Come and Make Explosives with Me

Major Barbara at first appears like a rather innocuous play, nothing that would inspire the economist Beatrice Webb to call it a “dance of devils” and “the triumph of the unmoral purpose”: Her children all grown up, Lady Britomart Undershaft (Carol Schultz) finds herself in a precarious position: her husband, the weapons manufacturer Sir Andrew (Dan Daily), left long ago, but now it seems as if the family will need him once again.  Her son and lapdog, Stephen (Alec Shaw), has no prospects.  Her daughter Sarah (Becky Baumwoll) is engaged to the ridiculous Charles Lomax (Cary Donaldson), who will not receive his inheritance for some years.  And her daughter Barbara (Hannah Cabell) has not only found herself the fiancée of Adolphus Cusins (Richard Gallagher), a poor professor of Greek, but she has joined the Salvation Army (becoming a Major), ensuring that the two will never have any money of their own.  Enter Andrew, who is willing to finance his children but who insists on continuing the company tradition of leaving the business to a foundling who will be adopted and renamed Andrew Undershaft. Continue reading “Come and Make Explosives with Me”


The Scourge of God

What are we to make of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson), the Scythian shepherd-turned-emperor who spends most of this two-part play committing mass murder without any hint of guilt or self-doubt?  He resembles later theatrical incarnations of political evil, like Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth, but no ghosts of victims come back to haunt him, no authorial voice makes clear that we are to respond to him like a villain.  Of course, the Marlovian protagonist often occupies a position of seductive immorality (The Jew of Malta’s Barabas, for example) but this is usually tempered with a narrative outcome that leaves our ethics unoffended.  Tamburlaine, on the other hand, burns down a town after a personal tragedy so that the buildings will reflect his disposition, he overflows the banks of a lake with the drowned bodies of men, women, and children, and he butchers king after king with a monotonous, impenetrable obsession—all without any repercussions.  In the production currently running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in which Parts I and II are edited and combined, the actors often exit through the back of the auditorium and then reenter upstage, giving a sense of endless circularity.  For Marlowe, Tamburlaine is a fact and the question of right and wrong is seemingly irrelevant. Continue reading “The Scourge of God”

Much Love

A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters cannot help but sound slight.  The entire play consists of letters being read aloud by Andrew Mackepeace Ladd III (Brian Dennehy) and Melissa Gardner (Carol Burnett), two upper-class WASPs whose friendship begins in elementary school and continues into middle age.  Andy is straight-laced and academically successful; he unquestioningly inherits his life philosophy from his father, is somewhat intimidated by sex, and his career takes him from Yale to the Navy to law school and finally to the U.S. Senate.  Melissa is artistically inclined and emotionally unstable, a girl who gets caught smoking cigarettes in school and a woman whose paintings are described by her critics as “anarchistic.”  Though they never marry, the love between Andy and Melissa is the one constant in their lives, and their letters allow them to articulate experiences that might otherwise remain unexamined. Continue reading “Much Love”

Bring Some Extra Blankets

David Auburn won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his play Proof, which is probably the only reason that Lost Lake is being produced now by the Manhattan Theatre Club.  This is a textbook mediocre American play: Veronica (Tracie Thoms) is a nurse practitioner and a single mom who is looking to rent a cabin for a week in the summer with her two children and maybe one of their friends.  The cabin is owned by Hogan (John Hawkes), a man with some sort of mental disability who has absolutely no sense of social decorum.  She decides to take the place, and Lost Lake consists of a series of awkward conversations the two have before, throughout, and after Veronica’s stay.  Like virtually every other play written in this country in the last forty years, an uncomfortable situation gradually becomes the site of revelation and unlikely connections. Continue reading “Bring Some Extra Blankets”

We All Need Mazel

Following Joel Grey as the Emcee in Cabaret is a bit like following Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or, I would imagine, Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.  Mr. Grey is one of those performers who seems like he learned to entertain before he learned to crawl, and his Emcee is both attractive and repellent, with a face out of German Expressionism and an ambiguous Glasgow smile that never quite reveals whether he is a Jew satirizing the Nazi establishment (as is indicated in most productions after the 1998 Broadway revival) or an antisemite endorsing it. Continue reading “We All Need Mazel”