Thursday, February 12, 2009

Live Design: Winter's tales

I see the site is now obliging readers to register to read more than just an opening graf or two of every item posted. And there's a lot to read on there, including excerpts from my Shrek design feature in the March issue. So if you like this (I helped to originate the "Seen and Heard" column, in 2001), sign on for the proverbial much, much more.

Seen on Broadway: Richard Greenberg writes plays like Kate Hudson makes romantic comedies, and has been doing so for some time. The reappearance of The American Plan is a welcome reminder of why his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is still valued, after indifferent revivals of other, better-known plays like Three Days of Rain and dud new productions in the wake of the blue-ribbon success of 2002’s Take Me Out. The Manhattan Theatre Club, which originally produced the play Off Broadway, has given it a smart production on the main stem at the Samuel J. Friedman.

A gloss on Henry James’ Washington Square, relocated to the Catskills in 1960 and reoriented with a 20th century twist, the show pivots on fine performances by Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe. Rabe is Lily, a gossamer beauty under the thumb of her mother, Eva, a hard-bitten Jewish émigré. Lily’s placid surface belies a roiling inner life due to her wealthy mother’s interference and her own penchant for telling lies, but a certain balance is achieved courtesy of their long-time maid, Olivia (Brenda Pressley). Tilting the scales is Nick (Kieran Campion), who swims up to the Adlers’ dock as the play begins, and promptly sweeps Lily off her feet. But Eva, who has seen other suitors come and go, and brushes past Nick’s charms to zero in on his uncertain prospects, connives to disrupt the union. A fifth character, Gil (Austin Lysy), who claims to be an old friend of Nick’s, is introduced in the second act as a catalyst, with results that were probably less predictable in 1990 when the play was new but remain dramatically and emotionally resonant.

David Grindley, of the masterful revival of Journey’s End, here charts a different course, with a show that today reflects our current fascination with the not-so-innocent era of the TV hit Mad Men. Jonathan Fensom’s clothes certainly reflect the period; more abstract is his beautiful dock set, on a revolve, with billowing sets of curtains (back in fashion as a stage design tool) that root the show as much in memory as in fact. Mark McCullough gorgeously illuminates it, for different times of the day and night, and there are fine ambient sound effects by Darron L. West and Bray Poor that capture a summer feel. The 1970-set coda, set in a cheerless Manhattan apartment, is thick with regret. But there are no missteps in this clockwork mounting of The American Plan, which runs through March 15.

The Roundabout’s Hedda Gabler is a revival gone terribly wrong. You’d think that Henrik Ibsen never wrote any other plays, given Hedda’s frequent appearances on, Off and way Off Broadway (the robot-ridden Heddatron). But this one might cure the impulse to restage the show anytime soon. Conceived as a vehicle for once-compelling and quirky Mary-Louise Parker, who has squandered her bag of tricks on the overrated cable show Weeds, the actress drives it right off the cliff with a performance far more suggestive of attention deficit disorder than spiritual malaise.

In this she is abetted by a shakily contemporized adaptation by the boring playwright Christopher Shinn and haphazard direction by Ian Rickson, who should have taken the first flight out of town after his well-received production of The Seagull. Instead, he has grounded a misused ensemble at the American Airlines through March 28. Michael Cerveris, a dopey Tesman, and Paul Sparks (who, as the fetishized Lovborg, strikes no sparks with the ditsy Parker) can, and will, do better; the grubby Peter Stormare has done far worse in Hollywood, but as Brack is basically unbelievable as a judge of anything but traffic court.

Following suit is a dismal design, more college-level than Broadway. Hildegarde Bechtler’s drab, unfinished-looking set is dominated by two massive doors, as if giants were the former owners of the Tesmans’ new digs. The stove is of course necessary for the burning of Lovborg’s manuscript, which has the emotional impact of a shrug; it looks ridiculous, overwhelming a bare wall. Natasha Katz’s putty lighting does nothing to flatter the shapeless period clothes of Ann Roth, which Parker wears poorly. John Gromada’s sound design is the delivery system for a would-be hip score by PJ Harvey, one more at home as relentlessly monotonous music for a John Carpenter horror movie. Then again, this Hedda is something of a horror itself.

Seen Off Broadway: Anton Chekhov is having an easier time of it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the Sam Mendes-led Bridge Project, a melding of talents on both sides of the Atlantic, is presenting The Cherry Orchard as its inaugural production. Tom Stoppard’s fluid adaptation of the final masterwork that brought down the curtain on Chekhov’s life and art emphasizes the comedy of the piece, and also its politics; its pastoral Russians, musing on the vagaries of love and the passing of time and place, might be upcountry from the coast of Utopia. But the basic melancholy of losing one’s wealth and property, a theme never more timeless than it is today, is as affecting as always, and a fine cast that includes Sinead Cusack, Simon Russell Beale (both pictured), Rebecca Hall, Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke handles the tonal shifts with admirable precision.

Filling the stage at BAM’s Harvey Theatre is always tricky, and Anthony Ward doesn’t even try—or, rather, he and Mendes let the skilled actors fill in the blanks with their performances, a sound decision. Oriental rugs and other bric-a-brac suggest the faded opulence of the estate. In the second act, as the premises are vacated, Paul Pyant’s fulsome lighting captures a wave pattern in the central platform, emphasizing the swirl of activity and conflicting emotions of the departure. Strong emotion is generated by Catherine Zuber’s exquisite costumes, which register the fade-out of the gentility and the upward mobility of the serfs who are taking charge, and Mark Bennett’s fine music, played live by musicians dressed as peasants. The only miscue the night I attended was a persistent reverb in the audio system, particularly in the first act, but I wouldn’t hold sound designer Paul Arditti responsible for what was the one sour note in an otherwise rewarding evening. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale joins The Cherry Orchard in repertory through March 8.

Veteran actor Michael Countryman has the audience in the palm of his hand in Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theatres. He plays Louis de Rougemont, who captivated 19th century audiences in Europe with his Dickensian/Jules Verne tales of an impoverished childhood, nautical adventures, and 30 years in the wilds of Australia following the title event. Under scrutiny, however, it became clear that as a memoirist he was as much James Frey as he was James Michener, though there were elements of truth in his tallest tales. As scripted by Donald Margulies, whose plays (including Dinner with Friends and Sight Unseen) reach beneath façades, de Rougemont emerges a sympathetic figure, a fantasist who seized the popular imagination, if too strongly for the scientific establishment.

Director Lisa Peterson responds to the colorful, often humorous material with an appropriately imaginative staging, one that’s pure theater. Neil Patel’s set, with a spiral-patterned platform, has just enough scenic elements in place to suggest the different environments of the story, which are also evoked by Stephen Strawbridge’s colored lighting. Michael Krass’ costuming is in support of the two other outstanding players in the piece, Jeremy Bobb and Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who between them a few dozen roles. The strongest contribution comes from Gromada, who recovers nicely from the Hedda debacle with music and sound effects that are performed live, like a radio production, not on instruments but on found bits of scenery. It’s delightful tomfoolery fully in keeping with the spirit of the show and its subject. Shipwrecked! An Entertainment plays through March 7.

No comments: