October Offerings 2018

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur  at Theatre at St. Clements

 It was one of his last plays – and, after his death, it became a long-forgotten one.  Yet it was among Tennessee Williams’s personal favorites.  He called it his “bijou.”

This gem of a play was first produced in 1977, revised and revived in 1997, and then slipped into oblivion.  Williams was slipping too, deeper into depression and drug addiction, and would die a few years later, in 1983.

But now, thanks to director Austin Pendelton and the wonderful actresses at Theatre at St. Clements, we’re discovering A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur anew.

The scene is St. Louis, the time is 1937, and the location is a shabby apartment, overstuffed with mismatching furniture, fading fabric, and an unfulfilled life.  But Bodey, its aging tenant, has found a new hope: the prospects of a marriage between her boarder Dotty, a young teacher at the local high school, and her vulgar, cigar-smoking twin brother Buddy (an offstage character).

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer by Tennessee Williams
Directed By Austin Pendletonm, Cast: Kristine Nielsen, Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty, Polly McKie

On the Sunday when the play takes place, Bodey is preparing a picnic lunch for Dotty, Buddy and herself.  She’s interrupted by a visitor – Helena, another teacher at the high school.  She’s come to pick up a check from Dotty, who has secretly promised to leave Bodey’s apartment and move in with Helena.   There are also the frequent interruptions from Miss Gluck, a demented upstairs neighbor, in mourning for her mother’s death and suffering from a terminal case of loneliness.

The revelation of this play – and the joy of its discovery – lies in its colorful characters, especially Dotty, a younger incarnation of Blanche DuBois (of A Streetcar Named Desire).  Like Blanche, Dotty clings to a fantasy that a man (in this case, Reilly, the high school principal with whom she’s had an affair) will call and save her.  Like Blanche, her deep emotional and sexual needs distort her judgment, as she waits for a phone call that will never come.

The theme of loneliness and desperate dreams haunt this play.   ““You’ve never been depressed – no sorrows in your life.  And you call yourself a human?”  Dotty asks. Symbolically, the streetcar of Williams’s early masterpiece reappears this play, as Bodey fantasizes about their proposed ride to the picnic at Creve Couer – an illusion of perfection and happiness that they’ll never attain.  Still, Dotty proclaims:  “We must pull ourselves together and go on.  That’s all that life seems to offer and demand.”

Speaking of perfection, the cast is just that – including Jean Lichty as Dotty (one of Williams’s so-called “delicate people”), and Annette O’Toole as the steely and determined Helena.  Kristine Nielsen as Bodey and Polly McKie as Miss Gluck are a dynamite comedic duo, providing the play with delightful farcical moments to offset the characters’ despair.   Austin Pendelton directs this fabulous foursome with his usual sensitivity and skill.


Bernhardt/Hamlet at the Roundabout

Move over, Medea!   Sorry, Joan!  Later, Nora!  A new female protagonist has blazed onto the New York stage, and you’d better get out of her way. Her name is Sarah Bernhardt, her mission is to play Hamlet, and nothing will stop her.

Sarah Bernhardt was a myth even in her own time. The wealthiest actress on the stage (end of the 19th century), she dazzled her audiences and the world with her prodigious talent, flamboyant personality, and colorful escapades. She played over 70 roles in the course of her illustrious career, and was the lover of many of her co-stars.  A muse to many writers (Oscar Wilde, Edmond Rostand, Marcel Proust), she leased a theatre in Paris and renaming it “Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt.” She was fearless – extravagant in her spending and eccentric in her tastes, shocking others with her pet collection that included a lion, a puma, an alligator, and a boa constrictor. In short, she was a celebrity – and loved every minute of it.

So it’s inspired on Rebeck’s part to bring Bernhardt back to life as a diva for our times – and doubly inspired to give the role to the fabulous and formidable Janet McTeer.

Bernhardt_Hamlet (photo by Joan Marcus)

Bernhardt/Hamlet, lavishly produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, focuses on the year 1897 in Paris – when Bernhardt, now a theatre owner and superstar, nonetheless is feeling her age and her role opportunities waning. She gets it in her head to play Hamlet – a controversial choice, compounded by the fact that she has “issues” with Shakespeare’s script. So she shocks her theatre world further by asking the celebrated French writer Rostand (a dashing Jason Butler Harner) to “adapt” Hamlet.

Meanwhile, Rostand, blinded by love for Bernhardt, turns his focus to writing another play for her (you guessed it – Cyrano de Bergerac), in which he imagines her as Roxanne, the personification of feminine perfection.  Sarah disagrees – to her, Roxanne is a wimp.

The production (directed by by Moritz von Stuelpnagel) is lavish, and Beowulf Boritt’s turnstile set is smashing.  The stage is populated with colorful historical characters – including Sarah’s leading man Constant Coquelin (the venerable Dylan Baker), the poster artist Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), the critic Louis (Tony Carlin), and others. (Toni-Leslie James provides vividly colorful costumes).

In the end, it’s McTeer’s show, and it’s an utter delight to watch her “chew the scenery” with passion and panache. Wearing high black boots, tights, and a white silk blouse, she’s utterly charismatic, towering above all the others.

There will be other divas on the stage this season (including Cher, etc.). But what makes Rebeck’s Bernhardt stand out are the serious questions she poses – about the theatre, about the creative process, about building an actress’s career, and, above all, about why successful women are treated with disdain when they act like men.


The Nap at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre

There’s a high-stakes game of “snooker” going on in The Nap, the hilarious new comedy on Broadway.  And if you can stop laughing long enough, you’ll be on the edge of your seat.

Richard Bean, arguably one of the funniest writers alive, introduces us to the colorful snooker sub-culture of Sheffield, England, where a world championship match is about to be played.   The local snooker star Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer) and his down-and-out Dad (former robber and drug addict, played by John Ellison Conlee), are hanging out in a local snooker hall, where they’re visited by two wily policemen (Heather Lind and Bhavesh Patel), warning Dylan of match-fixing.

As it happens, Dylan is being asked to do just that – by his sponsor, a formidable transsexual named Waxy Bush (the flamboyant Alexandra Billings), who runs a local beauty salon (hence her adopted name).  Waxy claims that Dylan has cost her too much money, and now she wants Dylan to “tank a frame” in the upcoming match so that she can bet against him and recoup her investment. The pressure is compounded by Dylan’s ditzy mother (Johanna Day) and her odorous boyfriend (Thomas Jay Ryan) – and at the end of act I, Waxy pulls a outrageous stunt that gives Dylan no choice but comply.

In Act II, we’re treated to a full-scale match between Dylan and two different opponents, (both played by Ahmed Aly Elsayed, a snooker expert) – complete with snooker table, super screens, and riotous running commentary.  It’s great live theatre, but the true delight of this caper lies in the colorful coterie of characters – fortified by Bean’s hilarious one-liners.

As Waxy Bush, Billings steals the show with her physical presence (and her menacing mechanical hand), as well as her penchant for “malapropisms.”  Dylan’s Dad suffers from short-term memory loss, and one of the best running gags features his efforts to remember the titles of movies, engaging Dylan’s manager in a hilarious guessing game.  (Max Gordon Moore is a wild man in that role, costumed in Kay Voyce’s Technicolor suits).  My favorite: figuring out, at long last, that the title of a movie about grifters is – you guessed it – “The Grifters.”  Veteran director Daniel Sullivan pulls it all off with panache – both the comedy and the suspenseful match on David Rockwell’s set.  It all unfolds as smoothly as the snooker tabletop that Dylan strokes at the top of the play (the “nap” refers to one side of the fabric).


I Was Most Alive With You at Playwrights’ Horizons

There’s a lot going on in I Was Most Alive With You, Craig Lucas’s turbulent, complicated, yet heartfelt new work now playing at Playwrights’ Horizons.

So much so, in fact, that you may find yourself confused, distracted, and at the end just plain enervating by the emotional demands that the play makes – not to mention the dramatic demands, as well.

I Was Most Alive with You

Emotional –  because this play is inspired by the story of Job, the ultimate Biblical “downer.”  Demanding – because it’s a play about deafness (among other things), and this ambitious playwright requires not one but two casts to tell his story – a hearing one and a deaf one.  So you have the action playing out on the stage floor by a hearing/speaking signing cast, while a “shadow cast” of deaf signing actors mirror the action simultaneously on the balcony above.  At times your concentration is split between the two – and you don’t know where to look.  (To complicate matters, one of the deaf characters ends up speaking, while several of the hearing ones occasionally sign).

Challenging?  That’s just for starters.  Lucas’s play follows the story of Job with a vengeance. His protagonist, Ash, is a recovering drug and alcoholic addict, wife-beater, and ex-con who’s attempting to make a comeback as a screenwriter with his partner Astrid.  Ash is “blocked” (who wouldn’t be, with his history!), so Astrid suggests that they write a new teleplay about his life that follows the story of Job.  It’s an appropriate choice.

As they write the story, the play offers a series of flashbacks, introducing numerous characters.  You think Ash has problems?!  Wait till you meet his son, Knox (gay, deaf, defiant, and very unlucky), Knox’s lover Farhad (active drug user and thief), Ash’s ex-wife Pleasant (she doesn’t live up to her name), the deaf-signer-aide Mariama (her son is on death row), and Carla (Ash’s mother, who’s lost all her money and is dying of cancer).  Things go downhill for each of the characters as the play progresses, till they finally embrace Job’s own realization – that we are all powerless in this universe.

Tyne Rafaeli embraces the direction of this cast of 14 with gusto – with the help of Sabrina Dennison, who directs the artistic sign language.  The cast is heroic – many of whom both speak and sign.  Standouts include Michael Gaston as an anguished Ash, and Russell Harvard as an equally tortured Knox (an amazing dancer as well).  Lois Smith (Carla, the matriarch) is commanding as always, and the rest of the cast (Lisa Emery as the bitter Pleasant, Tad Cooley as the rebellious Farhad, and Gameela Wright as the compassionate Mariama) give vigorous, committed performances.

As the play’s complex plot deepened, I wasn’t sure who actually was meant to be Job.  By the end, I thought – possibly each and every one of the characters.  As – as playwright Craig Lucas implies – that includes us.