted it.

Bassett's performance is wonderfully layered. Sometimes actors I know from the movies don't always translate well to the theatre but she has a commanding presence onstage. She's clearly at home in both places.

She's deferential at first, a bit shy and even motherly. But she's also sexy, spunky, a bit teasing and unafraid to speak her mind. There's a thrilling, and hilarious, scene when she stands on the bed and gives the sermon that she thinks King should deliver.

Without giving anything away, when Camae's purpose is revealed it's a startling moment that could be maudlin but Bassett handles it with tremendous care.

The play consists of Jackson and Bassett talking in a motel room for nearly two hours and you'd think that might not hold your attention but they work off of each other well, their interaction seems so natural. They're absolutely riveting.

There are some beautiful passages, like when King says that fear is his best friend and the reason he gets up in the morning: "I know that if I'm still afraid, then I am still alive." Even though we know it ends sadly, there are surprising flashes of humor. And Kenny Leon's direction has paced this work so well. It never lags.

At first, it was jarring to see King in such a private setting. But at the same time, it was fascinating and really drew me in. Although I've read books about the civil-rights movement and a biography of King, this was different. It was so personal.

I have to mention that there is some swearing, but Hall doesn't overdo it by any means. What made me more uneasy was King's use of a racial epithet. I had a chance to ask her about it afterward and she told me she'd spoken with his advisers and it was accurate. And it's not said in a mean-spirited way. She's done her homework and I respect her for that.

It's always tricky to put words in the mouth of a real person but what I took away from The Mountaintop was a portrait of a man who, even in private, remains true to his core values.

He may be tired and smoke and cuss occasionally and express doubt and flirt with a pretty woman but he's clearly devoted to his wife and children, committed to nonviolence and equality. When Camae makes a homophobic remark he immediately rebukes her, saying in effect that we are all God's children. (And lest you think this is an example of revisionist history, it's not.)

And no matter how weary, he's not giving up. He talks about planning a poor people's campaign. (King had returned to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. An earlier rally, in late March, ended in disaster with looting and a young man killed by the police.)

Martin Luther King is arguably the most important American of the second half of the 20th century. And yet in our popular imagination, he's too often reduced to a 30-second clip of the "I have a dream" speech that's played every year on the federal holiday in January commemorating his birth.

I think Hall's point is that by turning King into a saintly figure we're doing him and ourselves a disservice. We're reducing him to a caricature - no matter now noble. And we're absolving ourselves of any responsibility to make our communities better. After all, what could we mere mortals do by comparison?

The truth is, King was not super human, simply a man who wanted to be a minister of a small church but for whom God had other plans. Like him, we all have the obligation - and the ability - to be a drum major for justice.

The Mountaintop
includes a terrific projection design by David Gallo, who also re-created King's room at the Lorraine Motel. I sat there stunned. It was an absorbing look at how far we've come since his death and how far we have to go.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

When I found out yesterday - reading a news bulletin on my iMac - that Apple cofounder Steve Jobs had died, it hit me hard.

It's not just that Jobs passed away much too young, at age 56 of pancreatic cancer. Thinking about what all of those sleek and shiny iMacs, iPods and iPhones have allowed me to do in the 21 years since I purchased my first Apple computer is mind-boggling.

I took a class in college on the computer programming language BASIC and it was not a wise move. So back in December 1990, the thought of owning a personal computer was daunting. But Apple made it easy and elegant and fun.

Here's a brief trip through my Apple fangirl history:

Macintosh Classic: Truthfully, I couldn't do much with it. The World Wide Web hadn't even been born yet. I played a lot of games: Railroad Tycoon, Sim City, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. If they made an Apple version, I bought it. You couldn't be too choosy.

Macintosh Performa. This was a big step up, it had a bigger monitor and I think it was color. I was on Prodigy for awhile, then America Online. It was considered much too scary to go onto the Internet without someone holding your hand. And remember newsgroups? Are they still around? I used to read them a lot.

PowerBook: My first laptop, which I bought when I moved to Israel for a year. I remember the thrill at finding my first freelance article online. I realized that my audience wasn't limited to people who had a physical product in front of them. Anyone, anywhere in the world could read something that I'd written.

iMac: My first "i" purchase. Goodbye floppy drive, hello CD-ROM. This was where I first uploaded my entire music collection onto iTunes, then onto my first iPod, downloaded my first podcasts, wrote my first blog posts. I got a good 10 years worth of use out of it before it just got too slow.

iPhone: I never thought I'd need to carry around a personal computer in my pocket. Then for a couple of weeks this year, I was housebound without Internet or cable. I used it for e-mail, to check Twitter and Facebook. I read the New York Times, listened to music and streamed movies. It was my link to the outside world.

Like I wrote in August when Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO, his genius was in coming up with products that you never think you'll want but once you have them, you can't imagine ever living without them.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Circle Mirror Transformation

Circle Mirror Transformation, at the Gamm Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

At the beginning of Circle Mirror Transformation, which takes place in an acting class at a community center in a small Vermont town, I felt like I wasn't really getting the joke.

For example, when the play begins five people are lying on the floor. Each shouts out a number from one to 10, in numerical order. Except there's no determined speaking order. If two people say the same number at the same time, they have to start over.

Sure it was funny but what was it all about? I took a drama class in junior high school and I don't remember doing anything like that. I was a little worried that the play would be too insider-ish, that some of the satire about studying acting would be lost on me.

Luckily, playwright Annie Baker turns out to have a gift for storytelling. While some of the acting exercises baffled me, I was drawn in by the characters she's created. I liked the way Baker gradually peeled back layers to reveal more about the students and their teacher. This isn't the deepest work but it's an absorbing one.

Theresa, (Karen Carpenter) attractive and a bit flighty, is an actress who's moved from New York City to start a new career and escape a bad relationship; Schultz, (Normand Beauregard) is divorced and lonely, pining for the house he had to give his ex-wife in the settlement; Marty (Wendy Overly) is the motherly, enthusiastic teacher; and James (Jim O'Brien) is Marty's affable husband.

But my favorite was Amanda Ruggiero's Lauren, who takes the class hoping it'll give her an edge when she auditions for her high school production of West Side Story. Ruggiero has a teenager's sullen disdain down to perfection.

Circle Mirror Transformation has a running time of 1 hour, 45 minutes, without an intermission. There's only one set, a room in the community center. It looks like a dance studio, with mirrors and a barre at either end.

The play consists mostly of relatively short scenes, either during the class or between the characters beforehand and afterward. I think that brevity serves the story very well. Director Rachel Walshe keeps things moving along at a snappy pace and I never felt that it dragged.

As part of the class, each student has to tell something about themselves and later, another student retells their story, using their voice and mannerisms. Marty gets to "be" Lauren and she's just hilarious, really spot-in in her impersonation of a teenager. On the other hand, when Schultz portrays Theresa, it's poignant because you know he's smitten with her.

One exercise I did find a little hard to believe was when Marty asks the students to write a personal secret on a piece of paper, then everyone in the class picks one and reads it aloud. Maybe because I'm more guarded and cynical, I can't imagine anyone ever actually agreeing to do that. (And some of the characters are more honest than others.)

Circle Mirror Transformation is part of trilogy that Baker set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vt. I'd love to see the two other plays. She has a great feel for the way people talk - her dialogue always sounds real, never forced. And she understands the pace of life in a small New England college town since she's from one herself, Amherst, Mass.

My only criticism is that the people in this class seem to have a lot going on, maybe too much to be totally believable. Still, they held my interest. As we see how they've kept things hidden beneath the surface, it made me think of all the "acting" that we do in our everyday lives.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Anything Goes

Anything Goes, at Broadway's Sondheim Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Set aboard an ocean liner sailing from New York to London, the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Anything Goes has a boatload full of colorful characters, a comical plot involving romance and mistaken identity and some dazzling choreography.

But what really makes this 1934 musical sparkle is Cole Porter's delightful score. It brings you back to a time when the popular music of the day came from Broadway.

Just look at a partial list of the songs in Act I: "I Get a Kick Out of You," "You're the Top," "Friendship," "It's De-lovely" and "Anything Goes." Some musicals don't have that many memorable numbers in the entire show.

It doesn't matter that they don't always have much to do with the story, the lyrics are so witty and the tunes are so catchy. (Most of the songs were composed while Porter was a guest at Newport's Rosecliff mansion, which I visited two years ago as part of a birthday surprise thrown for me by my dear theatre blogger friends!)

The characters in Anything Goes are pretty broadly drawn and the cast plays them to the hilt. They all made me laugh: Adam Godley as the British Lord Evelyn Oakleigh; John McMartin as Wall Street tycoon Elisha Whitney; Erin Mackey as debutante Hope Harcourt and Kelly Bishop as her mother, Evangeline, determined to marry off her daughter to Oakleigh; Joel Grey as small-time gangster Moonface Martin and Jessica Stone as his sidekick Erma; and Colin Donnell as Whitney's assistant Billy Crocker, who's smitten with Hope.

A highlight was seeing Grey onstage. His chilling performance as the emcee in movie Cabaret is something I've never forgotten. At 79, Grey knows how to get the most out of every line and every mannerism and facial expression in a way that never seemed over the top. His rendition of "Be Like the Bluebird" was mesmerizing.

Then there's Tony winner Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney. Foster brings a great comic touch to her duets with the suave Donnell in "You're The Top" and the charming Grey in "Friendship." But to me, she didn't exude the toughness or brassiness you'd expect from an evangelist turned nightclub singer. I've seen Foster in three musicals and I know I'm in the minority but I haven't warmed to any of the characters she's played.

I had a few other qualms about Anything Goes.

There are two Chinese characters that made me cringe. (The actors, Andrew Cao and Raymond J. Lee, made the best of the situation.) Some of the jokes went on for too long. And while Tony winner Kathleen Marshall devised a terrifically intricate tap dance for the title song, it also seemed to go on and on. I didn't find her work particularly inventive.

Still, I had a good time. This is a highly polished and entertaining production from the Roundabout Theatre Company. Despite showing its age a bit, Anything Goes remains buoyant. And you know I'll be picking up the cast recording!

Monday, September 26, 2011

25th annual Broadway Cares Flea Market

After spending a week obsessively checking the forecast on my iPhone, Sunday turned out to be a beautiful sunny day in New York City. It was perfect weather for attending the 25th annual - and my first - Broadway Flea Market.

This year, the Flea Market and auction raised a total of $547,658 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which supports organizations around the country that provide services for people with HIV/AIDS, as well as other critical health issues.

Tables for many Broadway and some off-Broadway shows, as well as organizations like TDF, Broadway Impact, Dancers over 40 and Actors Equity, were set up along 44th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. The Flea Market also spilled over into part of Times Square. You could find old Playbills, cast recordings, books, posters, show jackets, costumes, baked goods and just about any kind of Broadway-related tchotchke imaginable.

I wish they'd been able to spread out even more because it became harder and harder to get to the tables as the day went on and the crowd grew larger. Although I guess they like to keep these things in relatively compact areas and there are several Broadway theatres on 44th Street, so it makes sense.

I had planned to attend one of the autograph sessions with Broadway actors that they held throughout the day but the lines were just too long. I wanted to spend my limited time browsing. I did spot Tony nominee Rory O'Malley, from The Book of Mormon, a musical I hope to see someday, if I can ever get a ticket! Hope he's still in it when I do!

One thing I'll keep in mind for next year is that you really have to spend some time digging through the tables. You can't see everything with a cursory look and when I read about some of the things other people found, I realized that I missed a lot! I'm also going to bring more money. While you can use a credit card, cash is faster and easier.

I ended up spending $51. Here's a picture of my haul. (It doesn't include the very tasty homemade cookies from the tables for Wicked and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which I consumed immediately, and a raffle ticket for a chance to win tickets to 5 upcoming Broadway shows.)

My favorite purchase was a Desperate Housewives script autographed by Debra Monk, who had her own table of stuff she was selling. I'm a big Desperate Housewives fan and I love Monk from the musical Curtains. I'm planning to get the episode on dvd and watch it while I follow along! Or I may just sit with it in Starbucks and pretend I'm an actress learning my lines.

Also, my advice is if you see something you like and it only costs a dollar, buy it because it may not be there when you come back. The Fiddler on the Roof magnet and HAIR Summer of Love 2011 pass were only $1 apiece and they're great souvenirs from two of my favorite musicals.

And if anyone at BCEFA is reading this, two things I could have used at the Flea Market were food and water.

Except for Billy Elliot's grandma's sausage rolls, most of what I saw were cookies and cake and brownies. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) They were delicious but I had to leave the Flea Market to get something more substantial, which I didn't want to do. And if anyone was selling water, I didn't see it.

It would have been great if the How to Succeed crew had whipped up some pancakes and waffles to go with the bottles of maple syrup autographed by Daniel Radcliffe! (And they're wearing little blue bow ties just like the ones Dan wears in the show. Adorable!) Or maybe souvlaki from Mamma Mia! or Memphis barbecue. I would even have tried a Vegemite sandwich from Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Anyway, I'm so happy I could be a part of another Broadway tradition. I bought some great souvenirs. I had a great time meeting up with some of my fellow bloggers and people I follow on Twitter. It was the perfect way to cap a wonderful weekend in New York City.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Candide, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I know that everyone goes to the theatre with their own expectations but for me, above all, I love a good story.

And Candide, at the Huntington Theatre Company, is an exuberant, inventive and melodic story about a young man's adventure-filled journey through life. There are so many twists and turns, memorable characters and shifting locations that I was enthralled.

Plus the score, by Leonard Bernstein, is glorious. I listened to the overture while I was driving to work and I had it in my head all day. Maybe it's the trombones and trumpets that give it a little added pizzazz but it's a thrilling piece of music. I even detected a few notes that sounded like West Side Story!

Geoff Packard is very appealing in the title role - youthful, eager and a bit naive. He's living in luxury on the estate of a baron in Westphalia when he gets a little too friendly with the baron's daughter, Cunegonde, a sweet and feisty Lauren Molina. As as a result, he's thrust out of paradise into the harshness of the real world.

But Candide perseveres - through war, an earthquake, a shipwreck. He travels from Europe to the jungles of South America, to real places and imaginary ones. He finds and loses Cunegonde more than once. All of this sorely tests the optimistic philosophy imparted by his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Now you might think that all of this would be a bit dreary - there's a scene set during the Inquisition with the line "what a day for an auto-da-fe." But director Mary Zimmerman, who penned a new adaptation of Voltaire's 18th century satire, brings out the humor and sharpens the wit. She also keeps things moving. I never felt it dragged over the 3-hour length.

The supporting cast is terrific, too.

Cheryl Stern was perfect as the Old Lady who may be descended from Polish royalty but now, down on her luck, casts her lot with Cunegonde and Candide. Her solo number, "I Am Easily Assimilated," in which she regales them with her very involved life story, was hilarious. Eric Lochtefeld was great as Cunegonde's snobbish and slimy brother Maximilian. And Larry Yando's Pangloss was a wonderful sendup of academia.

Daniel Ostling's set design also plays a big role in highlighting the theatricality of the work.

When Candide is banished from the baron's home, he finds himself in a large wood-paneled room without any apparent entrance or exit. Then doors and windows open, characters appear, furniture is moved in and out. It's a stunning transition. Molina sings one of the musical's best-known songs, "Glitter and Be Gay," stepping out of a bathtub. My favorite touch was a flock of small, woolly red sheep that Candide stumbles upon.

Apparently, Candide, an operetta first performed in 1956, has always been considered something of a problem child. The Huntington program credits the book to Hugh Wheeler and the lyrics to Richard Wilbur with additional lyrics by, among others, Stephen Sondheim, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker.

I can't say how this Candide stacks up against all others since this was the first time I'd seen it or even heard the music. But Zimmerman's production, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre with some of the same principal cast, worked for me.

In the end, Packard's Candide is more worldly, less naive. He's been on a rollicking, moving, often difficult and immensely entertaining journey.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Broadway wish list: Fall 2011

My 2011-2012 New York theatre season starts this weekend!

I'm even more excited than usual because my first trip of the fall coincides with Sunday's Broadway Flea Market sponsored by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

I've never been to the flea market and this year it's supposed to be bigger than ever, spilling over from West 44th Street into Times Square. I'm sure I'll pick up a Broadway-themed tchotchke or two, all for a great cause. Good thing there's a Bank of America ATM nearby!

Here's what I'm most looking forward to seeing on Broadway:

Relatively Speaking

Two names make this trio of one-act comedies a must-see for me: Woody Allen, who wrote "Honeymoon Motel," and Marlo Thomas, who stars in Elaine May's "George is Dead." (The third, "Talking Cure," is by Ethan Coen.) I've been a Woody Allen fan for a long, long time. (Don't even ask!) And Marlo Thomas, That Girl herself, wow.

The Mountaintop

As soon as I heard the plot of Katori Hall's play, I was interested. It takes place at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the last night of Martin Luther King's life. I've mentioned before my mixed feelings about Samuel L. Jackson playing Dr. King but I'm going in with an open mind. And I'm excited about seeing Angela Bassett, an amazing Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It, as his costar.

Other Desert Cities

Jon Robin Baitz's play about a woman who returns home to visit her parents after a six-year absence sounds like the kind of meaty family drama I'd enjoy. (I'm hoping secrets will be revealed!) And he has plenty of experience in this area - I loved his ABC series Brothers and Sisters. The cast includes Rachel Griffiths, from Brother and Sisters, and Judith Light, who was simply sublime in Lombardi.

On A Clear Day You Can See Forever

I'm not super familiar with this Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musical, which is having its first Broadway revival. I know it involves ESP and reincarnation and I vaguely remember watching the movie, with Barbra Streisand, years ago. Apparently things have been changed around, Streisand's character has been turned into a man. Also, it stars the handsome and talented Harry Connick Jr., whom I've never seen onstage.


Living in a foreign country is an eye-opening experience. I certainly gained a new perspective during the year I spent working in an elementary school in Israel. And I had my fair share of linguistic misadventures. So I'm eager to see this clash-of-cultures comedy by David Henry Hwang about an American businessman trying to launch a new enterprise in China.

Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway

A late addition to my wish list! Yes, I'd rather see Hugh Jackman in a book musical rather than a one-man show. But a couple hours of the man from Oz singing, dancing and telling stories, accompanied by an 18-piece orchestra, sounds pretty pleasant, too. Plus, just looking at the artwork makes me feel kind of tingly. Those brown eyes, that stubble!

There are also several off-Broadway shows on my wish list:

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

I've been an Apple fangirl for decades. If I counted up all of the iMacs, iPods, etc., that I've owned over the past 30 years, I'd probably have to use my fingers and toes. So Mike Daisey's monologue about the Apple cofounder, how his devices shape our lives - and at what cost - is definitely a subject that intrigues me.

Maple and Vine

The premise of Jordan Harrison's play - a group of 1950s reenactors - sounds both bizarre and brilliant. I mean, who would want to return to a decade of suffocating conformity? If done well, this could be the kind of clever, witty and insightful work that I really enjoy. How do you re-enact the 1950s? I'm guessing there'll be some women vacuuming the living room in high heels and pearls.


I thought Jesse Eisenberg was terrific in The Social Network and I'm curious to see how he does as a playwright. In Asuncion, two young men have a chance to demonstrate how open-minded they are when a young Filipina woman becomes their roommate. In addition to Eisenberg, the cast features Justin Bartha, who was hilarious in his Broadway debut in Lend Me a A Tenor.