Friday, November 18, 2011

Theater Roundup: Four Off-Broadway Shows

Written by Julia Brownell; directed by Evan Cabnet
Previews began October 24, 2011; opened November 7; closes November 19
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays
Written by Mo Gaffney, Jordan Harrison, Jeffrey Hatcher, Moisés Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Wendy MacLeod, José Rivera, Paul Rudnick and Doug Wright; directed by Stuart Ross
Previews began November 7, 2011; opened November 13
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York, NY

The Atmosphere of Memory
Written by David Bar Katz; directed by Pam MacKinnon
Previews began October 15, 2011; opened October 30; closes November 20
Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank Street, New York, NY

Burmese Days
Written and directed by Ryan Kiggell; adapted from George Orwell’s novel
Previews began November 9, 2011; opened November 16; closes December 4
Brits Off-Broadway at 59 E 59
59 East 59th Street, New York NY

Meredith Forlenza and C.J. Wilson in All-American (photo by Gregory Costanzo)
In All-American, Julia Brownell takes an implausible situation--wispy Katie is the starting quarterback on a powerhouse high school football team, her sights on a college and pro career--and uses it as a study of a family in crisis: father Mike, a retired pro QB, now lives vicariously through Katie’s talent; mother Beth, now selling expensive homes, feels her real-estate job finally provides the self-confidence and self-respect lacking as a mere football wife; and twin brother Aaron, as lanky as Katie but brainy, not athletic.

Brownell conjures many dramatic situations, like Mike’s insistence that Katie will break the NFL’s glass ceiling; Beth shutting her husband and children out of her current situation; Aaron’s social awkwardness until he meets another high school outcast, Natasha; or Katie wanting to stop playing football.

That’s too much for a 90-minute play to chew on, and Brownell nods toward complexity without ever achieving it. She writes for HBO’s clever but glib Hung and All-American resembles a slick TV sitcom with every character improbably clever, always barking out snappy dialogue. Cramming so much into so slender a frame causes more than a few fumbles.

Under Evan Cabnet’s well-paced direction, an exemplary cast creates a plausible family dynamic, led by Meredith Forlenza’s appealing Katie and Harry Zittel’s Aaron, who raises teenage awkwardness to an art form.

The cast of Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays (photo by Joan Marcus)
Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, an amiable collection of mostly comic one-acts celebrating gay relationships, looks to recreate the off-Broadway success of Love, Loss and What I Wore with revolving celebrity casts giving essentially staged readings under Stuart Ross’s steady direction.

The difference, say Ceremony’s producers, is that the stories will revolve along with the casts. For now, the nine one-acts include two typically wacky Paul Rudnick farces, one typical Neil LaBute shocker (appropriately titled Strange Fruit) and an affecting Moises Kaufman monologue.

These and five other sketches are endearingly enacted by Harriet Harris, Beth Leavel, Polly Draper, Mark Consuelos, Craig Bierko and Richard Thomas; Thomas handles Kaufman’s London Mosquitoes with a touching effortlessness that earns commiseration and tears and nearly makes the show’s frivolous wedding finale anti-climactic.

John Glover and Ellen Burstyn in The Atmosphere of Memory (photo by Monique Carboni)
In The Atmosphere of Memory, David Bar Katz’s self-reflexive portrait of a playwright whose messy memories give him difficulties with his new work and with his own family, has good ideas so inadequately executed that the result is flippant wrongheadedness.

Katz presents large chunks of his protagonist Jon’s play-within-the-play as deliberately crude, vulgar and heavy-handed: unfortunately, much of Katz’s real play is equally absurd (one assumes not deliberately). The choppy, episodic structure swallows the characters whole, making them mere puppets moved around by both playwrights to suit their whims, precludes any revealing behavior or a shred of psychological insight.

Instead, Katz borrows emotional catharsis from another artist: John Lennon, whose powerfully personal song “Mother” is co-opted for his finale, ringing false in this context. It’s also unfortunate that Katz’s dialogue is riddled with mistakes like “hone in” for “home in,” “lay” for “lie” and misusing “comprise.”

Pam Mackinnon’s direction can’t coalesce disjunctive parts into anything resembling a whole, even as her cast tries rising above Katz’s stick figures. Ellen Burstyn retains her dignity as Claire, Jon’s actress mother, while the invaluable John Glover’s deadbeat dad Murray dominates whenever he’s onstage. The actor’s naturally gregarious personality makes the play(s) lopsided in ways that Katz and his protagonist surely never meant.

The cast of Burmese Days (photo by Carol Rosegg)
George Orwell’s novel, the picturesque Burmese Days, is a poor choice for a stage adaptation, especially in the bare-bones production that the Aya Theatre Company imported from England for an opening salvo in this year’s Brits Off Broadway Festival.

The talented cast of four men and two women swaps accents to enact over a dozen Brits and Burmese in Orwell’s absorbing story of imperialism and casual racism. The performers also double on visual and sound effects (impersonating a water buffalo or a leopard, making bird noises), but no one creates any compelling characters while busying themselves with the cleverness of Ryan Kiggell’s adaptation (Kiggell’s one of the actors).

Orwell’s racy writing survives in some narrated passages, but his story--playing out on gorgeous locations with colorful characters both human and animal--begs for widescreen epic film treatment a la David Lean, rather than this stripped-down staging.

No comments: