Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fringe NYC Encore Series: A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage © 1959

Its title may be annoyingly long and hard to remember, but don't let that deter you. A Contemporary American's Guide to a Successful Marriage © 1959, directed by Adam Fitzgerald, manages the difficult task of taking a satirical look at the 50s while still providing characters three-dimensional enough to make you care what happens to them.

The Marriage Play, for short, is playing at the Soho Playhouse as part of the Fringe Encore series.

The play takes a look at the courtship and marriage of two very different couples. Abby (a scene-stealing Autumn Hurlbert) and Mason (Lee Aaron Rosen) are virginal high school sweethearts seemingly straight out of Leave It To Beaver. Danny (A.J. Shively) meets the older and more experienced Ruth (Meredith Forlenza) in college and they hastily marry after an unexpected pregnancy. In the style of social guidance films of the 50s, the hilarious Chris Henry Coffey narrates the action and interacts with the characters, guiding them through their marriages. Hurlbert's facial expressions are priceless as he coaches Abby and Mason through their wedding night.

Though the play is laugh-out-loud funny, playwright Robert Bastron has written four characters who really try to make their marriages work. Even Ruth, the least likable, has a tender moment when she sincerely apologizes to her husband. The narrating wisely cuts out during the more serious scenes as both of the marriages fall apart.

At two intermission-less hours, the play could use a little tightening. For example, a scene in which Ruth and Danny's daughter Evelyn (Miranda Jackel) learns about divorce from the narrator is adorable, but extraneous.

You still have time to catch The Marriage Play at the Fringe. The last performance is this Sunday at 1. However, due to the positive buzz it received, I wouldn't be surprised if it shows up again soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bloody Bloody Lizzie Borden

Lizzie Borden is not the first musical to feature a murderer as its protagonist. And with its rock concert microphones and anachronistic language and props, it calls to mind Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (I think it's a coincidence that Lizzie's father is also named Andrew Jackson) and Spring Awakening (the original incarnation of Lizzie Borden actually debuted in 1990 so it predates both). And yet there is something very fresh about this production, playing at the Living Theatre through October 17.

In 1892, Lizzie Borden was the primary suspect in the murder of her father and his wife. She was declared innocent, but this musical assumes her guilt and explores the reasons why she gave them those brutal 40 and 41 whacks. These reasons include sexual abuse by her father and the fact that his new will leaves everything to his second wife.

Lizzie is played by Jenny Fellner as a sweet young bird-lover, who slowly becomes an angry and confident rock chick. Her transformation is aided by Bobby Frederick Tilly II's brilliant punk period costume designs. All four women--Fellner, Lisa Birnbaum as her sister Emma, Marie-France Arcilla as her lover Alice, and Carrie Cimma as the maid Bridget (also known as Maggie)--are given the chance to display their powerful vocals, but the true star is the heavy-metal and punk infused rock score by Stephen Cheslik-DeMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt.

Tim Maner's direction makes excellent use of the minimal stage and the murder scene is particularly well done. Especially effective in creating an eerie setting are the video design by Zoe Woodworth and lighting design by Christian M. DeAngelis.

This is the most fun I've had at the theater in a long time. See it at the Living Theatre just in case, but if there is justice, this won't be the last we'll see of Lizzie Borden.

Click here for tickets and more information.

Fringe NYC Encore Series: Sex and the Holy Land

Lili's search for her libido in Sex and the Holy Land could be a metaphor for the play itself. There is some nice foreplay, but it ultimately fails to satisfy. Sex and the Holy Land is playing at the Soho Playhouse through September 22 as part of the Fringe Festival Encore Series, one of 19 shows from the original 200 plus chosen to extend its run.

Melanie Zoey Weinstein wrote the show and also plays Lili, a college junior who goes to Israel with her best friends Or (Sarah-Doe Osborne) and Chaya (Ruby Joy). Lili can't orgasm, Chaya is still struggling with the death of her father, and Or just seems to be going along for the ride. Their mothers haunt Lili (played expertly by Goldie Zwiebel, Michelle Slonim, and Susan Slatin) and speak the fears that every Jewish mother and daughter will recognize, from don't ride the bus to find a nice Jewish boy. The dialogue is fast and entertaining, but occasionally rings false, especially the conversations between Lili and the many men she meets. As someone who seems very uncomfortable with herself, she is far too honest, saying things like, "If we have sex I might cry. I'm a crymaxer." Some of this could be in the delivery. Weinstein screams all her lines, and Lili becomes a grating character prone to crazy outbursts. Though director Lee Gundersheimer's staging effectively makes use the wooden benches that make up the set, I wish he would have done more with his lead actress. I cared far more about the relationship between Or and Dan (Gabriel Sloyer), an American ex-Isreali soldier. His stories about his time in the army were the most compelling in the show (and not just because he often tells them shirtless) and their courtship seemed to take Or on an actual journey. This doesn't seem to be the story Weinstein wants to tell, though, and that's fine. The foundation for a few good plays are here, but this one just needs a little more focus.

For more information and tickets, click here.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Everything In Life Is Only For Now

After I graduated college in 2004, I did what so many English majors have done before me and will continue to do after me, I moved to New York City. I figured my degree from a well-known university would be enough to get me a decent job, though I had no contacts and not even a place to live. I crashed with a friend while I looked for an apartment and a job, and ended up working at Starbucks and the Virgin Megastore in Times Square while I looked for something better. I could only afford to see shows via rush or lottery and I was desperate to see Avenue Q, which had recently won the Tony for best musical. I tried that lottery every time I was free to see the show. Sometimes I went with a friend, and sometimes alone if nobody could join me. The lottery guy started to recognize me (if I remember correctly, his name was Josh and he also went to college in Boston). Finally, sometime in October, after I don't know how many times, my name was called and I got a front row seat to Avenue Q for only $21.50.

I was expecting to love the show, but I didn't realize just how much it would mean to me. One of the first songs was called "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" I felt like the show was written for me. In the show, Princeton moves to New York with a B.A. in English and tries to find his purpose. There are so many universal truths from "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" ("Ethinic jokes might be uncouth, but you laugh because they're based on truth.") to "For Now." ("Everyone's a little bit unsatisfied. Everyone goes 'round a little empty inside.") I teared up during "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." That song summed up everything I missed about college so perfectly. ("In college you know who you are. You sit in the quad, and think, 'Oh my God. I am totally gonna go far.'")

I recently interviewed original cast member Jennifer Barnhart for TDF and she had so many great stories that there wasn't room for in the article. One in particular was about a 10-year-old girl who came to see Avenue Q. At the stage door, Barnhart asked her what her favorite part was and the girl said "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." This obviously took Barnhart by surprise, but the girl said she could relate to the song because she wished she could go back to kindergarten. It just goes to show how universal the themes are.

I saw the show for a second time a few months later with family, but I haven't been back since. I haven't felt the need to return because my memories of it are so perfect, but I still listen to the CD all the time. Tomorrow, September 13, Avenue Q will close and Broadway will lose a brilliant original musical, a rarity these days. It had a nice long run, and it did so much more than what was expected--it beat Wicked for the Tony and ran for 6 years. Not bad for an adult musical with puppets.

Edit: At last night's closing (I wasn't there, but I heard about it today), Kevin McCullum, one of the producers, announced that Avenue Q would be transferring to the New World Stages. Tickets are already on sale.

A Broadway First

On Tuesday night at the Red Eye Grill, the producers of Superior Donuts hosted the first ever blogger media roundtable for a Broadway play. The show, by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts and directed by Tina Landau, deals with the friendship of Arthur Przybyszewski, who owns a decrepit donut shop, and his employee, a black teenager named Franco Wicks, who wants to improve the shop. Superior Donuts debuted at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company last summer.

There were several tables set up at the restaurant. Though Michael McKean and Tracy Letts never made it to my table, overall the evening was a success, made complete by donuts (the title always makes me crave them).

A pleasant surprise to the evening was the presence of Michael Feinstein. It was announced just the day before that he would be returning to Broadway for the first time since 1990 in a new solo show, tentatively titled All About Me. Feinstein says that he has been offered roles on Broadway over the years, but didn't want to do something people would expect of him. He envisions the show as an homage to Broadway music and where it is going.

The cast of Superior Donuts are all very excited to bring this work to New York. I spoke to a few of them:
Jon Michael Hill (Franko Wicks) joined Steppenwolf in 2007. He says, "I'm not as funny as Franco," and claims he was cast because of his young age. He credits director Tina Landau, Letts, and co-star Michael McKean for bringing out the best in him. I have a feeling he's just being humble, but I suppose I'll have the chance to see soon enough.

James Vincent Meredith (Officer James Hailey) is making his Broadway debut and is still getting used to the city. When asked what he's most excited about being on Broadway, he honestly answered that (in addition to getting to work on the play for a second time) he is looking forward to famous people coming see the show and meeting them afterward.

Kate Buddeke (Officer Randy Osteen) is based in Chicago, though she does a lot of work in New York. She says of the differences between Chicago and New York audiences, "If you get a standing ovation in Chicago, you know you deserve it." She is not a member of the Steppenwolf Company, but says that Chicago is very ensemble based and everyone is supportive of each other. She's known most of the cast for years and everyone gets along very well. Samuel Stricklen, the understudy for Hill and Meredith, reiterated Buddeke's sentiments about the cast. He had just started rehearsals the day before and says that everyone has been very helpful and welcoming.

If the camaraderie between the cast is any indication, this should be yet another great showcase for ensemble work. Click here for more information on Superior Donuts.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Number 9

Today is 9-9-09, the release of Beatles Rock Band and the entire remastered Beatles catalogue. I didn't want this day to go unnoticed on my blog, but (and this may come as a surprise), I will not be buying any Beatles items today. I will happily play my brother's Beatles Rock Band next time I'm in California, though I don't see the need for such a game. And I'm sure I will eventually buy the remasters, but for now my inferior quality CDs will do me just fine. Whenever there is a resurgence of interest in the Beatles, such as when the Beatles Anthology first aired in 1995, I'm excited by the availability of Beatles shirts in smaller sizes and the fact that suddenly everyone wants to talk about the Beatles with me, but I don't really need new products to remind me that the Beatles exist.

Also, don't forget to watch the season premiere of Glee tonight.