I saw my friend Stuart Williams in Billy Carver and The Children in Mind (funny title when you get what the play is about) this past weekend. To the credit of the playwright/director, I learned (during his LONG curtain speech) that the play was written in three days after the rights had been pulled from a show they had planned to do. Before I go on, to that I say congratulations. No easy feat. I had also read the glowing reviews. Unfortunatley on many points I have to respectfully disagree with them. (Maybe I'll save my feelings on off-off broadway reviews for another blog.) In a quick nutshell, the show is about a British novelist a la J.K. Rowling who has written a "teen magical creature" sensational series. She is debating on whether or not to kill the character off in her next book to free herself from the life that has been created because of the book's success. Zaniness ensues.
I do agree that there were some smart performances. Stuart Williams, as always, did a superb job as the executive assistant to the Harry Potteresque novelist. With spot-on comic timing he can jump the chasm between the grounding force and completely off-the-handle. The other standout performance was Lauren Roth, who played the has-been child star who ebbs and flows in varying states of bizarre drunkenness throughout the entire piece. She completely steals the show, as well as more than half the laughs. Though a secondary character, she was electric on the stage, and grabbed the play with one hand - the other was clutching her martini glass. This is not to discredit the other actors. But (and here’s where I disagree with the reviewers), even though the roles were written for the cast, I felt that some of the actors were in fact quite miscast – particularly the “J.K. Rowling” of the story and her sister. They did a fine job with the “tools in their box”, but Carol Channing won’t be in Fences anytime soon. (Now that’s a funny thought!) I am most certainly hyperbolizing, but I found a certain lack of believability in the casting – particularly the romantic relationship between the author and the Manchester United Football Player.
I felt that dramaturgically, the play was very clever on a moment-to-moment basis, yet on the whole it fell kind of flat. I didn’t care much what happened in the long term, except to the drunk actress! There were a number of clever witticisms, (which I actually thought a bit of a flaw, since all characters – even the Manchester United Football player were all speaking in the voice of the educated witty writer – with an English accent) and some hilarious one liners, but the overall plot lacked cohesion. Subplots faded in and out, and things that you think would be important you find become wholly unimportant. There were some great recurrent events (a three car pileup in the pool), but It felt like the construction of a sitcom. When we FINALLY arrive at the moment of "big decision" (it ran about 20 minutes too long for how much humor the plot could support) I had almost entirely forgotten and completely ceased to care what she was deciding about. Again, I understand that this was very hastily written, but without the LONG curtain speech how would I have known?
As I mentioned earlier, he was also the director of this piece. In the opening few minutes I was actually quite impressed with the choices. It flowed well, all of the technical B.S. rules you learn in directing school were being followed, etc. But as the play went on it just got muddier and muddier. By the end it looked as if there was almost no work done on the physical life of the show at all, and the work there was pretty amateur. At one point he had them circling around her desk yelling at each other for quite some time. Just walking around in a circle yelling. Enough said.
I hope that the playwright continues (as only the playwright) to develop this piece (as he should - in the grand scheme this is really only an initial draft), and threads the sitcom bits into a story that can support two hours and an intermission.
I saw A Little Night Music this weekend. I thought it was an absolutely fantastic production. Extremely well designed, (Though a little dark in my opinion…to which Allen Babcock will say “of course you think that!”) The set was simple yet very functional, the walls rotated and pivoted with a “frosted glass” inside that also turned for different scenes. All that was done for the “weekend in the country” was the addition of a few birch trees and a painted backdrop that you could see when the walls opened up.
But what a great musical! Why? Because it’s actually a great play. I seriously think it has some of the best book scenes I’ve ever seen in a musical. Don’t get me wrong, the songs were very good. Leigh Ann Larkin did a KICK ASS “Miller’s Son”. Bernadette of course sang a breathtaking and refreshingly simple “Send in the Clowns”. (which when I direct will opt for a little greater sense of that ironic laughter – they are after all asking to send in the clowns. That is not to take away from the fact that she can sob yet hold a pitch like very few else in the world.) But it really was the book scenes, and how seamlessly it flowed from text to song which actually meant that some of the songs were a bit low energy and anti-climactic, but nevertheless, it kept my attention for the more than three hours that this show ran. Frankly I’m surprised that after four years of conservatory theater college I didn’t know it better. How is this show not required for every musical theater scene study class? Its funny that I knew most of the songs to the point where I could sing along (not the verses of the Miller’s Son) but I couldn’t have told you a thing about the order or the plot really. I am so thankful that it is not a show where you can simply sing your way out of it, not that any of Sondheim’s pieces are. I’m also quite pleased that this show is making a comeback. Someone described it as if it were a Mozart opera, with all the complex storylines and relationships. Yet it had the beautiful simplicity of a chamber musical. The direction was simple, and allowed for a cleanliness without getting in the actors way. I actually feel that way about the entire design. Nothing got in the way of the story. I was tempted to be a bit of a “fan” when I saw Trevor Nunn crossing the street after the show. But seriously, if you are a theatergoer in New York, go see this show.
Oh, and of course… Elaine Stritch. Couldn’t remember half the words, a crew member had to feed them to her. You try to remember all the words of a Sondheim musical when you are in your mid-eighties! And she’s Elaine freakin' Stritch. Enough said.
I had another great meeting with Cry Havoc on Monday. Every time I go I am blown over by the talent of the group. Their sketches of plays are better than 95% of the plays I ever read. It really is so refreshing. I’m making some great progress with my mailing, and looking forward to a great LONG weekend! Man do I need it.