Wednesday, November 14, 2018

THEATER: The Irresistible Raul Esparza in "Arturo Ui"

THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI *** out of ****
CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY

I've never seen this Bertolt Brecht play before and it's easy to see why. I can readily imagine it as an earnest, tiresomely obvious lecture on the rise of Adolf Hitler, a production that would scare one off this play and Brecht in general for years to come. This dire warning was essentially ready to be performed in 1941. But American theater companies weren't ready to stage such a provocative show when the US was still officially neutral in World War II. So it sat in a drawer until after Brecht died. Finally in 1958 it made its debut and has proven catnip ever since for lead actors like Christopher Plummer, Simon Callow, Al Pacino, Antony Sher and many others.

Who can resist the idea of playing a two-bit hood from Brooklyn that muscles into the cauliflower trade in Chicago, viciously betraying any friend and crushing any enemy that gets in his way? Not star Raúl Esparza, in an electrifying, satisfying performance that reminds us how good this actor can be. Arturo Ui is intended to be a flashy, larger than life role and you can't go too big when transforming from a punk into a world class dictator.

And yet Esparza never does go big, except when the finale absolutely demands it. He has an intriguing emotional reserve on stage; you feel Esparza is always holding something back, something that remains his own even when he's in the spotlight demanding your attention. That works a charm here since no one ever really knows Arturo Ui, the soulless, pitiless golem that cannot betray anyone since he never pretended anyone else matters. Arturo demands loyalty but he never, ever offers it.


Photo by Joan Marcus (c) 2018

In John Doyle's brisk direction, this brutally funny work embraces the didactic nature of the text with glee. The audience is seated on three sides and the cast is held behind a metal fence, rattling off the introduction that spells out the action soon to take place. They enter the bare stage via a gate that clangs shut like the door of a prison or the perimeter of a concentration camp. In case you miss the point, the real life incidents that served as raw material for Brecht are spelled out year by year, scene by scene, sometimes punctuated with the sound of adoring crowds cheering on the Führer. 

Functional folding tables -- the kind you'll find in any community center -- are constantly being set up or taken down. Actors move into position with military briskness, firing off lines like bullets. And then a table is rotated, two chairs appear and another scene begins with a negotiation or a plea or a plan. Back and forth, again and again, with Arturo just an annoying pest on the margins at the start. Then he proves maybe a little useful and is allowed in the door. And then he's speaking up a little more forcefully and then he has a seat at the table and before you know it he's at the head of the table. The front man he used to garner the support of the public is pushed aside and how the hell did that happen anyway? Is this schmuck in charge? Really?



Photo by Joan Marcus (c) 2018

This is agitprop, not realistic drama and it might prove more medicinal than the bracing tonic we want. Happily, it's fun! The cast delivers their lines with rat-a-tat glee, like the announcer in a Movietone News reel. Arturo Ui has come to Chicago! The cauliflower racket is feeling the pressure! The town of Cicero may be next! The terrific George Abud as a head of the syndicate Arturo wants to take over is especially good at offering up his dialogue with verve and a wicked, desperate gleam in his eyes. But it's not all hijinks and end-of-the-world desperation. As the widow of a man who tried to bend to Arturo (but didn't bend readily enough), Omozé Idehenre offers an essential glimpse into the heartrending toll of this tragedy. That makes her eventual acquiescence, her public embrace of this killer and her oh-so-subtly reluctant applause all the more painful. (She's also wonderful as a cynical official overseeing an investigation with diligence but inevitably sidelined by the syndicate.)

Yes, Brecht has changed Hitler's domination of German politics into the deflating "dream" of conquering the vegetable trade. The invasion of Austria becomes the invasion of Cicero. The Reichstag fire is transformed into a warehouse fire used to intimidate anyone foolish enough to stand up to Arturo's reign. It's silly and mocking -- wonderfully so. Brecht doesn't deflate or diminish what Hitler did; he just gives it a smaller scale so you can begin to grasp the horror of it all. The death of eight million is beyond us; the death of eight might be within our ken. 

                                       
Photo by Joan Marcus (c) 2018
                                          

It's a strong cast, with Abud (The Band's Visit) in particular proving yet again why it's always a good sign to see his name in the credits of a show. Others like Eddie Cooper and Christopher Gurr keep the satire stinging but hold onto a core humanity that makes this more than allegory. When hearts aren't breaking, satire can be pretty toothless. 

The space of the Classic Stage Company has some magic that brings out the best in scenic designers. Here that holds true, mostly, though a upper level set behind the fence is distracting. Stairs lead up to it and one can't help wondering when this space will be used. When it is finally -- and briefly -- employed, the effect hardly seems worth the bother. Doyle's instinct to pare down failed him here, but it's only a minor distraction. Otherwise, the tech elements are a plus, from the costumes of Ann Hould-Ward (casually revealing character) to the lighting of Jane Cox and Teresa James (never attention-grabbing but always focusing our attention where it needs to be) to the sound design of Matt Stine (flashier than sound design usually proves, but necessarily so in this context).

Doyle uses every inch of the space, fluidly so, and it all climaxes for me at the end of act one. Arturo knows he must speak in public and command more respect, so he turns to a classically trained actor for pointers. She coaches him in how to walk, how to stand, how to sit and above all how to speak. Esperza has some fun holding his hands over his crotch the way she suggests, but for the rest of the play these mannerisms become more and more natural in nicely timed stages. Act one ends with him reciting the famous Marc Antony speech from Julius Caesar as practice and Esparza transforms from a simple man of Brooklyn into a more and more commanding speaker until you're simultaneously magnetized and horrified. At the end of the scene, he's sitting in a chair with casual authority, spotlit and glowering -- not like a two-bit Mussolini, but like Il Duce himself.

That's it, I thought. I think I've just experienced everything this play has to offer. Indeed, act two was in many ways just more of the same: it takes the message of act one and underlines it and then adds a few exclamation points for good measure, nothing more.

But Doyle allows it to slow down and even slip back a bit in pacing, so we see again Arturo overwhelm the opposition, such as it is. Yes, we'd already seen this but it felt fresh or at least like a new stage in his malignant growth. I still believe everything was there in one act; Brecht's work was done. Yet act two had its own pull, with Idenhenre getting her chance to shine emotionally. At the very end, Esparza goes full Adolph during a final ranting speech. While I preferred the silent menace of his glowering visage of the end of act one, it was shiver-inducing.

Recent productions have reportedly underlined comparisons to President Trump and the rise of fascism around the world. I'd call Brecht prescient except one can always safely predict ugliness and hate will appear in hard times and need to be confronted. The play concludes by saying yes, this villain Hitler was faced down by the world. Just don't take too much comfort in that. As Brecht promises in delphic fashion at the very end, "The bitch that bore him is in heat again."

In a final modest misstep, the audio mix crescendoes with cries of "Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!" and then segues to "Lock her up! Lock her up!" No need for that, people; Brecht was blunt enough. We got the message loud and clear.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **
Mother Of The Maid *
Love's Labour's Lost ** 1/2
The Lifespan of a Fact **
India Pale Ale *
Thunderbodies ***
The Ferryman *** 1/2
American Son * 1/2
The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui ***

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Friday, November 09, 2018

THEATER: A Musical "King Kong?" Bananas! "American Son" Bores

KING KONG * out of ****
BROADWAY THEATRE 

Yes, they did a great job with the giant ape.

No, the spectacle of King Kong the technical achievement does not make the show worth a peek. Sure, maybe you were happy to sit through Titanic to watch the boat sink or endured the absurd story of Avatar to savor the cutting edge 3-D effects. But much as I love puppetry, that spectacle for its own sake argument does not hold true here.

And no, kids would be bored out of their minds.

Unless you or someone you love is really, really nuts about puppetry (which I am) or is so into Kong they can happily discuss the 1976 version as compared to the 2005 version or wax eloquent over King Kong Vs. Godzilla, then...no. I mean, if they're even aware of the Rankin/Bass TV series The King Kong Show (three seasons!) and the sequel to the classic original that came out literally MONTHS later way back in 1933 (The Son Of Kong), well, then they already have their tickets and didn't wait and can properly lower their expectations.

Other than that...no.

Now back to the good news. They really did a terrific, ground-breaking job with the character of King Kong, a combination of on-stage puppeteers, remote controlled manipulators and backstage actors voicing the creatures grunts and bellows. As with The Lion King, you soon ignore the artists making it happen (except when it's really fun to do so) and just watch the character. It's no diss on the other actors to say Kong gives the best performance of the show -- you feel actual empathy for the creature and every all-too-brief moment when he is center stage and interacting with others finds the audience pin-drop quiet and engaged. Let me emphasize again, it's not so magical that this makes a trip to King Kong worth the visit, but it's a genuine achievement nonetheless.

Of such things are special Tony Awards created and Kong would be a worthy recipient. Plus, who would want to tell Kong he LOST an award? Best to make it a sure thing and announce the award far in advance. Beyond that, it would be wise for the highly competitive theme park impresarios to check this out. Their theme parks often employ giant mechanized creatures and the approach taken here probably isn't any cheaper but it sure as heck is far more satisfying creatively and emotionally. The Kong of theme parks is just a stunt; this Kong lets you MEET the beast and sense his emotions, his intelligence, his fearsomeness. If there's one electric moment in King Kong, it's the scene where Kong has broken free of his chains on Broadway and then lumbers out to the edge of the stage, finally acknowledging us the audience and looming over the front rows, eying the orchestra seat members like a tasty snack. A ripple of amused tension spreads throughout the crowd as Kong breaks the fourth wall. I doubt there's anything as convincing in any theme park anywhere.




The tortured history of this punchline of a show waiting to happen (King Kong? The MUSICAL?) is well-documented. Still, what has arrived on Broadway directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie made some smart choices. It kept the Depression America setting to capture the desperation of a two-bit film director/impresario named Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). He has a cockamamie idea to head to an uncharted spit of land dubbed Skull Island, drag along a leading lady and capture...something with his footage. He stumbles across would-be actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts), likes her spunk and they roll the dice. Of course, when they find King Kong, Denham decides instead of capturing something on film he'd rather capture the beast itself, bring it back to New York and get rich a la P.T. Barnum. Things go wrong.

In this version, the natives looking to sacrifice a blond beauty to their god Kong are well forgotten. Instead, Ann Darrow is black, which immediately erases -- or at least minimizes  -- all sorts of racial stereotypes embedded in the original scenario. Further, this Ann Darrow is no Fay Wray shrinking violet known only for her screams. She's more likely to save herself, thank you very much and her scream is more of a roar that Kong himself might identify with. (In one of the show's many misbegotten technical choices, Ann's roar is a pre-taped bit of nonsense that takes you out of the show every time they employ it.)

That's all well and good, but the show goes way too far. Ann isn't just a competent gal, she's a striver who becomes self-actualized by her bonding with Kong. Towards the end of the play, she's actually telling the big fella he's made her a better person; God bless Pitts for delivering such tripe without rolling her eyes at the same time.

And MILD SPOILER ALERT, she actually encourages Kong to break free in New York (because what could go wrong?), jumps on his back and they ride off together to Central Park. One can easily imagine Ann feeling sympathy for the creature and suffering guilt for seeing him chained up and miserable. But actually getting within arms reach, much less climbing on his back as a willing partner in crime? We actually believe in the creature too much to buy such nonsense. Kong could have easily grabbed Ann of his own volition and taken her to the top of the Empire State Building without undercutting Ann's agency, thank you very much. END OF SPOILER ALERT

Finally, the show was right to understand the spectacle of Kong needed a full orchestra and a genuine score (Marius de Vries) to make it work. What the show most definitely didn't need, however, were songs by Eddie Perfect or anyone frankly. Since none of them work -- at all -- and the only decent scenes are the dramatic ones, it's a shame after scrapping two complete versions they didn't just say to hell with the tunes.

Much else does not work. The digital backdrops employed throughout the show do fine when trying to give a sense of excitement as Kong races through the jungle or the streets of New York. Otherwise, they're murky and kind of ugly, somehow, as if the Depression setting meant the visuals had to be dark and depressing and murky too. The transformation from the streets of New York to the bow of the ship is so clumsily handled by director McOnie it made me appreciate how smoothly such things are often achieved by others. (I kept thinking, Why are the two leads standing on a box and being pushed around the stage or Why are the sailors surrounding the two leads with a bunch of ropes, rather than simply enjoying as one should as one image flowed into another and the boat magically appeared.) The jungle is goofily unconvincing (green lasers certainly don't help), though Kong's lair (or rather, penthouse with a great view) works fine.

While Kong is impressive, clearly every penny went to him. A battle with a giant serpent is deeply disappointing for two reasons. One, the giant serpent isn't terribly convincing. Two, as they face off, Kong and the serpent sort of wander off stage for their climactic showdown because it was too difficult or expensive to stage the fight in front of the audience who dearly would have enjoyed seeing it. This isn't just a cost-saving; it cheats the audience out of the necessary sight of Kong's fearsome power and it happens at a few key moments. Most of the big action happens offstage, though the planes shooting at Kong above the Empire State Building is a nice image. The result is that he's a lot less fearsome than he might have been.

The book by Jack Thorne is weak and does a poor job of making up its mind about that impresario Carl Denham. Is he the villain? Does he turn bad or make the wrong choice at certain impulsive moments? The show has no idea and so neither do we and a chance for a genuine hiss-able foil (or at minimum a flesh and blood character) is lost. It's so clumsy in dealing with the two leads that the only notable (but brief) moments of actual drama involve Lumpy. Who you might well ask is Lumpy? Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) is Denham's assistant, a sad sack fellow who has perhaps the only substantial speeches of the show -- in one he gives Ann the spine to stand up to Denham and in another he quits his job. They almost sort of work, leaving you with the feeling that if they'd dumped the godawful songs and actually had some more scenes that this nonsense might have sorted itself out a little. No such luck.

AMERICAN SON * 1/2
BOOTH THEATRE

This drama by Christopher Demos-Brown is the second work on Broadway that feels like a throw-back to the good ole days. Like Lifespan Of A Fact, it's a topical entertainment with some big stars and something on its mind. In this case, it's the sadly perennial topic of racism in America, the dangers young black men face on a daily basis and the constant hum of tension felt by their parents at all hours of the day and night but especially at night and especially at 4 am when their son hasn't come home yet and they can't reach them on the phone.

That's the nerve-fraying situation of Kendra (Kerry Washington) when the play opens. It's 4 am, it's raining and she's pacing around an anonymous waiting area of a Miami Florida police station where a new but clueless cop (Jeremy Jordan) tries to placate Kendra despite his inability to tell her much of anything about her son. They know the car he was driving was involved in an incident, but other than that he knows just as little as she does and Kendra is just going to have to calm down until the public affairs officer shows up and can give her more help. Uh-huh.

When Kendra's estranged husband Scott shows up (Steven Pasquale) and we discover he's a white FBI agent, you can easily map out the rest of the action in this tepid, ripped from the headlines work. Sadly, nothing surprises in the least, right down to the unsurprising surprise ending. American Son is earnest, well-intentioned and inert, even with four strong actors ready to give it their all. It's not enough, just as it wasn't enough for the similarly bland Lifespan Of A Fact, which desperately tried to add a little timeliness to its tale of fact-checking by making allusions to our supposed post-truth era.

Do such plays simply not work on Broadway? Is TV where they belong? I'd say, no, not really. They just need to be done well. And with TV tackling such stories with a hell of a lot of integrity and smarts, the bar has raised. A show like American Son might have been the only game in town in 1950. Today, it just feels played out. All director Kenny Leon and his sterling cast could really have done in the situation was take a pass or demanded more.



The first problem is that American Son takes place in real time. In the old days, that might have created some tension. Instead, it creates an artificial aura around the entire show. Plus, audiences are too savvy. We know in real life how even an incompetent police station in Miami would have handled the situation we always assume is playing out and it isn't by having a distraught mom handled in bungling fashion by a newbie who doesn't know the first thing about preventing a bad situation from getting worse. Further, when the drama takes place in real time, it makes it all the harder to accept that Kendra and Scott -- who are separated and likely never to reunite -- would be desperately worried about their son and yet take time to share anecdotes about the first time they met, hash over old memories and the like. It's the sort of artificiality drama used to traffic in without thinking but is much harder to pull off now.

Among the many other problems is the core relationship between the two adults. Scott has left Kendra, is sleeping with another woman and if they'r not already divorced, they surely will be. (The timing of when he left the marriage was a little murky for me as I watched the show.) As the clunky text brings up everything from baggy pants and corn rows on young black men to the dangers men of color face every single day of their life, the idea that Kendra and Scott were married for 15+ years becomes increasingly difficult to believe.

If their nightmare of a situation (her son is missing) was taking place on a date these two people were on, I'd believe it. But instead they were in love and Scott has been married to Kendra and raised their son with love and affection and presumably at least a modicum of intelligence? Not buying it. Scott has to be lectured to about what can happen to his son? You mean, this FBI agent has never had the "talk" with his son, the one where he must acknowledge his son literally can't casually run down a street for any reason without endangering his life? Scott can't even bring himself to call his own son by the name they chose, Jamal? Scott is so focused on having Jamal -- or "J" as he would say -- getting into West Point and having every "advantage" that he hasn't clued himself in to the need for his son to celebrate and appreciate and accept the color of his own skin? Scott uses the word "uppity" and he's not even being ironic to make a point? And college professor Kendra married him? I don't even think they would have made it to the third date. It is impossible to believe the relationship at the heart of this play and thus it's hard to believe anything else either.

Nonetheless, the set by Derek McLane is a solid, unprepossessing work that does what it must and then gets out of the way. Washington and Pasquale do what they can with their roles, just as Jeremy Jordan does with a cop who of course makes a casually racist comment the moment Kendra is out of the room and is so dumb he confuses Emily Dickinson with Charles Dickens and so sexist he tells this highly educated college professor he believes she is wrong when she corrects him.

Then Eugene Lee walks in. When a stodgy play like American Son begins by saying someone is going to show up later, you just know they're going to show up later and set off some fireworks, upending the dynamics of everything that has gone on before. That's precisely what happens Lt. John Stokes (Lee) walks in and asserts his authority. The marvelous Lee (a mainstay of August Wilson productions, the legendary original cast of A Soldier's Play in 1982 and the TV show Homicide: Life On The Streets among many others) strolls in, pickpockets all the attention and never let's it go.

It's a pity to report that the godawful final scene is wholly unbelievable, tiresomely predictable, rests on Lee's shoulders...and he flubbed a key line. It was momentary and nothing really and even the performance of a lifetime wouldn't have made the scene good, but it happened. It's poorly staged by Leon (why is the character standing and addressing the audience with his back to the other characters) and even more poorly written by Demos-Brown (we are all too aware that the level of detail offered in the scene simply wouldn't be available at that stage). Even a talent like Lee can be tripped up by a flimsy piece and that's precisely what American Son remains from start to finish.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **
Mother Of The Maid *
Love's Labour's Lost ** 1/2
The Lifespan of a Fact **
India Pale Ale *
Thunderbodies ***
The Ferryman *** 1/2
King Kong *
American Son * 1/2

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

THEATER: "Eve's Song" Preaches On The Original Sin Of Indifference

EVE'S SONG * 1/2 out of ****
THE PUBLIC

Just as filmgoers sometimes idly wonder "What exactly is a best boy?"theatergoers pouring over credits might ask themselves, "What does a dramaturg do?" The answer varies from production to production and -- in the case of an ongoing institution like The Public -- from company to company. In its simplest form, a dramaturg is often another pair of eyes, someone who can observe your theatrical piece without an agenda. A set designer might want a bigger set, an actor might want more lines, a producer might want to save money. But a dramaturg? They don't care if a particular song or monologue is added or cut except for one reason and one reason alone: they are always thinking about what is best for the work as a whole. And so while their opinion may have no more weight than anyone else, it is a blessedly neutral one.

I haven't a clue as to the role of the dramaturg at the Public or what role if any they played in this debut. But they are nurturing playwright Patricia Ione Lloyd and part of that nurturing should have included a neutral and trusted set of eyes that might have kept Eve's Song from numerous obvious missteps.

It's a piece with a lot on its mind and eager to spell that out for you. Lloyd tells the story of Deborah (De'Adre Aziza), a divorced woman overseeing her just-out daughter and isolated son Mark (Karl Green), a teen who obsessively watches news footage of police brutality against young black men.  Deborah is succeeding at a difficult job where her talents as an executive are used but not wholly appreciated, while her status as a woman of color is abused with incessant sexual harassment. Eve's Song deals with gender and #MeToo and sexual orientation and the societal invisibility of violence against black women and ghosts and legacies and activism and inequality and presumably a few other issues I forgot about.

All admirable, if spelled out far too flatly. But Eve's Song also rolls the dice theatrically, playing with abrupt changes in style that veer from satire to surreal to naturalistic drama to a heavy-handed, ghostly climax. Even the stuff that doesn't work (and there's a lot) is at least bold in its attempt.

One can easily see why Lloyd caught the eye of the Public -- she has ambition and humor and some sharp, original dialogue. But part of nurturing talent is to help them shape their work. It's hard to understand why no one ever spoke up and said, "Hey, you know what's really working here? The relationship between the daughter Lauren (Kadijah Raquel) and the activist Upendo (Ashley D. Kelley)." You know, the rare scenes that actually stick to the form of a traditional play, one where people meet and bounce off each other and something real and tangible happens. Playwrights may love to fire on all cylinders and try every trick in the book the first time out, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea.



Family scenes are played in a highly theatrical manner, with the mom and kids sitting in rhythmic unison, flapping their cloth napkins and speaking with exaggerated politesse. But prowling around the stage are ghost-like people, dubbed Spirit People in the text. And a crack in the wall of the living room turns into an August Wilsonian crack in the firmament through which the desperately unfair and unacknowledged trauma black women endure comes pouring out. But every once in a while Lloyd just tells a story. Lauren spots Upendo at a bus stop and their tentative sparring is sweet and human, with both actors fleshing out these roles with chemistry and genuine emotion.

That's the play one would actually like to see. But even the play Lloyd has written should have been steered more thoughtfully by director Jo Bonney or the dramaturg or someone. For example, early in the play, the lights dim, a spotlight falls on the mom and she addresses the audience with her personal thoughts. Soon after, the same happens with the daughter. And the son? Nothing. For almost the entire play, he does not get his moment to open up and reveal something about himself. Naturally, you just assume he won't; this seems a perfectly reasonable stance since the play is focused on the silenced voices of black women. But right towards the end, suddenly the lights dim and the spotlight turns on him. You sit up straight -- since his confessional scene has been saved till the last moment and he's had the least dialogue of the three, you have every reason to assume it's going to be a doozy of some sort. Instead, it's just as unremarkable as their asides to the audience. Either he should be given a moment up front like the others (so we're not kept in suspense and expect too much) or it might have been cut entirely for the thematic reasons I just gave. The only choice that shouldn't be made is the one Lloyd went with.

Similarly, much is made of a creaky floorboard. The house is "haunted" perhaps and coming apart at the seams as their middle class existence is smashed apart by a racist and misogynist society. The son trips over the floorboard. It's commented upon. Eventually the mother and son take the time to check it out...and the floorboard is accidentally ripped up! Do they find something buried underneath? Do spirits escape it? Does it play any role whatsoever after that? No, they just move a table to cover the unsightly bulge in the floor.

Those Spirit Women? Like the son, they are not given a moment to speak out -- until they do, three quarters of the way through the play. Again, they spent so much of the play NOT speaking that we accepted their mute presence. Having them first speak up so late in the play felt like a violation of the rules the play had set. If what they said proved remarkable, of course all would be forgiven. There are no "rules," much as I am quoting convention. Yet what they ultimately offer are blunt recitations of the abusive violence black women suffer, telling their stories of woe. It feels far, far removed from the story at hand, like a blunt intrusion from another, more didactic play.

Even here, the play is confused. The mom suddenly blurts out that her son is "weird," though it certainly wasn't obvious to us. We know he's deeply disturbed by police brutality against young black men and views examples of it online over and over again. Yet, the play condemns the world for not paying equal attention to the brutality meted out against black women. Is the son being somehow condemned for his fixation? His fears do seem unhealthy, though of course he lives in a world where unthinkingly running down the block or an abrupt comment to a cop will put his life in danger.

But is he bad or wrong? If he's indifferent to the plight of black women, we don't see it. Certainly the women in his life have no idea what he's worried about and don't try to educate him. Worse, the play begins with the mom and son watching the local news. It begins with a story about a pet trapped down a well and the mom eats it up, even smiling when the cat is rescued. But when the next story is about a black man  brutalized by the police, the son sits up alertly...and the mom turns off the tv. That's a weird way to begin and what could it possibly mean, given what comes later? However much one needs violence against black women to be treated seriously, surely turning off the TV when the violence against black men is finally covered after decades or  centuries of indifference is not the answer.

While a major climatic plot twist was surely essential to the play Lloyd had in mind (though deeply misguided and unconvincing), there is no excuse for the blunder at the very end. The drama reaches the end, the lights slowly dim, characters are backlit against the image of a painting melting into nothing and if there's a moment of "ok, they built to a moment," well this is it. And then inexplicably there is another very minor scene of such unimportance that you are shocked that no one said, "Hey, I think the play already ended. That last little bit? Does it add anything? Maybe it should be cut?" However delicately one would word this in the real world, it's absurd that conversation never took place.

Raquel and Kelley actually have characters rather than archetypes to play and they bring a spark to their scenes. True, their relationship flies by in record time, going from meet-cute to passionate romance to woke activism to Lauren suddenly deciding Upendo's activism isn't woke enough and she's ready to move on! As with the son being weird (he is?), the accusation that Upendo is a flighty activist obsessed with likes on social media comes out of nowhere, as does Upendo's rejoinder that privileged Lauren couldn't really appreciate the struggle. If Llioyd wanted to show economic inequality affecting their relationship or even just coloring it, she should have done so. But like so much else here, she usually tells rather than shows. It's a credit to the two that we buy their romance as much as we do.

The set by Riccardo Hernandez lacks either the imagination or -- far more likely -- the money to bring to life the disintegrating home of the family that the play calls for. Still, this production essentially shows the Public presenting a play -- flaws and all -- at a level most writers can only dream about. Lloyd will surely learn from the experience and grow, though she might have grown more with better guidance all around.


THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **
Mother Of The Maid *
Love's Labour's Lost ** 1/2
The Lifespan of a Fact **
India Pale Ale *
Thunderbodies ***
The Ferryman *** 1/2
Eve's Song *

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

THEATER: "Thunderbodies!" and the Glorious Mess of "The Ferryman"

THUNDERBODIES *** out of ****
THE FERRYMAN *** 1/2 out of ****


THUNDERBODIES *** out of ****
SOHO REP

At the beginning of Thunderbodies (which, honestly, should be styled THUNDERBODIES!) a string of letters spelling out Thunderbodies is bannered across the stage, much as you'd spell out Happy Birthday for a friend. Music starts playing, the banner starts bouncing up and down and then more ferociously and then it pauses only to start wiggling side to side. Either you start smiling or you're in for a long 90 minutes.

I started smiling, as Thunderbodies is the latest in a string of plays that seem right up Soho Rep's alley. Do they put out a request for plays that are formally playful, silly, avant garde, daring, extravagantly on the edge and yet just plain fun? I think so and with this piece by Kate Tarker directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, they've presented another one. It's utter nonsense, rat-a-tat goofy, impeccably directed and mounted and performed with gusto by a very game cast. Thunderbodies has just enough of an emotional core to make you feel something might be at stake, if not quite enough to make you genuinely care.

If you're in a game mood, this is a promising work and an excellent showcase for one and all, especially Deirdre O'Connell as Grotilde. She knew her performance needed to go big and then wisely decided twice as big would be a nice place to start before really taking off.




To describe Thunderbodies is to kill it, but here goes. The war has ended and desk jockey General Itterod (Juan Carlos Hernández) proposes to his true love, the dismissive and frightening Grotilde. How can she marry without her son safe at home? But her son (Matthew Jeffers) has refused a direct appeal from the President (Ben Horner) and refuses to come home from the war. Itterod heads reluctantly into enemy territory, hoping he can bring the lad back before fate (or the lovely refugee played by Monique St. Cyr) interferes.

And that tells you precisely nothing. There is dancing and singing (about thunder bellies and thunder butts and thunder unmentionables) and a candy colored multi-level set (courtesy Matt Saunders) that feels like a baby's playpen crossed with the desolate landscape of Beckett (with a recliner in the corner). The President speaks to his soldier via drone -- and the tiny little drone is manipulated by the actor playing the President which is somehow far more amusing than it should be. The General and his lady love plan to get divorced first so they can end in wedded bliss rather than the usual way around. And on and on it goes.

It's unfair to single out the set because every tech element is on spot. Director Blain-Cruz keeps the pace moving so that when the story momentarily flags, you barely notice. Jeffers and St. Cyr create a sweet yearning for peace that is the closest the play gets to an emotional core. But that other couple (the general and Grotilde) have their moments too and Horner consistently amuses as the President. They all manage the difficult task of being silly rather than acting silly.

But none better than O'Connell. Growling out her lines in a barking command, dominating the stage with a loose-lipped sneer, straddling that recliner like Cleopatra, O'Connell lasers in on the endless self-regard of her part and makes it hilariously real. In her hands, the least likable, most over-the-top grotesque of Thunderbodies is the most believable and lovable of all.  She and the rest of the cast make this nonsense -- which pulls off a moment of genuine pathos thanks to an "Oh shit!" fade out -- worth catching.


THE FERRYMAN *** 1/2 out of ****
BERNARD B. JACOBS THEATRE

What a glorious, well-acted ballsy mess of a play. That's no surprise coming from Jez Butterworth, a very hit or miss writer who broke out with Mojo in 1995 and then wandered far afield until 14 years later he scored a home run with Jerusalem. As with all his plays, I found Jerusalem scattered and unstructured (in a bad way). But he's always had a gift for dialogue and creating vivid characters and few loom as large as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, especially (or perhaps only?) when embodied by Mark Rylance.

I wouldn't have missed Rylance but his Falstaffian turn papered over a lot of problems. The play was admired in New York yet seemed to strike a profound chord in the UK. Sadly, Butterworth followed that triumph with his Emperor-has-no-clothes drama The River. Like a yoyo, Butterworth has rebounded again, this time with the most satisfying piece by him I've seen yet. It has the virtues and flaws Butterworth usually has -- reams of terrific dialogue and memorable characters, but no real idea what to do with them.

Here, however, he boldly tackles that quintessential drama, the Irish play about the Troubles. Drawing deeply on Sean O'Casey and the like, Butterworth doubles down on every cliche imaginable, not to mention every tried and true plot point. Large family? Check. (The children keep coming and coming in the opening scene, pouring out of cabinets and doorways and trouping downstairs until you can't help thinking it's a Monty Python skit taking the piss.) Drinking to excess? Check and check (and check again). A traitor. A mad old loon who bursts into song and truth tells. A boastful fool. A doomed romance. A righteous (or mad) obsession with vengeance against the British. Country vs city. The violent vs. the pacific. And stories? As many stories as there are children. And that's saying something.

Butterworth was born in London but this is a defiantly Irish work and he dares you to call him on it. How can you, when he's underlined and whooped and celebrated every trope possible before you've even figured out who is who in the cast? As a bonus, paying homage to O'Casey and the like has given him the bones of a well-structured play and that's what allows The Ferryman to be his best yet. I was with him every step of the way (misgivings and all) until the inevitably sour and doomed finale. I expected no less but still somehow it didn't add up. That's a small price to pay for some of the best acting on stage this season.



You don't know the plot but you know its type. It's 1981 and the hunger strike embodied by the late Bobby Sands is in full force. For the first time in ages, the sympathies with the world are aligned with the Irish Republican Army and they want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, a body has been found of an Irish traitor who was summarily executed and dumped in a bog. Now that it's been recovered, tongues may start wagging and reporters may start probing. A priest is quickly dispatched to make sure Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) keeps mum over the death of his brother. The IRA had absolutely nothing to do with it and they want to make sure Quinn understands that and his brother's wife (now widow) understands that and all two dozen or so of their children understand that. Shut your mouth and we can all remain friends and the focus will remain on the hunger strikers and not revert to the bloody violence the IRA doles out to those that cross them.

About a hundred other stories and plots and subplots are also involved in this corker of a play divided into three parts and lasting some 200 minutes. (Only an act of God presumably talked Butterworth out of five acts.) Quinn is actually in love with his brother's wife Caitlyn (Laura Donnelly), which may be why Quinn's actual wife (Genevieve O'Reilly) has slowly retreated to her bedroom with a host of "ailments." Aunt Patricia (a wonderfully waspish Dearbhla Molloy) practically spits every time she hears of Margaret Thatcher, in part because her beloved brother died during the Easter Uprising. Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) stays in a chair nodding off in her own dreamland until suddenly she comes out of her daze and answers any questions put to her by the wee ones, as if she's the oracle at Delphi. She can tell you how many children you'll have, why Aunt Pat is so bitter, and regale you with her own lost love all before fading back into the mists. Tom Kettle (Justin Edwards) is a hulking British man who's a bit slow and somehow washed up on the Carney farm, quietly tending to the animals, producing apples out of his pocket and nursing a soft spot for the lovely Caitlyn. Have you got time? I could introduce a dozen other tales if you've the time.

Full credit to director Sam Mendes and his creative team, especially the set by Rob Howell, dominated by the kitchen of the Carney farmhouse, a warm and expansive space with a sloping roof that you can imagine funneling all these characters down towards the back wall in a big jumble. (Life is complicated and all their stories are intertwined.) When a reference is made to the Corcoran lads coming over to help with the harvest, I thought well surely THEY at least will remain offstage. But damned if more actors don't get thrown into the mix as well.

Nonetheless, Mendes juggles them all with ease. Any time a quiet moment is needed, somehow everyone vanishes this way and that in the most natural manner possible. (The backstage of this play must be the most crowded space on Broadway, if not all of New York.) It's like a magic trick and then Mendes does it in reverse and the room fills up again in a flash. Full credit to Butterworth's genuine gifts since there are so many characters and yet I feel like I know them well. I may not remember all their names at first blush, but when I see them I know them completely.

Nonetheless, the play's bold embrace of cliches sinks it at the very end. The gentle and sweet Tom Kettle is a nod to Lenny in Of Mice and Men but the play fails to make clear how much of a nod until far too late. Other last minute actions simply feel unnecessary. We know without doubt things will not end well; actually showing us how badly things will end somehow belabors the point. And yet, it's a funny piercing boisterous ride right up to the crash.

Truly, everyone is solid, right down to the little kids who might have cracked a smile once or twice (they're having a grand time) but are still specific and unique. Let them all take a bow but Paddy Considine in particular makes a marvelous stage debut. Donnelly has quite the gift from her husband Butterworth in a role that let's her shine. And Tom Glynn-Carney (who played the almost angelic son of Mark Rylance in Dunkirk) is wonderfully physical as the dickish, hard-drinking and boastful Shane Corcoran. (You know as soon as he's strutting about that Shane will be a trouble maker and his own worst enemy.)

For all my problems with the play, too many scenes are too good for me to do anything but wish I could see it again. The spell Aunt Maggie Far Away casts when she tells her tales, the late night drinking of the Corcoran and Carney lads (with Shane put in his place in a deflating manner), the gentle and unwished for proposal from Tom Kettle, the way Mary Carney finally shows some spine and lays down the law with her husband Quinn and on and on. When the Ferryman comes for Butterworth, the playwright will surely be able to delay the inevitable by simply saying, "Let me tell you a story...."

THEATER OF 2018

Homelife/The Zoo Story (at Signature) *** out of ****
Escape To Margaritaville **
Broadway By The Year: 1947 and 1966 ***
Lobby Hero ***
Frozen **
Rocktopia *
Angels in America ** 1/2
Mean Girls ** 1/2
The Sting **
Mlima's Tale ** 1/2
Children Of A Lesser God ** 1/2
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance ** 1/2
The Metromaniacs ***
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical *
The Seafarer **
Henry V (Public Mobile Unit w Zenzi Williams) * 1/2
Saint Joan **
Travesties *** 1/2
Summer and Smoke ** 1/2
My Fair Lady ** 1/2
Broadway By The Year: 1956 and 1975 ** 1/2
Bernhard/Hamlet * 1/2
On Beckett ***
What The Constitution Means To Me **
The Winning Side *
Oklahoma **
Mother Of The Maid *
Love's Labour's Lost ** 1/2
The Lifespan of a Fact **
India Pale Ale *
Thunderbodies ***
The Ferryman *** 1/2



Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.