Kevin Sessums | New York | News | Review | Theatre

On the Stage: Our Town, The American Plan, and Ruined

AmerPlan0566

GuestbloggerKEVIN SESSUMS

Kevin Sessums recently interviewed Jane Fonda and Moises Kaufman about the new play '33 Variations' for Towleroad, and recently reviewed the plays Becky Sharp and The Third Story. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at MississippiSissy.com.

Before I write about three plays I’ve seen recently, I must sadly pay homage to a couple of theatre greats — first the playwright Horton Foote, who lived a long life and died at 92, and the actress, Natasha Richardson, who lived much too short a life and died this week at age 45.

Foote I didn’t get around to reviewing Foote’s last play on Broadway before it closed — the divine comedy Dividing the Estate — but it was one of the most pleasurable evenings I spent in the theatre this season. When I was a young man trying to find my way in New York City I got a job being a reader of scripts for a big-time movie company and offering my written critiques of them. As a first assignment I was handed a script titled Tender Mercies by someone I, at that point, had never heard of named Horton Foote.

Much more glib than knowledgeable or wise, I wrote a horridly mean critique of the script, which went on to be made anyway and to win a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Foote. I’ve spent all the years since realizing what a boob I was for writing that critique of a man who has been rightly described as the Texas Chekhov. His actress daughter Hallie, who gave one of the season’s funniest and fiercest performances in Dividing the Estate, was her father’s favorite interpreter. My deeply felt condolences go out to her and the entire Foote family.

As they do to Natasha’s family and friends. I met Natasha several times at parties and baby showers because we shared some of those same friends. You always knew what part of the room she was in because of the sound of her throaty laughter. Always kindhearted and concerned about your well-being, she was instrumental in helping one of my best friends finally kick his cigarette habit when none of us could get him to do it. Yet I was often a bit cowed in her presence — and I am not the cowed type — because of my memories of seeing her onstage as the title character in Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie opposite her husband, Liam Neeson; as Anna in Closer (the role Julia Roberts played in the Mike Nichols film of the Patrick Marber play); as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire; and, most thrillingly, as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. I never thought anyone could obliterate the image of Liza Minnelli in the film version of that role, but Natasha certainly did. It was one of the most devastating and heartbreaking performances I’ve ever seen. I never went back to see other actresses in the part during the musical’s long run because I didn’t want to sully the memory of her in the role.

Richn She was, as Alexander Woollcott wrote in 1921 of the original production of Anna Christie, "singularly engrossing." As enthralling as she was on the stage, she was even more so off one. Jane Fonda has a lovely remembrance of her as a small girl on the set of Julia in which Fonda co-starred with her mother, Vanessa Redgrave. You can find it on Fonda’s blog. And she grew up to be more than just an actress. Because her father, the director Tony Richardson, died of complications from AIDS, she also was a tireless activist and fundraiser regarding HIV/AIDS.

Again, as Woollcott wrote of Anna Christie: "It came to the chronic playgoers like a swig of strong, black coffee to one who has been sipping pink lemonade." That was what it was like to be in Natasha’s presence. She was so invigorating and vibrant and full of life that it is hard to fathom that such a woman has so suddenly been taken from us.

My heart breaks for her children and for her husband and for her whole family, especially her mother, who last appeared on Broadway playing the role of Joan Didion. In that role in the one-woman show based on Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, Redgrave played a grief-stricken woman who has to watch her daughter slip into a coma and then slip away forever. The mind boggles at the Pirandello-like aspect of all of this. But it mustn’t all get too theatrical when discussing this most theatrical of families. This is real life. And it is truly tragic.

 ***OUR TOWN

Ourtown The most truthful and tragic of all American plays is Our Town. In fact, I consider it the greatest American play of the 20th Century and it is appropriate to be writing about it when discussing the fragility of life, which is one of its main themes. There are arguments to be made for O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night or Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but I think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town trumps them all with its incongruous simplicity as it taps into each chronic playgoers complexity of emotions regarding his or her own life’s experiences. It is the most resonant of American dramas.

An aside: I interviewed Edward Albee recently for the sequel to my memoir, Mississippi Sissy. We got to talking about Wilder, who was a kind of mentor to him. "I started out writing poems when I was about eleven," Edward told me. "I stopped writing poems when I started writing plays when I was 27. I showed some of my poems to Thornton Wilder. I knew him rather well, though he was a very, very closeted and tortured gay man. Very closeted. You could say it was the times. But it was the man too. He read the poems and offered some succint advice: 'Perhaps, Edward, you should write plays.'"

Cromer The emotional succinctness of Our Town is certainly highlighted in the revelatory production it is now receiving at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. It is one of the most stunning productions I have seen in years and if you love the theatre you would be remiss if you skipped it because of memories of being bored by other productions of the play — in high school or college or community theatre. This production, which was originally staged at Chicago’s Hypocrites Theatre, by director David Cromer, will shake away the cobwebs of any bad memories you have of thinking the play is hackneyed or dated. Cromer — who did such a stunningly effective job of directing the musical of The Adding Machine last season — even plays the Stage Manager himself in this production. "This is the way we were," he recites Wilder’s lines but has staged it to remind us that this is the way most decidedly are. Indeed, Cromer’s name is as big as Wilder’s on the front of the program — and rightly so. He has taken the play and mined it for its essential truths. He has also cast it exquisitely. The actors could not be bettered. And, at the end, there is a coup de theatre that is so organic to Wilder’s intentions and yet so surprising it will take your breath away.

I’ll admit I began to cry during the choir rehearsal in the first act and was teary the rest of the play. By the end, I was close to sobs. I don’t want to spoil it for you with too much description or to be too over-blown with my praise. But any reader out there who loves the theatre should get down to Barrow Street promptly. Because of the demand for tickets in the small space, the run has been extended already through September. But be warned — be prepared to experience the play, not just to watch it.

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

Our Town, Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, New York. Ticket information here.

***THE AMERICAN PLAN

There are two other productions worth catching — both produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club. At first, I thought that the two plays could not be more different. But then I realized at their roots they are about survival and how, at times, the most beastly of maternal influences can be the very impetus that propels us to survive.

Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...

AmerPlan0356r At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, MTC’s Broadway outpost, you have this one last weekend to catch Richard Greenberg’s The American Plan starring one of Edward Albee’s favorite actresses, Mercedes Ruehl, as the maternal presence whose beastliness has been caused by her own survival of the Holocaust.

With echoes of other beastly maternal narratives — The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, Light in the Piazza — Greenberg has fashioned a play about emotional subterfuge and a kind of warped devotion that lashes the loved to those who love them for all their own convoluted reasons. Most of the play takes place in the Catskills one summer right before the dawn of the 1960s and there is that sense of inchoate freedom - sexual and political — covering the play like some mist off a Catskills lake.

Ruehl is riveting in the role of the monstrous mother with the thick German accent — yet I was never sure if she was riveting because she was so good or because she was so bad. But I often have that response to her. Lily Rabe who plays her daugher, who is lashed with all that maternal love, is becoming one of our most enchanting stage actresses. And there is beefcake to behold in the first lakeside scene and a gay subplot as well. It’s all a bit diffuse finally, but definitely a fine production — directed by David Grindley — of a flawed early Greenberg play.

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

The American Plan, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

***RUINED

Ruined171r I was spellbound from beginning to end by Ruined at New York City Center Stage I, MTC’s outpost on 55th Street. Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whorisky, it is another transfer from Chicago, this time from the Goodman Theatre.

Set in the bar/whore house in a small mining town in the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the play is exotic in its locale and yet its dramatic concerns are more commonplace — how do its protagonists emotionally survive in a world that is cruel and increasingly loveless?

Ruined273r Nottage has fashioned a singular drama from this commonplace concern as she — through the beauty of her language and the visceral use of African music and songs — takes us on an emotional journey with the madam of the whorehouse and her girls who have been "saved" after being repeatedly raped at the hands of war-weary soldiers.

Again, this is yet another exquisite cast of actors, which includes the almost eerily beautiful daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad—  Condola Rashad — making her New York debut as one of the “ruined” women of the title. Saidah Arrika Ekulona as Mama Nadi, the madam of the house — kind of Congolese Mother Courage — so seamlessly becomes her character that one forgets at times one is watching a performance. But it is Russell Gebert Jones, as the one kindhearted man in the play, who will steal your heart just as he finally does Mama Nadi’s in the show’s slightly sentimental — though profoundly hard-earned — finale. Bravo to all concerned.

T T T T (extended through May 3rd)

Ruined New York City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

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Comments

  1. My but that was quite the scremaing rave for "Our Town," Kevin. I've always liked it, but I like "The Skin of Our Teeth" even more.

    That Albee reports his being deeply closeted is quite sad. There was no way for a man of his generation to be 'out" as we know it today. But was he "in" even to himself? That's just awful.

    "Our Town" has a very powerful emotional directness in its simplicity. It's beyond being a mere "standard" for high school, college and amateur productions. There was a news item a few weeks back stating that in recent times its been performed more than any other play.

    Your placing it on a higher peg than O'Neill and Albee moves me to take a look at it again.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Mar 20, 2009 2:50:08 PM


  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on/memories of Horton Foote and Natasha Richardson.

    Posted by: Rich | Mar 20, 2009 3:26:57 PM


  3. The american plan's a tautology? Who woulda thunk.

    Posted by: TANK | Mar 20, 2009 3:36:26 PM


  4. Williams, Wilder, Albee...

    Three of the greatest American playwrights were/are gay. Maybe four...did Lillian Hellman "play for both teams" too?

    Thanks, Kevin.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Mar 20, 2009 3:43:15 PM


  5. Are you kidding, derrick? Lillian Hellman was a homophobic twat.

    Williams was america's greatest playwright.

    Posted by: TANK | Mar 20, 2009 3:46:10 PM


  6. But was she anti-Lesbian, TANK? Anyway, I love her work, not the woman. She was kinda' mean.....nevermind, I hope she wasn't bi.

    Oh, you know that there are many who will kill to keep O'Neill at the top of anybody's list of top American playwrights.

    Posted by: Derrick from Philly | Mar 20, 2009 4:16:31 PM


  7. Agreed about Natasha's performance in Cabaret. I can't hear the title song ever without picturing her throwing the mic stand to the ground, face drained of blood, sweating, and storming off stage. That performance was devastating, as is, on a much greater scale, the news of her passing.

    Posted by: d.wilder | Mar 20, 2009 4:20:54 PM


  8. I am seeing The American Plan tomorrow. I'm glad to read the positive review!

    Posted by: Alex | Mar 20, 2009 4:44:18 PM


  9. David E -- yes I agree with Kevin Our Town beats them all -- I saw it in North Hollywood several years ago now in a great production with Emily Deschanel in the lead (Laura?) and it was very moving.

    Also -- Lillian Hellman was a little terror == I saw the Liz Taylor - Little Foxes at the Kennedy Center in the 70s and was at opening night. The audience sat in silence for ten minutes after curtain waiting for the performance to begin... what were we waiting for? Suddenly the doors fling open in the back of the auditorium and a small coffee table of a woman with elaborate hair in a fur comes waddling down the aisle -- my mother asked -- "well who does she think she is?" and I had to turn to her and say "That's the playwright Mom" and Miss Lillian went to center in the front row and the curtains rose....

    Posted by: David B. 2 | Mar 20, 2009 4:48:35 PM


  10. Kevin,
    Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Lynn Nottage's RUINED, is a woman. She plays Sophie, the sad woman who was deserted by her husband. Check your Playbill. However, you were right about one thing...Quincy was wonderful...it's just that she wasn't the character you thought she was.

    Posted by: Robert | Mar 20, 2009 5:28:04 PM


  11. I love your reviews and insights, but I am baffled by how you - or anyone, including the NYT - could find this last production of _Dividing The Estate_ anything but a dumbed-down, sit-commish waste of time. Poor Elizabeth Ashley, walking up and down those stairs with absolutely no good reason, and Hallie Foote's character, with her one-note line readings and clumpy walk, more a Broadway Steve Urkel than anything else. I could imagine a production that found subtlety and local characters in that script but this horrid boring go-for-the-laughs disappointment was not it.

    Posted by: greg | Mar 20, 2009 6:37:28 PM


  12. Don't forget William Inge, Derrick.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Mar 20, 2009 7:04:34 PM


  13. Having taught a dozen seminars on Horton Foote I share your tears. His Orphans Cycle, especially 1918 and On Valentine's Day are like time capsules of the first part of the last century and Trip to Bountiful moves me like the smell of my grandmother's perfume. And both Foote and Wilder made marks on motion pictures (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shadow of a Doubt). I'm so glad to hear you put Our Town in its rightful place. Skin of Our Teeth is my favorite play but Our Town is truly American Theatre. With a board, a few chairs, a ladder and the cumulative imagination of the actors and the audience Wilder paints the family, the irony, and the continuity that is at the heart of our life. I'm glad to know Simon and the choir move you to tears in this new production. I wish I could see it. The wedding always gets me. And the baking of bread and snapping of beans. And the quiet sitting on the hillside while those still of the world are trapped in their little boxes. Heaven would be a world peopled by Wilder and Foote.

    Posted by: IEW | Mar 20, 2009 8:49:50 PM


  14. The review of Ruined was very well written. It really makes me want to jump on a plane and see it.

    Well done.

    Posted by: Derek Washington | Mar 22, 2009 3:23:46 AM


  15. nice posting
    http://www.gaypedia.com/

    Posted by: Rahul Rai | Mar 23, 2009 8:50:54 AM


  16. nice posting
    Gay

    Posted by: Gay | Mar 23, 2009 8:52:40 AM


  17. I have always loved "Our Town," even in high school and college productions. This latest production is indeed stellar but the finest production I have ever seen was in the late 90s at The Arena Stage in DC. The audience sobbed openly for a full ten minutes before collecting ourselves to give a well-deserved and spontaneous standing ovation. The actor who portrayed George Gibbs, in particular, was truly heart-breaking, without one whit of sentimentality.

    I is interesting that you did not mention the hesitancy of George and Emily to get married and assume a "normal" life. This is often interpreted as Wilder's sly reference to the inability of gay people to get married. For this, and many other reasons, "Our Town" remains topical and affecting.

    Sadly, I missed "The American Plan" but I adore Mercedes Ruehl. She was simply breath-taking in "The Rose Tatoo" with Anthony LaPagilia. I cannot imagine her being anything but great, so I am a bit confused by your "so bad" criticism.

    Thanks Andy for including theatre reviews in your blog. Although I rarely agree with Mr. Sessums, I appreciate his views.

    Posted by: rudy | Mar 23, 2009 12:34:53 PM


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