Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Recent Theater

A Boy and His Soul
Autobiographical theater—an author/performer telling an audience the story of her/his life—is challenging. Very often, these shows are about the artist's journey: growing up, finding an artistic voice or vision, discovering racial or sexual identity, overcoming adversity, or some other form of self-realization/actualization. Since the story is usually intensely personal, I think it's difficult for it to transcend the individual and become universal: it's important to the artist but not as vital to the rest of us. I've had the good fortune to seem some exceptional autobiographical works by Peggy Shaw, Lorenzo Pisoni and several others; one of the best in recent years was Stew's Passing Strange (soon to be a major motion picture, as they say).

Colman Domingo has followed up his excellent performance in that play on Broadway with his own, A Boy and His Soul, now at the Vineyard Theater. In this one-person show, Domingo chronicles his life growing up in Philadelphia and how particular songs, albums and singers impacted key moments for him. He is assisted in this with several crates of classic soul LPs that he plays on a '70s hi-fi console in a facsimile of his parents' basement (which has quite a few nice surprises hidden in its upstage wall). While his story is not entirely unusual—a black man coming-of-age and coming to terms with his homosexuality—I was struck by how much love plays a part in it all: his love for his family and theirs for him. That's not to say that there isn't tension or heartache between him, his siblings, his mother and stepfather—there is; but even their significant differences are tempered with a genuine affection for one another.

Domingo demonstrates that he is not only a gifted singer and actor but a strong writer, too: his script is well-structured and his language has a gentle poetry that still manages to feel entirely conversational. Director Tony Kelly has done a good job shaping the production simply in a manner that supports the actor and his text well—the performance feels fresh and natural even though it's clearly been meticulously planned and rehearsed. The music—well, it's the greatest soul hits of the '70s: of course it's fantastic and it's been incredibly well-designed and integrated by Tom Morse.

It's an odd choice for the Vineyard—I've heard rumors that they were hoping for another Wig Out—and the night we saw the show, the majority of the audience was several years older than us and significantly squarer (it's a rare thing, indeed, when I'm among the hipper people in an NYC crowd). I'm not sure what the subscribers (and they were so definitely subscribers) made of the show—they certainly didn't laugh as much as we did and I'm pretty sure they had almost no frame of reference for the inspired recreation of an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. But even if I can imagine other venues that might seem more appropriate—HERE, PS 122, and the Public Theater immediately come to mind—the Vineyard is giving the show a first-rate production and it's been extended through November 1. When other companies are playing it safe, they took a risk; I respect that and I'm glad that it paid off.

Killers and Other Family
As well-written, well-directed and well-acted as the production of Lucy Thurber's Killers and Other Family is at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, it's still a difficult play to watch. Within a few minutes after the play begins, Lizzie (Samantha Soule) is already in trouble when her brother, Jeff (Dashielle Eaves), and his friend, Danny (Shane McRae), drop in—unannounced and uninvited—from their hometown in Western Massachusetts. While Jeff pathetically pleads for her help to escape the serious trouble he's in, Danny launches into a charming but menacing seduction that ends with her eagerly surrendering to his horrible sexual violation—a sort of consensual rape.

End of scene one.

Ironically, for a play in which the tension mounts so swiftly and each act of violence is followed almost immediately by another, Thurber unfolds the characters' histories very slowly and carefully. It's a halfway through the play before we know the truth about Jeff's trouble (although there are hints earlier). The details of the twisted bond between Danny and Lizzie are revealed slowly, in brief flashes, over the course of the 90 minutes. And even after Lizzie's unwitting girlfriend, Claire (Aya Cash), arrives—the perfect device for dialogue full of back story since she doesn't know the other two at all—Thurber continues to very deliberately dole out information. It's effective because it balances our intellectual desire to understand these people with our revulsion at their animalistic behavior: as they are to one another, we're drawn to and repulsed by them.

The actors are all exceptional, especially McRae: his Danny is rawly sensual but emotionally damaged, deeply misogynistic and yet capable of offering Lizzie a perverse tenderness—it's easy to see why she can't entirely escape him. Director Caitriona McLaughlin has staged the piece effectively, like a good roller coaster: the slower-paced moments give the audience just enough time to catch their breaths before they crest the next hill and begin the frenetic race downward all over again. It's a finely-crafted, if deeply disturbing, production; Rattlestick picked the perfect piece to start their 15th season with a bang.

The Royal Family
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's 1927 roman à clef about the Barrymores, The Royal Family, is a damned funny play; I mean, I was actually surprised at how laugh-out-loud funny it is. It helps that Doug Hughes has crafted a production for Manhattan Theater Club that is swift, manic and sharply focused: with three full acts and running just under three hours, it has to be. It's also the most sumptuous production I've seen in a very long time—I detest entrance applause but even I was tempted to put 'em together with everyone when the enormous red drape revealed John Lee Beatty's remarkable recreation of the Cavendish's two-story Upper East Side apartment. The cast is phenomenal with impeccable comic timing: Rosemary Harris as the ancient matriarch of the clan, who is making plans for her comeback tour; John Glover as her vapid brother, Herbert Dean, pestering everyone to help him find the vehicle that will resuscitate his foundering career; Tony Roberts as a faithful, long-suffering manager to the clan; Kelli Barrett as the youngest member of the family, about to make her Broadway debut; and the wildly flamboyant Reg Rogers as the prodigal son, Tony, who has escaped Hollywood just steps ahead of a breach of promise suit. The key to the show and by far the strongest performance in the production is Jan Maxwell as Julie Cavendish—the steady and (by the standards of this family) stable professional, the glue that binds them all to one another; her gradual meltdown and eventual explosion at the end of Act II is a joy to behold.

John Barrymore, the Playbill states, quite enjoyed the way he was portrayed in the play; Ethel was not amused and Lionel was silent on the subject. I think they'd all approve of how they come off in this production. Kaufman and Ferber may have originally intended audience to think of the Deans and Cavendishes as "those wacky artist-types" but Hughes is able to show us that there is an overwhelming passion for craft and art that makes the family seem crazy to the outside observer. In one scene, near the end of the evening, Tony regales the family with the blueprints for a little play he bought in Europe which uses constructivist scenery and contemporary performance style ("You don't enter or exit in the ordinary sense—you just slide, or else let down by wires"); it may have originally been mocking but here the family's enthusiasm reveals their complete and utter love for their profession—it's one of my favorite moments in a play filled with wonderful moments.

The day after we saw The Royal Family, Tony Roberts had a seizure just as the play was beginning and the matinee had to be canceled. He appears to be recovering now and I hope he'll be able to return to the show: Catherine and I both agreed that he was fantastic in the role of the successful personal manager who still relies heavily on his street-wise, kid-from-the-Bronx instincts. It's a very nuanced performance and one that should be seen again.

BTW: it's actually just a remarkable coincidence that all three of the plays we saw this past weekend were all about families.

No comments: