Monthly Archives: September 2011


(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/20.)

It's been billed in advance as a classic encounter between two stars of The Wire, Clarke Peters and Dominic West. But what first impresses about this much-touted event is the direction by Daniel Evans.

He has come up with one of those increasingly rare Shakespeare productions: one that, without embracing any outrageous concept, suffuses the text with a wealth of psychological detail.



(Charles Spencer’s article appeared in the Telegraph, 9/20; video clip is from the Young Vic's 2008 production.)

If you want to see a theatre at full stretch and maximum throttle, head to the Young Vic, which is reviving its thrilling production of Kurt Weill’s 1947 “Broadway opera”, Street Scene.

The show, staged in collaboration with The Opera Group, won the Evening Standard award for best musical three years ago, even though it played for only a handful of performances. Now it is back for a longer run and a national tour.

Weill regarded his score for Street Scene as his masterpiece, and though it lacks the bite of his Threepenny Opera, it is an extraordinary work, mixing operatic arias with jazz, blues and spirituals. The music has the vibrant pulse of New York about it, and at times Puccini seems to be shaking hands with George Gershwin.

The Young Vic has assembled a company of 80 for this production, all set in the course of 24 hours in a bustling, gossipy, multi-racial tenement on New York’s East Side during a heatwave. There is a small army of child actors, the splendid BBC Concert Orchestra is a visible presence on stage, while in the upper balcony there is a full-voiced choir.


(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/21.)

In the early 70s there was a suggestion that Clive Barnes, then the all-powerful theatre critic of the New York Times, might be sent by the paper to Saigon to write about the Vietnam war. "I suppose if he doesn't like it," quipped a contemporary, "they'll have to take it off."

That story came to mind when I read that Judith Miller, formerly a controversial war correspondent and political writer, has been appointed theatre critic of the Jewish magazine Tablet. If eyebrows were raised at the idea of Barnes being translated from the stalls to the theatre of war, they have positively gone through the roof at the notion of Miller making the reverse journey.




Like the characters in The Sun Also Rises, the director John Collins and Elevator Repair Service have the audacity to not want to be saved—not by Aristotle, not by Stanislavsky, not even by Hemingway himself.  Instead, the company takes its lumps as they come, sidestepping a conventional, reverential, unsatisfying version of the Nobelist’s first novel. If there’s a gesture of gratitude to anyone in this over three hour enactment, it’s probably to Brecht, who asked that we never forget that we’re in a theatre.  In The Select (The Sun Also Rises), now playing at New York Theatre Workshop (the Select is a Parisian café, still in existence today), we’re made aware of the soundboard, one of the show’s stars, its complexities and operation, which sits noticeably on stage. Better to call this event an original, though—the wall of music and effects playing over or along with the descriptions and dialogue, keep the project moving, dissing all the notions you’ve ever had about what the theatre is, should be, or even must never become.

Purists will very likely see red, but given the dispersion of the storyline, this may be the truest way to theatricalize and reinvigorate the material for the present—and, with its tables and chairs and wine and beer, this company–this book!—vibrates with resonances between the 1920s and today:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways, “ Mike said.  “Gradually and then suddenly.”

“What brought it on?”

“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends.  Then I had creditors, too.” 

In the aftermath of World War I, post-traumatic stress disorder also intrudes: According to Mike: Lady Brett Ashley, the woman he is going to marry after her divorce–and whom most of the men have fallen in love–received her title from a sailor: “Ninth baronet.  When he came home he wouldn’t sleep in a bed.  Always made Brett sleep on the floor.  Finally, when he got really bad, he used to tell her he’d kill her.  Always slept with a loaded service revolver.  Brett used to take the shells out when he’d gone to sleep.  She hasn’t had an absolutely happy life.”

Actually, The Sun Also Rises always strikes me as too optimistic a title for the book. First, although the fiesta may end, this drunken road trip from the bars of Paris to the Spanish countryside and the blood sport of Pamplona is fairly static in terms of character development. The Sun Keeps Beating Down may be more appropriate, if less poetic or salable (interestingly, in Great Britain the book was titled Fiesta, which is probably better but which doesn’t reinforce the biblical connotations).  It’s typically a tough proposition for the theatre to delve into the lives of characters that don’t change much, not that it can’t be done or should not be done.  I suppose Aristotle would have wanted more action, of course, but there are confrontations, which turn into fist fights between Robert, Jake, and Mike, which the philosopher might have approved, with some distaste.

The actors themselves don’t merely recite the novel–Mike Iveson, who plays the narrator Jake Barnes, through sheer will or photographic memory, has mastered it somehow (my edition of The Sun Also Rises is 247 pages of which not much seems left out, so I consider him something of a virtuoso). Kate Scelsa, as the jilted Frances, goes off on a harangue so angry, wounded, and raw you’ll swear you either gave or were on the receiving end of that same rant at least once in your life—it’s as if Hemingway supplied the tape recorder and Scelsa plays it all back for you (thanks!).  Ben Williams provides fine physical agility as Bill; Lucy Taylor, as Brett, might as well be arriving from Warner Bros. Matt Tierney plays the tricky role of Robert Cohn, the sometimes disliked boxer and Jew. For all the actors this is not a reading, it’s a physically demanding marathon (the performers dance and carouse, flounder and juggle, squabble and fight—bulls or themselves).

Do take a student to this one–as I recall, Hemingway’s book was not an easy read (it took A Farewell to Arms to really hook me on the writer, not that guys weren’t frontloaded to like him anyway).  Rather than the story, what’s probably most compelling about The Sun Also Rises is the unadorned, subtextual way in which Hemingway is writing (which has had so many imitators since 1926 that it doesn’t seem so revolutionary now). Seeing it play out can mess with the mind a little bit—I recall the first part, set in Paris, as seeming briefer than it seems on stage (Hemingway cut material to find his beginning, endorsed by F. Scott Fitzgerald). The last sections, in Spain, seem to go much more smoothly in the watching (despite the fact that they include the iconic bulls, it’s a long party). 

Perhaps the characters seem less sympathetic to us today because they’re of money, even if they don’t have much at the moment (they’re also unfashionable men: mostly white, straight, educated, Christian).  The American theatre has never been above loving a drunk, but views on drinking have changed, too. It may seem inessential today, but there was a time when traveling in a less dangerous world might be seen as a rite of passage for the young, a way to broaden their horizons.  Hemingway, who was in his mid-twenties when he wrote The Sun Also Rises, gave us romanticism that wasn’t superfluous (“Only bullfighters live their lives.”).  If there is an issue that doesn’t always quite work in this production, it’s the level of seriousness—and I’m not sure that there is a solution in order for it to keep its pace, even if the characters are young and impatient, even if they don’t hear the clock ticking, even if the production team is wildly inspired and creative and energetic (and needs to be).  It’s something Colleen Dewhurst talked about in her autobiography, written with and completed by Tom Viola. When she asked if her agent Clifford Stevens had any suggestions regarding her role as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he told her one thing:

“‘I don’t smell the booze. . . .’ I (Dewhurst) woke up thinking about it and that night, came onstage feeling the soddenness of someone who had been drinking for a very long time, the mental dampness and the dull physical exhaustion that every drunk pushes through.  It wasn’t important if it was noticeable to anyone else but me; it gave me just the added edge that I wanted, that I needed, that I had not been conscious of.  Drunk is an obvious characteristic to play, but if you live with it on your breath, on your clothes and in your hair day after day, that is quite something else.”

I think Hemingway would have also been surprised by our current notions of gender, actually, even if he was, apparently, sometimes perplexed himself—in The Select (The Sun Also Rises), for example, we can have a female bullfighter (which is amusing, but not the sleek, virile Romero we know from the book).  Our notions of masculinity have evolved so far that the men in the play work for comedic effect, rather than the tough-guy stances we normally associate with Hemingway’s adventurers:  “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing," we hear Jake say early on.  I’m not sure we feel that hard-boiled ideal of men here, that men ever sought to live up to it or even felt that it was worthy of being lived up to (if, indeed, it matters to any of us at all anymore).

It won’t resolve or bleed in any bass harmony, and you’ll carry it to the subway or the bus, or wherever you’re going later, but there’s fantastic, repetitive mandolin music at the end of the show that reinforces its meaning. It wants to find its groove so badly, despite its own nutty, festive propulsion, but the music just can’t find a way to continue or even to develop.  Almost a quarter of a century before Godot; nearly a century before America’s Great Recession and its Mideast conflicts; in a novel about a young man less able to laugh off an injury from a war than he likes, we realize that Hemingway and Beckett saw and understood a nearly identical reveal:  “It can’t go on, we must go on.”    




Despite a gift for dialogue, intriguing reversals, and diligent actors, Stephen Belber’s Tape, now playing at the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex through September 24, has not found a way to move beyond its plot points; a way to find a full plot.  The play is kept ambiguous: was a lawyer raped; did she assent; many years later, is it even important anymore?  The questions keep the play spinning, but the characters don’t seem especially individual, they seem more about their jobs (a screenwriter, a drug dealer, and a lawyer), types.  In a general way, you’ll feel you know the group, but they aren’t specific enough to make us feel they’re really us.  In fact, you might think you understand the playwright better, stuck in the middle of so many decisions, waiting for further realizations, left to his own devices, perhaps hoping to duct tape his head back together when everything’s over.  Don DiPaolo, Neil Holland, and Therese Plaehn star; Sam Helfrich directs.    

© 2011 by Bob Shuman




Partial Comfort presents this drama by Chad Beckim, in which a man who is released from prison after DNA evidence proves his innocence must relearn how to live as a free man. Stephen Brackett directs. Opens Sept. 21. (The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St. 212-352-3101.)



The Pearl presents this absurdist play from 1950, by Eugène Ionesco. Hal Brooks directs. In previews. Opens Sept. 25. (City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St. 212-581-1212.)



Horizon Theatre Rep revives Robert Lowell’s 1965 play, based on the Melville novella, set in 1770, in which American sailors come upon a slave rebellion on a Spanish ship. Woodie King, Jr., directs. Previews begin Sept. 22. Opens Sept. 25. (Flea, 41 White St. 212-352-3101.)



Atlantic Theatre Company presents a new play by Adam Rapp, about the private lives of two wealthy Connecticut families. Neil Pepe directs. In previews. (Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. 212-279-4200.)



INTAR presents a new solo play written and performed by Carlo Albán, about his experience as an undocumented immigrant. David Anzuelo directs. Previews begin Sept. 23. Opens Sept. 26. (500 W. 52nd St. 212-352-3101.)



Keen Company presents the 1970 drama by Lanford Wilson, in which a man remembers past events that shaped his relationship with his father. Jonathan Silverstein directs. In previews. Opens Sept. 27. (Clurman, 410 W. 42nd St. 212-239-6200.)



Jonathan Solari wrote and directs this multimedia play, which uses the street outside the theatre as its stage and tells of a jaded New Yorker who has decided to leave the city but can’t quite break away. In previews. Opens Sept. 24. (3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St. 866-811-4111.)



Mark Brokaw directs the world première of this play by Nicky Silver, starring Linda Lavin and Dick Latessa, in which a family learns about itself when its members gather around the dying patriarch. Previews begin Sept. 22. (Vineyard, 108 E. 15th St. 212-353-0303.)



Frank Langella returns to Broadway in this drama by Terence Rattigan from 1963, on the centennial of the playwright’s birth. The story involves a finance broker in the Great Depression who reunites with his estranged son in order to save his company from going bankrupt. Maria Aitken directs, for Roundabout Theatre Company. In previews. (American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. 212-719-1300.)



Shizuoka Performing Arts Center presents this production of the Greek play, directed and reinterpreted by Satoshi Miyagi. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Sept. 23-25. (Japan Society, 333 E. 47th St. 212-715-1258.)



Lisa Peterson directs stories about raising children, by playwrights including Leslie Ayvazian, Beth Henley, Lameece Issaq, Lisa Loomer, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice, Annie Weisman, and Cheryl L. West. Presented by Primary Stages. In previews. (59E59, at 59 E. 59th St. 212-279-4200.)



Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett star in a new play by Katori Hall, which imagines events on April 3, 1968, the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. With original music composed by Branford Marsalis. Kenny Leon directs. Previews begin Sept. 22. (Jacobs, 242 W. 45th St. 212-239-6200.)



Highlights of the annual festival of new musicals include “The Kid Who Would Be Pope,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Ghostlight.” Opens Sept. 26. (Various locations. 212-352-3101.)



Three one-act comedies, by Ethan Coen (“Talking Cure”), Elaine May (“George Is Dead”), and Woody Allen (“Honeymoon Motel”), all directed by John Turturro. The cast includes Ari Graynor, Steve Guttenberg, Danny Hoch, Julie Kavner, Fred Melamed, and Marlo Thomas. In previews. (Brooks Atkinson, 256 W. 47th St. 877-250-2929.)



MCC opens its season with the world première of a play written by Jeff Talbott and directed by Walter Bobbie, starring Jonathan Groff, Will Rogers, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Rutina Wesley. In it, a white man writing under the pen name Shaleeha G’ntamobi must deal with the consequences of concealing his identity after he finds success with a play about a poor black family. In previews. Opens Sept. 27. (Lucille Lortel, 121 Christopher St. 212-279-4200.)



Manhattan Theatre Club presents a play by the actress Zoe Kazan (her début as a playwright), about a wedding where the bride’s sister’s date brings unexpected trouble. Sam Gold directs. Previews begin Sept. 22. (City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St. 212-581-1212.)



(Tammy La Gorge’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/17.)

JAN SLEPIAN’S reaction to the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theater’s adaptation of her book “Astonishment: Life in the Slow Lane” has been, well, astonishment.

“It’s been very, very well received, to the point where it’s undreamed of,” said Ms. Slepian, 90, who lives in the Winchester Gardens retirement community in Maplewood. “I hardly expected the book itself to be successful.”

Self-published with the Web site Lulu in 2009, when Ms. Slepian was 88, the slim volume is a collection of 20 “essayettes,” as she calls them, that she wrote for Winchester Gardens’ community newsletter from 2003 to 2009. Their unifying theme is aging.


(Chris Jones's article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 9/14.)

When Aristotle immortalized the term hubris, he could well have been talking about Sean Graney, the experimental Chicago theater director who, this fall, decided to adapt and stage not one Sophoclean drama, but all seven at once.

In a Wicker Park basement. In three themed acts ("Honor Lost," "Honor Found" and "Honor Abandoned"). With one company of actors. Using a soundtrack composed entirely of songs by Bruce Springsteen, taken from his album "The River" and performed live by the actors.

The setting for the whole shebang is a kind of warped hospital emergency room, with the swinging entry doors functioning as an equivalent to the famous central doors in the Theatre of Dionysus. And did I mention the chorus is represented by a pair of cynical nurses, who've seen it all and stitched up it all?,0,2786624.column


(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/14.)

It takes a certain wild courage to write an accompaniment to an acknowledged one-act masterpiece like Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version. But David Hare has taken on the task and the result is a work that is perfectly complementary to the Rattigan in that both plays are about the pain, loneliness and insecurity that seem inseparable from an English public-school education.