Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of "Shows for Days"

"Welcome to the theatre, to the magic, to the fun
Where painted trees and flowers grow, and laughter rings fortissimo
And treachery's neatly done.
Now you've entered the asylum, this profession unique
actors are children playing hide-and-ego-seek.”
From “Welcome to the Theatre” by Lee Adams

Margo Channing (Lauren Bacall) sings about the vibrancy, frustrations and love of the theater in the song “Welcome to the Theatre” from the musical Applause.  These sentiments are echoed in Douglas Carter Beane’s affectionate dramatization of a community theater troupe in Shows for Days, playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through August 23rd.  Based on his own beginnings as a teenage actor/playwright, the show also presents his awakening sexual identity as a gay young man in Redding, Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s.

The play stars the indomitable Patti Lupone as Irene, the leader of the small group of actors trying to eke out their art in less than ideal surroundings.  Ms. Lupone is superb.  She is a force of nature, not unlike her role as Mama Rose in her Tony Award winning performance in Gypsy.

The show is narrated by Car, played by the ebullient Michael Urie.  On a bare stage, with minimal scenery and props, he and the other five actors/actresses struggle to present their theatrical season, maintain a sense of quality and dignity and navigate through interpersonal dynamics, including Car’s struggles with his sexual identity.

Douglas Carter Bean has written, in essence, a love letter to the theater.  Even those of us who might have just tread the boards in a flimsy high school production can relate to the characters, shenanigans and pathos of the community theater troupe.  Beane’s inclusion of a narrator gives the audience a necessary tour guide as the show progresses.  He seamlessly comments on race and sexual orientation without being heavy handed on the subjects.  The one minor problem is incorporating both the theater group’s ever evolving aspirations with Car’s personal struggles.  While each is part of the overall story, the plot lines occasionally distract from each other.

The cast is marvelous, holding their own with Ms. Lupone.  All have a role to play within the group.  Sometimes this does give them a one-dimensional disposition.  In addition to Michael Urie’s shaded and nuanced role as Car, Dale Soules as the company’s co-founder Sid, is spunky and sharp.  Her gravely voice adds urgency to her constant dire proclamations.  As an older lesbian she cautiously maneuvers the terrain of the time period.  Lance Coadie Williams as Clive, a gay African-American local, is proud, passionate and a hot house of conflicting emotions.  Zoe Winters as Maria is a bit mousey but, overall, determined.  Jordan Dean as Damian is the hardest character to grasp.  Dean gives him a multi-layered sheen, becoming almost a chameleon in his interactions with the other cast members.

Director Jerry Zaks makes sure Patti Lupone is front and center when she is onstage.  He gives her oversized personality room to scheme, sweet-talk and meddle.  Zak successfully maneuvers Michael Urie’s narrator as the unifying force of the play.  He skillfully and proficiently shepherds the actors around the small performance space as well as their entrances and exits in the three-sided theater. 

Shows of Days, a theatrical valentine, playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through August 23rd.

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