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Robert Schenkkan’s
All the Way
Tues & Thurs at 7PM
Wed at 2PM & 8PM
FRI at 8PM
Sat at 2PM & 8PM
Sun at 3PM
The Neil Simon Theatre

Directed by Bill Rauch.

With: Bryan Cranston, Betsy Aidem, Michael McKeon, Rob Campbell, Brandon J. Dirden, James Eckhouse, John McMartin, Robert Petkoff, Roslyn Ruff.

At the Neil Simon Theater, 250 W. 52nd Street, NYC.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln worked so well because the focus was on a particularly important time in the ill-fated leader’s presidency—the fight to get the 13th Amendment—that would end slavery--passed. Brilliantly written by Tony Kushner, the film never spoon-fed the audience—quite the contrary, it presented ideas and expected the viewer to come already somewhat knowledgeable and do their own work.

Robert Schenkkan’s new play, All the Way, parallel’s Lincoln in the way that it, too, deals with a particularly urgent time in history--one that also focused on civil rights. The play is smart but appears to have been written with a mass audience in mind. And, as opposed to Spielberg’s opus, the drama does a bit too much spoon-feeding. And while it purports to present LBJ, warts and all, it takes some major liberties with history in trying to give him all the credit for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964—one of the most important bill’s in the last century.

While it was, indeed, Johnson who fought to get the bill passed, it was Kennedy who laid much of the groundwork for the bill and, according to many sources, had every intention of pushing it forward in his second term. In addition, the Eisenhower administration had done their share of work as well. All the Way gives Kennedy no credit whatsoever for doing most of the leg work. Schenkkan’s play makes it seem like the idea was all Johnson’s and he deserves all the credit. Revisionism, much?

The Kennedy assassination did change the climate of the nation so much that Johnson would be able to take advantage of the unrest to drive the bill home.

All the Way opens right after that fateful day in Dallas and takes an epic, sympathetic look at the next year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. And for almost three hours, the audience is treated to an involving, if subjective, history lesson that bleeds into riveting every time Bryan Cranston speaks which, happily, is often.

“It’s not personal…it’s just politics,” reads the T-shirt being sold in the lobby. It’s a line Johnson relays with deliberate ease. The man was a master manipulator who always remembered who was with him and who was against him.

Watching Cranston’s LBJ grouse, sweet talk, slyly grin and scowl, sometimes doing all of the above in a moment’s glance, is a treat. The actor is indomitable and presents us with a complex Johnson--a man rich with spitfire and megalomania but also true heart and, yes, grit. He may be uncertain at times but he covers it up with the most assured veneer.

Along the journey to pass the bill, Johnson must lock horns with many a significant figure including: the Reverend Martin Luther King (Brandon J. Dirden, embodying the man’s spirit and doing a keen impression as well), racist Alabama governor George Wallace (a potent Rob Campbell) and FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover (a sinister Michael McKeon).

Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff, the best featured performance) is Johnson’s whipping boy for most of the play and allows himself to be abused and played because, well, it’s the only way for him to get what he wants—the Vice Presidency. Presented as a bit of a clown, Petkoff gives the character true nuance and in a truly powerful scene, the man must come to terms with being accused of caring more about his political career than the lives of African-Americans.

The most underwritten characters are the females, specifically Lady Bird Johnson. Besty Aidem does her best with what she is given, but it’s a shame that the most important person in LBJ’s life couldn’t have been fleshed out beyond existing solely for her Lyndon.

Power, and keeping it once you have it, is a major theme in All the Way. As LBJ finds his groove, paranoia begins to set in—just as it did 2000 years earlier with each new Roman Emperor. Who can you trust? Hoover is wire-tapping everyone. Dr. King is warning that his people may resort to violence. The southern leaders are threatening to walk out of the convention. McNamara wants to resign. And Wallace is inciting his racist constituents for political gain.

As All the Way (title taken from the campaign slogan: “All the way with LBJ.”) reaches its climax, LBJ may have a true and deserved triumph on his hands but the war in Vietnam is about to take over his soul and decimate it. The look on Cranston’s LBJ as he celebrates his victory says all you need to know about the toll his coveted power is taking on the man.

The importance of the Civil Rights Act (50th anniversary this July) has great significance today since gay rights and, specifically, gay marriage rights are currently under fire from many conservative (religious) groups—the majority from the South.

There’s a wink-wink line in the play: “The Republican party is never going to be a friend of the South.” The irony is obvious. The South fought the end of slavery. The South fought civil rights. The South is fighting gay marriage. The South is highly devout. The South is pro-gun. The South is anti-education. Perhaps secession wasn’t such a bad idea after all. (That was my polemicized two cents, btw.)

Tickets at
Or call 877-250-2929

The Neil Simon Theatre | 250 West 52nd Street, NYC



The Bridges of Madison County
Sunday @ 3:00pm
Tuesday @ 7:00pm
Wednesday @ 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday @ 7:00pm
Friday@ 8:00pm
Saturday @ 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre

Book by Marsha Norman

Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

Based on the novel by Robert James Waller.

Directed by Bartlett Sher.

Based on the Focus Features/Vulcan Productions Film Written and Directed by Todd Haynes.

Starring: Kelli O’Hara, Steven Pasquale, Hunter Foster, Michael X. Martin, Cass Morgan, Derek Klena, Caitlin Kinnunen, Whitney Bashor.

At the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Last year, in my review of Playwrights Horizons ambitious but uneven show, Far From Heaven, that happened to star Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, I wrote, “give Kelli O’Hara the musical she deserves.” Less than a year later, I got my wish. And Broadway audiences who are smart should rush out to see The Bridges of Madison County so they can experience a titanic creative team that deliver an almost perfect musical event.

I confess I have never read the best-selling, highly divisive chick novel by Robert James Waller, but I am a great fan of Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film version. Whereas he may have been too old to play Robert (he was 65), he still brought a gravitas to the role that most 30-40something actors back then couldn’t and his direction was loving and thoughtful. Plus he cast Meryl Streep as Francesca who was simply sublime, despite the fact that she isn’t an ounce Italian.

In the stage adaptation, we have two actors who are more age appropriate, in the opposite direction, (both are in their mid-30s) but look younger!

The soapy plot centers on a romance blossoming between two unlikely lovers.

Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) is an immigrant farmer’s wife who married a good man so she could get away from her family in Naples (and live that American dream that turned out to be more of a nightmare for many who made the journey). She and her husband (Hunter Foster) have made a life in his homestate of Iowa and have two teen children, whom she loves dearly. She loves her husband, too, but has never quite been in love with him.

Enter National Geographic photojournalist Robert Kinkaid (Steven Pasquale) who has been dispatched to Madison County to photograph the area bridges. Robert is a nomad who has never been able to, nor has he wanted to, have a lasting relationship.

The two meet and there is an instant connection, a passion—the kind of sparks that people write pulp novels about.

What the Broadway Bridges team manages to do with this dangerously hammy and sentimental plot is to funnel out the most human elements and probe the realities of both character’s motivations, situations, frustrations, elations...

And what they’ve come up with is probably the best Broadway musical of this millennium—certainly the best score.

The gifted Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) has penned the loveliest, lushest, most memorable songs—one after the other taking us on a journey of yearning, fear, joy and, ultimately, capitulation. “Falling Into You”, in particular is a rich, soaring, duet that simply transports theatregoers to that place that chicks and gays live to go to, but also forces straight guys to wake up and fight those nagging goosebumps.

Marsha Norman’s book mostly transcends soap opera, especially when it concentrates on Francesca and Robert, and cuts to the core of what it is like to feel the kind of passion that makes people do anything for one another.

I wish the focus had remained more on our lovers. I get that this small town watches and gossips and, ultimately, cares for one another, I just wish the show didn’t feel the need to constantly interrupt the love story with repetitive but misguided comic relief. I liked the idea of the ensemble sitting onstage surrounding the set, but did they have to speak so much—and not really saying anything new or exciting?

That aside, the supporting cast rocks with Derek Klena a standout as the son who desires more from life than to be forced to run his father’s farm.

Whitney Bashor plays Robert’s ex-gal and has one stirring, exquisite song, “Another Life.” This scene is a great example of Barlett Sher’s inspired cinematic staging, giving the audience plenty of subtext along the way.

Hunter Foster nails the 60s American attitude most rural men had (my father was a second generation American who married an Italian immigrant and Foster so reminded me of him).

Steven Pasquale is the right combination of sexy and elusive—a man who has gotten comfortable with ‘keeping to himself.” Pasquale does a masterful job of allowing us inside his heart and head so we can watch him watch himself fall in love and marvel at his own reaction. Pasquale’s extraordinary vocals on, “It All Fades Away,” puts him at the top of the Mount Olympus musical theatre pantheon.

Bartlett Sher’s directs with a fluid, confident hand.

The sets (by Michael Yeargan) and costumes (by Catherine Zuber) are evocative and period perfect. The lighting design (by Donald Holder) dazzles.

Let’s see. Have I forgotten anything? Anyone?

Oh, yes. Kelli O’Hara. What can I say about her?

That just watching her walk downstage as she enters in the opening moments had me enthralled?

That’s she’s the type of artist that poems are written for and about?

That she won me over, as a non-Italian playing an Italian so believably that I had forgotten it was one of my biggest pet peeves?

That her rendition of the song, “Almost Real,” had me in tears?

That her Francesca is so devastatingly haunted by the life unlived that I wanted to run up on that stage and push her towards Robert.

Oh, and wait, yes, one more thing: that if she doesn’t finally win her FIRST Tony Award this year, the Tony voters should be collectively flogged.

I am so over the moon about this musical! And that hasn’t happened in quite a long time.

Tickets $59 - $141 - by phone call (212) 239-6200

Schoenfeld Theatre | 236 W 45th St, New York, NY 10036

Heathers: The Musical
Sunday @ 3PM & 7:30PM
Monday @ 8PM
Wednesday @ 8PM
Thursday @ 8PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2:30Pm & 8PM
New World Stages

Book, Music & Lyrics by Kevin Murphy & Laurence O’Keefe

Based on the original motion picture screenplay by Daniel Waters.

Directed by Andy Fickman

Starring: Barrett Wilbert Weed, Ryan McCartan, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Ellen McLemore, Alice lee, Katie Ladner, Evan Todd, Jon Eidson, Anthony Crivello, Daniel Cooney.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Michael Lehmann’s film Heathers, released in 1988 and written by Daniel Waters, was daring for its time and is now heralded as the granddaddy of dark, satiric high school comedies that begat Mean Girls, Clueless, Jawbreaker, Election

The Winona Ryder/Christian Slater starrer was a box office flop but with the help of VHS (and then DVD) it quickly established itself as a cult classic.

Now some of the creatives behind Reefer Madness: The Musical and Bat Boy: The Musical have decided Heathers should also be a musical. Of course, nowadays EVERY film seems destined to become a stage show (can’t wait for Schindler’s List: The Musical!).

And you know what? It’s definitely a fun night out—especially if you’ve had a cocktail or two. And at least Heathers: The Musical pokes fun at itself and some of the obligatory movie-scene recreations. Most are done with a gigantic wink to the audience as opposed to Rocky: The Musical, where they simply rehash the movie lines and moments in ridiculously reverential fashion. Wow, he’s drinking eggs…

For those of you unfamiliar with the original film—why the hell are you going??? Most of my audience, loaded with gays, fortysomethings and New Jersey, seemed to have lines from the movie memorized.

Okay, fine. Quick synopsis. Squeaky-clean geek Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilbert Weed) finds herself being accepted by the most popular girls in high school, the Heathers (Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore and Alice Lee), your basic beautiful, bitchy bullies. This means she needs to start ignoring her (really uninteresting) overweight friend Martha (Katie Ladner). Conflicted about what she’s becoming, Veronica meets and falls for bad boy J.D. Dean (Ryan McCartan), who has his own sociopathic ways of dealing with the Heathers as well as two idiot jocks (Evan Todd and Jon Eidson).

The stage show stays pretty faithful to the film (which, in the final quarter proves unfortunate because it’s where the movie and, now musical, could have used a refreshing rewrite). The book writers do bring back the dead in Act Two—a nice and welcome change—since these villains are such fun.

Kevin Murphy & Laurence O’Keefe (who wrote the book, music and lyrics) have composed some wonderful songs--the spirited opener, “Beautiful,” where so much of the needed exposition is established, “Blue” a funny, vulgar ditty and, most especially, “Seventeen,” the shows best song.

In addition, they’ve turned one of the film’s most famous lines into a hilarious number: “My Dead Gay Son.”

But there are also bubble-gummy throwaways to trudge through like “Candy Store” and “Big Fun.” O’Keefe was also responsible for the forgettable Legally Blonde: The Musical, so there’s that.

The production boasts a spunky and delightful cast with Weed doing a fantastic job and brooding, hot McCartan, making quite an impression as well. All three Heathers steal their moments—sometimes simultaneously—with Chenowithian McLemore slightly edging out the others.

Director Andy Fickman keeps the zaniness moving at just the right pace. He knows the audience this show will attract and he smartly delivers just the right amount of lunacy.

Tickets by phone call (212) 239-6200

New World Stages | 340 West 50th Street, NYC.

Les Miserables
Sunday @ 3PM
Tuesday @ 7PM
Wednesday @ 2Pm & 8PM
Thursday @ 7PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2Pm & 8PM
The Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street, NYC.

Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg

Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer

Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, original adaption by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and additional material by James Fenton.

Based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell

Starring: Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean, Will Swenson as Javert, Caissie Levy as Fantine, Nikki M. James as Eponine, Andy Mientus as Marius, Charlotte Maltby as Cosette, Kyle Scatliffe as Enjolras, Cliff Saunders & Keala Settle as the Thenadiers and Joshua Colley as Gavroche.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

In the last quarter century, Les Miserables has become a musical phenomenon that has ingrained itself into our culture. Based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling 19th-century, faith-based novel about redemption, the original Broadway production opened in March 1987 (after it’s successful English-language premiere in London in 1985) and ran until May 2003. A slightly altered version then opened on Broadway in November 2006 and ran for a little over a year.

Since it’s premiere there have been concerts, regional productions, community theatre and high school shows and translated versions all over the world. And last year, of course, it was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, directed by Tom Hooper—which was inspired by this newly re-imagined version that’s been on tour and now bows on Broadway.

Is there such a thing as Les Miz burn-out? Depends. Are you a fan? Can you sing along with the lyrics? Does “I Dreamed a Dream” still move you or do you have nightmare visions of Susan Boyle? Do you cry when Eponine dies or do you wonder why no one around her is getting help or attempting CPR? Do you rise to your feet when Valjean is done with “Bring Him Home,” or does the thunderous theatre applause wake you from the deep sleep that song has put you in?

Producer Cameron Macintosh is quite savvy. He knows the fans will come out in full force if he provides a polished and worthy production and he also knows a new generation of tourists and suburbanites might just bite when Wicked and The Lion King tickets prove impossible to acquire.

I have to say I was looking forward to this revival like I look forward to visiting my dentist. I attended the original Broadway production six times (three in the first three months of the run—via student tix).

And I did enjoy the film version despite the extreme close-ups, the bombast and the overdone sentimentality. Hugh Jackman’s performance was stellar but his voice had a shrillness to it. And I grew tired of watching buzzcut Anne Hathaway win every accolade in the land for her tortured Fantine. We get it, Anne, you lost a lot of weight and cut your hair. I dreamed a dream Amy Adams won Best Supporting Actress last year!

So there I was seated in the Imperial Theatre (where I saw the original all those years ago) and when the orchestra began with those oh-so-familiar opening bars, I swallowed hard and winced. And almost immediately I was swept away by a terrific production that, for the most part, delivers all the right goosebumps while streamlining some of the deadening aspects of the piece.

This Les Miz feels a bit less grim—it feels that way only because the directors, Laurence Connor and James Powell have smartly stripped the show of some of its unrelenting seriousness and solemnity. The songs are sung a tad faster (for the ADHD gen perhaps, but it works) and there is less sympathy milking. Instead we are allowed to feel more empathy.

The large turning set has been replaced with a scaled down but more effective cinematic set, with potent backdrops and projections.

And although the orchestra is also smaller, the music has never sounded better.

But the two major boons to this surprisingly spirited and welcome revival happen to be the stars.

In his Broadway debut, Ramin Karimloo is a powerhouse Jean Valjean. When I saw Colm Wilkinson in 1987, I was blown away and could not imagine anyone else playing the part. Karimloo redefines the role and gives Valjean an invigorating defiance. And his stunning rendition of “Bring Him Home” (a song I never warmed to) not only brought the house down, it became an anthem about self-sacrifice as well as transference—something I didn’t see before. Karimloo has been doing theatre on the West End for a while now (particularly in Webber musicals). Here’s hoping he makes New York his second home.

Will Swenson (Hair, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is an exciting, driven Javert, but also the most conflicted I have seen. Swenson excels playing dippy, sweet dudes. Here he wears his moral superiority so tight-fitted, it’s a wonder he doesn’t explode. Swenson’s shining moment is the astonishingly sung “Stars,” but it’s in his last scene that he lets us inside his paradoxical soul.

These two provide real magic and for the first time I sensed a definite homoerotic tension between Javert and Valjean. Karimloo and Swenson and have a palpable chemistry and it isn’t just one of antagonism. Of course this is also the first time both leads have been cast with two dashing, young men who exude sex appeal.

And that led me to speculate about their characters backgrounds. I’m not certain about the novel but in the stage text neither has a spouse (or girlfriend for that matter). Valjean dedicates his life to being mayor and raising Cosette and helping young boys…hmmm… And Javert’s life seems to be devoted to…well, Valjean—who dramatically tears his shirt open during the prologue—adding beefcake into the mix. And their scenes together sizzled with the kind of intensity…the kind of repression…okay, I’ll stop, but I didn’t imagine it.

The featured cast members aren’t quite in the same league.

Cassie Levy is technically a good singer but I was unmoved by her Fantine and did not miss her once she departed.

Andy Mientus does his best to escape the dullness of Marius, but it’s a losing battle (no pun intended). He does, however, provide a deeply felt “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

Nikki M. James (Eponine) and Charlotte Maltby (Cosette) both have some lovely moments.

The ensemble does boast a slew of delightfully energized “lovely ladies” and a spunky Joshua Colley as Gavroche.

Finally, stealing all of her moments and having a scenery (and cake) chewing, campy time of it is Keala Settle as Mrs. Thenardier. Along with thundering loon Cliff Saunders as her hubby they invigorate “Master of the House,” and transform two creepy villains into absolute crowd pleasers.

Go see this Les Miz—if only to experience two titanic musical theatre actors take their rightful place among the (Broadway) stars.

The Imperial Theatre | 249 West 45th Street, NYC.

Robert Askins’
Hand to God
Opened February 18, 2014
Closes March 20, 2014
Lucille Lortel Theatre


Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel.

Starring: Steven Boyer, Marc Kudisch, Geneva Carr, Michael Oberholtzer & Sarah Stiles.

Presented by MCC

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I’ve never been a fan of puppets, unless you count Miss Piggy and Kermit, and even those two I grew tired of after the second Muppet Movie. So, consequently, I’ve never seen the much celebrated Avenue Q.

But if Robert Askins’ sidesplittingly funny, biting, yet moving play, Hand to God is any indication of how puppets have evolved (and some may say devolved), then sign me up for the next show!

Having bowed at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011 to great acclaim (and an Obie for master puppeteer and actor, Steven Boyer), MCC has smartly decided to stage the show with some of the original cast intact.

The setting is a Lutheran Church classroom in Cypress, Texas where a seemingly devout widow, Margery (Geneva Carr) is cheerleading three fairly odd and apathetic teens into taking part in a puppet show that will celebrate Jesus. Among the kids is Margery’s troubled son Jason (Steven Boyer), a geeky but sweet Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and the tall, lumbering Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) whose hormones are raging…specifically for…Margery. Rounding out the cast is Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) who is also smitten with Margery—that vixen!

Things take a turn for the outlandish when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, begins to take over and spew forth a barrage of profanity-laced truisms at Jessica and, soon, at everyone else in his life, including his repressed and truly messed up mother—who decides she wants a piece of 15-year-old Timothy and, abandoning all her inhibitions and (probably put-on) religious beliefs, has all kinds of wicked sex with the boy.

The surrealistic farcical Act One begets a more melodramatic and messier second act where Margery must confront what she’s become and Jason must confront Tyrone (his inner demons) as well as his parental baggage.

Askins writes funny one-liners: “You are so far in the closet, you’re in Narnia,” is one of the few I can reprint without using expletives. And I appreciated the absurd levels of insanity in the first act much more than the serious moments of Act Two that felt forced and overwritten. Still, the battle between Jason and Tyrone for his soul—an exorcism of sorts—was simply a marvel to behold. Chaos fused with psychoanalytic clarity—some of Askins best writing for certain.

Moritz Von Stuelpnagel directs this killer cast by getting out of their way and simply keeping the action moving—for the most part. His choreographing of the puppet sex is simply a marvel to behold (I’m assuming it was Stuelpnagel since there is no ‘puppet sex’ credit).

The magnetic Oberholtzer has a blast playing the awkward and lanky Timothy. His talk is nasty. His walk is “dirty.” He’s every teen boy after the filter has been removed.

But the show belongs to Boyer who is just astounding. Balancing the shy, innocent and damaged Jason with the demonic, devious and dastardly Tyrone, Boyer keeps us enraptured right up until the final, fitting, moment.

To order tickets by phone call (866) 811-4111

Lucille Lortel Theatre | 121 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014

Frederick Weller and Tyne Daly in Mothers and Sons

Terrence McNally’s
Mothers and Sons
Sunday @ 3PM
Tuesday @ 7PM
Wednesday @ 2Pm & 7PM
Thursday @ 7PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2Pm & 8PM
The Golden Theatre

Starring: Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller, Bobby Steggert & Grayson Taylor.

Directed by Sheryl Kaller.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“Andre wasn't gay when he came to New York,” insists Katharine Gerard (Tyne Daly), disputing any idea that her son could have possibly been born that way, in the new play, Mothers and Sons, by gifted dramatist Terrence McNally. Does she really believe this? Does she need to? Does she want to understand?

Andre has been dead for twenty years, a casualty of AIDS, and Katharine has decided to visit (more like descend on) the Central Park West apartment of his former lover/boyfriend/partner (the play pokes fun at these “insubstantial, inadequate” bygone terms), Cal (Frederick Weller), who is expectedly nonplused by her arrival, since they haven’t seen or spoken to one another for twenty years—since Andre’s memorial.

Cal is now happily married to Will (Bobby Steggert), who happens to be fifteen years his junior and they have a six-year-old son, Bud (Grayson Taylor). Will is a fairly secure writer who’s had a few short stories published in the New Yorker.

One of the key differences between the two men (and between these particular generations of gay men) is summed up by the fact that Cal “never expected to be a father,” and Will, “never expected not to be one.”

This isn’t the only contrast that is made in this 90-minute drama filled with stinging dialogue, thought-provoking insights and character catharses—what we’ve come to expect from the best of McNally. But there is also a real attempt made to bridge the gap between two radically different schools of thought.

Katharine is, as the expression goes, old school and cannot fathom the acceptance of two men living together as husband and husband. But what she really can’t conceive is why her son had to die. And why Cal gets to move on with someone else and be happy—and in such a traditionally heterosexual manner.

Cal is stuck somewhere between the two generations. He has lived through intolerance and is gobsmacked by how far along things have come. And he’s allowed himself to love again after eight years of mourning Andre—never forgetting him or the pain and suffering they both went through—some of it brought on by Katharine.

Mothers and Sons is an intense drama about two damaged survivors who try to come to terms with their own guilt and self-hatred. The play also ambitiously chronicles the AIDS scourge and what it wrought on an entire generation of promising young men as well as those they left behind and how a new generation can live because of the sacrifices made by those who fought for treatment and a cure. Just a few years ago, the notion of being able to marry was so out of the realm of possibility for gays and today it’s an expectation.

Why doesn’t Cal just kick Katharine out? Well, firstly because he knows she doesn’t really want to leave, that she’s there for a reason. And that they are bonded by a commonality that no one else has. While going through a box of photos/mementos of Andre, Cal tells her to take what she wants since, “we’re the only two people in the world they mean anything to.” What a devastating but true statement that cuts to the core the ephemeral nature of life.

The AIDS crisis united a decimated community that was being vilified by the religious right and dismissed by the government. And while McNally’s “mothers and sons” are of a particular social status and ethnicity, he writes the world he knows and that makes this work, in particular, universal since he focuses on the evolution of acceptance. He also asks some hard questions about blame and accountability.

The playwright has borrowed his two leads from his PBS film from 1990, Andre’s Mother-- expanded from an 8-minute short play he wrote in 1988--and advances the time of Andre’s death to 1994—for symmetry and to be able to be as current as possible. Sada Thompson played the title character in her inimitable prickly fashion.

Tyne Daly transcends all the stereotypes and gives us a performance for the ages. Her Katharine (spelled atypically like the late great Ms. Hepburn) cannot be placed into any easy descriptive category. Certainly she’s angry and has been carrying that rage for decades. But she’s also confused, curious, desperate, lonely, needy and searching. She’s every mother who has ever been defined solely as a mother. She’s every woman who’s craved independence, validation and her own identity. From her first determined facial expression as the lights come up wearing her fur coat and standing perfectly postured to her last moments where she’s shown Cal more of herself than she has ever shown anyone, this magnificent actress is a powerhouse of paradoxes. I could not take my eyes off of her for the play’s duration for fear I would miss another nuance, another cutting look, another deliberate glance of confusion, another body movement reveal, another key to this frustrating, fascinating monster created by a society built on prejudice and judgment. Daly makes it vital for viewers to care for Katharine and realize just how conflicted she is.

Frederick Weller’s performance is extraordinary. He’s called on to spew a lot of the play’s polemic points and yet there is never a false moment. We fully understand why Andre loved him and why Katharine is so jealous of that fact. This is an actor who I remember adoring in the film Stonewall in 1995. I have seen him give some terrific performances in a couple of LaBute plays. Here he is simply sublime.

Bobby Steggert superbly captures the new gay man with all his entitlements and annoyances. One second you want to hit him (the overly politically correct way he raises his child), the next second, hug him (the way he cares so much about Cal’s feelings). Steggert’s Will is the personification of the assimilated gay male—wanting to live just like heterosexuals (this brings up a can of Pandora worms I will not open right now.)

Sheryl Kaller (Next Fall) directs the piece with a pressing concision.

Mothers and Sons had me thinking about its characters, situations and themes long after I left the performance. If that isn’t the mark of great theatre then I don’t know what is.

Tickets by phone call (212) 239-6200

The Golden Theatre | 252 W. 45th Street, NYC.


Sarah Ruhl’s
Stage Kiss
Tues & Wed at 7PM
Thurs, Fri, at 8PM
Sat at 2PM & 8PM
Sun at 2:30PM and 7:30PM
Through Sunday, March 23, 2014
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage

Directed by Rebecca Taichman.

With: Jessica Hecht, Dominic Fumusa, Emma Galvin, Daniel Jenkins, Patrick Kerr, Michael Cyril Creighton, Clea Alsip

Presented by Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The bewildered yet beguiling central character in the opening scene of Sarah Ruhl’s new play, Stage Kiss, arrives late for an audition and then, being the committed actress she is, asks if she can kiss the quite-effeminate male reader. “I don’t want to traumatize you,” she deadpans. A few moments later, fully committed to her choices, she attacks the poor guy but not before requesting a synopsis of the plot, which the Director happily provides. The outrageous melodrama he outlines (from a 1930s flop on Broadway) contains the line: “And seeing your old love has reversed your disease and you are becoming healthier and healthier,” funny to hear but quite prophetic. Ruhl cleverly slips a lot of foreshadowing into her new, oddball, romantic comedy—an entertaining evening marred only by a misguided denoument that might be satisfying to some but that I found wholly incongruous with the rest of the play.

The Actress (who is referred to in the script as “She”), played magnificently by the great Jessica Hecht, is cast in the play and on the first day of rehearsals discovers that her leading man (a smolderingly good Dominic Fumusa) happens to be an old flame. The former lovers are initially apprehensive and angry as old wounds surface, but after a few stage kisses and gleeful reminiscences, both actors rekindle what they once had, even though She has a husband and young daughter and He is semi-committed to a twentysomething schoolteacher.

The play-within-the-play (the first one, as there is a second one in Act Two) is about a dying woman who wishes to reunite with her one great love. Parallels abound.

Fumusa is ridiculously youthful looking despite the fact that he’s in his 40s and he plays his part with great “aplomb.” It’s a delight whenever he and Hecht spar.

Hecht performs the 30s drama in an acting style that Helen Sinclair (Dianne Weist’s Bullets Over Broadway character) would be proud of, delightfully overdoing Hollywood 30s style. And she finds that balance between her character making choices and wondering what the hell she is doing!

Ruhl pokes a lot of fun at the rehearsal process and certain directors who seem to have no clear vision of what they want. The Director here, played with neurotic clumsiness by Patrick Kerr, responds to Hecht’s character’s desire for feedback by saying, “We can calibrate the style after the first preview.”

There are many amusing moments and great lines in this Noises Off-lite farce but it does not have the depth of Ruhl’s extraordinary work, The Clean House. And, as I mentioned earlier, the finale feels contrived as we are expected to be happy about a two people reuniting when we were never invested in that particular couple to begin with.

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