Beware short plays bearing long titles; they are usually not short enough. Such is the case with The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a 75-minute one-man show in which James Lecesne, who also wrote the piece, portrays nine denizens of a Jersey shore town. Chief among them is the improbable, noir-spouting police detective assigned to investigate the disappearance of a 14-year-old who is not just missing but murdered. We quickly learn why, as well: Leonard Pelkey was an outrageously flamboyant gay boy, unwilling or unable to “tone it down” for other people’s comfort or even his own safety. (Among other capital offenses, he liked to wear Capri pants.) Since only one of the townies that Lecesne gives voice to is a homophobe, there’s not much mystery here, nor, in a play consisting mostly of monologues, much drama of any other sort. Instead, we get a series of amusing, if sometimes too cute, impersonations of people who loved Leonard even if they thought he was “too much.” These include the hairstylist at the salon where Leonard liked to kibitz with the clients about their bouffants and makeup; a lisping British-expat after-school drama coach; a Mafia wife who finds one of Leonard’s rainbow platform sneakers floating in the lake; and an elderly German shopkeeper who befriended Leonard decades after — wouldn’t you know it? — having alienated his own gay son.
Dave Malloy has a thing for the Russian romantics. His recent electropop opera Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 — presented in a big tent fabulously tricked out as a Czarist nightclub, if there were such a thing — was based on a slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Tolstoy survived the surgery.) His new piece, Preludes, being given a spectacular production at LCT3, sets its sights on Sergei Rachmaninoff. Though subtitled (like some of some of the composer’s solo piano works) a “fantasia,” it is more faithful to the facts, if not the implications, of its subject’s life than many recent musicals purporting to be actual history. Malloy focuses on a period of several months in 1900, when the composer, at 27, was still suffering from a monumental case of writer’s block brought on by the disastrous premiere of his first symphony three years earlier. As he undergoes a course of hypnotherapy in an effort to break the dam, scenes from his past (and even his future) appear before us: his early success, his subsequent humiliation, his love affair with the cousin he would eventually marry. What holds this fragmented narrative together, to the extent anything does, is Rachmaninoff’s struggle to understand what it might mean to be a great artist. Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, and others weigh in; Tolstoy himself makes an especially unhelpful contribution.
If you're wondering what he-who-played–King Joffrey has been up to, look not onscreen but onstage. Game of Thrones' Jack Gleeson, as it turns out, has taken a hiatus from Hollywood to run an Irish theater company and produce a crazy comedy about cryogenically frozen bears with his BFFs. "Offers [for blockbuster action roles] came in, but I just had a lack of desire to do a big action movie. What I enjoy most is this kind of thing, where I can have fun with my friends," Gleeson told the London Evening Standard. "My real interest is in creating something from the ground up. ... For the time being I get far more fulfillment from being part of a project that I have helped create and have more of a stake in."
His present passion project is a production called Bears in Space, which involves puppets and is exactly what the title sounds like it would be about. It comes from Gleeson's Collapsing Horse troupe and features him and his Trinity College pals: Aaron Heffernan, Cameron McCauley, and Eoghan Quinn. One review has referred to it as a "must-see," and another has lauded it for its "razor-sharp ridiculousness" and "dry self-awareness." Sounds fun(ny)! Some fans were worried that 23-year-old Gleeson wasn't going to return to acting when he left Thrones (he had ostensibly threatened as much). Luckily, that's not the case. And there are now adorably absurd ursine cosmonauts to prove it: Bears in Space plays at London's Soho Theatre from August 3 to 22 — giving you lots of time to plan an outrageous trip.
There’s a scene in Fun Home — both the book and the musical — in which a 9-year-old girl shows her father a fanciful map she’s drawn for school. As the father grows more agitated trying to correct and improve it (“This is visually confusing,” he complains), the girl grows more defensive about preserving her vision. (“This is a cartoon!”) For the audience, the scene is a wrenching demonstration of the father’s controlling nature; by the time he explodes in frustration (“You cannot do it like that unless you want to ruin it!”), you are cringing over the mistaken application of his high standards, and his insensitivity to a budding artist’s feelings.
Are you Team Lippa or Team LaChiusa?
For theater types, the dueling musicals of The Wild Party — one by Andrew Lippa, one by Michael John LaChiusa, both somehow given their premieres in the spring of 2000 — provide an opportunity for personal branding and group identification that others may get from, say, The Hunger Games. Both derive from Joseph Moncure March’s seedy Jazz Age narrative poem about a gin-soaked debauch chez Queenie and Burrs, a vaudeville siren and her abusive lover. Both musicals use (to varying degrees) vaudeville itself as a framing device and a metaphor for the disjointed, sensation-oriented experiences that pass for their characters’ lives. And both musicals flopped, Lippa’s off Broadway and LaChiusa’s on, despite stellar casts and scores memorable enough to become quick cult items when recorded. But in almost every other way the two parties are entirely different, and for me the sensational mounting of Lippa’s version with which the “Encores! Off-Center” series is closing its third season is a fascinating opportunity to consider what those differences mean in the context of the 21st-century musical.
In adapting his YA novel Absolute Brightness — a tale, full of funny, familiar residents of a small Jersey town, about the disappearance of a flamboyant, apparently gay teen — for the stage, James Lecesne jettisoned some characters and added others. “It has to be varied, to keep people’s interest for 75 minutes,” he explains. “You can’t have too many people in the hair salon, right?” Then came voices and gestures “to encourage people to think about the uniqueness of each human being.” The accents and movements that distinguish detective from hairdresser from mob wife come from all corners of his life: his Hasbrouck Heights youth, summers at the shore, a stint in a play full of German characters. “I hear them speaking,” he says, “and then I work back.” (The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey just opened at the Westside Theatre.)
You used to have to enter the Marquis Theatre, that abattoir of an auditorium inside the Marriott Marquis hotel, via a series of Plexiglas-encased escalators and cattle chutes that primed you for a terrible fate. Some of my worst Broadway theatergoing experiences have taken place there; need I say more than that it seems to be Frank Wildhorn’s hall of choice? Of course, there was, in 2006, that sublime silliness, The Drowsy Chaperone. But of late, and even after a 2014 renovation that improved matters somewhat, New York’s most Vegaslike venue has mostly been home to bizarre intruders from other entertainment genres. Its two most recent tenants were Il Divo — A Musical Affair, featuring one more tenor than the usually sufficient three, and The Illusionists — Witness the Impossible, featuring seven more magicians than the usually sufficient none.
The Bozo Who Charged His Phone on Hand to God’s Stage Was Even Ruder Than You Thought (There's Video Proof)By E. Alex Jung
During a Broadway production of Hand to God at the Booth Theater, the site Broadway Adjacent reported that an audience member walked up to the stage to try to charge his phone. At first blush, we thought that this meant the man went up to the apron of the stage and charged it there. Nope! There's now video evidence showing that the rudest man on Broadway walked onto the stage to plug in his phone.
Because you can never have enough James Bond, Agent 007 will soon make an unlikely leap from the big screen to to the stage, according to Playbill. Exec producer Merry Saltzman — the daughter of big-time Bond guy Harry Saltzman — told the publication that her Placeholder Productions has nabbed rights for a song-and-dance superspy show. Aptly titled James Bond: The Musical, the project will reportedly feature a new story, as well as its own villains and Bond girl. Saltzman is aiming for a late 2017 or early 2018 debut, either for Broadway or Las Vegas (because with Spectre coming out later this year, four years would be too long a wait). Most of the personnel info is currently under wraps, but Bond: The Musical will have a book by novelist Dave Clarke, and music and lyrics by country composer Jay Henry Weisz.
The mood was ecstatic last night for the first of three concert performances of Little Shop of Horrors, the nearly perfect 1982 musical that’s the centerpiece of this summer’s “Encores! Off-Center” series. (The two remaining performances are today at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.) In the dark before the purple curtain rose, the sound of the first guitar chords drew cheers of recognition; later, the evening’s big celebrity draw, Jake Gyllenhaal, though costumed for his role as the nebbishy Seymour Krelborn, was welcomed like a rock god. So too were the trio of singing urchins (Tracy Nicole Chapman, Marva Hicks, and Ramona Keller) who act as the show’s sassy chorus, and the adorable little boy (Anwar Kareem) who did nothing much but carry around the bloodlusting Venus flytrap that eventually (in a larger form played by Eddie Cooper) eats Cleveland. Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam, making his New York stage debut as the sadistic, nitrous-oxide-huffing dentist Orin Scrivello, got laughs before he opened his mouth. It was that kind of evening. Even the dentist’s chair got entrance applause.
Douglas Carter Beane sure knows how to write for his stars. In 1997, As Bees in Honey Drown perfectly showcased the talents of J. Smith-Cameron, just as, more recently, The Little Dog Laughed did for Julie White and The Nance did for Nathan Lane. Now, in Shows for Days, a kind of companion piece to The Nance and likewise produced by Lincoln Center Theater, he’s written not merely a vehicle for Patti LuPone but a glossy and curve-hugging Ferrari of a comedy, built as if to the star’s spec sheet. LuPone plays Irene Sampson Keller, the theatrical empress of Reading, Pennsylvania, circa 1973: “stuck here among the Amish trying to put on Ionesco.” She is sarcastic, idealistic, overdramatic, and aphoristic, the kind of small-town diva prone to wearing Pucci caftans, giving multiple curtain speeches, and faking strokes to drum up excitement. “Sometimes when Irene looks really far down she can see over the top,” Beane writes. But LuPone does more with the character than offer an encyclopedia of mid-century stage mannerisms; she burrows deep into the neurotic and even political circumstances that make such a creature so awesome and necessary. Irene’s hysteria paradoxically brings out the discipline in LuPone, who gives a precisely detailed and never less than hilarious triumph of a performance.
A New Brain, the killer musical about a songwriter facing a life-threatening brain condition, could only have been written by William Finn. For one thing, it’s highly autobiographical. When Finn accepted his two Tony awards for Falsettos in 1992, he was already suffering from what he’d been told was an inoperable brain tumor. (“From the rear, I look like I’m walking on a sailboat,” he said of his trips to the podium.) The musical itself began during his recovery, when James Lapine, his Falsettos book writer, insisted that he make notes about what he was experiencing. After the success of surgery to correct what turned out to be not a tumor but an arteriovenous malformation (not many musicals use that phrase), those notes organized themselves into songs that explored the unexpected gift of survival and the problem of creativity. Originally performed in revue format, the songs eventually became the basis of the more ambitious and nearly sung-through work, with a book by Lapine, that Lincoln Center Theatre produced in 1998 and that Encores! Off-Center is reviving this week.
Bombshell is becoming a real-life Smash. Universal announced Monday that due to the overwhelming response from the one-night only Bombshell benefit concert earlier in June, it is going to develop the show for the stage. NBC chair and musical lover Bob Greenblatt said, "Over the course of two seasons an entire ‘Bombshell’ score was written to service Smash storylines, and now that show will have a chance to stand on its own." Meaning: The fake drama to bring Bombshell to Broadway is a reality! Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who were executive producers on the series, will be co-lyricists with Shaiman as the composer. Otherwise, Universal didn't make any firm commitments as to what shape Bombshell would take, and certainly didn't make any casting announcements, but we're crossing our fingers for the girl who wants it more.
The only previous work the young playwright Joshua Harmon mentions in his current program bio is Bad Jews, a big hit for the Roundabout in 2012 and 2013. That terrific comedy, tight and furious as its main character’s hair, is now the third-most-produced play in the United States. Less auspicious, and left uncited, is the script Harmon provided earlier this year for Radio City’s New York Spring Spectacular, a monumental assault on human decency, albeit with Rockettes. I’m relieved to report that his new play, Significant Other, back at the Roundabout, lands closer to Bad Jews than to the Spectacular — but some of the latter has infected the former, and the result, although smart and even touching at times, is overblown.
“There are aspects of the play we kindly ask you not to reveal in your review of Gloria.” So read the email from the press agents for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s new shocker at the Vineyard.
Under ordinary circumstances it would be a perfectly reasonable request. But no Jacobs-Jenkins play (among them, recently, Appropriate and An Octoroon) is an ordinary circumstance: He is a genre-subverting provocateur who deals in discomfort as others do in bon mots. In Gloria especially, he toys with audience expectation as a form of drama in itself, regardless of content; indeed, much of the content is of very little consequence. Still, it’s difficult to know what I may safely report. Avoiding all danger zones would leave a rather banal scenario: Three twentysomething editorial assistants gripe amusingly about the degradations of magazine work while mostly avoiding any. The college intern who fetches the Vitamin Water wonders how he might avoid their cynicism. A disillusioned fact-checker (“I’m 37 and all I have is a B.A. in French!”) asks them to pipe down. A severe Debbie Downer of a copy editor wanders repeatedly past their carrels in a waffle-weave cardigan while clutching a large bag to her chest. She’s Gloria.
The weather, that diva, is often a co-star at the Delacorte Theater, but rarely so aptly as at a recent preview performance of The Tempest, when the air seemed pregnant and thunderstorms were forecast. Storms are, after all, how the play begins, and their cleansing fury remains a powerful metaphor throughout its tale of vengeance transmuted into mercy. Riccardo Hernandez’s backdrop of churning blue-green waves therefore suggested brutality but also relief; it was so humid out, I wanted to jump in. And though it was probably just as well that the actual clouds never burst open that night, it was less than satisfying that the Public Theater’s production never did. This Tempest was becalmed.
Before a word is spoken in Bruce Norris’s new play The Qualms, now at Playwrights Horizons, audiences hear the sound of nervous laughter onstage. It might as well have been my own, because Norris’s make-you-squirm dramaturgy is by now, for me, an almost predictable source of complicated pleasure. (Hilarity is always close to hysteria in his plays.) Furthermore, I knew from the advance publicity — and if I hadn’t I could have guessed from the program’s humping-monkey logo — that The Qualms was going to be about sex: more specifically, the quasi-orgiastic mix-and-match coupling that used to be called swinging and is now called “the lifestyle,” at least by some of its practitioners. These include Gary and Teri, the fortysomething hosts of the evening’s party, who are sitting uncomfortably close to the jittery thirtysomething newbies, Chris and Kristy, on an Ikea-ish sectional sofa that, you fear, may need a new slipcover by the end.
Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, at the Atlantic, concerns itself with the overwhelming power of beauty; naturally, it is brutal to an almost nauseating degree. Is it unfair to the audience that the first of the play’s five scenes barely hints at the violence? Rather, it begins with the intense inactivity of a man at attention, keeping sentry at dawn; this is Humayun, the more obedient and unimaginative of the two title characters. Babur, the dreamier one, is late for duty. Though they are forbidden to speak, a conversation immediately arises between the old friends once Babur arrives, disheveled and filled with ideas for inventions: a rocket ship he calls an Allah-aero-platforma-al-Agra-Babura, an invisible house, rain seeded with tea. (Humayun’s “inventions” are less practical.) The pair have a captivating Laurel-and-Hardy-meet-Vladimir-and-Estragon rapport, filling the time and outwitting boredom (they are not even allowed to look at what they’re guarding) with fantasies, gossip, and philosophical riddles.
At some point in their writing lives, most playwrights turn from the world they can never finally fathom to one they already know too well. Recent New York seasons have brought us both fond backstagers and bitter portraits of actors gone feral in works by Chekhov and Odets, Mamet and Gurney, Ruhl and Jacobs-Jenkins, and many others. (One of the best of the genre, Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off, returns in December.) Whether love letters or poison pen, these plays all exploit the oversized personalities and built-in hysteria of show folk and show-making to establish the stakes. Not 10 out of 12. Anne Washburn’s odd and often hilarious new comedy, commissioned by Soho Rep, takes on the perverse challenge of making theater out of the only part of the theatrical life that almost everyone hates: the intense, soul-crushing boredom of tech rehearsals.
Time moves slowly in Tonyland; from one year to the next you can pretty much expect the same turnout of stars, the same proportion of gold to cheese. In that regard, the 2015 edition did not disappoint. Some jokes bombed, some numbers rocked, some dresses flattered, some winners babbled. But at least one thing seismically different transpired during last night’s telecast: not so much the huge wins by the musical Fun Home, which some of us predicted, but the excerpt that its producers and creators chose to offer. Instead of misrepresenting the musical with one of its funny, catchy numbers, or freaking everyone out with one of its dark, regretful arias, they sent 11-year-old Sydney Lucas onto the stage of Radio City Music Hall, into the homes of however many million were watching on CBS, to sing “Ring of Keys.” That’s the song in which Lucas’s character, the prepubescent Alison Bechdel, life-changingly identifies with a butch deliverywoman she sees at a diner. Socking it directly into the eyes of whatever slice of America actually follows the awards, she was part of something unquestionably new, not so much because of the moment’s proto-lesbian content as because of its joy. Take that, dancing cats!
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