Monday, November 24, 2014

New York Theater—Revivals of "Sticks and Bones," "Major Barbara" & "Side Show"

Sticks and Bones
Written by David Rabe; directed by Scott Elliott
Performances through December 14, 2014
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Major Barbara
Written by Bernard Shaw; directed by David Staller
Performances through December 14, 2014
Pearl Theatre Company, 555 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Side Show
Book & lyrics by Bill Russell; music by Henry Krieger; directed by Bill Condon
Opened November 17, 2014
St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York, NY

Schentzer, Hunter, Pullman and Ullmann in Sticks and Bones (photo: Monique Carboni)
The Vietnam War's legacy lives on four decades after its ignominious end, and our current "endless war" footing in the Middle East ensures that comparisons to that earlier unwinnable conflict will continue for the foreseeable future. So a revival of David Rabe's Sticks and Bones—one of the first plays to deal honestly with how returning soldiers from Vietnam were treated—seems especially timely, and it's to the credit of Scott Elliott, director of The New Group's strong production, that no unnecessary parallels are made between that war and today. None is needed, in any case: the play, clunky as it sometimes is, speaks for itself.

We are in the Middle America home of dad Ozzie, mom Harriet and teenage son Rick, all blissfully and ignorantly going about their everyday lives, when eldest son David (the author's obvious stand-in) returns home from Southeast Asia, not in a body bag, but something worse: as a blind and bitter shell of himself. Haunted by the ghost of the young Asian woman he fell in love with, David in his alternating fury and futility forces his narrow-minded family members to deal with their own prejudices and misconceptions.

Rabe's rage is palpable in this 1972 drama, which alternates between satirical family scenes and darker explorations of David's psyche. Rabe pushes the sitcom parodies and psychology both too far and not far enough, creating an uneasy blend of innocence and panic: the dialogue, cutting in its ordinariness but failing when trying to be lofty and poetic, catches the era's confusion, especially in scenes involving Father Donald, a priest whose self-serving attacks on David  come perilously close to caricature. 

But Rabe's aim is mostly true, and even if some things simply don't work—Zung's ghost is an underused apparition until the final scene, which combines horrific explicitness with clumsy symbolism—Sticks and Bones sears the memory. Elliott's explosive staging features several fearless actors: Raviv Ullmann as Rick, Ben Schentzer as David, Richard Chamberlain as Father Donald, and Holly Hunter as Harriet. But, as Ozzie, Bill Pullman goes above and beyond the call of duty, giving emotional resonance to a father whose blinded son's return forces him to take stock of his life and the choices he's made, which culminates in a pool of David's own blood.

Cabell (center left) and Daily (center right) in Major Barbara (photo: Richard Termine)
Major Barbara, one of Bernard Shaw's classic comedies, hits on lofty subjects like rich vs. poor, war vs. peace, and materialism vs. spirituality dazzlingly but, as usual with Shaw, effortlessly. The title character, Barbara Undershaft, a headstrong young woman who's an officer in the Salvation Army, is shattered when she discovers that the organization has accepted "blood money" in the form of a donation from her estranged father Andrew, a millionaire industrialist who has made his fortune from manufacturing weapons of war. 

Shaw explores the dynamics of a family in which matters of money matter as much, if not more so, than matters of the heart and soul. David Staller's mostly straightforward staging allows Shaw's words to speak loudly and clearly, especially in the capable hands of Dan Daily, a stalwart Andrew, and Hannah Cabell, an intelligently-spoken Barbara. But Staller has commissioned a wrongheaded unit set by James Noone—comprising two gold-edged staircase on either side of the stage—which forces the cast to run up and down said stairs for no reason. And beginning both acts with the supporting cast entering in street clothes, mumbling lines as they put on their costumes, creates an unnecessary distancing effect that obscures the play's genius.

Padgett and Davie in Side Show (photo: Joan Marcus)
Turning one of the saddest stories ever into a musical, Side Show is a biopic of Violet and Daisy Wilton, Siamese twins who were in a freak show before going to Hollywood for an appearance in Tod Browning's 1932 classic movie shocker Freaks, about the extent of their celebrity aside from the usual gawking. Despite leaving behind the exploitative conditions of the freak show, they were exploited by everyone else, ending up destitute and alone together, forever conjoined.

It's prime material for dramatic treatment, though it's problematic as a musical: a straight play (to say nothing of a book or movie) would theoretically dig deeper into the intricacies of their plight. As it is, Side Show the musical glides along with show biz surfaces at its core: we learn precious little about the sisters in Bill Russell's book (with additions by director Bill Condon) aside from them as briefly famous celebrities, always freaks in the eyes of others. 

Russell's serviceable lyrics rarely illuminate the sisters' relationships with each other, their side show boss, Sir, or the men who put them in show biz, Terry Connor and Buddy Foster. Henry Krieger's mediocre songs are either meandering ballads or soaring belters, the latter of which is the show's high point, the sisters' paean to each other, "I Will Never Leave You." Bill Condon's staging cleverly evokes the movies and has a cinematic feel, notably in the opening freak show menagerie and the closing Freaks set. Condon is aided immensely by spectacular work by set designer David Rockwell, makeup and mask creators David and Lou Elsey, costumer Paul Tazewell and lighting wizards Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.

In a large and talented cast, David St. Louis scores as Jake, the sideshow's "cannibal king" who becomes Violet and Daisy's trusted bodyguard; Robert Joy makes an appropriately creepy Sir; and Ryan Silverman and Matthew Hydzik's bland handsomeness and top vocal chops serve them well as Terry and Buddy, who are the sisters' romantic and business partners.

Erin Davie's Violet and Emily Padgett's Daisy carry the weight of the show on their shoulders, giving their all vocally and histrionically; they manage to look and sound alike as the twins attempt to navigate their way through one bad roll of the dice after another. They make the most out of the climactic duet "I Will Never Leave You," but also manage to make touching many minor, individual moments. If the show leaves them, finally, only compelling enough to gawk at, that's show biz—and Side Show—for you.

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