Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Off-Broadway Theater Review: Love and Money


Love and Money Aren’t Enough for Us to Buy New Gurney Play
By Lauren Yarger
In case you are confused, the world premiere of A.R. Gurney’s latest play, Love and Money at Off-Broadways Signature Center really already had a run (from July 21-Aug.8) at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Your confusion might come from the fact that the Connecticut production was declared a “preview” in anticipation of the New York run and wasn’t made available for review by critics in Connecticut. Critics protested. The Hartford Courant reviewed it any way as a service to its readers. Let’s just say when theaters request you don’t review a show presented as part of their regular seasons, there usually is a reason…

In the case of Love and Money, director Mark Lamos might have been trying to protect Wesport Playhouse favorite Gurney from bad reviews. Three weeks of “previews” at Westport did not improve a play that has not progressed much beyond a draft.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like Gurney, who is a playwright in residence at Signature for the 2014-2015 season (What I Did Last Summer and The Wayside Motor Inn also were presented there) and who has a revival of one of my favorites of his plays, Sylvia, coming to Broadway this fall. He just doesn’t hit the mark with this latest.

In Love and Money, Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) has put tags on all of her belongings in her Upper East Side brownstone in anticipation of selling them or giving them away. Money, she has decided, is a curse, and she’s giving all of her sizable estate away to charity. Her two children have died and she doesn’t want to burden her grandchildren with any of the curse. Save the Children and some other charities will benefit instead.

Her attorney, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik), advises her to rethink that plan since it could be contested – especially by Walker “Scott” Williams (Gabriel Brown), who claims to be her late daughter’s son after a newspaper article appears detailing Cornelia’s intention to give away her money.

When the smooth-talking African-American shows up unexpectedly at Cornelia’s home, he charms his way into an invitation to lunch – and into the heart of Cornelia (think Six Degrees of Separation), especially when he reveals a moving typewritten letter supposedly written by his mother.  Abel has his doubts, but he conveniently has to go back to his office to allow this ridiculous plot to advance….
Scott also tries to charm Juilliard student, Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), who comes to check out Cornelia’s player piano in the hopes that she’ll donate it to the school. Before you know it, Scott has Cornelia tripping the light fantastic around the living room (nicely appointed by Set Designer Michael Yeargan) to the tunes of Cole Porter.

Is the opportunist really Cornelia’s grandson? Will he get her to part with some of her fortune to set him up in life? Is there a finished play in here somewhere? I won’t give spoilers, but the answer to that last question is “no.”

There is no rhyme or reason for any of the plot. Jessica sings a whole song with the player piano prompting uneasy applause from the audience – we’re not really sure why she just did that. Cornelia has been rich for a long time. What is the trigger for her sudden desire to get rid of everything? Why is she so accepting of the shady Scott with his outrageous and a story that can't be proved? Why doesn’t Abel just throw him out? And would this rich WASP from an older generation really be that OK with the prospect of having an African-American grandson? We'd like to think so, but it stretches belief.

The whole thing is totally unbelievable and the script has the feel of a draft with some good ideas that just haven’t been threshed out. There are a few Connecticut references that are fun for us who call it home and some moments that trigger memories of other plays, but the 75-minute story never comes together.

This doesn’t mean, however, that everything is bad. Lamos pours himself into what he has to work with – good performers. He casts well and gets full-bodied characterizations. Anderman is very strong as the aging, lonely woman who wants to leave some sort of legacy. We get the loss she has experienced following the deaths of her children and the frustration she feels with her grandchildren’s lack of direction in life.

Paulik is affable as the uptight, yet caring attorney (even if Gurney gives us no explanation for his sudden change of heart where Scott is concerned). Brown exudes charm as well as a creepy quality that keeps us distrusting Scott. Kim conveys a wisdom as her character resists Scott’s charisma.

Getting the most laughs is Pamela Dunlap as Cornelia’s maid of 30 years, Agnes Munger. I haven’t mentioned her before because, except for arriving on the stage to get laughs with some plain speaking, she doesn’t really have anything to do with what little plot there is.


If the Westport run really was really just a preview in preparation for New York, I wish the time had been used to improve the script, which could have been funny and insightful. Guess I will just have to wait and enjoy Sylvia in October.

Love and Money runs through Oct. 4 at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., NYC. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7:30 pm; Wednesday at 2 pmTickets $25 - $55: 212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org.

Christians might also like to know:
No content notes

Monday, August 17, 2015

Off-Broadway Theater Review: Cymbeline in the Park

Hamish Linkletter and Lily Rabe. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Methinks Hamish Linklater Portrays a Cloten Who Won’t Soon Be Forgotten
By Lauren Yarger
With Cymbeline, The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park series and Director Daniel Sullivan have proved that if you have the people on board, even a really dumb play can be entertaining.
Hamish Linklater is delightful in the dual roles of arrogant prince Cloten and poor Posthumus Leonatus, both romantically entangled with fair Imogen (a superb Lily Rabe) in a Britain ruled by King Cymbeline (Patrick Page).

Linklater’s portrayals are so different and Cloten’s personality so ridiculous and different from Posthumous, that I had to check my program to confirm that the same actor was playing the roles – in spite of a delightful prologue introduction that confirmed the doubling, including a heads up that talented  Kate Burton (TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) would be portraying both Cymbeline’s queen (the mother of Cloten) as well as Bellarius, a banished traitor who stole Cymbeline’s infant sons. Normally, I am not a fan of gender changes on stage, but Burton’s abilities are not to be missed here.

When Imogen spurns her intended, Cloten (who could as easily have been named Clod….), and secretly marries Posthumous, Cymbeline banishes the young groom to Rome. There he meets the treacherous Iachimo (a charming Raúl Esparza) who conspires to con Posthumous out of a valuable ring by convincing him that he has been intimate with Imogen.

Let’s just say that this isn’t one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays (the last one I saw at least had my favorite actor John Cullum in the role of Cymbeline, and he was the best thing about that disappointing production). There are other plots involving Imogen traveling -- in disguise as a boy -- with Bellarius and his two charges, an attempt by the queen to poison Imogen and Cymbeline, an attempt to collect taxes, mistaken identities, beheaded corpses and more. The second act wraps up suddenly, as though the playwright, being pressed for time, suddenly decides to add a bunch of explanations to tie up loose ends.

But this production is well worth the time (about three hours). Methinks Linklater’s Cloten will not soon be forgotten, to put it in verse, which seems appropriate. Rabe is riveting and Burton plays the heck out of both roles, getting laughs with just a facial expression. Typical of productions in the park, the set is glorious (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) with Central Park looming in the background and this one has original music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then). Esparza entertains with a “Mac the Knife” sounding gig that is a hoot.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed out loud at Shakespeare. Thank you Daniel Sullivan for not taking Cymbeline too seriously and for letting the actors do their best work. Performances by supporting actors are strong all around as well.

Standing in the long line for free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park is worth it for this one. Get thee to the theater!

Cymbeline plays through Aug. 23 at the Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, NYC (The Delcaorte Theater is accessible by entering at 81st  Street and Central Park West, or 79th  Street and Fifth Avenue) Performances are Monday through Saturday at 8 pm. Added performance Sunday, Aug. 23 at 8 pm: Tickets are free at the box office or via online lottery at www.publictheater.org. More info: (212) 539-8734.

Additional cast:
David Furr…. Guiderius, First Lord
Jacob Ming-Trent…. Arviragus, First Gentleman
Patrick Page …. Cymbeline
Steven Skybell…. Pisanio, Gaoler, Frenchman
Emma Duncan, Tim Nicolai, and David Ryan Smith, Ensemble.

Christians might also like to know:
-- No content notes. enjoy.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Off-Broadway Theater Review: The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey

James Lecesne. Photo: Courtesy of Polk PR
Seeing a Neighborhood and One’s Self Through the Life of One Boy
By Lauren Yarger
You might not be able to get tickets to Broadway’s sold-out sensation Hamilton, which opened last week, but take heart. Summer is a great time to check out what is playing Off-Broadway in New York, and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey would be a satisfying way to spend a night at the theater.

The solo play, written and performed by James Lecesne (writer of the Academy Award-winning film “Trevor”), offers 90 minutes of consummate storytelling that ranges from comic to grim and haunting. It is the story of the disappearance of Leonard Pelkey,  a 14-year-old boy from a small New Jersey town, and Lecesne plays the numerous characters who tell the tale.

There is Chuck, the police detective, who is alerted to Leonard’s disappearance by his aunt Ellen, her daughter Phoebe and a number of other characters who share information with the detective as he tries to put the pieces together. Lecesne, directed by Tony Speciale (who also directed Absolute Brightness at its limited run at Dixon Place earlier this year), portrays sharply defined characters without having to resort to props or accents, as is the downfall of so many one-man shows.

Each one comes from the heart and develops to give us a picture of Leonard, a gay teenager who dared to be different,” and the effect he had on those who knew him – and even those who didn’t, like Chuck. We never knew him, but feel as though we did, and it’s hard to feel that this play isn’t based on a true story (which it isn’t.)

“Evil can happen anywhere. Even here,” we’re told. And we believe it.

The story could probably use some tweaking as far as writing a script goes – some more details would be helpful along the way -- but there certainly are questions (many about the role of evil in our society) to be answered and sense of mystery that fills the air on Jo Winiarski’s stark set with desk, blackboard and other indications of a detective squad room. Amusing sound effects designed by Christian Frederickson, animation and photography by Matthew Sandager, projection design by Aaron Rhyne and original music by Duncan Sheik (of Spring Awakening fame) round out the atmosphere.

A portion of ticket sales will be donated to The Trevor Project, a national suicide and crisis intervention network for at-risk LGBTQ children.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey continues through Oct. 4 at the Westside Theatre,  Downstairs, 407 West 43rd St., NYC. Performances are Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm; Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets $85: http://absolutebrightnessplay.com212-239-6200.

Christians might also like to know:
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Language

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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