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September 27, 2013


September’s Leftovers and October’s Brainteaser

I love elevator critics. I don’t mean people who criticize elevators. (“That ride on that Otis wasn’t nearly as good as the one I had on that Westinghouse last week.”) I mean people like the three elderly women who got on the elevator with me after seeing STOP. RESET at the Signature Theatre Company.

Woman One (with a shrug): “Something different.”

Woman Two (eyes widening): “I don’t know what I just saw in there.”

Woman Three (with a slight toss of the head): “You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”

Actually, Regina Taylor’s play had great potential. A publisher of African-American literature is downsizing and must fire one of his four employees. “But we’re a family,” each of the threatened workers says. Yeah, but when the boss brings each into his office and asks “Whom should I fire?” everyone is quick to name someone else.

Matters become far-fetched when the boss instead hires someone. His choice of new employee reiterates that today’s employers value youth more than experience. But Taylor’s play is far more muddled than I’m making it sound.

An elevator will take you to a production of the Elevator Repair Service. On the third floor of the Public Theater is LuEsther Hall, where ARGUENDO awaits.

It’s a great idea from the five writers – or, to be more accurate, editors. They’re literally replicating the transcript of a 1991 Supreme Court case down to coughs and burps. It’s Barnes v. Glen Theatre, in which dancers who performed nude in an Indiana strip joint thought that the first amendment would allow them to be in the buff because they’re simply “expressing themselves.”

Porn meets the Supreme Court. “A ‘bookstore’ is not what they should call a place like this,” one justice says. And indeed, on the actual court record we see projected on the back wall, we see that the word is put in quotation marks: “bookstore.”

John Collins directs it as a one-ring circus, as four company members play nine justices who roll around and encircle The Petitioner and The Respondent in HOW-TO-SUCCEED-original-logo chairs. It’s all very funny, silly and truthful. ARGUENDO lets us see our tax dollars at work.

When you arrive at 311 West 43rd Street, you’ll find that the building’s exterior is under construction and in shambles. Still, the elevator is working and can take you to the third floor, where the always wonderful Mint Theater Company is in residence.

This time it’s George Kelly’s 1931 comedy-drama PHILIP GOES FORTH that expert artistic director Jonathan Bank has unearthed and Jerry Ruiz has staged well. Granted, it’s still the same old story – Philip wants to write a play, Dad wants him in his business – but Kelly tells it with freshness and honesty. My favorite moment came when the audience laughed in recognition when Philip said that he knows he can write better plays than the ones he’s seen. Who hasn’t felt that?

Kelly’s mouthpiece is Mrs. Ferris, Philip’s landlady who tells the lad in no uncertain terms that she’s watched him for months and has come to a painful conclusion about him. Kathryn Kates, who only recently took over the role, has mastered it in extraordinary fashion. It’s my favorite kind of acting – meaning acting that doesn’t seem like acting at all.

When we meet Philip, we’re in the upscale upstairs sitting room of his aunt. The set is far more impressive than the ones you usually see in 99-seat houses. More to the point, Steven C. Kemp and lighting designer Christian DeAngelis have taken the trouble to project on the back wall two large half-moon windows that tell us what’s on the fourth wall. What a detail!

THE MURDER OF VENUS doesn’t have an elevator. The only way to reach the “theater” at the Hartley House is to climb a very steep and narrow stairway that makes the one cited in A CHORUS LINE seem like a stepladder. Four flights later, you’re in a dingy room, although there are many trays of empanadas; I recommend the seafood.

It starts out as a memorial service for a murdered transvestite, but we’re told that we’re assigned to “teams” that will endeavor to solve the murder. I was put on the Red Team.

First, however, came a lesson in how to walk like a drag queen. Credit where it’s due, the performers learned a lesson that got TONY ‘N’ TINA’S WEDDING a 20-plus year run: if audience members want to play with you, enjoy them; if they want to be left alone, respect their privacy.

Venus’ mother – another drag queen – arrived and wept copiously. An assistant district attorney – not a drag queen – said we were all to take to the streets with our notepads and team leaders and come back in an hour, ideally with the crime solved. So we trudged down the four flights we’d climbed less than an hour before.

This is not a show for me. When someone in front of me asked someone in front of her, “Are you Blue?” I almost said “Very.” When I got outside, I was asked “Are you with the Red Team?” to which I answered “I used to be” and went home.

No elevator, either, at the Linda Gross Theater at the Atlantic Theater Company, but there’s only one modest flight of stairs to get to WOMEN OR NOTHING. Ethan Coen’s compelling if not ultimately satisfying play has more holes than in the ears of a body modification fan. If you attend, see if you can find the six same implausabilities that I did. But if someone wants to do THE MADELINE KAHN STORY, he must see Deborah Rush here. She’s not trying to channel the late star, but she’s doing it, anyway.

You take an elevator down one flight in the Theatre Row complex to the Beckett to see NATURAL AFFECTION, William Inge’s 1963 play that the always impressive TACT is doing. Bernie is Sue’s new lover, but he’s threatened that she brings home more bacon than he -- which doesn’t mean that he’ll cook it for her. Alas, Sue has a grown son named Donnie whom she put in an orphanage when her long-ago beau didn’t want to be a father. The young man has since done time on a “farm” and is now coming to visit for Christmas. Sue hopes he’ll be there for a week; Donnie hopes it’s for the long haul.

We know we’re in the ‘60s when such words as Cadillac, Milltown, Fabian and Playboy Club are mentioned. The term “dysfunctional family” wasn’t yet in use, but if these three had stayed together, they’d be the poster children. Life takes an awful turn for all three that keeps them from becoming a family.

Midway through the play, there’s a party with some pleasant chit-chat about what’s happening in local theater. How surprising that Inge had bubble-headed neighbor Claire unstintingly criticize SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. (You can tell, however, that Inge is on Tennessee Williams’ side.) But here’s the irony: Monica May, who originally played the part, was in the original cast of SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. (Can’t believe, however, that May was any better than Victoria Mack is here.)

The saddest line is Bernie’s: “You don’t feel pity for anyone in this life until he’s through, washed up, had it.” After Inge saw his previous three plays average 474 performances each, his final three – A LOSS OF ROSES, NATURAL AFFECTION and WHERE’S DADDY? averaged all of 24, leading to his suicide seven years later.

Kathryn Erbe as Sue, Alec Beard as Bernie and Chris Bert as Donnie all excel. John Pankow also scores Claire’s husband who delivers a monologue that’s the grandfather of the one that Christopher Durang gave David Hyde Pierce in VANYA. But the most heartbreaking moment comes when Donnie hands his mother something he made at the farm: “I never gave anyone a Christmas present before,” he says mournfully. Take Jenn Thompson’s fine production as your early Christmas present.

You’ll need more than an elevator – a car, a cab or New Jersey Transit – to see Cathy Tempelsman’s A MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN. It’s worth the trip of fewer than 30 miles from midtown to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. Hey, if Richard Maltby, Jr. can get out there to direct it – and direct it very well he did – then you can get there, too.

While watching, I thought back to my sophomore year in high school when the nuns assigned us summer reading – including ADAM BEDE. Few if any of us read it, but Tempelsman has shown me that I made a mistake. Its author, George Eliot – née Mary Anne Evans – was writing hot stuff in the 19th century. Now I’m even wondering what the nuns were doing reading it.

Considering how much fascinating material that Tempelsman has unearthed, I don’t know why a half-century of continuous theatergoing had to go by before I encountered a drama about Eliot. Plays about women often tell of a search for romance; others occasionally relate a career pursuit. Evans wanted both. Tempelsman doesn’t stint from the reality that Evans needed a man to feel good about herself because she’d always been considered unattractive. So she takes up with a married man, George Henry Lewes, but one who encourages her to write what’s in her heart, soul and brain.

She does – but ADAM BEDE turns out to be pretty incendiary for 1859. Living with someone else’s spouse is scandal enough, so she masks her identity for the longest time, and takes her husband’s first name as tribute.

He deserved it. Today’s wives can only dream of having a husband as supportive as Lewes. He makes Tommy Lee Jones in COALMINER’S DAUGHTER seem like Charles Boyer in GASLIGHT. Lewes is beautifully played by Ames Adamson, but matching him in excellence is Aedin Moloney as Mary Anne/George. She acutely shows the intensity that comes from passion, guilt, lust, need and talent; the result is one of the finest performances of the year.

The longest elevator ride was up to the tenth floor at Ripley-Grier Studios where I saw Dee Dee Bridgewater rehearse for LADY DAY, the musical now in previews at the Little Shubert. After Bridgewater showed her dynamism on three Billie Holiday songs, I got to chat with her.

“I hope the show establishes me as a legitimate actress and not just a singer,” she said.

Bridgewater admits that she didn’t give much thought to Holiday while growing up. “Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynne, Aretha Franklin – those were my favorites,” she said. “My first husband, Cecil Bridgewater, told me to listen to her. When I did, I decided that she didn’t have much range. He said, ‘She’s an interpreter,’ but that didn’t do much for me.”

But then Bridgewater read Holiday’s memoir LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and that caught her interest. “I could identify with her, because she went through the same terrible things I did: molestation, rape and crazy nuns in Catholic schools who hit you.”

Of course I asked her about THE WIZ, in which she’s still the only Glinda to win a Tony. I found her amazingly frank: “I left my husband for Gilbert Moses, the original director who got fired on the road,” she said. “My going on with it while he wasn’t involved anymore made it very difficult for us. They tried to write me out of the show, because one of the producers from Twentieth Century-Fox – NOT Ken Harper – wanted to sleep with me. Geoffrey Holder told them they couldn’t do a WIZ without a Glinda, and so I stayed.”

The event of the month was not A USER’S GUIDE TO HELL (much more interested in creating a hell and not enough about supposed subject Bernie Madoff) but was, of course, the Broadway Flea Market. Ran into Seth Christenfeld, Michael Dale, Mitch Douglas, Jan Fanale, Jena Tesse Fox, Skip Koenig, Richard Norton, Troy Segal, Eddie Shapiro, Ron Spivak, Tom Stretton and Wayman Wong – nice people all – but we did little more than give quick nods, say hello and move on. The plays, CDs, window cards et al. are the things we’re there for, and n-o-t-h-i-n-g will stop us from getting to that next table before someone else does. Oh, well; we’ll catch up some other time.

And what did I get? A script to CLUTTERBUCK rid me of the buck cluttering up my wallet. Never heard of it? It was David Merrick’s first semi-success – 218 performances in 1949-50 – but this was long before he became DAVID MERRICK. I’m interested in seeing about why this play caught his fancy in his early days of producing – and writing about it, too. Watch this space.

Last month’s brainteaser: I thought that asking you to identify a Drama Desk-winning actress who’d appeared in the original SOUTH PACIFIC would throw you off – because the “original” SOUTH PACIFIC” was a PLAY that ran a week on Broadway during the 1943-44 season. It was so unsuccessful, however, that Rodgers and Hammerstein thought nothing of calling their 1949 musical by the same name.

Yeah, it was a trick question — Ruby Dee was the answer — but it didn’t fool the likes of Stuart Ira Soloway, the first to get it, or Rob Witherwax, Chris Stonnell, David H. Cohen, Joe Miller, Karen Valen, Steve Sokoloff, Christopher Berg, Warren Jones, Joe Gaken, David Herder, John Bacarella, Susan Berlin, Ed Weissman, Ian Ewing, Chris Van Ness, Kevin Daly, Martin Geiger and Joe Marino who quickly followed.

And this month’s brainteaser? What do the following songs have in common? “Ah, Paree!” (FOLLIES), “Anna Lilla” (NEW GIRL IN TOWN), “ At the Fountain” (SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS), “I’m Outta Here” (GHOST), “Keys” (PASSING STRANGE), “Knowing When to Leave” (PROMISES, PROMISES), “The Miller’s Son” (A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC) and “Revenge” (“IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN”).

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia

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