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

Tag: Austin Pendleton

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Review | Nora | by Ingmar Bergman | After Ibsen’s A Doll’s House | Directed by Austin Pendleton

… a doll’s household … 

Jean Lichty at the early feminist NORA, and Todd Gearhart as her husband, Torvald in Bergman's NORA after Ibsen's A Doll's House

Todd Gearhart as Torvald and Jean Lichty as Nora. Photo Carol Rosegg

In the name of “crystallization,” Bergman’s paring down of Ibsen’s compelling play with its early feminist theme sticks to the plot but gives us fewer ways to know the characters.  It puts major, inner change on fast forward — making for an unconvincing drama.

In trimming down the play, Bergman omits the servants and the three children.  We’re told once that the children are with the nanny but never see Nora with her children, so when, in leaving Thorwald, she abandons her children, any conflict she may have is totally distant.  And how do these people eat?  She doesn’t cook or clean, a small mending job seems beyond her, and no servants appear either:  there’s no sense of a functioning household, although the nature of this doll’s house – and doll’s household — is of central importance.

In eliminating the nanny, Anne-Marie, Bergman has omitted a character with thematic importance in Ibsen’s play.  Anne-Marie had cared for Nora as a child and now tends Nora’s children and, for this employment, had given up her own, illegitimate  daughter to the care of others. Ann-Marie’s story is important enough for Nora to call it a “tragedy.”

Anne-Marie’s story is a thought provoking counterpoint to Nora’s. own story  As a woman of the lower class, under duress of poverty and the stigma of an illegitimate child, Anne-Marie gave up her daughter in order to take on the position of caring for children better placed in society.  Nora gives hers up in order to fulfill her thrust toward freedom and self actualization.  Is one kind of duress more powerful than the other?  More worthy?  More easy to accept?

In another inflection of the theme of motherhood, Nora’s childless friend Christine joins the widowed Nils Krogstad so that his children will have a mother and she will have a purpose in caring for others:  elimination of the character of Anne-Marie severs one leg from this tripod of meanings.

Torvald looses much of his sexist pomposity in Bergman’s version, making him less obnoxious, and more attractive, and more like a man who could pay attention.  Yes, he let Nora down but, as Christine knows, nobody’s perfect including her marginally criminal Krogstad.  But that has no effect on Nora.

Bergman sets the final confrontation between Torvald and Nora in the marital bedroom , a good idea but it’s here awkwardly staged.  Under the onslaught of Nora’s defiant speech – she’s dressed to leave, he’s nude in a super obvious  visualization of his new vulnerability —  this mature man  “covers up his nakedness” like a sinful Adam, wrapping himself in a blanket.  And since he seems like a man who could perhaps learn, Nora’s adamant decision harder than ever to accept.

The upshot is, he looks like a jerk and she seems cuckoo.

Events unfold so fast  in this trimmed version that Nora’s lengthy speech to Torvald at the end, in which she explains that how she must free herself in order to come to know herself, seems ideological — she sounds like she just completed a course on feminism —  rather than being an emanation of her developing character.

Nora, Torvald, Christine and Krogstad are almost always on stage, moving back and to the fore as their scenes are foreground, giving a good sense of the tight link between past and present.  Jean Lichty brings out the flighty responsiveness and also the womanly strength of Nora – she reminded me of Jennifer Jones as Madame Bovary.  Todd Gearhart manages to convey Torvald’s sense of male entitlement with humor and wit.

Jean Lichty as the early feminist Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank, whose in love with her.

Jean Lichty as Nora and George Morfogen as Dr. Rank. Photo Carol Rosegg

Larry Bull is appropriately menacing as Nils Krogstad, who turns gently tender when he recognizes another possibility with Christine Linde, played by Andrea Cirie.  The role of the mortally ill Dr. Rank is shortened in Bergman’s version but George Morfogen provides so rich and touching and totally believable a characterization of the smitten but dignified old man he fascinates and looms large.  I’ve seen him in many roles and never better.   Federick L. and Lise-Lone Marker’s translation  from Swedish finds the fine theatrical balance between generalized modern English and the special way people who know each other well, as all of these characters do, use language to express their connectedness.

NORA plays at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre in Manhattan’s East Village through December 12, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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 | Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams | Directed by Austin Pendleton | With Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien | 59E59 Theaters

… truth …

Gidion’s Knot is an intense gem.  Two persons, a mother, Caryn (Leiner) and a grade school teacher, Heather (O’Brien) are engaged, during a parent-teacher conference in a taut  offensive-defensive search for truth.

L-R Karen Leiner and Dara O'Brien.  Photo by Carol Rosegg

L-R Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien.  Photo by Carol Rosegg

Caryn, thin, brusque, sharp, in jeans and leather boots, comes to school looking for an explanation for a catastrophe that has met her son. Heather, soft, tender, plump, blowzy, seeks to keep Caryn — and her probing questions and snooping around the classroom — at bay.  Caryn is looking to untie the knot of evasions and slim clues that stand between her and knowing the truth of what transpired regarding her son.   Heather, the classroom teacher, knows the truth — or does she?

With a compelling immediacy, Gidion’s Knot takes place in true time — the play takes 90 minutes, so does this remarkable parent-teacher conference — and the characters are seen as life-size (seats in this small theater immediately around the stage).  But even deeper excitement lies in the targeted dialog, the canny fencing, the emotional and intellectual shifts as Caryn, bull dogging Heather, ratting through the knot of clues, gradually illuminates the events  and the emotional undercurrents.

Like Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and with a similar cruel edge, Caryn strips away the self-protective rationalizations, forcing truth into the open for both women.  Directly on the heels of Caryn’s relentless and successful hunt for truth, the question looms:  given the great value placed on truth, is there ever a role for compassion in the searching it out?  Gidion’s Knot seems to come down on the side of the unvarnished value of searing truth, a tough verdict.

Two outstanding actresses, Karen Leiner and Dara O’Brien, in their two studies of opposites, fascinate in the course of their emotional voyage, as if they shared a lifetime, and under Austin Pendleton’s subtle direction, nothing is lost and everything illuminates.

Johnna Adams’ deep knowledge of human beings, intelligence and dramatic gift has located in a meeting of a parent and teacher in an ordinary classroom an encounter as hold-your-breath suspenseful as a whodunit, and with the highest stakes.  It leaves you thinking about topical issues, such a school bullying, and eternal questions, such as the nature and value of truth. This is true dramatic magic.

Gidion’s Knot  plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan through March 9,  2014.

Review | Ivanov by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Carol Rocamora | Directed by Austin Pendleton | With Ethan Hawke as Ivanov | Classic Stage Company

Ivanov is not as perfect a play as Chekhov’s Three Sisters (at Classic Stage) or The Cherry Orchard, which came later,  but I enjoyed it even more — filled with fascinating and amusing characters, it spills over into a rambunctious panorama of life.  That’s all the more amazing because — characteristically Chekhov — the characters like to proclaim that they’re  “bored ” but the play is vital and engaging — how does he do it?  One thing:  the writing is marvelous.  And in this Classic Stage production, the acting is superb, and Austin Pendleton’s naturalistic, soft-voiced direction highly effective in drawing you in and making you believe.

Ethan Hawk gives his all:  he understands every nuance of Chekhov’s portrait of the anguished, depressed Ivanov and portrays it vividly through voice, facial expression, and movement — he fairly dances through the part.  His is a particularly individualized performance, but all the actors are perfectly cast and draw the most of humor and meaning from their parts.

Ivanov, a landowner in late 19th-century Russia, is in straightened fiscal circumstances, is married to a woman he no longer loves, and has let his once ambitious agricultural plans for his estate fall by the wayside.

Plenty of reason to be depressed in all that, and so we first meet him lying in his rumpled white linen suit on his rumpled bed in daytime, fitfully trying to read.   Interruptions, such when the steward of his estate comes in with a shady — read modern exploitive — money-making scheme, exasperate him.  Reminders — as from the well-meaning, pompous young doctor, that Ivanov should save his wife Anna, who is dying of tuberculosis, by taking her for a long rest in a warm climate — exasperate him even more.

Sorry for himself as he feels, though, Ivanov is not a victim:  he’s brought his woes on himself, but he’s created a victim in his wife.  Five years ago, he passionately wooed her, and she gave up Jewish faith and her family for love of him.  Had he, back then, wooed her for her money?  so that his “falling out of love” is really disappointment that when she converted to his Russian Orthodox faith she lost her dowry?  Or did the stifling cloud of his depression simply descend upon him as Chekhov, a medical doctor, knew can happen?  We’re never sure.  One thing is clear:  Ivanov is not a good man — but a fascinating theatrical character, and fascinating to women.

Now Anna’s doctor is continually hammering at Ivanov to take her away for warmth and rest while Ivanov abhors the idea of being alone with her.  Anyhow, he doesn’t have the money.  He evades all pressing issues by going over to the Lebedevs’ estate where things are a lot more fun, even though he’s harassed by Zinaida Lebedeva, a tight-fisted  money lender, for the 9000 roubles he owes her.  There are a variety of acquaintances, characters, jokes, his warm friend, Paul Lebedev, and — brandy in the punch — the Lebdev’s 20-year old daughter, Sasha, who’s infatuated with him.

Anna and her faithful advocate and doctor follow him there, only to catch him kissing Sasha, which leads Anna to believe that Ivanov has always been false, their love a sham from the start, that the bitterest pill for a sick woman.   How Chekhov works out these situations of love and betrayal … well, let’s just say Ivanov finally does something forceful.

Such rich, abundant, fully realized theater as Classic Stage’s production of Ivanov  takes you beyond yourself.  Chekhov creates a full world that offers the bright, stimulating pleasure of attentiveness for the duration of the play.  And the characters are so alive, amusing and vivid that they stay with you in your world afterwards.

Ivanov  plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through December 9th, 2012.

Review | A Minister’s Wife | A Musical Theater Version of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida | Book by Austin Pendleton | Music by Joshua Schmidt | Lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen | Conceived and Directed by Michael Halberstam | Lincoln Center

A big problem for A Minister’s Wife is that, unlike most of Shaw’s plays, Candida is in my view — though others disagree — dated.  It has to do with a woman determining her own fate but the ideas circulating about relationships between men and women, marriage and love, are archaic — and there’s barely a spoonful of Shavian wit.  These problems were evident in the recent production of Candida  by the Irish Repertory Theater , and setting some speeches to music, as in A Minister’s Wife, doesn’t make them go away.

The situation is a love triangle among Candida, her husband the Reverend James Morell, and Marchbanks, a teen-aged poet and household hanger-on.  Candida, who has a good figure and a great head of hair, arrives home from somewhere for a day’s stay.  Morell has been so intensely involved in composing one of his passionate socialist sermons that — much as he adores her — he misses picking her up at the train.  That’s one of Morell’s weaknesses as a husband — he’s too involved in his work.  Oh Oh.

Marchbanks, the boyish, dreamy, idealistic poet who’s in love with Candida seizes the opportunity to woo her with a combination of his own poetic soul and his understanding of her inner woman’s nature, a flirtation Candida enters into in her home and under the eyes of her husband who, understandably, grows angry and, ultimately frightened.

A Minister’s Wife starts auspiciously.  The set, the Morell’s living room/office, is an appealing blend of refinement, education and lived-in wear:  it conveys the Minister’s seriousness of purpose.  Early on, Morell sings, more a recitative than a song but very effective in making real for the audience his powerful sermons — and the Shavian language is up to the idea.  Marc Kudisch’s rich baritone and good looks convey believably and pleasurably his often referred to charisma.

That’s the best use of music in The Minister’s Wife.   After that, the music is one note per word, plain up and down the scale repetitive to the point of being irritating, and the “songs” never take flight from the mode of recitative.

And who can take the allure Candida finds in Marchbanks seriously?  For one thing, Marchbanks, played by Bobby Steggert, is fifteen years younger than Candida.  And Morell is a mature, powerfully attractive man to whom his Secretary, everyone who hears his sermons, and Candida herself is attracted.  And although the dialog indicates that Marchbanks has a poetic soul, we never hear him say anything of particular poignancy nor hear any powerful poetry from him — mainly he flirts, speaks disrespectfully to Morell (who has rescued him in from a park bench) and, in between times, languishes.

Candida’s flirtation with Marchbanks, and her density and/or callousness (Shaw can’t seem to decide which) about her husband’s feelings, make her seem silly and small, draining her significance.  Kate Fry as Candida has a pleasant voice but doesn’t bring a dramatic presence to the role that might help us overlook its weaknesses.

When Liz Bates has center stage, she brings the play temporarily to life with her vitality and wit as Morell’s Secretary, “Prossy,” tough-minded but filled with yearning, aided in her moment of liberation by Morell’s Curate, played by Drew Gehling.

The Morell’s children are briefly mentioned but — on the one day their mother comes home — they never appear.  What an error!  They may have been in his narrative way — as children often are — but Shaw should have figured out something better than leaving them out, all the more in a play about who protects whom in a marriage.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House of 1879 never seems dated, but Candida of 1898, Shaw’s answer to A Doll’s House, does.  Candida is spirited, but not independent-minded, unlike Nora as her personality emerges in A Doll’s House.   In A Minister’s Wife, as in Candida, it all comes down to a very simplified view of who protects whom in a marriage.  I find particularly irksome that the resolution of the story — in the play and musical version — infantilizes the mature Morell;  to me, this comes across as one of Shaw’s peevish complaints about women, masked as a “modern” story of women and independence.

A Minister’s Wife  plays at the Mitzi E Newhouse theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center Theater.

Review | Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov | Translated by Paul Schmidt | Directed by Austin Pendleton | Classic Stage Company

… three ages of women …

Chekhov wrote Three Sisters for production on a proscenium stage but I think he would have been thrilled to see this expansion of his work in Classic Stage’s magnificent large and high performance space.  The potential breadth of Three Sisters is fulfilled in a way I’ve never seen before: the philosophical vision, the psychology and the drama enlarge as if here they’ve found a space to unfold their wings.

Irina, the youngest sister, is virginal and flits around wearing white.  Beginning the play on her 20th name day, Chekhov sets his theme, the struggle toward maturity.  Whom will Irina marry — a real life suitor, or an imagined love of her life dwelling in Moscow where the family once lived and where she longs to return?  Masha is the married woman, sensitive, witty, a trained pianist.  Now 25, she wed too young and, chafing at the bit of marital disappointment, carries on an affair with a dashing and idealistic officer temporarily stationed in town.  Olga, the oldest, is the spinster (at a mere 28!), and a school teacher, motherly and protective toward her sisters , her students and toward the old servant woman.

Together the three sisters represent the three ages of women: emblematic and at the same time richly drawn, fully individualized characters.

The sisters and their brother, Andrey, are living fairly well, following the deaths of their parents, in a provincial Russian town in the late 19th Century (Three Sisters was written in 1900).  The action centers around the family house.  Things have been moving along in a kind of status quo, marked by the loves and enjoyments that link the siblings and their individual frustrations and longings, shaded by an elegiac sense of a better past.

But Andrey shakes the status quo.  Unknown to his sisters, he’s been gambling what’s left of the family fortune, threatening the house’s ownership.  And he falls in love with, and then marries a coarse, noisy woman, Natasha, the opposite of the sisters in education, refinement and class background.  And when she has a baby — oh my a Baby — and ultimately another, she really rules the roost, thrusting the sisters out of their bedrooms and, it seems, ejecting them from their lives.

Will the sisters become victims?  Looks like it.  We worry for them, feel sad for them, while thinking something along the lines of the day of their class is done and here comes the New Russia.

But instead they grow.  Three Sisters is a play of self-actualization.  Each accommodates to reality in a different way.  Chekhov doesn’t make it easy for them.  When we think we know what needs to be done, new challenges roll in like tidal waves onto this quiet family in a quiet town.  The sisters draw strength from within and from each other.  Only Andrey ends up a flop and a laughing stock, a victim of his own weakness and under the thumb of his crude wife.  But the individual victories of the three sisters — not fantasy victories but genuine ones — are moving and resonate and remain in the mind as inspiring.

At the end one man, Fedotik, who has just lost all in a fire — as at the end all human beings lose everything — reminds us that ultimate loss does not negate that his life, and that these lives reach into the unseen future.  The production, designed for viewing on three sides in Classic Stage’s theater, with its central faceted and climbing set, continuing as a reflection in a smoky mirrored backdrop, carries that largeness of vision.  What a big play!

The acting is on a high level with two performances particularly strong.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is convincing as the agitated, seductive, artistic sister, verging on hysteria and yet holding on (one reviewer in the NY Times found her characterization too contemporary but no, Gyllenhaal gives us a fine embodiment of a “neurasthenic” woman known very well in 19th-century literature).  Jessica Hecht is charismatic as the older school teacher spinster — nothing dowdy here!  Her charm and warmth, the way we see her thinking in response the the events that pass before her eyes and ours, her growth in strength for what she doesn’t want but must take on — for others as well as herself — is compelling.  James Patrick Nelson moved me greatly in his final lines that link the present of the play with the ongoing theater of human hopes.

Three Sisters plays at Classic Stage through March 6th at 6:30.

Review | Vieux Carre by Tennessee Williams | Directed by Austin Pendleton | Pearl Theatre Company

… streetcar named memory …

The setting is a run-down boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1930’s and you know you’re in good hands from the first moment.  The house is empty now, The Writer comments at the start, remembering when he lived there, but clearly it isn’t — Mrs. Wire, the landlady is on stage even before the play begins.  With that brilliant contradiction, Williams conveys the paradox of memory.

The Writer, turning his memories into a play, brings us with him to the time this house was crowded with the intensely individualized characters and their desires, jam packed with the ongoing torments of their situations and the occasional raptures open to them through their partnership in the human spirit.

It’s interesting that The Writer is both the central character in the play and also the most passive.  Though young and beautiful, he doesn’t seduce but is seduced, by an elderly and not appealing painter — the man has serious lung disease — who in a sparkling moment of truth defines himself as “rapacious.”  Appetite never dies — the painter reminded me of Goya’s black painting of “Old Man and Old Woman Eating Soup,” skeletons scraping their bowls to the end.  All the other tenants in Mrs. Wire’s rooming house are ravenous, in one way or another.  The handsome Tye is sexually passionate, stimulating Jane’s unquenchable desire.  Two once higher class old ladies are famished to the point of scrounging in garbage cans, while Mrs. Wire cooks gumbo.

Even toward the end when The Writer has the chance to move to a new freedom, a cross-country car trip to the West, he’s invited along but it’s the other guy’s plan.  The Writer’s action is mainly to observe and understand things better.  This gives the play a soft center.

Vieux Carre was written in 1978 near the end of Williams’ career but written about writing and about coming to terms with sexuality, it has the feel of a coming of age play.  He often draws upon memories of his life and family in his plays but this is the most directly autobiographical — Mrs. Wire’s has the same address as his French Quarter boarding house — 722 Toulouse.  It even has a structural laxity one might expect of a youthful playwright with more to learn.  Perhaps, after having produced a great body of work, Williams felt he’d earned the right to just give himself over to autobiography — at last.  Never mind:  the production is flawless, the acting superb, the language goes directly to the heart and the characters are real, vivid, and remain in the imagination.

Vieux Carre is at the Pearl Theater in the East Village, St Mark’s Place, through June 14th.

P.S. Two of the best plays I’ve seen this year are Vieux Carre, and Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, reviewed here.  And more to come — I’m looking forward to Glass Menagerie at Guild House in East Hampton, L.I., this summer (reviewed — click here). Also reviewed here, Williams’ The Day on Which a Man Dies in East Hampton, August 2009.

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