Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Theater Roundup: Ibsen on Broadway; "Red Dog Howls," "Exonerated," "Detroit" Off Broadway

An Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen's play adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz; directed by Doug Hughes
Performances through November 11, 2012
Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Red Dog Howls
Written by Alexander Dinelaris; directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Performances through October 14, 2012
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY

The Exonerated
Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen; directed by Bob Balaban
Performances through November 4, 2012
Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY

Written by Lisa D’Amour; directed by Anne Kauffmann
Performances through October 28, 2012
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Gaines and Thomas in An Enemy of the People (photo: Joan Marcus)
Written in response to the withering criticism of Ghosts, An Enemy of the People is Henrik Ibsen’s most personal work. In the wrong hands, it can seem strident, but a committed cast, director and adapter can bring out its inherent power.

Some of that is on display in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s new production, which is erratically directed by Doug Hughes and breathlessly enacted by a cast utilizing British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s crude adaptation. Still, I doubt Ibsen would be entirely displeased: after all, his story of Dr. Thomas Stockmann, vilified by the local populace—including Peter, his brother and the town’s mayor—for daring to speak out about polluted water in the spa town’s baths because the area’s very lifeblood is threatened, is one of his most polemical, as are his major points about the dangers of conformity and of the majority, and of not speaking out despite the consequences.

There’s no denying Enemy’s essential preachiness, which Hughes and Lenkiewicz rarely transcend. There are strong moments from Boyd Gaines’s fiery Thomas, who never forgoes the humor and humanity needed to make him a flawed hero: his big speech to the townsfolk (for which he’s branded “an enemy of the people” for speaking truth to power)—spoken from atop a table for maximum effect—is the play’s best scene.

Ibsen’s sardonic commentary on politicians who are bought by the rich and the many sheep dominating the citizenry undoubtedly resonates during our shrill election season. Ibsen himself survives, but in vastly reduced form.  

Chalfant in Red Dog Howls (photo: Stephanie Warren)
That Kathleen Chalfant is magnificent in Red Dog Howls should surprise no one: she originated the role of a poetry professor dying of cancer in Margaret Edson’s Wit, one of the most emotionally draining and unforgettable pieces of acting I’ve seen in nearly three decades of New York theatergoing.

But despite Chalfant’s presence, Rose—a 91-year-old Armenian who, in 1986, tells her grandson Michael (an appealing Alfredo Narciso) the horrific means by which she was able to survive the 1915 massacre of millions of her people by the Turks—is less a coherent characterization than a means to an end for playwright Alexander Dinelaris to dramatize what is, in reality, undramatizable.

By giving Rose a long monologue in which she painfully describes how she lost her husband and infant daughter but saved herself and her three-year-old son—Michael’s father—Dinelaris provides a brilliant actress with a bravura scene, and Chalfant responds with a wrenching description of inhumanity, concluding with a howl that echoes seven decades of indescribable, unbearable pain.

But otherwise, Red Dog Howls pretty pedestrian, its clunky exposition of Michael speaking directly to the audience as he discovers his family’s history while his beloved wife Gabriella (a wonderful, if wasted, Florencia Lozano) is expecting their first child highlighting its obvious blatancy. 

Dennehy, Lindo, Channing in The Exonerated (photo: Carol Rosegg)
It’s no exaggeration to call The Exonerated an important work of theatrical propaganda, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play—in which the actual words of innocent people who escaped death row are given forceful life by actors sitting on stools with no scenery or costumes—is gripping in its humaneness, and happily the Culture Project brings it back after premiering its stories of heartbreak, loss and, finally, redemption a decade ago.

In Bob Balaban’s simple but effective staging, the cast of 10 sits and reads from scripts. But subject and performances are so gripping that by its end, one is drained and ready to take up the cause of justice. When I saw it, Brian Dennehy, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo and Chris Sarandon were excellent as innocents whose lives were taken away than given back. Cast members change weekly, but it doesn’t matter who’s onstage: just see it.  

Ryan and Schwimmer in Detroit (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit has good observational details in an increasingly absurd tale of a normal suburban couple eventually driven from their home by next-door neighbors; too bad it eventually collapses like a house of cards.

When Mary and Ben invite Sharon and Kenny to a “welcome to the neighborhood” BBQ, a relationship begins that gets increasingly stranger until ending in a literal blaze of glory. Early on, D’Amour makes casual asides about antiseptic suburbia but decides correctly that isn’t enough to sustain a full-length play. So she turns toward more bizarre territory, showing suburbia’s seamy underbelly with the same sledgehammer David Lynch used in Blue Velvet, his camera burrowing from a bucolic scene to insidious—and all-too literal—bugs scurrying underground.

By the time an outsider arrives to explain what happened, Detroit—which could be titled Cleveland or Toledo or Buffalo—has completely come off the rails, and neither smart comic acting by Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer nor Anne Kauffmann’s savvy directing can come to the rescue.

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