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‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The best plays, like the best fiction, force us to see the world in a new way. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a breathtaking new play by Simon Stephens adapted from Mark Haddon’s book of the same name, goes one step further—plunging us deep into the frenzied, myopic mind of an uncommon boy investigating the murder of a neighborhood dog. Directed by Marianne Elliott (Tony winner for War Horse), the electrifying National Theatre production, which arrived on Broadway Sunday at the Barrymore Theatre, cracks open the imagination and kicks it into the most thrilling kind of overdrive.

CuriousFans of Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel may remember its unusual narrator, Christopher Boone: a 15-year-old, self-proclaimed “mathematician with behavioural difficulties.” Though Haddon has written that his book is not a story about Asperger’s or autism, Christopher has qualities consistent with points along the spectrum and, above all, his mind is an extraordinary sort of kaleidoscope through which to observe and navigate the world.

Stephens’ adaptation begins as the novel does, with Christopher (played with dizzying precision and sensitivity by Alex Sharp) discovering his neighbor’s dog, murdered in the yard. In the ensuing interactions, first with a policeman and later his father, Christopher’s particular way of seeing and relating quickly becomes clear: he doesn’t like to be touched except for palm-to-palm, he always tells the truth and his relentless devotion to logic finds ultimate solace in math while leading him to think (quite reasonably) that metaphors are really just lies. 

Curious4Christopher’s recount of the play’s events is narrated, initially, by his teacher Siobhan (a robustly heartfelt Francesa Faridany) as a story he has written for school. As the plot launches from his canine recon to shattering revelations about his family, Christopher is thrust onto a collision course with his most terrifying mental roadblocks—including a narrow capacity for emotions, paralyzing fear of sensory chaos and limited ability to move about the world.

A nimble, multi-talented ensemble morphs into the drama’s many characters and creates the show’s people-powered stage magic (who says a boy needs suspended cables to dream of flying?). Sharp, a recent Juilliard grad, makes a dazzling Broadway debut, animating Christopher’s every frenetic mental shift with mesmerizing agility. As his parents, Richard Hollis and Enid Graham reveal the heartbreaking heft of raising and loving a child like Christopher.

Curious1Every facet of Elliott’s deftly imaginative production works to visualize Christopher’s inner life—from his revelatory, often moving flashes of mental clarity to moments of overwhelming terror. An ingenious team of designers does stunning work creating a world ordered around Christopher’s experience—lines, light, noise, arithmetic—all imbued with a sort of magical realism.

At first, organizing his experience into words is a way for Christopher to cope with being an outsider; Siobhan reading them aloud acts as a kind of validation. Watching Christopher take control of his own story as the play unfolds is as beautiful as it is empowering—particularly for anyone who's ever felt like a misfit.

Recent theatre reviews...
Political Sex Scandal Comedy ‘Tail! Spin!’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne Open in ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy Open ‘Love Letters’ on Broadway: REVIEW
‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens: REVIEW
Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Theatre News: Lohan's Debut, 'Wolf Hall', 'Zhivago', Estefan Musical Aim for 2015

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This month in theatre news, Lindsay Lohan debuts on the West End, and the KGB, Henry VIII and a deaf leading lady will all play Broadway in 2015.

> Lindsay Lohan opened at London’s Playhouse Theatre in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, in a role originated by Madonna and most recently played by Elisabeth Moss on Broadway. The jury is split on whether ‘fetch’ happened—the Mean Girls actress reportedly forgot a line or two in the 90 minute drama, and drew mixed (though assuringly few terrible) reviews from critics.

Doctor-zhivago> A musical adaptation of the classic film, Doctor Zhivago will come to Broadway in 2015 directed by Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys). Featuring music by Lucy Simon, lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers and book by Michael Weller, the show first premiered in 2006 at La Jolla Playhouse in Calif., followed by a significantly revised version in Australia last year. The production will take over the Broadway Theatre, where Cinderella is set to close Jan. 3.

> Producers Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel and Matthew Byam Shaw announced that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2 will transfer to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre (where Rocky closed this summer) beginning performances March 20, 2015. Based on the best-selling novels by Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the plays tackle the drama of the court of Henry VIII (meaning heads will roll!). Both shows will run in repertory.

Luftig> Gloria Estefan told the New York Daily News that pop star Ariana Grande is her top pick to play the Grammy-winning icon in On Your Feet!, the new musical based on Estefan’s life and career slated to arrive on Broadway at the Marquee Theatre in October, 2015. Grande was previously seen on Broadway in the 2007 musical 13. Fingers remain crossed for Nick Jonas to play Emilio.

> Mark Medoff’s 1980 play Children of a Lesser God, about the romance between a deaf woman and a hearing man, will be revived on Broadway in the 2015-2016 season by Kinky Boots producer Hal Luftig (pictured right). Kenny Leon, who won a Tony for his direction of A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington last season, will direct. No casting has been announced, but the team is committed to assembling a diverse cast and presenting a deaf actress in the leading role, according to the New York Times.

 


Political Sex Scandal Comedy ‘Tail! Spin!’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

You probably read about them right here, but how sufficiently did you relish in the salacious details of our past decade’s worth of civic sex-capades? Hoopla over Anthony Weiner’s dick pics and Larry Craig’s bathroom-stall cruising has long since been snuffed out the whirl of our 24-hour news cycle, but flipping back through the archives proves to be a trip in Tail! Spin!, a raunchy new comedy that opened Off Broadway Wednesday at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre.

TSSeanDuganArnieBurtonNateSmithTomGalantichandRachelDratchAssembled from actual transcripts (interviews, tweets, Facebook messages, etc.) by playwright Mario Correa, the sketch-style show, directed by Dan Knechtges, runs through four such public embarrassments in its swift 75 minutes. With an overarching punch line of “you can’t make this sh*t up,” the show proves that sometimes the bare facts are farce enough on their own.

With a cast of five, including SNL vet Rachel Dratch, the show sends up the lewd foibles of Weiner, Craig, and both Mark Sanford and Mark Foley, splicing together the pol’s public denials and apologies with their baldly incriminating actions and conversations. Statements are cleverly juxtaposed to beget dirty puns and innuendo and there’s knee-slapping humor in seeing the men’s duplicity made glaring.

TSNateSmithEach of four actors takes on one of the fallen officials, savoring their deceptions and missteps while mostly steering clear of cheesy impersonations. Nate Smith brings a suitably smarmy sex appeal to Weiner and Arnie Burton balances charm and sleaze in Foley’s instant message teen romance. Ms. Dratch flits seamlessly between many roles, milking laughs from the posturing of wives who stood by their disgraced grooms and those who didn’t. Fans of the spastic comedian will also be delighted that Barbara Walters makes a memorable cameo in Sanford’s extramarital meltdown.

There was a time (not so long ago) when every day seemed to deliver another red-faced politician zipping up his trousers in the news, so that new stories no longer warranted the bat of an eye. Tail! Spin! aims to snap us out of that desensitivity by asking for a bit of retrospective pearl clutching. There’s a certain nostalgia now, too, in looking back on these whipping boys, for headlines less saturated with war, deadly plague and civil unrest.

TSNateSmithArnieBurtonRachelDratchSeanDuganandTomGalantichBut while it deals in the simple facts, Correa’s play makes little effort to morally distinguish between the natural and rather ordinary sexual impulses of its subjects and the lies they fed the press—it seems quite happy to shame the leaders for both. Even granted these are privileged, white men, the underlying slut-shaming tone ultimately feels a bit problematic: It’s not Craig and Foley’s gay desires or Weiner and Sanford’s infidelities that deserve our (presumably liberal) derision.

We expect our elected officials, like our celebrities, to be better and different—not to have, say, naked selfies on their iClouds like everyone else. That we’re shocked when they prove us wrong only speaks to our own delusions. What’s really on trial here is that politicians lie, which of course is news to no one, but laughing it off sure is cathartic. 

Recent theatre features...
James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne Open in ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Broadway: REVIEW
Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy Open ‘Love Letters’ on Broadway: REVIEW
‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens: REVIEW
Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW
Andrew Rannells on ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch:’ INTERVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: carol rosegg)


James Earl Jones and Rose Byrne Open in ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Airy, quaint, sugary sweet and a little bit magical—if ever a play could be perfectly likened to cotton candy, it would be director Scott Ellis’ light-footed revival of You Can’t Take It With You, which opened on Broadway Sunday at the Longacre Theatre. Its sprawling and gifted cast, led by a dynamite trio of comediennes—Kristine Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), and Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids)—recalls a fine-tuned circus act, spinning into animate life a stock roster of old-timey characters.

YCTIWY22Deploying more than a dozen players over its swift three-acts, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy is Depression-era escapism at its most cheerfully saccharine.

Three generations of an outlandishly eccentric New York clan follow their own pursuits under one roof—Penelope (Ms. Nielsen) writes (though never seems to complete) plays, her daughter Essie (Ms. Ashford) dances (often to her own tune) and makes candy, Penelope’s husband Paul (Mark Linn-Baker) manufactures fireworks in their basement, while the family’s grand-patriarch, Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones) likes to attend commencement ceremonies, play darts and evade income tax.

YCTIWY24The family’s primary shared trait is a particular optimistic ineptness: None of them really excels at what they do and not one of them gives a hoot. Affluence makes all this possible, and there’s a devil-may-care about the world outside their walls that shapes the family’s myopic, decidedly non-capitalist take on the American dream (the “it” in the title is money).

That is until their daughter Alice (Ms. Byrne), the only one with a real-world job, falls in love with Tony (Fran Kranz), a wealthy boy from a “nice” family and the heir to the Wall Street firm where she works. Planning a future with Tony means introducing their families, a prospect that rightfully terrifies her and makes up the bulk of the story.

Ellis keeps the play’s many gears turning smoothly across David Rockwell’s meticulously cluttered set (which itself spins too, of course), and the kooky family’s bond is deeply felt, even as they seem to be orbiting each other on different planets. Every member of the big ensemble delivers his or her own singular brand of funny, including Patrick Kerr as Paul’s pyrotechnic sidekick and Julie Halston as the blissfully drunk actress Penelope hopes will read her play.

YCTIWY7The ease and sweetness that Ms. Byrne brings to her roles onscreen fit perfectly here, as does her instinctive comic timing. An experienced stage wit, Ms. Nielsen packs a scene’s worth of laughs into a single word of dialogue, and Ms. Ashford’s physicality alone makes her every moment onstage a complete riot. Jones brings a buoyant charm to the head of the family and his rich, deep baritone lends some weight to the conclusion’s pat moralizing. (Do what makes you happy, the rest is hogwash.)

While we may be in no less need of escape than audiences in 1936, whipping up decades-old humor into a fresh, frothy confection isn’t easy—this production makes it seem all but effortless, leaving you with a grin that’s sticky-sweet.

Recent theatre features...
Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy Open ‘Love Letters’ on Broadway: REVIEW
‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens: REVIEW
Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW
Andrew Rannells on ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch:’ INTERVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy Open ‘Love Letters’ on Broadway: REVIEW

Love Letters Cast Collage Vertical

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

If you have any doubts that a play with two actors sitting behind a table, scripts-in-hand, can capture the imagination, you can check them at the door of Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where a charming revival of A.R. Gurney’s 1988 epistolary romance Love Letters opened Thursday night. In the hands of stage and screen vets Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow, the story of two people trading their lives in letters is sweetly engaging, often hilarious and ultimately moving (if a bit sentimental).

Love Letters2A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Gurney’s play is a draw for busy, big-name actors, given its simple format. The current revival, directed by Gregory Mosher and scheduled to run through mid-February, will welcome Carol Burnett, Angelica Houston, Alan Alda and Martin Sheen among others, with different actors rotating in every few weeks.

Andrew and Melissa begin the play as neighborhood kids exchanging short missives that sound much like passed notes in class. It’s mid-1930s New England and both are from well-off families who ship them to boarding schools. As they grow into teenagers and young adults, their relationship becomes something of an awkward long-distance romance between best friends. Melissa is precocious and artistic, often including sketches in her letters alongside complaints of how she loathes writing them. Andy, on the other hand, comes alive with pen in hand and loves nothing more than composing personal messages and to no one more than Melissa.

As correspondence between the two multiplies, the play offers a broader meditation on the nature of personal connection. Entering their college years, Andy and Melissa reach a point where they feel they know each other better on paper than in person. Replace their handwritten notes with emails, texts and OKCupid messages, and the question that sits between them has seldom seemed more relevant. How do we communicate ourselves in words, and what sort of substitute is disembodied text for proximity? Or intimacy? Also: Why hasn’t he texted me back?!

Love Letters1 Ms. Farrow brings a saucy vulnerability to her performance that’s a pleasure to watch, particularly during Melissa’s years as a flippant and often foul-mouthed teenager. A well of emotions never seems far from the surface, however tough an exterior Melissa may present in her letters—as when she makes a throwaway remark, for example, about being sexually abused by her stepfather. As Melissa grows into an increasingly hapless woman, Farrow brings a harried desperation bubbling to the surface.

Mr. Dennehy has a stalwart presence that fills the stage even as he sits still. Though necessarily less expressive in his performance than Ms. Farrow, the celebrated Broadway regular gives solid yet sensitive voice to an upstanding, openhearted and loving man with a knack for words and a candle burning for his errant companion.

While Gurney’s play is inventively simple and a joy to watch, the dusty gender norms it leans on in the end betray its age. Ultimately, it’s Melissa's life that falls apart, while Andy enjoys a successful political career and a stable family. The play’s final moments also take a self-consciously sentimental turn that teenage Melissa, particularly, would find hard to swallow. But outdated sentiments are a fixture of every old letter, and that doesn't make them any less transporting.  

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‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens: REVIEW
Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW
Andrew Rannells on ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch:’ INTERVIEW
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim Musical ‘Here Lies Love’ Returns: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:carol rosegg)


‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens Off Broadway

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Of all the pet names you’ve heard used to describe your privates, “bootycandy” might be a first. As the title suggests, Robert O’Hara’s wickedly funny and provocative new play, which opened Off Broadway last week at Playwrights Horizons, is anything but demure.

Bootycandy2Through a parade of short scenes ranging from the outrageously-out-there to more intimate, but no less lively exchanges, the writer-director assembles snapshots of gay experience in a particular corner of black culture. Though plainly autobiographical, O’Hara’s play unfolds less like a linear memoir than an episode of In Living Color, with actors performing multiple characters and offbeat sidebars peppering the central coming-of-age story.

We first meet Sutter (O’Hara’s stand-in, a sensitive Phillip James Brannon) as a young fan of late ‘70s Michael Jackson—afro and all—asking his mom (Jessica Frances Dukes) the pressing, prurient questions of adolescence: Why do you call it bootycandy? Can I lick it? Mommy, what’s a blowjob? The following scene puts us in the pulpit of a pastor (Lance Coadie Williams, a master of versatility) whose riotous sermon could double as a missive from RuPaul. Next we’re in the crossfire of gossip calls between neighborhood hens (Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas) over an expectant mom choosing “Genitalia” as her future baby’s name.

Though a bit of Sutter’s story is introduced in act one (including his affair with a bi-curious friend, played by Jesse Pennington), the play’s first half is something of a sprawl. Episodes seem strung together tenuously at best, and the lack of a clear narrative might try audience patience were it not for O’Hara’s killer comedic rhythms and the company’s adeptness at nailing laughs. As it is, the play’s outer edges provide a colorful context for the playwright’s exercise in self-discovery.

Bootycandy1The second act more closely follows Sutter’s personal story, unpacking his family relationships and sexual history and tapping into his latent rage at feeling oppressed by straight norms. Weightier elements, like a teenage Sutter alerting his parents to a potential sexual predator, are balanced with O’Hara’s biting humor, often hinging on outsize black stereotypes.

A uniformly great cast breathes life into O’Hara’s medley of characters, from sassy shade-throwers to those with quieter convictions. Set and costume designs by Clint Ramos impressively juggle the play’s variety-show-speed changes between venues and personalities.

Bootycandy3Aside from a deliciously frank treatment of race and sexuality, the most daring aspects of O’Hara’s play are in its composition, including scenes that break the “fourth wall,” asking (even forcing) the audience to digest the play’s deeper implications beyond sidesplitting laughs. Thanks to O’Hara’s buoyant hand with comedy, these jarring moments of accountability go down like medicine with a spoonful of sugar.

Recent theatre features...
Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open On Broadway in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW
Andrew Rannells on Stepping into Broadway’s Highest Heels in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch:’ INTERVIEW
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim Musical ‘Here Lies Love’ Returns Off Broadway: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus)


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