‘Straight White Men’: Faking It

I have to be careful talking about Straight White Men, the new Young Jean Lee play that has opened on Broadway, following an acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2014.  It’s hard to imagine a play more perfectly calculated for this multicultural, gender-fluid, #MeToo moment. Lee is the first Asian-American woman ever to have her work produced on Broadway. The play opens with two “persons in charge” speaking directly to the audience, one identifying as “transcending gender,” and the other as “non-binary.” (I’m steering clear of personal pronouns here; no Twitter backlash, please.) The play is called Straight White Men — which means, of course, it’s going to hold up that unfortunate, un-evolved species to satire, or at least to a kind of anthropological condescension.

Straight White Men has gotten mostly rave reviews, as has Lee’s earlier off-Broadway work (which, alas, I have not seen). But I had a lot of trouble with this play.  Lee’s heart is in the right place, and her theme of white entitlement is certainly apt, especially in the Trump era. But this is a badly written play, directed (by Anna D. Shapiro) with a startling lack of subtlety, and there is hardly a moment in it that doesn’t seem forced or fake. It’s agenda-driven playwriting at its most annoying.

The action (one act, 90 minutes) revolves around three 40-ish brothers and their widowed father, together for a Christmas Eve celebration in their old family rec room. The brothers had a progressive upbringing, trained from childhood to recognize and be suspicious of their own privileged status. We know this because, not 10 minutes into the evening, two of the brothers happen upon an old Monopoly-style board game called Privilege, which they play just long enough to establish the play’s political orientation and get a few easy laughs. (One Chance card reads: “What I said wasn’t sexist-slash-racist-slash-homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to The Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.”)

One brother is a banker, one a novelist, the third a low-level clerk at a community organization. But who can believe in these people as actual siblings? Half the time they engage in the kind of teasing-roughousing-in-joke-sharing behavior that is drawn less from real life than from some cliched writer’s conception of male bonding. (Dad even brings out Christmas pajamas and forces his sons to change into them.) The rest of the time they seem to be learning about each other in the same way the audience does — through clunky expository dialogue. Typical exchange: “When is your novel coming out?” “March.” “Will it be the same kind of thing? What did the Times critic call it? A ‘radical attack on the crassness of American materialism’?”

The play spells out everything like this; it’s all talk, talk talk. “I’ll get some plates,” says one brother, as he goes to get plates for their Chinese takeout dinner. “Let’s pull the table a little closer,” says another, as they pull the coffee table closer to the couch.  (Might I suggest that the stage action precludes the need for these two lines?) What passes for a storyline involves the underachieving older brother, who has moved back in with his father, seems depressed, and gets to express the playwright’s objectifying analysis of the guilt-ridden entitled class.

It may well be (as Jesse Green suggests in his Times review) that Straight White Men worked better downtown, in a more stylized production that doesn’t play like a bad sitcom — with the impossibly handsome Armie Hammer and Good Wife heartthrob Josh Charles overacting in key roles. And it may well be, as a recent Times Magazine profile proclaimed, that Young Jean Lee is “one of the most fearless experimental playwrights of her generation.” But Straight White Men doesn’t come close to convincing me. 

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Three Quick Thoughts About the Tony Awards

  1. Now that the New York Times has taken to polling the Tony voters in advance — getting to a fairly sizable portion of the relatively small population of voters — the Tony Awards show has largely been drained of whatever suspense it once had. Almost every award went as predicted. The Band’s Visit won pretty much everything it was nominated for in the musical categories (a clear statement vote: This is the Sort of Show Broadway Should Have More Of). Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Angels in America, predictably, swept most of the other awards. The only surprise was in the category of Best Musical Revival, which was assumed to be a close fight between two revered classics, My Fair Lady and Carousel. But they must have split the golden-oldies vote — allowing Once on This Island to sneak in for an upset. Cheers. 
  2. Just how much political messaging can one awards show hold? Andrew Garfield dedicated his Tony  to the LGBTQ community and urged, “Let’s just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked.” Tony Kushner reminded us that we have “21 weeks to save our democracy.” Members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School drama department sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent. Glenda Jackson praised Americans for being “welcoming and kind and generous” and added, “America is always great.” And then, to cap off the night, Robert De Niro opened his presentation with a defiant “Fuck Trump!” Worthy sentiments all. And yet De Niro’s words were bleeped out, leaving the TV audience to sit mystified as he got a standing ovation. Could there be a more vivid example of the chasm that separates the Broadway community (really the whole show-business community) from the country that voted Donald Trump into office? Was there not a single person in that crowd of 6,000 crammed into Radio City Music Hall who voted for Donald Trump? Shouldn’t there be?
  3. Interesting that the #MeToo movement was largely left out of the political speechifying. But just a reminder of how far we’ve come: The host of last year’s Tony Awards show was Kevin Spacey.

 

 

 

‘Chess’ Redeemed: A Glorious London Revival

What’s to be done about Chess?

I mean, of course, the 1980s musical about Cold War chess rivalries, with a score by the ABBA boys, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and lyrics by Tim Rice. This show simply can’t catch a break.  It opened in London in 1986 and ran for three years, but reviewers griped about a book that one called “an inchoate mess.” The show was rewritten and restaged when it came to Broadway in 1988, but got even worse reviews and closed in just two months. It has been revised several times since, apparently to no avail: today it sits largely unmourned, a relic of the pop-opera mega-musical era — an era we’re supposed to be very glad is long gone.

But not all of us.. Chess retains its devoted fan club, of which I consider myself a charter member. (Another was my late, beloved TIME colleague Richard Corliss.) So when I found myself in London for short visit last week, I made sure to catch the new revival by the English National Opera, now playing at the London Coliseum.

That meant ignoring the usual bad reviews. (“No matter how frosty the West’s relations with Russia, is there really any reason to roll Chess out of cold storage?” sniffed Variety, amid a chorus of disapproval). And, as usual, I found myself as stupefied by the clueless critics as I was enthralled by the show. This is a truly glorious production, better than either the original London or Broadway versions, beautifully sung (West End musical star Michael Ball heads the terrific cast) and strikingly staged — really the apotheosis of Chess, the greatest of all pop-rock operas.
Once again, there has been some tinkering, in an effort to streamline the musical’s somewhat lumpy story of a bad-boy American chess star (named — in the original, if you can believe it — Freddie Trumper) and his conflicted Soviet rival, who defects to the U.S. and leaves his wife for Freddie’s ex-girlfriend. The show still has second-act problems, and some of my favorite Tim Rice lyrics have been excised — to no great advantage, from what I could discern.

And yet, Chess has been punished too harshly for its ambitions. For all its flaws, the show is a politically astute and often affecting look at the way Cold War tensions were transferred to the chess board — and reflected in the lives and loves of the people who hovered over it.  This new concert-style production, directed by Laurence Connor (who did such a fine job with the recent revival of Miss Saigon), presses the point with video montages that recap highlights from Cold War history — a history that lately has come to seem not so distant after all. (If Chess is dated, then so is The Americans.)

But Chess remains, as always, a demonstration of the power of a great score to enhance, even ennoble, everything it touches.  The music is as rich and stirring as anything written for the theater in the past 40 years: from rock anthems to Bach-like fugues, from the lovely, complex ballads (“Someone Else’s Story,” “I Know Him So Well”) to the catchy disco hit “One Night in Bangkok,” culminating in the jabbing, dissonant, minor-key theme that drives the climactic chess match — elevated to symphonic heights by the 60-piece orchestra and marvelous ENO chorus. It left me breathless.

 

 

Admiring Ayckbourn: ‘A Brief History of Women’

 

I consider Alan Ayckbourn the great playwright of my theatergoing lifetime. Through most of the 1980s and ’90s, I would plan my trips to London to coincide with new plays from the prolific British dramatist: Henceforward, The Revengers’ Comedies, Man of the Moment, Wildest Dreams — an amazing string of masterpieces, most of which have not even been produced in the U.S. (never mind Broadway; not even Off, or in the regionals). Over here, Ayckbourn is still best known for his earlier, lighter-weight comedies, like Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, and for his high-concept stage gimmicks (one weekend at a country house replayed three times from three different rooms, for example, in the Norman trilogy).  This has only affirmed his typecasting as a clever boulevard farceur — rather than, more accurately, as a profound chronicler of the human tragicomedy, an incisive social satirist and intrepid stage innovator, surely our best living playwright.

He is still going strong at 79, and thanks to the invaluable 59E59 Off-Broadway company,  New Yorkers have been able to see many of Ayckbourn’s recent plays, in productions directed by the playwright himself for his home company in Scarborough, England. A couple of recent offerings have been lesser works, and I was beginning to fear that age is finally catching up with him. But the latest 59E59 import, A Brief History of Women, shows that Ayckbourn is still in top form.

As usual, he starts out by setting up strict stage parameters. The play is made up of four scenes, spaced exactly 20 years apart, starting in an English manor home in the mid-1920s — which becomes, by turns, a girls boarding school just after World War II, a community arts center in the turbulent ’60s,  and finally a boutique hotel in the gentrifying ’80s. The eras are linked by one character — Anthony Spates, a 17-year-old servant in the manor house, who becomes a teacher at the school, the administrator of the arts center, and finally owner of the hotel. The title is somewhat ironic, since the play is less a history of women than of the self-effacing Anthony’s encounters with them — the females who variously enchant, ensnare and love him over the decades.

The play is both funny and poignant, perfectly balanced, with light brushstrokes of social commentary and feminist history.  But what struck me most, on this go-round with Ayckbourn, is how thoroughly (unlike so many current playwrights) he conceives of his work as theater creations — not with showy gimmicks, but with the simple confidence of a man who believes that the medium and the message are inextricable. So, in this case, we have one set, divided into three parts — on the left a study, on the right a ballroom, in the middle a sort of anteroom, through which characters move back and forth, opening and closing imaginary doors, with sound effects that rise and fall as the rooms are entered and exited. For each new scene, the furnishings are altered — the study becomes an office, the ballroom a school auditorium — in full view of the audience, with an economy of movement that belies the drastic changes from era to era.

The transformation for the last scene is done with such amusingly precise choreography that it actually gets applause. Leave it to Ayckbourn to create a play in which even the stagehands become stars. A small thing, perhaps, but worth savoring  — like this warm and winning play. 

The Tonys: Wrapping Up a Weak Season

The Tony nominations are out, and they have brought home something that hadn’t really occurred to me as I raced through the busy last few weeks of Broadway openings.  It’s been a pretty bad season.

Yes, I saw several things I enjoyed, but as I look back, nearly all of them were revivals. The powerful two-part revival of Angels in America, imported from London, certainly deserves its 11 nominations (the most for any play), and Denzel Washington is a force of nature in George C. Wolfe’s fine revival of The Iceman Cometh. I had some quibbles with the revivals of Carousel and My Fair Lady, but heck, they’ll make for some great numbers on next months’s Tony show.

But when you look at the nominees in the two major categories — Best Play and Best Musical — you realize how slim the pickings were. For Best Musical, The Band’s Visit is the clear critical favorite — but I still maintain it’s an off-Broadway show that’s in over its head. That Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants got a whopping 12 nominations apiece is testament to the dearth of credible contenders. Oh yes, and there’s Disney’s Frozen,  which did manage a Best Musical nod (and would probably be my pick for the award). But this beautifully designed show was, unaccountably,  shut out of every single technical category. How much does the New York theater establishment hate Disney? They think The Band’s Visit has better scenery. 

The two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another London import, is a shoe-in for Best Play, and no argument here: even for a non-Potter fan, the show is a marvel of stagecraft and narrative ingenuity. But talk about a weak field: None of the four other nominees — The Children, Farinelli and the King, Junk and Latin History for Morons — is even still running, and (not to be cruel) I’m not so sure any of them deserves to be. The imbalance between the shortage of new plays and the abundance of worthy revivals is only emphasized by the snub for Saint Joan, which failed to get a nomination for Best Revival. The critics were surprisingly cool, but I was totally absorbed by Daniel Sullivan’s straightforward, well-acted production (with Condola Rashad as a fierce and commanding Joan) of Shaw’s great play, which is as challenging and relevant as ever. 

That Awful Ending to ‘My Fair Lady’

Let’s talk about the ending to My Fair Lady. None of critics apparently want to — that is, give away the little twist that director Bartlett Sher has tacked onto the last scene of his Lincoln Center revival of Lerner and Loewe’s great musical. I understand their caution, but I don’t think you can properly talk about the production without grappling with the way it ends.

And so— spoiler alert, here goes — let me be the bearer of bad news. Eliza walks out on Henry Higgins.

I was actually pretty satisfied with the show most of the way through: not as fresh an interpretation as Jack O’Brien’s expressionistic new revival of Carousel, or as visually sumptuous as Sher’s own revival of The King and I a couple of years ago, but pleasant enough. I liked Harry Hadden-Patton’s imperious Henry Higgins a little better than Lauren Ambrose’s Eliza; she lacks charm in the opening Covent Garden scenes, and her singing voice is pretty but not especially strong. Yet my overall reaction to the revival was: fine, but what’s the point?

Well, the point comes in the last scene. In the original, you’ll recall, Eliza — after rebelling against the manipulative professor who has picked her off the streets and turned her into a “lady” — returns to Higgins, for a (sort of) happy ending. Once he’s secure that he’s won her back, Higgins plops in his chair and utters the last line — “Where the devil are my slippers?” Curtain. But Sher has decided that, in the enlightened #MeToo age, we cannot have Eliza return to being a doormat. So here, Higgins utters the final line pugnaciously, in Eliza’s face; she stares back at him silently, then gazes off toward the audience — and walks out.

Some of the critics have praised the revisionist ending (without quite describing it) as being truer to the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, on which the musical is of course based. To be sure, Shaw was not writing a conventional romance, and he ended the play ambiguously: Eliza running off to her father’s wedding, ignoring Henry’s blithe request that she pick him up “a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights” on her way home. In an epilogue to the play, Shaw expressed doubts that the two were destined to marry, speculating playfully that Eliza would wind up instead with Freddy, the callow rich kid who is infatuated with her. But he also noted: “Eliza’s instinct tells her not to marry Higgins. It does not tell her to give him up.”

But all that is really beside the point. My Fair Lady is not Pygmalion — it is My Fair Lady, one of the most perfectly constructed of all American musicals. True, Lerner and Loewe gave Shaw’s play a more conventionally romantic spin. But they retained a surprising amount of his cynicism and ambiguity. Yes, Eliza comes back to Higgins — but she’s full of self-confidence now, and the last line shows he as incorrigible as ever. Who knows if they will be together for long?  But the musical has spent the whole evening delicately, expertly moving them toward each other — piercing Higgins’ armor of hauteur, giving him that great I’m-not-in-love song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” To split them up at the end destroys both the romance and the ambiguity.

My suggestion: If My Fair Lady is not woke enough for the #MeToo age, don’t revive it. And if you do, don’t ruin it.

What’s Wrong With ‘Carousel’? And Does It Matter?

My feelings about Carousel are complicated.

On the one hand, it’s hard to argue against this 1945 show as the best of all the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. It is the one that blends song and story most felicitously, boasts some of team’s most beautiful (and narratively ambitious) musical numbers, and has an emotional resonance that few musicals can match. Still, the show has some annoying flaws, most of which are only exacerbated by Jack O’Brien’s new Broadway production.

One problem lies at the very core: the love story between sheltered Julie Jordan and the blustering (and eventually abusive) carnival barker, Billy Bigelow. It is set up and consummated so quickly — essentially all in the course of one song, the marvelous “If I Loved You” duet — that it depends a lot on the director and performers to fill out the picture. Joshua Henry is a fine singer and actor (a black Billy Bigelow, for a change), and he delivers strongly in much of the show, particularly the famous “Soliloquy” and the afterlife scenes. But as a romantic partner for Julie, I’m afraid, there is no collusion — excuse me, no chemistry. He is too surly and dyspeptic from the start — no charm, or vulnerability, or even danger.  Jessie Mueller’s Julie, moreover, seems a little too much of a modern, self-aware girl to be falling for this bad apple. I took a look back at the “If I Loved You” scene from 1956 movie, and even Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones, in their square 1950s earnestness, are more convincing.

The show’s other big drawback, for me, is that big slab of cornball uplift at the climax —  “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Even opera diva Renee Fleming, as Nettie, can’t quite redeem it. Fleming is always nice to have on Broadway (though did she really need to horn in on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin?” too?)  But for my money, the most gorgeous Broadway voice of the evening belongs to Lindsay Mendez, as Julie’s friend Carrie — who almost persuaded me that “When I Marry Mister Snow” is the best song in the show.

I could have done without some of O’Brien’s moody expressionist touches — having the heavenly judge, for example, hover over scenes even before Billy meets him in the other world. Still, the show is lovely to look at, Justin Peck’s dance numbers are dazzling, and in the end, this old warhorse still delivers. Like always, it made me cry.