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

Tag: A. R. Gurney

TEACHER AND STUDENT L-R Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor and Rodney Richardson and Gerald Caskey. Photo Joan Marcus.

Review | Two Class Acts | Two Premieres by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Stafford Arima | Flea Theater

… when the syllabus is better than the class … 

Two one-act plays by A. R. Gurney are presented in tandem, Ajax, as in the ancient Greek hero, and Squash, as in the game.  Having enjoyed many Gurney plays, I was keen to see these but Ajax and Squash are not Gurney at his best.

In each play, a cheeky college student challenges, and to a degree upends a serious-minded college teacher.

Ajax (45 minutes), starts off promisingly.  Audience members descend downstairs at The Flea, enter what looks like a classroom, and some get to sit at a desk with a syllabus for Intro to Classic Greek Drama awaiting them.  The syllabus looks great, just like the real thing, from Week 1, Intro to Greek Drama, through Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and beyond – I want to take that course!   The play isn’t as good as the syllabus, though.

THE STUDENT Chris Tabet as Adam Feldman. Photo Joan Marcus.

STUDENT Chris Tabet as Adam Feldman. Photo Joan Marcus.

A student, Adam Feldman, starts the class late in the semester, makes no attempt to catch up, and defies the teacher-scholar and author of the orderly syllabus, Megan Tucker, by ignoring the assigned essay topic in favor of his own topic:  Sohocles’ Ajax as an example of PTSD.  It turns out that PTSD is a new idea for Megan – she’s unsure about what it is, and can’t even get the initials right, Adam has to explain them (oh those dumb ivory tower college teachers).

TEACHER Olivia Jampol as Megan Turner. Photo Joan Marcus.

TEACHER Olivia Jampol as Megan Turner. Photo Joan Marcus.

Not possible.

The view that Sophocles’ character, Ajax, represents a warrior suffering from  PTSD has had a lot of play for a long time, so much so that the Pentagon, in 2009, funded an independent theater company, Theater of War, to visit military sites and stage readings of Ajax and also of Sophocles’ Philoctotes to help soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars objectify their struggles with PTSD.  No classics teacher would have missed that!  Hooray for the beleaguered classics resonated throughout the profession!  The classics matter!

From here the play becomes even more unlikely and more forced.  Adam writes his ideas not as an essay but as a play-in-process, in which he finds parallels that don’t exist between the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the Greeks who set up a siege at Troy.  Megan Tucker, who’s unpinned her teacherly bun for a loose hair-do and is now “Meg”, acts in Adam’s play, and goes beyond that in her enthusiasm for Adam, so much so that — well, I’ll just say that when the powers that be in the University fired her I saw their point.   Adam and Meg, however, don’t:  they blame the University higher-ups for that, as well as for banning the play on University property and things unwind into a shocking anti-semitic rant.

That’s the first play.

The second, Squash, upstairs at The Flea, 60 minutes, is about an untenured college professor (a step up, Meg was only an adjunct).  Dan Proctor is an uptight, handsome guy who loves his wife Becky, his kids, teaching the classics and the game of squash.  He’s got everything together except tenure and he’s such a one for the straight and narrow, it looks like that will work out, too.

TEACHER AND STUDENT L-R Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor and Rodney Richardson and Gerald Caskey. Photo Joan Marcus.

TEACHER AND STUDENT L-R Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor and Rodney Richardson as Gerald Caskey. Photo Joan Marcus.

Enter a gay student Gerald Caskey who is hot for the professor, following him to the athletic locker rooms, with a location-appropriate bare bottom episode, to express his passion for the prof’s body, and conferencing with the prof about the paper he wrote that only got a C + about Plato’s Symposium and ideas of love.   The dialog here and elsewhere is so rudimentary it’s impossible to take seriously that we’re dealing with a college professor and his student, or that the college professor has it in him to write a scholarly book of the kind that Dan is supposedly working on.

The dialog was much more witty and to the point in another of Gurney’s plays about college teachers a few years ago, Office Hours, also at The Flea.

Does the seductive Gerald manage to shake up the professor?  Is Dan really gay?  Is Gerald?  Or are we all just sort of a lot of this and a little bit of the other?  Or a lot of both?  Or whatever?  See this play and you won’t find out.

The real class act in Two Class Acts is the acting.  Olivia Jampol as Megan Tucker in Ajax transforms from prim to liberated with great charm and wit.  Her costumes by Sky Switzer are stunning and characterizing.  Chris Tabet is both a type and an original characterization as Adam, the student with the mix of effrontery and ideas.  (In other performances, Ben Lorenz plays Adam and Rachel Lin plays Megan Tucker).

In Squash, Dan Amboyer as Dan Proctor meets untoward events with a literal seriousness that’s humorous and touching.  Rodney Richardson as the student Gerald Caskey moves effectively from man-to-man allure to man-to-man forthrightness.  Nicole Lowrance is amusing as Dan’s prickly, down-to-earth wife.

Two Class Acts:  A Festival Celebrating A.R. Gurney, plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through November 20, 2016.  For more information and tickets,  click here.

Review | Love & Money by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Mark Lamos | Signature Theatre

Will the rich dowager be fooled by the tall, handsome and, in her WASP world, exotic Black con man who has a lot of smooth dance moves?  That is the question.

Cornelia, a wealthy WASP dowager (emphasis on WASP is Gurney’s) is closing down her house with all its rich furnishings (great set by Michael Yeargan) to move to some sort of elder living which she with vivacious irony refers to as a “nursing home.”

Cornelia’s stuffed shirt young attorney, Harvey, on hand for financial arrangements, is trying to fulfill his fiduciary duties by deterring her from giving away all her money to charity when another threat to good financial planning arrives on the scene in the person of a young Black man who calls himself “Scott” and who claims to be the son of Cornelia’s deceased daughter: this “new found” grandson is here looking for big money.

We know “Scott’s” a con man from his transparent lies, so do Harvey and Cornelia’s down-to-earth one-of-the family style house maid, Agnes.   “Scott’s” elaborate inventions to save his story constitute the play’s jokes.  But what about Cornelia?  Is she so yearning for a live grandson that she’s blind to his dishonesty — though  otherwise she’s intact and sharp as a razor.

Meanwhile, Jessica, a young Asian music student, arrives to check out the player piano Agnes is planning to donate to Julliard (does Julliard really want a player piano?).  Accompanied by the piano, Jessica sings Cole Porter (identified as signature WASP composer though, hey, Catholics — even Jews, Muslims, and Others — are known to love Cole Porter).   By the way, in contrast to Gurney, I don’t think heavy drinking is a limited to WASPs either.  Anyhow, the more Jessica dismisses “Scott,” the more he likes her.

And so it goes toward a feel good resolution in which those who are uptight loosen up, WASPS turn out to be as nice as everybody else, multi-racially and multi-ethnically speaking, America’s in great shape, and money can further good outcomes  — that is if there’s a fairy godmother around like Cornelia.

Maureen Anderman holds the stage well with a typical characterization of a wealthy dowager, and Pamela Dunlap’s flat comic delivery as Agnes, the Maid who’s been there forever, is amusing.  Joe Paulik does what he can with as the generic stuffed-shirt attorney.

But why, with all the brilliantly talented young performers in New York City, was Gabriel Brown cast as “Scott??  He imitates a Black man playing a cool Black man with good dance moves but doesn’t create a character.  And why, with all the marvelous young singers looking for jobs in theater, was Kahyun Kim cast as Jessica?  Her main job here was to sing Cole Porter which she did in a thin, strained voice, nowhere up to the task.  As for the “chemistry” and burgeoning romance between Jessica and Scott – forget it.

If you see this play, you won’t be sorry because Gurney has a talent for making you feel you’re being pleasantly entertained, but you don’t need to see it.  Signature Theater has much better things to do than produce this sitcom.

Love & Money plays at the Signature Theater on West 42nd Street, Manhattan’s Theater Row, through October 4, 2015.

Carolyn McCormick and Peter Scolari. Photo Joan Marcus

Review | Family Furniture by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Thomas Kail | Flea Theater

“My ancestors fought the Indians along the Mohawk River before they signed up with George Washington,” says Russell, father of the family. “Your mother’s great great grandfather helped plan and design the Erie Canal.” This is an amusing, beautifully observed and perfectly acted play about an upper class “WASP” family — Gurney’s favorite territory — on the cusp of social change in the aftermath of World War II.  It’s set in 1954 at a summer lake house near Buffalo, NY.

To cut to the quick, there are moments when Peter Scolari as Russell — Yale, money, connections, family — is so imperturbable based on his sense of certainty about his family’s entitlement and at the same time so natural and vulnerable to the challenging immediacies, so totally believable, that I’d like to go back just to see him do it again.

Carolyn McCormick and Peter Scolari. Photo Joan Marcus

Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Carolyn McCormick.  Photo Joan Marcus

Carolyn McCormick is equally tone perfect as Russell’s entrancing wife, Claire, a woman born to do all the right things and doing most of them right — raising her two, now college aged, kids with focus and intelligence, bringing home everyone’s favorite goodies in big paper bags like the mother of the Bobbsey twins, heading up what must be every charity in Buffalo, but with her own vulnerability and underlying, passion, harnessed — though not eliminated — by “good breeding.”

The challenges that threaten the smooth skein of Russell’s privileged view of himself and family come thick and fast:  his son, Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolgar), is in love  with a Jewish girl Betsy, (Molly Nordin) and his daughter Peggy (Ismenia Mendes) is in love with an Italian.  Oh those kids!  And, although she’s sticking to their own cast and class, his wife may be having an affair: Mr. Baldwin is, like Claire, a tennis player.  Russell’s sport is sailing.

A scene where Russell, on a small sailboat with his daughter, persuades her — as they repeatedly tack and and duck under a swinging boom — to take a vacation from the Italian Marco by offering her a trip abroad (to Italy!) is so good the audience applauded spontaneously in mid-act.

Fitting the “WASP” stereotype to a T, Russell often sounds arrogant and narrow minded.  He’s fast to cast aspersions on other ethnic groups, warning his daughter about her beloved Marco, for instance, by telling her that all Italians “become gangsters or politicians.”  But faced with the reality of his daughter’s deep emotions, and his understanding of true character, he turns tack.  After all, he did once have a Jewish girlfriend, though they never thought seriously of marrying (“I had my English roots to keep me in line, while she fell back on the Old Testament.”)  And Claire sees a virtue in “hybrid vigor” all along.  This is a very benign, Norman Rockwellian vision of social entrenchment.

Peter Scolari and Ismenia Mendes.  Photo Joan Marcus

Peter Scolari and Ismenia Mendes.  Photo Joan Marcus

They’re forced to change, and they were never really that prejudiced anyhow — just enough for Gurney’s wit to offer one delicious laugh after another.

Popular songs create not only a nostalgic aura, as in Woody Allen, but are part of the interplay between surface and depth that’s at the heart of this play.  In a particularly moving moment, a brilliant moment, really, Russell moves to accompany his wife to the kitchen but she, thinking of someone else, lightly holds him off.  “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah …. “ he sings softly.  Betsy, the Jewish girlfriend’s not the only one into “hidden meanings” — so’s Gurney.  A message of this play is that “People can know and not know,” and at the very least, that’s something we can work with.

Molly Nordin and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Photo Joan Marcus

Molly Nordin and Andrew Keenan-Bolger. Photo Joan Marcus

There are some implausibilities in Family Furniture, particularly in the denouement.  These are easily overlooked because the characters of this beautifully cast play and the repartee, and the nostalgic, seductive  sense of a moment of American wholeness provide an evening of total delight.

Family Furniture plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through December 22, 2013.

Review | The Old Boy by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Jonathan Silverstein | Keen Company | Clurman Theatre on Theatre Row

This is a middling play — if you see it you’re not sorry but you don’t need to see it.   Gurney is very talented at engaging the viewer with recognizable character types involved in contemporary topics.  The Old Boy was first produced in 1991.

Sam, a slick but decent politician running for Governor returns, in the 1990’s, to his New England prep school to dedicate a building to a man, now deceased, whom he once knew as a student, Perry.  He’d been Perry’s “old boy”, his assigned friend and mentor, back in the 1960’s, and the two had genuinely bonded.  Perry’s mother, Harriet, is there for the ceremony, donating the building in her son’s honor, along with Alison, Perry’s former wife.  Perry, Sam learns, has died in vague circumstances.

What could those circumstances be?  It doesn’t take long to see where Gurney’s going.  As the play moves between the here and now of the 1990’s to back when the boys were at school together in the ’60’s, we quickly catch on, via flashbacks, that Perry was gay, though not “out,” not even to himself.  Back then Sam, the extroverted jock, and Perry, the introverted bookish opera lover, had developed a close “opposites attract” friendship, with an erotic undertone, obvious from Perry, but also from Sam, it’s suggested, a reminder of the ambiguities of sexuality.  They were such buddies that Sam, burdened with an attractive but low class girlfriend, Alison, had killed two birds with one stone, ridding himself of a nuisance in Alison and resolving his unease about Perry’s homosexuality, by arranging for Perry and Alison to marry, bringing about their constrained marriage in which, for a long time, Perry lived a lie.

The suspense now, in the 1990’s, shifts to:  what will Sam say at the dedication speech in honor of his friend, with his friend’s mother on hand nervously listening?  Will he maintain the platitudes that will be useful for his election as Governor, as his gung ho aide urges him to do?  Or will he courageously transcend political considerations and speak the “truth” about the way individuals and society conspire to constrain disapproved passions and desires?

Up at the podium, Sam presents his speech to his audience — us —  and Gurney is right in saying on his web site that the under-dramatized presentation of the speech is a weakness of the play.  That’s not the worst problem with the speech, though.  Sam’s speech assigns blame for Perry’s death in a way that doesn’t make sense.  The fact that this way of seeing blame springs from the kindness and well meaning heart of the playwright doesn’t paper over a real disconnect between the argument in the play and rationality.  It’s too much of a stretch, and evaporates the play’s plausibility.

Some of the characters, particularly Sam as the sure-of himself-politician and Bud, his fast talking aide, are stereotypes.  Others are more fully drawn.  Chris Dwan gives an arresting performance as the adolescent Perry, gradually coming to know himself, sensitive, unsure but with a backbone.  Marsha Dietlein Bennet is effective in a fascinating role: she morphs from the low class girl who first went off with Sam because she wanted to know where all those boys on vacation came from to a widow of an upper class man struggling to free herself from her overbearing mother-in-law.

Tom Riis Farrell brings humor and touching emotion to the predictable role of the Minister, Dexter, who was short listed for Headmaster but didn’t get the job “because I wasn’t married.”   We understand, Dexter (actually, devoted as he is to the school, he doesn’t have the style of a prep school Headmaster).  The actor among all, who’s so good she makes one absolutely forget that she’s a “character” or that we’re watching a play is Laura Esterman as Perry’s dominating — and heartbroken — mother.

The Old Boy plays at the Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 30th.

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius. Photo Hunter Canning

Review | Heresy by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater

Heresy is topical, very funny, and totally enjoyable modern parable filled with references to today’s politics and based, roughly, on the life of Christ.  Some of the characters have Biblical names, like Mary for the mother of Chris, her idealistic, purist son currently in jail.  But Gurney’s a wonderfully surprising playwright so you can’t guess from that what to expect.

Gurney's Heresy at the Flea Theater

We’re in the office of Pontius, a government VIP whose preferred term of address is The Decider.  Mary and her husband Joseph, old time friends of Pontius from the roaring sixties (they call him Ponti, a nickname he feels is now beyond his dignity) are trying to get their now powerful friend to get their dreamy, off-beat son out of jail.  All the shenanigans are taken down on the computer by Mark (Tommy Crawford), an orderly intern (meaning : [1] he gives orders and [2] isn’t paid).  Matthew, Luke and John are nowhere in sight.

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius. Photo Hunter Canning

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius. Photo Hunter Canning

There’s a Kafkaesque search to find out just where in the vast and enhanced National Security bureaucracy Chris is being held.

L-R Danny Rivera as Pedro, Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena, Kathy Najima as Phyllis, Reg E Cathey as Pontius.  Photo Hunter Canning

Eventually he’s located and with the help of a gorgeous Venus named Lena (short for Magdalena) is rescued and — although we never set eyes on him — we can assume he’ll be OK for the short term: when it comes to ultimates, Gurney leaves things pretty open-ended.

Reg E. Cathey as Pontius and Annette O’Toole as Mary, Photo Hunter Canning

Reg E. Cathey as Pontius and Annette O’Toole as Mary, Photo Hunter Canning

All the actors, briskly paced by director Simpson, draw great satisfying laughs from Gurneys witty lines and ridiculous situations — played seriously as they have to be to be funny.  I particularly loved Kathy Najimy as The Decider’s dotty but not stupid wife — an enthused fulfiller of the great patriotic mandate to shop.  The expressions that cross her face reflect her thoughts with the accuracy and breadth of the great comic actors and she has the voice to go with it.  The most originally observed character is Mary, whom Annette O’Toole brings to vivid life as a skinny, intense remnant of  60’s  idealism (we see where her son gets it), ready to jaw with anybody.  Ariel Woodiwiss as Lena is seductive and cannily able to grasp what really matters to her man.  Reg E. Cathey as Pontius ponders with great authority as the not-so-decisive Decider.

There are a lot of laughs, yes.  But in one sequence the characters, speaking out of their individual viewpoints and personalities, tell what each of them would do for the sensitive, volatile Chris when he’s freed from prison, each having a different idea.  Gurney turns this, on the dime, into an inspiring moment — as in, seriously inspiring.  How he does it — I’d best leave it to you to find out when you see the show.  I was deeply moved.

L-R Steve Mellor as Joseph, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey, Annette O'Toole  Photo Hunter Canning  

L-R Steve Mellor as Joseph, Kathy Najimy, Reg E. Cathey, Annette O’Toole  Photo Hunter Canning

Claudia Brown’s outstanding costumes characterize the actors quickly in this fast farce, and enhance the play’s fascination.

Pontius wears a truly scary pair of black, knee-high boots.  Mary’s plaid drab button-down-the-front dress worn with purpley-fuschia tights characterizes not only the role but the 60’s epoch (Super-Earnest-Skip-The-Tie-Dye Type):  in motion, this is a geniusy costume worn by a terrific actress.  Phyllis’ claret red gown (it’s a little different from the photos) is absolutely Phyllis.

Heresy is a very refreshing play! 

Heresy plays at the Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through November 4th.

Office Hours by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Jim Simpson | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

… twilight of the Great Books …

Office Hours is a tender and passionate love story about — the love Humanities professors hold for the great books of the western tradition just when the core focus (aka “privileging”) of these books is on the way out.  It’s also a fine comedy.

We’re in the late 1960’s, and in a flexible, amusing setting of young professors’ offices.  The profs are all teaching sections of the required two-semester Western Tradition core course but they’re worried.  Rumor has it that this course is to be eliminated.  No more core.  Good-bye dead white males.  The young teachers, concerned individually about their futures, share an overriding concern: for Homer, Aeschylus, Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare.

Over a passage of time that’s, very cleverly, both the course of a day and two semesters, the profs interact with each other and with the students who drop in, during and outside of office hours.  We see the full parade of views about “the classics,” from love and appreciation of the great writers through to “politically correct” antagonisms — sometimes sincere, sometimes manipulated to pass a course;  in this we get a portrait of an age.

The first moon landing and the Vietnam War, introduced as radio background, broaden the scope, reminding us how much the times are a-changing.  Then the War arrives center stage in the person of an anguished and threatening Vietnam vet who has held in his heart, like a flower in the darkness, the memory of a positive comment a professor had once made in the margin of a paper he’d written in college, his one “straight A.”

Part of the pleasure of Office Hours is that the students and professors , while acutely observed and amusing as types, are also fully rounded and varied individuals.  This so-satisfying, witty comedy — comedy with an elegiac ending that brought tears to my eyes — is knowingly staged and directed by Jim Simpson and played by the Flea’s young acting company, The Bats.  The Dante cast rotates with the Homer cast — the Dantes played when I was there, and Bjorn Dupaty, Wilton Yeung, Maren Langdon, Holly Chou, Betsy Lippitt and Raul Sigmund Julia were all perfect in their multiple roles, all of them as both professors and students with diverse personalities.

Office Hours is a remarkably full portrait of a key period in American history and the changes it brought, and it’s specific and touchingly human.  Lofty visions intermingle with sensitively conveyed foibles, failing and just plain individuality.  It’s non-stop enjoyable.

Office Hours plays at the Flea Theater in NYC’s Tribeca through November 7th.

Review | A Light Lunch by A. R. Gurney | Directed by Jim Simpson | Flea Theater

This new play is inspired by our recent presidential elections: the issues are alive and the play sparkles with vitality — and partisanship.  Obama supporters, don’t miss it!  Bush supporters might do better to stay away.

The setting is a checkered table cloth cafe with framed drawings of theater personalities:  read “very New York City.”  A Texas attorney, who happens to be a tall, beautiful woman, meets a handsome NY theater agent for lunch to purchase all rights to a new play by the agent’s client.  Why are the attorney’s clients so anxious to obtain all rights to this — as yet unfinished — play?  The agent, though tempted by the big pocket offer, needs a reason.  He’s responsible for representing the best interests of his playwright client, after all, and as it emerges the rights to the play are being sought by a Certain Very Powerful Man who’s engaged in polishing up his political legacy.  Gossip has it that he will be badly characterized in the play so he’s seeking the rights to totally suppress it.

The agent balks at doing the deal blind, so the attorney balks at completing the deal.  An impasse.  But A. R. Gurney comes up with a “deus ex machina” (earnestly defined by the Aristotelian boyfriend of the busybody waitress) that will thrill all who love movies.  A play within the play turns the plot to please all parties (well, all those with a small p).  And all parties on the scene are pleased … Gurney doesn’t let us worry too much about the Texas clients.

This world premiere of A. R. Gurney’s A Light Lunch plays at the Flea Theater in Tribeca through January 25th.

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