Why has the current revival of Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'night Mother been such a disappointment to critics almost across the board? Theater criticism, like life, is often simply a measurement of how things turn out versus one's expectations. The play has a deep-seated reputation as a cry-fest, and this restrained production of it is leaving audiences (including critics) less moved than they expected to be. Soon after the two-hander begins, Jessie (Edie Falco) announces to her mother Thelma (Brenda Blethyn) that she's going to kill herself later that night. The finger of blame for the production's failure seems to be pointed at Falco; many critics seem to have had trouble buying this vibrant and attractive young actress as a candidate for suicide, especially as compared to Kathy Bates, who originated the role on Broadway in 1983.
But here's the thing: With someone like Bates in the role, it's easy on a superficial level to understand the misery of an unattractive, overweight young woman who suffers from epilepsy and depression. Yet one needn't be overweight and plain to suffer; Marilyn Monroe had a few things to live for, but that didn't stop her from being self-destructive. The text provides all the reasons why Falco's Jessie would want to kill herself, and Falco plays the part with a biting desire for the escape that death will provide.
The truth is that the casting of both mother and daughter in this revival has changed the emotional dynamic of the play. Compared to the original Thelma (Anne Pitoniak), Blethyn appears younger and healthier. Part of the reason for the heart-wrenching effect of the first production was the more pitiful and needy nature of the mother. The current production relies more heavily on the text of the play and less on the appearances of its two actors. Buy into the text -- which is pretty damned smart and well written -- and you'll find that the finale still has a visceral power.
The Belly Monologues
Eve Ensler has come a long way. When we first saw her perform The Vagina Monologues, it was Off-Off-Broadway at HERE and she was reading her text off of index cards. Now, she's starring on Broadway in The Good Body, transferring her obsession from vaginas to stomachs. Not only is she no longer reading from index cards, she's also attempting to play various characters -- both famous and not -- in a one-person show that is, at bottom, an elaborate lecture.
The best that can be said about The Good Body is that it's an earnest effort; the worst that can be said is that it's an evening of empty calories. The subject matter seems like the stuff of a tired self-help magazine article, blown up into something that pretends to be original and groundbreaking. When Ensler eats vanilla ice cream at the end of the show, is that really such a big breakthrough? We who eat chocolate ice cream almost every day are not impressed.
No Big Whoop
When Whoopi Goldberg gets int a comic groove, she's a killer. Her take on the recent election and George Bush's term(s) in office is fresh, insightful, and very funny. However, the star is rarely that funny again in Whoopi. Some of the serious material is gripping, such as her description of a trip to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, but the uneven nature of the act is pronounced.
This one-person, 90-minute show at the Lyceum is an update of the act, directed by Mike Nichols, that brought Whoopi to prominence in New York in 1984. There are flashes of brilliance throughout but, in the end, the show doesn't cohere as a satisfying evening of entertainment. It just trails off...
It will take a marketing genius to sell Democracy to a Broadway audience. This is a play about German politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hitler can still draw a crowd, but how many Willy Brandt fans are out there? Nonetheless, Michael Frayn's new play is thoughtful and often incisive. It's also smartly staged by Michael Blakemore, with an impressive set by Peter J. Davison and an even more impressive all-male cast led by James Naughton and Richard Thomas. The latter, in particular, gives a compelling, quicksilver performance.
Based on a true story, Democracy concerns an East German spy (Richard Thomas) who became the right hand man to West German chancellor Brandt (James Naughton). It's fascinating from an historical perspective, but the play is really about the way that the spy is enthralled with parliamentary democracy and comes to respect -- even love -- the man he is inevitably going to destroy. Now, that's a drama spinning in a dark and intriguing whirlpool of complexities. The question is, will people buy tickets to see it? We hope that they will.
Unlike cabaret artist Tommy Femia, who captures Judy Garland at the end of her career, the adorable Kate Botello looks and sounds like Judy circa the early 1950s. In her current, abbreviated book show that masquerades as a cabaret act, the action takes place just after Judy has completed filming of A Star is Born. Her husband, Sid Luft, has sent his wife to a quiet country cabin in order for her to get some much-needed rest. The ongoing gag is that it's impossible for her assistant (Eric Robinson) to get the irrepressible Judy to relax; she simply has to perform and finds every excuse imaginable to break into song.
Directed by Donna Drake and with zesty musical direction by Stephen Bocchino, the show features a parade of Judy's pals who keep showing up at the cabin, including Gene Kelly (Benjie Randall) and Ella Fitzgerald (Nicholas Ferrer). But the script is just an excuse for the effervescent Kate and company to sing some wonderful songs. (Note: The show, presently called Judy Garland and Uninvited Company, is about to morph into Judy's Christmas Garland. What that means, we're told, is that you'll get more for your money as holiday songs are added to the program. Check it out at Helen's Hideaway Room in Chelsea.)
Phillip Officer continues to be one of cabaret's most accomplished lyric interpreters, as anyone who's heard him live or on recordings will attest. He has lately been performing an eclectic mix of some of his favorite standards in a 2pm Sunday brunch show at Danny's Skylight Room on Restaurant Row.
A stylish and graceful singer, Officer matches his exquisite taste in music with his sensitive phrasing. Befitting the brunch atmosphere, the current show is a more casual affair than previous Officer efforts, but there is nothing casual about his rigorous attention to the meaning of each song that he sings. The show has been extended at Danny's through November, so you have the opportunity to see and hear for yourself.