Theater Review

The Sleep Disorder That Keeps on Giving

sleepwalk_with_meMike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me is a theatrical delight -- that rare combination of warm humor mixed with darker issues in a way that diminishes neither. Birbiglia is a stand up-comedian who has moved with this piece into the realm of one-man show, loosely gathering up the details of a story, with many humorous sideline diversions, about a traumatic night when he found himself jumping through the glass of a second-floor motel window, while asleep. It was the beginning of his recognition that he had a serious sleep disorder problem.

Since most of us don't suffer from persistent sleepwalking, one might wonder if his subject is sufficiently universal to hold an audience. It is. Especially because he feeds other issues into his tale: a highly successful and repressive father, garrulous mother, girlfriend and commitment fears, life on the road as a stand-up performer, and other amusing and engaging topics. He even gets laughs out of a dangerous illness he experienced at age nineteen. He's a sort of cheerful everyman who finds himself caught in a web of nighttime terrors. Which, for some years, he was into denying. Read more »

Electra Lacks Electricity

mourning-electraThe New Group production of Mourning Becomes Electra

Eugene O'Neill's 1931 retelling of Aeschelus' Oresteia is set in New England in 1865, in the wake of the Civil War. It's a setting that reflects the kind of internecine conflicts that also caused the Trojan Wars, and as in the original, the family awaits the return of their paterfamilias, Brigadier General Ezra Mannon, and their son, Orin, from the fighting. The piece is comprised of three separate plays that together form a more-than-four-hour-long orgy of incestuous love and death, with betrayal, revenge, suffering, and madness as stopping points along the way. With a Greek chorus of villagers gazing on, the Mannon family devours itself in its chilly manse on the hill in slow, sex-soaked bites. Read more »

And the Winner is...

druid-crippleThe current production of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan is the reason why we go to see live theatre. With so many shows being mediocre at best or battling it out for the coveted slot of "worst play I've seen all season," it is no small relief to witness a performance that so firmly sets the standard for the other side of the scale.

There is little room for complaint in the masterful telling of this most engaging tale, co-produced by The Atlantic Theatre and Druid. Read more »

Cry Me a River of Self-Pity

Michael_Shulman_White_PeopleTired, melodramatic, cliché-ridden: These are attributes one hopes to avoid in a play touted as “a candid look at race in contemporary America,” but sadly they are all too present in the New York premier of J.T. Rogers’s White People at Atlantic Stage 2. Even though friends had asked me how a play called White People could be any good, I had resisted their dismissive response, hoping to hear something fresh or illuminating, hoping even for a few moments of confrontation with the dark underbelly of American beliefs. Read more »

Good Riddance to Bad Piven

speed-the-ploySpeed the Plow

Whatever the true reasons for Jeremy Piven's early exit may be, it should go without saying that William H. Macy is a vast improvement. With three seasoned stage actors, this current revival of David Mamet's Speed the Plow could have really gotten off the ground, but unfortunately it is weighted down by Elisabeth Moss and her less-than-convincing portrayal of the ambitious temp secretary. Read more »

Darkness on the Edge of Town

pal_joeyPal Joey

As a musical theater fan, I look forward to the chance to see one of our classic musicals for the first time. The current Roundabout Theatre production of Pal Joey gave me that opportunity. For whatever reason, I had never seen Pal Joey before, either onstage or in the movies. I'm certainly aware of its significance, so I looked forward to the Roundabout production, knowing that reactions have been decidedly mixed.

Overall, I'm mixed too; all in all, I rather enjoyed the show, but, at the same time, never could get excited about it; the fizz, sizzle, and -- to quote one of its best song titles, "zip" -- were missing. Read more »

What's Big, Green, and Mediocre?

shrek-musicalShrek the Musical

My guess is that, unless the difficult economic times intervene, Shrek the Musical, the new Broadway production based on the hit animated film, which in itself came from the story and characters from a book by William Steig, will please a lot of people. While Shrek the Musical may not be the type of show that appeals completely to me, it still has its moments. In fact, if the entire musical were as good as its best scenes, Shrek would be a real winner. It is still better than many of the Broadway musicals adapted from hit animated movies, but it is uneven in spots, and the score never quite elevates it as much as might be hoped for. Read more »

The Great Harold Pinter Is Dead

PinterA great playwright has died, and how sad we are to lose him. We have come to the end of an era. Harold Pinter, who died on December 24, 2008 at the age of 78, was the major British playwright of the last fifty years. He and Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989, laid out a vision of human existence that expressed the post-WII anxieties of our contemporary western world. Together they brought to the stage, with full theatrical power, an uncompromising sense of our human limitations, our ludicrousness, and our luminosity. Read more »

Q: What Makes An 81-Year-Old Woman Really Sexy?

Estelle-Parsons-AugustA: When she can act like Estelle Parsons. If you haven’t seen Estelle Parsons in August: Osage County, you are cheating yourself out of the opportunity to see what makes theater the best forum for actors to truly unfold the wings of their craft and fly. Parsons isn’t acting the part of Violet Weston, she is Violet Weston, and seeing her make it look so easy and effortless is to watch someone defy gravity before your very eyes.

I recently revisited August to see how it was holding up in its new venue with its new cast members, particularly Parsons, and was thrilled to see that it has retained the same fire that it had over a year ago. Read more »

Another Disfunctional Family Play

prayer-enemyThe new play Prayer for My Enemy, now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, involves some distinguished theater people. It is written by Craig Lucas, author of Prelude to a Kiss, among many other plays, and also librettist for the musical The Light in the Piazza. It is directed by Bartlett Sher, who won a Tony for his exceptional work in the current revival of South Pacific and also received considerable praise for his direction of Piazza as well as the revival of Odets’s Awake and Sing. And the play stars Tony winners Victoria Clark (Piazza) and Michelle Pawk, as well as Tony nominee Jonathan Groff, who burst onto the scene with his fine performance as Melchior in the Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. But it takes more than the pedigree of the creators to make for a totally successful and satisfying theater work, and Prayer for My Enemy doesn’t completely work. Read more »

Another Brilliant Ivo Van Hove Moment

ivo-van-hoveAs a fan of the directing of Ivo Van Hove, I had to go see Opening Night during its brief (and now finished) run at the BAM Next Wave Festival. Van Hove makes regular forays into the NY theater scene from his base in Europe. This time he brought a Dutch troupe, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, with him, and the piece is fascinating, based on a 1970s John Cassavetes film and created, according to Van Hove, from the film script alone; he never saw the movie. I like that. It justifies my review of his piece without having seen the movie, which, according to a discerning friend of mine, was totally without merit anyway. Read more »

Mining for Broadway Gold

billy-elliotWow! That may not be the most articulate or profound thing to say about a new Broadway musical, but it is what I found myself saying and thinking after being totally blown away while watching Billy Elliot. The new musical, which is based on a movie with the same name and has already been a big hit in London, has arrived in New York. Based on the critical response and on what I saw, it should be here for quite some time. Even with these difficult economic times, Billy Elliot looks to be a tough ticket and a big hit.

There are so many things that impressed me about Billy Elliot that I'm not sure where to start. It has a wonderful mix of warmth, humor, theatricality, and razzle-dazzle showmanship.

Read more »

So So Sondheim

road-showMining for gold is a process that can occupy years of effort only to yield very small returns. This draws an appropriate parallel to the amount of time that Stephen Sondheim has put into the many incarnations of Road Show only to end up with a mediocre musical that bears his name but none of his genius. Just as the characters in this story are trying to hustle a series of cons, these actors and director are trying hard to sell this musical that just isn’t worth buying.

As a criticism of American capitalism, the theme is ripe and brought to the stage with perfect timing; unfortunately the exploration lacks depth and scratches at clichés of the flaws in our national character rather than probing with the vigor that the topic deserves. Read more »

From Sinner to Saint: A Man for All Seasons

man-seasonsThe Roundabout knows well how to tell a rich and colorful story with the use of one basic, functional set. Keeping the presentation simple allows the focus to rest on the performances of the actors, and with Frank Langella leading the pack, this proves successful in this current production of A Man for All Seasons by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Langella last appeared on Broadway as Richard Nixon, so it is in a much different cloth that he comes to us as Sir Thomas More, though his command of the stage remains consistent. Read more »

Making Something Out of Nothing

39-steps-broadwayThere is spectacle and there is theater. Spectacle often works to dress up nothing to make it look like something, whereas theater, true theater, can take nothing and magically transform it into something. The 39 Steps is unquestionably theater as its cast of four plays fifty, changing worlds and characters with the use of hats, costumes, flashlights, shadows, and welcomed suspension of disbelief. Nearly a year after its opening, one theater later with another theater to go, this comedy defies gravity as it changes venues and continues to thrive. I recently revisited this production, having originally seen it shortly after its opening, curious to see how it was holding up. Aside from missing Cliff Saunders, who originated the role of Man #1, this current cast is keeping the spirit alive of a very fun and entertaining piece of theater.

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