They'd Rather Be Punch Drunk
Huzzahs for Fighting Words, zzzzzzs for Roulette, and it's diva time with Ellen Greene and Christine Ebersole.
Based on the true story of Welsh boxer Johnny Owen -- who we never see in the play -- Fighting Words is a searing examination of the lives of three women who, despite being on the sidelines, are fully embroiled in the drama of a championship fight. All of the action takes place at home in Wales even as the fight takes place in Los Angeles. No matter. This is not a Rocky story. But Fighting Words is definitely a knockout, particularly in the acting department.
Jayne Houdyshell as Mrs. Davies gives a performance that is more multifaceted than a 24-carat diamond. She is, at once, proud, vulnerable, feisty, resilient, and stoic. Beautifully written by Kuruvilla, the role has found its match in Houdyshell who gives what may be this season's most impressive performance. Her two younger costars aren't far behind. Marin Ireland gives a dynamic, physical performance as Peg. This fiery actress was also terrific, by the way, in Where We're Born earlier this season at The Rattlestick. Remember her name because she is making her mark right here and now. Pilar Witherspoon as Nia anchors the cast with her brooding beauty. Liz Diamond's direction is kinetic and each scene is quite carefully composed with the help of Tobin Ost's spot-on set design and Jeff Croiter's atmospheric lighting.
Don't bet on Roulette
If, based on the stellar cast that includes (among others), Larry Bryggman, Anna Paquin, and Leslie Lyles you already bought tickets to Roulette, well, you gambled and lost. The play by Paul Weitz is a disappointment. Bryggman gives his usual finely tuned performance, and there is a young actor by the name of Shawn Hatosy who shines giving a sensational performance, but the play is a misfire. Its humor drifts into sitcom setups and deliveries. If it's supposed to be a dark satire of middle class life, it fails because its characters behave in ways that are simply too extreme to be believed. Once characters loose their moorings to reality, any satire loses its relevance.
Someone's Who's Greene
Is there a more vulnerable, more emotionally alive performer on a cabaret stage than Ellen Greene? If there is, then bring 'em on. Whether she's singing pop, rock, or schlock, she's still rivetingly real. Greene made one of her rare New York appearances recently at Joe's Pub, performing two shows in one night. Both shows were packed -- and no wonder. Some were there because they remember Greene as the ultimate Audrey from the original Little Shop of Horrors. And some were there because they've seen her one person show before and know not to miss it.
Performing an eclectic mix of standards, contemporary pop/rock tunes, and show music (including her two signature songs from Little Shop), Greene was mesmerizing. This is a performer who uses every part of her body, including her internal organs -- especially her heart -- to sell a song. With a wingspan that rivals that of the majestic Karen Akers, Greene would often spread her arms out in a gesture as wide as the state of Maine, and then finally bring them together into a state of grace.
One can quibble about a few things in her show. Her onstage relationship with musical director Christian Klikovits is a little unsettling; he's a touch nasty. We're so much in her corner that he comes off like a heavy. Also, the running order of her show undercuts any hope of a dramatic arc in her act; the song order seems more haphazard than thoughtfully considered. These issues aside, at any given moment Greene is nothing short of iconic on stage. We understand she's recording a new CD. It's been a long time coming. Can't wait to get hear it.
A Dynamic Duo
When Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch combine on a duet, there is something so musically satisfying about their harmonies that you simply sit back and marvel at the perfection. Ebersole, with Stritch as her musical director/special guest star, just opened at Feinstein's at the Regency for a three week run with a new show called In Your Dreams. But don't be mislead. There is nothing sleep-inducing about this show. From Ebersole's sharply observed comic patter (kidding about, among other things, the prices at Feinstein's) to her fully committed performances of songs like "Can't Help Lovin' that Man of Mine" (Kern/Hammerstein) she delivers every time out.
The show also bounces back and forth between Ebersole and Stritch, each of them having very different musical styles. Ebersole is an actress/singer. Stritch is a jazz performer. The different approach to songs can be jarring at times. The act coheres more fully when they sing together, but Stritch on Jobim is a distinct pleasure, and Ebersole interpreting virtually any lyric is a sit-and-listen event. The buoyant bass accompaniment of Steve Doyle is yet another plus for this entertaining show that runs through March 6.
Ebersole's stint is part of a string of shows at Feinstein's that could not be more compelling, including upcoming runs by Rita Moreno, followed by the much-anticipated Ann Hampton Callaway & Liz Callaway, and then the incomparable Patti LuPone. The expression is "Build it and they will come." With these shows, it might better bet stated "Build it and they will stampede!"