Friday, October 28, 2011

Theater Roundup: MLK and Woody on Broadway, WASPs Off-Broadway

The Mountaintop
Written by Katori Hall; directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson
Previews began September 22, 2011; opened October 13
Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Relatively Speaking
Written by Ethan Coen, Elaine May, Woody Allen; directed by John Turturro
Starring Caroline Aaron, Lisa Emery, Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker, Marlo Thomas
Previews began September 20, 2011; opened on October 20
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Scott Alan Evans
Starring Darrie Lawrence, Margaret Nichols, Richard Thieriot, Lynn Wright
Previews began October 18, 2011; opened October 27; performances thru November 20
Becket Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Award-winning playwright Katori Hall has set herself up to be knocked down off the mountain with her speculative drama about Martin Luther King.

Set in the Memphis hotel room that King stayed in the night before he was killed, The Mountaintop pits King against Camae, a maid who is more (or less) than whom she initially seems. The plot would work better a lot shorter, especially since a Twilight Zone episode would wrap things up in 30 minutes.

Jackson, Bassett in The Mountaintop (photo: Joan Marcus)

Unfortunately, Hall pads her play with imagined conversations between King and Camae, often filled with unneeded profanity. Camae apologizes profusely several times to King after letting loose with expletives, and the show’s biggest laughs come when King throws down his own F-bombs. Hall tries humanizing King by showing him behind closed doors, as it were, off the pedestal he’s occupied since his assassination. When the play opens, King enters the hotel room coughing, shivering, desperately needing a cigarette; he goes into the bathroom where we hear him urinating. At least he doesn’t belch or pass gas, which would be too obvious, apparently.

The play’s shallow crux--an unpersuasive revealing of Camae’s true identity--makes the first hour, in retrospect, nothing more than a pointless buildup, and the last part is simply Hall climbing to the top of her soapbox to show what King’s death has wrought. Some dialogue has bite, humor and even occasional insight, but Hall is too enamored of her conceit to plumb the depths of her flimsy characters.

Director Kenny Leon stages The Mountaintop as realistically as possible on David Gallo’s spectacularly shabby hotel-room set, which yields to a visually impressive visualization of the play’s title (which is taken from a King speech heard at the beginning). Gallo’s apt projections accompany Camae’s monologue about the last 40-odd years of universal struggle following MLK’s death.

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett are too old for their parts, but Jackson’s King is nicely understated and Bassett’s Camae is amusingly over the top; Bassett (who looks smashing, by the way) has been criticized for hamming, but she’s so infectious that she makes sitting through The Mountaintop less of a chore than it would have been if a lesser actress was onstage.

Graynor, Guttenberg in Woody Allen's Honeymoon Motel (photo: Joan Marcus)
The three one-acts making up Relatively Speaking are seen in ascending order of hilarity. Ethan Coen’s short curtain-raiser, Talking Cure, is a one-note riff on the offbeat characters he and his brother have made their onscreen specialty; Elaine May’s George Is Dead is an amusingly slight character study about a narcissistic rich widow; and Woody Allen’s old-fashioned farce Honeymoon Motel has jokes galore, with hit or miss laughs.

Director John Turturro seems at sea in the rudderless Coen comedy, which moves in fits and starts. If not for Danny Hoch’s delightfully deranged line readings, Talking Cure would be 15 minutes of wasted talking. That Turturro better grasps May’s comic rhythms in George Is Dead is shown in Marlo Thomas’s tour de force of shrill intensity as the clueless Doreen, a role May herself might have played earlier in her career. As Doreen’s straight woman, Lisa Emery gives a sympathetic portrayal that grounds May’s sometimes strident comedy with a dose of much-needed reality.

All bets are off in Allen’s Honeymoon Motel, which is stuffed to the gills with one-liners and zingers that have collected in Allen’s fertile comic brain for the past four decades. There’s a goodly amount of groaners, to be sure, but there are also enough good lines sprinkled about that the pace rarely flags until Woody winds things down to an abrupt finale. You can hear Woody’s own voice when someone says “There’s a lot to be said for inertia in marriage--especially now with Netflix” or “Did you see the look on the rabbi’s face? Like someone gave back the Left Bank.”

As in May’s play, Turturro adeptly lets his 10 cast members find their own comic rhythms and meshes them together: adroit comic performers like Julie Kavner, Richard Libertini, Mark Linn-Baker and Ari Graynor don’t overwhelm lesser lights like Steve Guttenberg. The three plays‘ formidable visual design comprises Santo Loquasto’s ravishing sets, Kenneth Posner’s deft lighting and Donna Zakowska’s agreeable costumes. Relatively Speaking works best as Woody Allen’s return to the uncontrolled outrageousness of Bananas.

Lawrence, Nichols in Children (photo: Stephen Kunken)
Children, A.R. Gurney’s 1974 comic study of New England WASPs, is tougher than other plays like The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, whose genteel satire is replaced with more acid.

At a summer house on an island off the Massachusetts coast on July 4th weekend in 1970, an affluent family is in crisis. Just-divorced Barbara, who has brought her children, is quietly carrying on with the family’s former lawn keeper; her hotheaded, competitive brother Randy, a school teacher, is is visiting with his easygoing wife Jane and their kids; and their widowed mother (called “Mother“), who announces that she’s marrying longtime family friend “Uncle” Bill, who remains unseen, along with other characters: Barbara and Randy’s younger, free-spirited brother Pokey and wife Miriam, who arrive with their soda-drinking, foul-mouthed kids; and Barbara, Randy and Pokey’s.father, who died five years earlier. Gurney generally handles these glaring absences well, except in Mother’s final monologue, when she speaks to Pokey, who’s standing behind a screen door: his silence during her conversation is implausible.

Throughout the course of one day, this family’s varied skeletons come tumbling out of the closet, and Gurney lays bare the generations-long repression of these WASPs. As always, Gurney’s dialogue sparkles as both repartee and riposte: Jane’s coming-out party --where she met Sandy--is called a “WASP bar mitzvah,” while Barbara makes an astute observation about her family: “That‘s why we have to be near the ocean. We have to go through these ritual cleansings.”

Despite his affection for them, Gurney mercilessly dissects these children. The final image of Mother alone on a terrace with a view of the sea (nicely rendered by set designer Brett J. Banakis and Bradley King’s lighting) shows a resignation, even a loneliness, usually missing from Gurney’s work.

Scott Alan Evans ably guides a superb cast: Richard Thieriot (Randy), Lynn Wright (Jane) and Darrie Lawrence (Mother) solidly grasp their roles, but Margaret Nichols, whose Barbara is a beautifully-realized lost soul, is so good that one wonders why such a valuable actress isn’t onstage more often.

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