If you adore Dame Julie Andrews, you must see the Brits Off Broadway offering in its US Premiere fresh from its sold out runs in the West End and Toronto. Julie Madly Deeply celebrates the iconic performer who is still going strong at 83-years-old. Julie Clare Productions and New Diorama Theatre present this delightful musical cabaret in honor of the Dame. Written and performed by Sarah-Louise Young, directed by and with contributions from Russell Lucas and musical direction by Michael Roulston, who also appears and sings in the production, Julie Madly Deeply reminds us why Julie Andrews is not only a fabulous performer. It also reveals Julie Andrews as a survivor who is the last person to take her life and her career for granted.
Sarah-Louise Young has been a loving fan of Julie Andrews for most of her life. She humorously exposes this with a letter to Andrews she wrote as a child, asking her to be her mum and marry her Dad. After reading the letter, Young affirms that she never lost faith in Andrews emphasizing that this was more than the press could muster.
Young chronicles Andrews’ life in a vibrant, picaresque fashion, emphasizing the salient events in her career. To do this she begins with Andrews’ 2010 London return after her failed throat surgeries, billed as “The Gift of Music-An Evening With Julie Andrews.” The press dunned Andrews, but Young’s encomium to Andrews in this production indicates they were harsh and should have been forgiving considering what Andrews continues to accomplish. (Indeed she has a FB page and posts anecdotes from various Broadway productions, i.e. check out the one about Robert Goulet, Lancelot in Camelot.)
For Andrews, the evening was a tenuous comeback which required great bravery because it was believed that her singing career was finished. Indeed, husband Blake Edwards stated that she would never sing again after the botched throat surgeries. However, Andrews marshaled on and worked on therapies for her throat.
Would Andrews sing as she had before with her four octave range serenading a huge orchestra? No. However, she “talked sang” and Young who had kept the faith was thrilled to have seen her “live.” From this experience Young seques to interactive by asking audience members if they had seen Andrews live. Hands raised and responses were shared; this is an intriguing segment because it is extemporaneous and requires Young to be lightening quick and she shines with witty repartee. After this segment Young with a combination of brief narration and songs from the decade in Andrew’s career she is highlighting, accompanied by Michael Roulston, sings Andrews with a lovely, lyrical style.
Throughout, Young keeps the events and Andrews’ stories moving with comedy bits and snippet impersonations of celebrities, i.e. Liza Minnelli who took over for Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria when she was on vacation, and Audrey Hepburn who comments about being chosen as Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady.
Young’s talents with comedy, singing and movement, keep the production engaging and lively as she lovingly riffs on her favorite icon. She introduces each career milestone in Andrews’ life circling through The Boyfriend, My Fair Lady, Cinderella (television) and Camelot. Interestingly, when Walt Disney offered Andrews the part of Mary Poppins, a film which would take her away from live stage performance, she took it and won an Academy Award.
As Young pinpoints the various films and roles, singing some of the songs completely and others with a few bars, she finalizes Act I with a mention of Andrews’ divorce with Tony Walton. He worked on Mary Poppins with her doing costumes and set design. Then Young closes with a song from Mary Poppins and an interactive with the audience breaking for intermission with a send-off that after the “interval” she will be in the alps.
Act II is vintage Julie Andrews in the film The Sound of Music (1965). Again, Young sings snippets of favored songs and at one point, cleverly invites a sing-along. The audience was eager to oblige! Young’s patter includes quips about Andrews’ co-star Christopher Plummer. The film remains one of the highest grossing films of all times. And Young mentions that there are Julie Andrews sing-a-longs, some with the showing of the film. Indeed, the film is mythic and ironically, it resonates more and more as the uber right wing white supremacists don Nazi outfits and uplift fascism.
Memorable is Young’s segment about Andrews’ love of her second husband Blake Edwards and their work together after their marriage. Young highlights Andrews’ grappling with the limitations of her sunny, sweet image that her fans adored. When she attempted to do serious films i.e. Torn Curtain, The Americanization of Emily and others, her box office smash records evaporated. Her fans couldn’t accept her cross-over to other work and she went through a bumpy period, settling for work in Blake Edwards 10 and as Young humorously points out in S.O.B. a satire in which Andrews twits the idea she is more than a sugary, sweet flower by showing her breasts (tits).
Young sings partials from Victor Victoria (1982) and discusses its adaptation as a successful Broadway production which Julie Andrews performed in 1995 until she had to quit the show in 1997 after vocal problems and a botched surgery.
Throughout, Julie Madly Deeply remains ebullient and informative thanks to Young’s clever working of the material and interspersing the humorous bits with songs and anecdotes which Andrews’ fans will enjoy.
Julie Madly Deeply has one intermission and runs at 59e59 Theaters as a part of their Brits Off Broadway series until 30 June. For tickets and times go to the website by CLICKING HERE.
Round House Theatre production’s Handbagged is an extraordinary evening of history, humor, philosophy, politics, economics, parody and satire. Offering a view of the Thatcher years in the U.K. (1979-1990) until Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stepped down from the leadership of her party, playwright Moira Buffini encapsulates the past. With acute themes, Buffini parallels two disparate views which still hold sway today in the U.K. and in the U.S. These are posited and embodied by Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. The production is a comedy as the two women go head to head. And it is a poignant reminder of where the world has “progressed” since then.
The evening is rollicking fun. In almost every scene Queen Elizabeth II bests (handbags) Margaret Thatcher with her wit, her grace, her level headedness, her humanity and her decency. And Margaret Thatcher can only be her dour, unsympathetic, unyielding, cruel self, whose watchword “No,” seems to permeate even the rigidness of her tailored suits.
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Handbagged is based upon the original production with the same director at the Kiln Theater. As part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters, from start to finish, the production engages and delights with its humor and with the fine performances delivered by the ensemble and especially by the “older” versions of the Queen (Anita Carey) and Thatcher (Kate Fahy) whose similitude with their true counterparts appears to be “right-on.”
To chronicle the Thatcher years and Queen Elizabeth’s sub rosa influence during that time, the playwright’s characterizations move in tandem with two actors each, playing the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (young and old). Beth Hylton portrays the young Queen, “Liz,” with posh accent and sweet demeanor. Anita Carey is the older Queen, “Q,” whose quiet stature, edgy wit and motherly probity of today’s Queen Elizabeth reveals an astute wisdom and gently forceful authority.
Both “Queens” deliver quips, undercurrents and subtle chastening to the inflexible, conservative, hard-right, iron lady with smashing, crashing wit and sometimes LOL humor. They do it with such aplomb and timing we appreciate the through-line that Queen Elizabeth II understood who Margaret Thatcher was and held her own with her throughout. In a changing of the Empire to a Commonwealth of Nations, she proved a beacon, though she had no official power or authority. In her shadow, Thatcher held her head high but had to admit defeat when she stepped down in a painful process of changing leadership.
Susan Lynskey delineates the younger Thatcher, “Mags” with smiling, chilling certitude, hot and solid in her determination to change the U.K. for “the better,” according to her perspective and that of her conservative “neoliberal” party that eschewed “socialism” like the plague. Working in tandem with her is the old Thatcher “T” portrayed by Kate Fahy who in a forceful, deliberate, sternly exacting manner reveals why the handle “the iron lady” was used as a noxious epithet and descriptor of praise by detractors and supporters of the ferrous Margaret Thatcher.
Filling in the characterizations of Thatcher’s husband Denis, Prince Philip, President Ronald Regan, Nancy Regan, the Queen’s Footman, and political leaders (Enoch Powell, Michael Heseltine, Arthur Scargill, etc.) are the versatile and very humorous Cody Leroy Wilson and John Lescault. The playwright’s device to break the fourth wall by having Actor 1 and Actor 2 argue about the roles they are playing is humorous. At one juncture “T” demands that Actor 2 not abandon his role of her husband Denis and he argues, “I’m playing several roles…some are thin caricatures but times are hard and it’s a job.”
This “breaking the fourth wall” device elevates the play into the realm of Theatre of the Absurd where the actors comment on the play and their roles. As they break from their roles and portray themselves as actors, we understand that this is still a part of the play; they are portraying the characters as the actors in the play. At one point or another, all of the characters step out of their roles and comment that this play is of their own making or that they don’t want to play the roles they do or are “switching” roles. This break in the play’s chronology of the Thatcher years melds the action, is enlivening and provides the twists that maintain energy throughout.
With regard to The Queen and Thatcher, this “breaking the wall” convention reminds us that the characters, though representative of real individuals, are fictionalized with some basis in truth. Buffini also uses this device to insert humor and to present information of the time period and of individuals that the audience may not know or remember. Actor 1 for example takes the liberties with the script to describe that in the “midst of all that Diana wedding stuff, the whole country was boiling with rage.” Thus, we understand the historical period seamlessly and find the information fascinating.
Overall, Buffini’s infusion of what the dialogue was between the two women constantly intrigues. Importantly, we understand their different roles. Thatcher, propagating her polices under the guise of freedom and democracy (she proclaims this as the elderly “T”) sustains an iron-fisted “control” of the U.K. The difficult times for the country are chronicled: the 1981 IRA bombings and killings, the miner’s strikes, the War in the Falkland Islands, the closing down of the Empire gradually into a Commonwealth of Nations (which the Queen comments on happily), Princess Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, Reganism, the rise of Rupert Murdock and his amoral, untoward scandal sheets and more.
During various events, ingeniously with subtle conflict between the characters and little exposition, we are reminded of the backstory with just enough information to be able to understand how the two women’s viewpoints and actions diverged. Thatcher obviates the cruelty of her own behavior; Queen Elizabeth II attempts to modify Thatcher’s understanding of her policies and practices, applying a humanity not readily found in Thatcher’s comportment.
Thus, we are appalled when Thatcher destroys the trade unions and boastfully touts her win of the miner’s strike which lasts a year and causes tremendous hardship. With quiet reserve, Queen Elizabeth II asks both “T” and “Mags” if she has ever been down in a coal mine which Queen Elizabeth II has. We walk away from that encounter with the stark view of both women. With eyes open, we note Thatcher’s recalcitrance and blindness to the populace’s suffering, a condition which she blames on them.
In each of her actions, closing coal mines, privatizing public companies, de-regulating financial institutions, refusing sanctions on South African apartheid, Thatcher effects misery and the citizens’ anger and protests. Though “T” and “Liz” do not counsel, they level broadsides at these actions. Indeed, in the Queen’s Christmas message of hope, Thatcher is publicly humiliated as the Queen’s message of Christian love is broadcast.
One of the most humorous segments in the revisiting of the Queen’s and Thatcher’s “relationship” during these years, the playwright examines their bonding with U.S. President Ronald Regan (an effusive, enthusiastic John Lescault) with Cody Leroy Wilson as Nancy Regan. The Regan scenes are hysterical and the relationships of the Regans’ visits with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor and as Thatcher and Regan meet and visit is excellent. That Thatcher and Regan agree in policies and practices (“trickle down economics”) is a pointed reminder of how many of the same policies embraced then took hold in the U.S. and U.K. and should “die a death.” They have not because the wealthy benefit from the destruction of the middle class and policies that feather their own nest (i.e. the destruction of the trade unions, tax breaks, de-regulation).
One of the greatest strengths of Handbagged, in addition to its providing a wonderful evening of entertainment in imagining the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, is in its themes which both women embody. Much of that time period has currency for us today in laying bare the noxiousness and inhumanity of policies of conservatism represented by Thatcherism. These parallel with Trumpism in the U.S. today and faux, fascist populism of the uber right groups which are attempting to take over in the European Union. As the Thatcher government had its rallying cry of “no socialism,” there is the same rallying cry today by Trumpists.
Then and now, these are twisted remnants of the politics of fear to bring about an advancement of corporate greed and hegemony. The elite powerful are those who seek to control, one of the mantras of Thatcher’s commentary that the playwright reinforces. The irony is that the Queen, the richest woman in the U.K., stands against these policies and pushes for equity, remembering the horrors of WW II when the country fought a common enemy. The economic policies that were catastrophic and led to the fall of Thatcherism are present in the Trump administration today. They foment economic inequality, and the economic divide between the haves and have nots. Indeed, when Thatcher left the government, there was jubilation and crowds in the streets celebrated the hope that things would get better. An irony, indeed and one wonders if the same will occur with Trump.
Handbagged is a must-see for its performances, its clever send up of two iconic individuals, its ironies and the historical infusions of vital information with dollops of humor slipped in-between. It is vital in how it reflects and reminds us of the economic and political dynamic that exists today globally. Kudos to the team of creatives and the production team that made this excellent production soar.
Handbagged runs with one 15-minute intermission until 30th of June at 59e59 Theaters on 59th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. For tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Are we our brother’s/sister’s keepers? There is a scripture that says a person who doesn’t take care of family is worse than an infidel. But do these tenets always apply? And how do we take care of family? Just supply their external needs? Or should we also connect with them on a truthful, soulful level which will nourish and heal frailties?
Pultizer-Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies in his new play Long Lost examines filial relationships, family dynamics and the assumptions and values that despoil love and forgiveness within families. Directed by Daniel Sullivan in a tight framework of fine performances by the actors, the twists in the arc of development reveal the inner trauma and turmoil in some families that often are never resolved. The only hope might be in the next generation where there is the possibility of redemption and love.
David (the ambivalent, deceptive, hypocritical and coolly raging Kelly AuCoin) lives a life of success as a Wall Street consultant who royally supports his socially conscious wife Molly (Annie Parisee gives a mesmerizing performance) who is a philanthropist. Their son Jeremy (Alex Wolff gives a thoughtful, sensitive portrayal) who is going to Brown, enjoys his promising life and is close to his parents whom he is visiting for Christmas recess.
Into this idyllic family situation intrudes the estranged, ne’er-do-well, older brother Billy (the wonderful Lee Tergesen). At the play’s opening, he sits symbolically in the dark waiting for his brother David in his Wall Street office. He is waiting to “say hello,” to reconnect, to redeem himself and more. When David turns on the lights, the last person he expects to see is Billy. AuCoin’s David reacts with shock, annoyance, suspicion, aloofness. These layers of darkness pull back as we note the conversation between the two brothers. There are recriminations; David wants Billy gone; there is no love lost between them, and if there is any empathy it is non-existent.
David unloads on Billy. Apparently, from his self-righteous, exalted position of having helped Billy attempt to overcome and get through his addictions and the destruction they’ve wrought, he has lost patience, and intends to stop any further enabling of his brother. Indeed, at this point, we respect David’s probity, his former magnanimity with Billy and his measured and enviable success.
Not that any time would be a good time for Billy to land on David’s doorstep to be invited into a warm family situation, this is the most inopportune of times, David suggests. It is the night of Molly’s fundraiser, which Billy cannot be invited to as it’s a black tie affair. And Billy eschews the proffered money that Billy usually gets, for example, the last time David heard from him two years ago when he “hit him up” and wired funds. But nothing works to put Billy off and then Billy unloads on David. He is dying and is coming to David and the family for help and support. David has the money, most probably, to rent a studio for Billy, but he will not. Instead, he invites him home.
From the outset we note the differences between the two brothers and wonder if one is a changeling because he is the antithesis of success, happiness and inner tranquility, so unlike David. Apparently, Billy’s addictions unraveled his soul and made him dependent upon David for money, who at one point banished him. Billy’s behaviors landed him in jail; the reason is tragic, but most probably caused because of his addiction which made him irresponsibly negligent and insensate. Indeed, despite his personable, charming open nature, it is obvious that he is a “bad seed.” And if he is allowed to stay with David and the family, what upheavals will he create? David is clearly wary of Billy for good cause. However he takes him in because of guilt. Billy has nowhere to go and he has cancer. What would David want someone to do for him if he were in Billy’s shoes?
In the subsequent scenes, Billy meets his nephew Jeremy and the scene between them is beautifully rendered. Indeed, all the scenes between uncle and nephew are heartfelt, and the pathos and sensitivity of the actors bring out the humanity and soulfulness in the character portraits. Through Jeremy’s eyes we understand another side of Billy; the fun loving, humorous, affable individual who is attractive, adorable and not “a bum.” Through Jeremy’s perspective, his parents should not be hard on his uncle, and certainly should let him stay to celebrate Christmas. The last time he remembers being with his uncle, he was nine. Jeremy doesn’t judge Billy as his parents do; he does not have the information or the experience with him that they have.
However, Billy being Billy provokes both Molly and David who chafe at his presence. When Billy lands a zinger truth on David that cuts his soul (this actually is hypocritical as we later find out and ego on David’s part) David kicks out Billy before Jeremy can say “goodbye.” Jeremy, the moral/familial conscience of the family, counters, “What kind of people are you?”
The irony is that Molly’s charity “Safe Harbor” to help women trapped in violent relationships, appears to indicate she has a soft heart with regard to supporting people. However, this softness stops where Billy is concerned. Easy to help strangers, but family? Hit the road Jack! Billy has apparently affronted Molly in the past and she will not forgive him. She refuses to have him stay with them for the holidays and looks up places to help him find the support he needs with his condition. Of course, Billy doesn’t help by consuming all the beer in their fridge and smoking weed and giving some to Jeremy who warns him Molly doesn’t want any smoke in the house. Humorously, it is the first thing she notices when she walks in with David after the fundraiser.
Margulies unwraps the comedy and the drama gradually with key details that allude to the swirling undercurrents in these individuals that move beyond sibling rivalry to deep wounds. Molly, David and Jeremy as a family are a brick structure, solid and sturdy to withstand hurricanes. But we discover, the bricks are painted cardboard; the house is built for show and is rotting within. Neither Molly nor David are honest or forthright about their own personal issues; they withhold their true nature from Jeremy and each other. They are living a sham existence gilded over by superficial, meretricious accoutrements and values that do not feed their souls nor sustain their relationships with each other. Jeremy ends up being the casualty of this existence that never really was. The only individual who is real to him, his Uncle Billy, remains the most down-to-earth individual who has confronted his own demons and is in effect coming to grips with his self-destructive past in full view of Jeremy. This is real and and heartfelt, especially when Billy nurtures Jeremy and encourages him to remember that he is “a good kid.”
Billy’s presence serves as a catalyst; he is a provocateur who blows up the family pretense with a few, choice, truthful revelations. These revelations force the issue and expose the core of David’s and Molly’s lies and their living a life of quiet desperation with each other, a fact which Molly refuses to see. Billy’s authenticity and his acknowledgment that he is impaired, flawed, a “mess” is disarming and we find him to be likable. However, this is a two-edged sword because being charming also makes him cunning and manipulative as an operator without filters. When David initially tells him that he can’t stay because he and Molly are going through a “rough patch,” Billy relates this to Molly and Molly confronts David who assures her they are “fine.” But Billy’s keen observation of his brother at the outset of the play gleans the truth and his authenticity draws out the truth from others.
Threading undercurrents weave throughout, expertly wrought by Margulies so that by the end the raw nature of the characters crystallizes before us. Indeed, the title we assumed defined Billy. But it relates to Molly and David, who also have been “long lost.” The only authentic individual who has found the core of his own frail and weak being is Billy. And he is not ashamed to admit it. Ironically, Molly and David are just beginning their journeys of dealing with who and what they are and what they have pretended to be in a marriage that has been lifeless for a “long” time.
Margulies brings the characters into a few revelatory highpoints. The most significant one occurs between Billy and David. We learn of the sibling rivalry, the abuse, the parental neglect and the recriminations each brother feels. The scene is a powerful one and AuCoin and Tergesen bring to bear their extensive talents to draw us into a dynamic that many will empathize with. The tragedy is that as in many families, forgiveness is not an option. There is too much anger, fear, ego, and extreme hurt. There are not enough centuries to work through all of it, not that David would want to.
That Billy is dying is an answer for Billy, a strange redemption in which all of his life comes back on itself. By the conclusion he is fatalistic and grateful, even able to joke a bit about who he is and what he has done. However, David doesn’t have the same good fortune. He will have to deal with himself and his own inner resentments, pride, frailties and sadnesses especially after Billy is gone. Whether he has the strength or courage to do so, as Billy seems to have been able to do, remains to be seen. Perhaps it is easier after all to be a mess and to rather make a mess of one’s life and recognize it. That is a life lived with few expectations. On the other hand, David and Molly have so many ambitions and expectations, to not measure up to any of them is an agonizing and soul hardening devastation.
Margulies ends on an uncertain note, but brings a partial resolution during Jeremy’s visit with his uncle before he goes away to school. During their conversation, we see the impact of Billy’s visit on the family which externally appears to be disastrous, but in terms of clearing the air of lies and duplicity, in effect, was a blessing. However, Margulies expert characterization reveals that most probably David or Molly would not attest that Billy’s visit yielded a positive outcome. As often happens, he will be blamed for causing difficulty when, in effect, they should look to themselves to rectify their own inner mess.
Long Lost works on many levels. The actors’ spot-on portrayals reveal these poignant, flawed individuals whose lives are scattershot regardless of how “perfect” they may appear socially and economically. Parisse and AuCoin adroitly strip the gradual layers revealing that false perfection cannot sustain or nurture their characters’ relationship with each other. Tergesen uses the truthful comments to deliver Billy’s honesty bullet-like; his is the most empathetic character and the most chilling. The underpinnings are thrillingly made manifest through the excellently paced, shepherded production with Sullivan’s thoughtful, specific direction.
Kudos to John Lee Beatty for his gorgeous and appropriate revolving set design. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are equal to the social/economic classes they embody. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s original music and sound design round out the production with equal fervor.
Long Lost presented by Manhattan Theatre Club New York City Center Stage I runs with no intermission at New York City Center (131 W 55th St. between 6th and 7th) until 30th June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon directed by Arin Arbus spike Terrence McNally’s 1980s New York City “romance for the ages” Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune with organic authenticity and powerhouse performances. Both actors cleverly negotiate the difficulties of comedy by not playing for humor. Their characters are driven by overt and subterranean desires, and in that they are humorous. In not pushing for laughs, a grave danger in a play (the laughs change every night based upon a thousand audience variables) the actors come up with the most unexpected and surprising riffs. Considering that these moments are emotionally based, this shows their consummate technique and absolutely glorious listening/effecting. They are among the most talented and superlative of actors in portrayals that are precisely shepherded with adroit skill by Arbus to release their profound and moving sensibilities.
On a superficial level, we assume we know the play which was also made into a film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer (1991); it’s been revived in New York City, most recently with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci in 2002.
In this current time of sexting and posting fleshly photos on Social media “private” and then being hacked into and displayed, the play is downright quaint, even with the nudity. And yet these actors and the director transcend the quaintness, elevate the current thematic mores/trends/folkways, of romance and find the beauty of individuality which is what Terrence McNally strives for in Frankie & Johnny in the Claire De Lune.
What is it about this night, this couple? Distinction despite their “apparent” inconsequentiality in the era of Trumpism! With each other, their particularly shines. McNally brings this into intriguing relief, smartly realized by Arbus, Shannon and McDonald. Their humanity and what makes them who they are inherently is unique and poignant, as they confront the human condition of loneliness, doubt, self-torment and pain in relationships that have decayed like rotten fruit.
The play raises fascinating themes. One is that we underestimate our exceptionalism or convert it into a fear of the unknown in ourselves and a fear of our possibilities. In New York City (the setting of the play is NYC, 1980s) where over 8 million people live and work, the impulse is to maintain a familiar invisibility negotiating the sheer mass of people. Apart from this, many live their lives attempting to be like others in their social groups, even in their “intimate relationships” to the point where they don’t acknowledge soul differences nor respect them.
McNally explores this exceptionalism in two seemingly ordinary lower middle class individuals (a waitress, a short-order cook) that no one would find interesting, especially when folks are striving to become rich in an age of “greed is good.” McNally spins the vitality of these two by examining their depth, prompted by Johnny’s compulsion to realize the opportunity before him with Frankie; this active movement on his part creates the dynamic of their growing involvement with each other and shifting perception about themselves.
After intense love making, Johnny stops himself from disengaging from Frankie. Instead, he does not ignore her and dismiss what has just happened, which Frankie would prefer. He goes deep. In attempting to communicate with her to make sense of who they can be together, he finally explains his “vision” to a radio host convincing him to play the most beautiful music to get Frankie to connect with him. Johnny tells him (in Frankie’s hearing) that he stopped himself from the “usual rosary,” i.e. thinking of “the million reasons” why he should not love Frankie, why they wouldn’t work out.
The irony is that Johnny pursues what is on another level. They’re physical manifestation of love was “perfect.” And that is an indication of possibilities, of recognizing what is profound within each of their souls. Johnny senses her uniqueness. And for that reason he will not follow the path he followed many times before – forgetfulness, dismissal, staying superficial. With the courage of his convictions, he persists in attempting to persuade her to do the same: to go deep.
Johnny’s action which creates the arc of development has little to do with a repeat performance of “sex” and all to do with seeing each other on a soul/spiritual level. From Johnnie’s perspective, if they can achieve that, their relationship will be able to build and grow. It’s what Johnny means about “connection,” that ethereal thing that can happen during making love, but not always. He and Frankie have experienced it and for some reason Frankie fears or is defensive about a continued intimacy with conversation. In attempting to have Frankie “connect” with him again, Johnny intuits that they need to hear the music of transcendence to take them out of the mundane. That he hopes will ease the way back for her to engage on that other level once more. Indeed, it is that level on which the finest, most truthful relationships are based.
To miss the depth of what is happening between the characters is not doing justice to McNally’s play or the performances and direction. This is the focus that remains alive and present in this wonderful revival. Johnny believes in that profound level of connection. Frankie fears, eschews and resists it. McDonald and Shannon make us care why these two behave in their “compulsions.” They make us care whether they can become the couple for “all time,” “Frankie and Johnny.”
What I particularly appreciate is how McNally has reverse troped the characters of Frankie and Johnny in the backdrop of a culture which is uber jaded regarding “love” and “romance.” Arbus, Shannon and McDonald have mined the gold in McNally’s ironic twists and tweaks.
Here, the man wants intimacy, love and bonding. The woman just wants sex, a slam, bam, thanks, see ya. Frankie is beyond skeptical and doubtful about Johnny. She closes him out, doesn’t hear what he is saying, doesn’t “connect,” until after she slaps him.
Because of Frankie/Audra McDonald’s revelatory inner authenticity-her resistance to Johnny/Shannon’s importuning her to “go deep,” warning alarms go off. If one has studied or read the M.O. of abused women, they should “get” McDonald’s Frankie’s impulsive, defensive reactions and nervousness. She has been abused in a way that has damaged her psychically so that all bets for true intimacy are off. She can’t allow herself to take that risk again, regardless of the physical “something” between them. That can be dismissed as sex, nothing more which is precisely what Frankie seeks to do, but Johnny will not let her get away with it.
McNally’s characterization of Frankie resonates even more strongly today. Current sexual predation numbers despite all the #MeToo publicity and positive directions have not decreased. Physical/sexual abuse transcends economic and social class backgrounds. Wives of billionaires are abused as are women of partners of lower socioeconomic classes. Often women who have been abused cannot be intimate. They will have sex and may seek it out as a form of control. But the abuse must be worked through before intimacy becomes welcome.
Abuse from a former partner we discover is making Frankie resist Johnny which she reveals in Act II. Some have suggested the play can be done in one act. The intensity of the characterizations has eluded these critics; Frankie’s violence and then revelation about why she reacts as she does must come full bore in the modulations after the radio host plays a transcendent song that will “connect” them. And by the conclusion as we follow the journey of how they both work through their psychic damage, we see they are together and perhaps “perfectly” as Johnny suggests in Act I.
The development is crucial and needs the breadth that McNally gives it. At the end of Act I when Frankie appears to be persuaded by Johnny to become intimate in the way he wishes, she “controls” and pushes him to have sex which we discover at the beginning of Act II “fails.” Johnny’s “failure” is humorously rendered by the actors. However, this “failure” also reveals that “the connection” between them still isn’t trusted by Frankie. That doesn’t stop Johnny from persisting, and they both become adorable and familiar to each other in their gradual revelation of the truth of themselves.
McDonald’s portrayal of McNally’s Frankie is right-on: her fear of intimacy, her insistence to control sex, to control him is paramount. Her abusive reaction to him is also spot-on. Her breakthrough effected by both actors beautifully as Shannon stops the abuse and kisses the hand that slapped him is an important turning point. We know something happened to her in the past; Johnny senses it and is lovingly helping her work through it. His attempt to connect with her is scintillating. It is an irony that she converts the beauty of this moment back to sex and “wanting him.” In showing her “desire”, she is actually pushing him away. No wonder Johnny’s “manhood” fails him. He wants more than a little friction! Shannon is just terrific in effecting this with sensitivity and great feeling.
In Act II Johnny has another hurdle after she reveals she has been abused. He must convince her to move beyond the need to control using sex, and recognize that between them there is the opportunity for something transcendent and profound. In their uniqueness, such riches are available to them because of who they are together. This is rare, it isn’t possible for others and how fortunate/destined they are that they have “found” each other.
This sensitivity from a guy who seeks to make a connection on another level and eventually understands how to do this with a beautiful song to “get there,” is mind-blowing. One might say cynically, “Men are just not like this!” “The playwright is gay and writing his own fantasy male.” Or these characters are simply beyond the pale and this is a modern “fairy-tale!” Well, that is missing McNally’s searing point which Arbus and the actors have elicited in this production. This is possible. But what one must risk is failure, or being ego-less. Risking the pain of failure is frightening, especially if one has gone down that road before.
Arbus, Shannon and McDonald apply their brilliant talents seamlessly. The actors convince us Frankie and Johnny are possible because of the actors’ stunning and detailed inner logic which simmers with backstory. If it is possible for them, it might be available for other “Frankie and Johnny’s” in a universe of lonelyhearts. Their relationship is a beacon and a warning not to be like married couples who married out of fear and never “connected,” or who were matched up by others because they were “perfect” for one another, only they weren’t.
Perhaps one of the strongest themes of this production is found by looking at how Frankie and Johnny evolve together “magically” to achieve a level that many couples don’t achieve. The play begs the question, why are Frankie and Johnny so stellar and original? Why can’t their evolution be the norm, not the exception?
The reasons are multitudinous. But one of the reasons is that our culture and society warps men and women with platitudes and tropes and gender annihilation in some quarters. “Men don’t cry.” “Don’t be gay, be a manly man.” “Women are best being quiet and looking pretty.” Women who are feminists are feminazis. Women must look only a few ways to be feminine and beautiful.
The fact that the nullifying stereotypes behind such commentary still exist today is appalling; and now there is a Trumpist backlash that embraces such thought. On social media and beyond, there is an actual collective of Incels. On the opposite side of the spectrum, sexual predation and abuse are as old as time, and paternalism and misogyny. It is tragic that there is a necessity for a #MeToo movement because of the misogyny and paternalism inherent in our folkways and mores.
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune flies in the face of all this noise. It reminds us of the humanity of individuals, not of the stereotypes of genders. This production encourages us to look into the souls of individuals and make those priceless connections which rebel against that which would attempt to defile the bounty of our humanity by slopping it on the trash heap of stereotypes and labels. Bravo, to McNally’s original vision and Arbus,’ Shannon’s and McDonald’s adherence to it, allowing the themes of the play to soar along with the incredible portrayals of these wonderful characters.
Kudos to all the artistic creatives: Riccardo Hernandez (Scenic Design) Emily Rebholz (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) Nevin Steinberg (Sound Design) J. Jared Janas (Hair, Wig & Makeup Design) Claire Warden (Intimacy & Fight Director).
Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune runs with one intermission at the Broadhurst Theatre (44th Street between 7th and 8th) in a limited engagement until 25th August. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
The New York Botanical Garden is perhaps the most exotic and forward-thinking, theatrical living museum of plants and one of the most magnificent green spaces in all of New York City rivaled only by Central Park. In presenting their largest botanical exhibition ever from June 8 -September 29, 2019, the New York Botanical Garden has achieved a seamless meld with a globally renowned, award-winning Brazilian modernist artist, Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994).
For this wonderful exhibit, members get to go free on Friday, Member’s Day. See links below to the symposium on Friday.
The influential Brazilian modernist, landscape architect, plant explorer and cultural giant, is deserving of a celebration of his prodigious design work which features examples of the lush gardens he created throughout Brazil and the world. His unique and innovative modernist perspective gave birth to thousands of landscapes and private gardens, including the famous curving mosaic walkways at Copacabana Beach in Rio.The exhibition exemplifies every aspect of his artistry with a curated gallery of his eye-poppying paintings, drawings and textiles.
The amazing Burle Marx was a maverick in highlighting the importance of environmental preservation and particularly exotic plant species some found only in Amazonia a good part of which is in Brazil. In the NYBG horticultural tribute to Marx, the exhibition team pulled in experts like Raymond Jungles (FASLA) his protégé who personally knew Marx and worked with him, and those like Edward J. Sullivan, Ph.D., the Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Art History and Deputy Director, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, who has studied Marx extensively and who continues to write about him.
Jungles used his expertise and personal experience working with Marx to design the exotic tropical feel and immense grandeur of the installations revealed in three stages of the exhibition. The first is the Modernist Garden with striking, patterned paths that lead through extensive curvilinear planting beds to an open plaza with a reflecting pool backdropped by a wall. This wall design is inspired by a Burle Marx installation in the Banco Safra headquarters in São Paulo. The entire vibrant black, white and grey walkway and colorful, sweeping plantings are framed by spectacular palm trees that tower to their natural heights, many contributed by Jungles’ own personal collection.
The Explorer’s Garden in the conservatory showcase (not the Palms of the World Gallery whose dome is being refurbished) features the tropical rain forest plants among Burle Marx’s favorites as a bone fide “plant nerde.” These include those he adored, particular exotics which he constantly used in his installations to inform Brazilians about the natural world’s smackdown of diversity in their home country. With this he was constantly building up Brazilian’s sense of home pride.
The Water Garden evinces Burle Marx’s use of plants from a wide variety of tropical regions in his Brazilian designs and throughout the world. The reflecting pool is the natural habitat of temperate water lilies which are blooming in the variety of pastel colors. And it will include the more exotic water lilies that only basque in warm waters of Florida and the equatorial regions; these are of darker purple hues, etc.
Burle Marx’s Art and Garden Lifestyle Philosophy are extensively covered through film, and exhibits of his paintings, drawings, textiles and more all inspired by Brazilian culture. You will find this extensive exhibit in the Art Gallery and on the fourth floor of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. This section of the exhibit reflects his work from the final 30 years of his career from 1964 to his death in 1994) and shows not only his evolution as a person but also as a titan who beautifully integrated all the finest of the cultural and wholistic elements of an individual rooted in every aspect of his country’s well being. In this section you will see the apotheosis of Burle Marx, the print maker, ecologist, naturalist, artist and musician as well as innovator whose modernist landscape architecture whose designs of parks and gardens lifted Brazil’s reputation and culture as an important contributor on the international scene.
Engaging public programming showcases the sights and sounds of Brazil and its lively contributions to music and dance evoking Rio de Janeiro, the “Cidade Maravilhosa” (“Wonderful City”) that Roberto Burle Marx called home and inspired his life and work. Expect to experience the dances, music, foods of Brazil at the NYBG for the length of the exhibition which runs from June 8 through September 29, 2019.
Details about the exhibition’s diverse and engaging schedule of public programming for all ages is available here:
Information about the Brazilian Modern Interactive Mobile Guide, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, is available here:
New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd, Bronx, NY 10458 United States
Among its great treasures at the New York Botanical Garden, is The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. The rose garden has around 700 different roses and over 4000 plants.
Some of them are historical and others are hybrids that have been created and named and as in the case of the white rose called “The Divine Miss M” (named for Bette Middler) or “Purple Rain,” named in celebration of rock singer-songwriter, actor, record producer, Prince, his titular film and record album. Indeed, all of the roses planted have a fascinating story about its genesis or its development.
When I visited for Rose Weekend, which was this Saturday and Sunday, I lucked out. Stephen Scanniello who is the curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and world renowned author and expert on roses was present checking the roses for black spot (a fungal disease rampant in hot, humid weather that causes defoliation) and other issues. He graciously filled in for a guide who had to leave and he shared some of his vast knowledge about roses and specifically the ones at The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden. He took us on a tour of a few of the unique plants that are found in the garden which you must look for when you come to visit.
For those unfamiliar with the superlative Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, Stephen did mention a bit of its history which I will briefly summarize in this article and which you can find more information about HERE.
Before the rose garden settled at this present site, there were three other iterations. Two rose gardens were by the conservatory. One was there in 1907 and the other garden was opened in 1972 in front of the Conservatory and opposite the Perennial Gardens. Both didn’t last and the rose garden location that initially was selected in 1916 was returned to by 1986, 70 years later. Why this particular spot for the roses?
That was the location that renowned landscape designer Beatrix Farrand chose when founder of the NYBG Nathaniel Lord Britton asked her to design a new, larger, world class, rose garden. Farrand had built up her reputation by studying privately with Sprague Sargent, director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. To get design ideas she visited the great gardens of Europe. At the time Nathaniel Lord Britton spoke to her about a rose garden for the NYBG, Farrand had already designed the White House Garden in Washington, D.C. and many others.
Farrand chose the site where the garden stands today, a low lying “valley” near the barns of the old Lorillard estate where people believe that a rose garden pre-existed on the site, though there are no records to verify this. In 1918, Farrand’s rose garden opened. Her original design was influenced by the well known rose garden Roseraie du Val-de-Marne (or Roseraie de L’Haÿ) in L’Haÿ les Roses, France. The offset triangular-shaped formal garden she intended to establish included iron fencing framing the garden and enclosing the roses within, as well as a central gazebo.
However, the iron fencing and gazebo could not be included because of a lack of money. Nevertheless, John R. Brinley and John S. Holbrook designed the classic stone stairway leading from the top of the hill to the rose garden. In the later decades additional renovations were made until 1960 when to consolidate the formal gardens in one area, it was decided that the rose garden should be moved near the conservatory. By 1972 this third rose garden iteration was designed and planted in front of the conservatory. The other rose garden across from the Lorillard barns was abandoned.
Never say never again! Beatrix Ferrand’s garden design arose like a phoenix from the ashes of the old rose garden when in 1985, NYBG Board member Beth Straus saw the original Farrand design plans. Inspired, Straus convinced David Rockefeller to donate one million dollars to complete Farrand’s vision with the gazebo and the fencing and restore the rose garden to the location she selected for it. In 1988, after an irrigation system was put in, the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden opened to the public in honor of David’s wife, Peggy, a horticulturist and conservationist.
Stephen Scanniello mentioned some important facts about the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden and its collection. First, the location is a difficult one because it’s in a depression with higher elevations all around. As a result, there isn’t the greatest air circulation which roses require. Also, there is the moisture and humidity and heat that can cause fungal diseases. Since the NYBG is decreasing its chemical spraying, they are pumping up the condition and quality of the soil so that the rose bushes will be healthier and won’t be susceptible to insects and diseases. They are also putting in plants that are disease resistant and require no spraying because they are not liable to be taken down by black spot and other problems. Nevertheless, Stephen monitors each of the plants carefully and if plants have too many demerits against them, for example, foliage issues, beginnings of fungal issues, then the plant has to be pulled and another one put in.
Some highlights Stephen pointed out concerns the types of roses grown in the garden. Many are hybrid tea roses that have a lovely scent and have been created for the pleasure of the celebrities after which they are named. Stephen Scanniello showed us the beauty of The Divine Miss M, the “decadent bloom” that is named for the fabulous American singer, songwriter, actress, comedian and film producer who is still going strong at 73-years-old, Bette Midler.
It is a creamy white large-flower hybrid tea rose which has a scent of myrrh and lime. The new rose, “The Divine Miss M” has been described as whipped cream with overtones of antique white with a slight golden hue.” The rose celebrates not only Bette Midler’s life’s work and advocacy, but is in honor of the 40th anniversary of her 1979 breakout film, The Rose.
A few years ago, there was the celebration of the “Julie Andrews” a large flower hybrid tea rose that is a deep pink.
Along with the Julie Andrews, Stephen Scanniello pointed out that the “Julie Andrews” rose is planted near the rose named “Violet’s Pride,” a rose named for the character Violet Crawley played by Maggie Smith in the show Downtown Abbey. Two dames are planted near one another in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden; reportedly Julie Andrews thought that was delightful.
Another fascinating story Stephen Scanniello told us is about the rose you will find by the entrance, facing the gazebo, on your left. It is the green rose. Yes a green rose. Through a mutation of a regular looking pink rose called “Old Blush,” (a derivative of a species called Rosa chinensis) which originated in China and was brought to Europe and the U.S. in the 1790s, a green rose was formed in the 1900s. People propagated it by grafting or cutting off pieces of stems and re-planting them to produce new plants. The green rose was formed when it never went through the normal genetic switches causing the male and female reproductive parts in the right order in the parent plant. The green rose’s development gets “stuck” at the sepal-making step and it is the sepals that form the “petals” of the green rose.
The mythology surrounding the green rose is that Quakers-abolitionists during the beginnings of the movement and after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed and into the period up to the Emancipation Proclamation, Quakers planted the green rose in their front yards as a signal that they were a part of the Underground Railroad network and were a “safe house” that would offer protection and the way to continue on to Canada for runaway slaves. This is a difficult fact to verify. However, in Baltimore there was a Quaker family that claimed that this story was true.
Stephen Scanniello told us that the roses are late this year because of the damp and colder spring weather. At this point the roses are at 65% until they peak so you still have perhaps a week or so depending on the weather. However, even if the roses are not at their peak, you should visit to see the celebrity roses. Another tip we heard about is the rose scents come out toward the evening, and the roses with the greatest scents are on the fencing at the back of the garden where the climbing roses are on trellises.
At the opening of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden in 1988, Carl Totemeier, NYBG Vice President of Horticulture related the mission statement that has made the most sense for the rose garden when he said, “This [garden] will never be finished. We will always be striving to develop a collection with the best of old and new roses that are both attractive and well adapted to the site.” To see the best that the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden has to offer this season, go when the roses are at or near their peak and then follow the roses throughout the summer until they stop blooming and are cut back in late September. But even the remnant of the rose garden’s structure and setting in October is amazing. The NYBG lists the time for the roses from April – October.
To see the events happening at the NYBG and the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden daily as well as to follow the rose tracker, CLICK HERE.
Addicted to your phone, via Instagram? Text? Candy Crush? Reddit? 4Chan? World of Warcraft? In Octet by Dave Malloy directed by Annie Tippe, eight individuals who drop in to no-show Saul’s rehab in a homely church basement, find another hosting the weekly session. Thankfully, group leader Paula (the singer, songwriter Starr Busby) is nurturing and responsive to their cavernous disabling confessions. There, in a harmonious, ever fluid, richly sonorous song circle, they discuss their digital urges and expurgate them via the occult, each governed by a Tarot card designed for them and them alone. And sometimes the chorus joins in inspired by a soul hymn, encouraging the beauty of sharing in a non-judgmental like-mindedness.
What are they sharing? That which is maligned, misunderstood and apotheoiszed, the intimate, digital, hand-held which opens up their personal world like a hallucinogen and entraps them with their own emotional frailties. By the end of their epiphany-yielding, tonal and atonal harmonies (sung a capella and sometimes performed with pitch pipes, batons and other make-shift percussion items) they are lifted spiritually out of this world and “out of themselves.” They’ve achieved a healing peace in the community of others and the audience responds with a standing ovation for they, too, have been enlivened and awakened, having stayed off their phones for almost two hours.
Dave Malloy, the progenitor of this innovative, exceptional and robust musical has created a masterwork with little theatrical spectacle, certainly nowhere near the breadth of Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, his signature work. In Octet for which Malloy has deftly created the music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements, he takes a complex and intricate subject of great currency and couches it within a simplistic, minimalistic structure so that the powerful message of community and our need for live interaction resonates. With the seating in the “round,” and featuring a one-walled back set which reveals community bulletins, community ads, a coffee pot, announcements, etc., we get the sense we are in a basement which by the end infuses the sanctity of each of us which must not be underestimated. Above all Octet is like a soul injection to promote our awareness of each other’s value and worth more than an $1000 phone.
Into the choir circle of healing comes various debilitated, physically whole, but spiritually wounded internet adherents. When all are gathered, they begin the refreshment and comfort of unity so that they eventually will be released to express their hearts in solo song. The “Hymn: The Forest” reflects The Moon Tarot card which represents “Intuition.” Indeed, each of the individuals are misaligned spiritually and need to be “made upright” especially with firing up and being guided by their own wisdom and not the addictive distractions of the world.
In the first solo, we learn that Jessica in “Refresh” has put herself out there on “YouTube” and has gotten a huge response for it by those who comment. Though controversy gets clicks and likes and dislikes, it is also obsessive and must be followed by more “rants,” which Margo Seibert’s Jessica is addicted to creating for the comments. Henry (Alex Gibson) sings about his addiction to video games, and Paula (Starr Busby) sings about her distraction from her marriage and her losing her interest or attentiveness to making it work.
Distraction, dislocation from the most important relationships in one’s life is one theme of this production. Of course, viewing a screen is easy. Relationships take time, effort, pain and suffering along with the joy and good times. To stay dynamically involved with friends and spouses, one often must work through the underlying reasons and foundations for why one chooses the particular individuals one does to populate one’s life. It’s much easier to click on one’s phone and be taken away from problems by video games and escape introspection with “rants” which Jessica, Henry and Paula seek to do.
In the representative songs of what being “plugged in” digitally means to these individuals, we understand that in the “Hymn: Monster” which everyone sings, they project their inner “devil” outward and ascribe that the internet is their addiction. “Being connected online” has become the monster that has destroyed and eaten up their lives. Of course the irony is that the monster was always there within, waiting to manifest. But the way to get rid of it which will have to be a continual process, first is the realization that they have a “devil” within, and second that it is a devourer.
Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (the deep-voiced Adam Bashian) sing “Solo” about love and hunger for love. Ed is an Incel, a nonconformist. He riffs about Stacys and Chads (which is funny/drop dead serious Incelspeak) and they both sing about internet porn and online sexual addiction and the narcissism of having a ton of males (Karly) on her apps. In “Actually,” sung by Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) whose Tarot card is The Magician, we note how far one must go to achieve one’s destiny, arriving at their potential. Toby has been waylaid in any pursuit of fulfillment.
In Marvin’s “Little God,” there is an intersection of spirituality and science which I found engaging in the tensions posited. J.D. Mollison is humorous in his visualizing that God is an 11-year-old dressed or looking like a Mermaid. In this song Malloy throws in ideas from Alan Watts’ The Book, and moves with gyrations into Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and concepts from wherever. This he does throughout this intriguing, rich musical referencing games, podcasts, film, theater and books which he lists in the show’s Playbill insert.
However, as a cleanse from the confusion of the myriad voices that try to persuade, convince and entrap us online, Paula conducts a wonderful ceremonial tea (“Tower Tea Ceremony”). It is then all sit, savor, become present, become located within themselves and prosper in their souls with the help of a drug that takes them deep within, but only for a few minutes. The ceremony yields humorous and beautiful moments. As a justification that there is something good about the online delusion that has swept their souls from beyond their easy grasp of themselves, it takes a song circle and tea ceremony to bring them back to a healing.
It is after the tea ceremony that Velma (Kucho Verma) courageously sings of her angst. It is she who brings an interesting justification of the global reach of the internet. In all the world, online,she has found someone to love who loves her back and makes her feel accepted and not such an ugly freak. The song “Beautiful,” governed by the Tarot card of The Fool, magnetizes all the concepts that have gone before and represents “new beginnings” and faith. This, Velma encourages and with moderation, as with everything, we understand that the “monster” can be conquered.
The evening comes to a close with “Hymn: The Field,” which the ensemble sings. Aligned through restoration and staying off their phones for almost two hours, the “chamber choir” has melded into an illustrious community. They have displayed their sterling singing gifts with measured ease, enthusiasm and a lovely grace which the audience finds absolutely delicious.
Octet’s superb director is Annie Tippe. Or Matias brings the majesty of Dave Malloy’s music to life through his adroit music supervision and music direction. Octet has been extended a number of times and is scheduled to close on 30 June. However, it may extend again. It runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd St. between 9th and 10th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
In Happy Talk by Jesse Eisenberg, adroitly directed by Scott Elliott, stealthy desperation that unravels into a high stakes gambit between employer Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) a Jewish community theater actress/housewife, and home health caretaker, Ljuba (Marin Ireland) climaxes by the end of the play. From the outset Eisenberg infers frenetic undercurrents in the dynamic between the two women. Lubja is the “happy,” compliant, illegal Serbian help and Lorraine negotiates the care of two individuals while she attempts a fantastic pretense that all is “well,” for the sake of the household. Both are fronting.
From their interactions at the top of the play, we divine a synergistic relationship between Ljuba and Lorraine. Ljuba is meticulous with Lorraine’s mom in her caretaking duties. Not in the country legally, Ljuba confides that she hopes to become a citizen via a green card marriage so that she might bring her daughter to the United States for a better life. Lorraine, whom we realize later in the play, is one step away from a nervous breakdown, has an upbeat attitude with Ljuba whom she treats as a friend. Importantly, she attempts to cheer up dour husband Bill, whose agonizing, degenerative MS is a depressive death sentence. Lorraine’s bedridden, incontinent mother is slowly dragging herself into the afterlife with Ljuba’s attentive care, feeding, changing and monitoring her. But in Lorraine’s daily existence, her mother is an afterthought, amidst her preparations for her role as “Bloody Mary” in the Jewish Community Center’s South Pacific.
Eisenberg’s arc of development between and among the characters is pegged to the gradual revelation of the deeper “ethos” of these two women and how they balance the precariousness of their daily emotional struggles to manage their inner tension and stress. They do this with “happy talk.” Though other songs from South Pacific are played with ironic intent during the dramatic interludes (“Bali H’ai,” “Twin Soliloquies,” Some Enchanted Evening,” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) Eisenberg references the titular song sung by Bloody Mary. Initially, the analogy that Lorraine should be cast as Bloody Mary seems weird. But as the play unfolds, we understand the parallels of characterization flavored with trenchant sardonic humor. Both characters manifest underlying themes of manipulation, exploitation and desperation.
As the events unfold we realize that both Lorraine and Ljuba act to encourage themselves away from reality. One is easily recognizable because she wears “drama” on her sleeve and rambles on about the intentions and nuances of her role as Bloody Mary with her “co-star” Ronny (the fine Nico Santos). Ljuba is a joyful cipher who is unmasked by Jenny (Tedra Millan) Lorraine’s wrath-filled daughter whose condemnation of Lorraine is delivered in a rapid-fire series of punches. Jenny encourages Ljuba to be her real self, a painful prospect considering her circumstances.
The intrigue in this production is in its authenticity of Sarandon’s and Ireland’s, staged “happiness.” They mask their interactions with each other while they choke down their true feelings. Ljuba fears deportation. Lorraine fears losing everything to her husband’s sickness and death.
But as Eisenberg displays the characters in the first half, with the exception of taciturn Bill (the excellent Daniel Oreskes) there is no hint of debacle, desolation or tension. Lorraine and Ljuba are cheerful, “open,” convivial and warm and seem to genuinely care for each other. Lorraine’s “over-the-top” narcissism about her acting chops and Ljuba’s sweet generosity and friendliness incite humor. In their interplay Lorraine’s self-aggrandizement about acting appears shallow and we laugh at her presumptive “greatness.” Of course the irony that Susan Sarandon, who has a mile-long list of credits, praises her talent is rich. And Ireland playing hand maiden as an actress of lesser years and experience is equally ironic.
The plot thickens when Lorraine matches up Ljuba to Ronny as her green card husband and they create a backstory together complete with photographs, dates and events. There are twists and turns; the tension increases. We witness the severity of Bill’s illness and pain. Also, we note that Lorraine refuses to confront her mother’s illness and impending mortality. She avoids even looking in on her and only does so after daughter Jenny berates her about it.
Jenny’s sneaky arrival through the back garden sliding doors gyrates the play in another direction and twerks the cheerful atmosphere and humor. Tedra Millan drips bile as she notes the pretense between her mother and Ljuba. Her appalling relationship with Lorraine whom she hasn’t seen in six months becomes apparent, and we are swept into her authenticity, amazed at her reaction to Lorraine.
As Millan’s Jenny unloads a condemnatory rant in a fusillade of excoriations, with a self-justified tone of recrimination, she announces her permanent move to Costa Rica. Her brief visit to her grandmother and expression of love to Bill are almost ancillary. Her shooting target is Lorraine.
As divaish as Lorraine has been, Jenny assumes center stage; she a drama queen like her mother but with the intention to destroy. She shreds her mother until Lorraine has had enough and kicks her out, but not before Ljuba upbraids her. Nevertheless, Jenny has poisoned the well, and we look at the principals with a different perspective. Perhaps Jenny has clear-eyed vision in her suggestion that Ljuba is too compliant, too congenial in putting up with her mother. Perhaps Lorraine has another agenda in assisting Ljuba to obtain a green card marriage with Ronny.
In this highpoint of the play, the actors’ transformations are nuanced and real. Sarandon’s inner torment and guilt resonate with us and we shift toward her with empathy when she breaks down then recoups to carry on suppressing her pain so she will be able to go on. It’s an important moment during which Sarandon’s Lorraine becomes humanized.
Our estimation of Ljuba steps up when she defends Lorraine against what can only be a described as tragic hatred revealing traumatic hurt that Jenny has experienced growing up with Lorraine as her mother. Since we only hear Jenny’s side and see a humbled, guilty Lorraine who acts like a wounded animal, we cannot divine the truth. But we are on notice and watchful for additional signs of clarification.
Ireland and Sarandon play off each other like a chef and a sous chef that reverse the power dynamic now and again. The irony and sardonic humor laden with various tropes of middle class lifestyles gilding the darker aspects a “comfortable” life are jerked back at the end of the play. It is then we see the desperation and understand how economic hardship is the perennial wolf at the door. No amount of well meaning goodness can be sustained when the situation becomes a matter of life and death. Fear, panic and selfishness take over. And to survive, one must go along with what fate has dished up however terrible. When the masks are dropped, all becomes rotten and real and the “happy talk,” ends.
Happy Talk is a must see for the performances and the clever writing which changes on a dime to the unexpected and concludes with searing force into tragic collapse. The characterizations are grounded in the currency of the times and remind us that manipulations and secret agendas seek their own level of opportunity. The victims often have little recourse in the hands of unlikely predators whom one never sees coming.
Kudos to Derek McLane (Scenic Design) Clint Ramos (Costume Design) Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (Sound Design) Leah J. Loukas (Hair, Wig, Makeup Design).
Happy Talk presented by The New Group is at the Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) until 16 June. For tickets and times at their website CLICK HERE.
Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class which appeared at the Public Theatre and won an Obie for Best New American Play during the 1976-1977 season, has been revived a number of times and is currently part of the Signature Theatre’s legacy program. Shepard often chronicled his family history weaving themes in and out of his “Family Tragedies.” These include dramas that are dynamic, intimate, intense dark plays: the titular play reviewed here, Buried Child (1979) True West (1980) Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
These dramas with often searing poetic elements and unusual twists, feature violent, dysfunctional familial relationships which are borderline insane but human. The emphasis on the destructive nerve endings of the human condition makes them sardonic and devastatingly humorous. The characters are representative of us, every-women, every-man despite their demographics. In the inner soul of the individuals, there is the same fear, want, loneliness and partition from their families that make them real, heartfelt and tragic. Their human “ilk,” is horrific yet understandable. Shepard’s characterization logic and Director Terry Kinney’s guidance of the actors to achieve these manifestation in this production are just superb.
In this first of the family series, Curse of the Starving Class, we note how a family rooted in farming and the land in rural California attempts to wrangle with their own emotional and psychological demons that have provided a wayward leading inheritance that they must either overcome or succumb to. Though each has the ambition to improve themselves, like Chekhovian characters who are out of place and time, they harbor their dreams while creating elaborate networks of self-destruction that divert their will and thwart their ability to manifest their goals into realities.
By the time Shepard’s characters amass the will and strength to better themselves, they select the wrong path. All ends in failure. Indeed, their own blood family members sabotage any possibility of their improvement. Worsening the situation the saboteurs explode with resentment-filled, passive aggressive rages that harm and incite the downward-spiraling over and over again.
The drama opens with a catastrophic explosion. The outer structure of the house splits apart. It is a symbolic rendering of an ancient and ancestral lesion that is ever-present in the bloodline of the family and can never be healed because there is no attempt to seek an intervention. This explosion reflects the curse of the family that they choose not to expurgate or exorcise because they don’t know how, nor do they have the tools to stop its cyclical repetition. The breaking apart of the house portends the threatening doom for each of the family members.
The lesion/curse is within each of them and spreads the horrific, hurtful, damage outward and among them. This trip wire provokes the other family members’ sadism and from day to night, torment and abuse infects like a poison (Weston, the father discusses this in a central aria) and destroys everything in its path.
In the family. which has managed to share the same space because they are not there together for one whole hour, there are a mother and father and two teenage children. The younger one is the intelligent Emma. The electric Lizzy Declement gives a performance that develops Emma from hope and contentment to resentment, rage, rebellion and spiritual devolvement. The older sibling is the dutiful Wesley who intends to maintain the farm and keep it a going concern despite the worsening conditions Weston’s addictions create. Wesley and Emma have hopes and dreams, though they do not necessarily include the family.
Emma’s efforts creating a school project indicate that she has ambition and the determination to “be somebody” in her life, if she can ever get away from the nullifying family and farm. After her mother and brother destroy her school project, she runs away on a horse that her mom says is crazy. She returns covered in mud and humiliated desperation. The horse (as emblematic crazy as her family) threw her off and dragged her “through the mud.”
This symbolic action forebodes how the family will treat her for attempting to rise above. After this, she makes negative, impulsive choices which will only exacerbate further damage. She and the other family members are practiced at this circularity, directing their decisions and actions from rage, depression and panic, rather than hope and peace.
Wesley (the dynamic and authentic Gilles Geary) who at the outset of the play and through the second act is trying to repair the door his father bashed in during a drunken, “out-of-control” binging rage-on, cares about the farm, the animals and the security of the family. His assiduous attempt to rebuild the door represents his desire to keep out animal or human interlopers and marauders who would steal from them or usurp the inheritance of the land which father Weston’s alcoholism threatens to encourage.
Weston (the superb David Warshofsky) an alcoholic, cannot lift the farm into thriving, organized prosperity. His relationship with his wife is abusive. Weston emphasizes he is a killer in his descriptions to his son about his role as a bombing pilot during the war. Most probably he is suffering from PTSD, though at the time Shepard wrote the play, this condition of returning combat VETS was never acknowledged. However, his entire destructive, hell-raising, yelling fits indicate he is most likely suffering from it. The culture didn’t help him after the war, and it, along with his negative learned behaviors contribute to the root of his self-hatred, despair and inability to get out from under his depressive, alcoholic malaise and lethargy.
Like the other members of her family the mother Ella (Maggie Siff portrays the mother with nuanced reality) negotiates the tense, hyper-aggressive atmosphere that each of them creates. She augments it by living in the fantasy of selling the property and running away. As her business person who would handle her affairs, she chooses a shyster who intends to defraud her.
The key factors that would make her motherly, accountability, a tidy home with food in the refrigerator, nurturing concern about each of the family members are absent. The refrigerator is empty and as she and the others discuss whether they are a part of the “starving class,” we understand that the empty refrigerator is symbolic. The culture at large deprives them of honor and respect and is the antithesis of soul nurturing. Thus, with their own inner weaknesses, it is nearly impossible for them to care for and nurture each other. Like her daughter who intends to escape, Ella plans to sell the house and take the kids to Europe, as fantastical as this dream is.
As Ella attempts to make arrangements behind Weston’s back, Weston, too, in a drunken fit thinks he makes a deal to sell the property and get a lot of money for it, but he is being defrauded. Wesley understands that the predators that want to buy their property will wreck the land, develop it and ruin its beauty while giving them a pittance, if that. The developers represent the meretricious empty mores influenced by the take over of corporate consumerism. And this consumeristic “curse” has displaced the country’s citizens from searching for the more profound values of life and has alienated them from their purpose and place in the universe, replacing it with being the slaves/pawns of wanton corporate America.
Thus, the land that once might have nurtured Weston and the family for a few generations, has been subject to Weston’s inner plague from the war which he attempts to ameliorate with alcohol, but can’t. And he receives no help from the greedy economic predators who see a mark and intend to take advantage of him.
The culture has failed him on many counts that he hasn’t the “where-with-all” to protect himself from the buzzards-the lawyers and real estate developers and thugs (Andrew Rothenberg, Esau Pritchett) who have entangled Weston with loans that they will extort and bully back from him. Any money that Weston gets from the sale of the property once his debts are paid off and the developers or other predators are done with him, will result in a negative balance.
Thematically, this production soars for its reality, authenticity and raw power. The Scenic Design by Julian Crouch is truly amazing in its functional and thematic purpose. The refrigerator is filthy; one wonders that the food kept in it is sanitary when it is eventually stocked. This adds to our horrified amazement when the starving Wesley ravages all the food in it after he kills the lamb with the intention of eating it. Indeed, his starvation as a member of the “starving class” represents the emotional hunger all of the family experience that manifests as ravenous physical hunger.
Though he and the others complain about not having food in the refrigerator, this “starvation” is not literal, it is soul starvation, spiritual starvation, cultural starvation. The society at large is responsible for this as Weston states and as Ella infers in her desire to go to Europe to escape; indeed, Europe is a place that is culturally rich and can provide unique stimulation.
Sadly, their daily lives have little spiritual or psychic sustenance and when Wesley and Emma attempt to satisfy their inner longings with hope, the other family members come around and either take it away (as Weston/Ella do in attempting to sell the farm) or piss on it (literally, in the case of Emma’s project which Wesley ruins with his urine).
Shephard shows that his characters are so deprived and so used to being deprived and “starving” they starve themselves and each other of love, familial companionship, warmth, compliments, joy, humor, the list is long and comprehensive. As a representative family in this country after WWII, they manifest the status quo. And this is so regardless of economic class, though Shepard uses them, a lower middle class family, to illustrate his themes which actually transcend class when they are viewed from a more profound level.
The acting of the principals is spot-on, moment-to-moment. All of them hit the bulls-eye as they evoke our empathy, pathos, fear, disapproval, shock and horror. The climax is particularly upsetting, but it is also understandable. All are responsible and have contributed to each other’s demise. As they pursue their own desperate goals and desires to escape from their inner masochistic, nihilistic impulses, they collapse in on themselves. Because they are not nurtured to do so, they never reach out to help or to receive help from those who might take them out of their misery.
Terry Kinney guides this production meticulously and has found the right artistic designers to collaborate with to portray Shepard’s tragic almost nihilistic vision from which there is no escape. The costume design by Sarah J. Holden, the lighting design by Natasha Katz, the sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeed (just wow) and William Berloni’s lamb round out this production and do justice to Shepard’s legacy as a playwright uncovering the underbelly of this nation’s ills in this family microcosm.
Curse of the Starving Class runs with one intermission at the Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street between 9th and 10th. It has been extended until 2nd June. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Tortoise in a Nutshell, an Edinburgh-based visual theater company has finally been able to coordinate with 59E59 Theaters for its 2019 Brits Off Broadway season. The company, which first premiered Feral at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is a multi-award-winning group which combines film, and digital theatricals. These include watching the technicians as performers create a show with pre-set miniature pieces which they then animate to tell a story.
The company which travels far and wide and has presented its works not only in the UK, but also in Denmark, Austria and Mexico enjoys creating productions that are unique, innovative and impossible to categorize. Feral in its U.S. Premiere is one such production that combines a use of miniature puppetry, small digital video cameras, live camera action projected on a screen. The productions include background lighting of the set pieces and sound effects as well as a mixed musical score that enhances the story-telling.
Feral, which Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting in an original co-production with Cumbernauld Theatre, focuses on a family. Sister Dawn, brother Joe and their mum live in a town by the sea. They are symbolic and representative as is their town whose “town fathers” decide to allow developers to come in and open a “Supercade.”
What happens as a result of this development becomes disastrous. The picturesque landscape eventually is marred by the types of people who come to the “Supercade.” The quaint shops and daily life of the town’s citizens are wrecked and increasingly law enforcement must be called in to stop muggings, thefts, violent crimes, sexual assaults and general vandalism that occurs. Additionally, it is suggested that the developers used chicanery to bribe the officials or worm their way into the area. This corruption has been overlooked and the Supercade occludes everything. Though we don’t know whom, someone has probably become very rich at the expense of the citizens undermining the tenor and gracefulness of a once peaceful place.
The townspeople attempt to protest what is going on to little effect. And the once lovely beginnings have tragic endings as the wildness in human nature takes over spurred on by the Supercade. However, the production doesn’t end on a completely nihilistic note. There is always hope.
The ingenuity of Feral is not in the “what” but in the “how.” Process is everything with this theater company. The miniatures used are tiny by comparison to average sized puppets. This enhances our interest in them. The model town is all of a piece, the same type of delicate architecture and color and made from the same materials. The beauty of this work is in how the collaborators put the setting together and effect the characters operation in it.
It takes a while for the town and its individuals to be introduced by the cast (Alex Bird, Jim Harbourne, Aaran Howie, Matthew Leonard and Ross Mackay) who build the setting with the houses and shops and then place the inhabitants in their appropriate settings or work the music and background sound effects. This set-up is an important part of the presentation because we see the Hair Shop, the Bakery, the Lighting Shop, the Church, etc., the typical patrons and even some of the animals as familiar, homely residents. We readily identify.
As the cast completes the initial set it up, we do appreciate how adorable the miniatures appear and the camera work that focuses on them in close-up so that we are present on the same level with the characters. Thus, we become a part of what can only be described as a sweet, functioning, bucolic, little piece of heaven where the inhabitants are contented and enjoy their placement there in the universe.
However, we only see the externals. The presentation never proceeds into anything deeper within the individuals. It is a parable with a larger symbolic focus, that of the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. In miniature, the cast, creative team and production team have engendered what happens when a town’s equilibrium is upset by development that has, at its basis, corruption and malfeasance. And when the goals do not align with human beings’ needs, desires and well being, catastrophe occurs.
In Feral the wild impulse is diverted in the goal to make money without consideration for how the “development” whether it be digital-technological (the iPhone, Facebook, Amazon) or a material “play-land,” “Gentleman’s Club” or casino will impact the community at large. Thus, we understand that the inhabitants are acted upon by unforeseen forces that in the guise of “developmental prosperity” actually foment destruction as a by-product. The wild impulses the entertainment is designed to exploit for money overwhelm. Once the Supercade opens, entropy lopes in and takes over.
Feral is obviously a labor of love by the creative team: Amelia Bird (Scenic Design) Simon Wilkinson (Lighting Design) and Jim Harbourne (Original Music and Sound Design) and theri director Ross Mackay. Their innovative, human-friendly designs immediately convey the audience into the creators’ world of imagination. To its credit, the designers work to make the audience an integral part of the ongoing events as the camera angles move our vision from a distant perspective closer and closer into Dawn’s and Joe’s house to see their kitty cat and close to see the interiors of the various shops. The camera moves our vision into the beauty parlor, around the park and pier and into an adorableness that includes our watching a cute squirrel fed daily by the pastor of the town church.
Thus, as we identify with this mini corner of the universe, we are engaged and become concerned when the “Supercade” is built despite protest. Most probably money changes hands surreptitiously for the entertainment palace to be built. It is then the themes shift to the macrocosm as we consider what has transpired in the last 10 years almost exponentially along waterfronts and elsewhere.
Such displacing, nefarious development is happening in too many cities and towns across the globe. Those who have the most to lose are overcome by those who have the money and power to do what they want and not be held accountable for the damages. Indeed, though it is not clear in this production, most developers live in their own bucolic paradise surrounded by three-acres, with security teams, gates and high walls to keep out the “riff-raff” whom they prey upon to fund their selfishness, the “riff-raff” being these townspeople who just want to live life with some modicum of happiness..
Feral is imaginative, particular and profound if not disconcerting. The creators’ process is complicated but it delivers a simple metaphor of our times in identifiable human terms. Bravo to both the creative team listed above and the production team Andrew Gannon (Technical Diretor) and AEA Stage Manager (Alyssa K. Howard).
Tortoise in a Nutshell’s Feral runs for 50 minutes with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 9 June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.