Sharply drawn characters come to life through playwright Daniel Goldfarb's keenly observant writing. In Act I, he tells a story that, on paper, might appear to be a tired cliché. A protective mother interrogates her would-be daughter-in-law, thinking she's not good enough for her son. But this mother, Sarah, is piteously honest; she says what she thinks and cares not for the consequences. She is brusque well beyond the point of rudeness. In fact, some might call her a monster. In the hands of J. Smith-Cameron, she is a magnificent monster -- complex, commanding, and entirely human.
J. Smith-Cameron gives one of this season's greatest performances. She is helped by the sly and winning work of Richard Masur as Vincent, the family's once-a-week maid who likes to dress as a woman. Though the first act takes place in 1961, Sarah's unaffected acceptance of Vincent makes her a likeable character right from the start. But watch out! Lori Prince plays Rochelle Bloom, the would-be fiancée of Sarah's boy, Artie. Wounded but feisty, Rochelle is also a strong character, and Prince gives a moving, finely tuned performance. Andrew Katz is Artie, a big kid buffeted between a powerhouse mother and a deep desire to be his own man. And so Act I builds to a tumultuous showdown between mother and son.
We've seen this kind of conflict a thousand times before, but Goldfarb, director Mark Nelson, and these four actors make us care to such a degree that the stakes could not possibly be higher. That's why the second act is such a deep disappointment. The action jumps 40 years into the future. What follows makes perfect thematic sense in relation to the revelations made in the first act but the story is simply not that compelling. And we mightily miss the character of Sarah, although she does make a brief appearance in the memory of her son (now played by Masur).
By the way, Sarah, Sarah is playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, where most productions have little in the way of set design. This one is an exception to that rule: During intermission, the James Noone's Toronto sitting room set for the first act is completely dismantled and a Chinese hotel room circa 2001 is erected. It's fascinating to watch this happen, so a trip to the men's or ladies' room between the acts a bad idea.
About 100 blocks north of the Theater District, at St. Nicholas and 141st Street, one of this season's most astonishing shows is presently being performed. A fiercely modern adaptation of Euripides's Trojan Women by the Classical Theatre of Harlem is making audiences gasp with the visceral power and intensity of live theater. Adapted and directed by Alfred Preisser with searing, soul-searching truth, this story about the fate of the women of Troy after the fall of the city is shockingly timeless and frighteningly universal.
From behind a chain-link fence, as they await either slavery or death, the women of Troy tell us their tales of woe. The story tellers range from a 12-year-old girl filled with hatred for the country and the soldiers who shattered her innocence to a Queen who only too late sees the true nature of humankind. Lizan Mitchell stands out with her gripping characterization of Hecuba, but many others in the large cast give strong and vivid performances. Even the amateurs in the company lend the play a certain authenticity; they seem entirely real as regular citizens of Troy caught up in events beyond their control.
Frankly, if we weren't reviewers, we probably wouldn't have considered making the trip uptown to see The Trojan Women. Euripides? 141st Street? Don't think so! But we're glad we had the chance to see a tough-minded, intelligent production that's part indictment, part warning, and all theater.
Hugh and the Night and the Music
If you saw The Boy From Oz around the time it opened, you might want to check it out again. The show is so much more fun now that Hugh Jackman and the rest of the cast have shaken off the shackles of a mediocre book.
Like Al Jolson back in the day, Hugh Jackman is breaking the fourth wall to talk and kibitz with the customers. And what a charmer he is! Yes, we all knew that, but now it's truer than ever. There have been other changes, as well. Stephanie J. Block, who played a far more demure Liza earlier in the run, is now giving a full out Liza impression -- and the audience is eating it up. The show's biggest flaw, its book, has become a non-issue.
There is Nothing Like a Dame
Here's your chance to see Dame Cleo Laine and the John Dankworth Ensemble at Le Jazz Au Bar; they are playing there only through April 16. On any given night you never know what Laine might be doing, you only know she'll be doing it beautifully. You may assume, however, that at some point she'll sing some Frank Loesser material because she just recorded an album of that composer-lyricist's songs. The album is not yet available in the States, so consider these live performances a preview.
The act opens with a couple of scintillating instrumental numbers led by Dankworth. Then comes Dame Cleo, her voice as youthful as the first breeze of spring. Their show is a casual affair with a bit of playful banter, punctuated by some of the most beautiful jazz riffs you'll ever hear on the East Side of Fifth Avenue.
Finally, we'd like to correct an oversight in our last column. We heaped much deserved praise on Karen Akers for her current show at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room but neglected to mention the contributions of her exceptional musical director, Don Rebic. One can offer no higher praise than to say that he is to Ms. Akers as Wally Harper is to Barbara Cook -- a superb accompanist who stylishly supports a great singer without drawing attention to himself. We'd like to thank the reader who sent us a note pointing out our error of omission.
[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at email@example.com.]