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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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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.

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Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open On Broadway in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW

TIOY

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

It’s hard to believe Kenneth Lonergan’s seminal comedy about a trio of wayward twentysomethings stalling to come of age in ‘80s New York, which premiered in 1996, hasn’t been on Broadway until now. But director Anna Shapiro’s fantastic, finely tuned and terrifically acted production of This Is Our Youth starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, which opened last night at the Cort Theatre, was worth the wait.

TIOY1In its nearly 20-year history, Lonergan’s play has been a magnet for young stars, including Mark Ruffalo (in the original cast), Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon and Anna Paquin—and its definitive portrayal of Gen X inertia is up there with cult films by Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. The current cast comes to Broadway from a production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf theatre, with performances that do Lonergan’s quirky, emblematic characters every bit of justice.

It’s Saturday night in 1982. Warren Straub (Cera), who’s just been thrown out of his father’s house for smoking too much pot, arrives on the Upper West Side doorstep of his dealer and personal hero Dennis Ziegler (Culkin). A textbook spaz, Warren is like a small boy in the body of a young adult; he flew the coop with a suitcase holding his rare toy collection and $15,000 he stole from his dad. Dennis, a charming narcissist and high-functioning addict, uses his evolved business sense to sell drugs, works as a bike messenger by day and lives in a Manhattan studio paid for by his parents.

TIOY2The two cut an endearing figure of affluent slacker-dom, and Culkin and Cera (who did another production of the play together in Sydney in 2012) inhabit their characters’ fractious bromance with an engaging ease. Together they hatch a plan to turn a profit moving some coke, and Dennis arranges for Warren to be alone with Jessica (Ms. Gevinson), an FIT student brimming with convictions, in the hopes of getting Warren laid.

Hyper-articulate, aimless and awash in insecurities, Lonergan’s characters share a steady appetite for their next thrill—be it a strong high, sex with a near stranger or intoxicating fear. All three actors expertly craft their own brand of specific, neurotic hunger.

TIOY3The awkward vulnerability that Cera is known for on-screen works perfectly here, and Gevinson (the wunderkind fashion blogger behind Rookie, making her major theatre debut) brings a raw, frenetic energy that matches Cera spaz-for-spaz. Culkin, who’s worked previously with Lonergan on stage and screen, is perhaps most in his element, exuding the sort of alpha-stoner charisma epitomized in cult teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (released the year the play is set).

Lonergan’s story moves in mercurial fits and starts, with quiet drama, rapid escalations and big laughs cropping up around sharp corners. Shapiro does excellent work navigating the turns and developing candid, palpable connections between characters that grab our full attention.

Some two decades on, Lonergan’s title maintains (at minimum) a double meaning—the “our” of adults looking back on their own youth, or referring (with a shrug of distance) to “kids today.” That both still ring equally—and eerily—true is a testament to the play’s longevity.

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Weekend Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

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a motley crew in outer space that aren't afraid of bright colors

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

The Marvel Universe movies could have not existed before Right Now. Yet, for all the technological advances and computer wizardry that have made The Avengers possible, the magic still comes from the humanity of the actors. No amount of technical prowess can make you care about Iron Man if a great actor hasn’t sold you on the bravado and change of heart of the man inside the suit. Captain America’s shield and super strength are great but his adventures don’t work if Chris Evans’s star turn isn’t so perfectly pitched to invoke fantasies of the nobility of a bygone American era. (Without the humanity it’s just Transformers and nobody wants that -Shut up. I’m in denial about those billions). With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Marvel Studios has gone Cosmic opening up a whole new movie wing for their ever-expanding universe. As they leave Earth behind, have they found a way to retain the humanity?

Yes and no. But not in the way you might expect.

It helps of course, on a superficial level that the movie begins on Earth and shamelessly pushes collective 80s nostalgia buttons by making Peter Quill our hero, relentlessly nostalgic about that era. We first meet him as a little boy in 1988 and his most cherished possession twenty some years later when the movie takes place isn’t any of his impressive weapons or starship but a walkman with a cassette tape called “Awesome Mix Tape Volume 1”. It also helps that Peter Quill is played by endearingly simple Andy from “Parks and Recreation” a.k.a. Chris Pratt.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP...

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New Musical ‘Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

Piece

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

No one can claim a shortage of Broadway musicals about Brill Building artists who became household names—between them, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) and Carole King (Beautiful) have the Baby Boomer market cornered—so it seems fitting that Piece of My Heart, an engaging and surprisingly sexy new musical about lesser-known chart-topping songwriter Bert Berns, opened on a more modest scale Off Broadway Monday, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Piece2Writer of ubiquitous ‘60s hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Cry Baby,” Berns didn’t attain the notoriety of some of his peers, perhaps due to his early death from a heart condition at age 38. With two of his children as lead producers, the new musical tells the story of Berns’ career and his surviving family’s conflict over promoting his legacy.

Berns’ daughter Jessie (Leslie Kritzer) is called to New York City by her dad’s old friend and manager Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), warning her that Berns’ catalogue is in danger of being sold off for a lump sum by her mother (Linda Hart). Predictably, in dad’s Brill Building office, Jessie discovers who her father really was, herself by extension, and finally confronts her mother.

Piece4While its underlying plot is only slightly more original than the E! True Hollywood Story blueprint of its Broadway predecessors, Daniel Goldfarb’s book steers the show, rather than taking a backseat to showcasing the songwriter's hits. Instead of a litany of studio sessions or live performances, Berns’ songs are, for the most part, integrated into the musical’s several love stories. And because much of his music is about different stages of love, the formula works quite well.

Playing a relatively unknown, behind-the-scenes artist is a different kind of challenge from playing an icon, and Zak Resnick’s pitch perfect performance proves he has the makings of a star himself. His voice is both sweet and strong, and he manages to bring a modern sort of sex appeal to Berns that’s rare and refreshing to see in a jukebox musical.

Piece3Director-choreographer Denis Jones hints toward the decade of sexual excitement the songs portend, rather than their author’s achy-breaky heart—to fine affect. While dance numbers pay homage to the decade’s musical mix of styles, Jones forgoes nostalgia for originality and brings a carnal energy to songs otherwise known for being saccharine, if not exactly chaste.

Unlike most artists who die young, Berns knows his heart condition will lead to an early death, fueling his drive to succeed. His story (despite being true) is a potential minefield of clichés that the production for the most part successfully avoids. Maybe because its producers have their father’s legacy as their primary concern, Piece of My Heart stays focused on telling Berns’ story and making his songs sound their best, rather than pleasing the crowd—though it does that, too.  

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Tupac Musical ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

Holler

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

When you imagine what the words ‘Tupac musical’ could mean, you might think back on the colorful verve of ‘90s music videos, the rags-to-riches stories that dominate their soundtracks and find yourself hoping for a big-ticket nostalgic trip down the mean streets of L.A. You’ll find precious few of your (modest) hopes realized in Holler If Ya Hear Me, the surprisingly stagnant and flimsily strung together musical that opened on Broadway last week at the Palace Theatre.

Holler2Rather than trace the iconic rapper’s rise to fame and tragic early death, the show’s creators choose to tell an original story (that’s anything but) about a thinly sketched ensemble of characters struggling against poverty, violence and racial tensions in their unspecified Midwestern city.

In the tradition of jukebox musicals like campy Mamma Mia!, the primary objective of Holler’s watery plot is to string together as many Tupac songs as possible in its two-and-a-half hour run time. But in place of the former show’s knowing wink (or any other gesture of the kind), the material is presented here with an earnestness that only amplifies its abundant clichés.

Holler1Shakur’s songs have a singular sort of gritty, poetic eloquence, many of them broaching the same theme from different angles: man vs. the system—the struggle, its cyclical nature, the impossibility of escape and inevitability of violence. While they add up to a thrilling body of work, combining them into a dynamic story proves difficult. Not only do many of the show’s numbers feel like the same sentiments repeated multiple times over, their quick-spinning rhymes do little to move the meandering plot forward, such as it is.

That story, by book writer Todd Kreidler, concerns John (skillful vocal stylist Saul Williams), who has just been released from prison (on what charges it’s unclear). His ex-best bud Vertus (a moderately hunky Christopher Jackson) seems to have moved in on John’s sometime girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) while John was locked up. In an early scene, Vertus finds out his brother’s been shot and the rest of the story hinges on a vague desire for revenge shared by the whole neighborhood. Tonya Pinkins plays Vertus' mother, a character whose backstory is mined wholly from the song "Dear Mama."

While its music is filled with lyrics about drugs, sex and violence, Holler is remarkably sober and chaste—its characters hardly reach first base and there’s not  a drop of booze in sight until its final scenes—further accentuating how disjointed its songs are from the story they’re supposedly telling. Still, the talented cast does its best to create the world of those songs, and comes closest to doing so in dance.

Holler3Choreography by Broadway vet Wayne Cilento packs the sort of visceral, kinetic energy the show otherwise lacks, making a much-anticipated “California Love” the evening’s clear highlight. But its dance breaks are too sporadic to lift the show from its drudgery and most numbers peter out with little flourish.

Tony winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) has a glittering track record of skillfully told narratives of black America, and Shakur’s pop poetry would seem like an exciting voice to share with Broadway audiences—and in many ways, it is. Perhaps it’s to his credit that Leon doesn’t offer an elaborate production, as Tupac’s lyrics carry powerful messages on their own. But their restless artistry is blunted here, and the larger story they come together to tell doesn’t resonate as the songs do on their own. 

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