‘Hangmen’: Welcome Back, Martin McDonagh

A few thoughts about Hangmen, the new play from Martin McDonagh, which I caught up with belatedly at the Atlantic Theater Company:

It’s a nice comeback for McDonagh, whose work I have loved (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Pillowman), but have been disappointed with lately (A Behanding in Spokane, the last play of his to be seen in New York). I was also just mixed about his Oscar-nominated movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. While I thought Wesley Morris’s envisceration of the film in the Sunday Times a few weeks ago was a little over the top, I agree that McDonagh seems off his game when he ventures out of his home territory, and his portrayal of small-town American bigotry and redemption seemed too forced and calculated.

In Hangmen he is back, much more comfortably, on home turf; a pub in the north of England, run by the local executioner, whose job has just been eliminated by government fiat. As he did in his plays set in rural Ireland, McDonagh satirizes the pomposity,  insularity and small-mindedness of the locals, but without caricature or condescension. He is helped immensely by a terrific ensemble cast, most of them imported from the Royal Court Theater in London, where the play originated.

McDonagh is one playwright who still likes plots, and this one — involving an interloper from London who sows doubts about the guilt of one of the hangman’s last victims — has a few satisfying twists and surprises. Also surprisingly, even though it’s a play about hanging, there is relatively little of the grisly violence that McDonagh often foists on us so gleefully. This is a black comedy with an emphasis on the comedy, and I walked out of it smiling.

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Best Play of the Season

After months of sitting through bad plays by acclaimed authors (Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman), what a treat it is to discover Miles for Mary, running at Playwrights Horizons through the end of the month. Maybe it’s because there is no author, at least in the usual sense. Miles for Mary is the latest work from The Mad Ones, a downtown theater company whose members collaborate to create, develop and perform their works. Judging by this play (the first of theirs I’ve seen), they are pitch-perfect on all fronts.

Miles for Mary, takes place in the late ’80s, in the teachers’ lounge at Garrison High School, where a committee of teachers meets regularly over the course of the year to plan the school’s annual fundraising telethon. On its most obvious level, the play is a satire of office bureaucracy — those dreary staff meetings where procedure and protocol, combined with group-therapy psychobabble, make getting anything done (or communicating honestly) next to impossible. Even the smallest agenda items are fraught with interpersonal land mines, from picking a slogan for the year (“Do More”), to sitting through a training session on the school’s latest technological marvel — a six-line phone console, capable of hands-free dialing.

Miles for Mary reminded me a bit of Annie Baker’s work (The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation), in its leisurely pace and its sharp ear for both the humor and the quiet desperation lurking inside the most boring human interactions. The play is beautifully crafted and refreshingly understated. There are no forced laugh lines (though the play is very funny), no explosive revelations (though it has a dramatic arc and a satisfying climax), no attempt to flesh out a backstory for each of the characters— yet all of them are fully imagined individuals, totally believable in the moment.  For my money, it’s the best play of the season so far, by far.

 

Five Reasons to Dump Netflix

While waiting out the January lull in Broadway theater … I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix. And getting progressively more exasperated.  Five reasons why I’ve decided to bail out of the service:

1) Too many streaming services. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, cable premium channels up the wazoo— how many additions to your cable bill do you really need? Unless you’re a TV obsessive (which I was when I used to write about television for TIME, but don’t need to be any more), you have to draw the line somewhere.

2) Too much crap. The watchword on Netflix is volume, volume, volume. Yes, the service has produced a few quality series (The Crown), backed a couple of decent theatrical films (The Meyerowitz Stories) and brought David Letterman back to TV. But once you get past the marquee titles … what a wasteland of filler! TV series you wouldn’t watch once, much less binge on; stand-up specials from comedians you thought were out of the business; action movies you’d ignore if you found them in the discount bin at K Mart. It’s the digital era equivalent of those B-movie packages that local stations used to buy to fill up their overnight hours — a Hitchcock classic, or maybe two, followed by dozens of Mr. Moto films.

3) Impossible to search. Browsing Netflix categories ranks high on my list of Most Annoying Pastimes in the current digital world. Looking for something? On and on you scroll, through dozens of redundant, overlapping categories: Trending Now, Popular on Netflix, Binge-Worthy TV Shows, Critically Acclaimed Shows, and the inevitable Because You Watched …. What finally tore it for me was when, after a fruitless night of searching for something, anything, to watch, I learned that The Unknown Girl, a Belgian film from last year that I’ve been wanting to see, was somewhere in the Netflix warehouse. Scrolled through all the categories again — nearly 40 of them! — but it was nowhere to be found. Finally I unearthed it via the old hunt-and-peck Search method — but no thanks to Netflix.

4) Impossible to watch. Here’s the real reason I’m fed up with Netflix, and why I think dropping the service is the only morally responsible action for a serious film or TV viewer. Netflix doesn’t let you finish watching anything. The instant the credits start to roll, you get the bum’s rush — hustled immediately to the next show in the queue. Obviously this is a well thought-out policy, Netflix’s Clockwork Orange strategy to keep your eyes glued to the screen.  If you’re bingeing on a series, I suppose it could be defensible — plenty of people would rather scoot right on to the next episode of Breaking Bad rather than wait to see who the gaffer was on the last one. But it comes as a rude shock, and a real insult, if you’re trying savor, say, the ending of the “San Junipero” episode of Black Watch, or holding back tears at the finale of Dallas Buyer’s Club. Want to weep for poor Matthew McConaughey? Sorry, just 15 seconds left until a trailer for The Polka King. (I wish that last was a joke, but it’s not.)

5) No exit.  Want to end your streaming session? The usual confirmation screen follows, asking whether you’re sure you want to exit the app. On Amazon, the default response is Yes. On Netflix — why is this not a surprise? — the default response is No.

I’m clicking Yes. For good.

Stories by Lithgow: Less Acting, Please

Autobiographical one-man shows are not my favorite genre, but I had hopes for John Lithgow’s Stories by Heart. This two-act show — which Lithgow has been touring around the country and just brought to Broadway — is partly autobiographical (engaging reminiscences of growing up with his storytelling father), but mostly a showcase for Lithgow to perform two of his favorite stories from childhood. And since one of them, Ring Lardner’s “Haircut,” is also a favorite of mine, I looked forward to seeing it brought to life on stage.

Not a great idea.  Like many of Lardner’s best comic stories, “Haircut” is a monologue: the one-sided conversation of a small-town barber, rambling on about local doings to a customer from out of town.  Lithgow certainly performs the role well: immersing himself in the character, mimicking his Midwest accent and giggling tics, busily miming all the snipping and shaving that go on while he talks. But the story doesn’t have the impact is does on the page — and I think it’s because Lithgow’s acting, as proficient as it is, actually works against the satire. Lardner typically wrote in the voice of his main character, but always with an ironic distance. The reader grasps what the foolish or naive narrator does not —a sheltered girl, for example, who falls for a big-city sharpie who turns out to be a gigolo in “Some Like Them Cold,”  or, in “Haircut,” a small-town gossip who can’t see the cruelty in the local hijinks he is describing..  It’s important for us to hear, not just the barber’s voice, but also Lardner’s, commenting silently from a cool distance.  In “Haircut” Lardner manages the tone brilliantly to create a sharp satire of small-town values; Lithgow gives us a slice of local color.

In the second act, Lithgow turns to a more straightforward comic story, P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” about a Londoner’s country outing with his dotty uncle. Lithgow gives another bravura performance — portraying a half-dozen characters, with accents and gestures all perfectly rendered. But the story, once again, gets lost amid the busyness onstage; I frankly had trouble following it. Which means, I suppose, that good acting is not always good storytelling.

10 Best Theater of 2017

Not an easy year for me to make my selections; few outstanding shows, though several pretty good ones. Enough, at least, for me to participate in the inevitable year-end pastime:

1. Come From Away  The grass-roots success of the Broadway year. A couple of theater unknowns from Canada (Irene Sankoff and David Hein, a husband-wife team who wrote the book, music and lyrics) came up with this charming, heartfelt and deftly staged musical about the town in Newfoundland that hosted all the stranded planes on 9/11. Much better, to my mind, than the other small-town-invaded-by-outsiders musical from this year (see No. 10 below),

2. Groundhog Day. I saw it twice, loved it twice, and actually voted to give it the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best musical. (No one else agreed.) Based on the Bill Murray movie about a weatherman forced to live the same day over and over again, this Brit-born musical captured all of the film’s humor, seriousness and narrative complexity — an ambitious show that set a high bar and cleared it. Yet it closed early, and obviously failed to connect with audiences. Maybe a little too ambitious.

3. On the Shore of the Wide World  British playwright Simon Stephens can be brilliant (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime) or prosaic (Heisenberg). He was on top of his game in this astringent, quietly gripping look at a family in the north of England who have trouble communicating across the generations — and within them.

4. Marvin’s Room.  Scott McPherson’s 1990 play about a family coping with illness could have been a routine disease-of-the-week drama. But last summer’s Broadway revival, directed by Anne Kaufman for the Roundabout Theater Company, made a good case for this layered, clear-eyed family drama as an underappreciated gem.

5. Miss Saigon. Who’s going to rave about a revival of a big Broadway musical from the now-discredited Brit-pop era that the critics didn’t much like the first time around? Me! Schonberg and Boublil’s Vietnam-era reworking of Madame Butterfly is perhaps the closest the Broadway musical has ever come to grand opera, and last spring’s revival was nearly as exciting as the original. Only the famous helicopter landing fell a little flat.

6. Mary Jane.  A beleaguered single mother has to deal with various caregivers, doctors and well-meaning friends as she copes with a severely disabled two-year-old. Amy Herzog (4000 Miles) plunges us into her predicament with both dry-eyed detachment and enormous empathy.

7. The Wolves.  Sarah DeLappe’s off-Broadway play about a girls’ soccer team (still running at Lincoln Center) gets a big lift from the inventive, kinetic direction of Lila Neugebauer, who turns the girls’ stretching routines into synchronized performance art, and their meandering dialogue into a Robert Altman movie for the teen set.

8. Once on This Island.  The new Broadway revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical folk tale, set in the French Antilles, pushes its Caribbean magic realism a little hard. But it’s still a lovely, flavorful production of a very good show.

9. Evening at the Talk House—Wallace Shawn’s play, about a nostalgic reunion of old theater colleagues, starts out as a New Yorker casual and winds up as a dystopian nightmare. This quietly alarming black comedy had a brief off-Broadway run last winter, but was largely, strangely ignored.

10. The Band’s Visit. No one is ignoring Broadway’s latest hit musical, which got the kind of rave reviews that My Fair Lady might have envied. Based on a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian band stranded in the wrong Israeli town, it’s a modest, sweet little show — overpraised, to be sure, but just good enough to make my list.

The Stars Don’t Align for “Meteor Shower”

Stars draw the crowds on Broadway these days, but seldom has shrewd casting created such an instant must-see as Steve Martin’s new comedy Meteor Shower. The big attraction is a pair of acclaimed TV comedians making their Broadway debuts: Keegan-Michael Key, co-creator of the superb sketch-comedy series Key and Peele, and Amy Schumer, who has shown her acting chops not only on her show Inside Amy Schumer but in her sharp feature-film debut, Trainwreck. Great to see both of them on stage. Too bad it isn’t under better circumstances.

Martin’s play (which has been staged previously outside New York) is a slim, shaky piece.  A married couple (Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) addicted to new-age marital counseling invite some new friends (Key and Laura Benanti) to their house for a dinner party to watch the eponymous stellar event. But an evening of astronomy and small talk quickly turns into a battle with the bullish newcomers, who seem bent on upending the marriage of their fragile hosts. A decent, if familiar, premise — but any realistic satire of the needs and neuroses of modern marriage quickly goes off the rails into outlandish farce. (Husband blurts out a confession to the guests: his wife once cannibalized her best friend on a camping trip.) And then things really get weird.

My guess is that Martin had in mind an absurdist mixture of Albee and Ionesco, with a dash of Pinteresque menace.  But veteran comedy director Jerry Zaks can’t see beyond the broadest laughs. And he forces his stars to do the same. Key bounds onto the stage as the pompous interloper with such a shrill voice and machine-gun delivery that he might be playing the foppish villain in a Restoration comedy. Schumer is a little more grounded, but she can never really locate her character, and compensates with sitcom mugging and too many piercing screams.

As for the meteor shower, it provides the occasion for one silly, cartoonish sight gag, but otherwise is pretty much a fizzle. Like the play.

“The Band’s Visit”: Is “Nice” Enough?

I don’t want to say anything bad or disrespectful about The Band’s Visit, the new musical that has just opened on Broadway after an acclaimed off-Broadway run last winter. Adapted from a little 2007 film about an Egyptian police band that winds up, by mistake, stranded in a forlorn little Israeli town,  the show is nice. The people in it are all nice. The actors (especially Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub) do a nice job, as does director David Cromer. David Yazbek’s score is maybe a little better than nice — warm, tuneful, with an authentic middle Eastern flavor. I’m just not sure that’s enough to justify all the raves — including a Best Musical of the Year award from my colleagues in the New York Drama Critics Circle.

Understated to a fault, it’s musical made up of vignettes — surprisingly similar to Come From Away, last season’s Tony-nominated musical about another small town invaded unexpectedly by foreigners. But that show had 9/11 to give it some oomph. In The Band’s Visit we get a long night’s journey into … well, not very much. The Egyptians have various encounters with the hospitable but bored townspeople, all of whom seem afflicted with some form of loneliness, romantic longing or spiritual disaffection. A married couple with a baby have grown apart. A young man stands by a pay phone waiting for his girlfriend to call. A cafe owner puts on her best dress and escorts the band’s leader for an evening of sightseeing and talk — reaching out for connection, then pulling back.

This just doesn’t strike me great material for a musical. I haven’t seen the Israeli film on which it is based, but I can guess that it has more anecdotal filigree, and the kind of quirky, laid-back charm that emerges more naturally on film than on a big Broadway stage. I wouldn’t steer anyone away from The Band’s Visit, which has touching moments and has been produced with much care and compassion. But keep your expectations in check.