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!
Who took home all the hardware from Broadway's biggest night? Well, Helen Mirren won big for her turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience (all hail Helen), and Ruthie Ann Miles nabbed kudos for her performance in The King and I — the real winners, at least for a sec, were the audience members and viewers at home who got to see Miles's phone-assisted speech, highlighted by a weirdly intense play-off and equally intriguing joke. In other categories, An American in Paris, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Fun Home cleaned up nicely — the latter two earning top honors for best play and best musical, respectively.
As Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming join up to host for the first time, Vulture likewise has a new duo live-blogging: Jesse Green, New York's theater critic, will be joined by the actress Susan Blackwell, perhaps best known for [title of show] and her Broadway.com series Side by Side by Susan Blackwell and lots of TV and film work. They'll be talking about the winners, the non-winners, the numbers, and the awkwardly entertaining live-broadcast screw-ups. Click here for the live-stream, starting a couple of minutes before the telecast airs at 8 p.m.
The 51 Tony Award nominators typically get a lot of grief from theater types, but they did a good job this Broadway season. Sure, I would have enjoyed seeing Jason Robert Brown’s score for Honeymoon in Vegas, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Constellations, or several other unrecognized achievements, recognized. But whom or what would I eject to make room for them? And even if there are a few head-scratchers among the elect, this is probably not the nominators’ fault so much as the result of odd category assignments made by a different committee after heavy lobbying by producers. (Beth Malone, excellent in Fun Home, probably belonged in the featured, not leading, actress category, though that would have put her in competition with three of her castmates.) In any case, the resulting nominations are in virtually no instances without merit any more than the absent ones are snubs. It’s just the way awards play out, once you accept the impossible assumption that creative work can be meaningfully ranked.
With a title like Heisenberg, and a plot that begins with a smooch between an old man and a much younger woman, Simon Stephens’s terrific new play might seem to be a cross between Nick Payne’s Constellations and Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss. Like the former, it takes a mainstay concept in contemporary physics and applies it to relationships; like the latter, it imagines the ripple effects of a surprise encounter whose nature is never fully explained. Also like the latter, it stars Mary-Louise Parker, who (after a few costume-drama misfires) is once again beyond terrific in a role that suits her talents perfectly. Georgie, a New Jersey transplant in London, is (or appears to be) an obnoxious oversharer with boundary problems, a cousin to Cecily Strong’s “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” character on Saturday Night Live. When she meets Alex, a 75-year-old Irishman, at St. Pancras station, she very quickly moves from mistaking him for her late husband to denying the existence of that husband to calling Alex a “patronizing fucker” in a way that makes it sound like a nice thing to be. But despite her constant hilarious misconnections and hairpin contradictions, she’s no caricature; Parker quickly sketches, and over the course of the play’s 80 minutes depicts so fully it hurts, the ocean of sadness on which Georgie madly paddles. What we don’t know, as she manipulates Alex into a relationship he may or may not want, is whether that sadness has turned her into a fibber, a fantasist, or a flat-out scam artist.
His first line is “Namaste, motherfuckers,” and the fact that he says it as a kind of greeting to his Nepalese roommate and the roommate’s Indian-American girlfriend does not make him seem any less insensitive. In fact, insensitivity is the only brilliance of Ben, at least as played by the terrifying Jesse Eisenberg in his new play, The Spoils: He has raised smartass hipster-speak to the level of a diagnosable disease. Call it ulcerative sarcasm. Ben can hardly utter a word that isn’t insincere or hostile or, on the other hand, narcissistic and maudlin — and he utters about a million words a minute whenever he’s not stoned. Eventually, the nastiness turns in on itself, but until then he’s just another entitled twentysomething filmmaker manqué living off his rich father and thinking that makes him a misunderstood genius.
It's a busy summer for Jesse Eisenberg. June 2 marks the opening of The Spoils, the latest play he's written and is starring in, produced by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. Eisenberg plays a spoiled, socially maladroit grad-school dropout with a striving, earnest Nepalese roommate whom he both hangs onto like a puppy and treats horribly — racistly, actually. (Thankfully much of the play is a dinner party full of crackling good dialogue among a talented cast of familiar 20- and 30-something urban types: the good-natured banker bro, the hardworking South Asian female doctor, the do-gooder teacher of underprivileged kids.) Plus, he's got two new movies coming out — and a book! Vulture talked with him about all of his new projects.
“Hurry, you’ll miss the parade,” says Kristin Caskey, a producer of the musical Fun Home, as three of its stars trot arm-in-arm past a line of photographers at the Marriott Marquis. They’re late to the Drama League luncheon, having jogged over from the Tony nominees’ luncheon, which was accidentally scheduled for the same day and then turned into a brunch. Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and 11-year-old Sydney Lucas — who play Fun Home’s narrator at different ages — sit down to their salads just as 40 finalists for the League’s Distinguished Performance award (including Fun Home’s Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn) march up to a long dais. They’ll eat facing the audience, give 30-second speeches in alphabetical order, and then cheer as one of them is anointed a winner-for-life.
You might not think that a man whose crimes against humanity during South Africa’s apartheid regime had earned him the nickname “Prime Evil” would want to be interviewed, in the prison where he is serving a double life sentence plus 212 years, by a young black woman representing the government of Nelson Mandela. Yet the former police colonel Eugene de Kock — one of the two central characters in the enormously compelling A Human Being Died That Night, now playing at BAM’s Fishman Space — is not only willing but eager. Bound to a chair in chains that crunch each time he moves, dressed in bright-orange coveralls, this confessed assassin, convicted for murders, tortures, assaults, and kidnappings he committed to “save” South Africa from its black majority, now nervously awaits his opportunity to represent himself to a member of that majority as a mere cog in a bigger system, not the “unique monster” his nickname and sentence suggest. He would like it known that men who did as much as he, or even worse, were never convicted; indeed, some were promoted. De Kock was just among the unlucky ones “caught in the spotlights.”
For all its celebration of personal liberty and countercultural fabulousness, Broadway is actually a fairly God-positive place. Producers are not, after all, in the business of alienating potential audiences with gratuitous sacrilege. The nuns in Sister Act are sassy, not schismatic; Tevye’s a hondler, not an apostate. Even The Book of Mormon, for all its nose-thumbing, ends up endorsing the irrational power of faith in the same way it endorses the irrational power of musicals. So it comes as quite a surprise that David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, which promotes itself as a lighthearted new comedy, is actually one of the most vehement takedowns of the deity ever to reach Broadway. Perhaps the tipoff is that it’s playing at Studio 54, where, as the title character recalls, Liza Minnelli once sniffed Mick Jagger off Elizabeth Taylor.
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