On Stage: Three Nights of Theater

With my free time going quickly, I got to do something I’d come to miss during the fall semester.  I went to the theater!  In the course of five nights, I saw three plays, each of them featuring favorite actors of mine.  There were hits, and there were misses.  Read on, but beware some spoilers!

Golden Boy

Last Friday I saw Golden Boy, a Clifford Odets play about an Italian immigrant’s son who inhabits every creative person’s struggle: the battle between art and commerce.  A skilled violinist, Joe Bonaparte (played by Seth Numrich) doesn’t believe that music can be his living.  He’s determined to prove himself as an independent American success, and sees his chance in the world of boxing.  As his natural talent develops, plucky Joe turns into something else entirely, alienating his family, friends, and love interest in his violent pursuit of validation.

If this sounds like your typical early 20th century American drama, that’s because it is.  Nothing about the 75-year-old Golden Boy is terribly surprising.  Fortunately, its masterful execution saves it from being a bore.  Numrich is fine as the angry Joe, though by halfway through the second of the show’s three acts, you might have a hard time feeling any sympathy for him.  The trio of father figures he alienates are all expertly played: Danny Mastrogiorgio as his manager, Tom; Danny Burstein as his trainer, Tokio; and Tony Shalhoub as his actual father.  Shalhoub stands out, physically and verbally inhabiting the older Mr. Bonaparte so completely that perhaps he’s the reason why I was so eager for Joe’s inevitable fall from grace.  How could you be so mean to that sweet old man?

Shalhoub and Numrich in "Golden Boy"
Tony Shalhoub and Seth Numrich in “Golden Boy”

Yvonne Strahovski plays Joe’s love interest Lorna, doing a textbook Depression Era New York moll.  Joe’s brother-in-law Siggie, played by Michael Aranov, was one of the few characters I wished we’d seen a little more of, even if he was aping Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire at times.  Anthony Crivello heaped an extra layer of sleaze on his menacing promoter character, Eddie Fuseli, but his exaggerated old country accent kept him from being all that threatening in my eyes.

The action is all meticulously staged by director Bartlet Sher.  For a show concerned with the sport of boxing, Sher seems to have paid special attention to how the characters use their hands outside the ring.  Delicate touches prove just as powerful as right hooks.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Sher show where he wasn’t paired with an amazing design team.  Golden Boy is no different.  The sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Donald Holder, and costumes by Catherine Zuber are all absolutely top-notch.  Yeargan’s sets, in particular, take the surprisingly large dimensions of the Belasco Theater and create a much more intimate feeling, whether the action be in the crowded Bonaparte home or a stuffy gymnasium.

Golden Boy closes on January 20.

The Piano Lesson

On Tuesday I saw The Piano Lesson at the Signature Theater.  Part of August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the African-American experience in 20th century America, The Piano Lesson concerns a brother and sister, Boy Willie and Berniece, and the fate of their most treasured family heirloom: a one-of-a-kind upright piano that is literally filled with their family history.  Boy Willie wants to sell it and use the profit to buy land in the south.  Berniece can’t bring herself to part with the piano, yet neither can she open the lid and tickle the ivories.  It may not sound like the most explosive conflict, but it serves as a solid foundation for some really strong drama about family, identity, grief, and forgiveness.

The Piano Lesson featured solid performances all around.  Brandon Dirden is perfectly sly, charming, and dangerous as the scheming Boy Willie.  His brother, Jason Dirden, plays Boy Willie’s would-be accomplice, Lymon, with an appropriate man-child’s innocence.  Eric Lenox Abrams plays Avery, the humble local preacher with an eye on Berniece,  with kindness and sincerity.  Playing the object of his affection is Rosyln Ruff, who was completely captivating.  She fills Berniece with all the bluster, fragility, pride, and fear the role requires, playing this titanic role effortlessly.  Chuck Cooper plays Wining Boy, Willie and Berniece’s mischievous uncle.  His antics amuse, but there’s an underlying sadness there that does not go unnoticed–even when he performs on the titular piano, letting loose with his brassy, bluesy voice.  The role of Doaker, the more responsible uncle, is usually played by James A. Williams, but at the performance I attended, Keith Randolph Smith was on.  He may have tripped over a line here or there, but he was otherwise perfect as the wise but weary patriarch of this family.

Jason Dirden and Roslyn Ruff in "The Piano Lesson"
Jason Dirden and Roslyn Ruff in “The Piano Lesson”

The show is smartly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and impressively designed by set creator Michael Carnahan, costumer Karen Perry, and lighting artist Rui Rita.  My only complaints with the play come from the text itself.  August Wilson was an extremely talented writer, but he was not a diligent editor.  Coming in at just over three hours, The Piano Lesson could easily be forty minutes shorter and lose none of its impact.  Portions of dialogue are redundant, as if Wilson didn’t trust the audience to remember the fairly simple motivations of his main characters.  The bigger problem I had with the play wouldn’t be as easy to fix.  Spirituality is a constant in all of Wilson’s works.  It’s a theme present throughout The Piano Lesson, but at practically subliminal levels–until the ending.  I really don’t know how anyone could have seen that coming.  I don’t want to give anything anyway, but let’s just say that the play’s climactic scene could have been called  The Poltergeist Lesson.

The Piano Lesson closes January 20.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

My last theater adventure of the month was to see the latest revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Tennessee Williams classic that many a star has taken their turn in before–Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Kathleen Turner, to name a few.  The current production, which just opened last night, is not short on star power either, headlined as it is by Scarlett Johansson.  She plays the saucy Maggie, wife of broken-down former golden boy Brick (Benjamin Walker, AKA Meryl Streep’s son-in-law), who tries to get to the root of her husband’s gloom during a weekend celebration for Brick’s father (the unstoppable Ciaran Hinds).

I have to say that while Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wasn’t the most recently written of the plays I saw this week, it managed to feel the oldest.  The main drama of the play concerns Brick’s friendship with an old teammate named Skipper, a relationship that is only discussed in euphemism and cautious allusion.  Perhaps in 1955 this kind of thing would have scandalized an audience, but in 2013 the ruckus raised by Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy over what did or did not exist with Skipper seemed peculiarly quaint.  As such, the second conflict of the piece–that being, what will happen to Big Daddy’s heirs when he dies–seems to lack the attention it deserves.  Brick and Maggie won’t see a cent of inheritance if they remain childless–a fate that we are to assume is all but guaranteed, given what’s so heavily implied.  Nevertheless, Maggie begs Brick to put up a fight against his brother, Gooper, and Gooper’s two-faced wife, Mae.  I thought the couples’ confrontation in the third act was the biggest pay-off of the evening, but something tells me Williams never intended it to be.  

Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof gets revived as often as it does because it’s a well-known play, and it can be an excellent star vehicle.  That being said, even though this was a sturdy production, few members of the cast were truly exceptional in my eyes.  Johansson was fine as Maggie, but did nothing to make her take on the role unique.  In fact, sometimes she even sounded like Elizabeth Taylor (albeit from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for whatever that’s worth).  Walker might have given a better performance if he ever picked his head up.  He’s so dependent on the body language of his character that it distracts from his performance.

The two stand-outs for me were Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and Emily Bergl as Mae.  Hinds’s Big Daddy is a monster unchained, a man who has decided that instead of cowering in the face of death, he is going to ruthlessly settle all accounts before his time is up.  He’s powerful, threatening, lecherous, and horrible–and impossible to take your eyes off of.  Bergl’s Mae is the kind of passive-aggressive, perfectionist PTA mother that’s now practically an archetype of suburban satire, but Williams gives the character an insatiable, sinister greed that makes her even more monstrous.

Director Rob Ashford usually works on musicals, but he does a nice job here with his first straight play, even if the set by Christopher Oram seemed to get in the way.  The oversized balcony doors from Brick and Maggie’s guest room, and the expansive playing space of that chamber itself, lead to some crowded blocking and empty space, respectively.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is running through March 30.

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