Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Off-Broadway Summer: All New People, The Shoemaker, Death Takes a Holiday

All New People
Written by Zach Braff; Directed by Peter Dubois
Starring David Wilson Barnes, Justin Bartha, Anna Camp, Krysten Ritter
Opened July 26; closes August 14, 2011
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

The Shoemaker
Written by Susan Charlotte; Directed by Antony Marsellis
Starring Danny Aiello, Alma Cuervo, Lucy DeVito, Michael Twaine
Opened July 24; closes August 14, 2011
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Death Takes a Holiday
Book by Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan; based on the play by Alberto Casella
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi, Simon Jones, Rebecca Luker, Julian Ovenden, Jill Paice
Opened July 21; closes September 4, 2011
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Although the long-delayed Spiderman and the national tour of Hair recently opened on Broadway, summer belongs to new off-Broadway shows. But only Zach Braff’s All New People is truly new; The Shoemaker was originally a one-act and Death Takes a Holiday, originally from Alberto Casella’s play, became a movie in 1934 with Frederic March.
Anna Camp and Justin Bartha in All New People (photo by Joan Marcus)
All New People, the first play by Zach Braff, shows the earmarks of someone who spent a lot of time working on sitcoms. When Charlie, on his 35th birthday, is caught trying to kill himself in a South Jersey beach house by Emma, who’s renting the place out, he ends up hosting her, her firefighter/drug dealer friend Myron and Manhattan high-priced escort Kim, who was sent to Charlie by the house’s owner in the hopes that she’ll cheer him up.

The quartet goes through emotional turmoil of the superficial sort found on a TV show like Scrubs, which Braff starred in, or a movie like Garden State, which Braff wrote, directed and starred in. The play’s lively if self-conscious dialogue furiously flies out of the characters’ mouths and zooms past the audience members’ heads. At one point, Charlie complains that Myron always has an obnoxious quip at the ready, but since each one tosses them out interchangeably, why poor Myron is singled out isn’t clear.

Braff, playing it safe, has his characters parrot many pop culture references, like The Lion King, Home Alone, Beverly Hills Cop and The Ten Commandments, TV shows like Fantasy Island, music artists like Sarah MacLachlan, Usher and Steely Dan, and even Riverdance, which is the music Charlie has on when Emma first walks in on him.

Braff’s clever but slight writing is marred by his characters’ unearned epiphanies, especially when Charlie’s claim of being responsible for six people’s deaths turns out to be true: that heavy-duty plot twist that has no business among such frivolity. There’s also a quartet of diverting film sequences to help flesh out the characters, while Peter DuBois’ engaging direction, which smoothes over the rough patches, keeps a brisk pace.

The comedy percolates thanks to Krysten Ritter (Emma), David Wilson Barnes (Myron) and Justin Bartha (Charlie), but they pale next to Anna Camp’s hilarious Kim. Breathing new life into a stock blonde bimbo part, Camp (featured in season 2 of HBO’s True Blood) never camps it up in an enchanting performance as the sexy, unwittingly wise hooker prone to malapropisms. Camp effortlessly turns the routine into something special: so when will she get her much deserved Born Yesterday moment on Broadway?Danny Aiello in The Shoemaker (photo by Ben Hider)
Susan Charlotte’s well-intentioned but impossibly na├»ve The Shoemaker not only trods the ground of September 11, but adds the Holocaust into its ungainly mix. A Hell’s Kitchen shoe repairer, who closed his store following the attacks, meets Hilary, a breathless woman with a hole in her sole after walking uptown for miles once the Twin Towers collapsed. After he agrees to fix her shoe, he tells her about Louise, a young woman who hasn’t yet returned to pick up her pair of fancy shoes. The worried shoemaker, an Italian Jew who escaped the Fascists, also speaks with his dead father, who never made it out of Italy alive, for which his son still feels shame and anger.

Charlotte’s play has been expanded from a one-act version which omitted the Holocaust. The added second act makes a clunky play even more lumbering: originally dealing with the immense loss of human life on September 11, the play has now become a disjointed and creaky melodrama which reeks of insufferable sentimentality.

Charlotte’s pretentious symbolism (“sole/soul” puns, for starters) makes it impossible to respond rationally, and Anthony Marsellis’s blatant directing follows suit. If Alma Cuervo’s shrill Hilary and Lucy DeVito’s barely-there Louise are cardboard caricatures, at least Danny Aiello’s sympathetic shoemaker deserves plaudits for finding an emotional connection to the material.

If The Shoemaker was staged in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it might have played successfully on our frayed nerves; a decade later, more substance is needed.
Jill Paice and Julian Ovenden in Death Takes a Holiday (photo by Joan Marcus)
In Death Takes a Holiday, the title character takes a weekend off, ostensibly because he’s weary of dealing with so many corpses (it’s 1921, and World War I had him working overtime), but really because he’s fallen for Grazia, beautiful daughter of the Duke and Duchess Lamberti, whose grand villa is where Death spends his time disguised as a Russian prince whom Grazia promptly falls for, her impending nuptials notwithstanding.

Casella’s play touched on the tragedy of young men dying in war, but little of that melancholy survives in the musical, with its by-the-numbers Thomas Meehan and Peter Stone book and Maury Yeston’s hummably forgettable score. Although “Losing Roberto,” in which the Duchess mourns her son’s wartime death, is the most memorable number, it’s mostly thanks to Rebecca Luker’s heartfelt singing.

Derek McLane’s attractive but cramped set and Catherine Zuber’s routine period costumes don’t help matters, and director Doug Hughes is unable to move his large cast around the small stage area with graceful ease. Leads (pictured above) Jill Paice, a sweet-voiced Grazia, and Julian Ovenden, a powerfully-sung Death, have little chemistry together, which keeps this old-fashioned, overlong crowd-pleaser from being much more than a nostalgia piece.

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