“The Parisian Woman” in D.C. (via B’way) and another tomorrow for “Annie” in NJ

I couldn’t find an English translation of Henry Becque’s 19th-Century farce La Parisienne, upon which Beau Willimon based “The Parisian Woman,” but it’s a safe assumption that the original did not include references to the U.S. Fourth District Federal Court bench or to Twitter accounts or to “fake news.” (Although that last one…who knows?)

Willimon’s modernist (and presumably loose) adaptation has been revised even since its 2013 premiere at California’s South Coast Repertory, and could possibly be up-dated again next week, depending on the news cycle. Regardless of any further tinkering, it will remain worth seeing, not least for the presence of Uma Thurman, making her Broadway debut as Chloe, the wife of a Washington D.C. tax attorney short-listed for the vacant Fourth District judgeship. Ms. Thurman is on stage throughout all five scenes of the 90-minute one-act, as dominant to the play as Chloe is to the situation. Even just sitting upstage listening to a conversation, Thurman’s Chloe exudes the confident craftiness upon which the story revolves.

Uma Thurman, Josh Lucas (with drink) and Marton Csokas in “The Parisian Woman”

About that story, only bare bones can be revealed without spoilers. Chloe and Tom (Josh Lucas), not quite Beltway insiders themselves, are close to two people with influence on top-level decision-makers (think Oval Office) who can help to secure Tom’s appointment: Peter (Marton Csokas) is a Presidential advisor, and Jeanette (Blair Brown) is the incoming Federal Reserve Chairman (Chairwoman, Chloe corrects).  Both are major donors to the Republican National Committee, an affiliation not embraced by Jeanette’s daughter Rebecca (Phillipa Soo).

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown (center) and Phillipa Soo

“The Parisian Woman” unfolds in now-time. Not theatrical ‘real time,’ but over several days and encounters that conjure up the “ripped from today’s headlines” cliché. Some of those headlines are spoon-fed in projections that separate the scenes, but the play is not that simple. Its sentiments are decidedly leftist, but one of the ways that aspect is presented is uniquely nuanced…and not altogether honorably even for those who agree. (Judging by bursts of laughter and applause, audience members who may be dismayed by the Liberal slant will likely be outnumbered on West 44th Street.)

Willimon’s script, which I did obtain, doesn’t read as well-crafted as it plays. Much of the dialogue is clipped, with few speeches running more than a couple sentences, but Pam McKinnon proves herself an actors’ director. Significant plot points and relationship subtleties are framed in glances and pauses, a technique at which the three women are particularly adept. In pursuing her goal, for example, Chloe adjusts her manner with each of the others; you hardly notice Ms. Thurman doing that…until it works.

Chloe (Uma Thurman) and Jeanette (Blair Brown): BFFs? More like frenemies…

As Jeanette, Ms. Brown is brash, not blowsy; and funny, not comical. Her reaction to some surprising news speaks volumes without being overdone. Ms. Soo, Tony-nominated as Eliza in “Hamilton” (and, earlier, delightful in Moliere’s “School for Wives” at Two River Theater in NJ), enacts clear-eyed, ambitious, Harvard Law grad Rebecca without sacrificing her wistful youthfulness.

Both men are fine as well, although their roles border on the functional. They are witnesses to and objects of the action (Chloe’s, wouldn’t you know), rather than precipitators of it. Mr. Lucas does have his moment when Tom comes clean with his intent, but Mr. Csokas struck me as an odd casting choice for Peter.

Significantly, no one mentions the name of the President of the United States, until someone finally does, equally significantly.

There are a couple of surprise reveals, one of which, a beaut, sparks the resolution. Thinking back, there were a few “oh yeah, that” clues along the way, so if you see “The Parisian Woman,” pay attention.

Limited engagement at the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street, NYC. Performances Tues-Sat evenings with matinees Wed, Sat & Sun. For tickets: 855-801-5876 or at www.the hudsonbroadway.com

[The title is from the old Becque play, but the reference here is to Chloe’s reverie about her years-ago tryst in Paris. Uma Thurman lives it for us.]

It’s been a week since I saw “Annie” at Paper Mill Playhouse, and I cannot get the tune of “NYC” out of my head. That number, as well as “Easy Street,” “Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” are performed with spirit and energy by the principals and ensembles (both childrens’ and adults’) in the latest re-staging of the oft-revived musical. The fact that “Annie” features seven little-girl orphans (Annie plus six) and that the last few scenes take place around a Christmas tree make the musical play an obvious holiday-month offering. (Broadway’s last revival, in 2012, opened in November, as did Paper Mill’s last one, in 2002.) And oh yes, the mega-song “Tomorrow” still makes mincemeat of the fourth wall. That, and a real-live dog in the mix, cements the appeal.

Miss Hannigan (Beth Leavel)

While Paper Mill does not add or extract anything new from the seemingly ubiquitous show, there are plenty pluses: Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel is a terrific Miss Hannigan, who does not overdo the character’s boozing (thank you, Ms. L and director Mark S. Hoebee); Broadway veteran Christopher Sieber  balances Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks’ gruffness and tenderness perfectly; and Cassidy Pry, the pert Annie I saw (two girls alternate), brings perfect pitch to her songs and a blessedly un-saccharine quality to her scenes with the adults.

Annie (Cassidy Pry) and Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Sieber) bonding in song with Grace Farrell (Erin Mackey) looking on approvingly

Charles Strouse’s musical score holds up very well, but Thomas Meehan’s book and some of Martin Charnin’s lyrics, are, by now, creaky. The appearances by FDR and members of his cabinet (Cordell Hull? Harold Ickes?) sail over the heads even of many grown-ups, and other 1930s references – Annie playing tennis with Don Budge, for one – were obscure decades ago. The “We’d Like to Thank You” number is performed very well by the homeless Depression-era chorale, but it is, after all, still about Herbert Hoover.

Young first-timers will appreciate the orphans’ scenes and the musical numbers, and a parent-child live-theater bonding can be very special. Really, though, “Annie” is a better fit for a grandparent-grandchild outing, as it’s been for me with Carolina, then eight, on Broadway in 2012 and with ten-year-old Sam last week at Paper Mill Playhouse.

The”Annie” finale. (That’s FDR waving from his wheelchair, young’uns.)

Through December 31 at Paper Mill in Millburn, NJ. Performances Tues-Sun with added  matinees during the pre- and post-Christmas weeks. For schedule and ticket info: 973-376-4343 or online at www.papermill.org  


Blog, Broadway, NY Theater, Professional, Regional

The importance of seeing “Earnest” at Two River Theater

In a modern play about Oscar Wilde, he says “I have spent my life holding language up to the light, making words shimmer.” (Wilde might well have said that.) Then his 1895 play “The Importance of Being Earnest” is referred to as ‘the wittiest play in the English language.’ Nowhere is that shimmering wit more in evidence these weeks than at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ. Directed by Tony-nominated actor Michael Cumpsty and featuring a cast of Two River newbies (save one), the play, to quote one character’s assessment of another’s quip, is “perfectly phrased.”

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Paging Dr. Seuss: Report to Red Bank for “Seussical”

An unscripted moment on opening night of Phoenix Productions’ “Seussical” revealed much about how the show was being received. Nearing the end, the Cat in the Hat addresses the audience rhetorically: “And you know what happened next?” he asks. With split-second timing, an anxious voice from the audience, weak in timbre but not in volume, responded for us all: “What happened?”  (Spoiler alert: Nothing bad happened.)

A dramatic Cat in the Hat (Dan Peterson) [Photos: Rich Kowalski]

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Blog, Community, Regional

Tennis, anyone? “The Last Match” off-Broadway

There’s a mind game we used to play in college built around someone finishing the sentence “Life is like a ­___” with a concept (film noir, say) or item (a coke bottle is one I recall). That game came to mind as I watched “The Last Match,” which is essentially a 90-minute response to “Life is like a tennis match.” Or vice versa. Granted, not the most challenging of allegories, but Anna Ziegler puts a neat spin on it in her play about a U. S. Open semi-final match between Tim (Wilson Bethel), an aging-out (he’s 34) American superstar, and Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), a younger up-and-coming Russian phenom.

The play is set at that match and, in flashbacks, at various other locations. The match is played virtually set-by-set, with the running tally appearing on side-wall scoreboards. The players talk to one another, mostly in taunts, and both soliloquize inner thoughts that provide added tension and even influence the back-and-forth scoring. In their on-court stances, serves and returns, both Bethel and Mickiewicz look like actual tennis players; even though it’s in pantomime, it has the feel of watching an actual match.

From left: Zoe Winters, Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Careful what you wish for: “Mutual Philanthropy” at NJ Rep

We like to think we can size up strangers in a first meeting, but we really can’t. Everyone is guarded for a while, with deep feelings and values held in check, at least until the atmosphere is safe.

That’s why I’m always amazed when I go into a new play knowing nothing at all about the characters and come out with insights into their behaviors, desires, fears, motivations, the whole package. In the case of Karen Rizzo’s “Mutual Philanthropy,” it took a mere ninety minutes. As well-acted as it is written, the play’s east coast premiere runs through November 19 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

When struggling sculptor Lee (Joseph Carlson) and his working-to-support-them wife Esther (Vivia Font) are invited to dinner at the lavish home of  wealthy investment banker Charles (James Macdonald) and his neglected wife Michelle (Laurel Casillo), it is with the expectation that the hosts plan to purchase Lee’s ‘Reclining Man’ sculpture for a few much-needed thousand bucks. (The couples’ children attend the same grammar school in the gentrifying Los Angeles area neighborhood where they all live – in contrasting digs.)

Esther (Vivia Font) and Charles (James Macdonald) share a quiet moment

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Improved with age: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”

Two things to know about George Street Playhouse’s temporary home on the Cook College Campus of Rutgers University: One is that the venue is temporary only in the sense that GSP will be moving back to downtown New Brunswick when the Livingston Avenue performing arts center is completed – in an estimated two years. In the meantime, however, the Cook Campus facility is comfortably sleek and technically up-to-date in all aspects.

The second thing is that the opening production, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is a clear winner. Re-vamped by the creators of the 1996 original that ran twelve years off-Broadway (second-longest after “The Fantasticks”), the new version retains a goodly portion of the original with tweaks that make the whole enterprise fresh as the proverbial daisy.

“Love…Perfect…Change” is a series of vignettes, most musical, about relationships. Each scene is independent of the others, but a timeline emerges, starting with a first-date situation and progressing through courtship, marriage, child-rearing, etc. Joe DiPietro’s book and lyrics progress as well. Set to Jimmy Roberts’s engaging tunes, the earliest jokey material matures up to and including the penultimate “Funerals are for Dating” scene, which is an uncanny combination of comedy and poignancy.

From Left: Mitchell Jarvis, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, George Merrick, Karen Burthwright [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional