Monday, May 12, 2014

NYC Theater—Brits Off Broadway 2014

Playing with Grown Ups
Written by Hannah Patterson; directed by Hannah Eidonow
Previews began April 29, 2014; closes May 18
The Love Song of Alfred J. Hitchcock
Written by David Rudkin; directed by Jack McNamara
Previews began May 1, 2014; closes May 25
59 E 59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

It’s that time of year again: Brits Off Broadway, a staple of New York theater since 2005, returns, providing another chance to see an imported stable of talented writers, performers and directors bringing their shows from across the pond. Chief among these, of course, is the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where master playwright Alan Ayckbourn has plied his elevated trade for decades. This year, Ayckbourn brings three works here—two new plays and a double bill of one-acts—which open in June. Meanwhile, I caught two Brits stagings: one impressive, the other not.

Hughes and Jackson in Playing with Grown Ups (photo: Carol Rosegg)
A concise comic drama, Playing with Grown Ups explores an increasingly common “new” reality: a wife in her late 30s can’t deal with her newborn. Joanna, literary historian who “resurrects” forgotten women writers, is married to Robert, who teaches film courses at the local university. Baby Lily has frazzled Joanna, making her unable to handle the routines of parenting: when Lily cries, needs to be fed or changed, Joanna goes berserk. So Robert inviting his colleague and close friend Jake—also Joanna’s former flame—to their place for dinner is not the best idea, especially since Jake brings his latest conquest: 17-year-old student Stella.

Playwright Hannah Patterson and director Hannah Eidinow might ratchet up the drama until its overwrought finale, which falls flat even if, as shown onstage, it’s about the only place the story and characters can go. But despite that miscue, Patterson writes precise, literate and amusing dialogue for these characters—although Stella is far too mature for her age (which is 16 in the script; is 17 more palatable for American puritans?)—and Eidinow directs persuasively.

Daisy Hughes plays Stella with a commanding winningness that makes believable her superiority to the three adults, played compassionately by Trudi Jackson (Joanna), Mark Rice-Oxley (Robert) and Alan Cox (Jake). Despite flaws, Playing with Grown Ups treats its adult subject matter with intelligence.

Miller in The Love Song of Alfred J. Hitchcock (photo: Carol Rosegg)
As a fan of the Master of Suspense, I was predisposed to like The Love Song of Alfred J. Hitchcock. So it’s too bad David Rudkin’s underwhelming psychodrama regurgitates clichés about Hitch, from his overbearing mother to his problems with women in general.

Initially, Love Song promises drollness, as Martin Miller—who looks like Toronto mayor Rob Ford—gives an impersonation of Hitch, not a caricatured impression: he credibly approximates Hitch’s voice, gait and physicality. But since Rudkin merely skims over moments in Hitch’s life—equating a couple of them with Psycho and Strangers on a Train, complete with obvious musical and dialogue cues for those who miss the similarities—the show becomes painfully inert, despite director Jack McNamara’s attempts to enliven the proceedings.

It’s somewhat perverse trying to resurrect an original film director in the medium of theater. Although Hitchcock would have found a clever way around it, Rudkin and McNamara are unable to find a stage equivalent. The Love Song of Alfred J. Hitchcock—even the title’s allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poem Prufrock is a desperate bid to gild itself by association to a greater work of art—commits the cardinal sin of being dull, which Hitchcock’s best films never were.

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