Saturday, September 14, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: Publicworks at Central Park, “Stop. Reset." and "Old Friends” at the Signature

The Tempest
Written by William Shakespeare; songs by Todd Almond; directed by Lear DeBessonet
Performances September 6-8, 2013
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park, New York, NY

Stop. Reset.
Written and directed by Regina Taylor
Performances through September 29, 2013
The Old Friends
Written by Horton Foote; directed by Michael Wilson
Performances through October 13, 2013
Signature Theatre Company, Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Since summer’s unofficial end is Labor Day weekend, the premiere of two off-Broadway plays and the first presentation of the Public Theatre’s ambitious Publicworks initiative in Central Park herald the beginning of the fall theater season.

Benanti as the Goddess in The Tempest (photo: Joan Marcus)
Publicworks includes several organizations from the five boroughs to create theater as much about participation as spectatorship. This was especially obvious in the Delacorte Theatre’s The Tempest, which kept Shakespeare’s framework but junked much of his dialogue—much to the show’s detriment, obviously—and added mediocre songs by Todd Arnold, also an obnoxious presence as the spirit Ariel: his jokey, snide asides both to his master, the magician Prospero, and the audience ruined the cathartic effect that Ariel’s freedom should bring at play’s end.

The Ariel mess highlighted Lear DeBessonet’s problematic staging: whenever there was a sense that Shakespeare’s original might not play to the masses, the Bard got jettisoned. Aside from the farcical drunken scenes of the monster Taliban and shipwrecked plotters, Trinculo and Stephano, nothing was played straight: the entire effect was that of a high school production where everyone from each class gets to be onstage (there were over 200 performers). DeBessonet even borrowed from Julie Taymor’s lackluster sex-change Tempest film that had Helen Mirren as Prospera: Alonzo became Alonsa and Sebastian became Sebastia, to no discernible point.

The organizations pressed into service—Brownsville Recreation Center, Children’s Aid Society, Domestic Workers United, Dreamyard Project, Fortune Society—provided entertaining dances or diversions, shoehorned into the more fantastical sequences of The Tempest. Amateur performers like Atiya Taylor (Miranda) and Xavier Pacheco (Ferdinand) were sadly—if only metaphorically—lost at sea; Norm Lewis declaimed and sang powerfully as Prospero, and a radiant Laura Benanti (playing, appropriately, a goddess) stole the show with a single song: why wasn’t she of all people given more to do? The ovations throughout notwithstanding, “helping” Shakespeare become more audience-pleasing isn’t how theater becomes more democratic.

Lumbly and Cordova in Stop. Reset. (photo: Joan Marcus)
By far the lesser of the two world premieres beginning the Signature Theatre’s new season is Stop. Reset., a confused fantasy-drama by Regina Taylor about a veteran publisher of African-American literature who must make the hard decision to enter the 21st century of e-books and other daunting digital technologies or continue the old-fashioned way.

Taylor, who also directs with a shaky hand, has hit on an obviously relevant subject: a world in which new things make everything else superfluous seemingly every few minutes. But she doesn’t seem to trust her own material: the early scenes of a publishing house a-flutter because the employees don’t know if they will be retained or fired in this digital world are amusing and believable. But once a mysterious custodian, J., enters the office to spin the story into ever stranger areas like time-travel and avatars, it’s obvious that Taylor’s loss of proportion has given way to desperate stratagems.

The visually fractured look of Neil Patel’s set—sleek panels that show videos, photos and endless verbiage, sometimes relevant but mostly not—captures better than Taylor’s dialogue and dramatics the fast-moving and on-going corruption of our culture. As publisher Alexander Ames, Carl Lumbly is commanding in a sketchily written role; likewise, as J., Israel Cruz Cordova nearly makes a coherent character out of authorial incoherence.

Foote and Buckley in The Old Friends (photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Horton Foote, who died in 2009, seems as busy as ever: The Trip to Bountiful, currently being revived on Broadway, won a Tony for Cicely Tyson’s magnetic performance, and a posthumous play, The Old Friends—originally written by Foote in the ‘60s, the same time it’s set—has its world premiere at the Signature. Like much of Foote’s work, it’s both reassuringly modest and tough as nails.

Set again in his fictional hometown of Harrison, Texas, The Old Friends deals with Foote’s old themes: fractured relationships, death changing family dynamics and the possibility (however slight) of starting anew. If the outline seems familiar, there’s a startlingly modern gloss to how Foote gently chides but has enormous affection for these people, rich or poor, sober or drunk, faithful or adulterous, honest or scheming: in this small town in Texas, Foote’s small cross-section of humanity is as singular as the more expansive Zola—or Shakespeare.

On Jeff Cowie’s beautifully detailed sets, Foote regular Michael Wilson directs a typically rich cast. Lois Smith, Cotter Smith, Veanne Cox and Adam LeFevre give full-bodied, thoughtful portrayals, but the standouts are Hallie Foote, typecast in her father’s plays (I doubt I’ve seen her in anything else), but bringing a sympathetically bruised quality to the perpetually disappointed Sybil; and Betty Buckley, whose drunken Gertrude is anything but a caricatured alcoholic. The Old Friends is (yet another) lovely epitaph for Horton Foote.

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