A Star Turn by Laura Linney: “My Name Is Lucy Barton”

It seems that one-actor stage presentations have increased in number over the past decade or so. And as critical attention to them has grown with that proliferation, the quality level has risen as well. Long recognized as a theatrical form but marginalized before even multi-cast plays clocked in at ninety minutes, the solo show is now a staple not only of off-Broadway, but on the Main Stem too. Both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle include a “Solo Show” award category (Tony does not), lumping On- and Off-Broadway for consideration. (I am a DD/OCC voter.)  Serious solo-show pioneers include Spalding Gray and Anna Deavere Smith, while such as Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Colin Quinn have adapted their comedic personas to the form. In 2004, Doug Wright’s solo play “I Am My Own Wife” won not only the Best Play and Actor (Jefferson May) Tony Awards, but the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well.

Some solo shows are themed standup; some channel multiple characters to make a social point. None has been more complete a play than Rona Munro’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling 2016 novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” not least because its one actor is the sublime Laura Linney. Having opened in London’s West End in 2018 to great acclaim, Ms. Linney and “Lucy Barton” are now ensconced at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

The sublime Laura Linney [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

In the play, as in Strout’s novel, only two characters interact: Lucy and her mother. Others are briefly present or quoted, but the two women, whose connecting cord has been stretched but not quite broken, are the onstage characters. Linney’s shifts between the two are both sharply defined and seamlessly smooth. The tone of the play as, again, the book, is deceptively non-dramatic, mostly factual. One needs to read between the lines, so to speak, in order to become emotionally invested in Lucy, which makes Linney’s performance the more accomplished. Portraying the one woman, so different from the other, while holding that other at the ready, she shows more than she tells, embodying not only both women, but their unspoken conflicts as well.

“Lucy Barton” is a memory play, related by now middle-aged Lucy (age unspecified), about the time years before, when, nine-weeks hospitalized for an infection after a botched appendectomy, she awoke one morning to find her mother at her bedside. Far from a routine mom-visit, the two had been estranged for many years.

Lucy’s Midwestern childhood was marred by an unstable father, whose temper-fueled abuses of Lucy and her siblings (a bro and sis) were triggered by his World War II experiences – what we now know as PTSD. Her mother was an ineffectual onlooker, and Lucy lost herself in books, prompting her to become a writer. While she had fled Amgash, Illinois for New York years before, the emotional scars inflicted there never fully healed.

During the five days and nights her mother stays in Lucy’s hospital room, the two reminisce, sharing memories (Lucy) and gossip (mom) about childhood friends’ careers, failed marriages and such, never really touching on the sore spots that had caused their estrangement, leaving those elements to be related to the audience by Lucy. Little happens over the five days, and while Lucy expresses love for her mother, there is no reciprocation. The relationship remains puzzling (at least to me), but we stay involved thanks to Laura Linney’s layered, controlled, less-is-more performance. Her own mellifluous voice warms us to Lucy, while the midwestern nasal twang she affects as mama is perfection. The two women’s values are as different as their voices; Ms. Linney captures both beautifully.

The Chrysler building – from Lucy’s hospital room.

Director Richard Eyre has said that he “simply trusted in Linney’s ability,” which is as advantageous a starting point as any director could wish. He also complimented her prodigious feat of memorization. Of course, one cannot act a play without memorizing the lines, but being the sole speaker for 90 minutes? “Learning it,” Eyre pointed out, “was like a tightrope walk over the Grand Canyon.”  If so, Linney has pulled a Wallenda – and then some.

It is not a  negative to suggest that “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” on page or stage, might resonate best with women. Both book and play surely held my interest, albeit unemotionally. Ms. Linney’s performance, however, was mesmerizing.

Manhattan Theatre Club at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, NYC. Performances Tues. – Sun. For schedule and tickets ($89-$179): www,Telecharge.com 

 

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Married Thirty-five Years and Counting (or maybe not): “Bone on Bone”Premiere

Many a fine play is waylaid by shoddy acting and/or directing. (Recall your last misbegotten Shakespeare.) Conversely, a lesser theater piece can be enhanced by superior efforts in those categories. Such is the case with Marylou Dipietro’s “Bone on Bone,” enjoying a well-acted world premiere production at New Jersey Repertory Company.

The word ‘lesser’ is used advisedly. “Bone on Bone” is not a bad play – or one beyond redemption. It is just…mild. One becomes invested in the two characters, whose situation is relatable, but whose indecisiveness becomes frustrating as they spar with one another without landing any telling blows before ending up in a bland rapprochement.

Manhattanites Jonathan (John Little), 60, and Linda (Wendy Peace), 59 but appearing younger (per the playwright), are in a complacently traditional 35-year marriage. He is a partner in a prestigious NYC law firm; she, a painter, apparently proficient, but hardly renowned.

Wendy Peace and John Little [Photos: Andrea Phox Photography]

Lest the title’s metaphorical connection to their tenuous marriage escapes us, this from Linda’s early speech, ostensibly about calcium deposits: “What’s the stuff between the joints? When it’s gone they call it bone on bone?” Later, in another context, she says “That’s the thing, you can’t make up for lost time.” And there you have the crux and message of Ms. Dipietro’s play.

Sublimated issues arise when Linda’s former mentor offers her a position heading up an artist-in-residence program at Rhode Island School of Design. Will she take the job? If yes, must she move to Providence? (“You can’t be an artist-in-residence if you’re not ‘in residence’.”) Will Jonathan leave his lucrative Big Apple practice to move with her? After all, he did once entertain the notion of opening a hardware store. That the play holds our interest as they dance around these questions for eighty minutes is a comment on audience voyeurism. We wait for an emotional eruption but end up settling for a Hallmark resolution. (As a side note, the idea that a couple might split up after 35 years of marriage would have been unthinkable a generation or so ago. Today? Meh.)

Mr. Little and Ms. Peace

A third character, Linda’s job-offering advocate Ernest, who prefers Ernesto (finally, Ernie), spurs Jonathan’s passive-aggressive jealousy. Devoting less time and dialogue to the fellow’s expectorating-in-public habit and his nasal excretions would lend at least some justification for that concern. As it is, anyone whose sense of self is intact would pass on a pass by Ernie. (Thankfully, he does not appear).

Neither Linda nor Jonathan offers or invites intimacy, save for a couple of mild gestures, which, while touching, are tentative. This has not been a passionate marriage. (A tossed-off exchange about why they are childless comes and goes in a blink and she has never even seen him blow his nose in 35 years.) Given the couple’s opposing personalities and the playwright’s tight rein on them (civility reigns), the actors’ mining the piece for emotional nuance is admirable.

Mr. Little, lawyerly in appearance and demeanor, conveys Jonathan’s vexation with his reserve, which he cannot shake, despite both desire and motivation. It makes him a rather sad character, both to himself and to us, a quality (if such it be) that the actor reveals beneath a dignified veneer.

Linda is pretty much the opposite. Her potential joie de vivre, tamped down over the years, reveals itself just under the surface of Ms. Peace’s multi-level performance. Left standing alone at the end of some scenes, she conveys the woman’s (many women’s?) frustration with her station through small but telling gestures and expressions (especially effective in the intimate venue).

M. Graham Smith’s direction is of a piece with the material, efficient if not warm. Set designer Jessica Parks employs multiple angles to expand the relatively small stage, and Patricia E. Doherty’s apt costume choices complement character and situation.

Plays that pose questions and leave them unanswered comprise a genre of their own. Such plays can inspire post-performance conversations that might go on for days. “Bone on Bone” aspires to that level, but a few remarks on the way home will likely do the trick.

Through February 9 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs. and Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3 & 8; Sun. at 2pm. For tickets ($55):732-229-3166 or online at www.njrep.org

Blog, Professional, Regional

Bye Bye Blackface/Send In The Clowns

Ken Ludwig’s 1980s farce “Lend Me a Tenor” revolves around two operatic tenors being mistaken for one another in costume and makeup for the same role. The play is funny…or not, depending on taste. I had always thought it so, until it dawned on me at a 2005 performance (foot-noted below) that two white guys in blackface for the title role of Verdi’s “Otello” being indistinguishable by other white characters because of blackface makeup and kinky wigs was an idea way past its sell-by date.

Fortuitously, playwright Ludwig has come to the same conclusion, pulling the rights to the original and re-issuing it with Canio replacing Othello, Canio being the clown in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” The new version is just as funny, as evidenced by the nifty production running through January 26 at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre in Elmsford, New York. Perhaps, with comic ‘takes’ more readable through clown whiteface than Moorish blackface, even more so.

The “Lend Me a Tenor” cast [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players: Doing What They Do Best!

Want to be like the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players? Just pick a niche-market art form and become a world-class expert at it. Founded in 1974, NYGASP’s performance-ready repertory of all thirteen of the writing team’s extant Savoy Operas (a couple were never published), is unique among such companies, and while some of the more popular ones dominate the roster, all are intermittently staged in rotating repertory in NYC and on tour. True to their founding mission of “giving vitality to the…legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan through performance and education,” NYGASP is recognized as the Gold Standard of Gilbert & Sullivan production companies, attested to by the company’s lauded appearances at the annual International G & S Festivals in England.

The cast of “The Mikado” [Photos: William Reynolds]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

‘Swallow it down’ (“Jagged Little Pill”) ‘It feels so good’

A conundrum/problem/challenge: How to describe a Broadway musical that pretty much exceeds familiar superlatives in pretty much all its facets.

Well, let’s try, by first thanking Alanis Morrisette for resisting entreaties over the past two decades to turn her 1995 Grammy-winning album “Jagged Little Pill” into a standard juke box musical.  Released when the Canadian-American former teen pop star was just 20, the album, in that pre-streaming era, sold half a million copies in one week, and to date, according to a New York Times Magazine profile, it has sold as many copies as Taylor Swift’s entire discography combined.

Celia Rose Gooding, left, Lauren Patten, and members of the “Jagged Little Pill” company. [Photos: Matthew Murphy]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

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]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway