Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of "The Revisionist"

The essential question of The Revisionist, the fitfully compelling drama at Playhouse on Park, is how does one define family and the desire for connection—with the world today and between generations?  Playwright Jesse Eisenberg’s work also explores the power of personal stories and experiences.  He mostly succeeds in a story that can be thought-provoking, enthralling, and heartrending.
Cecelia Riddett and Carl Howell in "The Revisionist."
The plot centers on David, a young writer searching for solace and a creative spark in order to finish his science fiction epic.  Seeking a total change of scenery, he travels to Szczecin in Poland to stay with Maria, an older, second cousin he hardly knows.   At first, the self-absorbed and arrogant novelist resists the overtures of the inquisitive and gregarious relative, wanting to be left alone to work.  They banter and squabble over the mundane and routine.  His curiosity, though, about her life as a Jew during the Holocaust she sporadically hints at, starts to pique his interest and begins to draw them closer until a long-kept secret drives a decisive wedge in their developing relationship.

Cecelia Riddett is impressive as the elderly Maria.  She skillfully and persuasively conveys the swirling emotions and excitement of someone coming face-to-face with a long unseen relative and her own personal demons.  The actress, initially, may come across as a fool set in her provincial ways, but she is more intelligent and sharp-witted then first impressions may suggest.  Carl Howell imbues David with an air of superiority and smugness that plays well against the more down-to-earth spirit of Maria.  There is, however, a uniform temperament and disposition to his role which, with more subtlety and variation, would have better displayed his more complex character. Sebastian Buczyk, a Polish native, is perfectly cast as Zenon, a burly taxi driver who, among other things, helps Maria with her weekly errands.
Cecelia Riddett and Carl Howell in "The Revisionist."
The production starts off sluggishly under Sasha Bratt’s staging.  Yet, the 100-minute, intermission-less play very quickly builds to an engrossing intensity only occasionally veering into tedious territory.  The director establishes an ambiguous, slightly unsettling tone that permeates the show including its surprise, somewhat inconclusive, nonetheless satisfying, ending.  Mr. Bratt is at his best with the scenes where the two main protagonists are holding honest conversations or bickering over unimportant minutiae. 

Emily Nichols’ Scenic Design of Maria’s apartment is functional and utilitarian, a domicile appropriate for someone on a very fixed income.  Joel Abbott’s Sound Design is unobtrusively effective with, for example, the jarring, ringing from the old-time rotary phone becoming almost like another character in the show.

The Revisionist, a worthy production at Playhouse on Park through April 29th.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of "Second Chance"

Jack, a senior citizen seemingly uninterested in much, lives alone in a small apartment, content to watch his beloved Yankees on television and live out his years.  His son, a well-to-do lawyer, convinces him to move to an assisted living facility.  Resistant at first, Jack quickly learns to love his new surroundings, thanks to the 4 to 1 ratio of women to men.  He becomes more active, especially with the lady folk, is less a curmudgeon, and develops a whole new outlook on life.  So, begins Mike Vogel’s uneven, somewhat humorous outlook on growing old.  All is not great, though, as Jack’s relationship with his only child is strained and his libido, while still active – at one point asking his son if he thinks Medicare covers the cost of Viagra – is not what it used to be.  Still, even with his bouts of forgetfulness, the arthritic pain in his shoulder, and his difficulties to commitment Jack is able to amicably resolve his problems and pursue life with vim and vigor.

Playwright Mike Vogel has crafted a diverting story that will have aged theater-goers and their children nodding in understanding.  These are significant and timely issues being portrayed and even though the overall thrust of the play is more genteel and limited there is food for thought within the text.  The characters the playwright has created are, for the most part, interesting, but they lack depth, are one-dimensional, and don’t necessarily mesh as a cohesive whole. 

The cast, in general, is adept and comfortable in their roles.  Paul D’Amato, as Jack, demonstrates older Americans don’t need to disassociate themselves from the world, no matter what their age.  He is sufficiently crusty and undergoes a convincing transformation from apathetic curmudgeon to the darling of the ball.  Marina Re, who portrays Jack’s love interest, Violet Amanda, adds a bit of zing to the production with her flamboyant outbursts and predatory motives.  Amanda Kristin Nichols as Malka, a young, single mother from Russia, who is one of the facility’s helpful aides, gives the most well-rounded, balanced performance.  The actress is expressive, hot-headed, and caring as she interacts with the residents.  Warren Kelly as Chet, the uber male of the complex until Jack shows up, delivers true comic moments that produce the most laughs during the show.  Jack Lafferty, who plays the son, Larry, needs to invigorate his role with more nuance and commitment.  His exhortations of fatherly compassion and love just don’t ring true.

There is a meandering flow to Director Russell Treyz’s pacing of the show, which can come across as somewhat choppy.  A more tightly structured staging would have given the production a better rhythm.   There is a noticeable lack of chemistry between Jack and Larry and their age difference just doesn’t add up and comes across as awkward. The requisite shouting showdowns between father and son, girlfriend and beau towards the end of the play come across as hollow and forced.  There are some enjoyable and finely tuned moments by the assorted characters, most notably the comic embellishments offered by Warren Kelly as Chet.

Second Chance, a mildly entertaining work that, nonetheless, illustrates a critical concern for our aging population.  Playing through April 29th.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review of "Admissions"

The question of white privilege and its collision with the college admission system is haphazardly examined in Joshua Harmon’s unfulfilling play Admissions.

The story revolves around Charlie Mason, a senior at an elite New England Preparatory School where his mother is the Director of Admissions and his father is the Dean of the institution.  He and his best friend, the offspring of a mixed marriage, have both applied to Yale University.  The friend gets in and Charlie does not.  This sets off a chain of events that only skims the surface of the agonizing admissions process and heartbreaking aftermath once decision letters arrive in the mail.  Friendships are also recalibrated and views on diversity and privilege are debated.

The concluding scenes, where the son makes a bold gesture, naïve and reactionary as it appears, nonetheless exposes the hypocrisy of his parents and their sorrowful view of higher education in this country.

Mr. Harmon has attempted to tackle a highly volatile issue.  As someone that has spent over 35 years in higher education, including Admissions, I know this process still continues to confound and anger applicants and parents today.  There is plenty of moralizing and soul-searching in the production, but the problem is many of the specifics fixated on by the characters are not significant.  For example, there is a long diatribe about how being passed over for Editor of the school newspaper was critical for Charlie’s admission chances.  When, in today’s world, many, many applicants to the Ivy League have incredibly high SAT scores, a better then 4.0 high school grade point average and eye-opening extra-curricular activities not making Editor-in-Chief is trivial.  Whether a student checking the “Black” box under ethnicity gives them a huge advantage is also very overplayed.

During the show, Charlie’s parents fret about their son’s future and what they can do to help him be admitted to any upper tier school.  You wonder how much or how little his parents, who know the in’s and outs of the admissions process, prepared him for this journey.  Also, wouldn’t the Director of Admissions and the Dean at an elite Prep School know people at said schools?  Couldn’t they call in a favor, especially for their son?

For audience members, unfamiliar with higher education practices the situations and dialogue may seem jarring and provocative.  But the circumstances addressed mask what could have been a more honest exploration of important issues only touched upon in this production.

The cast is fine, but the way their characters are written and directed produce mixed results.  Jessica Hecht’s Admissions Director, Sherri Rosen-Mason, is hard to read.  She is a strong, task oriented professional with little affect at her office, but her persona at home is a cloying, worrisome housewife.  Andrew Garman, her husband Bill, comes across as a stereotypical head of a tweedy New England Preparatory School who, at home, has little patience for what he sees as a whiny, self-righteous son.  Ben Edelman, as Charlie Luther Mason, is highly animated and captures the anger of a high school senior facing significant rejection, probably for the first time.  His performance would have been more effective with less histrionics, but the raw emotions are there.  Ann McDonough, as Roberta, the nearly retired Office of Development employee, is the most fully realized character.  She is earnest and forthright as she tries to satisfy Sherri’s ambiguous instructions for a more diversified student presence in the school catalog.  The actress exudes honesty and genuineness over her confusion and inquisitiveness.  She is exasperated, combative, and yearning to understand the changing world around her.  Sally Murphy as Sherri’s friend Ginnie Peters is not as fully rounded as the other characters.  She also appears younger then her dear friend as opposed to coming across as a peer.  Ms. Murphy gives a carefree gloss to her role until an impactful scene late in the show.

For the most part, Director Daniel Aukin utilizes too much yelling and volatility as a way for characters to get their points across.   The message of the show and their underlying themes might have been more compelling with a greater degree of contemplation.  However, the long monologue delivered by Charlie when he learns about his admissions decision, while over-the-top, is an appropriate, soulful yowl from an angst-ridden 18-year-old.  The best scenes in the play occur between Sherri and Roberta where they thrust and parry over diversity and strong-held beliefs.  They demonstrate the ambiguity, misinterpretation and the falsehood of admissions practices.  They are taut, and well-paced.

Admissions, a disappointing perspective on the higher education admissions process, playing at Lincoln Center through May 6th.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review of "Harry Clarke"

Who is Harry Clarke?  That is the intriguing question playwright David Cale has posed in the captivating and provocative, and very entertaining, one-man show Harry Clarke.  Starring Billy Crudup in a tour de force performance, the show examines how one man reinvents himself and through good fortune, lies and bravado changes his destiny.

There’s not much more I would want to say about the plot because, as Harry rants to a friend (paraphrasing here): “Why do people read reviews?  They’re just going to spoil the plot.”
Billy Crudup as "Harry Clarke."
Mr. Cale has created a show with enough twists and turns to keep the audience alert and focused.  After leaving the production, two disparate references popped into my head--Seven Degrees of Separation and the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.  That’s all I want to say as not to reveal too much.  The playwright has crafted over half a dozen roles that Mr. Crudup fleshes out into full-bodied characters, the central one being Harry Clarke who is a charmer, risk taker and charlatan. The contemporary persona of Harry Clarke is skillfully augmented with enough backstory to present a fully rounded individual that began toying with his sense of self and worthiness at a very young age.

None of the layered complexities and engrossment of the play would be realized without a performer who possesses the intelligence, adroitness, and stage presence as the actor Billy Crudup.  He totally embodies the main character, capturing his every nuance, frailties, and bluster.  One minute he is a shy, almost stuttering boy in the Indiana heartland.  The next he is a self-confident, boastful, English-accented young man cruising the byways of Manhattan.  He subtly infuses each of the other characters with just the right amount of inflection in his voice and body language to convey their essence and individuality.

Director Leigh Silverman brings tension and humor to the production with a tempo that is fast-paced and assured.  She has an outstanding partner in Billy Crudup who makes her job look easy and effortless.

Harry Clarke, a show not to be missed.  Playing in the Village at the Minetta Lane Theatre through May 13th.

Review of "Lobby Hero"

Poor Jeff (Michael Cera).  He works the graveyard shift managing the front desk of a nondescript hotel, lives with his brother, has no love life, and has a lousy sense of humor.  He also can’t keep his mouth shut, which causes more trouble than not.  He is the central character in Lobby Hero, playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s affecting, often times, tense drama.

The plot slowly develops from a routine, nightly check-in between security supervisor William (Brian Tyree Henry) and his subordinate Jeff and then casually, almost off-handedly begins to escalate into what could be a murder investigation.  Enter Bill (Chris Evans), a brawny, domineering police officer, who has no qualms bending and even breaking department rules and Dawn (Bel Powley), his dutiful, reticent female partner.  Through repeated visits to the featureless lobby the audience learns more about each character, their desires, shortcomings, and their ethical rectitude and moral integrity.  All of this is framed within the intensifying inquiry into a brutal killing.

Mr. Lonergan has crafted a taut melodrama that primarily explores truthfulness and the decisions people make when confronted with the notion of what is right versus personal choice.  He has layered his work with enough humor to keep the play from becoming overwrought. Setting the action within the small confines of a hotel lobby heightens the tension, which culminates with an electrifying climax.

The cast is solid.  Michael Cera exudes banality and smallness as a young man attempting to ascertain his place within society.  The actor conveys honesty and conflicted emotions on the question of right and wrong; loyalty and personal integrity.  Brian Tyree Henry imbues his character with a straightforward directness and outward fortitude that belies his insecurities and the mounting family crisis that envelopes him.  Chris Evans makes an auspicious Broadway debut as the ego-centric, tough-minded, yet flawed police officer.  He effortlessly oozes insincerity and arrogance, often in a chilling, piercing manner.  His partner, played by Bel Powley, at first, comes across as a fish out of water with the other three performers.  But her character’s outward reserve and naiveté mask a steeliness and inner strength which propels the forcefulness of the production through its searing conclusion.

Director Trip Cullum skillfully guides the performers through a bumpy emotional landscape.  He illuminates each character with individualized mannerisms and traits.  There is apprehension and a jumpiness that he adeptly sets off with the mundane and humorous.  His execution of the show’s payoff is chest-pounding and wholly satisfying.

David Rockwell’s Scenic Design is uncomplicated and modest—a rotating stage with an unadorned lobby, plate glass front doors, and a centrally placed elevator, which stands like a warning beacon over the action.  One of the most nerve-wracking parts of the production occurs when the elevator descends, its lighted floor numbers unhurriedly count down to the ground floor below. 

Lobby Hero, at the newly renovated Hayes Theater through May 13th.