June is Bustin' Out All Over
Notes on Trust, Absolutely Fascinating, Chinese Friends, The Joys of Sex, The Triangle Factory Fire Project, and cabaret's Nancy McGraw.
Trust Us: This One's a Keeper
Trust, by Gary Mitchell, is an Irish play that's fundamentally about family. The production features a variety of colorful characters including a desperate prostitute, a rogue of an English officer, a tough-as-nails underground chieftain, his equally tough wife, their sensitive son, and two very different sorts of stooges. There are several subplots, one of them involving a gun-running scheme, but all of the action finally funnels down to the relationship between the fiery mother and her troubled boy.
Erica Schmidt's direction is a bit self-conscious but generally solid; the pacing of the show is swift and Schmidt's handling of the actors is sensational. If we were to single out anyone in this remarkable ensemble cast, we would start with Fiona Gallagher who plays the mother with a fierce, breathtaking determination. Ritchie Coster plays her husband, the local underground leader, with a presence that calls to mind the explosiveness of Robert De Niro and the look and sound of Sean Connery. Dan McCabe is a scene-stealer as their son and, as the prostitute, Meredith Zinner manages to play-up the character's sexiness without embarrassing herself. The play is good; the cast is great.
They Fascinate Us So
Brits Off-Broadway, the series at the new theater complex 59E59, is featuring among its many off-beat and engaging imports from England the dazzlingly daffy musical group Fascinating Aida. These women have performed in New York before, principally in cabaret rooms, where we first saw them and became instant fans. The group has reconstituted itself with two new members and the changes have only made them more musically arresting, more exuberantly nutty. They perform their own material, much of its satirical. Their humor is political, social, cultural, and sexual; in other words, they don't miss a trick.
The style of Fascinating Aida seems less British music hall and more downtown New York. As musical revues go, Absolutely Fascinating is a winner. This is not a British invasion; it's a British liberation. You've got two weeks left to catch up with these ladies.
Every gifted playwright is entitled to at least one stinkeroo. Jon Robin Baitz has written his and it's called Chinese Friends. Yeeesh, it's bad! One hopes that Playwrights Horizons made a deal with Baitz to produce this putrid, polemical piece in exchange for first dibs on the really great play that must surely be waiting in the wings.
Chinese Friends is a silly thriller with a political agenda but it works on neither level. When the audience starts laughing at (rather than with) the sudden plot turns at the climax, you know you've got yourself a big-time turkey. Amazingly, Peter Strauss manages to give a committed performance in the midst of the mess. He's quite good despite the increasingly foolish plot.
Baitz is one of our better playwrights. Anyone who can write The Substance of Fire deserves the chance to stick his neck out and try something different. Hey, that's what subscription theaters like Playwrights Horizons are for: to give artists a chance to present new work with the promise of a run and an audience. We're hopeful that Baitz will learn some valuable lessons from the fiasco of Chinese Friends and that his next play will be the better for it.
Right Title, Wrong Show
We saw The Joys of Sex when it played at the New York International Fringe Festival. It's essentially the same show now as it was then except that the current Off-Broadway production has a better, more professional cast. The show itself still seems so tame that you'd think it was written in 1962. David Weinstein's music lacks distinction; whatever verve it has is due to the engaging orchestrations by musical director Steven Ray Watkins. The lyrics, by Melissa Levis, occasionally draw laughter but there's no bite to them. Although the book (by Weinstein and Levis) is contrived, it does squeeze out enough laughs between songs to keep the audience interested if not fully entertained.
The show is carried by it cast. Ron Bohmer is utterly genuine as a husband with a slightly roving eye; not only is he a fine actor, he's got an exciting voice that ricochets off the theater walls. Stephanie Kurtzuba, as his wife, has a certain comic flair. David Josefsberg, as the best friend, is engaging and is lucky enough to get one of the show's better numbers: "Not Too Nice." He sings it as a duet with Jenelle Lynn Randall, who overplays her role of a sexpot.
It's ironic that this white bread show about sex may be found at the Variety Arts Theatre in the funky East Village. The Joys of Sex really belongs in Scottsdale, not New York.
Where's the Fire?
The Actors Company Theatre recently presented a play about the Triangle Factory fire -- the 1911 New York City tragedy that, in a matter of minutes, took the lives of nearly 150 young immigrant women. The story eerily resonates with the events of 9/11, yet the most shocking thing about The Triangle Factory Fire Project was that it failed to move us to tears. Written with a sledgehammer by Christopher Piehler, awkwardly directed by Scott Alan Evans, and poorly acted by the majority of the players, there was little to recommend here except for the compelling story itself.
Ostensibly crafted in the style of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, this pallid production had none of the grace or artistry of that acclaimed Moisés Kaufman piece. In the absence of true artistry, even the most fascinating historical event doesn't always inspire a great piece of theater.
Nancy McGraw Makes Celluloid Sing
Nancy McGraw, with the help of director Thommie Walsh, has put together a winning cabaret act composed entirely of movie tunes. Except for the fact that it opened with a song that should have been slotted elsewhere, the show is a constant delight. Offering an eclectic mix of songs that eschews the obvious, McGraw sets up her Cinema Songs with smart, economical patter.
The program consists of one newly discovered gem after another. How often, for instance, do you get to hear a number from the long-forgotten Office Boy? McGraw mined that flick for "Can't Get Along," written by no lesser personages than Johnny Green and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Only towards the end of the show does she give us a string of better known songs, and she does every one of them justice. McGraw's rendition of the much-loved Amanda McBroom-Gordon Hunt tune "Errol Flynn" is a heartbreaker and her deeply felt performance of "It Goes Like it Goes," the David Shire-Norman Gimbel song from Norma Rae, is the high point of the show.
It comes right where it should -- at the climax. Then McGraw ends with "Two for the Road" (Mancini-Bricusse, from the movie of the same title) and a very classy encore. We'll leave you to discover what that encore is when you catch one of her last two shows at Danny's Skylight Room, June 3 and 8 at 7pm.