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Tennessee Williams’s
The Glass Menagerie
Revival
Sunday @ 3:00pm
Monday N/A
Tuesday @ 7:00pm
Wednesday @ 2:00pm& 7:00pm
Thursday@ 7:00pm
Friday @ 8:00pm
Saturday@ 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Opened Sep 26, 2013
Closes Jan 5, 2014
The Booth Theater

Directed by John Tiffany

Starring: Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Brian J. Smith

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

There should be a good reason to revive a play that has seen so many past productions—something other than that some movie star wants to play a certain role. There should be a ridiculously good reason to revive a classic that has been studied in classrooms ad nauseum (seriously, did we really need another Romeo and Juliet?). At the very least, it should illuminate certain aspects of the text that have been buried deep. In a perfect production, it would also reflect the times we live in—without force.

I am elated to say that John Tiffany’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie does both and then some. There’s a vitality, a timeliness to this production but there is also a great effort to delve deep into the two central characters and truly investigate that relationship. In addition, notions of how memory truly damages a person are explored fearlessly.

I will spare the reader any plot synopsis. If you are not familiar with the play, then you’ve either been living on Mars or…well, I can’t think of an “or.” And chances are, it’s required reading on Mars as well.

While I always liked the play, I found it a bit simplistic and dull. In High School, we were spoon-fed what the themes were. And if you argued, disagreed or offered up alternate thoughts that reflected in your grade—so conforming to what your teacher thought, was best.

Each TV, film or stage production I viewed did nothing to change my mind, except I was excited to see what each new Diva’s take on Amanda would be. That was enough to get me through the LONG second act scene between Laura and her Gentleman Caller, which was just painful because we knew the outcome. There was no hope for Laura. She was stuck living the rest of her life with that monster mother.

What Tiffany and his masterful cast and crew accomplish in this heightened yet grounded production is to give the audience a true hope, even though we are highly aware that this is a memory play and everything has already played itself out. We yearn for Amanda and Tom to find some kind of peace with one another, for Laura to muster up just enough self-esteem to be able to recover from the Gentleman Caller’s devastating 11th hour admittance and for Tom to exorcise his guilt—his demons—once and for all.

Magic is captured in this production, from the way each character enters via Tom’s intro to the oddly modern feel of this family, lost in space and time (perhaps our crippling economic situation has something to do with this) to the strange yet deep love the two central characters have for one another, despite the misery and hurt they inflict on each other.

This Glass probes how memories can not only haunt and scar you but consume you if you allow it, so everything you are is forever shaped by the ‘sins of the past.’ Tom is trying to move on with his life by telling his story and hoping he finds some kind of peace, but in reliving it—it’s only made worse—more painful. There is no catharsis for Tom. No escape. And he doesn’t have Amanda’s gift of delusion to get him through.

If we meld Tom with Williams, there is real hope as “Shakespeare” (Tom’s nickname) does have the ability to write and perhaps that can, at least, offer some comfort—to the audience. Only, the audience.

This production also examines how one’s decisions—deliberate or otherwise—can have life-altering effects depending on how the ramifications are dealt with. And that is subject to the life-tools each person is equipped with.

Amanda cannot forgive Tom for not being what she wants—needs—him to be—for not knowing things he should have known. But, ultimately, she cannot forgive him for being too much like his father. The irony is that Amanda raised him to be like his father by alienating him the way she probably alienated pop.

Tom cannot forgive Amanda for never being satisfied with him—for smothering him—instead of allowing him to be who he is, or, at least, figure that out himself. Amanda has passed on the ‘unforgiving’ gene to another generation. And, to her horror, it’s used against her.

This production spotlights all the familial patterns and buttons between mother and son. These two love one another but will NEVER like or respect one another.

One of Tom’s reactions to Amanda’s bellowing of “Rise and shine, rise and shine,” in the morning has never been more telling: “I think to myself, how lucky dead people are,” delivered with just the right amount of contempt and sincerity.

Zachary Quinto helps brings Tom back to the forefront of this play—where he belongs. Even with Jones’s brash Amanda onstage, Quinto is able to hold his own. He’s furious at life (as any good poet/writer should be)—at the world—for not allowing him to be who he is. And this portrait of Tom, more than any other burrows into Williams’ own unease with his sexuality. We sense that Tom is different. And when he is around Jim (the Gentleman Caller) he seems to come alive. There is more homoerotic touchy-feely-play with these two than I recall seeing in any other production. And the repressed feelings do not feel one-sided. There’s an entire new layer explored--and more ‘what-ifs’ added.

Tom is furious at his mother for her constantly reminding him of what a failure he is, at Laura for being frail and forcing him to remain in a living hell situation, although this Tom seems to have both feet out the door from the get-go.

There’s a power to this Tom. A defiance. A yearning for something more—something better, also a struggle--his not wanting to be so bitter—so angry with his mother and the universe. But she, along with everyone in his life, keeps disappointing--keeps pulling him right back into the same dark hole—the same place that tells him he will never be good enough, He will always be a failure. His mom feels this because of his genetic burden (being his father’s son)…and the world has little need for him because he’s both lower class as well as “different--” an outcast struggling with a host of inner demons.

It’s a magnificent performance. And speaking of…

I have loved Cherry Jones (Doubt, The Heiress) and been indifferent to her (Faith Healer). Here, she is revelatory.

The 1944 premiere production boasted a performance by Laurette Taylor that is legendary. And since it was never captured for posterity, its status has reached Olympian heights.

Jones’s portrayal is earthy and robust. She’s a hurricane when needs be, but also a schoolgirl lost in memories of her youth.

And there is something more American about her than I ever recall sensing from the three other Amandas that are stamped into my memory: Katharine Hepburn in the TV movie, Joanne Woodward in the film version and Jessica Lange in the most recent Broadway revival.

Jones’s Amanda is about BBQs and apple pie and parades and potluck suppers--VERY American and distinctly Southern in her manner, her behavior, her speech, her thoughts and her desires.

She is more at home in her perfectly recreated past than she is in the present. Even if that past has been tailored to her survival needs. Yet, she is well aware of what it takes to get along in the present. She will never be Laura. And a part of her hates Tom for having the audacity to move on--get out. How dare he, when she cannot—no, will not.

Jones seems to embody all the myriad qualities of past Amandas (brittle, tough, tentative) yet forges one that is more flesh-and-blood human—more fierce mother than Williams’ written monster. Her Amanda may babble and ramble but it’s calculated. She uses her shrewd charms to manipulate—for her family—for her daughter, and a little bit for herself. One gets the idea that Amanda wants the Gentleman Caller around for herself almost as much as for her daughter—to recapture her youth—if only for fleeting moments. Not necessarily in a sexual way (as in Lange’s portrayal).

As for the two other cast members, they get their moment to shine in that LONG scene I mentioned earlier—which in this production feels just the right length. Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Laura pops her head out of her self-imposed prison—just enough. This Laura doesn’t bloom with Jim. She merely perks up a bit—and begins to find herself a bit.

And Brian J. Smith’s Gentleman Caller Jim has just the right amount of ego to let himself take things a bit too far. But it’s more than that. One gets the feeling he really likes Laura. Does it go that far beyond the fact that he’s tickled that someone worshipped him in High School? Maybe not, but for someone like Jim—that’s a lot. Would he really court Laura if he weren’t already taken? I think so. If only to have his ego re-stroked by both Laura and Amanda. His post-football days have proven less than thrilling and exposed him as just another vulnerable adult lacking in true self-esteem.

Both Laura and Jim give each other the gift of confidence. The Laura/Jim sequence is a sweet scene made all the more tragic by the promise created.

The entire production team should be applauded for this truly great stage interpretation.

Tickets by phone 212) 239-6200 or telecharge.com.

Booth Theatre | 222 W 45th St
New York, NY 10036




Ferenc Molnár's
The Play's The Thing
Adapted by P. G. Wodehouse
Sept. 20, 21, 23, 26-28th @ 7.30pm
Oct. 3-5, 10-12, 16-19, 23-26th @ 7.30pm
Oct. 5, 12, 19, 26th @ 2pm
Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame

Presented by The Storm Theatre

Directed by Peter Dobbins

Starring: Andy Allis, Spencer Aste, Joe Danbusky, James Henry Doan, George Goss, Alexis Kelley, Jeff Kline and Brian Linden

Reviewed by Carlotta Brentan

My recent theatrical forays above 70th street have been extremely satisfying. A few months back, I braved the trip to The Drilling CompaNY Theatre for a fantastically entertaining production of Dario Fo's We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! A few days ago, I was similarly impressed by The Storm Theatre's production of The Play's the Thing, currently playing at the company's permanent home, the theatre of the Church of Notre Dame on 114th street.

The Play's the Thing, originally by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár, but heavily adapted by P.G. Wodehouse, is an old-school play (technical term). A 1920s comedy of manners, set in a castle on the Italian Riviera, featuring characters such as a prima donna, a famous dramatist, a footman, and concerning itself with – in the program’s own words - the goings on of 'febrile high society.' Here we find an abundance of witticisms, a convoluted play-within-a-play and a series of humorous misunderstandings. The Storm's production of it is also rather traditional. By this I mean that all actors’ genders are as written in the script, the set is realistic as is the abundance of props, and the intent of the production seems to be to stick as closely as possible to the style and spirit of the original piece, without imposing any drastically new interpretation on it.

As far as I’m concerned, none of this is a negative thing. The play itself contains such a wealth of razor sharp sarcasm and beautiful language - and the actors are all so skilled - that I certainly never minded the production’s traditional approach.

From the very beginning, The Storm’s production does a remarkable job of summoning the spirit of the age. Notes from an instrumental recording of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" waft up to greet us before we’ve even stepped down into the church basement where the theater is located. The belowground lobby is a sight in itself with its arches and ancient brick - so very appropriate when we're meant to be stepping into a medieval castle. Inside the theater, the audience is divided in two halves and seated on either side of the beautifully dressed playing area, facing each other while the actors work their magic in between.

Speaking of which – the cast as a whole turns out a remarkable performance. Joe Danbusky is nearly flawless in his portrayal of famous dramatist Sandor Turai, who’s always two steps ahead of everyone else and cleverly engineers the events of the play. Mr. Danbusky has impeccable style and comedic timing, and effortlessly leads the whole cast with a sharp tongue and a firm hand. The other standout is Spencer Aste as the Count's footman, by the unpronounceable name of Dwornitschek. Mr Aste’s inspired performance is both hysterically funny and heartwarmingly realistic, and takes this potential cliché to a three-dimensional level. He comes very close to stealing the show - but his cast-members put up a brave fight. The audience was equally as enamored with Alexis Kelley's outrageously over-the-top prima donna, as with Brian Linden's self-centered, pusillanimous leading actor.

The play does seem to run a little long, and isn't quite compelling all the way through. Towards the end of the second act we go through a lengthy meta-theatrical gag in which the characters - playwrights and composers themselves - debate how a playwright should end a second act. Half way through it, I found myself thinking that I didn't much care how the act ended, just as long as it ended soon.

Also, so much work has clearly gone into refining the style of the piece - directed in a very detailed way by The Storm Artistic Director Peter Dobbins - that sometimes style nearly overtook substance. The piece might have benefitted from something so simple as a few more pauses, to break up the frantic nature of the farce and show us just a glimpse of the characters’ real emotional journey. One notable exception to this was young love interest Albert Adam, played by Jeff Kline. Mr. Kline, while perhaps not as comfortable as the rest of the cast in the style of the period, made up for it with some touching moments of emotional honesty.

All in all, The Play’s the Thing is entertaining, beautifully done and definitely worth seeing. I’m already looking forward to The Storm’s upcoming production of Jean Anouilh’s' Antigone, coming in January 2014.

Tickets $25 at the door or www.smarttix.com

The Theatre Of The Church of Notre Dame | 405 West 114th Street | New York | New York



Rupert Holmes’s stage adaptation
Of John Grisham’s
A Time to Kill
Sunday3:00pm
MondayN/A
Tuesday @ 7:00pm
Wednesday @ 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday @ 7:00pm
Friday @ 8:00pm
Saturday @ 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Opens October 20, 2013
Open Run
John Golden Theatre

Directed by Ethan McSweeny

Starring: Sebastian Arcelus, Chike Johnson, Patrick Page, Tonya Pinkins, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Douglas Thompson, Ashley Williams, Jeffrey M. Bender, Dashiell Eaves, J.R. Horne, John Procaccino, Tijuana Ricks and Lee Sellars

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Rupert Holmes, author/singer of the infamous "Escape (the Pina Colada Song)" and accomplished playwright (Accomplice, Say Goodnight Gracie) and librettist (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Curtains) has a knack for clever and crisp dialogue. And when good actors assemble to ricochet his words off one another, the results can thrill, stimulate and energize an audience. The good news is that most of the actors cast in A Time to Kill, are, indeed wonderful, making the experience absorbing from the get-go. There are a few clunky exceptions, though—one glaring one in particular, which I will get too later.

Much is being made that this is the very first stage adaptation of a John Grisham novel. There could be a very good reason for that, mainly Grisham writes sweeping action thrillers that may be courtroom grounded but are also locale busy and, did I mention, action-packed?

I decided to watch the 1996 Joel Schumacher film the night before I saw the stage show and I’m actually glad I did. My memory was that it was one of my favorite screen adaptations of a Grisham work and it, for the most part, held up. I did wonder how certain important plot reveals and major violent moments would be done on the stage. I also worried about the cast size and how each major player would be given their due.

More often than not, Holmes manages to do a smashing job of deftly streamlining the plot, tightening the narrative and deleting two major players without harming the potency of the piece. I did miss the brother of one of the accused (played by Keifer Sutherland) turned KKK villain, but that character’s omission ultimately helped attempt to present a more balanced argument in the play.

The story, set in the 1980s, centers on an ambitious young lawyer, Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) who agrees to defend a black father, Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson) who has just gunned down the two men accused of raping and torturing his 10-year-old daughter. This divides the Mississippi town into angry mob factions and the morality of such an obvious revenge crime is debated as the narrative unfolds.

One of the difficulties in assessing a courtroom drama like A Time to Kill is that, no matter the reveal, the audience is on the Carl’s side. There will not be any 11th hour introduction of evidence that will make the watcher wonder if he is guilty. He is. There will be an argument for justice by the Prosecutor, Rufus Buckley (Patrick Page), but that argument can never be strong enough when the innocence of a 10-year-old is involved.

Add to that the fact that you know what the verdict will be long before it’s announced means the excitement must come from the execution of the play and the presentation of the arguments.

Obviously, Holmes is forced to remain faithful to Grisham’s work and that becomes the play’s biggest problem. As much as there are real moral and ethical issues to weigh—it becomes impossible to truly present a real debate, given the limitations of the source material.

So we have everyone rooting for Jake and Carl (as I was) and no one caring about the two murdered men. After all they were scum--drunk, pedophile, rapist, inbred, uneducated, murdering, racist scum. How could anyone not want to see them dead? Now, imagine for a moment that the narrative presented two respected, educated boys who were accused but we weren’t certain about their guilt. Imagine Carl guns them down and evidence is presented weighing both sides. Then we’d have a true debate on our hands. But I am rewriting Grisham, which is heresy. So I’ll stop now. But, you get where I’m going.

Ethan McSweeny directs with as much suspense and pizazz as possible, again given his limitations. And the evening moves along at a nice pace, helped by exceptional lighting design (by Jeff Croiter), a fantastic rotating set (designed by James Noone) and an appropriately bluesy score (by Lindsay Jones).

When it comes to the performances, it’s impossible to not consider the film’s cast, despite the different medium.

Sebastian Arcelus has great charisma and does a splendid job of keeping us engaged and on his side. He’s subtle but effective. But the decision to give him that curly Matthew McConaughey hairdo begs comparisons with his film counterpart…and he more than acquits himself. His Jake feels more confident and isn’t weighed down by plodding scenes with his wife (played by the always-lackluster Ashley Judd in the film).

John Douglas Thompson chooses to give us a less angry and unrepentant Carl and in doing so gains more sympathy than Samuel L. Jackson did. But loses some of the Jackson fire.

Fred Dalton Thompson’s Judge is gruff, bellowing yet sympathetic. Thompson seemed to be struggling with his lines at the performance I attended.

A welcome, scene-stealing tornado, Patrick Page gives the best performance in this production. Slick, but surprisingly poignant, Page wipes out all memories of Kevin Spacey—who was surprisingly too understated in the movie. Page had me riveted every time he spoke or reacted.

And it’s great to see Tom Skerritt in the Donald Sutherland role, having a ball onstage—enjoying his boozing (a different drink each time). It’s Skerritt’s Broadway debut and he’s just wonderful in a too-underwritten part. Speaking of…

The amazing Tonya Pinkins, enters in Act One and electrifies—like delivering an acting master class. Her character (Carl’s wife) also brings up some interesting points that should have been debated further. But she then disappears for way too long and we aren’t even given a scene in Act 2 that she can sink her teeth into—it’s supremely frustrating and the actress deserves better.

The one casting blunder is Ashley Williams as Ellen Roark. Onscreen, the character feels superfluous but Sandra Bullock brings enough moxie to make it palpable. Williams is just awkward and is trying way too hard. And the forced kiss between Jake and Ellen is misguided. Firstly, we can’t really care much about Jake’s cheating on a wife we never meet—so there’s no investment there. But Williams is so bland that we wonder why he would want to pursue her in the first place.

A few moments fall flat--the off-stage murders of the accused feels odd and the reactions to Carl walking back into the courtroom holding the machine gun is too calm. The man has a machine gun!

But there are very effective moments like Jake’s summation that brilliantly cites race--in a different but equally powerful way than the film.

A Time to Kill is still a potent piece of theatre, if you don’t mind having little to no suspense with your courtroom drama.

Tickets 69.50 - 132.00 (212) 239-6200 telecharge.com

John Golden Theatre | 252 W 45th St
New York, NY 10036


 


Mario Fratti’s
The Vatican Knows
Sunday @ 3:00pm
Thursday @ 8:00pm
Friday @ 8:00pm
Saturday @ 8:00pm
Oct. 3rd – 20th, 2013
Theater For The New City

Directed by Stephan Morrow

Starring Lucas Beck, Giulia Bisinella, Jacob Cribbs, Ian Campbell Dunn, Debbie Klaar, Timothy Roselle, Mark Ethan Toporek

Presented by Theater for The New City

Reviewed by Carlotta Brentan

In The Vatican Knows, prolific playwright Mario Fratti tackles a real-life mystery that rocked his native Italy in 1983. The facts are these: a 15-year-old girl, the daughter of Church employees who resided in the Vatican, disappeared in 1983. Nothing further was ever known of her. Her body was never found. Naturally, countless theories about her presumed kidnapping circulated in national and international media, both at the time and in the years since. Indeed Fratti, who is known for reading a news article in the morning and having written a play about it by the evening, was inspired to write this play by a New York Times article published just last year.

Fratti centers his play around the theory that young Emanuela - or Emma, as she’s called in the play - was kidnapped by Turkish terrorists who planned to use her as leverage for the release of Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot John Paul II in 1981. Looking beyond this plausible - albeit completely unproven - scenario, Mr. Fratti takes his story in a completely imaginary direction: his Emma holds an unshakable belief that she is the Pope's biological daughter. It's this belief - which she readily publicizes to anyone who'll listen - that makes fictional Emma a terrorist target.

It’s virtually impossible to write anything about the Catholic Church without some controversy. In The Vatican Knows, Fratti seems to pack much of the controversy in the opening scene. As the lights come up on a Papal chamber, we are welcomed by an off-stage voice, which narrates in chillingly graphic detail sexual abuse suffered at the hand of a paedophile priest. Whilst this opening is presumably meant to shock the audience to attention, it seems rather gratuitous once it becomes clear that the rest of Fratti's play bears no relation whatsoever to the subject of the Catholic sex abuse scandals. The victim’s recording is then brusquely interrupted by John Paul II (Mark Ethan Toporek), who claims that this is the first he hears of it, and that this will never happen again under his watch. Rather controversial, this: it’s a subject of heated debate whether John Paul II was in fact very much aware of the abuses all along, and participated in their cover-ups. Fratti’s suggestion that he was completely innocent is sure to raise some eyebrows.

After the opening scene, the play quickly builds momentum, taking us into the private lives of Emma, her nervous lover, her conservative parents, and later the terrorists who kidnap the young couple.

Given that this is not an easy subject to sell to an audience, this production does a commendable job of keeping us engaged throughout. The cast is - with one or two exceptions - consistently strong and committed (even on a Sunday matinee.) The actors do a valiant job of finding truth and immediacy in Fratti's largely non-naturalistic language, and of filling out their characters between the lines.

Giulia Bisinella stands out as Emma, our delusional protagonist, in a multi-faceted performance. On one hand, she's a modern woman who positively brags about no longer being a virgin. A second later, she morphs into nothing short of a religious fanatic who – in her words - would throw herself into a fire for her beloved Pope. The actress deftly handles these contradictions and layers them to create an engaging, magnetic, vulnerable character - while also finding delightful humour where she can.

Bisinella is surrounded by equally competent leading men: her lover Gustav, played by Ian Campbell Dunn, wins our sympathy as a simple man who loves Emma but is a victim of her stronger personality and of circumstance. Also remarkable is Lucas Beck as terrorist ring-leader Ahmet, whose compelling stage presence forces us to pay attention. Beck and Dunn particularly show their skill by keeping the audience interested – and the tension going - through a rather long stretch of dry exposition in Act II that is meant to educate us about the terrorists' world view and reasons for attacking the Papacy.

Last but not least, we have of course the play’s central figure, John Paul II, played by Mark Ethan Toporek. Toporek shows himself to best advantage during the multiple sermons he delivers straight to the audience – and also benefits from a startling resemblance in both appearance and mannerisms to Jeremy Irons’ questionable Pope Alexander VI (Showtime’s The Borgias.)

Veteran Off-Off Broadway director Stephan Morrow shapes this production with a solid hand, keeping up the pace and never allowing his actors to veer into the melodrama that lurks behind some of the play's most intense moments. Morrow, whose collaboration with Fratti dates back many years, has nothing but praise for his actors: "They leave a piece of their soul on that stage," he told me - which is why, he says, it's important that audiences overcome their aversion towards heavy subjects such as this, and come see this play.

Overall, The Vatican Knows, whilst definitely worth checking out, is over almost before it starts. Once the last line of the play had been spoken, I found myself wishing that there was more. More scenes, perhaps, to give us a chance to get closer to its characters. More answers - real or imagined - about what happened to Emma. Then again, Mr. Fratti loves a mystery.

Tickets $10 www.theaterforthenewcity.net (212) 254 - 1109

Theater for The new City | 155 First Ave.
New York, NY 10003


 

 


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