Wednesday, December 11, 2013

NYC Theater Roundup: Macbeth, Commons of Pensacola, Little Miss Sunshine, Family Furniture, And Away We Go

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Jack O’Brien
Performances through January 12, 2014
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY

The Commons of Pensacola
Written by Amanda Peet; directed by Lynne Meadow
Performances through January 26, 2014
Manhattan Theater Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Little Miss Sunshine
Music and lyrics by William Finn; book and direction by James Lapine
Performances through December 15, 2013
Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Family Furniture
Written by A.R. Gurney; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances through December 22, 2013
Flea Theater, 41 White Street, New York, NY

And Away We Go
Written by Terrence McNally; directed by Jack Cummings III
Performances through December 21, 2013
Pearl Theatre, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Hawke and Duff in Macbeth (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
In his stylish, excitingly visceral Macbeth, director Jack O’Brien has pulled out all the stops with the help of his brilliant collaborators: Japhy Weideman’s dazzling lighting, Catherine Zuber’s flashy costumes and Scott Pask’s sleek sets combine to create a literally and physically dark physical production. O’Brien’s virtuosic visual approach to Shakespeare’s tragedy of the ambitious Scottish king and bloodthirsty queen dominates, indeed overwhelms, the actors themselves; the director’s revisions don’t exactly obscure the play, but neither do they illuminate it, despite a certain craftiness to the execution.

It’s no problem that the three witches are played by men—Banquo says to them “you should be women,/And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/That you are so”—but that O’Brien should have reined in the campiness of Byron Jennings, Malcolm Gets and especially John Glover, who struts and frets his time upon the stage with little regard for the text. And when Glover takes on the comic relief of the porter, complete with a knock knock joke for the audience, it becomes eye-rollingly silly. O’Brien also, somewhat pointlessly, expands the role of the goddess of witchcraft Hecate—she only appears briefly in the text—who’s not only onstage with the witches but is there with the doctor during Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Still, O’Brien varies the visual wonderment with quick, movie-like cuts between scenes that keep the action percolating.

Anne-Marie Duff’s well-spoken Lady Macbeth is too shrill and unthreatening to believably spur her husband to greater evil. As the great Thane, Ethan Hawke is (mostly) out of his depth: he speaks the poetry with little feeling and less comprehension, rattling off his lines as if he can’t wait to finish and let someone else talk. He begins decently as Glamis, but Cawdor and King are beyond his reach—his entire second act performance comprises yelling at the top of his lungs, truly “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Danner and Parker in The Commons of Pensacola (photo: Joan Marcus)
The Commons of Pensacola, charming actress Amanda Peet’s first play, was written (she says) to give herself a juicy role: but upon completing it, she thought a more famous actress should play Becca, the daughter of Judith, who’s living in disgrace in a Florida condo after her Bernie Madoff-type husband went to prison for bilking investors.

So it’s Sarah Jessica Parker who gives a wounded, believable portrayal of Becca, a struggling actress frustrated by her career and her mother’s inability to come clean about anything in her life. Blythe Danner, that eternally disarming actress, plays Judith; Danner and Parker present a united front of mother-daughter disunity, which helps director Lynne Meadow in an ultimately failed attempt to transform Peet’s flimsy 80-minute dramedy—a term I hate but it fits here—into something that satisfyingly coheres.

Peet’s cardboard types—Becca’s foul-mouthed teenage niece, ethically and morally corrupt boyfriend, and uncaring sister—awkwardly substitute for plausible characterizations, and she drags in such desperate stratagems as flatulence jokes and an underage sex scene that marks Becca’s boyfriend is a total jerk best gotten rid of (which Judith says from the start). Despite Meadow’s proficient direction and her two stars’ presence (on Santo Loquasto’s marvelously ugly condo set), The Commons of Pensacola—in which a torrential rainstorm features prominently—is all wet.

The cast of Little Miss Sunshine (photo: Joan Marcus)
Little Miss Sunshine was a cleverly manipulative Oscar-winning movie. In the current mania for turning hit movies into stage musicals, Sunshine has been transformed into a musical with songs by William Finn and book and direction by James Lapine. For those unfamiliar with the movie, it might be pleasantly diverting, but others may feel it’s an unnecessary musicalization that merely intersperses the movie’s plot points with routine songs.

The story follows the Hoover family taking seven-year-old daughter Olive from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, California, for a beauty contest. The Hoovers—comprising Olive, dad Richard, mom Sheryl, gay Uncle Frank (who just attempted suicide), Grandpa (who choreographed Olive’s routine), and teenage son Dwayne (who won’t talk until realizing his dream of flying)—jam into Richard’s VW bus for the trip to Cali. After the vehicle craps out and personal problems surface, the family barely arrives in time to enter Olive in the pageant.

The movie had an original if cutesy point of view, with the oddball family members playing off one another often hilariously if not always believably. Still, Michael Arndt’s script got viewers to fall in with this motley crew. The musical apes the movie in every respect, interjecting songs that, rather than illuminate relationships and psyches, more often stop the show dead in its tracks: unadorned dialogue rather than musical interludes would work as well or better.

Finn’s pleasantly bland songs, Lapine’s slickly inventive direction, and an accomplished cast—especially Stephane J. Block’s harried Sheryl and David Rasche’s Grandpa (for which the movie’s Alan Arkin won an Oscar)—provide a time-wasting journey that immediately evaporates when it ends.

Scolari and Mendes in Family Furniture (photo: Joan Marcus)
In the genteel, civilized world of A.R. Gurney, adultery or premarital sex has the effect of an explosive device, and doubly so in the 1950s, the era of his latest Buffalo-set play, Family Furniture. This is the story of an upper-class Buffalo clan which—like all such affluent families—summers on the Canadian side of Lake Erie: parents Russell and Claire and their children, son Nick (who goes to Williams College) and daughter Peggy (who attends Vassar).

The year is 1953 in the straitlaced, Eisenhower era, where affairs and sex before marriage are forbidden. That’s exactly what happens to Claire—who it’s rumored is carrying on with Howard Baldwin, neighbor and avid tennis player—and Peggy, dating Marco (a lower class Italian from Buffalo’s west side, which doesn’t endear him to her father), who finds that she’s pregnant after returning from a European trip where she met someone new. While all this is going on, Nick is frustrated trying to find alone time with his Jewish girlfriend Betsy.

If nothing is earth-shattering, Gurney is writing (again) about characters that he is very familiar with (I’m curious whether it’s autobiographical—Nick is certainly in Gurney’s age range for the time and place): they speak intelligently and articulately about themselves, although there’s too much “dated” talk about a new movie, High Noon, and the #3 song on the Hit Parade, “That’s Amore.” Two strong scenes stand out, both with Peter Scolari as Russell and Ismenia Mendes as Peggy, one on a boat on the lake, the other in her bedroom: these skillfully constructed, literately written and beautifully acted scenes got profuse applause at the performance I attended.

On a nearly bare set of chairs and benches, director Thomas Kail keeps the focus on the characters and their foibles, and along with Scolari and Mendes, Carolyn McCormick (Claire), Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Nick) and Molly Nordin (Betsy) make a wonderful ensemble in this familiar but enlightening trip through Gurney’s past.

The cast of And Away We Go (photo: Al Foote III)
Terrence McNally’s world premiere And Away We Go—a love letter to theater and the playwrights, actors and crew who have created the art of the stage for two millennia—takes place in a cluttered backstage area (the detailed work is by set designer Sandra Goldmark) where actors and production staff get ready for live performances.

Even though McNally’s paean to his chosen profession has its share of sly observation, his conceit—six actors and actresses play various performers, playwrights and backstage workers from the ancient Greeks to a 1956 Florida performance of Waiting for Godot with Bert Lahr—doesn’t allow for anyone but the most hardened theatergoer to enter his rarefied world. Though they have some good lines (the best is a shot at Edward Albee’s ego), the game cast has so many quick character and era changes that they end up playing much too broadly; you can’t blame them, for their love of performing live shines through. But as McNally moves from Aeschylus and Shakespeare through Moliere to Chekhov and Beckett in the space of 100 minutes, the opportunities for hamminess are too tempting, and the result is an enjoyable but slight mishmash.

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