Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Price of Thomas Scott--Prejudices vs. Convictions and Mint Theater Scores Again

 By Joseph Cervelli

Again the marvelous Mint Theater has taken an obscure play, this time Elizabeth Baker's 1918  "The Price of Thomas Scott," and revived it. This entertaining and reflective work first presented in Manchester, England, deals with prejudice vs. convictions. When does one end and the other take over.

The grown Scott children Annie (Emma Greer) and Leonard (Nick LaMedica) are excited that their father Thomas (Donald Corren) is going to sell his drapery shop which has not been doing great business. Annie who trims the hats that are also sold want to run off to Paris to perfect her art even though one of the lodger's, Johnny Tite (Andrew Fallaize), in their home (the action takes place in the back parlour of the business) feels she is the best trimmer in West London so why not stay. Of course, he also fancies her so that could be part of his compliment. Annie is an independent young woman whose goal is to go to Paris on her own and make her own way. It is always such a joy to find how far ahead so many of the young women in quite a few of the Mint productions are so emancipated. Especially giving the time period. Leonard is excited to know he will now have money for a scholarship to advance his career.

The problem in all of this is that Thomas is unsure about selling his shop to someone who wants to turn it into a dance hall which is going to serve liquor. It it was a Town Hall dance space that would be bad enough for the Puritanical father who finds even the theater shameful but a dance hall is even more shocking. It is quite interesting to draw a parallel between a man whose beliefs dictates how he behaves and is his money worth the price of his conscience. One immediately thinks about the bakers around the country over the past years who refused to create a cake for a gay wedding. If they don't believe in  gay marriage should they still be forced to lend out their services. Corren gives an excellent portrayal of a man who is unsure of his final decision. His face is full of self doubts and his interaction with his wife Ellen (Tracy Sallows) shows his dilemma. While Sallows is good ,Baker never makes her role very clear. There was one moment when Ellen appeared to be crying but Thomas never questioned her which would have added to the plotting of the play.

Annie's good friend May Rufford (Ayana Workman) is excited because her father George (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) gives his permission for her to attend aTown Hall dance which is more acceptable. While costume designer Hunter Kaczorowski has created charmingly effective dresses and suits for the men, May's dress for the dance was rather surprisingly bland and unappealing.

In a turn of events, Thomas is about to now sell when he believes that Wicksteed (Mitch Greenberg) who represents Courtney Company owns a clothing company and not a dance hall until he discovers the opposite is true.

I kept wondering why the new young Baptist minister a Mr. Finnimore who finds even Shakespeare offensive is mentioned several times but never a character in the play which would have added some interesting dialogue.

Vicki R. Davis's sets are on target though the right side of the parlour seems more sparse than I would have though it should have been.

Sprightly directed by Producing Artistic Director Jonathan Bank and well acted by all this new Mint production is as entertaining as you usually expect from the company.

Tickets are available at the Beckett Theater on Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.239.6200.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Very Own British Invasion--A Very American Mess

         By Joseph Cervelli,

The jukebox musical has hit a new low with the embarrassingly inept “My Very Own British Invasion” at the Paper Mill Playhouse. 

It is almost inconceivable that bookwriter Rick Elice who was co-writer for “Jersey Boys” has written such an abysmal show. While “The Cher Show” was not a masterpiece in writing, Elice did a far more convincing and interesting job with that one. 

The exhaustingly long two hours fifteen minutes chock full of about forty or so songs from the 60’s is great to listen to. But most are there just as a pastiche of the era and have little to do with the plotting and in those cases when it does it is almost laughable. 

The “My” in the title refers to singer Peter Noone from the famed group Herman’s Hermits. The musical is based on an idea by Noone. Not a really good idea and it is more than appropriate that the show is subtitled “A Musical Fable of Rock N’ Love.” “Gypsy” also called itself a “musical fable” but that had more authenticity for a major reason I will get to.  

The entire dead dull action takes place in an actual club (set by David Rockwell)  called  the Bag O’Nails in Soho, London, back in the 60’s. The first narrator and frequent singer Geno (a very good Kyle Taylor Parker) introduces us to the era by introducing to the Beatles as they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show played by four laughable actors who look or sound nothing like the original Fab Four. And remembering that monumental moment in television history Ringo played the drums as he always did. Not the guitar as done here. That is basically it for the group. You later see John (Brian Fenkart) in a brief moment but no further discussion of them. 

We then are introduced to our hero and second narrator Peter (Jonny Amies.) Amies is affable with a fine voice if a bit colorless in the lead role. But sadly he has little to work with and is put in some inane situations. I am still trying to forget the absurd scene in the car with the bartender/bouncer Hammer (Daniel Stewart Sherman). 

Peter is in love with the singer Pamela (a good Erika Olson) who is based on Marianne Faithful and she is in love with Trip (Conor Ryan) who himself is based on Mick Jagger. While Olson does resemble  Faithful, Ryan looks more like he belongs in a heavy metal band than one from the 60’s British onslaught of singers. Think Axl Rose not Jagger. While Ryan was excellent in the delightful “Desperate Measures” he is too cartoonish here. 

A rather awkward John Sanders portrays both the Beatles manager Brian Epstein for a brief moment and then Fallon who manages the bad boy Trip. Fallon is full of acronyms that are more fatuous than funny. Ok, first time amusing. Third or fourth enough.  To get Pamela away from Peter since she is beginning to have romantic feelings for the young man Fallon sends her to America. Of course, our hero rushes off to America to find his love. From coast to coast he tries to locate her. You might see him singing alone or with his band. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Peter to just have placed a call to someone in London and find out where she is.  Well, he does find her in New Orleans where she is strung out on drugs and alcohol.   As she is climbing the iron railings steps Geno breaks into the Animal’s “House of the Rising Sun.” Yes, that song takes place in the Crescent City, but very little in the lyrics have anything to do with that particular scene. But who cares? Get in as many numbers from The Hermits,  Steppenwolf, The Zombies, Dusty Springfield, Dave Clark Five, etc. as you possibly can. 

To the rescue he brings her back to London where she meets his mother a grating Jen Perry. Pamela plays the she  loves him she loves him not role because how can you resist Trip who literally drags her up (yep, those same steps only now back home) to his unseen bedroom. But wait! Suddenly, for no reason whatsoever--what was Elice thinking?--a symbol of a cross appears as do stained glass windows.  They are in church. Has the odious Trip repented? Has Pamela sworn off drugs? Does anyone really care for this insipid scene is thrown in for no specific reason as are  others. 

While Gregg Barnes costumes are on target and colorful, Jerry Mitchell’s direction becomes as monotonous as his repetitive and perfunctory choreography. 

Now, the fable aspect of this show. According to the notes in the press packet,  Noone states there was no “love triangle between the three” because he was sixteen years old at the time. So, guess this was all wishful thinking on his part because as he writes “I just wanted her.” 

Several songs were cut from the show including “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Perhaps, they thought best for it might have gotten some people thinking that was a good idea indeed.  

Tickets are available at the Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, N.J. or by calling 212.376.4343.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Light--Astonishing Performances in a Stunning New Play

          By Joseph Cervelli

You need to venture just a bit off the beaten path to see two of the most astonishing performances I have thus seen this season. Not since the superlative cast of “The Ferryman” have I witnessed such heart rendering performances as in Loy A. Webb’s  arresting and stunning new play  “The Light” at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theatre Space. Both actors McKinley Belcher III (“The Royale” Netflix’s “Ozark”) and Mandi Masden (“Saint Joan” “Jitney”) take the stage by storm. They both give such naturalistic performances that you have to reel yourself in and realize you are not watching a documentary but two actors portraying characters dealing  with their own relationship and African American issues.

There is a playful enough beginning with Rashad (Belcher III) supposedly cleaning the apartment he shares with his partner Genesis (Masden) in Chicago 2018.They both joke around and it is clearly evident that this couple who are now celebrating their second anniversary of being together  are madly in love with each other as they clearly exhibit how they feel. Rashid has a child from a prior relationship and is a firefighter who has enough discrimination on the job to deal with while Genesis is a principal at a black charter school.

The feisty Genesis informs Rashad in no uncertain terms that he has to eventually propose marriage which is exactly what he plans on doing this very evening and surprises her with an extravagantly expensive engagement ring and a ticket to a concert of her favorite singer Raitima that very evening.  The way he approaches this is immensely romantic and beautiful with a letter he wrote to her when they first met. 

Things suddenly turn slightly serious when Genesis informs him that she defends a white teacher’s Instagram posting that she supports the then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. While Genesis does not support the now Justice she feels the teacher has a right to express her feelings much to the anger of Rashad. 

But then the action turns upsetting for Genesis when Rashad announces that at the evening concert is a performance by singer Kashif who has done much in building up areas of Chicago for the black population. Genesis has a problem with the singer’s misogynous lyrics and reveals some very disturbing news about him to Rashad. Things then begin to spiral out of control where both begin arguing about the current plight of black women vs black men. Webb explores how secrets can bind yet ultimately divide even those madly in love. 

Under the sharp directorial eye of Logan Vaughn the performances soar in various directions. From the couple who seem inseparable exhibited by funny and loving moments we are now in the throes of their despair in dealing with what they begin saying to each other. Here is where Belcher III nearly tears your heart out as he realizes the love of his life may soon be a memory. He begins to walk around like someone had pulled the floor from under him. And Masden is equally devastating as she seems to find her world spinning in a free-fall. Can they ever take back what they said or come to some sort of a compromise on their beliefs?

I will leave you there as you find yourself truly caring about these two people and wanting to reach out to them. At the curtain call you will see how much this play has affected both actors. You will come out feeling as they do. 

Tickets are available at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space 511 West 52nd Street off of 10th Avenue or by calling 212.727.7722. 


Sunday, February 3, 2019

True West--Where is the Subtle Tension?

By Joseph Cervelli

The moment you see the superbly nefarious Ethan Hawke standing in the shadows of a kitchen opening a beer can with one hand, you know what this guy is all about. It is unfortunate that Hawke is the only real reason to see the revival of Sam Shepard’s blistering “True West”  at the American Airlines Theater. Well, blistering does not apply to this production. It comes across mostly lukewarm. Where is the tension buildup that should be prevalent in the first act? If you had seen the Philip Seymour Hoffman/John C. Reilly production back in 2000 you will know exactly what I mean. One big problem is the venue that has been chosen for this production. It is too large. “West” is an intimate show and to gather the full effect of the interaction of both brothers (the other is played by a miscast Paul Dano) you need a smaller one. It would also help if the director here being James MacDonald could ensure the tenseness from the onset but missing in this production. MacDonald almost plays a lot of it for laughs. True, the show does have its amount of funny moments but the dark humor is not presented dark enough. And the way the brothers begin to transform their personalities so that one ultimately becomes more like the other is never fully realized.

The play starts normally enough with Austin (Dano) housesitting in the California desert for his mother (MaryLouise Burke) who is in Alaska. Burke makes her usual daffy appearance during the play’s final moments. Austin is working on a script  to present to a Hollywood producer Saul (Gary Wilmes.) He describes it to his brother Lee (Hawke) who suddenly appears from living in the desert as a kind of period piece. While writing Hawke keeps interrupting him about borrowing his car most likely to do some robberies which he does returning with a television set. When he does return Saul is there and Lee pitches his own story of a western to Saul who seems interested much to the consternation of Austin.   It’s hard to believe that Lee plays golf but convinces Saul to meet him on the course which results in Saul’s forgetting about Austin’s idea. The first act is a slow moving one which runs even slower since MacDonald fails to create an atmosphere of uneasiness will burst wide open in the second act. 

The second act is pure physical virtuosity on both actor’s parts. They practically destroy their mother’s home and each other. Although the quiet Austin now is in charge and practically kills Lee. 

Shepard includes dialogue about their father which seems to go nowhere thanks to almost monotone delivery by Dano. Even the hilarious moment where Austin steals an array of neighborhood toasters falls flat. Dano is an otherwise fine actor and a first rate director as marked by his debut venture “Wildlife.“ For some reason the role just does not click for him. You need to believe that both Austin and Lee are brothers but not for one moment does that ring true. The interchanging of personalities just is touched on the periphery where is should delve much more deeply as the second act develops.  

Mimi Lien who is a very fine set designer (“The Great Comet”) yet for some reason the stage is raised much too high which furthers removing any kind of intimacy. As presented you almost have the feeling you are watching a film instead of a play. 

“True West” is produced quite a bit for good reasons but in its current incarnation sinks. 

Tickets are available at the American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street or by calling 211.719.1300.