MCC Theater at the Lucille
Critics sometimes overlook actors' physical attributes when the business of assessing a production is at hand. But sometimes you've just got to make a mention. Look at Lynn Redgrave's brash and severe haircut in the title role of Mick Gordon and AC Grayling's intense, engrossing Grace. This may be how she wears her hair nowadays, but when she's playing an intellectually rigorous, emotionally steely woman, Redgrave's close-cropped cut imparts volumes about her character.
Grace is not only a well-regarded natural-science professor but a very public, strident atheist. Her preferred term—as she reminds husband Tony (Philip Goodwin), son Tom (Oscar Isaac), and Tom's fiancée, Ruth (K.K. Moggie)—is naturalist, highlighting her view that if one cannot identify God with one of the physical senses, then God cannot exist.
Unfortunately for her, Tom, a civil rights attorney like Ruth, is dissatisfied with his work and announces his wish to become an Episcopal priest. For Tom's ultraliberal parents (note the recurring tale of Tony and a tab of ecstasy), this is apostasy, ignition fuel for a monumental clash between mother and son. Grace is infuriated by the idea of Tom as another deluded believer, another enabler of religious zealotry. Yet for Tom, this devotion to religion isn't merely personal; it's to "help people feel that it's fine to be thinking, moderate, self-critical, and religious." Now Grace reaches the limit of maternal tolerance. "You can't have it both ways," she pleads. "It's faith or reason—you have to choose."
No, he doesn't. It would help, though, if he had an adequate answer for Ruth, who asks if he'll love God more than her. It would help because she's pregnant.
Until you grasp that the structure of Grace skips back and forth across time, Joseph Hardy's production can feel unfocused and meandering. The play starts and ends with Grace in a science lab, electrodes affixed to a helmet on her head, participating in an experiment said to stimulate that part of the brain associated with spirituality. Given that something terrible does happen to Tom, much as Grace feared, this is her effort to use rationalism in lieu of emotion one more time in an attempt to connect with the son whose beliefs collided so colossally with her own.
While Grace can be very talky, Redgrave, who is on stage for virtually the whole play, delivers a knockout performance. Grace is maddening and infuriating and tender and rich, and Redgrave blasts through the play's academic-style debates with the assuredness of someone able to unearth passion from the driest bits of Shaw. Isaac holds his own deftly. His Tom comes to fully appreciate that even the most freethinking among us can be ultimately hobbled by long-dormant biases. Goodwin counterbalances Redgrave expertly. That Tony happens to be Jewish, for example, lets him play the role with something of a wink. After all, this is a man who long ago subsumed his religiosity to appease his wife but still snuck his son out of the house for his circumcision; he'll likely rediscover his faith following his son's death. As the least effusive person in this querulous quartet, Moggie offers moments of penetrating clarity—just what Grace needs.
For stubbornness is Grace's albatross. It takes a long time for her to visit Tom's grave, where she's mystified by Ruth's behavior. Yet it's Grace who refuses to talk to her dead son directly. It's as if she would be admitting that her atheism—or naturalism—has cost her dearly. So when, at last, Grace speaks to the grave, it's the most natural thing that Redgrave explodes into primal screams and sounds. For it's not about what she believes. It's that she is finally able to grieve.
Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs
at the Vineyard Theatre
Nothing in the visually enchanting, superbly bizarre new musical The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower lives up to the delirious promise of its first 20 minutes. And it doesn't matter. Not really. If, like me, you initially buy into Slug Bearers's vibrant idiosyncrasies, you can forgive it social commentary painted without the same confident brush strokes. This is a piece of theatre so fresh in so many ways that it suppresses the quibbling critic and unleashes the famished fan who's happy to know that people still make musicals that amaze.
And make no mistake, Slug Bearers amazes. It is the first piece of theatre I've seen that makes a persuasive case for projections as scenery. At times the projected images provide the environment, at others they live within it; always they are essential. Of course, it helps in this regard that the projections don't attempt a background of photo-realism but rather create an entire cartoon world that moves with cinematic sweep (the set and projection design are by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg). It helps, too, that the projected drawings are the work of acclaimed artist Ben Katchor, who is also the musical's librettist.
The story he's come up with is pretty amazing too. Ever wonder what gives a household appliance its "heft and worth"? Well, no, me neither. But still. In this age of electronic miniaturization, many appliances make up for their lack of weighty innards with metal slugs. And, at least in this musical, those slugs are mined on remote Kayrol Island, where workers must carry them in the hot sun. The plight of these slug bearers weighs heavily on GinGin (sexy, savvy newcomer Jody Flader), the daughter of wealthy electrolysist Dr. Lumin Rushower (the warm, excellent Peter Friedman). Despite warnings from an unfortunately unibrowed businessman (the sensationally creepy Stephen Lee Anderson), she travels to the island with Immanuel Lubang (the wildly charismatic Bobby Steggert), a would-be missionary who believes that the workers should be repaid through exposure to a byproduct of their labor—the "remarkable body of prose poetry" more commonly known as appliance instruction manuals.
It's quirky, quirky material—self-consciously so at times—but saved from preciousness by its bold initial storytelling. Slug Bearers establishes its core characters and conceits without apology. GinGin has mysterious, delightful phone conversations with a mysterious, delightful stranger (Matt Pearson); Immanuel gathers with fellow enthusiasts to recite "literature" at a Macedonian coffee shop. Attempting to merge these characters and their worlds, though, Slug Bearers slumps, as if suddenly straining to explain its strangeness. By this point that ship has sailed. Katchor would do better simply to fly his freak flag, supported in his droll fantasy by some terrific performances and wonderfully unpredictable music.
For the last we can thank composer Mark Mulcahy, who supplies a mixture of pulsating pop hooks and orchestral lushness that brings to mind the virtuosic film scores of Jon Brion (I Heart Huckabees, Punch-Drunk Love). Director Bob McGrath and choreographer John Carrafa anchor the proceedings with a smart, sharp staging.
To those who will remain cool to Slug Bearers's charms (and I am sure they are many), there's not much to say. It is indeed an imperfect show, with some serious dramaturgical flaws. It also happens to be the most fascinating piece of theatre I've seen so far this season.
Reviewed by Adam R. Perlman
The New Group at the
If you could put all the marvelously complex, kvetchy characters in Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years on a plane—first class for some, economy for others, a few bound and gagged in the hold—and fly them to the United States from England, where the play occurs, and if you could then change their British accents to, say, Long Island accents, you'd notice no difference in why they're affecting to watch. That's not criticism. That's the beauty of Leigh's penetrating comedy-drama.
For a play that surprises with its supple emotional textures, what's remarkable is the sheer clarity of Leigh's theme: three generations of a family confronting what it means to be ethnically and spiritually Jewish. Director Scott Elliott, so often overrated, does a superb job staging the play so that it possesses no whiff of artifice.
With one exception, Leigh and Elliott are aided by a cast committed to persuading you that this family, if vulnerable to an identity crisis, is as tight as glue. Danny (Richard Masur) and Rachel (Laura Esterman) are the anchors: He's a dentist, she's a hausfrau, and together they're secular, middle-aged, assimilated British Jews. For reasons initially unexplained in the play but easy to intuit, Josh (Jordan Gelber), their eldest son, who is doing precious little with his university degree, finds religion. That Josh must draw curtains, close doors, and hide to wear tefillin speaks volumes about his family's ambivalence toward its Jewishness. As I say, one can easily imagine these people living in the Five Towns—maybe Cedarhurst, maybe Hewlett.
Youngest child Tammy (Natasha Lyonne), meanwhile, is a family favorite—a globetrotting idealist devoted to left-wing causes in places like Venezuela. Like Danny and Rachel, Tammy looks askance at Josh's yarmulke-wearing and newfound spiritual devotion; Lyonne's big eyes and slightly aggressive voice instigate some very good rivalry scenes. Josh's scruffy beard, tendency to run up to his room, and physical heft are symptoms of his need to find greater meaning in life. Convinced he's found it, he's devastated to realize just how deep-rooted his family's squeamishness is about its heritage.
The dynamic intensifies when Rachel's father, Dave (Merwin Goldsmith), arrives. He lived on a kibbutz during Israel's founding but turned his back on the Jewish state years ago; Dave's ceaseless tormenting of his grandson about his devoutness generates Leigh's best scenes, and Goldsmith is never better than when delivering Leigh's barbed lines. Tammy's boyfriend Tzachi (Yuval Boim), a young Israeli offering a lighter perspective on contemporary Jewishness, leavens the play, as does Jonathan (David Cale), a nebbishy neighbor.
Then there's Rachel's estranged sister Michelle (Cindy Katz), who turns up after their mother's death. Esterman, in a memorable, powerfully understated performance, undergoes more than one transformation during this part of the play. Watch how the seemingly unruffled expression she's worn during the play vanishes just minutes after Michelle's arrival. There's foreshadowing to all this, of course, and Michelle is as nuts as advertised. Indeed, she symbolizes the heights of Jewish self-hatred: straight hair versus Rachel's frizz, WASPy clothes versus Rachel's frump chic. Whereas Esterman is fascinatingly naturalistic, Katz revels far too much in her character's psychoses, overemphasizing them. To quote a rabbi I know, "Dahlink, too much, too much."
Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs
LAByrinth Theater Company at
the Public Theater as part of
It's not surprising that the latest Adrienne Kennedy play, written in collaboration with her son Adam, is autobiographical. Many of her works, such as Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, A Rat's Mass, and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, are derived from her growing up as an African-American woman in Ohio. But what sets Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? apart from her other pieces is its simplicity. Those earlier plays are phantasmagorical and fragmentary, with figures from fantasy, history, and pop culture interacting with more-realistic characters in a poetic dreamscape.
In Beatles, Brenda Pressley as the author stands center stage at a lectern reading from a script. The subject is Kennedy's sojourn in late-1960s London, accompanied by Adam, who was a little boy at the time, to write a play based on a book of nonsense verse by John Lennon. No one like Anne Boleyn or Bette Davis pops up to offer coded commentary.
Kennedy runs into a slew of celebrities, eventually hooking up with Kenneth Tynan, the influential drama critic and co-director with Laurence Olivier of the fledgling National Theatre. Kennedy meets all four Beatles and her childhood idol, Olivier, when the National stages the Lennon piece. She revels in the Fab Four's charisma and the vitality of the British capital, then the center of an exciting shift in music and theatre. But her idyll is shattered when she is pushed off the project so the National can cash in on Lennon's popularity by listing him as sole author.
It's a charming, straightforward memoir, one you'd think would be more suited to the page than the stage. There's little action aside from an occasional interjection from William Demeritt as the offstage voice of Adam quizzing his mother on her memories or a series of period pictures projected on a backdrop. But somehow Peter DuBois' production works as theatre. There is an arc of character development as Kennedy's infectious enthusiasm for all things British is followed by her bitter disappointment at being shut out of the creative process on a work she initiated. This metamorphosis is expertly conveyed by Pressley and aided by Walter Trarbach's sound design, which incorporates the music of the swinging '60s.
There is the odd bit of name-dropping ("Oh, look, there's Sean Connery"), but this 68-minute curiosity captures a fascinating phase of a major playwright's life and a unique moment in cultural history.
Reviewed by David Sheward
at the Culture Project
Is America deserting the idealistic Iraqis who sacrificed their safety and friendships to work in Baghdad's Green Zone? In Betrayed, the drama that George Packer has fashioned from his New Yorker article, the unfortunate answer is yes. Although it's an explosive exposé of shameful, even scandalous decisions, the play devolves into choppy snapshots that neither sustain a dramatic arc nor create characters who are more than attitudes. Even the title turns out to be generalized and misleading, rooted more in thesis than conflict.
Adnan and Laith are good friends even though the former is Sunni and the latter Shia. Told in flashback, the story has them desperately awaiting the clearance that will allow them to flee Iraq for somewhere, anywhere, as the United States refuses to shelter them. They're "in between heaven and hell…non-belongers" who put their faith in their American employers. Only one Foreign Service officer, Prescott, is not indifferent to their plight. In one teasing but red-herring scene—we expect more-complex motivations—he leaves the compound to immerse himself in Iraqi culture. What drama occurs involves Prescott's opposite, a nasty security officer who spends his waking hours looking for spies and conducting lie detector tests. More action than talk revolves around Intisar, a young Iraqi woman who loves the works of Emily Brontë and refuses to cover her head with a hijab.
Under Pippin Parker's firm direction, scenes and narration flow seamlessly together even though the play's structure is scattered. He elicits authentic performances from his actors: Sevan Greene as Laith, Waleed F. Zuaiter as Adnan, Aadya Bedi as Intisar, Mike Doyle as Prescott, Jeremy Beck as the security officer, and Ramsey Faragallah in a variety of roles. They convey a verisimilitude that matches Packer's journalistic ardor.
Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg
Apparition Productions at the
As might be expected, there's a lot of talk about sickness, death, and dying in Deathbed, Mark Schultz's curious but ultimately moving comedy-drama blessed with a splendid production under Wendy C. Goldberg's direction.
Schultz packs more than 25 scenes into his script, which runs approximately 50 minutes, as he ties together the uneasy situations of seven people, some deeply connected, others only tangentially so. The writing is terse, sometimes sketchy, but as scenes build on top of one another, Schultz creates a quirky, occasionally funny threnody on the painful uncertainties of life and the lure and mystery of death.
Unquestionably, much of the production's persuasiveness is due to Goldberg's evocative direction and the actors who bring instantaneous life to Schultz's characters. They include Martha (Christa Scott-Reed), who has cancer and can't stop talking about it, while her husband, Danny (Jonathan Walker), who can't tolerate sick people much less the thought of death, offers little sympathy. Martha's friend Susan (Emily Donahoe) has double troubles: Her husband, Martin (Ryan King), is cheating, she believes, and her grandfather (Ross Bickell) plans to commit suicide. Meanwhile, Martin has to fend off the amorous overtures of his good friend Steven (Brandon Miller), who has only just revealed his overpowering love for him. Then there's newsboy Ian (Clifton Guterman), who delivers more than newspapers.
In a final irony, Schultz leaves the audience questioning the entire validity of his universe. The play begins with a conversation between two women (Patricia Randell and Charlotte Booker). One is reading a novel titled Deathbed, by Mark Schultz, and the other tells her how sad it is. At play's end, the woman reading the book declares she didn't think it was all that sad, and the other woman wonders whether Deathbed was actually the book she was thinking of.
Alexander Dodge's smart set design—a vast, impersonal waiting room into which other set vignettes are rolled into place—adds to the production's intriguing ambiguities.
Reviewed by Ron Cohen
Performance Lab 115 at the
Sanford Meisner Theatre
Have you heard of Paul Cohen? I hadn't, yet I found his historical three-hander Cherubina eminently satisfying and well-constructed, with snappy dialogue and emotional depths that leave you pondering its characters long after the lights go up. Cohen, by the way, is self-producing a series of readings of his other plays at the Sanford Meisner Theatre Feb. 5–19, making it easy for those who love good drama to familiarize themselves with his work.
Cherubina is set in Russia mostly in 1913 (one scene takes place in 1921) and involves a triangle both literary and amorous. Crippled schoolteacher Elisa (Amanda Fulks) conspires with her editor friend Max (Jimmy Owens) to submit her poetry under the assumed glamorous persona of Cherubina de Gabriak after Nikolai (Teddy Bergman), the boyish, romantic, enthusiastic publisher of the literary magazine Apollon, rejects Elisa's work as having "no soul." (According to the press release, the play is based on a true story.) There have been similar plots before, but what sets this one apart is an undercurrent of yearning. Cohen poses a theatrical question by opening the play with a duel between Max and Nikolai that is cut short because Max loses his shoe. Thus, once the play flashes back to the story's beginning, we already know that something will go wrong, though we don't know what.
If you saw Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia last season at Lincoln Center, you'll immediately recognize in Nikolai the nearly religious devotion to literature that the character embodies. But Cherubina requires no period knowledge to enter into the realms of longing these characters inhabit. Cohen's dialogue feels fresh and true: Complaining about her job as a schoolteacher, Elisa snaps, "I hate small children. I don't like their heads." In love with Cherubina, Nikolai observes that he has no interest in other women: "I see them on the street, and they look like friendly little dogs."
Fulks makes a moving Elisa, and as she grows more and more into Cherubina, the character blossoms before our eyes—and before the eyes of Max, her long-suffering, slightly lower-class pal who loves Elisa as she is. Owens lacks chemistry with Fulks, but his smart, nuanced delivery tells the story well. As Nikolai, Bergman throws himself about, creating an appealing and appallingly selfish adolescent. Director Alexis Poledouris keeps the action moving and elicits a first-rate performance from each actor. Gina Scherr's evocative set includes birch trees and books.
Cherubina is a solid, moving tale, with a simple set and three actors. It ought to be widely known.
Reviewed by Gwen Orel