Theatre Review: The Assembled Parties (Broadway)

tap

Note: This production is now closed.

This is an odd, slow-burn kind of play. Drama, in the edge-of-your-seat sense, is in short supply and much of what little there is takes place off stage, during intermission. It’s the kind of play that relies utterly on the chemistry between its actors, making each scene fascinating unto itself even as it gradually builds to a clear picture of just what, exactly, is going on. The dialogue has more to do with suggesting the details of these characters’ everyday lives than it does with moving any plot forward.

Which makes it a shame that some pairings just don’t have it. Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) and Scotty (Jake Silbermann) certainly don’t, making their rather lengthy first-act scene tedious at best. The set design in act one is fascinating, constantly rotating from room to room in the enormous Central Park West apartment that plays host to Christmas-slash-Hanukkah dinner, suggesting more energy and intrigue between plot points than there is. Jeff and Scotty, friends in college, talk about Scotty’s career aspirations versus the ones his parents expect him to have. Scotty’s mother Julie (Jessica Hecht) and father Ben (Jonathan Walker) prove to be kind, welcoming and unwittingly high-pressure. Ben finds himself blackmailed by brother-in-law Mort (Mark Blum), who does this behind the back of his wife Faye (Judith Light), both of whom railroad and endlessly criticize their awkward daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld).

The two best performers by far are Hecht and Light, and they have chemistry with everyone. Hecht in particular has the trickiest role, as her character is required to be utterly guileless, presenting the kind of sweet sincerity that would be overwhelmingly saccharine if not for its absolute genuine sincerity. Julie truly cannot see the bad in any scenario, and has intelligence and wit to say precisely what’s on her mind without being flakey. And speaking of over the top, if ever there was a Jewish mother replete with neuroses, guilt, self-deprecation and angst, Light is surely the prototype. She imbues this stock character with a specificity that makes it feel unique and individual, no matter how many times we’ve seen the act before.

Act one takes place in the 80s. Fast forward twenty years to another holiday feast for act two and all of life’s major changes seem to have occurred off stage. Mort, Ben, Shelley and Scotty are all out of the picture. Julie has been diagnosed with a condition of some sort, so long ago that nobody on stage refers to it specifically enough for the audience to figure out exactly what it is. This is a play that tries very hard to ignore details in favour of emotional, day-to-day realities. If the characters wouldn’t go out of their way to recap a scenario in real life, they’re certainly not about to for the audience’s sake.

And, coming back to the top of this review, that is why this is such an odd play. Is it funny? Absolutely. Is it touching? At many points, yes. But its commitment to “everyday” form of storytelling removes a tremendous amount of inherent drama. The audience is required to spend a great deal of time determining what blanks need filling, and then has to go about filling them, only to find that the details may not be all that interesting to begin with. Which is a lot like life, but most theatregoers buy their tickets to escape that kind of humdrum reality. Scenes live and die by how engrossing the characters are, and too often they simply aren’t. The brightest spots are Light, who absolutely earns her Best Actress Tony, and Hecht, who is so sweetly tragic it really is remarkable.

The Assembled Parties is a mixed bag of a play, but with more than enough material to chew on for après-theatre coffee and pie.

3.5 out of 5 awkward family dinners.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls (Shaw Festival)

gandd

Guys and Dolls is classic Broadway musical: people bursting into song for no particular reason, tremendous energy, big show-stopping numbers and enough heartwarming moments scattered throughout to give everything some weight. Experts in the satirical wit of Oscar Wilde, the Shaw Festival knows a a lot about balancing the light with the heavy, and their take on Guys mostly hits the sweet spot.

The brightest star is Jenny L. Wright as Miss Adelaide, 14-year fiancé to longtime gambling organizer Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright). She nails the nasal Brooklyn accent (where “cold” becomes “co-wuld”) and affecting angst that comes from wanting nothing more than to have a ring on her finger already. She owns the stage in her solo number, “Adelaide’s Lament”, one of the few performers with such individual presence in this production. At many points throughout the show, I was struck by how big the stage was; except during the big numbers with a lot of hustle and bustle, the actors were often dwarfed by their surroundings. Not so with Jenny Wright.

The cast at large knows how to deliver on the biggest numbers: “Luck be a Lady”, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Havana/If I Were a Bell” are all wonderful and highly entertaining with fun choreography. Elodie Gillett as Sergeant Sarah Brown does a nice switch from uptight to drunk and back again. It’s the secondary male characters who don’t quite carry the load. The opening number with Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thom Allison), Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake) and Rusty Charlie (Kelly Wong) just doesn’t have the energy it needs to propel the show forward, and again I was struck by how large the stage was during Allison and Lake’s “Guys and Dolls” midway through act one.

Also on the note of staging, I have to wonder at set designer Peter Hartwell’s decision to make Broadway so monochromatic. The characters’ colourful costumes certainly stand out against the black and white marquees, but drained of colour, New York itself seems to fight against what life the actors can bring to its streets. Perhaps that’s why “Havana” and “Bell” were so successful; suddenly, the stage was awash in yellows, blues  and reds that enhanced the action and choreography. Back on Broadway for “My Time of Day”, and all of a sudden Sarah and Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair) just didn’t have the same impact.

Shaw has put on an overall an enjoyable, faithful rendition of a Broadway staple, sure to be one of their best sellers this 2013 season.

4 out of 5 floating craps games.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Broadway)

vanya

What do you do with a problem like Masha? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips, including Masha (Sigourney Weaver) herself – after all, it’s not every day that a world-renowned egotistical actress named after a Chekhov character about to enter her fifth marriage confronts long-standing rivalries with similarly named siblings and their emotion-laden homestead.

The show is hilarious, even if you know nothing about Chekhov. The titular siblings’ parents knew plenty, however, and named each child (even downtrodden adoptee Sonia (Kristine Nielsen)) after their favourite roles of the Russian playwright, and inserting those three personalities into an idyllic Virginia lakefront cottage to bounce off one another is inspired. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) rounds out the trio in a quiet, understated role that gets incredible laughs out of minuscule twitches in body language and nuance of inflection.

The crux of the show lies in how each sibling comes to reverse course on key character traits, and my favourite structural element of the writing is how virtually every member of the cast has an extended, measured-in-minutes chance to own the stage. Everyone has the chops to deliver, too; Weaver comes on as a force of nature, railroading Nielsen’s Sonia and barely remembering that her brother is gay. By the end, she has softened, calling out her vacuous fiancé and forging genuine conversations with those who matter to her most.

Many will point to Vanya’s rant against progress as the standout moment of the show, and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so – Pierce delivers a pained, frustrated, long-brewing filibuster that truly sells all of Vanya’s decades of self-restraint, and it is a joy to watch. My favourite, however, was Sonia’s monologue. Alone on the stage, as isolated as she tends to feel, she receives a phone call. A guest at the party she attended the prior evening (a party where she upstaged über-controlling Masha for the first time ever) has called her to ask for a date. Her first date. Sitting quietly in her chair and enduring the the throes of hope, despair, embarrassment and joy that one does in such circumstances, Nielsen’s presence fills the room.

The show’s weak points lie it the book; simply put, it’s a little over the top and too easy, too pat, by half. Psychic housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant), with her posture-jolting premonitions, is never dull and always funny but a little one-note all the same. Spike (Billy Magnussen) never grows beyond his preening idiot schtick (though his reverse striptease managed to be both predictable and utterly relentlessness, which is an adjective I never thought I’d apply to a striptease). Young neighbour Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) is sweet and encouraging because the plot requires her to be. Vanya, Sonia and Masha reach their resolution very easily, considering the baggage they start with, plus there’s the overt symbolism of a heron that may or may not land in the lake any given day. Could the heron represent their hope for a better tomorrow? It’s probably a Chekhov reference, but that doesn’t make it any less of a symbolic sledgehammer. Does the upbeat Beatles song, wonderful as it is, meaningfully represent the thematic peak? All of it is enjoyable, but it has a lightness that takes away from the emotional depth suggested at so many points.

While falling short of profound, V & S & M & S is enormously crowd-pleasing and it’s easy to see why it won the Tony for best play. Catch it before July 30 when Weaver leaves the cast.

4.5 out of 5 cherry orchards (well, cherry groves, at least)

~Mike!

Theatre Review: The Nance (Broadway)

nance

With Nathan Lane headlining a show, you may be forgiven for walking in with some unreasonably high expectations, especially post-Tonys where he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role in a Play. How nice then to have those expectations easily met.

The Nance is a clever, touching new play by Douglas Carter Beane, a period piece set in 1940s New York. Actually, clever doesn’t quite cover it; that implies a lot of wry smiles and knowing nods of the head among the audience. “Laugh-out-loud” comes closer, but implies that it’s essentially a comedy. How exactly does one peg a show that covers everything from romance to politics to burlesque to full-on belly laughs and, most importantly, depth of character across the cast?

We meet Lane’s Chauncey Miles at a local self-serve diner, where he briefly walks his latest prey through the ropes: young, down-and-out Ned (Jonny Orsini) has wandered by-mistake-but-really-on-purpose into one of those places where “boys like the boys,” it’s not uncommon to make surreptitious plans to meet up around the corner in half an hour, and everyone goes tense when a police siren enters earshot. How far we’ve come in 70 years. Chauncey leaves the diner for work, playing the titular nance for comic relief at a local burlesque house. He leaves work for home, picking up Ned along the way for what he assumes another in a long line of one-night stands.

The burlesque scenes are truly inspired, with a healthy dose of vaudevillian rapid-fire double-entendres (my favourite involved a later scene with Chauncey in drag as a prostitute named Hortence; cue the joke about how relaxed she looks). The stage is also a masterwork, a massive turntable with sets on each facing side. It’s used to best effect when turned on an angle, with most of the burlesque “backstage” facing the audience for dialogue between characters while a hint of the “onstage” side remains visible, with secondary performers playing to the wings. There’s a continuous energy to this show that comes through staging and performance simultaneously.

Chauncey is also a bit of a stand-in for some one of today’s political curiosities: how can you be gay and Republican at the same time? For Chauncey, the answer is easy; neither party supports gays in that era, so he may as well go for the individualist do-it-yourself-ers who support business and enterprise. His blind faith that the crackdown on his livelihood is a temporary political stunt is tragic; surely a Republican would never close down an industry that employs thousands solely on moral grounds? Ned (who has moved in with him and joined the burlesque show) and his coworkers are excited about an impending sympathy strike among all the arts performers in the city. Chauncey is dismissive of their enthusiasm, a wet blanket over their belief that together they can make change.

Which isn’t to say that he is without courage or empathy. Amid the crackdowns and police raids, he insists on playing his effeminate nance, even to the point of courting investigation and arrest. He refuses to plead guilty, thinking his status as “one of them,” a Republican, will protect him. The chemistry between Lane and Orsini is undeniable, and the show’s laughs never overshadow its inherent tragedy. Also excellent is the burlesque show’s owner, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), a rough and practical funny man who is politically savvy enough to be aghast at Chauncey’s decisions while wise enough not to take personal offense at them. His patter with Lane and Orsini on and off the stage-within-the-stage keeps the show moving at a good clip, never wasting a moment.

In the end, this is a show about how nothing is straightforward, faith is seldom rewarded, and people will be who they are to the end, no matter how bitter. We all know how the story proceeds (thank you Supreme Court of 2013), but The Nance takes us back to a harsher time for social justice and makes us ask: “What would I have done?”

4.5 out of 5 double entendres.

~Mike!