Lyric Stage's "The Chosen": Many Are Called

“The Chosen”, adapted by Aaron Posner (and Chaim Potok, from his 1967 novel), now ours to enjoy in Lyric Stage Company’s second outing of the season, is a faithful rendering of the beloved work. It’s an old-fashioned format (complete with that swiftly vanishing species, an intermission), which fortunately serves the material well. It’s a simple and basically sweet story about two vastly different approaches to parenting in the midst of an increasingly threatening world. Two Jewish boys, living just blocks apart, are brought up with all the best intentions, but in fundamentally opposite traditions by their influential fathers. All of these characters are called in varying ways to live out their beliefs. How the boys mature and make life-changing decisions will change our preconceptions of who is chosen for what.

Director Daniel Gidron has assembled a very talented group both behind and in front of the “curtain”. The technical achievements are all well coordinated, from the versatile Scenic Design by Brynna Bloomfield to the perfectly suitable Costume Design by Mallory Frers, to the effective Lighting Design by John Malinowski, Sound Design by Dewey Dellay and Floor Projection by Martin Mendelsberg. They all contribute to a harmonious recreation of 1940’s Brooklyn, with careful attention to details (such as the Eastern European style of glass tea implements in the traditional home, versus the more assimilated home‘s porcelain tea service). The small cast of five includes Charles Linshaw (the adult Reuven Malter), who serves as the narrator, a role often introduced when a literary source is adapted for the stage. Zachary Eisenstat (Young Reuven) and Luke Murtha (Danny Saunders) are the boys, and Joel Colodner (Reb Saunders) and Will McGarrahan (David Malter) are their fathers.

Colodner has the meatiest role, in which he excels, as he has chosen to mold his son by silence. “For a word to be spoken, there must be silence before and after”. Murtha (so memorable in the recent New Rep production “The Kite Runner”) laments that his father “talks a lot, but not to me”. The only evident intimacy they share is in their arguments about the Talmud. McGarrahan, in yet another challenging role that adds to an amazingly varied career, feels that “anything that brings (people) together is a blessing”. That something, an accidental injury during a baseball game, is the catalyst for a friendship that will result in change for all of the characters as they react to the post-war Holocaust revelations, especially as they debate the possibility of a secular Jewish state. Those who have read the book will probably recall how the tensions are resolved, but those new to the storyline will probably not anticipate the eventual choices that are made.

The more traditional father states at one point that “a mind without a soul is not what I need from a son”, but that “the heart speaks through silence”, through which one learns “to hear the suffering of others in between silences”. Just how the conflicts between a scholar and an activist are reconciled is at the heart of this work, and this story has a lot of heart. As with all good theater that brings us together, this is a blessing.


SpeakEasy's "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson": Hickory Hickory Rocks

In its previous off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” was successful neither as a musical nor as a comedy, but as a rarer breed, a sort of theatrical hybrid. It was memorable more for its star-making titular performance by newcomer Benjamin Walker than for its political (and historical) incorrectness. Such is also the case with Speakeasy Stage Company’s local premiere of the work, thanks to Gus Curry (in his SpeakEasy debut) in a sexy, staggering, swaggering, no-holes-barred, take-no-prisoners, pull-all-the-stops-out performance. It’s a breathtaking turn, for audience and actor, as he dominates the stage for almost every one of its hundred minutes, not an easy task given its extraordinarily talented cast (most notably Mary Callanan as the Storyteller). If there is any justice in this world, this won’t be the last you will have heard of Mr. Curry. His trim and handsome version, or revision, of our seventh President, is more of a Young Hickory, and whether the concept works for you will probably depend less on his incredible charisma than on your tolerance for (intentionally) silly slapstick, emo-rock music (if you have to ask, you might want to pass on this one) with an occasional touch of country, and outrageously sophomoric humor (as when he asked an audience member if she wanted to see his stimulus package). It’s as though Hasting Pudding meets Saturday Night Live.

The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman are often memorable, as in the plaintive “Second Nature” (effectively rendered by multi-talented Nicholas James Connell as the Bandleader, who also serves as the Music Director). The book, by Alex Timbers, is more problematic. Subtlety and sophistication suffer; nuance is in absentia. So, it must be said, is acceptable taste, at least occasionally, as in the following that must rank as the single most offensive and mean-spirited lines in recent or distant memory: “Susan Sontag’s dead/So I guess her cancer wasn’t metaphorical after all/Sorry”. Equally offensive in the Broadway version was its jaw-dropping depictions of gay stereotypes, from a group of “effete Spaniards” to the “foppish doily-wearing Washington elite” (as described in the liner notes to the original cast recording). Most (but, incredibly for this gay-friendly company, not all) of these caricatures are missing in this production. Also missing from this version is the overwhelmingly busy and distracting original set, here re-imagined in the very clever Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, along with very effective Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Sound Design by Eric Norris, and Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito. Add to this mix the inventive Choreography by Larry Sousa and Fight Choreography by Angie Jepson and you have less of a concert-like experience than its New York forbears and more of a truly theatrical one. Last but assuredly not least, the work of Director Paul Melone is outstanding, worthy of the typical efforts of the company’s Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, and that’s saying a good deal.

Meanwhile, about that great supporting cast, there is strong evidence that local schools have a huge talent pool: from Boston Conservatory, Tom Hamlett, Diego Klock-Perez, Joshua Pemberton, Alessandra Vaganek, and Brittany Walters (at the same time as the Boston Conservatory production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, with another outstanding title performance by handsome and hunky Marc Koeck with an astonishing vocal range, and a uniformly superb cast); add to this the talent from Boston College (Evan Murphy), Berklee College of Music (Mssrs. Curry and Connell), Northeastern (Michael Levesque) and Brandeis (Ben Rosenblatt) and you’ll have an idea of how impressive our “locavore” resources are.

“Bloody Bloody” was a certifiable hit Off-Broadway, but when it moved to Broadway, it lasted fewer than 100 performances. It may be that it misjudged its target demographic. It might be that many potential theatergoers of a certain age see this controversial President in a less humorous vein. (Certainly Native Americans do). Perhaps they missed the point entirely, as in the lament of two newly relocated Floridians who decried the forced relocation of “the Indians from here in Florida…a real tragedy…but then, we were, like…it is nice that it doesn’t snow”. Truth be told, that serious lament comes rather belatedly. In the final number, the Bandleader sings: “The motels on the canyon/They make a second nature….The grass grows/We take it/We want it/It’s second nature to us”. If a wonderfully performed political cartoon in the midst of the current political circus is the antidote you need, then by all means vote for “Andrew Jackson” with your derrieres (in the seats, that is). And vote often.


Huntington's "Now or Later": All Politics Is Vocal

Huntington Theater Company’s production of “Now or Later” by Christopher Shinn, in its American premiere, follows current trends in playwrighting: it has no intermission, one set, a small cast and a short running time (less than eighty minutes). What sets it above the crowd is how much it has to say about several profound issues. Shinn poses a number of provocative questions, and purposely avoids providing pat answers, challenging the theatergoer to find her or his own responses. He also challenges himself as an author in that he creates a complex series of confrontations in real time. It’s refreshing to see an author follow the traditional Aristotelian unities of action, place and time in such an up-to-the-minute and relevant manner.

The surface plot revolves around a thoughtless college prank involving some potentially viral video that threatens to explode with world-wide repercussions. On a presidential election night, the son of the winning candidate is revealed to have been photographed in a costume mimicking Mohammed. (Tellingly, we never see the incident; it’s gradually described for us, as though all politics is filtered through the words of others). One might assume that Shinn wrote this within the last month, influenced by current events, but this isn’t the case, as the play had its debut in London in 2008; its very accidental timeliness lends the work its resonance. The topics of freedom of expression, reactions to Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits of rigid convictions and their consequences, aren’t easy ones, and Shinn holds no punches. In his view, all politics is personal and everything personal is potentially political. Even such a simple gesture as using the hotel minibar becomes a subliminal statement of the choices one makes.

As directed by Michael Wilson (whose most recent work was directing the well-received “The Best Man” on Broadway), the play is quite riveting. The Scenic Design by Jeff Cowie sets a perfect tone with his recreation of a typical luxury hotel suite (curiously designated by Shinn as in a Southern state on election night, though no one in the cast has an accent and one might expect the candidate to have chosen to end the campaign in his home state). The Costume Design by David C. Woolard seems just right for each of the characters (except perhaps for the future First Lady, a Democrat wearing a red dress rather than blue, despite being described as one of those people who “hold focus groups on what color tie to wear”). The Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa and Sound Design by David Remedios provide a believable realistic background for the multiple interactions of the cast.

And what a cast, thanks to the work of Casting Director Alaine Alldaffer; not only do they all absolutely look their parts, but they manage in such a brief time to inhabit them. Grant McDermott as John Jr., son of presidential candidate John Sr. (Tom Nelis) and his wife Jessica (Alexandra Neil), is extremely affecting in his conflicted reactions to the near-hysteria that surrounds him. Neil, as his overprotective mother, and Nelis, as his driven father, couldn’t be better, nor could Adriane Lenox (so very memorable in her Tony-winning role in “Doubt”) as campaign staffer Tracy. Michael Goldsmith as Matt, John Jr.'s best friend, and Ryan King (Marc), another campaign staffer slightly lower on the pecking order, are the other characters, but haven’t been given as much time or depth to develop them.

Toward the end of the play, when John Jr. receives a phone call and it turns out not to be the one he expected, it becomes increasingly evident that Shinn feels that there are no easy answers to some of life’s most complicated problems. No one, especially in the public eye, is completely free in making choices; these are often influenced by forces we can’t anticipate or control, and may well have devastating consequences, either now or later.


New Rep's "Race": A Mamet Undertaking

After treating theatergoers to what amounted to a dramatic feast in its first outing of the current season, “Kite Runner”, New Rep has followed up with a disappointing palate cleanser, the David Mamet play, “Race”. Thin and trim almost to the point of anorexia, this is Mamet Lite, certainly not a bad night of theater, but not a great one either. It does have a hearty helping of his trademark rapid-fire dialogue with many a dollop of down and dirty language. What doesn’t help is the basic plotting that has more than a few unbelievable coincidences, absurd plot devices, and more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. For a playwright with his reputation, it’s really shocking, not so much to hear Mamet’s neoconservative leanings or salty wordplay as to encounter such sloppy writing. (As an example, can he truly believe Bermuda is in the Caribbean?). He appears to have bitten off more than he can ruminate upon in a spare ninety intermission-less minutes.

The plot, such as it is, involves the accusation that a white man has raped a black woman, and what various agendas this brings to the surface when a team of lawyers begins to develop its defense. Not so coincidentally, this team also consists of a white male and a couple of blacks, one male, one female. The bulk of the play revolves around the baggage each character brings to such a volatile issue and how this affects each one’s opinion on guilt or innocence. Mamet seems driven to depict these viewpoints in what he no doubt sees as unexpected and therefore dramatic ways. Without much support for his take on race in our time, he skewers well-meaning, often subliminal pseudo-liberals with knee-jerk reactions making them overly color-blind. He gives himself away in an article he wrote at the time of the play’s Broadway production in which he pontificates that “all drama is about lies; when the lie is exposed, the play is over”. Ouch. One would have thought drama, rather than intending to deceive, instead depends on gradual unfolding of truths that have been intentionally withheld until the appropriate revelation. But this is Mamet’s play and his current world view, take it or leave it.

New Rep’s production has some great elements in it. The direction by Robert Walsh is crisp, aided significantly by the dramatic lighting by Scott Pinkney and an unusual set by Janie E. Howland. The cast of four (Patrick Shea as the defendant, Ken Cheeseman as the lead attorney, Cliff Odie as his partner, and Miranda Craigwell as their assistant) manages the rhythm of Mamet well, if a bit shaky at times. (It’s difficult to distinguish, with this author, when an actor might have gone up on his lines as opposed to when this is in the text). It’s a well crafted effort, unfortunately in the service of an unsatisfying evening. When all was said and done, it was like the politically incorrect adage about eating Chinese food: one left hungry for more theater.



Huntington's "Good People": Our Lady of Perpetual Bingo

Early in “Good People”, Huntington Theater Company’s current production of the play by local boy David Lindsay-Abaire, Johanna Day, in the central role of Margie Walsh, says of her high school boyfriend, “he was always good people”. It’s obvious that the playwright feels the same way toward his characters in this work; while they are far from perfect, he sees them as basically good people. Lindsay-Abaire, who once helped his father sell fruit across the street from the very theater presenting his latest play, has evident affection for them. It’s clear why this has become the most frequently produced play across the country this season, but equally clear that the play belongs here more than in any other venue, as he has recreated the pulse, the rhythm and above all the soul of the Southie he fondly but objectively recalls. Incredibly, this lasted a mere hundred performances on Broadway, despite earning such honors as the Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony nomination, for Best Play.

As superbly directed here by Broadway veteran Kate Whoriskey, this work should certainly find a more understanding audience. In the role of Margie (for which Frances McDormand won a Tony for the Broadway version), Day gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the world-weary single mom who’s been laid off, faces eviction, and is dealing with a developmentally challenged daughter. Lending her the kind of community support one only finds in a true ethnic and religious ghetto, local stalwarts Nancy E. Carroll as her landlady Dottie, and Karen MacDonald as her best friend Jean, amazingly together for the first time in their individual illustrious careers, complete the perfect trio. Their somewhat unholy alliance at their local parish hall bingo game is painfully accurate in the play’s spot-on depiction of those who by choice or chance are trapped in Southie, as opposed to those who’ve managed to find a way out.

Michael Laurence as the aforementioned boyfriend, now a successful fertility doctor living comfortably in Chestnut Hill, represents those who (as did playwright Lindsay-Abaire himself) escaped the confines of the ghetto, at least on the surface. When confronted with his real past by Margie, in the presence of his wife Kate (very well played by Rachael Holmes), a lot of buried baggage is disinterred. Questions of identity, fate and class in America, and the role of choices and luck, or the lack of either, are brought to the fore. Meanwhile, as all of the memories of relationships past are unearthed, it falls to Nick Westrate (memorable in off-Broadway’s triumph “Tribes”) as fellow bingo-player Stevie to reestablish faith in the basic goodness of people.

If this all sounds too heavily melodramatic, rest assured that it’s not; in fact, it’s hilariously truthful. Aided by a terrific technical team, from Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge to Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi to Lighting Designer Matthew Richards, this is as close to perfection as theater gets. While there is all too recognizable pain in the laughter, this is an extraordinarily fine-tuned balance of hysterical timing and thought-provoking writing. As Lindsay-Abaire has posited, there are good people in comfortable theater seats, as well as good people selling fruit in the streets, and there is always belief in the possibility for change. As one character puts it toward the end of the play, "something’ll come up”, to which Margie replies, “I hope so”. Bingo!