January, 2018: Hot-blooded Plays for a Cold Winter

Meteor Shower on Broadway

Music isn’t the only therapy for these traumatic times. Let’s start the year with laughter…

Steve Martin is back on Broadway with Meteor Shower, a variation on the two-couple situation comedy that’s been on offer from Shakespeare to Noel Coward to Woody Allen.  But in the hands of Martin, King of Zany, it’s like Oscar Wilde on speed.

Amy Shumer and company in Meteor Shower

Norman and Corky have been working hard on their marriage for 19 years. When Gerald and Laura come to dinner, their marriage is tested. That’s the stock set-up for 80 minutes of the nuttiest dinner party you’ll ever attend.  Martin offers three variations on what might have happened, each one more off-the-wall than the next.

A master of comedy, Martin’s range is broad and brilliant. On the social satire end of the spectrum, he loves to subvert convention. (“We’ve overstayed our welcome”, says Gerald. “You were never welcome.” says Norman).  He delights in satirizing fads – like couples therapy, of which Norman and Corky are earnest graduates.  (They hold hands and chant “I honor your feelings”, to avert a squabble).

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the absurd, where Martin shines.  Both as a performer and as a writer, he never ceases to delight, dazzle and sometimes even shock with the unexpected.  It’s all in the detail – like the three giant eggplants that sit ominously on the coffee table of Norman and Corky’s living room, a gift from their guests and a harbinger of the mayhem to come.  Or Corky who suffers from “explosive headache syndrome” from a regrettable incident in her deep past (cannabilism – she ate her best friend on a hiking trip in the Himalayas).  And of course there are those meteors that the guests have come to view from their hosts’ terrace in Ojai – and the havoc they ultimately wreak.

Jerry Zaks has directed a crackerjack comedic foursome with skill and verve.  Making her Broadway debut, comedienne Amy Schumer plays quirky Corky with a deceptive straight face.  As normal Norman, Jeremy Shamos is the perfect foil who turns rogue (watch him try to seduce Gerald!)  As the “swinging couple,” Keegan-Michael Key makes a smashing Broadway debut as the flamboyant Gerald, and Laura Benanti offers a delicious send-up of a femme fatale.  It’s a virtuoso ensemble, a delectable evening of absurdism, and a delightful way to begin the year – with laughter.

The Children at the Manhattan Theatre Club

 An apocalyptic vision, infused with hope? Hard to imagine – that is, until you see The Children, Lucy Kirkwood’s astonishing new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

From the moment the play opens – with the ominous image of a woman standing in a kitchen, blood pouring from her nose– you are held in the play’s relentless grip.  Though the wound turns out to be harmless, the circumstances are not.

The Children at MTC

The woman’s name is Rose and the kitchen belongs to her former colleagues Robin and Hazel, two retired nuclear physicists whose East Anglian dwelling is just outside a disaster zone.  The neighboring nuclear power plant where they all once worked has suffered an explosion and subsequent radiation of the nearby area.  The couple’s home has been contaminated, so they’ve relocated to a seaside cottage just outside the “exclusion zone,” where they plan to farm and live out their retirement years while the terrible threat of fall-out hangs over the land.

So what is Rose doing in the kitchen with a bloody nose?  It was an accident, explains Hazel, who, startled by Rose’s unexpected visit, has struck her unintentionally from shock.  After all, they hadn’t seen each other for 38 years.  “We thought you were dead!” Hazel blurts.  It’s a laugh-line, and we enjoy it, unprepared for what follows.

Still, the question remains: Why has Rose come?  The revelation of her purpose drives this suspenseful thriller.   Rose has made a decision – to return to the power plant, recruit a team of older physicists to supervise the cleanup, and rescue the current young physicists working there (all under 35) from the threat of contamination.   It’s a moral and ethical stand, made for the sake of future generations – one that turns a seemingly harmless reunion into a life-changing crisis for these three colleagues, all in their late 60s.

Needless to say, I dare not reveal the outcome and spoil your discoveries that this fine, brave play offers.  Under James Macdonald’s expert direction, the trio of virtuoso English actors shines – Deborah Findlay as the pragmatic Hazel who consumes herself with quotidian cares to insulate herself from the terrible threat of reality, Ron Cook as the cheerful husband who hides devastating secrets from his beloved wife, and the charismatic Francesca Annis as Rose, the catalyst of this uneasy, delicate balance, who has nothing to lose.

Rarely do we encounter a playwright of conscience like Lucy Kirkwood, who, following in Caryl Churchill’s footsteps (Far Away, Escaped Alone), courageously tackles the big questions that our planet faces and makes the connections between caring for our own nuclear families (no pun intended) and the larger family of man in generations to come.  Like Churchill, Kirkwood raises the question of responsibility – social, ecological, and humanitarian – that we all must face in this perilous 21st century.

 Fire & Air at Classic Stage Company

 A bare stage, a set of gilded chairs, a pair of huge mirrors, and presto – the remarkable life and times of Sergei Diaghilev are conjured up before our eyes.

Fire & Air at CSC (photo by Joan Marcus)

And a turbulent life it was, as embodied by Douglas Hodge in Terrence McNally’s arresting new bio-drama called Fire and Air, now playing at the Classic Stage CompanyHodge’s passionate performance leaves an indelible impression of the Russian impresario who founded the Ballets Russes in 1909 and changed the art form forever.

McNally’s script focuses intensely on Diaghilev’s stormy relationship with his principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, the object of his obsessive love (played by a seductive James Cusati-Moyer).   They were in constant artistic conflict, and Nijinsky ultimately married a ballerina in the company as an act of rebellion, causing Diaghilev to fire him.  It’s a riveting story, and McNally tells it with purpose and economy, featuring a handful of essential dramatis personae who represent Diaghilev’s loyal entourage – including Dima, his devoted cousin (an elegant John Glover); Dunya, his stalwart nurse (a stoical Marsha Mason); and Misia, the ballet’s principal patroness (a stately Marin Mazzie).

John Doyle’s signature style of minimalism, fluidity and precision serves McNally’s narrative beautifully.   He navigates the ensemble around the empty stage (designed by Doyle himself, with evocative lighting by Jane Cox), creating multiple scenes with a stroke of his directorial hand.  There are striking, surreal moments – such as when Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s new lover, dancer Leonide Massine (played by a lithe Jay Armstrong Johnson) speak to each other across the years in a shared moment that, as they explain, never took place in reality.  Or when Nijinsky and Massine actually dance, accompanied by haunting excerpts of Debussy and Stravinsky’s scores.   Each time, the effect is magical.

Always at the center of the music and the movement is Diaghilev, as portrayed with fire and flamboyance by Douglas Hodge.  He’s a complex, charismatic character, and Hodge embraces the challenge full-force, filling the stage with his larger-than-life presence.  “I am a man who creates creators!”  he cries.  The emotional and physical demands of the role are extreme –as when, for example, Diaghilev falls to the stage floor, embracing the legs and kissing the feet of Nijinsky, his love-object.  It’s a stunning image, expressing the heights of Diaghilev’s passion and the depths of his desperate need.

In a final, evocative tableau, the ensemble members stand at a ballet bar stretched across one of the huge, gilded mirrors. It’s one of many evocative moments in a production that tells the story of an extraordinary artist – brought to life by a team of collaborators worthy of his artistry.

In The Body of the World at Manhattan Theatre Club

 It’s been an unusual season for high-profile, high-powered solo shows.  Michael Moore’s raised the temperature this past summer with his devilish The Terms of My Surrender on Broadway.  Then came John Leguizamo,  with his outrageously satirical Latinos for Morons. This month, John Lithgow entertains us with Stories by Heart in honor of his late father, who loved to read tales to his family.

Meanwhile, a few blocks uptown at the Manhattan Theatre Club, Eve Ensler – playwright, performer, activist –is performing with a force of a tsunami.   Who can forget The Vagina Monologues (1996), Ensler’s ground-breaking, game-changing solo theatre piece about women and their bodies, widely considered one of the most important political theatre works of the decade?

In the Body of the World Eve Ensler (photo by Joan Marcus)

Now, with her new solo show, In the Body of the World, she’s expanded and deepened the themes of her seminal work.  As before, her agenda is two-fold.  On the personal level, it’s a harrowing story of her own courageous struggle with Stage 4 cancer; on the political level, it’s the devastating story of abused women in the Congo today, and Ensler’s role in helping them to return to life.  Miraculously, Ensler has conflated the stories – and her role in both is heroic.

In a three-part, ninety-minute monologue, Ensler relives her ordeal of a nine-hour operation and chemotherapy.  But it’s never just about her.  Using her diseased body as a metaphor, she speaks out against the Gulf Oil spill and environmental pollution.  As for the mutilations that her body suffered from the operation, she conflates them with those that Congolese women have suffered from rape and horrific abuse during the Civil Wars of the past decades.

Director Diane Paulus delivers a production that illuminates the landscape of this visionary work.   Together with her inspired design team (sets/costumes by Myung Hee Cho, lighting by Jen Schriever, projections by Finn Ross), Paulus stages the narration in a living room that becomes a hospital room and other locales.  At the same time, images are projected of the strife in the Congo on the upstage screen.

In the final Part III, Ensler triumphs over cancer.  At the same time, she tells us of her commitment to City of Joy, an extraordinary center that  she has cofounded in the Easter Congo, where abused women come together, heal, and reemerge into the community as leaders.  Two triumphs of body and spirit…

“Only Connect,” wrote the British novelist E. M. Forster.  Ensler is among the rare, gifted monologue artists (including Anna Deavere Smith and the late Spalding Gray) who are able make deep connections between the personal and the political, between illness and healing, between tragedy and rebirth – connections that bring hope for change in the world.