Monday, May 6, 2019

"Too Heavy For Your Pocket" at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J. through May 19, 2019

Donnell E. Smith as Bowzie.

Although I previously saw this award-winning (2017 Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award) play a year ago in New York, it made a lasting impression on me, one that made me eager to see it again now that it is at the George Street Playhouse. Although the play is well acted and remains worthwhile, the current production left me less than enthused. But more about that later.

As a graduate from the Yale School of Drama, playwright Jireh Breon Holder was inspired by his family history. He has created four closely connected characters caught up in domestic quandaries that involve misplaced passion and misguided loyalties amidst the encroaching socio-political changes of the time. Each is integral and well-defined  within a compelling narrative that is mainly revealed through a young man with a mission.

The action takes place in Nashville, Tennessee during the summer of 1961. This is shortly after segregation was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The play focuses on the relationship of two couples. At its center is Bowzie Brandon (Donnell E. Smith), an intensely motivated young black man intent on leaving his home, his wife and friends and leap into the burgeoning activities of the Freedom Riders.

These are the men and women, both black and white, who braved the backlash of racism by riding on buses through cities that did not welcome integration. Standing up to this resistance, the Freedom Riders were denounced as trouble-makers. They were assaulted by masses of intolerant bigots and also brutalized by the local police. Many are arrested, taken to filthy jails, beaten and staying for months unable to post bail.

The extraordinarily bright Bowzie has barely begun his first semester at Fisk University to which he has won a full tuition scholarship when he is recruited into a group of peaceful activists. His change of plans is not received well by his wife Evelyn (Felicia Boswell) or by their best friends Sally-Mae (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) and her husband Tony (Landon G. Woodson) who has been Bowzie's best friend since childhood.

While the play circles around the domestic anxieties of the pregnant Sally Mae and her philandering husband Tony, it is Evelyn's fear that Bowzie's commitment to the movement has replaced his concerns and devotion to her. Director LA Williams has certainly filled that circle with fine actors who do everything they can to inhabit their complex, warmly conceived characters.

There is also no lack in the play itself of a good mix of the comedic and the explosive. What becomes troublesome is the similarity of dramatic tone and resonance in their collective characterizations...not easy to explain as is why the play’s staging lacks imagination while its pace appears more plodding than penetrating.

Although the action occurs primarily in and around the kitchen setting it allows for other locations. More of a distraction rather than creating a feeling of home and kinship, the set, that includes a strangely impressionistic evocation of a roof, looks more makeshift than we are accustomed to seeing at George Street. It has been a long time since I felt that a set actually worked against the efforts of actors to inhabit a place. 

One gets the impression that this is a much better play than we are seeing. At its core, however, we do see how the Civil Rights Movement directly and indirectly enables four people to see their own personal light through sacrifice or self-determination or both.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"The Plough and the Stars" at the Irish Repertory Theatre through June 22, 2019

Maryann Plunkett as Juno, Sarah Street as Mary, and Ed Malone as Johnny in Irish Rep's production of Juno and the Paycock.

Maryann Plunkett, Sarah Street and Ed Malone   Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

It would be very easy to be under the delusion that I was not, in fact, at the Irish Repertory Theater in NYC but rather at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre so resonant is the forthright Irish-ness of their terrific production of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars.” What an audience can expect is that this grandly lyrical almost epic drama is vibrantly alive with characters mainly damaged by the disabling events of the times. The eminent dramatist had a patriotic zeal and a hearty political conscience that reflected his own passionate involvement. That O’Casey set his play during the inflammatory Easter Rebellion of 1916 can only be lauded. He notably fused his heartfelt drama with the cause of Irish Republicans in their attempt to end British rule.

Director Charlotte Moore has graced the first portions of the play with a lively pace but also a respect for a stunning change in pace during the last poignant scenes -- a mad scene as melodramatic as that in an old opera; a disturbing exchange between two British soldiers, and a lengthy death scene -- that Moore and her fine company handle with commendable sensitivity. With that, the play’s perspective remains as constant and uncompromising as do the  “troubles” they depict.

Although complacent audiences may no longer riot, as they did following the 1926 Abbey Theater premier, the seething and anguish that the play provokes says a lot for its contemporary appeal. From my vantage point, I could not detect a nodding head or the rustle of programs during any part of the performance. 

That we are able to feel the eloquence and wit of O’Casey’s prose is no small advantage within the Irish Reps cozy space. Charlie Corcoran’s evocative settings -- four distinct locales revealed on a revolving stage are rather amazing in both design and in their execution. Excellent atmospherics are provided by Michael Gottlieb’s lighting and Ryan Rumery & M. Florian Staab’s effective sound.

The power of “The Plough...” is such that it transcends the nearly St. Vitus-afflicted Maryann Plunkett who all but danced an evening’s jig as the vociferous Bessie Burgess. She was certainly in step with the rampantly Gaelic expressiveness around her. You could also see it most plainly in the head strong performance by Michael Mellamphy the carpenter with the spunk of a troll and the spirit of a leprechaun.

The play is so filled with a blend of artifact and fancy that is makes your own head spin, especially when watching Una Clancy as the ever blabbering Mrs. Gogan rattle her jaw in a seemingly non-stop stream of consciousness. What’s not to enjoy about the heated bickering between James Russell as The Young Covey, the ardent socialist and Robert Langdon Lloyd as the old guard’s Uncle Peter. 

A rowdy pub scene is enlivened by the earthy presence of an amusingly flamboyant Rosie (Sarah Street) the house prostitute. You are sure to feel the tug of emotions and the call of duty between Nora (Clare O’Malley) and Jack (Adam Petherbridge), the ill-fated young lovers. 

This is a play in which feelings run hot and cold for this closely-knit if also contentious group of political people, all of whom are caught up in the ravages of revolution and the vestiges of independence. O’Casey’s characters -- robust, chauvinistic, prideful and insufferable -- offer a realistic but also poetic view of Irish life.

This is the third play in its series by O’Casey produced by the Irish Rep. this year -- “The Shadow of a Gunman,” and “Juno the Paycock” being the others and also excellent.) Harsh and funny, painful and purposeful,  “The Plough and the Stars” is a grand taste of Irish theater at its most boisterous and blistering.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

“All My Sons” Roundabout Theater Co. at the American Airlines Theater. Opened April 22, 2019. Ends June 23, 2019

Tracy Letts and Annette Bening   (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

What irony there is having productions of Arthur Miller’s excellent emotions-extracting drama “All My Sons” emerge with apparent frequency and acclaim after it was decried as a Communist play and a blatant undermining of the American business ethos. It is back again courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company. It remains terrific.

There is no question that the accusations and allegations have proven to be woefully  misguided both  by the passage of time and the more open debate regarding the play’s social and political point of view. Today especially it seems a good time for this probing, skillfully written play to be reassessed for what it really is: one of the more distinguished works in American dramatic literature.
Without overstating the place this drama has within the Miller canon, I believe that this production under the direction of Jack O’Brien continues to insure the play’s status and stature. Critics have pointed out the plot’s contrivances since the play opened in 1947. 

The play, however,  stands firmly and more importantly on the moral and ethical values that Miller’s characters are made to confront. Recognizing and acting upon the necessity to find a strong enough cast able to deliver the play’s many emotional peaks without losing the essential honesty of Miller’s conflicted characters, O’Brien leads the characters through Millers’ logical but terrifying conscience-stretching conflict with a splendid clarity of purpose.

The story centers on how a ruthless and reckless business decision that allowed defective cylinder heads to be delivered to the Army thereby caused the death of 21 pilots and how it affects the lives of two entwined families. Miller dramatized it in a boldly unpretentious style that appears to grow more timeless with each year.
Tracy Letts can add Joe Keller to his list of great performances (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “The Realistic Joneses”) as the manufacturer who has not only committed perjury to avoid a jail sentence but has allowed his innocent business partner to take the rap. 

At first we are ingratiated by his lazily good-humored facade. But that begins to visibly fester as the crippling fraudulence of his act is faced, an act to which his second son fell victim. Joe has not only committed perjury to avoid a jail sentence but has allowed his business partner to take the blame.
Benjamin Walker is more than persuasive as Chris, the older son who has fallen in love with his brother’s fiancĂ© even as he remains loyal and blindly supportive of his father. Watch this fine actor (“American Psycho” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”) as he subtly shifts gears from strength to sensitivity to disillusionment. Francesca Carpanini is winning as the conflicted fiancĂ© who must face the combined anxieties in regard to her jailed father, her love for Chris and the disapproving presence of Mrs. Keller.
Annette Bening may be better known for her acclaimed film roles (“Bugsy” “The American President”) but her commendable stage work reaches a peak as the heartbreaking, frightened, neurotically ascribed Kate Keller who remains a shield to her tortured husband. 

Other fine performances are registered by Hampton Fluker as the enraged son of the scapegoat as well as by Nehal Joshi, Michael Hayen, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Jenny Barber, and the impressive youngster Alexander Bello as the involved neighbors.  Set designer Douglas W. Schmidt stays close enough to absolute realism with his house and backyard setting-- enhanced effectively by video and projections by Jeff Sugg. All the technical credits are first-rate as is this altogether fine production of a first-rate play.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

"King Lear" at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. (through July 7, 2019)

Review: Glenda Jackson battles through a brazenly busy ‘King Lear’ on Broadway

Ruth Wilson and Glenda Jackson  (photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe)

It is to be expected that a seasoned critic would have seen William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” more than once, perhaps in my case quite a few times. That Glenda Jackson is playing the (monumental) role makes it unique for many reasons that should be obvious. But before we go too deeply into the production and the performances that will inevitably invite pros and cons, I want to share a program quote from Bonnie J. Monte, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey who directed an excellent Lear eleven years ago. "It is about a world completely out of balance, awash in chaos, and leaderless." To which I wrote at the time: "It is the right time for the politically and artistically progressive Monte to put her stamp on this classic.”

Apparently it remains the right time in the light of the way things are politically and socially volatile. A modernist but not a revisionist staging is what award-winning director Sam Gold (“A Doll’s House, Part 2” “The Glass Menagerie” “Fun House”) is giving us with this production. That Jayne Houdyshell is playing the Earl of Gloucester completes the untypical casting.

At the performance I saw, a very fine member of the ensemble Therese Barbato making her Broadway debut stepping into the role of Goneril due to the illness of Elizabeth Marvel. 

Did we ever doubt that Jackson would be able to throw her crown as a renowned classical actor into the circle of great Lears? Do we doubt that the 83 year-old Jackson has what it takes to objectify Lear’s madness well enough to make it good theater. No doubt about it. I suspect all who see her portrayal will be led into the abysmal darkness of Lear’s deteriorating mind. Having only recently been thrilled by her award-winning performance in “Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women,” I can now attest to her Lear being as emotionally real as it is realized. Despite her petite size and occasionally raspy voice, she scales the heights. Jackson’s furies, however, are undermined only in the famed storm scene, the setting, lighting and sound are woefully amateurish. .

The action for the most part played within the production’s primary unit setting designed by Miriam Buether. Long formal tables, a back row of black and gold flags and a modest display of regal-looking furnishings dress the set, its walls flecked with gold. Transformations to other locations beyond the palace are easily accomplished. There is a one major and stunning visual change to the same setting that I won’t spoil. The costumes designed by the genius Ann Roth are best described as contemporary modernist chic. Roth’s palette provides for nice bursts of color for the daughters.  

There is no denying that filial ingratitude plays a large part in “King Lear” even as our attention will be mostly on watching Jackson’s every move. However, she is surrounded by an impressive troupe of players and supported by Gold’s keenly focused staging.

This bi-level tragic tale of misjudging a person's character and royal deception is hugely enhanced by a string quartet that plays some gorgeous music composed for the play by Philip Glass. It is used not only for underscoring but to accompany the singing, the impish doings and wise discourse of the Fool, brilliantly acted in Chaplinesque fashion by Ruth Wilson (currently seen in the BBC/PBS TV series “Mrs. Wilson”) who is also splendid as Cordelia, the daughter who has found the key to unlock the uncomplicated affection for her father.

One has to be in awe of the way the play masterfully blends two plot-lines. The themes of old age and the different relationships of each child to his/her parent, in both the main and sub-plots, bring universal timelessness to each new generation of viewers.
Briefly, the story details King Lear's misapprehension of his one daughter's honest devotion causing him to divide his kingdom between the remaining two daughters, who have feigned their love through flattery. 

The resulting web of deception by the wicked daughters to strip their father of all power, and at the same time involve and seduce Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester (who has the similar function in the sub-plot of deceiving his father by denouncing his brother Edgar as a traitor), results in a downward spiral of devastating proportions. The majestic sweep of the poetry is hardly surpassed in all of Shakespeare. Be aware that guns have replaced swords and that they are loud and frequently used.

Despite Lear's unstable mental state and his sheer physical deterioration, Jackson creates an image of him that also expresses Lear's loss of empowerment, more heartbreaking for being “more sinned against than sinning” amid the show of senile foolishness. Lear’s heartbreak reaches its peak with Cordelia’s death in a climactic scene that also tests the many dimensions of reality in this production.

The second daughter, Regan, Aisling O’Sullivan unravels her mischief with despicable conscientiousness. Sean Carvajal as the maligned Edgar, gains our empathy for his plight. Pedro Pascal connives with the best of them as the false brother Edmund and John Douglas Thompson offers a stirring Earl of Kent. Deaf but deft performer Russell Harvard is terrific as Goneril’s duplicitous husband the Duke of Cornwall. The signing and translating throughout is well done.

It is good to report that all the poetry is heard with an understanding of its meter. Not something to be taken for granted. Not to be taken for granted is that any fine actor of a certain age should attempt Lear. Jackson’s has done it admirably.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Juno and the Paycock" at the Irish Repertory Theatre through May 25, 2019

Maryann Plunkett and Ciaran O'Reilly  (photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

What Sean O’Casey’s political tragicomedy “Juno and the Paycock” lacks in plot, it makes up for in characterization. Under Neil Pepe’s splendid direction for the Irish Repertory Theatre, characterization gets its due. Pepe, who is currently the Artistic Director of the Atlantic Theater Company, has made the O’Casey play resound with a riveting ferocity. O’Casey wrote the terrifically subversive play in 1924 eight years after the Easter Uprising of 1916, and only two years after the terrible Civil War. He labeled it rightly “a tragedy.”

That may be true enough, but the bracing lyrical humor of its lowly Irish folk is expressed on such a high and impressively theatrical plane that it serves to empower rather than to defuse their disconsolate lives and the tragedies that befall them.

The story of a chaotic family that misguidedly lives on credit in the false belief they have come into an inheritance is a doozy. The play’s power in how it provides the full flavor of the Irishness that so richly pervades and energizes this production. Enfolded within designer Charlie Corcoran’s stunningly dingy set and enhanced by the dowdy costumes from co-designers Linda Fisher and David Toserand, the major and peripheral players mine the blasts of poetry even in the midst of the play’s abject realism.

Maryann Plunkett’s tough-love-performance as Juno the razor-sharp wife and mother of an impoverished Dublin family is extraordinary in its poignant simplicity. It frames Juno’s passionately Catholic instincts with the stirring sobriety of her pagan goddess namesake. Ciaran O’Reilly is vaingloriously blustery as the ale-bloated blarney-spouting Captain Jack Boyle, the “Paycock” who, citing the questionable pains in his legs as an excuse, refuses to look for work even when it falls into his lap.

As Joxer Daly, the Captain’s drinking partner, John Keating suggests the duplicity of fragile relationships, as he polishes off more than poetic quotations and half-remembered songs. Ed Malone gives a passionate and poignant portrayal of the wounded son Johnny, who suffers from nightmares and hallucinations, but who has more to worry about when his allegiance to the Irish Republican Brotherhood is questioned.

Sarah Street affixes a beautifully plaintive courage to the role of Mary, the family’s main provider and a member of the currently striking union. Spurning her ardent wooer Jerry Devine (Harry Smith),Mary is seduced and abandoned by Charles Bentham (slickly played by James Russell), a school-teacher and lawyer who brings the news of Jack’s inheritance, and without warning leaves town when the windfall falls through.

The play has its melodramatic digressions, such as the extended scene in which the mourning Mrs. Tancred, (wrenchingly played by Una Clancy) details the murder of her activist son to the Boyle family while on the way to his funeral. The somber tone is well times put a  damper on an impromptu songfest in which the Boyles and their obstreperous neighbor Maisie Madigan (a terrific Terry Donnelly) display a little harmonic a capella virtuosity.

But it remains for the virtuosity of O’Casey’s writing to take us from boisterous comedy to dispiriting situations, to tragic results, and yet leave us with a sense of the heroic. This, in the person of Juno, who, unlike her loafer of a husband, sees “the whole world in a state o chassis!” (a corruption of the word chaos) and remains indomitable and a survivor.