Category Archives: Broadway
‘Moulin Rouge! The Musical’ Celebrates the Seductive Delights of the Iconic Venue in a Sumptuous Feast for the Senses
From the moment you enter the Al Hirshfeld Theatre, a paradise of sensuality embraces your soul and immerses you in the suggestion of hedonistic pleasure. Immediately, you are “eyes wide open,” moving along a course where anything is possible, even an after hours engagement with one of the male, female or transgender perfections of beauty scantily but tastefully adorned, who saunter on the catwalks and peer out at you from the stage. Undulating rhythms and sensual music in this Bohemian Paris Left Bank cabaret/theater/dance hall soothe and allure. The luxurious red and gold appointments, the deep cherry and red velvet variegated stage curtains, the banquets, chandeliers, gleaming brass, the golden cherubim all whisper romance, sex, excitement and a whirlwind of indulgence. Whoever you are, you will be encouraged to understand that you can achieve your vision of an exalted life; a life where freedom, truth, beauty and love raises you above a bruising and squalid reality out there on the dark streets.
But inside, this is the Moulin Rouge Club at Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Expect the finest in fantasy and escapism. If your intellect and imagination are ripe to receive, you will never be the same again! As you sense this revelation La Chocolat (Jacqueline B. Arnold) Nini (Robyn Hurder) Arabia (Holly James) Baby Doll (Jeigh Madjus) parade their “stuff” and throatily grind to the beats as they torch out “Lady Marmalade,” in an unforgettable opening number joined by the ensemble. This full throttle ignition is brilliantly conceived with grand style and prodigious effort. by the creative team. My God, what a triumph!
The production directed by the illimitable Alex Timbers, with a clever book by John Logan (based on the 2001 Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, directed by Baz Luhrmann) with “to-die-for” music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Justin Levine is a towering majestical remembrance of what never was but might have been during the Belle Époque in Paris and specifically at the fin de siè·cle. From the on-point luxurious, sexy, ravishing costumes by Catherine Zuber to the energetic, aggressive, dance numbers choreographed by Sonya Tayeh, this musical is a non stop festival. “Bad Romance” is especially gravitating as a thrilling, energetic, “lemme consume your lips,” head to head, face-off with couples gyrating to the hot Lady Gaga song which thematically epitomizes the romance among the principal couples: The Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu) Satine (Karen Olivo) Christian (Aaron Tveit) and the lesser lights: Santiago (Ricky Rojas) and Nini (Robyn Hurder) all of whom are sensational in voice, and character portrayals.
Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin provided their creative services to the production which is an update of their ground-breaking, award-winning film Moulin Rouge (2001). And indeed, the basic arc of development inspired by a meld of characters and plots from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata and Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme remains with added tweaks of humor, phantasm and fun delivered by incredible performances, perhaps the most preeminent charismatic, chameleon of of them all being the gobsmacking Danny Burstein.
Burstein is mesmerizing; I could not take my eyes off him. Amidst the splendiferous sets (Derek McLane) and shimmering, vibrantly lit (Justin Townsend) festivities, Burstein, as the club’s artistic owner/showman Harold Zidler, is the “God-like” host of confabulation. And he is damn good at it, in fact so adorable that we understand how and why Harold has kept his “chickens” together through thick and the current financially thin stage of the Moulin Rouge Club’s history. As Burstein’s Harold winningly controls our imaginations and guides the glory and spectacle, we willingly follow him believing he has our best interests at heart because to him there is no sin, no judgment. Within this space and for this night, we are free to be our fantasies.
What this production does exceedingly well is reveal that the Moulin Rouge Club into which Zidler has put his heart, soul and every red hot cent he owes is an artistic production down to the lavish sets and well-heeled orchestra. And he and the ensemble live for this art. Thus, Burstein’s performance is a revelatory genius of Zidler’s dedication and desperation. Motivated by his craft and concern for his artistic family, his character’s steely sweetness is genuine, his charm and love is pure without oily ingratitude or predatory insidiousness. Above all he makes clear in the behind the scenes discussions with Satine that his desire is to supply his patrons’ complete enjoyment so his company will survive and remain off the streets and away from the impoverished hellishness they all came from.
Likewise, Satine’s love for Zidler and her company of friends and compatriots, one of whom is the great painter Toulouse-Lautrec (the very fine, grounded Sahr Ngaujah) reveals they understand the club’s liquidity is their life and happiness. Thus, Satine’s characterization is profound. She is the “read deal:” she is their salvation, their mother, their friend, their life-blood, their sacrifice. The sense of love and community among the ensemble is palpable so we believe Burstein’s Harold when he insists that Satine should “go to hospital,” as her friends insist as well. Without her, they are lost.
Karen Olivo’s Satine is a sensual, hot, earth-mother and high-class courtesan, experienced, wise, unmoved. She is not an ethereal beauty, but dominant, solid in will though failing in flesh. She is a perfect symbol to represent what Harold’s artistic creation stands for, a lotus risen from the mud into full flower which will fade quick;y. Olivo’s fullness of voice soars during her duets with Tveit’s Christian who is her equal in range, power and sensitivity. “The Elephant Medley” (the love song riff mash-up they sing in her boudoir as a “come-on” and “let-down”) that has been enhanced with additional numbers is just smashing.
Her introduction by Zidler as the “jewel” of the Moulin Rouge Club as she descends on a trapeze singing the “Diamond Medley” symbolizes her ethos and the club’s centrality as a necessity in the hearts of a society at that time and perhaps for all time. Escapism is in; it always was and always will be. The more authentic the fantasy, the better. And Satine, like Zidler, are exceptional conveyors. Their importance is an equivalent to their patrons’ happiness. Thus, she is fitting as a timeless symbol of the club; their interwoven stories will always resonate and instruct with wisdom, which like a diamond shines but cuts.
Obviously, Logan’s book adapted from Luhrmann’s and Craig Pearce’s film, reflects depth in its simple story of artists attempting to survive in a carnivorous world as they use their charms and love inducements to glean wealthy backers. And all goes well, until the artists are hoisted on their own petard of humanity, and they fall fatally in love, and others fall fatally in lust with them. As cultural icons, artists cannot be owned or even possessed. (a not so subtle message to philistines everywhere). Satine and Zidler belong to their art, themselves and the world, as Ngaujah’s Toulouse-Lautrec affirms despite The Duke of Monroth’s insistence that Monroth owns the club and all its performers. It is another intriguing theme. When art is put in the hands of philistine owners, it crumbles for they lack the talent, will and spirit to create. Instead, they should uplift the brilliance of creators like Zidler who know how to draw the crowds but lack the finances to do it.
The scenes when Lautrec and the company rehearse and Mutu’s Duke attempts to assist are particularly to the point and humorous. Monroth’s ego gets in the way after he senses he has lost Satine to Christian, yet is willing to keep her despite her lack of affection for him. And his jealousy rises to spoil the production as Christian’s jealousy rises to provoke the Duke. Yet, the show must go on, but how? Satine, once more must “save the day,” but she is not immortal and will die.
As rivals for her love and lust Tveit’s Christian and Mutu’s Duke are worthy. The intricacies of plot which involve Satine’s eventual love for the innocent and consumed Christian and sexual enticement of the Duke are woven adroitly. Particularly delightful are Mutu’s mash-up of Mick Jagger’s songs (his “Sympathy for the Devil” could have gone on longer). And the conversion of lyrics to a male orientation for Rihanna’s “Only Girl” are hilarious. Mutu manages to be wicked but sexy and seductive. His intentions are insidious but he retains the exceptionalism of aristocracy that assumes privilege from generational wealth that goes back centuries. Importantly, it is the humor in Mutu’s depiction that keeps him interesting and edgy and not loathsome, which is in keeping with the comedic tone of the production.
As a keen and successful rival, Tveit expertly tweaks the humor related to Christian’s creating his compositions in the funny scene when he first befriends Lautrec and Santiago. He does this with expert timing and together the three render their exchange into pure farce. His “Ohio” demeanor evolves by the conclusion from a “lad” to a man who “comes into his own.” He is every inch the authentic lover. His duets with Satine in which they both feed song refrains to each other are happily playful, suggestive and grounded. And in the delivery of his last songs, Tveit is amazing, heartfelt, sonorous. As a couple in a loving affair that grows into something more, Tveit and Olivo strike powerful resonances.
Nothing more can be lauded about Mouline Rouge! The Musical except that the sound design by Peter Hylenski was on point, balanced, targeted. I heard words from well known songs that I never “got” before, for example Katy Perry’s “Firework,” which Olivo sends into the heavens as a PURE WOW! As a result I could greater appreciate the character development, the themes, symbols, the ironies, the true riches of this mythic production because the song mash-ups and medleys were crystal clear.
This is a Broadway show in the true spirit of New York City’s greatness. To see these performers, you should get tickets immediately and if you can order another set to revisit a month or two out. I guarantee that seeing it again, you will note many other elements that you missed the first time around as you peel back layers. If you can’t see it again, some of the music is on Youtube. Check for updates.
The show runs with one intermission at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on West 45th street. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
The cast album is currently available for streaming at https://smarturl.it/MRtheMusical
For those who have seen one of the many revivals of Harold Pinter’s brilliant, award winning play Betrayal or its film equivalent (1983), you cannot help but be engaged following the intrigue and duplicity of the triangulated relationship between married couple Emma and Robert, and close friend Jerry. In Betrayal, Pinter raises deceitfulness to a fine art as he memorializes how a convolution of lies evolve into the death of a marriage. The current revival directed with exceptional insight and precision by Jamie Lloyd and acted to perfection by Tom Hiddleston (Robert) Zawe Ashton (Emma) and Charlie Cox (Jerry) at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, vaults Pinter’s work into the heavens.
Though I have not seen every revival, this one most probably exceeds productions that came before it with few exceptions, perhaps the only one being the production in 2013 directed by Mike Nichols starring real-life-couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. However, I cannot adequately compare for this spectacular production is mind-blowing. It took my breath away.
Director Jamie Lloyd removes any extraneous spectacle of sets, props, costumes. He supplants them with unobtrusive design elements to enhance Pinter’s themes so we focus on the interactions of the three principals and their responses to each other both sub rosa and manifest. Lloyd retains a spare physicality during scene changes employing the use of a revolving platform to spin the characters back into time and flashback where they finally land on the “beginning” event in Emma’s/Robert’s bedroom. It is then in 1968 when Jerry poetically, fervently seduces Emma mentally and plants the seeds of the irrevocable ending of it all in her consciousness. In a reverse chronological order we witness the ending dissolution of the marriage at the top of the play. Pinter reveals in reverse the salient conversations which slide back to the initial thrusts of “love and betrayal” between Jerry and Emma which are integral to their relationship with Robert. who manages to retain control despite their duplicity with a mendacity all his own.
To clarify the structure of the seven year affair, Lloyd adds projections of the backward turning years on the wall and the front of the proscenium. Thus, we note in backward evolution events which lead to the primal moment when the canker worm of adultery first nestles on the flower of Robert’s and Emma’s marriage, a worm which we witness from the initial scene and which completely has eaten away Emma’s, Robert’s and Jerry’s well being and peace. However, at the top, like most interactions we ourselves have, we are not sure what we witness until the final revelation of deceit at the play’s conclusion.
For the entire production, Lloyd has constructed as the main set piece, the backdrop of a blandly colored wall at the rear of the stage against which the actor not engaged in a scene stands facing the audience or leaning in profile. Lloyd’s enlightened staging reinforces the nature of the relationship among Robert, Emma and Jerry as if they are one being and entity. It also heightens the notion that the one absent is everpresent in the others’ minds, and that he or she will be the subject of the conversation between the other two.
Maintaining the presence of all the principals on stage whether they are actively engaged or silently hovering, also elucidates the nature and condition of each. It is as if they enjoy the necessity of being a “threesome” of duplicity, though they are not a “threesome” physically or sexually. Nevertheless, each is seared and entrapped in the consciousness of the other two and never really is far away from “them” when the other two are together cheating “behind his/her back.” The fascinating staging furthers Lloyd’s theme: if there is to be an affair, the three are perhaps most satisfied in being clandestine with each other in a strange egotistical and mental sadomasochism which allows them to continue betraying and misleading each other for years. Thus, the themes of betrayal for each of the characters is nuanced and layered and because Robert, Jerry and Emma cannot confront the truth of their own illness of self-deception, the destruction of their relationships between and among each other grows, despite their willful obliviousness.
Lloyd’s focus on psyche and consciousness rises to great thematic purpose and illustrates why Pinter never includes the presence of Judith, Jerry’s spouse or the others with whom Robert and Emma are having affairs. These others are ancillary to the vitality of the psychic “threesome.” As a result we understand how Emma, Robert and Jerry function together swimming in the medium of lies pulling toward and against each other to an inevitable dissolution of what they once were before the affair between Emma and Jerry began.
For what Lloyd’s staging and incredible direction with the equally scintillating acting by Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox evokes and symbolizes, we experience a production which is thrilling, alive, masterful. For in the hands, minds and instruments of these brilliant talents, Pinter’s Betrayal is a play about consciousness and the emotional and mental agility of ego, impulse, deflection and undercurrent so that we understand each character’s intentions and feelings though these may never be expressed and may hover as the unspoken and insidious. Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox circle smugly around the truth, even to the point of lying about “how they are doing.” All are doing poorly, considering they’ve blown apart love and friendship and have reveled in allowing a cover-up to persist with a sub rosa disdain and rebuke of each other. We witness a tragedy which the characters are loathe to admit. Only the waiter wonderfully portrayed by Eddie Arnold remains cheerful, positive and authentic.
Interestingly, when prodded, the characters deflect. Typical of Pinteresque dialogue, a simple “How are you?” and response of “Fine,” becomes weighted with subterranean meaning and import. The individual whether Robert or Emma or Jerry is not fine. Indeed, their souls are in tatters. Though the relationship between and among each was profound (Emma and Robert have two children together, one after she sleeps with Jerry; Robert actually likes Jerry better than Emma) it is not intimate. Each is an isolate, separate and alone, inauthentic, insincere, manipulative. Pinter displays the very core of friendship and love for these three. They lovingly, charmingly, metaphorically stab each other again and again in the back while smiling in each other’s faces. They accomplish their treacheries to preserve ego. Meanwhile, how can their center hold? Eventually, it doesn’t.
Of course this is the human condition: fronting, saving face. God forbid these would admit hurt, pain and torment. God forbid Robert would smash Jerry’s head in for seducing his wife or confront Jerry with the truth. God forbid Emma and Robert would go to therapy. Instead, we discover that Robert becomes “all right” with their affair and doesn’t share his knowledge with Jerry punitively, until Jerry furiously confronts him after the affair is over for two years. Likewise, Emma’s ego is shattered when she discovers Robert punishingly, ironically, has been unfaithful to her for years. Thus, we note how Robert has controlled Jerry and Emma and manipulated them while letting them believe he was the “weakling” and cuckold. That he encourages it and that they are outraged at his behavior and unfaithfulness is the height of irony, humor and cynicism.
What particularly enthralled me was the emotional grist of Hiddleston, Zawe and Cox revealed at various times when the truth smashes into them. The actors allow us to see glimpses of the pain the characters are hiding. This occurs, for example: when Hiddleston initially discovers Emma’s letter to Jerry; when Emma discovers her marriage which has been over for years, is finally over; when Jerry discovers with outrage how Robert hid his knowledge of the affair from him for four years without a stir or breath of upset or anger. Each of them plodded on living with their own perfidy and self- deception without feeling the necessity of coming to an end of themselves in truth. Cox, Hiddleston and Zawe are absolutely stunning in their moment-to-moment responses to each other. Theirs is breathtaking ensemble work.
Betrayal is a magnificent production. I didn’t want it to end and the standing ovation wasn’t enough appreciation, surely, for such marvelous work. Kudos to Soutra Gilmour (scenic & costume design) Jon Clark (lighting design) Ben and Max Ringham (sound design and composition) for executing Jamie Lloyd’s vision and in creating a medium in which the actors’ portrayals are encouraged to vibrate with life.
Betrayal runs with no intermission at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (242 West 45th Street) until 8 December. Don’t miss this theatrical event which will surely bring in nominations for the cast and director. 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.
William Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Sam Gold is a must-see for its principal performances and its particular, stylized artistic design (scenic, sound, costume) which cleverly emphasizes the themes, symbolism and metaphors of the play. Above all, you should not miss Glenda Jackson who is a gobsmacking dynamo as the king who throws off the shackles of corruption and confronts his mortality to gain the wisdom of foolishness.
Jackson fits the titular role like it is made of her own flesh. This is a “once upon a lifetime” production that is astute, profound, if sometimes opaquely realized with regard to integrating Philip Glass’ music. Nevertheless, the director’s vision and design suggests overarching themes about appearance vs. reality, lies vs. truth, duplicity vs. authenticity, wisdom in madness and madness in wisdom.
Throughout, Jackson is a magnificent, who always rises to perform with sentience and power. Her Tony award winning portrayals in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women last year were unforgettable. Likewise, her performance in King Lear follows with equal ferocity and fervor.
Shakespeare’s characterization of the foolish king is among the most searing, poignant and challenging of roles. Only someone with the breadth, knowledge, sensitivity and prodigious talent like Ms. Jackson’s should attempt it. And that is why, from a woman’s perspective, her performance of this man who is a king and a fool is almost counterintuitive. It is no ready coincidence that Jackson’s Lear exemplifies a startling emotional grist that moves the king’s ethos from corruption to madness to wisdom with breathtaking logic and moment-to-moment life.
In her every action, every breath and movement, every grimace and expression of inner torment and fury, we search out Lear’s evolving humanity as we feel his pain and empathize with him. Shakespeare’s characterization of Lear engineers the development of the play.
It is Lear who creates the self-destructive vortex and whirls violently in it during the arc of his soul journey, buffeted by its abuse, yet buoyed up by a stalwart inner core of moral outrage and self-righteous fury. It is the recognition of his own corrupted judgment and the expose of his daughters’ wickedness that keeps him from drowning in complete madness. He is kept from this abyss by the Earl of Kent (the exquisite john Douglas Thompson) his Fool (Ruth Wilson in a humorous turn) the supportive Earl of Gloucester (the poignant and superb Jayne Houdyshell) and Gloucester’s son Edgar (Sean Carvajal) in a beautifully rendered performance) who becomes like the Biblical lunatic to escape the wrath of the court.
After Lear spurns his third daughter Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) his daughter Goneril (the excellent Elizabeth Marvel) and daughter Regan (the equally fine Aisling O’Sullivan) presumptuously usurp his authority. They command that he heel to their authority, despite his generous bestowal of wealth and lands upon them. Rather than accept his retinue that follows him to his daughters’ castles, they provoke their father’s wrath to pursue their own agendas.
Maintaining his nobility and identity, Jackson’s Lear refuses to “live” under their terms. Homeless, he braves the stormy abyss of his own soul damnation reflected in the harsh elements with the help of his Fool and the Earl of Kent, disguised as a servant. Ruth Wilson’s Fool comforts Lear, chides him and peppers his rages at Goneril’s and Regan’s ignominous treatment with humorous jibes and quips which strip Lear of his courtly pretensions. Indeed, the Fool guides him toward humility and brings this lofty king into an endearment with his own “base” but noble humanity.
Gold’s version of Lear stylizes the trope that Cordelia and the Fool are similar by having Wilson expertly play both parts. If this is, in Lear’s mind, an unconscious projection of remorse, self-flagellation and wish fulfillment to forgive his loving Cordelia and keep her near, the doubling of roles is sensible. Certainly, Cordelia is the only daughter who loves him. Thus, it is appropriate that Cordelia-the Fool leads the foolish old man into wisdom to help perfect his soul and expurgate the corruptions he has internalized, surrounded by treacherous courtiers and family in a lifestyle that has caved in his better person.
During Lear’s journey into the dark storms of mental uncertainty deranged by a gilded, false life in the gaudy kingdom that he must leave behind (mentally) to grow, he stumbles upon his real self. Centered in truths he never experienced before in his court, Lear strives to maintain his autonomy and identity. He eventually comes to realize what is important in his life-his humanity/mortality/liability to err in judgment which he is able to forgive as he presents himself as “a foolish old man.”
Gold’s decision (Miriam Bljether’s Senic Design) to regale the court in pretentious splendor hints at a surface gloss and artificiality/artfulness that distracts from confronting the underlying wickedness and greed in Lear’s court and kingdom. They are “dressing to impress” to cover up the incompetence, nihilism and emptiness within themselves. All that glitters is fool’s gold; it lacks value and worth in an inherently weak kingdom whose underlying principles (if there are any) do not guard against self-destruction and annihilation. Thus, in the stylization the director reveals the seeds of corruption and foreshadows the devolution of the kingdom that will follow hard and fast.
In this setting of “fool’s gold” we meet the commanding Lear and his three daughters at a celebration during which the string quartet stuffed into a corner plays the gorgeous music (original music by Philip Glass) which the courtiers and family neither acknowledge nor appreciate but treat as background noise to be ignored as they raise their voices over it. The family’s general lack of appreciation for their lavish lifestyle and their dismissal of the importance of the depth of their royal duties is reflected in their reaction to all the court accoutrements including a most civil tea service later in the play, held at an incongruent and ridiculous time and place. They are the arrogant, the privileged. Only Cordelia differs.
Thus, when Cordelia reminds the court of her loyalty to her father invested in her role as his daughter, we take this to heart. Do the others, after receiving their inheritance realize the obligations their father’s gift entails?
Hardly. Regan and Goneril from the outset are principally concerned with “getting all they can” through false pretense. They could care less about the rights and duties invested in their father’s gift of an early inheritance. It is no small wonder that Goneril and Regan rail about Lear’s visits with his soldiers. They want the inheritance with no strings attached, wishing to be free of their father forever. Rather than pay homage and give extended hospitality to a vibrant, authoritative king, they take advantage of his public punishment of Cordelia and suggest that he is off balance. It follows that they will provoke his wrath and become his enemies, so that their unconscious desire that he dies sooner rather than later becomes a reality.
An overarching metaphor the director emphasizes throughout the play, is the irony of incongruence-in the court’s lack of probity and unseemly excessiveness. Incongruence is everywhere represented by the “out-of-place” music at the celebration and elsewhere, music which never quite melds throughout the arc of the play’s development. The “over-the-top,” ostentatious, meretricious faux “gold” walls and the formal outfits (Ann Roth-Costume Design) exchanged for less formal ones as the kingdom devolves and the characters’ wicked selves are exposed, also appear incongruous as they are presented. So do the huge ceramic dog and lion.
The gilt walls are present throughout the play with a similarly hued curtain that characters stand before during various scenes (a further emphasis of the themes of incongruity and fool’s gold or an idea that Shakespeare often uses that appears in The Merchant of Venice: “all that glitters is not gold”). The “fool’s gold” walls and audience curtain are the ironic, anomalous backdrop against which the characters are measured and either found wanting in that they exemplify the trope or are antithetical to it.
These artistic elements reflect the malfeasant influence his daughters and husbands have over Lear, an influence which is shaken out of him on his stormy journey coming to the end of himself.
As the daughters and their husbands abuse the kingdom for their own nefarious ends all becomes rubble, wrecked by the familial divisions and war. The walls are the only remnants of the former “glory” of the court perhaps suggesting a universal concept. This kingdom is finished, but the spirit of duplicity (faux gold) of leaders’ pretense which they use to control their minions is present in every age. Eventually, by the conclusion the back gold wall takes on a different hue changed by shifts in lighting. Interpret this as you will, the hue doesn’t gleam, but suggests small points of light (starlight?) amidst characters comments (i.e. Kent: ‘The stars above us govern our condition”).
In the fateful universe of Shakespeare’s play, the arrogant, self-centered human beings are thwarted in the pursuit of their own wicked desires which are founded upon worthless principles (“fool’s gold”) and lies. This development is evident in the characterizations of Goneril, Edmund, Regan, the Duke of Cornwall. The other characters (Edgar, the Duke of Albany) who do not follow their lust for power rise to triumph. As object lessons, Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Lear are caught up in the hazard, subjects of poignant tragedy.
And it all begins in the “golden” court, when Lear pronounces his inheritance to his inherently wicked daughters enticing them to flatter him in a misaligned quid pro quo as if to prove his greatness and their fealty to him. Goneril and Regan oblige him; Cordelia does not. In that fell act, treason and wickedness are exposed. The wrong daughters receive the bulk of the inheritance, the right daughter is disinherited. The world is in chaos, turned upside down as duplicity usurps love and order.
Lear makes a public show of Cordelia’s punishment sealing his misaligned judgment which the others see may be further abused. Indeed, Lear’s malignity is revealed in a court which embraces and exploits it. And this evil sets in motion the parallel plot with the Earl of Gloucester and his treacherous, conniving son Edmund (the wonderful, insidious Pedro Pascal) who usurps brother Edgar’s inheritance and place in his father’s affections and legal authority.
In this secondary plot the illegitimate Edmund, who despises the goodness of his father, lies on his brother Edgar who is forced to escape with his life and go into hiding disguised as the madman beggar “poor Tom.” It is only when Lear, Kent and the Fool meet up with Edgar and take shelter in a hovel does Lear begin to understand his condition in light of poor Tom who is much worse off. In this beggar lunatic, he sees his true ethos without the vanities of the world and his court.
Lear journeys through his “madness” gaining wisdom and gradually throws off the misaligned corruptions of the “courtly mind,” represented by the “fool’s gold” set design. Lear becomes the humble, kingly fool. These scenes among Lear, the Fool, Kent and Edgar are particularly wonderful. The scenes between Carvajal’s Edgar and Houdyshell’s Earl of Gloucester when the blind Earl seeks his death are magnificently rendered by Houdyshell and Carvajal and incredibly touching and poignant.
Thus, the deeper evils of this court once hidden in the hearts of Goneril and Regan and her husband and Edmund, feed on themselves and grow as the villains wreck everything to gain the advantage, an advantage which is never sustained with the good sense and order to keep it. The director correctly has the nihilistic Goneril, Regan, The Duke of Cornwall and Edmund contribute to demolishing all order in the kingdom symbolized by the ripped up set interiors as the court is rocked from within and without by war. Considering that they annihilate their inheritance and the goodness of Lear’s gift to them, portraying their father as their enemy, that evil which was hidden by glamour and civility explodes full bore by the play’s conclusion.
Goneril’s mocking lasciviousness expresses her unrestrained wildness “going over to the dark side.” Marvel’s development of characterization is superb. Likewise O’Sullivan’s Regan as the raging, screaming shrew (evolving from the sweeter sister at the outset) appears even more “off the beam” crazy than her father, Lear. And so does her husband the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard’s signing is emotionally powerful) whose rage is at times inarticulate and can only be expressed with frantic signing and frustrated slamming.
By the end, the court reaches its true level of craven wantonness. The debased Goneril and Edmund have sordid sex on the floor reveling in the chaos and rubble. Regan and Edmund plot against Goneril in the disordered wreckage which no one bothers to clear out. Cornwall is stabbed as the actors pick their way around the debris of the once “glorious” court, followed by Regan’s poisoning by Goneril for Edmund’s love. The director again reinforces the theme that wicked amorality has no tenability nor the substance to sustain order. As those who deserve to rule, Edgar and the Duke of Albany (Dion Johnstone) prove themselves wise and just in restoring a kingdom ruined by greed, lies, usurpation, corruption and treachery.
In his humbled, state after the madness of wisdom shines a truth he has learned, Lear states a key theme about his royal court: “robes and furr’d gowns hide all.” In another quote he states: “plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks.” To “plate” sin with gold (as he had allowed) makes justice weak and breaks it.
By the end Lear gains the revelations of foolish wisdom for he has humbled himself with self-recriminations of his pride at discounting Cordelia’s goodness. We are uplifted by his reconciliation with Cordelia. We rejoice with him as she forgives him, and sorrow with him at her death which he follows with his own. In all of these emotional modulations of this iconic human being that is the recovered foolish king, Ms. Jackson just wipes out the audience.
Ms. Jackson accomplishes this because from the first scene to the last she assumes the mantle of the salty, unhoused, unbridled, tragic Lear and never strays in her focus and determination. As Ms. Jackson’s Lear comes to the end of himself, he manifests the truth that he is, as all men (and women) are great and small, a fool. In this human portrayal, we recognize we too are the kingly fools of our own universe. And we stink of our own mortal desires, mistakes, frailties. And perhaps that is in itself our royalty of revelation. It doesn’t get any better than that!
King Lear runs with one twenty minute intermission, three and one-half hours at the Cort Theatre (48th St.) You may find tickets and times at the website by CLICKING HERE.
Gary by Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama, Taylor Mac and directed by the prodigiously talented George C. Wolfe is WACK! (translation: cosmically brilliant, riotous, sardonic in dark and light) This uproarious “Sequel to Titus Andronicus” (Shakespeare’s first and bloodiest tragedy) is a brutal, intense, intimate play about body parts and indelicate body processes we don’t discuss in polite conversation with The Queen. Rich in themes and characterizations with a clever, twisty plot that surprises, it is also about much more.
To give us a handle in how to approach the mood and tenor of Gary, Carol (the sensational Julie White) comes in front of the once glorious, now shabby curtain and addresses the audience in Shakespeare’s favorite verse, rhyming iambic couplets. As Carol validates the how/why that Titus Androicus deserves a sequel, suddenly she spurts blood from a hole where her throat has been slit during the roiling events of the former play.
The absurdity of her discussion about a sequel that is more craven with gore than the original (while spurting blood) is titanically ironic and bounteously funny! Already, the playwright has set the mood and tenor between the horrific and rambunctious, as Carol’s unsuccessful attempts to stem the red flux poises the audience on a balance beam of tragedy and comedy. If this is the first of the production’s many moments of shock and awesomeness, we’re in for the long and the short of it. Let the rollicking fun begin!
Conceivably, after every holocaust of war and massacre, someone has to clean up and set things “straight” again. In her wobbly, blood draining state, Carol brings up the curtain to reveal the debacle of bloodshed at the conclusion of Titus Andronicus. Then she totters off to bleed to death. The mounds and mounds of bodies piled up from the coup are staggering. There is one central mound of bodies to be processed, another pile of processed bodies and another under a sheet. Thanks to Santo Loquasto’s scenic design, everywhere you look there is the attempt to organize rotting flesh in the Roman banquet hall that is a temporary storage place of the dead. These number among them rich and poor, wealthy elites, citizens, officials, soldiers, rulers and others swept up in fierce fighting, civil war, apocalypse. Death does not discriminate.
The feast of death poetically will slide into a feast of celebration, for in a day, the hall will be the site of the new Emperor’s inauguration, another power transition. Into this macabre scene comes Gary (the incredible Nathan Lane who is a riot beyond description) a former clown who juggled live pigeons to little acclaim and no success. Things are looking up for Gary; he has a new job as a servant for the court. But what a job!
Having escaped a near death experience at the executioner’s hand by a lightening stroke of genius, Gary ends up in the hall for he told the executioner he would help tidy up the catastrophe of gore by doing maid service. Little does he realize what cleaning up corpses entails, and when head maid Janice (the magnificent, moment-to-moment Kristine Nielsen) begins to show him, he recoils, reconsiders his choice and redirects his “ingenuity” in a different direction. He will not stay there long; he will rise up and go beyond maid service. He will become a Fool, the wisest of the Emperor’s counsel.
Meanwhile, Janice must teach loafer Gary the tricks of death’s work in the flesh. Grand experience has inured her to dealing with corpses, for she’s been cleaning up after each of the Roman wars for a long time. And Rome has been battling for decades. As Janice instructs Gary in “cleaning,” her fiendish efficiency at pummeling the gas out of the bodies to extract their farts is Nielsen at her hysterical best. Her antic machinations are real and horrifyingly, and equally LOL humorous, as she drains noxious body fluids showing Gary the difference between siphoning out the blood, and pushing out the poo. Lane’s Gary is priceless in his response to Nielsen’s Janice. The two actors are the perfect counterparts to make us roll in the aisles at their irreverence and seriousness.
From the outset, we understand Mac’s themes of class elitism and domination as the two maids disagree, fight and create their own rank to dominate, even as ridiculous as it is to fight over lead maid and subordinate. From the characters’ quips, jibes, demands, insults and resistances, we learn how beaten down the lower classes are through these prototypical plebeians who are the invisible, the disposable. But then again their disagreement if given latitude may rise to add their corpses to the pile and who then would be left to clean up the mess? The human condition to power over others defies class. There must be something better than this!
Though recovery from his near death experience sent him to a place of hell and damnation with Janice presiding as head monster maid, Gary holds to his enlightened state. He considers; maybe he can save the world and make it better, to stem the tide of wars and bloodshed. His revelation spurs him to attempt to convert Janice to his cause and show her there is something better in life than pumping poo and expelling gas from cadavers.
But Nielsen’s Janice is an incontrovertible martinet. What’s worse is she’s excellent at her job. She actually takes pride in her efficiency and refuses to revolt against the current social “order” or rise above it. She eschews and belittles Gary’s ambitions. She is insistent about keeping her place at the bottom of the social strata so she can stay alive even if she is a fart expeller. But as Gary questions the “life” she is leading, his presence and argumentative logic wear her down. As she processes the bodies and argues and commands Gary, she erupts with aphorisms and sage comments indicating that perhaps there is a shaking going on in her soul. Perhaps dealing with death has made her wise after all and prone to hope as well.
Carol shocks Gary and Janice joining the scene, having survived bleeding to death in a second near death experience to match Gary’s. She adds to the hilarity by confessing her “sin” that she missed an opportunity to save a life. With distraught fervor, White’s Carol cries out a refrain of her “sin” at pointed moments during the conversation with Janice and Gary. Each time she erupts in a whining cry (no SPOILER ALERT, SEE THE PLAY) she is marvelously, brilliantly funny. And yet, we feel for her and “know” we would not have behaved so cruelly and cowardly as she did. (NOT!) But she, too, can be inspired to change.
White, Lane and Nielsen send up his extraordinary satire on death and the tragedy of the human condition to fear, hate, revenge and murder. And finally, they do what Gary persuades them to, with Janice convinced of the rightness of his enlightened suggestions. The characters create an “artistic coup” and turn the tragedy of humanity (in Titus Andronicus) into an absurd comedy sequel, where the audience laughs at itself and reverses the cycle of hatred, killing and violence.
Indeed, Mac and Gary parallel in their intentions, as Gary states in creating his artistic coup, that it’s an “onslaught of ingenuity that’s a transformation of the calamity we got here. A sort of theatrical revenge on the Andronicus revenge.” Thus, this ‘Sequel to Titus Andronicus’ is a comedy bubbling up from a tragedy and the production ends with hope sparked from a clown and mid-wife who had a second chance at life to encourage a maid who was enduring a living death.
Though the pallid, fake, pokey corpses are stripped or dressed as Romans and the setting is in the latter days of the Roman Empire, Mac’s message is clear. This is us! This is now! The more ridiculous-looking and absurd the “cadavers” appear, the more death and war hover in the “unreality” of the piles of staged dummy corpses. In displaying the morbidity of violent effects, the production is precisely pacifist. But it is also a “Fooling.” So…interpret as you will.
Mac, with acute, dark wit creates his new Mac-genre-“Fooling” and reminds us how we “play” with our own mortality and that of others by taking our lives for granted. As invisible as one may feel in light of the culture’s social and political corruptions, there is always hope. There is always something one may do to rise above and use one’s genius to help others. The fact that Gary plans an “artistic revolt” to convert tragedy into comedy suits for our time.
The production rises to the heavens buoyed up by the fabulous talents of acting giants Nielsen, Lane and White shepherded by the superb Wolf. I could write volumes about this work and the humane, sensitive and completely organic performances by Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen and Julie White that are “over-the-top” impeccable. I cannot imagine anyone else in their hyper-hilarious, exhaustive, and energetic portrayals.
Wolf and the artistic team display the playwright’s vision and sound the alarm with energetic gusto. Can we luxuriate in continued economic class struggles, power dominations which set up the inequities between the rulers and the ruled? Why must the “inconsequential” and “invisible” under classes continuously put up with what their “betters” have wrought to satisfy their own lusts, while destroying most everyone else and above all themselves in the process? It is a wasted institutional genocide that no one escapes. Are we not better than this? The characters try to prove they are. Bravo to the actors for bringing them to loving life.
This production is profound. Its humor is beyond hysterical, of the type that makes you laugh through your tears, and cry laughing. Its loving stroke will blind you and make you see again. In its irreverence, cataclysmic indifference about the dead, and twitting of the frailties of humanity’s proclivity to murder, exact revenge and make war, it is an indictment of the “upper” classes (the audience is mentioned as part of the court) and vindication of the lower classes who put up with them. In short it is irreverently ingenious. Every arrogant, billionaire narcissist should see this “Fooling.”
Kudos to Santo Loquasto (Scenic Design) Ann Roth (Costume Design) Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Lighting Design) Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design).
Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath, directed by the acute, clever Joe Mantello, currently at the Golden Theatre, begins with hypotheticals. Women live their lives in hypotheticals. What Ifs! And this is how the playwright has his character Hillary, who neither looks like nor effects the ethos of Hillary Clinton (played by Laurie Metcalf in a stunning, invested portrayal) opens her discussion in a relaxed “down-to-earth,” “behind the veil” confession to the audience. She posits a “What if?” supposition that there are “infinite possibilities” in our universe.
Hnath wrote the play when Barack Obama was in the full swing of his presidency. Considering what occurred during the 2016 election, Hnath’s play is doubly prescient and its underlying themes resonate more loudly than ever. In 2019 despite #Metoo, perhaps because of it, as much as we’d like to, we cannot pretend that women and men have equality in our culture, especially in light of a Trump presidency which is a throwback to women’s oppression in various forms that echos throughout American History.
For many women, “What if” doesn’t really get a chance to soar to a triumphant conclusion because there are an infinite number of “not possibles” preventing it. The sheer will that is required for women to overstep the “not possibles” is shattering. This is even so in an alternate universe of cultural equanimity, where it is a given that women succeed in obtaining leadership positions because men always lay down their egos and encourage them to do so.
Hnath subtly spins themes about paternalism and gender folkways in his subtle yet not so subtle fictional/nonfictional work. He does this aptly by hypothesizing about one of the most brilliant, competent and ambitious of women in the “free” world living today. Like no other in the political arena, Hillary Clinton embodies the possibilities of power and the smash downs to achieve it. Why is this, Hnath asks sub rosa? He answers this by factualizing his perception of Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Bill Clinton in the service of reminding us about women leadership and competence, about male ego and dominance, about the underlying primal realities of paternalism and male oppression and womens’ attempts to overcome.
At the play’s opening, an always on point Laurie Metcalf as Hillary, posits the probability that on another planet earth somewhere in our universe of “infinite possibilities” there is a Hillary running for the Democratic Party nomination during the 2008 primaries. Hillary, in competition with a man named Barack is losing. With Mark Penn (Zak Orth portrays the shambled-looking, frustrated and stressed campaign manager) Hillary attempts to determine the truth about why she is losing and how she will be able to recoup further losses if she can get more funds to refill her dwindling coffers.
After Mark offers explanations of her loss from his perspective, he indicates that perhaps it is not as bad as she suspects. The Obama campaign actually is daunted by her and has offered an opening for her to be his running mate when he is nominated if she drops out of the next two races and slowly fades away. Hillary interprets this to mean the Obama campaign is circling in for the “kill,” and expresses outrage that she might take such a deal. Despite Mark’s protestations she interprets it to mean she is going down for the count. Mark warns her not to call Bill for help and she promises not to.
Twelve hours later, Bill (the wonderful Lithgow) who previously had been kicked off the campaign, shows up in New Hampshire to the starkly minimalistic hotel room (which indicates a lack of funds). When he swears they stayed there before, we consider perhaps this is a backhanded reference to his own campaign in the primaries which he successfully won. In small measure he is forcing her to “eat crow” that she needs him. Then he chides her and expresses his ire at having been thrown off the campaign by Mark.
Their clashes are revelatory. In these discussions they cover a myriad of intriguing subjects: her fear of losing, their lives together, his boredom, her personality, her lack of fire and warmth, that he exhausts her, references to his infidelity and strategies for the upcoming primaries to initiate wins. Some of the subjects are unfamiliar. Others we anticipate because we’ve heard talking heads discuss the Hillary “personality” problem.
Lithgow’s and Metcalf’s focused listening and responding to each other are particularly excellent during Hnath’s dynamic interchanges, well shepherded by Mantello. Importantly, in exploring the fictional/nonfictional complications of a marriage between two brilliant, competitive and ambitious individuals, Hnath reveals the conundrum. They need to be together, but also must be apart in their own identity and autonomy. In their wish to be themselves, they are also the couple in a shared unity and friendship which will end in uncertainty for Hillary and loss for Bill if they separate. The public trust has glued them together as one. Their bond is intangible and ineffable and Hnath particularly suggests this with great sensitivity.
Hnath grounds their arguments, thrusts and parries with homely marriage tropes which we identify and empathize with. They are intensely human, real, warm, vibrant, competitive, loving (their costumes suggest the “all masks off” feel). Underlying all of it are dollops of frustration, wrath, annoyance and fear thrown in for good measure.
Threaded throughout we understand that these two have a profound relationship based on many similarities and attractions based on differences. They have a mutual care and concern that is their greatest grace and their underlying curse. Indeed, Hillary, in anger wishes she could break away from the stench of Bill that follows her. But when he suggests to succeed she must get a divorce, she avers. It is a fascinating moment; for as she states, she knows that many would support this and believe this is the right action for her to take. However, she cannot; she states she will be with him forever. For that he is beyond grateful.
Into this mix is thrust the knowledge of a phone call between Hillary and Obama, during which Hillary accepted Obama’s offer to be his running mate. Upon this everything turns.
When Bill steps into the campaign and gives her what she initially requested, he also oversteps his bounds causing rifts between Mark and Hillary. This causes a surprising series of events, one of which includes Barack coming to their hotel room to talk. Barack is portrayed by Peter Francis James in an interesting turn and resemblance to Obama in demeanor and stance. Barack confronts Hillary about the offer to be his running mate and the change in the fortunes of a race, after Bill becomes involved. He also reveals a tidbit of information that landed in his lap, information which will haunt the Clintons in the future.
There is no spoiler alert. You will have to see how Hnath arranges the chips to fall in this climax and how all of what we’ve seen before of their ties that bind, play out.
The play which expands on the premise of “infinite possibilities,” ends on it. From Hillary’s initial flipping of the coin that turns up a 50/50 heads/tails pattern of probabilities, we follow a series of events that decry any possibility of the coin toss dealing Hillary a winning hand. Hnath has brought us closer to explaining why she is not a winner this time, nor a winner in 2016, nor ever unless the earth tilts differently on its axis to produce another earth where Hillary somewhere “over the rainbow” on another earth is president.
Hnath allows us to fill in the unanswerable uncertainties and questions which he leaves open and encourages us to hope for in his poetic “on another earth Hillary is president.” For me this is heartbreaking especially now with the Mueller Investigation revealing a massive Russian warfare campaign to interfere with the election to put Trump in as the president, the results of which we are being deprived of in its full form. Indeed, Hillary lost the 2016 election on planet earth. She did this, perhaps for the reasons suggested intriguingly in the play.
However, Hnath’s powerful work and framing it with the backdrop of probabilities reveals more in what it doesn’t discuss because it was written before we understood what forces were ranging against the United States. Probabilities set up in coin tosses are random. What happened in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss (which is never alluded to in the play) is far from a probability. As more of the facts come out (despite the struggle to obfuscate and obstruct the report by the administration) her loss appears to be an inevitability…an inevitability which various illegal forces would go to extreme lengths to bring about.
That this production is being presented now at the height of the issues with the release of the Mueller Report Investigation and the DOJ? Well! This is fascinating and curious. And it leads me to this theme: there is more to what appears to be so, what pundits say is so and what “the facts” are depending upon who “owns” them. In Hillary and Clinton, Hnath presents the “What If” and allows us to consider what the character Hillary says about running again at some point. She would like to; she must understand how to get there to win.
This forces us to ponder what happened in 2016 and then the character Hillary brings us back to the coin toss which makes her president on another earth. We go with Metcalf’s Hillary for one second, then are dropped into the pit of reality. She isn’t president. And why not? Because of Bill? Because of her personality? Because of the Clinton Foundation? Because of paternalism? Because she is a woman? Sure!
To my mind, Hillary Clinton’s loss was less about her personality and her relationship and Bill’s “stench” and more about what forces didn’t want her in and why not. All the ultra-conservative social media groups, Russian Intelligence institutions, Russian hackers, Republican Think Tank strategists, elite globalists and like-minded billionaire Americans were poised to prevent her win with systems “ON.” It was a monumental effort that is mind blowing. And very costly.
That’s why Hnath’s character Hillary tossing a coin at the beginning and conclusion of the play is brilliant in theme and profound message. It is frightening, heartbreaking and an eye-opener, however you frame the “What if.” There will never be a “What if” for Hillary. There is no alternate universe, earth or whatever. We must deal with what is and get to work about it.
Laurie Metcalf is gobsmacking; she’s nominated for a Tony, Drama Desk and Drama League for “Best Actress in a Play.” Lithgow is superb. Able assists, Zak Orth and Peter Francis James make this a play you must see. Hillary and Clinton will make you think; it will open your eyes. And as it did for me, it may break your heart.
Tootsie, the 1982 film based on the story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart and the Columbia Pictures motion picture produced by Punch Productions, starring Dustin Hoffman, is a multi-award winner which is sanctified for its time. The Broadway musical comedy with Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek and Book by Robert Horn has been a long time coming and the wait has been well worth it.
The production starring the likeable and prodigiously talented Santino Fontana is a wondrous addition to this amazing Broadway season. Fontana’s voice is incredible, his dead pan timing bar none, his negotiation of the complexity of this titular role could not be more spectacular. Director Scott Ellis shepherds Fontana and the cast with acuity and grace.
The Tootsie characterization has been cleverly updated to include superb jokes related to the #Metoo movement. Indeed, what was a maverick fluke in the 1980s film version about gender roles and sexual predation, certainly fits like a glove for our time. Its ridicule of various themes connected with political correctness about gender is cleverly managed. Regardless of left or right we scream with laughter about the self-righteousness of both positions. Tootsie balances on a median between extremes. This is a good thing.
For me, it is a welcome novelty after the mainstream media and social media have become the playland of political, click bait trolls, looking to garner hits and stir controversy. Tootsie is too adroitly written by Robert Horn for that. The only tweets and Instagram hits it will be receiving are for the sustained hilarity and classic comedic situations which bloom like roses in a never-ending summer of delight. I mention roses because the principals will be receiving bouquets for their virtuosity and excellence. Their stellar performances assisted by the equally adroit song and dance talents of the ensemble will run the gauntlet of award season flying high.
Generally, the plot is similar to the film with the major transformation that Michael/Dorothy is an excellent actor who primarily looks for theater work. As in the Michael of the film he is arrogant about his talent, and the conflict’s arc of development sparks when Michael interrupts director Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers) during the rehearsal of a lousy play. Reg Rogers’ portrayal of the smarmy, oily potential predator who is a Bob Fosse-type without the talent is wonderfully funny.
Michael attempts to ingratiate himself with the director Ron Carlisle about his role in the ensemble. Ironically, Dorsey’s narcissism manifests in a twitting of the actors’ dictum: “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Michael suggests there is some confusion about his character’s backstory. When Carlisle tells him he is just in the ensemble and doesn’t require a backstory, Michael is the narcissist in his response.
The director’s outrage is spot-on hysterical and we feel little empathy for Michael who is fired outright. His arrogance and superiority have pushed him over the line as his agent (Michael McGrath) substantiates by firing him in a blow that is a touché! Michael knows he’s a mess, but lacks the power or wisdom to understand what to do about his external crisis, not realizing it’s best solved by changing internally.
Santino Fontana sings “Whaddya Do” attempting to negotiate his angst at being unemployable. We are unimpressed by his fledgling sign of despair in this song which doesn’t go to the root cause. He must learn much more about himself; he is not there yet. A crucial moment occurs when Sandy visits and informs him about a job she plans to audition for, then has a “slight” breakdown discussing it (“What’s Gonna Happen”). Michael gets the idea to morph into Dorothy Michaels (“Whaddya Do reprise) and audition for the job, having to suppress his male ego in a “female” body to disguise his loathsome face.
To get the role which seems highly unlikely, he’ll be Nurse Juliet in the ridiculous sequel to Romeo and Juliet entitled Julie’s Curse, an outlandish dog of a play that will most probably close opening night. As Michael auditions with “Won’t Let You Down,” Santino Fontana’s voice soars in triumph and realization. During the song, he gives birth to his female ethos and rounds out the personality of Dorothy Michaels housed in a “truck driver’s” body.
The production never returns to a moderate balance after this, though it has been set-up by a rollicking warm up with Sarah Stiles’ amazing work (more about that below). One reason why the show is a winner is that it glides into the heavens with the organic characterizations, the plot twists, turning points and two love stories (the second one is a ripping hoot thanks to the adorable John Behlmann as naively obtuse Max Van Horn who falls in love with Dorothy/Michael.
The actors’ pacing has been timed with precision to deliver the superbly engineered and crafted one-liners arising from the action and characterizations. The audience never recovers from these, swept up in the hysteria and barely catching their breaths for the next joke. The play is well-structured, building toward the two climaxes, one at the end of Act I and the other near the conclusion of Act II.
The principle theme, that Michael Dorsey has grown as a human being with the help of releasing his feminine side is winsomely revealed as a “la, la, la,” in the film, downplayed for its vitality and power. Santino Fontana does a phenomenal job in bringing this theme to the fore in his solos with his rich sonorous voice. The music strengthens this theme and others. We are reminded that males are ashamed to acknowledge emotions in the company of other males. Today’s retrograde social currents about the bullying “macho male” in the White House who is “cool male” in his indecency makes Tootsie an important show for our time.
A lot of the humor arises with the gender switching. The songs reveal softer scenes as Dorothy must negotiate “his” love for Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper). The two actors have some wonderful moments as budding BFFs. Their conversations ring true for us today and Julie’s characterization has also been rounded out with profound depth in the writing and in Cooper’s winning portrayal. Julie is a modern, wise woman who does not cave in to the director who attempts to smooze her with his position. She remains steadfast to her career and does not marry.
The only “feminine woman attitude” the show allows is Michael/Dorothy’s Southern accent and this is an ironic blind. Supported by wealthy producer Rita Marshall (the excellent Julie Halston who pulls out all the stops) Michael/Dorothy takes a stand with the help of the ensemble and Julie. Dorothy Michaels reconfigures the show into one that is a going to be a shining hit (don’t ask how). The producer, Julie and the other actors appreciate Dorothy, though the director is angrily flummoxed. But Carlisle is masking chauvinism in his heart which we infer by his actions toward Julie. However, Carlisle’s producer is a woman who supports Dorothy’s “female” intuition about the play and her gumption to suggest revisions.
Michael’s acting talent and suggestions are given a hearing and used. Juliet’s Curse is transformed into a hit. By the end of Act I, “everything’s coming up roses” and Fontana’s Dorothy pridefully encourages himself by crowing out “Unstoppable.”
The song is a brilliant, humorous irony. Actors through experience, learn not to make presumptions about their future, out of sane superstition. (Sandy takes this to the reverse extreme.) Michael is headed for a fall. Like all of us do at one point or another, he does something to destroy his own success. As he attempts to recover, he digs a deeper hole for himself.
Roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) who has been waiting for him to choke, gleefully beats him over the head with his stupidity in the second funniest song of the production, “Jeff Sums it Up” at the top of Act II. Grotelueschen’s performance in this scene (with Fontana as the straight man) is THE MAX! Grotelueschen’s portrayal as the “frustrated” friend Jeff is visceral. His timing is 100%. The effect generates our sidesplitting, roaring laughter. We are down with both Jeff and Michael.
As Michael crashes and burns Greek comedy style., we intuit that the worst is coming. It is only a matter of time before Dorothy’s drag act will be exposed.
I didn’t expect to be so impressed, by this clever reworking of Tootsie, especially with regard to the music. However the songs are damned funny and the music doesn’t draw attention to itself as some composers are wont to do. Indeed, the music serves the story; the lyrics and music meld like white on rice.
I examined hawk-like whether any songs appeared to just take up space because “after all it’s a musical comedy” and “a song is needed,” etc. NO! Indeed, all the best moments spring from the characters and portrayals. These spur the conflict and create riotous fun. I am hard pressed to critique any of the musical numbers as ancillary or humor killing. A few are extraordinary and a few are memorable pop songs with a beginning, middle and end that doesn’t wander into nothingness.
The two songs you won’t remember (because you’ll be rolling in the aisles) are sung by Michael Dorsey’s friends, his roommate Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen) in the second act and his actress friend Sandy Lester (Sarah Stiles) in the first act. Both songs are organically based in the characterizations. They concern human emotions that are so identifiable that the specifics don’t matter.
For example, in the song “What’s Gonna Happen!” Sandy takes off into a rant about her life as an actress, a state she apparently goes through before auditions. Her imagination terrorizes her into believing in a future and events that don’t yet exist. As she escalates her “crazy,” she explodes. She spews clouds of fear in a musical mixtape of strung together happenings that reach a level of frenzy that is beyond any drug to cure it.
Sarah Stiles is drop dead fabulous. Gobsmacking! We get it! We have been our own terrorists like Sandy, whipping our anxieties to an inner insanity of fear predicting our own nonexistent events. It is our brilliant healing that we find it uproarious to see and hear someone dare to express their delusions ALOUD in a rant more wacko than ours. The song and music are perfect; Stiles’ portrayal is 100 percent. Scott Ellis’ direction and staging elicit this exceptional moment, one of many in this humorously glorious production that kills it again and again.
I have not deeply belly-laughed this much during a Broadway show, except for British productions where the timing is as perfect as it gets. Never during a musical. I have nothing more to say, except you will regret not seeing Santino Fontana, Lilli Cooper, Sarah Stiles, John Behlmann, Andy Grotelueschen, Julie Halston, Michael McGrath and Reg Rogers, every one of them a gem and together, miraculous.
Kudos to Brian Ronan’s Sound Design-I heard every word which is vital for the clever lyrics. Mentions go to David Rockwell (Scenic Design) William Ivey Long (Costume Design) Donald Holder (Lighting Design) Paul Huntley (Hair and Wig Design) Angelina Avallone (Make-Up Design) David Chase (Dance Arrangement for their coherent artistry.
Tootsie runs at the Marquis Theatre with one intermission. For times and tickets, go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
It is one thing to see the outrageous big kahuna on a tablet, your phone or even on a beautiful Samsung 146″ Modular TV in the safety and security of your living room. It is quite another to witness him live and in person at the Winter Garden Theatre sporting green mold and rot. Yes, that ethos of evil Beetlejuice, Tim Burton’s imminently genius evocation of all things hellish, demonic and flat-out-funny. has come to Broadway. This theatrical extravaganza from soup-to-NUTS is based on the Geffen Company Picture, the titular fan favorite cult film starring Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder (story by Michael McDowell & Larry Wilson).
To see the musical comedy Beetlejuice with Music/Lyrics by Eddie Perfect and Book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, come prepared with crosses, bibles and whatever else it takes to prevent that arch fiend from possessing you. But if you dare risk it, drop all notions of restraint and be prepared to fall into laughter.
The production stars the hysterical and wildly cryptic Alex Brightman as the beloved, infernal monster Beetlejuice. Sophia Anne Caruso is the dour, morbid Lydia, whose belt becomes as brave as her bravura performance to resist marrying the redolent demon costumed in hell’s black and white striped prison garb with greenish tinges (a William Ivey Long costume). Rounding out the principals are Rob McClure as Adam, Kerry Butler as Barbara, Adam Dannheisser as Lydia’s Dad, Charles, and Leslie Kritzer as Delia, the girlfriend.
If you are a great fan of Tim Burton’s creative genius and his enlightened vision of the “Netherworld” and the malevolent, frightful spirits that populate it, you will not be disappointed by this glorious iteration that replicates them with the brilliance of twitting itself in the process. The creative designers, director Alex Timbers, ensemble, and even the ushers who escort you down the aisles of the theater (decked out with luminescent green and otherworldly trimmings) have worked prodigiously to make the production shine. And it appears that they have had all the fun in the world doing so. Certainly, the ghosts of Broadway must be happy, for the audience fans of the film, are over the top beside themselves with joy.
There’s a lot to be thrilled about. The puppetry is spectacular thanks to Michael Curry. I was happy to see the sandworm is alive and well arriving in varicolored clouds of sulfur and brimstone. Likewise the Scenic Design by David Korins, Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design and Peter Hylenski’s Sound Design effects a supernatural realm and crashes it into reality, as does Jeremy Chernik’s Special Effects Design and Michael Weber’s Magic and Illusion Design. Because of their off-the-charts artistry, Beetlejuice’s command of the other worldly in defiance of time and space is satisfying. The haphazard, off-kilter and ultra modern design interiors and appointments of Lydia’s haunted home (from purple to silver and black after Beetlejuice takes over in Act II) are equally smashing.
Alex Brightman’s exuberance, authenticity and zaniness carries the production from the outset solidified by the tenor and mood of the opening number. His easy interaction with the audience is an assist to the funny and brilliant send up of our nascent fears about death and dying which he blasts away by landing that subject squarely in our laps so we might ridicule its “power” with him.
It’s an important opening, well-staged and acutely directed by Alex Timbers. Brightman’s demon clown cavorts; with joie de vivre he stomps down death, mournfulness and morbidity, all the while reminding us we’re dead folks, eventually. He and we are thus driven to rollicking laughter about our immortal presumptions!
Beetlejuice is our Virgil (our guide in the encounters with Morpheus and Legion minus the philosopher’s wisdom and grace) and we walk in the place of Dante (the poet of The Inferno). We are without Dante’s talent, but we retain hope and a penchant for having fun. Indeed, on this amazing journey with the fracasing Beetlejuice we do learn some secrets from him; yes, he reveals a wacky wisdom and astutely nefarious preeminence. This is especially so as he attempts to come back to life through delightful acts of chicanery and cunning misdirection to connive Lydia into marriage. After all, she too has talents; she’s the only one alive who can see him and traverse the realms of life and death.
Beetlejuice’s humorous introduction is an excellent counterpoint to the morbid reality of the scene that follows with Lydia in the graveyard. There, the stereotypes of the cemetery, rainy day, black clothing and umbrellas bring us to what Beetlejuice made us laugh about, Death. But in Lydia’s case, it is horrific, sad. Its fearful aftereffects include the yawning absence of the loved one it snatches away.
As Lydia mourns her mother in song, it is a let down, albeit an appropriate initiation of the play’s actions. Timbers’ staging and William Ivey Long’s costuming are effective in conveying the gravity of the macabre and the brutal “death process” with coffins, funerals and interments so we empathize with Lydia’s loss. Thankfully, there are comical touches which thread humor from the previous scene with Beetlejuice, whom we miss.
The plot is morphed from the film with songs to propel Lydia’s emotional moments and to introduce the characters of Barbara and Adam, owners of the house who meet an untimely death that Beetlejuice predicts, as he guides us through the events he directs to get himself resurrected. Kerry Butler and Rob McClure as the young couple become more interesting as they work with Lydia to overthrow Beetlejuice’s insidious intentions spurring on the dynamic conflict of the story.
Sophia Anne Caruso’s portrayal of Lydia is appropriate mouse at the outset as she sings in a near whine at the funeral, overwrought by her mom’s death. She becomes intriguing when she grows furious and insistent that her father Charles (Adam Dannheisser) will not even refer to his wife by name. Her empowerment increases after Charles brings along “life coach” Delia (the LOL Leslie Kritzer) to the house to assist him with his business development sales. She rebuffs Delia and then becomes rebellious when she finds her in her Dad’s bed. Lydia’s rebellion and loyalty to her mother’s memory blossoms into the secondary conflict.
The production builds rather slowly to develop these conflicts and characters; perhaps some of the songs of Act I drag. But if it’s in the service to form a contrast with Beetlejuice whose vibrant presence flings across the stage with unpredictability and surprise, then OK. Importantly, the build-up to the last scene of Act I is a fury of chaos as “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice” usurps control and the house guests are possessed. Most humorous is the duplicitous Delia (Leslie Kritzer) whose Zen vibe flies out the window as she burps in shock, “Day-O,” and sings other phrases of “The Banana Boat Song”with the gyrating ensemble.
This scene is smashing. We are delighted that Beetlejuice turns the world upside down as he breaks hell loose from its normally restrained moorings in the natural world. The handwriting is on the wall! Clearly, no one in the household stands a chance against him and his Legion. That is, unless Barbara, Adam and Lydia come up with a plan to thwart him.
Act II delightfully catapults one scene into the next as Beetlejuice attempts resurrection and Lydia seeks her mother. The cracked, funny characters of the Netherworld from the film pop out when Lydia travels there to seek her mom. But when she returns, she is anointed to escape hell’s clutches, so she successfully scrambles, racing away from demon football players and the cadaverous Juno (the funny Jill Abramovitz). All this is a power point presentation build-up to the riotous and satisfying last scenes of the play. This is no spoiler alert. You will just have to be brave, ignore the critics and see what happens. Unless you have forgotten how to laugh, you will roll in the aisles with delight.
The production is a frolic of ingenuity in its reproductions of Burton’s artistic design genius with enhancements that are novel thanks to the show’s creators and artistic team. Importantly, the musical retains the originally stylistic elements that worked to make the film into a cult classic. Fans are especially looking for this.
Where it is uneven is in setting the conflicts in Act I. Some of the songs seem lackluster and overlong. The strength of this musical comedy is in its tantalizing reproduction of the best of the film and how it threads the action and startling themes related to Beetlejuice’s intentions to resurrect himself. How he lets us in on his scheme then guides us through his process is the central focus. Beetlejuice and Lydia hold the strongest dynamic. Their developing characterizations are key. Brightman and Caruso rise to the level required for this with their extensive acting and musical talents, especially in the second act. Brightman’s performance is gobsmacking throughout; Caruso’s voice is sensational. The ensemble rounds out the performances adding fun and humor with great energy.
Beetlejuice is a LOL ride and must-see especially if you saw the film a number of times and appreciate its wit and originality.That is duplicated here with tantalizing twists as it leaps into life so disparate from the digital flats. The production runs at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. For times and tickets go to their website by CLICKING HERE.
Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons speaks with resounding energy about our current time in its themes and characterizations despite its setting 72-years-ago in an America that no longer exists. Directed with acute insight and sensitivity, Jack O’Brien opens the play with the shock of a lightening crash as sounds of thunder dissolve into the droning thrum of a plane. Projected on the curtain we see the visual of a doomed plane speeding toward its demise.
Later, we discover the symbolism. During the fierce storm which destroys a memorial tree in the backyard, Kate Keller (the fabulous Annette Bening) wakes with a nightmare about her son, Larry, a WWII pilot who is MIA. O’Brien adroitly realizes Kate’s nightmare and the storm which destroys Larry’s memorial to foreshadow the coming turmoil in the next day and a half that changes the lives of the Keller family forever.
This auspicious beginning, however, is quelled by the sunny atmosphere of August in the gorgeous, bucolic, serenity of an upper middle class neighborhood where Joe Keller (the superb Tracy Letts), Kate and son Chris (an emotional, authentic portrayal by Benjamin Walker) reside in peace and plenty. The exquisite set by Douglas W. Schmidt invites with its blooming, well-trimmed wisteria vines regaling a square gazebo and homely, comfortable patio with companionable chairs. There, we imagine that pleasant and lively conversations have taken place over the years. Miller never takes us inside to reveal the intimacies of family interactions, a vital clue to this family. They cannot be intimate with each other for fear of cracking the image they present to each other and themselves.
All the play’s action is “out in the open,” “in plain sight,” an irony filled with contradictions. This living “in the public eye” belies the truth that threads throughout the play in one of Miller’s searing themes. In one form of another, the human condition is to live in lies and rationalizations that mask painful truths. The best of us attempt to confront and work through these to get to the core and evolve to “be better” as Chris suggests. Nevertheless, it is easier for us to keep our miserable truths hidden in the shadows while we live in hypocrisy.
It is this hypocrisy that eats away at the soul and mind in a terrible corruption that eventually destroys. An extension of this theme of the individuals is the theme of a society which lives in hypocrisy in a culture founded on lies. The end result is the rot blooms, the lies abide and the culture no longer distinguishes the difference between facts and obfuscations. The cultural dissolution that occur is not even recognizable to the national body politic.
Clearly, Miller reveals this is so for his protagonist Joe Keller and the neighborhood and society which enables Joe to maintain his untenable soul condition. In the backstory, Keller was found guilty of negligence in manufacturing defective aircraft parts that ended up bringing 21 pilots to their deaths. Joe and partner/neighbor Steve Deever, end up serving prison time. Joe appeals and is exonerated, foisting off the blame on Steve who is held accountable for the defective engines being sent out. Steve loses everything including his house and the love of his children who move away as he serves out his prison sentence.
When Joe returns home to neighborhood whispers of “murderer,” he holds his head high, fronts with his new business manufacturing household appliances, makes a ton of money and re-engages the friendship of his neighbors. In a few years he re-establishes the honor and integrity he once held through hard work and a well-meaning, generous, jovial public image. He does all of this for the benefit of his family, and especially for his son Chris who made it out of WWII alive and who will inherit the business.
As the details of the past are revealed, in subsequent acts we gradually understand the family dynamic. Stalwart and unshakable are Kate’s and Chris’ support of Joe during the trial and after feeding into the presumptions that he is a vindicated man with a restored public image. We also note the full blown love relationship Chris has with Steve’s daughter, Larry’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Francesca Carpanini). Ann moved away after the trial, but writes to Chris and they pledge their love.. She comes to visit Chris, Kate and Joe to solidify their marriage plans with Joe and Kate from whom they’ve kept their love secret. Chris and Ann fear Kate will strongly oppose their marriage because “Larry is alive” and Ann must lovingly wait for him.
As the sunlight shines on Joe and his neighbor Dr. Jim Bayliss (Michael Hayden) and they chat about Ann’s visit, we have no sense of any underlying difficulties. O’Brien’s and the actors’ skill abides in the gradual unraveling of the characters’ consciousness, as each attempts to maintain the intricate bulwark of falsehoods that have carried them through three years of Larry’s absence and Joe’s exoneration, both chimaeras.
Lies are central to this family’s “wholeness” and “health,” as lies are central to America’s dominant “greatness” after the war. In secret, unbeknownst to us until the conclusion, each suppresses their guilt and fear rather than to confront the painful truth head on and bring it out “in the open” to heal. Kate and Joe are stuck in time, mired in the past. Joe recognizes Kate’s insistence that Larry’s “being alive” is a “fantasy.” But he goes along with it to comfort her and himself and avoid any discussion about the possible alternatives.
Likewise, Chris attempts to forge ahead but is locked in his own fears about his brother. It is no small irony that he chooses his brother’s girlfriend to wive and force the issue of Larry’s MIA by bringing her home to mom. Indeed, it is as if he is keeping Larry’s ghost hovering. Ann is the last person his mother will accept as his bride as long as “Larry is alive.” Chris, like his parents, is conflicted and lives with the guilt of his brother’s ghostly presence.
Each of the family members has created justifications; the more the truth threatens, the more elaborate the excuses. Ultimately, these reside in “I did it for you”-Joe, Kate or blaming others, “you made me”-Ann, Chris. Unable to work through the traumas to heal, they tiptoe around each other, wearing masks of goodness, righteousness and faith. The only one who believes these images is themselves.
The neighborhood encourages the family in their fantasies, as the larger society encourages ideologies about America’s goodness. However, as the play progresses, the Bayliss’s (Michael Hayden, Jenni Barber) candidly reveal everyone in the town believes Joe is guilty and Larry was killed by a defective engine. (the truth that Ann brings in a letter is worse).
Eventually, the truth is revealed when George Deever comes to confront them about Joe’s guilt, and Ann reads a letter revealing where Larry is. As George, Hampton Fluker’s, sorrow and yearning to be in the past with the family’s illusions before the hellish incident of negligence happened is beautifully graded and nuanced with poignance. Fluker’s emotional range from judgmental anger, love for the family to, indictment of their duplicity is beautifully developed.
Francesca Carpanini’s Ann approaches this visit with the Kellers as a developing revelation of her “love” for Chris which is founded in loneliness. Carpanini’s emotional range also solidifies her portrayal of Ann’s self-interest and wish to rid Kate of her illusions forever to extricate Chris from Kate’s hold over him. Her performance as the foil and enemy to the family is well rendered.
When Carpanini’s Ann reads the letter, it is a fascinating mixture of emotions. On the one hand she attempts to “help” by revealing the truth, a devastation that will most probably destroy Kate’s well being, but she does it anyway. When it backfires and Chris, Kate and Joe react counter to what she anticipates, she backpedals in an apologetic excuse blaming the family for “forcing her.” She is desperate to recapture Chris, but it’s too late. It is then she understands the length to which the family has unified against the truth which she selfishly used to move things her way.
Up to the point of domino revelations at the conclusion, Annette Bening’s portrayal as Kate Keller is a masterpiece of shifting emotions. She is like a tiger who must keep the family together at all costs and will use her cunning against anyone (like Ann or George) who threatens their circle. Thus, as Kate, Bening makes the reality that Larry is alive amazingly palpable. She is the mortar that holds the bricks Chris and Joe fashion into a wall to close themselves off against the truth. The structure is a protection to keep them from looking within to their self-hatreds, guilt and dishonor. If the bulwark of illusions cracks, they would attack and destroy each other; thus, to keep them safe, she sacrifices herself as “the crazy one” by basing her every thought and action around the spin about Larry and Joe.
The truth that George and Ann (ironic it takes Steve’s kids to do this) brings, she attempts to forestall with distractions luring George with love. But it is she who provides the damning piece of evidence to George who hands the sledgehammer to Ann. It is Ann who crashes down the structure that the family has unconsciously built to safe themselves and their self-righteous image to the public.
Annette Bening converts Kate’s belief into the driving force of will which lives and breathes and resurrects Larry’s presence. Bening is stunning in how she effects this, every moment she lives onstage. Her authenticity as she strikes the notes of Kate’s insistence and determination is so starkly alive, it gives Lett’s Joe and Walker’s Chris the charge and fluidity to carry that reality into their own portrayals making them vibrate with authenticity. Her good will toward George turns him off his intentions to indict Joe and the family with his Joe’s terrible abuse of his father Steve.
How Walker, Letts and Bening adeptly shepherded by O’Brien establish the nexus of Larry’s being both alive and a ghost who haunts all of them is just brilliant. It is the linchpin of the play and all of the action depends upon their getting this right which they do with spot-on intensity.
The more desperately Joe and Chris attempt to move away from Larry’s ghost, the greater Kate digs in (with her telepathy, her reading signs, her dream, her understanding of the Larry’s astrological chart). Chris’ selection of Ann, Larry’s girlfriend, as his future wife and his asking her to visit to end Kate’s faith about Larry. only exacerbates it. Bening and the others are mesmerizing during this dynamic of thrust and parry of unconscious desires to expurgate their guilt and exorcise Larry from their midst. Kate resists Ann’s presence and the marriage from the outset of her suspicions. Letts’ Joe never argues with Kate to counter her about the marriage. Miller makes it clear, Kate is unstoppable in her resistance to the marriage. The irony is that ultimately, Larry stops it. His voice comes in a letter from beyond the grave. And the revelation, one that Kate has feared all destroys the family unity.
Until the letter Letts, like Bening, is so invested, we are convinced that Joe is exonerated. Even Walker’s Chris cannot hold him accountable as they confront one another after George’s visit in a terrific scene that uncovers their souls. But it is only after Joe reads the letter himself, that he understands what he must do.
This sterling production especially reveals the verities and timelessness of Miller’s play. Joe Keller redeems himself at the end and leaves a legacy Kate knew in her heart was coming, but the pain was so great she couldn’t confront it until Joe does. It is Chris who is left to assemble the pieces of his shattering into a new ethos.
Miller’s tragic elements are the final apotheosis that uplift us to want to be “better than that,” but leave us knowing that if we were in this family’s shoes, we would probably do the same. In the currency of our time, self-righteousness and blaming the “others” has become a profitable boon. Such hypocrisy Miller suggests in Joe’s pointed aria at the end, which he eventually realizes is the last lie that must fall with himself.
The conclusion mounts to a climax of power and poignance and delivers the blow that Miller desires and O’Brien perfectly crashes down on the audience. This tour de force of sensational ensemble work is perhaps the best iteration I’ve seen of this play to date. At its core, the production has delivered Miller’s thematic wisdom from start to finish. The ensemble’s prodigious talent at hitting the bulls-eye with each and every portrayal makes this production the incredible rendering it is.
Kudos to the creative team: Jane Greenwood (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) John Gromada (Sound Design) Jeff Sugg (Video and Projection Design) Bob James (Original Music) Douglas W. Schmidt (Set Design)
All My Sons runs with one intermission at The American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. It is in a limited run until 23rd June. For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.