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

Tag: J. R. Sullivan

Review | This Side of Neverland, Rosalind and The Twelve Pound Look | Two One-Act Plays by J. M. Barrie | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

… beyond Peter Pan …

Best known now for Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie was a popular playwright in early 20th-century London and here’s a chance to see two of his witty and enjoyable comedies — about grown-ups.

The first of these, Rosalind, is a real gem.  A beautiful, popular actress has donned a shapeless housedress and floppy slippers, and lets her hair go, holed up in a rural boarding house where she takes on the persona of her own mother just to get away from it all, to find respite from her frenetic London life where she’s relentlessly the center of attention.

Having happily loosened her stays, she bothers to chat with no one except the amiable, ordinary owner of her boarding house, until coincidence draws to the boarding house one of her adoring London swains, an upper class recent university graduate.  Over the course of a revelatory conversation, he discovers that this frumpy, pleasant 40-year old he’s talking with is not the mother of the glorious young actress he fancies himself in love with but very the actress herself, whom he’s failed to recognize under her housecoat.  As she plays it for all it’s worth, he scrambles to figure out what to do with his ardor?  Be true to the 40-year old?  Or to his 23-year old self?   He believes in love.  He wants to do the right thing.  And what will happen when a telegram arrives offering the actress the role of Rosalind in As You Like It?

One thing is sure:  there will be a stunning transformation of a 40-year old frump into a dazzling 20-something … well, she’s actually 29:  Barrie takes care to keep the play totally plausible.

Rachel Botchan is enchanting as the dowdy “mother” and equally so as the glamorous young actress — she’s so amused, so in control — and her transformation from old and plain to young and glamorous (Miss Botchan looks beautiful both ways) is a powerful reminder, as Barrie surely intended it, of the joys and ironies of appearance and illusion.  I’ve seen Miss Botcham is several roles — she’s always compelling but here she’s a wonder.  Sean McNall brings his own amused charm to the double part of playwright Barrie moving in and out of the play and the young man in love.  As the boarding house owner, Carol Schultz is a solid foil of middle-aged realism for the actress whose life is a bouquet of possibilities — even at the “advanced age” of 29.

In the second play, The Twelve Pound Look, Sir Harry is about to be knighted, and both he and his wife, who is heavily loaded with bling, are delighted at the prospect.  Kate, a typist arrives to prepare his “thank you” letters and it turns out that she, through coincidence, is Sir Harry’s former wife, who’d left him years before.

Sir Harry is one of those men who cannot grasp why any woman upon whom he’s lavished everything costly, including his high position, would leave him (I wondered about it, too), but nevertheless he’s assumed all along that she left him for another man.  Who was he?  is the imperious question repeated in Harry’s accustomed-to-answers voice.  With some amusing game playing, the truth is revealed — she left Sir Harry not for a man but for a typewriter, cost 12 pounds, or more truly, she left him for the independence of making her own living.  It could happen.  But in this play it doesn’t ring true.

The Twelve Pound Look is nearer to farce than Rosalind.  This is not A Doll’s House, though it comes thirty years later than Ibsen’s iconic play of a married woman struggling for independence.  Still, The Twelve Pound Look is entertaining, and good to know about.  And the episode in which Sir Harry, before the adoring eyes of his wife, practices his moves for the ceremony of Knighthood is one of the great comic scenes, performed with flawless timing and wit by Bradford Cover.  Rachel Botchan — in another of her evening’s magic transformations — is appropriately peppery as Harry’s liberated ex-wife.  And Sean McNall, in the role of J. M. Barrie on-stage, conveys an author’s ironic distance and insight, while playing also a punctilious butler.

Live piano with tunes like “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” performed by Carol Schultz, send us pleasantly to the past.  And, for its own touch of the past, a stage curtain is used in This Side of Neverland.  I love the immediacy of current plays with stages open to the audience but the curtain opening onto that other world of the imagination is a pleasure of its own.

This Side of Neverland  plays at The Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 19th now extended through May 26th.

Review | A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

A Moon for the Misbegotten is a tense, character driven play that demands  great acting and this excellent production provides it:  Kim Martin-Cotton is as fine an actress as I’ve seen anywhere and she makes the role of the tough-on-the-outside farm girl, Josie Hogan, come alive.

The play, written in 1943, takes us back to a 1923 farmhouse.  Like O’Neill’s earlier play, Beyond the Horizon, currently Irish Repertory Theater, this, too, is about trying to hold on to the farm.  Josie and her father Phil Hogan, are tenant farmers, and their landlord, James Tyrone, Jr., is a local boy who made it in the big city as an actor, and whose self-weary, drunken lack of self-respect leads him to mock his own success.  Josie’s in love with Tyrone, but hides it behind a cynical, sluttish affect.  He claims, in an affected, stentorian way, to love her, but she doesn’t believe a word, comparing her big farm girl self to the dainty women she figures he knows in the city.

Word has it that a rich neighbor has put in a bid to buy the farm from Tyrone, putting the Hogans’ hearth, home and livelihood at risk.  Will Tyrone sell, betraying “his best friend” Phil, and Josie whom, with drunken bathos, he says he loves?  Phil, with his own tough exterior and a wily streak, comes up with a plan.  Thinking he knows what’s best for his daughter better than she does, he concocts for Tyrone and Josie to be together and alone on the farm for a long, moonlit night, throwing them into each other’s arms, for Josie’s happiness and to keep the farm.

Fueled by enough whiskey to make most men pass out, Tyrone pours out the sources in his youth for his haunted nature, and his sense that, actor that he is, he’s a man for effect, capable of faking tears at his mother’s funeral and empty within, having room only for the self-hatred. And after spilling all,Tyrone does end up in Josie’s arms, not in the way Phil intended but asleep across her lap, his head resting on her breasts (which he has much admired), in a late night Pieta.  Awaking at dawn, he feels, for the moment, refreshed and free, having forgotten, it seems, that he has spent the night confessing to Josie the secrets of his guilty soul, the reason he now feels liberated.

So now will Josie and Tyrone live together happily ever after?  Bottom line, he won’t sell the farm out from under the Hogans.

The Moon for the Misbegotten has a driving narrative, and the scenes between the strongly conceived characters are exciting.   I don’t think this play has the unforgettable, mythic stature of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which the Director’s program notes link it to.  Tyrone’s bathetic confessional (which lasts a little long) has the character and content of a pat psychoanalytic catharsis, somewhat dating the play.  Still, throughout we are held by the playwright’s vibrant skill in creating compelling psychological interactions, and by the fine acting that puts them across.

Phil Hogan, played by Dan Daily, seems at first a stock character, a domineering, crude Irishman pushing his children around, but gradually, through this outstanding actor’s timing and subtlety, we come to glimpse the active mind, wit and depth of feeling lurking behind the “drunken Irishman” mask.   The complexity of this character — and the way it sneaks up on you — is one of the great strengths of the play — he does what you don’t expect.

Though not quite fitting the part, Andrew May is able in the demanding and intensely emotional role of James Tyrone, Jr.   Kern McFadden as the business-minded  farmer next door is a stolid foil for Phil Hogan’s rambunctious ridicule in a richly humorous scene that’s a highlight of the play.  Often the lead actor at the Pearl Theatre, Sean McNall is good in a brief turn as the last of the Hogan boys to run away from their over-controlling father.

And Kim Martin-Cotton’s performance as Josie is transcendent, of the kind that it’s hard to see anyone else in the part.  She has a rich speaking voice and very expressive use of her body.  As my companion said, “She’s as good as Meryl Streep.”  (There but for the grace of God … ! )

Moon for the Misbegotten plays at the Pearl Theatre in New York City’s Lincoln Center through  April 15, 2012.

Review | Charles Dickens’ Hard Times | Adapted by Stephen Jeffreys | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

Dickens wrote a play?  How interesting, I want to see this?  I thought, learning about the Pearl Theatre’s presentation of Hard Times,  and too intrigued to bother to read further.  But Dickens didn’t write this play* — it’s an adaptation by Stephen Jeffreys from Dickens’ novel Hard Times as I learned when I focused in.  The acting in the Pearl’s production is marvelous, and there are flashes of interest extracted from Dickens but the play is diffuse and comes across as overlong, hinting at its origin in a book that was written to be read gradually — serialized over many weeks.

This adptation of Hard Times is constructed more like a novel than a play, with a hoard of characters and transitions between scenes bridged by straight narrative.  The story largely concerns the conflict between “masters and servants”, as the most touching character, the industrial weaver Stephen Blackpool puts it, between haves and have-nots.  The characters are vivid and often amusing, but each of them also represents, rather simplistically, a social archetype and/or an idea circulating in the middle of the 19th Century including early feminism, early environmentalism, the early labor movement and issues of social justice (Dickens wrote Hard Times in 1854).

Josiah Bounderby is the chief “have” of a fictional, environmentally degraded Coketown, a banker and a manufacturer.  His wife, Louisa, pressed into marriage with the rich man, has sentiments that cross the great divide, though with little effect.  Her father, Gradgrind, represents the dangers of rationalized Utilitarianism:  he’s a schoolteacher who, with the best rationalizing intentions, represses creativity and joy in his students as well as in his daughter and his feckless son .  Grandgrind’s spiritual antagonist is Leary, who runs a circus and serves the play as on apostle of joy.  Grandgrind, though, is one of the most interesting characters in the play in that by the end he changes.  Most of the others just run down.

There are glimpses throughout of a great novelist’s language, humor, and brilliant and compassionate mind at work, and the six actors who share the more than twenty roles among them bring each of his characters to life with wit, energy and understanding — in terms of the performances, the production is a remarkable achievement.  But in spite of their talented efforts, this adaptation doesn’t locate the core of a play in Dickens’ novel or illuminate or enlarge it.

*I’ve since learned that Dickens collaborated on two plays with Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep and No Thoroughfare.

Hard Times plays at New York’s City Center Stage 11 February 5th through 28th.


Review | Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

… not all ‘classics’ are classic …

J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World is an overrated classic. It’s a well constructed play hinging on a preposterous idea: that an entire isolated Irish village, particularly the women, would become totally infatuated with a young man who appears suddenly among them because, according to him, he killed his father in an act of rage. It doesn’t hold water.

No wonder the Irish were enraged when it first played at the Abbey Theatre in 1907: this characterization of the Irish villagers, by the well born and highly educated Irish playwright, is early modern primitivizing — Gauguin in the South Seas — with the remote villagers the “natives,” whom Synge depicts as gullible and violent as if that adds up to some kind of naive purity. It was the literary avant garde, not the Irish populace whose spirit Synge claimed to celebrate, that nudged Playboy into the modern canon. No wonder it doesn’t hold up well today, even when given an earnest and competent production by Pearl Theatre.

The down and out young man who arrives in town, Christy Mahon, embellishes his tale of patricide as he sees the enchantment it casts on his listeners, particularly Pegeen Mike, the pub owner’s daughter whom he plans to marry, with all the promise of security and prosperity that good match holds for him. Things fall into place so well for him that Christy only wishes he’d “killed his father sooner.” Augmenting his larger-than-life image in the village, he also begins to win horse races, though these take place off-stage and are puzzling rather than convincing for the audience. But the villagers go gaga.

Ultimately Christy has his great comedown. It turns out he’s no dashing superman but a wimp, dominated by a very large and brutal father who appears in town quite alive, much to everyone’s amazement, with only a bloody head wound from Christy’s blow. To salvage his reputation Christy tries to kill him a few more times but the father just won’t go down, heightening Christy’s humiliation. Unable to kill him, Christy finally leaves town with him, having reached a degree of father-son understanding. Since this is a “well made play,” Pegeen Mike changes, too: after having turned on him in a particularly horrible way, she loses him totally, emerging with a deeper though now hopeless love.

Sean McNall as Christy, who recently gave a memorable performance as the sensitive, indecisive narrator in Tennessee William’s Vieux Carre, isn’t convincing as Playboy’s swashbuckling liar. Lee Stark is the charming and feisty pub owner’s daughter who falls in love with Christy; and the open flirtatiousness of all the girls is an interesting counterpoint to the mature sexuality of Widow Quin, played by Rachel Botcham. All the actors do a good job of capturing Synge’s Irish language but in the rough and tumble of the play, a lot of words are missed. In general, the play is at its best when the ordinary moments of living are taking place, not in the moments of excess.

The Pearl Theatre has just moved from a proscenium theater to this one with seats on three sides but Playboy was staged to the center as if still in the old theater. I imagine as they warm up to it they’ll do more with the exciting possibilities of the audience surrounding the playing area.

The Playboy of the Western World plays at New York City Center, Theater II, through November 22.

Review | Twelfth Night (or What You Will) by William Shakespeare | Directed by J. R. Sullivan | Pearl Theatre Company

…. Let’s Hear it for Malvolio …

If you are collecting “life Shakespeare plays” the way birdwatchers collect “life birds,” here’s a chance to add Twelfth Night.  The stage is large in comparison with the audience space — not a bad seat in the house — and the actors all have good diction so you’ll catch every word, though perhaps not the fullness of the poetry.

Twelfth Night is a problematic play, in spite of its reputation as a favorite among Shakespeare’s comedies.  For one thing, it’s a mean play:  much of the comedy is based on a cruel hoax perpetrated on a servant, Malvolio, who, though admittedly dour and pompous, doesn’t deserve what he gets.  The injustice is righted only at the very end after the characters and the audience have had plenty of laughs at his expense.  Shakespeare must have known Malvolio had to be intensely interesting — he’s one of the unforgettable characters — and that Malvolio’s subplot had to gross a lot of laughs because the main plot isn’t enough to keep a full play going.

In this comedy of mistaken identities circling around a brother and sister separated by a shipwreck, the sister, Viola, being in the employ of Orsino, cross-dresses to woo Olivia on behalf of her master whom she secretly loves.  Repulsing Orsino, and believing that Viola is a boy, Olivia falls in love with her instead.  Eventually the brother thought to be lost shows up and — after an extended period in which the brother and sister share the stage without noticing one another — they realize with joy that all are safe:  Viola easily transfers her passion to Olivia’s newly-arrived look-alike brother, Viola and Orsino are united, and — thank heavens! — some restitution is made to Malvolio, though not enough to make up for what he’s gone through to keep everyone laughing.

Malvolio’s degradation is caused by a letter sent “for fun” to delude him into thinking that Olivia, his mistress (in love with male-appearing Viola) cherishes a passion for him, and that to please his mistress he should don clothing and act in a way that, taking him beyond his temperament and station in life, will render him absurd.  Following the instructions — how not since he believes they come from his mistress’ own hand? — he appears, famously, cross-gartered, in yellow stockings, etc., and altogether ridiculous:  it’s assumed he’s gone mad and he’s thrown into prison.  It’s worth considering that in addition to the fact that the letter really did appear to come from his mistress, we know that she did fall in love with Viola whom she thought to be a servant (as well as male) so the mistress-loves-servant motif is not preposterous, so therefore not preposterous for him to have believed.

When I’ve seen Twelfth Night  in the past, Malvolio’s stylized pomposity in his early scenes seems just itching for a come-down, and his imprisonment is, if anything, slightly underplayed, upstage, making the cruelty of the hoax, while always bothersome, less prominent.  In this production, Malvolio is much more to the fore, partly because Dominic Cuskern is, quite simply, the most profound actor in the cast:  he has perfect comic timing and also the ability to convey intense, complex emotion.  The scene in which Malvolio is in prison, downstage, dirty, disheveled, anguished, bedeviled by the sense of injustice and mocked by the Fool to boot, is grim:  there’s nothing funny about it.  It’s fascinating the way a shift in an actor’s interpretation allows us to hear new meanings in Shakespeare’s words.

Canonically, comedies end in marriage, tragedies in death, and histories in a shift in power.  Twelfth Night  ends in two marriages — a comedy!  But when Malvolio’s wretched story is played forcefully and realistically, it drives home the awareness that Shakespeare’s plays defy neat categorical outlines.

Twelfth Night plays at the Pearl Theatre in New York City’s East Village through February 22, 2009

Next: Telephone by Ariana Reines, The Foundry Theatre

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