V.J. Foster, Brian Powell (foreground),Jay R. Martinez, and Kaili Foster (background)in Embedded(Photo © Michal Daniel)
V.J. Foster, Brian Powell (foreground),
Jay R. Martinez, and Kaili Foster (background)
in Embedded
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Political theater is as rare today as cigarette smoker in an office building -- and it draws just as much attention, particularly when the writer-director of the piece is an Oscar winner by the name of Tim Robbins. His Actors Gang production of Embedded at The Public Theater is intended as a biting attack on both the government and the media for its manipulation of information concerning the war in Iraq. As a satire, it isn't funny enough. As a parody, it's too heavy-handed. And as an entertainment -- well, it's short!

Rather than tell one story, Robbins tells six of them as a chorus of masked politicians and fat cats pulls all of the strings. Three of the stories are presented from the point of view of soldiers in Iraq, three from the perspective of journalists covering the war, but none of them is given enough stage time to really develop.

Robbins directs with more flair than he writes. There is nothing static about this production; it moves with energy, intelligence, and purpose to support its intentions. But noble intentions do not a great play make -- or even a good one.

********************

Robby Benson and Karla DeVitoin Open Heart(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Robby Benson and Karla DeVito
in Open Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Bensonhurts

As Robby Benson's new musical Open Heart begins, we see a man sitting in a chair, facing a TV. We didn't recognize him until he spoke in that unique airy drawl that belongs to no one but Benson. It was a shocking experience, as if we had gone to a high school reunion and failed to recognize a close friend with whom we'd grown up. Benson doesn't look bad; in fact, he's a handsome middle-aged man. He just doesn't look like the doe-eyed kid we knew when he was a young movie star.

As for Open Heart (book, music, and lyrics by Benson), it falls somewhere between vanity project and earnest enterprise, punctuated by some genuine flashes of artistry -- but it falls, nonetheless. The plot is one massive coronary of a cliché. It concerns a workaholic TV sitcom writer-director-producer-star who neglects his family for his work and has a heart attack. Everything that follows is a flashback as his life passes (musically) before his eyes. The scenes that follow the heart attack bounce from funny to banal, from silly to sentimental. The sincerity of the piece -- its strongest feature -- is unfortunately undermined by Matt Williams's overly broad direction. Nonetheless, the show is lifted by Karla DeVito's lovely singing. She plays a variety of characters but, most notably Benson's wife in the show -- which she is in real life, as well. Open Heart further benefits from the spirited performance of Stan Brown, who also plays a number of characters with panache. Both DeVito and Brown have real voices; Benson sings with character but no one would cast him in a musical except Benson.

********************

Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno: Lookin' Good!

Rita Moreno's new cabaret act at Feinstein's at the Regency recycles a lot of material -- particularly the patter -- from her earlier shows, but audiences probably won't mind. The star delivers her anecdotes in such a comfortable and commanding style that they almost demand an encore. A proud, sensational looking 72-year-old, Moreno has lost a lot of voice but none of her show business acumen. If she can't sing as well as once she did, she still knows how to put over a song -- and she also knows how to carefully choose her material in order to keep her vocal limitations more or less under wraps.

She throws her first couple of numbers away, tossing off uptempo Teflon tunes that won't stick to your memory. When she slows down and begins to act, however, she settles into what she does best. The show really starts with a comedy tune called "Sheldon." (Later, when we are reminded that Moreno has been married to a Jewish doctor for 39 years, the song takes on extra resonance.) From there on in, the show gains steam and substance with ballads like "I Won't Send Roses," character numbers like "Some Cats Know," and an ode to Moreno's heritage, "Aranguez," that's the ultimate highlight of the evening.

Backed by musical director Russ Kassoff on the piano, Ted Sommer on drums, and an especially inventive David Finck on bass (even Moreno commented on his playing), the show has a lively musicality and sense of fun. Moreno and her crew continue at Feinstein's through March 20; for more information, click here.

********************

[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegelentertainment@msn.com.]