Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Theatre Round-Up: The Berkshires, London, New York

Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat in Berkshire Theatre Group's Bells Are Ringing. (Photo by Michelle McGrady)

If Kate Baldwin had started her career during the golden age of Broadway musicals, composers and lyricists would have competed to write vehicles for her. That’s the first thought that crossed my mind after I left the Berkshire Theatre Group’s production of Bells Are Ringing, in which she takes up the role Judy Holliday created in 1956 (and played subsequently in the charming 1960 Vincente Minnelli movie, opposite Dean Martin). The show, with its Jule Styne melodies – two of which, “Just in Time” and “The Party’s Over,” belong in the show music pantheon – and the effervescent Betty Comden-Adolph Green book and lyrics, was a vehicle from the get-go. Holliday had won an Academy Award for bringing her star-making portrait of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday from Broadway to the screen, but her subsequent movie roles played up her stridency rather than the quality that made her unique, a dazed canniness. The joke at the heart of Born Yesterday is that Billie, the mistress of a junk tycoon who takes her to Washington and hires a journalist to give her a little cultivation, is a ditz who isn’t as dumb as she looks and sounds. Holliday’s other movies didn’t capitalize on that appealing contradiction, and they didn’t take advantage of all the other things she could do, like put over a number and knock a comedy routine out of the park (she and Comden and Green had started off in a nightclub act called The Revuers) and play the plaintiveness hiding underneath the humor. Bells Are Ringing allowed her to do all of it. She played Ella Peterson, who works for her cousin Sue’s phone service, where she’s made herself indispensable to the lives of customers she knows only by voice and for each of whom she’s developed a different personality. One of her clients is a hard-drinking playwright named Jeff Moss, one-half of a hit duo who’s operating solo for the first time and so terrified that he’s going to bomb that he’s paralyzed by writer’s block. Jeff knows Ella as Mom, the little old lady at the switchboard who hands out advice and encouragement; he has no idea that she’s a young woman who’s been fantasizing about him. When he gets drunk the night before a last-ditch meeting with his producer and unplugs his phone, Ella gets so desperate about saving his career that she sneaks into his apartment to wake him up. Improvising a new character for herself, Melisande Scott, she gets him writing again and he falls for her. But his faith in her (he tells her she’s the first honest person he’s ever known) makes her feel guilty for all the play-acting she’s been doing, and she doesn’t feel she can face him as Ella.

“Susanswerphone”gives Ella a chance to be a one-woman comedy troupe (she plays other parts to help out an unhappy dentist who wants to be a songwriter and a down-on-his-luck actor); in 1956 it must have seemed like an outgrowth of the TV variety shows that were helping to keep audiences home, like The Sid Caesar Hour. (And Holliday could be almost as nutty as Caesar’s co-star, the great Imogene Coca.) It’s a very fifties musical, like The Pajama Game from two years earlier, which may be why it doesn’t get revived nearly as often as it deserves to be. There was a smart, stylish Broadway production in 2001, directed by Tina Landau and starring Faith Prince (who was sensational in it), but the reviews were ungenerous and it closed quickly. Encores! mounted it five years ago with the ineffable Kelli O’Hara; it was breezy and enjoyable and O’Hara sang “The Party’s Over” more movingly, probably, than anyone else ever has, but she wasn’t really right. God knows Baldwin is. Last summer at Berkshire Theatre Group she played the Countess in A Little Night Music and demonstrated a high-comic wit; it turns out that she’s just as adept at vaudevillian humor. Her performance is a musical-comedy tour de force, simultaneously hilarious and elegant, tart and sweet. It showcases her as a comedian, as a singer (she has one of the most dynamic voices in musical theatre today) and as an actress.

Ella is naïve – her interference in the private lives of her customers makes her the target of a vice cop who thinks she’s providing some kind of illicit service to all of them – but she’s also inventive and resourceful; there you have the two sides of the Judy Holliday persona. Baldwin convinces you that this woman is led by her heart and never looks before she leaps. “I’ll think of something,” she tells her co-worker Gwynne (Sara Andreas), who wonders how she’s going to engineer one of her crazy plots, and the thing is, she always does. The only problem she can’t work out is how to confess to Jeff (Graham Rowat) that she isn’t the person she’s been pretending to be, and that, of course, turns out to be a problem that’s entirely in her head. “But I tricked you!” she cries when he finally figures out who she is and tracks her down art Susanswerphone. “You saved my life – some trick,” he replies.

Photo: Michelle McGrady
If the role of Ella shows Baldwin off, Ethan Heard’s production shows off the delights of the musical. He’s still a little weak on transitions (the glowing exception is the way he gets into the cocktail party scene in the middle of the second act) but his pacing is terrific and he has a real sense of style. Parker Esse’s choreography is consistently vibrant and clever, and the small, hard-working ensemble is just as strong in the dancing department as they are as singers. (The musical direction is by Joel Fram, who conducts the robust fine ten-member band.) Reid Thompson designed an abstract unit set that works efficiently and contains one nifty idea: squares that double as shades for silhouettes (whenever one of Susanswerphone’s customers calls in) and windows – so, for example, when Ella and Jeff perform “Just in Time” in Central Park, instead of passersby admiring them we get at-home Manhattanites who call down to them from their apartments. The production is well lit by Oliver Wason. The only visual element that isn’t up to snuff is David Murin’s costumes. Occasionally they’re even baffling: if the “Simple Little System” number is supposed to be performed by Sandor and his fellow bookies, why on earth is one of them dressed as a vamp and another one as a jockey? I don’t think jockeys make book on their own races.

Rowat, whom I loved as the peacock dragoon in last summer’s A Little Night Music (which Heard also directed), brings a slightly goofy quality to the part of Jeff rather than playing him Dean Martin-smooth, and though it takes some getting used to if you know the movie, it seems just right for the actor who has to partner Baldwin. (Baldwin and Rowat are husband and wife in real life.) Rowat has a warm, pliant baritone, so when they sing together on “Just in Time” and “Long Before I Knew You” (the first-act finale), the results are pretty blissful.

Cheryl Stern plays Sue, who prides herself on her pragmatism but falls for a con man; the trouble is that Stern’s Sue comes across as so sensible that you don’t buy her folly. On the other hand, Joseph Dellger as Sandor, who talks her into partnering up with what she thinks is a mail-order record business but is really a bookmaking outfit, is so expansive that we have trouble believing he’s a crook. (That’s less of an issue.) The best of the supporting players are James Ludwig as the dentist, Dr. Kitchell, who composes songs on his air hose, and Alex Puette, who plays both Blake Barton, the would-be Brando, and the delivery boy, Carl, who’s sweet on Gwynne. He’s especially good as Carl, who gets to teach the cha-cha to Ella in the “Mu-cha-cha” number near the top of act two. Puette was born to dance – he may have the longest pair of legs I think I’ve seen on a show dancer since Tommy Tune.

Except for Baldwin and Rowat, everyone in the cast plays several roles and appears in every ensemble number. In today’s theatrical economy you expect no less – but I think that a line has to be drawn with the performers who play Sue and Sandor. Stern has an instantly recognizable face, so when she appears in a nun’s outfit in the “Hello, Hello There” number in the subway, she looks like Sue dressed up for Halloween, and when Dellger, with his big, friendly mug, steps into the train before the second chorus, you can’t figure out why Ella doesn’t recognize him as the dude who’s been romancing her cousin. It’s even weirder when Stern shows up as one of the bookies, considering that one of the key plot points is that Sue has no idea Sandor isn’t a legitimate LP salesman. I was willing to buy the actors in smaller roles doubling up, like Puette, whose skill at individualizing his characters becomes part of the entertainment. But you can’t pretend that when they’re not playing scenes, your second leads are just part of the chorus.

Chris Lowell & Cynthia Nixon in Kinship. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Carey Perloff’s Kinship, on Williamstown’s Nikos Stage, is an attempt to find a modern-day equivalent to the Phaedra story that Racine dramatized famously in 1677. It’s highly self-conscious: early in the play, a young journalist (Chris Lowell) who has fallen for his married middle-aged editor (Cynthia Nixon), describing the experience of seeing an intimate production of Racine’s play, tells her that the heroine reminded him of her. The journalist isn’t the editor’s stepson, as Hippolytus, the object of Phaedra’s desire, is hers, and in Racine’s play Hippolytus feels nothing for Phaedra but revulsion, whereas in Perloff’s the young man makes the first move. But the playwright has found a rough equivalent for the near-incestuous nature of the attraction: the journalist’s mother (Penny Fuller), a drama instructor and retired actress, is the editor’s close friend and confidante, though it takes most of the play for the older woman to work out the identity of the editor’s would-be lover. In both versions the love affair remains in the conditional tense, i.e., it falls apart without ever having been consummated.

Kinship is written with intelligence and sensitivity but it’s so contrived that I never really believed in the premise. I assume that the deliberateness with which Perloff underlines the parallels between it and Phaedra is meant to propel us past the contrivance by putting it front and center, and that the fact that Perloff doesn’t give the characters names (the program refers to them as He, She and Friend/His Mother) is supposed to lift it out of the realm of realism. But it doesn’t feel absurdist or expressionist in any other way, so the symbolic names come across as an affectation. And you can’t help asking realist questions like “How it possible, especially in an age when there are so few newspapers left, that the journalist’s mother never guesses that her son is working for her friend?” The editor puts the young man to work on a series of articles about theatre inspired by his evening out seeing Phaedra with his mother. Are we really supposed to imagine that he wouldn’t tell his mother what he was working on?

Jo Bonney’s production, which has a striking set design by Rachel Hauck and is evocatively lit by Philip Rosenberg, is most effective as a showcase for the two actresses, the elegant and witty Penny Fuller (whom I first saw forty-five years ago in the Broadway musical Applause) and the altogether remarkable Cynthia Nixon. As everyone knows who used to watch her on Sex and the City, Nixon has a complex brittleness that is especially appropriate to the role of a brilliant, high-functioning but secretly vulnerable career woman. And she can get more ironic shadings out of a line of dialogue than any stage-trained American actress this side of Stockard Channing. When she laughs in Kinship, her voice sounds like icicles shattering, and the depth of feeling beneath that sound can be heartbreaking or terrifying. The best thing about Perloff’s script is its portrait of the editor, who is driven to folly, humiliation, despair and fury by the uncontrollable excess of her lust for the journalist, and Nixon mines the hell out of each of those responses. Like her performance as the woman who’s lost her child in Rabbit Hole on Broadway nine years ago, her work in Kinship reminds us that she’s one of our most extraordinary actresses – especially, I think, on stage.

I loved watching Chris Lowell on the TV series Life as We Know It and Veronica Mars, but he’s terribly miscast as the journalist, a role that reminded me of the character the Canadian actor Luke Kirby played opposite Michelle Williams in the film Take This Waltz. Lowell is great at playing callow young men, bedazzled innocents; he doesn’t have the verve for the role of a guy who comes on to his boss. (If Perloff’s script had spun off Racine’s conception, where the young man is clueless, Lowell might have made it work.) It doesn’t help that his haircut has the unfortunate effect of making him look squared off, and the downy mustache is a mistake too. I look forward to seeing Lowell in more plays, but not in parts like this that fit him like a straitjacket.

Damian Lewis, John Goodman, and Tom Sturridge in American Buffalo. (Photo: Alastair Muir)

The thriving box office for the revival of American Buffalo in London’s West End obviously derives from the presence of John Goodman and Damian Lewis in the cast, especially Lewis, whose star is high after three seasons of Homeland and his recent appearance as Henry VIII in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Lewis is a brilliant actor, but as Teach, a role Americans associate with Al Pacino (who played it on Broadway in 1983) and Dustin Hoffman (who took it over in the 1992 film version), he turns out to be the biggest problem with this production.

David Mamet’s 1975 play is set in a Chicago pawnshop run by Donny (Goodman) and revolves around the proposed theft of a buffalo nickel from a collector who dug it out of a collection of otherwise worthless memorabilia at Donny’s place and paid him nearly a hundred bucks for it. Donny, who had no idea of its value but figures it must be worth more based on the collector’s desire to secure it, thinks that maybe he and his assistant Bobby (Tom Sturridge) – a 20-something recovering junkie he’s taken under his wing – can break into the collector’s place and steal it back with the help of a friend of theirs named Fletcher with breaking and entering skills. But when Teach, a poker buddy of Donny’s, gets wind of the plan, he persuades Donny to eliminate Bobby from it altogether and let Teach mastermind the robbery, and from that point things go disastrously wrong.
Teach makes a famous, explosive entrance ten minutes into the first act, excoriating a mutual friend named Ruthie – who remains an offstage presence in the play, like everyone else in their circle – for a minor, offhand comment he’s taken such umbrage at that his response is simultaneously comic and sinister. Teach is one of those people who sees everyone around him as a potential enemy, usually because he or she is a potential competitor. His vision of the world is part paranoid, part power-mongering; every scenario he presents to Donny – who is suggestible enough to be manipulated by them – is based on a the assumption that everyone besides the two of them, including Fletcher and Ruthie and her girl friend Gracie and even sweet, dumb Bobby, who only wants to please Donny, is an asshole who can’t be trusted and is probably cooking up his or her own self-serving schemes. That is, Teach assumes that everyone is just like him, though in fact he’d never put it that way because he doesn’t see anything wrong with his own behavior. He’s the kind of guy who can poison a room, a community, in Mamet’s iconography the whole country, the whole world. What’s clever about the play (and it’s very clever) is the way the narrative comes together as pieces of it emerge out of the fog Teach creates when his poison obfuscates what’s really going on. What limits it is its lack of ambiguity and depth: there’s only one way to read the characters’ behavior – the way that isn’t Teach’s way. The title of the play clues us in that Mamet has bigger fish to fry, and Teach’s repeated references to himself as a businessman tells us that the target of his critique is the American way of doing business. But Mamet’s attempt to leap beyond a depiction of this shady little community to a view of America isn’t finally convincing because the play is way too shallow.

But whether or not you want to make a case for the play as a great work of the American theatre, it only works when the actor playing Teach is unsettling, then menacing, and eventually terrifying, and Lewis’ Teach is none of those things. Lewis seems so authentically American as the rescued P.O.W. who turns out to have ties to his Iraqi captors in Homeland – just as he was as the Lt. Richard Winters in Band of Brothers – that it’s bewildering when he sashays into Donny’s pawnshop dressed like a seventies pimp and begins to talk like someone in a road company of Guys and Dolls. He gets plenty of laughs, but he hardly seems dangerous, and even when he turns violent toward Bobby in the middle of the second act and when he tears apart the pawnshop near the end, there’s little power in these eruptions. I’m not sure what Lewis intended, and since the show, directed by Daniel Evans, has no concept, you really have to guess. The three actors perform in different styles that collide like billiard balls. Goodman (the only effective one) gives a completely realist portrayal of Donny. Sturridge, going for a kind of hyperrealism, plays Bobby as a kind of bombed-out street person, so inadequate to discharge the smallest tasks without tripping over himself that the thought that, as Teach insists, he might have some ulterior motive is laughable. Sturridge wears a baseball cap backwards on his shaved head and his guttural mumbling sounds distinctly nineties; you would have thought that someone – the director, or the designer, Paul Wills – might have noticed that he and Lewis’ Teach aren’t playing in the same decade. Wills also designed the crowded, borderline-expressionist set, which mostly provides an obstacle course for the three actors. Early on, Donny folds up the furniture he and Bobby have been sitting on and packs it away and you realize it’s sellable merchandise like everything else in the shop. This may be intended as a gag; certainly it isn’t followed up to suggest that Evans meant it as a comment on Donny’s lifestyle. It looked to me as if the actor just wanted it out of the way so he could play the next scene. There’s no evidence that anything in this production of American Buffalo was thought through.

Patti LuPone and Michael Urie in Shows for Days. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

It would probably be kinder just to ignore Shows for Days, the new comedy at Lincoln Center, because it’s embarrassingly bad. (Even the title is a disaster. What the hell does it mean? I kept wanting to call it Shows for Dogs or Show for a Day.) But the script is by Douglas Carter Beane, a playwright with a following (his last play was The Nance), the director is Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, and the star is Patti LuPone, so it probably should be addressed. The play is supposed to be Beane’s love letter to the community theatre where, as a teenager, he got his first taste of show business, but it’s more like a poison-pen letter; his depiction of the characters, from the diva (LuPone, natch) to the preening leading man (Lance Coadie Williams), who’s black and gay, the butch stage manager (Dale Soules), who comes across like a truck driver, the not-too-bright ingénue (Zoë Winters), and the bisexual juvenile (Jordan Dean) who seduces the protagonist is really mean-spirited. No one in the cast is very good, including LuPone, though she’s working as hard as she can in material that no one of her stature should be asked to try to bring to life. Beane’s alter ego is named Car; he also narrates the play, and we’re meant to find him irresistible. The way the part is written, I doubt that would be possible no matter who played him but Michael Urie, who caught the role, acts like a little boy showing off at a birthday party. The play is intolerably fake; Beane wants so badly to have us believe that this is some version of the true story that at the end of the play the narrator provides the first names of the real-life counterparts to the characters. Sorry, Car or Carter: you could show me signed affidavits attesting to the veracity of the narrative and I still wouldn’t buy a single word.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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