Saturday, October 27, 2012

Theater Roundup: "Virginia Woolf" on Broadway; "Freedom of the City," "Modern Terrorism," Heresy" off-Broadway

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Written by Edward Albee; directed by Pam Mackinnon
Performances through February 24, 2013
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The Freedom of the City
Written by Brian Friel; directed by Ciaran O’Reilly
Performances through November 25, 2012
Irish Repertory Theatre, 136 West 22nd Street, New York, NY

Modern Terrorism, or: They Who Want to Kill and How We Learn to Love Them
Written by Jon Kern; directed by Peter DeBois
Performances through November 4, 2012
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Written by A. R. Gurney; directed by Jim Simpson
Performances through November 4, 2012
Flea Theatre, 41 White Street, New York, NY
Letts and Morton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (photo: Michael Brosilow)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in an incendiary new staging by Pam Mackinnon transplanted from Chicago to Broadway, proves that Edward Albee was once a vital, important playwright—which is hard to believe, considering the substandard Albee plays we’ve been seeing in New York in recent years, from The Goat or Who Is Sylvia and Me Myself and I to this year’s disastrous return of The Lady from Dubuque.

No matter: 1962’s Virginia Woolf, is by far Albee’s best play. It recounts one very long night for two couples in a small university town at the house of longtime history professor George and wife (and the college president’s daughter) Martha, as new and young professor Nick and wife Honey arrive for drinks and talk that turns nasty.

Sure, there are the familiar Albee tropes: the metaphysical grandstanding, unnecessary foul language, parsing of words and phrases, and surrealist touches, but Albee smartly keeps his high-wire dramatics going until an anti-climactic final scene. And since these couples—led by the endlessly squabbling, duking-it-out George and Martha—are multi-dimensional characters we are actually interested in, Virginia Woolf remains an emotionally charged three hours in the theater.

In a play about how words can hurt mercilessly, Mackinnon’s directing re-charges the physical confrontations into something that adds immeasurably to the conflicts between and among the couples. Although Todd Rosenthal’s set is a bit too gorgeously appointed for a mere professor’s house, it certainly provides a superbly-detailed ring for these figurative boxing matches to play out on. And what acting!

The four Chicago-based actors give flawless performances. Madison Dirks makes a perfectly annoying Nick and Carrie Coon—except for her overdone drunken scenes—is a perfectly weak Honey. Amy Morton, whose towering acting in August: Osage County was an indelible theater moment, plays Martha with remarkable nuance, making believable both her barbs at George and her underlying sadness.

Pacing Morton word for word and blow by blow is Tracy Letts: although I’ve admired his plays August: Osage County, Bug and Killer Joe—and he’s been onstage in Chicago for years—it’s my first time seeing him. And he’s a revelation: his George gives as good as he gets, making a much better sparring partner for Martha than an ineffectual Bill Irwin did for an overbearing Kathleen Turner in the stodgy 2005 Broadway revival.
Friel's The Freedom of the City (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City—which reports on the deaths of a trio of Irish locals at the hands of the English—was written in 1973, following the killing of several people on what’s known as “Bloody Sunday,”  which Friel alludes to in his most explicitly political play.

Friel is unapologetically didactic, humanizing his martyred trio and letting the British officials act like inhumane monsters, which may be truthful but makes for lopsided drama. Still, Friel’s poetic flair takes flight in several monologues that personalize an otherwise dispassionate tract. Ciaran O’Reilly’s straightforward directing, a solid group of actors, and Charlie Corcoran’s imaginative set richly transform the Irish Rep’s tiny stage into the volatile streets of Derry.
Two plays about our uncertain post-9/11 world are little more than Saturday Night Live skits stretched too thin. Jon Kern’s Modern Terrorism: Or They Who Want to Kills Us and How We Learn to Love Them (an obvious allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s classic satire Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) finds dark humor in three inept Middle East conspirators plotting to blow up the Empire State Building.

Skillful comic acting by Utkarsh Ambudkar, William Jackson Harper and Nitya Vidyasagar as the would-be bad guys and gal is blunted by Steven Boyer’s broad Jack Black impression as a doofus neighbor who stumbles upon them. Peter DuBois’ direction can’t give shape to Kern’s mostly misfiring comedy.
Old pro A.R. Gurney alternates between affectionate comedies of manners and screeds against former President Bush’s wartime bungling and overreaching: his Heresy is an example of the latter. In the near-future in what’s now called New America, a prefect named Pontius Pilate is visited by old friends Joseph and Mary, upset that their son Chris (without the final “T”) has been thrown in jail for no apparent reason.

Strained Biblical parallels aside, Gurney and director Jim Simpson keep things percolating amusingly until this paper-thin satire is resolved in 75 painless minutes. An accomplished cast led by Reg E. Cathey, Annette O’Toole and Karen Ziemba polishes off Gurney’s one-liners with comic zest, putting off the playwright’s worries about a future police state to a later date.

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