Kevin Sessums | New York | News | Review | Theatre

On the Stage: Pal Joey and Hedda Gabbler

Hedda1

GuestbloggerKEVIN SESSUMS

Kevin Sessums recently reviewed 'Billy Elliot', 'Shrek', '13', and 'Prayer for My Enemy' as well as 'Back Back Back' and 'Farragut North' for Towleroad. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at MississippiSissy.com.

Joey1Before I begin, I’d like to address the controversy of my knowing some of the people involved in shows that I review. There were some pretty heated comments after my last posting regarding my mentioning I was friends with Shrek’s director, Jason Moore, as well as two of the founders of Dreamworks, the main producer of the musical. My ethics were called into question. I feel, however, it would have been unethical if I had kept those friendships a secret under the specific circumstances that arose for this production so was very clear in the review re: those friendships, opening myself up for the harshness of the comments that followed. After living in this city for 34 years and having good friends in the theatre community, I have often known people involved in many of the shows I cover for Towleroad. I have given bad reviews to some of them, good reviews to others. Additionally, this is not the New York Times. There is no second or third theatre critic to whom to hand an assignment when these issues arise.

One of the very first reviews I did for Towleroad was for Fuerzabruta which was produced by another good buddy of mine, David Binder. I was even a guest of his at that show on one occasion. I certainly was not kind to that. Some might even characterize that review as overly snarky and dismissive. Another example: I was in the first Tales of the City with Laura Linney, which didn’t make me pull my punches when I, for the first time, had to admit I thought she was giving a bad performance in the Roundabout’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

The Roundabout's current two productions — Pal Joey and Hedda Gabler — have mostly been the recipients of critical opprobrium. I found Pal Joey more mediocre than bad and am in the minority regarding my opinion of Hedda, which I found rather brave in its utter outlandishness. Indeed, I haven’t found one friend who agrees with me about Hedda. It seems to be universally hated.

Joey2First Pal Joey. It is the most famous of Rodgers and Hart musicals and is based on a series of The New Yorker short stories written by John O’Hara which tells the sweet yet sordid saga of Joey Evans, a Chicago gangster-era gigolo. Richard Rodgers himself once said that Joey wasn’t "disreputable because he was mean, but because he had too much imagination to behave himself, and because he was a little weak."

Richard Greenberg has refashioned the John O’Hara book for the 1940 musical, a book that was “influenced” by the show’s first director, George Abbott, during the show’s out of town tryouts when O’Hara was absent — which was most of the time. Greenberg adds a gay subplot to the book and most notably deletes the female reporter from Act II — Melba — who was portrayed by Elaine Stritch in the show’s premiere. For those of you who saw her one-woman show on Broadway, you must remember Stritch’s breakneck anecdote about singing “Zip,” her showstopper from the musical. Greenberg has now combined the character with Gladys, the hard-knock chorine, originally played by June Havoc in the 1940 production. Havoc, now 95, is Gypsy Rose Lee’s little sister and the real Baby June of Gyspy fame. The role of Gladys has now been taken over by the brilliant Martha Plimpton (above, right). She steals the show and I kept thinking in twenty years she’d make a great Mama Rose in, yes, yet another revival of that show I’ve always wondered if Havoc must secretly hate.

Joey3The role of Joey was originated by Gene Kelly. Others who have played him are Bob Fosse, Peter Gallagher, Chris Chadman, and, in the 1957 film version, Frank Sinatra. There is a bit of a Shirley-MacLaine-as-Cinderella story to this production’s Joey getting the job. Matthew Risch was the understudy for Christian Hoff, who was first cast in the role until he sustained an injury during the previews and director Joe Mantello decided to go with Risch all the way. There is also a bit of a real gay subplot regarding Risch’s taking the role. He is openly gay and Joey’s stock-and-trade is his blatant heterosexuality. Gay men have had to watch avowedly straight men play gay characters over and over and over, so it’s nice to see an openly gay man play so blatantly a straight one. (Neil Patrick Harris has started a trend perhaps.) But, to use Rodgers’ phrase, Risch is a little weak where star quality is concerned. It is a fine performance — though not a great one. And Joey needs to wow an audience just as he so viscerally wows Vera, the society doyenne who beds and bankrolls him. Joey lives to seduce. It’s as effortless to him as breathing. Risch shows us too much of the effort.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

In this production Vera is played by Stockard Channing. Others who have played her include Vivaca Lindfors, opposite Fosse; Patti Lupone, opposite Gallagher; Joan Copeland (sister of Arthur Miller), opposite Chadman; Rita Hayworth, opposite Sinatra. Sian Phillips of I, Claudius fame played the part in a 1980 West End production. Channing’s Vera never lets us forget she is slumming - or is that Channing herself who gives off such a feeling? Her rendition of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is filled with a woeful ennui, never a sexual hunger, which is the way I once heard it sung by Lena Horne in her one woman Broadway show back in 1980. She would have made a great Vera in her day. My mind would wander at times in this production and imagine Horne in the role - or, now that that’s not possible, an all African-American version reset in Harlem back during its jazz-age Renaissance.

T T 1/2 (out of 4 possible T's)

Pal Joey, Roundabout Theatre, Studio 54, 254 W 54th St, New York. Ticket information here (Closes March 1).

***HEDDA GABBLER

Hedda2Now ... ahem ... Hedda. Here goes. I loved it. Was never bored. Felt assaulted at times. Laughed. Sat with my jaw dropped. Shook my head from time to time. Was floored by the audacity. Dumbfounded? At one or two moments. Moved? A qualified yes. “It will prove controversial.” I emailed a publicist for the show the next day.

Ibsen’s play, a critique of bourgeois society, was also lambasted by critics when it first opened in Germany in 1891. Director Ian Rickson, whose production of The Seagull was hailed earlier this year, seems to have turned over the play’s psychological rock to see what neurasthenic creatures scurry about beneath all the repressed Scandinavian emotions embedded in the text. It is a modern — even modernist — reading of the play that falls short of an all-out decontructionist take that the Dutch director Ivo van Hove took — with an aesthetic sledgehammer — to Hedda Gabler several seasons ago at New York Theatre Workshop in which Elizabeth Marvel gave a thrilling and unbridled interpretion of Hedda. It’s as if Rickson and his cast are giving us a parallel-universe Hedda. Ibsen, in his notes on the title character, wrote that “life for Hedda is a farce which isn’t worth seeing through to the end.” It is this raging farcical aspect of life that Rickson is tapping into. We are witnessing what Hedda is repressing. This is who she is inside her head. This is the view of life she is really seeing. It is dreamily nightmarish. And, indeed, Rickson opens the play with a tableau of Hedda asleep with her gown thrust above her naked loins so that she is literally mooning the audience, which I took as a sign of things to come, as I did her also literally throwing the dust covers off the furniture of the house when she awakes as if to warn us that this will be no usual antimacassared Ibsen production.

Hedda3Mary Louise Parker, as Hedda, is so downright feral that she resembles a Minnie Mouse off her meds channeling that other Minnie, the great Ibsen interpreter of the early 20th Century, Minnie Maddern Fiske. Parker is fiercely petulant throughout. And as sexually hungry as the bewitched, bothered and bewildered Lena Horne back in 1980. I was certainly bewitched by her. But the New York Times’s theatre critic, Ben Brantley — an old friend and colleague who was two seats away from me — seemed only bothered and bewildered. He squrimed and scribbled and squirmed some more. I could sense — rightly so, judging by his later pan of the show — he was loathing a production that was proving, at times, laughable to him. I instead was getting swept up in the production’s anarchic take. Its nasty aplomb. Its rudeness. Its taunting. When Mary Louise Parker took her bow I shouted “Bravo!” just to see if Ben would flinch. He did. And that, I thought, is what Ibsen demands, this flinching as he flouts the flinchless among us.

T T T (out of 4 possible T's)

Hedda Gabbler, American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 St., New York. Ticket information here (Closes March 29).

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Comments

  1. Damn, this makes me want to see this Hedda. It's my favorite modern play, and you make the production sound like it makes Ibsen rightly dangerous." Gorgeous line: "And that, I thought, is what Ibsen demands, this flinching as he flouts the flinchless among us." Wow.

    Posted by: Landon Bryce | Feb 16, 2009 5:26:38 PM


  2. 1) yes, Ms. Havoc HATED the musical and went so far as to threaten to sue them if she was identified completely in the show.

    2) I agree - I would want to see this Hedda. It is one of my favorite plays but have seen very few decent productions . . . flinching ... yes, that's some of what he demands ...

    Posted by: wd | Feb 16, 2009 5:50:29 PM


  3. This theater review is wordy, hard to read, and geared mostly toward theater geiks.

    Posted by: tulula | Feb 16, 2009 5:57:10 PM


  4. Kevin, you forgot one very important Joey -- Harold Lang. Gore Vidal's most bodacious boytoy, he was a great singer and actor and according to the redoubtable Arthur Laurents (in his invaluable "Original Story By") had an ass so magnificnet that Leonard Bernstein was singing its praises on his deathbed!

    As for the character of Joey, please remember Cole Porter's "I'm a Gigolo" sung most memorably by William Hickey in Ben Bagley's "The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Though the Eyes of Cole Porter" -- a production featuring (wait for it) Harold Lang.

    "I should like you all to know
    I'm a famous gigolo
    And of lavender my nature has just a dash of it."

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Feb 16, 2009 6:03:08 PM


  5. Wonderful reviews, as always.

    Too bad about Pal Joey, and I especially Matthew Risch. I have seen him around town, he is very appealing. I am sure he will grow, and his next lead will be more successful.

    You all suddenly make Hedda sound intriguing to me, but I always worried Ibsen would be too much for my intelligence, too deep for my understanding. I might be talked into it yet.

    Tulula what is a geik? lmao

    Posted by: Critifur | Feb 16, 2009 6:25:44 PM


  6. I'm so sorry Mr. Sessums, that last paragraph, I think, is the core of all our disputes. I cannot tell whether we are to focus on what you saw (Hedda Gabler) or who you saw (the critic from the Times) or what you know (what Ibsen demands) or who you know (again your friend and colleague Ben Brantley). I do know if your idea is to impress us with simultaneously mixing Parker, Fiske, Horne, Hart, and Minnie Mouse into a paragraph already adrizzle with appalling alliteration then you succeeded. I can tell you this: your reviews soar when you keep your mind and acquaintance on what goes on within the proscenium and between the covers of the text. Your knowledge of the theatre is extraordinary and your appreciation for its history outshines most other writers in the field. However, you crash and burn when you waste your time trying to impress us with childish antics like shouting "Bravo" just to see how Ben Brantley from the Times will react. If you want to know how the other critics feel - read their reviews - the reviews of Shrek, for example, and don't quote them to us. We, too, read Brantley for his take because he only shouts "Bravo" when he means it.

    Posted by: IEW | Feb 16, 2009 6:28:02 PM


  7. Lena Horne did play Vera in a production in the 80's at the Ahmanson Theater in L.A. It was a pre-Broadway tryout that I think died here. I don't recall who did the re-write on the book, but Dan Sullivan (the LA Times drama critic at the time) started his review with something like - Pal Joey was a show about a rat named Joey, this production is about a rat named Vera. I just remember the chills when she sang Bewitched.

    Keep up the good work. Call me a "theater geek," but I enjoy your reviews. I've always felt that the best theater writers have an understanding of the history and even friendship with people in the art. To those who find the reviews too "insider" or too "geekie" - there is a scroll button on your mouse. Take the hint!


    Posted by: Donald | Feb 16, 2009 7:47:43 PM


  8. I greatly enjoy Kevin Sessums's theatre reviews. They give a vivid sense of the shows and address many of the questions that I would ask in determining whether to book a flight and a ticket.
    I've never seen Hedda Gabler--and I'm not sure that this is the production to start with--but I do love Mary Louise Parker and the production sounds fascinating. I'd rather see an outrageous risk-taking show that pleases no one than a mediocre show that offends no one.

    Posted by: David D. | Feb 16, 2009 9:00:00 PM


  9. Donald, I found your story about Lena Horne fascinating. She's one of my favorite singers/actresses. I would love to have seen that Vera! You're not a geek for reporting on that, you're a fan. If Kevin wants to review, he should review, if he wants to write a memoir, he should fill his column with anecdotes, if wants to drop names, he should call himself a theatre columnist. I don't mind which he does as long as he labels it correctly.
    I read Andy's blog because it's simply the best. Kevin, a brilliant novelist, sometimes gets lost in his own prose when dealing with his theatre fandom. If you don't like the occasional criticism of Sessums, apply your own suggestion. The mighty mouse doth run two ways.

    Posted by: IEW | Feb 16, 2009 9:05:42 PM


  10. IEW, my response was to Kevin's column as an encouragement to something I enjoy reading. I suppose, as I'm not paying 50 cents or $1.00 a day to read Andy's Blog or the $4.50 a week I pay for the New Yorker, that I am a little more relaxed with Kevin's reporting. He can call it anything he wants, IMHO he writes a better review than the majority of the so called theatre critics writing today.

    I, as a habit, do not read comments and had not read yours until you responded to mine. I guess my response to you is if you want well writen theatre criticism, try John Lahr.

    Posted by: Donald | Feb 16, 2009 10:39:56 PM


  11. An interesting point: Pal Joey's Martha Plimpton was a wonderful Hedda Gabbler at Steppenwolf in Chicago a few years ago.

    Posted by: Penpoint | Feb 17, 2009 1:41:33 AM


  12. An interesting point: Pal Joey's Martha Plimpton was a wonderful Hedda Gabbler at Steppenwolf in Chicago a few years ago.

    Posted by: Penpoint | Feb 17, 2009 1:43:21 AM


  13. First, thanks to David E. for repeating the fabulous anecdote about Bernstein, the cause celebre straight cognoscenti would most like to keep closeted.

    As for Kevin, it's easy to get a little lost in the arms of knowing so much about so many things. I'd rather read Kevin's informed epistles any day than the jejune premature ejaculations of most posters here who consistently reveal they know so little about so many things, confusing solipsistic mewing with critical analysis. Pearls before swine, indeed.

    As for contrasting Kevin with Lahr, a case can be made for their similarity. The latter's own review of Joey for "The New Yorker" is a case in point of his similar application of what he's seen and heard and known before about the subject to what was in front of his face at the moment. It's called "erudition," Kiddies. Or to put it more simply for Generation V ["Vogue on the outside; vague on the inside"], think of Kevin as the Wet Look and Lahr as the Dry Look.

    HOWEVER, I was shocked to see Kevin multiply the sclerotic meme alleging the sacrilege of straight actors playing gay characters, the logical extension of which is that gay actors should not be allowed to play straight characters. Poppypenis.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Feb 17, 2009 10:43:43 AM


  14. IEW wrote: "your reviews soar when you keep your mind and acquaintance on what goes on within the proscenium and between the covers of the text. Your knowledge of the theatre is extraordinary and your appreciation for its history outshines most other writers in the field."

    IEW is paying a very high compliment, and including a criticism. It seems strange to attack the criticism without acknowledging the compliment.

    Agreed that Mr. Sessums writes a fine review. IEW thinks Kevin is unnecessarily self referential, in a way that detracts from the overall effect. Fair enough. It's a common problem - for instance in IEW's initial 8 sentence comment, he/she refers to self 6 times in the first 3 sentences, and 10 times in the comment (with I, we, or us).

    Posted by: MammaB | Feb 17, 2009 3:33:35 PM


  15. Solipsistic indeed! How charmingly erudite for one so deeply engrossed in the masturbatory fantasies of a quintessentially pretentious purveyor of cockamamy rhetoric in the fallacious
    conceit that it validates slipshod opinions. The only mewling (which is the term I think you meant to use, not mewing - a mew is a cage) done on this page is by you. The rest of us have engaged in a rather charming bit of argumentation.

    Donald, I didn’t mean to imply you had read the posting. But, you did refer to other comments when you said “those of you” and “geek,” both of which had been used in earlier postings. My deepest apology for assuming too much. I still loved the Lena Horne story. As a child, I remember a short film shown at our neighborhood cinema that featured a duet between her and Nat King Cole. I can hear the silk and satin in those voices today and that was nearly forty years ago.

    Mammab, thank you for noticing my compliment. I was afraid it would go completely unnoticed. And you nailed me to the cross for the “I”’s and “we”’s. You have to admit, I did use quite a few more “you”’s. It is, after all, difficult, to state “one”’s opinion without laying claim to it, and, as “my” husband will be happy to tell you, when it comes to opinions, “I” am more than willing to lay claim to “mine.”

    At any rate, it has been a joy reading everyone’s comments and stories. Kevin, continue to write. “We” will continue to rant. Andy, perhaps you need a column where every few weeks, Kevin could collect anecdotes from your readers regarding the theatre and include them in the blog.
    God knows I enjoy reading them in the postings.

    Posted by: IEW | Feb 17, 2009 9:29:43 PM


  16. I knew Luke was gay too, I just had a feeling. He's rather cute, as well. :) Now I just need to learn sign language

    Posted by: penis büyütücü | Dec 18, 2010 6:52:09 AM


  17. I've never seen Hedda Gabler--and I'm not sure that this is the production to start with--but I do love Mary Louise Parker and the production sounds fascinating. I'd rather see an outrageous risk-taking show that pleases no one than a mediocre show that offends no one.

    Posted by: zayıflama | Jan 3, 2011 12:07:37 PM


  18. Donald, I found your story about Lena Horne fascinating. She's one of my favorite singers/actresses. I would love to have seen that Vera! You're not a geek for reporting on that, you're a fan. If Kevin wants to review, he should review, if he wants to write a memoir, he should fill his column with anecdotes, if wants to drop names, he should call himself a theatre columnist. I don't mind which he does as long as he labels it correctly.

    Posted by: göğüs büyütücü | Jan 16, 2011 10:24:40 AM


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