Tony-winning star Jessie Mueller has quickly become one of those Broadway sensations you can watch do just about anything, even when she serves up a dish of lukewarm Lifetime schmaltz like Waitress. Mueller, who has risen well above her material in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, does the same in this American Repertory Theater musical, an adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 film, which was accepted to Sundance shortly after Shelly was murdered in Greenwich Village at the age of forty. Mueller plays Jenna Hunterson, a waitress in Joe’s Pie Diner, where every morning she makes such delectable, original delights as Marshmallow Mermaid Pie, Fallin’ in Love Chocolate Mousse Pie, and Jenna’s First Kiss Pie. “You want to know what’s inside? Simple question, so then what’s the answer?” she sings. “My whole life is in here, in this kitchen baking.” Desperate to escape an abusive marriage to Earl (Nick Cordero), she is distraught to learn she’s pregnant. When diner owner Joe (Dakin Matthews) suggests she compete in a pie contest with a prize of twenty thousand dollars, she thinks she may have discovered her way out, but her life gets even more complicated when she becomes attracted to her new gynecologist, the married Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling). Her coworkers, the sharp-tongued Becky (Keala Settle) and the wallflower Dawn (Kimiko Glenn, in the role played by Shelly in the movie), provide emotional support and comic relief, while Jenna’s coping skills include memories of baking pies with her late mother and imagining what she’ll make next, creating in her mind such telling desserts as I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie, Betrayed by My Eggs Pie, and I Can’t Have an Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie. But Jenna can’t stop spending time with Dr. Pomatter despite knowing better. “It’s a terrible idea me and you,” they sing in a duet. Jenna: “You have a wife.” Dr. Pomatter: “You have a husband.” Jenna: “You’re my doctor!” Dr. Pomatter: “You’ve got a baby coming.” Both: “It’s a bad idea me and you / Let’s keep kissing till we come to.” Unfortunately, by the time they come to, it’s too late.
Mueller shines once again in Waitress, making the most of what is essentially a hard-to-believe contemporary bodice ripper disguised as a romantic musical comedy. She has a comforting stage presence, blending confidence and vulnerability in charming ways, even as we watch her character make absurdly ridiculous decisions. She, Settle (Hands on a Hardbody, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), and Glenn (Orange Is the New Black, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots) share a warm camaraderie, recalling the trio of waitresses from the television series Alice, along with Eric Anderson (Soul Doctor, Kinky Boots) as Cal, the gruff cook. Christopher Fitzgerald (Young Frankenstein, Finian’s Rainbow) nearly steals the show as Ogie, going all out as a stalker-like major nerd who is interested in Dawn and is not afraid to let everyone know about it. His stirring rendition of “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me” is a genuine showstopper. The songs, by five-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, are relatively harmless, mixing in multiple genres, but former waitress Jessie Nelson’s (I Am Sam; Corrina, Corrina) book never really gets cooking, jumping around too much while taking underdeveloped or overdone turns. Director Diane Paulus (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Hair, Pippin) does what she can with the mediocre material, wisely making sure that Mueller is front and center as much as possible on Scott Pask’s set, which changes from the diner to the doctor’s office to Jenna and Earl’s home. Waitress serves up a few very tasty slices, but it takes more than that to make a wholly satisfying pie.
Who: Nancy Grossman, Marilyn Minter, Betty Tompkins, Laurie Simmons, and Glenn Fuhrman
What: Artist talk
Where: The FLAG Art Foundation, 545 West 25th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves., ninth floor, 212-206-0220
When: Tuesday, May 10, free with RSVP, 6:00
Why: In case you haven’t been paying attention, FLAG founder Glenn Fuhrman has been hosting a series of conversations at his Chelsea gallery with some pretty big-time players and up-and-comers, including Jeff Koons, Sean Scully, and Awol Erizku. On May 10, he’ll be convening with a terrifically impressive quartet of artists, Nancy Grossman, Marilyn Minter, Betty Tompkins, and Laurie Simmons, to discuss Tompkins’s exhibition “WOMEN Words, Phrases, and Stories: 1,000 Paintings by Betty Tompkins,” which continues at FLAG through May 14. The exhibition consists of one thousand small-scale, hand-painted acrylic on canvas works that feature words and phrases used to describe women, including “Total Babe,” “Epic Bitch,” “Girly Girl,” “Arm Candy,” “Put a Bag over Her Head,” and “Will She Ever Shut Up?” (In her request for words and phrases from others, Tompkins explained, “They can be affectionate [honey], pejorative [bitch], slang, descriptive, etc.”) You better watch out, because this should be one exciting, illuminating evening.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 12, $70-$150
In early 2014, Frank Langella played King Lear at BAM, a thought-provoking counterpoint to his latest show, the U.S. premiere of Florian Zeller’s The Father. As Lear, the seventy-eight-year-old Langella, who has won three Tonys and two Obies, battled his failing mind and body while two of his three daughters fought over his wealth and power and the third only wanted to love and care for him. As eighty-year-old André in Zeller’s Olivier-nominated, Molière Award–winning play — not to be confused with August Strindberg’s The Father, currently running at Theatre for a New Audience — Langella is an elegant Paris gentleman dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease while his loving daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe), tries to care for him despite his mistreatment of her. After scaring off yet another home nurse, André yells at Anne, “I don’t need her! I don’t need her or anyone else! I can manage very well on my own!” But it’s becoming more and more apparent that he can’t, as he gets lost in a psychological maze of the past and the present, not knowing who is who and where he is while refusing to acknowledge what is happening to him, instead turning the tables on those around him. “I’m worried about you,” he says to a woman (Kathleen McNenny) who claims to be Anne but he does not recognize. “Don’t you remember? She doesn’t remember. Are you having memory lapses or what? You’d better go and see someone, my dear.” He also mixes up Anne’s significant others, either boyfriends or husbands (Charles Borland and Brian Avers) who may or may not be moving to London with her. And he compares his latest caretaker, Laura (Hannah Cabell), to his beloved other daughter, Elise, whom he wildly praises while disparaging Anne. “You have two daughters?” Laura asks suspiciously. “That’s right,” he says. “Even though I hardly ever hear from the other one. Elise. All the same, she was always my favourite. . . . I don’t understand why she never gets in touch. Never.” In addition, André seems to be forgetting whose apartment he’s in and whether he’s living on his own or with Anne, which makes him angry and upset. “I don’t need any help from anyone and I will not leave this flat,” he firmly declares. But he’s of course in dire need of help.
Translated from the French by two-time Tony winner Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Sunset Boulevard) and directed by Tony winner Doug Hughes (Frozen, The Royal Family), Zeller’s play, a companion piece to The Mother, uses clever stagecraft to depict André’s heartbreaking descent. Scenes sometimes repeat or overlap, and having multiple actors play Anne and her partners transfers André’s confusion to the audience, which is also sometimes not sure who is who or if what is happening is only in André’s fading mind. Each scene ends with a sudden darkness, and when the lights come back on (courtesy of lighting designer Donald Holder), bits of Scott Pask’s fashionable French-flat set, from books to furniture, have disappeared, echoing the cognitive losses inside André’s head. André is also obsessed with time, as if, deep down, he really does understand the fate that awaits him but is unwilling to face the truth. He keeps thinking someone has stolen his watch, and he continually refers to time. “Time passes so fast,” he says wistfully. Later he opines, “If this goes on much longer, I’ll be stark naked. Stark naked. And I won’t even know what time it is.” Langella (Frost/Nixon, Dracula) goes from bold and confused to touchingly gentle as André, imbuing him with a Lear-like regalness and an aristocratic refinement even when tap-dancing; it’s a beautifully moving performance from one of America’s finest actors. Zeller, Hampton, and Hughes avoid genre clichés or sentimentality, using clever subtlety to tell a very sad, unfortunately increasingly common tale.
In November 2012, Daniele Finzi Pasca presented the surreal Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, combining music, dance, storytelling, acrobatics, and circus arts in paying tribute to Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Finzi Pasca and his Swiss troupe, Compagnia Finzi Pasca (Icaro, Bianco su Bianco), are back at BAM this week, honoring Spanish surrealist and master showman Salvador Dalí. Running May 4-7 at the Howard Gilman Opera House, La Verità is a collaboration between Pasca and his fellow company founders, show cocreator Julie Hamelin Finzi; music and sound designer Maria Bonzanigo, who shares choreography credit with Finzi Pasca; set and prop designer Hugo Gargiulo; costume designer Giovanna Buzzi; and artistic consultant Antonio Vergamini. Pasca also designed the lighting with Alexis Bowles, and Roberto Vitalini did the videos. The backdrop for the mayhem is a re-creation of the mural Dalí made for the Metropolitan Opera’s 1944 ballet, Mad Tristan, for which Dalí also designed the sets and costumes. The anonymous owners of the mural approached Finzi Pasca to use it in a production, and what developed was La Verità, an extravaganza in which anything can happen. “The language of acrobatics, of physical theatre may easily conquer a territory where it is neither night or day, where light doesn’t touch reality but designs it, invents it or reinvents it,” Finzi Pasca explains on the company website. “The language of the acrobats titillates our unconscious, making us see inner landscapes that appear truer than reality. Dalí’s landscapes are set during night or day? The answer: neither; Dalí’s images belong to another dimension, the dimension of dreams.”
Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theater
121 Christopher St. between Bleecker & Hudson Sts.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 8, $80-$100
Red Bull Theater’s wonderfully playful adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic 1777 farce, The School for Scandal, offers a master’s course on the subject of malicious idle chatter. The headmistress of this unofficial institution is Lady Sneerwell (Frances Barber), a wealthy widow with an ax to grind. “I am no hypocrite to deny the satisfaction I reap from the success of my efforts,” she tells her vitriolic star pupil, gossip columnist Snake (Jacob Dresch), continuing, “Wounded myself, in the early part of my life by the envenomed tongue of slander, I confess I have since known no pleasure equal to the reducing others to the level of my own injured reputation.” Joined by single heiress Maria (Nadine Malouf) and aristocratic gadfly Joseph Surface (Christian Conn), the group discusses the nature of gossip. “For my part, I confess, madam, wit loses its respect with me, when I see it in company with malice. What do you think, Mr. Surface?” the prim and proper Maria asks, to which Joseph replies, “Certainly, madam. To smile at the jest which plants a thorn in another’s breast is to become a principal in the mischief.” Lady Sneerwell chimes in, “Pshaw, there’s no possibility of being witty without a little ill nature. The malice of a good thing is the barb that makes it stick. What’s your opinion, Mr. Surface?” Joseph again shares his barbed judgment, explaining, “To be sure, madam, that conversation where the spirit of raillery is suppressed will ever appear tedious and insipid.” But the gossip they spread is anything but good-natured teasing, carefully aimed at directly affecting its targets. Referring to the never-seen Mrs. Clackit, Snake boasts, “To my knowledge, she has been the cause of six matches being broken off and three sons being disinherited, of four forced elopements, as many coerced confessions, and two divorces.” One of their current targets is Sir Peter Teazle (Mark Linn-Baker), an older city knight and avowed bachelor who has married the much younger Lady Teazle (Helen Cespedes), who is happily going through his money while flirting with Joseph, who prefers Sir Peter’s ward, Maria, who has a hankering for Joseph’s younger brother, Charles (Christian DeMarais), who is drinking away his fortune. The silly dandy and ersatz poet Sir Benjamin Backbite (Ryan Garbayo) also has his heart set on Maria. The Surface brothers have been receiving funds from their uncle, Sir Oliver (Henry Stram), who has been traveling the world for sixteen years but at last returns, deciding to test his nephews’ loyalty by appearing in disguise to determine whether they are still worthy of his financial support. And ruling over it all is the master gossip herself, Mrs. Candour (Dana Ivey), who declares without a hint of irony, “Tale-bearers are just as bad as the tale-makers — but what’s to be done, as I said before — how will you prevent people from talking?”
In his directorial debut, Marc Vietor assuredly guides all the delicious madness, but he has to play second fiddle to Andrea Lauer’s sensational period costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s outrageous wig and hair design; Dresch’s green reptilian getup as Snake is worth the price of admission alone, as is the way he marvelously squirms and slithers onstage, and Ivey’s wig is like a character unto itself. The excellent cast has tons of fun on Anna Louizos’s set, which folds into drawing rooms in various residences. Ivey and Barber are particularly adroit at chomping on the scenery and spitting out their wickedly delicious calumny. Several characters present asides directly to the audience, which works for the most part except for Stram, whose attempts are hard to understand. The Dublin-born Sheridan, who wrote such other plays as The Rivals, A Trip to Scarborough, and Pizarro and was also a politician who served in the British Parliament for more than three decades, doesn’t hold anything back in this consistently engaging satirical comedy of manners, beginning with the names of the characters themselves; in addition to Candour, Snake, Sneerwell, Backbite, Surface, and Teazle, there are Crabtree, Midas, Bumper, and Careless onstage as well as references to Prim, Brittle, Clackit, Knuckle, Kumquat, and Gadabout. In his diary entry for December 17, 1813, Lord Byron wrote, “Lord Holland told me a curious piece of sentimentality in Sheridan. The other night we were all delivering our respective and various opinions on him and other hommes marquans and mine was this: — ‘Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do has been, par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy (School for Scandal), the best opera (The Duenna — in my mind, far before that St. Giles’s lampoon, the Beggars’ Opera), the best farce (The Critic — it is only too good for an after-piece), and the best address (Monologue on Garrick); and, to crown all, delivered the very best oration (the famous Begum Speech) ever conceived or heard in this country.” It is with no mere prattle that I say that Red Bull Theater has done us all a service by resurrecting this play that is nearly as old as our country, which itself has never stopped loving and spreading gossip, which can now go viral over the internet in the matter of minutes. “There’s no stopping people’s tongues,” Mrs. Candour says. “The license of invention some people take is monstrous indeed,” Joseph adds. Thank goodness those sentiments are true, for they result in such a rich and savory treat as The School for Scandal.
200 Eastern Parkway at Washington St.
Saturday, May 7, free, 5:00 - 11:00
The Brooklyn Museum celebrates its new exhibition, “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art,” which pairs twenty-five contemporary works of art with historical masquerade pieces to create a dialogue, at its free First Saturday program on May 7. The evening will feature live performances by Ifetayo Youth Ensemble, Jojo Abot, DJ Tunez, Laara Garcia (activating Saya Woolfalk’s “ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space”), and Djassi DaCosta Johnson (performing Brendan Fernandes’s In Touch); screenings of Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning and short films from Wangechi Mutu’s AFRICA’SOUT!; a multimedia book club reading and discussion with Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, and Ibi Zoboi, along with performing arts collective BKLYN ZULU; pop-up gallery talks; a hands-on workshop in which participants can make their own masks and costumes; a talk by Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands associate curator Kevin Dumouchelle on African masquerade around the world; interactive storytelling exploring African myth with Gage Cook; and, for the grand finale, a Vogue Ball hosted by Jacolby Satterwhite. In addition, you can check out such other exhibitions as “This Place,” “Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective, 1999–2016,” “Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (to a Seagull),” and “Agitprop!”