Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Parisian Woman--Played With Icy Perfection by Uma Thurman

     By Joseph Cervelli

As the saying goes, power is truly a might aphrodisiac  What some people won’t go through to achieve it is sometimes quite amazing. Such is the case in Beau Willimon’s crisply written new play “The Parisian Woman” at the Hudson Theater with the title role played with icy perfection by Uma Thurman. Not only is the stately Thurman beautiful but as Chloe conveys this enigma which is evident in many of her films. Other characters remark how much her character is liked and one  can easily believe that. She seems to be laid back not trying to seek out any attention to herself in the midst of political maneuvering (play takes at the present time in D.C.) but only there to help her tax attorney husband  (Tom) convincingly played by the dashing Josh Lucas. But hold on a bit. This seemingly sweet and congenial lady will do what she can to get Tom a judgeship on the Court of Appeals. Tom has been working for many senators who owe him a lot for his keeping their less than stellar dealings from landing in jail. Yet, they  are not coming forth to influence President Trump (yep, he is  mentioned throughout and as you would expect not in flattering terms) to appoint him. Much of the dialogue is smartly written and quite witty although some of the typical Trump comments are worn. 

Chloe is having a fling (well, to her) with Peter (Marton Csokas) who is madly in love with her and wants her to leave Tom. It seems that Tom is aware of this but since Peter is quite a wealthy banker and contributed much to the President’s campaign his influence could help Tom’s chances to get this position. While Peter is amusing there is something a bit too cartoonish the way he is portrayed by Csokas. Pam MacKinnon (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) direction as usual is stinging and always on target yet not sure why she decided to turn Peter into such a goofy fellow. Even those moments when he acts in a venomous manner don’t come across as they should.  

Not convinced that Peter is the one to advance Tom’s chances, Chloe accepts a dinner party invitation with the equally wealthy and influential Jeannette (an excellent Blair Brown) who has been nominated for Chairperson of the Federal Reserve. While the couple don’t particularly care for  the sometimes caustic Jeannette she could be a bit help to Tom.. At the party we are introduced to their lovely and brilliant daughter Rebecca (played with heartfelt emotion by Phillipa Soo) a Democrat who just graduated from Harvard a the top of her class and wants to run for office after practicing law. Even though Jeannette does not succumb to Chloe's wishes that does not preclude the determined wife from doing what she can to help her husband. 

There is a turn of events later in the one act play which under MacKinnon’s director moves speedily along proving  that Chloe is far from being a “Stepford Wife.” She is shrewd and unfaltering in her determination. Again, this is Thurman’s show all the way. Watching her confront one of the character’s in the play’s pivotal moment I could not help thinking of what a wonderful Regina Giddens from “the Little Foxes” she would make in a few years time. Just listen when she tells the other person  to “sit down.” It is a command that jolts you since it comes from almost no where. This woman is not to be toyed with. The sobriquet “Parisian Woman” was deemed by Tom because Chloe spent a number of years in Paris where she fell madly in love with a fellow who eventually deceived her. 

Derek McLane’s decorous stage is a high point and notice  the way two characters come though two different openings when the LED board appears between scenes. Their expressions tell you that not all is what it appears to be. 

Yes, some of the play may feel manipulative and predictable but it is generally so well acted and Thurman (clothed exquisitely by the always superb Jane Greenwood) is thrilling in such a quiet way that you are drawn into this snappishly entertaining play. 

Tickets are available at the Hudson Theater 41 44th Street or by calling 855.801.5876.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Harry Clarke--An Intoxicating Solo Performance

By Joseph Cervelli

There is no “Harry Clarke.” The character who is the title of the play by David Cale at the Vineyard is a made up name by the very cunning and eerily scary Philip Brugglestein. Now, you ask who is.... Ok. Let me explain.  Or rather let Philip played by a brilliantly mesmerizing Billy Crudup explain. “Harry Clarke” may be a solo show but in the hands of expert director Leigh Silverman all the various characters that Harry or Philip (take your pick) speaks about comes vividly to life. Philip starts at the beginning as an eight year old boy living in South Bend, Indiana,  who as an inquisitive child is fascinated with British shows. So, he decides to speak constantly with an English accent. It infuriates his macho father who is bewildered by this, and Philip is bullied by his classmates. Why indeed would a child go around calling himself by another name feigning such an accent. A mere phase he is going through? Well, not exactly. 

Philip leaves for New York--no sense staying in the less than enticing South Bend--where he still has the accent although “Harry” does not reappear until he decides on a lark to stalk this man he sees on the street. Harry completely scraps his former self as he goes about following this man by the name of Mark Schmidt. Under the vivid and cinematic style direction of Silverman you could swear that there are more people on that stage than just Crudup. Yet, with the keen timing of both director and especially star he segues into the various people who come alive on the stage alternating between British and American accents. He eventually meets Mark again and they start a friendship finding himself astutely inching his way into this unsuspecting man’s life. If you are thinking of the film “The Talented Mr. Ripley” you would not be far off. Cale has artfully created not only a bewitching character but has made the situations which seem so far reaching very accessible. Here is a man without a job (he does sometimes work as a barista) and no money captivating a family who is quite wealthy. He does so by telling them that he represents the famous British singer Sade whom Mark’s mother adores. There is a very funny scene where Harry leaves a message supposedly on her voicemail. Without giving too much away for there are surprises along they way, you also meet Stephanie, Mark’s sister and hopeful singer. 

It is best for me not to go any further to spoil the delight you will have for this alluring show never quite sure where it is heading evident that Harry is heading into dangerous territory and then just when things seem to come to an end in the friendship he has with Mark there is a change and that concern reappears. 

As good as the storytelling and as vital the direction, this is Crudup’s show all the way. I was trying to go beyond his facade to find some vulnerability in his character. Was he mistreated as a child or was there some trauma in his life other than the death of his mother? But could not find any kind of instability in his family life. Is he mentally unstable or just a deviously clever young man who searches for things he knows he could never achieve on his own? What makes him both charming and somewhat frightening  is how at several times in the play he comes to the front of the stage with just a spotlight on him (evocative lighting by Alan C. Edwards) and a blank canvas on his face sharing some personal anecdotes.

There is a development near the end of the play which I must say I found a bit impractical. Try to overlook that factor for  this is still a very compelling work with a tour de force performance by Crudup.

Tickets at the Vineyard Theater 108 W. 15th Street or by calling 212.353.0303.


Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Band’s Visit--A Jewel of a Musical

By Joseph Cervelli

There is a lovely song from Liza Minelli’s first Broadway musical “Flora, The Red Menace” called “A Quiet Thing.” The lyrics speak about discovering that shining moment when all goes well. You don’t hear “exploding fireworks” or the “roaring of the crowd.” It is just basically a quiet moment in which you relish in the joy of what you have discovered.

Back in January I discovered that “quiet moment”  of joy in an off Broadway musical called   “The Band’s Visit” which has happily transferred to Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre.

The show is beautifully and carefully directed by David Cromer with a gorgeously evocative score (sounds even better the second time around) by David Yazbek (“The Full Monty” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”) As tuneful as his music is what really works are his thoughtful lyrics which play such a substantial part in Itamar Moses’ sweetly funny and touching book.

Tony Shalhoub gracefully portrays Tewfiq who is a colonel and conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who arrived from Egypt to the wrong Israeli town to play for the Arab Cultural Center. This mistake occurred  when one of the musicians the handsome lothario Haled (Ari’el Stachel) is more concerned with wooing the woman at the ticket counter with his usual opening line, “Do you know Chet Baker?” than  obtaining tickets to the correct Israeli city. 

They end up in the barren desert town of Bet Hatikva.  Right  at the start  you are introduced to the the townspeople singing “Waiting” which personifies their desire for some excitement to enter into their dull lives. And the musicians are just what they unknowingly need. 

The owner of the cafe is the beautiful Dina (a wonderfully glowing Katrina Lenk) who slowly develops an affection for Tewfiq who is recovering from his own personal tragedies. Dina’s husband has apparently run off and she loves a married man. She tells Tewfiq the first time she saw an Egyptian film and how seeing the actor Omar Sharif onscreen transported her from her mundane existence to a new world she will never visit in her actual life. Her rendition of the piercingly sublime “Omar Sharif” is sung flawlessly. Every lyric exemplifies exactly what this young woman feels. 

Two other musicians have dinner at a home of a local Israeli couple where they are welcomed warmly by the joyful husband Itzik (a delightful John Cariani) who later sings the radiant “Lullaby” to his newborn and father-in-law Avrum (Andrew Polk) who break into the rousing “The Beat of Your Heart” which symbolizes the connection all four men have despite their cultural and religious backgrounds. Only Itzik’s caustic wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) whose husband’s laid-back ways is upsetting to her finds little enjoyment with the two Egyptians until later in the show  in a very special moment. 

A  cheerful scene takes place in a roller rink when Haled coaches the introverted local young guy Papi (Etai Benson) in how to approach an equally shy young lady. 

Later in the play there is a splendid moment in which both Dina and Tewfiq  are sitting side by side in her apartment unsure of exactly what to say to each other despite their feelings of connection when Haled beautifully plays a few cords of “My Funny Valentine.” Close your eyes and you will think that the late great Chet Baker has taken to the stage. 

One of the locals who has almost no lines plays but makes an impact is simply known as the Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor) spends the entire play standing by a phone on the street waiting for a call from his sweetheart. He breaks into the eloquent “Answer Me” as he finally receives that call he has longed for. 

“The Band’s Visit” is a jewel of a small show with a heart of gold. The characters all show each other dignity and respect no matter what their backgrounds might be. It is heartbreaking that this kind of goodwill is not transported to what is going on in our current world. 

        Tickets are available at the Barrymore Theatre 243 West 47th Street or by calling 212.239.6200.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

M. Butterfly

By Joseph Cervelli

When “M. Butterfly” which is currently being revived in a choppy, oddly aloof production at the Cort Theater first opened about 30 years ago it was not only daring and provocative but enthralling in the way it was presented with two perfect performances by John Lithgow and B. D. Wong. 

A major  problem with this revival written and modified by playwright David Henry Hwang is that director Julie Taymor known for spectacles (“The Lion King”) seems to have difficulty in conveying those personal moments between the two leads here, Clive Owen and Jin Ha. Instead of an emotional impact which should be be coming forth from the stage there is a grounded rapture which sucks out the life from what should be a high powered show. 

While loosely based on a true story, we first meet Rene Gallimard who was a French diplomat stationed in Beijing now (1986) in a French prison convicted of treason. Owen is an exceptionally fine actor (try to see his underrated performance in the film “Croupier”) and here he still shines as someone coming to grips with his grave errors in judgments. He writhes around in the small cell with a lightbulb overhead going on and off adding to his agony. He is the narrator and while that works very well throughout the play, for some reason which wrongly takes you out of the story, Taymor has the two leads breaking the fourth wall addressing one another as to whether certain aspects should be included in the telling of the story. And to speak to the audience makes for nervous laughter on our part which only cracks the momentum of the play adding to the listlessness of this revival. 

Flashback to the 60’s where Gallimard meets an opera star Song Liling (Ha Jin) who performs the death scene from “Madame Butterfly”at an ambassador’s house. The diplomat is not aware that Liling is actually a man even though women were not allowed at that time to play such roles. Liling informs Gallimard about the racist attitudes that Westerner’s have  towards Asians not caring to understand their culture but to dominate them. While Gallimard is completely enchanted by the singer’s delicate and feminine looks and wiles, Jin appears to be more masculine looking than the role demands. It is hard to believe that the Frenchman would not wonder if indeed this was a woman. This is not to say that Jin does not act well for he most certainly does, but unless he is physically believable (even his voice appears deep) all is lost. The other problem is that (and this is not his fault) the way he speaks to Gallimard should be with a certain air of modesty and frailty while instead he appears to be too Westernized almost like a modern woman. To make matters worse, after a performance when the two walk through the streets of China with the singer wearing civilian clothing, Liling appears even more manly. 

As the play proceeds, we realize that she is a spy for the Chinese government  and is ordered by the leader of the Red Guard, Comrade Chin (superficially played by Celeste Den), to obtain secrets from Gallimard. All this leads to a sexual relationship between the two and still unbeknownst to Gallimard is her true gender. While both actors do play the scene of their first sexual encounter acceptably, under Taymor’s direction what should be sensitive and artful becomes languid and not quite believable. 

The scenes of the Chinese opera which are heavy on spectacle although the costume designs by Constance Hoffman are stunningly beautiful. What became  very distracting was the constant movement of the panels (beautifully designed by Paul Steinberg) which takes your attention from the action. Too bad that Taymor does not concentrate more on the written text than the pageantry. 

I don’t recall from the original if during the courtroom scene near the end of the play Liling who arrives dressed in man’s clothing explains how he accomplished his feat of deceiving Gallimard as he does here. 

The last scene that both men share in the jail cell is well played out especially by Owen who comes to grips with reality. It is the fantasy that has kept him surviving the harsh prison conditions and now even that is gone.

Sadly, the magic that Gallimard felt dissipates just as we feel the same about what should have been a far better production. 

Tickets are available at the Cort Theater 138 West 48th Street or by calling 212.239.6200.