Monday, March 28, 2016

Review of "Sex with Strangers"

The premise of the movie A Star is Born, reconfigured for the online generation, is the main thrust of Sex with Strangers, a provocative and sexually-charged drama, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through April 17th.

The action begins at a bed and breakfast on a snowy March night in the Michigan outback.  Olivia (Courtney Rackley), a middle-age writer working on her second novel, is the sole occupant of the abode until a latecomer, Ethan (Patrick Ball), barrels onto the scene.  He is a wired Millennial, 28 years old, narcissistic, and brimming with confidence.  We quickly learn he is a blogger turned bestselling author.  His work, “Sex with Strangers,” celebrates and chronicles his sexual scores with women he has met in bars.  At first repulsed, Olivia slowly falls for his swaggering charm and soon becomes another of his conquests.  Throughout the weekend the two continually engage in carnal pleasures.  We also discover that Ethan has grander literary aspirations beyond his trashy tomes and Olivia’s first book, a commercial flop, is a favorite of the young man’s.  He convinces her to republish it online under a pseudonym and to let him use his celebrity status to promote it.  Within the next few weeks Olivia’s star in the publishing world continues to rise while Ethan’s career, through a series of missteps and events, begins to stagnate.  Very soon the influence and power dynamics between the two protagonists, like in A Star is Born, change dramatically, altering each person’s trajectory and life.

Playwright Laura Eason’s drama is a stimulating, multi-layered drama that gives audience members much to think about during the course of the show.  The production addresses a number of timely topics in addition to the overall arc of the show.  One of the more prevalent issues she successfully weaves into the show is the nature of one’s online persona.  How much is fact or fiction?  In the social media age can an individual’s image be suitably governed or is the Internet just an unmanageable Wild West?  Eason also meditates on commercialism and the nature of relationships where a simple Google search can produce a wealth of data to digest.

I found Patrick Ball believable as the self-centered, ever calculating Ethan.  The character’s motivations can be questionable and not always pure, but the actor delivers with a gusto and sometimes whininess.  He perfectly captures the culture of those twenty-somethings brought up in the digital age where boundaries of privacy and decency are tenuous at best.  Courtney Rackley is less persuasive, at first, as Olivia.  This might have more to do with the ambivalence her character displays towards the totally self-assured Ethan.  Act II is a different story.  As she grows as an author, receives positive feedback and renumeration her insecurities and lack of self-confidence slowly melt away.  Rackley seems more suited to this part of role’s development as she exudes poise and conviction.  Or does she? 

Director Rob Ruggiero brings the two actors together, literally, rather quickly.  After each hook-up he gives each performer space to pontificate about the assorted issues writer Laura Eason injects into the drama.  The action and tete-et-tetes in Act I is sufficient, but Ruggiero keeps it much livelier, crisper and bracing in Act II.

Brian Prather’s set design convincingly goes from cozy Bed and Breakfast interior to a stylized Chicago apartment’s living room.

Sex with Strangers, a very relevant and of-the-moment play for mature audiences only.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review "Bright Star"

Every so often I attend a stage production knowing almost nothing about the show.  For the new Broadway musical, Bright Star, I was aware that the multi-talented comedian, Steve Martin, had teamed with Edie Brickell to write the story and music (she penned the lyrics, he wrote the book).  That was all I knew and I wanted to keep it that way.  Surprise me.

Let it suffice to say I was surprised.  Pleasantly surprised.  Wonderfully surprised with all aspects of the production.  When I sat down to write this review I struggled with what to say, not because I couldn’t find the words, but because I was hesitant to unveil any facet of the show.  I wanted theater-goers to experience the musical without the filter of my critique and possibly come away exhilarated like myself.

Therefore, my review is short, simple, and to the point.  Go see Bright Star.  Be enchanted, moved, uplifted and maybe even shed a tear. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Review of "The Color Purple"

Note:  Heather Headley is now playing the role of Shug Avery originated by Jennifer Hudson.

Very infrequently the theater transcends from simply a live event into something special.   Something magical.  That is what is taking place at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre in the outstanding revival of The Color Purple.  The reason is the three women starring in the production—Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, and Danielle Brooks.  They deliver powerhouse, mesmerizing performances that will not be forgotten come award season. 

The story revolves around Celie, a poor African-American woman in the Deep South and her hardscrabble life.  She is married off to the uncaring, belligerent Mister, who sees her as someone to cook, clean, and take care of him and his household.  Her beloved sister, Nettie, once set to go off to college to become a teacher, has mysteriously vanished.  Other people that intersect her life include her stepson, Harpo, and his overbearing wife, Sofia; and the femme fatale, Shug Avery.  During the ensuing years Celie’s faith, inner strength and resolve keep her head high and moving forward as she is confronted with racism, sexism and, finally, liberation from her struggles, independence in life, and a long coming reunion with loved ones.

The acting corps is superb, led by the three female stars.  Cynthia Erivo as Celie, delivers a dazzling performance.  She has a steely determination and focus rarely seen in an actress.  You can feel her intensity as she triumphs over adversity after adversity.  Jennifer Hudson as the sultry Shug Avery doesn’t appear until the latter half of Act I.  But when she sashays on stage an invisible aura radiates throughout the theater announcing a true star has entered our midst.  Hudson is sexy, commands attention, and possesses a golden voice.  Her character is at times giddy, contemplative, and world-weary.  Danielle Brooks, as Sofia, is a fiery, non-nonsense woman.  Other notable actors include Isaiah Johnson as the gruff, boorish, and menacing yet, ultimately, sympathetic Mister; Kyle Scatliffe as the good-time, weak-willed Harpo; and Joaquina Kalukango as the pure, self-sacrificing Nettie.

The score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray combines gospel tinged songs, heartfelt ballads, raucous honky tonk, and African melodies.  It has two luscious signature songs—“Too Beautiful for Words” and “What About Love?”—and enjoys the advantage of being sung by a group of impressive artists.

Book writer Marsha Norman has taken Alice Walker’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning novel and pared it down to its essence.  She gives breath to the assorted characters and successfully brings out such universal themes as love, loss, and empowerment.

John Doyle, the director behind such minimal Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd (I didn’t like) and Company (I did like) has successfully taken the larger, more embellished original show and carved out a straightforward, spare, and self-contained musical.  He concentrates on the characters, their interactions, and the score, which heightens the drama and focuses our attention on the foremost components of the musical.  He smartly doesn’t treat Hudson as the star but as a core member, which makes the production much fuller. 

The Color Purple, a musical that will make you believe in the magic of theater.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of "The Humans"

The Thanksgiving dinner of the Blake family appears, at first, to be like those held at households across the country.  People gather, they catch up, eat, and occasionally spar.  In The Humans, playwright Stephen Karam portrays this ritual get-together with meticulous, loving and at times heartbreaking accuracy.  The strength of the show is its matter-of-fact depiction of family interactions.  There are surprises and plot twists but, while intriguing and eye-opening, there is nothing out of the ordinary.   Throughout the course of the play a number of everyday problems and issues are slowly unveiled.  These include such commonplace concerns and topics as job security, relationship issues, aging parents, medical problems, living environs, and even the aftermath of 9/11.  Yet, this is not a play about a wildly dysfunctional family.  On the contrary, it is a production that scrupulously gives us a glimpse into the natural conversations and drama of workaday life.

The acting ensemble—and this is truly an ensemble effort—is superb.  Each member of the company is beautifully in sync with the others.  We truly come to believe we are peering into the syncopations and rhythms of a real family.  The cast includes Jayne Houdyshell as Deidre Blake, the pushy, somewhat misunderstood mother; Reed Birney as Erik Blake, the rather morose, blue collar father; Cassie Beck as the eldest daughter Aimee, lawyer with multiple professional and personal issues; Sarah Steele as the youngest daughter Brigid, a carefree spirit; Arian Moayed as Richard, Brigid’s much older boyfriend; and Lauren Klein as Fiona Blake, mother and grandmother spiraling into dementia.

The multi-level scenic design by David Zinn, is an all too authentic representation of a rundown, not all that desirable New York City apartment.  For members of the audience that scrounged for a decent place to live in their youth, the set will bring back knowing memories.

Director Joe Mantello has taken the cadences and regularity of family dynamics and made them seem effortless and unforced.  There are no wasted movements or unnecessary theatrics.  Every gesture, facial expression and punctuated speech is staged to make the whole larger then the sum of its parts.

The Humans, at the small, intimate Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review of "The Outgoing Tide"

Theatrical portrayals of individuals grappling with a family member at the onset of dementia is nothing new.  What separates The Outgoing Tide, playing at Square One Theatre in Stratford, from other productions is how it weaves a similar plotline of the show, ‘night, Mother, into the story.  Both plays deal with a central character’s unmitigated, matter-of-fact, life-ending decision.  Instead of simply viewing the destructive affects of this terminal condition, there is a somber, unimpassioned finality.

The three-character play centers around Gunner (Al Kulcsar) a feisty, retiree living on the coast of the Chesapeake with his wife, Peg (Peggy Nelson) of 50 years.  Gunner is in the early stages of dementia, at times lucid, at other moments lost in mind and thought.  Peg, desperately seeking a solution, wants them to move into a long care facility.  The thought is repugnant to her husband who has a more compelling and ultimate answer to his worsening situation.  Their son, Jack (Damian Long), arrives for what seems like an ordinary visit.  He has his own personal issues swirling around him such as a divorce and do-nothing teenage son.  At first, Jack’s visit seems well-timed, but there are more telling reasons why he has been called home.  By the end of Act I we better understand the cool, calculated agenda Gunner has set in motion.  The second act, while overly talky, slowly, yet assuredly leads to the inevitable denouement. 

The show, penned by Bruce Graham, will probably resonate more with older audiences that have experienced dementia up close or even at a distance.  The author imbues the mother and father with a rollercoaster of emotions as they confront the developing scenario.  The feelings are heartfelt and ring true.  Through the generous use of flashbacks we learn about the family’s past and secrets. The son, however, is less developed as a character and comes across as less sympathetic and appealing.  The resolution of the play, while disturbing and uncomfortable, has a feeling of realism and truthfulness.

The set by Greg Fairbend, Frank Fartley and Robert Mastroni is quaint and modest, but it is a fine representation of a small summer beach home with a detailed exterior and interior.

Al Kulcsar as the patriarch, Gunner, is scrappy, quarrelsome and resolute.  He convincingly portrays a man attempting to understand and deal with a terminal condition.  You many not agree with his logic, but you understand his reasoning.  Peggy Nelson as Gunner’s steadfast wife, Peg, is a jumble of conflicting emotions as she tries to stem the downward spiral of the family’s life.  Sometime her actions are in direct contradiction to each other but, then again, thinking and acting clearly is not necessarily the norm at this time.  Damian Long as the lone, suffering son, Jack, is somewhat of a conduit between his parents.  He comes across as rather bland and unassertive.  A more forceful presence would have provided an extra level of familial fireworks and dynamics.

Director Tom Holehan shrewdly keeps the pacing of the show askew.  At one moment an air of normalcy permeates the residence, an instant later an unprovoked tirade descends upon the household.  Holehan makes the very small performance space into an asset, bringing the audience more into the rhythm and flow of the production.  He also effectively sets the stage for the disconsolate finale. 

The Outgoing Tide, a poignant and heart-renching drama, at Square One Theatre in Stratford through March 20th.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review of "Burning Desire"

 Lou Diamond Phillip, the actor who is starring in the world premiere, Burning Desires, at Seven Angels in Waterbury, is captivating, has an engaging stage presence and charismatic allure.

Lou Diamond Phillip, the playwright who penned the comedy, Burning Desires, demonstrates his acumen as an insightful, intelligent writer.  However, the structure of this tale of the devil seeking nubile souls to add to his collection, is uneven and punctuated by lengthy monologues by the star.  They end up detracting too much from the main storyline of two, young single professionals seeking love and a long lasting romance. 

We first meet the present day Adam (Andrew) and Eve (Evan) at the supermarket where, with a little help from you-know-who, the two meet and are well on their way to a meaningful courtship.  The devil’s goal is simple—will he be able to convince each of them to sell their souls for true love?  He leaves little to chance by constantly interfering and disrupting their mostly harmonious lives.  Will he succeed?

As the writer, I wish Lou Diamond Phillip would have spent more time delving into his role as master manipulator as well as fleshing out and further exploring the relationship of the romantic couple.  This, combined with less reliance on his recitations, would have added depth to the play and made it a more rewarding production.

The three leads are splendid and show a good rapport and chemistry together.  Lou Diamond Phillips brings a dash of star power to the production, but he also demonstrates a nimble and proficient acting capability.  His Lucifer is witty, bewitching and a roguish schemer.  Tara Franklin (Evan) and Ryan Wesley Gilreath (Andrew) are attractive and appealing performers.  There is a believable attraction and playfulness between the two actors.

Director Richard Zavaglia does a satisfying job incorporating the two divergent segments of the show.  He smartly stages the delivery of Lou Diamond Phillip’s monologues like a full-throated carnival barker gleefully tempting and playing with the audience.  He also shows a nimble hand in guiding the interplay between the three actors, successfully capitalizing on their appeal and zest for the roles.

Burning Desire, at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through March 13th.