Monday, July 9, 2012

Off-Broadway: Pierce's "Slowgirl"; Maltby and Shire's "Closer Than Ever"

Starring Željkko Ivanek, Sarah Steele
Written by Greg Pierce; directed by Anne Kauffman
Previews began June 4, 2012; opened June 18; closes July 29
Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Closer Than Ever
Starring Jenn Colella, George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, Sal Viviano 
Music by David Shire; lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Choreographed by Kurt Stamm; directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Previews began June 5, 2012; opened June 20; closes July 14
York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 

Slowgirl (photo by Erin Baiano)
First, the good news: the new, intimately-scaled Claire Tow Theater is a worthy addition to Lincoln Center Theater’s spaces, a terrific place to watch new plays by up-and-coming playwrights, the LCT3 program’s mandate.

Now, the not-so-good news: Slowgirl, the Claire Tow’s inaugural production, is a workmanlike, repetitious two-hander by Greg Pierce whose glimmers of interest are buried by tedious exposition and colorless characterization. Set in the village of Los Angeles, Costa Rica, Slowgirl concerns Becky, a 17-year-old who spends a week with her Uncle Sterling far from the scene of a teenage party gone horrifically wrong back home in Massachusetts.

Pierce’s script shows a knack for recreating the rhythms of everyday speech of two people who haven’t seen each other in years and are sizing each other up. (Although Becky’s endless—if plausible—use of the interjection “like” quickly annoys.) But the characters are given histories that too neatly coincide: when we discover why Sterling is so far from home and what he ran away from, the parallels between uncle and niece are too convenient and pat.

Anne Kauffman’s simple staging exposes the crude mechanics of Pierce’s drama, such as the patently obvious symbolism of Becky and Sterling walking in circles on the stone paths of a labyrinth Sterling made years earlier. Even though Željkko Ivanek (Sterling) and Sarah Steele (Becky) enact this uncompelling character study persuasively enough, they can’t hide the defects in Pierce’s writing.

Closer Than Ever (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Richard Maltby and David Shire’s 1989 off-Broadway show Closer Than Ever isn’t a musical but rather a plotless revue whose 24 songs are performed by a singing quartet. Some of those songs are very good, even if a few—like the opening and closing numbers, “Doors” and “Closer Than Ever”—are infected with Sondheim-itis, in which our greatest musical theater creator is echoed too closely for comfort, and to composer Shire and lyricist Maltby’s detriment.

The further from Sondheim they get, the better off they are: “Miss Byrd” playfully upends conventions in its tale of a mousy office worker; “There” poignantly chronicles a failed marriage, and “Fathers of Fathers” works through variously emotional paternal relations.

Superbly accompanied by pianist/musical director Andrew Gerle and a bass player, our singers affectingly perform both individually and together, led by sexy Jenn Colella; too often icy and distant, here she warms to the songs beautifully, especially “Miss Byrd” and “There.” And with Christiane Noll, Sal Viviano and George Dvorsky appealingly rounding out the talented foursome, Closer Than Ever makes for a diverting couple of hours.

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