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Possessed Puppet Comedy 'Hand to God' Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The titular appendage in Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins’ wickedly hysterical play that opened on Broadway last night at the Booth Theatre, goes by the name of Tyrone. He delivers some of the most apt criticism of western religion you’re ever likely to hear, and has zero tolerance for B.S.—including from the hand that wears him. A sharp-tongued (and awesomely foul-mouthed) sock puppet, Tyrone may or may not in fact be possessed by the devil. Forget everything you know about puppet shows: On the hand of a preternaturally masterful Stephen Boyer, this puppet is unlike any other you’ve seen before.

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway1Askin’s play, which transfers to Broadway after a critically acclaimed run Off Broadway at MCC last spring, is set in a small Texas town, where a few teenage kids meet at the local ministry to rehearse a puppet pageant and stay out of trouble. Jason and his mother Margery (who leads the puppet group) are both reeling from the recent loss of his father to a heart attack. For Marge, running the group seems like a much-needed distraction; for Jason and his puppet Tyrone, it’s a lot more than just that.

Aside from his recent loss, Jason is a shy, quiet type, and giving voice to his puppet helps raise the volume on his own. Tyrone starts out like the devil on Jason’s shoulder, a wisecracking voice for thoughts the boy might not otherwise say himself. It’s how he first connects with Jessica (a wonderfully droll Sarah Stiles) the girl he likes in class, and later how he lashes back at Timothy, his cocky, oversexed rival (a perfectly bro-ey Michael Oberholtzer).

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway4But it quickly becomes clear that Tyrone has a mind of his own, or at least a will separate from Jason’s, who can’t just take him off as he pleases. By the play’s second act, blood is drawn, puppet sex is had, and it seems an exorcism may be in order. Yet still, his puppet’s violent temper and wild libido are qualities Jason could use himself in moderation—courage to stand up for himself and the nerve to get the girl.

Boyer reprises his mind-boggling, virtuosic performance as Jason (and Tyrone), spending much of the play in conversation with his own left hand—from acting out an Abbot-and-Costello routine to impress Jessica, to full-on hand-to-sock combat. Jason and Tyrone are so distinct in personality and their two-way dialogue is so convincing, at times it’s astonishing to step back and realize you’re watching a single performance.

HAND_TO_GOD_on_Broadway3Joining the others from the Off-Broadway cast, Geneva Carr is equally warm and maniacal as Marge, who doesn’t get along with the other church mothers, and who attracts equally ardent attention from Pastor Greg (an ever charming Marc Kudisch), and hormonal Timothy, making her the apex of a twisted (and surprisingly athletic) love triangle.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel scales up the production from its downtown digs, keeping the action moving swiftly around its rotating set and amping up the laughs for a larger crowd, while also firmly grounding the play's human (non-puppet) drama. The stellar company reprises its expert performances with assurance, fueled by the uproarious energy of a Broadway audience.

Often shockingly funny, the play's disarming humor makes its dark conclusions all the more startling. We’re accustomed to puppets who have something to teach us, like the difference between good and evil. Tyrone's lesson that the two go inextricably hand-in-hand is likely to stick in your mind longer than most.

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


Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy Open in ‘Skylight’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

In one remarkable scene of director Stephen Daldry’s arresting and vivid production of Skylight, which opened on Broadway last night at the Golden Theatre, Kyra and Tom, the two main characters in David Hare’s 1995 drama, recall the spark and collapse of their six-year affair as Kyra prepares food in her rundown London flat. The tension between the former lovers, played with impeccable emotional precision by Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, bubbles up in tandem with the food on the stove—and as the scent from the pot wafts through the audience over the course of their gripping exchange, the production achieves something like a total seduction of the senses.

SKYLIGHT_1_4114-V1-RGBIn the scene, we learn that Tom, a wealthy and successful restaurateur, met Kyra when she arrived in London at the age of 18 and got a job in one of his restaurants. The two began a romance they kept secret from Tom’s wife for six years, and which ended a few years before the play begins. Tom’s wife has since died of cancer, and his teenage son Edward (played by a dazzling and jumpy Matthew Beard) arrives at Kyra’s door hoping she can wrest his dad from his misery (or at least make him less miserable to be around). 

Hare’s three-character play happens over just two days in a single dingy, North London flat, but covers a sweeping range of social and political questions. The couple is divided across a line of haves and have-nots—he’s a rich, upper-class business owner and she’s a working-class teacher of underprivileged kids. Though the parallels are a bit neatly laid, the playwright’s exploration of the great social divide is well grounded in intimate drama, and the play’s language is full of the sort of swift insights and everyday poetry for which Hare is known. The beautifully designed set by Bob Crowley also situates the lovers in a broader context, showing glimpses of the other lives unfolding around them.

SKYLIGHT_1_4433-V1-RGBNighy, previously seen on Broadway opposite Julianne Moore in Hare’s The Vertical Hour, plays his role with the exacting, frenetic energy of a musician playing an instrument. His hands clenched in half-fists, Tom moves in fits and starts—bucking against the rare feeling of not having control. Nighy brings a spellbinding charisma to the role, making it easy to see why Kyra fell for him in the first place. He wants her back now, and considers the life she’s built since leaving him as an elaborate escape.

SKYLIGHT_1_4380-V2-RGBHare’s play is primarily concerned with its two generations of men, and, for three-quarters of the story, Kyra is something of a sieve for their psychological gymnastics. She listens, evades, serves tea, cooks and tidies up messes (which she mostly makes herself). Mulligan (previously seen on Broadway in The Seagull) has a brilliant and uncanny way of evoking a swell of feeling behind a placid exterior. And when she does unleash that inner turmoil, she does so with explosive and affecting force.

Though the play’s gender politics show some signs of age 20 years on (Kyra questioning Tom about respecting her decisions actually gets a laugh), Daldry’s production makes the drama and its many social questions feel vital and urgent. Having collaborated on the novel-to-screen adaptations of The Hours and The Reader, Hare and Daldry have a visual language all their own, and it’s as stunning as it is visceral. Seeing this many gifted artists come together is rare, and the results are divine. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: john haynes)


Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs Open on Broadway in ‘The Heidi Chronicles’: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

You may be surprised, at times, that characters don’t burst into song in director Pam MacKinnon’s often campy revival of Wendy Wasserstein’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 play The Heidi Chronicles, which opened on Broadway March 19 at the Music Box Theatre. Though our vocabulary around feminism has changed, the decades-spanning story of a woman finding her way (and herself) through second-wave feminism certainly bears revisiting and still resonates in many ways. But, while the production features strong performances from a charming leading cast, MacKinnon’s caricatured approach to the play’s historical setting pushes the story to feel more distant than relevant.

Heidi0242rHeidi Holland, played with gusto and grace by Elisabeth Moss, first addresses us from behind a lectern in 1989, an art historian speaking out for women artists overlooked in the male-dominated canon. We then begin Heidi’s story at a high school dance in 1965, where she meets her lifelong friend Peter (who later turns out to be gay), played to quirky and comic perfection by Bryce Pinkham (Tony nominated for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder). At a Eugene McCarthy rally in ’68, she meets cocky and quick-witted Scoop (played by Jason Biggs, excellent), who becomes her on-again, off-again lover for the next decade.

Heidi0219rThe women in Heidi’s life, and her shifting relationships with them, are the measures against which her personal journey unfolds—the radical feminists surrounding her in the ‘70s give way to mothers and career women of the ‘80s. Having given her life to the movement and been molded in its ideals, she’s disillusioned to find that most of her comrades have abandoned her and the high road she imagined stretching before them; by the time they reach their late 30s and early 40s, youthful ideals give way to conventional adult life.

As she’s proven in her sterling performance as Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, Moss is very much at home in the role of a striving, nuanced, pioneering woman, and her talents translate seamlessly to the stage. Both Pinkham and Biggs are perfectly cast, and their unique chemistries with Moss are a delight to watch. The three leads give grounded, emotionally resonant performances, which, refreshingly (if unfortunately) stand in marked contrast to the rest of MacKinnon’s production.

Heidi0096rIn its nearly 30-year span, Wasserstein’s play seizes on decade-defining moments and sentiments that can easily ring cliché—and, because this production often puts those eras (and their defining concerns) in air-quotes with a steady rotation of wigs, projections, and indicative design—they too often do. When the original production premiered on Broadway in 1989, Wasserstein was telling a story about her own generation with a certain heightened naturalism. Just over 25 years later, that history is relevant as ever—even when it's done up to look more like Hairspray.

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Helen Mirren Reigns on Broadway in ‘The Audience’: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There is a two-word catchphrase that, while seated in The Audience, which opened Sunday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, you may be tempted to blurt aloud in the darkness more than once. But, of course, you wouldn’t dare: This is Broadway, not Broad City, and you are in the presence of royalty. All such expressions of “Yaaass, Queen!” directed toward Dame Helen Mirren, returning here to the role of Elizabeth II, for which she won an Oscar in the 2006 film The Queen, will just have to remain on the inside. (Think of it as your first immersive step into British culture.)

Audience1The play also marks Mirren’s reunion with scribe Peter Morgan, who penned both that celebrated film and The Audience, which premiered on London’s West End in 2013 with Mirren in the role, also under the direction of Stephen Daldry. The play’s title refers to a long-standing weekly meeting held between the Queen and the Prime Minister in Buckingham Palace, and its action spans the Queen’s ascendance to the throne in 1952 through to the present. Assembled in non-chronological order, scenes jump from decade to decade, each inviting us to eavesdrop on a tête-à-tête between two of the world’s most powerful leaders in their time.

Audience3If you’re expecting a history lesson, well, you may find yourself getting a crash course (the crib sheet in the program will help), as these private conversations are inseparable from the public sphere. Undoubtedly, many of the play’s deeper subtleties hinge on our grasp of events unfolding outside the palace walls and the unique climate of international relations during a particular decade. To that end, Morgan does a fine job of anchoring the Queen as the world spins rapidly around her, generating a fixed point of view as events of various consequence and prime ministers of different temperaments come and go.

But Morgan’s play is foremost a fascinating character study, brought to life by Mirren’s stunning performance as the Queen. Mirren is one of the rare performers so vividly associated with a true-life figure, and watching her return to the role of Elizabeth II is something of a marvel. She disappears into the role like a second skin, seamlessly inhabiting different stages of the Queens’s rule—from the naiveté of her first audience (at age 25) with Winston Churchill to her unfazed aspect opposite David Cameron at the age of 88.  (The astonishing costume changes and stately set are courtesy of designer Bob Crowley.)

Audience4The Queen is something different to each prime minister who steps into office: a mother figure and confessor to some, a friend or rival to others. But to us, as to her subjects, she remains constant. Much of what makes The Audience so compelling is feeling privy to the Queen’s inner life—being given the chance to recognize the personal character of someone whose outer persona is so ubiquitous. Monarchy—and politics—are, after all, theatre. And Morgan’s play offers a backstage pass to the longest running show in the world.

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Tony Danza Opens in ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Honeymoon in Vegas, a new musical comedy that opened on Broadway January 15 at the Nederlander Theatre, feels much like an extended trip to its title city: fun, shameless and even a bit thrilling at first, but by mid-stay you may find yourself feeling restless, tinged with regret and just a little bit used.

Honeymoon1Based on the 1992 film starring Nicholas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker, the musical was written for the stage by the movie’s writer and director Andrew Bergman (also known for comedy classics Blazing Saddles and Soapdish), with a characteristically clever and lovely score by Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years).

By turns dirty and family friendly, the show tells the story of everyman Jack (Rob McClure) and his girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley), who has all her ducks in a row but no ring on her finger. Standing between them and the altar is Jack’s dead mom, Bea (Nancy Opel), who forced a deathbed promise on her son: that he’d never wed, because no one could ever love him as much as she does. Despite the curse, Jack bites the bullet and flies Betsy from Brooklyn to Sin City to get hitched. Mayhem ensues when Vegas vet and high roller Tommy (Tony Danza) eyes Betsy and hatches a plan to snatch her away (she’s a ringer for his dead wife).

Honeymoon3The musical’s ‘90s-New York brand of comedy works in its favor (off-beat yet on the nose), particularly in Brown’s playful lyrics (what rhymes better with fiancé than Jay Z and Beyoncé?). Danza naturally finds himself in his element here, and exudes the comfortable charm that became his small screen signature in shows like Taxi and Who’s the Boss. He has a smooth, mellow croon that does well with softer, Sinatra-like numbers, though he stands on shakier ground when asked to deliver more forceful tunes. McClure (Tony nominated for Chaplin: The Musical) and O’Malley pair well together and make nice work of Brown’s score and the show’s humor.

Anyone who wondered how a woman who looks like Sarah Jessica Parker could wind up torn between Nick Cage and James Caan will perhaps have less to ponder here: We are, by now, well used to male-fantasy narratives in which the schlub ends up with the knockout (plus, Danza’s not looking too shabby and McClure didn’t quite crawl from the gutter, either).

Honeymoon4But unfortunately and to its detriment, Bergman’s stage adaptation is uncomfortably (and bizarrely) heavy on both masculine neuroses and blatant misogyny. The story’s mommy issues are writ large (scaled up significantly from the movie), and its women are either dead nags (like mom), desperate to wed and procreate (Betsy), or else they’re showgirls, airheads or hookers. A tasteless number during the characters’ sojourn in Hawaii finds a hypersexualized, overtly stereotyped Polynesian whore vigorously seducing the schlub on boss’ orders.

Vegas is a town of obvious, low-hanging thrills and sensory pleasures, catered, more often than not, to male desire. Bergman and Brown’s musical has plenty of both, mixed in with moments of broad appeal. But the longer this trip goes on, the more glaring it becomes just whose honeymoon this is—and that he might be in need of a diaper change.

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson Open in ‘Constellations’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

If you’re short on reasons to love Ruth Wilson (Golden Globe winner for The Affair) or Jake Gyllenhaal (leading man of your dreams since the days of Donnie Darko), their magnetic performances in Nick Payne’s engrossing new play Constellations, which opened on Broadway last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, prove they’re as formidably talented as they are beautiful, onstage as onscreen. (Yes, it seems some people really can have it all.)

Con2Payne’s drama, which arrives in New York after a critically acclaimed production at London’s Royal Court Theatre and West End transfer in 2012, delivers on its cosmic title—with a love story that is, quite literally, “timeless.” Set in what the program deems “The Multiverse,” the play’s romance unfolds in a world of infinite—or at least multiple—possibilities. The theory Payne explores, which may be familiar to sci-fi fans and wide-eyed physicists alike (Wilson’s character is among the latter), allows for the existence of parallel universes and eschews the notion of linear time. (Don’t worry: The show runs a swift 70 minutes.)  

Con5In this case, that means our two stars (get it?) together on a black stage, surrounded by white orbs (a striking scenic design by Tom Scutt), performing variations on a series of scenes that combine to form a multi-dimensional love story. What if he’d been married when they first met? What if she’d been less withholding on their first date? From minor shifts in mood to more divergent twists in plot, the repeated variations create a sort of rich, imaginative portrait of love in a world of possibilities.   

Under deft direction by Michael Longhurst, Gyllenhaal and Wilson bring fierce yet effortless dedication to every moment, shifting abruptly from one scene to the next with precision and grace. The overall affect is, at first, playful and engaging—the play’s opening line, posed by Wilson’s character: “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?” (They both eventually proceed to try.) And as details of the story gradually become clear, Payne’s play turns increasingly thought provoking and ultimately quite moving.

Con3As Marianne, Wilson (whose London stage credits include starring opposite Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire and Jude Law in Anna Christie, both at the Donmar Warehouse) balances goofy charisma with a palpable emotional depth. Gyllenhaal (who made his American stage debut Off Broadway in Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet) brings a more understated, hapless charm to the quieter Roland.

Payne’s play, whose conceptual daring owes much to ground-laying works by Caryl Churchill (Top Girls, A Number), may leave some audiences scratching their heads. But, whether the drama’s metaphysical questions interest you or not, these celestial bodies are well worth stargazing at. 

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