There Was Laughter at the Back of the Theater

The home of Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), which is populated by a band of amiable loons, resembles more a hippie commune than a typical ‘thirties household.  Martin’s daughter, Penelope Sycamore (Kristine Nielsen), is a prolific playwright who began her career because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her doorstep eight years ago.  Her husband, Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), is a fireworks manufacturer who uses their basement to test his creations.  Essie Carmichael (Annaleigh Ashford), their daughter, spends her time training to become a ballerina—she is terrible—and her husband Ed (Will Brill) is a xylophone player and amateur printer.  When discussing her engagement, Essie says, “He came to dinner once and just stayed.” Continue reading “There Was Laughter at the Back of the Theater”


The Days Are Getting Shorter

Fall has come and all of New York’s institutions are waking from their summer slumber, including the Pearl Theatre, the best revival company in the city.  They are opening their 2014-15 season with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, a chronicle of old, disappointed Russians who have been doing nothing but “talking and talking for the last fifty years.”  The eponymous Vanya (Chris Mixon) has spent a quarter century running his family’s estate with his niece, Sónya (Michelle Beck), in order to support his brother-in-law, the pedantic and unsuccessful professor Alexánder Serebriakóv (Dominic Cuskern).  But when Serebriakóv retires and moves in with his new wife, Yeléna (Rachel Botchan), the static melancholy of the household is transformed into hectic misery.  Yeléna’s beauty enraptures Vanya as well as the local doctor, Mikhaíl Lvóvich Ástrov (Bradford Cover), who Sónya has been pining after for years.  Serebriakóv, meanwhile, is entirely oblivious to these romantic struggles, and he instead spends all day in his room reading and writing about art, occasionally appearing to make tyrannical demands—for example, that dinner should be served after 6pm instead of 1pm.  Before the final curtain, vodka is consumed by the gallon and pathetic, long-winded monologues triumph over any real action.  In fact, when a gun finally does go off, it ends not with death or even injury, but with the shooter collapsing in self-pitying tears. Continue reading “The Days Are Getting Shorter”

The Secret of a Drop of Rain

At 89, Peter Brook, whose Midsummer shocked audiences back in 1970, is still producing interesting work.  The Valley of Astonishment, co-written and co-directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne, follows three people who lead unusual lives of the mind: the first, Sammy Costas (Kathryn Hunter), has a nearly perfect memory and unconsciously uses techniques similar to those outlined in Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.  Jared McNeill plays a synthesthete whose ability to see music allows him to paint John Coltrane.  And Marcello Magni is a man whose inability to sense his body forces him to use his brain to overcome paralysis.  At the center are the doctors who study these three (played alternately by Ms. Hunter, Mr. McNeill, and Mr. Magni), who act as our surrogates as they try but fail to understand these phenomena.  But Valley of Astonishment spends most of its time with Sammy, who is fired from her job at a newspaper (she is deemed overqualified) and becomes a variety act until she finds she that her capacity for storage is reaching its limit.  “How do I forget?” she asks in one of the play’s more poignant moments. Continue reading “The Secret of a Drop of Rain”

We Might Touch

Radio was the ideal medium for Samuel Beckett, the novelist and playwright most interested in paring down his work until he was left with the minimum number of words possible on the page.  By getting rid of sets and only employing the voices of his actors, he would further purify his art, allowing us to follow his haunting voices without cluttering our minds with specific images.  Pan Pan Theater, a company out of Dublin which is currently performing Beckett’s Embers at the BAM Harvey Theater, should be applauded for their efforts to bring his lesser-known works to a wider audience, but I can’t help feeling that their method does the play a disservice.  As it begins, a group of people (named in their script “director, designers, [and] sculptor,” but absent from Beckett’s), including one inexplicably wearing a Hawaiian shirt, remove a black sheet from an enormous replica of a human skull, which remains in the center of the stage and sits on a bed of pebbles for the entire performance.  The lighting varies according to the dramatic mood, but for the most part we watch this static skull and listen to Beckett’s play unfold.

Continue reading “We Might Touch”

Who Gets Tied Up?

John (Stephen Stout) and Julie (Madeleine Bundy) meet in the kitchen at a Harlem house party. John is an aspiring artist interning for Geoffry, a formerly relevant but still influential photographer. Julie is Geoffry’s daughter, boldly intent on doing nothing with her life. They smoke. It gradually unfolds that they’re attending a bondage party, where scenes involving at least some bloodshed are being played out in the next room. On the surface, Julie seems an unlikely candidate for kink, a girl who smiles shyly and hides around the corner while conducting conversations. And yet, over the course of Smoke, we see that Julie isn’t just a wide-eyed sexual neophyte. She’s an adventurous sort, the type of girl who is more curious than concerned when she finds a potential lover is carting around a case full of knives. Eventually, she asks John to break her, to dominate her, a request that ends up testing both of their subversive limitations. Continue reading “Who Gets Tied Up?”

Let’s Go Outside and Play

Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play This Is Our Youth is a neat little love story about a sociopathic bike messenger and drug dealer, Dennis Ziegler (Kieran Culkin), and his sniveling, obsequious friend, Warren Straub (Michael Cera).  After Warren steals $15,000 in cash from his physically abusive father, he flees to the emotionally abusive Dennis, and the two spend their time playing grownup and talking around their situation.  “What is gonna happen to you, man?” Dennis asks Warren.  “What’s gonna happen to anybody?  Who cares?” he replies.  These are the kids of “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” kids whose parents pay their rent but don’t pay any attention.  “These are proceeds from my unhappy childhood,” Warren says of his money.  The title, of course, is deliberately presumptuous.  This is not our youth but a very specific type of youth—the kind that has garnered an exhausting amount of media attention in the last few years.  It’s an obvious choice for revival, then, but as long as it doesn’t prompt any more op-eds about “millennials,” it has earned its place on the Broadway stage. Continue reading “Let’s Go Outside and Play”