Friday, April 25, 2014

NYC Theater Roundup—Audra McDonald as ‘Lady Day,’ Steven Soderbergh Directs ‘The Library,’ Harvey Fierstein's ‘Casa Valentina’

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Written by Lanie Robertson; directed by Walter Bobbie
Previews began March 25, 2014; closes August 10
Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th Street, New York, NY

The Library
Written by Scott Z. Burns; directed by Steven Soderbergh
Previews began March 25, 2014; closes April 27
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Casa Valentina
Written by Harvey Fierstein; directed by Joe Mantello
Previews began April 1, 2014; closes June 15
Freidman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

Audra McDonald as Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
Audra McDonald has already won five Tony Awards for her performances in the musicals Carousel, Ragtime and Porgy and Bess and the plays Master Class and A Raisin in the Sun—and she very well may win her sixth for the play-musical hybrid Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, in which she plays Billie Holliday performing one last time at a Philadelphia club in 1959, just months before her premature death at 54 from various alcohol and drug-related maladies.

Lanie Robertson’s play intersperses 15 of Holliday’s songs—including her best known numbers like “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit”—with her onstage patter, comprising small talk with her musicians, joking among her nightclub audience and confessional asides as she slides further into a drink-induced haze that only her impassioned singing can overcome.

At first, it’s disorienting to hear McDonald speak and sing with Holliday’s characteristic—and easily caricatured—vocal inflections, but soon she locks into the character and turns a mere impression into a heartfelt interpretation of a deeply scarred and scared human being. Although McDonald’s illuminating presence dominates, pianist Shelton Becton and his fellow musicians are also splendid, and a tiny dog named Roxie plays Lady Day’s beloved pup Pepi.

Walter Bobbie directs sensitively on James Noone’s set, which unerringly recreates a nightclub atmosphere with some audience members at tables set up in front of the stage; unnecessary wall projections of people in Lady Day’s life, from her parents to jazz greats like Artie Shaw, at least don’t detract. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill might be a clever stunt, but Audra McDonald and Billie Holliday make it an unforgettable evening.

Chloe Grace Moretz in The Library (photo: Joan Marcus)
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh, collaborators on such straightforwardly effective movies like Contagion and Side Effects, join forces for Burns’ first play, The Library, for which Soderbergh also makes his theatrical directing debut.

Burns’ familiar drama depicts the chilling aftermath of a small town school shooting, in which Caitlin, a sophomore in the library with other students when the killer came in, was grievously wounded. Now being rehabilitated, she’s been accused of squealing on others to save her own life, telling the killer where students were hidden with a gun at her head which has made her a pariah at school and in town despite what she went through.

In 90 minutes, Burns’ play touches on several strands, like the religious mother of a dead student who realizes she can cash in monetarily on her daughter’s saintly response to evil; or Caitlin’s parents, who ask her to change her story so they can also receive money a survivors’ fund that’s been set up; and Caitlin herself, whose body heals as her mental state starts fracturing thanks to skepticism—and worse—from everyone else, from her parents and the police to her fellow students.

The Library plays like one of Burns’ streamlined movie scripts, with little nuance and obvious—if plausible—narrative twists and turns. The talented cast is headed by Chloe Grace Moretz, the phenomenal teen actress from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Although Moretz is an appealing and intelligent presence, she always seems in control, even when Caitlin is breaking down mentally.

Soderbergh’s taut direction brilliantly utilizes Riccardo Hernandez’s stark set of tables and chairs and David Lander’s lighting that bathes the stage in deep reds, cold blues or blinding whites, providing a disturbingly clinical vision of Caitlin’s fraught post-traumatic journey that Burns’ play avoids dealing with.

Reed Birney (center) in Casa Valentina (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Harvey Fierstein is no stranger to drag queens: he wrote the books for two hugely popular cross-dressing musicals, La cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots. So Casa Valentina, a play about straight men in 1962 who stay at a Catskills resort where they can dress and act as women in perfect harmony and tranquility, is the next logical step. It’s too bad, then, that Fierstein’s play is hijacked by his own preachiness, which forces obvious if unnecessary links between these men and gays of the same era and later.

During one weekend at the Chevalier d’Eon, a group of respectable, married men arrives, taken care of by the place’s owners: saintly Rita (Mare Winningham, always quietly triumphant) and Roger (the excellent Patrick Page), who also changes into his female alter ego Valentina. Roger/Valentina has invited transvestite activist Charlotte (a fantastically persuasive Reed Birney) to try and convince the other guests to join a sorority of cross-dressers which will—they hope—legitimize them in the eyes of the government and law enforcement.

The guests—nearly retired judge Amy, septuagenarian Terry, feisty and fresh Gloria, halting newcomer Miranda—must decide whether gaining security and safety is worth losing their hard-won privacy over. Fierstein underlines their plight to that of gay men in the past half-century, even having Charlotte make nasty comments about homosexuals that, with the benefit of hindsight, allows audience members to “tsk tsk” them: “We don’t hunt children, expose ourselves, or proselytize our practices. All activities of which the homosexual is guilty and to which society rightly objects.”

Fierstein morphs his play uneasily from the mildly amusing and touching comedy it begins as to a tragedy of sorts—that turns overly sincere and redundant in the second act—by way of a sinister blackmail plot about pornographic photos sent through the mail. Still, as staged by ace director Joe Mantello and enacted by a droll cast, Casa Valentina opens up a world to its audience few knew about.

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