Monday, September 3, 2012


Tribes, at the Barrow Street Theatre off-Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

I love just about everything about Nina Raine's play Tribes, even the title.

It made me think how we all belong to many different tribes. Some we're born into, like our family, and others we choose, like our profession. Tribes tells the story of a young deaf man who, for the first time, becomes immersed in the deaf community and the friction that causes with his hearing family.

Billy, played by Russell Harvard, is part of an extremely loquacious British family. His father, Christopher (Jeff Still), is an academic. His mother, Beth, (Mare Winningham), is writing a novel. He has a brother Daniel (Will Brill), an aspiring academic, and a sister Ruth (Meghan O'Neill), an aspiring opera singer.

Billy's parents never wanted him to learn sign language, fearing that it would limit him in a hearing world. He's a smart guy but his parents, although well-intentioned, haven't exactly brought him up with the expectation that he'll become anything, unlike his brother and sister.

While he reads lips extremely well, Billy often feels left out of the conversation at home. There's a lot of overlapping dialogue and arguing in the play. You can  understand why it's not always easy for him to follow what's being said.

Then he meets a young woman, Sylvia, played by Susan Pourfar, who is slowly losing her own hearing. Sylvia, whose parents are deaf, is fluent in sign language. She encourages Billy to learn it and introduces him to a world to which he never felt connected before.

All of that sounds like it could be a bit mawkish but it's not. Raine has created two characters in Billy and Sylvia who are not stereotypes but imperfect and very human. And as always director David Cromer gets terrific performances from his actors, reaching the core of the person they're playing.

Harvard is very likeable as Billy but he's not saintly and doesn't always do the right thing. Pourfar is heart-wrenching as Sylvia. She's not at all stoic about her impending deafness. She views it differently from Billy, who's never known anything else.

Still is great as a snobbish intellectual. He grills Sylvia to the point of rudeness when Billy brings her home for dinner. While Pourfar is up to the verbal sparring match, it did seem over the top and made me uncomfortable. (Apparently all the education in the world doesn't teach good manners!)

What Raine demonstrates so clearly is how these people who know so much about the world, who are curious about everything, seem disinterested when it comes to their son and brother. They talk all the time and yet they don't communicate very well. They don't listen.

It's not that they're monsters, they're just exceedingly self-absorbed. Granted, it's difficult for Billy's parents and siblings, as it is for the audience, to understand what the world sounds like to a hearing-impaired person. But Cromer is imaginative in helping us try.

The play takes place mostly in the family's dining/living room with the audience seated on all four sides, so at times an actor will be speaking with his or her back turned. Super-titles translate when Billy and Sylvia use sign language. And at one point, there's a buzzing noise that makes it possible to hear sounds but not really make out what's being said.

After a poignant first-act ending, Tribes loses its way a bit in Act II. Raine has Brill's Daniel fall apart in a way that seemed kind of abrupt and forced.

But overall, this is a beautifully written, thought-provoking work with memorable characters. It's about language and communication, it's about what happens when you have a cultural identity that you don't share with your family. It's a play you want to talk about afterward. 

I won't give anything away but one of the things that impressed me most about Tribes was the ending. It was perfect in a way that endings rarely are and a sure sign of a skilled, confident writer who knows where she's taking her audience.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors

One Man, Two Guvnors, at Broadway's Music Box Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: **** out of ****

I always say it's easy to make me cry, harder to make me laugh.

I've been to a few shows where everyone around me has been howling and I'm sitting there only mildly amused. This is especially true of slapstick, which in my opinion sometimes goes on for far too long. How much can you take of people falling down and getting hit with things?

Well, One Man, Two Guvnors has lots of physical gags and it had me laughing until the tears were rolling down my cheeks. All of my normal defense-against-humor mechanisms were rendered useless before the sight of someone eating an envelope and getting hit in the head with the lid of a trash can.

Tony winner James Corden, a teddy bear of a man, is a big part of what makes the play so irresistible. Stuffed into a three-piece suit that's a little too small and perpetually hungry, he's hapless and yet so sympathetic. He has a great command of the stage, at times addressing the audience directly to ask for help - or a sandwich.

Corden plays the down-on-his-luck Francis Henshall, who winds up working for two employers at once in seaside Brighton, England, in the 1960s. His "guvnors" are the posh Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris) and the tough Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper), in disguise as her gangster brother Roscoe. He spends a lot of time trying to keep each one from finding out that he's working for the other.

If it were just pratfalls, that wouldn't be enough. I think the play, adapted by Richard Bean from the 17th-century Italian farce Servant of Two Masters, worked because of its quirky, off-the-wall characters, like Daniel Rigby's Alan, an incredibly hammy actor. A caricature to be sure, but in a good way.

And while the plot is convoluted - there's lots of mistaken identity - it was enough to hold my interest. I thought Nicholas Hytner's direction kept things moving along briskly, even in Act II, which isn't quite as frenetic.

One Man, Two Guvnors reaches its comic height in the first act. Henshall's employers are dining in the same pub and he's desperate to keep them apart. At the same time, Tom Edden's Alfie, an extremely elderly and accident-prone waiter, keeps bringing more food. Edden is brilliant and with the help of physical comedy director Cal McCrystal, the scene looked effortless. It was hilarious.

I have to mention The Craze, a skiffle band whose four members played 1960s-type pop tunes before the show, at intermission and during scene changes. The music, written by Grant Olding, was catchy and really got me in the mood for something fun.

Sadly One Man, Two Guvnors, which just recouped its investment, is closing Sept. 2. It's too bad the play, a production of Britain's National Theatre, couldn't have extended even if Corden had other commitments.

Sure, it's light and silly, but it's a smart kind of silly. How many comedies can say that?

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Harvey, at Studio 54 on Broadway
Gratuitous Violins rating: **1/2 out of ****

Even though it closed earlier this month, I just want to say a few things about the Broadway revival of Harvey starring Jim Parsons, of the TV series The Big Bang Theory.

I'd never seen Harvey, not even the movie with Jimmy Stewart. But I knew it was about a man and his imaginary friend, a 6-foot, 3/12-inch pooka that looks like a giant rabbit. I knew that the play, written by Mary Chase, had been awarded the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Unfortunately, Harvey felt dated and left me wondering what the Pulitzer committee was thinking. It was amusing but it also struck me as  kind of slight and left me feeling slightly uncomfortable.

As Elwood P. Dowd, Parsons was sweet and likeable. He also got huge entrance applause. I've never seen his TV series but apparently it's made Parsons very popular. I liked him in his Broadway debut last summer in The Normal Heart.

In Harvey, I wasn't quite sure what to make of Parsons' character and what his invisible friend signified. Was Elwood supposed to be mentally ill or an alcoholic or both? He's always talking about going to a tavern for a drink yet he never acts intoxicated. 

I guess he's is the kind of character who, if he were poor, would be crazy but because he comes from money and a good family, he's merely eccentric. Except for his invisible companion, he seems pretty ordinary and doesn't appear to have any trouble functioning. He's a kind, good-hearted soul. A little strange but harmless.

Elwood's social-climbing sister and niece, played by Jessica Hecht and Tracee Chimo, consider Elwood's behavior to be an embarrassment. They're hilarious as they scheme to get him committed to a mental institution, which doesn't go quite as easily as they had hoped. (I really enjoyed seeing Mad Men's Rich Sommer as a hospital orderly.)

But this is where Harvey begins to show its age and gets kind of uncomfortable.

The head of the institution, the distinguished Dr. William R. Chumley, played by Charles Kimbrough, wants to give Elwood a shot that will stop him from seeing Harvey. It may also change his personality, and not necessarily for the better.

To my 21st century mind, that raised ethical questions about potential side effects and informed consent. Also, I don't like drama that romanticizes mental illness - if that's what Elwood has. Harvey became less of a quirky period piece and more troubling.

It's still possible to enjoy Harvey, as long as you don't think too much about the plot and its implications.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Into the Woods

Into the Woods, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

For me Into the Woods was more than a show, it was a practically 24-hour experience that I can't judge solely by what I saw onstage.

From 5:30 a.m., when I got to Central Park to stand in line for a free ticket, until the curtain call shortly after 11 that night at the Delacorte Theater, it turned out to be one of my most memorable New York City days ever.

Initially, I wasn't enthusiastic about getting up before dawn but my friend Tapeworthy assured me that it would be fun. And you know what, he was right. I couldn't have asked for a better first visit to the Public Theater's Shakespeare Sondheim in the Park.

I spent seven hours watching the park come alive on a sunny Friday morning. I was with wonderful friends I've met through theatergoing. We had breakfast and lunch delivered. I ended up with a front-row seat. And despite my obsessive worrying, not one drop of rain fell.

I'll admit that Into the Woods isn't my favorite Stephen Sondheim musical. It's about 3 hours and near the end, I was feeling the length. There's a lot going on in James Lapine's book of overlapping fairy tales - a baker and his wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and maybe some others I missed. I think some of the deeper meaning went by me.

This production, which originated at London's Regent's Park, uses a child narrator instead of an adult. But because I didn't know any better, I just assumed the role was supposed to be a child's. I imagined this young boy having problems at home and he's run away. He ends up lost in the woods and has this dream/nightmare that's a mishmash of stories he's been told.

I was thrilled by the magical elements: the Witch's transformation, the Giant, voiced by Glenn Close, appearing in a corner of the sky, the sprouting beanstalks. I liked the multi-tiered treehouse set designed by John Lee Beatty that blended in with the park's natural woods. Although I can see where it wouldn't be nearly as much fun if you were sitting off to the side or to the back.

I attended the third preview, so I realize that things were still jelling. But I thought Denis O'Hare and Amy Adams were sweet the Baker and his Wife. Their quest for a child was touching. Although Adams, whose film work I've loved, didn't make as big an impression onstage as I'd hoped. Donna Murphy was a great menacing presence as the Witch.

But four performances really stood out for me.

Sarah Stiles as Little Red Riding Hood and Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf were sexy and hilarious. As Cinderella, Jessie Mueller had such a gorgeous voice, especially in "No One Is Alone," that I wish she'd had a bigger role. And Gideon Glick was so endearing as Jack. I loved his "Giants in the Sky."

My favorite part of Into the Woods was simply being in Central Park at night for the first time.

I don't think I've ever seen any theatre outdoors before and it was lovely. You don't feel like you're in a crowded, concrete island of 1.6 million people but out in the woods somewhere. I always want to be transported by what I see onstage but this took it to a whole different level. (My only criticism: I wish there had been better lighting outside the theater when we left.)

Maybe if I'd spent $150 to see the show on Broadway I might feel differently. And honestly, I'm not sure there's a big Broadway audience for this unless it has a big Hollywood star. Despite the subject matter, it's not for kids. But the day was so perfect - a terrific introduction to a now 50-year-old New York City summertime tradition.

In short, it was the kind of day the late Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, might have had in mind when he said, "Part of the spiritual life of the city is its art."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Married and Counting

Watching Married and Counting made me sorry that Stephen Mosher and Pat Dwyer have completed their wedding tour because I would love to have been a part of it. But I'm glad that I got to join them for the world premiere of the moving documentary chronicling their journey.

New Yorkers Stephen and Pat have been a couple for nearly 25 years when they embark on a quest to get married in every place in the United States where it's legal for gay couples to do so - including California, where its status kept changing.

I've read Stephen's blog and I met him in April. Until Saturday, I'd never met Pat. The screening at the Rhode Island International Film Festival was not only my first world premiere - pretty exciting - but the first time I've watched a film with the subjects in the same room.

It's a credit to director Allan Piper that I was so absorbed by their story I didn't think about how they were sitting a row in front of me. Ok, one time I got a little self-conscious thinking I might have laughed too loudly at an old picture of the two of them. I cried, too. How could you not at a film about weddings?

Piper says he's made a love story and that's true in more ways than one. Getting to know Stephen and Pat as they talk about their lives, seeing them with their families, watching them deal with the stress that goes into planning multiple weddings was captivating. I fell in love with them and their band of devoted friends who strive to make each ceremony unique.

Narrated by George Takei, this is also a film that gives you a great sense of place. We travel from New York City to New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, to Iowa and California and Texas, to Washington, D.C. We're in people's homes, under a covered bridge, on the steps of the Supreme Court and on the beach at Coney Island. It feels like a road trip.

But it's also a journey through the lives and experiences of these two gay men. Along the way, we hear about how Pat and Stephen met in college and fell in love. They talk openly and with great emotion about their struggles to be accepted by their families. We get a glimpse of that when they return home to Texas for a visit.

I'm glad the film focuses on a couple who've been together for so long. If they were heterosexual teenagers who'd known each other for five minutes Pat and Stephen would be able to get a government-issued marriage license anywhere in the United States. But these two responsible, taxpaying citizens - who've been together a quarter century - can't do that.

When Pat drops off their rental van in New Jersey, a state that does not recognize their marriage, he says, “It goes against my feelings about this country and what this country is supposed to be and what it can be." Mine, too. Making this country a more inclusive place does not hurt anyone. It only helps all of us. Marriage equality is the fair, decent, American thing to do.

It also struck me as I was watching how many times in movies, on TV and on stage I've seen gay men portrayed as tragic figures. The short film that preceded theirs, Rufus Stone, was a poignant contrast because it definitely fit into that category. Those are stories that need to be told but they're not the whole picture.

Married and Counting is refreshingly different - in a way, honestly, that more straight Americans need to see. This is a joyous, heartfelt film about a happy couple. Yes, they argue occasionally and there are disappointments and I'm sure there have been challenges. But they've built a strong life together surrounded by people who love them. They could be your relatives or friends or neighbors or coworkers.

After eight weddings, there's only one thing left to say: Mazel tov Pat and Stephen! May your second 25 years together be as fulfilling as the first 25.

For more information about Married and Counting, including upcoming screenings, you can visit the film's web site, follow it on twitter at 8weddings, on Facebook and on Tumblr. The film has also been featured in Time magazine.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Remembering my friend Saundra Smokes

A dear friend died this week. Saundra Smokes and I worked together for 11 years at the Syracuse Herald-Journal, where she was then a columnist and editorial writer.

Sandi was a compelling voice for people who sometimes lack one in the pages of newspapers. She was also a devout Christian who never had a harsh word for anyone and who never used her faith as a justification to hate. She was all about love and understanding.

But most of all, she was a terrific person to have as a friend. I can't even tell you the number of evenings we spent talking, over dinner with our friend Mark, about our jobs, our childhoods, about what it meant to be black in America, what it meant to be Jewish in America.

We talked about everything. We laughed a lot. sometimes we argued. But it was always with respect. When I think about my life in Syracuse, the hours I spent with friends like Sandi are what I miss above all.

When I went to live in Israel for a year, I wrote a monthly column for the Herald-Journal. Sandi paid me one of the highest compliments I've ever received as a writer. She was so moved by what I'd written about Holocaust Remembrance Day in Tel Aviv that she mentioned it in her column.

She talked about our dinners, about what unites us as blacks and Jews, and she said: "We'll keep writing and talking and learning from our two cultures and hopefully doing our parts as peace- and justice-seekers for all groups, for all people."

Sandi spent her life as a justice-seeker. In March, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, she wrote a column trying to explain to all of us who might not understand the often precarious nature of being a young black male in America.

Although we'd reconnected on Facebook, I hadn't spoken with Sandi for a long time. We never had a chance to talk about Barack Obama being elected our country's first African-American president. I'm devastated that she's not here anymore, that I won't have one last chance.

I will never forget the comforting phone call I received from Sandi after my mother died. She reassured me that as heartbroken as I felt, eventually I would stop crying and be able to go on with my life. I feel the same way today.

Thank-you, Sandi, for your friendship. I feel privileged to have known you.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Uncle Vanya

Uncle Vanya
Sydney Theatre Company at Lincoln Center Festival
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Before Uncle Vanya, I didn't think you could go into a play too cold - at least one that wasn't Shakespeare. Surprise, you can!

I'll admit that it's partly my own fault for not getting more out of the Sydney Theatre Company's production, which played for two weeks in July as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This was my first Chekhov play and I should have read the synopsis in the program.

For example, I knew that the play was about Vanya and his niece Sonya, who live on a dilapidated country estate. From what I know about Russian literature, which isn't a lot, I figured there'd be unhappy people talking about how unhappy they were. I was pretty sure there'd be vodka.

Since Oscar winner Cate Blanchett was the most famous person in the cast, I figured she was Sonya. Wrong! She was Yelena, the younger, glamorous wife of the revered Professor Serebryakov and Sonya's stepmother. They've come from the city to visit the estate that once belonged to Sonya's mother, an event that causes complications for everyone.

Another problem, for most of the first act I was straining to hear from the back of the orchestra. The 2,200-seat City Center is the biggest theatre I've been in for a play in which the actors were not amplified. I have to wonder, does a director ever sit in the house during rehearsals to make sure the dialogue can be heard?

Eventually I got a sense of what was going on. I read the summary at intermission. Act II was more emotional, with people talking louder, which helped. I ended up being moved by Uncle Vanya. It's a play about unrequited love and people whose lives have not turned out the way they had hoped, who fear for their future.

Blanchett was stunning. The way she was lit onstage, what she wore - tailored suits and a red cocktail dress - made her stand out. It was interesting to see how she related to the other characters - Vanya, Sonya, the physician Astrov, who's come to look after her husband. You could see why they all gravitated toward her, why all the men were in love with her. She really stands out amid this drab existence.

But the two performances that affected me most deeply were Richard Roxburgh as Vanya and Hayley McElhinney as Sonya. They were both heart-wrenching.

Roxburgh's Vanya has devoted his life to caring for this estate, given to his late sister when she married Serebryakov. Now he faces the prospect of having it sold out from under him. He looks at Yelena and Serebryakov and thinks about what his life could have been like. McElhinney's Sonya is hopelessly in love with Hugo Weaving's Astrov, a physician bored with country life who doesn't give her a second thought.

Uncle Vanya was directed by Tamas Ascher and adapted by Andrew Upton, the Sydney Theatre Company co-artistic director along with Blanchett, his wife. Ascher and Upton have been praised for injecting humor into this production and there was a lot of laughter. But it just struck me as inappropriate.

There's a place for dark comedy - I loved John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, for instance. Sometimes a situation is so sad that you have to laugh. And several people on my Twitter feed told me that Chekhov considered most of his plays - including Vanya - to be comedies.

But I didn't see the humor in Uncle Vanya. Nothing in the main characters' situations made me want to laugh. Instead, by the end of the play, with Vanya and Sonya feeling unappreciated and unloved, I just felt a deep sense of sorrow for them.