Saturday, October 8, 2011

Theater Roundup: Mom Stories, Absurd Dreams, Vile Weill

Motherhood Out Loud
Written by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Jessica Goldberg, Beth Henley, Lameece Issaq, Claire LaZebnik, Lisa Loomer, Michele Lowe, Marco Pennette, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice, Annie Weisman and Cheryl L. West
Directed by Lisa Petersen
Starring Mary Bacon, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Randy Graff, James Lecesne
Performances through October 29, 2011
Primary Stages, 59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling
Written by Adam Rapp; directed by Neil Pepe
Starring Betsy Aidem, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Shane McRae, Reed Birney, Christine Lahti, Cotter Smith, Katherine Waterston
Performances through October 30, 2011
Atlantic Theatre Company @ Classic Stage, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

The Threepenny Opera
Music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Robert Wilson
Performances through October 8, 2011
Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Street, Brooklyn, NY

Bacon, Graff and Ekulona in Motherhood Out Loud (photo by James Leysne)

Motherhood Out Loud, a collection of sketches, monologues and short one-acts about being a mother from childbirth until being alone after the grownup kids leave the nest, has laughs and tears in abundance, just like the experience it dramatizes.

Brainchild of Susan Rose and Joan Stein, this 90-minute show is divided into 5 sections comprising 19 playlets. Most of the one-acts are written by Michele Lowe, with solo contributions from the likes of Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer and Theresa Rebeck. The quality varies wildly, with Lowe’s “fugues” that open each section coming off as more formulaic and sitcomish than the four excellent performers deserve.

But there are compensations. Beth Henley’s Report on Motherhood focuses on an old lady (a mordantly funny performance by Randi Graff) who’s seen it all telling her teenage great-granddaughter the truth about love and pain and the whole damn thing. Graff is also heartbreaking in Lowe’s best contribution, Queen Esther, in which a confused mom discusses dealing with her young son’s preference for dresses instead of toy guns.

Graff is one part of a superb quartet. Saidah Arrika Ekulona wrenchingly portrays a mother’s sadness over son joining the military in Stars and Stripes, James Lecesne hilariously tosses off hit-or-miss gay-dad jokes in If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m the One with Morning Sickness?, while Mary Bacon reins in a tendency to over-emote in the touching finale, My Baby.

Savvily staged by Lisa Peterson on Rachel Hauck’s cleverly minimalist sets (with a big assist from Jan Hartley’s amusing projections), Motherhood Out Loud speaks loudly and effectively about our shared humanity.Lahti in Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling (photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia)

Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying, Dreams of Falling, set in the home of an affluent Connecticut couple giving a dinner party for the son of close friends who recently attempted suicide, traffics in an all-purpose absurdism reminiscent of Edward Albee. That’s no compliment, since Albee has been churning out second-rate copies of his own best works since his last gasp, Three Tall Women, in 1992.

Rapp has paid close attention to the self-aggrandizing nastiness and gratuitous vulgarity Albee has stuffed his later plays with, so Flying/Falling has much meandering, meaningless talk about dreams (both flying and falling, hence the unwieldy title), crude flirtations by the wife with her husband’s surprised longtime friend, a chandelier-swinging sex scene between the couple’s medicated daughter and the dinner’s guest of honor, a black maid who recites Shakespeare and speaks fractured French, hosts of symbolic geese slamming into the side of the house (one of them gets cooked for dinner), and an even more symbolic lioness which may or may not be locked in the basement, and whose appearance is a blatant rip-off of the end of Albee’s The Goat.

Rapp’s blank-slate play that could be seen as a symbol for anything: America’s role in a post-Sept. 11 world; a cautionary tale about our economic collapse; even a simpleminded generation gap story. But a play that means anything ends up meaning nothing; Rapp’s absurdism gets more desperate and shrill as it goes along, despite director Neil Pepe’s estimable efforts to keep the whole mess on track, and a cast all too willing to follow Rapp wherever he leads them.

Christine Lahti, who looks smashing in a form-fitting “Chanel” outfit, gets Rapp’s nastiest lines as the bitter wife, biting into them with xenophobic, racist, classist glee. But ultimately Lahti, Cotter Smith (friend), Katherine Waterston (daughter) and Reed Birney (husband) are defeated by Rapp’s stale rap.Robert Wilson's The Threepenny Opera (photo by Lesley Leslie-Spinks)

Theater and opera legend Robert Wilson is up to his old tricks with his production of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht classic The Threepenny Opera, imported from the Berliner Ensemble’s German home to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for five performances attended by rapturous audiences, if the well-dressed middle-aged couple seated next to me, gasping, oohing and aahing throughout in admiration, is any indication.

Wilson’s usual style--kabuki makeup, robotic and regimented movement, neon lighting, minimal sets--is the antithesis of Brecht and Weill’s kinetic musical theater work, which follows the charismatic crook Macheath who juggles his women Jenny, Polly and Lucy. That Wilson makes an already lengthy show nearly unendurably static--the spoken German is so slow that even non-German speakers like myself could understand what was being said--halt the brilliantly precise musical, dramatic and comedic rhythms that Brecht and Weill built into their masterpiece.

For over three hours, we get Wilson’s processions of actors crossing the stage, occasionally striking but mostly uninspired lighting cues, pointlessly loud and crude sound effects (which got the evening’s biggest applause), overdone facial and verbal tics from an otherwise accomplished group of actors, and the dumbing down of Weill’s memorable tunes and Brecht’s biting lyrics.

Wilson cheapens The Threepenny Opera, devised by its creators as a lively, colorful and varied satire, by transforming it into a cartoon that’s monochromatic, dull and hackneyed.

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