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This Is How It Looks Inside His Head

Alex Sharp as Christopher

Alex Sharp as Christopher

Behind the lyrical design of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

There could, of course, be a very literal production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As our teenage hero, Christopher Boone, investigates the death of a neighbor’s dog, he could certainly inhabit a realistic world. As clues lead him on an improbable adventure from suburban England to the busy streets of London, we could see the walls and floor of his actual apartment, hear the sounds of nature as he wanders his neighborhood, and see the lights of a train station in the intimidating city.

But if the design were naturalistic, then we might not understand our hero. Though the word “autism” is never used in Simon Stephens’ script, which is adapted from Mark Haddon’s popular 2003 novel of the same name, Christopher is clearly on the spectrum. His relationship to everything—sound, light, physical touch, emotions—is highly sensitive, but at the same time, he’s a genius with numbers who loves the precision of train schedules and the vastness of outer space. For him, the world is a constant negotiation between chaos and control, where every stimulus can trigger panic or excitement.

It’s a reality like no one else’s. That’s why the National Theatre’s production of the play, which is now on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore, has been designed to show us how it feels. As lighting designer Paule Constable says, “We’re trying to get the audience to imagine what it would be like to be Christopher, to empathize in a way where it’s more experiential than just watching him. We want the audience not to look at him, but to share with him.”

Therefore, the walls of the set look like giant sheets of graph paper, where Christopher can draw maps and where images can be projected as he thinks of them. “He loves technology and computers and space, so we tried to include those in the design,” Constable adds. “There are pixels—dots of light all over the set that light up at various points. We’re trying to create the matrix of what Christopher’s head is like.” [Read more →]

September 30, 2014   No Comments

An Actor Channels His Inner Journalist to Play a Marine

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini’s passionate preparation for his latest role

“I wanted to become a journalist before I became an actor,” says Jonny Orsini. “I think I approach roles the way a journalist approaches stories.”

That means he does a serious amount of research for every part he plays. Take his work in Almost Home, a new drama by Walter Anderson that’s now at Theatre Row in a production from The Directors Company. Orsini plays Johnny Barnett, a Marine going back to the Bronx after serving in Vietnam. The character not only confronts his own guilt at being called a hero, but also grapples with the expectations of his family and mentors, some of whom have shady ulterior motives.

For Orsini, who’s too young to remember what Vietnam veterans faced when they came back to America, books and films have been essential to his preparation. Even more importantly, he’s had long conversations with Anderson, who fought in Vietnam himself. “Walter didn’t necessarily experience everything in the play, but a lot of it draws from his life,” the actor says. “So to have him in the room was incredible. And he had the best suggestions about what to read and what to watch.”

The research, though, is only part of Orsini’s journalistic impulse. “I was always interested in learning about people and things that weren’t necessarily widely known and then bringing the story to light,” he says. “If you’ve gone through something and you feel alone, then seeing it in a respectfully told story can make you feel less isolated. Anything I can do to make people feel less alone is very much what I want to do with my life.” [Read more →]

September 26, 2014   No Comments

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   3 Comments