Friday, March 31, 2017

How to Transcend a Happy Marriage

By Joseph Cervelli

According to the dictionary,  “transcend” means to go beyond the limits. In Sarah Ruhl’s bewildering new play “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage”  at the Mitzi Newhouse the two couples we are introduced to most definitely take that extra step. 

Ruhl is an adventurous, versatile and imaginative playwright as witnessed by two of her far superior plays “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” The first thing you notice as you enter the theater is a carcass of what appears to be a deer hanging over the living room in Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael’s (Brian Hutchison) house.  A kind of avant garde art piece? Not quite. As soon as the play begins it is taken down and carted over the shoulder of one of the play’s characters. Food and sex take up a good deal of this play along with some surreal situations that occur in the bizarre second act.

Along with Jane and Michael are their best friends George (Marisa Tomei) and Paul (Omar Metwally) dining on cheese and wine. Jane starts to speak about the unusual temp (Lena Hall) in her office whom we later find out has three names Pip/Deborah/Diane.  She lives in a polyamorous relationship with two men David (Austin Smith) and Freddie (David McElwee).  Jane goes on to tell them that the temp will only eat fresh meat of an animal she has killed whether running wild or in capture.  You certainly  won’t find her at the local butcher. But what perks the interest of the two couples is the type of  relationship she is in. Questions are asked about her right from the onset and you know these four otherwise typical married people find this situation  more than a little inviting. So, Jane decides to Pip (as she is known to her two partners) and her two companions over for New Year’s Eve. 

First, Ruhl introduces the two young men. Freddie is a mathematician and we get to hear some less than stirring commentaries on the Pythagorean theory. While David who graduated from Harvard happily points out that he really does nothing. He serves some hash brownies for the couples which get them in the mood. Pip gets things going with her intensely sexual rendition of the classic “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” I don’t think I can ever hear that song again without thinking of Pip’s sensual gyrations. As you can easily figure out, group sex will be on the menu.  While fully clothed they all become entangled with each other.  Well, let’s say they are all dressed until Michael and Jane’s teen daughter Jenna (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) arrives home early and sees her mother naked. Not exactly what a teen desires to witness. 

The second act plays out almost like another play entirely. George and Pip are hunting in the woods for deer when quite accidentally George shoots a dog and both she and Pip are put in jail. Although George is released, I won’t divulge what happens to Pip. Not that you might exactly believe it. Things in both households are in a turmoil. George and Paul’s home is hounded by animal rights activists and Jenna refuses to come home after witnessing what occurred.  It seems that what transpired in the first act is not all that accurate. What really happened and what George thought she was part of were quite different. It all is a bit of conjecture and a tease on Ruhl’s part. 

Even under Rebecca Taichman’s speedy direction and with very fine performances by all the actors--most especially Tomei and Hall--the play remains as elusive as Pip’s character. Is the metamorphosis in sexual mores that both couples go through helpful in dealing with life and raising children? Was there an instability and inadequacy in their marriages that needed further exploring? Is the symbol of eating animals that one kills a kind of cannibalistic pleasure? 

While the play is never boring there is a peculiarity to it that leaves you as an observer finding yourself pondering less than the playwright’s intentions. 

Tickets are available at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater 150 West 65th Street (Lincoln Center) or by calling 212.239.6200. The limited engagement as of this date is May 7.


Friday, March 17, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

      By Joseph Cervelli

The best production of Tennessee William’s masterpiece “The Glass Menagerie” that I have seen is the off Broadway one  from 2010 starring Judith Ivey as Amanda Wingfield and an incredible Patch Darragh as her son Tom who was the most realistic stand in for the playwright. A few years back there was a very good though slightly overrated revival starring Cherry Jones. So, why bring back another so soon?

Well, the current one playing a limited engagement at the Belasco Theater is a stunningly original one unlike any you have probably seen before and among the most effective. While all other productions  have been faithful to the play in every way this new one under the direction of the wildly imaginative director Sam Gold (“Othello”) is unforgettable. Yes, you do need to suspend your beliefs about of all “Menageries” you have seen and  it is easy to do that when Joe Mantello (Tom) informs you right from the start that “the scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic.” Right there, you know that Gold approach is to paraphrase Tom’s famous line from the play, “tricks up in his pocket and things up his sleeve.”

The first thing you notice that  may startle you is that except for a kitchen table with some chairs and a cart with candles, a typewriter, etc. all props used in the play there is no other scenery. The back of the theater is shown prominently. When the actors enter the house lights fully on. Amanda (a memorable Sally Field)  is pushing her daughter Laura (Madison Ferris) in a wheelchair. No longer does the character appear to have just a slight limp for Ferris herself has muscular dystrophy. So, when the overbearing Amanda played with more of a hard edged attitude than I have seen beforeinforms her she only has a slight defect you might find yourself unintentionally laughing. But, we must remember as Tom strongly informs us that this is a memory play. The time period of the play  now is indeterminate. Originally it was 1937. While Mantello looks older than Fields or even his classmate Jim, the gentleman caller, (Finn Wittrock)  that works because many years have gone by. 

There is no photo of their dad (as in prior productions)  who left the family years ago but again it becomes a blank in the mind of Tom. 

With his cigarette almost constantly in his hands throughout the beginning of the play Tom indeed seems to be like a writer from that time period. Trying to write but hampered by his harridan of a mother Tom tries to show as much restraint towards her as possible but it is  not always easy. Mantello encompasses his character with annoyance toward his mother while his affection for his sister (watch as he massages her legs while Amanda is busy trying to see magazine subscriptions) is so beautifully realized. 

As Jim the handsome Wittrock is fully animated even more so than other gentleman callers but it works fine again probably in Tom’s mind he was there to bring some needed cheer to a household filled with solemnity. When he crashes into one of Laura’s most prized crystal figures the unicorn it still creates a stab to your heart. 

Gold has put an extra emphasis on Laura’s disability as she is walking on all fours trying to get to her wheelchair. You might find yourself thinking how indeed does she get around the city going to museums or movies when she was supposed to be at a business school. But again, we are seeing the family through Tom’s eyes. How much is actually real and how much is part of what he has remembered is up for conjecture. Ferris also gives very different interpretation of Laura than any other I have seen. Most emphasize the shy quality and kowtow to Amanda, but Ferris is much more emotionally fierce looking at her mother with a kind of disdain. What an original touch on Gold’s part.

All other Amanda’s were fading belles trying to recreate their youthful days going to parties and having their own gentleman callers.  But Field gives a more powerfully raw performance. Even when she is trying to charm Jim at the dinner she has prepared, that genteel manner is forced for that is not what she is really like. You feel the anger of abandonment of her husband and a loss of control on her part as Tom starts to seethe with frustration. 

If you let yourself get into a new frame of mind with this incredibly unusual production you will probably even begin to hear dialogue that you might not have heard before and find this one of the most heartbreaking productions you have encountered of what is arguably Williams’ finest play. 

Tickets are available at the Belasco Theater 111 West 44th Street or by calling 212.239.6200. The limited engagement ends July 2.


Thursday, March 9, 2017


By Joseph Cervelli

As brilliantly portrayed by Janie Dee in the starring role, Penelope Skinner’s powerfully observant British play “Linda” presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center is among the best of the season, thus far. 

Linda seems to have it all. A fifty five year old very attractive woman who can still fit into her dress from years ago with a great high powered job in marketing, a good marriage and two very bright young girls. Then everything comes crashing down. Is any of this Linda’s fault or is being in a man’s world both professionally and personally something that has cause her fall? 

Linda comes onto the stage in full throttle promoting a new anti-aging cream from Swan the company she works for. While so many companies are pushing such creams for younger women,she wants to gear it for the older woman 50’s and beyond. Hey, there are more women out there than “Helen Mirren” as she humorously puts it. 

Her boss, Dave (John C. Vennema) who it is intimated briefly has made some sexual overtures towards Linda does not feel the same way about her campaign for this product. He wants it pushed to the younger set and hires twenty five year old Amy (Molly Griggs) to handle the campaign. Young must mean better, right? The deceptive Amy seems heaps praise upon Linda,  but it is not too long before you know how much she deigns to undermine this older woman. 

Work is far from Linda’s only problem. She has a luxurious house (perfect turntable design by Walt Spangler) which she likes to say on occasion that she herself bought. Her husband, Neil (a fine Donald Sage Mackay) is a teacher managing a rock band and she discovers has been having an affair with the much younger lead singer Stevie (Meghann Fahy). Her oldest daughter Alice (Jennifer Ikeda) goes through the days not leaving the house and always wearing a skunk pajama onesie. We find out that some students at her university posted sexual photos of her when Alice was with her ex. Embarrassed she feels only staying at home is her safe haven. Linda seems to have lost patience with her daughter and decides to eventually have her fill in as an intern at her company. Why she still is wearing that onesie under her clothes at work may not make sense until it is revealed which is quite distressing. Linda’s other younger daughter, Bridget (Molly Ranson) is auditioning for a school acting part and wants to portray one of Shakespeare's male characters.

There is a great deal going on in this play but what makes it so accomplished a work is that everything makes complete sense and blends in perfectly. Linda may feel that she is being squeezed by a steel glove from all aspects of her life, but we begin to see aspects about her that are disheartening. While it is easy to understand her plight at work being circumvented by a younger less experienced woman, there are things that occurred with her family that are upsetting.  Alice believes that her mother feels if she never posed for such revealing photos they would never have been posted. Soon Linda discovers this can happen to any woman.  While she indeed worked hard for all the material things in her life her constant reminder to her husband about “her house” becomes demeaning to him. 

The performances are all beautifully self assured and blend together succinctly. Besides Dee who is piercingly sharp in her portrayal, I especially liked the comic edged  and heartbreaking performance by Ikeda 

One always has the hope of being totally drawn into a new play and “Linda” easily captures that. 

Tickets are available at the Manhattan Theater Club at City Center 131 West 55th Street or by calling 212.581.1212. As of this date the limited engagement ends April 2. 


Saturday, March 4, 2017

SIGNIFICANT OTHER--A Significant Improvement Over the Off Broadway Run

By Joseph Cervelli

Exactly what happened? I must say I was quite taken back  after seeing the Broadway transfer to the Booth Theater  of Joshua Harmon’s  “Significant Other”. While others found the play funny and touching heaping praise upon lead actor Gideon Glick, I found his 29 year old character Jordan Berman whiny, annoying and intolerable. It struck me incomprehensible that Jordan who is gay would someday every find anyone because of his attitude. 

Well, wipe that slate clean. The show appears to be the same--snappy dialogue and some very hilarious turns by two of the three female leads along with a delightful performance by Barbara Barrie reprising the role of Jordan’s grandmother who is suffering what from  appears to be the early stages of dementia. But the big change is that Glick seemed to have toned down the irritating characteristics of Jordan. I now felt  deeply for this young man whose immaturity seems to be one obstacle in hampering him to find the right guy. Even some of his antics which were originally  grating are now quite charming. It appears that Glick has delved deeper into Jordan along with might be the great help of director Trip Cullman. On the first go of seeing the show I did not think there was any way for this young man in finding someone. But by the play’s end my feelings were changed. There certainly is a guy out there for him.

Jordan’s three female friends help him to find solace from not having a guy in his life. They party at the local club and the women look to him as their little brother or “sister”. The problem is that while he is having no luck finding anyone they are on their way to getting married. Of course, he does himself no good fixating on his hunky co-worker Will (John Behlmann) whom he invites to the movies. Problem is he does not even know if Will is actually gay. The scene where Jordan is unsure in sending him a ridiculously lengthy email or not which was rather over the top first go is now precious. 
Sas Goldberg is a complete hoot as Kiki the sweetly crude friend who is the first to get married. Rebecca Naomi Jones is excellent as the second more steady young woman who is on her way to matrimony. But the one that has a more upsetting affect upon Jordan is his closest friend Laura played by the superb Lindsay Mendez. She is caring and loving towards him and her upcoming vows have a severely detrimental effect upon him.  

My feelings about the show changed even more so during their explosive fight when he rips into her for not thinking enough about him. His temper tantrums in the prior production were obnoxious and you felt little sympathy for him . But now his brittle turn is tinged with a kind of fragile quality that was missing.  In turn, Laura’s  rebuttal of his diatribe now rings more effectively now. It is a balanced exchange and Mendez especially pulls it off beautifully. Even though these are about young people today, those of all ages whether gay or straight can feel left out while their friends are finding that special person while they have not. 

From not feeling much towards the play last season, I must say I was completely taken with every moment of this production.  

Tickets are available at the Booth Theater 222 West 45th Street or by calling 212.239.6200.