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May 7th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Ann

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

George W. Bush’s victory over Texas Governor Ann Richards was a tragedy of national dimensions. We know the Bush presidential disaster that stepping stone led to. But this production focuses on what Texas lost when Richards left office. Not only did she have better politics, but she was a superior human being. She made it on her own, without a “silver foot” in her mouth. And she cared about ordinary people, not the 1%.

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards, Photo Ave Bonar.

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards, Photo Ave Bonar.

“Ann” is a very fine solo play written and acted by Holland Taylor. Her accent and demeanor are spot-on. But the other value of the production is how close it gets to Richards and what it has to say. Ann Richards would think she was looking into a mirror.

Unlike a Hollywood biopic, the play moves along without the dramatic conflict you might expect. But the reality of Richards’ life has drama enough.

Holland gives an excellent performance, channeling Richards’ guts and down-home humor as well as the exaggerated sense of self that politicians at that level have. She is believable and charming. We have to admire Ann Richards all over again.

She was a tough, courageous woman who got into Texas politics, because, in one of her homey metaphors, she was tired of being in the grandstand and not being the horse. She was a Texas feminist.

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards, photo Ave Bonar.

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards, photo Ave Bonar.

Richard was born in the 1930s and grew up in San Diego, CA, at a time that didn’t spawn many feminists. In the 1950s, in her 20s, she married a civil rights lawyer and settled down to be a housewife. It wasn’t fun. She started drinking.

Then she decided to run for county commissioner. Her faux liberal civil rights lawyer husband didn’t take to her getting into local politics. The next choice was divorce.

She later worked for Sarah Weddington, the Texas state legislator who in 1970 represented “Jane Roe” in the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights case that went to the United States Supreme Court.

After that it seemed like a better idea to be governor of Texas. She was a 10-year-sober alcoholic divorced woman and a Democratic no less. She jokes, “I came from Georgia prison stock.” She was supported by women in Texas politics, which she describes as “a contact sport.”

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards at the Governor's desk, photo Ave Bonar.

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards at the Governor’s desk, photo Ave Bonar.

Richards was governor from 1991 to 1995. We see her in the governor’s office, with its velvet burgundy curtains, an elegant brown wood desk, a high ceiling, and latticed windows.

A national player, she talks to President Clinton about health care. She refuses to compromise on a concealed weapons bill. (Applause from the New York audience.) She deals with political crises and her kids as well as with a mostly inefficient staff. She is criticized, because she doesn’t take Mother Theresa’s call while she is giving a speech. Typical absurd political cant.

Some of the Democratic Convention interaction with Bill Clinton is silly. But her warning about what happens when candidates are bought by the rich could well be issued today.

Richards left office and politics when she was 60. A quip delivered early in the play could be her summing up. Richards says, “If you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, she just did it backwards and in hi-i-gh heels!

Ann.” Written and performed by Holland Taylor; directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein. Vivian Beaumont Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York City. (212-239-6200); $30 for 21 to 35 year olds at LincTix.org. Opened March 7, 2013; closes Sept 1, 2013. 5/1/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic. This Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

May 3rd

NEW YORK REVIEW: Old Hats

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar

Bill Irwin and David Shiner in the tunnel, photo Joan Marcus.

Bill Irwin and David Shiner in the tunnel, photo Joan Marcus.

Old time clowns are modern again. At least when they are as sophisticated and clever as Bill Irwin and David Shiner. There’s a lot about “Old Hats” that seems pretty new. The techno projections, for example. Top-hatted Irwin and Shiner appear confused as they wander in a tunnel, smoke swirling around them. We see it on video. It’s telling us that technology will be a theme of their very witty performance– sometimes technology gone wrong. Or misunderstood.

The band enters late, and singer Nellie McKay complains loudly as she marches up to the piano that she didn’t know New York metro cards expired! We soon see Irwin and Shiner dueling with remotes, then a real duel with the remotes’ antennas.

In case anyone wondered if these terrific clowns are still as good, stop worrying. They are non pareil. (There’s nobody like them.) They still display the body jokes, the loose physical movements and juggler style tricks that they are known for. And McKay adds a great jazzy 40s style music.

Bill Irwin and David Shiner, photo Joan Marcus.

Bill Irwin and David Shiner, photo Joan Marcus.

But the skits are not just physical, they are social and political, all staged with finesse by director Tina Landau.

One of my favorites is the presidential debate, with candidates displaying their fake toothy smiles at podiums. In a riff on immediate feedback, the “winner” after each question is marked by competing red arrows. But the two wield dirty trick remotes that move the arrows to fake audiences responses.

There’s faux patriotic rivalry. A flag is topped by a puppet eagle which descends to discover suspicious stacks of cash inside the opponent’s podium. That challenger swoops into the first fellow’s podium to reveal BVDs printed with a Soviet hammer and sickle.

David Shiner as the hobo, photo Joan Marcus.

David Shiner as the hobo, photo Joan Marcus.

That’s not all. At the cry of an infant in the audience, both race to find and kiss it. Isn’t it great how our political system never ceases to provide fodder for practitioners of absurdity?

In a classic tale of the sad hobo, Shiner sits on a park bench pulling detritus out of a garbage can. He finds a red rose and kisses it; the flower wilts. He yanks out a teddy bear, and the doll’s head jerks back. Then there’s a dead cat.

Nothing goes right. When the hobo calls 911, a voice says, “What is your emergency?” But he can’t speak, so the operator hangs up.

When it starts to rain, a figure the hobo made from a bottle and old sheet becomes a person, a woman, who wipes his eyes and caresses him. Sad and sweet and charming.

David Shiner and Bill Irwin at the train station, photo Joan Marcus.

David Shiner and Bill Irwin at the train station, photo Joan Marcus.

A brilliant encounter occurs at a train station where the two, in pin stripes and clown shoes, shrink and grow from inside their over-sized suits as each takes the other down psychologically, which turns into physically. It’s the funniest argument I’ve ever seen.

Nellie McKay riffs in a laid-back fashion between numbers with a piano or guitar, sometimes with a jazz inflection. My favorite was her famous “Mother of Pearl,” in which she insists that, “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor.”

Nellie McKay, photo Joan Marcus.

Nellie McKay, photo Joan Marcus.

She explains that, “They say child molestation isn’t funny. Rape and degradation’s just a crime (lighten up, ladies). Rampant prostitution, sex for money (what’s wrong with that). Can’t these chicks do anything but whine? Dance break. Woo-hoo….. I’m Michelle Bachman and I approve this message.”

Sounds dark, but she does it with such a dazed lackadaisical demeanor, that it takes a while for the meaning to kick in.

The pièce de résistance is the “filming” of a cowboy movie in which Shiner collects four audience members (worry if you’re in a front row or aisle seat and in your 20s or 30s) and has them act out a movie with guns shots, hard drinking, throwing glasses that shatter, and lots of retakes.

(Later, one of the purloined performers who did a very acrobatic stylized death dance told me he “used to be” an actor. I’m still suspicious, but it was a kick nonetheless.

Irwin and Shiner , who are basically mimes (they make a big thing of that), are persuaded to join McKay in some vaudeville routines with tap and song. So these guys can talk! They do a wonderful skit imitating the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Wizard of Oz.

There’s a lot more, including a great jazzy New Orleans gospel. They may be “old hat,” but this terrific production is very very new!

Old Hats.” Created and performed by Bill Irwin and David Shiner; directed by Tina Landau. Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York City. 212-244-7529. Opened March 4, 2013; closes June 9, 2013. 5/1/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic. Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

May 1st

NEW YORK REVIEW: Matilda

By Cameron Lowe

Lucy Komisar reviews the latest West-End musical to be exported to Broadway.

A hit Broadway musical in favor of intellectualism and rebellion, that’s a welcome surprise in New York where this season’s best new musicals about people who challenged the system – “Chaplin” and “Scandalous” (about Aimee Semple McPherson) — had short runs. Though of course, this production comes from London and it’s a fantasy, not about real events. Well, not about overtly political events. But it’s about stultifying intellectual repression. From the point of view of children! If you have kids, take them. And if you don’t, go anyway. It’s a play for adults, too.

“Matilda” is based on a story by Roald Dahl, with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Director Matthew Warchus has organized a social-political fantasy that is as trenchant as it is entertaining.

The Birthday Party, photo Joan Marcus.

The Birthday Party, photo Joan Marcus.

In the tradition of “Alice in Wonderland,” Matilda, the little girl heroine, views grown-up ideas through the prism of what kids see. This is a society that in spite of the opening birthday party cooing is cruel to children. That goes with being anti-intellectual. Well, we know bad people are that way. Expand this beyond child victims to the whole society.

Matilda was played by the charming Oona Laurence in the production I saw. The lead is rotated among four girls. She reads, “It was the best of times….,” the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom.”

“Matilda,” Bailey Ryon, Milly Shapiro, Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, photo Joan Marcus.

Matilda’s mother, Mrs. Wormwood (Lesli Margherita) – of course, it’s a Dickensian name — screams and covers her ears. Her father (Gabriel Ebert) says, “Stop scaring your mother with that book, boy!” Matilda declares, “I’m a girl.” Talk about sexism: he can’t even acknowledge her gender!

Her mother in her Cockney accent disses her: “And she keeps trying to tell me stories, Harry. Stories? Who wants stories? I mean it’s not normal for a girl to be all thinking.” The feminist message is deliciously in your face. (By the way, I loved that Matilda’s long tresses are straggly, not carefully coiffed.)

Mom is so utterly self-involved that she can’t cope with the ordinary issues of life. Insisting how hard she works, she declares, “I’ve got a whole house to look after – dinners don’t microwave themselves you know!”

The creepy son Michael (Taylor Trensch), whom they dote on, is nearly comatose, spending his time watching TV. He sings in a dummy voice, “All I know I learnt from telly. The bigger the telly, the smarter the man.” He wonders why he should waste energy reading Ulysses when he could sit happily “watching slightly famous people talking to really famous people.” A knock on the mind-numbing celebrity culture. Yeah!

Taylor Trench as Michael, Lesli Margherita as Mrs. Wormwood, Gabriel Ebert as Mr. Wormwood, photo Joan Marcus.

Taylor Trench as Michael, Lesli Margherita as Mrs. Wormwood, Gabriel Ebert as Mr. Wormwood, photo Joan Marcus.

The politics of the play is etched in satire through the absurd shticks. Transpose this to the citizens of a country run by malevolent authoritarians who rule over cowering dolts.

Parents and son, dressed in garish costumes by Rob Howell, scream at each other. Matilda escapes to her books. Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Dr Seuss the Cat in a Hat. She is a prodigy. So, by the way are the 9- and 10-year-old actresses who share the girl’s billing. They have a lot of lines to learn.

Matilda is pretty cynical about the classics she reads. “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, so they say. The subsequent fall was inevitable. They never stood a chance – they were written that way, innocent victims of their story.” So, here is a kid challenging the life scripts written by grown-ups.

Her take on Romeo and Juliet is “that love and fate and a touch of stupidity would rob them of their hope of living happily. The endings are often a little bit gory. I wonder why they didn’t just change their story.” Challenge and change is the message.

Kids going off to school, photo Joan Marcus.

Kids going off to school, photo Joan Marcus.

She and other children go off to school, which is presented as jail, at least the way some grown-ups run it. The sign over the entrance gate says “Crunchem Hall.” The set is a library of high book shelves that turns to reveal piles of blocks emblazoned with letters. Rob Howell’s sets are dazzling.

There’s a great dance movement as the new students enter, with the little kids harassed by older ones. The music is not rock; it’s more like Sondheim. No nasty ear-splitting screeches here.

The evil school master is Agatha Trunchbull (a brilliant Berlie Carvel in drag), in brown garb that reeks of the military. Trunchbull, with a harsh raspy voice, refers to the children as maggots and toads. “She” says “To teach the child, we must first break the child.” In “her” office, stacked cabinets hold trophies to “throwing the hammer.” (Is that a sport?) Trunchbull gleefully sings about a punishment cupboard lined with nails and glass. To show that she can do it, she grabs a girl by the braids and forcefully twists and spins her around.

Karen Aldridge as Miss Honey, the kids with Jared Parker as Nigel, Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, photo Joan Marcus.

Karen Aldridge as Miss Honey, the kids with Jared Parker as Nigel, Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, photo Joan Marcus.

A boy, Nigel (Jared Parker), steals a slice of chocolate cake, and Trunchbull makes him eat the whole cake. There ensues a syncopated chocolate cake dance that evokes Fosse. The talented Nigel does a gospel style freedom number to a rock beat.

The kids win a small victory by playing revenge tricks on Trunchbull, who smells “the odor of rebellion, the stench of dissent.” Carvel does a terrific torch song with high kicks. And the boys and girls run through jivey acrobatic dances, choreography by the excellent Peter Darling.

The play is an educational riff that challenges the popular culture. Mother tells Matilda’s teacher that “looks are more important than books.” People don’t want “smarty pants.” She squirms and twists with her Latin dance partner (Phillip Spaeth). She sings her advice: “A little less brain, a lot more hair!”

On the other hand, the teacher, Jane Honey (Lauren Ward), with a bell clear soprano and a Dickensian name that reflects her caring for kids, encourages the child.

Matilda listens and sings that “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.” However, she is not naïve. The play is full of struggles.

The kids revolt, photo Joan Marcus.

The kids revolt, photo Joan Marcus.

And the kids revolt.

The play is sometimes hokey, with portentous music for evil Trunchbull and flashing red lights, smoke and green laser beams. And one can’t always comprehend all the words through the children’s British accents. Though I quite understood Matilda’s Russian when she gets her father out of a scrape with some Moscow Mafiosi.

The essential liberating message comes across loud and clear.

Matilda.” Book by Dennis Kelly, Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin, based on the book by Roald Dahl. Directed by Matthew Warchus; choreographed by Peter Darling. The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, New York City. (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250. Opened April 11, 2013. 4/29/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

Apr 23rd

NEW YORK REVIEW: Julius Caesar

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

People on the street, photo Richard Termine.

People on the street, photo Richard Termine.

It’s uncanny how Shakespeare could describe coup politics in modern-day Africa. Of course, what director Gregory Doran shows in this brilliant Royal Shakespeare Company production is that ambition, demagoguery, the manipulation of masses and betrayal of ones comrades haven’t changed much since the era of Julius Caesar 2000 years ago or the treachery of kings and rivals closer to the Bard’s time. Doran ingeniously sets the play in the continent now most prone to violent political upheavals.

On the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage, people in African dress moving to tribal music and marching with posters of Caesar greet the military victor. The white-suited Caesar (Jeffrey Kissoon) takes on a modern feel. He is smarmy and blustery as Mark Antony (Ray Fearon) offers him a crown. That the soothsayer warning about the Ides of March is a painted shaman hardly surprises.

Jeffrey Kissoon as Caesar assassinated, photo Richard Termine.

Jeffrey Kissoon as Caesar assassinated, photo Richard Termine.

The set is an expanse of broad white concrete steps leading up to a platform on which sits a huge golden statue of a man, whom we see only from the back. Though the population is clad in brightly colored pants, skirts and shirts, the actors in the political drama are set apart by dress of dramatic black and white.

There is a sense of déjà vu as the conspirators, plunging long knives into Caesar, cry out “liberty” and “freedom.” Where have we seen this before? Where will we see it again?

Ray Fearon as Mark Antony, photo Richard Termine.

Ray Fearon as Mark Antony, photo Richard Termine.

When Caesar’s acolyte Mark Antony views the bloody corpse, he wails “Cry havoc.” Fearon, in white pants and a gray t-shirt, is a searing Antony. There will be bloodshed. Brutus (Paterson Joseph) tells the throng at Caesar’s funeral that he went against the military chief because of his ambition, that they would have become slaves. Joseph exudes power and self-confidence as Brutus.

After the mob turns against the conspirators, Cinna (Chinna Wodu) is captured, a tire is thrown around his neck and he is dragged away. A favorite method that black South Africans used to kill accused traitors in the fight against apartheid was to necklace them – put tires around their necks and set the rubber aflame.

Paterson Joseph as Brutus, photo Richard Termine.

Paterson Joseph as Brutus, photo Richard Termine.

Then there’s the always prevalent corruption. Brutus accuses Cassius (richly portrayed by Cyril Nri) of having an itching palm, of taking bribes for offices.

Some dialogue is not understandable because of the African accents, but as we know the play, that doesn’t matter. In fact, the accent reminds us of another irony, that during the 1970s of the decades of imprisonment of members of the African National Congress on Robbin Island, a volume of Shakespeare’s collected works was passed around among the prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, and annotated. Mandela put his initials on the lines of “Julius Caesar” that “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” (What would Margaret Thatcher, the justly reviled British conservative prime minister who cruelly and crudely supported the apartheid regime, have made of the importance of Shakespeare to the imprisoned ANC leaders!)

At the end, the black cloaks are traded for camouflage and army boots worn by Brutus and his collaborators and the red berets and assault weapons of Antony’s officers. In another eerie touch, the statue falls, like the one of Saddam Hussein pulled down by U.S. Marines. Will the next version of the play be set in the Middle East?

Julius Caesar.” Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Gregory Doran. Royal Shakespeare Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. 718-636-4100 ext 1. Opened April 10, 2013; closes April 28, 2013. 4/21/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

Apr 22nd

NEW YORK REVIEW: Finks

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

Miriam Silverman as Natasha, Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, photo

Miriam Silverman as Natalie, Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, photo Gerry Goodstein.

It was the worst of times. Lillian Hellman aptly called it “Scoundrel Time.” It was the 1950s. Joe Gilford’s play dramatizes the attack on free thought and free speech orchestrated by ruthless politicians who built careers by destroying the lives of actors, writers, directors and their families. It’s based on what happened to his parents, Jack and Madeleine Lee Gilford, victimized by the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC).

“Finks” is not an always dark play. Gilford’s father, played as Mickey Dobbs by the fine Aaron Serotsky, was a nightclub comic at Café Society. (Barney Josephson’s place broke the color bar by welcoming both black and white patrons.)

Aaron Serotsky as Mickey at Cafe Society, photo

Aaron Serotsky as Mickey at Cafe Society, photo Gerry Goodstein.

Mickey quips:

“I just found out that Joe McCarthy is about to expose two million more communists. He just got his hands on the Moscow phone book. You can’t be too careful these days. Everyone’s scared, even us comedians. Red Buttons is so terrified, he changed his name to “Blue”. It’s gotten so bad, I heard you can’t even borrow a book from the public library without someone tapping your telephone. And they’re right. I mean, what if you were seen reading–the Constitution??”

The Madeleine Lee Gilford character, Natalie Meltzer, portrayed by the excellent Miriam Silverman, jokes about “eau de proletariat.” She is a radical organizer and gets Mickey involved. He tells a friend that she is “Emma Goldman trapped in the body of Paulette Goddard.” Serotsky is a charmer as Mickey. Silverman is funny and tough as nails as Natalie.

Aside from the Hollywood blacklist, broadcast artists were targeted by Red Channels, a newsletter run by two individuals who listed alleged communists in TV and radio. Network CEOs and sponsors read it and did as they were told. Of course, they denied there was a blacklist. Mickey and his pal Fred perform an Abbott and Costello routine about finding themselves in Red Channels.

Ned Eisenberg as Fred, Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, with Red Channels, photo

Ned Eisenberg as Fred, Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, with Red Channels, photo Gerry Goodstein.

MICKEY (as BUD ABBOTT) holds a copy of Red Channels) See this Lou?

FRED (as LOU COSTELLO) I know what that is, Abbott. That’s Red Channels.

MICKEY That’s right.

FRED That’s the blacklist.

MICKEY No, Lou. There is no blacklist.

FRED Then how come people lose their jobs who end up in there?

Giovanna Sardelli directs in smooth, lively fashion a collection of fast-paced vignettes, even musical numbers such as “Sing me a Song of Social Significance” from “Pins & Needles.” The action shifts between café, home and the chilling HUAC interrogations by Rep Francis Walter (Michael Cullen).

Leo Ash Evens as Bobby, Miriam Silverman as Natalie, photo

Leo Ash Evens as Bobby, Miriam Silverman as Natalie, photo Gerry Goodstein.

Bobby Gerard (Leo Ash Evens as choreographer Jerome Robbins), is a friend of the Gilfords and part of the story. Often, we see him pirouetting and posing as he conceives and steps through routines. Then we see him before the committee doing another turn. Committee staff had threatened to expose him as a homosexual.

At a hearing, Martin Berkeley, a film writer and a communist, says his “Working Artists Section” raised funds to encourage racial integration and equality in such areas as education and employment. It’s not made clear, but the group would have been a “front,” recruiting non-party members. He tells the committee that people at the meetings included the essayist and humorist Dorothy Parker, the actress Gale Sondergaard (“Anna and The King of Siam”), the film writers Ring Lardner Jr., Dalton Trumbo and more.

The “finks” were just as prominent and seeking to protect their careers. Elia Kazan, director of “Death of a Salesman” and “Streetcar Named Desire,” had been blacklisted for three years. Lee Cobb, a cooperative witness, also hadn’t worked during that time. Another friendly testifier was Budd Schulberg, who wrote “On the Waterfront.”

Ned Eisenberg as Fred, Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, Miriam Silverman as Natalie, Michael Cullen as Rep. Walter, photo

Ned Eisenberg as Fred, Aaron Serotsky as Mickey, Miriam Silverman as Natalie, Michael Cullen as Rep. Walter, photo Gerry Goodstein.

Natalie has guts enough for all of them.

Walter asks her, “Were you from 1942 to 1945, a member of another known Soviet front, “The Actors League to Win to the War”?”

She replies, “Was that a Soviet front organization?”

He says, “Yes, Mrs. Dobbs. In our records and previous testimony, yes, it was a communist front, The Actors League to Win the War.”

She ripostes, “Should I have been a member of the Actors League to LOSE the War?”

She pushes her husband to support the blacklist victims. “Just think of what you’re gonna tell our son.” Then Mickey goes before the committee and names some names, but it’s not quite what Walter expected.

The congressman says, “So would you please tell us then, the names of these individuals who are, in fact, trying to undermine our democracy and this country. Mr. Dobbs?”

He replies, “They are—-CBS, NBC and ABC. They are Proctor & Gamble corporation—Colgate-Palmolive, American Tobacco, Kellogg’s, and Ford Motor Company—“

He says, “Those people are Red Channels, Aware Inc., Mr. Lawrence Johnson of Syracuse, The American Legion—“ And the columnists, “Jack O’Brian, Walter Winchell, Dorothy Kilgallen–All of whom are waging a dedicated war on our Constitution and our liberty as citizens by creating a blacklist and victimizing individual artists—“

After the performance I attended, a panel included blacklisted actress Lee Grant (“Shampoo”). She recalled that, “Ronald Reagan was president of SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and turned everybody in.” She said that television was controlled by huge conglomerates which sponsored shows such as the Philco Television Playhouse. They could control casting. But she pointed out that Actors Equity agreed not to allow a blacklist in the theater. That showed that the persecutors could be blocked if people in the industry had principles and courage.

Finks.” Written by Joe Gilford; directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Ensemble Studio Theatre & The Radio Drama Network, 549 West 52nd Street, New York City. 866-811-4111. Opened April 6, 2013; closes May 5, 2013. 4/20/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is The Komisar Scoop .

Apr 18th

NEW YORK REVIEW: The Revisionist

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

Jesse Eisenberg’s play about the importance of family to which a holocaust survivor clings takes life through the fine, transformative acting of Vanessa Redgrave. The story itself is a pas de deux, or better, a psychological duel between Maria (Redgrave), who was 4 years old when the holocaust in Poland took her parents and siblings, and David (Eisenberg), a not terribly successful New York writer who comes to visit his second cousin in a Polish town near the north coast. Director Kip Fagan makes us believe that the most unlikely events we see really happened.

Vanessa Redgrave as Maria, photo Sandra Coudert.

Vanessa Redgrave as Maria, photo Sandra Coudert.

David, in his 20s, arrives with street clothes and a stash of pot. Maria, 75, shuffles and has her gray hair in a bun. Her small apartment is filled with photos of family members in the U.S., all but one of whom she has never met. But she instructs David about the connections, who is married to whom, who is the child of whom, etc. She watches CNN on television, perhaps a connection to her American relatives.

Maria is dominating in a nice way. She wants to include him in her extended family. She makes chicken for his arrival. He is carelessly unappreciative and announces that he’s a vegetarian. It’s a way of saying their two worlds clash. She tells him to say a Jewish prayer over the food. He says, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

David wants to smoke pot and pushes open the window transom in his room even though she tells him not to because the heat is expensive. Turns out he arrived only because she was his last chance for a free room in which he could revise a book his editor found unacceptable. You really want to not like this flip guy.

Dan Oreskes as Zenon, Vanessa Redgrave as Maria, Jesse Eisenberg as David, photo Sandra Coudert.

Dan Oreskes as Zenon, Vanessa Redgrave as Maria, Jesse Eisenberg as David, photo Sandra Coudert.

But Maria is also challenging. She has framed the bad NY Times review of a young adult book he wrote. She wants him to sign it. He wants to tear it up.

He is offended when a middle-aged cab driver-friend (the blustery Daniel Oreskes) arrives to shave Maria’s legs. She lets him do it because reminds him of his dead mother for whom he performed the same service. (Maria is a widow and doesn’t seem to have other friends.)

Rather weird, I thought. Is this the weird sense of family a 20-something playwright like Eisenberg might think of?

Emphasizing how bizarre David considers this world, we see him lying in bed reading a Lonely Planet book about Poland as if it were some travel curiosity.

All of this is prelude to the essence of the play. David wants to know more about Maria’s past; she is reticent. Finally, she opens the vodka. She gets drunk; he gets drunk. And you learn what happened in 1939. It involves a big surprise about the family that means so much to Maria. But David the writer will not realize that this is a great story. Maybe that would have gotten in the way of the play, but it’s the first thing that I, a writer, thought of. (There are a few other unlikely plot events that seem to be loose ends the playwright should have tied up.)

Vanessa Redgrave as Maria, Jesse Eisenberg as David, photo Sandra Coudert.

Vanessa Redgrave as Maria, Jesse Eisenberg as David, photo Sandra Coudert.

Eisenberg is very good as the insensitive young man who feels entitled to a free room at his cousin’s place without displaying any of the niceties a host might expect.

Redgrave of course is brilliant in her subtle, understated performance as Maria. My standard for great theater artists is that they can express powerful emotions without raising their voices. She so thoroughly inhabits her character that the loneliness that drives her is palpable.

The Revisionist.” Written by Jesse Eisenberg; directed by Kip Fagan. Rattlesnake Theater at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York City. 866-811-4111; info@rattlestick.org . Opened Feb 28, 2013; closes April 27, 2013. 3/24/13. Review on New York Theatre Wire.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is The Komisar Scoop .

Apr 10th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Talley's Folly

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

Lanford Wilson’s play is a sharp, funny, charming look at romance, with a bitter-sweet sauce. Its hero leaps over barriers of religion, age, and economic and social status. Just what New York theater-goers want. It’s one of the best revivals of the season, directed by Michael Wilson with the right mix of humor and nostalgia.

The scene is an abandoned boat house. An old broken row boat is parked on one side, a Victrola with its iconic conical speaker sits on an old crate, and undefined debris is scattered around. The slats of the door are broken. Sea grass and willows push through broken siding. It appears that nobody has been here in years.

Danny Burstein as Matt, Sarah Paulson as Sarah, photo Joan Marcus.

Danny Burstein as Matt, Sarah Paulson as Sally, photo Joan Marcus.

But that appearance would be deceiving. This is where two very unlikely would-be lovers (this is 1944) spent a few weeks getting to know each other and have returned to gingerly, tenderly, consider what those moments meant.

One of the erstwhile lovers is Matt Friedman (Danny Burstein), a 41 year-old Jewish accountant from St. Louis. With beard and brown suit, rimless glasses and suspenders, he is a bit shlumpy. He was born in Poland or Lithuania and refers to himself as a “Probable Lit.” Members of his family were tortured and repressed by the French and Germans. Burstein is a delight as the comic, hyper-energetic, in-your-face guy. (I was about to say New Yorker.)

The lady he has traveled to a small Missouri town to pursue is Sally Talley (Sarah Paulson), a 31-year-old Protestant from an upper class family. She is a nurse’s aid caring for the war wounded. She is attractive, with reddish blonde hair and a pretty light yellow dress. She wants to leave the narrow-minded family that now considers her an old maid. She remarks, “I’m a liberal Midwestern college graduate!” Paulson is a terrific opposite as the cool, reserved WASP with a sense of control.

Sarah Paulson as Salley, Danny Burstein as Matt, photo Joan Marcus.

Sarah Paulson as Sally, Danny Burstein as Matt, photo Joan Marcus.

Matt had given up thoughts of ever finding a woman he could love. Sally had written off the chance of finding a man appropriate for marriage. And then…!

Matt met Sally the last summer when he came to Lebanon, Missouri on vacation. They spent seven days at the town band shell and in secret meetings in the boat house. He’s back because he realizes he’s in love and want to marry her. It’s unusual that at that time, at their ages, neither is married.

Because this is Lanford Wilson, there’s a political context. Matt comments, “Once again we have been told the country has been saved by war.”

But then the dialogue is more subtle. He says: “Now, you would think that in this remote wood, on this remote and unimportant, but sometimes capricious river, that world events would not touch this hidden place. But such is not the case. There is a house on the hill up there, and there is a family that is not at peace but in grave danger of prosperity. And there is a girl in the house on the hill up there who is a terrible embarrassment to her family because she remembers that old hope, and questions this new fortune, and questioning eyes are hard to come by nowadays. It’s hard to use your peripheral vision when you’re being led by the nose.”

Danny Burstein as Matt, Sarah Paulson as Sally, photo Joan Marcus.

Danny Burstein as Matt, Sarah Paulson as Sally, photo Joan Marcus.

Ah, politics. Which is, of course, what makes this play brilliant. Her parents call him a communist, a traitor, infidel. He reacts with comedy: A family sister-in-law is named Olive. He calls her “pickled herring” and “the relish tray.” He notes that behind the screen door she is safe from mosquitoes and infidels. He is very Jewish-funny.

When he digs at the South, she protests it’s not the South, it’s Missouri. He says that outside New York City and isolated neighborhoods in Boston, the rest is “South.” Sometimes he does a sophisticated imitation of Humphrey Bogart.

Matt has to persuade Sally that the dice have been rolled again, and they can be winners. So are we all. What could have been a sentimental older boy means older girl (well, 31 and 42 were old then) is not. It’s sharp and funny and deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Talley’s Folly.” Written by Lanford Wilson; directed by Michael Wilson. Roundabout Theatre Company at Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46th St., New York City. (212) 719-1300. Opened Mar 2013; closes May 5, 2013.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is The Komisar Scoop.

Apr 8th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Kafka's Monkey

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter at podium, photo Keith Pattison.

Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter at podium, photo Keith Pattison.

To be brilliant at playing a human is one thing, but to pull off a tour de force portraying a speaking animal is quite another feat. Kathryn Hunter is an extraordinary actress, and her performance in Kafka’s Monkey will be remembered as one of the best of this and many seasons.

The play is based on Franz Kafka’s “Report to an Academy,” a short story published in Germany in 1917. It was adapted by Colin Teevan and directed by Walter Meierjohann, who must share in the acclaim. They first staged their Theatre for a New Audience production at London’s Young Vic in 2009.

A monkey that was captured in Africa and transported to England is addressing an erudite gathering to tell how he learned to act as a human.

You need to know that monkeys trained to mimic humans were presented on the English music hall stages at the beginning of the last century. They could do soft-shoes with canes and tricks with bowler hats.

Kathryn Hunter with monkey on screen behind her, photo Keith Pattison.

Kathryn Hunter with monkey on screen behind her, photo Keith Pattison.

This monkey goes beyond that and in Kafka’s imagination appears before a most “civilized” academic audience to discuss the world he left and the “civilization” he entered. (We know the monkey is “he” since he is wearing a male’s white tie and tails and indicates a sexual connection with a female monkey.)

The story is suffused with subtle irony. But Hunter’s performance adds to it immeasurably.

Her face and moves are simian. Her mouth and cheeks are puffed up to resemble the monkey on the huge screen behind her and which she sometimes gazes at as if to remember “his” past. Her stance and movement – her slight hunch, back-swinging arms, bent knees, jerky movements and twists – create such an extraordinary physical picture of a monkey that when she takes her curtain call you suddenly realize she is a foot taller, that she has played the hour with her knees bent.

Hunter’s delivery is ironic as the monkey relates humans’ cruelty and crudeness in a matter of fact way. He tells of his capture in Africa five years earlier where hunters shot him in the groin, causing a scar that led to his name Red Peter, and then his imprisonment in a cage where he could not stand or sit. (Kafka foretold the “tiger cages” in South Vietnam.)

Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter with rum bottle, photo Keith Pattison.

Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter with rum bottle, photo Keith Pattison.

He decides that since a monkey will be caged, he sees “no way out” except to emulate a man. Born “a free ape,” he submits himself to “the yoke.” His introduction to “civilization” is a ship’s crew member slipping him a bottle of rum. He has to overcome his disgust of it. But civilization means getting drunk.

Arrived in England, Red Peter has a choice between the zoo and the music hall. Obviously, he chooses the latter and from time to time breaks into a soft shoe with cane and bowler hat. He expertly flips the latter from his head and catches it.

He insists with straight-faced mockery, “Your former lives as apes, esteemed members of the academy, are as far behind you as mine is behind me.”

He declares, “And it was so easy to imitate these men. In the first few days I learned to spit. We’d spit in each others’ faces, the only difference between us being that afterwards, I’d lick my face clean. And they would not.”

But he never seeks the freedom he’d had as an ape, because he discovers that among men that is an illusion that often betrays them.

Kathryn Hunter as Kafka's monkey, photo Keith Pattison.

Kathryn Hunter as Kafka’s monkey, photo Keith Pattison.

Red Peter occasionally reverts to being a monkey, approaching audience members in the first row or aisles, pressing his face into theirs, pretending to eat lice he catches in their hair. He crouches, lumbers and careens around the stage squealing like – a monkey.

He climbs a ladder on the wall and, hanging from it, continues to declaim. We get the sense that Red Peter is resigned to life as a man while occasionally, wistfully, remembering monkey freedom. Hunter (who is 55) at one point lands in a split and pulls a leg around where it doesn’t seem physically able to go.

Hunter’s performance is a theatrical triumph.

Kafka’s Monkey.” Adapted by Colin Teevan from “Report to the Academy” by Franz Kafka; directed by Walter Meierjohann. Theatre for a New Audience and Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, New York City. 866-811-4111. Opened April 4, 2013; closes April 17, 2013. 4/5/13. Review on New York Theatre Wire.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is http://thekomisarscoop.com/

Mar 25th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Happy Birthday

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

A charmer and good fun, albeit dated, Anita Loos ‘ 1946 play tracks the lives of the denizens of a bar in Newark, NJ.

Victoria Mack as Maude Carson, Todd Gearhart as Paul Bishop and Mary Bacon as Addie Bemis, photo Hunter Canning.

Victoria Mack as Maude Carson, Todd Gearhart as Paul Bishop and Mary Bacon as Addie Bemis, photo Hunter Canning.

It centers around the transformation of Addie Bemis (a very delightful Mary Bacon), who starts out as a rather tight prudish young woman, and ends up singing on the bar. The magic ingredient, of course, is love.

Addie arrives at the Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar. (The lit crescents and stars that give the room pizazz are by designer Brett J. Banakis.) She is pursuing Paul Bishop (Todd Gearhart), the teller where she banks. Paul, however, is there with Maude Carson (a delightfully tacky Victoria Mack), the flirty beautician he is planning to marry.

Mary Bacon as Addie Bemis, photo Hunter Canning.

Mary Bacon as Addie Bemis, photo Hunter Canning.

As her plans hit that obstacle, Addie switches from a glass of water to pink ladies and then to harder stuff. Now, she becomes tight in another way. But the alcohol helps her cut loose. Bacon does a smashing rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World,” which Rodgers and Hammerstein II wrote for the show.

Among others in the cast, Tom Berklund as Don, a sexy merchant mariner and son of the bar’s owner (Karen Ziemba), and Lesley Shires as his girlfriend June do a terrific tango number.

The birthday, by the way, belongs to Myrtle (Margot White), who sighs that her married lover spends New Year’s Eve and every other holiday with his wife. And, worse luck, his wife has the same birthday as she does! Addie orders champagne all around.

Tom Berklund as Don Hosmer, Lesley Shires as June, Karen Ziemba as Gail Hosmer, Ron McClary as Herman, and Anderson Matthews as Homer Bemis, photo Hunter Canning.

Tom Berklund as Don Hosmer, Lesley Shires as June, Karen Ziemba as Gail Hosmer, Ron McClary as Herman, and Anderson Matthews as Homer Bemis, photo Hunter Canning.

Then Addie’s drunk father (Anderson Matthews) arrives and is stunned by her state. Matthews does well as two drunks, Homer Bemis and the Judge, which may be a subtle commentary.

Loos wrote the play for her friend Helen Hayes, who played Addie and won a 1947 Tony for best actress in a play. It’s almost 70 years old and occasionally shows its age, but under director Scott Alan Evans’s affectionate but light touch, it has a lot of spunk and generally holds up pretty well.

“Happy Birthday.” Written by Anita Loos; directed by Scott Alan Evans. The Actors Company Theatre at Beckett Theatre, 210 West 42 Street, New York City. (212) 239-6200; . Opened March 21; closes April 13, 2013. 3/22/13. Review on New York Theatre Wire.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic.  Her website is http://thekomisarscoop.com/

Mar 19th

NEW YORK REVIEW: Shaheed - The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto

By Cameron Lowe

By Lucy Komisar in New York

I met Benazir Bhutto in 1987 when she was leading the Pakistan People’s Party in a national parliamentary campaign. I traveled with her on a motorcade in Sailkot, in the Punjab, northern Pakistan, where she was mobbed by supporters. From the top of the reporters’ minivan in front of hers, I could see crowds along the way shouting, chanting, some holding photos of her, young men dancing to loud piped music in front of the crawling vehicles, flags waving. Women were watching from atop one and two-story buildings along the route. It took hours instead of 20 minutes to get to a stadium where she addressed a mass rally.

Benazir Bhutto riding atop a van in the motorcade in Sailkot, 1987, photo Lucy Komisar.

Benazir Bhutto riding atop a van in the motorcade in Sailkot, 1987, photo Lucy Komisar.

The candidate may have been female, but it didn’t occur to her supporters that the woman along the route might descend and stand with them. That was because Benazir was viewed not as a woman running for political office, but as the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the prime minister who had been hanged by his political opponent General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Benazir had taken the party mantle in a feudal way, taking power passed down as a monarch might do to the next in line.

Women waving from a roof as Benazir Butto's procession passes, photo Lucy Komisar.

Women waving from a roof as Benazir Butto’s procession passes, photo Lucy Komisar.

Another irony that showed how far she was from the masses was that when she gave her speech, though she spoke in Urdu, sitting behind her in the arena, I could see that her notes were written in English.

Knowing who Benazir was makes it clear that we are not talking about a woman seeking power, quite revolutionary in a Muslim country, but the scion of a powerful political family reclaiming her due. Plus ҁa change.

Our conversation took place the day after the rally, at the home of a supporter where she was staying. She was prescient about the impact of the Islamic Afghanis who had arrived in Pakistan during the war with the Soviet-supported government. The Islamists were being financed by the U.S. and the Saudis, with funds moving through the Pakistani military.

Anna Khaja as Benazir Bhutto, photo Maia Rosenfeld.

Anna Khaja as Benazir Bhutto, photo Maia Rosenfeld.

Bhutto told me that “the threat of the refugees permitted by Zia could pose a long-term problem. …. They have got safe houses, ammunition dumps, networks. …. My concern is that Pakistan in the future should be stable enough to absorb the shock should these networks become operative even after a solution.”

Anna Khaja’s fascinating one-woman play about Bhutto, which she also performs, understands who she is and the political contexts in which she operated, both international and local, including the role of the Taliban. There is a simple set with a slatted divider on which a white fabric is thrown to be a screen for projections. We hear pulsating Pakistani music. Sometimes Khaja sits in a straw chair. Her costume changes include a white scarf, a vest, pulled back hair. With direction by Heather de Michele, Khaja persuades you that she is every character she portrays.

Anna Khaja as Sara, photo Maia Rosenfeld.

Anna Khaja as Sara, photo Maia Rosenfeld.

Among the characters in the play are Sara, a young student whose mother is American and whose Pakistani father left them when she was a child. She reminds us that the U.S. called General Musharraf “the gentle dictator.”

Another is Condoleezza Rice as George W. Bush’s secretary of state who brokered the deal that allowed Benazir to return to Pakistan in 2007 to share power with Musharraf. When Bhutto asked the U.S. to guarantee her safety, the reply was that, “The U.S. doesn’t meddle in other countries’ affairs.” The audience laughed. Of course, the U.S. then as now provided massive military assistance to Pakistan and had the power to cut that off.

Anna Khaja as Daphne Barak, photo Hunter Canning.

Anna Khaja as Daphne Barak, photo Hunter Canning.

Daphne Barak, portrayed as a self-important Israeli-American journalist who became Benazir’s friend, is a change of pace seen interviewing her at her house in Dubai. Quasim, a professor of religious studies at Boston University, had worked with Benazir in the Pakistan People’s Party and fled repression.

Fatima Bhutto, another journalist was Benazir’s niece, the daughter of her brother, and the best analyst of the political situation. She suspects Benazir of being responsible for ordering her father killed. She reminds us that Musharraf ousted an elected government and was given $10 billion by the U.S. And that he gave money to the radical Islamist madrassas.

But the U.S. government said, “We can’t lose Musharraf. No military domination means no U.S. control in Pakistan. How can we squelch this revolution?” Fatima says, “You have to hand it to Condoleezza. Let’s send you back to Pakistan, Benazir, to share power with Musharraf. It will be ‘democracy light.’ You can get ‘elected,’ even start a few social programs. With your pretty face there, no one will notice that a military dictator is actually running Pakistan.”

Anna Khaja as Shamsher, the rickshaw driver, photo Maia Rosenfeld.

Anna Khaja as Shamsher, the rickshaw driver, photo Maia Rosenfeld.

She adds, “Do you know who else the United States saw as a beacon of democracy? Pinochet, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, when it suited them. Such illustrious company you share, auntie.”

We see the local world Benazir confronted through Shamsher, a poor auto-rickshaw driver, and Afshan, the daughter he sent to a madrassa to house and feed her so he would not have to sell her. Shamsher wonders “what George The W Bush [was] thinking giving Musharraf the money all the time? Do Americans really not know that Musharraf is a friend to extremists?” Shamsher supports Benazir as a fighter against poverty and corruption, but Afshan, 13, becomes an Islamic militant who beats up a woman in a bordello.

Anna Khaja as Benazir Bhutto, photo Hunter Canning.

Anna Khaja as Benazir Bhutto, photo Hunter Canning.

Finally, we see Benazir, who had served 1988 to 90 and 1993 to 96 as prime minister and gone into exile when she was dismissed on charges of corruption in 1996. In Sam Saldivar’s effective projections, we see her in the 2007 return from exile van moving through the streets through mobs of young men pulsating against her motorcade. It must have been like the one I witnessed twenty years before. Then in a flash, Benazir meets her death at the hands of a bomb-throwing assassin. From that comes the honorific Shaheed, an Arabic word meaning “witness,” which has come to mean “martyr.”

Khaja’s analysis is focused, measured and honest. She admires Benazir but doesn’t hide her flaws. And she is excellent as an analyst of America’s routinely disastrous foreign policy.

“Shaheed – The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto.” Written and performed by Anna Khaja; directed by Heather de Michele. Culture Project and Women Center Stage at 45 Bleecker Street, New York City. 866-811-4111. Opened March 14, 2013; closes April 1, 2013. 3/17/13.

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist and critic. This Her website is http://thekomisarscoop.com/