Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Obsessing About This FALL By Beverly Creasey

Maybe it’s just me, but I spent a good deal of time at SpeakEasy Stage’s NEXT FALL (playing through Oct. 15th) trying to figure out details of the play – time I think I should have spent letting Geoffrey Nauffts’ script do its work.

Nauffts’ coy, little tragicomedy about the pitfalls of being both gay and fundamentalist Christian has a lot of mighty funny jokes to keep the audience laughing (jokes about emaciated yoga instructors, hairy gym teachers and people who name their children after spices) but jokes don’t necessarily move a story along…or develop “character.”

I tried my darndest to follow the story, which alternates between flashbacks of a romance strained by the compulsion to pray after sex, for one thing….and the hospital where parents, lover(s?) and friend(s?) now wait for news about the aforementioned, injured young man. Alas, I got hopelessly sidetracked wondering if the older woman (Amelia Broome) wringing her hands and babbling in one of those Jim Nabors southern accents* was the present wife or the ex-wife of the bellicose father (Robert Walsh).

And who the heck was the young man in the three piece suit clutching a Bible? Is it his? Is he just holding it for the mother? I never found out, by the by. I did keep finding holes in the story, though… which I thought clearly divided the Christians (mother, father and son) from the heathens (lover, friends). Maybe not. We do learn more much later about the Bible toting friend but not his religion, strangely enough. What we do learn (about his rug and his sexual preferences) doesn’t help at all. He’s only peripheral to the plot, anyway.

Nauffts basically sets up a La Cage Aux Folles tripwire: Will the Bible Belt Floridians find out their son (the charming Dan Roach) is (gasp) gay? Then Nauffts adds gravitas to the premise by excluding his lover (the wonderful Will McGarrahan) from any hospital decisions about his care. While I’m at it, how did the young man’s mother learn a key bit of information from the EMT who rode in her son’s ambulance? She was in Florida! This is New York City. The chances of locating the EMT are slim and none… Since I’m obsessing, why does Nauffts name-drop celebs like Richard Simmons and Paula Poundstone and then conceal Malcolm Forbes’ identity?

When my head wasn’t spinning, I did enjoy director Scott Edmiston’s playful give and take between Roach and McGarrahan and I liked Deb Martin’s marvelously acerbic friend/character but the parents were drawn as such caricatures that we really couldn’t see their suffering (until the lovely moment at play’s end when McGarrahan’s character comforts the father.) I liked the actors, like the director, too, but the play just didn’t do it for me.

* P.S. What’s with this predilection for channeling Jim Nabors’ Gomer Pyle voice whenever a southern accent is called for in a show? This is the second time in a month I’ve encountered that “gol-ly” screech. Nabors was funning. Southerners don’t really sound like that, do they?

Re: Above postscript. I stand corrected. I have it on the highest authority that real southern women indeed do speak like that, in a high sinusoidal cadence. Nevertheless, even if they do speak like that in real life, it's my opinion that on stage it comes across as caricature.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

To Rent or Not To Rent By Beverly Creasey

Going to New Rep last night has me thinking about rentals. When you rent a tux you don’t know who’s rented it before you. You hope it’s been freshened up. You can’t be sure of the fit and you may need alterations.

I do know who’s worn Jonathan Larson’s RENT most recently. In the last year alone I’ve seen three productions. Alas, the New Rep’s RENT (playing through Sept. 25th) needs some alterations before it can go to the prom. Perhaps it was opening night jitters but more than one or two singers were way off key. Maybe they couldn’t hear the orchestra (which sometimes happens when a show is rehearsed with only piano accompaniment until the orchestra arrives on opening night). Some of the performers weren’t sure of their lines either, and some weren’t sure of their staging.

Some, like Aimee Doherty and Robin Long, were cooking. Their “Take Me or Leave Me” was surefooted, righteous and intense. Cheryl D. Singleton, too got lots of laughs as a foulmouthed homeless woman asleep on a stoop, none too pleased at being disturbed. The wacky phone messages were delivered amusingly but “urgency” was sorely missing from the main stage.

And what’s up with the nudity? Director Benjamin Evett evidently wanted something fresh in his rental but there was no dramatic reason (or effect that I could see). Perhaps he was trying for the soul’s transcendence at death??? Angel becoming an angel??? (Most artistic renderings of angels, though, aren’t nude, are they?). If the reason were clear, it might have been acceptable instead of awkward and embarrassing and just plain bizarre.

Back to the tux. You’d prefer the wrinkles to be already ironed out. Same with theater. Maybe they will be by the time the legions of RENT fans buy their tickets. C’est la vie or, rather c’est la Vie Boheme.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A River Runs Through My Thoughts By Beverly Creasey

I’m of two minds about the Lyric Stage Company’s ambitious BIG RIVER (playing through Oct. 8th). Two big performances make it soar. De’Lon Grant and Jordan Ahnquist as Jim and Huckleberry Finn lift the musical out of its one dimensional moorings into transcendent territory. They’re sheer pleasure to watch.

But I’m afraid some of the staging (especially in Act I) serves to keep the musical earthbound. Huck and Jim are fully realized characters so why aren’t the rest of the people in their world? Now I know Mark Twain invented plenty of peripheral characters (and plenty of mischief) but the stage production looses something by embracing full blown parody. The Lyric presents Huck’s back story as caricature, making his caretakers, father and friends stock tropes (and shrill ones at that, as if Jim Nabors had been channeled for his famous “gol-ly” Southern accent).

Since the William Hauptman/Roger Miller musical already has two vaudevillians (who arrive one hour in), it seems to me dramatically detrimental to treat the early scenes as vaudeville. Act II, happily, offers more naturalistic characterizations (except for a Gomer Pylized Tom Sawyer). With real characters like Leigh Barrett’s sympathetic Aunt Sally and John Costa’s principled doctor, the whole story is fleshed out … and compelling. Take Nicholas Lee’s delicious cameo, singing “Arkansas.” He’s so sincere that we’re delighted. We’re not laughing at crass histrionics. We’re laughing at his innocence. Besides, Peter A. Carey niftily delivers all the buffoonery the play needs, spouting his slaughtered Shakespeare.

Miller’s lovely country music is at its best in anthems about the river. Jim and Huck’s glorious “Muddy Water” is even surpassed by the stirring “River in the Rain.” Music director Jonathan Goldberg makes every number count. Pity we couldn’t see the musicians who had us tapping our shoes.

Twain invented his famous “escape” story to soften the hearts of anti-Abolitionists so the issue of slavery is experienced mostly through Huck’s white eyes. We see other slaves as Huck and Jim drift down river but we don’t encounter them as characters, which is my problem with the musical. Director Spiro Veloudos has wonderful performers like Kami Rushell Smith and Nellanna in the cast and they’re only called upon to sing or march about in shackles.

I can’t help cringing, too, at the story of a black man at the mercy, and salvation, of whites. Granted the adapters were stuck with the original story but I can’t watch it without thinking of the countless spurious plays and films with just that plotline. And I recall the not too distant past when the only parts for black actors were maids, pimps, prostitutes and slaves. (Not at the Lyric Stage, I should point out. Look for their AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ later this season.) However, the big Hollywood buzz this fall is about the maids in THE HELP. Here we go again.