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

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Review | Vanity Fair | By Kate Hamill | Adapted from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Novel | Pearl Theatre Company

… all the world’s a vanity fair … 

This is a mind-expanding production of Vanity Fair.  It’s also funny, extravagant and visually fascinating.

The play, like the novel, focuses on a clearly motivated creature of her time, place and situation, Becky Sharp – a poor girl armed with smarts and wiles she’s determined to use to rise to the top in the affluent (sometimes) world of the British aristocracy.  Played by author Kate Hamill, you can’t take your eyes off Becky because her face fluidly – and humorously — reflects her moment to-moment assessment of precisely where her self-interest lies.

The play begins as the Manager (a vibrant and insinuating Zachary Fine) plunges through a red satin curtain and, like a barker at a fair, introduces us to this stylized, mordant satire of society – high and low.  Here it’s British society during the Napoleonic wars but it could be any time any place in “Vanity Fair” – a parable of the world, where innocence is adrift and most people will stoop to anything to get what they want – money, sex and high status – I think in that order.

Becky and her friend Amelia (Joey Parsons) are graduating finishing school where Becky’s been a charity case and thus exploited and badgered by a nasty school mistress — and readily giving it back in spades. Becky, slated to become a governess, a mighty humiliation for a finishing school girl, is invited to stay at Amelia’s fine house where she encounters her first rich man, Amelia’s  absurdly dull brother (Brad Heberlee). In no time she focuses her allure on him, and there’s the first of her seductions which make the play go round!

But oh fortune-hunters:  beware of second sons.  After many goings-on, Becky and her husband – she married Rawdon Crawley (Tom O’Keefe), second son of a family that employed her – are living a fashionable life but on what funds, since Rawdon was disinherited by his rich aunt (Zachary Fine, again), when she learned he married Becky. The couple is living the high life — on credit.  As the bills pile up, Becky’s solution is a liaison — “unconsummated” — with a rich marquis but her plan backfires. Rawdon, believing her unfaithful and unwilling to get him out of debtor’s prison, leaves her, and so begins her downward fall into degradation.  She redeems herself in a way, and that involves the parallel story of the good girl, Amelia, her losses, and her gains.

Thackeray framed the novel as a puppet play, a device that the playwright, like the novelist, exploits for its all-the-world’s-a-stage philosophical impact.  Becky is a complex character of mixed motives and a subtle mind.  The rest are exaggerated types, the domineering aristocratic father-of-the-family, the disappointing sad-sack son, the nasty rich aunt, the lecherous marquis, and so on.

The pace is hectic and parts are played broadly – recalling Thackeray’s conceit of the puppet show.  A lot’s always going on: the first act is somewhat disjointed and the second act has clearer dramatic force.  The actors play their type roles true-to-form, driving home with humor the ritual-like inevitabilities of the lust for wealth, sex and status.  Debargo Sanyal, playing several roles as most of the actors do, wittily works his jaw as if its attached to his face with a wooden hinge, exactly like a puppet!  It’s quite a feat, and heightens the stylistic strength of the production.

Miss Hamill has discovered the Berthold Brecht in Thackeray — in Vanity Fair’s frank display of social inequity, individual self-interest, hypocrisy, degradation and stubborn belief in innocence, colored by hyper-theatricality and ironic sense of inevitability.

Vanity Fair, directed by Eric Tucker, plays at the Pearl Theatre Co. on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through May 27, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Don Juan by Moliere | Adapted by Jess Burkle | Pearl Theatre Company

Relax, Moliere doesn’t need help – not this help anyhow

Is it possible for Don Juan to be dull?  Unfunny?   Unsexy?

The answer is yes.  Oh shucks.  Jess Burkle’s tedious adaptation relies on the audience identifying with contemporary lingo and clichés, rather than on new wit.

This whole production, in fact, seems driven by the fear that Moliere will bore the audience, even in an adaptation that stands on its head be contemporary.  The director, Hal Brooks, has the characters talking at top speed almost as in set speeches —  not communicating and interacting with one another.  What’s lost in the rush are Moliere’s rich characterizations and dramatic tension – and that does lead to boredom.

The talented cast does all it can within the given framework.  In a promising entrance, Justin Adams as Juan bursts on the scene in gleaming white and tight pants, like a rock star. But for all of his frenetic energy, we never sense his lasciviousness – he just doesn’t get enough time.  What a paradox — this is the most sexless production of any Don Juan I’ve seen.

The bright spot is a “patter” monolog with a catchy flow of Freudian stream of consciousness in contemporary idiom, heroically delivered at break-neck speed by Brad Heberlee in the role of Don Juan’s servant, Sganarelle. This tour-de-force performance is exciting while it lasts, but it’s isolated and takes the play nowhere.

Moliere productions often come with contemporary interpolations while holding steady to the play, as in The Pearl’s own delightful production of The Misanthrope.  A truly great adaptation of Moliere is David Ives’ The School for Lies, at Classic Stage, an adaptation of The Misanthrope saturated with contemporary sensibility, and one of the wittiest, funniest shows I’ve ever seen (I loved it so much I went twice for the sheer pleasure of it!)

Which just shows you, it can be done.

Don Juan plays at the Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through  June 7, 2015 .

Review | Major Barbara | Written by Bernard Shaw in 1905 | Directed by David Staller | Gingold Theatrical Group / Pearl Theatre Company

 … which side was it you said you’re on? …

The audience — myself included — stood and applauded with pleasure at the end of Major Barbara, but the applause was more for the laughter and sheer theatrical delight that came earlier in the play than for the confusing ending.  First, toward the end, you think you’re missing something and then you realize it’s not quite making sense.  No fault of the performers who were perfect throughout, but Shaw just did not fully resolve this play.  But he gives you much to enjoy and think about.

Barbara Undershaft is an idealistic major in the Salvation Army, committed to saving souls while, on the other hand,  her rich, estranged father, Andrew Undershaft is the world’s largest manufacturer of weapons for real armies to kill people — bigger than the government, he is the government.  Mrs. Undershaft, his wife with whom he’s totally out of touch, is concerned that their two now grown two daughters are about to marry poor men and, since her son’s useless for making money, she invites the great weapons maker over to solicit appropriate fatherly involvement — money.

Andrew Undershaft hasn’t seen his children for so long he can’t tell which is which but he takes a liking to the feisty, idealistic Barbara.  Salvation Army Major that she is, she determines to save his soul.  They strike a deal:  he’ll visit her Salvation Army shelter and in return she’ll visit his munitions establishment.  She’ll convert him, she thinks.  Only that’s not what happens.

Next day he visits and she learns through the events of the day that, even in the lofty enterprise of feeding the hungry while saving their souls, money talks.  In fact, with the shelter faced with the possibility of closing down for lack of resources, it’s  essential, even if the donors are manufacturers of the hard liquor that keeps the down-and-outers at the shelter drunk, or of weapons.  Her Salvation Army fellow workers go with the flow, glad to be able to continue their work of doing good wherever the money comes from.  Barbara’s moral compass, however, doesn’t include compromise of any kind.  She is disillusioned.  She faces despair.

What’s funny about that?

How can the playwright continue the play which has the tenor of a comedy when he has his heroine lose all that means most to her?

At this point, Shaw pulls Barbara, his strong main character, out of the main action.  She merely goes along on the promised family excursion to the weapons factory which, improbably, turns out to be an idyllic workers’ socialist paradise, though one at risk of exploding.

Here, since  Barbara’s abdicated, her intelligent but poor Greek scholar fiancé, Adolphus, takes on the job of arguing with  — to the extent there’s any disagreement — Andrew Undershaft, as Barbara had done earlier:  With specious rationales on all sides, Adolphus is readily persuaded to the point of view of his wealthy father-in-law to be.  For those who share Adolphus’ knowledge of  Greek literature,  it’s as if Antigone stepped away from arguing with Creon and left it up to Ismene.  Why does Shaw let the weapons maker off the hook so easily?   The upshot of the argument is that Adolphus is co-opted, and what looks like cynicism hastily and fuzzily becomes “realism.”  What was that?  How did that happen?  I wasn’t the only person in the audience trying to figure it out.  As Barbara is left to stare wordlessly into space, I wondered if her disillusionment is too tragic for Shaw’s comedy.

The character of Barbara, at the heart of the play, is iconic: she’s strong, willful, intelligent, but with an ideological rigidity that runs smack into reality and lost illusions — and Hannah Cabell captures the determination, vulnerability and charm of the lovely young woman.

Dan Daily plays the weapons manufacturer like a robust, twinkling Santa Claus, as Shaw perversely wrote him — the man who solves problems, brings happiness and makes wishes come true.  Huh?  That’s right, this is not the devious and culpable weapons manufacturer of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

The cast is all-over excellent and Shaw’s clever turns and wit sparkle.  The glossy, black set is dazzling:  it doesn’t suggest the venues where the episodes take place — The library of the Undershaft’s home, the Salvation Army shelter, or among the high-explosive sheds of Undershaft’s weapons arsenal — but its stunning irrelevance is in harmony with the absurd humor of improbable events with which Shaw digs himself out of his playwright’s dilemma.

Major Barbara plays at The Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 14, 2014.

Review | And Away We Go by Terrence McNally | Directed by Jack Cummings III | World Premier | Pearl Theatre Company

… all the stage’s a world …

The back stage magic of And Away We Go makes me think of the wonderful song about a dogged and devoted itinerant theater group in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, “We Open In Venice” (“then on to Cremona …. and on to …. and on …”).  And Away We Go, too, is on the move — with the feel of a story about an equally valiant itinerant theater troupe only here the wanderings take them not just through Northern Italy but through time, back and forth.  This  imaginative, mind stretching extravaganza is beautifully pulled off by the Pearl Theatre group.

The play takes us behind the scenes from the Theater of Dionysos (not Dionysios as printed) in Ancient Athens to today, with stops at works-in-progress at the Globe in London and Versailles’s Royal Theater, and first productions of Chekhov and Beckett.  As we weave through time, through plays, and through personal as well as public dramas, the leading character is everywhere and anywhere the theater itself and the chancy, chaotic, demanding and disciplined process that makes plays happen.

An aspect that makes And Away We Go particularly strong is McNally’s inclusive vision of all who make “theater.”  Actors, directors, authors, mask makers, tech people, angels, artistic directors, food deliverers and audiences have roles.  No in-group snobbery here — fun is made of wannabe-a-part-of-it donors, and of everybody else — great fun, thanks to marvelous comic performers in the Pearl Theatre’s troupe!

There’s a total human inflection — theater as family, theater as loss of loved ones, theater as a tension between “advanced” plays and audiences who haven’t gotten there yet.

I wish that in roving through theater from antiquity, and from Russia to Coral Gables, Florida, McNally had included forays into the great theater traditions world wide.  I suppose “you can’t do everything,” but, in the spirit of what works and what doesn’t, the focus on the traditions you’d find in “A History of Western Theater” course came across as narrow.  I also found the AIDS episode seemed a somewhat forced inclusion.

In keeping with the joyous boisterous play, the set’s a riotous wonder of costumes, lights, manikins, and props — it’s a wonderful work of art in itself — and the costumes are entrancing.

At the start, each actor introduces himself or herself with personal and self-invented words — thus the theme that the great illusions are based on real people with specific lives and contexts is sounded — and never forgotten.  Since the play is a continuing flow of segues, it demands perfect timing, remarkable versatility on the part of the actors and comic and dramatic gifts.  Jack Cummings III firm hand on this non-linear romp through time and space is a directorial tour-de-force .

Micah Stock as the delivery man who doesn’t “get” Godot provides one among many comic high points.  Donna Lynn Champlin’s huge round eyes are hilariously expressive, whether she’s pushing a mop as a stolid Russian cleaning lady or catching up as a donor groupie in-love-with-theater.  Dominic Cuskern ranges with power and humor from a perfectionist mask maker in ancient Athens to perfectionist actor at Louise XIV’s Versailles — ever since I saw him as Malvolio in the Pearl’s Twelfth Night, I’ve thought of him as particularly outstanding in roles of men who take themselves too seriously.

Rachel Botcham is vibrant (as well as humorous — just about everything comes with a strong dose of humor) as the woman who wants to act on stage — in epochs when the idea of a female actor was an absurdity.  Carol Schultz is touching and instantly persuasive as, for instance, the Russian Countess who doesn’t want her association with a theater group known.  Sean McNall is energetic and touching in his roles as actor and actor’s lover.  These are just snippets — this play’s a feast!

The breadth of imagination of And Away We Go is invigorating.  This ambitious, perfectly fulfilled production is a fine evening of that challenging, joyous and essential aspect of existence — theater.

And Away We Go plays at the Pearl Theatre on Manhattan’s west side through December 15, 2013. Now extended through December 21, 2013.

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 | Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare | Directed by Davis McCallum | Pearl Theatre Company

If you’ve never seen Henry IV Part 1, the Pearl’s production will bring you close to it and if you’ve seen it before you’ll love it all over again.

This last assumes you’ve loved it in the past which is probable because it’s one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays, for good reasons.  Among them, it’s hilarious.  Falstaff is so vivid and original a character, so complex and real, that it’s hard to believe he’s a creative invention;  and, in the character of Prince Hal, the play deals with issues of fundamental fascination and importance for all of us, growth to maturity.

The play moves between the broad canvas of politics and war–a Scottish rebellion against King Henry IV–to the intimate–father and son, husband and wife, and that unforgettable friendship that doesn’t quite fall into any one category between Hal and Falstaff.

What makes this so delightful a production of Henry IV Part I  is Dan Daily as Falstaff.  He’s superb—big bellied, of course, taller than anybody else around, with the vitality, wit joie de vivre and touch of sultry wickedness one wants in the character.  He’s an epicurean, with the allure and paradoxes that idea contains.  It’s fascinating to see this large man–and I mean really large–completely light on his feet, leaping on a table, doing a jig.  One sees and feels Falstaff’s thoughts–calculating or willful, assertive or accepting of a reversal–for a compelling cognitive instant before he speaks.

The question of Prince Hal’s maturity makes one pause, though.  What does it really mean in this particular play?  We meet Hal as a a wayward libertine under Falstaff’s spell, but that changes when his royal father is faced with imminent war.  Then Hal buckles down, putting his easy pleasures aside to support his father’s cause and become a fighter.  One could call this “taking on responsibility.”  Or one can question human purposes, and the meaning of responsibility.

Bradford Cover as King Henry IV conveys the tension in this powerful personality aswarm with conflicts:  his threatened yet adamant royal authority, and his disappointment with his pleasure loving son melded with underlying love.  Shawn Fagan captures the eruptive and wry personality of Hotspur, though the character could use more physical heft.  John Brummer is less original as the libertine and then chastened Prince Hal.  He isn’t Daily’s match, which limits the rapport between Hal and Falstaff.  As the Scottish rebel Douglas, Sean McNall gets the prize for the most authentic and charming Scottish accent.

Though not usually my favorites, the battle scenes in this production are a high point, staged with passionate and convincing one-on-one duels, metal on metal.  They’ve been  exhaustively rehearsed to the point of total actors’ ease, so the fights seem completely spontaneous.

Above all, though, this Henry IV Part 1  is about Dan Daily’s Falstaff, which I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed.  I sure did.

Henry IV Part 1  plays at the Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 17th.

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 | The Philanderer by Bernard Shaw | Directed by Gus Kaikkonen | Pearl Theatre Company

… pre-vintage Shaw …  

Shaw’s early play, The Philanderer of 1893, is a romantic comedy that’s as focused on the ideas of Henrik Ibsen as it is on love, and with good reason:  for Shaw ideas and love were equally suffused with eros.

Shaw saw Ibsen’s A Doll’s House five times around 1893 and this iconic drama was revelatory, bringing him to the possibility of a theater of ideas.  And, with his comic bent, and awareness of the pitfalls of stern moralizing, Shaw sought a humorous way to explore Ibsen’s theme of the independent woman.  This led him in The Philanderer to comic exaggerations which today to me seem dated, though when the play was first produced, they may have seemed fresh and provocative.  As a gauge of that, the Pearl’s program tells us that  “…due to strict censorship … it was not performed on the stage until 1902.”

In a romantic triangle (like one Shaw experienced), Grace Tranfield, a down-to-earth widow and Julia Craven, volatile and erotically assertive, both love Leonard Charteris, an attractive curmudgeon, who’s just broken off from the over-possessive Julia and is now courting Grace.  During some romancing at Grace’s house, Julia bursts in, claiming Leonard really belongs to her.  Shaw, alluding to Ibsen’s “advanced” ideas about independent women, has fun with the jealous Julia – how can a woman who calls herself independent speak of one person “belonging” to another?

Julia keeps up her boisterous scene even when Grace’s proper father, Colonel Craven, arrives, along with his long lost friend who happens to be Julia’s father.  How fascinating that Shaw describes a similar romantic rivalry and late night scene in his diary in early 1893! An exhausted Leonard (just like a “horribly tired and shocked and upset” Shaw) finally gets Julia out of there with a romantic lie, sober Grace having long ago retreated upstairs.

The play continues at to the “Ibsen Club”, where a stern portrait of Ibsen dominates the Library, and where Ibsen’s ideas about independent women are carried to the point of caricature.  Women are allowed in this London club, an innovation, but to be members they must be “unwomanly women.”  Julia’s younger sister, Sylvia, fills the bill in a pants role.  But how Julia can manage to stay in the Club, in spite of her “womanly” amorousness and sexy clothes, is the set-up for some humor.

The conflict between Julia and Grace over Leonard (because it’s wearing thin it seems to me) is joined by stuffy Dr. Percy Paramore’s unrequited love for Julia, who despairs even more when the news comes in that his gruesome scientific experiments are proven to be useless (anticipating Shaw’s later The Doctor’s Dilemma).  As in Moliere’s The Misanthrope , which the sexual dynamics in The Philanderer much resemble, the undercurrent of true sexual attraction between the flirt and the curmudgeon, here Leonard and Julia, retains its ambiguity and the romance is left unresolved.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see The Philanderer and I appreciate the The Pearl for putting in on.  The production is straightforward and so adequate for introducing one to the play, but it’s uninspired.  Of the central threesome, Bradford Cover is strong and charming as the rumpled Leonard.  Karron Graves plays the amorously determined Julia with the vivacity the part calls for though, at the heights of emotion, her voice gives way to a kind of shrieking in her all out performance .  Rachel Botchan could have used some of Graves’ energy — a fine performer in other roles I’ve seen, she played Grace with a dull placidity that makes one wonder what Leonard could possibly see in her.

The Pearl used to be in a proscenium theater but now plays in a theater with seating on three sides, yet continues to stage plays fully to the front as in the old theater:  more flexibility and variety of movement would be interesting, and give better site lines to those seated on the side.

The Philanderer holds fewer streaks of the Shavian wit than one hopes for.  But the fact is, when he does construct one of those marvelous, sly build-ups that land you with pleasurable jolt at a great line, and you find yourself laughing heartily, then the play, Shaw, and everything else, for the moment, seem intensely worthwhile.

The Philanderer  plays at NYC’s City Center Theater in mid-town Manhattan through February 19, 2012.

Comparison Review | The Wooster Group’s Version of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte vs Pearl Theatre’s Vieux Carre

… two great productions … (lucky playwright!)

In the Wooster Group’s visceral production of Williams’ Vieux Carre, a writer/narrator allows his memory to transport him to the past, and to a run-down boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1930’s.  Why this place at this time?  Because it’s the site of his coming of age recognition of his homosexual nature.  But he’s not alone here:  the place is crowded with other tenants who, in their different ways, take part in the drama of his self-recognition.  His memory brings to life their passions and agonies as well as his own.  There are two proud, old southern ladies who scavenge garbage pails to stay alive, the “rapacious”, tubercular old artist coughing into his handkerchief, the young woman from the north whose particular pain we learn of late in the play, her stud man, the landlady, the maid, and the young drifter who becomes the writer’s ticket to a free life.

This profound presentation of Williams’ play breaks the bounds of conventional theater as the Wooster Group regularly does, which here means letting us experience directly inner life, uncovering the compellingly hard-to-take.  The messy business of existence passes across this cluttered stage, the complexity heightened by voices heard with and without microphone, direct and recorded, and the visual variety of projected still and moving, whole and fractured, images.  Isn’t that how we experience existence?  Never have the Wooster Group’s technically fed disjunctions been more powerful.  Still, this fractured, gutsy experience of existence is only one part of the story.  We also try to give it all a shape.

In 2009 the Pearl Theatre presented an excellent production of Vieux Carre — so good it almost seemed definitive, as in what more, or what else could one find in it? (for description and review click here).  Now we have this fine production by the Wooster Group.  What’s the difference?  The Wooster Group’s production strips away surface to get at truth, revealing messy, anarchic, bloody, disordered insides, both physical and psychological.  It’s an analog of experience itself.  Calmer and less in-your-face, the production by the Pearl Theatre was a meditation on experience:  it took you on a journey of deepening understanding and, at the end, brought you back to the surface of a still intact existence.  By the end of the Wooster Group’s performance, existence is still pretty ripped up (and the stage is a total mess!).

There was nothing “safe” in the sense of timid or equivocating about the Pearl Theatre’s production:  it was strong and true to Williams.  Both productions, for example, stage the astonishing scene in which the sick, old, ugly artist seduces the beautiful young writer, while disgustingly coughing blood into his tired handkerchief.  But the handkerchief is bloodier — and grown to banner-size — as the Wooster Group plays it.  In the Pearl’s play, sickness and death compete on equal terms with elegiac allure.  There’s even a softening touch of romance.  As the Wooster Group does it, lust and death are equally gross, and forget about romance.  The Pearl’s seducer was normal looking for a sick old man, so one could sense in him something of the beautiful, hope filled young man he’d once been.  The Wooster Group’s old man wears a priapic false phallus like a satyr in an ancient comedy;  the scene is played so repulsively people laugh.

The Wooster Group assigns its actors multiple rolls, obviously and purposefully to short circuit any tendency towards sentimental attachment for the characters.  The great Kate Valk, for instance, a central performer in all Wooster Group productions, plays the tough landlady and the frail, high class girl from the north (though with too much of a southern accent a la Blanche Dubois, I thought).  In the slow unfolding of the Pearl Theatre’s Vieux Carre, the audience had the benefits of consistency of presentation, and of evolving time that nourish involvement and empathy with the characters.

The unflinching approach of the Wooster Group brings you face to face with deconstructed truth.  Pearl’s swung well into brutal reality but left you with an intact vision.  That’s a truth, too, because it’s what, in fact, we do with raw violence of experience.

The Wooster Group’s Vieux Carre plays at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in NYC through March 13.

Review | The Misanthrope by Molière | Translated into English Verse by Richard Wilbur | Directed by Joseph Hanreddy | Pearl Theatre Company

Click to read about The School for Lies, from Moliere’s The Misanthrope currently playing at Classic Stage –and it’s great!

… opposites attract …

There’s a magic to Moliere’s The Misanthrope and here’s what it is.  It’s a play in which just about nothing happens … and yet you leave it with a big smile and the sense that you’ve seen something delightful. What is it? The
language! It’s witty and charming: it makes you feel like you’ve been at a party with vivacious, intelligent guests.

The “story” is no more than a situation – and more amazing, at the end it’s not even resolved. We’re in Paris among nobles in the 17th Century during the reign of Louis XIV (not Louis XVI as per program notes) — Moliere’s stomping ground. Celimene and Alceste, with apparently totally incompatible personalities, are drawn to one another in love. Celimene is a wealthy, beautiful, spirited young woman, who loves engaging with people, and is courted by several men. She loves misanthropic Alceste, who’s brooding, super-smart, disdainful of the mass of humanity, and obsessed with the hypocrisy and injustice he sees all around him. She’s happy in the full action of the social scene and he wants to get away from it all to a desert isle —  and yet they love. They spar verbally – like Kate and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew but with different personality sets. It’s fun to watch and hear them at it.

To the benefit of his comedy, Moliere mixes real and fully rounded characters in this play, Alceste, Celimene, and Philinte, the reasonable friend who attempts to moderate Alceste’s romantic extremism, with
bewigged and rouged caricatures of courtly noblemen: Clitandre, a super-elegant, rich fop, Oronte, a posturing poet whose banal love sonnets to Celimene Alceste refuses to praise in the name of honesty – or is it that he can’t bear rivals to Celimene’s hand? Their obtuse pretentions are
perfect foils for Alceste’s sardonic gloom – and yield tons of laughs!

The men are better cast in this play than the women (although Pearl has some outstanding women among its Resident Acting Company). Sean McNall is a suitably astringent Alceste, risking free-wheeling playfulness without breaking character. Philinte makes the sober, balancing friend fascinating: I especially appreciated the easy way he paces the rhythms and hits the exciting and lovable rhymes of Richard Wilbur’s wonderful translation. Kern McFadden as Oronte does a simply perfect piece as the sonneteer, and Patrick Halley makes an amusingly languid Clitandre. Janie Brookshire, while bouncy as the energetic Celimene, doesn’t have the stage presence or diction to carry off this central character, and there’s zero magnetism between this prickly Celimene and Alceste.  I’ll bet in 1666 when the show first opened with Moliere playing Alceste and his wife Celimene, there was more chemistry!

The costumes are of the period but the set — beyond abstract — is so minimalist the actors are hard-pressed for a place to sit down. Dear Pearl Theatre, now that you’re in your new theater with audience seating on three sides of the stage, it’s time to shed the proscenium staging left-over from your former theater downtown.

The Pearl has given us a fine opportunity to see an engaging play by the great classic playwright.  If you love language, vitality and high spirits, you’ll have a good time at The Misanthrope.

The Misanthrope plays at New York City Center Stage II in midtown Manhattan through February 20th.

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