Thursday, October 31, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: “A Time to Kill,” “The Snow Geese,” “The Landing” and “Baden-Baden 1927”

A Time to Kill
Written by Rupert Holmes; directed by Ethan McSweeny
Performances through March 2, 2014
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The Snow Geese
Written by Sharr White; directed by Daniel Sullivan
Performances through December 15, 2013
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

The Landing
Music by John Kander, book and lyrics by Greg Pierce; directed by Walter Bobbie
Performances through November 10, 2013
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY

Baden-Baden 1927
Performances from October 23-29, 2013
Gotham Chamber Opera, Gerald Lynch Theater, New York, NY

Thompson, Thompson and Arcellus in A Time to Kill (photo: Carol Rosegg)
John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the best-selling author’s debut novel, is a rickety courtroom thriller that was turned into an overlong but engrossing movie in 1996 starring Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Samuel Jackson and Matthew McConaughey in one of his first lead roles as young lawyer Jake Brigance taking on a racially charged case in his home state of Mississippi. Since the movie just about covered everything in the book in 2-1/2 hours, was there any reason to bring it to Broadway at inflated prices, when people can see the movie basically for free?

Ethan McSweeny’s production, from an adaptation by Rupert Holmes, hedges its bets by trying to appeal to those familiar with the movie (actor Sebastian Arcellus is a dead ringer for McConaughey, at least in profile) while providing more bang for the audience’s buck. So James Noone’s courthouse set revolves throughout so we can watch the court proceedings from different viewpoints, as if a movie director was cutting between shots. And since the jury doesn’t appear, lawyers and judge speak directly to the audience as if we were in the jury box. Sometimes, the desperation shows—an actual burning cross appears, showing us and Jake that the Klan means business—but overall, the staging is slick and efficient.

The solid acting includes Arcellus’ effective Jake, Patrick Page’s gleefully slimy district attorney, Fred Dalton Thompson’s tart-tongued judge and John Douglas Thompson’s gripping dad on trial for killing the suspects of his 10-year-old daughter’s rape leads to him killing the suspects. As courtroom dramas go, A Time to Kill passes the bar.

Parker and Clark in The Snow Geese (photo by Joan Marcus)
Mary Louise Parker, best known for the previous eight seasons of Weeds, hasn’t been on a New York stage since her ill-fated Hedda Gabler in 2009. Her other theater choices have been questionable, with the exception of her riveting Tony-winning performance in Proof in 2001: along with Hedda was Sarah Ruhl’s lame Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and now Sharr White’s faux-Chekhov drama, The Snow Geese. Set in a suburban Syracuse lakefront mansion in 1917, the play introduces widow Elizabeth Gaesling, dealing with the recent loss of her husband Theodore, her eldest son Duncan about to leave for Europe to fight in the Great War and her younger son Arnold discovering financial improprieties that led to the family’s downfall.

Also present is Elizabeth’s older—and religious—sister Clarissa and her husband, German doctor Max, who lost his practice due to nasty anti-German sentiment and a new Ukrainian maid, Viktorya, conveniently a veteran of the atrocities that overtook Europe. So we have Chekhovian allusions and obvious symbolism (the title, since the family comprises avid hunters) that clutters up what’s already a weak attempt to write something on the order of the The Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya.

Even a veteran director like Daniel Sullivan can’t transform such hackneyed material into a coherent drama, although John Lee Beatty’s extraordinarily detailed set—also seen from various angles like A Time to Kill—Jane Greenwood’s sumptuous costumes and Japhy Weideman’s evocative lighting somewhat compensate. Still, choppy pacing, anachronistic dialogue and a general sense that none of these people is truly fleshed out remain.
In a hard-working cast, only Danny Burstein’s’ likeable Max consistently rises above the fray. Victoria Clark’s Clarissa has little to do but break into song occasionally, and the always adorable Parker’s Elizabeth is too contemporary, as are Evan Jonigkeit and Brian Cross’s sons. White has become a big shot playwright, but on the evidence of The Other Place and The Snow Geese, so far he's less than meets the eye. Will his next play, Annapurna, with Megan Mullally, change things?

Seratch and Hyde Pierce in The Landing (photo: Carol Rosegg)
John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote many great musicals—starting with Cabaret and Chicago—and Ebb’s death robbed Kander of his valued collaborator. Kander’s first musical with someone else, playwright Greg Pierce, The Landing, isn’t just a step down from Kander and Ebb at their peak: it’s several stories below.

The three one-acts that make up The LandingAndra, The Brick and The Landing—are at best mediocre, but they do have incidental interest. Andra—in which a smart young boy bonds with his family’s handy man over astronomy until he discovers the man is sleeping with his lonely mom—is harmlessly forgettable, while The Brick—a surreal trip of a bored aunt ordering a tchotchke from a late-night TV ad which arrives in the form of a pinstriped gangster—drowns in cloying cutesiness. Only The Landing—in which a gay couple’s newly adopted young son turns out to be an angel of death sent to take one of them away—has some resonance, though how much is due to the others’ flimsiness is debatable. Maybe if The Landing itself was full-length, more realistic characters and relationships would have made it memorable.

Pierce’s book and lyrics, except for rare moments of insight in The Landing, are pandering and pretentious. Kander’s songs, while never less than adequate, are unfortunately rarely more than that. Walter Bobbie directs adroitly, and his cast of four—Julia Murney, David Hyde Pierce, Frankie Seratch and Paul Anthony Stewart—is better than its material. Seratch is especially good at nailing the nuances of three different teens, while Hyde Pierce is funny in The Brick and touching in The Landing. But it’s not enough.
Rivera (left) in The Princess and the Pea, part of Baden-Baden 1927 (photo: Richard Termine)
The enterprising Gotham Chamber Opera should be commended for Baden-Baden 1927, its recreation of operas by Darius Milhaud, Ernst Toch, Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill, all premieres on the same bill at that city’s Festival of Contemporary Music 86 years ago. It’s too bad it wasn’t a strict recreation, but instead a quartet of cluttered contemporary productions by director Paul Curran, who decided that his cleverness would override anything intrinsic to the actual operas under the guise of “What Is Art?” (Answer: not these stagings.)

Milhaud’s playful eight-minute The Abduction of Europa passed quickly enough, but Toch’s magical The Princess and the Pea was turned into a tedious Kardashian-style reality show complete with distracting video cameras. After a merciful intermission, Hindemith’s paper-thin There and Back—in which the same events run forward and backward—started in monochrome and ended in color, with Andy Warhol inexplicably thrown in. The finale, Weill’s Mahagonny Singspiel, was played out among treadmills eye-rollingly visualizing its characters' own journeys.

Closing one’s eyes helped one appreciate the music, conducted sympathetically by Neal Goren, and performed by singers (foremost among them Maeve Hoglund in three roles and Jennifer Rivera in two) doing their best to overcome the onstage silliness. They only fitfully succeeded.

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