Saturday, April 10, 2010

RED on Broadway at the Golden Theatre

The Donmar Warehouse, that magnificent British theatrical institution, is on a roll these days. Recently, three of their productions (Frost/Nixon, Mary Stuart, and Hamlet) have successfully made it to New York City after sold-out runs in London. Donmar’s latest offering is Red, written by John Logan, (who wrote the screenplay to the films Gladiator and The Aviator) and directed by Michael Grandage: a two-man play centering on the relationship between American painter Mark Rothko and his studio assistant during the time when the artist was awarded a commission to paint murals for the newly-built restaurant The Four Seasons. This stormy period of the artist’s life is brought to life by actors Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne, who respectively play the tempestuous Rothko and his young inexperienced studio assistant.

When you enter the Golden Theatre, the first thing that hits you is the smell of paints and linseed oil. Set designer Christopher Oram has created a hyper-realistic environment that looks and smells like a working artist studio. Then, when you settle in your seat you instantly become aware that already sitting on the curtain less stage, his back to us, is Molina, his hand cradling his shaved bald head. He sits there, already being Rothko, looking hard and deep at one of his “red” paintings that hangs on a pulley-system easel upstage. I had not seen this theatrical conceit of having the lead actor already there before the audience arrives since Ian McKellen sat on a wheelchair as old Salieri in the original production of Amadeus. As he sits there, in silent communion with his work for what seems like an eternity, already in character, he is preparing us for a play which is essentially about probing, about looking deeply past the obvious surfaces and into the pulsating heart and soul of a piece of art. When the house light go down, Rothko lights a cigarette, stands up from his chair and approaches the painting. He extends his hand and touches the stretched canvas in front of him, feeling its delicate surface -- the creator in search of his creation's hidden truth and secrets... perhaps its soul. It is a magical theatrical moment, and the first line of the play has not even been uttered.

The first words I ever heard about Mark Rothko, indeed, the first time I ever heard of the man I was an undergraduate at NYU. Rothko was dead less than ten years, and my best friend was taking an Art 101 course. He was puzzled by his professor's statement about Rothko's work. "His paintings carry the weight of the Old Testament" the professor lectured to the class. The words resonated within me, but my knowledge of art at the time did not allow me to understand the reason anybody would utter such a statement about abstract colors on a canvas. I dismissed the comment as ridiculous, but for some reason the memory of it stayed with me. That summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a huge exhibit of paintings by Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still. I bought the show's catalogue and slowly became engrossed by this period of American Art. At the Golden Theatre the words from my undergraduate days came back as I entered this recreation of Rothko's world, and John Logan's script has made these words reverberate once more.

When Ken, Rothko's new studio assistant, arrives at the studio the first day wearing a suit and tie Rothko berates him for not coming in properly dressed to a working studio. As the extraneous layers of clothing are shed we get to know him as a young man who aspires to be a great artist one day. Rothko roars back that he will never be a great artist unless he learns the canon of Western art, literature music, and above all that he must read Nietzsche. The stage is set for an Apollonian versus Dionysian struggle of wits between the two. The young man genuinely wanting to understand the spark of genius that ignites the old man's artistic drive while the towering, seemingly unfeeling Rothko eternally reminds him that he is nothing more than a mere unimportant employer, and that in this studio it is all about Rothko.

Easy to see Rothko as a self-absorbed sour bully, and Alfred Molina embodies that to the hilt (this being his strongest Broadway performance to date), but the truth of the matter is that in his own monomaniacal way he is trying to make the kid understand that art is deeper, much deeper than he ever thought it could be. Molina is also able to bring that across admirably. When he must fire Ken because he has decided to turn down the Four Seasons commission, Molina tenderly touches the young man's cheek and urges him to make something of himself by learning to see things differently. Eddie Redmayne's Ken is an absolutely brilliant creation. Throughout the course of the drama he goes from being a wide-eyed ingenue cowering in the shadow of both taskmaster and tormentor to becoming a spokesperson for the new generation of Pop Artists who threaten Rothko's very own artistic existence. Mr. Redmayne's performance is one of the great Broadway debuts of the season.

Then there are the paintings themselves, beautifully recreated by Mr. Oram. They are the other characters in this play. They enter and exit and play their mute roles as the two characters carry them in an out of their big easel, each replacement cleverly signaling a new scene. The paintings are monumental, and yet fragile and sad -- perhaps carrying the weight of Scripture within their frame. They are the subject of the drama, and yet they will forever be relegated to being decoration. For Rothko, who envisioned his work occupying the most sacred of spaces, this was the saddest revelation: that his creations would become nothing more than backdrops for wealthy diners. However, as John Banville wrote "In a way, the murals would have suited the Four Seasons, one of those modern-day temples ... where the sons of man - and sons of bitches - feed daily upon the blood sacrifice of their own ferocious, worldly triumphs."

Even though Rothko says at one point that "there is tragedy in every brushstroke" the paintings themselves tell that story, and the story of the compulsive, ego maniacal self-destructive genius who created them.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Addams Family, The Musical

At one point, somewhere in the second act, Gomez Adams, played by Nathan Lane, looks up at statuesque Bebe Neuwirth, playing his wife Morticia and tells her that what he lacks in height he makes up for in shallowness. In many ways this quip could be a good description of The Addams Family, The Musical, the new show that is ready to open at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The production had a troubled out-of-town run in Chicago and garnered mixed reviews. Its original director was fired and Broadway legend Jerry Saks was brought in to patch things up. Mr. Saks is billed in the current playbill as creative consultant while the team of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (who brought Philip Glass's Satyagraha from the English National Opera to the MET last year) are billed as the show's directors and designers.

The press release of this production informs us that the creators have gone back to the original source and drawn their inspiration from the kooky, macabre, but lovable cartoons that illustrator Charles Addams published on the pages of The New Yorker magazine from 1933 to his death in 1988. That is true in that they even borrow some of the captions from the famed cartoons and incorporated them into the script. In actuality, any musical that claims to have the Addams Family as its title has to draw primarily from the 1960's ABC TV sitcom which codified and labeled Charles Addams's unnamed cartoon characters. Likewise, Barry Sonnenfeld Paramount films from the early 1990s: The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (written by Paul Rudnick) are sources of inspiration for this musical.

As they went from the pages of The New Yorker to TV to the movies, the characters underwent interesting transformations. The TV series Gomez (played by John Astin) was a wacky aristocrat who dabbled on Wall Street and often called his Witch Doctor in Africa for medical consultations. His Spanish ethnicity, largely hidden, only erupted in moments of passion when the word "querida" escaped from his lips and he kissed the length of Carolyn Jones 's arm. Her Morticia was a kittenish witch who might have been the descendant of a clan that escaped the Salem burnings. The TV Addamses were very WASPy blue bloods with deep ancestral roots (as opposed to the blue-collared Munsters on CBS), and might have lived on Park if the avenue had room for a haunted house. In this production the mansion is inside Central Park! In the Sonnenfeld films Gomez (deliciously played by Raul Julia) became a full-blooded Latin lover while Anjelica Huston's Morticia was a sultry, gothic siren beautifully lit around the eyes to give her a ghostly appearance. The character of Uncle Fester, who was played in the TV series by silent film former child star Jackie Coogan, was a lovable man-child who was able to conduct electricity, while for the big screen Christopher Lloyd brought out a darker side to the character.

In this show, Nathan Lane plays Gomez at his oiliest: an over-the-hill lounge lizard with an outrageous Spanish accent. Bebe Neuwirth does a creditable job with Morticia, but the truth of the matter is that the show doesn't give her the scene stealing opportunities afforded her co-star, so she ends up being no more than a ghoulish gothic hottie with a plunging neckline. And speaking of her dress and other things: she and Lane get to cut up a rug on the dance floor. They dance a sultry tango where Ms. Neuwirth gets to show us the shapely legs that are hidden beneath that tight black dress.

The basic plot of this show channels a classic story premise used in the TV series as well as in the movies: a "normal" family visits the Addamses at their house. This visit has a distinctive "Cage aux Folles" flavor since the reason for the visit involves Wednesday Addams (Krysta Rodriguez) who has fallen in love with Lucas (Wesley Taylor), a young man from Ohio who is in New York with his parents (Carolee Carmelo and Terrence Mann). Yep! You know what's coming! Pretty soon the visiting family begins to see things the Addamses's way. All of this is treated with plenty of crowd-pleasing goofiness through songs that unfortunately try to top each other. Does every composer on Broadway these days feel that every song must be a showstopper? Apparently, yes, they do! Regretfully, what should be the real theme of the Addams family, starting with the cartoons themselves, which is questioning the definition of what is normal, remains undeveloped behind the glitz.

The reason for this problem lies with Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and their uneven book which fails to conjure the true spirit of the Addams Family cartoons. True to the cartoons, they do succeed in putting together a show which feels episodic, and for some reason I just don't think that was their intention. The show is also chock full of topical references ranging from Health Care to texting, which do get a big laugh, but which make the show feel as if the creators are trying to grab an audience that is ebbing away from them. Also, there is a surprising amount of philosophizing about the existential aspect of life. One character, with dread, compares our fleeting days on Earth to a tight rope with a coffin waiting for us at the end. The real Addamses would never fear death! Instead they would probably invite him over for drinks, offer their umbrella stand for his scythe, and ask him to stay overnight in one of the guest rooms if he wasn't too busy.

The show's supporting cast is an interesting mix. Kevin Chamberlin as Uncle Fester plays the character as a sweet weirdo who's in love with a nocturnal celestial body, His love song, visually inspired in part by a famous Georges Méliès silent film is a memorable part of the show. On the other hand, the character of Grandma, played with showstopping energy by Jackie Hoffman, is turned into a foul-mouthed, ex-hippie hag who peddles various drugs out of a wheeled cart that looks like a voodoo altar.

Here's a scene they did manage to get right. Gomez is sitting on a swing outside his mansion, behind him a beautiful backdrop of Central Park West. Suddenly, gunshots are heard. Gomez's face breaks into a pleased, satisfied smile. That's the spirit of Charles Addams! I wish there was more of it in this cute, at times lovable, but ultimately flawed show.