Tuesday, October 14, 2014

This Play Has A Hot Tub And Takes You Back In Time

It sounds like a good writing exercise: write a play which requires an actual Jacuzzi. I'm not sure if that's what gave The Debate Society (Paul Thureen, Hannah Bos, and Oliver Butler) the idea for the appropriately titled Jacuzzi, but there's more to the play, written by Thureen and Bos and directed by Butler, than just a hot tub. And that doesn't take away from how impressive it is that they were able to get a working Jacuzzi in the small Ars Nova space.
Left to Right: Paul Thureen, Chris Lowell, Hannah Bos. Photo credit: Ben Arons
The reason for the Jacuzzi? Robert (Peter Friedman) always wanted one at the family ski chalet, but his wife didn't allow it. He got the place in the divorce, so he finally has one installed. When the play begins, Erik (Thureen) and Helene (Bos), are relaxing in the tub. Bo (Chris Lowell) shows up, a night early to meet his father, and assumes that Erik and Helene are renters. When his father arrives the next day, Erik and Helene say they are there to install the Jacuzzi. Robert asks them to stay to help pack up things that need to be sent to his ex-wife.

Costume designer Jessica Ford, props designer Noah Mease, and set designer Laura Jellinek provide early '90s period details like bright neon ski suits, VHS tapes, and an answering machine, but this isn't your typical '90s nostalgia. It's clear that Erik and Helene aren't what they seem--they keep telling Bo and Robert different stories about their families that don't match up. More is revealed through Helene's narration in between scenes, but more questions are also raised (some of which are never answered), creating a horror film-like suspense I've rarely experienced at the theater. Thureen and Bos strike a perfect balance between creepy and friendly with their smiles and often vacant facial expressions. Robert and Bo aren't the most likable people, but in Friedman and Lowell's carefully crafted portrayals, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for them and their struggle to get the love they need from each other.

Tickets are only $35, but the run (through November 1) is almost sold out.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Revivals on Broadway

Do you remember those old NBC commercials for reruns? "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you." That's how I feel about revivals. Though sometimes they seem like the safe choice, there will always be a new audience for a show. With all the theater I've attended in my life, there are still many classic plays and musicals that I've never seen. I recently had the chance to see You Can't Take It With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman and Love Letters by A.R. Gurney for the first time.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The 1936 play You Can't Take It With You is frequently performed in school and community theaters, and it seems like most theater people were in it or involved with it at some point, but somehow I went this long without being exposed to it. After seeing the current production at the Longacre Theatre, I understand the lasting appeal. It's a delightful story about an eccentric family, the Sycamores. There is Penelope (Kristine Nielsen), a wannabe playwright, and her husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker), who makes fireworks. Their daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) is a dancer and candy maker married to Ed (a standout Will Brill), who plays the xylophone. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones) cares for his pets snakes and doesn't believe in paying income taxes. Alice (Rose Byrne, making a charming Broadway debut) is the normal one and when she falls in love with Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz), who comes from a respectable family, she is worried about how the two families will get along. For all the hilarity, it is also quite moving how much the Sycamores love each other. I saw an early preview of the show, but it could have been running for months for how in sync everyone was (as directed by Scott Ellis).
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

To be honest, Love Letters--a 1989 two-hander in which actors sit and read letters--sounded boring to me, so I was surprised by how quickly I got into the story. Actors will rotate in the production at the Brooks Akinson Theatre. The first cast is Brian Dennehy as Andrew Makepiece Ladd III and Mia Farrow as Melissa Gardner. Conservative Andy and wild Melissa met in elementary school and the play is told through their letters, cards, and invitations to each other. They are convincing as children, but not too over-the-top, and they transition seamlessly into the different ages without the benefit of costume or makeup changes. Farrow, who has the more showy role, hasn't been on Broadway since 1980, but this performance, in which she conveys so much beneath the surface of the letters, proves she belongs here.

This season, I look forward to more revivals of shows I've never seen--The Real Thing, Side Show, On The Twentieth Century, to name a few--and also plenty of new works, maybe some of which will also become classics.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Contest: Win Tickets to Stalking the Bogeyman

Update: The contest is now closed. The winner was chosen at random from the entries here and on Twitter. Congratulations, philipleeny (P.S. Great entry)!

Stalking the Bogeyman opened at New World Stages on Monday. Based on the true story made famous on the radio show "This American Life," it follows journalist David Holthouse's secret pursuit of justice for a crime hidden for 25 years. Markus Potter adapted Holthouse's story for the stage and directs. I haven't seen it yet, but it sounds like a powerful story, and heavier than standard New World Stages fare. I'm giving away a pair of tickets. The winner will receive a voucher good for a variety of dates.

I think it's interesting that the source is a radio show. Last night I saw a musical based on a magazine. Since I'm thinking about different types of source material, in order to enter the contest, leave a comment on this post telling me something (it could be anything) that you think would be good source material for a play or musical. You can also tweet about the contest or retweet one of my tweets about it (if you enter this way, you must be following on Twitter to win). You can enter once each way for a total of two entries. A winner will be chosen at random from all the entries on Money, October 6, at 3:00 p.m. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle in the comments so I have a way to contact you if you win. Good luck!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Q&A with Mark Childers, Bookwriter of the Musical Love Quirks

The new musical Love Quirks started out as a song cycle by composer/lyricist Seth Bisen-Hersh. Now it's a book musical about four roommates (two straight women, a gay man, and a straight man) living together in New York City and falling in and out of love. Mark Childers was asked by his brother, Love Quirks director Brian Childers, and Bisen-Hersh to write the book scenes.
The cast of Love Quirks: (from left) Teresa Hui, Brian Shaw, Lauren Testerman, Robert McCaffrey.
Photo credit: Mark Childers
Childers says that he and Bisen-Hersh work really well together, which made it easier to write a book for a collection of songs that already had a structure. "Seth is a great guy to work with. I feel we have a strong collaborative process in the sense that we don't hold back. We are very honest with each other and willing to listen to one another; rewrites, new dialogue, new songs, plot changes. It's all part of the process and we both really enjoy that side of it," Childers says.

Another challenge was writing in Bisen-Hersh's voice, so the songs wouldn't feel disconnected from the dialogue. Childers was able to do that by listening to him in conversations, but what he found most helpful was watching him work. I also spoke to Childers about how audiences can help in the development of the show, working with his brother, and what's next for Love Quirks.

Q: It says on the website that you intend to improve the show in front of an audience as a stepping stone to a commercial Off-Broadway run. Has the audience reaction been helpful to you so far?
A: Yes. When you see an audience see it for the first time and you didn't know something was funny, that's the fun part. You're listening for something and they're laughing at this other part and you're thinking, "I didn't write that to be funny." And then stuff that's [written to be] funny, they're silent. We're definitely learning a lot from audiences and we look forward to our next round of rewrites.

Q: So, are you rewriting now or are you waiting until this run is finished?
A: I write every day in my head. I'm always writing. I could change everything. You're always doing that because that's what writers do, or at least I do. You're always looking to improve. Especially when you're in the process. That's the mindset that you can change those things. But what's been nice is someone eventually takes it away from you and the production team has taken it away from us. I cannot make changes for this run, but we are absolutely thinking about it constantly. Looking to the next draft. Looking and thinking forward. 

Q: Bookwriting seems like a difficult job. People often blame the book when a musical doesn't work. Why did you want to get into that?
A: I started writing because I had stories. I've written for musicals. I've done this before for a book musical with material that was also existing except it wasn't already structured [The Kid from Brooklyn: The Danny Kaye Musical]. I write because I have stories to tell. Why do I write? I'm masochistic? I can't answer that question.

Q: Do you have any inspirations?
A: Probably the play that made me want to write was Six Degrees of Separation. The first time I read Six Degrees of Separation, I decided I was going to be a writer.

Q: What's it like working with your brother?
A: Working with my brother is great, actually. We make a great team and we've had lots of practice at it because he was part of The Kid from Brooklyn. We've worked together back in the day when I used to get up and do shows. Back in--I'm not telling you what year--he was Tony and I was Riff in West Side Story. So we've been working together for a long time. And if we fight through it, we fight through it and it always stays about the piece. We don't cross those lines.

Q: What else do you want people to know about the show?
A: I want people to know that this show is a lot of fun. It is not heavyhanded. It is just heart and just come and have a great time and laugh. Don't come in here looking to have your life changed or anything, but just remember moments in your life that you can relate to. The music is great. The actors are fantastic.

Love Quirks is playing at Theatre 54 through September 28. $30 tickets are available here.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Interactive Theater on Governors Island

I'm not usually into audience participation. I'd rather watch the actors from a safe distance. I'm also not good at making decisions. I'm always afraid to make the wrong choice. So Trade Practices, an interactive theater experience in which audience members choose how to invest their time and money, took me out of my comfort zone. But I'm happy to say I survived and even had fun.
Left to right: Mike Iveson, Peter McCab, and Dax Valdes. Photo credit: Carl Skutsch
Trade Practices is produced by HERE and performed at Pershing Hall on Governors Island. If you've never been to the charming Governors Island, which is a quick $2 roundtrip ferry ride from Manhattan, that's reason enough to see the show.

Audience members are given colored tickets upon arriving and are soon greeted by enthusiastic intern Darlene (Brooke Ishibashi), who shows a welcome video about Tender Inc., the fictional company that makes the paper that American money is printed on. Then the audience is divided into groups based on ticket color. I was sent to the executive office to see the opening scene of the owners storyline (the others are communications, management, and workers). After the first scene, everyone heads to the trade floor and and we are told to talk to others to find out about other stories and trade tickets for a different scene (each opening scene is repeated once). I chose to see workers because apparently I make my theater decisions based on which actor seems funniest in the short introductions (that would be Daniel Kublick as foreman Franklin). At the next regroup, everybody is given money, which is used to buy stock in stories and gain admittance. Between each scene is a trip to the trading floor with more chances to buy stocks in other stories or sell your own. That was probably the closest I'll ever be to being on a trade floor, and I enjoyed the rush.
Jenniffer Diaz (purple jacket), Dax Valdes (green jacket). Photo credit: Carl Skutsch
The show was created by Kristin Marting and David Evans Morris (also credited with the idea's conception). Scenes were written by Erin Courtney, Eisa Davis, Robert Lyons, Qui Nguyen, KJ Sanchez, and Chris Wells. I saw at least one scene from every story except for management, so I have to live with never knowing what I missed out on. Some of the stories went in strange directions (assassins and robots were involved), but I don't want to reveal too much and influence your decisions if you see the show. The financial advisers (played by Mike Iveson and Daphne Gaines) were necessary to tell the audience what to do, but long discussions about their personal lives and musical numbers are unnecessary when there is already so much going on. (The running time is over two hours with no break.)

At the end, I was left with stock in communications and workers, worth $11. I had the option to trade it in for a tchotchke, origami, or real money at a horrible exchange rate. I went for the real money, just to see how much I'd make. I earned 38 cents, but that's still 38 cents more than I had when I arrived.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

How Zak Resnick Became My New Theater Crush

You might not have heard of Bert Berns, but you've definitely heard his songs. "Twist and Shout." "I Want Candy." "Hang On Sloopy." Just to name a few. People remember who performed these songs, but not who wrote them, in large part because he died at the young age of 38 from heart problems. The new musical A Piece of My Heart sets out to bring him out of obscurity. This may not been part of the original plan, but it also introduces audiences to Zak Resnick, who plays Berns.
Photo credit: Jenny Anderson
Yes, he's attractive (see photo), but it is his gritty voice that leaves the biggest impression (considering he shares the stage with talent including De'Adre Aziza, Leslie Kritzer, and Derrick Baskin, this is no small feat). I'm going to need a cast album, so I can hear him sing those songs again. He also has an easy charm and later in the show makes for a believable tortured musician.

I know there's more to theater than cute boys, but I also felt it was my duty to get Resnick on your radar. You're welcome.

The Atomic Bomb Set To Rock Music

When I told my mom I was seeing a new musical Atomic (she likes to hear about the shows I see), she said, "Like the atomic bomb?" and laughed, thinking it couldn't actually be about that. But I explained that I was indeed seeing a musical about the atomic bomb, or at least about the team of scientists who developed it as part of the government-funded Manhattan Project.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
But as unlikely a topic as it may seem for a musical, there's a lot of rich material. Perhaps too much. The book by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore mostly focuses on Leó Szilárd (Jeremy Kushnier), whose discovery of the nuclear chain reaction was crucial to building the bomb, but it also packs a lot in--a framing device in which J. Robert Oppenheimer (Euan Morton) is giving testimony at the Atomic Energy Commission hearings and even the love story between Leó and his wife Trude (Sara Gettelfinger). As a result, it doesn't give each adequate space and it sometimes feels unfocused. Atomic is at its best when exploring the ethical questions (Should the bomb have been dropped even though the war was essentially over? Did they save even more lives in the long run than they took?) and the psychological effects on the team after the dropping of the bomb.

The music by Philip Foxman, who co-wrote lyrics with Ginges and Bonsignore is generic rock and all the songs sound pretty similar, but the cast, which also includes David Abeles as Arthur Compton, the leader of the project, and Jonathan Hammond as a sex-crazed Enrico Fermi, really brings it vocally, especially Kushnier. It's unfortunate that Morton only had one song, but he makes for a fun narrator. You could do a lot worse for a summer musical.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Contest: Win Copies of Martin McDonagh Plays

Update: The contest is now closed. The winner was chosen at random from the entries here and on Twitter. Congratulations, Pandora!

The Cripple of Inishmaan, one of my favorite productions of the season, is sadly closing soon--on July 20. Maybe you saw the play and want to learn more about McDonagh or maybe you're already a fan of his other work, but I'm giving away copies of his Tony-nominated plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West.

In order to enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this post telling me which plays of McDonagh's you've seen or read. You can also tweet about the contest or retweet one of my tweets about it (if you enter this way, you must be following on Twitter to win). You can enter once each way for a total of two entries. A winner will be chosen at random from all the entries on Friday, July 10, at 3:00 p.m. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle in the comments so I have a way to contact you if you win. Good luck!

And if you want to know more about The Cripple of Inishmaan, here's a backstage video with the always charming Daniel Radcliffe, including a tour of his dressing room as well as Sarah Greene's: