Theater Review

The Hit of the Season

Queen of the Mist
Transport Group Theater Company
, NYC
Through November 20, 2011

Queen of the Mist is the best musical drama I have seen in decades.

A seasoned critic was once quoted as warning a fresh young reviewer, "You'll run out of adjectives. We all do." Words and phrases such as "superb," "excellent," "skillful," "clever," "sophisticated," "tour-de-force," "role of a lifetime," and "artful" may not be the freshest terms of praise, but they are the ones I would apply to every aspect of this unique musical.

MLK: In Name Only

The Mountaintop
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, NYC

The Mountaintop makes use of his name, it makes use of some of his words, and it makes use of his story, but the play is ultimately devoid of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself in any genuine sense. It borders on the edge of exploitation; if there was a sincere purpose behind this telling of King’s last night on earth, it seems that it was lost somewhere between its confused, aimless script and shameless stunt casting.

Samuel L. Jackson, ever effective in films when he keeps within his badass range, is well outside his abilities in the role of Martin Luther King Jr. His struggle to find comfort on the Broadway stage is reminiscent of his awkward presence as Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels, only less entertaining.

Relatively Awful

Ethan Coen/Elaine May/Woody Allen
Relatively Speaking
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, NYC

Comedies that aren’t funny are an unpleasant proposition, particularly when there’s more than one to be endured in a single evening.  In a baseball analogy, Relatively Speaking would rack up two stone-faced strikeouts and a base hit worth a couple chuckles and some thought. One would hope that when three respected writers such as Ethan Coen, Elaine May and Woody Allen combine forces to mount a collection of one-acts, directed by John Turturro, that there should be an expected level of quality, but instead of the words of proven masters we are presented with the misguided scribbling of rank amateurs.

We Laugh at You Long Time

David Henry Hwang: Chinglish
Longacre Theatre, NYC

Chinglish is the word coined for those humorously bad Chinese-to-English mistranslations found on signs, in electronics manuals, etc. That sort of thing is hardly exclusive to China (there are plenty of examples from around the world here), but thanks to the first-world economic implosion, China is where the stakes are highest now. The new play by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang (his first on Broadway in 13 years) is built around both this crucial transition and mistranslation. Bring your opera glasses, because being able to read supertitles has never been more important.

Our hero lead schlub, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), opens the play alone, explaining to an unseen conference audience the secret of his business success in China. As his business is signs, this talk includes memorably mistranslated examples, most prominently "Fuck the certain price of goods," which makes perfect sense once it's explained that when Chinese script was modernized and simplified, the ideograms for "dry" and "to do" became the same.

Cheerful Insanity: Chao and Katzberg in Repertory

Tom X. Chao: Callous Cad
Kim Katzberg: Penetrating the Space
145 Sixth Avenue
September 26 – October 16, 2011

Cheerful Insanity consists of two plays, both directed by John Harlacher and presented in repertory at the downtown performance space called Here. I attended these plays knowing next to nothing about what I was to behold in the downstairs performance space. I am not quite sure of the “cheerful,” but there was “insanity” galore.

Off-Broadway Babble-on

C.S. Hanson: Charles Winn Speaks
Directed by Lynn M. Thomson
Cherry Lane Studio Theater

In Charles Winn Speaks, actor Christopher Kipiniak certainly speaks and speaks and speaks. The play consists of four acts, played with no intermission: two long monologs, followed a scene with another character, followed by a brief concluding monolog. In short, Charles Winn does a whole lotta speaking, and for the most part, engagingly so.

James Haigney: The Woman Standing on the Moon

The Woman Standing on the Moon
James Haigney
Urban Stages, NY
September 16 - October 2, 2011

In Revelations 12.1, a pregnant woman is standing on the moon, about to give birth while a red dragon waits nearby to devour her newborn. In a similar way, so goes The Woman Standing on the Moon, a new play by James Haigney. Just as the Book of Revelations is worth reading, the play is decidedly worth seeing, bearing in mind that neither the biblical dream story nor this play are what one might call "feel-good" experiences. 

Suddenly Last Summer with Sudden Comedy Moments

White Horse Theater Company
Tennessee Williams: Suddenly Last Summer
Hudson Guild Theater
September 16 - October 2, 2011

Suddenly Last Summer is considered to be Tennessee Williams's most poetic play. Williams's carefully crafted words are heard primarily in two long monologues within the play, around which the action takes place. The 1959 film version is a staple of Turner Classic Movies, and I was curious to attend a version based on the original stage script, apparently mounted in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Williams's birth.

Feels Like She’s Losing This Song…

Follies
Marquis Theatre, NYC

As far as musical theatre goes, there are few shows as epic as Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Follies. Originally opening at the Winter Garden in 1971, since its closing it has created a cult of dedicated followers who eagerly attend every revival hoping to catch a glimmer of fading ecstasy. The current production at the Marquis may not be able to scale such overwhelming expectations, but it certainly makes a respectable and entertaining attempt.

Jan Maxwell plays a sexy Phyllis of great power and seething restraint, pulling off the unlikely trick of making "Could I Leave You?" the show stopper that "Losing My Mind" would normally be.

Legendary Sondheim Musical Revived

Stephen Sondheim: Follies
Marquis Theatre, NYC

Among musical theater enthusiasts, there are few musicals as revered and discussed as Follies, the legendary 1971 musical featuring a magnificent Stephen Sondheim score and a book by James Goldman. The original production ran for only 522 performances, and audiences did not always respond, but it is regarded by its fans as an opulent, brilliant, and never-to-be-duplicated production of a groundbreaking musical. I saw that original, and I have always felt I may have been a bit too young to fully appreciate it. Since then, among others, I have seen the 1987 London production, a well-regarded mounting at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, a scaled-down Broadway revival ten years ago, and a concert version that was part of the Encores series several years ago. Fans of the show flock to each new production, always hoping that this will be the “perfect Follies” we have long awaited. All the versions I have seen had their attributes and their standout performances, and all have had elements open for legitimate debate and criticism. Has any musical ever inspired as much passion, differing opinions, and intrigue as Follies?