l.-r., Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller, Nathan Malin.     l.-r., Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller, Nathan Malin.         Photo: Maggie Hall

 

The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Admissions is first-class all the way. I was accompanied by a highly theatre-wise friend on her first visit to Boston, one who has witnessed work at prestigious intimate companies all over the world. If that weren’t a high enough bar, she came in distinctly underimpressed by author Joshua Harmon’s previous efforts Bad Jews and Skintight. I’m delighted to report both play and production quickly won her over. And why not? Its ripped-from-the headlines topicality—dealing as it does with the struggle of schools to increase diversity, and the struggle of parents to get their kid in, diversity be damned—is less significant than its intelligence and theatricality, qualities that are to be cherished even when a play’s topic isn’t part of the public conversation.

One distinctive feature of Harmon’s canny architecture is that the aforementioned strugglers are, here, one and the same. The Masons, Bill (Michael Kaye) and Sherri (Maureen Keiller), are like any other parents in wanting the very best for their high school senior son Charlie (Nathan Malin). He wants Yale; he has the grades and activities and recommendations to get in, and best buddy Perry has applied too. So mom and dad are pulling for him almost as much as he is. Going on off to the side is their own admissions process at Hillcrest, a not-quite-first-tier prep school in New Hampshire of which Sherri is admissions dean and Bill headmaster. Both are committed absolutely to reducing the student body’s lily-white composition.

Which has nothing to do with Charlie. Until it does.

The play’s inciting event couldn’t be more embarrassing for the poor kid. In front of their entire basketball team, Perry learns he’s been accepted and Charlie deferred. It’s not a surprising outcome; more than 50% of Yale applicants are similarly put on the wait list. But it’s one that’s fraught with personal and professional significance, because not only does Perry have weaker credentials, he is mixed-race, the son of Sherri’s best friend Ginnie (an excellent, slow-burning Marianna Bassham) and an African-American member of the prep school’s faculty. The characters think about, and then openly question, the reasons for the differing outcomes. And the ensuing bombshells don’t just threaten the decades-long relationships between friends, and within the Mason family itself. They decimate them.

The emotionality that resonates under such life-affecting issues as college acceptance and racial sensitivity comes out in a myriad of ways. Charlie—in a blistering 15-minute monologue superbly rendered by Malin—lets loose all of his frustrations at once, lashing out at the perceived hypocrisies of racial definition, and the PC discussion requirements in classrooms. (Charlie was passed over as editor of the school paper in favor of a woman; now he sardonically wonders why the paper’s (male) advisor, if he’s so determined to diversify, doesn’t give up his own post.) Bill (a sturdy, principled Kaye) gives a stinging rebuke to the diatribe, but he and his wife are truly up against it. They celebrate every percentage point of increase in Hillcrest students of color, just as Yale is likely doing right now: “Hurray, we’ve got Perry!” But the hurt feelings, and the careless words used to express them, are very different when it’s one’s own ox that’s being gored. One glancing comment by Sherri is enough to prove to Ginnie’s satisfaction what her so-called friend truly thinks of her. It’s one of many shattering moments all over the place, staged for strict verisimilitude, no melodrama, by director Paul Daigneault.

In the meanwhile, Sherri is wrestling with the almost totally white suite of photos in next year’s catalogue. “So you want more darker faces,” her assistant Roberta concludes (Cheryl McMahon is touchingly dithering throughout). Well, of course that’s exactly what Sherri wants, but she can’t bring herself to say so. The action keeps returning to Sherri’s office for more and more exasperated negotiations between two women with best intentions, one of whom can’t figure out what her boss wants of her, the other unable to vcrbalize it without stepping on a land mine. Keiller is terrific throughout, but never more so than in duelling with McMahon—duels that people of all races and colors will recognize as painfully true.

It’s worth noting that neither Perry nor his dad nor anyone else of color steps into the play. This is both strategic and canny on Harmon’s part. He’s said he felt uncomfortable putting words in the mouths of Black people, which makes sense. But it’s also wise, because his topic isn’t really America’s racial divide, but rather the state of white liberalism in America. In particular, Harmon is targeting the frequent disjunction between the egalitarian values the majority culture espouses, and the circle-the-wagons mentality to which it defaults when its own privilege is at stake. To tell that story, an all-Caucasian cast of characters wrestling with their conflicts seems distinctly appropriate. Harmon offers no easy answers, but he can’t make us stop thinking about the questions.

Admissions, a production of SpeakEasy Stage Company, plays through Nov. 30, 2019 at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St. in the South End. Tickets may be purchased at https://www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/admissions/

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MSH_0233cDan Whelton, Erica Spyres, Paula Plum, Steven Barkhimer (l. to r.).

Photo by Nile Hawver.

The old gray Martha ain’t what she used to be. After 55 years, the late Edward Albee’s world-famous tragicomedy of delusion and dependency, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” isn’t the same barnburner that inflamed critics and supporters alike at its first premiere. That doesn’t mean it still can’t make for a stimulating and entertaining evening, which it does in the current revival at Boston’s Lyric Stage Company. But it does mean that certain facts have to be faced.

None of the controversial factors that cost the play the 1962 Pulitzer—its revelling in the savage gamesmanship of troubled marriage, and its harsh language—would cause any alarm in a modern theater audience, let alone a distinguished prize jury. (Late in life, Albee even added some au courant f-bombs, though to very little effect.) As for the play’s central mystery, audiences were initially puzzled and frustrated by George and Martha’s son, but most now understand him perfectly clearly, having witnessed so many more confounding theatrical conceits over the years.

I think director Scott Edmiston understands that the play isn’t going to be perceived as the titanic Walpurgisnacht it once was, because he’s found some alternative approaches to mine it for new gold. Such approaches come at a cost—every approach to every play comes at a cost—but Edmiston’s efforts are ingenious and worth noting.

For one thing, he’s paced it remarkably swiftly; it comes in at 2:45, only slightly longer than the 1966 movie, which shaved an enormous amount of dialogue and action to bring it down in length. (The familiarity of the film version is of course another challenge to the play’s remaining alive and surprising.) Also, this Boston revival emphasizes the comedy of the piece, more than I’ve ever seen in a dozen previous productions. This George (Steven Barkheimer) and Martha (Paula Plum) are a well-tuned vaudeville act whose routines seem designed more to tickle than to wound, and which are often played out front as if to a wider audience beyond late-nite faculty guests Nick (Dan Whelton) and Honey (Erica Spyres).

The jokes still land, in part because Albee’s writing remains moment-by-moment vital, but mostly because the leads are expert comedians. Barkheimer is a roly-poly nebbish of an academic who has swallowed and digested most of his pain long ago, while Plum’s Martha is more of a neighborhood scandal than a grieving earth-mother. Gay and flirtatious, she would easily fit into any troupe of Real Housewives, and might even persuade them to make nice. Together, Plum and Barkhimer offer an engaging portrait of a couple whose battles are a cheerful deflection mechanism. (Though as one might expect, their late-inning challenge of “Total war?”/“Total” carries little weight.)

Most significantly, Edmiston and his team have tossed naturalism out the window. No effort is made to chart a believable, beat-by-beat arc of late night drinking and debauchery; we don’t get the highs and lows, the quantum shifts in rhythm and mood we would expect in a realistic portrayal. One gets a sense that this quartet has been directed to keep their wits about them, so that their wit can flourish.

At the same time, there’s only a minimum of fussy, real-life stage business, little fooling around with props as the characters prowl around Janie E. Howland’s intimate, three-quarter set. Throughout the performance, lighting designer Karen Perlow frames key moments in frankly theatrical effects which have no relationship to any actual living-room fixtures. Then, after the big third act “reveal,” she and Howland collaborate in some final expressionistic touches which purists, I’m sure, will find bogus and vulgar, but I rather welcomed as an interesting literalization of Albee’s existential worldview. It’s different, anyway.

Spyres and Whelton, though capable and charismatic, are two partial casualties of Edmiston’s directorial approach. Spyres must remain largely earthbound where most Honeys, unused to strong spirits, go wild in extravagant flights of liberation. As for Nick, the character is already written with a series of shifts from pugnacity to passivity and back again, tough for any actor to motivate and even more so when he can’t use extremes of drunkenness to justify the transitions. And since Nick is a notably humorless fellow anyway, Whelton is really up against it with the comics who rule this roost. In this “Virginia Woolf,” more than in other productions, Nick and Honey are required to be second bananas, sideshow attractions to the George and Martha circus in the center ring.

Running through Feb. 12 at the Lyric Stage of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. lyricstage.com.

 

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If you have ever written a poem, drawn a sketch, built a bookcase, knitted baby booties, put together a costume for Halloween, or had a child—there, I think I’ve covered just about everyone—then you have common ground with Sunday in the Park With George.

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Jenni Barber and the company of Sunday in the Park with George, directed by Artistic Director Peter DuBois, playing September 9 – October 16, 2016, Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre. Photo: Paul Marotta.

 

What I mean is, the very fact that you make stuff means that this acclaimed musical, now produced by the Huntington Theater Company, is waiting to speak to you. Its very subject is the nature of art: What obstacles do people face in pursuing it? What drives them? What sacrifices do they make? Why does it demand a blend of accident and design so difficult to achieve?

 

Above all, the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize winner argues that making stuff—creation—is the definition of what makes us human. The act of creation keeps us fully alive while we’re here, and offers our sole chance to live on once we’re not. The things we create—“Children and Art,” as a key Act II song is titled—are the means by which we may hand off something lasting to the generations who come after.

 

To explore those themes, Sunday tells a romantic story, sometimes wryly funny, mostly intensely romantic, of one generation’s legacy to the next.

 

In Act I, set in Paris around 1884, the painter Georges Seurat furiously creates his famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” and in so doing alienates the strangers and acquaintances he manipulates into posing for him, not to mention his one true love. In Act II, set in 1984, Seurat’s direct descendant despairs of making art of a very different kind, only to find those of the 19th century reaching out to him (and to us!) to give us heart.

 

I have to say, I get chills up the spine just thinking about this masterpiece and what its effects are, especially at the end of each act. There’s really nothing like it. But I dwell so much on Sunday’s thrilling themes, unique structure, and universality because I would love to persuade those on the fence about this famously complex musical to give it a chance to be their cup of tea at the BU Theatre, Avenue of the Arts. Sondheim aficionados have already made their way there long before this report was filed, but any creditable production of Sunday in the Park has a chance to rock an audience’s world.

 

And Peter DuBois’ Huntington production is very creditable indeed.

 

It’s beautifully and clearly sung, for one thing; Sondheim’s intricate words are notoriously difficult to absorb at first hearing, but music director Eric Stern and sound designer Jon Weston have done their jobs thoroughly and well, making it easy to fall into the flow of images and rhymes peppering what could be Sondheim’s best score, executed by a strong singing ensemble.

 

This Sunday is a visual treat as well, with Derek McLane’s “white box” and panels offering a enticing canvas for Christopher Akerlind’s limpid, pastel lighting palette and Zachary G. Borovay’s impressive projections.

 

There are many vivid performances among the ensemble. Aimee Doherty creates, in a few broad strokes, a heartbreaking portrait of a Victorian-era wife who has sacrificed far too much to her imposing artist spouse. (Her own heart breaks a little in Act II, as well, when she essays a brittle art critic.) Melody Butiu and Patrick Varner exude an amusing Boris-and-Natasha vibe as members of the servant class in Act I, and I enjoyed both of Bobbie Sternbach’s turns: George’s now-dotty, now-warm mother before the intermission, and the modern George’s composer collaborator after.

 

The revival’s principal drawback is in the casting of George. Adam Chanler-Berat was a peppy, appealing waif in the Broadway Peter and the Starcatcher, but he lacks the aesthetic weight and intensity to convince as either act’s incarnation of obsessed artist. Jenni Barber is a voluptuous Dot, almost too much so: She’s the principal model for La Grande Jatte and, in Lapine’s telling, Seurat’s inspiration, but the bond of lust drawing them together is practically nonexistent. Chanler-Berat goes through all the right motions but the desperation just isn’t there.

 

A weak George is a drawback to spending a Sunday in the Park with him, but shouldn’t be a deterrent. The show will still astonish you.

 

Playing through Oct. 16, 2016 at the Avenue of the Arts  / BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston. Tickets available at www.huntingtontheatre.org, or by calling 617-266-0800.

 

 

 

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The best reason to see “Trainspotting,” Harry Gibson’s Irvine Welsh adaptation now running at the Elephant Stages, is lead actor Justin Zachary, who invests junkie protagonist Mark Renton with understatement, wit and even grace – even more so than did Ewan McGregor in Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie version.

Trainspotting_2

Actors love to take on hapless gobshite parts, in which they take center stage and get to go through so many flashy emotional hoops. But as most such losers swirl around and around the toilet bowl without making any effort to pull themselves out, they can be deadly boring to watch. Zachary is smart and skilled enough to let us in on Mark’s ambivalence toward his sloppy, downhill lifestyle. He gets us to root for him and care about him even at the character’s most self-indulgent. That’s a rare gift.

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A revived Bobverini.com

April 6, 2013

First of all, thanks to all my friends for their kind words on my writing, and on last month’s (March 2013) LADCC Awards and my little musical interlude within it.

I’ve decided this is the time to make this site a part of my everyday life. I will still be publishing journalism in Variety and elsewhere, and contributing regularly to ArtsInLA.com, my friend Dany Margolies’ noble effort to bring some clarity and class to LA theater criticism. (Check it out.) But I find I am hungering to find a place where I can just speak my piece on anything, especially the theaters which so generously afford me gratis admission to their work. I know they won’t always be happy with what I write, but I hope they (and you) will find my thoughts worth spending a few minutes on from time to time. Anyway: Here goes. I hope you’ll be with me some or all of the way!

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Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Paris Letter” is one of the most thoughtful, as well as one of the most moving, works from this distinguished American playwright (he created “Brothers and Sisters,” and was a Pulitzer nominee for his “Other Desert Cities” which is coming to town late this fall). “Paris Letter,” which copped the LA Drama Critics Circle Ted Schmitt Award for an original LA premiere in 2006, is often performed but often performed badly, so I was thrilled to see it executed so well by the Group Rep in their little storefront on Burbank Boulevard.

Why is it so difficult? A bit of synopsis first. Baitz is concerned with two generations of Manhattan artistic types and hangers-on. In the 1960s, a young Jewish Princeton grad named Sandy Sonnenberg falls into the orbit of a former Hollywood costume designer (and US Army discharge) turned restauranteur, Anton Kilgallen. Their brief affair changes to lifelong friendship when Sandy’s guilt impels him to seek psychiatric help to kick his homosexual inclinations. Fast forward to the present day, where Sandy is now a prestigious fund manager married to Anton’s former café partner, Katie. Sandy falls into the orbit of a younger, much more reckless fund manager named Burt Sarris, whose financial shenanigans turn Sandy into an early sketch for Bernie Madoff as he loses all of his clients’ life savings. One more source of guilt for the hapless Sonnenberg prince, now a fumbling King Lear.

Get the idea? Even if it weren’t so fricken complicated (all of that was pretty much just the back story), you also have to factor in the doubling. One actor plays young Anton and Burt; another older Sandy and his younger self’s psychiatrist; yet another actor portrays young Sandy and his own son. (Oy gevalt! – which is one Yiddish expression NOT uttered in the play.) And finally, there are many themes at work here: pre-Stonewall homosexual life; the friendship of ex-lovers; the bond between straight women and gay men; America’s financial underpinnings; the relationship of the past to the present….Plays have been written about each of these themes alone. This is one complex script.

And yet under Jules Aaron’s direction, it plays like buttah. The pacing is impeccable, the acting incisive and subtle. As Anton, young Alex Parker doesn’t look like he would grow into Lloyd Petersen, but their manners and gestures are very much in line with each other, and that’s what’s important. Anton is a remarkably rich character who gains honor by the two who play him. At the same time, Parker and Dan Sykes (young Sandy) are extremely smart thesps who can handle multiple layers of emotionality at once, not to mention an extended and potentially embarrassing nude scene.

I was totally touched by Julia Silverman’s dual turns as loyal Katie and Sandy’s dotty mom, whereas Larry Eisenberg was somehow able to turn older Sandy into a genuinely tragic figure. (Not to mention pulling in a great cameo as his younger self’s European shrink, committed to changing the lad to a straight lifestyle). Throw in a clever set involving sliding panels which allow for a remarkably elegant physical recreation of Manhattan at its most captivating, and you’ve got a wonderful two hours in the theater.

What else can I say? See it. It closes Sept. 2.

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Little links these two world premiere plays for me, except that I saw them on consecutive nights and each is inspired by, and celebrates, a real-life figure. One production had me leaping from my seat; the other had me squirming in it.

The triumph was Sacred Fools’ “Stoneface,” whose subtitle “The Rise & Fall & Rise of Buster Keaton” seemed to promise one of those standard, clichéd, name-dropping bioplays in which you can practically hear the 3×5 cards fall as the author shoehorns in all the researched facts of a Hollywood life. But Vanessa Stewart’s approach to structure is considerably fresher and more complex than that.

French Stewart stars as the great Buster.

It’s most ingenious of her to careen back and forth in time to reveal the perfectionism, fecklessness, and childhood traumas that contributed to Keaton’s lifetime’s worth of great (professional) and poor (personal) choices. It’s equally impressive how she and helmer Jaime Robledo weave in actual Keaton film clips, as well as clips newly created for the production, on top of live re-creations of cinematically inspired conventions performed live on stage. The marriage to Norma Talmadge, for instance, is narrated and staged as Mack Sennett would have included it in a Keystone comedy; and home life briefly shared with Scott Leggett’s Fatty Arbuckle opens Act Two with a hilarious sequence involving a Rube Goldberg–like “machine for living.”

Buster and Fatty at home.

Always aware of Keaton as a man both in and of cinema, Stewart and her collaborators skillfully employ cinematic DNA to craft a detailed, persuasive portrait. I do think she could have made more of the convention of having two actors portraying the old and young Buster: They have a few brief confrontations and one sweet homage to the mirror sequence from “Duck Soup,” but a brooding fellow like Keaton ought to be even more in touch with, and inquiring of, his younger self. Still, in the remarkable hands of French Stewart (the author’s spouse) and Joe Fria, old and young Buster together made me feel I was learning quite a bit about an artist I felt I’d known pretty well when I walked in.

Stewart and Fria: the two faces of Keaton.

 

I knew very little about the main character of “Beautified” when it was over, but while at the Skylight I learned a great deal about the face of my wristwatch, which I consulted for what seemed like a world-record number of times. I was more than prepared to be persuaded that playwright Tony Abatemarco’s late brother, a hairdresser by trade, was a warm person and fine friend, but this clunky, inept tribute play never met me halfway.

A husband and father comes out of the closet late in life, and a mousy Republican (code for bigoted and small-minded) becomes a customer in his shop and a confidante over 30-odd years. And in all that time, they never have one substantial conversation? Not one meaningful conflict of values? Later on, our hero finds a partner about whom we learn nothing, and his supposed close friend and client never has anything to say about the partner? Or about sexuality generally? Come on. Their climactic fight is over Heath Ledger’s not winning the Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain.” Say what?

Two things bugged me most of all. I am really tired of plays and films that exploit the crazy fashions of the past for cheap, easy gags. In the 1970s, the hairdresser is put in humiliating Rod Stewart drag, tight pants, blond shag, and all, just so the audience can engage in smug hardy-har-har. It rarely seems to occur to directors or costume designers that people wear clothes in every era for a reason, and that maybe the respect owed to characters should include an effort to understand why they dressed in a particular way. (For a cool, recent counterexample, check out the underseen and underappreciated Ang Lee film “Taking Woodstock,” in which ’60s fashions are wacky but never condescended to because the spirit in which they’re worn is sympathetic and inclusive.)

Even more annoying is the way “Beautified” has the customer character presume from the outset that we are in sync with her. Utilizing the world’s laziest playwriting tool—direct address—she’s brought right into the center aisle to get all cozy and familiar with us. I’m sorry, I like Karen Austin as an actor as much as the next man does, but a character has to earn that intimacy. It’s presumptuous and off-putting to take for granted that an audience wants to take a narrator to its heart. At the performance I attended, the reaction to her intrusiveness was pretty much stonefaced resistance, killing the warmth and laughter that seem to have been intended.

It occurs to me that I just used the word “stonefaced.” What do you know, these two shows had something else in common after all.

“Stoneface” has been extended far into the summer at Sacred Fools. “Beautified” has completed its run at the Skylight.

 

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Memo from Gotham: Talking About “Cock”

July 10, 2012

I’ve tried for days to figure out how to headline this item, and nothing quite felt right: “I Saw Mike Bartlett’s Cock”? “Cock Is Tasty”? Then again, the very difficulty of talking openly about sex is one of the main themes of this extraordinary new play, now running healthily at Manhattan’s The Duke on 42nd […]

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The LADCC Award Recipients

April 3, 2012

As the current president of the LA Drama Critics Circle, I am so proud of our slate of 2011 recipients. I really think we came up with a fine slate, giving equal weight to large shows and small, homegrown entertainments and tours. I also am extremely proud of the show we put on. Our producers […]

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Our LADCC Nominations for 2011!

February 4, 2012

December 1, 2010 to November 30, 2011, actually. That’s our qualifying year. I’m very happy with this list, very proud that local attractions predominate in the top categories; thrilled at the caliber of our special award recipients; pleased to see the balance overall between LA shows and national tours; and delighted to see so many […]

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