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

Month: February 2015

Review | Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnar | Directed by Davis McCallum | Mint Theater Company

 … back to Budapest with you! … 

I had the good luck to see Molnar’s Liliom recently off- off Broadway and it’s a marvelous play: in its way as good as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel, based on it.  So (though I admit the title struck me as a little silly) I was really keen to see another Molnar play. Molnar, a Hungarian, was after all among the most popular playwrights in Europe and America for much of the first half of the 20th century.

In this play of old world Europe, Peter Juhâsz, who owns a fine haberdashery in Budapest, knows his scarves, neckties, and how to cater to fancy customers well enough but he’s too angelic a man for business.  He gives credit too easily and, generally, he just doesn’t “get” the bottom line …  until, in a single day, because of his lack of financial acumen, the business is put into receivership and, to top it off, his wife leaves him for his best sales clerk.

His Excellency the Count, who appreciates Peter’s honesty,  saves the day by giving Peter a manager’s job on his country estate.  Paula, the pretty shop girl at the haberdashery has been carrying on a flirtation with the Count that she hopes will make her rich.  She follows Peter to the Count’s estate ostensibly out of loyalty to him but really to continue her quest for the Count, and the  “pretty places and beautiful clothes”  he could give her.

Kurt Rhoads and rachel Napoleon in FASHIONS FOR MEN by Ferenc Molnár.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /> Photo: Richard Termine

Kurt Rhoads and Rachel Napoleon Photo: Mint Theater

Peter, who’s fallen in love with Paula and has no idea of her true purpose, tries to protect her from the nefarious desires of His Excellency who, finding his interfering a nuisance, fires Peter– back to Budapest with you!  Which for Paula turns out to be not quite the relief that she expected.

Will the desirable woman choose the rich older Count or the young, poor but oh-so good haberdasher? that is the question.

The choices that women make for love and the sacrifices they make for their lovers have illuminated many great issues in life and literature, but what’s illuminated here?  Fashions for Men seems a vehicle for no more than a familiar, always titillating, situation – the clandestine flirtation of a poor young woman with a sugar daddy, that and a few laughs.

Kurt Rhoads and Joe Delafield in FASHIONS FOR MEN by Ferenc Molnár. Photo: Richard Termine

Kurt Rhoads and Joe Delafield in Fashions for Men by Ferenc Molnár. Photo: Richard Termine

As Paula, Rachel Napoleon is charming though with a somewhat strained voice. Kurt Rhoads’ vitality and outstanding stage presence as the Count make one wonder why Paula would be drawn to limply virtuous Peter anyway, though he’s ably played by Joe Delafield?  Jeremy Lawrence as the wise old store clerk is completely natural and engaging.

A variety of briefly seen characters in Peter’s haberdashery  search for socks and raincoats with perfect comic timing and humorous costumes – of the period and yet hilarious.   The set, particularly that of the haberdashery, is breathtaking:  realistic and accurate in detail – and broadly gorgeous!

The mission of the Mint includes producing  “worthwhile plays from the past that have been lost or forgotten …to bring new vitality to these plays and to foster new life for them,” and every play I’ve ever seen at the Mint has done just that!

From George Aiken’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to D. H. Lawerence’s The Daughter-In-Law (who knew Lawrence wrote plays?), to Hemingway’s The Fifth Column (who knew Hemingway wrote plays?) to Wife to James Whelan by Teresa Deevy (who’s that?) and many more — each has been a revelation of just the kind the Mint intends. What a record!

Fashions for Men shares with these a fine production and the opportunity to come to know more broadly theater of the past.  Still, I wonder if, among Molnar’s plays (not including Liliom which is fairly well known), this was the best choice for a revival.

Fashions for Men plays at The Mint Theater on West 43rd Street in Manhattan through April 12, 2015.

Review | The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill | Directed by Robert Falls | Starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy | Goodman Theatre Production | BAM

… too much truth …

The Iceman Cometh is a great play that anyone interested in theater and literature should have the chance to know. It’s a true classic.

It’s a play about a bunch of “bums” – what daring to write on all counts! Sixteen alcoholics, have-beens and never-will-be’s hang out around Harry Hope’s bar, drowning their disappointments in booze while holding hope – and bolstering each others’ hopes — for a better tomorrow.

Like Jimmy Tomorrow — the down-and-out former newspaper reporter, sure he’ll get back on board the world, have his old typewriter fixed, check in with his old friends, quite the booze and get a good job.  All that will happen … tomorrow.  Cora the streetwalker and Rocky the bartender will get married … tomorrow.  Harry’s is a cozy nest of shared pipe dreams.

And since tomorrow is Harry’s birthday, they’re looking forward to Hickey’s arrival — he’s a successful salesman with a “normal” life,  money, a wife and a home in Queens,  who comes to Harry’s bar twice a year for a long bender.  When Hickey’s around, drinks are on him and the booze flows freely. Hickey with his glad hand and jokes — including a vulgar innuendo about his own wife and the iceman that makes them uncomfortable.  Still, Hickey always brings good times.

But this time, he’s changed.

For one thing, Hickey’s not drinking, though they’re relieved he’s still buying the drinks.  But he’s also gone preachy.  He collars each of them with his message: stop just talking about what you’re going to do tomorrow — do it.  You, Jimmy Tomorrow, spruce up, get out and get a job.  And you, Willie – hit that law buddy you’re always talking about for a job.  Get that circus job back, Ed.  Tie the knot, Cora and Rocky, don’t pretend.

And when tomorrow dawns, they all make the try.  One by one they leave the bar, looking more or less resolute, set to take on the world.  And soon enough they return to the bar, one by one, downcast, their failures demonstrated.  Most of them never made it past sitting out some time on a park bench.

They fail, just as Hickey knew they would., and he’s  exuberant, manically so.  By getting them to try, he’s gotten them to face the truth that they can’t  succeed.  Now, he says, they’re free,  they know for sure they’re nothing more than bums. Their pipe dreams are up in smoke.  But all this “truth” doesn’t have the effect Hickey expected.  Instead, it leaves the denizens of Harry’s bar dulled as the dead.  The laughter, the good feeling, the camaraderie – it’s all over.  Even the liquor loses its kick.

And Hickey’s truth?  It’s a tragic story that he pours forth in  two cascading monologues.  These stunning monologues, and his acting in general, bring up the question of Nathan Lane’s performance: is he effective in the part of Hickey?  I went to this Iceman because I thought he’d be superb as the fast-talking, anguished salesman, but I was disappointed.  He works hard — he punches it out and gives it his all — but he lacks the depth and resonance the part needs.

Brian Dennehy in the role of Larry Slade gives the most powerful performance as a death-fearing, disillusioned anarchist.  In an important sub-plot, he’s bedeviled by a youthful stool pigeon, a wretched remnant from his once hopeful past.

The pacing of the performance is slower than needed so the four and three-quarter hour production begins to feel long — though worth it.

But the direction, and Lane himself, didn’t bring out a signifying moment so important that I’m going to describe it here:

With their illusions destroyed by Hickey’s game, the characters are overcome by depression.  But — the second great monologue — Hickey recounts his personal psychic agony and admits to a crime, and they begin to think, not unreasonably, that he’s insane.  They take heart from that.  He vehemently asserts that he’s freed them, by bringing them all, including himself, to face truth.  But — freeing themselves from Hickey — they reason that if Hickey’s insane, his forcing them to face their failures was the blabber of a madman: now they’re free to drift back into the illusions that keep them alive!

Surrounded by their hopes for escape from brutal truth, Hickey, in a moment of insight, generosity and, probably, survivorship “admits” he’s insane.  As played here, this key growth and change in the central character passes with such understatement that it’s missed – at least those in the audience I spoke with didn’t catch it.  If you go to see the play, watch for it right near the end. It’s a brilliant dramatic moment.

The Iceman Cometh. A monumental play about a bunch of bums: how remarkable!  And producing it is a tour de force.   This able production of a powerful play has impact.

The Iceman Cometh plays at the Harvey Theater of BAM in Brooklyn through March 15, 2015.

Review | The Subtle Body by Megan Campisi | 59E59 Theaters

Directed by Michael Leibenluft, Gold No Trade production

This is a light comedy about an English physician, Dr. John Floyer, and his wife who are in China in the early 18th century.  There really was a Dr. John Floyer at this time who, like Floyer in this play, was interested in measuring the rate of the pulse, although the real Dr. Floyer never went to China.  What he knew about Chinese medicine came through missionary reports.

In this period Europeans and Chinese knew very little about each other and The Subtle Body rests on comic confusions arising as Dr. Floyer and the Chinese physician, Dr. Zhang, try to understand each other’s medical practices through veils of prejudice and misinterpretation. European practices are seen as “barbarian.” Dr. Floyer and his wife Charlotte also habitually misunderstand each other as he, characterized as a prissy medical research nerd, talks about measurements and practicalities which she, hopefully, interprets as planning for sex.

L-R Stephanie Thompson, Michael Slabinger, Ya Han Chang and Johnny Wu. Photo: Erik Carter

L-R Stephanie Thompson, Michael Slabinger, Ya Han Chang and Johnny Wu. Photo: Erik Carter

Soon Charlotte begins a love affair with her husband’s Chinese translator, Wang, providing additional farcical close calls.

The comic situations are less than original, though a few moments are rescued by the physical antics and sharp timing of Michael Zlabinger who plays Dr. Foyer, Stephanie Wright Thompson as Charlotte, and Ya Han Chang in the role of Dr. Zhang. Things become a little more interesting near the end of the play as a new character emerges: Yang’s Chinese wife, subtly played by Ya Han Chang in a new guise, as she and Charlotte engage in an intriguing familial situation.

It troubles me that The Subtle Body is so unfair to the real Dr. Floyer , a great 17th-18th century physician who in the play is shown as an inept, unromantic, out of touch buffoon. This is an off-target characterization of a man whose observations and discoveries continue to benefit us all. We don’t expect works of art about real people from the past to be wholly and completely accurate — we grant authors broad poetic license. But this play has so little to do with Dr. John Floyer that you wonder why the author bothered to bring him in at all … unless it’s because dead white males are fair game — especially dead white European males.

In teaching the world the use of a watch to measure the pulse (two volumes, over 1000 pages), Dr. Foyer pioneered the application of accurate measurement to clinical medicine — an achievement reduced to a mention on a translation board at the very end of the play. He also provided the first detailed description of emphysema, and wrote the first book on geriatric medicine but don’t look for anything admirable about Foyer in the play … he’s invariably the butt of a joke. How misleading!

The Subtle Body plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan (yes, that’s the address) through March 1, 2015.

Review | The Events by David Greig | With Neve McIntosh and Clifford Samuel | Directed by Ramin Grayn | Music by John Browne | New York Theater Workshop

In the summer of 2011 in Norway, Anders Reivik massacred 77 young people at a recreational camp. Among the who, barely escaping death themselves, witnessed teenagers pleading to the relentless killer for their lives was a female vicar and leader of a community choir. The Events, written by Scottish playwright David Greig and set in Scotland, examines the vicar’s frantic quest to find sense or meaning in the event, and to somehow purge herself of the memory and of the guilt of having been spared.

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