April 15, 2014

“The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” playwright and director Moss Hart wrote in Act One, his long-ago bestselling memoir.

“My diagnosis came later,” says Santino Fontana. “I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid.”

Fontana, born more than two decades after Hart died, is one of three actors who portray him at different ages of his life in a stage adaptation of Hart’s memoir at Lincoln Center, written and directed by James Lapine, which opens April 17th.

This is an iconic book in the theater, at least with the older generations of theater artists,” says Lapine. “It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to share this story with a new generation…and also to celebrate my thirty-plus years working in this world.”

ACTONEposterIt’s a world that Moss Hart dominated for decades, and one for which he yearned from a very young age. That first look at Broadway that he talks about in his memoir happened when he was 12 years old and finally took the subway from his Bronx home to Times Square: “A swirling mob of happy, laughing people filled the streets, and others hung from the windows of every building…” The air was filled with confetti, noisemakers and paper streamers. His first visit happened to coincide with Election Day, 1916.

“Much of the book feels apocryphal,” Fontana says, taking a break in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont. “Whether it happened that way or not, that’s how he remembered it.”

Fontana’s Broadway is not Moss Hart’s. “So much has changed.” The theater for Hart was a path out of poverty. These days, the theater takes many in the exact opposite direction.

It is true that some still grow up with the Broadway bug, but Fontana says he was not one of them. Born in Stockton, California and raised in a small town in the State of Washington, he says “As a child I didn’t even have any idea what Broadway was. And I don’t really have a first memory of seeing Times Square.”

Still, if there is a marked difference in their life and times, so there are also striking similarities between Moss Hart and the actor who is portraying him as a young man.

That is why Lapine cast him: “Santino is smart, charming and plausible as a great writer.”

In Moss Hart’s day, success in the theater took timing and luck, as Hart writes in Act One. “Timing and luck haven’t changed,” says Fontana, who admits he’s been very lucky. But he can lay legitimate claim to being the unluckiest lucky actor in New York.

A Star Is Born Yesterday

Moss Hart’s name is no longer widely known, but at the time he wrote Act One in 1959, he was one of the most celebrated men of the theater.  As a director, he won a Tony for  the original production of My Fair Lady. As a playwright, he won a Pulitzer  for You Can’t Take It With You, and gained great success with such evergreens as The Man Who Came To Dinner. As a book writer of musicals, he worked with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers; a play he wrote inspired Stephen Sondheim to create a musical adaptation with the same name, Merrily We Roll Along.  He wasn’t just a playwright and director. He produced  Camelot. He was even the co-owner of the Broadway theater (the Lyceum) where Born Yesterday debuted.  As if all that were not enough, Moss Hart also wrote the screenplays for the popular movies Gentleman’s Agreement starring Gregory Peck, Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye,  and A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland.

None of this is in his memoir – which is why it’s called Act One.  The book, which was a number one bestseller when it was first published, takes the readers on an amusing, hair-raising and often moving journey from Hart’s poverty-stricken childhood to his first big Broadway hit co-written with his mentor George S. Kaufman, Once In A Lifetime, when Hart was 26 years old.

Santino Fontana was 26 years old when he made his Broadway debut, in Sondheim and Lapine’s Sunday in the Park With George, following up the same year by originating the role of Tony the older brother in Billy Elliott.

“I was knocked out by Santino’s work,” says Lapine. “I think him to be a very unique acting talent. He seems to be able to do everything, from classical material to musicals.”

“Working with Santino has been a humbling and awe-inspiring experience,” says Tony Shalhoub, who plays the older Moss Hart. “He is tremendously skilled, inventive, mercurial and generous as an actor, and what’s even more painful, he makes it all seem effortless…. On breaks, he plops down at the piano and his fingers just fly – worrying me further that perhaps there is nothing he can’t do.”
Act One is the seventh Broadway show featuring Fontana, now 31.  His life may seem as charmed as was Hart’s;  indeed, his last role on Broadway was playing Prince Charming, in Cinderella.  (He played another prince for Disney, voicing Prince Hans in Frozen.)

Fontana was five years old when he first started acting: “It was a Thanksgiving play. I was the turkey. I do remember spearheading the production.”  At 6, his mother took him to a production of Grapes of Wrath. At 11, he played the Artful Dodger in a community theater production of Oliver. As student body president in high school, he made announcements every morning, and turned them into three-minute skits. He even performed in some school productions of Kaufman-Hart plays. But it wasn’t until he attended Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan one summer that he changed his mind about a baseball career. “There was nobody in my hometown that made their living in the arts. But these kids knew about theater; I felt I fit in.”

Once he’d decided on his path, it was a quick ascent.  He was accepted as an undergraduate in a joint program of the University of Minnesota and the Guthrie Theater, which hired him as a company member upon graduation. At 22, he got his first job in New York, a workshop with James Lapine. He played Hamlet at the Guthrie at age 23. A few years later, he was on Broadway.

Unlucky Guy

Then his luck took a mischievous turn. He was cast as a lead in the Broadway revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, receiving good reviews for the first show.  But Brighton Beach Memoirs closed in a week, and Broadway Bound was canceled. The very next day, he was cast in A View From The Bridge opposite Scarlett Johansson. But then in a preview performance he hit his head against the table during a fight scene. It was a far more serious injury that he at first realized, and he was forced to withdraw from the production. “From an MRI it looked like I had been in a car accident. The doctor flat-out said ‘we don’t know how much your memory will come back.’ I couldn’t get through the alphabet without stopping. I got migraines. I couldn’t use my eyes for three weeks; I had to stay in dark rooms.”

Even when he started to recover, it was a tricky time to try to get a new role. “You don’t want to appear injured – but you don’t want to get re-injured.”

It took him six months before he did a reading. It was for Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet. “I read ‘It’s been a bad year’– that was the character’s last line – and I lost it.” He started sobbing. “They probably thought ‘Oh, we’ve got a really good actor.’” Fontana was cast Off-Broadway in the role, and received solid raves for his performance.  Critics compared him to Tom Hanks and Tony Shalhoub, called him a great performer and a star in the making. “I didn’t work for a year after that.” The producers of Cinderella had cast him – but it took a year to get the musical in front of paying customers.

The oddly paired ups-and-downs over the past few years make Fontana appreciate all the more some of Hart’s pointed observations in Act One. “The theatre, strictly speaking, is not a business at all,” Hart wrote, “but a collection of individualized chaos that operates best when it is allowed to flower in its proper medley of disorder, derangement, irregularity and confusion.”

Hart is said to have had deep periods of depression, something unmentioned in his memoir, but detailed in later biographies. Evidence of such despair can arguably be parsed between the lines of Act One. In recounting a particular low point in his efforts to forge a career, Hart wrote, “I wondered ruefully if the theater was really worth it.”

Fontana can relate. “I still do that. It’s hard. There’s no real security.”

Most of Hart’s words in Act One, though, are tinged with humor, and affection, and wonder for his life in the arts.

While working on Once on A Lifetime, Hart recalled his co-writer Kaufman casually inviting him to a party that turned out to have “everyone I had ever read or hero-worshipped from afar”– from George Gershwin to Dorothy Parker to Harpo Marx. Fontana felt the same awe when he was invited, as part of the cast of his first Broadway show to a party being given by Stephen Sondheim.

In the morning of the opening night of  Once in a Lifetime, Hart described how he suddenly saw Broadway in a different light:

“The tawdriness and the glitter were gone. It seemed to stand hushed and waiting – as if eager to welcome all the new actors and playwrights struggling to reach it.”

Soon afterward, certifiably rich and famous, Moss Hart made two vows: He would never take the hated subway of his youth again, and he would never get out of bed before noon.

“I take the train,” says Santino Fontana, who is in the Act One of his career, “but I wouldn’t mind getting up past noon.”

Santino Fontana’s Act One, The Unluckiest Lucky Actor in New York “The theatre is not so much a profession as a disease, and my first look at Broadway was the beginning of a lifelong infection,” playwright and director Moss Hart wrote in Act One, his long-ago bestselling memoir.

April 14, 2014
2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Winner: Annie Baker’s The Flick

2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Winner: Annie Baker’s The Flick

Annie Baker’s The Flick has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Here is my review of The Flick.

Previous winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama:

2013: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
2012: Water By the Spoonful by Quiara Alegria Hudes
2011: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
2010: Next to Normal by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
2009: Ruined, by Lynn Nottage
2008: August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts
2007: 

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April 14, 2014
Bullets and Billie Holiday on Broadway. Tax Help for Artists. Spring Beefcake. The Week in New York Theater

Bullets and Billie Holiday on Broadway. Tax Help for Artists. Spring Beefcake. The Week in New York Theater

WeekinNewYorkApril13Eight Broadway shows are opening in the next ten days. Two opened last week, Bullets Over Broadway and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
It’s tax time, which may be why there is a special section on artists and money (see 13 below)

Also below: News about Michael Cera, Taylor Mac, Tommy Tune, Spring is Here beefcake section (shirtless Zac Efron, Neil Patrick Harris, James Franco)

The Week in New…

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April 13, 2014

Audra McDonald is the same age as the Billie Holiday she is depicting in the first Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a remarkable performance that transcends the two singers’ differences, which far outweigh such superficial similarities as age and race.

In her early 40’s, McDonald — the offspring of a solidly middle class family (both her parents educators) who became a Juilliard-trained opera soprano — has an ever-ascending career, with five Tony Awards (a number matched only by the 88-year-old Angela Lansbury and the late Julie Harris) and two Grammys.  She is embraced for her performances on stage, on screen, in the concert hall, on iTunes.

At the same age, Holiday, often called the world’s greatest jazz singer,  was appearing in a dive in North Philadelphia, strung out on drugs and all but abandoned by the public, a few months before she died in 1959. Only seven people reportedly attended the actual club performance that inspired playwright Lanie Robertson to write the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” almost three decades ago.

billie holiday 25Just looking at the photographs of Holiday in the period of the play show the challenge that a clean liver and radiant beauty like McDonald would have in depicting her. McDonald meets that challenge successfully — but a question remains: Why?

Over 90 intermission-less minutes, McDonald sings 15 of Holiday’s songs in Holiday’s distinctive style. Although she had no formal training as a singer, and had a limited vocal range of little more than an octave, Holiday, the abandoned daughter of jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday, had an innovative ear that turned her voice into a jazz instrument. Influenced equally by the Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records she heard as a child, she in turn influenced generations of singers that came after her. For this role, McDonald has adjusted her very different singing voice to resemble Holiday’s to an impressive degree.

BHlastMcDonald doesn’t stop there. She effectively alters her speaking voice, even her posture, while presenting the monologues about Holiday’s life story that are presented to the audience as if random, rambling patter in-between the songs.

In turn witty, coarse, playful, angry, or matter of fact – and always in a haze and a daze brought on by alcohol and drugs — McDonald’s Holiday tells us as if in passing about her rape at age 10; her prostitution at 13; the abusiveness of her first husband, trombonist Jimmy “Sonny” Monroe, who turned her on to heroin and her subsequent life-long/life-ending addiction; her imprisonment on drug charges; her cruel banning from New York City nightclubs because her felony conviction prevented her from acquiring the required “cabaret card.”  Even her successes as an artist provoke sad stories. One of her longest is about the bigotry she encountered while touring as the first African-American singer in an otherwise all-white big band, Artie Shaw’s; she talks of a maitress d’ in the South refusing to allow her to use the restaurant’s rest room, and calling her Miss Day. “Listen, honey, you have me confused.  I’m not Doris Day.  I’m Billie Holiday.  Lots of folks has said she and me resembles each other….”

BillieHolidayinherprimeNot all of what we hear is reliable information. Billie Holiday stopped touring with Artie Shaw in 1938, and Doris Day wasn’t well-known until 1945. One can charitably chalk up some of the insignificant errors in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” to the character Billie Holiday’s drug-addled memory, or to the real Holiday’s penchant for fabrication, as in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, but this one rests squarely with the playwright.

Only the producers can answer why this play is being revived now, just a few months after Dee Dee Bridgewater’s portrayal of Holiday in Stephen Stahl’s similar play “Lady Day” Off-Broadway, and it would probably take a sociologist to explain why so many shows continue to be built around the sad ends of great talents, such as the nearly unwatchable performance of Tracie Bennett as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow on Broadway just two years ago.

McDonald is more watchable, because “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is much more of a genuine cabaret concert. She is backed by a competent trio:  Shelton Becton at piano, Clayton Craddock on drums and George Farmer on bass. Only Becton has a speaking role, portraying Holiday’s music director and fiancé Jimmy Powers. James Noone’s set attempts, unsuccessfully, to turn the huge, 700-plus-seat Circle in the Square into an intimate club,  placing some two dozen small tables around the small stage. But little of this matters, when McDonald is singing. She shares with her subject the ability to translate feeling — even feelings of misery — into something glorious.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Circle in the Square
By Lanie Robertson
Directed by Lonyy Price
Scenic design by James Noone, costume design by Esosa, lighting design by Robert Wierzel, sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy, animal training William Berloni, musical arrangements by Tim Weil.
Cast: Audra McDonald, SheltonBecton, Roxie (that’s a dog.)
Musical numbers:
I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone
When A Woman Loves a Man
What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Crazy He Calls Me
Pig Foot (And A Bottle of Beer)
Baby Doll
God  Bless The Child
Foolin’ Myself
Somebody’s On My Mind
Easy Livin’
Stange Fruit
Blues Break
T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I do
Don’t Explain/What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Deep Song

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill Review: Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday Audra McDonald is the same age as the Billie Holiday she is depicting in the first Broadway production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a remarkable performance that transcends the two singers’ differences, which far outweigh such superficial similarities as age and race.

April 10, 2014
Bullets Over Broadway Reviews and Photographs

13 photographs and, when they become available, links to the reviews.

April 7, 2014

NewYorkTheaterWeekApril6

If/Then with Idina Menzel, A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington and The Realistic Joneses  with Michael C. Hall opened on Broadway; Adrian Lester gives a star turn portraying the first African-American actor to play Othello in Red Velvet. The actor, Ira Aldridge, performed the role in London in 1833, but he was a native New Yorker.

New York is the setting for nearly half the shows of Broadway’s Spring 2014 season (See April 1 below, but it’s no joke.)

Of course, Broadway is not the only place for shows in April. Here is a list of April New York theater openings – more than one per day.

Also, check out the update Broadway 2013-2014 Season Guide: What’s closed, what’s opening; reviews,

The Week in New York Theater

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With a  few exceptions (shows with “rock” in the title), Broadway shows have trouble attracting men. Men now comprise just 32 percent of Broadway audiences. Men and women go in equal numbers to sports events, rock concerts, even movies. Why not theater?

NeilPatrickHarrisasHedwig

Neil Patrick Harris AS Hedwig, Complete With Blonde Wig, Custom Heels

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_Kenton

My review of Red Velvet

When Ira Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies. Aldridge is the real-life African-American actor portrayed by Adrian Lester in “Red Velvet,” the fascinating play written by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti in a production by London’s exquisite Tricycle Theatre now opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse through April 20th. It manages not just to dramatize a little-known 19th century figure but provide insight into the art of acting and of theater.
Aldridge was a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles.

Full review of Red Velvet

Idina Menzel

Idina Menzel

My review of If/Then

In “If/Then,” Idina Menzel portrays two different versions of the same character Elizabeth, and at the beginning of the musical, I was feeling like two versions of myself as well.  Elizabeth as Liz pursues love, and as Beth goes after a career as a city planner, in order to try to make a difference in the world.  I, Jonathan, initially felt both like Joe and Nathan – as Joe, irritated at the premise, and as Nathan, excited by the promise of entertainment from so much proven stage talent,  with various past successes in Next to Normal, Rent and Wicked.

By the end, we (I) could agree: The way the premise plays out is more intelligent than it at first seems. The entertainers themselves deliver on their promise. It is terrific to see (and hear) Idina Menzel back on Broadway after an absence of nine years.  She is employed wisely — on stage nearly all the time, she’s given songs that emphasize character as much as vocal gymnastics; we must wait for the occasional  full-steam pop arias like “Always Starting Over”; making them all the more flooring.

But this is a story that would have worked better as a novel, or perhaps a serial on Netflix.

Full review of If/Then

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March 2014 Theater Quiz

New York Theater March 2014 Quiz

Stars in the Alley, The Broadway League’s annual concert, returns to Shubert Alley 11 a.m. to 12:30 pm Wednesday, May 21

More on Maries Crisis, a theater piano bar where nobody knows your name, but they know Ethel Merman’s http://bit.ly/PcxY30

Theater artists, don’t give up! Expand your skills, redefine success, bond with your network, says Jennifer Lane.

How do YOU keep from giving up as a theater artist? (Or shouldn’t I ask this on a Monday morning?)

Harriet: @harriet75
I have given up on the dream if being on bway but now I find community theatre is my outlet.

Sinisha Evtimov ‏@SinishaEvtimov Just move to Europa… give it a try somewhere where it is truly appreciated

Aleisha Force ‏@aleishaforce  remembering that this is my work, not my entire life.

April 1, 2014

Nearly one half of all Broadway shows in Spring 2014 are set in New York City.

“This is probably a sure way to get applause in New York, but I was born in Brooklyn,” Jessie Mueller as Carole King says from the stage of the Stephen Sondheim Theatre at the beginning of Beautiful.
These are the first spoken words in this Broadway musical, which is set in locations around New York City. The line about Brooklyn does get applause, without fail.
New Yorkers may be applauding a lot this season. Nearly half the shows opening on Broadway in spring 2014 are set wholly or mostly in New York City.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” says Brian Yorkey, who, with composer Tom Kitt, has written the book and lyrics for If/Then, which stars Idina Menzel as a city planner who moves to New York. “New York is our home, and it’s what we know, and what we love.” That’s true, he says, of many of the other writers of shows set in the city this season, from Woody Allen to James Lapine.

Full story: The Many New Yorks This Season on Broadway

Rosie O’Donnell to receive 2014 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award for her commitment to arts education through her org Rosie’s Theater Kids

Touring stage productions that hold their tech rehearsals in upstate theaters to get tax break.

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas

Noah Hinsdale, Griffin Birney, and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home

Nominations for 2014 Lucille Lortel Awards: Fun Home; Here Lies Love; Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 get the most nominations.

2

Here Lies Love 4

Cast recording for Here Lies Love coming April 22, a week before show opens again at the Public Theater.

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain

Courtney Love wants to see a Broadway musical about Kurt Cobain

3

Artists are more educated and more unemployed than the general workforce. Sixty-five percent have BAs or higher (v. 32% overall). 7.1% are unemployed

TheMysteries4Jesus Baptism

A preview of The Flea’s epic irreverent The Mysteries — 48 playwrights adapt tales from The Bible

ARaisinInTheSun3

My review of A Raisin in the Sun

“… a masterpiece on just about every level…Much of the reaction from the moment this new production was announced concerned Denzel Washington’s age. He is 59; the character he is portraying, Walter Lee Younger Jr., is supposed to be 35…His age doesn’t bother me.  Consider it a new form of innovative casting — age-blind casting… Director Kenny Leon has rethought this play, in ways that work better, and perhaps a few ways that don’t work as well. Denzel Washington works better…”

Full review of A Raisin in the Sun

4

Aladdin1Adam_Jacobs_Cave_of_Wonders_Photo_by_Deen_Van_Meer

The Broadway Effect

The musical Aladdin on Broadway has gotten rid of Abu, Aladdin’s trusted if mischievous monkey companion, as well as the pet tiger Rajah, both of whom were in Disney’s 1992 animated film. In Rocky on Broadway, you cannot see the real streets of Philadelphia, nor in Les Miserables on Broadway can you see the performers’ nostrils; both loomed large in the film versions.

About a third of the forty two new shows in the 2013-2014 Broadway season were either adapted from a movie or so closely associated with one that the film serves both to lure an audience into the musical, and to raise audience expectations—the former a godsend for the producers, the latter a terror for the creative team. How do you offer something both comforting and exciting, familiar and surprising; what can Broadway offer as compensation for the loss of Abu, Philadelphia and Hugh Jackman’s shapely nose?

The answer is what we can call The Broadway Effect

over the past few decades have entered the standard Broadway playbook of stage effects:

Stage smoke/fog

Confetti shot out of (on-stage or off-stage) cannons

Banks of bright lights shining directly in the audience’s eyes

Shimmering stars against a deep black night (I mean the celestial bodies, but of course celebrities are also now standard.)

Weather (usually rain), accompanied by somber black umbrellas or loud crashing noises.

Magically moving scenery (via computer automation)

Video projections

It’s not just such stage special effects that contribute to the Broadway Effect; one must include Broadway’s traditional elements that continue to thrive, such as massive synchronized ensemble tap-dancing.

Complete story on The Broadway Effect

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Times Square Billboard

BlahTimesSquareBillboard

Paul Rudnick on straight men and theater: A straight guy’s ‘I want” song is “I want to leave at intermission”

ATCA New Play Award

6

“I was a 13-year-old boy for 30 years” — Mickey Rooney, who has died at age 93. The movie star was on Broadway twice. Sugar Babies is said to have made him a star once again.

The Realistic Joneses Lyceum Theatre

My review of The Realistic Joneses

Ninety minutes and a dozen scenes after it began, this often comic, sometimes cosmic and thoroughly cryptic play by Will Eno, a downtown playwright making his Broadway debut, was over….Fans of Michael C. Hall expecting “Dexter”-like intrigue and plenty of plot, or those of Marisa Tomei hoping for a light comedy like “My Cousin Vinny” are likely to be disappointed, and baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” Actually, most people are likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” But not everybody will be disappointed. Those who know Will Eno’s work will be in familiar unfamiliar territory.

Full review of The Realistic Joneses

Denzel, Menzel, Michael C. Hall. RIP Mickey Rooney. The Broadway Effect. NYC on Stage. Week in New York Theater If/Then with Idina Menzel, A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington and The Realistic Joneses…

April 6, 2014

In “The Realistic Joneses,” a kind of “Waiting for Godot” for the American suburbs, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei as a couple named Jones pay an unexpected visit to introduce themselves to their new neighbors, also named Jones and portrayed by Tracy Letts and Toni Collette. Not long afterwards, a moment of clarity occurred, which was also a moment of dread: “The Realistic Joneses” is not going to be realistic, I realized, and it’s not going to go anywhere.

Ninety minutes and a dozen scenes after it began, this often comic, sometimes cosmic and ultimately cryptic play by Will Eno, a downtown playwright making his Broadway debut, was over. Here is what we know:

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

 

John and Pony Jones (Hall and Tomei) have just moved into the semi-rural community where Bob and Jennifer (Letts and Colette) have lived for some time.  Both men are suffering from the same rare degenerative neurological disease, which isn’t really a coincidence: A specialist in the disease has his office in this small town.  The men have reacted differently: Bob leans on Jennifer; John hasn’t even told Pony. The wife of one of the couples and the husband of the other have apparently compared fears and exchanged bodily fluids. The disease affects language.

Fans of Michael C. Hall expecting “Dexter”-like intrigue and plenty of plot, or those of Marisa Tomei hoping for a light comedy like “My Cousin Vinny” are likely to be disappointed, and baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” Actually, most people are likely to be baffled by “The Realistic Joneses.” But not everybody will be disappointed. Those who know Will Eno’s work will be in familiar unfamiliar territory.

Eno has been a distinctive presence in New York theater for a decade, making a splash with “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Eno’s plays are generally less concerned with plot or character – with any kind of linear coherence – than they are with language.  He is intrigued by the banalities, awkwardness and outright weirdness of everyday language, injecting his own brand of word play, non-sequiturs and outright nonsense.  Here is an exchange from The Realistic Joneses:

Pony Jones: I never know what he’s talking about. Say one of your things.

John Jones: Oh, this is a good one. So, if you take the letters from the words “The United States of America,” and you scramble them all up, it doesn’t spell anything. It’s just gobbledygook, total nonsense.

Bob Jones: So don’t scramble them up.

One can argue that Enos playfulness with language has found a good match in the story of two men afflicted with a disease that affects language. There is a suggestion in “The Realistic Joneses” that human beings face the cosmic questions like mortality and ultimate meaning by retreating into pedestrian chatter. I suspect the trick to appreciating “The Realistic Joneses” may be to resist the attempt to find its overall meaning, and hone in on specific moments.  Aficionados of modern art revel in an abstract painting’s specific textures; Eno enthusiasts can enjoy specific exchanges in his absurdist play’s text, helped along by the four starry cast members’ fine performances, wrangling many moments of humor and even a few of feeling. Letts is particularly good in delivering simple lines so that they somehow resonate:

 ”I don’t think anything good is going to happen to us. But, you know, what are you going to do. I forgot, I grabbed some mints at the restaurant. I like mints. Mint.”

While it is clear that Eno is influenced by Samuel Beckett, “The Realistic Joneses” has little of the haunting, apocalyptic quality of Beckett’s post-war plays. Perhaps the playwright isn’t trying for this; times, after all, are different.

Theatergoers can take heart in that even the characters don’t seem to know what’s going on:

“I get what you’re saying,” Bob says to John about midway through “The Realistic Joneses.”

“You don’t get what I’m saying,” John replies. “Not your fault. Words don’t really do it for me anymore, anyway. It’s all just bodies and light. People say it’s death and taxes, which, of course, are great, but, no, it’s bodies and light. Appearance, disappearance, that’s the whole thing….”

The Realistic Joneses

Lyceum Theater

By Will Eno

Directed by Sam Gold

Scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Mark Barton, sound design by Leon Rothenberg

Cast: Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $39.00 – $135.00

The Realistic Joneses is set to run through July 6, 2014

The Realistic Joneses Review: Michael C. Hall, Marisa Tomei, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts On Broadway With Beckett Light In “The Realistic Joneses,” a kind of “Waiting for Godot” for the American suburbs, Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei as a couple named Jones pay an unexpected visit to introduce themselves to their new neighbors, also named Jones and portrayed by Tracy Letts and Toni Collette.

April 5, 2014

Raisininthesun5“Me and my family…we are very plain people,” Denzel Washington says in “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the start of a monologue that by the end – “we are very proud people” — is one of the most moving in all of American theater.

But Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play,  being given a worthwhile production at the Ethel Barrymore Theater , is not just an affecting family drama.  The first play by a black woman ever produced on Broadway, it is a richly layered, well-structured, poetically-inspired work of literature; an often amusing entertainment; an insightful character study; a prophetic piece of social commentary – it is a masterpiece on just about every level.

Much of the commentary from the moment this new production was announced concerned Denzel Washington’s age. He is 59; the character he is portraying, Walter Lee Younger Jr., is supposed to be 35 (the script has been changed to make him 40.) Washington doesn’t look 35 or even 40; he looks his age.  This continues to bother some people. His age doesn’t bother me.  Consider it a new form of innovative casting — age-blind casting – and it’s not the first time for this show:  In the original Broadway production, and then the 1961 movie, Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger Jr. was only 10 years younger than Claudia McNeil, who played his mother Lena Younger. Yes, Washington is only five years younger than the actress playing his mother, LaTanya Richardson Jackson. But if a movie star like Denzel Washington wants to play Younger, I say: Bravo. Washington’s the reason this great play is back for its second-ever Broadway revival.

Director Kenny Leon, who gave the play its first Broadway revival in 2004 starring Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad (who both won Tonys for their performances), and a game if inexperienced Sean Combs, has rethought this play, in ways that work better, and ways that don’t work as well. Denzel Washington works better as Walter Lee, a man with big dreams and bigger frustrations. He is a chauffeur who lives with his wife, son and sister in their mother’s rattrap of a Chicago tenement, but hopes to convince his mother to give him the $10,000 from the life insurance payment after the premature death of his father. Walter Lee wants to invest that money in a liquor store. Lena, who moved as a young woman to Chicago from the South and has faced a lifetime of disappointments with an adamant religious faith, doesn’t want to be in the liquor-selling business. She has other dreams for that money – to save some of it for medical school for Walter’s younger sister Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose), and to buy a house in a better neighborhood. In Act II, we learn that she has spent some of the money on a down payment for just such a house, in Clybourne Park.

RUTH: Clybourne Park? Mama, there ain’t no colored people living in Clybourne Park.

MAMA Well I, guess there’s going to be some now.

WALTER: So that’s the peace and comfort you went out and bought for us today!

MAMA: Son, I just tried to find the nicest place for the least amount of money for my family .

RUTH: Well—well—’course I ain’t one never been ‘fraid of no crackers, mind you—but—well wasn’t there no other houses nowhere?

MAMA: Them houses they put up for colored in them areas way

out all seem to cost twice as much as other houses. I did the best I could.

Now, of course, we know Clybourne Park, a fictional neighborhood in Chicago, because it’s the title of Bruce Norris’s play, which updates and riffs on “A Raisin in the Sun” using some of Lorraine Hansberry’s characters. “Clybourne Park” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an award that ironically was not bestowed on Hansberry, who died tragically young in 1965 at the age of 35.

Part of Hansberry’s craft is in weaving in so many issues – from redlining to abortion to African colonial struggles to the African-American generational shift – without making “A Raisin in the Sun” seem like a political play.  Another part of the playwright’s superior craft is in creating such complex and involving female characters. Sophie Okonedo, who was so terrific as the terrified wife in Hotel Rwanda, here makes a splendid Broadway debut as Walter’s wife Ruth, weary from the daily compromises of poverty, but still hopeful, and still loving Walter, despite how much he irritates her.

Anika Noni Rose does her usual extraordinary job as Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha, an ambitious, idealistic, intellectually searching college student. Rose has shined in everything from her Tony-winning role as Emmie in the musical “Caroline, or Change” to Lorrell in the film Dreamgirls to the wily candidate Wendy Scott-Carr in the TV series “The Good Wife” and the African fussbudget of an assistant Grace Makutsi in “The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency” on HBO. Nobody has complained that, like Denzel Washington, Rose is – pardon the lack of gallantry in this – 20 years older than the character she is playing (in her case, thus twice the character’s age). Perhaps this is because she is not in anybody’s radar the way Denzel Washington is. I would prefer to think it’s because everybody realizes how protean an actress she is. She delivers once again as a clear stand-in for the playwright herself.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson replaced Diahann Carroll at virtually the last moment, and offers a credible turn as the mother, here (as with Phyllicia Rashad) as much a meddlesome grandmother as a source of strength.

It seems unfair to single out specific cast members because Leon has populated this production with some world-class talent – the actor and director David Cromer plays the genteel racist Karl Lindner; Stephen McKinley Henderson, the wonderful interpreter of August Wilson’s work, here plays the small but pivotal role of Walter’s friend and would-be business associate Bobo.  Jason Dirden and Sean Patrick Thomas are both spot-on as Beneatha’s very different suitors, the rich college boy and the wise African exchange student (another clever way that Hansberry weaves in contemporary issues without seeming to do so.)

Together the cast creates an ensemble that makes the play feel spontaneous,  promising the audience an entertainment rather than demanding their worship. (For this reason, I quibble with some of Leon’s choices that might detract from this sense of spontaneity — putting on the curtain the Langston Hughes poem, from which the play derives its title; creating a set that has the distancing effect of sometimes being placed behind a scrim; pauses before the action begins, accompanied by dramatic lighting and jazz music “curated” by Branford Marsalis )

Denzel Washington offers a different interpretation than we might be used to– more beaten-down than explosive.  When an unknown white man shows up at their door, Walter quickly brushes down his hair as if he feels the need to present his best self. When his mother speaks to him, he paws  nervously with his foot, like a horse stuck in a stable – a movement echoed very subtly (in what must be a directorial flourish) by his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins.) There is no mistaking, in other words, what a fine actor he is.

 

A Raisin in the Sun

Ethel Barrymore Theater

By Lorraine Hansberry; directed by Kenny Leon; sets by Mark Thompson; costumes by Ann Roth; lighting by Brian MacDevitt; sound by Scott Lehrer; music curated by Branford Marsalis;. Through June 15

Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger), David Cromer (Karl Lindner), Bryce Clyde Jenkins (Travis Younger), Jason Dirden (George Murchison), Sean Patrick Thomas (Joseph Asagai), Keith Eric Chappelle and Billy Eugene Jones (Moving Men), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Bobo) and LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger).

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $67.00 – $149.00

A Raisin in the Sun is set to run through June 15.

A Raisin in the Sun Review. Denzel Washington, Anika Noni Rose: Age-blind Casting in a Masterpiece “Me and my family…we are very plain people,” Denzel Washington says in “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the start of a monologue that by the end – “we are very proud people” — is one of the most moving in all of American theater.

April 4, 2014
My thoughts exactly. (Billboard in Times Square)

My thoughts exactly. (Billboard in Times Square)

April 3, 2014
If/Then Review: Idina Menzel, Of Two Minds

If/Then Review: Idina Menzel, Of Two Minds

Idina Menzel in Broadway musical If/Then

Idina Menzel

In “If/Then,” Idina Menzel portrays two different versions of the same character Elizabeth, and at the beginning of the musical, I was feeling like two versions of myself as well.  Elizabeth as Liz pursues love, and as Beth goes after a career as a city planner, in order to try to make a difference in the world.  I, Jonathan, initially felt both like Joe and Nathan – as Joe,…

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