“ART” is in the eye of the beholder…

The term ‘bromance,’ referring to a close, non-sexual relationship between men, had not been coined when French playwright Yasmina Reza wrote “ART” in 1994, but a bromance fuels her play, which concludes its mini-run at Holmdel Theatre Company on December 16.

A fifteen-year friendship is sorely tested by the purchase of a white-on-white painting…for 200,000 francs*. Serge (Brian Craig) cherishes his monochromatic canvas – an Antrios, he boasts – which his friend Marc (Gabe Gatti) labels, almost too bluntly to simply state, “white shit.” A third friend, Yvan (Ankit Sharma) vacillates between praising Serge’s artistic instincts and agreeing with Marc’s scatological assessment. The three men and the inanimate Antrios comprise the cast of “ART.”

From left: Ankit Sharma, Brian Craig, Gabe Gatti

Beginning as relatively harmless bantering, the Serge-Marc discussion escalates into biting sarcasm, verbal hostility and even a brief physical altercation as the two dredge up grievances and resentments that had festered, unspoken, for years. Yvan attempts to mediate, an effort that succeeds only when the other two unite in attacking him.

Ostensibly about reactions to the painting, Ms. Reza’s insightful ninety-minute play, translated into smooth-flowing English by Christopher Hampton, is a three-way character study. Serge is a would-be dilettante who is swayed by the trendy artist’s reputation; Marc is overly self-confident and given to sarcasm; and Yvan, stuck in a dead-end job and facing a cheerless marriage, is emotionally needy. The three are inter-dependent, as even sparring comrades can be.

Brian Craig, left, and Gabe Gatti

Holmdel’s “ART” moves at brisk pace, but the full effect of its back-and-forth about art and relationships requires a lighter touch than is exhibited here. Put another way, while it certainly does not bore, it’s not as funny as it could/should be. Marc’s commentary on Serge and his Antrios progresses from witty sarcasm into outright hostility and anger within the first few minutes. Gatti plays the anger convincingly, but peaking so soon, the actor has little room for character development.

Yvan’s effort to keep the peace between the other two is based on his own need for the bond to hold. The three-man unit is his safe place, his only diversion from the frustrations that he contains until they burst from him in a 1300-word melt-down. Sharma is fidgety through it (and elsewhere), which distracts some, but the memorization is a feat unto itself, and he zips through it confidently.

Brian Craig and Ankit Sharma

Serge remains deceptively calm until his own grievances emerge, at which point Craig finds a balance between the man’s defensiveness and his anger. (Long-smoldering Serge’s derision of a supercilious habit of Marc’s girlfriend is brilliant writing.)

Joyce Horan’s serviceable set is “stripped down and neutral as possible,” as the playwright decreed, and we get the sense of whose apartment we are in by the presence or absence of the Antrios. Chris Szczerbienski’s lighting keeps focus where it should be, and Heather Thompson’s creative poster art (pun noted) deserves a mention.

Director Tyrone Henderson moves the play along efficiently, but mining its humor seems to have been a low priority. As amusing as it is at the most obvious points, one wishes the subtle humor were equally so.

The Antrios (I kinda like it. You?)

A brief epilogue reveals that the survival of the three-way friendship has hinged on an untruth told by Serge. Considering that the painting is but a prop in a play about mutual tolerance and consideration, the deception that preserves the bromance is just a white lie.

Through December 16 at Holmdel Theatre Company, 36 Crawfords Corner Road, Holmdel NJ. Fri/Sat Dec 14/15 at 8PM; Sun Dec 16 at 2PM. Tickets ($25; Seniors $20; students $15): www.holmdeltheatrecompany.org

*U.S. productions usually substitute a dollar figure for the 200,000 francs, which would have been about $40,000 in 1994, but the Euro replaced the franc in 2002. A 2010 production used $75,000, enough to constitute the dermatologist’s splurge and to raise his friend’s eyebrow.

Blog, Community, Regional

#AmericanSonMatters on Broadway

“American Son” premiered in 2016 at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts and was staged at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey in February 2017. In those recent years, its theme of racially-charged encounters between African-American males and law-enforcement officers reflected the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Now, Christopher Demos-Brown’s cautionary tale has opened on Broadway, and what a difference a year makes. Or not.

The title character, eighteen-year-old Jamal, hovers over every minute of the emotionally intense tale, but does not appear in person. It is 4AM in the waiting room of a Miami police station, where Jamal’s mother Kendra has gone to report her son missing. Jamal had left home earlier that evening in his late-model Lexus, a gift from his father, and had not checked in or answered his phone. Mom is deeply concerned, a state of mind made clear by Kerry Washington’s Kendra before she speaks a word.

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale [Photos: Peter Cunningham]

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“Holiday Inn” Open For Business At Paper Mill Playhouse

The musical now officially titled “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is based on the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn,” which was updated on screen as “White Christmas” in 1954, which in turn was adapted into a stage musical (“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”) in 2000, with Broadway stints in 2008 and ’09. This latest one, “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” premiered regionally in 2014 and had its own Broadway engagement over the 2016 holiday season.

Did you follow that? No matter; just know that Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas” is sung in all of them. The show remains popular thanks to its score (in two meanings) of Irving Berlin songs, for which he composed both music and lyrics. “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is running through December 30 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

Let’s put on a show! [Photos courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse]

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“King Hedley II” Reigns at Two River Theater

In the play running through December 16 at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, a 35-year old African-American woman defends her decision to terminate her pregnancy in an impassioned speech. “I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have his friends…or the police…shoot him,” Tonya says, before relating the gut-wrenching story of a neighborhood mother whose son was shot and killed even as she had his favorite meal on the table. So…an angry, socially conscious play written in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, right?   Wrong.

“King Hedley II” was written in 1999. Set in 1985, it is one of August Wilson’s ten Century Cycle plays that examine “the unique particulars of black American culture” (Wilson’s phrase) through the twentieth century, decade by decade. It is a masterful work, and in Tonya’s and others’ speeches and in their interactions with the world around them, it is eerily prescient.

“Hedley” plays out in the back yards of two adjacent rundown houses that could not look any more lived-in, thanks to Michael Carnahan’s site-perfect set. In Two River’s intimate second space, the audience is virtually in those back yards with the actors, or, better said, with the characters, who are no more than 15-20 feet away.

King Hedley II (Blake Morris), left, and Elmore (Harvy Blanks) [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“Annie” gets a makeover (with Andrea McArdle aboard)

With a few minor (and one not-so-minor) modifications, producers Andrew De Prisco and Jess Levy and director/choreographer Al Blackstone have given “Annie” a fresh appearance without sacrificing its Depression-era flavor or its sentiment. Fortunately, they haven’t monkeyed with the terrific (often under-rated) score, opting instead to emphasize how it is played, sung and moved to. The result is an altogether winning “Annie,” which ends its limited run on Sunday, November 18 at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, NJ.

The ‘sentiment’ noted above refers to healthy, if simple, emotion (not icky sentimentality), and ‘moved to’ is apt because the smooth show feels choreographed throughout. It is still “Annie,” as good as any I’ve seen, among many, and better than most.

Andrea McArdle is Miss Hannigan [Photo: Rich Kowalski]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

A solo show evokes Lenny Bruce: Comedian…and so much more

You are unlikely to ever see the theatrical title “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Richard Pryor.” Or George Carlin. Or Chris Rock. Or Sarah Silverman. But appending the name Lenny Bruce is altogether appropriate. Not that he wasn’t a comedian, because he was, and a damn funny one. No, it is what he was in addition to being a comedian. What else he stood for and represented, without which, btw, none of those other names would be in the mix. Just ask them. (Carlin once told me he credited Lenny with inspiring his transition from the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman to “my true self, man.”)

Lenny Bruce was a champion of free speech and civil rights, including blanket acceptance of human differences. He abhorred the abridgement of any of those liberties and was especially disdainful of hypocrisy. To those ends, his routines ‘addressed social taboos and controversial topics, such as racism, sexism, politics, and religion’.*

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce [Photos: Doren Sorell Photography]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway