Tuesday, November 30, 2010

La Bête

David Hirson’s 1991 Moliere inspired comedy, written in iambic pentameter no less, only made it 25 performances at the Eugene O’Neill Theater the first time out. A subsequent West End production was a hit with Alan Cumming in it and then the strange thing happened: the Broadway flop became a favorite among the regional theaters. For a play that only ran 25 performances it is pretty well known. Now Matthew Warchus has directed a West End revival and moved it to Broadway for a fall run starring Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce and Joanna Lumley––well known to the London stage and TV fans of “Absolutely Fabulous,” making her Broadway debut. The performances from the main three carry the show and few things on the boards are as wondrous and deliciously funny as Mark Rylance as Valere the fop, running off at the mouth for a solid 30 minutes before taking a breath to let David Hyde Pierce as Elomire get a word in edgewise. Elomire is the court supported head of the royal acting troupe and Valere enters to destroy good taste and run away with the “new” acting company under his empty guidance and vapid plays. Valere is nothing but hot air––almost literally as he startlingly releases in burps and farts––while Elomire seems to be the only one to hold firm against the deterioration of good form and educated thought.

The production is presented in a near two hours without intermission and it bubbles along swiftly to an end without giving one a chance to fully embrace the bigger ideas at hand (a man behind me uttered: “That’s the play?” after the final moment). It takes a bit of thought and conversation to put it all together after the laughs have petered out, which is the kind of play that Elomire hopes for, but is saying good-bye to.

Set and costume design was by Mark Thompson who gave us floor to infinity book cases stacked with books and his 17th Century costumes were understated on the right people and beautifully over done on the other right people. If the play lost in 1991 just as Elomire seems to in the play, this time he actually won. This revival isn’t lasting a full season, but it’s done much better than the original production and will continue to delight in regional theaters just as it has for the past two decades.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


If you still delight in an annual viewing of the TV puppet-toon “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Santa Clause is Coming to Town,” ELF is quite like those holiday specials come to life. Based on the film of the same name, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin have composed a peppy Broadway score to go with Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s adaptation of the screenplay. This is no surprise of a score, but it is tuneful and it serves the proceedings, which are all full of delight, good will and holiday cheer. A nice new addition to the Christmas song catalog is the less than creatively titled, but wholly charming “A Christmas Song.” A clever number called “I’ll Believe in You”––a kind of anti-Christmas list––puts conditions on whether or not Beth Leavel as the mom and Matthew Gumley as the son will believe in Santa Clause and the two sing extremely well together. Mark Jacoby is the overworked father who neglects his family while the son just wants a day with his dad for Christmas. Anyone who can deliver that gift must be Santa Clause!

However, the main story here is that the Elf in question, Buddy, played with delightful glee by Sebastian Arcelus, has been informed that he’s actually human (which explains why he’s so tall), so he heads down to New York to find his real dad––the overworked Mark Jacoby. Either by accident or on purpose; by his innocence or his unorthodox resourcefulness, Buddy manages to fix the family and bring enough Christmas cheer to New York to keep Santa’s magic sleigh afloat (George Wendt supplies a cuddly off beat Santa). Along the way Buddy even finds a girlfriend in the depressed Amy Spanger whose life is brightened by his positive outlook and habit of breaking into cheerful song.

Casey Nicholaw has staged an old-fashioned musical comedy of the kind one might have seen around the late 1940s on David Rockwell’s wing and drop set adorned with Natasha Katz’s colorful lighting and animated projections. Gregg Barnes’ costumes walk the line between TV Christmas Variety Special and a true expression of character, which is to say: exactly as it should be.

This light hearted and bouncy show has as much for the adults as for the kids, but it is aimed directly at the audience that needs a little Christmas now and no one else. It makes a nice alternative to THE NUTCRACKER or the RADIO CITY CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR. Humbugs stay home.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Milk Milk Lemonade

Although Joshua Conkel’s askew serio-comedy about bullying seems to be of this very moment, it actually made its premier a year ago at the little basement theater, UNDER ST. MARK’S. Having just finished a run at the Astoria Performing Arts Center during a fall that had the topic of bullying all over the news, Conkel and APAC couldn’t have anticipated producing anything more relevant. The sad truth is that Conkel’s depiction of a feminine eleven year old boy who is bullied by a tough neighbor boy is a typical experience in some form or another for scores of young gay boys through history. What is so surprising is not so much that Conkel has written a play about the subject, but that the issue of bullying has only just become an openly national discussion. Finally! More productions in other cities are in the works and with the current discourse it is obvious why Conkel’s play dealing with a major topic of the moment would be embraced.

Outside of shining a light on a very serious issue previously ignored, MILK MILK LEMONADE belongs to the Absurdist tradition and a kind of gay camp theatre of yore that was perhaps most developed by the likes of the late Charles Ludlam and lives on with the work of Charles Bush. Men play women and women play men in this theatre world where gender identity is challenged on a variety of levels. The very boyish, but adult Andy Phelan plays our hero, Emory, the eleven year old sissified boy who choreographs to “Anything Goes” and dreams about making it on a TV talent competition from his lonely home on a farm. Michael Cyril Creighton plays Nanna, his chain smoking grandmother who wheels around an oxygen tank and commands poor Emory to act more like a real boy. Which is to say he should toss around a baseball with the rugged delinquent neighbor boy, Elliot, played by the tough as nails (and female) Jess Barbagallo. Elliot harasses Emory relentlessly, having pegged him as gay, though Emory has only just come to realize this truth. Another type of aggression comes out in the form of playing house, which in Emory’s delightful way resembles a Tennessee William’s play and the game develops into sex. Yes the sissy boy might be gay, but so is the tough kid, showing that outward appearances can be deceiving. Elliot over compensates for his gayness while Emory is outwardly expressive through his creative endeavors. Emory’s best friend is a chicken named Linda (Jennifer Harder), whose thoughts are hilariously interpreted by the narrator of the play, Nikole Beckwith. It is part of Emory’s growing up that he must confront the reality that Linda can’t be his pet forever, but that she is actually food and will be processed like all the other chickens.

Jason Simm’s set design looks like a Crayola crayon child’s drawing of a barnyard meant for a children’s morning TV show on PBS. However, thanks to Conkel and director José Zayas, this was one twisted children’s show. After having seen Pee-Wee Herman only days before, I felt I was living in one strange world. Emory’s world is not nearly as enchanted as Pee-Wee’s, but it is just as subversive and appropriately for the theme, rather a nightmare. The hope that emanates from Emory’s awful situation is something like Dan Savage’s Youtube “It Gets Better” campaign, that Emory finds a way to deal with his suffering and lives for his dreams that one day he will indeed escape the horrors of childhood to find out that life will get better.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Pee-Wee Herman Show

The Henry Miller Theatre has been renamed The Stephen Sondheim and the strange first occupant of this year old most modern of theaters on Broadway is Pee-Wee Herman. This is of course the man-child character from the 1980s created by Paul Reubens. The character of Pee-Wee was developed with the improv group, The Groundlings, in Los Angeles in 1981. The act moved to the Roxy on Sunset Strip and ran for five months, inspiring an HBO special, introducing Pee-Wee to a national audience. I came to know the character in Tim Burton’s wacky film, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE in 1985. Following the success of the film came the Saturday morning TV show, PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE on CBS. The show won 22 Emmy Awards during its five-year run. As a college student, all my friends talked about the TV show and loved its subversive humor. It worked for kids and adults the way a good Bugs Bunny cartoon did. Now on Broadway the TV show is live in a 90 minute reunion of all the favorite characters on a re-creation of the familiar playhouse set. The audience is filled with both adults and their kids. Pee-Wee Herman has been out of the scene for about two decades, so this Broadway appearance is a real come back and as far as the crowd is concerned, Pee-Wee is as good as ever. He is as beloved as Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse or Captain Kangaroo as evidenced by the tremendous reception he received upon his first entrance. Without fanfare a spot light hit the wing before the closed curtain and after a pause of anticipation, Pee-Wee Herman walked into the light and the crowd went wild. He greeted the audience with typical Herman joy, sang a little song for us as a kind of introduction and then made us stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, which we all did. He disappeared behind the curtain and it went up to reveal the playhouse, which received cheers for its familiarity.

People who never got into Pee-Wee or missed him entirely in the ‘80s will not understand the audience’s mania during the course of this show. However, if you grew up on Pee-Wee and were a fan during his hay day, his ageless presence now on Broadway is more than a delight, but a thrill. He arrives to say hi to all the familiar friends of the playhouse: Chairy, Jambi, Miss Yvonne and the rest. The original Mailman Mike, John Moody, is on hand and Lynne Marie Stewart re-creates Miss Yvonne. All the bits, gags, and every kind of thing that used to happen on the TV show is jam-packed into the Broadway show. The new things are funny, such as Pee-Wee getting his first computer and instantly making it his life and neglecting his real friends in the room, but each old familiar thing receives a huge reaction from the crowd. The secret word of the day is “fun” and we were asked to scream every time we heard it. Not a “fun” got past the audience, but even without the secret word the audience was having a ball and would cheer and applaud every last occurrence, right down to Pee-Wee’s stock sayings such as, “I know you are, but what am I?” his signature laugh and his famous dance to “Tequila.”

The proceedings were directed by Alex Timbers, new to the Pee-Wee family, but just about everything else to do with the production was handled by people originally associated with the TV show. Hopefully the producers will see the worth of filming the show for TV as it is one terrific reunion special. More than that, let’s hope Pee-Wee finds a new way into our lives either on TV or film, for his way of drawing in both children and adults and teaching his simple lessons of dealing with the turbulence of modern day life are just as useful and entertaining as ever. Just when we need him most Pee-Wee has reappeared to brighten our day.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


This sweet and quirky comedy, based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen from Norway, made its debut in Oslo in 1999. A film version won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture in 2002. The play has been seen all over Europe and now, finally, we have it on Broadway with Denis O’Hare in the title role and Brendan Fraser starring opposite him as friend Kjell. Jennifer Coolidge is the featured woman playing multiple roles and Richard Easton and Jeremy Shamos appear in supporting roles. This is an English adaptation by Simon Bent from the play and screenplay by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess. This tidy little play is very simply designed by Scott Pask for the set and Catherine Zuber for the costumes. Director Doug Hughes refers to the play as “Children’s Theatre for Adults.” This doesn’t really refer to the child-like nature of the characters, but rather the style of presentation, which has the actors moving two beds, a table and a few chairs around to depict the various spaces they inhabit. This hands on aspect of the production adds to the charm of the whole thing and with this cast it is very charming indeed.

When the curtain goes up there is applause for the movie star Brendan Fraser, looking strangely hefty and nothing like his familiar action hero movie image. Then out pops the Broadway star, Denis O’Hare, and again there is healthy applause. The first woman to walk on stage is someone we’ve never seen before and she is not welcomed with applause. Turns out, five lines in, that she is a well disguised Jennifer Coolidge. In the next scene she walks on looking more familiar and is greeted with applause. I felt a little sorry for her on her first entrance, having to follow the two leading men after hearing entrance applause and then walking on to nothing. Doug Hughes didn’t consider this, but then again I saw the very first performance and perhaps something will be done to help that. Not that anything that is staged is wrong, but there is an unfortunate imbalance in the way the stars are introduced. Poor Richard Easton has a thankless role, but he is enjoyable in his small way, while Jeremy Shamos as the Social Worker has a meatier part and gives a good sturdy performance in the “straight” role to the comedians.

The comedians are wonderful. Brendan Fraser and Denis O’Hare play two men released from the asylum to prove whether or not they can share a regular apartment and survive in society. The humor is in how they negotiate the real world as essentially boys in men’s bodies. Jennifer Coolidge keeps showing up in new wigs and costumes, creating one comic character after the other. A number of good actresses could be funny in this role, but there is something so specifically tickling about Jennifer Coolidge and she made the show for me.

I wonder what kind of room there is for a little comedy like this in today’s Broadway? I would hope, because this play is inherently theatrical, that it will be embraced and run long enough to make back its investment. The play has three well liked actors who should help sell tickets and it is both heartfelt and funny, so there is no reason why it should not be a success. However, the unusual subject mixed with the lightness of it might make it seem unimportant and in today’s economy a Broadway show must seem important. There must be an important subject, an important performance, or an impressive staging. There must be the excitement of a promised thrill that is then delivered. ELLING is none of these things and perhaps its life is really meant for the regional theatre market where I can imagine it will be enjoyed often. It will be interesting to see how this production fares. I would like to see it win.