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Archive for the ‘Theater Reviews’ Category

THEATER REVIEWS

FISH IN THE DARK (Broadway, July 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cv

THE GIN GAME (Broadway, Dec. 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-c3

HAND TO GOD (Broadway, July 2015):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cv

IF YOU EVER LEAVE ME, I’M GOING WITH YOU (Broadway, Sept. 2001)
http://wp.me/pzvIo-cI

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG (Broadway, July 2017):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-9X

THAT PHYSICS SHOW (off-Broadway, July 2016):
http://wp.me/pzvIo-bJ

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 REVIEWED: The Play that Goes Wrong, Lyceum Theater, Broadway, 2017.

Wrong Turn

Imagine popping a dvd into your player on movie night, skipping the film entirely, and going straight to the blooper reel. Now imagine that the collection of groaners and gaffes runs longer than the actual movie they’re from. Finally, imagine that the gag reel’s vignettes repeat variations on the same mistake a dozen times over. The result would be about 15 minutes of fun, half an hour of mild amusement, and then a dvd swap for something with an actual story, interesting characters, and more to it than self-congratulatory zaniness.

Such is the fate of The Play that Goes Wrong, a farcical English import now cavorting at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater. Winner of London’s 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy, the show has been compared to the redoubtable Noises Off in that both works follow the travails of desperate actors muddling through a performance despite every possible mishap befalling them. In the latter, more complex play, we watch calamities occurring both onstage and behind the scenes and from dress rehearsal through near-closing night. In The Play that Goes Wrong, we follow a single performance, by the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society,” in which missed cues and mispronounced words are the least of the poor thespians’ problems.

Cute laughs occur even before the start of the play proper, as an audience member is drafted to hold up a continually dropping piece of the set. Then out come lead actor Chris (Henry Shields, who is blessed with a vocal similarity to John Cleese) to introduce the “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” Some of the night’s best laughs occur during his monologue, as he admits that the theater company’s poverty has forced the group to scale down its productions of “Cat” and “The Lion and the Wardrobe.”

So far so good, and it is initially fun to see these youthful Brits scampering about playing amateurs trying to cope with mislaid props, a distracted sound designer (Rob Falconer), and virtually everything and everyone being in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be sure, cleverness is abundant here, but long before the end of its two hours’ traffic, Play’s pleasures diminish, even though the best sightgag—an upstairs floor tilting inexorably towards collapse (with kudos to set designer Nigel Hook)—is saved for the second act.

I may well be in the minority in dismissing the piece; many audience members have a howling good time, and critics both in New York and across the pond have found much to love in Mischief Theatre Company’s mischief. Nevertheless, I tired of the repetitiveness, the pointless intrigues, the screeching. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many real plays go wrong, but after awhile, I just wanted to be the Dave that Goes Home.

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NOTES & BACKSTORY:

This review was published in the July-August 2017 issue of Long Island Pulse magazine: http://lipulse.com/2017/07/06/the-play-that-goes-wrong-review/

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Science Comes to off-Broadway in Non-Stop Physics Show

 

by david lefkowitz

 (This article was first published in Long Island Pulse, July 2016: http://lipulse.com/2016/07/07/science-comes-to-broadway-in-non-stop-physics-show/)

 

Science teachers have two big aces up their sleeves when trying to make their subject palatable to kids who’d rather be on their iPhones or anywhere else but a classroom.  The first lure is “didja know?”  Surprise the students with a truth that makes them go, “wow, really?”, and they’re yours for at least a few minutes.  The second gotcha is the visual demonstration—an activity that melds the dazzle of a magic trick with the scientific underpinnings of a dissertation.

That combination of didja know and magic show went a long way towards making me tolerate physics classes in both high school and college, and the lures reappear, almost as a barrage, in the off-Broadway lecture-cum-performance, That Physics Show.  David Maiullo, who has a body by Jake and the personal-trainer personality to match, created and hosts this hyper-educational show, which offers demo after demo as a way to spark curiosity (or at least hold the attention) of nine year olds for a solid 90 minutes.

So we get balloons dipped in liquid nitrogen, pingpong balls shooting through empty soda cans at 700mph, hammers smashing bricks but not bones, a bowling-ball pendulum, a carbon-dioxide go kart, cool glasses that turn light into various permutations of ROY G. BIV, pickles conducting electric current, and sound waves displayed as dancing fire.  Before you have a chance to digest the ramifications of one natural wonder, another is already on its way—especially since Maiullo, a longtime professor at Rutgers, is not gently inviting like Mr. Wizard or blissfully eccentric like Julius Sumner Miller.  Energetically tossing out definitions and principles that explain the experiments, Maiullo jams an entire college semester into one show-and-tell lecture.

As with every physics class I ever attended, I still left thinking I learned more than I actually did and able to parrot back answers without truly understanding them, but I’ll bet more than a few young audience members with sharper brains than mine will find themselves testing Newton’s Laws for themselves one day and pointing to a late morning at the Elektra Theater as the force that started the ball rolling (insert inertia joke here).

Parents should note that Maiullo happily poses for pictures with new fans after the show and takes care during the performance to warn more sensitive audience members when a loud pop or blast might be imminent.  He’s also resourceful; when a fog machine pooped out during the show I attended, his assistant was ready with a spray can, so that, seconds later, sound waves could continue being transformed into smoke signals.

As for the didja know part of the show, you might guess that a balloon on a bed of multiple nails won’t burst (because surface area distributes the pressure), but go figure that pouring liquid nitro down the front of your sweaty hand causes no harm.  However, if you turn your palm over and hold a puddle of the stuff, the nearest hospital will rush you to its burn unit.  That, by the way, is one principle Maiullo neither demonstrates nor recommends that kids try at home.  Even scientific curiosity has its limits.

That Physics Show plays at The Elektra Theater, 300 West 43rd Street in NYC, thatphysicsshow.com.

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BYLINE:
David Lefkowitz hosts Dave’s Gone By (davesgoneby.com) on UNC Radio, co-publishes Performing Arts Insider, and founded TotalTheater.com. His solo comedy, The Miracle of Long Johns (miracleoflongjohns.com), has played recent engagements in Colorado and New York City.

 

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The Games Afoot: Old pros help keep Broadways The Gin Game playable

by david lefkowitz

(Note: This review was first published in Long Island Pulse, Dec. 2015: http://lipulse.com/2015/11/22/the-games-a-foot-the-gin-game/)

In 1976, playwright D.L. Coburn created the Pulitzer-winning comedy, The Gin Game, when he imagined two elderly people at an old folks’ home bickering over a game of cards. And if the story skimps on plot, and the stakes aren’t exactly high, the producers of this revival have drummed up two very good reasons for viewers to make the trek to the John Golden Theater: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.

The play does conjure many laughs, especially when Weller (Jones) reacts incredulously to Fonsia (Tyson) winning game after game, seemingly without effort.  Still, an undertow of sadness prevails, as these two lonely protagonists feel forgotten by their families and society at large. Weller may boil over at his deck full of deadwood, but the audience knows this is misplaced anger, a consequence of his desolate living conditions. And if Fonsia revels in the attention of her crotchety companion, this stems less from a romantic spark and more from the fact that someone is actually paying attention to her—even when, half the time, conversation ensues via tantrums.

Overall, it’s enjoyable to watch these two banter and quarrel—with Jones’s booming basso and Tyson’s charm still in prime form. Of the two, Jones is the stronger, by sheer voice and heft, but also because he never tries to play for effect (though a touch more spontaneity wouldn’t hurt). Jones’s Weller may distribute diamonds and clubs with a martinet’s efficiency, but the production’s trump card is the funny/troubling way the actor hints at the apoplexy always building under the old man’s surface.

Meanwhile, as she did in The Trip to Bountiful two years ago, Tyson can sometimes pull faces and go for cuteness, though she certainly retains the energy and presence of an actress decades younger than her reported 91 (which is why her Tony Award for that performance was, despite the occasional mugging, unarguably deserved.) What Jones and Tyson can’t do is make their characters, as written, equally fault-ridden—even though that seems to be author Coburn’s message in the play’s final third. Weller may speechify about Fonsia being cold, puritanical and hard to love, but we never actually see that.  He’s a control-freak jerk; she’s a veritable saint.

Perhaps noting this imbalance, director Leonard Foglia sticks mainly to comedy, rather than mining the undercurrent of this abusive relationship. You’ll also be glad to hear no one has a stroke, gets cancer, loses their marbles or drops dead. From beginning to end, these oldsters play cards, and Tyson and Jones score pretty high with the hands they’re dealt.

The Gin Game at the John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street. 212 239-6200. thegingamebroadway.com

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ALSO RECOMMENDED:

King Charles III: An engrossing “what if” history play with Shakespearean overtones and a keen empathy for people whose codes of honor are sorely tested by the times. Mike Bartlett’s drama imagines a power struggle for the English throne following the passing of the current Queen. (Music Box Theater)

Spring Awakening: Courtesy of L.A.’s Deaf West Theater, a revival even more gripping and moving than the original. And are there two 21st century theater songs greater than “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked”? (Brooks Atkinson Theater)

Sylvia: A dog story that’s fluffy rather than shaggy, A. R. Gurney’s 1995 comedy reaches Broadway with its funny bone intact and a delicious, Tony-worthy performance from Annaleigh Ashford as a mutt with designs on her new owner. (Cort Theater)

 

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With Comedy Comes Responsibility

 words by david lefkowitz

(Note: This double review was first published in Long Island Pulse, July 2015:  http://lipulse.com/2015/06/28/with-comedy-comes-responsibility/)

 

While musicals aplenty vie for available Broadway theaters, and dramas imported from the UK clog up the Tony Award acting categories, the state of non-musical comedy seems particularly parlous these days.  In the entire 2014-15 Broadway season, only three new, straight-up comedies opened on the Great White Way.  One, Living on Love, by Memphis Tony winner Joe DiPietro, closed three weeks after it opened.  The other two arrived late in the season, one to huzzahs by most critics and the other to critical scorn but audience delight.

Hand to God, a pitch-black comedy that debuted off-Broadway arrived fangs intact at the Booth Theater in the spring.  Taking its cue from Avenue Q, Robert Askins’s play tells of a timorous teen who finds he can speak out only through the sock puppet he’s designed for bible class.  Alas for him, the puppet turns progressively evil and thirsts for truth, revenge, blood, and, eventually, Jason’s very soul.  Meanwhile, the church pastor (Marc Kudisch) has designs on Jason’s mom (Geneva Carr), while she’s busy fending off the advances of an ardent underage student (Michael Oberholtzer).

It’s all very post-“South Park” in terms of crudity, shock value, blunt religious satire, and two funny scenes of human and puppet debauchery.  On the whole, though, this is the kind of show I would have loved when I was 15 (oh boy, someone tears up a bible!), liked when I was 20 (ooh, the two “sex” scenes are sick-funny), and makes me shrug and sigh at 51.  For all the exertions—and the truly great performance by lead Steven Boyer, who must bounce between being a tormented youth and a demonic muppet, often within seconds of each other—the laughs are few and forced.

In his scathing review of Hand to God for the New York Observer, Rex Reed called the show, “the first time, in all my years on the aisle, that I have finally seen an entire stage filled with unmitigated crap.”  To be fair, Reed admits to loathing the delicious Avenue Q, so one might be prone to digest his poison here with a grain of salt.  Certainly, readers posting under his critique are virulently dismissive of his supposed prudishness and lack of a sense of humor.  I daresay, however, that his excoriation feels a lot more justified than the hosannas being heaped on Hand to God by other critics who should know better.  The show feels like a teenager’s tantrum, leavened by clever gags and then submerged in punishing grand guignol.

Meanwhile, death, incest, and kooky nookie are also on the bill at Fish in the Dark at the Cort Theater, yet somehow this brand-new show feels decades old, trading on the familiar tropes of not-quite-farce and the comforting awfulness of Jewish families at their worst.  The plot is almost deliberately inconsequential: papa dies, so which of the two feuding brothers will be stuck with intolerable mom?  A la “Seinfeld,” there are subplots about greedy relatives, a Latina maid (Rosie Perez) who was more than a cleaning lady to dear-old, dead-old dad; and a eulogy of questionable provenance.  It’s all silly and sloppy and, as one friend put it, like a hyper-extended episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

It is also, without doubt, The Larry David Show, since he wrote and stars in the piece and parades around the stage like an even more exaggerated version of, well, himself.  Given to rampant mugging and line readings so eccentric, they sometimes have no connection to the actual dialogue, David is like an exotic bird, perversely fascinating the more he shows off his plumage.

And yet . . . despite it all, Fish in the Dark gives audiences—myself included—a jolly good time.  Those old 1960s Broadway comedies were playful in ways that today’s more “serious” comic playwrights either ignore or can’t emulate, whereas David understands a basic fact: glorious comic mileage may still be derived from a bunch of middle-aged Jews yelling at each other.  And for all David’s scenery chewing, his physicality cannot be denied.  His long arms, big hands and tapered fingers are always gesturing, his posture always finding a new contortion of discomfort or defensiveness.  I don’t exaggerate when I say that he may boast the most expressive body language of any comedian since Groucho Marx.

That said, by the time you read this, Jason Alexander will be starring in Fish in the Dark instead of David.  Who knows—the “Seinfeld” and “Duckman” alum may actually find a human being to play in the comedy.  If so, the show will be both richer and poorer for it.

 

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SIDEBAR

Some theatrical suggestions for your Long Island Summer:

June 23-July 12: Five Presidents. “West Wing” writer Rick Cleveland imagines what five ex-Presidents would say to each other if they ever got together. (Bay Street Theater, Main Street, Sag Harbor, 631-725-9500, baystreet.org)

July 16-Aug. 2: Reasons to Be Pretty. Neil LaBute’s dark comedy, which reached Broadway in 2009, tells of a stormy relationship toppled by an off-hand remark.

(Bare Bones Theater, 57 Main St., Northport, 631-757-9616, barebonestheater.com) 

July 16-Aug. 2: Dogfight.  In this serious musical, first staged off-Broadway in 2012, Marines on their way to Vietnam spend a last night in San Francisco—and engage in a cruel mind game with the local girls.  (Second Stage Productions, 1750A Merrick Ave, Merrick, 516-996-0303, 2ndstageproductions.com)

Aug. 2: Steinbrenner!. In this one-night-only staged reading featuring TV veteran Richard Kind as the title, veteran sportswriters Ira Berkow and Bill Madden examine the highs and lows of the late Yankee manager.  (Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton, 631-324-4050, guildhall.org)

Aug. 20: Sharpies.  Another staged reading, this one starring Matthew Broderick and Carol Kane.  Eugene Pack’s comedy looks at celebrities at an autograph convention. (Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton, 631-324-4050, guildhall.org)

July 23-Sept. 6: The Cottage. Playwright Sandy Rustin channels Noel Coward in this countryside romantic comedy.  Theatermania called the show’s 2013 debut “funny.  Genuinely funny.”  (John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com)

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If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going With You

**3/4

 reviewed by David Lefkowitz

(note: This review was first published in TotalTheater.com, Sept. 2001: http://www.totaltheater.com/?q=node/2521)

If You Ever Leave Me, I’m Going with You, written and directed by Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna, ran at Broadway’s Cort Theater, July 17-Sept. 23, 2001).

 

Critics have tried time and again to kill old-fashioned, punchline-laden boulevard comedy, but audiences end up having the last laugh – literally. Even the most familiar jokes and situations, if handled snappily, can make for a pleasing night of relaxed entertainment. Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna, together personally and professionally for almost four decades, know the turf and load their autobiographical retrospective with crowd-pleasing turns, from Renee as a nervous auditioning actress to the duo as geezers embarking on a one-night stand (which, of course, ends in back trouble, heart palpitations and snoozing).

A weak bit from the recent Bermuda Avenue Triangle and an embarrassingly kitschy finale take their toll on the evening’s second hour. By then it’s also clear that although Joe can zing home a retort, his stagey acting lacks Renee’s natural aplomb. As such, If You Ever Leave Me… is at its best when she’s center stage or when the two are sharing their real home movies, which genuinely prove the “funny because it’s true” adage.

 

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NOTES & BACKSTORY:

I’m actually posting this old review on my website the day of Joseph Bologna’s death (Aug. 13, 2017), having stumbled across the piece when I was searching for info to use in my radio obit of the actor-director. Just for context, the show was doing passable business at the Cort Theater and not really building its box office—so it’s hard to tell whether 9/11 wrecked its chances or if it would have petered out in a few more weeks anyway.

I do wonder, now that I’m much older and long-married, if the current me would have liked the show more than the younger me and would have responded even more to its nostalgia. (And there were opportunities—as late as 2013, Bologna and Renee Taylor were still performing the show at various regional venues.)

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