Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, at Broadway's Hirschfeld Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

The Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Daniel Radcliffe, put a smile on my face from beginning to end. Judging by the rapturous applause, I wasn't the only one having a great time.

Before the show I took in the Harry Potter exhibit at Discovery Times Square. It was great to see props and costumes from the movies and it's clear why Radcliffe engenders so much goodwill - he's the orphaned boy wizard we've watched grow up. We want him to do well.

And he brings oodles of boyish charm to J. Pierrepont Finch, a window-washer who uses luck, pluck and a how-to manual to climb the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket Company. Sporting an eye-catching blue bow tie he sings sweetly, dances up a storm and speaks with a flawless American accent.

I'll admit that Radcliffe isn't the most powerful singer, which detracts a bit from "I Believe in You." But not every role requires a big Broadway voice - think David Hyde Pierce, who was wonderful in Curtains and doesn't have one either. What's important is that Radcliffe creates such an engaging character.

Plus, director/choreographer Rob Ashford has put together the splashy, exuberant production numbers around Frank Loesser's catchy score that I love in a Broadway musical. "Company Way," "Coffee Break," "Paris Original," "Grand Old Ivy" and "Brotherhood of Man" were so much fun.

And this isn't a one-man show by any means.

John Larroquette, who towers over Radcliffe, has great chemistry with him as gruff company president J.B. Biggley. Rose Hemingway was delightful as Rosemary, the secretary who falls for Finch. She sounded so lovely, especially in "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm." Christopher J. Hanke was hilarious as Bud Frump, Biggley's nephew and Finch's nemesis. And Ellen Harvey steals every scene as Biggley's secretary, Miss Jones, who succumbs to Finch's flattery.

How to Succeed is one of only eight musicals that have received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Based on a satirical guide by Shepherd Mead, a bestseller in the 1950s, it was adapted for the stage by Abe Burrows, Willie Gilbert and Jack Weinstock. The show debuted on Broadway in 1961 with Robert Morse, who also starred in the movie.

And I think it holds up pretty well, despite being a bit dated. Of course the women at the World Wide Wicket Co. are relegated to the secretarial pool. And how many people get the joke that the person hired to head the advertising department has the initials BBDO?

But How to Succeed still works because the songs are memorable and the characters are fun, the dancing is phenomenal and in many ways its send-up of the business world resonates 50 years later. (CNN's Anderson Cooper provides the authoritative voice of the how-to guide's narrator.)

This is the story of a young man who, despite not going to the proper school or having the right connections, still rises to the top through, okay, stretching the truth a bit here and there. With so much charm and a face like a choirboy, can you really hold that against him?

In some ways it's a uniquely American story - it speaks to our belief that with enough gumption anyone can make it, no matter how humble their background, even a window washer like "Ponty" Finch.

Radcliffe has already proved his mettle as a stage actor - I thought he was absorbing in Equus, as a troubled teenager who blinds horses. He could have sat at home in London and counted his Harry Potter earnings but he chose to take on the challenge of a Broadway musical.

I admire him for getting out of his comfort zone. I hope he continues to take risks and that they're all this incredibly entertaining - and successful.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The House of Blue Leaves

The House of Blue Leaves, at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** 1/2 out of ****

How fitting that Ben Stiller's character in the Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves is a zookeeper because this is one wild story: turbulent, messy, emotional - and hilarious.

The House of Blue Leaves takes place on Oct. 4, 1965, the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City. It was the first trip to the United States by a reigning pope and occurred at a time when the war in Vietnam was escalating.

This isn't an easy play to love and it may not be for everyone - some of the jokes are dated and some aspects of the plot might be considered in poor taste. But the 1960s are my favorite decade and I enjoyed every dark and quirky moment.

Stiller, more low-key here than in some of his movies, is sympathetic as Artie Shaugnessy, a would-be songwriter who dreams of leaving behind his drab life in Queens for fame and fortune in Hollywood. Scott Pask's terrific design for the Shaughnessy apartment - shabby and cluttered - hits just the right note.

Artie is egged on by his downstairs neighbor Bunny Flingus, a wacky and delightful Jennifer Jason Leigh, who wants to marry him and head for California. I can see why he's attracted to her: she's young and cute and eager and she feeds his ego.

Artie and Bunny pin their hopes for success on a leg up from Artie's childhood friend Billy Einhorn, played by Thomas Sadoski, who's become a hotshot director. A glamorous Alison Pill plays Corrinna, Billy's movie-star fiancee.

The only problem is Artie has a wife - the schizophrenic Bananas, played by one of my favorite actresses, Edie Falco. I love her from The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie and it was a joy to see her onstage - so expressive as a sad, bewildered woman who knows her husband wants to commit her to a mental institution.

I know none of this sounds especially funny but it is. I laughed - a lot. Playwright John Guare walks that fine line between comedy and tragedy brilliantly.

What he does is twofold: he explores Americans' obsession with celebrity and also looks at how our dreams for the future can fade into a harsh reality. Sometimes it's absurd but a lot of it rang true to life for me.

Artie's hapless son Ronnie, played by Christoper Abbott, is a GI headed for Southeast Asia who yearns for a moment in the spotlight. A trio of very funny nuns - Mary Beth Hurt, Halley Feiffer and Susan Bennett - end up in Artie's house watching the pope on TV.

Bunny is just as excited at the prospect of catching a glimpse of the papal motorcade as she is at meeting a movie star. (At one point she sports a giant "I Love Paul" button left over from The Beatles' first visit to America.)

Director David Cromer, whose work I admired in Our Town and Brighton Beach Memoirs, handles the comical, slapstick, scenes so well. The first act especially moved along briskly.

But Cromer understands that often, humor masks other emotions. He slows down to give the characters time to tell their stories. Ronnie and Bananas are especially poignant. They reminded me of those moments in life when you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Stiller's character doesn't get the big laughs in this agitated household. It's a nuanced performance that reminded me of the quote from Thoreau: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Coincidentally, Stiller portrayed Ronnie in the original 1986 Broadway production of The House of Blue Leaves. His mother, Anne Meara, was Bunny in the off-Broadway cast when the play premiered in 1971.

The hardest thing for a writer is to know when to stop and Guare ends The House of Blue Leaves so well. It was a startling moment but afterward, I understood it perfectly.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Angels in America

Angels in America, at the Signature Theatre Company
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

I've read Tony Kushner's prize-winning Angels in America and I've seen the 2003 HBO miniseries, so I went into last Sunday's marathon performance at New York's Signature Theatre thinking I knew what to expect.

Well, taking in both parts - Millennium Approaches and Perestroika - on the same day in a 160-seat venue was one of the best theatre experiences I've ever had. I saw a familiar work in a new way and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. What a luminous, transcendent production of a classic American play.

Signature's Angels, which closes on Sunday, is the first New York revival since the original debuted on Broadway in the 1990s. I feel so fortunate that it kept extending, with a new cast, so I could see it on my trip to New York City. If you have a chance to see a production anywhere, just go.

Angels in America is set in New York City in the mid 1980s in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when it was dismissed as a "gay plague." Michael Urie is Prior Walter, diagnosed with kaposi's sarcoma, a form of cancer associated with AIDS. His lover, Louis Ironson, played by Adam Driver, can't cope with the illness and abandons him.

Kushner could have written a very grim story about that period, but he didn't. It's tremendously life-affirming. He could have written about a man who stands by his lover, as most gay men did when their partners became sick. But his characters are human and flawed. Not everyone, Kushner is saying, can rise to the challenge of a loved-one's illness. (And of course that goes for whether you're gay or straight.)

Some of the dialogue in Angels in America is so lyrical it's like poetry. This is a deeply spiritual, unabashedly political and profoundly moving work. There's also a lot more humor than I remembered - Kushner is a very sharp, witty writer.

Urie, from the TV series Ugly Betty, is amazing. You can see the progression of the disease by the way he moves, how he curls up in bed, the look on his face. There's pain in his voice. He's haunted by strange dreams involving his ancestors and, of course, an angel. He's scared and vulnerable, yet there's this core of strength. And at times, he's very funny.

Driver also impressed me. What Louis does is reprehensible, and he knows it. He's also argumentative to the point of obnoxiousness. Yet with Driver's performance I didn't hate Louis so much as pity him. Kushner also uses Louis as a way to express his outrage at the hypocrisy of gay men who are closeted, powerful and homophobic.

While Angels in America is subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" what also struck me is that it's very Jewish, and not solely because there are Jewish characters and Kushner's Jewish. Just like the story of Jacob in the Bible, almost every character is wrestling with something.

Prior is literally wrestling with an angel, as well as with his illness; Louis is guilt-stricken for leaving him; Joe Pitt, a closeted Mormon lawyer, played by Bill Heck, struggles to accept his sexual orientation; his Valium-addicted wife, Harper, played by Keira Keeley, lives in a fantasy world; and his mother, Hannah, played by Lynne McCullough, rushes to New York after he comes out to her in a drunken late-night phone call; the vile, Red-baiting lawyer Roy Cohn, played by Jonathan Hadary, tries to keep the fact that he has AIDS a secret. He's tormented by a vision of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he helped send to the electric chair.

I think the only person who isn't struggling is Billy Porter's Belize, a former drag queen and friend of Prior's who becomes Cohn's nurse. I especially loved his give-and-take with Driver's Ironson about freedom and democracy and race in America. He and Hannah Pitt are the two most compassionate people in the play - toward those you wouldn't expect, which is another way Kushner circumvents our expectations.

The two parts are so well constructed - about seven hours in all but it moves so quickly, with lots of two-person scenes that under Michael Greif's direction flow seamlessly from one to the next.

At the beginning of Angels in America an elderly rabbi delivers the eulogy for Louis' grandmother and he talks about how she came from the old country, how her grandchildren can't make that journey but will have one of their own to make.

In the end, I did feel like I had been on a journey - with a terrific cast who made their characters so utterly compelling. I'll admit I didn't understand everything along the way. The angel, a glorious Sofia Jean Gomez, still mystified me a bit. But her arrival, in a blaze of light and sound, was thrilling. Even though I knew it was coming, my jaw dropped.

Cohn tells his doctor he can't possibly be dying of AIDS because he's not a homosexual. Homosexuals are people without power. (Although he does want the most hard-to-get, experimental treatment for the disease.) He says, "A homosexual is somebody who knows nobody and who nobody knows."

There are so many memorable lines in Angels but that one especially made me think how different things were in the 1980s and how, thankfully, times have changed - for people with AIDS, in the lives of gay and lesbian Americans and in my life.

AIDS has gone from a death sentence to a manageable illness. I now have many friends who are openly gay, people I know well and admire and love dearly. And while there's a ways to go before we achieve full civil rights for all Americans, we have made progress. The world is spinning forward.

After the end of Millennium Approaches a member of the cast made an appeal for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, as many productions do at this time of year.

In the lobby, Michael Urie was holding a red plastic bucket for donations and when I saw him I started to cry. He was wearing his pajamas from the final scene - the top sweaty from a fever dream. I could barely speak but I managed to tell him "Michael, you were wonderful. I'm coming back for Part 2 tonight."

I gave him $20 and he gave me a red ribbon, which I will cherish. And I will keep his performance in my heart, always.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Giving stunt casting a bad name

I know it's called acting and it's wrong of me to prejudge but I'm having a hard time imagining Samuel L. Jackson, who's nearly 63, portraying 39-year-old Martin Luther King on Broadway in The Mountaintop.

The play, by Katori Hall, imagines an encounter between King and a maid in a Memphis motel room on the night before his assassination. The producers have announced that they'll begin previews Sept. 22 at the Jacobs Theatre.

I love seeing actors onstage whose work I've admired from movies or TV. I think it's great when they generate excitement and bring people to the theatre who wouldn't have come otherwise. But the actor has to be right for the part.

Maybe I'm totally wrong and Samuel L. Jackson can "play" younger. Perhaps the playwright believes he's just perfect for the part - or has just resigned herself to the economic reality of mounting an unknown work on Broadway. Maybe it's been so long since King's death that it no longer matters.

I usually don't get too hot and bothered about this. I realize it's a business. But my initial reaction is that having an actor who's nearly 25 years older than the real-life figure he's playing is ridiculous. It's the worst kind of stunt casting because it ignores the role, not to mention the paucity of leading dramatic roles for black actors.

Now I realize that The Mountaintop would have no chance of getting staged on Broadway without a "name." But couldn't the producers have found an African-American actor from TV or movies who was more age-appropriate? (For example Jeffrey Wright, a Tony winner who played King in an HBO movie, Boycott.)

Could you imagine a 63-year-old white actor in the lead of a Broadway play about the last night of John F. Kennedy's life? I don't think so.

Friday, April 8, 2011

National Theatre's Frankenstein

I went to a play at the movies yesterday - Frankenstein from England's National Theatre - and it was terrific, despite a technical glitch that delayed the start for 45 minutes!

Two actors - Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller - alternate the roles of the creature and Victor Frankenstein. Cumberbatch was the creature at the performance I saw - and he was mesmerizing. Miller was so absorbing as the conflicted scientist who brings him to life.

I don't like horror stories so Frankenstein, directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle, wouldn't have been my first choice for my first NTLive screening. But I loved Cumberbatch as world's most famous consulting detective in Sherlock. Plus, what an appropriate show to bring my blog back to life.

Frankenstein opens with a 15-minute spastic ballet as the creature, arms and legs flailing, attempts to stand up. He's awkward and his appearance is shocking, with train-track sutures running across his head and down his face. (I can see why two actors play the creature, it's physically demanding.)

Cumberbatch manages to make the creature both terrifying and sympathetic. He gradually becomes "civilized," learning to speak and read, yet you never forget that he's a monster. He simply wants to be loved despite his appearance and yet all he learns in his contact with humans is deception and hatred and fear.

If there's a villain in playwright Nick Dear's adaptation of Mary Shelley's 19th-century novel, it's Victor Frankenstein. He's arrogant and stubborn, obsessed with his work, cold toward the people who love him.

What I found fascinating is that Miller's Frankenstein knows he's made a mistake. He's horrified by the violent creature that he's brought to life. At the same time, he's kind of proud of what he's done. There's definitely some attraction/repulsion at work here.

I was afraid seeing a filmed play might be kind of stilted and talky but I thought this production was stunning - the music, the lighting, the sets all create kind of a gloomy, eerie, foreboding atmosphere. There were a couple of moments where I felt a little squeamish and one that genuinely startled me.

The National Theatre films several productions a year and shows them in venues around the world. They're a little more expensive than a regular movie - my ticket was $15. But they're worth checking out if you love theatre and a trip to London isn't in your future.