Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Theater Reviews—“American Psycho,” “The Judas Kiss,” “A Doll’s House/The Father”

American Psycho
Music/lyrics by Duncan Sheik; book by Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa; directed by Rupert Goold
Performances through June 5, 2016
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY

The Judas Kiss
Written by David Hare; directed by Neil Armfield
Performances through June 12, 2016
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, New York, NY

A Doll’s House
Written by Henrik Ibsen; adapted by Thornton Wilder
The Father
Written by August Strindberg; adapted by David Greig
Both directed by Arin Arbus; performances through June 12, 2016
Theater for a New Audience, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY

Benjamin Walker, Jennifer Damiano and Alice Ripley in American Psycho (photo: Jeremy Daniel)
It’s not surprising that American Psycho is closing prematurely: although it will probably live on as a cult show like Sideshow or Taboo, it’s simply too weird for Broadway, and the youngish audience I saw it with—although they loved it—confirms that fact: multi-million dollar musicals can’t survive without some of the regular local or tourist crowds.

Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ slick 1991 novel, a catalog of lovingly detailed killings by would-be Wall Street master of the universe Patrick Bateman, the musical doesn’t have much at its disposal except for dated references to its era (the late ‘80s) in the dialogue, visuals and music. Duncan Sheik’s score is an almost endless parade of forgettable songs, interchangeable with the mindless dance tunes its pretty people groove and sniff coke to in Manhattan’s trendy clubs.

And when Sheik lowers the volume, his lyrics—straining to be witty but only managing intermittent cleverness—unfortunately come to the fore. Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn and her vapid pals sing about how much they enjoy their superficial lives in “You Are What You Wear,” a tepidly mocking tune that actually opens with the lines, “I want blackened charred mahi mahi/it works so well with Isaac Mizrahi.”

At least the ‘80s songs that are shoehorned in—“Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Don’t You Want Me,” “Hip to Be Square,”  “In the Air Tonight”—are given interestingly skewed new arrangements and come off the better for it: when a prostitute intones “I can feel it coming in the air tonight” while getting into a cab with Bateman cab for a fateful ride to his well-appointed uptown apartment, the undercurrent of menace hits harder than anything else in the show.
Lack of Tony Award consideration also doomed American Psycho, but its best features—scenic and lighting design—were justly recognized. Es Devlin’s inspired soulless set of antiseptic offices and apartments features various screens and scrims on which Finn Ross’s projections place us squarely in the materialistic hellhole of Manhattan during the Reagan years; ominous consolidation is provided by Justin Townsend’s inventively stylized lighting. Katrina Lindsay’s spot-on costumes and Lynne Page’s robotic choreography also fit the show’s creepy vibe, of which a little goes a long way.

Benjamin Walker, a sensationally charismatic Bateman, has the acting chops, powerful singing voice and impeccable pecs to make us believe he could charm his way to murderous infamy. But the talented supporting cast is ill-used, especially the spectacular Alice Ripley, who has so little to do as Patrick’s mother that she’s given other minor roles, where she has even less to do.

Jennifer Damiano, a natural stage charmer, though sweetly naive as Patrick’s love-struck secretary Jean, seems to be in a different show from everyone else. Helene Yorke—who looks fabulous in her designer bathing suit and other outfits—is fun as Patrick’s girlfriend Evelyn, but she could have done so much more with better material, the ultimate failure of a lively but innocuous show.

Charlie Rowe, Cal MacAninch and Rupert Everett in The Judas Kiss (photo: Richard Termine)
When it first came to Broadway in 1998, David Hare’s play about the prelude to and aftermath of Oscar Wilde’s trials, The Judas Kiss, was marred by miscasting in the lead roles. Now, nearly two decades later in a new staging at BAM, the play has at least gained an effective Wilde.

Hare takes the measure of Wilde at his lowest, right before he is to be arrested and put on trial in London for what was then called “gross indecency”—a nervous and still puritan nation looked askance at this foreign (Irish) man of letters and impossibly witty bon vivant, which made him an irresistible target for legal action against his profligate immorality.

The first act takes place in the hotel room in which Wilde and his current lover, young Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie, are ensconced, along with Wilde’s former lover Robbie, who still takes care of Wilde’s personal affairs. The second act, a few years later, is set in Naples, where Wilde and Bosie are staying after Wilde’s two-year prison stint.

In the first act, Wilde’s witticisms and epigrams pour out of him in a desperate attempt to ward off the arrest he knows is coming. The second act finds a near-prone Wilde slumped in his chair at center stage, still tossing off stinging one-liners but obviously tired of the whole charade with Bosie, who screws other men and goes out on the town without Wilde, but keeps saying he’s been hurt the most by the scandal because he is, after all, a Lord.

While Hare has great admiration for Wilde as an artist and even greater sympathy for him as a human being, he never overcomes his own play’s creaky bipartite structure. Director Neil Armfield’s otherwise sensitive staging follows suit, further undercutting the characters by using the entire depth of the BAM Harvey stage, robbing us of any intimacy for long stretches.

Charlie Rowe’s Bosie certainly looks the part, but the actor’s one-note performance never makes his six-year-long relationship with Wilde remotely believable. Cal MacAninch’s eminently humane Robbie somewhat compensates, while Rupert Everett’s Wilde is far more persuasively epicurean than the miscast Liam Neeson in the original Broadway staging. Along with real gravitas, Everett brings a wink and a nod to the role which, even when Hare’s dramaturgy turns wobbly, allows Wilde to retain his dignity even amid the ongoing indignities.

Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson in The Father (photo: Gerry Goodstein)
Pairing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with August Strindberg’s The Father is an inspired choice by director Arin Arbus, whose uncluttered stagings find common ground in these plays about wives suddenly deciding to re-examine their relationships with their husbands, so much so that they clear away the baggage that’s accumulated over more than a century.

Maggie Lacey’s charming but resourceful Nora centers A Doll’s House (in Thornton Wilder’s slightly musty adaptation), with John Douglas Thompson’s Torvald providing initially stolid then overwrought support. But Thompson takes the spotlight in The Father (in David Greig’s modern, and occasionally vulgar, adaptation) as the Captain, a lifelong military man and amateur scientist whose wife of 20 years, Laura, retaliates when he announces that their beloved teenaged daughter is going away to school; Thompson’s bravura performance makes the Captain simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic, while Lacey’s Laura, a most agile if desperate manipulator, gives as good as she gets.

Actual physical violence doesn’t quite rear its head in A Doll’s House, but bursts through the dam in The Father when the Captain is straitjacketed for a mental breakdown. Strindberg hated Ibsen’s play and The Father was written as a partial rebuttal—although it also owes Ibsen’s classic an enormous debt, as shown through Riccardo Hernandez’s realistic sets, Susan Hilferty’s period costumes and Marcus Doshi’s subtle lighting effects. But it’s Arbus’s artistry that makes the greatest contribution to how vividly realized both plays are.

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