Theater Review

George Carlin May 12, 1937 - June 22, 2008

george_carlinGeorge Carlin has died of heart failure. Considered one of the two or three greatest stand-up comedians ever, he started doing comedy in 1960 and recorded his first solo album in 1967. Long an astute observer of hypocrisy, language usage, and material avoided by most comics as too controversial, Carlin became notorious for his use of taboo words when that was a rarity in mainstream comedy. His routines involving the "seven words you can never say on TV" provoked an FCC lawsuit in 1973 that went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against radio station WBAI in 1978. Read more »

Watered Down Pinter

caretakerPinter’s work can be very tricky. With all the purposeful pauses and odd behaviors, there needs to be an underlying drive in the characters, pushing the tension and action forward. Something almost subterranean. And this is what is unfortunately lacking in the production of The Caretaker at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, now in its 80th season. Of the three actors on stage, only one is fully up to the demands of his part. Jonathan Epstein as the old derelict Davies, brought indoors from a café fight to the single room where all the action occurs, is excellent. He has the requisite paranoid distrust that drives Davies, the endless resentment, and at the same time the cunning self-pity and delusions. Read more »

Neon Lights Are Bright This Year

xanaduThe end of May also marks the end of another Broadway season. The awards season is upon us, with the Tony Awards upcoming (Sunday, June 15). It makes this a good time to take a look back at the Broadway musicals of 2007-2008.

It was a season marked with a fascinating contrast between the revivals and the new musicals. The four major musical revivals include three revered classics of American musical theater: Rodgers and Hammerstein's glorious South Pacific; the brilliant Gypsy, an iconic show many fans believe is the greatest American musical ever written; and Stephen Sondheim's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George. Read more »

Young Frankenstein

young_frankenstein.jpgI'm actually one of the few who never saw Mel Brooks's movie Young Frankenstein. I also felt that his Broadway hit The Producers, while a lot of fun, didn't quite live up to all its hype. But when some good seats opened up for Brooks's musical version of Young Frankenstein, which opened late last year at the Hilton Theater, I went for them. I had read both the pros and cons about Young Frankenstein and went in with minimal expectations. Given that background, did it deliver? Yes and no.

Overall, I found the show to be modest fun. It's quite a visual spectacle, with some terrific Robin Wagner sets being one of the definite highlights. Read more »

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Something

sound_furyWhen William Faulkner put us inside the head of an idiot in section one of his 1929 novel, The Sound and the Fury, it was a radical stylistic choice. An early American practitioner of the stream-of-consciousness style, introduced by such European modernists as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner went one step further than Joyce and Woolf by his choice of an idiot narrator, one whose brain was even more chaotic than the ordinary, disorganized mental stream of most humans. What the group Elevator Repair Service has created at New York Theatre Workshop is the stage version of such an experience. Read more »

The Surreal Rock of Stew on Broadway

passing_strangeHas the influence of pop and rock music on the Broadway musical ever been more evident than this season? The Tony nominees have been announced, and all four nominated musicals feature scores heavily influenced, in varying forms, by pop or rock. Of the newcomers, no show pushes the boundaries of how people might look at a Broadway musical more than Passing Strange, which has landed at the Belasco Theatre after having been previously produced at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, then off Broadway last spring at the Public Theater.

The show is a semi-autobiographical story of an artist’s journey and search for self-fulfillment. Its star and creator, Stew, AKA Mark Stewart, founded the critically acclaimed Los Angeles band The Negro Problem in 1995 (and also has among his credits the composition of a song for Spongebob Squarepants). Read more »

Out on a Limb in Damascus

damascusA Scots man, trying to sell a series of multicultural textbooks that teach English to foreigners, lands in contemporary Damascus, Syria. He is quite unsophisticated, sleep-deprived after the long flight there, and eager to return to his home. From this simple premise of “rube out of his depths,” David Grieg’s Damascus opens up a whole world of cultural and erotic possibilities during Paul’s three-day visit and stay at a three-star hotel, under the tutelage of its friendly young desk clerk Zakaria and the lovely school administrator Muna. Read more »

Cry Baby

cry_babyOne of the joys of theater can be the element of surprise. It is going into a new musical with minimal expectations, only to be pleasantly surprised to find that the show is genuinely entertaining. That happened when I saw Cry Baby, the new musical based on the John Waters cult movie (which starred Johnny Depp). I thoroughly enjoyed the Broadway Cry Baby. It is by no means a great musical, and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but I had a smile on my face through most of the evening. While Cry Baby doesn’t have the show-stopping excitement or emotional pull of Hairspray, the hit Broadway musical also based on a Waters film, I found it to be far superior to other Broadway movie adaptations such as High Fidelity and The Wedding Singer, and better than the likable but uneven Legally Blonde, which has been running for over a year now. Read more »

It's ENDGAME in Brooklyn

endgameThe "endgame" could go on for years. Every day is a bit of the endgame. But then, one day, it might actually be the end of the endgame. This is Samuel Beckett's insight, his truth, played out in his works, whether the play is Happy Days or Waiting for Godot, or the actual Endgame.

In chess the endgame is the period when the game is dwindling down, most of the power pieces have been lost on both sides, leaving the two kings, perhaps a few pawns, and mostly self-protective moves. It's likely to end in stalemate unless one opponent grows bored or distracted so that the other can actually move to checkmate. Read more »

In the Heights

in_the_heightsI had heard so many good things about the new Broadway musical In the Heights that I was hoping for more from this show, set in the largely Latino Washington Heights section of Northern Manhattan around a July 4 holiday. I didn’t dislike it; in fact, I very much admired its spirit and energy. The score, written by the show's star, newcomer Lin-Manuel Miranda, is appealing, with its Latin-flavored, hip-hop, and rap numbers mixing with some more traditional Broadway sounds. There were plenty of virtuoso performances, and the second act had some touching moments. But, overall, largely due to book and story issues and a major lack of character development, I just couldn’t get totally involved in In the Heights. Read more »

Escape to South Pacific

south_pacificOnce upon a time in the 1940s and '50s they wrote truly great musicals in America, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is one of them. From the moment the Lincoln Center orchestra strikes up the overture, a mood of lush romance and wonder settles upon the theatre. The music is exquisite. And this production lives up to the high level set by the very talented composer and lyricist.

Somehow it is just the right moment for a revival of this 1949 classic musical. Yes, it is set in the South Pacific Theater during World War II, but it’s not the relevance to our day that makes it work. Read more »

Fractured Family Life

homecoming_pinterThe Homecoming is not my favorite Harold Pinter play, but almost any Pinter play tends to be better than anything else around, so it is wonderful to have this production on Broadway until April 13. I certainly recommend going. With Daniel Sullivan directing competently, and such fine actors as Ian McShane and Eve Best starring, it is effective in exactly those jolting ways that characterize early Pinter works.

The play is mean, funny, dark, disturbing, and mysterious. Read more »

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

appleton.jpgSitting in the audience at PS 122, gazing out at the barely-adorned stage, taking in the sound of a piano played by a woman dressed in Victorian clothing, one can easily feel the pleasure of having stumbled onto something that few know about. But with PS 122 being one of the city’s premier avant-garde performing art showcases, and the show having won U.K. critics’ accolades and several awards after appearing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, any sense of having “discovered” 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is of necessity false. Read more »

Short Plays by Beckett - New York Theatre Workshop

beckett3Samuel Beckett is the premier absurdist playwright of the twentieth century, a “classic” so to speak. But as the decades pass, his work is performed less often in Manhattan. New York Theatre Workshop is presently staging what they have titled Beckett Shorts, consisting of Act Without Words I & II, Rough for Theatre I, and Eh Joe. And we should all be so glad that they are.

The production is a small jewel: precise direction by Joanne Akalaitis; original, atonal music by Philip Glass; effectively simple stage design by architect Alexander Brodsky; and brilliant acting by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Bill Camp. Read more »

August Heat + Family Fury = Stunning Broadway

august_osage_countyTracy Letts’s new play August: Osage County, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, is a brilliant indictment not only of the American family—which has taken plenty of hits over the years, and rightly so—but of America’s culture and history as well. In fact the dysfunctional Weston family is a metaphor for the American people. They live on the former Great Plains, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the true heartland. Just as the Westons drink, pop pills, attack each other, cheat on their partners, and rage at perceived insults and old humiliations, so do we all in this great imperialistic consumer culture we call our own. Read more »

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