Review Roundup: Race and Faith and Commedia and Family

Clybourne Park @ the Walter Kerr Theatre (reviewed April 20, 2012)
Leap of Faith @ the St. James Theatre (reviewed April 25, 2012)
Peter and the Starcatcher @ the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (reviewed April 17, 2012)
One Man, Two Guvnors @ the Music Box (reviewed April 26, 2012)
Festen @ St. Ann’s Warehouse (reviewed April 22, 2012)

In a brief break from my usual one-show-one-review-one-blog-entry essay style, I feel compelled to cover a few plays in one entry to clean up my pile of April plays attended and unreviewed before the next round of energized theatre and event-going continues this month.  A  multiple-impression essay.  Awards season has afforded me a higher-than-usual number of comps and plus-one opportunities over the past month or so and I’ve gotten a bit behind.  Two shows on this list are shows I’ve seen before, two are stage adaptations of properties that began as films familiar to me, and one is a slapstick farce commedia shtick that is usually the last kind of show on my viewing agenda.


Clybourne Park. (L-R). Jeremy Shamos, Christina Kirk. Photo by Lawrence K. Ho.

I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of viewing Clybourne Park at Woolly Mammouth in DC in 2010 and at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2011.  I have been profoundly moved by this script inspired by Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun about a black Chicago family daring to move into a white neighborhood in 1959 (and so much else). Bruce Norris‘s creative expansion imagines a world around one of the characters in Hansberry’s original (a homeowner association representative) and the white owners of the 1959 house who have sold to Hansbury’s play’s black family, and explores that family’s motivations for this dramatic act and its impact on the world of black and white around them.  Norris goes a step further and explores the same house 50 years later, the changing demographics and differently nuanced racism and classism in the now gentrifying urban neighborhood, and a young white couple, now in the neighborhood minority, at the point of negotiating neighborhood building rules as they plan their renovations.

Let me be clear: this play resonates in theme and dialogue in any production.  What I am struck by in this Broadway engagement is how much less emotionally powerful the direction and performances are than in the productions I have seen before.  About the 2011 Steppenwolf production I said: “The mastery of playwright Bruce Norris‘s script is that no character is uni-dimensional, no motivation unexplored —  or at least all motivations are sufficiently explored to create a stage full of believable human beings.” And I went on about the Chicago approach to this subject in its “preference for ensemble rather than showboating, specificity and clarity and intensity with purpose.”  What caused me to pause and pull away from the Pam MacKinnon-directed production currently at the Walter Kerr Theatre is precisely the fact that the individual characters seem to showboat as individuals and are sometimes played as full of nervous ticks.  I was particularly disturbed and distracted by Christina Kirk‘s Bev in the first act — an oddly physically flailing homeowner who has lost a son and is trying to find her way back to her angry husband.  Yet among all the performers and their approaches to these characters, the pathos is proclaimed and the humor is played for raucous laughs.  I felt continually during my performance of this production that the characters announce plot points rather than lead me to feel the layers of this story. The words are delivered and the situations worked through and lessons in race and class are delivered but the emotions for me don’t hit home. And I missed these dimensions of the productions I have seen and felt before.


Leap of Faith. Raul Esparza surrounded by a tremendous gospel choir.

Leap of Faith and Peter and the Starcatcher are two Broadway shows that I might not have attended at all if it had not been for my generous friend with all the late April plus-one tickets.  Leap of Faith is based upon a Steve Martin movie of an itinerant preacher with a bit of a sham side-show who redeems himself yet the revival business carries on.  The brother and sister Nightingale pair run the business of a traveling religious revival group.  Jonas (Raul Esparza) covers the preaching and the charismatic work; sister Sam (Kendra Kassenbaum) collects information about the crowd to feed to him (illusionist-assistant style) and takes care of the business end.  When their traveling menagerie’s bus breaks down in a little Texas town the group decides to set up camp and make some converts and perhaps some money along the way.  A female sheriff Marla (Jessica Phillips) offers resistance and ultimately a love interest for Jonas.  Marla’s son Jake (Talon Ackerman) feels the faith, believes in the evangelist when he doesn’t believe in himself.  A rousing gospel sound fills the stage and often the audience as choir members travel through clapping and singing from time to time. The choir’s charisma is much more profound than anything the perhaps miscast but certainly lovely to look at Esparza provides.  For me the real star of this particular adventure is the luminous Leslie Odom Jr. as Isaiah Sturdevant, a true believer preacher-in-training, son of Jonas’s choir member Ida Mae (Kecia Lewis-Evans). Isaiah ultimately takes the reins of the enterprise. We don’t see enough of him but what we do see and hear is riveting.  The whole show, for my taste, is not deep but takes me along for a pleasant and often joyous ride.  And how many among us heard “Being Alive” in the set up and delivery of Jonas’ final tune, the 11 o’clock number, “Jonas’ Soliloquy”?

Peter and the Starcatcher ensemble. Photo by Sara Krulwich.

I caught Peter and the Starcatcher in the final week or so if its New York Theatre Workshop run in March 2011.  This story of belief in oneself, of children without parents who reach out to one another, of dangers overcome through group efforts, is a prequel of sorts to J. M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan, adapted for the stage by Rick Elise from a children’s story.  A play with music that gives us Neverland before Wendy appears.  Among the hardworking, multiply-cast set of actors we find a second Smash star Christian Borle (perhaps not incidentally the romantic interest for the equally effortlessly scene-stealing Leslie Odom Jr. in that television series).  I first encountered and was enchanted by Borle in this show last year, and have since watched him weekly steal the screen in the over-the-top television series about putting on a musical.  In Peter he is again featured as an ensemble member and the dastardly yet absent-minded and malaprop-prone pirate Black Stache.  Our young orphan boy Peter (Adam Chanler-Berat) becomes Peter Pan, the boy who won’t grow up, and we learn about the magic — or belief? — that got him that way.  British military daughter Molly (Celia Keenan-Bolger) models spunk and leadership and offers a view into a future as Wendy’s mother back in England.  Songs augment the show but this is not a musical — it is delicious and parsimonious and creative storytelling.  My fears upon seeing the Off Broadway production that the small-scale storytelling frame of the story would not transfer to a large Broadway house are totally unjustified in this delightful piece of whimsy and emotional impact.  Wondrous.


One Man, Two Guvnors. James Corden. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Oh my.  I have to figure out a way to say something about a play that is charming yet exhausting, true to its genre but not my chosen theatrical form, that is enchanting audiences nightly at the Music Box.  Food strewn and thrown up, a band that welcomes you into the show and eases scene transitions — a bit reminiscent of the slightly more integrated yet still sometimes off-putting musical performances before and after the stage action in Kneehigh Theatre‘s Brief Encounter at Roundabout‘s Studio 54 in fall 2010), And a plot in two parts (yes there’s an intermission) to give you a break, a chance to get a drink (I wish I had obtained one at the interval). There is scripted shenanigans involving Frances Henshall (James Corden), a ne’er-do-well looking for employment in the swinging 1960s. He meets up with two employers, two “guvnors,” yet keeps his dual employment a secret (double the pay is his only motivation) as he tries to do their bidding, going on various errands, involving slamming doors and misunderstandings and falling things and heavy trunks.  These may be the swinging 60s but we’re not in London but rather in a slightly run down seaside area where folks flounder and no one is above a fart joke.  (In this, One Man Two Guvnors is consistent with the adolescent humor delightfully infusing Peter and the Starcatcher.  Am I a real drip for tiring of it in one context yet delighting to it in the other?)  Faces are whacked with cricket bats, infirm elderly waiters fall down stairs, buxom ladies make off-color knowing jokes, a gender bending cross dressing ruse is played out for a while, and honestly I just waited for the shenanigans to end. When people were brought up from the audience to field situations with the masterful Corden I wanted to take a walk (one of these appears to be a plant) — the creaky apparatus of this rather sizable show overwhelms such shtick.  I want to watch professionals on stage when I attend the theatre unless I’ve made other arrangements.  To be fair the audience all around me ate this up, especially raucously after the interval and, shall we say, a few libations loosened everyone up. Corden is enchanting and I would watch him do stand up or just be interviewed.


Festen. Ensemble.

I have been hearing of various productions of Festen, a stage play based on a 1998 Danish film of the same name that moved and surprised me when I saw it some years ago, for the past few years.  One of my favorite Off-Loop theatre companies in Chicago, Steep Theatre, mounted a well-reviewed and extended production last year.  So when St. Anne’s Warehouse announced that a Polish troupe would be mounting a version of the show for a 10 day run in April I signed up immediately.  I love the black box-y space at St. Ann’s and I wanted to see this story play out on stage.  I arrived a few minutes after curtain and late seating moves me from my front row original seat to a back row high perspective that, for my money was the preferable perspective for this show.  Mechanics: upstage right projected super titles (yes the actors, for the most part, speak Polish) and a splendid, posh-modernist playing area with multiple doors off stage at stage right, and a bathtub and clear shower curtain at stage left, and a large playing area for movement and tables and fights and other powerful sequences.  I was riveted by this family reeling from long lurking sexual predatory secrets. Father’s 60th birthday provides the context for the celebration (“festen” in Danish), and wife, daughters and sons and others are convened. One daughter commits suicide just before the celebration begins, and the disclosures that ensue and how everyone reacts provide the ride of this show. Spare, illuminating, exquisitely and painfully pitched (honesty and loyalty and pains and expulsion).  A true theatrical delight.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 5, 2012)

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