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Straight Couples Adrift on Fire Island in Terrence McNally’s ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart’: REVIEW

Lips

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Fire Island lovers already nostalgic for summer will find themselves immediately transported upon entering Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre, where a revival of Terrence McNally’s 1991 play set in the idyllic Pines opened last night. The oceanfront deck (complete with infinity pool) is so lovingly rendered by designer Alexander Dodge, you can practically smell the sea-salt air and feel the cool relief of a cocktail against your lips. But don’t get too comfortable: The dream home’s occupants on this Fourth of July weekend are none too keen on the locals.

Lips3Sally (America Ferrera), a stymied artist with a 9-to-5, inherited the house from her brother, who recently died of AIDS. She and her staunchly salt-of-the-earth husband, Sam (Michael Chernus), are taking a holiday weekend away from their modest life in New Jersey to decide what to do with the property. Along for the stay are Sam’s moderately hyperactive sister Chloe (Tracee Chimo), a community theatre actress, and her husband John (Austin Lysy), a private school admissions director, who live a bit less modestly in Connecticut.

As they enjoy typical, leisurely distractions (the Times’ crossword, landscape painting, kite-flying, charades), audience-directed asides clue us into their inner conflicts and secrets. Sally is pregnant and fears another miscarriage; John has cancer; Sally and John once slept together; Chloe has an almost maniacal need to feel useful and Sam is, well, pretty much an open book. A dark cloud rolls in at the play’s outset, as Sally spots a man swimming purposefully straight out into the ocean. She has a sinking feeling he won’t return.

Lips2Neighbored on all sides by gay men, a group they neither understand nor accept, these are strangers in a strange but picture-perfect place. But it’s their isolation from each other, rather than their surroundings, that takes up McNally’s three-act story. Its focus on intimate drama allows the play’s subtler reflections on deeply rooted homophobia and AIDS panic to resonate all the more profoundly. The characters’ fear of mortality and desire to be known and loved parallel those of their gay neighbors, but most of them are too blind to see it—except for Sally, who wants so badly to try.

Director Peter Dubois does fine work bringing the play to a modern audience and orchestrating its talented cast. Chimoo is a standout as nutty, gabby Chloe, preening fearlessly like an exotic show bird confined to mundane, everyday life. As her younger brother, Chernus is a perfect fit, endearing us to Sam’s unassuming bluntness and rough edges, thus making his casual bigotry that much more bracing and uncomfortable. Lysy is likewise well suited to buttoned-up John, whose range of bottled feelings finds sly and often sudden outlets. As sullen, probing Sally, Ferrera brings a sweet earnestness that at times only skims the surface of Sally’s well of emotions rather than reaching for its depths.

Lips1For a play set on Fire Island during the AIDS crisis, McNally’s play is remarkably subtle (The Normal Heart it is not), and Dubois’ production lovingly embraces its characters, despite their flaws. Their narrow-minded anxieties may have sounded closer to ordinary in the early 90s, but now they take on a certain shocking sting, particularly for a New York audience. It’s a testament to how far we’ve traveled in 25 years. That they’re not altogether unfamiliar is a mark of how far we still have to go.

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


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

Disgraced1

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

ITS_ONLY_A_PLAY1

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

Curious2

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

TSArnieBurtonRachelDratchSeanDuganandTomGalantich

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)


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