Saturday, December 4, 2010


A genuine thrill shot through me shortly after the beginning of the staged 'Brief Encounter' at Studio 54, when the leading lady, Hannah Yelland as Laura, stepped through the ribbons of curtain and became a part of the set behind, and I thought "This is going to be real theater." Well, I guess it was; at least theater the way it has to be these days, filled with clever re-imaginings and tricks, conceived, directed and adapted by Emma Rice. Filmed waves crash across the screen as the tide of longing comes in on Laura and Alex, played by Tristan Sturrock. Young people create a vaudeville/pub atmosphere in pill-box hats, their instruments and enthusiasm visible, as they sing songs by Noel Coward, the original playwright, and author of the intense, riveting, and classic film by David Lean.
But for all the projections of train and trestle, stairs to the apartment where the would=be lovers are to experience their ultimate botched chance at consummation, absent is any real electricity. There is no real chemistry between the two principals, and one who knows the film yearns for the anguished sexual repression of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, who so perfectly embodied passion unexpressed, and tragically unfulfilled.
I had looked forward to seeing this production more than any other in this disappointing, barren season. With all the songs there aren't really in any of the alleged musicals presented one the no longer so Great White Way, it was nice to hear a few of the old Coward too-clever songs, some of their most arch lyrics mercifully left out("Will it ever cloy?" in "Mad About the Boy," for example.) But I think the Old Master himself would have argued against the atmosphere engendered by their inclusion. The movie has lasted as long as it has, to be rented forever by romantics, because of its brilliant, understated depiction of unexpected love that comes to totally unlikely candidates, and the genuine tragedy of its never being fulfilled. In this production, inventive as it is, we lose the real sense of loss. Ms. Yelland is a bit too pretty, and Mr. Sturrock stirs not at all. Tight-lipped and anal as the two film characters were, the perfect expression of Aulde English inhibition, so that their need for each feels palpable, and its not happening touches viscerally the viewer, in this staged adapation, the audience, at least this member, felt nothing. And I'm really sorry about that.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Having admired John Lahr, critic for the New Yorker, more than any theatre critic since Kenneth Tynan, reading his hat-in-the-air, excitedly laudatory review of 'La Bete', I could not wait to get to the Music Box theatre. To begin with, Mr. Lahr and I share a piece of affectionate history, both of us having had an association with E.Y. Harburg, one of the great American wordsmitha--writing lyrics to 'Finian's Rainbow' and 'The Wizard of Oz,'-- in which his father, Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, and the young Lahr had readied a book of Yip's(as he was known) wonderful words which, sadly, never saw the light(s) due to an unfortunate legal wrangle; while I, as a young would-be songwriter, had been nurtured under Yip's encouraging, inspiring wing. Secondly, the prose in which John Lahr wraps his opinions is, in itself, artful. So it was with my eyes and my ears and my heart all at the attentive anticipatory max I went to the Sunday performance, imagining, what with the critic's praise, it would serve as a spiritual observation, my church being English, the language, not the religion. In addition, I had been enchanted by Mark Rylance, the leading actor as Valere, in 'La Bete', when he played the baffled centerpiece of the farce Boeing, Boeing, not to mention his other credits as producer, Shakespearean player, writer and obvious man of many parts.
I wished that one of them had not been Valere. This Moliere manque, this grossly non-preening cockatoo who burps and farts his hour upon the stage and then, God help us, is heard some more, is clearly one of the great tour-de-farce roles of my lifetime. But to what end? --other than the toilet he actually sits on onstage, expelling what gas doesn't come from his mouth, using the paper torn from nearby obviously precious books to wipe himself. All clearly intended to be repellent, and, sadly, achieving its aim, in what seemed-- as it was meant to be-- an endless barrage of persiflage, bad poetry, and egotism, in which I, like the character played with immaculate restraint by David Hyde Pierce, cringed and prayed for flight.
Valere is meant to be a street player lifted to societal acclaim by a deluded royal(Joanna Lumley,) who mistakes his endless persiflage for true poetry, and makes him the writer de jour, entertained and adored by high society. (The best scene, visually, and probably because of its lack of words, is the feast that preceeds the encounter between Valere and Elomire, where a line of gorgeously costumed players or ghosts, one could not tell for sure, sit at a festive board bathed in luscious light and grapes, setting the period with ingenious grace.)
Then begins the onslaught, in verse, no doubt brilliantly conceived and bravely executed by the author of the piece, David Hirson. But the endless flow of meaninglessness, the unimpeded cascade of emptiness that at first paralyzes Elomire and, not long after, various members of the audience, including me, serves only to make one pray for a better play for Mr. Rylance, emancipation for Mr. Pierce, and a quick exit for those trapped in the theater. The ultimate effect of endless palaver by a bore cannot help but be boring, and the fact that Rylance so deftly communicates the boorish makes his character clearly a boor.
Ms. Lumley, well-known among Brits (and those who watch BBC comedies) is as charming as she can possibly be, being so deluded, portraying the Princess who found this popinjay. Preceeded as her entrance is by a wash of golden sparkle, is residue pops up from time to time during the rest of the play lending the rest of it unexpected darts of light. One wishes one could say the same about the play.
Alas, poor Rylance. I knew him (I thought) well. A fellow of infinite jest. But clearly one who wants to work, regardless.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


(At the Helen Hayes Theater)

‘Next Fall’ is a good play. Not a great one—though it tries to address a few great issues: Life, Death, and Love, to name a couple. The most powerful scene in the work is one that doesn’t take place—the “next fall” that one of two central gay lovers talks of casually in passing that never takes place, because he will be dead, an effect foreshadowed and tenderly illustrated by the transparent curtain that cloaks the other scenes, the lush colors of autumn leaves, painted on trees in a desolare park.
Several of the scenes take place in a hospital waiting room that we don’t really know is a hospital waiting room at first, just characters waiting for something that we’re not really sure about, anymore than we know exactly who the characters are. But one, it will turn out, is the lover of a man we have not yet met, who has been critically injured in a fall. One is his mother, long absent and an apparent addict, a thick-skinned Southern(only a little, Florida, this is not Williams territory)father who has never really acknowledged or wanted to see his son’s homosexuality, an old male friend who was not a love and whose interactions with the other characters seems specious, and a pleasant, unimportant but funny(not toooooooo) blonde who was, apparently, the owner of a candle shop where one of the gay couple worked, who then apparently became a close friend, but not so close that she logically belonged in that waiting room. This, for me, was the part of the play that was most puzzling, and the audience is invited to put it all together as the pieces fall into place, not in chronological order,like a jigsaw of time.
The big question here is not why we love who we love, but why people don’t give each other more of a break,and prize each interaction more, since life is so evanescent. That crystal sentiment echoes and references a far better play, ‘Our Town’, in which the powerfully handsome and energetic Luke, (Patrick Heusinger) making his first entrance in an apparently flashbacked cocktail party tells his soon-to-be partner (Patrick Breen) that he is playing the Stage Manager, when not working as a waiter.
As appealing as the two partners are, and as okay(which is all they are really) as the other characters are, especially Maddie Corman who milks laughs from non-fat lines as the absent mother returned, Cotter Smith as the beef-brained father, and Connie Ray as the delightful blonde candleshop lady that you don’t know what she’s doing in that waiting room, the mention of the other play churns up a yearning for the real drama and sweetness that is life, that too often eludes us. Especially in the theater.
Good enough for a pallid season, but not good enough if Thornton Wilder were still here. If Only.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


The happiest place to be on Broadway these less-than-cheerful days is the Lyceum theater. Laughter litera;lly roars through the audience, almost, but not quite, drowning out the growls and rants and slurs of the crazily luminous Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in 'Looped.' This tour-de-force of wit, smut, and brilliant characterization by a television favorite who bursts out of her box, takes place in a sound studio where the notoriously unreliable Bankhead is to re-record one unintelligible line for a film. Unsurprisingly, she is late, contemptuous, alcoholic, irreverent, and, as drawn in this seemingly incidental play, amazingly touching, and, although at the end of her career rope, irresistible.
The action, such as it is, takes place in real time, as the sound engineer, Steve, played by Michael Mulheren, waits in a booth above the set for the notorious diva to arrive and record the line, to be directed by Danny, Brian Hutchinson. Although the two men in the cast appear to be merely pawns for the star to play off, as one suspects actual men were in the star's life, at least one of them has his own story, which she will gainfully and painfully pull out of him.("Everyone has a story," Bankhead insists, and she is right.)
But the evening is really about Tallulah, and, more gloriously, Valerie Harper herself, who infuses every line with an actress-y bravado that makes you wish Bankhead was floating about the premises able to give it her imprimatur. What is most amazing about the fiercely comedic performance is the picture that emerges of a brilliant personality who threw her life away, most especially her chance to prove herself a genuine actress in 'Streetcar Named Desire,' which Tennessee Williams apparently wrote for her, but she turned down. The moment when she speaks a few lines she might have spoken as Blanche DuBois shows a sensitivity and fragility that no one suspected, except perhaps Williams himself. By this time, the spell that Harper has cast over the audience is so complete that yan ou could almost feel them grieving over Bankhead's lost opportunity, the great actress she might have become, instead of the caricature. The wonder of the evening is that Harper's interpretation never seems to descend into caricature, but is instead a wildly comedic re-interpretation of a legendary actress, that, leaving the theater, you feel, in between the happy ache of belly-laughs, you actually spent the evening with.