Friday, July 6, 2018

The Property

Photo by Hunter Canning

Ben Josephson ’s play The Property, presented by New Light Theater Project at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, centers around a weak-willed woman, Irene, whose tenant - he’s renting the cottage - offers an enticing alternative to her nerdy husband, Eddie. Her self-absorbed high-school son, Todd, is no comfort to her, and her overbearing ex-husband, Vernon - he’s returned after 16 years - is a liability.
The play is essentially plotless. The relationships and the lack of overt action suggest Uncle Vanya, but Chekhov’s characters are actually doing things beneath the stasis, and they’re steeped in the activities of daily life. Mr. Josephson’s characters do nothing but talk, mostly about themselves. The play’s divided into three acts, each of about a half-hour. Greg and Vernon show up in Act One, and it’s a long stretch until the next piece of action, in Act II.
There is, at least, some interesting characterization in the dialogue. “You, mother, are a mess and you’re making a mess of me,” Todd says, revealing a self-awareness we don’t expect from him. And when he calls his step-dad “a lunky-headed, tiresome fool,” he himself seems shocked at what he’s said, and we see him mature in an instant.
The production is saved by its excellent cast. Rachel Botchan is so endearing as the unassuming Irene that we like her immediately, and Phil Gallen gives an insightful performance as Todd. The actor playing Vernon, however, is all bluster, and his long, unstructured speech is tiresome. The role is written without contractions, at odds with the buffoonery of the character.
A skin-head young man named J.J. appears in the last act, and Matthew ZanFanga is terrific in the role, which is essentially a monologue (Eddie is too drunk to talk to the young man). He exits without leaving a trace of himself on the play, and we’re disappointed that Mr. ZanFanga hasn’t been given more to do.
Robert Kalfin, likewise helps us through the play’s inertia with sensitive direction. He does something strange and intriguing at the opening of the third act. Several months have passed, and Irene and Eddie seem to have adjusted to the disappointments of life with a sort of strained, forced happiness. This explains the insipid fantasy of happiness that is Caitlynn Barrett’s set. It’s simultaneously indoors and outdoors: the parlor furniture is backed by a suspiciously blue sky, with a gable floating gayly over it. A white tree adds surreal mystery.
The program tells us the playwright is a family physician, as if this odd note, suggesting Chekhov, were some sort of defense. The Property succeeds in spite of the script, and New Light has done a nice job with it.
Steve Capra
June 2018

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Cyprus Avenue

photo by Roa Kavanagh

The Public Theater has brought across the Atlantic Cyprus Avenue from The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and The Royal Court Theatre, London. David Ireland has written a 100-minute piece that starts as a black comedy and morphs into serious tragedy.

In late middle age, poor Eric, a Protestant in Belfast, has been having trouble sleeping. The insomnia triggers a psychotic episode, and we watch as his delusion develops. He has a new granddaughter, Mary Mae, who looks like Gerry Adams, the Catholic political leader (and, some would say, terrorist sympathizer). No! He decides Mary Mae is Gerry Adams! Worse, he’s always considered himself British, but now he worries that he himself might be - gasp! - Irish.

From then on, it’s an unswerving downward trajectory. Eric befriends Slim, a Protestant paramilitarist out on his first job, which is to kill Eric because he’s been raving on the park. Eric talks him out of this, and, by way of compensation, invites him to kill Mary Mae.

The play starts with a scene in a psychiatric hospital. “Why are you a nigger?” he asks his black therapist, Bridget, with no intent to be offensive. Most of the rest is flashback, although Mr. Ireland returns to the hospital a few times, including in the last scene, when Eric explains “Without prejudice we’re nothing. If we don’t discriminate, we don’t survive.” 

When he’s not there or in the park, Eric is at home with his wife, his daughter and Mary Mae, and it’s there that most of the delusion is revealed. It starts innocently as obsession. The Catholics have all the good songs, he reflects on When Irish Eyes are Smiling; “A Protestant’s eyes never smile unless it’s absolutely necessary.” Bill O’Reilly, Barak Obama, The Pope - all of them Catholic. Then it all deteriorates into a meltdown.

Mr. Ireland is a skillful playwright, cleansing our emotions with comedy before exposing them to pity and terror. He enjoys Irish phrasing - “I’m ready for murderin’ this man” Eric’s wife says. And he suspends a sense of mystery over Eric by having no one call him by his name until a half-hour into the play. Indeed, I think that no one calls his wife by her name as listed in the program at all.

The problem is that nothing precipitates the psychosis. All we know of is the insomnia that Eric complains of early in the play. The plot needs more of a trigger.

All the work on stage is terrific, polished to the glossy patina we expect from that side of theAtlantic. The leading man, Stephen Rea, has impeccable technique. His speech ranges from subtlety to fireworks; his physical life is emotionally grounded, never false. But he’s been directed to yell too much. A scene can only afford to reach a mad pitch for a few moments, and Mr. Rea remains there too long. There’s more to psychosis than shouting.

The rest of the cast is superb as well - Ronke Adekoluejo as the patient, professional Bridget, Andrea Irvine as Eric’s wife who orders him out, Amy Molloy as his distraught daughter. As Slim, Chris Corrigan plays a complex character, a common hitman who quotes Plato and refers to Catholics as “latter-day Machiavell’s”. And they all sound delicious in their Irish dialect.

Director Vicky Featherstone keeps everything moving along quickly. At first, it’s the pace of comedy, and then we experience the same rate of words-per-minute as the out-of-control thrust of fate. It’s unfortunate that she depends on volume to make the point about Eric’s insanity, but she modulates everything well otherwise. He sits on the park bench for a long time before he gets up and starts darting around, and his scenes with his daughter are subtle and well structured.

The stage area cuts the audience in two. The simple set might be reconsidered. It’s violent white and limits the emotional tones on stage.

But Cyprus Avenue is a great import. It’s not hard to extend its points to certain personalities in this country - God knows! Mr. Ireland is writing new plays for The Abbey and The Royal Court. Let’s hope the productions make their way across the pond as well.

Steve Capra

June 2018

Friday, June 22, 2018


photo by Joan Marcus

What a strange set of inexplicable choices director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has made in The Public Theater’s production of Othello at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park! He has, first of all, cast a black actor in the role of Roderigo. There’s no point in Othello’s being a black man if he’s not the only black man in the story. The entire subtext of racism that runs through the play is lost, and Brabantio’s outrage at his daughter’s marriage is ill-explained. The beating of the play’s heart has been stopped. This is Shakespeare victimized by political correctness.

Secondly, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cut Othello’s epileptic seizure, although he’s retained most of the scene in which it occurs. We never  see the intensity of The Moor’s emotions, particularly not his state of mind before he commits the murder.

In fact, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cut considerably, both through fine pruning and large hacking. A couple of the shortest scenes disappear completely, such as II, 2. Now, he can make a good case for this cutting. With a 20-minute intermission, the production still runs three hours. But what misconceived aesthetic has led him to cut one line from rhymed couplets that end a scene? For example, the suggestive couplet ending I, 3 reads The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue - That profit's yet to come 'tweene me, and you. In this production, however, Othello says simply The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue. 

It’s as if Mr. Santiago-Hudson wants to undercut decorum and move toward realism. But he ends the play with Othello’s line No way but this - Killing myself, to die upon a kiss, although the scene as written continues for a dozen lines. On this stage, the ending is formal, not real. On the other hand, at one point Cassio and Bianca talk at the same time in one scene. 

All of this cutting is one reason that Othello’s convincement is unbelievable. He succumbs to suspicion too easily - and goodness knows he succumbs to suspicion easily enough even with the entire script.

What’s more, Mr. Santiago-Hudson has cast Chukwudi Iwuji in the title role, and he plays Othello like a petulant brat. Having brought Othello before the Duke, Brabantio says of Desdemona And she … To fall in love with what she feared to look on! At this line, Othello gives a smirking smile to the assembly. We have no respect for this character. He doesn’t fall from higher state to a lower state during the course of the tragedy. He starts low and stays there. Even at the end of the play, after he’s learned what Iago has done, he seems to have learned nothing and his line Then must you speak - Of one that loved not wisely, but too well, falls flat.

Mr. Iwuji aside, the acting in the production is first-rate. Heather Lind makes a great Desdemona, young, smart and pushy. As Brabantio, Miguel Perez manages to say lines like O heaven! How got she out? O treason of the blood! believably, with commitment but without histrionics. And Babak Tafti gives a strong performance as a weak character, Cassio.

Iago, as played by Corey Stoll, is a Boy Scout, and it’s a great performance. He could easily deceive you or me. It’s so tempting to play Iago as oily and villainous that it’s grand to see him played as a Nice Boy. He doesn’t change when addressing the audience; there’s no intimacy. The key to his performance is found in one short line. When Iago kills Roderigo, Shakespeare gives him a cryptic line: Kill men i’ th’ dark? Mr. Stoll delivers the line, plunging the knife, with such sadistic pleasure that we see for a fleeting instant the congenital evil in the character. It’s beneath motivation, reptilian.

But the audience titters with - though not at - this Iago, and otherwise vocalize as much as to say “Ooh, what a villain”? They titter, for example, at his line to Othello To be direct and Honest is not safe. American audiences love to laugh, and they know the Othello story, so they distance themselves from the play.

The pace is clean, and every moment is focussed. The design is traditional: Desdemona’s wearing a lovely Elizabethan dress and the actors to a man are in leather pants. The set is marvelous, visually - seven arches behind six arches - and it moves for the Council Chamber. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change to indicate Cyprus, which, paradoxically, looks just like Venice. The least a set could do is to indicate setting.

And so the production is enjoyable - but, then, so is Neil Simon. There’s no tragedy here, only a well-played melodrama. But Free Shakespeare in the Park is always wonderful, with that one bright star - or maybe it’s Venus - over the stage, and the stage itself glowing - Wonderful!

Steve Capra

June, 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Blanket of Dust

Photo by Sharon Kinsella

In Richard Squires’ play A Blanket of Dust, presented at The Flea Theater by Delphi Film in association with Alfonso Ramos and Eve Pomerance, a woman, Diane, looses her husband in the 9-11 disaster. She’s convinced that the government is responsible for the catastrophe, and campaigns to uncover the conspiracy. She’s a Senator’s daughter, so the issue becomes a family affair. Years later, she becomes involved with Andrew, a book store owner active in the dissident movement. Andrew is also at odds with his parents on political issues (his father is in government but it’s not clear what his position is.) In frustration, Andrew commits suicide - he sets fire to himself - in protest. This is all pretty grim, but, well, it’s a grim world, and it’s good to see issue- committed theater. 

Mr. Squires’ keeps his script as lean as the WTC towers. The characters have no identity aside from their attitudes toward the issue, aside from the sketchy romance. There’s no particularization. We never learn things about them like what color wallpaper they like or where they went to school. Unfortunately, this style makes the play less a drama than a mere argument. When Andrew takes Diane to meet his folks, they start arguing immediately. Mr. Squires doesn’t even give a nod to conventional social interaction. I don’t believe this quality is an error; Mr. Squires is too good a playwright to make that sort of error. It’s a choice.

The director, Christopher Murrah, has picked up on the polemic and directed his actors to YELL in nearly every scene, although the lines could well be delivered otherwise. And throughout the scene as well, so that it has no structure. We soon grow tired of this - worse, annoyed. The effective moments in the play are quiet, such as when Diane addresses her father quietly, for once: “If you weren’t such cowards it would never have come to this,” she says. And there’s moving silent moment just before Andrew kills himself when it’s snowing gently.

Of course, George Bernard Shaw’s characters also represent attitudes toward the issues in his plays, but his characters discuss the issues before the playwright forms a conclusion for us. Mr. Squires’ characters do not discuss. There’s never any question what side the play is on: 9-11 was masterminded by the American officials. As Noam Chomsky has said “A large part of the population is willing to accept the possibility we’re run by a bunch of homicidal maniacs who are trying to murder us all.” Now, that may be true - I don’t know - but the production isn’t going to convince us by yelling. Theater can do better than that.

It’s unfortunate that Mr. Squires has let his political position distort his playwrighting, because he can be insightful and articulate. When Andrew says to his mother “They care about the truth,” she replies “Not when it affects their feelings.” This exchange is worthy of Shaw.

Brendan Boston’s set, as well, is stripped to the minimum: six white chairs. At least the production is all of a piece, spare and harsh.

Angela Pierce does the best she can as Diana, given the heavy-handed direction. Tommy Schrider is more fleshed out as Andrew, whose own father calls him a faggot (the theme is never developed). The most interesting performance comes from Alison Fraser as Diane’s mother, the Senator’s wife. She’s utterly affected, with a false, overly flowery melody to her voice, but Ms. Fraser makes it clear that it’s the character who’s affected, not the actress.

One of the functions of theater is to explore issues. But we need political theater that presents all sides of these issues and lets us form our own conclusions. That’s the only way it’ll persuade us of anything. In A Blanket of Dust, Mr. Squires wants to lead us. But if we let a playwright lead us to a position, another playwright will lead us back a week later.

Steve Capra

June 2018

Manufacturing Mischief

photo by Sham Sthakiya

Manufacturing Mischief is a puppet play “by Pedro Reyes, written by Paul Hufker.” It’s not clear what those credits mean, but Mr Reyes is apparently the progenitor. It presents us with a discussion of artificial intelligence and other topics, and it’s really smart. We meet Steve Jobs, Noam Chomsky, Elon Musk, Ayn Rand and other luminaries. They’re woven together in a plot that’s just as complex and silly as it should be. It has something to do with a machine that materializes the author of whatever book is put into it - thus Marx, Rand and some of the others.

The script trivializes the characters as only puppetry can. When Chomsky is confronted by Rand, his student tells him “Use complicated logic to confuse her.” But it’s educated as well. When Musk tells Chomsky that someday “We’ll have AI who understand the world,” Chomsky replies “But not their place in it or the value of it.”

Donald Trump appears in the play as a small puppet, out of place, certainly, with his betters. Rand says that she knew him in the 80’s. When told that he’s the President now, she says “The laughing stock usually outlives the joke.” Great! 

The puppets are very handsome, particularly the unmistakable Karl Marx and Ayn Rand.

The script, then, is really smart and clever. Unfortunately, it’s poorly executed. The lines are nicely animated, but the puppeteers’ diction, the foreign accents and the poor sound system, make them sometimes difficult to understand, so that the story is difficult to follow and we have to content ourselves with disconnected moments of clarity.

Worse, most of the puppeteers are woman, and they often voice the male puppets. Puppetry distances the drama - that’s part of the point. But a woman voicing a male puppet distances it beyond retrieval. What’s more, it makes it difficult to know which puppet is speaking. 

The puppet show’s rhythm fails to engage us. Moreover, Marx has a German accent and Rand has a Russian accent, but the puppeteer voicing Trump doesn’t even attempt the stupid, condescending speech pattern we know so well.

The puppet theater on the stage is designed so that the people in the front row can hardly see the puppets, who are above them. The evening I attended, the house manager didn’t open most of the good seats, at the back of the raked theater, until the poor seats had been taken. The audience that evening was largely quiet - which was a good sign - but the Tank’s staff person sat up back laughing and whooping.

Manufacturing Mischief, then, points the way for educated adult puppetry. It’s been in the works, we were told, for ten years and has been produced elsewhere. It’s hard to understand why The Flea’s production isn’t more successful.

Steve Capra

June 2018

Sunday, June 3, 2018

There's Blood at the Wedding

photo by Richard Termine

There’s Blood at the Wedding uses puppets and “performing objects” to relate the deaths of six innocent Americans killed by police: Philando Castile, Amadou Diallo, Sandra Bland, Sean Bell, Justine Damond and Eric Garner. (To be fair, Sandra Bland’s inexplicable death may have been a suicide after she was jailed for not using her directional when she changed lanes.) It’s created, designed and directed by Theodora Skipitares and presented by La MaMa and Skysaver Productions. The conceit is that there is a book for each victim, and we’re presented with large books that open up to present the stories.

There’s a loose frame to the play presenting Federico Garcia Lorca. He opens with the line “Good evening and welcome to the humble theater we call home.” Then he disappears until the end, and this framing device should be developed.

Ms. Skipitares’ mission is simply to bear witness, and to her great credit she rarely accuses, and she never conflates the problem of police killings with other issues. She knows that the problem affects all of us and that the issue is above debate. What’s more, she doesn’t proselytize or agitate. She even tells us that one policeman cried after the shooting.

The play personalized the victims. One passage list the contents of Philando Castile’s car when he was killed: a tourist map of South Dakota, three bags of groceries, tic tacs. And then: “Two bullet shells - That’s all that’s left of a man”. The recitation about Sean Bell repeats “Three cops indicted - Three cops acquitted” as a sort of chant.

Sometimes puppets present the stories, and they’re intriguing. There are large masks that hang from the two actors necks that aren't very nice, but there are full-body puppets that are very graceful. And one has a white mask that’s lit from behind and it’s great. The use of the over-sized books isn’t as interesting, and the puppetry is uneven.  

There are songs in the play, with some delicate music by Sxip Shirey. Some are specific to a shooting, but two are free-standing. One is a marvelous spiritual, All Babies Must Cry, that’s sung by full-body puppets. The second is a rap song with obscenities that’s not good at all. Why does Ms. Skipitares include obscenities when up until that point one of the show’s great strengths is its dignity?

Faces are eerily projected on gauze on the back wall, very effectively. One mother of a victim thus seen tells us, in the play’s most profound moment, “I can only forgive when I am asked to forgive.”

Ms. Skipitares is disingenuous in the best sense, and the play’s simplicity is deceptive. She doesn’t generalize about the killings, but at the end of the play Lorca tells us “These stories seem so random, but they follow a pattern.” Then he tells us, cryptically, that when he was executed he was shot in the butt because he was gay.

There’s Blood at the Wedding is a slight play, running only an hour. It’s the rare theater piece that should be expanded. There’s more that the audience would benefit from knowing, that would show the depth and complexity of the problem. Why does Ms. Skipitares keep the police anonymous? For example: Officer Mohamed Noor, the Somali-born policeman who killed Justine Damond, has been charged with murder. He had three complaints against him before the shooting and the prosecutor has said that Minneapolis police were uncooperative in the investigation.

Steve Capra
June 2018

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Diana Tapes

photo by Pablo-Calderon Santiago

Princess Diana was certainly a phenomenon. Wikipedia reports that 750 million people watched her televised marriage to Prince Charles in 1981. She was, of course, a media sensation until her death in a car crash in 1997.

I’ve always failed to see what there was to admire in this woman. She was not a Cinderella, and if she was exploited for her pedigree, she apparently did not object. After all, she was Lady Diana before she was Princess Diana. She was killed returning from an evening of clubbing in Paris - at the age of 36 - with a man not her husband. And this from a member of the British royal family! I grant that she worked for charity, but that was her job. As far as I can see, her only real contribution was to refuse to include in her wedding vows that she would “obey” her husband.

Andrew Morton published a biography of the great lady, Diana: Her True Story, based on audiotapes of interviews that her friend James Colthurst conducted with her using questions that Morton had written. It was published in 1992 by Michael O’Mara. 

James Clements’ play The Diana Tapes explores the writing of this book. He presents us with Morton, Colthurst, O’Mara (who was American) and the Princess. It’s produced by What Will the Neighbors Say? at HERE, Off-Broadway

The question of whether Diana was worthy of admiration, pity or scorn is at the core of the play, and it presents itself largely in the dialogue between the three men. “She’s suffered,” Morton says of her. But later he has an awakening and says cynically, in the play’s best line, “She’s part Virgin Mary, part Florence Nightingale, part Liz Taylor.” He finally realizes “She’s absolutely the most accomplished media operator of our time.”

The play did nothing to improve my opinion of Diana Mountbatten-Windsor. And it’s not just because of the dialogue between the writer, the go-between and the publisher. Diana herself is made out to be a ditzy airhead. She enters singing Michael Jackson’s song Billy Jean. She uses obscenities, calling Colthurst a “prick”, and other things. She talks about bulimia, Camilla Parker Bowles and cutting herself, but we nonetheless never feel any real sympathy for her. Indeed, it’s what she says that alienates us most from her: “People will weep and know that I’ve suffered for them,” and “I just want to be happy.” It’s not clear if the lines are from the tapes.

Even Colthurst, her friend and doctor, becomes exasperated with her during an interview and says “You’re painting yourself to be some sort of a saint. Do you really not know when you’re doing it any more?”

And even speaking as one who didn’t admire her, I think that the production might be a bit fairer to her. The actress in the role does nothing to enlist our sympathy.

The three gentlemen on stage give precise, focused performances. But they’ve been directed by Wednesday Sue Derrico to be in a frenzy in nearly every scene, and that makes it impossible for them to deliver believably those lines that, unfortunately, explain the play - like “Here is the biggest scandal to strike the monarchy since abdication!”

The Diana Tapes is a slight script - it runs 70 minutes - and it’s satisfying as far as it goes, but it never develops anything. Mr. Clements presents the story, but he doesn’t really dramatize it with a through line and a central climax. We have to content ourselves with an interesting discussion.  

At the end of the play, the actors dress Diana in black while we hear a tape of her talking about Paris, and it’s chilling. Diana looks at us silently, and for several moments she has real mystery.

Steve Capra
May 2018