Dad is getting on in years: “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand”

If it is true, as often stated, that there are only seven basic plots from which all plays are derived, one of the seven certainly involves conflicted parent-offspring relationships. Think “King Lear” and “Death of a Salesman” for prototypes. While George Eastman’s “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand” is not in those plays’ lofty firmament (Is any?), it is firmly planted in that plot category.

The only two characters, in fact, are 85-year old Harry Townsend (Len Cariou) and his mid-40s son Alan T (Craig Bierko), who are at odds over dad’s ability to live alone despite multiple infirmities. Five years after the death of his wife, Harry manages to manage alone in the lakeside Vermont chalet he built  as part of a community he founded years ago with nine partners, all now passed on. Key to his quasi self-sufficiency, however, are daily care visits from Alan’s over-extended twin sister Sarah (whose multiple marriages and divorces are fair game).

Len Cariou, left, and Craig Bierko [Photos: Maria Baranova]

Harry’s infirmities are both physical, for which he ingests 14 different pills daily (twice a day if not closely monitored by Sarah), and cognitive, evidenced by lapses in memory or orientation, including who might be in the next room…or just be away…or deceased. (He also fell asleep while cleaning, leaving the vacuum running, never a good sign.)  Unsteady on his feet, Harry won’t consider a walker. Clomping through grocery stores, he says, old people look like they have scaffolding under them (which, when you think about it…)

After an 18-month absence, Alan “just thought I’d pop in for the weekend” from California (in a linen suit, no less), where he sells real estate. The overdue reunion evokes sentimental memories and a half-hour of banter, much of it amusing, but Harry suspects, not incorrectly, a hidden motive for the visit. (“You ‘popped in’? I don’t buy it, Alan. You’ve never been a popper.”)

There are hints from the start, but it takes a while for Eastman’s play to get to the point, which is that Alan and Sarah have made certain arrangements for their father, who deflects any such plans with a combination of derision and wit.

The play breaks no new ground in plot process or resolution, but some insights and diversions along the way make it a congenial journey. The difference, for instance, between tripping-and-falling and simply falling is a lesson in semantics, and while “Harry Townsend” stays mostly within PG-13 parameters, an anecdote concerning Harry’s moral leanings about the F-word has an unexpectedly warm payoff.

Then there are the two smooth performances. Harry is approaching Shakespeare’s seventh age of man, for sure, but he is hardly senile. Cariou turns the character’s crankiness and obstinance on their heads, making both those qualities somehow appealing. Harry’s age-related issues are reflected in some grappling for words, but Cariou does not let that hesitancy step on his laughs. Harry’s – make that Cariou’s – comic timing is on target throughout.

As is Bierko’s. Alan sets up most of Harry’s quips, but he is more than a straight man. Alan has issues with his father that Bierko plays with understated realism. Confrontation with a recalcitrant parent is never easy. Bierko finds the middle ground between Alan’s uncertainty and his determination.

Directed with sensitivity and a keen sense of bonding by Karen Carpenter on Lauren Helpern’s appropriately cluttered set (Shannon White’s props), “Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” is a perfect fit for New York City Center’s intimate Stage II. While it might not be substantial enough to sustain a long run in the Big City, Eastman’s gentle comedy should have a viable afterlife. Two characters, one set, geriatric jokes, an excellent tag line (Sometimes it’s harder to like someone than it is to love them) and a two-hour running time: a Regional/Community Theater dream.

New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. Performances Mon. Tues & Fri at 7:30pm; Wed & Sat at 2:30 &7:30; Sun at 3pm. For Tickets ($59-$110): 212-581-1212 or at www.nycitycenter.org  

There is a symmetry here worth noting. In 1979, exactly half his life ago, Len Cariou, now 80, created the title role in “Sweeney Todd,” for which he was awarded one of the play’s eight Tony Awards as Best Actor in a Musical. Four decades on, here he is in another lead role on a New York stage. Having seen both productions, I can tell you there is more than just longevity at work. Here’s wishing you another forty, Mr. Cariou.

 

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Paper Mill Playhouse is giving a ball! “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” in NJ

“Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” comes by that official title honestly. Having gone through several revisions since its debut as a TV special in 1957, the show depends for its success (or not) on how well (or not) that legendary team’s musical score is realized. How the vocal numbers are sung, how the orchestral arrangements are played, how the dance portions are choreographed.

I am pleased to report that the Paper Mill Playhouse production (of the 2013 Tony-nominated Broadway version) excels in those three categories and complements them with glittery special effects, creative lighting and gorgeous costumes. Running through December 29, the age-old fairy tale romance is a thoroughly agreeable holiday-month entertainment. Which is not to say it is perfect, just that the flaws, about which more below, are more in the material than the production.

Cinderella (Ashley Blanchett), center, with step-family: Angel Lin, left, Dee Hoty, and Rose Hemingway [Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade]

Continue reading

Blog, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A sure bet: “Guys and Dolls” in Deal, New Jersey

The overture to “Guys and Dolls” is unique in that it is scripted as well as orchestrated. It is a street scene collage danced – acted-out really – by the ensemble: floozies, society dames, bobby-soxers, a cop-and-pickpocket duo, a drunk and assorted tourists and hangers-on. If you couldn’t visualize Damon Runyon’s 1940s Times Square going in, ten minutes later you can.

The expansion and musicalization of Runyon’s short story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” resulted in “Guys and Dolls,” as close to musical-theater perfection as any show before or since. If you have never seen it, or not in a long while, you may want to log off here now and secure a ticket to one of the remaining performances at the Axelrod PAC in Deal, New Jersey. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Outside the Save a Soul Mission [Photos: Rich Kowalski]

Now then, while there is a local flavor to the production, Axelrod’s twenty-member cast is headed by several bona fide pros (under Equity Guest Artist contracts), with some impressive credits. The others range from semi-pro to recent college graduates, with varying levels of experience. Under Lisa Stevens’s cohesive direction and choreography, however, every one of them is at the top of their considerable talents. That may be partly due to the iconic show itself, which brings out the best in performers, but this group, including musical director Ethan Andersen’s terrific eight-piece on-stage orchestra, is as fine-tuned a unit as I’ve seen in a New Jersey venue.

Sarah Brown (Evan Bertram) and Sky Masterson (Stephen Mark Lukas)

On a bet, high roller Sky Masterson entices Save-a-Soul Mission doll Sarah Brown to accompany him to Havana. Their story intertwines with that of Nathan Detroit, proprietor of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York,” and cabaret singer Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancée – Nathan’s, that is…for fourteen years!

The Hot Box Dolls: “A Bushel and a Peck”

The story, at once comedic and romantic, was framed by radio and TV comedy writer Abe Burrows in Runyon-esque vernacular, involving  limited contractions (I am for I’m) and use of the “historical present,” where something is stated in the present tense but you know it refers to the past. (I am sitting there when I realize how much I am enjoying the show.) Burrows’s first stage effort, the book complements Frank Loesser’s music and lyrics to a tee. And vice versa; the songs are extensions of the characters. Sarah Brown’s “I’ll Know,” for example, could as well be spoken, although that would deprive us of the pleasure of hearing Evan Bertram sing it. Her tones are crystalline, with a slight vibrato that evokes a stringed instrument. Changing tempo and mood, Bertram’s “If I Were a Bell,” about Sarah being in a happy place, put me in one as well.

Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson happy in Havana

Ideally, Sky Masterson should be tall, handsome and self-assured. Enter Stephen Mark Lukas, who is those qualities as well as a singer as comfortable with Sky’s half of “I’ll Know” as with “Luck Be a Lady” and his seamless segue from “My Time of Day” into “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” a soaring duet with Bertram.

Also out of Central Casting are Jared Gertner and Jenny Hill as Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide, carrying the bulk of the show’s comic load and belting out their numbers like the Broadway vets they are. (“Book of Mormon” is Jared’s most recent; “Spamalot” is Jenny’s.)  Hill’s “Adelaide’s Lament” (‘a person could develop a cold’) is a winner, and she’s the ideal doll to front the alluring Hot Box Girls on “A Bushel and a Peck” and “Take Back Your Mink.” She and Gertner ace “Sue Me,” and the Adelaide/Sarah duet “Marry the Man Today” is a highlight.

Nathan Detroit (Jared Gertner) and Miss Adelaide (Jenny Hill)

Among the capable supporting cast, retired public school teacher Mark Megill sings Arvide Abernathy’s “More I Cannot Wish You” as warmly as I’ve ever heard it and Brendan Doyle does a bang-up job with Nicely-Nicely Johnson’s “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” And you do not want to tangle with Ryan Widd’s menacing Big Jule from Chicago (although Sky clocks him good).

The crap game guys: “Luck Be a Lady” ballet

There’s all that – and more – to enjoy in this consistently entertaining production: classy ensemble numbers, guys cracking wise, dolls doing a PG-13 strip tease, and an update on the Biblical source of  “There is no peace unto the wicked.” Obediah knows his Bible. Mine includes chapter and verse on American Musical Theatre. This “Guys and Dolls” might convert you as well.

Through November 17 at Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Avenue, Deal, NJ. Thurs at 1pm and 7pm; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 3pm.  Tickets ($58 – $64; $50/$56 seniors): 732-531-9106 Ext 14 or online at www.axelrodartscenter.com

My “Guys and Dolls”memories include seeing the original production (after which my sister’s boyfriend taught me to shoot craps – at age ten); a revival in the 1960s with Jerry Orbach and Alan King as Sky and Nathan (and Jake LaMotta as Big Jule); an all-black cast in 1976 with Robert Guillaume as Nathan; a few Regional productions; and, memorably, the superb 1992 Broadway revival in which Nathan Lane re-defined Nathan Detroit – and why not? Lane had taken the name Nathan years before as homage to the character. In 1955, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz hired a real-life Sky Masterson for the movie and, inexplicably, cast him, Frank Sinatra, as Nathan Detroit. Go figure.

Blog, Community, Professional, Regional

“Cyrano” gets a couple make-overs (including nose jobs)

Two recent adaptations of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” both titled simply “Cyrano,” play fast and loose with the 19th-Century French playwright’s masterpiece. At Two River Theater Company in New Jersey last month, the play, stripped of its revered open-verse construction and poetic imagery, was a bore. Jason O’Connell, who co-wrote the loose adaptation (with Brenda Withers), played Cyrano as a modern-day slacker with little regard for the language (or for projecting it). Among decent supporting performances – Luis Quintero’s clueless Christian was top-notch – O’Connell went his own partially-muffled way, apparently unchecked by director Meredith McDonough, and, but for a barely perceptible blotch, with a nose much like yours and mine.

The New Group’s version, running off-Broadway through December 13, while flawed, fares better.  New Group’s “Cyrano,” adapted and directed (and also prosed-up) by Erica Schmidt, whose schoolgirl-centric “Mac Beth” was astounding, arrived amid high expectations. Incorporating musical passages by the composer and lyricists for the Grammy Award-winning rock band The National, the title role is played by Peter Dinklage. Notwithstanding those impressive credentials, the whole emerges as less than the sum of its parts.

Cyrano (Peter Dinklage, right) to Montfleury (Scott Strangland): “Get off the stage. NOW!” [Photos: Monique Carlini]

Continue reading

Blog, Featured, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Revenge is a dish best served cold? Not so in “Lily”

Two things to know about “Lily,” the world-premiere play at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. First, Christopher Daftsios’s play is constructed like an orderly three-part farce, with a situational setup, followed by a discussion about how to set things right, and finally an attempt at resolution during which nothing goes as planned. The second thing to know is that “Lily” is not a farce. Far from it. It is a serious play about unsavory characters reacting to a repellent occurrence.

Which sounds worse than it is – for a play, I mean. While no one depicted is a nice person (despite the playwright’s efforts), and the act that propels the play is indefensible, “Lily” manages to command attention for a couple hours. Intermission walkouts are unlikely.

The big reveal comes early in the play, and it is not my intention to tease, but custom dictates non-disclosure here. Suffice it to say that one character’s routine behavior is derailed.

Toby (Christopher Daftsios) welcomes Haley (Joy Donze) to his dressing room [Photos: Andrea Phox]

Country-western star Toby, acted by playwright Daftsios, is accustomed to welcoming a fan to his dressing room after performances. His ‘guest’ is always a compliant young female, culled from the herd by his body man Tommy, played by erstwhile NJ Rep assistant stage manager Adam von Pier.

This time it is Haley (Joy Donze), who tipped Tommy a C-note to ensure being picked on this, her 18th birthday (there’s that, at least). After some will-she/won’t-she palaver, the purpose of her visit is revealed through deed and discussion.

In summary, Toby’s past has caught up with him. It is a past rife with debauchery, facilitated by those around him, including his manager Sam (Tait Ruppert), whose cover-ups have smoothed Toby’s path. Until now.

Christopher Daftsios, left, Adam von Pier, Tait Ruppert

The acting is uneven. Daftsios is a speed-talker, difficult enough to decipher even in an intimate auditorium and not helped by Toby’s country-western drawl. von Pier’s Tommy is laid-back to a fault, quiet and acquiescent even when a hint of menace is indicated. And while the playwright would soften his image by having him sing opera and spare the more innocent women from willful assault, give me a break; he’s still Toby’s butt-boy. Sam is an unrepentant louse, and Ruppert plays him just so.

Haley is far from the play’s good guy; there isn’t one, despite Daftsios’s implied justification for her actions. But Donze finds some variety in her character – colors, in the vernacular. She handles Haley’s explanatory monologue near the end very well, creating empathy for the girl.

Haley might have worn out her welcome

Director Sarah Norris’s physical staging is well adapted to NJ Rep’s relatively small stage (on another of designer Jessica Parks’s fine sets), but she might have taken some pains to blend the performances into a complementary style.

What happened with Toby years before and the repercussions now are just plausible enough to form the groundwork for Daftsios’s dramatic fiction. How the situation is handled as it progresses, however, is a stretch. Sam’s overly simple solution is rejected amidst revelations of Haley’s lurid past (some made-up for effect), and that of her alcohol-addled mother (the titled Lily) and grandmother, as the play proceeds to an ending that leaves things hanging. Haley gets what she wants, I guess, but the question remains: is it worth what she does to get it?

Through Nov. 24 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs. & Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3 and 8; Sun. at 2pm. Information and tickets ($50): 732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org                  

Blog, Professional

Tennessee Williams’s Love-Play: “The Rose Tattoo”

 It is generally conceded that “Period of Adjustment” is Tennessee Williams’s only full-out comedy, but “The Rose Tattoo” could claim a close second, especially as the second half plays out in the highly entertaining Roundabout Theatre Company revival.  The laughs are of a different sort; we come dangerously close to laughing at the characters, but as played by Marisa Tomei and her ideal castmates, these folks are endearing – extreme in behavior, yes, but hardly objects of ridicule.

Set in a Sicilian-American enclave “somewhere along the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile,” Serafina Delle Rose (Tomei) awaits her husband’s return from his banana-truck route. Their finances are linked to the cargo stashed under the bananas; their personal bliss, at least hers, to their lusty amorous activity, which ends when Rosario is killed in a roadway crash (caused, in the original, by the police shooting at the truck).

Serafina (Marisa Tomei) pre-Magiacavallo [Photos: Joan Marcus]

Continue reading

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater