Saturday, May 28, 2005

To Live is to Doubt

Last Saturday afternoon I tried, without much success, to get tickets to see Doubt. Unfortunately, all they had left were partial-view seats. I decided instead to go across the street to the Longacre and attend the matinee of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? from a full-view seat. On the strength of its multiple Tony nominations Doubt has been doing bang-up business at the box office. These days, arriving at the box office a few hours before curtain will not guarantee that you will get in. (It might be a first that on the same street, right across from one another, two plays are running where the entire cast of each production is nominated for the Tonys). Doubt is a hit, and I decided to go back to the Martin Beck after work yesterday and try my luck and see what tickets they had available for the next day. Wouldn't you know it: they had front row center seats for the Saturday matinee. I scooped up that ticket up so fast! I've never gotten a front row seat to a show before. At my first Broadway show I came pretty close -- fourth row on the aisle to see Christopher Plummer's Tony award performance in the musical Cyrano. No wonder I've been hooked on theater ever since.

Watching Doubt from the front row is an experience that absorbs you even closer inside the actor's playing area. You can't get over the incredible proximity and all that goes with it: cinematic closeups, pores, wrinkles, lint on black costumes, flying saliva that could spray you, the natural tones of the unmiked voice, and, because of the lack of an audience in front of you, the incredibly privileged certainty that this play is being performed only for you. And, of course, there are the magical moments that can only happen when you sit this close. I don't think that I will ever forget the scene between Father Flynn and Sister James as they sat on a bench, their emotions exposed and raw. Heather Goldenhersh, giving the performance of a lifetime in the role of Sister James, breaks down and cries, her hand going up to cover her face. When she lowers her hand again, a single solitary real tear slowly rolled down her right check, followed by another from her left eye. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced in the theater. It left me with much admiration for this new star, (this play marks her Broadway debut) and I hope that next Sunday Tony puts out the welcome mat for her.

Cherry Jones is currently giving the best performance by a woman on Broadway. As the tough-as-nails Sister Aloysius, the principal of the St. Nicholas School in the Bronx, she wears her inscrutable Sisters of Charity habit as an armor for the fight that will follow as she intends to bring down the jockish parish priest Father Flynn, whom she fears might be molesting the school's first black student. Brí­an F. O'Byrne's Father Flynn is an unforgettable creation: enlightened by Vatican Council II, but possibly racked by private demons brought on by a new freedom, this priest wants to be relevant and bring this Bronx parish into the twentieth century. He can coach the basketball team after school, while delivering sermons on Sundays based on jottings from a little notebook he always keeps with him. If he represents the uncertain future of the Catholic Church, then Sister Aloysius is the institution's anchor, always advising the young Sister James to stay true to ideals that could probably be traced back to Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity.

One of my colleagues at work, who as a child was taught by nuns in the fifties, has nothing but admiration for these wonderful creatures who commanded respect and attention, and who could control an overcrowded classroom with their mere presence. My friend is fond of saying that the cure for today's education woes is "a five-foot nun with a six inch ruler." Doubt's author John Patrick Shanley seems to be of the same opinion. The playwright dedicates Doubt to "the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others..." He then adds: "Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"

After the play I met two of its stars, Adriane Lenox, who is nominated for the Tony for her fine work as the boy's mother, and Mr. O'Byrne. As Ms. Lenox was signing my playbill, I told her that I was rooting for her next Sunday at the Tonys. She seemed genuinely pleased to hear this. She smiled, patted me on the arm and said "Thank-you, its really tight!" I agreed with her. The category of Best Featured Actress includes great performances from Dana Ivey (The Rivals), Mireille Enos (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Amy Ryan (A Streetcar Named Desire) and her own colleague, Ms. Goldenhersh. It was also a pleasure to shake hands with Mr. O'Byrne, congratulate him on a job well done, and wish him luck on his own nomination for Best Actor.

Doubt is one of the finest American plays in years. That generosity that Mr. Shanley writes about seems to be present on and off the stage at the Martin Beck Theater. You should go and experience it for yourself.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

"Jesus... I am..."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was Edward Albee's first full-length play, his first play on Broadway, and surely the work for which he will be remembered. Since its legendary 1962 premiere (starring Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill) theatergoers and academics have been debating what the play is truly about. Is it a naturalistic setting of an absurdist melodrama? The playwright's previous plays The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, and The American Dream all were heavily influenced by the Theater of the Absurd. Is it a long night's journey into day in the house of two aging homosexuals entertaining a younger gay couple? Albee has, time and again, refused to give his approval to present the play with an all-male cast. Or is it really, on a larger scale, about the inability of America to fulfill its historical idealistic dreams? Albee has pointed out that he named his leading characters George and Martha as an obvious allusion to America's first president, and the missus.

I saw the current Broadway production at the Saturday matinee on May 21. The four members of the cast were present. George was played by Bill Irwin, Martha by Kathleen Turner, Nick by David Harbour, and Honey by Mireille Enos. All four actors are nominated for this year's Tony awards in their respective categories.

The most memorable performance in this production is being given by the talented Bill Irwin. In the role of George, Irwin, who is better known for his life-long work as a clown, and for the plays Largely New York and Fool Moon has not left behind his artistic roots. In the great tradition of the great sad clowns of stage and screen (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Emmett Kelly) he brings to the role of George an alooft sense of defeat and resignation that makes his characterization poignant and brings out the absurdity that's already present in the inner marrow of this work. The backbone of his performance radiates with a bittersweetness that only a clown can produce. His performance is superb on all accounts, and it deserves to be honored with the Tony this year.

Kathleen Turner's performance is very good: her smoky voice and ample form lend themselves ideally for this role. What's missing from her interpretation is a certain grandeur that all great Marthas must deliver. She effectively portrays the tawdry boozy Martha who loudly slaps her chest to accentuate her histrionic rage. But in Act III, when she tells Nick "You're all flops. I am the Earth Mother, and you're all flops" this is one of the rare moments when the play rises above the muck and mire to become mythic, and the actress playing Martha must rise right along with it. Sadly, Kathleen Turner remains very much eathbound during these climactic times, and it hurts her performance.

Edward Albee suggested that the name Nick was derived from Soviet Cold-War premier Nikita Khrushchev, and in this role David Harbour plays the opportunistic all-American biologist with a disingenuous grin and frat-boy attitude. Mireille Enos plays his wife Honey with a proper Midwest accent and the required innocent inhibitions. As the evening progresses and her character's layers are peeled away, Ms. Enos' performance becomes even more interesting, and she ends up giving us a very intelligent reading of this difficult part.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (according to theater lore, Edward Albee found the words that make up the title of this play scribbled in the bathroom of a bar in the Village) is a demanding play for both audiences and performers. Its three-hour length and its disturbing subject matter is not always easy to take. The work has not been on Broadway in over 30 years, and if you have only seen the Mike Nichols film (with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) then it will be worth your while experiencing it in the theater: the place where it was meant to be seen.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on Broadway

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, one of the last big movie musicals written for the screen -- it opened in 1968!, is now the latest "film-turned-musical" to come to Broadway this season. A British import, coming to America from a successful West End run, CCBB is already a hit. Along with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Spamalot, CCBB is finding appreciative audiences with those familiar with the original films who just can't wait to see what they've done to the movie. In a season that features such shattering new plays as Doubt and The Pillowman, playing alongside such revivals as Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar named Desire, as well as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, entertainment such as CCBB is finding an audience with theatergoers that value wholesome entertainment and family-oriented shows.

The original film was by no means a masterpiece. It was already a dinosaur when it opened at the end of the turbulent sixties, and Julie Andrews was reported to have turned down the role of Truly Scrumptious after she read the script and realized that she was going to be upstaged by a flying car. The movie does have a very likeable musical score by Richard and Robert Sherman, better known as the award-winning composer and lyricist of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book.

At the Hilton Theater, the members of the competent Broadway cast headed by Raúl Esparza, Erin Dilly, and Philip Bosco seem comfortable with the fact that they are playing second banana to a wondrous invention. And the car is just that: a wondrous piece of technology that leaves audiences wondering how on earth stagecraft succeeds in getting a car airborne in such a seemingly effortless way. The performances from the three principals are quite good, but their characters are really nothing more than modified stock-figures: the widower-inventor father, the single, young, and very available daughter of a candy magnate, and the doddering grandfather always thinking of India when nature calls. It is particularly gratifying, though, to see a veteran like Philip Bosco singing and dancing the role of the grandfather that in generations past would have gone to the great George Rose.

I found the comprimario roles a lot more interesting. First there are the two Vulgarian spies, Boris and Goran, played by Robert Sella and Chip Zien, respectively. They spark up Act I with their duet "Act English." In the London show this song does not exist, instead the spies sing something called "Think Vulgar."

Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell are delicious in the roles of the Baron and Baroness of the country of Vulgaria (which looks a bit like a cartoon version of Nuremberg, circa 1936). Ms. Maxwell is hilarious as a Marlene Dietrich look-alike with a Freudian fear of children. Mr. Kudisch ably plays the role of the Baron: a despot, in turn ruled by an uncontrollable id, with a fascination for toys, stuffed animals, and thumb-sucking.

In the movie, two roles always stood out in my mind. One was the evil Childcatcher, memorably played by Robert Helpmann, and the Toymaker played by Benny Hill, a year before his bawdy shenanigans hit UK TV and would have probably cancelled out his chances of playing this sweetly natured role on CCBB. In this Broadway production the role of the Toymaker is played by Frank Raiter, and he leaves much to be desired, especially his club-footed readings of the last lines of his part. On the other hand, the Childcatcher is an inspired creation. Played memorably by Kevin Cahoon, and dressed all in black, with a wing-like cape, he is a slithering and disturbing vampire of a figure, clearly separated at birth from actor Max Schreck in the 1922 German Expressionist film Nosferatu. His solo song "Kiddy-Widdy-Winkies," sung with an unnatural Michael Jackson-like falsetto (Your reference has been "Duly Noted," Brian!) on a foggy Vulgarian street will scare the little ones and fascinate the adults -- or vice-versa.

Here lies the success of this show: like Sesame Street, the show appeals to both children and adults. The kids (and some adults I know) will love the dogs, the toys, and of course the flying car itself. But the adults will also love the double-entendres in such songs as "Toot Sweets," and "Truly Scrumptious," and also in the Baroness' line, when she looks at her childish husband, and regrets that she allowed "toys" into the marriage.

It's a nice show. You'll have fun. Go see it!