Monday, November 14, 2016

THEATRE: SECOND OPINIONS

The Westchester Guardian is gone, and once again I have had the horse shot out from under me. True, it may not have been much of a mount—more like Don Quixote’s spavined nag Rosinante—it was still recognizably an equine, even if no contender for a crown, let alone a triple one. So now my theater criticism will, until further notice, appear in my blog, Uncensored John Simon. Herewith a brief overview of shows that I would normally have reviewed at greater length.

Take, for starters, the revival of the William Finn/James Lapine musical “Falsettos.” In its day, almost a quarter century ago, the show that underwent several rethinkings still marked an early serious response to the new plague, AIDS. As such, it was both novel and necessary. After some earlier versions, it emerged full-blown in 1992, successful enough but already a trifle late.

Today, the revival is only partly effective, aside from feeling somewhat dated. The protagonist, Marvin, leaves his wife Trina for a troubled love affair with Whizzer who eventually dies of AIDS, surrounded by Marvin and a number of friends and kinfolk, perhaps a bit too beautifully. The incarnator of Marvin, Christian Borle, a good actor who specializes in comic or naughty characters, never quite rises to tragic heights. Others come off better, notably Andrew Rennells, as a babyfaced Whizzer, and Stephanie J. Block, as a neurotic Trina, as well as a few sidekicks, including the earnest boy actor Anthony Rosenthal.

David Rockwell’s scenery, consisting mostly of a very large, soft, striated, gray cube, with detachable parts of various shapes and uses, is not without interest, and Lapine has again directed cogently. But the whole thing smacks a mite too much of self-righteousness and complacently good intentions on a topic that has already been treated more trenchantly elsewhere, even if not with music.

The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur comedy, “The Front Page,” has been an oft-revived favorite, but even that is not endlessly renewable, despite a savvy director, Jack O’Brien, and a mostly exemplary, all-star cast. It takes place in a Chicago courthouse pressroom, where sundry hardboiled journalists wisecrackingly await a routine dawn hanging, but where the most unexpected and often droll developments eventuate.

It’s a funny thing about revivals that grandparent-time and earlier works fare better than more recent ones, subject to the traditional rebellion of children against their parents. Somehow generational revolt affects brainchildren as well as children. “The Front Page,” full of yesterday’s humor, emerges as old newsprint, almost too yellowed to be read.

The discomfiting truth is that a clutch of our foremost actors, including John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse among others, come across as champion swimmers thrashing  about in a shallow pool. I exclude John Slattery from the group, too Anderson Cooperishly gray and uncharismatic, as a recalcitrant star reporter; and Nathan Lane, almost too good as a ridiculously ruthless newspaper editor, what with some sublime Lane mugging way beyond what is posited. If this is enough for you, as it may well be, go ahead and catch it.

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” (1782) is a dazzling two-volume affair, in which, for their decadent amusement, the ex-lovers Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil revel in the seduction of the innocent and destruction of the virtuous. Apt incurrers of the coming Revolution, they embody the elegant amorality of the heedless contemporary French aristocracy. Christopher Hampton’s English adaptation into a standard-length drama (1988) is not unskilled, but not nearly as powerful as the leisurely but steadily increasing evil of the novel.

The American premiere of the play boasted the brilliant British actors Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, directed by Howard Davies; the current revival, directed by Josie Rourke, collapses under, among other things, the performances of Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber. She, to be sure British, is an overacting beanpole and relentless fidget; he is an American rough action specialist, far too inelegant and unsubtle for a deft British version of a dissolute but stylish French aristocrat. When at last he sheds his wig, he looks downright catastrophic.

Some supporting performances are vastly superior, notably those of the victims: by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (a perfectly British Dane) as the pious Mme de Tourvel, Elena Kampouris as the charmingly hoydenish Cecile Volanges, and the somewhat less appealing Raffi Barsoumian as  the avenger, Chevalier Danceny.

Unfortunately there is something apposite about the person advertising the show on TV mispronouncing it as Liaisons Dangerouses (rhymes with booze), as well as in the name of Laclos appearing in the program in microscopic, barely legible print. There is too much drinking during, and ballet between, scenes and not enough respect for Laclos in this production.

David Hare, at his frequent best, is a considerable political and psychological playwright with some daring features. But “Plenty,” which for some reason is his best known play, is not one of his best. It does, however, provide a great female lead, admirably embodied in the past by actresses such as Kate Nelligan and Meryl Streep, and now, no less eminently, by Rachel Weisz.

It is the story of Susan Traherne, an enthusiastic English girl, who in her idealistic youth acts as a courier for the French underground in World War Two. But the brave new world she envisions provides only a severely checkered career, during which all her noble aspirations are gradually but relentlessly eroded. A major problem for us in America are all the very British references, political, social and even linguistic.

More damaging in the current revival is the direction by the hugely overrated David Leveaux, dispensing with the required specific locations  and meant-to -be displayed dates for each scene, thus not enabling us to follow the downward spiral of the action. Damaging too is some miscasting, especially of the unappealing Corey Stoll as Susan’s ineffectual politician husband, and LeRoy McClain as the stranger whom Susan picks up to father a child on her. No one other than Byron Jennings, as a discouraged diplomat, distinguishes him or herself in the supporting cast, but far the worst hurdles are the grossly misconceived visuals.

Mike Belton, the set designer, and David Weiner, the lighting designer, apparently intended to compensate for the absence of scenery with some gratuitous light displays, suitable only for a state fair pavilion advertising electronic products. They manage to undercut much of the remaining credibility. While it is easy to admire Rachel Weisz, there are burdens here that even Atlas couldn’t shoulder. If the titular “plenty” referred to the number of conceivable objections, it would be all too apt.

One of Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces, “The Cherry Orchard,” is given an abominable production in the present Roundabout Theatre revival. For inexplicable reasons, the RT’s chief, Todd Haymes, reached to England to fish out one of its most misguided directors, Simon Godwin, a specialist in adapting shows that patently do not need it. He has here contrived,  with the help of  the adapter, Stephen Karam (author of “The Humans”), the reverse alchemy of turning gold into lead. Even the dependable set designer, Scott Pask, has been induced to make a mock of the scenery, which includes such incomprehensible lapses as a table and chairs for dwarves, into which some hapless actors actually squeeze themselves.

Unforgivably, the misdirected role of the aging and declining actress and landowner Ranevskaya was imposed on one of our loveliest and ageless actresses, Diane Lane. Constrained to absurdities like the rest of a potentially able cast, she could not protect the stage from being turned into a shambles. For once, even some New York reviewers known for their namby-pambiness, proved rightly indignant.  


14 comments:

  1. One wishes the “adapter” racket might go away. There are plenty of good to great translations of Chekhov’s plays. If those translations are true to the time when the plays were written and so require elucidations of the customs or realities of that distant time, they should be communicated in the playbills or online. Instead the “adapter” violates the play and insults the intelligence of the audience to boot. The Goodman Theatre has an UNCLE VANYA production coming up “adapted” by Annie Baker author of THE FLICK, three hours of the most dismal theater I have ever been subjected to. I dread to think what she will do to Chekhov.

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  2. One wonders how many times John has had to sit through "The Front Page" or if anyone ever did it half as well as the "His Girl Friday" film.

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    1. Regarding FALSETTOS, Mr. Simon finds it "somewhat dated," putting a negative spin on what might more accurately be called a "period piece." And it's inconsiderate to spoil the plot by telling us that "Whizzer ... eventually dies of AIDS." Mr. Simon reduces the show to "a topic that has already been treated more trenchantly elsewhere." In fact, the "topic" doesn't even surface till the second act; BOTH acts are about people, not a topic; and let us be grateful that the authors wrote about characters, the stuff of good theater, not didactically about "a topic." If LIAISONS' Janet McTeer were portraying an overweight character, then critiquing her for being a "beanpole" would be appropriate; as it is, it's both gratuitous and painfully reminiscent of the MANY actresses (Liza Minnelli comes to mind) playing roles that didn't call for beauty but whom Mr. Simon nonetheless savaged for their looks -- in the great sexist tradition of our President-elect. The direction of PLENTY gets criticized for "dispensing with the required specific locations and meant-to-be displayed dates for each scene," though David Hare wouldn't agree, since he writes, "Clues are built into each scene to tell you where you are and how many years have passed." And of course one can always expect ostentatious pedantry in a Simon review, but criticizing the French pronunciation of a show's TV advertiser is scarcely germane to the artistic creation under critical scrutiny. MORE pedantically egregious is a drama critic's lapsing into the past tense -- "she (Diana Lane) could not protect the stage from being turned into a shambles" -- regarding a show currently running. Here one needs to be mindful of Luke 4:23: "Physician, heal thySELF."

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    2. Mr Percy, you seem to know a lot of rules about theatre criticism. Some can be broken to useful effect. One such being the reference to the hideous mis pronunciation of dangereuse. Makes me shudder every time. As for JS's use of the past tense regarding a show that is still running... well that must take the biscuit for energy expended on the most minuscule of concerns that theatre must currently deal with.

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  3. Idiotic comment by Jock Percy. "Physician, heal thySELF." Misses the whole point of criticism as an art.

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  4. "Today, the revival is only partly effective, aside from feeling somewhat dated. The protagonist, Marvin, leaves his wife Trina for a troubled love affair with Whizzer who eventually dies of AIDS, surrounded by Marvin and a number of friends and kinfolk, perhaps a bit too beautifully."

    Bootifully is more like it.

    This sacralization of homos is sickening. Why did AIDS spread? Because homos were having massive orgies indulging in FECAL PENETRATION. I mean if a bunch of homos stick their dongs into bungs, that's a lot of spreading of the germs: bacteria, virus, poo.

    AIDS deaths may be sad, but homos are not angels who were martyred for their virtue, like early Christians or even early communists struggling for workers's rights. Nor were homos like innocent Jews killed in the Holocaust. Nor were they like all those anti-imperialists martyrs in Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, and etc who fought and perished in the name of national independence.

    Homos didn't die in the name of virtue and courage but in the practice of vice gone totally out of control. In bath-houses, homos were ass-banging one another like crazy. These ass-boys were porking each other in the ass like rabbits. These butt-bang-boys simply would not listen to good advice about responsibility and safety.

    But homos are so vain, shallow, and self-centered that they are incapable of self-reflection... just like idiot blacks who holler Black Lives Matter are totally blind to the fact that it's blacks who are killing other blacks and calling each other 'ni**er'.

    Why should we sacralize homo deaths?
    A lot of 'white trash' died due to meth epidemic, but we don't turn them into saints and martyrs.

    So, favor homos who died due to trashy excess in their 'sexual' debauchery?

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    1. Not sure if you feel the same way about Sapphism -- if not, you might like this Flo Henderson rendition of "There's Nothing Like a Dame":

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USmURH8BvkM

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  5. I'm glad the reviews will be posted here, I never made my way to the other site. Perhaps Ms. Ono can be persuaded to post an ad for her foundation on this webpage? I'll promise to post many links of her stuff -- here's her great "Kiss Kiss Kiss":

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aasdAIhGOv8

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  6. I love it when Mr. Simon dresses down actors; as he does here with Liev Schreiber on one swift swipe of his rapier. Schrieber has struck me as being more self-important than important (a similar vibe I have gotten from Gary Oldman and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others). Then, on the other hand, it's pleasing when the allegedly hard-to-please Mr. Simon stints not at bestowing praise, as he does on Diane Lane, more effective than a lavishing for its limpid elegance. (One minor epiphany about Mr. Simon in this regard dawned on me when I spent much time reading through his movie & theater reviews over the years: Under his curmudgeonly crust, he's quite a softy and praises, when deserved, at least as much as he takes down pegs.)

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    1. Yeah, except when he's criticizing black actors for not sounding white enough, or saying it's "reverse racism" to cast black people in Shakespeare. That's always a treat.

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  8. [I deleted supra for a typo]

    P.S.: About Mr. Simon's kinder, gentler side, I recall a mere part of a sentence he once wrote in a movie review that happened to have Albert Finney in its cast: "...Albert Finney, a true actor..." That phrase, fleeting and almost parenthetical, coming from Mr. Simon with his reputation, I found to be greater praise than would be a longer-winded encomium.

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  10. Mr. Simon has praised the stage work of Florence Henderson -- this number shows her at age 79(!) doing a remarkable turn in "When You're Good to Mama":

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYOCPWfCpqY

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