Elaine May astonishes in “The Waverly Gallery”

It is generally true that the decline into dementia is a gradual process. From early symptoms – forgetting names or dates or where one left the keys – to a failure to connect with the real world, can take years. In Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” now on Broadway 18 years after its off-Broadway premiere, Elaine May enacts such a decline in just over two hours. It is an outstanding performance, mining the situation for its humor (without ridicule) and pathos (without bathos).

Elaine May as Gladys Green [Photos: Brigitte Lacombe]

         Heading a superlative cast that includes Tony Award-winners Joan Allen (for “Burn This”) and David Cromer (for directing “The Band’s Visit”), plus multi-film star Lucas Hedges in his Broadway debut and Lonergan-regular Michael Cera, Ms. May’s portrayal is astonishingly authentic.

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

Unresolved Mother-Son Issues: “Apologia” off-Broadway

Line readings are a generally under-valued (and under-credited) facet of the actor’s craft. As many times as you see “Hamlet,” for example, is how many different readings of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy you will encounter.

Having read Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “Apologia” before seeing the New York premiere (from London) at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, I was struck by how the play, interesting enough on the page, was enriched by Stockard Channing’s creative and sometimes counter-intuitive delivery of some lines. “She’s pretty,” Kristin (Channing) says to her son about his girlfriend, intoned in a way that negates any other qualities the young woman might possess. Later, “You’re pretty,” spoken directly to Trudi, is as warm as the other was cold.

Stockard Channing [Photos: Joan Marcus]

This is not to suggest that you should read “Apologia” (or any play) before seeing it, but just to note Channing’s uncanny ability to extract sub-text from the words on the page. She is a superb actor, proved once again in this play.

Peter (Hugh Dancy) and Trudi (Talene Monahon) show up at Peter’s mother’s English countryside cottage to celebrate mom’s birthday.  That they are early for dinner doesn’t much matter because the oven is on the blink. The chicken being raw doesn’t matter either, because Trudi is a vegetarian (“Pescetarian. I eat fish”), which is but one of her less-than-endearing characteristics that Peter had failed to mention, including that she’s American (ex-pat Kristin is an Anglophile) and that she and Peter had met at a Christian prayer meeting.

Talene Monahon and Hugh Dancy

Soon joined by second-son Simon’s girlfriend Claire (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Kristin’s protest-march cohort Hugh (John Tillinger), they go ‘round and ‘round on Kristin’s preoccupation with leftist causes (Karl Marx’s photo hangs in the loo) and the implications of the sons having been ‘abducted’ by their father while in elementary school. Consumed at the time (and still) with causes and protests, mom did not fight for custody. Nor, tellingly, is either son even mentioned in her just-published memoir. Mom’s explanation is that it is not a life-memoir, but rather a review of her career as an art historian, one of the rationalizations that informs Kristin’s apologia, which is the crux of the play.

[App-ah-LOW-djah: a defense or justification, usually written, of one’s actions or opinions.]

Kristin is a bottomless well of socially-conscious opinions, many of them Quixotic, all conveyed so convincingly in Ms. Channing’s commanding performance that you want to sign on. The woman who sacrificed traditional values for fiercely-held beliefs is now forced, however reluctantly, to question those choices. Kristin does not admit to doubts, but Channing’s layered performance reveals them below the surface of her apparent confidence.

Trudi is secure in her own beliefs and increasingly confident in sharing them. (Her ‘faith’ is essential, but thankfully there’s no preachiness.)  In her self-assurance, Trudi is nearly a match for Kristin; Ms. Monahon’s Trudi is much more than just pretty.

Peter’s banking career distresses his mother. Worse, he seems to be embracing born-again Christianity (“That’s one thing I thought I got right,” mom laments). Hugh Dancy, whose British stage and film credits are legion, imbues Peter with a complacent acceptance. He’s not over his childhood trauma, but he’s over letting it define him. In contrast, second-son Simon, also played by Dancy (no spoiler; it’s in the Playbill), is borderline catatonic. Showing up in the night with a physical injury that mom gently tends (Symbolism 101), his emotional wounds remain open.

Introduced as a soap opera actress, Claire promptly dispels that notion. “It’s more of a serialized drama that follows the trajectories of various people’s lives,” she clarifies. (Oh, pardon us.) It also pays well, judging by her elegant designer dress, which draws splashy attention. Ms. Echikunwoke (Showtime’s “House of Lies”) does more than justice to that dress – and to Claire’s affected poise.

From left: Megalyn Echikunwoke, John Tillinger, Talene Monahon, High Dancy, Stockard Channing

Hugh is playwright Campbell’s sarcastic-relief, a function squarely in actor Tillinger’s wheelhouse. His pointed comment as Claire exits may not be the play’s funniest, but it gets the biggest laugh. Director Daniel Aukin balances the work’s drama, humor and humanism at a satisfying pace.

Admittedly, plays about dysfunctional families, with a dinner-party-gone-wrong and servings of acerbic humor, have become an over-examined genre. What elevates “Apologia” above the fray is the presence of Stockard Channing at the head of the table. Also, where many modern plays rely on multiple mobile phone intrusions to move the plot, “Apologia” includes just one brief call. And it’s a doozy. (Do not set your iPhone down next to someone else’s identical model.)

Through December 16 at Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street NYC. For performance schedule and tickets ($99): 212-719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org

[On the subject of line readings, here’s one to savor:  In “Romeo and Juliet,” Mercutio’s wry dying line “Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave man” is renowned for the cryptic word ‘grave’. At Stratford in 2017, actor Evan Buliung spoke it thus: “Look for me tomorrow and you will find me a grave, man.” Shakespeare’s words, but the actor’s comma.]

Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Bernhardt/Hamlet/McTeer

In 2017, Elizabeth Marvel appeared as Marc Antony in the Free Shakespeare in Central Park “Julius Caesar.” In 2018 women are playing Caesar as well as Antony and Cassius at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, where, to boot, Martha Henry is Prospero. These and myriad other cross-gender castings no longer even raise an eyebrow.

In 1899, however, Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet was “grotesque…a disgusting idea,” as a contemporary theater critic declares in Theresa Rebeck’s fascinating new historical-fictional play “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” The Roundabout Theatre Company Broadway production stars Janet McTeer as the actress Oscar Wilde dubbed The Incomparable One, an appellation just as readily suited to Ms. McTeer.

A dressing room dinner party. From left, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Janet McTeer, Matthew Saldivar [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“Phantom” in Westchester (not that one, the other one)

While some introductory background is a de facto requirement in a review of the “Phantom” musical that does not append “of the Opera” to its title, be advised upfront that the production at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre in Elmsford, NY is a top-notch staging of the one-word version of Gaston Leroux’s serialized 1910 novel.

Following their Tony Award-winning “Nine,” composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and librettist Arthur Kopit were working on a musical adaptation of Le Fantome de l’Opéra when news of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impending version stalled the team’s financing efforts. Lloyd Webber’s, of course, opened on Broadway in 1988 and is still running. Yeston/Kopit’s lay dormant until 1991, when it was resurrected at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars. With the rights to the Broadway version restricted (maybe forever), Y/K’s “Phantom” has become a staple in the Regional musical theater repertory. This is, in fact, Westchester’s fourth mounting since 1992 of what Maury Yeston calls “the greatest hit never to be produced on Broadway.” (The team’s “Nine” is also widely staged, as are some of Kopit’s award-winning plays. Yeston went on to compose “Grand Hotel” and “Titanic.”)

Comparisons of the two versions are inescapable. Both take liberties; Lloyd Webber’s skips over some incidents, while “Phantom” adds a major character to illuminate the Phantom’s back-story, humanizing him, which either adds to the romance and intrigue or detracts from the other-worldliness. Take your pick. Musically, both are pop-operatic, but where Lloyd Webber’s is sung-through, “Phantom” includes a significant amount of dialogue.  The comparisons are hardly relevant, however; lavishly staged and costumed and beautifully sung by its leads and ensemble, WBT’s ”Phantom” stands very well on its own 58 feet (21 cast members and eight musicians).

Christine (Kayleen Seidl)’s tabletop debut!   [Photos: John Vecchiolla]

Street-singer Christine Daeé (Kayleen Seidl) is discovered by Count de Chandon (Larry Luck). “All Paris should hear you sing,” he tells her, and it’s off to the Paris Opera House, where her debut is heard not only by the audience, but also by the disfigured, subterranean-dwelling Erik, aka The Phantom (Matthew Billman), who promptly falls in love with her – and her voice. Revealing himself to her, albeit masked, he becomes her vocal coach and, in his perverse way, her agent, securing roles for his protégé through threats and worse. “This Place is Mine,” sings the reigning diva Carlotta (amusing Sandy Rosenberg), but not for long. (You do not want Christine to be your understudy.)

Within the classic tale’s mystique, Seidl and Billman make the unlikely Beauty/Beast romance quite believable. And in this version it is indeed a romance. His feelings for her are obsessive and hers for him are apprehensive, but their mutual attraction cannot be denied. Seidl’s crystal-clear soprano and Billman’s rich baritone match up vocally as well. Her “Melodies de Paris” and “Christine Obligato” are lovely and his “Where in the World” and “Without Your Music” are commanding. Their duets blend beautifully; a series of “Lessons” is especially well sung (and staged), bordering on playful. (Notably, Billman conveys the Phantom’s emotions clearly, despite the three-quarter-cover face mask.)

Kayleen Seidle and Matthew Billman

The Phantom’s father, a significant figure in this version, is played by James Van Treuren, whose narration of “The Story of Erik” illuminates the Phantom’s origin as it is being enacted. An overly melodramatic tone weighs down the elongated concluding scenes, but the fault is in the play, not the players. Van Treuren and Ms. Rosenberg (Carlotta) are “Phantom” veterans, having appeared in WBT’s previous productions – Van Treuren in all three.

James Van Treuren and Matthew Billman

Director Tom Polum and music director Bob Bray are also returnees, a factor likely contributing to the seamless execution on stage and in the pit. The versatile ensemble, a major presence throughout, is excellent, and the ‘Musical Staging,’ which one assumes includes the ensemble’s singing scenes as well as the choreography, is smoothly coordinated by Erica Mansfield (Cassie in WBT’s outstanding “A Chorus Line” last January).

A scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Paris Opera

‘Set Coordinators’ Steve Loftus and Carl Tallent share well-deserved credit for the large, circular platform that elevates from the stage floor to create the illusion of the Opera’s sub-basement. Andrew Gmoser’s lighting design adds the requisite eeriness to the proceedings, and Keith Nielsen’s costumes evoke the period.

So…while Yeston’s score may not be as memorable song-by-song as Lloyd Webber’s (partly because you’ve not heard it over and over), it is pleasing on its own, and Kopit’s book unveils (unmasks?) a more detailed story than the other. “Yes,” I hear you saying, “but is there a chandelier?” Indeed there is. Westchester features an elegant one – plus you get dinner.

Through Nov. 25 and again from Dec. 27- Jan 27 (“A Christmas Carol Musical” plays the interim month) at Westchester Broadway (Dinner) Theatre, 1 Broadway Plaza, Elmsford NY. For performance schedule, including luncheon matinees, and tickets ($59-$89): 914-592-2222 or online at www.broadwaytheatre.com    

The “Phantom” orchestra…because, why not?

Blog, Professional, Regional

A Two River Theater premiere: “Pamela’s First Musical”

With eight musicians and a cast of fifteen, “Pamela’s First Musical” is the most elaborate musical produced by Two River Theater Company over its illustrious twenty-five years. The Stephen Sondheim-composed “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” in 2015 also had eight in the pit, but a paltry dozen on stage, and Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” (2014) was close, with  seven and eleven respectively. Both were excellent, innovative productions.

The “Pamela’s First Musical” cast [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

A playwright and play to reckon with: “Agnes” off-Broadway


“I don’t think I know the difference between sexual harassment and flirting” might not seem like a ground-breaking admission, but as spoken by Charlie in Catya McMullen’s outstanding new play “Agnes,” running through September 29 at 59E59 Theatre, it registers as profoundly moving. Twenty-something Charlie’s quest for his first sexual experience, you see, is hindered by his social awkwardness, precipitated in turn by his being on the Autism spectrum. During an edgy game of ‘Truth’ with his housemates, who include his sister June, her live-in girlfriend Elle and their happy-go-lucky roommate Ronan, Charlie is asked to describe his sexual fantasies. “To have it,” he promptly responds.

John Edgar Barker (Charlie), left, Mykal Monroe (Elle), Hiram Delgado (Ronan) and Laura Ramadei (June) [Photos: Carol Rosegg]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway