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Josh Radnor, Gretchen Mol Open in Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Disgraced’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There is a chilling, heart-stopping moment at the height of Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s sharp and engrossing Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opened on Broadway last night at the Lyceum Theatre. Once you recover from the shock of it, you’ll wonder how you allowed yourself to be so caught off guard.

Disgraced4Maybe you were busy admiring the seductive surfaces of director Kimberly Senior’s sleek, vivid production, getting wrapped up in the lives of the über smart, affluent and self-possessed thirty-somethings onstage, who seem to embody every astute, aspiring young person’s idea of That Perfect New York Life.

Amir (Hari Dhillon), a dapper corporate lawyer and second-generation Pakistani immigrant, and his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol), a thoughtful, blossoming visual artist, share an enviable, impeccably modern Manhattan apartment and cut a prime yet casual example of cross-cultural harmony. While Emily mines Islamic forms and aesthetic ideals in her latest work, Amir is a self-professed and often vocal apostate to Islam.

Disgraced2The drama begins when Amir’s nephew Abe (Danny Ashok) asks him to offer legal counsel to an imam imprisoned (falsely, Abe believes) on suspicion of funding Hamas. Amir strongly resists stepping in, while Emily urges him to help. Fast-forward several weeks when Emily has a shot at being included in a show at the Whitney. The curator Isaac (Josh Radnor), husband to a close colleague of Amir’s, Jory (Karen Pittman), visits to view Emily’s work. Jump ahead another few months to find the four friends gathering for an intimate dinner party.

Akhtar’s drama unspools a number of distinct threads that come together only in its explosive, compelling climax. Above all, it’s a play about ideas and appearances—intelligent, grounded people who think they know who they are and what they believe, until they don’t. The play raises provocative questions—about identity, race, faith, art, love and at times, the whole of human history. This is, of course, no small feat in 90 minutes and could easily go down like a giant pill.

DisgracedBut Akhtar’s characters are people you want to know, and uniformly excellent performances from the cast make you feel as though you already do. The heady and pressing questions that arise are firmly grounded in the very human and messy drama unfolded onstage. That they come from the mouths of characters so convincingly rendered makes them all the more haunting.

Senior, who also directed the play’s Off-Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center Theatre in 2012, does fine work balancing the Akhtar’s litany of nuanced perspectives on hot-button issues. For a drama so much about visual surfaces, the production’s design adds rich texture to the story, including the set by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser and lighting by Kenneth Posner. 

In the time between the play's first production and its Broadway premiere, the context in which we hear and understand its core dilemma has changed dramatically, with renewed violence in the Middle East and racial tensions at home. Akhtar's drama certainly doesn't have the answers, but it asks the poignant questions.

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


Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing Open in ‘It’s Only a Play’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Anyone who thinks theatre people are a bunch of eccentric, egotistical, navel-gazing kooks will find little to prove them wrong in the starry Broadway premiere of Terrence McNally’s 1982 comedy It’s Only a Play, which opened last week at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Directed by Jack O’Brien, the backstage farce meets drawing-room play takes up with a team of show folk anxiously awaiting reviews on opening night.

It's only play 3If you’re determined enough to snag tickets to the nearly-sold-out run, you’ll find its crowded marquee of big names, including Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally and F. Murray Abraham, preening around the opulent interior of an upper east side townhouse, wringing their hands over the trials of mounting a play and goosing the audience with an exhaustive litany of de rigueur insider jokes and name drops.

The bedroom of this lux abode (lavishly designed by Scott Pask) belongs to theatre producer Julia Budder (Ms. Mullally), and tonight it’s doubling as a coat room for the opening party of her first big Broadway venture. Peter (Mr. Broderick) wrote the play’s lead role for his friend James (Mr. Lane), who turned it down to continue his stint on a mediocre sitcom and has flown in to make sure he didn’t pass on a hit.

It's only play 2The play’s leading lady Virginia (Ms. Channing) is a pill-popping star out on parole (complete with security anklet) and its British director Frank (Rupert Grint) is prickly, bizarre and apparently brilliant. A predatory critic is also on hand to generally antagonize all (Mr. Abraham), and the coat check boy (an aspiring actor, of course, played by Micah Stock) is charged with the running gag of schlepping outerwear for increasingly outlandish guests (Shia LaBeouf! The cast of The Lion King! Lady Gaga!).

Lane and Channing are both a delight, incidentally as caricatures of their own profession. Mr. Lane’s animated ease and precise comic timing make light work of his many rapid-fire one-liners. Ms. Channing is spot on as the industry-weary grand dame, all sharp-tongue and taut-face.

With a mild southern drawl and coiffed wig, Ms. Mullally doesn’t cut quite as extreme a figure as some of Broadway’s more eccentric producers. And while charming, Mr. Broderick seems a bit dazed—even as a playwright facing reviews on opening night. He’s also saddled with thanklessly delivering McNally’s sentimental odes to the art form, the sincerity of which seem stodgy and out of place.

It's only play 4In updating the original script for this production, McNally has packed it to the gills with jabs and winks aimed at celebrities big and small—with audiences invited to listen in on the fun (show people sh*t talking behind the scenes!). But like most opening night parties this one is relatively uneventful, aside from people waiting around for reviews to come in and reacting when they do. The rest of the play is taken up with the artists’ neuroses (at their most stereotypical) and these often backhanded zingers.

Much of McNally’s humor is low-hanging fruit (spoiler alert: the cast takes a group selfie), and much of the story (such as it is) gets buried in it. Though often funny, the players in McNally’s satire are gleefully narcissistic—and no more sympathetic than the critics they delight in vilifying. The play (like the play within the play) is obsessed with its own critical reception, though it's hardly clear why when the names above its title are enough to ensure box office gold.

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


‘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.

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


MPAA Accused Of Homophobia Over 'Pride' R Rating - VIDEO

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US censors have been accused of homophobia over the rating of new British movie Pride, a culture-clash comedy-drama that tells the true story of lesbian and gay activists who supported workers during the 1984 National Union of Mineworkers strike, reports Digital Spy.

The movie - which contains one scene in which two men kiss at a Bronksi Beat concert - has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America, judging it unsuitable for 17-year-olds unless accompanied by an adult.

Activist Peter Thatchell said that the decision is “outrageous, knee-jerk homophobia”:

"There's no significant sex or violence in Pride to justify strong ratings. The American classification board seems to automatically view any film with even the mildest gay content as unfit for people under 17."

This isn't the first time the MPAA has faced backlash for slapping an adult rating on a film with LGBT content either. This year's Love is Strange starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow was also given an R-rating despite its lack of explicit sex scenes or violence. 

Read Towleroad’s review of Pride and watch a trailer, AFTER THE JUMP

Continue reading "MPAA Accused Of Homophobia Over 'Pride' R Rating - VIDEO" »


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. 

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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.

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


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