Thursday, October 25, 2012

theatre review VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, McCarter, September 30

I'm just gonna say this right from the start, Christopher Durang's latest play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is going to have a very long life in the commercial theatre.  While Durang has had some successes like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, he's also had his share of misfires (Sex and Longing) or plays that while somewhat successful were very much on the odd side (The Marriage of Bette and Boo) and thus ones that don't get produced a lot.  However, while Vanya and Sonia manages to be a modern tale with likable, though still somewhat odd characters and thus completely in line with Durang's other works, it also has a huge heart at its center and it is that heart, along with Durang's smart dialogue that makes this into a warm, comical gem.  Such a gem that I believe it will be a big hit and become one of Durang's most performed plays.

Having recently ended a sold out run at the McCarter theatre in Princeton, the play now moves to Lincoln Center's Off Broadway Mitzi Newhouse theatre.  We enjoyed the play so much when we saw it at McCarter that we are going back to see it again at Lincoln Center in a few weeks.

Billy Magnussen, Sigourney Weaver and David Hyde Pierce
Durang has borrowed liberally from the plots of various Chekhov plays and by putting the plots of those plays into a pot, stirring with a spoon and setting on simmer he has come up with a takeoff on them, crafting a well written comedy set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The play focuses on a set of three siblings whose parents were so literally inclined that they named their three children after characters in Chekhov's plays.  Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen play the three siblings and I don't think you could find a better trio of actors to play Vanya, Sonia and Masha. 

Weaver, as Masha, is a successful movie actress who is always working and left her two siblings behind at the house they all grew up in to care for their aging parents.  The parents are now both gone and Masha has returned home once again to show off her new boy toy Spike, attend a costume party and drop some bad news about that house they're all connected to.    While Masha was away constantly working and making enough money to pay for the upkeep of the house and the expenses required to care for her parents, Vanya and Sonia feel like they have been left behind, trapped and now have no life outside of the house they've been stuck in to care for their patents.  They also are angry at Masha for the exciting life she has led while they've had no lives at all.  It is an interesting view into two sides of an issue that most everyone has to deal with, the care of aging parents and the toll it takes on those involved and how it can potentially pit siblings against each other.  The various themes in the play- sibling relationships, the selling off of the family house, wasted lives and even a play within a play all are drawn from Chekhov's main plays including The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.   But of course this is a comedy and so Durang manages to ring every possible comic bit out of these situations.

Shalita Grant, Kristine Nielsen and David Hyde Pierce
Weaver's ability to make herself not only look like an ass but one that we also root for has a lot to say about Weaver's easiness as an actress and her trust and faith in Durang, mainly due to the on-going professional relationship she has had with Durang since their days at Yale together.  While Weaver is most known as a serious actress as well as one associated with some big action movies, she is also a very funny one.  Her Masha has the right balance of drama and comedy and if the very tall Weaver in a Snow White outfit surrounded by her co stars in dwarf costumes wasn't a funny enough image, she manages to make it even more over the top with her delivery of the material and the way she moves on stage. 

Any fan of Frasier knows that David Hyde Pierce is a gifted comedian.  And while his role as Vanya is more on the subdued side, at least for the first half of the play, he gets a monologue that is triggered by Spike's texting at an inappropriate time that is so expertly delivered by Hyde Pierce that it whips the latter half of the play into a virtual comic frenzy.

While Kristine Nielsen isn't as well known as Weaver or Hyde Pierce, she pretty much gets the best material in the play including an entire sequence of her doing an impeccable Maggie Smith impression.   Nielsen has had her fair share of good parts in the past, including one in another Durang play, Miss Witherspoon, but this is one role that will elevate her even higher in the theatre world.

Genevieve Angelson, Shalita Grant and Sigourney Weaver
Also in the cast are Billy Magnussen as Spike, who has just the right combination of young foolishness, snarkiness and sex appeal to hit all the right notes of the part; Genevieve Angelson as the young woman who lives next door and Shalita Grant as the cleaning lady, who at first seems more of a throw away part, but turns out to be very connected to the actions of the play.  All three are in sync with the comic requirements as well as aren't overshadowed by the three stars. 

I especially liked the running bit with Angelson saying that Hyde Pierce reminds her of her uncle so she will call him "Uncle Vanya" as well as Grant's premonitions and use of a voodoo doll.   Those comical bits are just icing on this comical cake. And with Durang making the character of Vanya a gay man, I'm not sure if Durang is intentionally making the three siblings a pseudo take off of Three Sisters just like Chekov's play or not but if he did it was a pretty genius move.

Production elements are top notch, including an amazing set design by David Korins and character perfect costumes by Emily Kebholz including very funny ones for the costume party.  Director Nicholas Martin manages to stage the comic and dramatic moments nicely while letting his actors constantly shine.   This includes the three actors in lesser parts, who Martin always manages to not always stick in the background where they could be over shadowed by their more experienced and well known co-stars.

Get your tickets to Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike now before the Lincoln Center run is sold out.

Official Show Site

Show clips and interviews from the McCarter production:

Friday, October 12, 2012

HITCHCOCK, in theatres November 23rd and THE GIRL, premiering on HBO next week

I'm a HUGE Alfred Hitchcock fan so I'm really looking forward to two upcoming movies. Coming up on the big screen is Hitchcock, based on the great book by Stephen Rebello Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as his wife, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh, James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins, Toni Collette as Hitchcock's assistant and Ralph Macchio as Stephen Rebello the screenwriter for Psycho.

HBO also has a movie premiering next week on Oct. 20th called The Girl with Toby Jones as Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and all about Hitchcock and Hedren's feisty relationship during the making of The Birds and Marnie. The trailer is below .

And there is a giant boxed set of Hitchcock films coming out on Blu-Ray on Oct 30th. 

This is turning out to be a huge Fall for Hitchcock lovers!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

theatre review BRING IT ON, Broadway, September 23

We enjoyed the new Broadway musical Bring It On so much when we saw it back in August that we went back again with our nieces.  The show was just as enjoyable and I actually liked it even better the second time.  No need to go on and on about it since I already wrote about it in detail in my previous review, but just wanted to say that if you're looking for a fun night out that includes a score with some upbeat tunes, an energetic cast and some awesome high flying acrobatic stunts make sure not to miss Bring It On which is playing a limited run through January 20th. 

The cast recording was just released and it is great - completely captures all of the fun and humor of the show.  You can currently download it via Amazon for only $9! - check out the Amazon link below...

Official Show Site

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

theatre review IF THERE IS I HAVEN'T FOUND IT YET, Off Broadway, September 22

Nick Payne's new play If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet is having it's US premiere Off Broadway in a stellar production head lined by Jake Gyllenhaal who is making his NY stage debut.  Telling the modern day story of a family at the breaking point, Payne's play is not only one that accurately and effectively speaks to current headlines but when combined with an excellent set design and direction rises to an even higher level.

The threat of both teenage bullies and global warming have been hot topics in the news for the past few years.  Payne combines both of these headline makers to tell the story of a family with an overweight fifteen year old daughter, Anna, who has been bullied at the school where her mother works.   Anna's father is an environmentalist who is so concerned about the threat to the earth that he completely misses the threat that is making his daughter feel alone and the distance that is potentially breaking up his family.  When the father's younger estranged brother shows up out of the blue, Anna finds herself with someone who she believes finally understands her but he too has own troubles.  

Annie Funke and Jake Gyllenhaal
Set in London, If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet is both an interesting story of a family in crisis as well as one that shows how our preoccupation with various things can get in the way of us not only being able to properly communicate with each other but to also miss important issues that need immediate attention.  I found the play both completely realistic in the subject matter and the way that each character spoke differently from each other but also in how it takes modern issues and shows both the comical and dramatic sides of them.

The cast is simply excellent.  As the brooding, somewhat violent and outspoken Uncle, Gyllenhaal has the appropriate blend of intensity and compassion, especially when he realizes how lost Anna is and how her parents aren't giving her the direction and attention she needs.  Annie Funke as Anna is the girl we've all seen before, the overweight teenager who gets bullied for her weight, tries to be funny to overcome the hurt but is lost and all alone inside.  Funke is the one who has to keep her emotions at a fairly consistent and high level and to not let them get too melodramatic and the scenes she has with Gyllenhaal, who she basically sees as her "white knight" are both touching and heartbreaking.  The fact that she is holding her own with this powerhouse cast says a lot. 

Brian F. O'Byrne and Michelle Gomez
Brian F. O'Byrne is the father, and at first I didn't care that much for him, but I quickly realized that was the point, as he was perfectly playing the distant, self obsessed parent who is trying to "save" the wrong thing and in doing so tries as best as he can to stay away from the real issues at home.  There is a passion and intensity in O'Byrne's portrayal that makes you understand his devotion as well as his reluctance to deal with the issues at home. Michelle Gomez as the mother is also spot on in her portrayal of a woman who grew up and doesn't really know her place in the world anymore.   The frustration she exhibits, sometimes even with just a look or by simply being silent is perfect.  With a distant husband and a lost child she thinks the only thing she can do is to tell her daughter to stay the course while she focuses on overseeing the student production of War of the Worlds, a title not lost on the overall theme of the play.  Dysfunction is clearly at the center of this story and while all of these characters aren't perfect, all four actors have you rooting for them to overcome their obstacles and succeed.

Annie Funke and Jake Gyllenhaal
The play begins with an intense rainfall coming down into a trough at the front of the stage in a continual sheet of water.   This theatrical use of water is something that director Michael Longhurst and scenic designer Beowulf Boriff will use throughout the play to its fullest extent.  Anna's father is writing a book all about reducing carbon footprints and the impact of global warming.  So, the use of water is an interesting one it that it so clearly shows both the impact of the melting ice caps as well as literally showing how this one family is drowning from the issues that they are confronted with.   Subtle it might not be, but theatrical it is, and when a torrent of rain comes down like a tsunami toward an emotional event in the latter half of the show you can literally hear gasps in the audience.  Added to the use of water is the use of set pieces.  When the play begins there is a large mound of furniture in the center of the stage.  As each scene unfolds the actors will pull the required furniture from the mound and when the scene is over they will discard the props or furniture into the trough of water at the front of the stage.  I took this to show the disposable nature of the world as well as to show the rising water that will eventually take us over, as each time something is tossed in the trough, the water line gets higher and higher.   While the use of water might seem gimmicky, I found it refreshing in many ways, including the end result of it seeming like the water cleansed the four characters and has now allowed them to move on with their lives.

So, if you're looking to see an A list Hollywood star in an exceptional play that includes some very interesting theatrical moments and four excellent performances, don't miss If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet which is playing Off Broadway through November 25th.

Official Show Site

Interviews with the cast and creative team:

Highlights from the show and opening night interviews:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

theatre review GRACE, Broadway, September 20

It's been a little over a week since we saw the new Broadway play Grace and I'm still confused as if I'm just not smart enough to understand exactly what point playwright Craig Wright was trying to make, if the points aren't clear enough or if Wright isn't actually trying to make a statement.  There are some really good performances and themes on display at the Cort Theatre so it's too bad that they don't all add up to something at least equal to the sum of their parts.  Or maybe I'm just not smart enough to get it.

"You can't go back" is a line or thought repeated throughout the play.  The four characters in Grace have all either had dramatic events happen to them in the past or are in the middle of them happening, so "going back," at least to a better time, is something they all probably wish they could do.  The fact that the first scene of the play as well as another pivotal one toward the end are played both forwards and backwards only touches upon that line.  And that first scene shows how three of the characters all end up dead with the rest of the play the events that led up to that fateful time.  So the play becomes an interesting character study as to how the characters get to that tragic end.

Paul Rudd is Steve, a fundamentalist Christian who has moved to Florida with his wife to open up what he hopes is the first in a chain of gospel themed hotels.  The theme of the hotels is "where would Jesus stay?"  It isn't his money that is being invested in the venture and the man who is investing isn't always easy to get in touch with and when weeks go by with no money coming through it only makes Steve more crazed as he sees his future literally collapsing in front of him.  Fortunately Steve has his faith and belief that this venture is what God would want that keeps him believing everything will work out ok.

Kate Arrington, Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon
 Michael Shannon is their neighbor Sam who has recently experienced a very tragic event, he was involved in a car accident that killed his girlfriend.  He has been scarred both physically and emotionally from the tragedy and the sudden death has made him into a non believer.  He is also a very smart person, a rocket scientist who works for NASA.  Steve's wife Sara, played by Kate Arrington, ends up befriending Sam since they are both home during the day with little to do.  Their friendship is an odd one at the start but soon evolves into one of many shared moments and emotional forth comings.

While Ed Asner is only in two scenes, his character, a pest exterminator named Karl who is working at the apartment complex, grew up in Germany and saw his share of tragedy as well.  The story he tells of a young Jewish woman who his family was hiding is riveting. 

Paul Rudd and Ed Asner

All four actors are giving well delivered performances.  There isn't one less so than the others and they all get turns at being comical as well as dramatic.  And while Rudd gets most of the humorous moments, especially sometimes a result of us laughing at the actions of the complete jerk of a character he is playing, he also has several dramatic ones too.  Shannon's first scene is a hilarious one where he is dealing with the tech support line for his computer program and getting bounced around and not liking the answers he is getting.  Later when he relives the horrific car accident that killed his girlfried, the theatre was silent as everyone was hanging on his every word.  While Arrington isn't given as many juicy moments to play as the others, she is in many ways the "witness" to the events that unfold around her and us and in that role balances the three other more volatile actors during the many confrontational moments and she does a fine job in doing so.  As I mentioned above, Asner is only in about 10 minutes of the play but he is hysterical and completely moving.

Dexter Bullard provides interesting direction throughout and the set design by Beowulf Boritt is especially inventive.  Since Steve and Sara and Sam live in two apartments in the same building, both which have the exact same floor plan, there is only one set that we see the three of them occupy, sometimes even simultaneously.  And while the apartment furniture is static it is set on a large revolving platform so during many key scenes the various characters will be seated at a table or on the couch but the set will slowly revolve so that we witness the events from various angels.

While the play is not exactly one that shows the struggle between good and evil, or one of faith and the verbal sparring between a believer and a non believer but more what happens between a man who believed he has lost everything and another who believed he has found the reason for his being.  How the reversal of those fates can quickly change is the thrust of the play.

Is it a black comedy or a tragedy?  It isn't a preachy play that grapples with faith or tries to be pro or con religion, though when most of the bad things happen to Rudd's character you have to believe that Wright is a little on the side of the non believer. 

Is Wright trying to say this is God's way or just the circumstances of misguided people, some of who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Obviously the term "fall from grace" comes to mind, especially with the upside down falling A in the artwork of the title to the show.  There are many themes tackled here - God's abandonment at a time of need, free will, science vs faith, the power of relying on your "beliefs" but again, I just didn't think they all came together to make the end result something meaningful.  Maybe the somewhat jarring and backwards played opening death scene is just so at odds with the more humorous moments that come later in the show that I think it might have actually worked better to have this scene play out in real time at the end of the play.  To me this would have been a complete shock and show just how far one can fall from "grace."

The show officially opens on Thursday.

Behind the scenes interviews: