Archives 'Performance'

22 November
ibrews

A

 

First, a little back-story.
 
As you’ll see by looking at my Theatre Scores,  I’ve actually already seen No Man’s Land. It was London in 2008, and is 1 of only 3 productions I’ve ever given an A+ to. Why? It made me feel things I’ve never felt before, most notably among them: menace levied by dark humor. The wind and release of tension was so masterful that by the end of the show I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh about the whole thing or curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep.
 
The imposing stature and unpredictable nature of Michael Gambon’s Hirst paired with the no-nonsense-fuck-you-ery of David Walliams and Nick Dunning’s performances set against the uncomfortable and squirming nature of David Bradley as Spooner put me in a thoroughly nauseated state– the best kind of nauseated state.
 
During the show I was convinced that at any moment someone was about to die (oh that menace!); I hung on every word said by every character, convinced it could be the last word they ever said before either killing someone, or being killed themselves.  The sense of displacement, of failure, of hopelessness was all so very tangible. So very real. I’ve thought about that production often in the five years since– a true reminder of the power of theater, done right.
 
So as you can imagine, I was thrilled to see that the show was being done again in NYC, this time with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, my very favoritest old people best friends. Always aware that I am currently young and not-yet encumbered by countless children, I decided to organize a posse and make a go at rush tickets. Based on my Death of a Salesman experience, I knew this would require waking up at an ungodly hour on a day I’d usually be catching up on sleep, but to get $200 tickets for $30 kind of makes it all worth it– plus this time I’d have friends! And– once I actually saw the rush policy, it seemed too good to be true: No Man’s Land was being performed in repertory with Waiting for Godot (same cast), and if we got rush tickets on a day when one show was the matinee and other was the evening show, we could buy 1 rush ticket to each show! And if that wasn’t excellent enough, I then also learned that the entire front row of the theater was being reserved for rush ticket holders. WHAT?!
 
Saturday November 16th, we ventured to the Cort theater at about 6:30 AM to find one person already in line, a young aspiring actor named Ned who at 1 AM had driven all the way from Ithaca, so joyoused by the notion of seeing this. We made him feel good about his timing since he had only arrived 20 minutes before us, and we felt good about our timing, since by 7 AM a large group arrived behind us. From there on the line just kept swelling. We had a jolly morning telling stories of the type you only tell when you’re mentally exhausted, watching a live taping of the real Fox and Friends, not-being-bombarded-by-street-construction (Death of a Salesman experience) and  and by the time the box office opened at 10 AM the line was insanely long. At 9:50 AM, a young man and woman arrived in a private car, presumably thinking that 10 minutes was enough leeway to guarantee them rush tickets, then quickly made a spectacle out of their clear hatred for the situation (and by extension, each other), eventually storming off in opposite directions.
 
So we got our tickets and it worked out great– front row center to both shows. However, we realized all too late that our new friend Ned actually only bought 1 ticket when he could have bought 2 (he needed to drive back to Ithaca after the matinee show). Dammit! We could have asked him to buy his second ticket on our behalf so we could get another friend into a show. Oh well– we told ourselves that hopefully the final person who gets a ticket thanks to our non-greediness will be enormously thrilled by their good fortune (I imagined a Tiny Tim-esque boychild leaping in glee while supporting himself on his tiny wooden crutch). The reality turned out to be almost that good– our friend Alex Graham arrived at 8:15 AM, uncertain if he would be able to get a ticket since the line was already pretty long at that point. We told him to stick around– he might get lucky. You’re probably ahead of me at this point but you’re right– he got the last ticket. Oh happy day! His seat was up in one of the $220 premium boxes, and he was grinning ear to ear through the entire performance of Waiting for Godot.
 
With our tickets in hand, we had to find a way to pass the time until the first performance at 2 PM (No Man’s Land) so we went up to Dan’s and worked on board game stuff while Liz slept. Grabbed a wonderful bite at a diner, then ventured into the first show praying that we wouldn’t fall asleep. Goodness gracious, our seats were pressed up right against the front of the stage! How cool.
 
After the first show, we visited the Nintendo Store at Rockefeller Plaza, then found an empty cafeteria place that had horrible food but space and quiet to play Yomi and Rivals for Catan until the 8 PM show started. And yeah! That was… well, you’ll see in my mini-review.
 
Ahem.
 
So just kidding, that was a lot of backstory.
 
Last note before my show-thoughts. I considered reviewing these two productions separately, but by seeing them both in one day, one after the other, they’re inextricably linked in my mind. The shows also had so much in common, from the fallacy of memory, to the nature of reality, to the absurd nature of several of the characters, that is just seems natural to discuss the two in tandem.
 
Here we go.
 
—————————————————-

Hoo-rah!

  • All four leads shined in their dual casting. More than anything, I was blown away by the deliberateness of the movement of each actor. I think of Ian McKellen breaking my heart in a moment in No Man’s Land when he reaches toward Hirst after being accused of never helping him. I think of Billy Crudup’s disturbingly vivid portrayal of Lucky in Waiting for Godot, even more heart-wrenching after seeing his Jude Law in Sleuth-evoking performance as Foster. True masters of their craft.
  • The set design was gorgeous, drawing parallels between the shows with a sense of decay, peeling, and looming elements while also detailing their differences– the stark, barren wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Waiting for Godot versus the decadent yet suffocating world of Hirst’s living room in No Man’s Land.
  • I’d never seen Waiting for Godot, and while I consider it to be a little more light-hearted and absurd than No Man’s Land, it is fun to speculate on the world in which it lives. The obvious answer seems to be ‘after the rapture’, full of language like ‘then we’ll be saved’ and even images like Ian McKellen’s empty shoes front and center at the end of Act 1. However, the play reminded me most strongly of the days I’ve spent waiting for a repairman to arrive at my apartment, never to show. Seriously– it captured that frustration and awkward ‘how do we pass the time’ sensation perfectly. Ah, the beauty of interpretation. Also, although No Man’s Land as a whole hits me deeper in the core of my being, I’ll likely be having nightmares about Pozzo and Lucky for the next few weeks.
  • The writing in general is top notch– both shows lend themselves to either washing over you, or line-by-line scrutiny depending on how you want to take it in.
  • Loved the way the shows talked to each other– I had to convince people it was all in the script! My favorite moments:  1) In No Man’s Land, as though commenting on Waiting for Godot: “Can you imagine the two of us gabbing away like I am? It would be intolerable.” 2) In Waiting for Godot, as though referencing Ian McKellen’s part in No Man’s Land: “Don’t I look like a poet?” 3) Finally, Ian McKellen seemingly commenting on his film roles when he says in Waiting for Godot: “I’ve always compared myself to Christ.”
  • Music and sound cues were spare in both shows but struck just the right mood.
  • The comic timing of these guys is impeccable. Any one of them could do stand-up comedy.

 

Blech…

  • As great actors as Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are, there’s just no hiding what great friends they are. In Waiting for Godot, this is an asset. In No Man’s Land, it removes much of the menace of the show.
  • A giant gob of Ian McKellen spit on Lucky’s hat was super distracting. Also the fact that we could see Ian McKellen’s injured leg before he actually received the injury.
  • I think a case could be made that both shows were played just a little too much for laughs, removing some potentially potent dramatic energy. Honestly, both these shows are still sitting with me, and I’ll likely continue to update this review as I see fit.

 

Tales from After the Show…

  • Normally I’d hang out at the stagedoor after a show to enjoy seeing an actor out of character interacting the a mass of fans, but we were all so very tired by 11 PM that we skipped all that. Too bad… I had a small glimmer of hope that, video camera in hand, I might be able to get Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart to read the audition lines for the casting call for the 17-year old leads of Star Wars Episode VII. You know that would’ve gone viral.

2 November
ibrews

A-

 

Hoo-rah!

  • Matthew Bourne is always fantastic– no exception here.
  • Wonderful adaptation of the classic tale– he pulls the best plot beats from the various adaptations we’re familiar with, and even. How do we make Aurora’s true love stay alive long enough to be with her when she wakes? Vampirism! Why not?
  • Loved how when we see the ‘predicted future’ presented to the king and queen, Aurora and her true love where masks that make them faceless, signifying that they are not yet real people.
  • Love the casting of Carabosse (Maleficent in the Disney version) as a guy, still in high heels, towering and terrifying. Then to also have the same actor/dancer playing her avenging, don-juan-esque son was perfect.
  • Costumes were gorgeous. Excellent balance between the fanciful mystique of the fairy world and the period piece nature of the first half of the tale. Always the right flow to accentuate that character’s movements.
  • Clearly that last bullet point was dictated to me by Liz. Here’s another: the dancer who played the good fairy was a standout– his movements were alternatively strong, elegant, and ethereal all in the service of his character.
  • Forced perspective set design was perfect. Particularly loved the veranda… looking up at the ‘only a model‘ palace with a dramatic sunset behind it. Sublime.
  • 100 year jump forward was a wonderful idea, and the costumes (mostly hooded-sweatshirts and jeans) provided ripe opportunities for dance styles that would have been near-impossible in the period piece outfits.
  • The killing of Carabosse by the good fairy (spoiler alert!) is excellently done. Catharsis!

Blech…

  • Too much baby. I get it– it’s a cute puppet, but 20 minutes of it were more than enough.
  • Music not as memorable as the Swan Lake or Dorian Gray productions.
  • A critique of the City Center venue : Liz and I were seated in the mezzanine in seats A1 and A2. Those sound like good seats, right? We were close to the stage, and would have had a great view, if not for the inexplicable extra depth in our row which placed the heads of those seated in front of us squarely in our view of about 40% of the stage. Add a jittery, and you have yourself a lot of breaks in your suspense of disbelief.

 

Random Fun Fact:

  • Stephen Fry was there! I walked right by him! He was rocking his Twelfth Night goatee! Awesome.

12 October
ibrews

B

 

Hoo-rah!

  • Well-written script by Bruce Norris– compelling story that never felt too spoon-fed, and all very real characters who reminded Liz and I of actual people in our lives.
  • Appreciated the balance of the slightly absurd theatrical elements with grounded, true-to-life depictions.
  • The show moves swiftly with excellent pacing– all scene and set changes happened while the action continued, and characters would move from one scene to the next without missing a beat. This was used to great comedic effect in a scene where the wife (fabulously played by Laurie Metcalf) tells her lawyer there’s no way they’re going to become the kind of people who talk to a therapist, and literally a second later they’re sitting down talking to a therapist. I believe Bruce Norris/Anna Shapiro (the director) have mastered the theatrical smash-cut.
  • ‘Theater in the round’ style of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre felt intimate, and the blocking was such that you never had more than one character facing away from you.
  • Ian Malcolm– the later years! Jeff Goldblum was an excellent choice for a philandering, unfaithful, selfish prick who could still entertain and hold your interest.
  • Loved the Cambodian daughter never speaking to her family, but continually giving a school presentation throughout the show that progressed into further and further humiliation for various male species of animal.

Blech…

  • There’s definitely a better title for this show than ‘Domesticated.’ Maybe they were playing off the whole domesticated animal thing in addition to the family dynamic, but when I hear a show is called ‘Domesticated’, I imagine a somewhat inane, low-stakes family drama. This wanted to be called something grander, perhaps ‘The Descent of Man’ or ’Humiliated Male Species 101.’
  • As much as I like the idea of it, I don’t really buy that Bill (Jeff Goldblum) would stay quiet through the almost the entire first act of the show. He clearly loves the sound of his own voice, and as we learned later, wasn’t really ashamed of his actions, so the notion that he would allow a constant barrage of verbal abuse without speaking up rang untrue.
  • While the ensemble casting was certainly efficient (7 performers covered about 20 characters), it definitely caused confusion. A couple of the more bothersome double-takes: the actress who played the wife’s lawyer also played her best friend, and the actress who played the defending lawyer of an injured prostitute and her mother also played an Oprah-esque talk-show host who interviewed them. Costumes/hair-styles/demeanor– not sure what or how, but more certainly could have been done to distinguish some of these parts.
  • One of the actresses took me out of the moment a number of times: she spoke far louder than the other performers, and never really disappeared into any of the five roles she was playing.
  • Jeff Goldblum has a strange physicality when he plays heightened emotions. He bangs on things over-dramatically, makes big gestures, and swings his whole body– it struck me as unnatural, but maybe I just haven’t seen enough tall, lanky people get angry.

 

Fun Facts:

Jeff Golblum plays a guy who can’t stand to be monogamous with his wife, and keeps going after younger people. In real life, Jeff Goldblum was married and divorced twice, then has dated on and off with numerous people for the past 23 years. His current girlfriend is half his age.

 

Laurie Metcalf plays Jeff Goldblum’s wife and the mother of their two children. She is sickened by her husband’s actions and can’t stand the sight of him anymore. In real life, she recently filed for divorce after a nearly 20 year marriage, also with two children.

 


10 September
ibrews

B

One of the ways I measure the merit of a play is by how much discussion it generates afterward; my gut reaction after the show ended was B-, but because of how much mileage my wife and I got out of talking about it, I’ve bumped it up!

 

Hoo-rah!

  • Great acting on all fronts. Maretz as Wool pulled off the ‘highly-literate sports star’ swagger extremely well, and Gabriel Wright as his best friend Jason made a huge impression with his short time on stage.
  • I liked the simplicity of the ‘moment of crisis’ that set the play going– simple and compelling.
  • Liz liked the writing… so I’ll put that here.
  • Set design was thoroughly serviceable, which I far prefer over flashy, takes-forever-to-do-a-set-change stuff
  • Loved the radio broadcasts charting Henry Wool’s career that played during set changes. What a cool counterpoint to have the rise of his career play off the fall of it.

Blech…

  • Simple rule of playwriting that I am yet to feel exception for: NEVER make your second act longer than your first. The first act was well-paced and wrapped up a little under an hour. The second act, however, was nearly an hour and a half. This meant I organically felt the show was constantly about to end for the last three or four scenes.
  • The play did feel simply too long. Not that there are scenes I would have cut out or anything– I just think there was too much story to be told for one play. Divide it up into two plays, and make them companion pieces like reasons to be pretty and reasons to be happy! One of the plays could have focused on the reporter trying to get a story then ultimately deciding not to run it for fear of ruining Wool’s life. The second play could focus much more on Wool and all of his interpersonal conflicts between his dad and girlfriend and agent and ‘new rising star kid’, which basically felt like Friday Night Lights-lite.
  • The characters and their means of conflict resolution felt too similar across the board: sarcasm and yelling a lot. I initially blamed this on the writing, but Liz thinks it was a fault of the directing– a lot of the ‘loud’ moments could have been played much quieter with even greater impact.
  • Didn’t like the ending. To start, I think talking ghosts are rarely if ever well done, and it seemed to be a strange choice to have the play devote so much energy at the last minute to the father son relationship, which until that point felt like a B or C plot.

 


31 May
ibrews

A-

A quick word: I’ve never liked Neil LaBute. I fell asleep during The Mercy Seat, found Fat Pig funny but lacking in substance, and The Break of Noon was one of the most worthless experiences I’ve ever had at the theatre. I was ready to give up, but I’m glad I didn’t.

 

Hoo-rah!

  • A well-crafted play with a sense of dialogue and pacing that’s been worked over, refined, and reworked to the point where it achieves a remarkable level of honesty.
  • Perfect set design: one very detailed sliding set (the break room of a factory), and simple benches and props to evoke the additional scenes.
  • The four characters were previously seen in ‘reasons to be pretty’, taking place a few years earlier, but this truly is a standalone companion piece. I would love to see the older show, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything important. Ultimately I think LaBute benefited from building on characters he already had a strong grasp on.
  • It was revealed in the talkback (see below), that the first play focused on Greg’s journey, whereas this play brought a gratifying arc to each of the four characters. Greg was my least favorite character, so I’m glad we were given this 2 hours with each character going on an organic journey with lovely moments of reversal and discovery.
  • Back to the crafting of the play: excellent choices of what scenes to show and not show. The play feels sequential, but actually covers a fair span of time with a number of important events happening offstage (Steph confronting Carly about the baby, for example). The fact that you remain in the moment is a testament to the precision of the scenes we are seeing.
  • Lovely acting by the entire cast. It was fun to see Jenna Fischer (Pam from The Office) play a borderline insane clingy irrational woman. Leslie Bibb (that reporter from Iron Man 1&2) as Carly reminded me a lot of a friend I lived with in Richmond, VT who works the graveyard TSA shift at Burlington Airport. She brought a much needed sense of common sense and practicality to the show. Josh Hamilton was appropriately charming (though infuriating in his indecisiveness) as Greg, and Fred Weller brought a surprisingly nuanced performance to the role of the most super-ego-lacking character, Kent. Without trying to convince us Kent and Greg are best friends (a common contrivance I find hard to believe in plays of this nature), they share enough circumstances in common that it makes sense for them to have the few conversations they do, and they work as an excellent counterpoint to each other; Greg reluctant and reserved about every choice, while Kent dives in head first, usually bruising himself in the process but feeling much more alive.
  • Love Kent’s line, something like “So I walked up to the guy in the bar, and I tapped him on the shoulder, probably less hard even than I just tapped you, and he turned around, and I punched him. And I was willing to leave it at that and let it go, but he had to take it further.” De-lightful.

Blech…

  • Music was strangely chosen and far too loud in between scenes. This seems to be a stylistic choice of LaBute across all of his plays, and I’m yet to see it work as effectively as he seems to think it does.
  • Nitpicky but something I was still very aware of: the various contrivances brought about to stop a character from leaving the scene. Some conversations that certainly would take place across multiple locations in real life were compressed into one (a Trader Joe’s Parking Lot, a school bench, a restaurant waiting area), and in at least one occasion I knew what was supposed to be a big conversation later at, say, an IHOP almost certainly wouldn’t take place there, and everything important was about to be told to us now.
  • Except for Carly who needed to be in uniform, very poor costume choices. Nothing any of the characters wore gave me a better sense of who they were, and in a few cases (particularly with Steph), it just confused me.
  • Nothing brought me to tears. This is important to me. Let me be clear again– this was an incredible ‘slice of life’ play, but none of the characters tugged on my heartstrings enough to pull me close on their emotional journey. This isn’t a flaw of the writing or the characters (who were very true to life), but simply who they were and my lack of empathy for them.
  • Ultimately I found Greg to be too indecisive, to the point where he just kept hitting the same ‘nothing’ beats and I was frustrated to not see the show move things along. Out of the cast of characters, I would only want to be friends with Carly and maybe Kent.

 

Tales from After the Show…

 

Leslie Bibb led a fantastic talkback along with one of the MCC’s artistic directors (Will Cantler) and the associate general manager (Jessica Chase), providing great insight into the development of the show and LaBute’s writing/directing process. LaBute’s relationship with the MCC was covered in detail, and Leslie spoke at length about what draws her to pursue theatre when she’s clearly doing fine at film and television. I also got to ask her about how the play evolved from when Neil first gave it to them, to the point where it was now in previews and she had a ton of fun with the audience taking us through that experience. She showed us her script and it was full of slashes and chunks of dialogue moved to other pages and subtext and just, wow. Looked like the writings of an insane person, but in the best possible way.

 

Download the full 30-minute talkback here.