theater reviews

Carrie Is Back and As Serious As a Telekinetically Induced Heart Attack

Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson in a scene from MCC Theater’s “Carrie”
Photo: Joan Marcus

In the decades since its grisly debut and inglorious early closure, Carrie became a go-to metonymy for hapless Broadway camp, its unintentional foibles deliberately and ironically aped by countless Fringe meta-musicals. Now the show is back — and serious as a telekinetically induced heart attack. Gone is the Broadway bombast and the goofy-pants Debbie Allen choreography, replaced by a more sere, stark staging concept by director Stafford Arima and attenuated power-posing from choreographer Matt Williams. Gone also, I’m afraid, is a good deal of the pulpy fun. I didn’t see the original Carrie — I know it only via reputation and online video — but from what I can divine, it retained something of the penny-dreadful in its dreadfulness. This retooled, updated Carrie, which includes several new musical numbers and drops many old ones, most notably the infamous pig-killing number, is, by comparison, clean and sleek, a marvel of well-behaved formula musical economy and austerity. Oh, make no mistake, there will be blood, but not buckets of it: The signature prom-night hemo-baptism of bullied, beleaguered outcast Carrie White (excellent, transfixing demon-waif Molly Ranson) is accomplished via (booooo!) digital projection, as is her subsequent mass murder of the senior class. The savings on dry cleaning bills alone must be impressive, but who put Paul Ryan in charge of cut-rate musical theater? We’re below 14th Street. This is Carrie. Where’s my $%&*ing splash zone?

Ranson has a steady alarm bell of a voice and plausible death in her blazing cornered-kitten eyes from the moment we meet her (in the gym shower, terrified by the onset of her long overdue menstrual cycle). Loathed on general principle by the popular kids at school and cosseted at home by the religious fundamentalism of her abusive mother (a wild-eyed Marin Mazzie), Carrie makes her way steadily to the Prom from Hell, as does Carrie, stopping off dutifully at every musical-theater station of the cross. Why, exactly, do we need a reflective song from kindly Miss Gardner (Carmen Cusack)? Because it’s where one puts a song, when one is in the song-putting business. Too much of Carrie feels obligatory and considered where it should feel compulsive, bonkers even. The composing team of Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, famous for raising towers of aggrandized pop that still bring tears of Velveeta to my eyes, feel most at home in the big ballads. The old stuff still has a sheen of silvery eighties megamusical fairy dust on it; the new numbers are more generic. Mazzie, charged with delivering such wonderful, furious nonsense as “And Eve Was Weak gets to have the most over-the-top fun, but even she feels slightly restrained. Carrie measures out its gore — and its glee, and its filth, and its fury — in coffee spoons. If only it had bent a few instead, Uri Geller–style. But I suspect that’d take more psychic chutzpah than this docile, lipsticked little piglet can muster.
Carrie is playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through April 22

Leslye Headland’s characters speak like spitting cobras, using punishing, profane, Ebonically inflected frat-guy stammer-slang to keep everyone at bay: frenemies, friends with benefits, and unfriends alike. Those are the three types of relationships on offer in Headlandia (also the setting for her buzzy hit Bachelorette). But above all these sits Domination, represented in her new play Assistance by the never-seen figure of Daniel Weisinger, a mogul whose exact moguldom is (wisely, amusingly) left vague. (Headland spent years as Harvey Weinstein’s girl Friday; any resemblance is purely intentional.) Over a period of years — time skips coke-ily along in this show — we watch his cadre of assistants as they twist on the hook, spiraling deeper and deeper into kicked-dog codependency. Nick (Michael Esper) is a quick wit with a submissive streak; Nora (Virginia Kull) is a sharp comer with a dangerous need for validation. Both are ripening wise apples, looking to “play the game”; both have no earthly clue how long the game really is. One-liners and in-jokes fly as they’re worked raw by Weisinger (who only enters by phone — we hear only his assistants’ side of every conversation, but that’s plenty). Nick and Nora want badly to be hard-boiled bon vivants, like their namesakes, but “bon vivant” assumes they’re alive. They’re not, and, as the years roll on, they know it. We expect to see these two fall in and out of bed (they do, with refreshingly minimal fuss and bellyaching), and then bloody each other in the acoustic-tiled coliseum of Weisinger’s sterile antechamber. Headland’s savvier than that. Unlike so many young playwrights who write in her fuck-and-run voice, she’s not trying to rewrite Glengarry Glen Ross. What, exactly, she is trying to do is somewhat unclear: Her characters are so revved up, they barely have time to exert much of an effect on one another. This post-emotional churn is both the joy and the weariness of Assistance, and director Trip Cullman does a brilliant job surfing that energy until the moment it snuffs itself out. He and Headland close the show with a coup so toe-tappingly anarchistic, so seductive in its destructiveness, it’ll make you want to stage something similar in your own boss’s office.*
(*Stage Dive and its legal team do not advise this.)

Assistance is at Playwright’s Horizons through March 11

The young playwright Katori Hall burst onto the scene last year with The Mountaintop, a badly star-addled fantasy about the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. That was a very slight play on a very big subject, with great bursts of impudent wit and brilliant subversion. Hurt Village, by contrast, is a big sprawler perpetually bursting the bounds of its small, airless world: the Memphis housing project that lends the show its grimly ironic name. More a series of virtuoso solos than a story with strictly fixed beats, the play pans through a summer in the lives of shell-shocked Iraq veteran Buggy (Corey Hawkins), his mother, the weary matriarch Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins), his tortured ex, the recovering addict Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake), and their daughter Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango, heart-stoppingly good), a precocious kid with a love of words and bright prospects that are perpetually in danger of being snuffed out. Hall’s characters nearly sing their lines in the stylized vernacular she’s built from Delta dialect and her own sumptuously poetic voice. In the long alley of the new Linney Theatre (with audience banks hemming them in on either side), they play out their scenes — some tense, some casual, many pointed and tendentious, a few bewitchingly open-ended — in an atmosphere humid with language that’s both raw and decorative, gut-punchingly matter-of-fact and self-consciously rococo. Hurt Village traffics in highly recognizable tropes of black life below the poverty line — the welfare trap, the dissolution of the family, the lurking drug kingpin (the spectral, nothing-like-him-in-this-world-or-the-next presence that is Ron Cephas Jones) who passes for a community leader — and it does nothing to reinvent them. But that’s not really the aim: These aren’t scenes but songs (occasionally, literally), and some of them are wonderfully hard to hear. (A few members of my audience — mostly white and elderly — fled.) Hall, to her credit, does not supply us with any easy outs, nor does she really supply us with a complete worldview or clear or original objective. She’s still listening to her own voice here (the play was written several years ago, when Hall was, obscenely, even younger than she is now), but it’s a very powerful voice, hot as plasma, stable as granite. The cast is packed with masters of vocal interpretation, but the standout is Kalukango (Godspell, White Christmas), a major talent who never lets the power of her performance cloud her absolute honesty and clarity. And Tonya Pinkins is, once again, a stage figure of such power, it’s hard to find a comparison or cognate. Maybe if Peter Ustinov had been born a black woman? Now that would be a play.
Hurt Village is playing at the Signature Center through March 25

A century ago, Rutherford & Son, a social drama about a ruthless, up-from-nothing industrialist and the unstable dynasty he’s worked hard to cultivate and can’t help but destroy, opened to great acclaim, earning accolades for its author, Githa Sowerby. The press and literati gawked at her achievement (a work so powerful, so informed by intellectual progressivism, so Ibsenesque … from a woman?) and then quickly forgot all about her. Now the Mint Theater has unearthed Rutherford, and while there’s clearly some rust in the ol’ plot pipes, there’s still much to admire in this familiar tale of success consuming its own offspring. Robert Hogan gets off to a dry, harrumphing start as the title tycoon, a northern England glass magnate. But by the time he’s one-on-one with each of his doomed children — entitled scion John (Eli James), jelly-chinned cleric Dick (James Patrick Nelson), and ignored, de facto handmaid Janet (Sara Surrey) — the method in his blandness becomes clear. Hogan’s Rutherford is less a force than a fact, and he simply lets his children’s various weaknesses, foibles, and dangerous fancies ricochet off his beetle-backed carapace and back into their own disbelieving faces. Ownership and parenthood aren’t separable for Rutherford: He’s a natural slaver. Only when a liaison is revealed between Janet and his loyal spaniel and majordomo, working-class Martin (David van Pelt), do we get a glimpse of his true vulnerabilities. Sowerby slowly, carefully, thrillingly allows the story, and old Rutherford himself, to be overtaken by the women of the house: Surrey’s internally smoldering Janet and Allison McLemore’s Mary, long-suffering wife of flighty John Jr. One can only imagine how thrilling the play’s final reversals must’ve been to a 1912 audience. They’re pretty damned riveting today.
Rutherford & Son is playing at the Mint Theater Company through April 7.

Carrie Is Back and As Serious As a Telekinetically Induced Heart Attack