Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review of "Significant Other"

Four very close college friends, still together in their late 20’s, gather to celebrate at a New York City club the engagement of one of their own.  Kiki, somewhat untamed and sloshingly drunk, is having the time of her life with her best pals.   She is the first among the four to tie the knot in playwright Joshua Harmon’s funny, touching, and bittersweet meditation on the true meaning of friendship as millennials age and take the next step in their lives.  The bond between the diverse group could only be forged during the collegiate years.  They are Vanessa, now a book editor, who nonchalantly fixates on death; Laura a school teacher; and Jordan, a gay man working in an advertising agency with Kiki.  Slowly, each of his female buddies becomes involved with the man of her dreams.  Each time an engagement is announced and a wedding celebrated Jordan feels more removed and alone.  His forays into dating and relationships go nowhere and his only solace are conversations with his elderly grandmother.  In the end, Jordan is literally by himself on stage as he, and we, ponder his future.
Gideon Glick, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sas Goldberg and Lindsay Mendez.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Joshua Harmon has crafted a play full of honesty, comic, and heart wrenching moments.  There is a genuine quality to the storyline and the individuals portrayed.  Harmon has developed characters you may know or experiences your college graduated children may be facing.  You quickly become drawn into the ups and downs of their lives.  I don’t remember a time in the theater where, at two critical moments, the audience both collectively sighed and gasped.   We care about the ramifications unfolding before us.
Gideon Glick.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
The ensemble cast is led by the superb performance of Gideon Glick as Jordan Berman.  He is the focus of our attention during the show as he works through the emotions of losing, one-by-one, his dearest friends.  The actor is lively, spontaneous, and vulnerable.   Lindsay Mendez’s Laura is the soulmate of Jordan.  The two are peas in a pod, sharing moments and experiences.  She instills a realism and sincerity into her character, showing compassion and empathy for Jordan’s travails.  Rebecca Naomi Jones as Vanessa and Sas Goldberg as Kiki are spunky, somewhat over-the-top as they add some spice to the more melancholy moments in the production. Both John Behlmann and Luke Smith, playing multiple roles, give their characters an appealing and agreeable assortment of distinctive looks.  The theater veteran Barbara Barrie’s portrayal of Helene is understated and provides balance to the more destabilized and shifting lifestyles of the other cast members.
Luke Smith, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Gideon Glick, Sas Goldberg and John Behlmann.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Director Trip Cullum brings a fresh and very real perspective to the production.  He has created an atmosphere where the performers come across as authentic in their feelings and actions.  He does a superb job with movement on the small Booth Theater stage.  He skillfully maneuvers the actors within scenes that morph into different segments of the story, all the time keeping the narrative flow unimpeded.  His intermittent use of players within the shadows adds a voyeuristic and humorous touch to the show.  He also imbues the actors with quirkiness and exuberance, primarily in the club and celebratory scenes.

Scenic Designer Mark Wendland has presented a multi-leveled set that, with minimal changes, and subtle lighting effects by Designer Japhy Weideman, effectively combines the claustrophobic nature of New York City living—at work, home and play.

Significant Other, amusing and heartbreaking as it explores relationships and friendships.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of "Sunset Boulevard"

There are two reasons to see the revival of Sunset Boulevard on Broadway.  First, is the luminous performance of Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, recreating her Tony Award winning role from 23 years ago.  Close, older now, but lacking none of her vitality, totally embodies the character of the aged, fading silent movie star.  This is one of those defining theatrical performances that should not be missed.

The second reason is the 20 plus member orchestra, women in black gowns, men in tuxedos, seated on stage, an unheard of number of musicians in today’s Broadway.  The lush, full sound envelopes The Palace Theatre unlike any other show on Broadway.  While the score is not top tier Andrew Lloyd Webber there are a number of defining songs – “With One Look,” “The Perfect Year,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – that receive a captivating and heavenly sound.

Sunset Boulevard, based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, “revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her comeback to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.” (  Librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton stick closely to the movie plot, making sure to provide Ms. Close with enough star turns, which is fine since the show sags somewhat when she is not on stage..

For this limited run Scenic Designer James Noone has created a starker production design then during the original run, with a series of stairways and interconnecting catwalks filling up the stage.  This forces us to focus on the actors as opposed to the opulence and decay within Norma Desmond’s world.  Costume Designer Tracy Christensen has pulled out all the stops with her extravagant, sometimes garish outfits for the character.  All are showstoppers.

The main supporting cast members are mostly effective in their roles without outshining for one moment the star of the show.  Michael Xavier gives screenwriter Joe Gillis the requisite down-on-his-luck, sarcastic edge, but he comes across as too much of a cad, no matter what the circumstance or situation.  Siobhan Dillion’s portrayal of Besty Schaeffer finely toes the line of hard-driving career girl with spunk and a heaping dash of insecurity.  Fred Johanson as Nora Desmond’s manservant and one-time director, Max Von Mayerling, needs to provide more variation to his characterization.  He comes across a bit wooden and one-dimensional.

The score, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, has a sumptuousness and grandeur quality made more impressive with the overly large on-stage orchestra.  As stated earlier, the musical has a number of signature songs delivered in a stirring and sophisticated fashion by Ms. Close.  Overall, though, the score is not one of the composing team’s strongest efforts.

Director Lonny Price smartly keeps Glenn Close center stage as much as possible.  When she is not the focus the production slips, waiting for her poise, worldliness, and energy to take hold.  All of this comes together in the dazzling Act II scene at the Paramount Studio backlot and the actress’s rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”  Her brilliance does overshadow the secondary characters in the musical and the show would have benefitted more fully if Price was able to give each of them an added dimension.    His inclusion of the on-stage orchestra adds a unique and satisfying element to the production.  The car chase through the LA canyon is an inspired piece of stagecraft.

Sunset Boulevard, catch it for Glenn Close’s thrilling, once in a lifetime performance.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review of "Wakey, Wakey"

A man lies helpless, sprawled on the floor of an unadorned space.  Blackout.  The next moment the man is sitting in a wheelchair talking to us, the audience, about his impending death.  He is engaging, at times humorous, as well as reflective and distressed.  So, begins playwright and director Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, a meditation on one person’s eventual demise.  Michael Emerson, who embodies Guy, gives a powerful, multi-layered performance during this 75-minute production.  There is joy, sorrow, and warmth in what is, basically, a 60 minute monologue, interrupted only towards the end of the show by the introduction of Lisa (January LaVoy), a home health attendant.  Guy wants to entertain, tell some jokes, and live what is left of his life to the fullest while waiting for the inevitable to occur.  Ms. LaVoy is compassionate and understanding in her brief role as the aide to help Guy right up to the end. 
January LaVoy and Michael Emerson in Wakey, Wakey.
The script is ruminative and introspective and can become somewhat wearing with its philosophical ramblings and usage of playful projections.   Michael Emerson extracts all there is from the play but, in the end, there is not enough substantive dialogue and technique to carry the show to a fulfilling conclusion.  Will Eno, as director, lets loose a barrage of visuals to compensate, but they cannot make-up for the lack of a dramatic arc.

As the production concludes and Guy is wheeled off-stage a torrent of light (by Sound Designer David Lander), sound (Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg), and effects (Projection Designer Peter Negrini)  are unleashed, giving the audience a crescendo of death as envisioned by the now deceased character.  This focus on death’s finality is continued in the lobby of the Pershing Square Signature Center.  There, as theatergoers disperse, they will find an array of food and drink, simulating a Shiva call for a dearly departed friend or family member.

Wakey, Wakey, a thoughtful, sometimes compelling, but not fully satisfactory piece of theater.