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This Play Seems Predictable (Until You Listen Closely)

Kristin Griffith

Kristin Griffith as Ollie

The Mint revives George Kelly’s sly comedy The Fatal Weakness

The Fatal Weakness sneaks up on you. Superficially, George Kelly’s 1946 play, about a woman discovering her husband’s affair, seems like a typical pre-War comedy, with well-heeled New Yorkers snooping on each other and making droll statements about the ways of love. But the more you listen, the more you realize there’s something else afoot.

For one thing, Mrs. Ollie Espenshade’s response to her husband’s infidelity may be quite startling, even to modern audiences. While she’s certainly unhappy about it—and she enlists her friends to spy on her husband across several states—she responds to each new revelation with remarkable composure. “It’s so wonderfully civil,” says Jesse Marchese, who’s directing the play’s current revival at the Mint Theater Company. “That’s surprising, but it’s that much more affecting because it’s so polite.”

And then there’s the conclusion. Without giving too much away, the final moments make a moving leap from sturdy realism into poetry, with Ollie articulating a worldview she’s been developing throughout her ordeal.
“I think [Kelly] pokes a little fun at her but is also a little charmed by her,” says Marchese, who’s also the Mint’s Associate Director. “He’s generous enough to let her keep her romanticism. [By the end] she has a much more informed romanticism, but he doesn’t kill that in her. He’s charmed by it, and in turn he allows the audience to be.”

This writerly charm and intelligence helped Kelly become a prominent playwright of his era. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his drama Craig’s Wife and enjoyed a string of hit shows like The Torch Bearers and The Show Off. As the Mint’s program note explains, he injected his most popular work with unexpected depth, “leading [critic] Mary McCarthy to observe, in 1947, that a Kelly play ‘is not like anything else while on the surface it resembles every play one has ever been to.’” [Read more →]

September 15, 2014   No Comments

Where Did This Raunchy Musical Come From?

Bridget Everett in "Rock Bottom"

Bridget Everett in Rock Bottom

How Joe’s Pub nurtured Bridget Everett’s new show Rock Bottom

There aren’t that many places in New York City where you can see a musical that lets you lick whipped cream off the leading lady. Or lift her up on your feet so she can “play airplane.” Or hand her your glass of chardonnay after she accidentally breaks the bottle she’s toting around in a brown paper sack.

But that’s exactly what you get in Rock Bottom, the new show that just began performances at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater. It stars Bridget Everett, who rose to downtown fame in 2007 with her gleefully inappropriate show At Least It’s Pink and has since amassed a serious following with her big rock voice, her big dirty mouth, and her knack for fusing bad behavior with cleverness and charm.

Everett’s fans should feel at home with Rock Bottom, whose wailing anthems and audience participation are also staples of her cabaret gigs and concerts with her band the Tender Moments. But there’s a reason this show is being presented as part of the Public’s official season. Like At Least It’s Pink, it molds Everett’s raucous energy into a narrative shape, taking us through a story about her love life, her family, and her relationship to her semi-stardom.

Rock Bottom also boasts some A-list collaborators. Everett co-wrote most of the songs with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the team behind Hairspray and Smash, and they bring an unmistakable sense of showmanship to the script and score.

Crucially, though, Shaiman and Wittman are working on Everett’s behalf, and her style is at the forefront. “Our job initially was to work as songwriters with her and turn it into a more theatrical experience instead of a pure rock and roll one,” says Wittman, who also directs this production.

“We were encouraging that side of her,” Shaiman adds. “She doesn’t want to be too slick—”

“—or too cabaret,” Wittman continues. “She’s her own creature. But she wanted to talk about her father, and the Tender Moments show was maybe not the place for it. So another part of our job was to create an arc for this that would give you a more emotional connection.” [Read more →]

September 11, 2014   No Comments

The Modern Soul of “You Can’t Take It With You”

Kristine Nielsen & Mark Linn-Baker

Kristine Nielsen & Mark Linn-Baker

Mark Linn-Baker on how the classic comedy speaks to the present day

You Can’t Take It With You is a wonderfully slippery play. You think you’ve got it nailed as a loopy comedy, and then it delivers a tender love scene. You’re convinced it’s breezy good time, and then it dismantles the fantasy of American success

This complexity—this ability to be funny and lovable and sly and political—give the show tremendous vitality. That’s arguably why it’s been produced over and over for almost 80 years.
Written in 1936 by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play follows the Sycamores, a family of eccentrics who see no problem with having ballet lessons in the living room or taking up playwriting after a typewriter gets accidentally delivered to the house.

But as charming as they are, the Sycamores aren’t quite like “us.” The “average American” is ostensibly like Mr. Kirby, a successful businessman who gave up foolish pursuits to earn a proper living. So when his son falls for young Alice Sycamore, worlds collide in all sorts of ways.

Which family will prevail—the one that lives to make money or the one that lives to be happy? That question throbs behind all the jokes.

It’s been thirty years, however, since Broadway audiences got to grapple with the play’s ideas. So the current revival, now at the Longacre, may remind people just how much it has to say.

Mark Linn-Baker is certainly seeing the show with fresh eyes. He stars as Paul Sycamore, Alice’s father and an enthusiastic inventor of fireworks (that frequently explode in the basement.) “I had read the play, but I had not seen it,” he says. “One of the things that surfaces from working on it with such an amazing group of people is how well-written it is.”

For one thing, he notes, even the silliest characters have moments of depth. For instance, after a disastrous dinner party with the Kirbys, Mr. Sycamore worries that he’s let his daughter down by choosing fireworks over a more respectable profession.

“When I read the play again, that was the moment I focused on in terms of the character,” Linn-Baker says. “That’s the moment where he gives voice to doubt. It’s not caricature. It’s not black and white.” [Read more →]

September 10, 2014   2 Comments

This Conversation is an Earthquake

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson, & Michael Cera

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson, & Michael Cera

How director Anna D. Shapiro crafts big and small moments in This Is Our Youth

Kenneth Lonergan’s play This Is Our Youth, now on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, begins with shenanigans. In 1982 a troubled kid named Warren gets kicked out of his house, so he steals $15,000 from his dad and scurries over to Dennis, his drug-dealing, narcissistic friend who lives by himself on the Upper West Side. As they try to figure out what to do with the money, these wounded young men hurl insults, make jokes , and accidentally break a few things. It seems like we’re in for the proverbial wild ride.

But then comes the second scene. Dennis (Kieran Culkin) goes on a harebrained mission with his girlfriend, leaving Warren (Michael Cera) alone with Jessica (Tavi Gevinson), an uptight but perceptive fashion student with earnest theories about human nature. At first, the two circle each other like skittish animals, but eventually, they sit down and talk. Really talk. And little by little, they startle each other with their honesty. There’s no shouting. Nothing gets broken. But they both get shaken from their city-kid armor.

That scene is arguably the heart of the play, which premiered Off Broadway in 1996, and crafting it requires an understanding of how the smallest gestures can shift an entire relationship. For director Anna D. Shapiro, that process begins with broadly investigating the characters and not necessarily worrying about what they do in a particular moment of the show.

“You always want to start with creating a character,” she says. “If you go into it from the other direction—a beat by beat of ‘this is what happens’—you might accomplish something, but there are two problems with that. One is that it’s something that’s accomplished by rote by the actors, which can be a bummer for them. The second thing, which is more detrimental, is that they never have an opportunity to show you something about the character. And you want to avoid that. You want to try to create conditions where everybody is firing on all cylinders.” [Read more →]

September 2, 2014   No Comments

“Bootycandy” Has So Many Flavors

Phillip James Brannon & Michael Coadie Williams in Bootycandy at Philly's Wilma Theatre

Phillip James Brannon & Lance Coadie Williams in Bootycandy at Philly’s Wilma Theatre

Robert O’Hara’s new play is wild and serious at the same time

In some ways, Bootycandy is a wild fantasy. Robert O’Hara’s latest play, now at Playwrights Horizons, just keeps breaking storytelling conventions, so that every time we think we understand it, it dodges and weaves.

For instance, we might start with a sitcom-style scene about a little boy and his mother, but in a just a few minutes we’ll see an erotic moment between two men flirting in a bar. We might see two women hollering about a baby with a ridiculous name, but soon enough, the action transitions to a playwrights’ conference, where the “authors” of the very scenes we’ve been watching are asked to explain themselves.

But while Bootycandy is certainly raucous, it’s never messy. O’Hara, who also directs, is tackling the experience of being a gay black man in America, and by juxtaposing so many theatrical styles, he’s suggesting there’s no tidy way to confront such a huge subject. If a character like Sutter, who journeys from confused youth to conflicted adulthood, lives in a play that’s outlandish and contradictory and ferocious, well… maybe that’s how things are for the real-life Sutters of the world.

The actors might agree. For them, this fantastical show is also realistic. At least emotionally. [Read more →]

August 28, 2014   1 Comment