Category Archives: Broadway

‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ Laura Linney Fuels a Richness of the Titular Character With Nuanced Depth

 

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

In Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of My Name is Lucy Barton, Rona Munro’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, nothing is obvious. Indeed, a comparison to the novel may be a misdirection from what has been achieved in this sterling production, acted in a solo performance by the unparalleled Laura Linney. Linney  flawlessly manifests director Richard Eyre’s vision for the titular character, and in doing so enhances Munro’s fine adaptation and Strout’s incredible, heart-felt characterization.

As the lights dim, we gaze upon the minimalistically staged hospital room whose large 3 D window spreads to almost cover the entire back wall, an indication of its importance to reflect Barton’s memories through three time lenses. Throughout the 90 minute play, projections of location scenes (NYC brownstone, corn/soybean fields, etc.) will splay, each enhancing and signifying Lucy Barton’s life (materially and symbolically).

When, Linney makes her entrance, stage left, her vital presence smashes through the sterility of the room and the possibilities of what being hospitalized portends. Her walk is confident, forthright, determined, with perhaps a hint of ruthlessness (this relates to what a friend told her about her career). And from that moment on, Linney secures our focus with her character’s articulate, well-hewn descriptions. She bewitches us by infusing Lucy Barton’s masterful story-telling with spot-on passion and seemingly open-hearted truthfulness. Our attention remains transfixed, throughout. And, at times, during her intimate, heartbreaking monologue, the audience remains hushed and still, avidly gleaning revelatory peeks into Barton’s miserable childhood of poverty, loneliness and fear while she grew, like the corn and soybean fields surrounding their ill-kempt, noisome home, into teenage-hood in Amgash, Illinois.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Barton’s story is not particularly exciting or eventful in the “average” way. It begins in the vibrant, present day. The arc of development moves in flashback to the time when Barton was married with two daughters and, after an appendectomy, is weirdly unable to systemically recover her health. Barton’s story-telling is filled with mystery in its exploration of her relationship with her mother. Linney portrays both women and seamlessly steps from present to flashback clearly designating the time intervals through Eyre’s staging, the mother’s Amgash accent and Munro’s pointed time transitions as Barton recalls or reflects on memories in the present time, then segues to the past for another dip into hope, loneliness and redemption.

Barton’s story is relatable to a cross-section of humanity, even the wealthy who suffer emotional trauma and abuse from parents. Some might argue Lucy Barton’s narrative transcends gender because it’s generalizable to relationships between parents and children, beyond stereotype and myth in the family dynamic. In other words, its sensitive, emotional and human universality appeals. What individual does not feel, if they dare to admit it, that their parents did not give them enough love, understanding, wisdom, and material and spiritual protection that they hungered for at various points in their lives? What individual does not feel remorse at not being able to have lived happily, growing up in a “Father Knows Best” loving, emotionally magnanimous family experience? Indeed, how much more duress does one feel if one’s material and emotional well-being was continually jeopardized by parents/siblings, what has been described euphemistically as being a member of a dysfunctional family?

Munro’s adaptation retains Strout’s searing, uber-subtle fervency as Lucy relates “her story,” which we discover is an attempt to expurgate devastating emotional pain to reconcile past memories of dire consequence which she has suppressed and which might have  killed her, but for her mother’s 5-day visit, when Barton’s hospital stay moved past the normal recuperation period: she can’t eat, has blockages and grows thinner and weaker. Barton’s husband, who has been too traumatized by death and dying in hospitals to visit her regularly, calls her mother who shows up “out-of-the-blue” and sits in a chair, at the foot of the bed eschewing a cot to be with her, 24/7.

It is during this life changing visit, that her mother relates stories about the neighbors or relatives, all of them attached with a negative, inferred lesson critical to Lucy’s life. It is also during this time and in the retelling of “her story” that Lucy recalls memories that are so unendurable, she cannot fully relate the details clearly. Interestingly, her mother also refuses to answer some of Lucy’s questions about the time when her children grew up. Her mother closes her eyes and pretends to sleep so Lucy doesn’t persist. There are some places where both dare not go, perhaps because the emotions are so incredibly raw, they might never recover their balance and attempted “control” over their lives.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Ancillary comments quietly expose a mountain of affection between Lucy and her mother, expressed uneasily by Lucy and in repressed undercurrents by her mother. Indeed, since Lucy’s marriage, they have been estranged. Clearly, though Lucy leaves this unspoken, the home where she grew up is noxious (it smells, it is freezing, it is stinks of loneliness and alienation). She has been relentless about never seeing her parents and gaining success as a writer, until she withers psychically and needs her mother’s love, as imperfect and ill-formed as it is. Her mother puts resentments aside and brings a healing balm; it’s time.

For nine years, her mother and father have never come to Manhattan and she hasn’t been home. Her parents resent that Lucy got a scholarship, went to college to become a writer, got married and left them in the morass of hopelessness and weirdness that they had to confront after she left: another unspoken self-recrimination against her/against them. They can hardly blame her for leaving, but resent her for doing it all the same. Her rejection of what they represent and her identity in their family unit is too much for her to bear. And then, she becomes ill; it is a metaphoric illness, systemic and psychic that requires a “healing touch and kindness” which her doctor delivers assisted by her mom.

Ironically, it is a testament of her mother’s love for her that she drops in (Lucy’s husband paid the plane ticket) despite her fear of flying to be Lucy’s much needed emotional support and prophetess who proclaims that Lucy will live, “though her marriage will have troubles.” A highpoint of reconciliation for her mom is her admission and apology about having to raise her three children under the strains of severe poverty (they eat molasses on bread regularly, can’t afford a warm or clean home, and are too poor for a TV).

Linney portrays her mother, at times humorously, with an Amgash, Illinois accent. As Barton moves in “her story” from immediate present which is years after her parents have died, then flashes back as Lucy reflects upon one of the most important moments. It is when her mother nudges her to affirm her own life, despite the gnawing darkness and despair that threatens to overcome her and despite her material success which is a canard and no cover for the abyss within, unbeknownst to her.

Laura Linney, My Name is Lucy Barton, Richard Eyre, Rona Munro, Elizabeth Strout

Laura Linney in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ by Elizabeth Strout, adapted by Rona Munro, directed by Richard Eyre, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Matthew Murphy)

Eyre’s use of lighting (Peter Mumford) his staging and the projections (Luke Halls created the video design) bring in the other-worldly aspect of memory and remind us that Lucy Barton, as solid and stalwart and sincere as she appears to be, is the narrator of her own story. And all solo narrators embellish, exaggerate some details and leave gaping omissions. For all their ability to explain, the emotional content is so laden with stark bleakness, it cannot be accessed easily or articulated. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to do so or maybe never. Thus, the arc of Lucy’s story development as she discusses her relationship with her mother is a shining example of her ability to codify what she can live with (reflected in the hopefulness of the Chrysler Building the hospital window peers out on).

Indeed, Lucy Barton has made the building a beacon of success in her life, up from the oppression of her past, something her mother agrees with. And she has used that and other symbols (projections of corn fields, lightening sky) to manifest her identity as a successful writer who at this juncture is able to confront herself by going public. That is who Lucy Barton wants to be and that’s who she is.

Linney makes this unreliability, this shakiness brilliantly apparent. She allows it to pop up and back. She moderates it, especially when Barton cannot articulate the most traumatic memories of abuse in her past. And it flops back into the story-telling when she heartbreakingly remembers calling for her mom, as her daughter called for her when she saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. It is also apparent when Linney aptly philosophizes as Barton about the statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden. The statue is of a distressed, starving father and his children, seeing only him, are willing to sacrifice their own bodies and feed him to arrest his starvation. So bonded are children with their parents. So entangled will Lucy Barton always be with her mother, father and siblings. Because of them, she is Lucy Barton.

Kudos to all the creatives who worked on this production and brought it to life. In addition to those already mentioned are Bob Crowley (scenic and ccostume design) and John Leonard (sound design). My Name is Lucy Barton is running in a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (47th Street between Broadway and 8th Ave.) with no intermission until 29 February. It is a must-see for Laura Linney’s amazing portrayal and Eyre’s and Munro’s bringing home Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel with grace and power. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

‘Jagged Little Pill,’ on Broadway is Electric, Dazzling in Its Power, Scope and Complexity

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” reached the stratosphere as one of the best selling albums of all time almost twenty-five years ago. The reason is clear. In its contradictions, biting satire and themes it resonated with its global audience, topping the charts in 13 countries worldwide. With that appeal behind it, the notion that the music might land in a stage production was a given, especially if a superlative writer could write an exciting book so the right director would then eventually shepherd the production to Broadway.

And so it happened. Diablo Cody, multiple award winning writer of the film Juno (2007) synchronized her sardonic fresh, perspective with Morissette’s bile-dripping, alternative rock featured on the 1995 album. The meld effected the gyrating musical that premiered at American Repertory Theater, Harvard University in 2018 exquisitely and brilliantly directed by Diane Paulus. The creative team’s synergy further transformed the production into the present dynamo which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in early December.

How is the musical Jagged Little Pill not just another teenage-angst-driven-juked-up melodramatic foray into identity, social acceptance and self-love? The glossy superficiality of the pumped up, unmemorable, alternative, post-grunge, pop rock light, the stuff that “OK” musicals are made of, is nowhere to be found in Jagged Little Pill. This is because of the grainy, raw vitality of Morissette’s and Glen Ballard’s music, supervised, orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt, with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth.

Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

(L to R): Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

On the contrary, the production, that some affectionately liken to a juke box musical, defies that definition. First, there is its particularity. It is hard-edged and profound; the arc of Cody’s story spirals and complicates as she lays bare the Healy family  while satirizing the underlying mores of the tony community where they live. Additionally, the finely tuned characterizations penetrate with authentic details. Their development draws us into the realm of gnawing secret addictions and the currently overripe, hellish thrall of Oxycodone, brand name OxyContin.

Whether we know of the relentlessness of this drug from experiences of friends, family members, neighbors or ourselves, we empathize with the characters as they confront its lethal power in a felt irrevocability. We’ve seen countless news stories and films on the subject, like the HBO documentary This Drug Can Kill You (2017). We’ve heard of the extremities of addiction resulting in the destruction of family bonds, the tenor of which Cody examines through the characterization of mother Mary Jane Healy her protagonist.

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Celia Rose Gooding, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

And what of the story of the wife and mother who broke her arm and kept on breaking it to justify prescriptions of oxycodone? Typical of addicts desperate for the opioid. Prescription meds addicts even have committed robbery and murder. (See article on David Laffer) Of course the drug should be taken off the market and banned but big pharma would lose money in its profitability; addicted middle and upper class women can afford to pay. Why give up on a good thing even when doctors now curtail its use which pushes addicts to the street where they buy OxyContin laced with poisonous Fentanyl for the trip of a lifetime?

Why don’t such individuals “get help” especially when they can afford it? Indeed! Help is the last step in the journey of the addicted. It implies that the family interacts with each other because they must be the main support system of the addict. Cody’s Healy family members do not interact much. They live quiet lives of desperation seeking their own “thing” when we first meet them, though by all appearances from their home, to their lifestyles to their social connections, these folks “have it together.” Even adopted Frankie Healy (the spectacular Ceila Rose Gooding) is a mess, though you would never suspect it, because she asserts her powerful personality as a young, black woman who is assured in her gay relationship with Jo (the adorable, rockin’ Lauren Patten who sings Morissette’s signature number “You Oughta Know” to a standing ovation).

Lauren Patten, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Lauren Patten, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

How are the posted social media photos of the Healys as the smiling, joyous family fakes? The image is more important than the reality. And if the image looks good enough, maybe the family members will believe it’s true. How can we fault them at the time of Trumpism, when the president and his family and his supporters do the same, sporting the “best” of everything, from perfect presidential behavior, to perfect relationships with his staff who are loyal to him because he is filled with grace? Such perfection has not been seen since the “savior.” Likewise, the Healy families “perfection” in the view of their friends and neighbors is bar none.

The Healys, as representatives of most suburban middle families traffic in mendacity though such cowardice destroys. As it turns out, lying is the mother of addiction. And addictions salve the soul. With pornography, sex, oxycodone, adderall, alcohol, heroin, etc., life’s miseries become doable and for a time “everything is beautiful.” Of course such duplicity can only go on for so long before the veil is ripped and the ugliness shows through. In the production the songs “All I Really Want,” Hand in My Pocket” and “Smiling” clue us into the lies. However, the family keeps their secrets from each other until there is a turning point acutely rendered at the end of Act I during the songs “Wake Up” and “Forgiven.”

Elizabeth Stanley, Heather Lang, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

(L to R): Elizabeth Stanley, Heather Lang, ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

The growing divide in each of the characters eventually earthquakes. The one who is the glue holding the family together, perfect mother and wife Mary Jane (the gobsmacking Elizabeth Stanley) gets shaken to her core. The precipitating factor is oxycodone, but Mary Jane’s issues run silent and deep. The drug only suppresses and numbs her from acknowledging the soul gnawing canker worm that eats away at her image of perfection while she bleeds like an open wound inside.

As the musical follows the unraveling conflicts between Mary Jane and husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) son Nick (Derek Klena) and adopted daughter Frankie, other hot button issues come to the fore sweeping the family up in their detritus. These include but are not limited to our paternalistic rape culture, Evangelical Christianity’s homophobia, pornography addiction which deadens intimacy between couples, and black-white cultural bias to name a few.

Nora Schell, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Nora Schell, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

In the well crafted book, music and thoughtful lyrics, Cody and Morissette reinforce an ancient folkway of family structure; there often is little communication beyond functional superficialities. Sadly, profound communication belies self-awareness and soul authenticity. In such a family unit where obfuscation and a general lack of will to work together as a family become routine, addiction is easy. Finding a life worth living individually and with one’s family becomes impossible. The “impossibility” impinges on the family structure and each individual family member as the situation worsens for all.

And so it goes for wife Mary Jane and Steve. Though Steve does make an attempt to reach out to her, she rebuffs him. So it goes for Nick, the “perfect”son (his rendition of “Perfect” is excellent) who lives out his parent’s dreams not his own, and for Frankie who is “all that” proud. Each self-deceives. Each is distracted by the race for perfection and by their manic avoidance of failure and the recognition of their faults which comprise their endearing humanity. In fearing the stigma of being a “loser” (each family member defines it differently and never discusses their own perceptions until the end) each launches off into their own journey of error which impacts the family as a whole. When they become aware of their self-delusions (the exceptional song “Wake Up”) it is a boon that they and other characters come to grips with by the play’s conclusion (in the song “You Learn”).

Derek Klena, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Derek Klena, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

Whether rich or poor, young or old, life is learning, and of course with learning comes change, pain and reconciliation. But first as the linchpin of the family, Mary Jane experiences the long and grueling events in her relationships first, with her addicted alter-ego, then her children and husband. Through trial and error she learns to explode the self-deception, lies, defensiveness and powerlessness conveyed to her family, who become estranged from her as she embraces the drug as her panacea (this is terrifically rendered in movement during the song “Unforgiven”).

But before any of the family learn that their arrogance and attempt at perfection is delusion, they have to be awake to register they are fantastical creatures on a racetrack toward oblivion. The wonder of Cody’s book is that she has Steve and Nick on the road to awareness before Mary Jane, and Frankie who is blinded by her interest in Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) which destroys Jo (“Your House”).

Derek Klena, The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Derek Klena, The Company, in ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

We note the disintegration of Mary Jane’s soul, whose behaviors are out of the addict’s playbook. Elizabeth Stanley crafts her characterization with nuanced sensitivity and empathy. She inhabits the ethos of the addict as the drug’s deadly chemicals subvert her being. Stanley is in the moment, from moment to moment with her lyrical voice and nuanced devolution. Our concern and identification with Mary Jane is elicited by Stanley’s prodigious talent.

The same may be said for the actors who inhabit the family members: Ceila Rose Gooding’s Frankie- activist and hypocrite blind to her own foibles; Sean Allan Krill’s loving, caring husband who stands by Mary Jane and reveals he wants to help her become well ( “Mary Jane”), though he is a “work-a-holic” and has an addiction to pornography and masturbation.

Cody has rounded out these characters and the actors thread their depth through the eye of the acting/singing needle. All have gorgeous voices. No less talented is Derek Klena. Klena’s emotional crisis (whether to jeopardize his life path and testify to a rape he saw or keep it a secret along with his unhappiness living his parents’ goals for his life) is heartfelt. Initially, it is Nick who sounds the alarm about his family; Kitt’s orchestrations manifest this twice in a long note from a brass instrument (is it an A or C?) almost like a harbinger that a turning and reckoning must happen or they all will be immeasurably harmed.

Elizabeth Stanley, The Company, Celia Rose Gooding, Derek Klena, Elizabeth Stanley, Sean Allan Krill, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

Elizabeth Stanley, The Company,’Jagged Little Pill,’ Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

Paulus’ staging and her vision, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s movement to evoke the characters’ emotions are smashing. The characters’ inner rage and torment and Mary Jane’s double mindedness about her addiction’s seduction and her love of self-destruction (“Uninvited”) are clarified in the movement and the dance. Paulus has staged the characters in various scenes so that they are propelled in circles using the props (desks, walls). The effect reveals their confusion and inability to straighten out and to seek emotional life paths that are not dead ended in circularity. Paulus/Cherkaoui also integrate break-dance movement with the songs as a metaphor, representing the emotional inner churning and rage of the characters. Paulus makes sure that the character rage and their emotional circularity are cogently integrated with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design and Justin Townsend’s lighting design.

The Company, Jagged Little Pill, Diablo Cody, Alanis Morissette, Diane Paulus

The Company of ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ book by Diablo Cody, music by Alanis Morissette, directed by Diane Paulus (Matthew Murphy)

The frame of the house in lines of light in various colors abides throughout. Its symbolism recalls how the structure of family and home and what family members experience ther, is carried everywhere into relationships, into school, into work, into social activities. Justin Townsend’s lighting design is effective as it is used to reflect emotions. For example, Jo’s fury in “You Oughta Know” is aligned with Townsend bathing the stage in red. Patten’s Jo is fabulously wild; the injustice she feels about Frankie’s demeaning mistreatment is a show stopper made all the more wonderful by Townsend’s lighting and Cherkaoui’s movement.

Additionally, “Wake Up,” and “Forgiven” (as the family members’ backs to the walls of their own making spin them around) are particularly stunning. In these numbers and in “Predator,” “Uninvited” and “Mary Jane,” Paulus, the company and creative team pull out all the stops. And “No” by Kathryn Gallagher as Bella (she has been raped by Nick’s friend) singing with the support of the company, should be taped and played for every Sex Ed. class in high schools: the signs are especially noteworthy.

At its heart Jagged Little Pill is about family. It is provocative, in your face, striking, salient. If one considers how easy it is to couple and how hard it is to move toward a kind, generous, integrative family who works on their failures by loving in overdrive, Cody’s Healy family, portrayed in its jaggedness is a superb textured unit. As a key theme, there is always hope for redemption and reconciliation Cody suggests: for them, for us.

Add Alanis Morissette’s music, with Kitt’s orchestrations, Paulus’ metaphoric, symbolic staging, the amazing performers, the lighting and brilliantly minimalistic and always seamless and mobile scenic design, Jagged Little Pill is a musical worthy of the nearly twenty-five year wait for these creatives to bring this sterling production together. It is the right season for Jagged Little Pill to take flight with this cast, Cody’s sheer audacity and Paulus scaling the mountaintops of her craft.

I’ve said enough. See it with your eyes wide open and enjoy it awake. It is an experience you won’t easily forget. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

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‘The Inheritance,’ Inspired by E.M. Forester’s ‘Howard’s End’ a Chronicle of Gay Life, Poignant, Humorously Ironic, Triumphant

Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller, Kyle harris, Arturo Luis Soria, JOrdan Barbour, Daryl Gene Daughtry Jr.

(L to R): Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller, Kyle Harris, Arturo Luis Soria, JOrdan Barbour, (foreground) Daryl Gene Daughtry Jr. in ‘The Inheritance,’ Part I, Part II, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by E.M. Forester’s ‘Howard’s End,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, design by Bob Crowley (Matthew Murphy)

How does one tell one’s story digging out the mired treasure amidst the refuse of time, personalities, relationships squandered, brilliant aphorisms and droplets of wisdom tossed away unheeded? Indeed! As most people end up doing, you don’t tell it; you live it and consign it to memory fragments which may become obliterated by dementia or Alzheimer’s. Or you move it into imagination realized, accessing a work of fiction as your inspiration and using a parallel plot platform to guide you.

Additionally, if you elicit the help of the spiritual consciousness of E. M. Forester as your literary muse employing Howard’s End as the fulcrum of evolving social mores in turn-of-the-century England (to mimic late 20th-century America) you will do as the ingenious Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride) did. You will write a masterwork. For Lopez is it The Inheritance. And if you are fortunate to premiere your play at London’s Young Vic with an exciting, prodigiously talented cast, it just may transfer successfully to Broadway a year later because of its sterling, award-winning particularity and emotional poignancy; this despite a few expositional plot convolutions and character snags.

The intriguing convention of materializing E.M. Forester as a professor who surfs the crest of wisdom’s waves into the shoreline consciousness of a cadre of gay writers (clever opening scene) is one of the high-points of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, proudly unleashing its almost seven hours, four acts and large cast at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

In Lopez’s work Forester, is known by his middle name Morgan. Brilliantly portrayed by Paul Hilton, as the sensitive, focused and refined gentleman gay writer who hung in the shadows of respectability and didn’t “indulge” ’til his thirties, Hilton balances just enough loving instruction in shepherding the writers, and specifically Leo (Samuel L. Levine) in how to write their stories with sage advice exemplified in his novel. As he steers them in dramatic directions, they configure plot elements and “act” the characters in Leo’s story. Additionally, Hilton’s performance of Forester doubling as Henry Wilcox’ thirty-five year love interest Walter Poole is, bar none, glorious. John Benjamin Hickey as Wilcox is his fine counterpart.

(L to R): Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Kyle Soller, Arturo Luis Soria, Kyle Harris, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley

(L to R): Jordan Barbour, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Kyle Soller, Arturo Luis Soria, Kyle Harris, The Inheritance,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, designed by Bob Crowley, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster (Matthew Murphy)

Actually, the role of Forester could have been extended. Some of the business representing the cadre’s snide, material, mimed psycho-sexual behaviors and gay bitchiness in their choral presentments could have been shaved to fine points of crystal clarity without losing context or meaning. These changes may have enhanced thematic textures. Left as is, the cadre’s force is diluted and the staged movements of mimed sex which might have been acutely rendered as a dance are merely a  humorous contrast to the deeper relationships in the play as well as a privileged indulgence since sexual hedonism isn’t a problem in 2018 with drugs like Truvada, PrEP and DESCOVY®. However, this superficializes the characters who are unnecessarily demeaned in what appears to be their gratuitous behavior, when they are far better than narcissistic overlords of themselves and each other.

As Forester guides his charges into how to extract the seminal moments of the story of their lives, we meet the key players who portray the protagonists and antagonists. Ironically, with authorial deification these players also get to comment on their character’s choices and the direction of their lives. Thus, in a wonderful twist, Lopez has the characters live and have their being while choosing their actions as they help Leo realize the most dramatic elements of the story.

The most humorous and finely realized manifestation of this occurs with the character of Toby Darling (the gobsmacking Andrew Burnap) whose seven year relationship with Eric crashes and burns mostly because he undoes it with careless abandon. Burnap adroitly, prodigiously walks the Toby tightrope. Representatively, Burnap’s supercharged Toby is the gay everyman of the previous generation before the AIDS epidemic: a cavalier, “full-of-himself,” gorgeous, sizzling, sexual powder-keg who masks the bleeding, soul raw, emotional victim of his own despairing gayness that writhes within.

The cast of The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley

The cast of ‘The Inheritance,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, designed by Bob Crowley, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster (Matthew Murphy)

Also, Lopez’s characterization of Toby as the successful novelist-cum Broadway playwright whose work will be made into a film, shines in a quaint “theater of the absurd” trope. Toby is the epitome of the actor searching for a character, massaging and sometimes insistently demanding the writing cadre, Forester and lead author-Leo do what he wishes. The outraged humor Burnap engenders as he attempts to write himself into a finer presentation and less painful destiny is wonderful. That he fails to influence Leo and the others to give him what he wants by the conclusion of the production is poignant, stark and even more wonderful.

His is an end which has no spiritual return because he optimizes his final choice and upends our expectations that he will die of AIDS. Lopez’s irony of and about Toby Darling is acute. As he declines, Leo ascends to a greater success, topping Toby’s spurious, specious novel (which Toby accuses himself of writing) with a powerful, truthful authenticity.

This is one of the many twists upon twists that Lopez effects that eventually is swallowed up by the themes and curiosity of paralleling Howard’s End and revealing how the cadre helps Leo tell the story of his complicated and amazing Horatio Alger-like rise. It is an evolution whose possibilities Leo inherited from the sacrifice of others who had gone before him in a long succession of gays shamed and ostracized. Lopez has his writers discuss Forester’s internalization of shame as they allude to gays of previous generations, who like Forester, had to hide in the shadows of oppression because of the social opprobrium and stench of perversion that branded gay men with the red letter F for faggot, a word that is still used to bludgeon gays today in various areas of our nation.

John Benjamin Hickey, Kyle Soller, Arturo Luis Soria, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederick, Kyle Harris, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley

John Benjamin Hickey, Kyle Soller, Arturo Luis Soria, Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr., Dylan Frederik, Kyle Harris in ‘The Inheritance,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, designed by Bob Crowley, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster (Matthew Murphy)

Homosexuality was an anathema that spawned abuse, brutalization and murder until it was answered for all time by the 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Forester who never “came out” publicly to stand for the cause as he could have, died a year after Stonewall. He never submitted his one novel about same-sex love for publication because such love was verboten. Forester deemed Maurice not “worth” publishing for the hell it would bring him, though clearly, it would have helped thousands come to grip with their own traumatized feelings.

Interestingly, as the writer cadre discusses this, they accuse Forester of cowardice. He avers, but he, too, is a part of the inheritance that burgeons today. The Stonewallers who fomented that iconic, historic event symbolically stood for gays globally; all benefited as the gay rights movement began its march into the future light of social acceptance. And Forester’s Maurice was published in 1971, within a mere year and one-half after Stonewall.

Gradually, Lopez’s characters unravel their storied relationships and relate how the previous generation’s sacrifice paved the way for their current oblivion enjoying their Lotus-Land sense of privilege and freedom from the ponderous, fearful irrevocable death-filled virus which Lopez’s characters quaintly refer to in the past tense as “the plague” and the “war.” Their nonchalant twitting jokes and discussion about “Camp” rise to high-turned humor. Is that all there is to discuss?

With gay marriage made legal, there are very few hurdles that remain left for the gay community who are free, in most cities globally, to be whom they please. The problem is, they must reconcile themselves with the past which always looms its insanity into the present. Toby is a prime example of how, regardless of the external strides the culture makes, freedom also originates from within; we must conquer ourselves conjointly as we battle the prejudices, discrimination and hatred of individuals we may meet in society.

Paul Hilton, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley

Paul Hilton in ‘The Inheritance,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, designed by Bob Crowley, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster (Matthew Murphy)

In keeping with this truism/theme of the play, we note Toby’s mismatched relationship with Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) a social activist who understands the full doom of Trump’s win and how it will impact every current policy from health care to the Paris Climate Accord to gay rights. While Toby basks in the fame of his novel’s success then prepares for the opening of his play on Broadway, he slowly disintegrates eaten inside out from trying to keep his lies suppressed. Meanwhile, Eric Glass befriends upstairs neighbor, frail Walter Poole, whose partner the robust titan of industry, Henry Wilcox has little time for.

From this foursome Lopez strikes loose parallels with Howard’s End: the Schleigel sisters (Eric and Toby) and Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox (Walter Poole and Henry Wilcox). Lopez furthers the complications with these relationships to eventually cue in Leo’s metamorphosis and Toby’s disintegration.

Henry was married with two sons; when his wife died he became enamored with Walter. They coupled and Walter lovingly raised the boys, maintaining the family dynamic while Henry often was away on business. Toby grows apart from Eric as he bathes in his success and becomes attracted to actor Adam (Samuel H. Levine) the wealthy counterpart of the homeless, uneducated, look alike hustler Leo who eventually writes the story of their lives. Toby and Eric split and Eric is devastated. Walter dies; Henry is devastated. Walter leaves a house upstate to Eric. Walter intuits that Eric spiritually can be the caretaker of the house because of his generous, charitable nature. However, Walter’s death bed wishes are not honored when Henry, motivated by his grasping sons, denies Walter’s request and burns the paper on which he wrote his “last will and testament.”

Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton, John Benjamin Hickey, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley

(L to R): Kyle Soller, Paul Hilton, John Benjamin Hickey in ‘The Inheritance,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, designed by Bob Crowley, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster (Matthew Murphy)

From then and there the conflict augments and we become intrigued as to how the upstate house will eventually land in Eric’s lap, for surely he is more deserving than Henry’s crass sons.

The mystery why Walter bequeaths the house to Eric (it is staged as a miniature replica colonial, back lit, opening up to reveal rooms and furniture in an adroit, beautiful, sleight-of-hand design by Bob Crowley) becomes revealed by the end of Part I. It is a stunning revelation tied in to the inheritance the previous gay generation left our writer cadre of the present. That generation was a community of which Walter was one of the last to die.

This greatest generation of the “war” from the last two decades of the 20th century experienced the scourge and crucible of fatal autoimmune deficiencies. These were the lost generation. They never came out  from under the torments and tribulations of the AIDS epidemic that struck thousands of the most gifted and talented in the artistic world who often died alone, unloved, invisible, without hope, the spurned contagious lepers of their time, their blood toxic to the touch. It was only until after the gay community, celebrities, politicians and other notables joined together to pressure scientific researchers to conquer the disease with the right cocktail of medications that the AIDS war ended. Theirs was an amazing endeavor that took twenty years. But for this war generation who died, one after the other expending their blood, sweat and tears, the current writers would not be able to luxuriate in indulgent sex without concerns about contracting dreaded kaposi’s sarcoma.

Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller, Andrew Burnap, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley

(L to R): Samuel H. Levine, Kyle Soller, Andrew Burnap in ‘The Inheritance,’ Part I, Part II, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by E.M. Forester’s ‘Howard’s End,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, design by Bob Crowley (Marc Brenner)

Walter’s loving nature inspired him to take in many of the AIDS generation who were dying. He took care of them in the upstate house, much to Henry’s great chagrin. But the moral imperative was great and he nursed the dying victims of “the war” at this serene refuge assisted by Margaret (the wonderful Lois Smith who shows up in Part II) who also lost a son to “the plague.” Thus, the dying don’t have to face the fear and darkness alone, but endure it knowing they are loved. As Eric is told the story others appear to verify the beauty and sacrifice of this war generation so that current members of the gay community might live in a greater peace, free from the noxious, soul-draining, heartbreaking physical wasting of AIDS.

As the end of Part I spools into eternity, we recognize that this is not only a play about the gay community (the tableau of them sitting around Bob Crowley’s white platform leaning on each other is fabulously akin to a famous Renaissance painting). Others were impacted by “the plague.” And they are no less important; the disease didn’t discriminate; toxic blood contamination was passed to others, male, female, straight, gay, transgender, children, elders, those of every ethnic culture. The difference is the cruel ostracism of being gay was further heightened by having AIDS. Stonewall could not answer a scourge, only medical science can, racing against death. And it did!

Finally, as Part I concludes, Lopez reminds us that while we live, we prepare a place for the next generation through our struggles, our trials and our difficulties. And it is this journey that must be told, even shouted from the rooftops to the younger generation who are our inheritors.

Lois Smith, Samuel H. Levine, The Inheritance Matthew Lopez, Stephen Daldry, Bob Crowley,

Lois Smith, Samuel H. Levine in ‘The Inheritance,’ directed by Stephen Daldry, designed by Bob Crowley, written by Matthew Lopez inspired by the novel ‘Howards End’ by E.M. Forster (Matthew Murphy)

If Part II is not as haunting and dense, it is dramatic with incredible monologues of truth delivered. Among others, Lois Smith’s Margaret shares her story and Toby revels his past as an entrance to what he will choose for his future. Both are amazing.

The cadre of friends matures, but into the scene Leo emerges picking up where wealthy Adam (Samuel L Levine) left off in Part I. In Part I before the stunning end, Lopez sets us up, as Adam and Toby confront each other, competitive wills. Adam as the star of Toby’s play is getting more acclaim than playwright Toby. Toby accuses Adam of having an easy life absent fear. In an exceptional monologue (end of Act I, Part I) Levine’s Adam describes an incident in a bath house in Europe whose impact is at first heady and divine in its allurement. But when it is over Adam’s realization converts the event to what it is, frightening and sinister in its sadomasochism and shocking realism. The sex was unprotected and there is blood, much blood. But because Adam confides in his parents, they act quickly to get the right medications. For the second time since Adam was adopted into wealth, Adam gratefully acknowledges his parents saved his life, this time from “the plague.”

Lopez provides an striking contrast in characterization between Adam and his doppleganger Leo (also portrayed by Samuel L. Levine). Levine’s portrayal of both is superbly vital. It suggests the differences between their class, education, personality, perceptions. He plays each acutely with superlative specificity. Manifested is the vast demographic of gays and their experiences. They are not always wealthy and/or educated or elite stereotypes. Indeed, sex is a tool and hustlers who may have been bisexual were caught up in the war in the last century. However, in 2018 the drugs are a salvation and the hope for changing one’s circumstances is ever-present.

As a homeless man, Leo has left a dire situation and his means of support is hustling. Of course he flirts with danger and the threat of disease hangs over him with every trick. That Toby uses Leo as a trick, then boyfriend to satisfy his lust for Adam because Leo looks exactly like Adam, becomes one of the linchpins of Part II. There is even a duplication of the scene Adam described to Toby in Part I, cruelly revived because Leo does not choose this for himself, Toby chooses it for him. In other words, Toby would have sadomasochism forced on Leo in a cruel remembrance of what Adam told him. Toby’s descent is made clear in this scene. And soon he will have no where to go but the abyss of darkness reflected in his soul.

A second linchpin is Eric’s and Henry’s relationship. Despite all of Eric’s friends’ counsel after Henry discusses why he is a Republican and supports Trump, Eric decides he will accept Henry’s proposal, though their ethics, morals and emotional impulses are antithetical. Ironically, we note that Eric is blinded by Henry’s wealth and charm and intuit Eric is headed for another disastrous relationship.

How Lopez resolves these problems using parallel elements from Howard’s End is intricate but inevitably logical. He fleshes out the characters of Toby, Eric, Henry and Leo with lustrous precision bringing each to their own resolution toward redemption, damnation or apotheosis as in the case of Leo. In Part II, Lopez emphasizes the aspect of joining past and present to build on the inheritance of what others have forged out from their earthly trials. Ultimately, because the protagonists (Eric, Margaret, Leo, Henry) have reconciled and recognized the contributions, love and sacrifice of those who have gone before them, they are able to create renewal and rejuvenation in their own lives and the lives of others. Leo’s recovery in Eric’s house (which Henry finally gives Eric) allows Leo to receive the eventual grace, education, scholarship that Henry Wilcox initiates in remembrance of his love for Walter. And thus, finally, Leo is able to tell this story of all of them of what they inherited-the love, the sacrifice so that they can bridge the present to inspire and bring hope to future generations.

Yes, the plot of The Inheritance is labyrinthine, some parts bloated. But the adroit shepherding of performances and staging by director Stephen Daldry help to tease out the actors’ performances so that overall the effort is spectacular.

This is a phenomenal work. It especially resonates in our current climate which looks to be a vast leap backward, but which in another realm of consciousness may bring out the best in those of us who prize love above hate, unity above division, truth above falsehood, a nurturing spirit above cold-heartedness. All of these contrasts Lopez’s work clarifies with a bit of redemption and remorse sprinkled along the way. Powerful, prescient, preeminent!

A special mention goes to the creative team who magnificently with minimalism and seamless charm brought Daldry’s vision into being. These include Jon Clark (lighting design) Paul Arditti & Christopher Reid, Paul Englishby (original music) Bob Crowley (design).

This is going to be an award winner as it was in the U.K. See it to be uplifted and moved. You won’t regret it. The Inheritance is currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

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‘A Christmas Carol’ a Gorgeous Re-birthing of the Dickens Treasure, on Broadway, Starring Campbell Scott, Andrea Martin, LaChanze

The Cast, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

The Cast of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

If you go to the Lyceum Theatre this holiday season, you will experience a haven of love filled with joy, good will and lots of treats (clementines and Tate’s chocolate chip miniatures passed out to the hungry audience right before the performance). What an exceptional re-vitalization of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this production is.

The uplifting classic about the human ability to change one’s character from grasping restriction to one of generosity and love is one we need to revisit as often as possible in this time of political divisiveness and “un-newsworthy” acts of cruelty, malice and social ill will. The production is a subtle call to arms, a reminder of our choices. If we must reveal traits, why not manifest the spiritual attributes of goodness and kindness to energize our minds and hearts toward the positive. Bah Humbug with negativity! The glass should and must be half-full and eventually, it just might be overflowing. All things are possible to those who believe.

hris Hoch, Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(L to R): Chris Hoch, Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Mind you this idea is never “preached” in this fabulous, sonorous production. But these themes are so infused by the characters, the story-line, the lyrically rendered traditional Christmas carols that waft in and out between bits and pieces of choral story telling, we are ever-so-gently wrapped in their meanings like a glorious present which we are encouraged to “pass on to others.” For those who see the production, and you must to fully appreciate this novel conception of a seasonal delight, you will understand how “pass it on to others, pass it forward,” becomes a prominent and sage aphorism, especially in Act II.

Campbell Scott, Dashiell Eaves, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(L to R): Campbell Scott, Dashielle Eaves, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The production which was first presented in London at The Old Vic is currently in its third season there. It is understandable why it is a smash favorite. Will it return next year in New York City as it most likely will in London? Please! Adapted by Jack Thorne with an intriguing design, tenor and texture by a laudatory creative team, the craggy penurious, scoundrel Scrooge portrayed with power and emotional range by Campbell Scott has rarely been given such a send-off.

From costumes to staging to lighting and sound, this is a spiritual manifestation of dreams and possibilities which spark one’s imagination and send chills down our spines. From the first appearance of Jacob Marley dragging chains and bondages up from infernal regions and recriminations, to the subsequent howling of the winds and fog mists swirling diabolically to the deep tonal registers of darkness, this is indeed, first and last “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” Dickens very own handle characterizing his most famous work.

Andrea Martin, A Christmas Carol, Matthew Warchus, Jack Thorne, An Old Vic Production

Andrea Martin as the Ghost of Christmas Past, ‘A Christmas Carol,’by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne,’ directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Before we meet the protagonist, hear/see his story, the cast shares the cookie and fruit favors and sings in black long coats and top hats with bells ringing a melodic symphony of cheer, whose message clearly, beautifully resounds with grace and humor. Then Scrooge, the gruff, malcontent stomps into the scene in the appropriate Victorian dress of the counting house with white, disarrayed whiskers and shocked out hair. Campbell Scott steps into the soul of this misanthropist who despises Christmas and all it means until ghosts haunt him and he transforms into an innocent child as the light of wonder fills his spirit.

Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Scott takes a version of a caricature we’ve all come to appreciate and authenticates him as a live individual. I couldn’t help but equate him with some political caricatures of our nation with the hope that they, too, may change, come to life and fill out as generous recondite human beings. But Scott’s Scrooge has the chief driver of transformation propelling him along: guilt, shame and remorse and the inclination to apologize and want to be a better person. Others do love him despite himself and most probably have prayed and blessed him along his darkened way. Thus, he comes to the end of himself on a ghostly evening “the night before Christmas.”

Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

When the Ghost of Christmas Past visits him (the illustrious, quaintly humorous and festively dressed Andrea Martin) we understand the reasons why Scrooge’s present is what it is and un-examined lump of coal which the ghosts put under intense heat and guilty pressure.

Nevertheless, Martin’s ghost reveals Scrooge’s younger days as he looks on poignantly amazed. The exuberance of his childhood, the longing not to be alone and the love are present. He loves Belle (the fine Sarah Hunt) but this love becomes bottled up in dreams of ambition to create a grand lifestyle for her. Of course these fade and became lost as Scrooge allows money to erect itself into an all-consuming devouring monstrosity; there is never enough; Scrooge is never rich enough for himself, though Belle would have married a man of her father’s station because she loves him and as he later finds out, still does love him.

Campbell Scott, LaChanze, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott, LaChanze in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The Ghost of Christmas Present enters in the same clouded mist and the foreboding is heightened as LaChanze with ironic tone and admonition ringing throughout her carriage comes to visit. Her outfit is the same as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a festive floral pattern. But her distinguishing feature remains the sunglasses; interpret them as you will. LaChanze manages to be cool and witty in the part; the sunglasses are a nice touch.

With her visit Scott’s Scrooge has begun his subtle transformation. If you blink, you will miss the bends in the turning points of his change. Gradually, he loses his anger, sullenness, recalcitrance, emotional unkemptness and judgmental superiority. Not only does he go with her willingly, he shows his aptitude to learn about himself. After all, didn’t Marley warn him of three visitations for the sole reason of forestalling his friend and kindred mammonish spirit the horrors of Marley’s eternal damnation?

Campbell Scott, The Company, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott and The Company of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

The mood shifts of the ghostly hauntings are like whispers, acute and filled with mystery. The choral numbers of various carols enhance the ghostly visits. The lamps deck the ballustrade, festoon the stage and theater ceiling suspended by long and short chains. The design is just spectacularly suggestive of the time and place, themes of light and dark, redemption and damnation. Rob Howell (set and costume design) Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) Simon Baker (sound design) and Christopher Nightingale (composer/orchestrator/arranger) especially have secured Matthew Warchus’ vision of A Christmas Carol as floating through the realms between the material and ethereal worlds. It is this symbolic vision that gives credence to otherworldly consciousness as one of the unspoken ghosts that visits Scrooge and promotes his final transformation having come back from a deadened heart, mind and soul.

Campbell Scott, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Without giving too much away, the Second Act shines figuratively and manifestly as the light embraces Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future, in a surprising twist, his sister Jess (Hannah Elless) notes what could be his future. Not exactly in keeping with the tenor and atmosphere of the Act One, nevertheless, Act Two emphasizes not the horrors and fear of a possibly doomed soul, but the joy, happiness and innocence of a reclaimed one.

Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus, an Old Vic Production

Sarah Hunt, Campbell Scott in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

If this is what it means to be “Born Again,” I’ll embrace it! Campbell Scott rebirths a nightmarish man into a lovely individual whose child-like wonder effuses love and generosity. His performance is moment to moment and the transformation is made complete in “the twinkling of an eye,” and “at the last trump!” This is his redemption through resurrection. And we adore Scrooge’s happiness and good will and find ourselves laughing and crying at his exuberance. Somewhere tucked in the background did I hear “O Holy Night” at these bright, shining moments? Perhaps.

Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Campbell Scott, Rachel Prather, A Christmas Carol, Broadway, Charles Dickens, Jack Thorne, Matthew Warchus

(background L to R:) Andrea Martin, LaChanze, Rachel Prather, (foreground) Campbell Scott, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Thorne, directed by Matthew Warchus (Joan Marcus)

Matthew Warchus’ staging making use of the entire theater even up to the second balcony. This is captivating. And his involvement of the audience making this experience wholly interactive is just grand. I adored the themes: the reigning/snowing down of blessings on the audience, the abundance and prosperity offered by Scrooge’s resurrected spirit that the audience gets to pass along as part of the festivities and much, much more.

I daresay, perhaps agnostics and atheists will approve of this version because it is heartfelt, human and doesn’t have a whiff of sanctimonious clap trap or religious institutionalism anywhere near it. And as for the commercialism of Christmas? The production explodes it at the first appearance of the cast in top hats and Victorian long coats. Thank goodness. Indeed, Thorne, Warchus and the creative team reveal their profound understanding of Dickens’ themes elevating this “haunting” story to the classic it is. The production in breathtaking array exemplifies why A Christmas Carol will resonate always.

See this for the spectacular interactive staging, lighting design, director’s vision, spiritual beauty, acting, Campbell Scott’s Scrooge-transformation, fabulously interwoven-in-the-narrative Christmas carols sung and played like you’ve never experienced before. And see it for the mysterious, otherworldly enchantments and too much to repeat here, not the least of which are the clementines. With special kudos to those not mentioned before: Lizzi Gee (movement) Howard Joines (music coordinator) Campbel Young Assoiates (wigs, hair, make-up design) Michael Gacetta.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street) with one intermission. For tickets and times to this must see LIMITED ENGAGEMENT, CLICK HERE.  You will be happy you did.

 

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‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ The Astounding Power of Soul Transformation Gloriously Alive on Broadway

Adrienne Warren, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd, Anthony Van Laast, Mark Thompson, Nicholas Skilbeck

Adrienne Warren in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, choreographer by Anthony Van Laast, set and costume designer Mark Thompson, musical supervision, arrngements, additional music and conductor Nicholas Skilbeck directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

Tina-The Tina Turner Musical with equal parts magnificent entertainment, profound lessons on life, survivor’s tale, series of club performances and recording studio sets recalling the wonders of our musical past is breathtaking. And that is before the final triumphant concert where Tina (the unparalleled Adrienne Warren) emerges in her glorious manifest destiny as the icon we’ve come to celebrate and adore.

The concert IS Tina! Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, with musical supervision, arrangements, additional music by conductor Nicholas Skilbeck, Tina currently runs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The musical sends a heroic message that the impossible is possible. And it reveals how Tina Turner broke through the limitations of race, class, gender and the white male-dominated music industry with grit, determination and panache. Above all Tina is a measured, profound reveal at how connecting with one’s inner spiritual being can bring peace and love to uplift others to heal.

Writers Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins have written a stunning book of memory, beauty and emotional chronology, interlacing songs to illustrate the resonance of spiritual evolution in a human life. They’ve chosen to open Tina with Adrienne Warren as Tina chanting, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” before a concert in Brazil, 1988. Chanting with her in consciousness (we discover later) is one who influenced her from her past, Gran Georgeanna (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who is part Cherokee Native. Emerging to bring her back to the past is a different spiritual influence, her father Richard (David Jennings) pastor of a small congregation in Tennessee.

These forces from her childhood which thread the spiritual elements throughout her life are included in the production. They symbolize the foundation of Anna Mae Bullock’s soul and ethos. Her transfiguration from Anna Mae to iconic solo performer Tina Turner is forged by the creative team of Tina with keys that open the doors to that revelation: Tina’s and Ike’s songs, Tina’s songs, and the design teams’ elucidation with historical musical references, symbols and themes reflected in the lighting, sets, screen projections, costumes, hair/wig/make-up designs, which are magnificent reflectors of her process crafting a new identity.

Skye Dakota Turner, David Jennings, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Tina Turner, Phyllida Lloyd

Skye Dakota Turner, Richard Jennings, ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar, Kees Prins, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

Director Phyllida Lloyd’s staging of the opening, her choices and vision for this musical remain acute and profound. For example, not only does the first scene ground us in the importance of Tina’s life approach (Buddhist meditation), her face, symbolizing “self” and “being” is shielded from us. This brief scene sets up the overarching flashback which will answer the question: who is this woman sitting in a humble position as if at the bottom of a well, with lighted stairs leading upward to the distant audience waiting to see her perform?

As Tina connects to oneness in her meditation (Nichiren Buddhism) the chronicle of her past opens. The musical unspools an exploration of her persona that metamorphosed with wheel and woe to make its glorious impact on us today.

During her chanting, the character evokes the past from which she attempts to redeem herself (“Etherland-Song of Mystic Law”). We empathize with her journey toward ego manumission. A condition of the musical is that the writers of the book and Adrienne Warren’s performance as Anna Mae/Tina strike human truths with emotional authenticity and power.

Vital events in this process are structured as turning points. These are intensely heartfelt to reveal Tina’s physical, mental and emotional abuse. However, the pain informs the artistically rich through line of creation and that spurs her transfiguration toward wholeness. Thus, as we go back in time with her, we become fellow seekers receiving the wisdom of how this particular sojourner traveled into soul darkness, came to the end of herself, survived and emerged to embrace light, love and life.

Adrienne Warren, Myra Lucretia Taylor,Katori Hall, Tina Turner, Phyllida Lloyd

(L to R): Adrienne Warren, Myra Lucretia Taylor,Katori Hall, in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

From the outset Lloyd cleverly, carefully structures the musical’s chronological arc of Tina/Anna Mae’s spiritual development rendered painstakingly by Hall, Ketelaar and Prins. The musical is without narration eschewing what has come to typify some other “bio-theater musicals” that have been reduced, stereotyped and dismissed as “juke box theater.” It would be folly to buzz-saw through Tina with such an opaque understanding. The musical is layered, the empathetic themes are instructive and the creative team’s efforts from ensemble acting to spectacle design manifest their greatness with prodigious ingenuity.

In the Act I flashback the scene shifts to a spare setting, symbolic, ancient-looking, gnarled tree of meagerness in Nutbush, Tennessee 1950, which reflects Anna Mae’s roots. We are at an unadorned church service that Young Anna Mae attends with her family as father Richard (David Jennings) preaches. The choir/congregation sing (“Nutbush City Limits”).  Then, it happens, a defining moment from which all the other events flow. Anna Mae, like Thespis (the first actor of Ancient Greek Choral Theater) emerges from the choir. Anointed by “The Holy Spirit,”with unrestrained passion she sings, dances and gloriously ignites all in the church to worship and lift themselves out of the misery of their lives.

Dawnn Lewis, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

Dawnn Lewis in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

From the moment Young Anna Mae (the phenomenal Skye Dakota Turner whose golden singing can charm dragons) sings and dances, sparks of joy electrify us. Nevertheless, her judgmental mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis gives a steely, spot-on performance) sits annoyed. Obviously, Young Anna Mae has a voice with destiny in its timber. Zelma’s selective hearing deigns that it’s “too loud,” and in the next scene at the dinner table she cruelly upbraids Anna Mae for her lying pretense, “acting” like she has a relationship with God! As Zelma raises her hand to slap Anna Mae, Richard physically intervenes.

Daniel J. Watts, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

Daniel J. Watts in , in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

We understand why the ongoing physical and verbal abuse from Richard drive off Zelma. But we empathize with Anna Mae especially when her mother, without explanation, takes only Alline (Mars Rucker) with her to St. Louis, and Richard abandons her to Gran Georgeanna. It is her grandmother who encourages her singing and spirituality with great love.

The scene shifts again and it is another turning point years later where Adrienne Warren as the teenage Anna Mae and Gran sing the poignant (“Don’t Turn Around”). Gran affirms Anna Mae must leave her hard scrabble life in Nutbush (she has three jobs one of which was picking cotton) to take advantage of God’s vocal gift. Regardless of Anna Mae’s protest, Gran sends her to live with Zelma and Alline, but the explanation we discover later is that dying Gran spares Anna Mae her loss. Yet, writers clarify throughout the production that in Anna Mae/Tina’s consciousness during crisis-filled moments, Gran is ever-present in spirit to strengthen her.

Adrienne Warren, Daniel J. Watts, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

Adrienne Warren, Daniel J. Watts in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

Anna Mae embarks on her journey to greatness as Gran’s vision for her comes true. Despite her positive relationship with band member Raymond, (the attentive, sensitive Gerald Caesar) who tries to protect her from Ike and with whom she has a child, (“Let’s Stay Together”) she marries Ike Turner. By then Ike has “christened” her his “Queen,” the “Tina Turner” of the Ike and Tina Turner Review.

The Ike and Tina segments meld the songs from Tina’s career with thoughtfulness. These enlighten us to their meet-up and growing bondages in their relationship: (“Shake a Tailfeather,” “She Made My Blood Run Cold,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” A Fool in Love,” “Better Be Good To Me”). By then Ike is doing backup with his band The Kings of Rhythm. The Ikettes (the superb Holli Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, Mars Rucker, one of whom introduces her to Buddhism) are the movers and shakers with Tina in the lead. Additionally, Ike hires a sometime mistress Rhonda (Jessica Rush) to manage the group. As a duo Tina and Ike R and B it to Rolling Stones Magazine’s #2 out of “Twenty Greatest Duos of All Time.”

Adrienne Warren, the company, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

(L to R): Adrienne Warren and the company of Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

The musical’s set design  projections, lighting design, costumes, wig and hair design, orchestrations, musical supervision, arrangements, etc. are historically appropriate and inform the appearance and the sound of the Ike and Tina Review. The performances of the songs are signatures of the time and bring a superb reckoning of our American musical past when the culture and society was burgeoning and roiling, and black artists were looking for breaks into the music industry.

However, the cost that Anna Mae/Tina pays to manifest Gran’s vision is almost too great to bear during the years she and Ike are married, have one child together and raise her child with Raymond. Tina is the doll Ike fashions her to be. He controls every aspect of her life and intimidates her to put up with his adultery and drug use. To subordinate her and keep her close he pays her no salary and micromanages what she does, even to deciding after she has Craig (their child together) she cannot rest but must work in the studio to cut a record and stay up all hours, eroding her well being.

Adrienne Warren, Steven Booth, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

Adrienne Warren, Steven Booth in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ Book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

Adrienne Warren’s Tina is emotionally riveting. Not only does she hit every nuanced feeling that we imagine Tina felt when she ended the relationship with Raymond (“Let’s Stay Together”). She also beautifully intuits Tina’s growing soul destruction through self-recrimination and despair. We note each time Tina allows Ike to abuse her mentally and emotionally and bullies her to subvert her personal choices into his “Tina Turner” wind-up puppet, she loses dignity, confidence and self-worth. Even the “Tina” identity is wholly owned by Ike. Warren’s vocal resonance as Tina singing through the pain is bar none.

Because she cannot leave him and forsake her career, livelihood and her public identity, Tina stays through the intensifying physical abuse, despite warnings by Rhonda and the Ikettes who have become friends and try to “watch her back.” With every blow, every mercenary act she receives from Ike, Tina’s inner self withers battered by her own self-hatred for forgiving him and remaining silent. Warren’s uncanny performance reveals Tina’s inward progression into an abyss of despair.

Adrienne Warren, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,' Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, Kees Prins, Phyllida Lloyd

(L to R): Adrienne Warren and the company of Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

Because Daniel J. Watts’ portrayal as Ike is a striking, intensely human counterpart to Warren’s, we understand the dynamic of their relationship and why Tina doesn’t leave him the moment he throws a symbol at her. Watts has a difficult role as Ike in not making him the complete devil that the Ikettes attribute him to be. But Watts is not cardboard malevolent. He reveals Ike is one hot mess who is edgy and charming and at heart obsessed with music, Tina and what he has crafted “their star power” duo to be. Watts authenticates Ike’s great fear of losing Tina that converts to jealousy for as lead, she is the better performer and should leave him. On his knees he makes her promise to stay; of course, she does.

His insecure, fear-filled behavior augments after the wonderful music studio scene with Phil Spector (Steven Booth) who gets Tina to sing to the “god” in herself (“Deep River Mountain High”).  Watts infuses Ike’s ambition, his wanting to “be someone” in life with underlying anger-sorrow. Ultimately, he is shaped by the vicissitudes of Southern bigotry, a lack of personal restraint and the music business’ penchant for exploiting artists or rendering them invisible. Like Warren’s, Watts’ portrayal is acute, authentic, empathetic. He especially reveals the nuances of Ike’s character in all of his scenes with Tina keeping them dynamic and menacing (thanks to the fight direction by Sordelet Inc.).

Adrienne Warren, the company, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

(L to R): Adrienne Warren and the company of Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

The musical’s action heightens organically with escalating emotional rawness as Ike’s and Tina’s relationship spirals downward during the last scenes of Act I. Warren’s singing becomes more frantic as she is manipulated and seduced by Watts’ Ike in their exceptional “Be Tender With Me Baby.” In the performance of the song we note the chains of fear, desolation, self-hatred yet love of their mutual identity together. However, Tina is end stopped; there is no way for Ike to let her go and for her to leave. As a way out of self-loathing and stalemate, Tina takes 50 Valium before going onstage. Ike’s comment, “Bitch, you die on me I’ma kill you,” is hysterical if it were also not tragic. The writers have fashioned her suicide attempt as a quick break seguing into a short scene with her mother who, with sardonic encouragement, encourages her to stay with Ike and beat him (like she did former husband Richard) the next time Ike abuses her.

Adrienne Warren, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,' Katori Hall, Frank Ketelaar, Kees Prins, Phyllida Lloyd

(L to R): Adrienne Warren in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

After her mother’s jarring, callous injunction (typical of the times) Tina’s frenzy increases to a visibly heartbreaking climax as she sings, “Proud Mary.” In Warren’s interpretation and vocal majesty the song becomes a metaphor for the overcoming power of Tina as “riverboat queen.” She is Proud Mary! She will “keep on burnin,” “keep on turnin,” and “keep on being proud,” not for Ike, but for herself. And when she keeps on “rollin’ down the river” of life, it will be as a whole person, spirit, soul, body. As Warren stops the concert and leaves the stage, to stand up to Watt’s Ike matching his blows, we know she’s come to the end of herself. Hall and the others state in the stage directions, “this is her Garden of Gethsemane.” No one but she can act for herself. Alone, she must confront her inner hell and be courageous enough to to leave it.

Like a slave seeking freedom, in a symbolic, iconic scene, Warren’s Tina runs out of the concert hall and across a highway (effected by screen projections and sounds of horns blaring and lights and music from the past) to arrive at a roadside hotel, bruised, bleeding, dark hair in disarray, dressed in just a slip. A shaking Adrienne Warren imbues Tina’s emotions of hope, fear, sadness, desperation as she reaches out to receive the room key from the night manager (hand stretched toward the audience). The key is symbolic of freedom and with it she unlocks the door which opens into a new ethos which only she can forge with the help of hovering spiritual ancestors, hope, Buddhism and more.

Poignantly, as Warren sings with the ensemble, “I don’t Wanna Fight No More,” she sings to herself, and her past (represented when the characters of Gran, Young Anna Mae and others minister to her and clean her up). With the flash-forward to the present she is in meditation back where we began in Brazil 1988 as Act I ends where it began. Just incredible.

Adrienne Warren, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd, Anthony Van Laast, Mark Thompson, Nicholas Skilbeck

Adrienne Warren in ‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, choreographer by Anthony Van Laast, set and costume designer Mark Thompson, musical supervision, arrngements, additional music and conductor Nicholas Skilbeck directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

Act II chronicles how Tina uses her freedom, extracting herself from Ike’s power litigating only for her name and at Rhonda’s suggestion establishing the new “Tina.” The second act is equally thrilling as Tina’s lotus bud rises from the mud to shine its beauty becoming the lion-maned Tina adored globally. Helping along the way are Australian Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) who becomes her manager and shepherds her toward a new sound, Rock and Roll with crossover appeal to white audiences, which she chooses to sing, and a new look she effects for herself.

But she must continually meditate and throw off her past and Ike who haunts her in her lonely sadness (“I Can’t Stand the Rain”) which Lloyd directs as an evocative scene of the lonely London landscape replete with umbrellas and screen projections. A romantic answer to loneliness is Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites) with whom she eventually ends partners. Ever-present are Gran and even visions of the anointed Young Anna Mae who encourage her before and after Capital Records hears her London showcase and rejects her until she sings “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at the Ritz in New York City, 1983.

With Davies Tina establishes she is the boss and not a puppet. This is reinforced with Ike, a point clarified after her stunning success and before the concert when she mails back a doll he sends her in an attempt at forgiveness. In a final scene between Tina, Ike and Zelma who is in the hospital, though Ike attempts to apologize in a written letter, he cannot say it “to her face” and leaves with silence on his lips. But Zelma makes amends apologizing that she could never be the mother to Tina that she should have been. We empathize with Zelma’s explanation: Tina was like holding “fire,” and “fire illuminates your own flaws” and of course, fire burns. In saying goodbye to the pain, hurt and abuse from their past, Tina and Zelma sing (“Don’t Turn Around” reprise). Tina is finally able to move on and climb the steps to perform for the nearly 200,000 waiting fans in Brazil, 1988.

Adrienne Warren, the company, Tina-The Tina Turner Musical, Katori Hall, Phyllida Lloyd

Adrienne Warren and the company of Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ book by Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins directed by, Phyllida Lloyd (Manuel Harlan)

The concert in which the set revolves and Tina manifests the bright light of transformation, Warren effects relaxed confidence as she “lets go and lets God,” coming down the stairs to welcome us, her concert audience. As Warren sings/dances with the company, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” (Simply) The Best,” and “Proud Mary,” she is the spectacular Tina Turner. She sings in dazzling array with lion mane and shimmery costume. The regal stage, her platform to shine, sparkles. The metaphor of the steps (i.e. a Jacob’s Ladder) which she ascends and descends reflects that she is the messenger of joy to emotionally uplift her fans. The lighted stairs may also symbolize how she has traveled “up from slavery,” up from the abyss and down into her settled spirituality and wholeness assured of bringing her gift of love to her audience. Realizing that every detail of her past cements her current greatness, one cannot help but divine that she spiritually has been influenced to this destiny to encourage us to “keep on burnin,” and “rollin on the river,” with verve, in celebration of our lives.

Tina will be an award winner. The book is sensational as is the stellar performance by Warren which deserves its own created category. Watts’ portrayal is outstanding and the ensemble is first-rate. Finally, kudos go to Anthony Van Laast (choreographer) Mark Thompson (set and costume designer) Nicholas Skilbek (musical supervision, arrangements, additional music and conductor) Ethan Popp (orchestrations) Bruno Poet (lighting design) Nevin Steinberg (sound design) Jeff Sugg (projection design) Campbell Young Associates (wig, hair and makeup design) John Miller (music coordinator). All serve the director’s vision and enhance the musical beyond expectation.

Tina-The Tina Turner Musical runs with one intermission at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46th). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

 

 

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‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, Starring Brian Cox, Richard Thomas, A Triumphant Reminder of an Adult President

The Great Society, Brian Cox, Robert Schenkkan, Brian Cox, Bill Rauch,

Brian Cox in ‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch (Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Lyndon Baines Johnson became president in a  landslide vote in 1964. The wheeler dealer of the senate as Democratic Majority leader who could count votes and get bills passed, came from a hard scrabble childhood. He witnessed his father devastated  by broken dreams. But President Johnson despite his crude ways, ferocious wit and uber competitiveness had the people of the nation at heart. Cramped and curtained as President Kennedy’s poor ‘ole boy, shunt ’em to the side Vice President, taking the reins of power after Kennedy’s death in 1963, President Johnson accomplished the impossible. He did what Kennedy hoped to do but couldn’t; he got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.

In Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning All The Way, LBJ is a man of destiny and reckoning. Played by Bryan Cranston who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, we follow the 36th president through passage of that iconic Civil Rights Act to his election campaigning. It was an  amazing journey considering the obstacles of bigotry, racism and the obstructions by the Southern Democrats. Schenkkan’s play concludes with Johnson riding high on his success of the Civil Rights Triumph  and his election win as the full term 36th president of the United States.

Directed by Bill Rauch who helmed All the Way, Schenkkan’s sequel, The Great Society is equally majestic in its revelations about Johnson as  one who greatly desired to bring Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas of a more prosperous nation into being. With Johnson this was an obsession which Brian Cox realizes authoritatively and sensitively. As Cox’s Johnson lays out the policies of “the great society,” Schenkkan includes quotes from Johnson’s speeches where he affirms the principles of the constitution regarding economic equality, voting rights and other essential American freedoms.

The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan, Brian Cox, Bill Rauch,

(L to R): Marc Kudisch, Brian Cox in ‘The Great Society,’ by Richard Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch (Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

What a joy to hear Cox’s superb delivery of Johnson’s own words. This is especially so in our time when the current president has laid siege to our election freedoms, demeaned freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and abrogated checks and balances with monarchic pronouncements and behaviors that as president, he can do “anything he wants,” and lift “presidential” criminality to new heights with impunity and the assistance of William Barr head of the Department of Justice. In The Great Society, the portrayal of Cox’ Johnson is a poignant reminder that there was a time in our history, when consensus between Republicans and Democrats could be reached. The play reminds us that Johnson knew how to compromise and work toward legislation that would improve the lives of American citizens. Above all he was an adult, he cared about those who were economically disadvantaged, he loathed racism, yet understood how to get his opponents on his side.

The arc of the play’s development chronicles Johnson’s four year term during which the country roiled with upheavals and protests that represented the raging tide of times. Schenkkan unfolds events from the mountaintop of Johnson’s win to his struggles through passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Schenkkan reveals Johnson’s relationships with Civil Rights leaders from Ralph Abernathy to Stokley Carmichael to Martin Luther King Jr. to conflicts with Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wallace.

The actors who portray these celebrated individuals do an excellent job. Most acute and colorful in the development of their relationships with Cox’s Johnson are Grantham Coleman as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  and Marchant Davis as Stokely Carmichael. Some of the most dynamic segments of the play are Johnson’s confrontations with Martin Luther King Jr. and the other iconic black activists to insure that blacks would be able to register and vote without being lynched or beaten. Dynamic arguments with all the important high stakes players move like a riptide as Johnson negotiates and spars with Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman) Stokely Carmichael (Marchant Davis) Governor George Wallace (David Garrison) Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham) Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood) Richard J. Daley-Mayor of Chicago (Marc Kudisch )and others. Often at his side is Hubert Humphrey (the fine Richard Thomas) who serves as a counsel to him and could be looked upon loosely as his friend, a generosity not given to Johnson by the Kennedys when he was Vice President.

The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan, Brian Cox, Bill Rauch, Bryce Pinkham

(L to R): Brian Cox, Bryce Pinkham in ‘The Great Society,’ by Richard Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch (Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Identifying searing events, (via video projections and archived photos, the “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Alabama, “Turnaround Tuesday” march, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the Chicago protests, the Watts riots, etc.) Schenkkan reveals how Johnson attempted to balance all the invested players and handle the black – white unrest. With the Watts riots, he eventually brought in the California National Guard.

Brian Cox demonstrates Johnson’s forcefulness, vigor, passion and rationality with regard to his positions on civil rights and with regard to bringing in key influencers for other programs, like Dr. James Z. Appel (Marc Kudisch) head of the American Medical Association. Under Johnson’s term, medicare and medicaid were created and passed into law.

Interesting are his exchanges with Robert Kennedy portrayed with privileged aloofness and irony by Bryce Pinkham. The tensions between them are obvious and stem back from Johnson’s Vice Presidency. When Johnson is not surprised that Kennedy is looking to run in 1968, we understand his humorous reaction to that news. Kennedy uses Johnson as his bête noire on the war to gather support for his platform and candidacy. It is an ironic moment considering his brother was the first to send troops over to Viet Nam. The irony of this and  horror of the Robert Kennedy assassination is shown representational style; Johnson’s reaction is telling.

If Johnson’s greatness as a president was in the passage of forward legislation to improve all of the citizens’ lives, Schennkan reveals the greatness is undone by his “Waterloo,” the Viet Nam War. Based on reports from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch) and head of U.S. forces in Viet Nam General William Westmoreland (Bryan Dykstra) Cox as Johnson shows the president’s mettle as he wrangles with the notion that the war will stop the spread of communism. Listening to them, he escalates troop deployments and engages in the bombing of North Viet Nam. These are steps on the road to the nation’s infamy.

The Great Soiety, Grantham Coleman, the company, Bill Rauch, Robert Schenkkan

Grantham Coleman and company in ‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch (Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

On a backdrop projection periodically listed are the ever increasing numbers of American dead and wounded. Indeed, as Johnson battles the two main issues of the day, civil rights and the war, we note that he, himself, is fighting his own war with himself whether more bloodshed will be useful or a travesty. We hear the rationale for escalation as we note the figures expand and rise up as protestors march and individual protestors represented by Quaker minister Norman Morrison (David Garrison) immolate themselves. (Buddhist monks also set themselves on fire to protest the war).

For those unfamiliar with this time in history, Schenkkan relays events with meticulous and accurate detail. Clearly, he identifies the seminal themes and concepts from which we still feel the impact today evidenced by the numbers of homeless Vets and suicides from that generation. We shudder as we witness Cox as Johnson be persuaded by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland knowing the numbers will continue to rise and behind each number is a family in mourning. Letters Johnson writes to families in condolence become a devastating scene. Schenkkan evidences Johnson’s turmoil which ironically reflects the growing divisiveness in the country. Money spent on the war and defense contractors could have been spent on his social programs which must be curtailed to make the budget. Johnson is stuck between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go but the abyss, Schenkkan reveals.

The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan, Brian Cox, Bill Rauch, Angela Pierce, Richard Thomas Frank Wood, Robyn Kerr, Brian Cox, Marc Kudisch, Brian Dykstra

(L to R): Angela Pierce, Richard Thomas Frank Wood, Robyn Kerr, Brian Cox, Marc Kudisch, Brian Dykstra in ‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch (Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

An important feature of this production is in how the playwright and the director and ensemble coalesce our history with salient, acute representational actions that become a mentorship in what an adult president can be like. This reminds us of what we do not have today. Cox’s Johnson reveals a president who had the temerity not to seek re-election but wanted to extract himself from the rat wheel of the killing fields of Southeast Asia during a horror that fomented protests, divided his country and party. And it was particularly grating for him to hear college students’ chants, “Hey, Johnson what do ya say, how many kids did you kill today?”The words hit home because he knew they were true. He bore up under it badly remembering a time when he was popular and not despised.

Rather that to be elected for four more years, which he would have won, he stops and hands the opportunity to Hubert Humphrey.  We laugh at his humor and the irony of what happened next: Richard Nixon (played by David Garrison). A key point in this production, look for it, reveals Nixon’s hunger for the presidency so that he put himself before the country and our soldiers. Treasonously, deceitfully Nixon upended the ongoing negotiations for peace with North Viet Nam by making an arrangement that peace would be accomplished after he got in office. Cox’s Johnson ironically nails him for this when Nixon comes in to assert himself in the Oval Office, even before he is inaugurated. The parallel to today in how the Trumpists were making quid pro quo deals even before they took the reins of power is clear.

When Johnson stated he would not run again and posed the reasons, what many believed would be better for the country, actually was worse, especially since Nixon stalled the peace negotiations with North Viet Nam, something that Johnson had believed in throughout his bombing policy. But a worse than Johnson took office and the implication in the play is that Johnson knew this as Cox portrays ironically when Nixon comes to visit before the transfer of power. In one of the most dramatic scenes Cox pulls out all stops to deliver Johnson’s ringing words:  “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes. . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” The ramifications of this in Nixon getting in, the country has paid for ever since.

Interestingly, Schekkan, Rauch, Cox and the ensemble reinforce American values, exemplified by what Johnson attempted in his plan for “the great society.” These values which Johnson fought hard to uphold against those like Governor George Wallace, Southern Democrats and Southern law enforcement whose bigotry Johnson understood, countermanded, and decried, become reinforced as the gold standard of the nation. Johnson was capable of dialogue with those who disagreed with him. And he was capable of bringing them to his side to realize and bring us closer to the tenets of the constitution and a “more perfect union,” if even for a time until the war upended the fullness of his efforts. The production uplifts these characteristics of Johnson as a patriotic American. And it indelibly reinforces this greatness as that which we must embrace if we are to define ourselves as a nation of equal opportunity for all.

The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan, Brian Cox, Bill Rauch, Barbara Garrick

Barbara Garrick, Brian Cox, ‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, directed by Bill Rauch (Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

Finally, The Great Society has special import for us because what Johnson attempted was actually supported in a bi-partisan effort.  Johnson not only looked out for the well being of the poor and the uneducated regardless of race or creed, he had the negotiating power and skill to bring his dreams into reality. He understood congress, and with his landslide victory, was able to bring many liberal Democrats with him to establish a foundation by which his social programs could be instituted and funded. He declared a “war on poverty” and attempted to eliminate institutional racial injustice.  If not for the vicissitudes of the Viet Nam War, who knows what else may have been accomplished?

With passion, ingeniousness determination and sociability, Johnson attempted the impossible and managed to push through the most sweeping civil rights legislation and other legislation that benefited whole swaths of the nation which are still in practice today though Republican white supremacists continue to erode the Voting Rights Act with gerrymandering and strictures at polling places.

Cox authentically portrays Johnson with grace, humor, vitality and power. His masterful performance is an illumination which we need especially now.

The sum total of the benefits the 36th president brought to this nation (including the 25th Amendment) is laudatory. He also was driven into a war from which it has been impossible to recover. For that and other reasons he did not want to continue as president. Again, admirable. Importantly, the play reminds us that presidents and politicians do have the ability to stand for all of the people and to push for equal opportunity for the betterment of the general good. That used to be a value of this nation, a sign of patriotism, Americanism, something to strive for. How this current administration has strayed from those values with the help of the Trumpists and big money is earth-shattering. Schenkkan’s The Great Society is a warning we must not allow this erosion of democracy to continue.

The theme of this production is an imperative, and uplifting for us in these times. For this reason, the portrayals, the historical details and the crafting of events, Schenkkan’s portrayal of Johnson, beautifully delivered by Cox as a president of cultural hope and justice is a must see.

Special kudos to the design team. The projections, the archived photos and videos were well done. the scenic design melded well with the lighting. As for the costume design, yes, that is really how folks dressed! Notice, no red ties. Calling out:  David Korins (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) David Weiner (lighting design) Victoria Sagady (projection design) Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzbert (sound design) Paul James Prendergast (music).

The Great Society runs with one intermission at the Vivian Beaumont Theater Lincoln Center until 30th of November.  For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

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‘The Sound Inside,’ by Adam Rapp, Starring Mary-Louise Parker

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp, David Cromer

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, ‘The Sound Inside,’ by Adam Rapp,directed by David Cromer (Jeremy Daniel)

How well do we know ourselves? If we don’t, then how can we truly discern others to help them, and get them to help us? Of course, that is if we indeed admit we need help! Adam Rapp (Pultizer Prize finalist for Red Light Winter 2006) touches upon themes of self-knowing, being, consciousness and the perception of others in The Sound Inside. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theatre the play premiered at the Williamston Theatre Festival and now is at Studio 54 until 12th January.

Directed by David Cromer (Tony Award Winner for The Band’s Visit) and starring Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Mary-Louise Parker, with Will Hochman in his Broadway debut, the 90-minute production is spare and ironically humorous. Opaque, wisps of the mysterious slip into the arc of the play’s development. By the conclusion uncertainty is king; we must admit circumstances of character are unknowable as our understanding intrudes with imprecise interpretations about what the events may mean. Rapp strikes unusual timbers in this work and suggests the sounds we listen to inside of our minds and hearts remain elusive.

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp, David Cromer, Studio 54, Lincoln Center Theatre

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, ‘The Sound Inside,’ by Adam Rapp,directed by David Cromer (Jeremy Daniel)

Rapp’s characterizations are drawn to entice. They loop around us and double in on themselves pinging our empathy. Despite their austere headiness and sometimes aloof demeanor, Rapp does allow Bella’s (Parker) and Christopher’s (Hochman) sensibilities to shine and soften as their relationship appears to deepen. With their responses to each other’s questions they attempt to connect and dissolve their gritty isolation. Parker and Hochman effect intriguing encounters with stirring, nuanced authenticity and exceptional feeling

The play begins and ends as a one-person narration, specifically with Bella’s direct address to the audience, a matter-of-fact revelation of her life up to and including her experience with a prodigy, a freshman in her writing class. Yale professor and writer, she initially elicits our attention speaking in complete darkness then gradually emerging from the shade as the spotlight grows brighter to finally make her visible. When she steps down front toward the audience, director David Cromer leaves the rest of the stage in darkness and shadow. It is as if she begins speaking from a vacuum, or a dark space somewhere in her own being and then seeks an audience of readers/listeners who will appreciate her story and remain with her while she tells her tale of self-discovery, healing and the uncertain apprehension of an individual who brings meaning into her life.

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp, David Cromer, Studio 54, Lincoln Center Theatre

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, ‘The Sound Inside,’ by Adam Rapp,directed by David Cromer (Jeremy Daniel)

Cromer’s direction is pointed, symbolic and acute. With a minimalism of sets, he suggests Bella’s apartment, office and a local bar without distracting us from the most curious of relationships and events which occur between Bella and Christopher. The spareness and the directed lighting help to reinforce the dynamic tension between the teacher and her student.

Throughout, the director uses light and surrounding darkness interpretively. The symbolism of light and darkness assisted by Heather Gilbert’s excellent design suggests the intimacy of their conversation and undergirds the theme about never really knowing/ understanding the thoughts, consciousness and souls of others. Indeed, the lighting implies a possible theme, that we see others “through a glass darkly,” if they allow us to “see.” And if they do, it is merely bits and pieces of their larger unseen whole.

The lighting prepares us to be receptive to the personal stories that Bella and Christopher tell us as we watch their relationship move in a direction we cannot anticipate. We only know what they relate; we have no outside knowledge of the accuracy of what they express. Thus we must trust Bella and Christopher as narrators. However, Rapp twits us. We must also doubt them as he characterizes with vast indefiniteness, almost with a dream-like quality, though Bella appears more solid than Christopher.

Therein lies the rub! To what extent are Bella and Christopher reliable narrators? Both of them address the audience and discuss their perceptions of each other without particular effusion of feeling. Actually, we receive more from their interactions and the stories they have written.

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp, David Cromer, Studio 54, Lincoln Center Theatre

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, ‘The Sound Inside,’ by Adam Rapp,directed by David Cromer (Jeremy Daniel)

However, that too ends in an opaque blind because their stories which have autobiographical and symbolic components, are indeed, fiction. Yet, they are metaphorical and may even parallel their real lives and their portentous deaths.

Christopher details a synopsis of Bella’s novel whose character’s last name is the same as hers and who dies proving a point about the culture and human nature. Christopher relates the synopsis of his novel in which one of his protagonists (Shane) dies. The other character whose name is the same as Christopher’s takes Shane’s place and cares for his son whose name is the same as Bella’s protagonist who dies (Billy). In both Bella’s and Christopher’s novels, deaths occur and these complicate our understanding of Bella and Christopher because they are related to Bella’s narration of events about Christopher and her interactions with him.

In a further complication and twist, Christopher’s novel contains allusions to particular novels he’s read in Bella’s class: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, etc.,  as well as a references to Christopher’s favorite book, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. The reference to Wild Palms by William Faulkner a favorite of Bella’s and Christopher’s, Rapp uses as an allusion to The Sound Inside.  In Rapp’s play the lives of Bella and Christopher are narratives of isolated individuals. These individuals are momentarily arrested from their aloneness on the venerable college campus where they connect, energize, impact one another then move on having made an indelible and irrevocable exchange which Rapp alludes to at the conclusion. You will just have to see The Sound Inside to find out what that is; no spoiler alert is coming to reveal the final impact of this play, shimmering with the ineffable, the uncertain, the intangible.

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp, David Cromer, Studio 54, Lincoln Center Theatre

Mary-Louise Parker, Will Hochman, ‘The Sound Inside,’ by Adam Rapp,directed by David Cromer (Jeremy Daniel)

Rapp teases us with the references to celebrated novels and their tie-ins as well as the mystery of the final events of Bella’s narration about her relationship with Christopher: the help she needs from him and the help her gives her. All are under the penumbra of Bella’s story-telling which spins outward into a cloudy firmament. Indeed, as she importunes Christopher toward the end, she has “reached into a dark room for something.” Christopher helps her with her fateful request with an even more fateful response.

Parker’s Bella concludes with us emerging from her flashback into the present in her last address to the audience. She stands in the spotlight, the darkness of the park behind her. This is where she solicited us and sparked our curiosity at the top of the play, so we are back at a beginning. Throughout we remained rapt, engaged and constantly questioning. However, at the last in the park with Bella, we finally must accept what she has told us is both a reflection of her own consciousness and meaning and ours, in a meld of fiction, imagination and faith.

Parker and Hochman take us on this incredible journey toward connection reminding us of the impact we do have on others despite our assumptions to the contrary. Ironically, however, we cannot always state with certainty what that impact is or might be. In Rapp’s thrilling play, opacity and its companion uncertainty about human nature, knowing and consciousness are paramount.

That Rapp breaks the third wall to tell Bella’s then conjointly Christopher’s stories is vital. As we tell our own stories or write them, we constantly intrude to watch ourselves in the telling. Objectivity is a canard as is connection. Our consciousness is ours alone, a key theme of Rapp’s work. We can move parallel with others, but we move alone. After we come to the end of ourselves, the journey may be great fun. But along the way, as it is for Bella (until after she meets Christopher) and for Christopher, the pain of discovering identity, and settling comfortably into our consciousness tears us like a cancer which must be healed.

Kudos to Alexander Woodward (scenic design) David Hyman (costume design) Heather Gilbert (lighting design) Daniel Kluger (music and sound). The Sound Inside runs with no intermission at Studio 54 (West 54th Street between 7th and 8th). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

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‘The Rose Tattoo,’ Marisa Tomei Is Tennessee Williams’ Fiery, Sensual Serafina, in a Stellar Performance

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott, The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams, Roundabout Theatre Company, Trip Cullman, American Airlines Theatre

Marisa Tomei in ‘The Rose Tattoo,’ by Tennessee Williams, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Atmosphere, heat, the heavy scent of roses, candles, mysticism, undulating waves, torpid rhythms, steamy melodies, fantastical rows of pink flamingos, a resonant altar of the Catholic Madonna. These elements combine to form the symbolic backdrop and evocative wistful earthiness that characterize Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Rose Tattoo at American Airlines Theatre.

Tennessee Williams playful, emotionally effusive tragic-comic love story written as a nod to Williams own Sicilian lover Frank Merlo, is in its third revival on Broadway in a limited engagement until 8th December (the Catholic date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Reflecting upon Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, this is an ironic, humorous conclusion in keeping with the evolution of her character which Tomei embraces as she exudes verve, sensuality, fury, heartbreak and breathtaking, joyful authenticity in the part.

If any role was made for Tomei, divinity and Tennessee Williams have placed it in her lap and she has run with it broadening the character Serafina Delle Rosa with astute sensitivity and intuition. Tomei pulls out all the stops growing her character’s nuanced insight. She slips into Serafina’s sensual skin and leaps into her expanding emotional range as she morphs in the first act from grandiose and joyful boastfulness to gut-wrenching impassioned sorrow and in the second act to ferocity, an explosion of suppressed sexual desire and its release. All of these hot points she elucidates with a fluidity of movement, hands, limbs, head tosses, eye rolls which express Serafina’s wanton luxury of indulgent feeling and effervescent life.

The contradictions of Serafina’s character move toward a hyperbolic excess of extremes. When speaking of her husband  Rosario and their relationship, their bed is a sanctum of religion where they express their torpid love each night. She effuses to Assunta (the excellent Carolyn Mignini) how she mysteriously felt the conception of her second child the moment it happened. A rose tattoo like the one her husband Rosario wore on his chest appeared like religious stigmata without the dripping blood. And it burned over her heart, a heavenly sign, like others she receives as she talks to the statue of the Madonna, and remains a worshipful adherent to Mother Mary, praying and receiving the anointed wisdom whenever necessary.

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott,Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott, The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams, Roundabout Theatre Company The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams, Roundabout Theatre Company, Trip Cullman, American Airlines Theatre

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott in ‘The Rose Tattoo,’ by Tennessee Williams, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Rosario’s family is that of a “baron,” though Sicily is the “low” country of Italy and an area fogged over with undesirables, thieves and questionable heritages as the crossroads of Europe. We know this “baron-baroness” is an uppity exaggeration from the looks on the faces of her gossipy neighbors and particularly La Strega (translated as witch) who is scrawny, crone-like and insulting. Constance Shulman is convincing as the conveyor of Ill Malocchio-the evil eye. Her presence manifests the bad-luck wind that Assunta refers to at the top of the play and to which Serafina superstitiously attributes the wicked event that upends her life forever.

Williams’s characterization of Serafina is brilliant and complex. Director Trip Cullman and Tomei have effected her intriguing possibilities and deep yearnings beyond the stereotypical Italian barefoot and pregnant woman of virginal morals like Our Lady.  It is obvious that Tomei has considered the contradictions, the restraints of Serafina’s culture and her neighbors as well as her potential to be a maverick who will break through the chains and bondages of her religion and old world folkways after her eyes are opened.

We are proud that Serafina disdains the gossiping neighbors with the exception of Assunta and perhaps her priest. Though Serafina’s world does not extend beyond her home, the environs of the beach, her daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin) and Rosario, a truck driver who transports illegal drugs under his produce, she is a fine seamstress. And in her business interactions with her neighbors and acquaintances, we note that she has money, is industrious, resourceful and a canny negotiator.

It makes sense that Rosario (whom we never see because he is a fantasy-Williams point out) treats her like a baroness filling their home with roses at various times to reassure her of her grandness. And the poetic symbol of the rose as a sign of their love and the romance of their relationship is an endearing touch, reminiscent of the rose tattoo on his chest signifying his commitment to her. At the outset of the play, a rose is in Serafina’s hair which she wears waiting for Rosario to come home. As she does, we believe she is fulfilled in their love and the happy status of their lives in a home on the shores of paradise, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

What is not manifest and what lurks beneath becomes the revelation that all is not well, that her Rosario is not real, but is an illusion. Typical of Williams’ work are the undercurrents, the sub rosa meanings. The rose is also a symbol of martyrdom, Christ’s martyrdom. And it is this martyrdom that Serafina must endure when word comes back that Rosario has been killed, burned in a fiery crash which warrants his body be cremated. Unfortunately, the miraculous son of the burning rose on her chest that appeared and disappeared, she aborted caused by the extreme trauma of Rosario’s death.

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott, The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams, Roundabout Theatre Company, Trip Cullman, American Airlines Theatre

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott in ‘The Rose Tattoo,’ by Tennessee Williams, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

The rose as Williams’ choice symbol is superbly complex. For Rosario’s rose tattoo also represents his amorous lust for women, one of whom is Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko) who asks Serafina to make a gorgeous, rose-colored silk shirt for “her man.” When Estelle steals Rosario’s picture behind Serafina’s back, we know that Rosario led a double life and we are annoyed at Estelle’s arrogance and presumption to ask his wife to make such a gift shirt. But in William’s depth of characterization for Estelle, most probably Rosario is also philandering on Estelle who, to try to keep him close, gives him expensive gifts like hand-made silk shirts.

Williams clues us in that her faith and passion for Rosario has blinded her judgment and overcome her sharp intellect and wisdom. In fact it is an idolatry. Her religion stipulates that no human being should be worshiped or sacrificed for. Serafina’s excessive personality has doomed her to tragedy, betrayal and duplicity with Rosario. Ironically, his death is her freedom, but she must suffer his and her son’s loss ,a burden almost too great to bear, even for one as strong as Serafina who does become distracted, unkempt and uninterested in life.

Because Rosario, the wild rose with thorns is not worthy of Serafina’s love, after his death there is only pity for the cuckholded Serafina and a finality to her exuberant life until the truth of who Rosario really was lifts her into a healthy reality. Tomei’s breakdown is striking and Williams creates the tension that in weeping for the “love” of her life who indeed has betrayed her, she will be wasting herself. He also affirms the huge gulf between her ability to live again and her lugubrious state which continues for three years as she mourns an illusion.

The question remains. Will she come to the end of herself? The romantic fantasy held together with the glue of her faith and the enforced, manic chastity of her old world Italian mores must be vanquished. But how? It is in the form of the charismatic and humorous Alvaro Mangiacavallo. But until then Serafina withers. Isolating herself, she implodes with regret, doubt, sorrow and dolorous grief, as well as anger at her daughter Rosa who wants to live and find her own love like her mother’s.

The mother-daughter tensions are realistically expressed as are the scenes between Tomei and Jack (Burke Swanson) Rosa’s boyfriend, which are humorous. Altogether, the second act is brighter; it is companionable comedy to the tragedy of the first act.

When she meets Alvaro, in spite of herself, she responds with her whole being to his attractiveness. As they become acquainted, she accepts his interest in her for what she may represent; a new beginning in his life. It is a new beginning that he tries to thread into her life to resurrect her sexual passions and emotions of love. Thus, he pulls out all the stops for this opportunity to win her, even having a rose tattooed upon his chest in the hope of taking Rosario’s place in her heart.

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott,Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott, The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams, Roundabout Theatre Company The Rose Tattoo, Tennessee Williams, Roundabout Theatre Company, Trip Cullman, American Airlines Theatre

Marisa Tomei, Emun Elliott in ‘The Rose Tattoo,’ by Tennessee Williams, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company (Joan Marcus)

Emun Elliott is spectacular as the clownish, emotionally appealing, lovable suitor who sees Serafina’s worth and beauty and attempts to endear himself to her with the tattoo. Along with Serafina’s discovering Rosario’s betrayal, Elliott’s portrayal of Alvaro solidifies and justifies why Serafina jumps at the opportunity to be with him. He is cute. He is real. He is as emotional and simpatico as she is. He is Sicilian and above all, he is available and interested in her.  It is not only his steamy body that reminds her of Rosario’s, but she is attracted to his humor, sensibility and sensitivity of feeling which mirrors hers.

After discovering Rosario’s duplicity, understanding Alvaro’s concern and care for three women dependents and his honesty in admitting he is a buffoon disarms Serafina. Alvaro’s strength and lack of ego in commenting that his father was considered the village idiot is an important revelation for her as well. Indeed, as she views who he is, she senses that his humility and humorous self-effacement is worth more than all of Rosario’s boastfulness that he was a baron which he wasn’t.

As the truth enlightens her, Tomei’s Serafina evolves and sheds the displacement and her sense of confusion and loss which was also a loss of her own imagined “secure” identity as Rosario’s “wife.” Wife, indeed! Rosario’s mendacity made her into a cuckhold and a brokenhearted fool over a man who was not real. At least Alvaro is real. The comparison between the men reinforced with Rosario’s unfaithfulness, which she can now admit to herself, prompts her to reject the religion that kept her blinded and the antiquated mores that made her a fool and kept her alone and in darkness.

Shepherded by Cullman, Elliott and Tomei create an uproarious, lively and fun interplay between these two characters who belong  together, like “two peas in a pod” and have only to realize it, which, of course, Alvaro does before Serafina. Tomei’s and Elliott’s scenes together soar, strike sparks of passion and move with the speed of light. The comedy arises from spot-on authenticity. The symbolic poetry, the shattering of the urn, the ashes disappearing, the light rising on the ocean waves (I loved this background projection) shine a new day. All represent elements of hope and joy and a realistic sense of believing, grounded in truth for both protagonists.

Tomei, Elliott, Cullman and the ensemble have resurrected Williams’ The Rose Tattoo keeping the themes current and the timeless elements real. Duplicity, lies, unfaithfulness, love and the freedom to unshackle oneself from destructive folkways that lead one into darkness and away from light and love are paramount themes in this production. And they especially resonate for our time.

I can’t recommend this production enough for its memorable, indelible performances especially by Elliott and Tomei shepherded with sensitivity by Cullman. The evocativeness and beauty of the staging, design elements and music add to the thematic understanding of Williams’ work and characters. Kudos goes to the creative team: Mark Wendland (set design) Clint Ramos (costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair and wig design) Joe Dulude II (make-up design). Bravo to Fiz Patton for the lovely original music & sound design.

The Rose Tattoo runs with one intermission at American Airlines Theatre (42nd between 7th and 8th) until 8th December. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ a Stirring Adaptation of the Titular Rick Riordan Novel

Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell, Jorrel Javier, The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Stephen Brackett

(L to R): Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell, Jorrel Javier in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett at the Longacre Theatre (Jeremy Daniel)

It’s even in the Bible. Gods hung around with humans and children were born to them. Of course this caused issues for the children and the parent who was human, just like in real life single parent homes. But in mythology the god often went about his or her business coupling with other humans and abandoning each family he or she created. The parent who was a “god” was too busy to care  for the “demi-god” who grew up feeling unwanted, confused, unloved. Thus, a whole race of weird “demi-gods” wandered among humanity and caused chaos because they had been damaged by their “god” parent and had the DNA (magic) to realize that they were “different” and could take it out on humanity when they were “pissed” off.

The Lightning Thief -The Percy Jackson Musical, Chris McCarrell, Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Rick Riordan, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

Chris McCarrell in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ Book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett, Longacre Theatre (Jeffrey Daniel)

Some of these elements are the basis of Rick Riordan’s popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series of books of which The Lightning Thief is the first novel and launching pad for the fun characters in the remaining Riordan books. Many of them are tied in to Greek Mythology. Riordan’s fantasy-adventure novels gave rise to two films with the titular Percy Jackson identifying as the demi-god protagonist: Percy Jackson and The Olympians, The Lightning Thief (2010) and Percy Jackson, Sea of Monsters (2013). When word got out that a theatrical production was being considered and TheaterworksUSA was involved, the rest is history.

Collaborators Joe Tracz who wrote the book and Rob Rokicki who wrote the music & lyrics, fashioned an already successful story-line to titillate and enthrall theatergoers. Their initial hour show evolved with more songs and extended book which morphed into the current production on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical.

The Lightning Thief -The Percy Jackson Musical, Chris McCarrell, James Hayden Rodriguez, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Rick Riordan, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

James Hayden Rodriguez, Sarah Beth Pfeifer and the Company in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ Book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett, Longacre Theatre (Jeffrey Daniel)

If you and your children are fans of Riordan’s work, you must see this Broadway show whose adaptation of Riordan’s novel parallels many of the book’s elements. The production reinforces vital themes about life, purpose, goodness and evil working to create soul strength and character, ethics, and personal accountability. Indeed, the characters learn that they may have been left with a flawed creation warped by even more flawed gods when they war with each other. However, all is well because the demi-gods, have the talent and ability to rise above the chaos, and with determination, correct and perfect the world and themselves, teaching the gods a lesson or two.

Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell, Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, James Hayden Rodriguez, Jalynn Steele,The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical, Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Stephen Brackett

(L to R): Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Chris McCarrell (top) Kristin Stokes, Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Jalynn Steele, and James Hayden Rodriguez (bottom, left to right) in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett at the Longacre Theatre (Jeremy Daniel)

Tracz and Rokicki evolve these notions to an uplifting conclusion in The Lightning Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical which emphasizes that the principal characters and all of us must leave safety and security to face the unknown. Then, exercising their inner spiritual/magical powers, they must fearlessly overcome  the real monsters that are out in the world. In the final song that the Company sings, “Bring on the Monsters,” never were truer words spoken for us today about the “monsters’ in human form roiling social currents and effecting chaos. That it is up to all of us to stand against wickedness and with hope, courage and wisdom thwart evil intentions wherever they may be, remains the mission for young and old, now and forever.

The Lightning Thief -The Percy Jackson Musical, Chris McCarrell, Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Rick Riordan, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

Chris McCarrell in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’, Book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett Longacre Theatre (Jeffrey Daniel)

The production’s adaptation is a fine one with segments of theatrical spectacle (i.e. lighting design by David Lander and hair wig & makeup design by Dave Bova, costumes by Sydney Maresca) brilliantly effected. The show is choreographed by Patrick McCollum’s who uses his talents to generate excitement. With joy and exuberance Stephen Brackett’s direction steers the production to emphasize valuable lessons to comfort, to uplift.

Magnificent is the energy and vibrance of the ensemble who don various wigs and costumes, accents and upper or lower register “voices” to portray gods, monsters, enemies and friends. The cast appears to be a multitude, however, only seven actors take on key parts. These include Jorel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Chris McCarrell, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, James Hayden Rodriguez, Sam Leicht, Jalynn Steele, Kristin Stokes, and the understudies whom I saw on Sunday evening, 20 October, T. Shyvonne Stewart and Izzy Figueroa.

Jorrel Javier, Chris McCarrell,Kristin Stokes, James Hayden Rodriguez, The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Rick Riordan, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

Jorrel Javier, Chris McCarrell (top),Kristin Stokes, and James Hayden Rodriguez in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett at the Longacre Theatre (Jeremy Daniel)

The actors’ versatility is just grand and some are particular standouts investing their will and being to apply their full-throated vocal talents. One standout is Jorrell Javier who portrays both the hell-raising god of the Half-Breed Summer Camp (god of wine- Dionysus) and the friend and protector satyr-Grover, a character who is both lovable and self-effacing. For example Grover endearingly talks to squirrels in a segment during the protagonists’ hero quest. Since squirrels are ubiquitous, Grover’s talent proves invaluable as he, Percy and Annabeth move on their journey to discover the lightning thief, find where he has hidden the lightning BOLT and save Percy’s mother Sally from Hades and the underworld.

The Lightning Thief -The Percy Jackson Musical, Chris McCarrell, Jorrel Javier, Ryan Knowles, Kristin Stokes Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Rick Riordan, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

(L to R): Jorrel Javier, Chris McCarrell, Ryan Knowles (top), and Kristin Stokes in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett at the Longacre Theatre
(Jeremy Daniel)

The male and female leads played by Chris McCarrell (Percy Jackson) and Kristin Stokes (Annabeth) have powerful, sonorous voices, though sometimes their enunciation is wanting. For those adults unfamiliar with Riordan’s books and the films they spawned, this may be problematic. Indeed, the fans will breeze through the familiar humor, fun mythological modernization, and melodies sung with joy and verve by the actors. For those unfamiliar with the plot, themes and characters, clarity is crucial. To receive the greatest enjoyment and a resounding response from the audience, all of the words must be clearly sung as they were clearly spoken.

McCarrell’s Percy Jackson is wistful searcher, investigator, educational ner-do-well, sometime whiner. He’s upset that he is always expelled from school, initially for his challenging condition (he’s ADHD and Dyslexic) and secondarily for being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” However, his mother (Jalynn Steele, u/s T. Shyvonne Stewart) encourages his furtive yearnings and he and she sing the uplifting “Strong,” keying in the theme that undergirds Percy throughout the play.

Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell, and Jorrel Javier, The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical, Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

(L to R): Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell, and Jorrel Javier’The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’ book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett at the Longacre Theatre
(Jeremy Daniel)

As events steer Percy to his destiny (“The Minotaur/The Weirdest Dream”) and growing self-revelation, he learns that his trouble-maker status is caused by Poseidon’s enemies who scape-goat him and create havoc precisely because he is his father Poseidon’s son. His growing realization of the evil undercurrents around him augments throughout the production until he steps into his hero mantle in “Son of Poseidon,” confronts the real “lightning thief” and does battle in the present “The Last Day of Summer.”

The quest teaches Percy, Grover and Annabeth that life is filled with trials, but attitude and how you confront obstacles makes the difference so you are not the victim but are the hero. He and the effervescent Kristin Stokes as Annabeth (Athena’s daughter) go to battle with courage, grace and strength. They elicit the power to confront whatever the gods/monsters throw their way. The production concludes with the excellent “Bring on the Monsters.” Percy, Annabeth, Grover and the Company have matured to understand their true purpose on earth: confront the powers of evil that inhabit human nature and thwart their actions.

The Lightning Thief -The Percy Jackson Musical, Chris McCarrell, Joe Tracz, Rob Rokicki, Rick Riordan, Longacre Theatre, Stephen Brackett

Chris McCarrell in ‘The Lightning Thief-The Percy Jackson Musical,’, Book by Joe Tracz, Music & Lyrics by Rob Rokicki, adapted from the book by Rick Riordan, directed by Stephen Brackett Longacre Theatre (Jeffrey Daniel)

The plot twists are intriguing, born on the wings of the music and lyrics. Especially strong are “The Oracle,” “Good Kid” and “Killer Quest!” which are sung by Percy and the Company and in the last number of the first act, (“Killer Quest”) by Percy, Annabeth, Grover and the Company. The themes of betrayal, true friendship, loyalty and the importance of the journey revealing one’s nature and identity are ripe and relate to all ages. Kudos to Tracz and Rokicki for touching upon the timeless verities of Riordan’s work as well as adding salient concepts that especially resonate today in our world of real human monsters.

The creative team deserves recognition for their designs. These coalesce around the lighthearted fantastic tenor of the production which reflects and symbolizes “the roadshow” genre in its rough sets, puppetry and effects in the realm of rustic illusory suggestion. Do not expect the wild, technical phantasmagoria of Beetlejuice. The show’s simplicity is charming and intentionally not “over the top” Broadway. It keeps one foot on the ground and melds the concepts of gods and monsters evocatively, not believably. Creatives are Lee Savage (scenic design) Sydney Maresca (costume design) David Lander (lighting design) Ryan Rumery (sound design) Achesonwalsh Studios (puppetry) Dave Bova (hair, wig & makeup design).

The Lightning Thief The Percy Jackson Musical runs with one intermission at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street). It closes on 5 January and tickets will be hard to come by as we near the holidays. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

 

 

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‘Linda Vista’ by Tracy Letts, a Sharp, Edgy Romp Through Sex, Love and Male Menopause

Caroline Neff, Ian Barford, Troy West, Linda Vista, Dexter Bullard, Tracy Letts

(L to R): Caroline Neff, Ian Barford, Troy West in ‘Linda Vista,’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Steppenwolf’s production of Linda Vista by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tracy Letts is a wild ride through aging masculinity receding in a “heady” pattern like one found in male baldness. Once it begins, the decline is precipitous and unwieldy if not ragingly unattractive. Letts takes the “older” concept for a separated, licentious boy-man and runs with it to its hysterical, one-liners climax of symphonic madness. Then he concludes with a searingly poignant, light-shining breakthrough of hope for the protagonist who at the last shot becomes appealing and sensitively human.

Letts’ Linda Vista, with well time and paced direction by Dexter Bullard sports exceptionally crisp, crackling dialogue. Letts’ characters are mundane and real. However, Letts engages us by giving them sardonic, self-effacing, humorous lines and ripping authenticity. The protagonist, the soon-to-be-divorced philanderer Wheeler (Ian Barford builds warmth and humanity with evolving emotional grist) is just this side of the sad-sack in the titular film Marty (1955) about a guy who is single, alone and has high expectations of hooking up with a beauteous gal. What diverts Wheeler from the more empathetic Marty-type is his arrogance and his self-depricating humor which reveals he doesn’t think he isn’t “all that.” In fact he believes himself brilliant and quite the “ladies man,” though he avers the opposite.

Wheeler’s humor is a double-edged sword. It prevents him from blowing his brains out during the holidays or becoming a psychotic and isolated Incel. On the other hand it also prevents him from self-revelation and self-intimacy. He does not reflect on the source of his inner devastation and self-loathing which leads him to repeat destructive patterns and crash and burn up relationships.

Linda Vista,Ian Barford,Cora Vander Broek, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, ‘Linda Vista’ by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Letts’s characterization of this self-enfeebled boy-man who refuses to grow up pings of all the isms (ageism, sexism, chauvinism, etc.) which Wheeler buys into surreptitiously though he would be loathe to admit it up front. As a Caucasian male from a middle class background adhering to his demographic mores, he is manipulative and macho; empathizing with women is not “his thing.” Understanding is only to be exhibited to get somewhere with a woman. It never goes beyond skin deep!

Letts clues us into Wheeler’s basic flaws and male-privileged machismo attitudes at the top of the play as he comes on to his co-worker Anita (the excellent Caroline Neff). After she rebuffs him by stating she is trying to get herself together and can’t be involved with a “mess,” he quips manipulatively, “Thanks for saying ‘mess’ instead of ‘hot mess,’ which is a phrase I can’t stand.” Then Wheeler further adds, after thanking her for her honesty, “And he was humiliated.” Regardless of how forward and inappropriate his “come on” to a co-worker is, his humor endears and propels him into a seeming humanity. This is a blind as Letts adroitly underscores throughout the play.

Wheeler’s and Anita’s boss, Michael (the fine Troy West) is a foil to whom we compare Wheeler. Indeed, there are men who are so much worse than Wheeler. An unattractive and uber gross lecher, Michael ogles Anita’s breasts and makes demeaning, scurrilous comments about having sex with her. Thus, Wheeler’s light interaction and lunch invite shows him to be the proper angel with Anita. On the other hand Wheeler doesn’t chide or reprimand Michael for his salacious, untoward comments and indeed, is his sounding board and encourager behind Anita’s back. He has to learn better. In these scenes the LOL quips are proportionate to the EWW of West’s soul crippled Michael. Letts’ dialogue is masterful.

Chantal Thuy, Ian Barford, Linda Vista, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard,

Chantal Thuy, Ian Barford, ‘Linda Vista,’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Even though Wheeler tosses out sardonic replies that Michael accepts as good-natured ribbing put-downs, he doesn’t bother to call Michael out for his snide and self-damaging ridiculousness. Wheeler’s silence is agreement. It indicates that what Michael expresses, Wheeler thinks. Objectifying women doesn’t make for healthy male-female relationships. Indeed, it reflects an uncontrolled sickness of the soul. Boys will be boys turns into sick men will become sicker men. By the end of Linda Vista, Letts clarifies this theme roundly.

It is this graceful attempt at “being real” to avoid being honest and sincere that entrances Jules, a date/friend that Wheeler’s friends, couple Paul (Jim True-Frost) and Margaret (Sally Murphy) set him up with. Initially, Wheeler and Jules (the superb Cora Vander Broek) get along swimmingly and, naturally, after her own “hot mess” breakup, Jules falls hard for Wheeler and is intimate with him almost immediately. Their sex scene is hysterical (Vander Broek in particular) and surprisingly on point as they both try to complete their satisfaction. It is also revealing. Wheeler apparently as a fifty-something doesn’t need Viagra. But Jules in her thirties (a peak age for women’s sexuality) “needs something” because of her emotional issues.

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, Chantal Thuy, Linda Vista, Dexter Bullard, Tracy Letts

(L to R): Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, Chantal Thuy in ‘Linda Vista’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

The twist is humorous and we begin to understand that underneath Wheeler’s “unrestrained libido” which brought him to betray his wife during an affair is a lurking fear. He needs to go deep but remains shallow and sex is an easy diversion. On the other hand Jules is authentic as she attempts her own “thing.” Clearly, they need to talk, but they don’t.

Letts’ Wheeler progresses toward some moment of epiphany by way of an episodic journey through women which he underestimates and relates to only as those he bounces across his intelligence and couples with sexually. He does not seem to perceive women as an opportunity, a ready and understanding help-meet with whom to learn and grow. Though the possibility for this occurs with Jules who encourages his photographic artistry, he eschews her attempt to go for the complicated. Conveniently, around the time that his relationship with Jules is about to take a turn into the profound, he throws her over for a twenty-something whose boyfriend dumped her and who initially needs a place to stay.

The scene where Wheeler breaks up with Jules is a cut-out of the “ending a relationship” break up scenes: the male blames himself for not being good enough for the female. This in itself is an ironic send up of the lies that human beings groove themselves into without thought or introspection. Naturally, the return cut-out appears. Jules confronts Wheeler with her suspicion that there is “another woman.” We understand that Wheeler most probably has repeated this scenario again and again before his marriage and during it. And perhaps Jules has repeated such a scene during her previous break-up. For the male, there is never another woman! However, with Wheeler (the irony of his name becomes more pronounced as Letts propels his character driven by his own blindnesses as a typical wheeler dealer in his relationships) as with other men, of course there is that other woman!

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, Sally Murphy, Linda Vista, Jim True-Frost, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

(L to R): Jim True-Frost, Cora Vander Broek, In Barford, Caroline Neff in ‘Linda Vista,’ directed by Dexter Bullard, written by Tracy Letts (Joan Marcus)

The “other woman” and unfaithfulness are the macho lines that men roll down. They must be unfaithful and encourage each other to do so. This is their ancient more, birthright, legacy, folkway; they can’t “leave home without it.” Then, what would “being male” turn into? The unthinkable, the impossible. Letts’ characterization of Wheeler slams all the tropes and to the seeing audience member, the sardonic quips that Wheeler employs schmooze him past any redemptive efforts to do the work to self-correct.

His friend Paul senses Wheeler’s avoidance and though Wheeler affirms at the top of the play he shouldn’t get involved with any woman as his divorce is being settled and he has been cut up about it, Paul ignores Wheeler. He understands his friend’s “needs” and more importantly, understands his machismo is at stake. What??? Is Wheeler going to join an Ashram and meditate to heal himself? Heaven forbid. He’ll move into the next relationship as unwhole, unhealthy and flawed as he is to once more be bowed and bloodied afterward. Perhaps Paul isn’t Wheeler’s true friend after all. Perhaps he too, like Wheeler, is blind.

Jim True-Frost, Sally Murphy, Linda Vista, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

(L to R): Jim True-Frost, Sally Murphy, ‘Linda Vista,’ directed by Dexter Bullard, written by Tracy Letts (Joan Marcus)

Obsessed with Minnie who is pregnant and lives with him, Wheeler throws himself into her youth and off-beat, exotic, defensive curtness. Also, with hysterical “cool cat” aplomb, he gets a tattoo, wears leather and chains and limps a lot because of the “amazing” sex (too funny). Paul, without encouraging or dissuading him has massaged him with the middle age, male menopausal meme to “enjoy” your life, “you only live once,” yada yada, which is precisely what Wheeler shouldn’t embrace. His life is within and why he is placing himself in situations which will result in further self-recrimination and self-loathing makes little sense. But Letts has chosen this as Wheeler’s path, for he is the American white “everyman.” God help him!

What Wheeler seeks is not in Minnie who is the apotheosis of a “hot mess.” Nevertheless, Wheeler becomes the convenient lump of clay she molds with sex and no strings attached. What is attached becomes heightened obfuscation, confusion and depression. Minnie is the perfect object, for with her Wheeler will batter his soul to oblivion which Minnie helps him do in a particularly poignant scene. On his knees Wheeler worships his idol like an oblivious and scorned mendicant.

Ian Barford pulls out all stops emotionally in the climactic scenes with Jules and Minnie who are equally superb. Indeed, after Jules delivers a spurning I am “strong” speech to Wheeler, women in the audience applauded and cheered. That scene in particular resonated as the actors hit the emotional notes beautifully. During these scenes for the first time, we understand Wheeler’s desperation. He is not seeking forgiveness from Jules or the need to be with Minnie or any woman. In his pleadings, Wheeler is looking for the last vestiges of escape and distraction from himself. But both women close their doors. Wheeler will have to confront his aloneness and ask the hard questions without his wall of humor to hide behind. Will he be able to do the work? It’s a completely different cycle for him.

Linda Vista,Ian Barford,Cora Vander Broek, Tracy Letts, Dexter Bullard

Cora Vander Broek, Ian Barford, in ‘Linda Vista,’ written by Tracy Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (Joan Marcus)

Letts has crafted a brilliant, hysterical and ironic expose of the male-female dynamic and social ethos engineered by our culture. The play hot buttons the seminal issues of the gender divide. Fear guides talented men and women toward using sex or gender as a distraction away from their core understanding of themselves. It is the key way human beings use humans as shiny objects to displace the looming inner abyss of misery and sadness. But eventually the morass of emotions rears its horrific head if individuals do not heed the storm warnings.

With memorable humor (the one liners are so incredibly, rhythmically honed to needle points that fly to their mark) nuanced characterizations and a refined episodic arc of development, the audience remains clear-eyed and engaged to note the varied themes. Letts’ good will evolves and reminds us to what is the salvation for many souls: employing the artist within each of us. Affirming that vital theme as true, I wholly applaud Linda Vista, the director-Dexter Bullard, and the moment-to-moment skills of the ensemble who have rendered this comedic, thought-provoking play into a meaningful evening of delight.

Kudos to Todd Rosenthal for his utilitarian scenic design, Laura Bauer for her costume design, Marcus Doshi for lighting design and Richard Woodbury for sound design (the irony of the jet fly-over was pointed and humorous). Linda Vista runs with one intermission at the Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street between 7th and 8th until 10th November unless it is extended. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.

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