Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Winter Theater Roundup

The Voysey Inheritance
Adapted by David Mamet from a play by Harley Granville Parker

Two Trains Running
Written by August Wilson

The Little Dog Laughed
Written by Douglas Carter Beane

David Mamet, author of such plays as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo and movies like The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games, is known for his tough-guy characters and barbed, often profane dialogue. So that he's the perfect person to adapt a play by the Victorian-era playwright Harley Granville Barker seems surprising.

But that's just what Mamet has done with The Voysey Inheritance, Barker's 1905 drawing-room melodrama about a rich English family thrown into turmoil when the basis for its wealth is revealed--the firm headed by the father is playing a shell game with clients' investments--and the eldest son must decide to either keep the charade going to buy time to try paying everyone back or go public with what's happened and risk jail.

Barker's play was originally five acts, over three hours long, and had several additional characters and settings. Mamet has trimmed it down to two acts, two hours, with only one setting and minus some in-laws. Although Barker's nimble writing keeps interest throughout, Mamet's streamlining pays dramatic as well as financial dividends (Mamet's version is easier and cheaper for smaller companies, like Mamet's own Atlantic Theater Company in Manhattan, to produce the play). It's probably also not coincidental that this play--studying the effects of swindling an unsuspecting public out of its savings--has particular resonance in today's post-Enron world.

David Warren's direction keeps things moving briskly, never allowing the characters' talkiness to obscure a damn good story. Derek McLane's set--the Voysey clan's library--cleverly creates expensive opulence with the barest of means, and all of the actors are very good. Most worthy of praise is Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward, the son wrestling with the consequences of his father's (and grandfather's) criminal actions: this always good actor is in fine fettle in the play's pivotal role.


For the second production in its season of plays by August Wilson (who died last October), the Signature Theatre Company has revived Two Trains Running, one of Wilson's longest but most absorbing works. Part of Wilson's 10-play cycle concerning the black American experience through each decade of the 20th century, Two Trains Running takes place in Pittsburgh in 1969, set in a diner run by Memphis (a superb Frankie Faison).

The characters who meet and converse in Memphis's place--a numbers runner, an undertaker, a just-released ex-con, a commonsensical retiree, an unhinged (but harmless) neighborhood kid, and a physically and emotionally-scarred waitress--are, as always in Wilson's plays, made humane and sympathetic through the playwright's extraordinary ability to allow his creations to wax poetic believably and plausibly.

When West, the undertaker who's seen it all, describes how he finally realized the true importance of death after his beloved wife's passing, or when Memphis rails against the system that he believes keeps him from collecting full profit for his restaurant, they talk in soliloquies that approach Shakespeare: throughout Two Trains Running, we remain riveted to the stage because of Wilson's peerless dialogue.

Also riveting are the diner set by Derek McLane (again doing wonders for a small company), the no-nonsense direction of Lou Bellamy, and the sublime performances from the entire cast: Faison, Ron Cephas Jones, January Lavoy, Arthur French, Leon Addison Brown, Chad L. Coleman and Ed Wheeler are a first-rate ensemble, and the best tribute to Wilson's enduring work.


I reviewed The Little Dog Laughed, Douglas Carter Beane's wan Hollywood satire, upon its off-Broadway premiere last season. Now on Broadway, it hasn't improved much; in fact, its minuses are more glaringly apparent on the Great White Way.

As Diane, the singleminded agent of an up-and-coming, closeted movie star, Julie White ups the ante on her aggressively comic performance: she had italicized her line readings with exaggerated gestures and facial play that clued even the least attentive audience member to her schtick in the small off-Broadway house, but instead of toning it down, her caricature of a soulless, smartass agent is even more over the top now. Sure, she's funny, but she'd be even funnier if she weren't playing to the last row in the balcony with nearly every line.

Beane's satirical jabs at Hollywood and Broadway are intermittently amusing, even pungent, but after he sets up his promising premise--perfect for today's media oversaturation of stars' private lives--he goes nowhere until he reaches his desperate (but not entirely implausible) ending.

Scott Ellis adroitly directs, the rest of the cast is up to snuff --with Ari Graynor as the gay actor's boyfriend's girlfriend (got it?) more than that--and Allen Moyer's excellent set design, which helps clarify Beane's confused comedic scheme, has been ably transferred to the larger Broadway stage.

originally posted on staticmultimedia.com

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