Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Month: September 2014

L-R Sean Walsh and Austin Pendleton. Photo Bobby Caputo

Review | Chinese Coffee | By Ira Lewis | Directed by Louise Lasser | With Sean Walsh and Austin Pendleton | On The Wind Productions | Roy Arias Stage II Theater

This is a suspenseful play of psychological gamesmanship between an older mentor and a younger, less educated but talented writer.  The psychological unfolding is filled with suspense.  Jake (Pendleton), a 50-year old photographer and bookish older guy is weary and, as the play begins, tensely avoiding Harry (Walsh), 44 years old, who, just having lost a make-do job as a doorman, penniless, pushes in to Jake’s stifling apartment looking for some money Jake owes him.

L-R Sean Walsh and Austin Pendleton. Photo Bobby Caputo

L-R Sean Walsh and Austin Pendleton. Photo Bobby Caputo

The two characters are contrasts in age and in attitudes toward life.  Jake, a photographer, seems to embrace poverty;  by the same token, he’s long ago left his wife.  Harry has had full and zesty love affairs, though in the end his girlfriends have left him because they couldn’t take his shabby existence.  Harry’s not averse to money either — on the contrary — but his sense of self, and inner conviction of his own talent,  won’t let him “bow and scrape” for it.

But, we learn gradually, Harry’s come for something beside the money he’s owed.  He’s given Jake a copy of his most recent manuscript, and he’s looking for feedback, as Jake has given in the past.  Jake, though, says he hasn’t read the manuscript, giving specious excuses that Harry, respectful as he’s always been of Jake, begins to suspect.  The play has the feel of a detective story — where the crime is psychological oppression — as Harry  pushes through toward understanding what’s behind Jake’s evasions.

Austin Pendleton conveys Jake’s evasiveness and passive-aggressive personality.  He’s a bit too old and wispy-fragile for the part, though, and comes across so eccentric and off-putting one wonders why Harry, although hungry for a mentor, was drawn to this one.  Sean Walsh on the other hand is too young for his part and too well dressed to fit the script:  he expresses effectively Harry’s growing awareness of the truths about Jake, but one doesn’t feel the grinding experience of early promise followed by an awful long wait for something else good to happen in his writing career, nor of loves won and lost.  His Harry is a generic lower class stud with a “Brooklyn accent” — method acting from the outside

In this play of vivid and contrasting characterizations and high personal stakes, every word counts:  the dialog is so pointed it heightens the sense of tension and suspense. Some lines are so revelatory they made me gasp. This is a welcome revival of a play that has drawn several fine actors in the past, including in an independent film with Jake played by Jerry Orbach and Harry by Al Pacino, who also did the part on Broadway.  Chinese Coffee is a small, tight, hold-your-breath classic.

Chinese Coffee plays at the Roy Arias Stage II Theater on West 43rd Street in Manhattan through October 3, 2014.

Review | To The Bone by Lisa Ramirez | Directed by Lisa Peterson | Cherry Lane Theatre

I haven’t seen everything but it’s likely that To The Bone is one of the best dramas currently playing in New York.  It’s a gritty, realist play focused on several Hispanic women forming a shared household and employed in a chicken processing factory.  The characters are vivid and individualized, the dialog terrific, and the issues matter.

Driving to work.L-R Annie Henk, Liza Fernandez, Lisa Ramirez, Dan Domingues. Photo Monique Carboni

Driving to work. L-R Annie Henk, Liza Fernandez, Lisa Ramirez, Dan Domingues. Photo Monique Carboni

The women have arrived, most of them, through dangerous migrations from countries in South and Central America to upper New York State:  their job is “cutting the breasts off dead chickens” — this particular assignment underlining the plays’ theme of brutality toward women.  The work is hard, repetitive, cold and disgusting but, compared with other jobs open to them, it pays relatively well.  The boss Daryl, a tall, blond brute, pushes the women to work faster, goading them with punishing denial of bathroom breaks.  The Hispanic Lalo is his enforcer.

A tenuous equilibrium of dominance and exploitation has been reached but, in the course of the play, human nature at its best and worst causes it to crash into tragedy.  Olga’s the rebel, a tough, angry woman fired by a sense of justice, who talks back to Lalo and Daryl, insists on bathroom breaks and goads the others to stand up for themselves — which smacks of unfairness to the other immigrants since Olga’s the only one with a green card.

Carmen, a fragile, poetic girl, brutalized on her way from Honduras arrives inward and depressed, but she warms to the tender love from her Aunt, Reina, sisterly love from Lupe, Olga’s daughter, and the beautifully gentlemanly but passionate love from Jorge.  Daryl, though, is no gentleman, and the boss has all the cards, all the more so when the law — advocated by young Lupe who has plans to become a lawyer — seems to be worse than useless for those here illegally, threatening them with deportation.

This play creates a world focused on the women, the two men they encounter at the plant, and Jorge — what a memorably sweet guy he is — a taxi driver who drives them to and from work, $5.00 for the round trip.  Most of the action is centered on the house with a swinging screen Olga runs.  Reina is a calm woman who “takes it” — and who can’t stand Olga’s pushiness and rebelliousness that gets them in trouble with the boss.  Given the context, Reina’s not wrong, as Olga’s vaunted sense of justice leads her to commit a hideously unfair act, to fan the flames it ignites, and to catalyze huge losses.

A problem with the play is that the author doesn’t seem to realize she’s written a true tragedy.  The resolution is too easy, even “feel good.” Lupe sets off for NYC and, we think, higher education.  The women who remain in the house will, it seems, get along fairly well.  One, booted from the factory because of Olga’s actions, even likes her new job better.  This pleasant resolution is implausible.  The losses these women have experienced, and the irrevocable suffering Olga causes, lead to no easy resolution.  Olga can’t just “go on” — her only hope for redemption is some kind of profound penance.  A hug from a daughter just doesn’t do it.

L-R Xochitl Romero, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Liza Fernandez, Lisa Ramirez. Photo Monique Carboni

L-R Xochitl Romero, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Liza Fernandez, Lisa Ramirez. Photo Monique Carboni

The performances are superlative.  Lisa Ramirez, playing Olga in her own play, is tough to the point of brutality, but with an irresistible charisma in spite of perpetrating ill actions in the cause of good.  Her beautiful, exhausted face — she reminded me of Anna Magnani in Open City — speaks volumes of her life experiences.  Paola Lázaro-Munoz gives an outstanding performance as Lupe with her no nonsense affect, forward head carriage, youthful on a skate board and adult in her understanding of how the world works.  Dan Domingues as Jorge particularly touched my heart.  His sidewise glances while driving the women, working things out in his mind toward helping and understanding, are expressive, as is his subtle emotional evolution toward manly loving.

Annie Henk brings a motherly strength to the part of Reina who, grounded in common sense survivorship, can’t stand Olga..  Liza Fernandez conveys Juana’s huge, personal grief even through occasional valiant and lovely smiles.  As Carmen, Xochitl Romero is fragile but tough enough to say what needs to be said when it comes to getting a job.  Gerardo Rodriguez plays a strong Lalo, the boss’s man who finds a way to speak up for himself to the boss.  Haynes Thigpen as Daryl is a convincing all-out brute toward undocumented women while fearful of his father.

Rachel Hauck’s brilliant “chicken coop” environment set, with lighting by Russell H. Champa and sound by Jill BC Du Boff, and Theresa Squire’s costumes — scruffy and touching — add to the sense that one has shared the world of the characters.

Ramirez represents a system that is socially unjust but where actions are fueled by personalities.  To The Bone brushes near greatness in its interplay of character and fate.  Like Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday, the author seems to draw back from looking full in the face the powerful tragedy she has created.

To the Bone plays at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York City’s West Village through October 4, 2014.

Review | Bauer by Lauren Gunderson | Directed by Bill English | San Francisco Playhouse and Roland Weinstein | 59E59 Theaters

Bauer focuses on a fascinating episode in the history of modern art in which the German artist Rudolf Bauer, in the midst of a successful career, stopped painting. Why?

Stacy Ross as Hilla von Rebay and Sherman Howard as Rudolf Bauer in Lauren Gunderson’s play, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Stacy Ross as Hilla von Rebay and Sherman Howard as Rudolf Bauer in Lauren Gunderson’s play, at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Carol Rosegg.

It’s about a contract. The story unfolds as Hilla von Rebay, Bauer’s former lover, arrives at the house in New Jersey where he’s living with his loving wife, Louise, and not painting.  Bauer had been an early and well-known non-objective artist in Germany.  Under Hitler, the work of this avant garde artist was included in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, and he had been imprisoned for his art by the Nazis.  Solomon Guggenheim who, encouraged by Rebay, had been collecting his work for his planned Museum of Non-objective Painting, managed to have him released.

Finding refuge in the United States, Bauer signed a contract, brokered by Rebay, that ceded all his future work to the Guggenheim collection, for which he received a guaranteed stipend and use of a fine house in New Jersey.  Bauer claims he signed without understanding what the contract said.  Still, the arrangement may have made good sense at the time when Solomon Guggenheim was his protector, but after Solomon’s death his heirs had a different view of Bauer’s art and relegated his paintings to the “basement.”  None of his work was included in the opening exhibition of the Guggenheim Museum:  by then it was all about Kandinsky.  How galling that must have been, how unbearable.

More than a love triangle ... L-R Stacy Ross, Rudolf Bauer and Susi Damilano. Photo Carol Rosegg.

More than a love triangle … L-R Stacy Ross, Rudolf Bauer and Susi Damilano. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Gunderson’s play imagines an encounter of Bauer, Rebay and Louise twelve years after the contract and Bauer’s estrangement from Rebay.  She arrives at the house in New Jersey with the goal of getting him to start painting again, to make a try at breaking the Guggenheim contract, to fulfill his talent and — since under the new heirs she’d lost her job as head of the Guggenheim — to give her something important to do in the world of art.

The powerful emotional heart of the play is Bauer’s anger, frustration, bitterness and — less inevitably — his spiteful refusal to paint, the only way he sees to evade the trap in which the contract places him.  He has not painted for twelve years for one reason (at least as the play would have it): to deprive the Guggenheim of the works stipulated in the contract.  His passive-aggressive stance seems fully understandable, even heroic but Bauer is at the same time depriving himself of fulfilling his talent.

While he sees no way out of the trap, the sophisticated, fast-talking Rebay does.  Alternately alluring and goading, loving and angry, Rebay uses every arrow in her packed quiver to bring him back to his art and to her own purposes.  Will Louise, his warm, loving but unsophisticated wife, work with Rebay to get Bauer back into action or against her?  How will Louise understand her husband’s best interests?

The play has an unusual genesis: it was commissioned by SF Playhouse in association with The Weinstein Gallery that sells Bauer’s art, and it’s playing in New York in conjunction with an exhibition of Bauer’s work on exhibit at the German Consulate and soon at Sotheby’s.  By all indications, the play is part of a commercial push to heighten awareness of Bauer and raise his artistic prestige and sales-worthiness.   It’s important to be aware of the evident commercial purposes but these don’t mask the theatrical experience:  enabled by brisk directing and an excellent cast, the play provides an engaging and stimulating evening of theater.

I particularly enjoyed Stacy Ross as the smart, chic European, art deco Hilla von Rebay, slim in her stylish suit, knowing, witty, intense in her goals for Bauer and for herself.  Sherman Howard is effective as the artist furious at an ensnarement he’s obsessively certain he can only escape by sacrificing what matters most to him — his art.  Susi Damilano is a touching foil to the sophisticated Rebay, loving, tender and, we come to understand, plenty smart in her own way.

But while the play calls attention to Bauer, it doesn’t raise his artistic currency.  The unfinished painting on stage is duller than it needs to be, and, toward the end, a projected light show of Bauer-derived non-objective shapes (second photo) gives no idea of what his paintings look like.

As Bauer’s paintings were set aside by the Guggenheim, another, truly great, non-objective painter, Kandinsky, also collected by Solomon Guggenheim, became the star of the Guggenheim Museum.  I’ve thought of Bauer as a non-objective artist with a recognizable softness to his paintings, certainly without Kandinsky’s bite, power or persuasive cosmic vision.  Kandinsky over Bauer:  although the play, rooting for Bauer for its own reasons, evades that comparison, the Guggenheim heirs knew what they were doing.

But nonetheless Bauer had importance as an artist: he was an able painter who played a significant role in the development of non-objective art though, as the play reveals, he could not overcome his fall from being important to being dismissed.  In imagining the late life encounter of Rebay, Bauer and Louise, the play illuminates a not-well known chapter in the story of modern art and dramatizes with psychological truth a tragedy with meaning as old as Cain and Abel: being expelled, the fall from mattering to not mattering.

Bauer plays at 59E59 Theaters in mid-Manhattan through October 12, 2014.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – The New David H. Koch Plaza, New York, NY

… one of New York’s favorite theaters …

The moment the fountains of the new David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum were first (officially) turned on

The moment the fountains of the new David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum were first (officially) turned on

The fountains that ran along the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though they still looked beautiful and continued to toss their refreshing waters, had severe internal problems in the pipes and plumbing.  Museum Trustee David H. Koch expressed willingness to pay for repairs, an offer that morphed into a total re-design of the public spaces, four blocks long, that span the front of the museum, including removing the old fountains and installing new ones.  We were told at the ceremony dedicating the new plaza that Mr. Koch said “Why don’t I pay for everything including the extras?” and he did at a cost of $65 million.
He said at the ceremony he’s pleased that the two-year renovation project came in on time and on budget.   So how does it look?

View from steps looking north before the fountains were turned on

View from steps looking north before the fountains were turned on

The main features of the new design are two large fountains in square granite basins that flank the steps north and south.  Being square rather than long, and reaching closer to Fifth Avenue than the old fountains, these new ones bring the sparkling play of water and its delicious sounds closer those on the steps and to passers-by, more readily enjoyed. That’s really nice!  On either side of

After the fountains were turned on

After the fountains were turned on

the fountains are newly planted shade trees — more than there were before — with café tables and chairs interspersed.  The Plaza is unified its entire length and depth by paving of grey toned granite.

It’s good to have this important city open space healthily maintained.

High view looking south.

High view looking south.

A consideration of old and new, though, makes it clear that there have been some significant losses.  The old fountains were long and narrow, stretching on either side of the steps a good part of the length of the museum’s façade, and thus they invited movement along the full length of public space, while the depth of the new square fountains obstructs the continuity of the spaces on either side of the steps.

Also, the high arching play of the water in the old fountains reflected and

Square within a square. Circle within a square.

Square within a square. Circle within a square.

echoed the series of high arched openings of the museum’s facade behind them.  The square-within-a-square and circle-within-a-square geometry of the new fountains is a fascinating exploration of classicism, and links them with the steps in an interesting way, while engaging less with the architecture of the building.

And — depending how you feel about park-like settings — before the renovation, shade trees and park benches set on cobblestones created a continuation of Central Park that lies behind the museum.  The new plaza is sheathed in gray-toned granite, with café tables and chairs instead of park benches and pebbly cobbles, weakening the sense of the continuity with Central Park.  Before the park embraced the museum, now it sits behind it.

All in all, the new design is more centralized than the earlier one, with the casual seating areas — café tables and chairs — somewhat marginalized by those deep fountains.

During the dedication ceremony for the new plaza, Thomas Campbell, the

Night view fountain

Night view fountain

Museum’s Director and CEO said some wonderful words about what he called “one of New York’s favorite theaters — the steps of the Met.”   The steps draw an exhilarating mix of museum goers and people and performance watchers from all over the city and all over the world, sunning, eating, singing, enjoying music, mime, break dancing, juggling — virtuoso performances of all kinds … well, if you don’t know, make a visit!

And as for the plaza, it will take a little doing but — like a river — people will find their way, filtering through the full length of the four city blocks, and make this public space their own.

View of plaza looking North from 81st Street. Photos 4-7 courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of plaza looking North from 81st Street. Photos 4-7 courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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