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

Category: Broadway Theater Page 1 of 4

Contemporary Broadway Theater reviews by Yvonne Korshak.

Review | Oslo | By J. T. Rogers | Directed by Bartlett Sher | Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

… at the gates of war … 

No conflicts seem more stubbornly unsolvable in modern politics and history than the hostilities between Israelis and Arabs.   How fascinating that there were, in fact, secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, enabled by idealistic,  peace-seeking Norwegians, that resulted in a signed agreement in 1993, the first of the Oslo accords.   Oslo tells the that story in such a way that the audience is caught up in the suspense of high stakes history.

We learn early on about two Israeli academics whose research demonstrates that peace between the Israeli and Palestinians wouldn’t just mitigate violence but would benefit both sides economically.  With these studies as a starting point, Norwegians in their country’s foreign service, convinced that giving representatives of the opposing sides the opportunity to know one another personally will enable cooperation, invite representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to meet secretly in Oslo.

The Norwegians provide a place for talks and human comforts, good drink and food — Norwegian pancakes play a large role in drawing together these diplomatic representatives on a personal, and progressively warmer level.  The diplomats become friends while not “giving in” to one another’s political demands. There’s give and take: they make some compromises but hold their ground on the non-negotiable issues.

As progress toward an agreement is made, diplomats at even higher levels arrive to hammer out the make-or-break details.   The Americans become involved toward the end and – it’s history — the signing of the Oslo Accord took place in September 1993, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signing for Israel and Yasir Arafat signing for the PLO, the “first-ever peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” as the playwright writes in his program Note. In a famous photograph, dramatized in this play, Rabin and Arafat shake hands in the Rose Garden of the White House, in the presence of President Bill Clinton.

Knowing the satisfactory, even thrilling ending — which tragically dissipated later, but that’s another part of  history — makes all the more interesting the ins-and-outs and progress and setbacks of the negotiations, through which, ultimately, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

The characters, in representing historical figures, sometime seem like mouthpieces for their points of view rather than coming to life in their own terms.   Two actors, Anthony Azizi as the dominant PLO representative and Michal Aronov for the Israelis, bring charisma and an enlivening free-wheeling body language to their roles which go far to keep the play from seeming too talky-talky.

The two Norwegians most involved in the success of the negotiations are the most fully drawn as characters but, in terms of what the play’s about, they’re peripheral, so their emotional journeys don’t strengthen the sense of human drama as much as if they were more central.  Oslo is occasionally engaging emotionally, but it’s always interesting as the ideas and interplay, underlined by the life and death importance of a good solution, keep our minds engaged.   You have the sense throughout of learning something you really want to know, and of being glad the author has made that a stimulating event.

Oslo plays at the Vivian Beaumont theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center through June 18, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Sweat | By Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Studio 54

… losers and losers …

Sweat is not a perfect play but it’s important and by the end has great impact. As this drama unfolds, we witness through the lives of engaging individuals how competition for jobs poisons relationships between ethnic and racial groups and, most poignantly, between friends.  The backdrop is the total disregard of industry and “Wall Street” for the individuals who support them.

The story, set in Reading Pennsylvania, once a heavy industry town, moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008.  We first meet two anguished young men, an agitated Evan and enraged Jason in tense, separate interrogations with their probation officer – they’ve just been released from jail, and the rest of the play tells us how they got there.  Evan is a big, solid-looking Black hoping to find solace in the Bible.  Jason is a skinny pale White with a swastika on his sleeve – he’s come out of prison as a White Supremacist.  And yet we learn when after their recent release they ran into each other in town, they embraced, a paradox central to the play’s meaning.

Much of the action takes place in a bar when, through flashbacks, when the bar was a hangout for a local factory workers who formed a bar family for one another.  Cynthia., Evans’ Black mother and Tracey, Jason’s White mother are specially tight friends in the early years.  They share long experience at the assembly line, pride in their well-paid job in the factory their families worked for generations, fatigue, gripes, and pleasure in celebrating birthdays at the bar.

The snake in the garden comes when Management announces an opening in supervisory position, and a willingness to consider Cynthia and Tracey for the job.  Off the line and into a supervisory position – what a wonderful promotion for Cynthia or Tracey that would be!

But winners create losers: when one of the two actually wins the job, friendship shatters into a bitter outcome.  Early on, the closeness between Cynthia and Tracey seems racially idyllic but as that relationship dissipates, the race war and class war of the world at large are fought out in the microcosm of the bar, with brutal results.  It’s not just about Blacks and White’s, Nottage reminds us:  the victim count includes Stan, the White manager of the bar who’s an earlier victim of the factory owners’ disregard, and the Puerto Rican cleaner, Oscar.  And in the ultimate irony, the “winner” of the competition for the supervisory job turns out to be a loser, too – a tool manipulated by the factory owners who are exporting jobs to Mexico.  Assembly line workers are fired and who does it? … well, somebody has to do their dirty work.

A strength of this play is the thoroughgoing examination of the tragic effects on individual lives of the factory system and of Wall Street.  The inherently exploitive and non-humanistic character of capitalism and its hand maiden, economic competition, are exemplified through the characters’ many different kinds of wounds and defeats, physical and spiritual:  incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, family breaks, crippling bodily injuries, disillusionment, obstacles in the path toward worthy goals, and severe bodily injuries.  The play is a political critique but one expressed through vivid human lives:  the personal tragedies, and small triumphs emerge out of the situations and interactions of the three-dimensional characters with which Nottage populates the bar.

Although the play moves cleverly through time, with the set shifting from the probation office to the bar, the first act feels static.  The exposition isn’t well handled: some of the characters give preachy speeches that tell us what we should know and think rather than show us.  And the bar fly, Jessie, seems to have no role to play outside of softening what could be an over simple focus on the two mothers, Tracey and Cynthia.  The play comes alive in the second act where the varying outcomes unfold and the “lesson” of the outcomes of unbridled economic competition are driven home through what happens to the characters who are most central:  Tracey and Cynthia, and to Jason, Chris, Stan, and the rest, who’d once seemed like a family.  All of them are accounted for in important ways.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and among some of the major characters, Johanna Day’s Tracy, the White woman with an embittered sense of entitlement, is totally   convincing.   Michelle Wilson is exciting as the impassioned go-getter, Cynthia, though talky portions of the script sometimes get in the way of her naturalism.  Khris Davis is moving as the young Black man with a hopeful future vision.  Wiry Will Pullen conveys a sense of risk from the get-go as Jason, the White kid with the scary tattoos.  With the set designed by John Lee Beatty, the occasional transitions between the stern venues such as the probation office and the cozy bar have emotional impact.

Lynn Nottage’s earlier play, Ruined (reviewed here) – is also set in a bar, in a tradition that can easily be traced back to Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh.  Nottage writes honestly, and in both of these plays, she gives us characters we care about, and then forces us to look at the horrors inflicted on these powerless people we’ve come to love by dehumanized institutions – war in Ruined, and, here, capitalism.  She’s not sentimental but still manages to make the plays seem upbeat and just plain enjoyable. She’s honest in what she lays out about the institutions she writes about, but emotionally lets us off the hook.  In Sweat, the last line, which can be interpreted in different ways, provides a great deal of relief for our concerns for Cynthia and Tracy, Chris and Jason, and the others.

Sweat not only drives home the grim effects of capitalism and “Wall Street,” but it makes the audience feel good.  You’re left with a gratifying the sense that by understanding the truths Nottage lays out – by getting it — you’re now on the side of the angels helping to solve the problems!

As Jake says at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Sweat plays at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in Manhattan .  For more information and tickets, click here.

Broadway Review | The Humans | by Stephen Karam | Directed by Joe Mantello | Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

… it wasn’t meant to be this way …

Just after World War II, Frank Sinatra filmed and recorded an inspiring song, “The House I Live In,” an expansive, optimistic view of America.  In The Humans, the dwelling that is America has been reduced to a dumpy apartment.

And it’s no longer owned, it’s a rental – and the rent goes to the Chinese landlords.

In keeping with the theme of America, The Humans is set on Thanksgiving, that most American holiday. But it’s not your cozy Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, Freedom From Want – going back to Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post cover of 1943.

This American family, the Blakes, has gathered to celebrate in the apartment Brigid Blake and her boyfriend Richard have just rented in New York City’s Chinatown.  A new apartment, a new beginning, it’s an auspicious moment.  Only the apartment is shoddy, old and oddly patched together.

Brigid’s parents have come in from New Jersey, the mother, Deirdre, complete with sweet potato casserole and a table size statue of the Virgin Mary for the new place and the father, Erik, loaded with good advice.  They make some pointed remarks about the dump of an apartment their daughter’s moved into and the neighborhood but they back off — nobody wants a ruckus.

The family is rounded out with Aimee, Brigid’s older sister who from the first seems on edge, and the grandmother, “Momo,” who has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a wheelchair.  They’re aiming for good behavior – after all, it’s Thanksgiving, and on one level The Humans moves along with the bounce and humor of a well written sit-com, fun to watch with plenty of intra-family banter, digs at well-known foibles and loving warmth

The apartment seems like a character in the play too – rendered in David Zinn’s brilliant set.  This apartment was never meant to be the way it is:  it’s been jerry-rigged out of disparate spaces on two floors, so nothing’s where you’d expect.  The more the Blakes move around it, the less we like it.   You can bet that Erik, a skilled maintenance man, finds plenty not to like about it either.  The downstairs — living-dining room and kitchen — feels like the windowless basement it is.

The bedroom upstairs, with an adjoining bathroom, looks out on a cigarette-strewn alley.  As of now there’s no furniture – few places to sit, the toilet paper hasn’t been loaded in the bathroom. It’s particularly disturbing that at unexpected moments, something of heavy metal falls onto the ceiling of the upper room, landing a shock of loud noise on  everyone.  Brigid and Richard say their inscrutable Chinese landlords will do nothing about it.   It’s pretty uncomfortable for an auspicious moment.

We’re in the Thanksgiving phase of let’s get dinner going, with setting-the-table busy-work, amusing jokes and a blend of familial love and “humorous” back-biting. Amidst the chatter, we notice early on that Aimee is distressed.  We learn that she is suffering raw heartbreak over the recent break-up with her girlfriend.  She goes upstairs (awkwardly on spiral staircase between the two floors)  to make a last-ditch, humiliating fruitless call in private to the lost love, and also for the bathroom since she has severe colitis, an illness that caused her – or so she feels – to lose her job as an attorney.

Aimee’s burden of loss seems to isolate her from the rest of her family, until we learn more.

As the new tableware is set and dinner begins, amidst the banter, keen disappointments emerge.  Through the brave chit-chat, we learn, in a gradual unfolding, that all of these humans have suffered heart-rending losses.  Like Brigid and Richard making the best of their spacious shabby apartment, bragging about their “duplex,” they all do their best to hide, cope with or manage severe personal griefs.  They are valiant, touchingly so.  Even Aimee shakes off her misery enough to join them at the table.  Still, we come more and more to understand that the image of normalcy they try to preserve is undercut by underlying sadness and despair.

The individual dramas are intensely interesting  — you can hardly hear the audience breathing — and the fully drawn personalities come to life through the superb acting of the cast and Joe Mantello’s canny directing.   And beyond the sum of its characters, the play gains power from a subtle, significant symbolic structure that links the personal lives and disappointments with our nation itself.

In The Humans, the purple mountains have lost their majesty.  Spaciousness, like Brigid and Richard’s apartment, is a left-over.  A generation ago the Blake family, buying in to the American dream, moved from a low-class city neighborhood to their own home in the country — well, let’s make that the suburbs.  Now, although Erik and Deirdre dished out what sounded like house-proud disdain for Brigid and Richard’s grubby place, that was sheer nostalgia.  It was fake.  They don’t have a house anymore.  Erik  had advanced from manual maintenance to a managerial position but, through his own crucial misstep, his inability to resist temptation, he lost his job and pension.  Well, he’s “only human.”  But we’re all only human, so where does that leave our hopes for American dream?

Now he and Deirdre are making do in a small apartment, back where they started.

Another bang from above.  You never know when the bone-shaking impact of something huge falling from above will hit again, keeping us mindful that here in Chinatown we’re near the World Trade Tower site where, it turns out, the Blake family had a close call.

In this powerful play, the theme of thwarted aspirations — of individuals and of our nation – weaves between private lives and large events.  Love is lost, virtue falters, talent disappoints, forget about security, although courage in the face of hardship, and fresh starts offer some hope.  The connection between the trajectory of the individuals and of our nation is understated and felt rather than noticed while one is watching the play.  It’s there to haunt the imagination after.

The Humans first opened off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theater and, with its brilliant cast, moved to Broadway.  Erik is played by Reed Birney, Aimee by Cassie Beck, Brigid by Sarah Steele, Deirdre by Jayne Houdyshell, “Momo” by Lauren Klein and Richard by Arian Moayed.

The Humans plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on West 45th Street in Manhattan through mid-January 1917.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | (A Very) Long Day’s Journey Into Night | by Eugene O’Neill | Roundabout Theatre Company

… very long day’s journey …

Long Day’s Journey Into Night has a particular importance and glamour as an autobiographical work by one of America’s greatest playwrights, with the Tyrone family in the play being drawn from Eugene O’Neill’s memories of his own family.  While often called a masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey is a wordy and repetitive play.  For the psychological infighting, love-hate interactions and deceptions to remain compelling for the play’s 3 ¾ hours running time, it needs great actors with psychological depth.  Jessica Lange is effective as the mother but the three male actors are disappointing.

Review | An American In Paris | Book by Craig Lucas | Music and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin | Directed and Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon | Palace Theatre

Inspired by the film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron

This new Broadway musical, American in Paris , has absolutely spectacular dancing and choreography, magnificent scenes and scene changes, and wonderful Gershwin songs.   The story, well, it’s a little weak but never mind.  American in Paris will fill you with joie de vivre.

And if you know the movie — though not always in the same ways this is every bit as good!

The show starts on a vibrant note:  the liberation of Paris – August 25, 1944, World War II is ended and the GI’s are going home.  But one GI, Jerry Mulligan, caught up in the wild euphoria and equivocal events of the game-changing moment, decides to stay on.  He tears up his government-issued ticket to return to the States and enters into a fall-in-love with the city and fall-in-love with the girl adventure.

The girl, Lise, is gamine – tiny, a bit hungry looking, with big eyes and bobbed boyish hair curling around her cheeks — Leslie Caron played the part in the movie.  And Jerry’s not the only one to love her – so does the wry seen-it-all club pianist, Adam who’s also an  American in Paris, and Henri, the rich and mysterious scion of an aristocratic French family, Lise’s unspoken fiancé who has some special hold on her.

Who will get the girl?  Adam’s out of the running, she falls for Jerry, but it’s intimated that she’s somehow beholden to Henri.  This is the heart of the story that unfolds with wonderful Gershwin songs, imaginative and virtuoso dance, all taking place against a gloriously designed and ever-changing backdrop of Paris with its eternally appealing sites.

Woody Allen must have been  thinking of this aspect of the movie when he made Midnight in Paris. Only this isn’t movie-Paris, photographed: it’s Paris created through the artistic wizardry of the designers and, believe it or not, it’s just as good.

There’s also an astounding quick trip to Radio City Music Hall — complete with the Rockettes.

The show is an absolute feast of great dancing.  Jerry is played by Robert Fairchild, a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet.  Simply said, he’s great.  His acting also is intense and passionate, and although he’s a finer dancer than singer he puts across songs like “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Fidgety Feet” effectively.  In the extended ballet that ends the show, he’s breathtaking.  In and of itself, this famous sequence is reason enough to see the show – and there’s much more!

Leanne Cope, who plays Lise, is an exciting dance partner for Fairchild, free and lithe.  She’s less of a singer, and as an actress, her expressions are obvious and repetitive — she “does gamine” but she isn’t the character.

Brandon Uranowitz plays the self-deprecating Adam pro forma, though the audience appreciated the intensity he brought to singing “But Not For Me.”  As Henri, Max von Essen’s rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” is disappointing … for that, see Georges Guetary in the film.  In general, the producers needed singer-dancers but got better dancers than singers.

But among the singers, Jill Paice is a notable exception, a true song stylist, who delivers songs like “Shall We Dance,” and “But Not For Me” the way we need to hear them.  As Milo, a rich, predatory American woman who wants Jerry for herself, she goes beyond cliché to suggest Milo’s loneliness and vulnerability – but with high style.

Whether broad Parisian backdrops or intimate indoor scenes, the sets are eye-filling.  Particularly spectacular and evocative is Jerry and Lise’s favorite rendezvous spot, the Seine river quay, complete with moving water.  People around me gasped—me, too —  at the realization of what the designers had achieved.

The visuals throughout are sharp, clever, and stunning – and never obvious.  Art is in the details, the cubist portrait of Milo, who runs an art gallery, “looks like” Jill Paice, but not overtly – in its sly way, it captures the essence of the character.  The costumes are enchanting — both witty and of the time.

The choreography is varied, original, unexpected — and a triumph for Christopher Wheeldon.  It’s an ample show with lots of dancers – all superb at ballet, jazz, and through all the original steps, leaps and turns Wheeldon’s invented for them.  The design, by Bob Crowley, is gorgeous.

This is the Paris we all want to see, captured at a high moment.  Is that Paris still there?  Well, I dunno … nobody whirled me dancing in the streets when I was there recently but …   See American in Paris – you’ll leave on a high note!

An American in Paris plays at the Palace Theater on Broadway in NYC.

Noted on May 5, 2016 — While American in Paris is no longer playing in NYC,  the producers have announced the show is coming to the Dominion Theatre in London.  For more information and and tickets for the London production, click here:

Broadway Review | You Can’t Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman | With James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne | Directed by Scott Ellis | Longacre Theatre

Living in a townhouse on the upper west side of NYC is a wacky but lovable family  guided by the idea that life is to be enjoyed and gaining money shouldn’t be a focus because, after all, you can’t take it with you:  everyone should freely do their own thing  — and so they do, with very funny results.

Grandpa Martin Vanderhof attends commencements, his daughter Penny writes plays about monasteries and sex slaves while her husband Paul and friend build fireworks in the basement, as granddaughter Essie earnestly practices ballet and so it goes, with other emphatic personalities who find themselves part of the household.

When granddaughter Alice, a working girl, is ardently courted by Tony, the son of her Wall Street millionaire boss, having a zany family becomes a problem — at least that’s how Alice sees it.  She loves Tony, he loves her, but she’s sure the differences between his upper crust family and her own batch of eccentrics makes their marriage impossible:  he ardently disagrees but the catastrophic collisions and explosions (literally) when his fancy mother and father come to dinner — on the wrong night — don’t make their union any easier.  Still, comedies end in marriage and this is decidedly a comedy so — go figure.

One of my friends said of this production of You Can’t Take It With You, “Seemed awfully forced and pretty dated. Silly maybe.” Another said, “I thought it was dated and silly too. But I enjoyed it anyway. Thought it was fun.”  I’m with the second.  It’s a lot of fun — laughter is so good, and there’s such a lot of it, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

But yet, why this sense of “silly?”

The reason is that the main conflict is under-motivated:  Alice’s certainty that the differences between their families makes their marriage impossible is not fully credible, from the start it doesn’t make sense  but seems invented to keep the play going:  conflict’s weakness can give rise to that word “silly,” for the otherwise beautifully conceived, written and performed comedy,

Evidently the film director Robert Capra also thought the central conflict needed strengthening, as I found when I looked more deeply into the play’s history.  The play was first produced on Broadway in 1936, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and ran for 838 performances.  Still, when Capra made the movie  in 1938, he  substantially raised the stakes.

Capra made Mr. Kirby, instead of just a Wall Street millionaire, a munitions manufacturer with a big government contract who intends to buy the Vanderhof’s decrepit house out from under him, as part of his plan to vanquish his business competitor.  So, in the film, it’s not just an overblown romantic conflict: the house itself is threatened by the business designs of Tony’s father, and with it the very way of life of our lovable, independent-minded Vanderhof family.

I’m waiting to see the movie which I’ve ordered but I’d bet it won’t seem “silly”.  Capra’s film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  (I’ll report back here on the film with a P.S.)

But there’s nothing like seeing the play with live actors and this production — wishy-washy conflict or not — is a delight.  James Earl Jones seemed not to work very hard but he’s such a great actor that he moved me deeply.  This is a large cast of brilliant comedic actors — Annaleigh Ashford as Essie, for example, who erupts into ballet at every cue like a cuckoo clock, but with less predictability.  Elizabeth Ashley was perfect as the aristocratic fugitive  from the Russian revolution working at Child’s restaurant and ready to deliver blintzes for any number.  And Julie Halston as the vodka-besotted actress Gay Wellington takes the cake for bringing laughter:  you just have to see how (in a bit I didn’t find in reading the play) she made it up the stairs reeling off “There once was a man from Nantucket …. “ it was … well, this production is near the end of its run — but if you can see You Can’t Take It With You, you’re in for a good time.

You Can’t Take It With You plays on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre through November 30, 2014.

Review | Picnic by William Inge | Directed by Sam Gold | Roundabout Theatre Company

Picnic is a huge delicious ice cream of a fantasy you don’t even have to feel guilty about giving in to it because it comes in the guise of hard bitten realism.  I loved it.

The action takes place in a small town in the midwest in and around the houses of Flo Owens and Helen Potts and the yard between them.  The set, always on view, is so familiar and warmly lit, from the worn white wood frame houses with enticing glimpses through the windows to the appealingly familiar junk around, that one can hardly wait for the play to begin.  The play doesn’t disappoint. 

Broadway Review | Golden Boy by Clifford Odets | Directed by Bartlett Sher | Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco Theatre

After great success with his plays Waiting for Left and Awake and Sing! in 1935 — and a stint of movie writing in Hollywood — Odets returned to Broadway with Golden Boy in 1937.  Being familiar with the first two plays, I looked forward to a chance to get to know Golden Boy. I wanted to like it. I even expected to be excited by it.

Here’s my view: Golden Boy is a pretty good play, and could be powerful with great actors, particularly a resonant actor in the part of Joe Bonaparte, the young boxer.   In this production, the pretty good play has pretty good actors and a good attempt to bring the world of boxing on stage — but none good enough to overcome the thinness of the characterizations.  It tells a dramatic story but with stereotypes, and the fundamental premise, that Bonaparte has potential as a great violinist is never made convincing so — much to my surprise — I found it somewhat tiresome.  (A review of an earlier production says Odets himself thought the situation implausible, though the reviewer doesn’t mention the source.)

Joe Bonaparte is a young kid with two talents — for the violin and for boxing (welterweight division).  Caught in this conflict between art and filthy lucre — reflecting a similar conflict in Odets’ life that took him temporarily from Broadway (“art”) to Hollywood (“filthy lucre”) — Joe gives in to the lure of fame and money.

Bonaparte turns a deaf ear to the tactful, loving attempts of his father, a music loving Italian, to keep him on the straight and narrow high level career path as a violinist, while the boxing lure is sweetened all the more when Joe falls in love with Lorna, the girlfriend of his good guy manager, Tom.  Sure enough, in his quick rise to near the top in the boxing world, he breaks his hands, ruining them for the violin in a point of no return which was, however, inevitable from the start.  He’s so good at anything he does — violin, boxing — he becomes a contender fast, at which point the mob, in the person of sharp dressing Eddie Fuseli, enters to buy a piece of him with an offer that can’t be refused.

The setting and characters are gritty — boxers, trainers, gangsters, cops, as the cast list describes the extras.  One of the cleverest and most interesting aspects of the play is the way Odets has the brutal boxing matches occur offstage, with their bloody outcomes conveyed to the audience through what happens in the dressing room, giving us an intimate view of the vast gladiators’ combat taking place out there.  The production tries to be gritty: scenes set in club gyms include well choreographed sparring boxers.  But the arrangement of the mechanical rolling in and out of set changes is distracting and out of tone with the play.

Seth Numrich, who plays Joe Bonaparte, is a good actor and summons up a lot of passion — and even develops a tougher “New York accent” — as the physical and psychological conflicts intensify, but he’s just too refined and delicate for the part.  I understand William Holden played Bonaparte in the 1939 film:  this I want to see.  Meanwhile, I thought what the young Brando would have done with it.  At one point a punch drunk boxer nags his manager to arrange a match with Bonaparte and the manager tells his boxer he’ll “never make [Bonaparte’s] weight,” but the punch-drunk guy looks a lot thicker and stronger than Numrich, and a lot more at home in the world of in-and-off-the-ropes.

Danny Mastrogiorgio has a chance to show some appealing subtlety in the play’s relatively complex role of Bonaparte’s self-interested but not ruthless manager.  Yvonne Strahovski does as well as one can with a stereotyped character, the not-so-dumb blond boxing manager’s girl friend amd she looks great in those wonderful ’30’s clothes, narrow and with shoulder pads.

Anthony Crivello as the mobster Eddie is Tough, Premptive, Scary, Snappily Dressed and un-nuanced (again I found myself wishing for Brando, now in his Godfather guise).   Joe’s father, Tony Shalhoub, is just too angelically good, as is Joe’s union organizer brother, Frank, played by Lucas Caleb Rooney, though Frank’s head wound, won for a cause of helping his fellow men is an interesting foil to Joe’s bloody wounds won beating up another guy in the boxing ring.  Joe’s father’s spiritual Jewish soul mate, Mr. Carp, played by Jonathan Hadary, is so superficial in his “deep” mutterings and name dropping of philosophers that he makes you smile.  Carp’s an extraneous character — he makes his weak stab at giving the play “universality” and disappears.

The play gives a look at the underside of the boxing world and its extremes of brutality, and treatment of the boxers as “meat” — there are bloody moments that make you catch your breath.  But we never really understand why Bonaparte is as he is, what makes him run — it can’t be just because he’s a little cross eyed, can it?   Especially since we never see that at work or believe it.  I’d say the trait of “cross eyed” was tossed in to help individualize Odets’ unclear characterization of his main character.

I can imagine that actors who draw on deep inward resonances — like the method actors for whom it was written, and who played in the original production — would help to overcome inconsistencies and superficialities.  This would allow the play’s best qualities to emerge.  The story is somewhat implausible but — one can suspend disbelief.  The glimpse of a tough milieu not well known to many of us is fascinating.  And the rush to the heights and descent to the depths — recalling The Great Gatsby — holds great drama.  This production is paced so briskly and brightly that the actors don’t have the chance to give their fullest, and the play’s genuine strengths are not fulfilled.  Still, in a Broadway season sparse on serious plays, this may do well, and I sort of hope it does.  With a play so well meaning, it’s hard not to be in its corner.

Golden Boy  plays at the Belasco Theatre (a gorgeous theatre worth seeing in its own right) on West 44th Street in NYC.

***WIN TWO FREE TICKETS TO Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy on Broadway HERE! ***

Pinterest contest for Golden Boy.
The winner receives two tickets to the show and dinner for two at Saju Bistro
The contest runs through December 9. Clifford Odet’s Golden Boy.
Clifford Odet's Golden Boy


Broadway Review | Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee | With Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks | Directed by Pam MacKinnon | Steppenwolf Theatre Company

This is an excellent production of a very well written and engrossing play that leaves off with an unpleasant sense of sound and fury signifying not much.

It’s about a husband and wife who constantly argue and undercut one another.  This is done under the guise of what’s supposedly a significant psychological, even philosophical, revelation involving a mutually held illusion but in my view that’s a highfalutin pretext: the unlikely revelation is no more than a justification for a tremendously skilled playwright to write a total orgy of witty, sharp, well observed nastiness between a married couple.  That can be a lot of fun, but it’s also pretty sordid.

George and Martha (Father of our Country? First Family?), married for 23 years, know just where to wound the other in their back and forth bickering.  She’s the daughter of the President of a small New England college.  He’s an ironic, underachieving Professor of History — well, only Associate Professor after all these years, as Martha is given to reminding him and the young couple, Nick and Honey, who come by for a nightcap after a faculty party.

Nick’s a new faculty member in the Biology Department and Honey’s his frail, giddy wife — like Martha without a job to call her own.  It’s already late when they arrive at Martha and George’s book strewn house where they all hang out until dawn, with more drinking from the 1950’s appropriate portable bar than any four people could realistically down and remain alive in that length of time.

What keeps you engrossed is the marvelously written dialog, above all the vicious, canny backbiting between Martha and George.  Each knows where the other hurts, and each seems to have as a life purpose to dig in to that spot and twist the knife.  They do this with lean, sophisticated, quick, witty repartee which is fascinating to follow.  If the play’s worth producing, that’s why.  And if this production is worth seeing, it’s largely because Tracy Letts and Amy Morton are brilliant in their parts, the the laid back and ultimately protective George, she the no-holds barred harridan with a hidden illness at the core.  These are two great actors at work on superb dialogue and for that I’m glad to have seen the play.

Carrie Coon is clever and at times hilarious as the prim, rich academic wife with a brandy addiction who dances, as she tells us, “like the wind.”   Madison Dirks does a workmanlike job as the opportunistic newly hired biologist who’s willing, though not able, to sleep with faculty wives including — make that especially — the University President’s daughter, in order to make it up the academic ladder.

The set — with the oriental rugs and books piled up in the fireplace — is appealing and recognizable as the living room of entrenched college faculty.

But the picture of the academic life doesn’t ring true.  George, we hear disparagingly from Martha, “writes papers”:  being that productive at this middling school, he’d certainly have become a full Professor by now if the playwright — setting him up as Martha’s target — hadn’t needed him to be a flop.  There’s no reason that the new hotshot biology faculty member would have to assume that the road to success was sleeping with faculty wives.  Publish or perish is more like it and ambitious Nick had better get started writing some papers of his own.  These characters don’t come across as real people — they’re outlandish — but the dialog is so good you hardly notice.  The big revelatory ending is forced, and not really believable.  But Amy Morton’s emotional rendering is so powerful you believe it while it’s happening — this great actress believes it, so while she’s at it, you do.

The real illusion here is based on Albee’s skill, strong enough to give you the illusion while you’re watching that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is about something important.  It isn’t.  Nick and Honey — before they’re completely soused — worry that they’ve been dragged in on an indecorous husband and wife fight that they shouldn’t really be watching and they’re right.  It didn’t do them any good.  The play’s long on laughs but short on humanity.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  plays at the Booth Theatre on West Broadway in Manhattan.

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