Sunday, March 17, 2013

Theater Roundup: “Vanya and Sonia...” and “Ann” on Broadway; “The Flick” and “Talley’s Folly” Off-Broadway

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Written by Christopher Durang; directed by Nicholas Martin
Performances through June 9, 2013
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Written and performed by Holland Taylor; directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein
Performances through June 9, 2013
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

The Flick
Written by Annie Baker; directed by Sam Gold
Performances through April 7, 2013
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Talley’s Folly
Written by Lanford Wilson; directed by Michael Wilson
Performances through May 12, 2013
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY

Magnussen, Weaver and Hyde Pierce in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Christopher Durang’s absurdist plays work best when couched in some kind of reality, even if—as in his latest, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike—it’s theatrical reality. For, as its unwieldy title shows, V&S&M&S begins as a riff on Chekhov, but Durang smartly (and tartly) keeps the Chekhovian references to easily digestible ones that won’t overtax the majority of the audience.

Durang’s play is a melancholy comedy of manners, set not in Mother Russia but Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Sonia and Vanya, middle-aged brother and his adopted sister, are living in their parents’ palatial house nestled in the woods, with a pond and even a cherry orchard of sorts (10 or 11 trees, we are told). While they cared for their parents as they succumbed to Alzheimer’s, sister Masha went on to fame and fortune as a movie and stage star; she returns home with her latest boy toy, a blonde Adonis named Spike, in tow, and skeletons—among other things—come tumbling out of the family closet.

Durang’s humor hasn’t been this zestily on-target in years—he even introduces Cassandra, a black housekeeper whose portents are given delirious spin by the playwright (and an incredibly disciplined performance by Shalite Grant) as she gleefully practices voodoo on Masha, who wants to sell the house she pays for. Sentiment, absurdist humor and family drama are dealt with hilariously but humanely, and Nicholas Martin’s pitch-perfect direction effortlessly juggles Durang’s many balls in the air.

David Korins’ spacious set is a playground for its cast. Billy Magnussen’s Spike is an empty-headed muscle god incarnate, the always mugging Kristine Nielsen overplays outrageously but hilariously as spinster Sonia, while Sigourney Weaver gives Masha a triumphant physical workout, proving she hasn’t lost her agility for broad physical comedy she showed in Ghostbusters. And David Hyde Pierce—who spends most of the play slyly understated as a middle-aged gay man accepting his lot in life—finally lets loose with a marvel of a rant that tweaks 60 years of popular culture in one fell swoop. Only Durang could reference Twitter and Howdy Doody with the same raised eyebrow.

Taylor as Ann Richards in Ann (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Ann, Holland Taylor transforms into the endlessly quotable, bighearted, enormously appealing Texas governor Ann Richards, who not only broke the glass ceiling in a state known for its good old boy politics but literally put her fist through it, as a female Democrat in a state bleeding red.

For two hours, actress-playwright Taylor presents a distinctive portrait of a woman who became what she always wanted—even if, while her father was always supportive, her mother seemed more sanguine, at least to a daughter craving her praise—and soon took the American political world by storm with her barnstorming 1988 Democratic National Convention appearance.

The one-woman show gives Taylor many chances to shine, and she runs with them, from that distinctive Texas drawl to tales told out of school to her chumminess with President Clinton (“Bill”). Shaped with endearing clunkiness by director Benjamin Endsley Klein, Ann begins as a speech to a graduating class then morphs into Richards running the statehouse, fielding requests and papers to sign while battling an unseen assistant (voiced by Julie White) and her hard-to-reach children.

If parts of the play sag—how many phone calls do we need to see, or how many anecdotes, however pointed, do we need to hear?—there’s always Taylor, doing her damnedest to bring out the indomitable spirit of a true American original.

The Flick (photo: Joan Marcus)
Despite its stultifying three-hour running time, Annie Baker’s The Flick—set in a rundown second-run movie theater, a bygone relic of the digital age—is anything but epic in its desultory look at workers who clean the theater after screenings: their conversations, which drop the word “like” more often than any human possibly could, are sub-literate arguments about movies or who likes whom (or “who,” as they would say), along with the occasional foray into the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

It’s hard to believe a veteran playwright (and multi-award winner) wrote such an unholy mess. It seems more the work of a rank amateur: the dramatic reversals, if one might call them that, are so leaden and glib that they never seem plausible or amusing. If Avery says he’s allergic to feces (less felicitously than that, of course), then you know he will later encounter a feces-strewn restroom; if Sam mocks Avery’s middle name “Newton,” then of course Sam admits his middle name is “Gruber”; and if Sam explains that he hates moviegoers leaving behind their own food—not even purchased at the concession stand!—then it’s a given he will admit to leaving his bag of tamales at another theater.

Baker has done her filmic research, for what it’s worth: we hear about celluloid vs. digital while she name-drops everything from Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained to The Tree of Life, Avatar and even—most gratuitously and dubiously—Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of  a Dreamer.

But it’s all for naught: despite David Zinn’s gorgeously dilapidated set of a 113-seat theater, director Sam Gold does little with the endless pauses and silences Baker has, like, crammed into her script. A game cast doesn’t have a chance playing people who disappear before our eyes faster than the fleeting images on the screen.

Burstein and Paulson in Talley's Folly (photo: Joan Marcus)
The loveliness of Talley’s Folly stems from Lanford Wilson’s willingness to allow his characters to discover themselves in an unlikely love story. Wilson’s 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner, beautifully revived by director Michael Wilson, is anything but a standard-issue romantic comedy: there are one-liners and funny asides galore, but it’s as far from Neil Simon as you can get.

This clash of opposites might sound obvious—Jewish ham Matt Friedman woos small-town WASP Sally Talley in her family’s charming but derelict boathouse, the folly of the title—but Wilson’s probing dialogue and oddish but always believable characters make this anything but a dance of clichés. Rather, this waltz, as Matt calls it, is perfectly timed and performed by Danny Burstein, whose ebullience is cloaked in a tougher, harder shell, and Sarah Paulson, never better as the brittle but tough woman determined to follow her heart wherever it may lead.

Set on the Fourth of July, Talley’s Folly is a prequel to Fifth of July, another Wilson drama that the Roundabout handsomely revived recently. These plays, which count themselves amused and bemused by their idiosyncratic characters, are witty and wise about these utterly human relationships.

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