‘Lobby Hero’: Second Time’s a Charm

I saw the original off-Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero in 2001, and though I don’t recall many specifics about it, I remember being disappointed — it seemed a comedown from the playwright’s smashing off-Broadway debut a few years before, This Is Our Youth. The new Broadway revival, however (a Second Stage production in the newly refurbished Helen Hayes Theater) left me feeling much different. If ever there was a play that has grown wiser and more pertinent with age, this is it.

The timing couldn’t be better. Nearly all the issues the play deals with, either directly or tangentially — sexual harassment, police brutality, the ethics of “leaking” — have moved to the forefront of our national conversation. Set in the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building, where a sad-sack security guard grinds his way through all-night shifts, the play revolves around four characters faced with moral dilemmas. The security guard’s boss is wrestling with whether to support an alibi for his brother, who is implicated in a brutal murder.  A rookie female cop must decide whether to rat on her harassing veteran partner. The lobby guard who is the sounding board for both of them has to figure out when to keep his mouth shot. Which turns out to be never.

Lonergan has created four very specific and believable characters and unspools the plot complications with absolute fidelity to the way real people talk and act. Some characters do the right thing, some don’t, and Lonergan refuses to judge or simplify the choices. A lesser playwright, for example, would have made the “bad” cop the one who is possibly guilty of an unprovoked police beating; Lonergan pins it on the sympathetic rookie. Maybe it’s Trip Cullman’s sharp production (with uniformly excellent performances from Michael Cera, Brian Tyree Henry, Chris Evans and Bel Powley), or maybe I’ve just belatedly seen the light. But this is one revival that seemed a revelation.


Can ‘Frozen’ Warm Up Broadway?

Frozen, the new Disney musical that has just opened on Broadway, is a beautiful piece of work— sleek, visually splendid and in many ways ingenious. Bringing to the stage the wildly popular animated film, about a princess who can freeze her constituency with the flick of a finger, at first glance seemed a daunting task. But director Michael Grandage and his design team have managed it with graceful simplicity: scenery turns to ice with a mere adjustment of lighting, some crackling sound effects and a few pop-up shards.  Favorite characters from the film — Sven the reindeer, Olaf the talking snowman — are rendered with amusing low-tech puppetry (with a bow to The Lion King, the show that invented everything). The story is briskly told, in the usual Disney manner; Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez have added several peppy numbers to the film’s score; and the cast is just fine. Though Cassie Levy, as the snow queen Elsa, looks a little too Hillary Clinton in her spangled pantsuit and regally coiffed hairdo, I give her credit for pulling out all the stops in the big, first-act-closing number “Let It Go” without making the adults in the audience gag.

If the show left me a little, well, cold, I think the main reason lies in the story itself — at least, as Jennifer Lee has adapted it from Hans Christian Andersen. Yes, fairy tales are often dark, but Elsa’s childhood punishment for accidentally turning her sister into an icicle — the two don’t get to talk to each other for the next 10 years— seems uncalled for, even disturbing. The dual-track storyline is also frustrating: the most interesting character is Elsa, but we spend most of the time following little-sister Anna (a feisty Patti Murin) on her trek to — well, on the stage it’s a little unclear where, since we don’t get the lovely vistas of the animated film. Nor are the villains up to Disney snuff: either too comic (the pint-sized Weselton) or too late to the party (Prince Hans, the knight in shining armor who breaks bad at the last minute).

In the end, I’m afraid, my main problem is that the central tension of the story— yet another fantasy hero/heroine whose big predicament in life, poor dear, is learning how to cope with superpowers — doesn’t have the emotional resonance of, say, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, despite all the fervent messaging about the power of sisterhood. You go, girls. And you too, Disney — still master creators of stage magic, who have created a show that will please a lot of them. But I’m just lukewarm.

‘Jerry Springer’: Has the Moment Passed?

The strange fate of Jerry Springer—The Opera is one of the mysteries of the recent theater past. The show, an operatic send-up of the tawdry daytime reality show, was a smash hit when it opened in London in 2003, a sellout at the National Theatre and winner of the Olivier Award for best musical of the season. I saw the show there, thought it was pretty terrific, and — at a time when virtually every big London musical was making its way to the U.S. — assumed it would soon be the Next Big Brit Thing on Broadway.

And yet, strangely, the show disappeared. What happened? To be sure, its satire of TV sleaze-mongering — cross-dressing husbands, pole-dancing wives, a guy with a diaper fetish — is as foul-mouthed and scatalogical as any musical in history. (Sample lyric: “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fucking fuck?”). But hasn’t The Book of Mormon, a huge Broadway hit a few years later, proven that puritans no longer have much clout on the Great White Way?

Now, nearly 15 years later, a New York production of Jerry Springer has finally arrived off-Broadway. I still think the show is a whole lot of fun — but not quite as pungent, or as relevant, as it once was. The reality TV world is much different today. The game now is not to coax trailer-park losers into acting like freaks on national TV, but to put good-looking celebrity-wannabes (or celebrity-used-to-be’s) into “ordinary” situations —  sharing living quarters, or picking a girlfriend, or executing a business plan to please a self-absorbed billionaire — and hyping it into high melodrama.  Jerry Springer’s show (I was surprised to discover) is actually still on the air. But satirizing it now, in Trump’s America, seems an exercise in nostalgia.

That said, John Rando’s production for the New Group is sharp, and Richard Thomas’s faux-operatic score (with its catchy “This Is My Jerry Springer Moment” refrain) is beautifully sung by a cast displaying more body fat than you’ll normally see in an entire theater season. Broadway vet Terrence Mann is spot-on as Springer, and a new song has been added for him (in the original, Springer’s was the only non-singing part). Other changes have been made since London, and though I can’t pinpoint them exactly, the first act, with its mounting parade of outrageous guests airing their dirty laundry, now seems overly hysterical, while the second act (the weaker half, in which Jerry goes to hell and bargains with the devil) is a bit improved. But I’m afraid Jerry Springer’s moment may have passed.

‘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.

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.