Monday, December 8, 2008

The Black Monk

GRADE: C+

Book, music and lyrics by Wendy Kesselman, adapted from Chekhov. Dir. Kevin Newbury. South Ark Stage at the Beckett Theatre. (CLOSED)

Apart from Variety's Marilyn Stasio, critics didn't give their blessing to Wendy Kesselman's musicalization of Chekhov's short story, about a young man haunted by the muse of the title. A few critics praised isolated elements of the production—Charlie Corcoran's set, Julie Craig's singing voice—but most had reactions ranging from disappointed to bewildered, and several focused on lead actor Austin Pendleton's inability to sing.


Variety B+
(Marilyn Stasio) Wendy Kesselman's dark and dainty musical about a young painter who goes gracefully mad in his little house by the sea...is just the ticket for small art venues with refined tastes...It helps to have Kevin Newbury at the helm of a tiny, tight ensemble toplined by Austin Pendleton, whose devilish grin as the mysterious monk is enough to give anyone night sweats.

Backstage B+
(Ronni Reich) [Kesselman's] knack for finding the emotional marrow of each situation makes for a powerfully concise book...A few melodies stand out, like the whimsical "Apples and Pears" and Andrei's feverish final song, but there are no showstoppers, and not every number serves the drama...The musical's structure is also jarring, with songs relentlessly piled on top of one another at the beginning but much more breathing room toward the end. The cast's acting is much stronger than its singing, and these later scenes are positively gripping. Indeed, The Black Monk as a whole works much better as a drama than as a musical.

New Yorker B-
Kesselman sets aside Chekhov’s philosophical concerns—does greatness necessitate madness? Is inspiration worth the price of sanity?—in favor of lovers’ ballads and period-friendly histrionics. Thankfully, the monk is played by the veteran character actor Austin Pendleton, who, smiling impishly, manages to add some life to the stilted proceedings.

CurtainUp C
(Elyse Sommer) I couldn't help hoping that this might be another off-Broadway sleeper like last year's unusual musical adaptation of Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine...which also fit the chamber opera genre. Unfortunately this is not the case...Somehow the actualized monk of the story-propelling fable comes off more like a pixy-like fantasy figure from an old B-Movie comedy than a powerfully mysterious force...This odd little show is not without assets. The music is enjoyably melodic.

Village Voice C-
(Alexis Soloski) Kesselman has simplified and sentimentalized the tale: Her version concerns Andrei (Elon Rutberg), a student who returns to his childhood home and embarks on a frenzied career of painting and hallucinations...Pendleton plays that hallucination, a barefoot friar attired in black robe and cowl. At first, he appears sinister, but eventually he takes on the air of a dotty uncle—reading other people's mail, stealing sips of champagne, lolling on a rope swing, talking his way through his songs. When he does sing, you wish he wouldn't...One rather longs for this Black Monk, like so many of his brethren, to take a vow of silence.

Theatermania C-
(David Finkle) Extremely disappointing...Very little about the show, including the direction of Kevin Newbury or the performances of a cast led by Austin Pendleton, is particularly effective, although Charlie Corcoran's set is nicely conceived.

Talk Entertainment C-
(Oscar E. Moore) The taupe and grey colored set by Charlie Corcoran is wonderful and evocative of the many different scenes in this intermissionless, interminable chamber piece. It’s a pity that the score is not as intriguing or as interesting as the set. Or the story for that matter...Mr. Pendleton striving to sing, striving to find his pitch, striving to find his way around the set is neither menacing nor compelling. Weak of voice he sometimes looks confused or maybe he is simply embarrassed to be a part of such a weak show.

NY Times D
(Jason Zinoman) Deadly earnest chamber musical...reveals that even Mr. Pendleton has his limits...Kevin Newbury’s toothless production, at the Beckett Theater, never escapes nor even fulfills its own clich├ęs. Mr. Rutberg is far too much of a milquetoast for the part of the tortured painter, tiptoeing on the line between madness and genius when a few good stomps would do...[The] garden is a major motif (Tanya’s father is a horticulturist), but instead of a set covered in flowers, a trap door opens on the pale wooden floor to reveal a pitifully small, square plot of green. Paradise it’s not.

Variety B+ 11; Backstage B+ 11; New Yorker B- 9; CurtainUp C 8; Village Voice C- 7; Theatermania C- 7; Talk Entertainment C- 7; NY Times D 5; 65/8=8.13 (C+)

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