208 West 41st St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 20, $65-$139
As the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace opens, a man (Tony winner Chuck Cooper) stands at the side of the stage and announces, “There are moments when the waves of history converge. When the transformation of one man can change the world,” declaring, “It is a story that must be told.” There may indeed be a fascinating tale behind John Newton, the writer of the title song, a beloved Protestant hymn, but this is not necessarily it. Tony nominee Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita) stars as Newton, the ne’er-do-well son of the regal Captain Newton (Tony nominee Tom Hewitt), an important businessman and slave trader in the port town of Chatham, England. John has just returned from a stint on the high seas, where he meets up on the docks with Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), his “dearest friend in the world,” and is chastised by his father, who takes away his son’s mariner’s license and demands he return to England, the family business of slaving, and his studies. Against his father’s orders, John runs a slave auction that turns disastrous when abolitionists intercede, leading to bloodshed and an escape. It doesn’t take long for John to find himself at odds with everyone else as Mary starts meeting secretly with the abolitionists, the dandy Major Gray (Chris Hoch) begins wooing Mary, and his father demands that he find the missing slave. John then sets off on a dangerous journey that only gets worse because of his haughty attitude and love of the drink, heading toward rock bottom at full speed.
The Playbill points out that Amazing Grace is Christopher Smith’s “first work of professional writing,” and it shows as the musical continues, bogged down by clichés and obvious plot twists. Smith, who wrote the music and lyrics and cowrote the book with Arthur Giron (Moving Bodies, A Dream of Wealth), strives to take us deep into the heart and soul of John Newton, exploring the travails that resulted in his composing one of the most famous songs ever written, but it turns out that Newton’s story is not nearly as compelling as the song itself. The cast is terrific — Hewitt (The Rocky Horror Show, Another Medea) and Cooper (The Life, Memphis), as the Newtons’ slave and John’s closest friend, are particularly impressive, and Mackey (Chaplin, Wicked) is in fine voice. But director Gabriel Barre (Summer of ’42, The Wild Party) never finds a consistent rhythm as the production attempts to navigate racism and white privilege but cannot escape mundane sentimentality and political correctness, especially in a banal finale. Part of the problem is that slavery is a one-sided conflict, and it is difficult to have sympathy for Newton even as he is being redeemed. The producers tried hard to avoid major religious overtones, given the title song’s association with the concept of redemption, and they achieve that in the first act, but the second act turns out to be far more preachy, complete with religious implications. Still, Amazing Grace, which has been in the works for eighteen years, has its moments, concluding with a sing-along of the complete eighteenth-century hymn that continues to have such an emotional impact, sung recently by President Obama at the funeral for shooting victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina.
CARMEN & GEOFFREY (Linda Atkinson & Nick Doob, 2006)
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center
144 West 65th St. between Amsterdam & Columbus Aves.
Saturday, August 1, free, 1:00
Carmen & Geoffrey is an endearing look at Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder’s lifelong love affair with dance — and each other. The New Orleans-born de Lavallade studied with Lester Horton and went to high school with Alvin Ailey, whom she brought to his first dance class. Best known as a pitchman for 7UP (the “uncola”) and playing the intriguing Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die, Trinidadian Holder was a larger-than-life gentle giant who was a dancer, choreographer, composer, costume designer, actor, stage director, writer, photographer, painter, and just about anything else he wanted to be. The two met when they both were cast in Truman Capote and Harold Arlen’s Broadway show House of Flowers in 1954, with Holder instantly falling in love with de Lavallade; they remained together until Holder’s death this past October at the age of eighty-four. Directors Linda Atkinson and Nick Doob combine amazing archival footage — of Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker, Ulysses Dove, de Lavallade dancing with Ailey, and other splendid moments — with contemporary rehearsal scenes, dance performances, and interviews with such stalwarts as dance critic Jennifer Dunning, former Alvin Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison, and choreographer Joe Layton (watch out for his eyebrows), along with family members and Gus Solomons jr, who still works with de Lavallade, and Dudley Williams, who just died last month. The film was made on an extremely low budget, and it shows, but it is filled with such glorious footage that you’ll get over that quickly. Carmen & Geoffrey, along with additional rare archival footage, is screening August 1 as part of the free Lincoln Center Out of Doors program “A Celebration of the Life of Geoffrey Holder” and will be preceded by the panel discussion “The Life and Work of Geoffrey Holder” with Doob and Atkinson, moderated by Leo Holder, Geoffrey and de Lavallade’s son. Fans should also check out the new exhibition “The Genius of Geoffrey Holder,” on view through August 29 at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Potomac Theatre Project
Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Through August 9, $35
If Jan Maxwell is indeed retiring from the stage, as she recently told Timeout, she has chosen quite an exit. The five-time Tony nominee is revisiting her widely acclaimed role as Venetian painter Galactia in the Potomac Theatre Project’s revival of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, which the company first performed at the same venue, Atlantic Stage 2, in 2008, earning Maxwell a Drama Desk nomination. Maxwell gives a swirling, emotional whirlwind of a performance as Galactia, a stubborn, nasty, extremely candid, deeply sensual, and, in her own way, highly virtuous painter (inspired by Artemisia Gentileschi) who has been commissioned by the doge of Venice, Urgentino (Alex Draper), and Cardinal Ostensible (Steven Dykes) to paint a major mural glorifying the city’s victory in the Battle of Lepanto. She uses people to achieve her lofty artistic goals, whether it’s a war veteran with a crossbow bolt stuck in his head (Dykes again) or her lover, married religious painter Carpeta (David Barlow). She does not want to be treated differently because of her gender; “Try not to think of me as a woman,” she says early on. “Think of me as a painter.” Although the doge sees this as a chance for Galactia to gain wealth and fame — “You have not been asked to paint the back wall of the vicarage,” he tells her. “I am saying that a canvas which is one hundred feet long is not a painting, it is a public event” — but she is determined to show the true cost of war, the violence, the brutality, the death. However, Carpeta argues that there is something that will always be lacking in her work. “I don’t think you have pity, so you can’t paint it,” he says to her. “Ah. Now you’re being spiteful,” she responds to her lover, who replies, “No. You are violent, so you can paint violence. You are furious, so you can paint fury. And contempt, you can paint that. Oh, yes, you can paint contempt. But you aren’t great enough for pity.” Galactia rejects that idea, saying, “Pity’s got nothing to do with greatness. It’s surrender, the surrender of passion, or the passion of surrender. It is capitulating to what is.” As she continues the mural, refusing to listen to the doge, who wants his brother, Admiral Suffici (Bill Army), to be portrayed more heroically, she is threatened with severe retribution, which she welcomes with open arms.
Originally written as a radio play for the BBC in 1984 starring Glenda Jackson as Galactia (Jackson and Fiona Shaw have also played the role onstage), Scenes from an Execution is a powerful story of identity and control told as a fight between an artist and the ruling elite over history and legacy. Maxwell immerses herself so much into the role that it feels like magic; when Galactia defends her right as a woman to do anything and say anything that a man can, and to create art without being judged because of her gender, it’s as if Maxwell is making one last stand for her own career, which will turn to film and television once the show closes on August 9. She huffs around Hallie Zieselman’s spare set, which features scaffolding in the back, ranting about her age, her body, and her looks, but Maxwell infuses Galactia with a youthful beauty and energy that is as intoxicating as it is mesmerizing, no matter how self-deprecating it becomes. Barker, whose Judith is running in repertory with Scenes, manages to avoid clichés and never devolves into self-congratulatory pedantic speechifying, even getting away with such character names as Urgentino, Suffici, Sordo, Lasagna, and Ostensible as well as Supporta and Dementia, Galactia’s daughters (played by Lana Meyer and Melissa MacDonald, respectively). Director Richard Romagnoli occasionally freeze-frames the action, as if the audience is suddenly looking at a painting; however, whenever Galactia or Carpeta are hard at work, sketching or painting, they are only mimicking, pretending to move their brushes over a nonexistent canvas or draw on a sheet of paper that remains blank. “Look, her sketchbook on the floor, hot with smudges and corrections,” Urgentino says to art critic Gina Rivera (Pamela J. Gray), pointing at an empty page. “Look! Touch it!” But there’s nothing to touch. Painting, like theater, is to be experienced with different senses, requiring something else from the viewer. “I believe in observation, but to observation you must lend imagination,” Galactia says. Imagination plays a central role in Scenes from an Execution, which also deserves nods for Mark Evancho’s lighting and Cormac Bluestone’s lighting. It’s quite a grand farewell for Maxwell; without trying to be clichéd or pedantic, it will be difficult to imagine New York theater without her.
The first half of Marga Gomez’s new autobiographical one-woman show is absolutely brilliant, an engaging, hysterical, and poignantly honest look at celesbians, celibacy, and the depiction of lesbians in mainstream films. Gomez, a GLAAD Award-winning actress who appeared in Barry Levinson’s 1998 underwater thriller, Sphere, alongside fellow lesbian Queen Latifah, compares her lack of sex with her search for a movie that portrays realistic lesbians who get physical with one another. “I will go to any movie if I think chicks will make out,” she says, “even documentaries on cabinet making. Because I have medical needs. I have a condition.” Dressed in the stereotypical dyke outfit of plaid shirt, shorts, and army boots, the gap-toothed Gomez commands the stage at Dixon Place, engaging the audience with direct address and constant eye contact as she discusses the damage that was done to her by watching The Children’s Hour as a small girl, mimicking Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright and Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie. “Not once in the one hundred and eight minutes of The Children’s Hour was the word ‘lesbian’ spoken. All I knew then was ‘I think I’m a . . . a . . . Martha Dobie,’” Gomez says. Embodying various characters, she also examines such other lesbian-related films as Basic Instinct (Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell), The Killing of Sister George (Susannah York as Childie), Showgirls (Gina Gershon as Cristal Connors), The Fox (Sandy Dennis as Jill Banford, Anne Heywood as Ellen March), Notes on a Scandal (Judi Dench as Barbara Covett, Cate Blanchett as Bathsheba Hart), and her favorite of them all, Bound (Gershon as Corky, Jennifer Tilly as Violet).
Along the way, she explains that when she grew up it was “not like today, when lesbian characters lead happy lives in prison,” tries to pick up a fellow Bound fan in an online chat room, gets excited when her gynecologist squeezes her nipples, and insists that her nephew Mikey refer to her as her cousin when they go dancing at a gay club. Pound, which is set up as a screenplay being dictated by a deep-voiced Hollywood-type man, takes a strange turn when Gomez gets sucked into a woman’s vagina and enters the data cloud of cinematic dysfunctional lesbian and bisexual archetypes, getting caught up in meeting and interacting with many of the aforementioned fictional characters. The show, which had been so on point, loses its focus, notwithstanding numerous intelligent insights and some riotous, and extremely dirty, lines that cannot be shared here. But Gomez eventually returns to reality and Dixon Place, declaring, “I’m so celibate my legs have been together longer than Aerosmith.” Gomez, whose previous one-woman shows include Long Island Iced Latina, A Line Around the Block, and Marga Gomez Is Pretty, Witty & Gay, is a wonderfully talented performer, compelling and fearlessly funny. With energy reminiscent of Jack Ferver, she has a natural rapport with the audience, an inviting self-deprecation that is as brutally honest as it is cathartic. Despite dealing with some very heady subject matter, Gomez is at ease with her place in the world, and that puts the crowd at ease as well as we follow her on her deeply personal journey. Directed by David Schweizer, Pound continues July 18-19 and 25-26 as part of Dixon Place’s twenty-fourth annual Hot! Festival: The NYC Celebration of Queer Culture, which continues through August 8 with such other works as Douglas Santiago Pomales’s Thank You Mr. Douglas, G. J. Dowding’s Out of the Ash, and Michael Cross Burke’s Michael Jackson Was Innocent and I Didn’t Kill JonBenet Ramsey . . . But I Was There the Night She Died.
The Flea Theater
41 White St. between Broadway & Church St.
Through July 18, $70-$150
Andrei Belgrader brings a twenty-first-century spin to Samuel Beckett’s absurdist Happy Days in this Boston Court production continuing at the Flea through July 18. Beckett’s two-act play, which premiered in 1961 at the Cherry Lane, features a husband and wife facing the passage of time and looking at the end of their lives; Beckett gives them the names Willie and Winnie, each of which comes with multiple meanings, including sexual references. Brooke Adams plays the central role of Winnie, a smiling, positive-thinking fifty-ish woman who is immobile, buried to the waist in a barren mound in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by a painted trompe l’oeil backdrop of blue skies and white clouds. Blonde and cheerful, she is awoken each day by a loud bell, greeting the day with hope despite her predicament. “Another heavenly day,” she declares. Boasting a heavy bosom in a sexy outfit, she goes through her pocketbook and performs her morning ablutions, brushing her teeth, taking medicine, putting on lipstick, and pulling out a revolver. She wakes up the sixty-ish Willie, played by her real-life spouse, Tony Shalhoub, who unfolds his aged copy of the Liberty Tribune and reads the obituaries and the want ads out loud. Throughout the rest of the play, Winnie does nearly all of the talking, with Willie interacting only occasionally. She remembers old loves, tries to read the writing on her toothbrush (which begins, “Fully guaranteed genuine pure…”), and makes repeated references to quotes she can’t actually recall. (“What is that unforgettable line?” she says over and over again in various ways.) By the second act, she has sunk deeper into the abyss, only her neck and head aboveground, unable to use her hands. She is still smiling, claiming “great mercies,” that “it will have been a happy day, after all, another happy day,” but she also seems to recognize that her situation is a bit more serious now, especially when Willie does not respond to her calls.
Adams (Days of Heaven, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is fabulous as Winnie, her bright eyes sparkling throughout the show despite what must be physical discomfort, trapped in Takeshi Kata’s rustic set. She makes direct eye contact with the audience, spreading her charm, skillfully playing to the crowd at the start of the second act, saying, “Someone is looking at me still. Caring for me still. That is what I find so wonderful. Eyes on my eyes.” The audience spends most of the show looking into Adams’s eyes, and they radiate back a thrilling warmth, guiding us through the bizarre shenanigans and word games. Shalhoub (Act One, Monk), who displayed a wonderful propensity for physical comedy in The Mystery of Love and Sex, ups the ante here, really cutting loose, dressed in a vaudevillian-like tux and makeup that makes him nearly unrecognizable. (The splendid costumes are by Melanie Watnick.) Written in the same period in which Beckett also gave us Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, Act without Words, and Fragments, Happy Days is filled with playful sexual innuendo, double entendres, and allusions to life and death, God and religion as Willie and Winnie discuss eggs, formication (no, that is not a typo), prayer, masturbation, and castrated male swine in classic Beckett style. Although Beckett might have had the end of the world in mind when writing Happy Days — “Do you think the earth has lost its atmosphere?” Winnie asks, in addition to hoping “that perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out” — he could not have known that fifty-plus years later the audience would be thinking so much about global warming and climate change as Willie and Winnie approach their potential fate, but Belgrader (Endgame, The Master Builder) wisely doesn’t force the issue. The bell that rouses Willie and Winnie in the morning and prevents them from falling asleep during the day — it also wakes up any dozing audience members — is kind of a wakeup call for all of us. But in no way would I be so bold as to claim that Happy Days is about anything specific, be it climate change, or matrimony, or aging, or love, or death, or time, or freedom, or guns, or personal hygiene, or theater itself. At intermission, three older patrons left the Flea, two stating that they would not come back for the second act. (One of them finally realized, noticing a poster on the way out, that the play was written by Beckett.) “But I want to find out what happens,” the third one said. They didn’t come back. And of course, nothing happened, except everything.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 23, $87
Two-time Tony-winning diva Patti LuPone pulls off a little magical sleight of hand in Douglas Carter Beane’s otherwise slight memory play, Shows for Days. On the night I saw it, the stage diva, playing a stage diva, exited a scene in the second act by reaching out to an audience member; although it looked like a celebratory handshake or a low high-five, it turned out that LuPone had swiped away the woman’s cell phone, without most of the crowd, including me, noticing it. Only the next day did the story come out and deservedly go viral, following in the footsteps of the Long Island oaf who tried to charge his phone in a fake socket on the set of Hand to God. LuPone’s performance is the best thing about Beane’s play, based on his experiences as a fourteen-year-old boy from Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, who hooked up with Jane Simmon Miller’s Genesius Theatre in Reading, a local company that is still at it. Michael Urie (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Buyer & Cellar) stars as Car, a shy teenager seeking more out of his dull suburban life. He wanders into the Prometheus Theatre one day and is almost immediately put to work by gruff bull dyke Sid (Dale Soules), the theater’s cofounder and production manager; by the time he meets the rest of the crew — needy actress Maria (Zoë Winters), oversized African American queen Clive (Lance Coadie Williams), sexy blonde hottie Damien (Jordan Dean), and Irene (LuPone), an Actress worthy of a capital A — he has found the second home he has been looking for. Unfortunately, not everything he discovers makes for compelling, entertaining theater for the rest of us.
Lincoln Center has assembled quite a remarkable creative team for Shows for Days. In addition to Beane (The Nance, The Little Dog Laughed), there’s director Jerry Zaks (Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves), set designer John Lee Beatty Sets (Other Desert Cities, The Most Happy Fella), costume designer William Ivey Long (On the Twentieth Century, Chicago), lighting designer Natasha Katz (The Coast of Utopia, The Glass Menagerie), and sound designer Leon Rothenberg (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Nance); among them, they have earned a mound of Tony nominations and awards. The narrative, clunky at times, has Car going back and forth between 1973 Reading and 2015 Lincoln Center; the modern-day moments feel more like vanity scenes that aren’t really necessary. When the play focuses on the nitty-gritty aspects of community theater, a motley crew attempting to put on the best possible production with extremely limited resources, Shows for Days has a sweet charm, even though the characters are stereotypes. It’s fun watching them decide how they are going to approach an evening of Tennessee Williams one-acts. But when the plot explores romantic hanky-panky, it loses its focus and becomes far less interesting. The more real the play feels, the better it is, even as the props are revealed to be fake. When the 2015 Car first enters the Prometheus, he says, “Curtained off by the entrance is the tiniest of offices. Desk. A chair. All found in the street. With a telephone — that somehow still works.” He picks up the old rotary phone, showing the audience that it is not connected to anything, yet it soon rings, and Sid speaks into it. It’s a gag that is sure to get a different kind of laugh now, after the events of July 9, when a cell phone made Shows for Days the talk of the town. It’s too bad it couldn’t reach that level of fame for other reasons.
Having spent some time the past several summers in a house on Cape Cod rented by my in-laws, I was looking forward to Melissa Ross’s new play, Of Good Stock, which takes place on the popular peninsula. Entering the theater at City Center, I could practically smell the fresh saltwater air as soon as I saw Santo Loquasto’s open stage of beach grass and dune. And once the play started and the revolving set rotated to that all-too-familiar, overly comfy style of Cape Cod house, and then two of the characters went out to pick up something from Marion’s Pie Shop in Chatham, well, it was like I’d been transported to Massachusetts, where I will not be going this summer. Fortunately, however — or, perhaps, unfortunately — I had little cathartic identification with the fictional Stockton clan, a dysfunctional family of three sisters and their significant others, that who did not remind me of any real people I know but instead felt like escapees from worlds created by Wendy Wasserstein (The Sisters Rosensweig), Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), and, of course, Anton Chekhov (Three Sisters), among others. Oldest sister Jess (Jennifer Mudge), middle sister Amy (Alicia Silverstone), and youngest sister Celia (Heather Lind) arrive at the Cape Cod house where they spent their childhood summers, seeking to take stock of their lives. The daughters of the late famous writer and master philanderer Micah Stockton, they each have relationship and daddy issues. Jess, the stalwart leader of the group who is battling cancer, married the much older, very dependable Fred (Kelly AuCoin), who used to work for Micah. Amy, a flighty drama queen given to histrionics and whining, is engaged to the already henpecked Josh (Greg Keller) and is obsessed with planning their destination wedding in Tahiti. And neurotic free spirit Celia has brought a new beau, Hunter (Nate Miller), a hirsute thirtysomething hipster from Montana who has still not finished college. While the men basically sit back and watch, the three women rehash old stories, purposefully push one another’s buttons, and argue over just about everything. But their problems are nothing to the easygoing, up-front Hunter, who says, “I’ve got twelve siblings. No offense to you guys but y’all are amateurs.”
Mudge (Into the Woods, Reckless) and AuCoin (The Wayside Motor Inn, House of Cards) are an excellent team as Jess and Fred, the heart and soul of the play, keeping it from teetering over the edge, bringing empathy and depth to every situation. AuCoin is particularly effective in a terrific scene with Keller (Wit, The Who and the What) as Fred and Josh discuss “manly men things.” Lind (Turn: Washington’s Spies, The Merchant of Venice) and Miller (Love and Information, Peter and the Starcatcher) are fun to watch, she a whirling dervish of energy, he an easygoing, content dude who prefers the truth to secrets. Silverstone (Clueless, The Graduate) isn’t given a whole lot to do with Amy except annoy, complain, and rush off in tears, which grows tiresome rather quickly. Directed by Lynne Meadow, Of Good Stock can get a bit too manic depressive, and its characters and plot twists offer little new on family dysfunction. Ross, whose Nice Girl was recently warmly received at LCT3, favors overlapping dialogue that sometimes gets confusing, and the narrative too often heads toward sitcom territory. The play, which premiered earlier this year in a different production at South Coast Repertory in California, was a late substitute after Manhattan Theater Club announced that Richard Greenberg’s previously scheduled The Swing of the Sea was being postponed “in order to give these artists more time to work on the production of the play.” Of Good Stock could probably have benefited from more tweaking as well. But it’s still a nice place to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.