Behavior and Fate

Watching the superb revival of Parade (score by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry) reminded me of the problem I had with it when it was first produced in 1998. As much as I admire this production (highly), I have the same problem. The fate of the lead character is not the consequence of his behavior.

I think it is axiomatic that how characters end up in the story be the result of their choices and actions. All of the major characters in Shakespeare arrive at the ends where Shakespeare thinks their conduct necessarily has carried them. Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois, Mama Rose, Sweeney Todd, Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, Oscar and Felix, and (fill in your favorites) may not be happy (or even alive) as the curtain falls, but we in the audience can understand how those choices and actions brought them to those conclusions.

In Parade, however, Leo Frank arrives at his fate without it being the consequence of anything he has done. He simply has been in the wrong place at the wrong time and, because of the prejudices of the society around him, he gets murdered by a mob. Nothing he could have done after his arrest would have changed a thing. So, though scene by scene I admire the show greatly (the music, the staging and the performances are remarkable), for me there is something frustrating about this piece from a dramaturgical point-of-view.

But then, I have a similar problem with Evita. Eva Peron doesn’t die because she’s a manipulative, amoral fascist. She dies because she has bad genes. No aspect of her behavior has anything to do with her fate. If she had been a saint, she still would have died.

And you can see how that problem has damaged Evita’s commercial life, right?

But yes, I do believe the old saying, character is fate. At least when it comes to the stage.

I don’t think it’s accidental that two of the Tony nominees for best revival (the other being Into the Woods) began at Encores. Both productions hew to the Encores imperative to strip away what is extraneous and concentrate on featuring great casts serving the material. It is a method that has a way of exposing just how strong the material is. This was the case with the recent Encores presentation of Oliver! (directed by Lear deBessonet, the director of Into the Woods). The songs by Lionel Bart remain the major attraction, and backed by a full orchestra playing the orchestrations by William David Brohn created for the 1994 London revival, they never sounded better. Raul Esparza made the most of Fagin’s conflicting impulses toward avarice and tenderness, Lilli Cooper was a strong Nancy, and Benjamin Pajak (fresh from his run as Winthrop in the Broadway revival of The Music Man) brought his clarion voice to Oliver’s two great songs, “Where is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” (Hmm, both song titles are questions made up of single syllables.)

The book, however, felt more jerry-built than I’d remembered. At one point, a character stumbled on to reveal a coincidentally-timed piece of information and, having discharged her service to the plot, promptly keeled over to the laughter of the audience.

I was moved to check out the end of Carol Reed’s 1968 film version, and what a contrast it is! Instead of being just an up-number to open the second act, “Oom-pah-pah” is relocated to near the end of the film and played for suspense as Nancy uses the song to distract from her stealing Oliver away from Fagin and Sikes. Sikes’s pursuit of Nancy through the back alleys of London is classic Reed. I’d forgotten Sikes’s attempt to kill his dog, Bull’s-eye, because he’s afraid it will betray him, but it is a terrific addition to the plot. The dog then turns against Sikes, leading the mob to pursue him. John Box’s design emphasizes the filth, rot and fetid water of the London slums. The crowd attempting to chase Sikes up some stairs are thwarted when the staircase collapses into the muck below. The same muck swallows Fagin’s treasures. The film also improves on the stage version by adding a delicious reunion of Fagin and Dodger, who dance demonically down the street into the future. This is one of the rare cases in which the film version of a musical is substantially better than original stage material.

It’s Tony voting season, and, as a voter, I’m accepting invitations to return to some shows to have a second look at nominees. I am open to persuasion in several categories.

However, some of my votes are locked in.

Jodie Comer’s performance in Prima Facie, the solo legal drama by Suzie Miller, is one of the greatest of my experience. She begins by racing through a passage of slashing wit as a flamboyantly gifted lawyer, but by the end the action of the play takes her to the extreme of vulnerability. Beyond the skill she demonstrates, blazing through 100 punishing minutes solo, is the courage of playing this demanding material eight performances a week. (I was disappointed that the nominating committee didn’t exercise the option to nominate a fifth candidate for best actress in a play. Though, as I say, I will be voting for Jodie Comer, I think Laura Linney should have joined Jessica Hecht as a nominee for best actress for her work in David Auburn’s Summer 1976.)

I will vote to support The Life of Pi in most of the categories in which it was nominated. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from the novel by Yann Martel and directed by Max Webster, I am surprised that it wasn’t nominated for best play and that its leading player, Hiran Abeysekera, didn’t get a nod. It is a thrilling piece of story-telling. Though I am generally a fan of understated productions, the combination of jaw-dropping scenery (by Tim Hatley) and projections (by Andrzej Goulding) with the remarkable puppets (by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell) is justified spectacle on the highest level.

As impressed as I was by Parade, my vote for best musical revival will go to Into the Woods, as will my vote for best director of a musical, Lear deBessonet. For one thing, I understand why everybody in the ensemble of Woods ends up where they end up.

Posted in Broadway, drama, musicals, New York, off-Broadway, playwriting, theater | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jamie Lloyd Reminds Us of Some Essentials

A New York Post writer named John Oleksinski recently wrote an article in which he chided Broadway producers for productions that charge big money but offer skimpy production values. Oleksinski claims that chintziness in scenery is based in a desire to cut budgets.

If you go to Broadway (or any theater) for the fun of great technical achievements, you may be sympathetic to his complaint. If you’re spending a couple hundred bucks, maybe you want that chandelier or helicopter effect. (But if that’s really what you want, maybe instead you should go to Las Vegas where they spend obscene amounts of money on that sort of thing.)

I enjoy being dazzled when the dazzling supports the content. I think of Peter J. Davison’s startling transition in the production Jonathan Kent did of Medea with Diana Rigg; I wouldn’t be surprised if it triggered a heart attack or two. Also the earthquake Ian MacNeil cooked up for Stephen Daldry’s production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was both surprising and appropriate.

But I keep coming back to the basics of theater: actors doing something interesting that captures and holds the attention of an audience. You don’t absolutely need technical fireworks for that. What you need is performers playing the hell out of great material.

As I write this, I remind myself that the two books I have written about theaters both were about outfits that thrived on minimal tech. Something Wonderful Right Away (which will return in a second, expanded edition in June) is about Second City, a theater that originally had a stage so small there was only one entrance and scenes mostly were played on or around chairs. The O’Neill is about the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center which presents developmental readings. For years artistic director Lloyd Richards kept watch to make certain that no unnecessary props or scenic elements would distract from the text. He would challenge you to prove that anything more than chairs and cubes were required.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen a few productions onstage or video recordings of stage productions that have embraced minimalism.

Emily Feldman’s The Best We Could (directed by Daniel Aukin for the off-Broadway home of Manhattan Theater Club) features a convention familiar from both Second City and the O’Neill: staging a scene in a car by placing two actors side by side on wooden chairs. (Also phone calls with no phones in actors’ hands.) Aukin assumes we’re familiar with cars and phones and that we’ll fill this stuff in, and we do. One benefit? The ability to move from location to location in an instant. Or to place various characters in different locations simultaneously. Much of the play describes a cross-country trip a young woman (Aya Cash) takes with a father in crisis (Frank Wood). They check in often with her mother (Constance Shulman) as well as encountering a variety of supporting characters played by Maureen Sebastian, who also frequently supplies us in the audience with shards of information. The play begins deceptively with a domestic scene played in rhythms that wouldn’t be out of place at Second City. By the end, Feldman has brought us to a heartbreaking conclusion. OK, on the way, Aukin dumps a hundred or so balloons onto the stage, which has some of the same shock value as the earthquake Ian MacNeil contributed to An Inspector Calls. The excess of the balloons is especially shocking in contrast to the paucity of production elements onstage before then.

There’s another scenic coup de théâtre in Jamie Lloyd’s otherwise spare production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House currently playing on Broadway starring Jessica Chastain. I’m not going to spoil it by describing it, but it made the audience around me gasp. Otherwise, it’s actors, chairs and a turntable (also a ceiling that shifts elevation when Lloyd thinks appropriate). The actors mostly stay on or near their chairs. They are miked like rock singers so they don’t have to project. Indeed, given the miking, even the actors’ breaths are audible and contribute.

Counting the video version of his production of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull on the National Theatre at Home streaming channel, this is the fourth Jamie Lloyd staging I’ve seen, and the fourth that has worked really well for me. The common denominator of the four has been his trust that the audience will collaborate. At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare wrote, “Let us … on your imaginary forces work.” It might well be Lloyd’s motto.

After all, an audience knows what it is watching isn’t literal. Even a set stuffed with persuasive props in a conventional production has only three walls, and real people don’t tend to talk loud in the direction of where there is no wall. The audience comes into a theater prepared to make allowances in order to have the fun of believing.

What Jamie Lloyd is doing is moving the line further into the metaphoric area. Even in a fairly modern staging of A Doll’s House, when Nora lights Dr. Rank’s cigar, we usually see a cigar and a match. Lloyd thinks it’s sufficient for the cigar and its lighting to be mentioned; he doesn’t bother with the actual props or action. Similarly, James McAvoy, the actor who played the title role in his production of Cyrano, didn’t have to sport the usual prosthetic nose much less engage in choreographed duels.

Lloyd is mostly interested in how the spacial relationships between characters convey the emotional field between them. Sometimes the spacial relationship in his staging is not realistic. In the scene in the second act of The Sea Gull between Nina and Trigorin (a scene of mutual seduction), as the actors playing these characters face each other, the actors playing Arkadina and Konstantin are positioned, unmoving, upstage from them, looking forward blankly. This suggests that, though they are not physically present as Nina and Trigorin converse, they are present in Nina and Trigorin’s minds. (It certainly keeps them present in the audience’s minds, as their partners begin the path that will lead to betrayal.)

An approach like this relieves a production of justifying entrances and exits and making excuses for the presence or absence of characters in any given scene. The inessential is stripped away and the characters and their relationships with each other have heightened importance.

While I’m referencing it, let me recommend the video of The Sea Gull, which is currently available through the National Theatre’s streaming site, The National Theatre at Home. Emilia Clarke, best known from her run on Game of Thrones, is uncommonly good at managing Nina’s transition from radiant innocent to wounded bird, and Indira Varma is one of the best Arkadinas of my experience.

As it happens, in New York the New Group is presenting The Sea Gull/Woodstock, NY, an adaptation by Thomas Bradshaw set today in the upstate town famous as a retreat for artists. Bradshaw announces early on that this isn’t your grandparent’s Sea Gull. Instead of the mystical ramblings about nature penned by Konstantin that Nina recites in front of a lake in the original, this Nina delivers a monologue on masturbation, challenging members of the audience to reveal when they last indulged. Some of the modern substitutions work and some go clunk, but the bones of the original play are still there, and they are pretty substantial bones. Parker Posey is this version’s Arkadina, and she has the mixture of wit, selfishness and flirtatiousness to do the character ample justice.

As much as I enjoyed the New Group’s version, it muddies what I take to be one of Chekhov’s central ideas – that character and talent are not necessarily linked. Konstantin and Nina are pure souls, idealists. But there is little evidence in what Chekhov wrote that they have much of a gift. The taste of Konstantin’s writing that we in the audience experience is windy and pretentious, and what we see of Nina suggests she has enthusiasm and not much technique. Arkadina and Trigorin are both selfish, crummy people who use others shamelessly, but they must have something to offer since Arkadina is in regular demand on the stage and Trigorin’s books are bestsellers. (The idea that Trigorin isn’t a good writer is based on Konstantin’s envy and Trigorin’s own self-doubts, and neither is a reliable judge of the work. Everybody else, including Nina, seems to think Trigorin is quite good.) In The Sea Gull, the people who deserve to be talented aren’t. It may not be fair, but it is the corrupt elders who have earned enthusiastic audiences. In Bradshaw’s adaptation, as directed by Scott Elliott, Aleyse Shannon’s performance of Nina’s performance is given confidently; she seems utterly at ease on the stage delivering the raunchy material. Our first impression is that she has talent. Later, we’re told that Kevin (as Bradshaw renames Konstantin) has a piece in the same issue of The Atlantic as William (a/k/a Trigorin). To be published in The Atlantic is a serious achievement in American literary circles. You can’t be a poseur and get into those pages. So Bradshaw has undermined central aspects of Chekhov’s original characterizations of the young people.

To return to Jamie Lloyd, seeing his versions of The Sea Gull and A Doll’s House in quick succession has made me realize afresh why I prefer Chekhov to Ibsen. A Doll’s House is based on contrivance. Nora’s friend Kristine has a romantic history with Krogstad who happens to be the man to whom Nora owes money, and Kristine happens to show up just as Nora’s dealings with Krogstad come to crisis. (Also, after Nora’s husband Torvald fires Krogstad, he happens to hire Kristine to take Krogstad’s old job.) It’s all way too coincidental. Of course, it builds to that sensational final confrontation between Nora and Torvald, which Chastain and Arian Moayed play with tension cranked up to the level of a thriller. That’s reward enough for an evening. But, seeing the two plays one right after the other, Chekhov is the one who takes my heart. Nothing seems forced in his work. I witness the playing out of the characters’ fortunes and I think, yes, that feels true.

Posted in Broadway, Chekhov, drama, film adaptation, New York, off-Broadway, playwriting, Second City, The Sea Gull, theater | Leave a comment

Shakespeare as Springboard

“Shakespeare lied.
When Juliet died,
Romeo didn’t take poison just because he’d lost his bride.
What did he do?
He got over it.
He went back to junior high, and he got over it.
And so will you.
You’ll get over it.”

A lyric by Carolyn Leigh from the musical How Now Dow Jones (with music by Elmer Bernstein) suggesting a different ending to Romeo and Juliet. Others have had a similar idea. On Broadway now we have & Juliet and last season, off-Broadway, we had Romeo and Bernadette. The former starts with Juliet surviving and moving to Paris (the town, not the character), the latter started with Romeo surviving and somehow being transported to contemporary Brooklyn and the world of comic gangsters. My friend Deborah Zoe Laufer tells me that Juliet is a character in a play she’s working on, too.

Of course, there are other pieces that reference Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t see it, but I know that R&J (adapted and directed by Joe Calarco) was a substantial hit off-Broadway. Robert Simonson described it in Playbill: “The show, which features only four male actors, imagines a quartet of students at a strict Catholic Boys’ School who act out the forbidden text of Shakespeare’s tragedy in secret. The lines between reality and illusion begin to blur as the Bard’s story begins to resemble the repressive atmosphere of the school.” Sounds good. And then there was something called West Side Story. And then there was Peter Ustinov’s Cold War comedy, Romanoff and Juliet. And I hear word of the story being told from the perspective of Romeo’s ex in Rosaline, a film available for streaming.

Oh, we do love to mess around with Shakespeare. I haven’t made a formal survey of it, but it strikes me that most of his plays have been the springboards either for new works or for adaptations so radical as to come close to being viewed as new works.

For example, A.R. Gurney wrote a sequel to The Merchant of Venice called Overtime which suggested that Shylock and Portia had more in common than they did with the mostly dismaying Venetians. Arnold Wesker had his go at the same work with a play known either as The Merchant or Shylock; Zero Mostel died when he was out-of-town with it (Joseph Leon replaced him and the play closed after three days on Broadway). Tom Stoppard established his reputation by bringing supporting characters from Hamlet front and center in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Next season, Fat Ham, James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning gay/black riff on Hamlet, will transfer to Broadway. There have been several musical versions of Twelfth Night (two of them–Your Own Thing and Love and Let Love–played off-Broadway in the same season, and Marcia Rodd was in both of them). And let’s not forget Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, in which Nathan Lane played a character assigned to clean up the mountain of dead bodies left in the wake of Titus. I could go on and on.

And then there’s the impulse to speculate about Shakespeare himself.

I once had a conversation with playwright Moira Buffini about her play Handbagged in which she wrote about what she imagined was going on behind the scenes between Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. I noted how many others had written about Elizabeth–including Peter Morgan and Alan Bennett. We arrived at the idea that Elizabeth, by being both known to all as a figure and unknown to almost everyone as a person, had become a screen onto which Moira, Morgan, Bennett and others could project their own concerns.

I would make the case of the same for Shakespeare. Before my wife and I went to & Juliet, on BritBox we watched an episode of Upstart Crow, Ben Elton’s very broad and very funny BBC sitcom about Shakespeare featuring a dyspeptic David Mitchell constantly at odds with family and colleagues. Shakespeare in Love is probably the most famous of the films speculating on his private life (Romeo and Juliet figures importantly in this, too). Few people seem to remember it, but William Gibson wrote a play I admired called A Cry of Players featuring Frank Langella and Anne Bancroft as Will and the wife he will soon desert for a life in London. And there’s a set of DVDs sitting near me called Will Shakespeare featuring Tim Curry in a miniseries written by John Mortimer that I have been meaning to get around to. Like the recently-deceased queen, Shakespeare is someone known to almost everyone about whose private thoughts and behavior we know very little, and so dramatists are tempted to project their own concerns onto him.

Of course, there are those who are sick to death of Shakespeare. Some just don’t respond to his works. (All but scholars probably can’t understand chunks of it.) Some are tired of particular plays. (One year, I had to sit through four productions of King Lear, and that was three too many.) Some are tired of having this figure tower above the landscape, implicitly setting standards of excellence. Some can’t stand the implicit values in many of his plays–misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, etc. And then he’s also a straight(?), white male, which is not a desirable demographic at the moment (even if he is dead).

But, even if you want to avoid him directly, you can’t avoid his influence because it’s everywhere.

The influence of some artists creeps beyond their own works. As I have mentioned before, Lanford Wilson once mentioned to me that early reviews of his stuff had noted his debt to Chekhov, which he found amusing since at that point he hadn’t seen or read any Chekhov. I replied that that didn’t matter. He asked why not. I asked him if he had been influenced by William Inge. Well, of course, he said. And I replied that Inge certainly had been influenced by Chekhov, so he (Lanford) was influenced by Chekhov whether he knew it or not. And Lanford said, yes, I was right.

So, whether people have had direct contact with Shakespeare on page, stage or screen, yes, they have been influenced by him. And maybe it’s better to know something about someone who’s influencing you than to pretend that he hasn’t touched your life?

I got to thinking more about this when I went to Brooklyn to see the Bedlam company’s four-hour workshop of Henry IV (an adaptation by Dakin Matthews directed by Eric Tucker which combines chunks of Parts 1 and 2). It’s not intended for review, so I won’t go into detail except to say that Jay O. Sanders (a friend) is building a phenomenal Falstaff.

If pressed, I would say that the Henry IV-Henry V cycle is the Shakespeare that has had the most influence on me. (Two of my plays, in fact, were consciously derived from aspects of the story. No, I won’t tell you which.) To me, the story is about the formation of character. Prince Hal has two fathers: his biological father, Henry IV , and a surrogate father, Falstaff. Henry IV is all duty and guilt; he probably hasn’t smiled in decades and could use more bran in his diet. In contrast, Falstaff is all impulse, appetite and affection, not overmuch gifted with scruples.

Oh, did I mention I wrote a poem about this?

Last year, an outfit called Saint Flashlight and Theatre for a New Audience collaborated on a project called “The Will of the City.” A number of poets and playwrights were asked to contribute a poem derived from one of Shakespeare’s plays. I was one of them. Here was my effort:

“Shape up,” he says.
And sometimes he talks about how he wishes someone else were his son.
Yeah, and get this, that someone else is a traitor who is trying to overthrow him.

“Take the stick out of your butt and enjoy yourself,” says the other.
He jokes and drinks and tries to boff anything that moves.
And he lies and he steals and exploits our friendship whenever he can.
Swell again.

I’m a figure who died in the early fifteenth century,
But, using the gift of foresight granted by the author of this,
I think of Freud (why not?).
You know, super-ego and id.
Guess who is which?
It’s not easy having two daddies.
When they’re dead, I’ll be free of them — right?

If you want to check out how the other writers responded, click this link:

To my eye, Hal metaphorically kills both of them (by taking his father’s crown before Henry IV dies, and by exiling Falstaff, which pretty much finishes off the old knight), and incorporates both. In Henry V, Shakespeare shows how, from scene to scene, Hal draws on them. He’s in a Falstaff mode when he courts the princess, and he’s in a Henry IV mode when he condemns his old friend Bardolph to death for pillaging a church. I think Shakespeare is suggesting that maturity is knowing when to draw on what, finding a balance behind different drives.

By the way, if you want to see one of my favorite tellings of this story, check out Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ adaptation which is available on both HBO Max and, along with some terrific interviews and commentaries on the production, the Criterion Channel. Welles once said that if St. Peter asked him why he should be allowed into Heaven, he would reply, “I directed Chimes at Midnight.” I think it’s Welles’ best film and the best film anybody has made from Shakespeare. I once had the good fortune to run into Keith Baxter in a theater lobby. He was shocked when I recognized him as the guy who played Hal in Chimes (at the time, because of competing rights claims, it was next to impossible to see the film) and he sat down on a staircase with me and told me an hour’s worth of stories about working on the film.

Here’s dessert: Cunk on Shakespeare, the great Diane Morgan taking on BBC cultural documentaries.

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“The Far Country,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and Revues

I should declare a conflict of interest. Lloyd Suh is a former student of mine. I have no idea what, if anything, he got from our classes a couple of decades ago at the New School, but he made a vivid impression on me at the time and I have followed his work with particular interest and pleasure.

His The Far Country (playing at the Atlantic Theater) is a rare thing–an intimate play on an epic subject: the strategies and tactics that arose in the Chinese community to cope with an 1882 law designed to keep Chinese from immigrating into the United States. What particularly strikes me is that Suh suggests that the patent racism and immorality of the law in turn generated corruption within the community it was enacted to oppress. A figure who easily earns the audience’s sympathy because of abuse suffered at the hands of American officialdom surprises and disappoints us when he has no hesitation about exploiting others in turn. Suh observes this with a cool, ironic tone, so it comes as a happy surprise when the last person in the chain of victimization turns out to act out of a reservoir of kindness. I’ve been thinking lately about how much drama these days is rooted in the assumption that human beings generally will disappoint, so it is moving for once to encounter a character who surprises by her compassion and generosity. In the middle of the larger, sadder tale Suh has to tell, he offers us a bit of hope. It’s a provocative play being given a crisp production by director Eric Ting.

Hope ultimately is in short supply in Merrily We Roll Along, the musical that composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer George Furth fashioned out of the 1934 George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play of the same title. That is part of the show’s fascination and part of its problem.

One of the benefits of being a long-serving member of the Dramatists Guild Council (and on which Suh now serves) is that, over the years, I had regular encounters with writers I grew up admiring. When the musical version of Merrily was announced, I remember running into Sondheim before a meeting, and we got to talking about the opportunities the peculiar structure of the piece offered. (As you probably know, the show tells its story backward, beginning with the leading characters embittered in middle age and ending with them full of optimism at the end.) I remember saying to him, “Let me guess: some of the thematic material that sounds harsh at the beginning of the score will get simpler and less complicated till it emerges as purer and more openly melodic at the end.” Sondheim gave me a big grin and an exaggerated nod as if to say, “Oh, the fun I’m going to have!” And, yes, he did that, but he also did something I had not anticipated: he introduced songs by what would in an ordinary show be their reprises. (This is particularly effective in the case of the gorgeous “Not a Day Goes By,” which we first hear sung in anger by an embittered wife and then hear as a wedding pledge.) One of Sondheim’s key maxims is that “content dictates form,” and a choice like this in his score for Merrily exemplifies this.

But it is also why this show, which ends with the joyous and optimistic song, “Our Time,” is ultimately depressing. We know from the first scene where the road for the three main characters will lead – to alcoholism, adultery, and the betrayal of talent and relationships. As the show unfolds, the characters get younger and more charming and more endearing, but we can’t help but being reminded that at least two of them (Franklin, the composer, and Mary, the novelist and film critic) will end up lost and bitter.

I saw the original production of the musical in 1981 and, no, despite the marvelous score, that version didn’t work. It was director Hal Prince’s concept to have all of the characters played by young performers, so, as the show began, some were playing characters who were something like two decades older than their actual ages. It wasn’t quite Bugsy Malone, but those opening scenes lacked weight. In this production, directed by Maria Friedman, Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez and Daniel Radcliffe aren’t exactly grizzled, but they carry sufficient maturity to make us buy the early scenes featuring the older versions of their characters. (Radcliffe, who is actually the youngest of the three leading actors, first appears in the second scene, when everyone is three years younger than in scene one.) It also helps that the cast isn’t (as in Prince’s production) costumed in T-shirts with the characters’ names on them.

I still wrestle with the essential pessimism of the show. Merrily We Roll Along is a big, bouncy musical about the inevitability that most of our lives will nosedive into disappointment. (OK, Charlie Kringas, the playwright played by Radcliffe, ends up with a happy marriage and a hit play, but we don’t get to see that.) It’s hard to tap your toes to despair. At the end of his journey, having taken the measure of the difference between where he started and where he ended up and why, Franklin Shepard seems primed to respond by doing … not much.

It makes me think of the different connotations of the word “conclusion.” One meaning is the end of something – the last image, or word, or note of a work. Another meaning is what we come to believe as a result of our reasoning something through. In Merrily, what we come to believe is that if you betray your central ideals, you’re liable to make a mess of your life. But the final song in the show, its conclusion (save that short coda with Franklin Shepard left alone with his thoughts) is the song “Our Time,” which is hopeful and joyous. So, to my mind the two conclusions of Merrily are in opposition.

For historical reasons, I am particularly taken with the sequence set in 1961 in a Greenwich Village nightclub in which Franklin, Charlie and Franklin’s fiancée Beth perform a lightly satiric song called “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” about John F. Kennedy bringing his extended family to Washington, DC. At first listen, it seems like a pastiche of the sort of clever number that might have appeared in a Julius Monk revue. (If you don’t know who Julius Monk was, Google is your friend. If you like musical theater, you should know the part he played in many major writing and performing careers.) But then, a level of irony kicks in. The song is about how JFK will be followed by his brothers and children and extended family into a glorious new age of progressive governance. We smile indulgently at the gentle humor, and then we remember the tragedy that marked so many of the Kennedy lives. We see the shadows of what is to come that Franklin, Charlie and Beth can’t. Just as they can’t anticipate their own difficult futures, futures we have already glimpsed.

In this section, Sondheim and Furth reference the place such low-budget, light entertainments used to occupy in the New York theater scene. Many years ago, I had the occasion to talk briefly with Jerry Herman about how he managed to land the assignment of his first Broadway score. He told me that he did what the characters in Merrily do: he put up low-budget musical revues in Greenwich Village to showcase himself. It worked. The shows led to him being engaged to write the scores of first Milk and Honey and then Hello, Dolly! It wasn’t a strategy he invented. Some kids named Betty Comden and Adolph Green followed the same path more than a dozen years before when they created an act called The Revuers that led to them being engaged to write book and lyrics (and star in) On the Town.

Most of the major musical theater teams of the postwar era had experience in this arena. For years, every season saw a handful of young talent, usually nattily attired in coordinated suits and dresses and accompanied by a piano, cracking wise about sex, politics, and culture. (Check out the Chad Mitchell Trio’s version of a song called “Barry’s Boys,” mocking Goldwater conservatives. It originated in a Julius Monk show.) As the rock scene grew, the revue form faded away. The most famous venue, Upstairs at the Downstairs, just west of Fifth Avenue on 56th Street, closed in 1974 after thirty years.

I think musical theater lost something with the decline of this form. The revue (mostly off-Broadway, but occasionally on) trained developing writers in how to write tuneful, accessible songs tailored to the specific talents and personalities of their casts. It also trained them to know when they had made their point and to move on. Every season I see musicals whose writers would have profited from learning these lessons.

As I write this, I remember that I was part of a modest effort to revive the form. In 1977, I was part one of the writers of an off-Broadway entertainment made up of songs and sketches called The Present Tense that played in a long-gone space on the top floor of a hotel on West 73rd Street. It was produced by (believe it or not) Roger Ailes (who was deeply unpleasant even then) and directed by Stephen Rosenfield. Some very good people were in the cast and contributed material (one of our songs was by a promising guy named Alan Menken). It was probably most notable for introducing Lee S. Wilkof, who won a much-deserved Obie and went on to be the original Seymour in Alan’s Little Shop of Horrors and to direct a terrific film called No Pay, Nudity about the actor’s life in New York. And no, our effort did not succeed in reviving the form.

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Chasing Stories

If you took a census of all of the characters who are alive in my mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if the number reached into the thousands. Sherlock Holmes and Mama Rose, Clytemnestra and Walter Lee Younger, Jackie Brown and Zatoichi – leading, supporting and cameo characters reside uneasily in an ever-expanding repertory company and can be called forth instantly. Not to mention multiple versions of some characters. (Which Sherlock Holmes? Whose Mama Rose?)

The most vivid characters drive the countless stories that also live in my mind. I consume stories at a furious rate. I plow through novels, biographies, histories and memoirs relentlessly. One of my current projects is reading through a three-volume set of 170 short stories published in The New Yorker from its founding to 1960. (I hope to finish by spring.) I subscribe to several streaming services and devour Danish thrillers, the National Theater’s videos, classic films and genre entries from Criterion and TCM, and much of the product of HBO, Showtime, Hulu and Britbox.

And plays. I vote for the Tony, Drama Desk and Hull-Warriner Awards, so I am invited to the theater a lot. There is no way to see everything, but I frequently catch four or five shows in a week.

So I read or see a lot of stories. And I think a lot about stories. About their power. About their purpose. (And about why I also write them.)

It’s a commonplace observation that we tend to understand our existence better when it’s organized in narratives. When we try to figure out why this or that happened, we are looking for causality – why this choice led to that consequence, how character influences result, or, conversely, how this event shapes that character. We understand much of our reality from patterns we absorb from the stories we encounter. Freud named the Oedipus syndrome after a Greek play. Reagan believed Miss Jane Pittman was a historical character. I would guess the understanding many of us have about legal procedure has been gleaned from endless hours of watching the different editions of Law and Order.

This is a roundabout way of my saying I think stories matter. And I think how you tell stories matters. To create a story is to attempt to fashion a pattern or order out of the onslaught of seemingly random events and impressions we get battered by in reality. Even a story that devastates offers the comfort that at least what happens makes sense.

So I get cranky when storytellers don’t bother to tell a story coherently.

Which brings me first to the Bedlam Theater. I’m a fan. I mark their productions of Saint Joan, Sense and Sensibility and Pygmalion among the more exciting events in my career of theater-going. So I was delighted to be invited to their recent brace of offerings, Hedda Gabler and The Winter’s Tale. Their Hedda rang a few changes on traditional stagings, but it still told of a woman living in a society in which she has few rights and outlets who turns her frustration into destruction. Susannah Millonzi’s take on the title character reminded me of Christopher Walken’s take on Iago in a Central Park production of Othello. Early on, he signaled to us he was a modern guy whose values were more in synch with the contemporary audience watching him and further, “I mean, really, isn’t pretty much everyone else in this play kind of a square? Ya know? Don’t they kind of deserve what they get?” Millonzi’s Hedda similarly was a woman born in the wrong time period, and with her slouchy body language she carried herself differently than everybody else on the stage. It was a strong choice and it worked.

I had a problem with The Winter’s Tale. As much as I enjoyed aspects of all of the performances and many of director/actor’s Eric Tucker’s choices, I knew that if this were my first encounter with this play, I probably would not be able to follow the story. (I felt similarly about his take on Peter Pan.) I think it’s a storyteller’s first responsibility to tell the story clearly. Tucker certainly can do it when he cares to.

Sometimes the problem is in a production. For instance, Ivo Van Hove’s take on The Crucible made no damn sense. If witches aren’t real, then what the hell was that girl doing flying on a chair in mid-air?

(And while I’m talking about things that fly, what in the hell happened to Doctor Who during Jodie Whitaker’s tenure? She is such a joyous and engaging performer, it was infuriating to see her stuck in the muddle of Chris Chibnall’s chaotic scripts. OK, detour over.)

A story that doesn’t quite make sense is like a carpet that refuses to lie flat. It might almost make sense, but if there is a chunk that still doesn’t lie flat, no matter its virtues, it still annoys. As charmed and diverted as I was by much of The Gett by Liba Vaynberg (presented by the Rattlestick Theater), her carpet refused to lie flat.

The Gett is about a Jewish-American woman who is haunted by the presence in her mind of the husband she has recently divorced. The central question of the play is if she’s going to get over him and how. After the prologue, in a flashback, Ida (pronounced Eeda, which is important) gets stuck in an elevator with a smart guy with a motormouth carrying a take-out order of Chinese food who calls himself Baal. For some reason, within two minutes he’s telling her he’s circumcised (more or less). Why she finds this so attractive as to swiftly move in with and marry him is beyond me. (Most people I know stuck in an elevator with someone who started talking about their genitalia would probably move to the far corner of the elevator and hope they had the foresight to pack pepper spray.) By the second scene, they are divorced. I was mystified by what brought them together, and I was mystified by what tore them apart.

Ida keeps being haunted by Baal as she deals with a variety of other men, including a couple of boyfriend possibilities. He keeps popping up as a fantasy figure in her scenes with other people. You would glean from this that her objective might be to figure out a way of getting rid of him. But instead, it is he who, for reasons insufficiently articulated, suddenly contacts her with the announcement he wants to get a gett. There’s a real-world reason for this as a plot development Vaynberg would employ: a gett (a kind of emphatic spiritual divorce for Jews) may only be initiated by the husband. But, as a matter of dramatic logic, this doesn’t make much sense as Vaynberg has written it. We haven’t seen him haunted by her, after all. Now, if she persuaded him to seek a gett and he acquiesced, that would track with what Vaynberg has established.

I deal with this at length because, in spite of this reservation, Vaynberg strikes me as a real talent, both as a writer and performer (she plays Ida). For those of us who felt cruelly deprived when Wendy Wasserstein was abruptly taken from this world, Vaynberg has some of Wasserstein’s strengths. It’s not just that she writes a beautifully specific Jewish mom reminiscent of Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic?, it’s that she possesses a similar wit and a grudging affection for the people she satirizes. Mom, by the way, is played by Jennifer Westfeldt, herself a gifted writer-performer. As irritated as I am by aspects of The Gett, Vaynerg is on a list of writers I’m eager to follow.

While I’m on the subject of storytelling, I’d like to mention how gratifying Mike Birbiglia’s new show, The Old Man and the Pool, is. I have heard people laugh harder, and I have heard comedy that cuts deeper, but I don’t know when I have witnessed a performance in which an audience has laughed more. Quite an accomplishment given that it’s ultimately an essay on mortality, a subject that doesn’t usually prompt me to chuckle.

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“Raisin in the Sun” at the Public

The first grown-up straight play I remember seeing was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in Chicago. I didn’t see it the first time it played Chicago, when it stopped there on its way to Broadway in February 1959 and, to the surprise of its author, received a rave review in the Chicago Tribune from the often-acerbic Claudia Cassidy. Raisin opened on Broadway a little later and was an enormous hit. In the summer of 1960, a film version was shot. It had not been released, though, when I went to see its return engagement at the Blackstone Theatre in early 1961 as a theater-mad kid. (The film, directed by Daniel Petrie, was released in May, 1961.) I remember little about the experience except that I was riveted. Being ten years old at the time, I doubt I understood the political or social context much. I probably just hooked into the emotion.

But, from what I’ve read in various memoirs and histories, the Raisin I saw was different from the one that played in Chicago two years before. The first run had featured Sidney Poitier as the star and McNeil had supporting billing. Billing be damned, McNeil thought her character, Lena Younger, was the leading character in the play, and she and Poitier were on hostile terms for much of the time they worked together (including when they made the film). Poitier had gone back to being a movie star by the time I saw the play at the Blackstone. And then it was “Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun” with all of the other actors listed in the same sized typed as supporting players under the title. The story is that McNeil’s performance was fueled by the spirit of retribution. There is a moment when Lena slaps her daughter Beneatha for doubting the existence of God. McNeil never bothered to learn how to do a stage slap, and night after night she actually slapped Diana Sands across the face to the point at which Sands threatened to bring her up on Equity charges.

As I’ve mentioned, whose play Raisin is has been a matter of debate from the start. Poitier believed it was Walter Lee’s, that the script described the journey of the character from impatience and immaturity to the point where he stood up to the bigotry of the whites trying to keep him and his family from moving into Clybourne Park. McNeil was just as certain that the story was about Lena’s drive to get her family out of the ghetto and into a decent house.

There have been a few articles about how Robert O’Hara, the director of the current revival at the Public Theater, feels that the play belongs to all three leading women in the story (the other two being Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha, and his wife, Ruth). He has made the point that Walter Lee begins no scenes but comes into scenes that have been started by the women. These articles suggest that his production of Raisin is a radical re-imagining of the play.

Not really. There are some expressionistic flourishes (some of which work better than others), but mostly this is a solidly-acted, mostly naturalistic production.

The biggest change is in the rhythm in which the play is performed. Years ago, Jonathan Miller, without cutting a word of the text, cut a half hour off the running time of his production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night by having the characters talk over each other a lot. His rationale was that the issues the Tyrones brought up had probably been brought up many times before, so there was no reason for the characters to listen respectfully to things they already had heard. Director Robert O’Hara has this Raisin company play similarly, speaking over each other as people in the middle of heated discussions rehashing old business do. Does this work? Yes. Beautifully.

My particular interest in this production is rooted in my long-term admiration of and friendship for Tonya Pinkins. (No pretense of objectivity here. I think she’s a wonder.) Pinkins played Lena once before as a guest artist in a university production, but the experience left a sour taste in her mouth. Here she has the chance to do it right, and she seizes it. Her Lena has her share of the sentiment and wisdom that led George C. Wolfe to satirize the character in “The Last Mama on the Couch Play.” But it also has a ferocious side that justifies Beneatha calling her a tyrant; when Beneatha makes a crack about the non-existence of God, Pinkins not only slaps her (the moment that brought McNeil and Sands to conflict in Chicago), she brings her to her knees. (Incidentally, she is not the only one to discipline a child physically. At another point, we know that Ruth is going offstage to paddle Travis–reluctantly, but she feels she has to do it. The play takes place at a time when we had fewer concerns about corporal punishment.)

I’ve seen several productions of videos of Raisin over the years. Some of what some think are innovations in this production I have seen before. The restoration of the scene with Mrs. Johnson, the conservative neighbor down the hall, was a feature of the compelling TV version starring Danny Glover and Esther Rolle (available on YouTube here.) And bringing back Lena’s husband as a ghost was a feature of the production I saw at the Huntington Stage in Boston in 2013. I think Mrs. Johnson’s presence helps us understand another aspect of Lena and so is a useful addition. But I think, as I thought in 2013, that the ghost has the effect of cutting up food into baby bites for the audience, making obvious something that would be better left to the imagination.

One other thought occurs to me as I recall the several productions of this play I have seen: Walter Lee’s journey means something profoundly different depending on how he is cast. As viewed in the film (which reportedly is a pretty accurate recording of Lloyd Richards’s original stage production, though Richards’s name appears nowhere in the credits), Poitier speaks with almost Shakespearean diction, particularly when he drunkenly parodies the African world Beneatha is exploring. Beneatha’s sometimes suitor, George Murchison, mocks Walter Lee by calling him Prometheus (a reference Walter Lee doesn’t understand), but, like Poitier, both Danny Glover and Denzel Washington gave performances that resonated with that god’s power – their Walter Lees were huge spirits that the walls barely contain. Sean Combs’s interpretation (both onstage and in his more refined TV film performance) to me emphasized the character’s immaturity and impetuousness; when, at the end, Lena (played by Phylicia Rashad) said to Ruth that, by defying the white representative of Clybourne Park, “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he?”, the line suggested that part of what she meant was reaching adulthood.

Francois Battiste’s take on Walter Lee does not make the claim that he is an extraordinary man trapped in limiting circumstances, nor does it make him a man-child. He’s a grown man chafing against both the barriers imposed by society and having to defer into his adulthood to the parents he has spent his life living with. As much as I’ve admired most of the previous productions I’ve seen of Raisin, O’Hara’s production strikes me as being a particularly vivid depiction of the politics of the family. And part of the value of this production lies in the fact that nobody among the four leads seems to have exclusive possession of what is right.

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A New “1776”

I’m going to guess I’m not the only person who learned about the triangle trade from a musical. Late in the action of the show of 1776, a delegate to the Continental Congress from South Carolina named Edward Rutledge reacts to his northern colleagues’ concern for black people held in bondage in the south by reminding them that a lot of northern fortunes were based on bringing the slaves over. He sings, “Molasses to Rum.” It is a savage number, boiling with sarcasm, very close to an aria. It is the best number in Sherman Edwards’s score. In the original stage production and in the faithful film version, it is a tour de force solo piece. I remember the impact of Clifford David’s performance on the Saturday matinee I saw it, the day before the show opened and surprised the smartasses of Broadway by becoming a smash hit. It was a showstopper for a character we all hated. The heightened lighting burned into our eyes the image of Rutledge standing on a congressional desk imitating an auctioneer selling human beings. (You can see an effective replica in the film with John Cullum playing Rutledge here –

The new revival at the Roundabout doesn’t trust that a great solo performer singing this powerful song will carry it off. The directors, Diane Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page, bring others into the number, including turning the black performers in the show into figures on the auction block. This heavy-handedness blunts the effectiveness of the number. In their effort to reinvent the show, Paulus and Page meddle with this song and several others, underscoring the points they want to make, points that the audience would have understood without being bludgeoned.

Paulus and Page have a workable idea: to stage a show all of whose characters but two are male with female or non-binary performers, many of them people of color, and to rely on the transformational talent of the cast to make the audience invest in the machinations behind the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. I think the idea is enough. We in the audience would have been perfectly capable of figuring out the ironies. If Sara Porkalob had been permitted to sing “Molasses to Rum” solo as originally written, we would certainly have put together that her character was singing to a John Adams played by Crystal Lucas-Perry, and we would have registered that Lucas-Perry is a black woman. We would have been allowed to consider the possibility that the ancestors of this performer might well have been brought over on one of the ships the song describes. We would have been allowed to own this realization, to have felt a collaborator in creating a meaning of the sequence for ourselves.

Is 1776 a masterpiece? Not quite. Peter Stone’s book is a remarkable organization of material and Sherman Edwards’s music is melodious, frequently witty and occasionally lushly romantic. On the other hand, Edwards’s lyrics are a very mixed bag. “Molasses to Rum” and “Mama, Look Sharp” are powerful and lean and poetic. But “I’ve been presented with a new son by the noble stork,” a line cooked up to rhyme with “New York,” is just one of several lines in the show that induce cringes. Still, the whole ends up being considerably greater than the parts, and if some of the history is distorted to make the pieces fit, the depiction of coercion and compromise as part of the process of government resonates with contemporary poitical wrangling. “Traditional” history books teach the creation of this country as a shining accomplishment. 1776, in whatever version, reminds us that many of the battles we continue to fight today have their roots in the flaws and hypocrisy that were present at the start.

I think Paulus and Page would have done better to cast brilliantly and stage the story cleanly without the heavy-handed embellishments. There was one point toward the end of the show when Patrena Murray, playing Benjamin Franklin, apparently was directed to give a key line with great arm-waving gestures. I thought in that moment, “The line is strong enough. It doesn’t need punching up. If Murray had just been allowed to say it simply, it would have been more powerful.” That in microcosm is my response to much of the production.

I was glad to see it nonetheless. Crystal Lucas-Perry makes a strong, determined John Adams, and Carolee Carmello is a ferocious John Dickinson. Though I miss the grace of Eddie Sauter’s original orchestrations, the new vocal charts by AnnMarie Milazzo are frequently ravishing. If I want to revisit elements of the original show (like the dance music in “He Plays the Violin”), I can always pull out my DVD of the film directed by Peter Hunt (who also staged the original Broadway production). One day I hope someone will try this casting concept without the overt editorializing. I have a hunch it would work just fine.

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As You Kink It

Because of serendipitous scheduling, I saw Kinky Boots on a matinee and the New York Shakespeare production of As You Like It that night.

Kinky Boots is about a guy who gets to say and do some things because he dresses up as a woman. As You Like It is about a woman who gets to say and do some things because she dresses up as a guy. Both productions feature songs by singer-songwriters (Kinky Boots, Cyndi Lauper; As You Like It, Shaina Taub). Seeing them on the same day reminded me that the heart of the theater (for me anyway) is the power of transformation.

In 1987, when I was story editor on a TV series, I worked with a director named Jonathan Sanger whose hobby was translating short stories from Portuguese. He let me read a couple of them. One of them made a particular impression on me. I told Jonathan, “I don’t know how to do it, but there is a great evening of theater in this.” Jonathan laughed as if I were amiably deranged. (I tend to see potential for theater pieces even in mashed potatoes.) In 1988, at Theater at St. Clement’s, a show based on that story opened under the direction of Julie Taymor. It was called Juan Darien. It opened in a Broadway version at Lincoln Center in 1996, which is where I saw it and felt the satisfaction of having been proven right. (The success of Juan Darien led Taymor to be hired to direct The Lion King.)

What was it about the short story that made me respond to it that way? “Juan Darien” by Horacio Quiroga is about a tiger cub, fleeing the hunter who killed his mother, who is turned into a human boy by the love of a human mother in order to protect him. Transformation again.

Which reminds me of one of the great influences on my thinking about theater – Viola Spolin, the extraordinary teacher who created the theater games that are the basis of improvisational theater. Many of her exercises, too, concern transformation.

I won’t bang on about this too long, but it seems to me that transformation is one of the things theater does better than any other story-telling medium. It’s not for nothing that Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm have provided the bases of so many enchanting productions. Certainly the big “ah” moment in Beauty and the Beast is when the Beast turns into the handsome prince (though, truth be told, most people I know prefer the Beast). Theater is metaphor to begin with, and the audience transforms what it sees by making a deal to believe. As Shakespeare has the Chorus say to us in the audience at the beginning of Henry V, “let us … [o]n your imaginary forces work.” For me, productions that most engage my imaginary forces work better than productions stuffed with detailed scenery and costumes.

Back to Kinky Boots and As You Like It. I saw the original production of the former when it premiered on Broadway in 2013. I like this production better because it’s scaled back a little and a more modest presentation (small house, smaller orchestra) suits the modesty of the tale better. The performances (Christian Douglas as Charlie, a man trying to save the family shoe factory, Callum Francis as Simon and his alter ego Lola, and Danielle Hope as Lauren, nursing a crush for Charlie) are all immaculate and serve the material well. Harvey Fierstein’s book tells the slight story breezily. This is my second encounter with Cyndi Lauper’s score, and, though some individual numbers land for me, most of the songs involve characters singing about things I already understand before they sing them, adding nothing much to the movement of the narrative. But the songs have catchy hooks and they allow the performers to hit impassioned high notes. That was more than enough for the audience around me. If you have family visiting from out of town and you can’t get tickets to Into the Woods, this is a pretty safe bet.

The As You Like It playing in Central Park is really a 90-minute condensation of Shakespeare’s play, and much of the playing time is given over to Shaina Taub’s catchy songs, some of which are sung by Taub (who in another bit of transformation, is playing Jaques). Produced in cooperation with a number of community groups, the stage is often filled with enthusiastic civilians, most of whom manage to perform their parts of Sonya Tayeh’s choreography with enthusiasm and sufficient coordination to charm. Any production of this play pretty much rises or falls on its Rosalind, and this production is particularly fortunate to feature Rebecca Naomi Jones, a Broadway star-in-waiting. She scores forcefully with a knockout Taub song, “Rosalind, Be Merry.”

This reminds me of another great Rosalind I saw. A Cheek by Jowl production that played BAM in 1994 featured a luminous Adrian Lester in the role. I’m going to venture a guess that Lester is the only actor who has triumphed playing both Rosalind and Othello. Lester has certainly to be counted one of the great transformational actors to have pulled that off.

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I remember someone bringing up Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Del Close, the Chicago improvisational theater master. A student said something to Del about the players on the show flying without a net. Del retorted, “They may be flying without a net, but they’re only three inches off the ground.” I took that to mean that he thought the level of challenge on the show was something he didn’t take seriously.

I wrote the first book about the improvisational theatre movement, Something Wonderful Right Away. Published in 1978, it was an oral history featuring many of the leading early directors, theoreticians and players in a movement that began with the work of Viola Spolin in the Thirties, formed the basis of the Compass Players in Chicago in the mid-Fifties and, under the guidance of Paul Sills, flowered into an institution called Second City in the Sixties. Since then, I’ve tried to keep my eye open for new permutations of improvisational presentations.

Hyprov is certainly a new one on me. The idea is that players who have been hypnotized by Asad Mecci find themselves in situational set-ups to play with Whose Line star Colin Mochrie. Presumably, being under gives them easier access to the intuitive, making them more likely to go with spontaneous impulses. Since the players are not professional performers, the implicit conclusion of the evening is that a lot of non-pros have it within them to partner with a comedy star and hold their own if freed from inhibitions.

As I say, the assumption is the players are non-pros. But this is New York, there is a huge community of improvisationally-trained actors, and Mochrie is an icon in that world. I had a hunch that, though I believed they went under, a couple of the final four players the night I saw it had improvisational backgrounds. Inexperienced improvisers don’t usually come up with callbacks. And a couple of times Mecci cautioned a player to take their character more seriously.

The main interest for me was to watch Mochrie cope with whatever was thrown at him by this handful of players previously unknown to him. Without straining, he was able to assimilate just about anything offered up and maintain his balance. It was a performance marked by intelligence, grace and modesty. And yes, he was consistently funny.

My hunch is that the degree to which you’ll enjoy the evening will depend on what expectations you have for improvisation. If you want an amusing evening of quips, cleverness and spontaneous wit, you will be satisfied. (I expect Del would grant that this is at least six inches off the ground.) If you’re looking for an evening of improvisation that offers insights into the human condition, you’d be better off waiting for TJ and Dave to return to town.

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