Friday, February 27, 2009

Our Town


By Thornton Wilder. Directed by David Cromer. Barrow Street Theatre.

Chicago director David Cromer (who made a splash in NY last with The Adding Machine) returns with a fresh, stripped-down take on another 20th-century American classic, Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Most critics either adore or admire its unsentimental style, its matter-of-fact modern-dress, and its intimate in-the-round staging, though a vocal minority of medium-to-strong dissenters would clearly prefer a sweeter tone. Many critics can't resist giving away Act III's stunning coup de theatre (and shame on them for doing so). Other highlights in this gathering of notices: John Simon's astonishingly prescriptive review ("The Stage Manager, whom Cromer plays, has to be a mature, mellow, pipe-smoking New Englander") and Charles Isherwood's perfectly pitched elucidation of how the play's theme converges with Cromer's conceit (or vice versa).

Wall Street Journal A+
(Terry Teachout) A re-creative landmark, at once arrestingly original and essentially faithful in its approach to the author's well-loved text...As usual with Mr. Cromer, most of what happens in this production is pretty much what the author had in mind, only more so...The result is a performance that doesn't feel like a performance at all. It's as though the actors were simply showing us the play, an illusion underlined by the fact that Mr. Cromer has cast himself as the Stage Manager...Mr. Cromer's seemingly artless anti-acting is central to the effect of this production, in which the wall that separates illusion from reality becomes as porous as the one that separates the actors from their audience. The other actors follow Mr. Cromer's lead effortlessly...Yet their characterizations are sharply detailed and often unexpected...None of them resorts to the too-easy charm that can turn Wilder's tough-minded realism into soft-hearted nostalgia...I don't use the word "genius" casually, but David Cromer may fill the bill.

New York Observer A+
(John Heilpern) Revolutionary...It’s a model of everything fine that can be achieved in a revival of a mythic play...How the new production appears to exist simultaneously in time past and present is some kind of theater miracle. This is no Our Town as a comforting slice of folksy Americana. (Wilder never intended it to be that.) The production’s rhythmic, unfolding picture of small-town American life is extraordinarily real and immediate, and its abiding spirit still speaks to us. The sentiment is honestly earned; the utterly natural acting of the splendid ensemble is admirably artless. This is a great production that takes us to the heartbeat of Thornton Wilder’s original tragic intention. And it takes us there quietly, without fuss. In its vast simplicity and force, Our Town is exhorting us all to live every minute, every second, every day of our lives as if we are blessed.

Talkin' Broadway A+
(Matthew Murray) You may not hear the earth crack over the echoes of your palpitating heart or see decades of artifice dissolve through your tears, but you'll still feel them washing you away. David Cromer's magnificent production of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre renders you that blissfully helpless: It exposes you to every conceivable emotion, but never in the way you expect. It's hilarious one moment and devastating the next. It's inimitably intimate, yet more expansive than the Atlantic Ocean. It contains practically nothing, but says everything. It is as close to perfect as theatre gets...I counted three astonishing coups de theatre in Act III alone; I might have missed a few others because I was crying so hard. A+
(Martin Denton) All that this review should say is: see David Cromer's production of Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre. I have loved this play for 30-some years, and I feel privileged to have seen, here, a production that seems to do it complete justice. Cromer's vision of Thornton Wilder's play—now more than 70 years old—is as straightforward, spare, and unsentimental as I could ever have hoped for. Nothing is imposed on the piece, although some surprising re-envisioning here and there has clarified and honed some of the themes in ways that feel miraculous for their pure simplicity. This Our Town issues jolt after jolt of human recognition, and has a cumulative power that, to my mind, is unmatched by anything currently on stage in NYC.

Talk Entertainment A+
(Oscar E Moore) Thornton Wilder must be chatting up a storm with his cemetery friends about this one. It is absolutely astounding...Every family should see this incredibly moving production where we are told that in order to love life we have to have life and to have life we have to love life and that we should not be blind to what is important. To really look at each other to really listen to one another and to love one another before it is no longer possible to do that. It’s a beautifully written, theatrical text that is brought to its full potential by this incredible ensemble cast.

The New York Times A
(Charles Isherwood) Modest but highly rewarding...A sturdy staple of the American theater — professional, amateur and educational — since its Broadway debut in 1938, “Our Town” has become so familiar that its homespun surfaces can sometimes obscure its mournful philosophical depths. In Mr. Cromer’s staging the artifice of theater that Wilder sought to strip away — by heightening it, paradoxically — is even further dissolved by the immersion of the actors in the audience, or the audience in the playing space, depending on how you look at it...The folksy warmth in which the play is often saturated is scrubbed off too...You may feel a little deflated at first. Where’s the heady perfume of nostalgia? The lyric feeling for small-town life? The affectionate tone that suggests that all these quaint old rituals — the milk delivery, the courtship at the corner drugstore — are freighted with a poignancy and significance born of extinction? Nowhere to be seen, and good riddance. “Our Town” is not a play about the evaporated glory of simpler yesteryears. On the contrary, it whispers to us the urgent necessity of living in the here and now...The production keeps us continually in the present moment, not obscured by the dark anonymity of spectatorship but visible to one another and to the actors. It expresses with a fine clarity the idea that theater is not, ideally, an escape from life but a means of entering into it more fully.

New York Post A
(Frank Scheck) The bucolic New England hamlet of Grover's Corners has never looked quite as forbidding as it does in the revival of "Our Town" that opened last night. This production, imported from Chicago and directed by David Cromer ("The Adding Machine"), restores a bracing dose of acidity to a play that's too often been treated as sentimental treacle. Thornton Wilder's play was actually avant-garde for its time, and its view of life and death is tinged with as much bitter reality as sweetness. Cromer's revelatory staging restores these qualities, and its physical and emotional intimacy allows the audience to share the experiences of the characters with an almost uncomfortable closeness.

NY Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Because the story is set in the early 1900s, it's easy to conjure period-postcard quaintness. But the riveting new production at the Barrow Street Theatre trades nostalgia and Whitman Sampler sweetness for an unsentimental reading. Without overhauling the text, it effectively wipes dainty images from your mind. It's a tougher "Town," and more relevant and urgent for it...Though the plot is familiar, this production makes you curious about what might happen next...Indeed, there are a couple of surprises, including an amusing grace note that lets the audience in on the act. The other is a doozy that stirs the imagination and the senses and sends you out on to the streets of Grover's Corners, oops, sorry, the West Village, deeply touched.

New Yorker A
David Cromer’s startlingly raw production of the Thornton Wilder classic, staged in the close quarters of the Barrow Street Theatre, has all the immediacy, vitality, and wit of “Adding Machine,” his musical triumph of last year...Cromer plays the Stage Manager, narrating with matter-of-fact intensity, and the actors wear contemporary clothes and forgo quaint accents. Stripped of distancing theatrical conventions and sentimentality, Wilder’s script and its simple, primal themes of daily life, marriage, and death stand out in all their beauty and anguish.

Time Out NY A
(David Cote) Chicago director David Cromer and two dozen visiting and local actors revivify this American classic—not just by wearing modern street clothes and refusing to ape a New Hampshire accent—but by meeting this frighteningly profound play head-on, without sentimentality or the false balm of nostalgia...Wilder’s script glows with folksy pathos, but these performers don’t fish for laughs or cheap tears. In true Chicago-stage fashion, it’s a muscular, unfussy reckoning with a great work, totally contemporary, yet true to the original.

AM New York A
(Matt Windman) Most choose to perform the play because of its low-cost style, but without understanding why Wilder demanded no frills. As a result, audiences tend to think that “Our Town” is dated and boring. Luckily, a damn good production in town has arrived to remind us of the play’s original brilliance...Though his modern dress production is not revisionist, he manages to remove the fake, folksy sentimentality that is now associated with the play. Using a direct and simple approach, he finds deadpan humor and highlights its darkness and sorrow.

American Theatre Web A
(Andy Propst) Regardless of how audiences might have experienced this chestnut about life, family, love and death at the turn of the last century in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, nothing could prepare them for director David Cromer's re-imagining of the work, which remains entirely true to the spirit of the script and delivers a stunning emotional blow.

Gothamist A
(John Del Signore) Cromer is delightfully dry and businesslike as the Stage Manager, describing the people and places of Grover's Corners without a drop of nostalgia. And his ensemble delivers nuanced and compelling performances; watching them, we feel we're observing ourselves muddle through life here in desperate 2009, not our distant ancestors—though unlike us, they're tuned into the change of seasons, not changes in Facebook status. From the first beat, the production is consistently humorous, then gradually mesmerizing, so that by the third act, when Cromer breaks from Wilder's minimalist instructions with a virtuoso burst of hyper-realism, the impact is revelatory. It's then that Wilder's premise, that life passes us by while we "move about in a cloud of ignorance," hits the chest with full force...Do not miss this.

Lighting and Sound America A-
(David Barbour) Provocative and highly original...Cromer strips away the layers of folksiness and sentimentality that have accrued to Wilder's script over the decades, leaving intact its melancholy heart...Thanks to this approach, each scene sounds as if it could have been written yesterday....It's also true that, in his bid to avoid easy tears, Cromer overplays his hand: Jennifer Grace's otherwise well-drawn Emily turns a little strident as she recalls the beauty of the life she has lost...Even with its few missteps, this is an Our Town to remember. If you think you know the play, think again.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) What makes this Our Town compelling enough for another look, even if you've seen innumerable productions as well as the movie version, is that it's as close as you can get to actually feeling that you're not in a theater but right in Grover's Corners. It has a simplicity and immediacy that plays down the often too saccarine [sic], over-idealized image of small towns and instead hones in on the inescapable beginnings and endings that make up life no matter where and when we live...Dressed in jeans and tee shirt so he could easily be mistaken as an audience member, Cromer handles his acting assignment with naturalness and considerable wry humor...The extreme intimacy and actor-audience integration does make the stylized activities too distracting, especially the cooking chores performed with make-believe pots and pans...However, this is a minor quibble that does not diminish the overall virtues of this refreshing and deeply satisfying production.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" has been astonishingly reinvented by director David Cromer in an intimate yet unsentimental production that resonates with a clarity that breathes new life into one of the 20th century's great American plays...Over the years, the bleakness of "Our Town" has been obscured by reverential treatment, not to mention the homespun, genial quality of many of its stories — its fond recollection of the good ol' days that probably weren't all that fine. Cromer, who also portrays the Stage Manager in this revival, will have none of this saccharine nostalgia, although the evening has its moments of well-earned sweetness and a modest laugh or two...Cromer's Stage Manager has the efficiency and personality of a factory foreman. He doesn't do avuncular...The unshowy performances by the large ensemble cast don't undermine the play. But there is noticeably fine work by Jeff Still and Ken Marks as the patriarchs of the Gibbs and Webb clans.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Wilder's Our Town already is a gem, a work so ingrained in American culture that an experienced theatergoer can be shocked to discover lines in it that he doesn't know. David Cromer's cunningly un-cunning production administers many such salutary shocks, making the play's dark cosmic vision shine simply by draining away all its sentiments, including its fondness for bygone small-town New England folkways...Cromer's canniness won't be to everyone's taste, but it'll stick in your brain, and bring Wilder with it.

Theatermania B+
(David Finkle) Cromer has accomplished so much on a floor-level playing area with Wilder's poetically quotidian story about life in Grover's Corners that his eventually consigning a sequence in the devastating third act to something more closely resembling a realistic scene in a proscenium setting ends up seeming like a surprisingly misguided notion. On the plus side, he has asked lighting designer Heather Gilbert not to turn the house lights down but only to dim them somewhat from act to act, and seen to it that costume designer Alison Siple dresses the cast in contemporary street clothes so that his message about the audience being the cast and the cast being the audience is indisputably driven home. Significantly, Cromer has also tapped himself to be Wilde's [sic] famous Stage Manager -- which may be why he delivers the lines with the inflections of a director on the first day of rehearsal explaining to his cast what he's after.

Total Theater B
(Simon Saltzman) Every director of Our Town has a responsibility to keep the life in Grover’s Corners earnestly simple and touching. If director Cromer might be faulted for taking a somewhat plodding rather than purposeful path to reverence, the key roles have in their favor a stylistic conformity. Emily’s romance with the half-petrified, half–ardent George is unquestionably the heart of the play. Jennifer Grace, as Emily, has an appealing naturalness that works beautifully as a catalyst for George’s romantic interest...Time goes by so quickly that we need a Stage Manager. There is no attempt, however, by Cromer to affect the resonance of an all-knowing New Englander who talks to both the townsfolk and the audience. He rather simply sets the stage and guides us with a wisely informed nonchalance through the joys and sorrows that tie a town.

Financial Times C+
(Brendan Lemon) For me the shock of the new Our Town, off-Broadway, is not that David Cromer's staging reinvents Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic, as reviewers last year in Chicago argued, but that it recalls, almost exactly, a concept I saw in a high-school production 30 years ago...It is not surprising that some clever high-school director would have beaten Cromer to the punch. What is genuinely alarming is that sophisticated big-city critics could think Cromer's concept especially novel or daring...If I found Cromer's cast a little too deliberately amateurish, I credit him for allowing the work's motifs to bloom. Those themes - the tragic velocity of life, the simultaneously mundane and magical nature of daily rituals, the elusiveness of experience - have lost little of their poignancy over the past 70 years.

Backstage C
(Adam R. Perlman) In Cromer's hands, the cozy hamlet has become a frosty little town. This, by the way, is not the effect I feel Cromer, who also plays the Stage Manager, intended. The staging brings the actors up close, with Michele Spadaro's scenic design reconfiguring the already intimate Barrow Street Theatre into a three-quarter thrust, with plenty of room for the cast to roam about the audience...Like John Doyle, another lauded director from outside the New York bubble, Cromer...employs minimalism in the hunt for truth. But it's one thing to strip down a multimillion-dollar musical and quite another to denude an already minimalist work...There is, of course, something gratifying about being close to the action...Parked up close, watching the cast pass on Wilder's dialogue with a quick, contemporary delivery, I didn't feel like I was watching American life, but a foreign concept of it. The play may still be called Our Town, but it feels far from it.

Variety D+
(Marilyn Stasio) Helmer David Cromer takes a hatchet to 70 years of saccharine productions of "Our Town" by deconstructing Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 masterpiece half to death. Grover's Corners, N.H., circa 1901, is no longer a microcosm of America before it was transformed by war and industrial development, but a dreary place inhabited by folk whose simple-minded ways are frowned upon by actors in modern dress...Wilder was no sentimentalist, either, and the stark, expressionistic production he outlined in his stage directions was extraordinarily radical for its time. It was never his intention to romanticize the harsh realities of a rural life, but to fix the simple rituals of day-to-day life in America within the context of the ancient past and the eternal tomorrow...So, in a sense, rising-star Chicago helmer beating a dead horse. The play doesn't need a corrective, just a fair reading...The actors insert themselves among the audience, playing in such close quarters that the sense of detachment is lost...The avoidance of sentimentality is admirable, but the almost complete lack of emotion in this performance style is so extreme it amounts to anti-sentiment.

Bloomberg News F+
(John Simon) A mindless demolition job. Where to begin? Cromer, who last year did a decent job directing the musical “Adding Machine,” benefited there from a sensible proscenium stage and far better collaborators. Above all, he did not also claim the leading role for himself...The Stage Manager, whom Cromer plays, has to be a mature, mellow, pipe-smoking New Englander, with the proper accent and manner that come with the territory. He must not be a youngish, Chicago smartass, whose humor is not good-naturedly empathetic but snidely patronizing. Similarly, no one in this production sounds right or even has the right look -- can you imagine the ladies of Grover’s Corners, over a century ago, running about in pants, as they do here (costumes by Alison Siple)? Almost everyone is flagrantly miscast -- too young, too old -- and in many cases just plain bad. True, it is a large cast, and better actors want more money, but should our present recession extend all the way back to 1901 New Hampshire?...Has there ever been a Stage Manager who, like Cromer, viciously banged on a table? Or who ended the play wielding a BlackBerry?

Theater News Online F
(Sandy MacDonald) Is a little charm too much to ask? As both the director of and the actor playing the stage manager in Thorton Wilder's 1938 classic Our Town, David Cromer is emotionally retentive to the point of begrudging...Wilder took the bold (for then) step of busting through the fourth wall. Cromer's company has taken the not-so-bold step of setting the action in and among the audience, under the punishing glare of lights bright enough to interrogate by. The intended subtext- "They are us!"- seems both over-obvious and overworked...All that the rejiggering really accomplishes is a lot of frustrating sightlines and virtually no chance that we'll ever let our imaginations slip into the quaint early 20th century setting which the text depicts in such loving detail...My internal Etch-a-Sketch strove in vain to erase these contemporary intrusions, along with the actors' grating modern postures and diction. The worst offender by far is Jennifer Grace, who plays Emily-that sweet, shielded country flower-like a riot grrl with a major grudge...Thorton Wilder wrote a fine, spare, enduringly modern play, which neither needs nor deserves arty, redundant gussying-down.

Wall Street Journal A+ 14; Talkin' Broadway A+ 14; A+ 14; Talk Entertainment A+ 14; NYO A+ 14; The New York Times A 13; New York Post A 13; NY Daily News A 13; New Yorker A 13; TONY A 13; AM New York A 13; American Theatre Web A 13; Gothamist A 13; LS&A A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; Associated Press B+ 11; Village Voice B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; Total Theater B 10; Financial Times C+ 8; Backstage C 7; Variety D+ 5; Bloomberg News F+ 2; Theater News Online F 1; TOTAL: 264/24=11 (B+) (GRADE)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you're genuinely scandalized by the fact that "critics can't resist giving away Act III's stunning coup de theatre (and shame on them for doing so)," then why quote from the section of David Finkle's review that does exactly that?