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stage dive

Theater Reviews: Romeo and Juliet and Women or Nothing

Romeo and Juliet (at the Richard Rodgers Theatre)

Romeo wakes up one morning and spots the flecks of gray in his boyish mop, and it all comes rushing back. Rosaline — she turned him down cold last night. It shouldn’t hurt this much. He’s over 500 years old and part elf — still a young man! Forever a young man! But he’s just not feeling it — not today. What to do? Maybe he’ll buy a motorcycle! Fuck, yeah: Some kitsch-encrusted retro-Brando model. He’ll roar around the artfully distressed, urban-outfitted precincts of gentrified Verona, then maybe do a little free-climbing, have a few sojutinis with the boys (who aren’t really boys anymore, either). He’ll try to forget about the old gal. Maybe make some time with a younger one. A much younger one, preferably.

Okay, this isn’t the concept of David Leveaux’s handsome, don’t-touch-the-hair production of Romeo and Juliet — just one of the many alternashows you’ll be tempted to doodle in the generous margins of this perfectly posed, emotionally underpopulated megaproduction. Featuring 30-something screen heartthrob Orlando Bloom as the Montagues’ only boy (still living at home, damn this economy!) and the 20-something rising-star Condola Rashad as the barely postpubescent Juliet, this R&J is neither incompetent nor unpretty: It’s gorgeously ambient, like some plush hotel lobby where the famous and almost-famous mingle agreeably among the water features and fire pits. The air’s been scented and scrubbed of humidity, the house beat burbles soothingly. Everything is elegantly harmless and oddly sexless. Ooh, light-up balloons!

The balloons — the chief design element of the Capulets’ ball, where the star-crossed lovers first lock eyes and lips — really stick with you, to the extent that anything does. Weightless and lovely, they’re clearly the touchstone of this entertainment. Though much bally was hooed about the cross-racial casting — and why, in 2013, is that, again? — and the general beauty of the leads (which is indisputable), there’s little in the way of provocation here, sexual, social, or dramatic. Who are our combatants? The Capulets — capoed by the great Chuck Cooper, hamming lavishly — kind of evoke a rising black middle-class and the post-racial corona around it.  And the more vaguely sketched, all-white Montagues look like they’ve wandered in from a British indie-rock festival. Not exactly a stark, Sharks-and-Jets faceoff, in other words: I guess I’m not entirely sure what the families’ ancient enmity correlates to here, metaphorically. (Or why Leveaux punted on probing the play’s limitless supply of dark-light imagery and its fulsome stores of racist Elizabethan chroma-fetishism.) The racial dynamic here seems mostly cosmetic, almost beside the point.

In the absence of all suspense — though not of pacing, which is fairly fleet, almost brisk — the show is taken over by spotlight supporting roles, most notably Jayne Houdyshell, who steals the show as Juliet’s nurse. Houdyshell is, of course, a brilliant stage performer, but when the Nurse runs off with your R&J, chances are it wasn’t secured properly in the first place. Mercutio’s another matter: As the only brilliant person in this rather dull crew of partisans, prigs and puppy-lovers — and thus the only crazy person, as well — he’s designed to walk away with the whole shootin’ match. Christian Camargo doesn’t disappoint: A skinny-jeaned, leather-jacketed apparition, he’s like some Billyburg poseur driven mad by the dawning recognition of his waning powers of bullshit. As a verbal duelist, Camargo’s the very butcher of a silk button — he speaks in short stabbing motions, milks nothing, hits everything, jumps back before he’s worn out his welcome.

But enough about the townspeople — what of our delectable leads? Well, they certainly kiss by the book. And the book, apparently, says, “slowly, extensively, to cover any dead patches.” Bloom and Rashad are both appealing presences, on their own. Yes, Bloom has a weakness for designer-jeans poses, and his motorcycle entrance feels like a desperate bid for youth approval — an early-midlife or late-quarterlife crisis unfolding ghoulishly before your eyes. But his delivery, when it’s committed, is solid, and he handles himself well on stage. His Romeo’s just a little inscrutable, the way movie stars used to be inscrutable, and he and Juliet feel like their romance has been scripted by studio publicists. They’re both too old for the roles, but that’s long been true of almost every performer who takes on R&J. (Really, this show only works if they’re furiously horny, hornily furious teenagers.) The bigger problem is passion or lack thereof: There’s charm and humor in the balcony scene, but the closer these two get, the fewer sparks fly. By the time we’re in the fatal tomb with them — daggers out, drugs ready — the mood is less “tragic accident,” more “under-trafficked VIP lounge.”

Women or Nothing (at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through October 13)

Ethan Coen’s newest play stipulates, in its title, Women or Nothing. So the verdict must be, by default: nothing. The women on stage aren’t women at all — not the human kind I generally encounter, at least. They’re hyperstylized caricatures, posed in the kind of muted, “cerebral” porno a man-of-a-certain-age-and-sophistication could either jerk off to or submit to “Shouts and Murmurs.” (Here’s the squib: Lesbians want to have a baby, but don’t want to go the sperm-bank route: Aaaaand … go!) But despite this congenital flaw and some awkward structural elongations — this is clearly a one-act that’s been coaxed and coached into two — Women or Nothing is the finest of the nothings Coen has created for the stage thus far. (I’m not a big fan of his earlier, sourer blurts of shtick, e.g. Happy Hour and Offices.) This show’s actually funny, after it stops ducking behind thickets of style and pretense — although the humor feels highly authorial, very consciously constructed, from the premise down, out of classic, well-executed jokes. (Coen’s kind of a less romantic Woody Allen in his approach to hypernaturalistic comic situations.)

Let’s start with the setup: A monogamous pair of settled, upper-middle-class women in their late thirties — parsimonious, left-brained concert pianist Laura (Susan Pourfar) and intuitive, spontaneous Gretchen (Halley Feiffer) — are looking to procreate. Gretch, the archetypal femme, is all wild-and-wooly nature: She wants the kid the old-fashioned way, not fathered by the kind of faceless spooge-merchant who’d happily ejaculate into a test-tube for cash. Conveniently, Gretchen can’t actually do the conceiving herself. That honor goes to ice-queen and “gold-star lesbian” Laura, who’s never, ever been with a man. (Hot-cha!) Gretchen — who’s apparently some kind of emotional terrorist, the kind of plot-actuator nonperson you usually find in bad sitcoms — has ambushed Laura with a Nice Guy From Work named Chuck (a judicious, admirably patient Robert Beitzel), whose sperm she can personally vouch for, having met his delightful daughter. (“My guy is real. Proven. You can see what his sperm did. That’s certainty.”) She expects Laura to assent to an elaborate ruse that ends with Chuck inside her, personally depositing his grade-A seed.

From here, you’d expect to see a play about Laura and Gretchen, a mismatched couple with big, barely addressed fissures in their relationship. But no: The whole thing’s a digression, a night with Nice Guy Chuck, who is, as billed, a very Nice Guy, and Laura, who’s coming to terms with the fact that her whole life is gelid and artificial. (Does this artificiality include her lesbianism itself? That’s implied, over the course of much nature-nurture talk, but never said outright. Because, of course, to do would be not funny-crypto-reactionary, but unfunny-reactionary-reactionary. That’s a line Woody Allen has taught his audience to walk.) In a digression-from-the-digression, Laura’s pewter figurine of a mother, Dorene (a very funny Deborah Rush), shows up and proceeds to blow her daughter’s life apart with late-breaking revelations about her Updikean bed-hopping adventures of yesteryear — some of which cast Laura’s well-ordered life in a very different light. Poor Laura! Trapped between nature and nurture! Doomed to speak her fussy lines in a voice poised between Starfleet captain and forties studio movie queen! Pourfar, given these limitations, builds tremendous sympathy for a character buried under dense strata of passivity and put-uponness. She deserves an Obie, and a Purple Heart.

Photo: Carol Rosegg