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.