Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brief Encounter

Noel Coward’s one act, STILL LIFE, was expanded into the beautiful film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Now, Director/Adaptor Emma Rice and England’s Kneehigh Theatre have gone back to the stage with the screenplay of BRIEF ENCOUNTER. The result is a 39 STEPS type of stylized comic treatment, except that the pathos is still warm and truthful. Added into the mix are projections by Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll and original songs by Stu Baker. This was not a musical per se, but characters did break into songs which revealed character. Other songs were used to serenade the action. The ensemble of actors could all sing and play multiple instruments. The lead singer of the group, Daniel Canham, had a delightful vocal quality and played string instruments as well as the character of Bill. The story follows the accidental meeting and short lived love affair of Laura and Alec. Hannah Yelland as Laura, played the comic style while simultaneously bringing forth the sadness and real dramatic conflict required of the role. Tristan Sturrock, who has been a regular actor with Kneehigh Theatre for the past twenty years made an admirable Alec, managing those 1930s overly romantic lines with passion and credibility––not to mention a humble and sweet singing voice.

Taking place in an English train station refreshment cafe and populated by the variety of workers typical of such a place, the story showed various couplings in the early stages of romance. But, the central couple is misguidedly embarking on a romance for they are each married with young children. They meet on Thursdays over a period of several weeks, falling in love quickly and feeling guilty about their relationship, but unable to let go of it until Alec is offered a job that will take him to Africa. The romance awakens these two people––perhaps jolting them into change that will open up their futures to greater things. The relationship has its place and purpose after all and although it is an adulterous one, it is hard to not sympathize with their situation. One thing that makes it easier to accept is that Coward wisely does not introduce us to Alec’s wife and children, so we have no affection for them. Laura’s family is seen, but here the children are clever puppets and the husband (Joseph Alessi) is depicted as a kindly bore, uninterested in Laura’s life outside the home, unconcerned with how his children are parented and mostly concerned with his crossword puzzles. We sort want her to escape such an unexciting world––at least we can’t blame her when she meets her enthusiastic doctor. However, some of what makes Alec so attractive in the movie is missing from this play––mainly his description of his great dream of promoting preventative medicine. Still, charm comes in other ways––namely through the music and dynamic performances from a multitalented cast.

The production was as much the star as any one actor in it. The projections say that this play was once a movie (rather well known at that) and that although that movie will be lovingly honored, it will also be torn apart, re-imagined, and explored in new ways. Laura and Alec start their first seen from the audience, as if they were at the movies. On a screen there is, we are told, a movie called “Brief Encounter” showing. Laura’s husband walks into the frame, looks out to the audience and calls for Laura to come back. Eventually she leaves Alec in the audience and literally steps into the movie screen, transforming into a projected image. Her world is a black and white movie––she is stuck in the frame. Off screen is the train station cafe, Alec and a bright and colorful world. The story is as compelling in this new stage adaptation as it is a film. The production is innovative, endlessly creative, musically enchanting, sad and quite hilarious all at once. I’m not sure what gets knocked off the list, but BRIEF ENCOUNTER now ranks as one of the top ten best productions I’ve seen in New York in the past ten years––a highlight of the decade.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Royal Family

If it weren’t for the double extension, I might have missed THE ROYAL FAMILY and I’m so happy I caught it. Those reading this are too late, but I am here to report how superb it was. This classic Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman collaboration based on the Barrymore family (names have been changed to protect the guilty) is as delicious and satisfying as it must have been in 1927 when it first opened. Outside of a City Center production in the ‘50s, the play has only been revived one other time in 1975. The 2009 edition produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the charming old Biltmore Theatre (they’ve changed the name, but I refuse to acknowledge this) was expertly directed by Doug Hughes with perfect pace. The three act play flew by in a wondrous three hours of joy.

Leading the cast was our own contemporary Helen Hayes, Rosemary Harris, who couldn’t be more perfect as the head of the family, Fanny Cavendish. In the role of Julie Cavendish (obviously young Ethel Barrymore) is the driving force of the play, having to serve as caretaker for the rest of this all-theatre-all-the-time family. She has a daughter Gwen (Kelli Barrett) who is an actress on the rise, but engaged to marry a “civilian” business man, Perry (Freddy Arsenault). One of the main themes of the play is best expressed through this couple. She has greasepaint in her blood, but wants marriage. He loves her, but her career is in conflict with a traditional idea of marriage. However, the problem is real as Perry will come home from work just as Gwen is going off to work. They will rarely see each other and how in the world will they raise a child? They elect to try to make it work, though we suspect this won’t last forever––the family’s obsession with the theatre is a force of nature. This force of nature is also something to be admired, for they are truly devoted to it. “The life” means something to them as a sense of history and tradition in the big sense and also in the family sense as each generation has been successful in it.

Tony Cavendish (obviously the John Barrymore character) has just escaped from “the coast,” breaking his movie contract and up to his neck in a host of other problems. He must flee to Europe for a while, perhaps get out of show business all together (fat chance). Reg Rogers is masterful, giving an exact replica impersonation of John Barrymore. Rogers must have studied every film Barrymore made, for the cadence and phrasing of speech is spot on. The gestures, double-takes, athleticism and line readings are all so precise. The average member of the audience probably had no idea how accurate Rogers’ performance was. They must have simply found him a flamboyantly entertaining character, but I was enjoying at how accurately Rogers nailed the impression of John Barrymore. THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, DINNER AT EIGHT and GRAND HOTEL are favorite films of mine, mainly for the fantastic and unique performances of John Barrymore. I can’t even imagine how this comic genius would fit into his famous portrayal of HAMLET, which took Broadway and London by storm in the ‘20s, but comics can surprise us and play tragedy better than anyone (not always the other way around).

John Glover and Ana Gasteyer played relations, Herbert and Kitty Dean. The Deans are an odd couple, each looking for a new play. They have each grown into the hard to cast category and the parts are not offered to them like they use to be. Tony Roberts played Oscar Wolfe, the family’s manager, who helps them out of scrapes and troubles and stands to lose a lot as each member of the family threatens to leave the biz. Roberts is a good stalwart theatre man, as much like a Barrymore in real life as a contemporary actor can be. He was perfectly good in the role, but didn’t bring anything unique to it.

Hysterical moments included just about everything Reg Rogers did on stage, but his expertly done sword fight through the two-story east side townhouse (sumptuously designed by John Lee Beatty) with the boxing instructor (Rufus Collins) was plenty of fun and Jan Maxwell’s third act breakdown––a sizable comic monologue––was a tour de force, receiving applause in the middle of it, only for her to pick up and continue on to the finish for another round of applause. After all the fun, the play turns on a dime with that great Edna Ferber way of making a final serious statement about the frailty of life and the preciousness of time. The play would work its magic in the final moments, even if it weren’t the great Rosemary Harris, alone in the room, privately rehearsing for a come back performance she will never give. I had been laughing all night and suddenly I wanted to sob. Shouldn’t we have plays like this on Broadway all the time? We rarely do.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

God of Carnage

Do you remember that I LOVE LUCY episode where Lucy and Carolyn Appleby get into a fight over whether or not little Ricky or little Stevie is more brilliant? Well, at it’s most basic form, GOD OF CARNAGE is very much an episode of I LOVE LUCY. Now, Yasmina Reza can write a good play, but what she has written is a sophisticated sitcom for the Broadway stage and since nothing else on Broadway last season matched it in the new play category, it won the Tony. Still, the play is highly entertaining and very funny, but what elevates it is that it is really so true. The comedy comes from adults, who know better, letting go and finally saying just what they always wanted to say regardless of the consequences.

I missed the original cast from last season and after a summer break, the show reopened with Christine Lahti and Ken Scott as the host couple Veronica and Michael and Annie Potts and Jimmy Smits as Annette and Michael, the visiting couple. It seems that Annette and Michael’s son has knocked two teeth out of the mouth of Veronica and Michael’s son with a stick. Veronica has taken care to be a perfect hostess, with fresh flowers decorating the living room, a cheesecake and coffee. The couples chit chat, but what Veronica suggests is that the other couple’s boy should be brought to their home to apologize to their son. During all this talk, Michael is a busy lawyer who continues to take phone calls. This starts to make Annette angry, setting off a new tension in the room that slowly unravels each person. There is blame hurled at each character for being the true cause of the boys’ violence and we begin to find out what each of these people is really made of. All of this serious stuff is handled in a very comical way, but underneath the fun is a serious deconstruction of our rules of etiquette. Human’s are not animals, they have free will and can choose to rise above violent acts, but perhaps that is too difficult. After all, haven’t we just completed a catastrophic century filled with wars and aren’t we in a war now? Isn’t violence in our bones? Veronica insists, even as she herself explodes with anger, that everyone can conduct themselves in a civilized manner. Reza offers no solutions, but just points out human nature and it is easy for all of us to both laugh and look on in horror.

Matthew Warchus, who also helmed Reza’s hit play ART some years ago, gave the show perfect pace. All four actors deliver terrific seriocomic performances, not only with line readings, but physicality as well. Mark Thompson’s simple set gives the impression of a well to do, modern cosmopolitan apartment with only the most necessary props and furniture to adorn the stage. Once upon a time a one set living room play like this would be handled realistically, but this stylish impression of the world of the play is not only economical, but is really all we need. A red carpet as a pallet for white furniture and a trendy flat rock wall on an angle took care of the physical needs and gave the entire feel of the show a lot of energy.

A four person, one set play with a Best Play Tony Award attached, should do good business in regional theaters from here on out.