‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ And Other Trivial Pursuits

Beyond Twitter, it is Oscar Wilde once again, who demonstrates the eloquence of the terse expression. Deftly directed by Brian Bedford, the Roundabout Theatre’s revival of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest, brings immediacy and humor to Wilde’s playful language, and his famous aphorisms.

This stands out even in the obvious, narrative-driven scene in Act I, where Algernon (Santino Fontana) challenges his old friend Jack Worthing (David Furr) about pretending to be a man named Ernest, charging him with the observation that the English “are always degrading truths into facts, and when truths become facts they loose all their intellectual value”.  It is an irreverent remark that appears enigmatic when spoken. Giving it credibility, is the work of the satirist.

As the story unfolds, we discover that Jack is an orphan whose Christian name is actually Ernest. Since it’s the name that Gwendolen  (Sarah Topham) loves – and only Ernest who she will marry – the “fact” frees him to fulfill his higher ambition, romantic fulfillment. At the same time, it allows him to relinquish a tedious intellectual past time – studying the biographies of British generals.

As it turns out, the audience can cherish and feel fully entertained by the abandonment of “intellectual values”, as they prove to be pretenses that disguise the truth. (Wilde engages us in that observation by weaving the matter of British generals into his intricately fabricated plot.)

In capturing the nuances of disguise, Brian Bedford proves himself a master, not only in his direction, but also in his portrayal of Lady Bracknell. If the audience didn’t know better, we would still marvel at the deep, manly voice that emerges from such a proper conservative lady.

Similarly, Santino Fontana captures the moral paradox of Algernon, a character who also pretends to be Ernest when, in fact, he has little interest in serious matters. Fontana mines the pun on the titular name while displaying a buoyant physical life that appears at turns unconscious and overly self-aware. One can’t tell when the actor is being truthful or when he’s faking. The irony of “Ernest” is the ability to be both (or neither) simultaneously.

Finally, unity is achieved when Algernon meets the woman of his destiny, Cecily (Charlotte Parry) Jack Worthing’s ward, the wealthy young woman who can enable him in his pursuit of the good life, as he perceives it. Ironically, their relationship speaks to the “vital Importance of Being Earnest”.

Wilde’s satire of Victorian marriage and principals is embodied in these self-interested youth with such finesse that it slides off the palette; their trivialities are the source of such good humor and their escapades so delightfully entertaining that we readily embrace them.

In the midst of it all, the playwright provides a brilliant array of observations  – aphoristic expressions that explore the nature of character, the hypocrisy of society and the even greater hypocrisy of those who criticize it, along with the failure of education and certain educators. The latter is represented in the character of Miss Prism (rendered by the incomparable Dana Ivey) who, having confused a book with a baby, left the infant Ernest (Jack Worthing) in a handbag at Victoria Station. In spite of – or maybe because of – her irresponsible behavior, it is she who brings the characters and their relationships into full light.

That the satire plays with such a gleeful and undermining edge more than 100 years later reflects Bedford’s ability to marry his ensemble of actors with the richness of Wilde’s language and the irreverence of his thought.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, is a limited run through July 3rd. For tickets call 212-719-1300, go to the box office or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre

‘A Free Man of Color’: Slavery, Ugly Americans

The shuffling between empires for possession of New Orleans at a time when its port at the mouth of the Mississippi River was a crucial hub between the Americas and Europe is the subject of John Guare’s picaresque new drama. The time is 1801 -1806 when the keys to the celebrated city are being passed between the King of Spain, King Carlos Cuarto (Nick Mennell), and Napoleon (Triney Sandoval). As staged, the exchange of power takes place in an atmosphere of madness as though it were all a part of Mardi Gras.

In American parlance, “A Free Man of Color” covers that period directly before and after the Louisiana Purchase when President Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin) purchased the territory from France, acquiring control of the port and opening up the opportunity for America to move west. Domestically, the purchase of New Orleans also exacerbated the division between north and south over slavery. Meanwhile in the Caribbean, Sante Domingue (now Haiti) was waging a successful revolt against France, making it the first independent black state in the new world.

Here these political events converge as they are experienced through the life of one Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), the son of a wealthy white man and a black slave. Cornet is a lady’s man, so well endowed that all of his friends’ wives find him irresistible. Dressed in comical royal attire – a pink velvet coat and an elaborate wig of curly white hair – Cornet is well educated and loquacious. And as “A Free Man of Color” he is something of an oddity. At times he flaunts a bad French accent, at others he talks like a rapper. His ill-fated outcome arrives (Act II) with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase under which slavery would gain strength.

As helmed by George C. Wolfe, the play’s epic sweep is played with camp humor. Emerging from his bath, Napoleon bares a cannon between his legs; Thomas Jefferson orders that his inaugural dinner be put on a credit card; secret codes are deciphered by a machine that spins out letters with the speed of the US debt clock. It’s a fascinating journey, one of enormous scope and complexity. Still, compared to other epic dramas of recent vintage, “Coast of Utopia” and “Angels in America” particularly, “Free Man” can be obtuse and difficult to follow.

Its cast includes over 40 actors – citizens and slaves of New Orleans as well as aristocrats and revolutionaries from Sante Domingue, America’s political leaders, the King of Spain and his daughter, Napoleon’s consorts (military, political and sexual), along with the playwright Georges Feydeau. The dialogue is delivered at such break neck speed that it’s nearly impossible to follow it all. Still, the challenge it creates is transfixing; one really doesn’t want to miss the carnival of cultures and imperialist machinations.

In spite of it all, or maybe because of it, certain impressions are clear, as we observe the farce of actors bumping into each other, all in pursuit of a similar goal: the need to stay on top, to keep power or to acquire it. As portrayed, it is supremacy that is the prime mover, exerting control in every arena: race, politics, economics and culture.

The actors – Mos, and Veanne Cox among many other stage worthy thespians – are subservient to the complexities of drama and the history it relates. But as visual spectacle, the production is awesome with resplendent costumes (Ann Hould-Ward) reflecting a diversity of civilizations. And David Rockwell’s set, a stage that reflects the play within the play, converts to myriad locations in a breeze while history and its lessons swoosh by us.

“A Free Man of Color” is at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 56th Street) through January 9th.  Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets call 212-239-6200, visit lct.org or go to the box office.

‘Brief Encounter’ Still Lives Run Deep

A fleeting romance – never consummated yet all consuming – is the subject of “Brief Encounter,” David Lean’s classic 1945 movie based on the Noel Coward play, “Still Life.”  While the movie romance was recounted in somber tones of gray with meager scenic elements, and the barest touch of action, the story rolls into place faster than a roller coaster. As re-imagined, and told now by London’s Kneehigh Theatre, one can only hope that love like that will surely come their way.

Played against a string of popular songs beginning with “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” the movie’s grim mise-en-scene is replaced here by a buoyant display of physical comedy. An on-stage band, and shocks of color – blue scooter, red hair band, vase of country flowers – draw our attention to the stage. That is, when we’re not diverted by the actors popping in and out of the audience as if they were part of the matinee crowd at the Palladium, one of the movie’s principal locations. As adapted and directed by Emma Rice, the strategy is clear: to find whatever it takes to shake us from ennui, just the way love, especially forbidden love, wakes us form the security of our quotidian lives.

In one particularly breathtaking moment, the romantic couple gets sucked into a comic remake of the old movie, only to be swept back onto the stage. The Technicolor acrobatics are supported by loose-limbed choreography as well as additional footage that alternates between an underwater swimmer and crashing waves. The latter arrive with a crescendo reflecting the intensity of love, or ebb as with spent emotions. With so much going on in the design and staging, romance hardly gets the time to breathe. And so the tension grows.

Scenes from Laura’s frustrating family life, portrayed on stage and in film, also serve the central story. Her needy children, portrayed by life-size puppets, and her self-referential husband create the background for her conflicted relationship. Joseph Alessi, in a masterful double play, portrays Laura’s husband as well as the cockney train station employee who flirts with the cafe manager, a bawdy Annette McLaughlin. Along with Gabriel Ebert as the honky-tonk ukulele player and his belle, the waitress on the scooter played by Dorothy Atkinson, the two couples create a rowdy contrast to Laura and Alec’s gentle love.

Portrayed as an iconic romantic object, Hannah Yelland’s Laura sports the quivering voice, tightly wound blonde locks and refined gestures that bring to mind an old movie heroine. In fact, Lean narrated the movie from Laura’s point of view through a flashback. That the movie developed inside her psyche was a radical approach for the time.  Here Trevor Howard’s memorable role is played by Tristan Sturrock. Clearly, a more self-actualized character that Laura, Sturrock’s shaggy dog good looks and easy going manner are a contrast to Laura’s predicament, as she remains stuck in the role of middle class housewife.

In the play’s rousing finale, Rice brings back the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 which opens the movie and plays throughout it. At last, Laura liberates herself by taking up her treasured past time; wildly pounding on the piano keys, she plays Rachmaninoff. Arriving Deus ex Machina, the audience feels like they’ve waited all night for it to come. “Brief Encounter” is a contagious evening of theater.

John Kander on “The Scottsboro Boys”

“Tomorrow Belongs To Me” may not be a lyric you recognize, but the infectiously haunting tune is one you will. Remember the Nazi anthem in the musical “Cabaret”? “It’s absolutely angelic the first time you hear it,” the composer John Kander humbly, but wryly imparts. “And later when you hear the same song and you realize what it means, you suddenly feel betrayed, guilty, or ashamed to see yourself as one of those people.”

With his partner Fred Ebb, the duo created such popular musicals as “Chicago”, “Zorba”, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” to name but a few. Famous for creating Liza Minnelli’s repertoire, including her signature “Liza with a Z”, “Kandernebb” – as Kander now refers to them  – are the longest lasting songwriting team in Broadway history. Their latest “The Scottsboro Boys”, was completed by Kander after Ebb passed away in 2004. Following a brief run Off Broadway last season, the show is now opening on Broadway.

Kander, a Jewish Midwesterner by birth, recalls reading about the trial of the nine black youths, the Scottsboro Boys who were accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. “When I was a kid” Kander recalls, “it was in the newspaper almost every day. And then some years went on and it was in the paper once in a while…and then it wasn’t in the paper at all. They disappeared as if they had never existed.”

As the musical depicts, the nine youths – ages thirteen to twenty one – were denied the right to legal defense, hastily convicted, and all but one sentenced to death. With more mistrials and appeals, the case spanned two decades, becoming one of the most corrupt and protracted in American history. Fact is: lives were destroyed for a crime that never occurred. “One of the reasons that we chose their story”, Kander says emphatically, “is because it matters to us. It’s an attempt – maybe one you can only achieve in the theater – to bring them back to life.”

When I ask John Kander about the parallels between “The Scottsboro Boys” and what’s happening in America today, he volunteers, “This the most divided time I’ve seen in my life. The revival of racism and hatreds is blatant…Contrary to what a lot of people are saying – ‘isn’t it wonderful that we have a black president’ – it’s like a Pandora’s box. People are doing things openly now that were not allowed when Fred and I started writing this. It’s terrifying.”

That all but one of the Scottsboro Boys were eventually freed is due in some part to the work of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party, which enlisted the foremost criminal lawyer of the day, New York attorney Samuel Leibowitz. In the play, that character is depicted as snide and exploitative of the black youths. Kander explains: “We didn’t want to present a man who’s just angelic and nonexistent. He was a very, very successful lawyer and when he came down to Alabama he really thought, ‘well I have this track record and I’m not going to lose this either’. But to his credit he never gave up on them.”

Kander continues, “Not only were the defendants black, but they were being defended by a Jewish lawyer. It was a double whammy.” The anti-Semitism is depicted in the song, “Financial Advice” with its references to “Jew Money”.  That Kander’s music is so ebullient is a direct contrast to the lyrics.

Similarly, the song “Electric Chair” is performed as a big tap dancing show biz number. Grinning slyly, and somewhat childlike, Kander comments, “That is really fun. I admit to it. Fred and I did a lot in our writing to say something horrible and to set it in the most lighthearted or lyrical way. The song called “Class” in “Chicago” is really disgusting. But if you sing those words to a kind of sweet Schubert like piece of music suddenly it takes on an irony that is both amusing and confusing.”

Just like “Cabaret” is staged in a 1930’s German music hall, and Chicago is set to the vaudeville style of its era, “The Scottsboro Boys” is staged as a minstrel show with the main characters appearing in blackface at the end. “Looking back at it now” Kander remarks, “we realize it was something unbelievably racist and demeaning to black people. But it was the most popular form of entertainment in this country for many years and people didn’t think anything about it. Just as the Jewish comedians who were so popular up until recently were funny, really funny. Of course, underneath it there is also something demeaning.”

Clearly, “The Scottosboro Boys” bares the “Kandernebb” signature: incredibly upbeat songs that reflect an unbeatably optimistic view of life. While underlying it all, innocent young men are caught up in historical events far beyond their control.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

 

If Monty Python married political columnist Thomas L. Friedman, their rebellious offspring might act like “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”. Yet, the cacophonous musical satire that opened on Broadway after a well-received run downtown at the Public Theater is by no means a perfect marriage, theatrically speaking.

To begin with, the music feels like it’s been exhumed from some club kid’s trashed iPod. Most of Michael Friedman’s score is so loud and brash, it begs forgetting.

Then there’s the matter of coherence. With the mashup of quasi-history and current events there’s just too much to take in; it gets confusing. The result is an anarchic assault on the senses as well as the state of American politics with both dialogue and emotional tenor framed in the most juvenile terms.  President Andrew Jackson (Benjamin Walker) is pouty and temperamental even as he challenges elitist politicians. That his subversive tactics succeed – he gathers public support and hands more power to the people – is what appears so frightening here as it evokes the modern day Tea Party. 

Ultimately, playwright Alex Timbers draws parallels between popular leader and demagogue resting his interpretation on the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans as Jackson’s primary political agenda. In every case, fact and fiction merge to reveal a character that’s as much Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as it is Andrew Jackson.

These analogies come across through a theatrical style that is overtly silly and in your face. Accordingly, the dialogue is glib, characters often delivering their lines as if they are clueless.

Regardless, some of the anachronisms just reflect a lapse in good taste. In a song called “Illness as Metaphor” that addresses how sick the president is, a Citizen croons with offhand sarcasm, “But Susan Sontag’s dead. So I guess her cancer’s not metaphorical after all… ” It’s a lyric that’s gone awry.

The strengths here lie in the vitality of the performers. As President Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Walker has a rock star swagger, but he is also repulsive. It’s a tricky role, one that Walker fuels with athleticism, intensity and emotional agility. He’s matched by an ensemble that includes a buoyant Darren Goldstein (Calhoun and Andrew Sr.) and Kirstine Nielsen as The Storyteller – an historian in a wheelchair. Jeff Hiller plays several roles including John Quincy Adams, who defeated Andrew Jackson in his first run for the office even though the latter had more popular votes. As Adams puts it, “My father was president, so I should be”. 

Donyale Werle’s environmental design is a picture of American detritus that extends from the stage into the audience. Both are surrounded by a multitude of little red Christmas lights with portraits of politicians lining the walls and taxidermy dangling dangerously between the players and the spectators. The setting tells the story before even a word is said.

While intended as lighthearted exaggeration, the humor still eludes me.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The announcement of a Broadway musical with a cast of A list Broadway actors (Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Laura Benanti, de’Adre Aziza, Mary Beth Peil, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Danny Burstein) and one American Idol (Justin Guarini), brings high expectations to the screen-to-stage adaptation of Almodovar’s 1988 film, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” It’s the film that brought him an international reputation.

A camp throw back to the Doris Day movies of the ‘50s about the perfect housewife and the ideal marriage, Almodovar’s farce brings his women characters into strong relief. Opinionated and driven, they fall into senseless turmoil when abandoned by men. The film’s comic charm ignites when our heroines finally push them away with unbridled vengeance.

Fortunately, that sense of madcap caprice comes across in the musical’s design, especially Michael Yeargen’s sets and Sven Ortel’s projections. Rooms glide into place while scenes of Madrid in the background cascade across the outlines of Pepa’s (Sherie Rene Scott’s) windows, creating a network of geometric surfaces that break out into classic city views. With their bright colors, the Mondrian-like patterns form a brilliant background.

And Catherine Zuber’s costumes are delightfully surprising character studies. For the killer, Lucia (Patti LuPone), a bright pink coat like the inside of a matador’s cape wraps around a leopard dress. In the role of Candela, the woman who thinks being trapped in her home by a Shiite terrorist is blissfully romantic, Laura Benanti remains largely naked in whatever strange attire she throws on. And Sherie Rene Scott is smartly outfitted in tailor made suits, much like the ‘50s movie icons that her character celebrates. 

But beyond the parade of sets and costumes, the onstage action is unfocused, lacking momentum in spite of much freneticism. In keeping with the film, the narrative is revealed through glimpses into the women’s lives. Voice mail messages, lyrics in a song, and lots of coincidences create the matrix, however illogical, that gives us a window into relationships and betrayals. In Almodovar’s hands, this technique invites the audience into an intimacy with his women heroines that is simply missing from the musical adaptation. Watching the show on stage we don’t experience empathy for the women characters, nor do we share their victory in rejecting their lousy lotharios.

For one thing, their actions only matter if we see what they are reacting against, and the male characters here are flimsy at best. Brian Stokes Mitchell as the philandering movie director Ivan is a humorless cad, summed up in the lyrical refrain, “Blah, blah, blah.” The role as adapted by Jeffrey Lane, doesn’t give us much of a Don Juan. Similarly, Justin Guarini as Carlos, Ivan’s son, is too much of a caricature, bordering on the slapstick. Danny Burstein provides a splash of comedy as the mambo-obsessed Taxi Driver who fills us in on the action.

But the character that’s most dramatically altered in the musical is Lucia (Patti LuPone), Ivan’s wife who, in the movie, arrives only at the end thirstier than a vampire. Here, the character is laden with a strange conflict between getting her husband back and killing him. It’s confusion over motive that restrains the dramatically unrestrainable LuPone.

Laura Benanti is by far the most convincing and entertaining as the model who falls in love with her tormentor. She also has the best song, a very talky number that sparkles with the character’s wacky, mindless behavior. But that’s the exception, as most of the lyrics are not memorable. And while the music starts out with great crescendo and a thriving Latin beat, it diminishes into the background by the second act.

Finally, it is precisely Almodovar’s sensitivity for his female characters that makes “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” an edgy venture for a Broadway musical. Missing that is missing the point.

 

Who Drives Alfred Uhry?

Who would have imagined that a simple, three-person play with fairly modest staging would be the hottest ticket on Broadway? But this season “Driving Miss Daisy” starring Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones and four-time Tony-winner Boyd Gaines is one of the hardest tickets to get. On October 6th, the day before previews had even begun, Variety reported advance sales of $4.5 million.

The story, about the bond that develops between an elderly Southern Jewish lady and her black chauffeur has become a classic, mostly because of the Oscar-winning movie that starred Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Of course, the film was based on the original play also written by Alfred Uhry with whom I shared a cup of coffee one morning at a popular theater district diner.

“I was not trying to write anything with a message. I don’t write that way. I was really writing a family memoir about my childhood,” Uhry remarked. He is relaxed while loquacious in exploring with me the titular character. “Miss Daisy” (Vanessa Redgrave) was based to a large extent on his own grandmother, whom he describes as “lovable because she’s pretty irascible. She has absolutely no sense of humor about herself and it makes her funny.”

The more earnest character from Uhry’s perspective is the chauffeur (James Earl Jones). “Hoke” he explains, “is a more socially evolved man than she is. Of course, he hasn’t had any education. He’s functionally illiterate when he comes to work for her. And he’s an old man, too. But they learn from each other that labels aren’t it. It’s what’s inside yourself that’s it. And that people need to realize that about each other.”

“I find what’s so interesting” Uhry adds “is that in the 25 years since I wrote the play, we’ve certainly made great racial strides in this country – enormous racial strides – but that labeling is still here. It is for blacks. It is for Jews. It now is all of a sudden for Muslims. And so all that fear and hate and ignorance is there.”

About his own upbringing, the playwright shares with me the internalized anti-Semitism of his Southern German Jewish ancestry. As he observed it, “being Jewish was some sort of defect that you had to overcome like being lame or being blind. So I grew up with a chip on my shoulder wishing that I could have, as I said in another one of my plays, “kissed my elbow and turned into an Episcopalian.”

That play, “The Last Night at Ballyhoo” the second in Uhry’s unofficial Atlanta trilogy, ends with a return to traditional Jewish ritual, as if to suggest that as the way forward for American Jewry. So I ask Uhry if this is his belief. “Yes, I do believe it” he affirms, continuing “it’s what I wish for all my grandchildren. It doesn’t hurt to have that little extra to hang onto when bad stuff happens. It’s good to have a higher power which I also believe exists. I believe all the tenants of Judaism a lot. I was just raised outside of the ritual.”

On another note, I share with Uhry a different perspective, one based on a remark I heard James Earl Jones make at a press conference. But before I have a chance to repeat Jones’ comment, Uhry interrupts me: “He’s a very modest man. He doesn’t say much, but wow is he articulate!”  Clearly, the actor identified something about contemporary conflict when he commented, that “what we see in the play is the kind of patience that’s needed from people who are essentially powerless. Not just Hoke, but Miss Daisy….really powerless to curb the things that went wrong in Atlanta and in the South in general – in America in general. We didn’t have much power. Not that we would have used it well if we had. But you will have a chance to see people functioning from powerlessness.”

On that note, the play evokes the bombing of Atlanta’s reformed Temple – and the state of disbelief into which it throws Miss Daisy who imagines that it must have been intended for the orthodox or conservative synagogues instead. But Hoke sets her straight, “A Jew is a Jew to them folks.” He tells her, “Jes like light or dark, we all the same nigger.”

Alfred Uhry, who was a student at Brown University when the bombing occurred recalls seeing the Temple he knew, pictured at the newsstand. Obviously, it affected him profoundly. As he recounts it,  “When this came about the Civil Rights movement was in its infancy. The Rabbi there and Martin Luther King Jr. were very close. Of course, Jews were not subject to what blacks were subject to in the South, but they were also victims of prejudice. So, the Rabbi’s holding hands with Ralph Abernathy and King singing ‘We Shall Overcome-’ well, it was a very stirring period.”

That “Driving Miss Daisy” brings us a sense of that period through the microcosm of this simple relationship speaks to its enduring quality. It made Alfred Uhry the only person ever to receive the Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer awards for dramatic writing. And while it was his first play, Uhry had struggled for years before that as a lyricist (with far more success than he’s willing to concede over morning coffee). “Writing lyrics was too hard,” he complained. I met Stephen Sondheim and I thought I’m never going to be as good as that. But, having Shakespeare and Arthur Miller in the world never stopped me from writing a play. It’s just what I wanted to do.”


"Reporting from Broadway" is a collection of my theater reviews and interviews. As President of the Drama Desk, I also cover Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. My syndicated column appears in the Dow Jones Local Media Group, Greater Philadelphia Newspapers, Albany Times Union and the Stamford Advocate/Greenwich Times. I am a contributing writer to the Financial Times and the Jerusalem Post.

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