Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Men Dominate in Measure for Measure

After missing the well-received Theater For A New Audience's Othello directed by Arin Arbus last year and seeing the misguided Public Theater production a few months later, I didn't want to make the same mistake with Measure For Measure. The Shakespeare dark comedy, also directed by Arbus, is playing at The Duke on 42nd Street through March 14.

It is to Arbus's credit that the story is very easy to follow in this production. The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio (Jefferson Mays) says he is leaving the city, although he is actually staying in disguise, and appoints Angelo (Rocco Sisto) as his successor. One of Angelo's first acts in his new role is to sentence Claudio (LeRoy McClain) to death for impregnating his fiance, Juliet (Rose Seccareccia), before marriage. Claudio begs his sister, Isabella (Elisabeth Waterston), on the verge of taking her holy orders, to intervene, and Claudio's lust for her prompts him to make a deal--her body for Claudio's life.

Arbus makes the decision to stage the play in contemporary times, with the actors wearing drab suits (designed by David Zinn), but this is not especially effective. While it doesn't neccessarily hurt the production, it doesn't add anything either, and there doesn't seem a compelling reason for the modern dress.

The Duke is "good," but some of his methods are questionable, such as telling Isabella that Claudio has been killed when he hasn't, and Mays captures the complexities of the character. His performance is reason enough to see the play, but sadly the others vary in their degrees of success. Waterston is especially out of her depths as Isabella, where our sympathies should lie, giving a lifeless performance. The other females also fail to make a strong impression, with the exception of Mary Testa in her small role as Mistress Overdone. Though I personally find the play to be more of a tragedy than a comedy, the comic bits are very very funny, and are served well by Alfredo Narciso as the cunning Lucio, John Christopher Jones as the dimwitted Elbow, and John Keating as the clown Pompey.

Note: I was given complimentary tickets to see the show in exchange for writing a review.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mamet's Race Fails To Shock

As I try to review David Mamet's Race, I keep thinking about Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, which I saw this weekend at Playwrights Horizons. Though obviously very different from Race in plot and writing style, Clybourne Park, about the changes in a community over time (the first act takes place in 1959, the second takes place in 2009), is smartly written with very real characters, portrayed by an expert ensemble, and is much funnier, surprising, and more successful in dealing with the issues than the disappointing Race.

Race, written and directed by Mamet, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 6. The plot was kept under wraps prior to previews. A white man, Charles Strickland, (Richard Thomas) accused of raping a black woman wishes to be represented by a law firm of one white and two black lawyers. As the lawyers--Jack Lawson (James Spader), Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), and Susan (Kerry Washington)--debate whether to take on his case, their own prejudices are exposed.

The clever marketing of the show--the Web site allows you to investigate the crime scene, the tagline is, "From Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet, comes his most explosive four-letter word yet. Race"--only raised expectations that this would be a highly provocative play. The most shocking aspect was the lack of swearing. Yes, some cringe-worthy phrases come up, but it's nothing that hasn't been heard before. There is some thought-provoking dialogue as one would expect in Mamet, but the buildup is missing (especially when that unnecessary intermission is thrown in). Whether or not Strickland was guilty never seems that important and the plot twists fall flat.

Washington, making her Broadway debut as a typical female Mamet character with a hidden agenda, gives a stiff performance and spends most of the evening scowling. The male actors are more than competent, especially Spader, but even he is not enough to save the evening from being a merely adequate night of theater.

Photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein

Note: I was given complimentary tickets to see the show in exchange for writing a review.