Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Gingerbread House


By Mark Schultz. Directed by Evan Cabnet. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. (CLOSED)

Mark Schultz's play about a couple who decide to sell their children receives some raves, but some critics find it muddled--stranded between being an over-the-top comedy and dark morality tale, and not fully succeeding at either. Critics praise all the actors (even Jackie Hoffman and Ben Rappaport in what most critics feel are unnecessary roles). Critics are further confused about who to commend or blame for the production, as Evan Cabnet took over direction from Alex Kilgore shortly before opening.

Backstage A+
(David A. Rosenberg) As old as Hansel and Gretel and as new as the latest chapter in greed, Mark Schultz's The Gingerbread House is a strong work, a comedy of horror. Powerfully acted, with a cast that could easily shift to Broadway, the StageFarm presentation is an evening that leaps from jolt to jolt, climaxing in a scene so devastating it even shut up the guffawing audience males who thought everything was just too funny for words... Direction is credited to Evan Cabnet, although Alex Kilgore was listed until an announcement two days before opening. Whoever is responsible, the intriguing staging never loses sight of the characters' underlying unhappiness. These are not merely fairy-tale villains but distressed mortals striving to be imperturbable while their eyes become watchful, suspicious, haunted, furious.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Schultz's dialogue is whip-smart and never comes close to preaching, even as it reminds that once you're on a slippery slope the momentum only increases. Cannavale and Paulson, costars of TV's "Cupid," and Harner give startlingly good performances. Jackie Hoffman ("Xanadu"), playing one of Stacey's customers who's in the market for some happiness, and Ben Rappaport, as a travel-office colleague who's more shocked to learn that Stacey's a mom ("Your figure is awesome...") than he is that she sold her tots ("Did you get a good deal?"), impress in their smaller parts. Evan late-comer Cabnet, who replaced Alex Kilgore shortly before opening, directs the first-rate StageFarm presentation.

New York Press
(Mark Peikert) The final confrontation scene between Paulson, Cannavale and Harner may drag on a bit, but Paulson brings a ferocious energy to the embattled Stacey, a woman who has discovered too late that she does love her children. And Paulson never lets vanity interfere with her performance; just as you’re inwardly congratulating her for perfecting the no-crinkle crying face that consists entirely of huge tears rolling down her face, she lets strings of saliva drip from her mouth and onto her hands. Though she never asks you to like or even empathize with Stacey, Paulson makes damn sure that you pay attention to her.

(Adam Feldman) What human dimension exists in the play—directed by Evan Cabnet, a last-minute relief pitcher for Alex Kilgore— comes mostly from the very fine performances of stageFARM's cast, which also includes Ben Rappaport as a sycophantic striver and the invaluable Jackie Hoffman as an unhappy woman yearning for escape. To criticize this play for its lack of subtlety would be like faulting a crêpe for being flat: Better to just enjoy its folds, and scoop up the tart filling.

New York Post B
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Were it only about selfish yuppie parents living out a fairly common fantasy, "The Gingerbread House" would be predictable, albeit amusing. Schultz, however, takes us down a pretty twisty -- and twisted -- path. What he's really interested in is how people talk other people into doing things that are not necessarily in their best interest...The kids are seen in clever projections, which complement the handsome production without overwhelming it, as this device too often does. And while Evan Cabnet replaced Alex Kilgore as director mere days before the premiere, there's no sense of a traumatic birth -- especially since the deluxe cast lifts the material through its weaker patches.

Theatermania B-
(Adam R. Perlman) Schultz's script packs danger into the comedy, providing the updated gloss on Albee that even Albee himself has been unable to pull off in recent works. Under the insightful direction of Evan Cabnet (who replaced stageFARM's artistic director Alex Kilgore doing previews), the action darts with appropriate intensity. The structure, though, lets the tension dissipate, visiting Stacey's workplace in three unnecessary scenes that underline the evening's ideas and dilute their punch. True, excising those scenes would cut out Jackie Hoffman (largely wasted in an extended cameo as Stacey's client) and Ben Rappaport (terrific as a younger coworker with a crush). Still, there would be plenty of terrific acting to go around. Paulson's Stacey is a pretty piece of plastic -- hard to the touch, but far more pliant than she looks. Cannavale drips devilish charm, yet still manages to creep up on you. But it's Harner, who delivers the evening's tour-de-force once again showing he can steal scenes from starrier cohorts. His avaricious American dad is both the clueless hamster and the hungry snake who devoured him.

The Village Voice C+
(Alexis Soloski) Schultz supplies some progression for Paulson's character, but Brian and Marco (the friend who brokers the deal, played by Bobby Cannavale) remain more or less static. Paulson is charming, if hesitant to give over to her character's emotions. Harner and Cannavale seem typecast—the former as a weedy child-man, the latter as an unctuous tough. The scenes featuring Jackie Hoffman as Fran—a client of Stacey's travel agency—are, however, an unmitigated delight. Fran seems to share Schultz's jaundiced view of life's promise: Having returned from a disastrous cruise, she complains that she's paid so much money and spent so much time—"For what? Salmonella. And bad attitude."

Variety D+
(Sam Thielman) No one in his right mind would debate the issues raised here (human trafficking = bad), so why turn the show into a finger-wagging tragedy? Without the crisis of conscience Schultz uses to move the play forward, the writer might have a play about selfishness on his hands, which would be more interesting than yet another play about cruelty. As it is now, Schultz tries to wring heady drama from a scenario that wouldn't look out of place on "Monty Python's Flying Circus," and the result is silly without being funny. While the playwright seems desperate to convince us he has something to say, the grotesqueries he invents for the kids (creepily realized as projections with voiceover) and the secret agenda he gives to Marco are simply unpleasant. This insecurity is underscored by the scenes in Stacey's office, which serve no function beyond providing us with a couple of obvious metaphors and two characters (also beautifully played by Jackie Hoffman and Ben Rappaport) who have zero dramaturgical purpose. The slide into trendy nastiness would be less upsetting if the play hadn't started off so well. Like its namesake, "The Gingerbread House" tempts you with something delicious, but all it has to offer is the same old evil.

The New York Times D-
(Charles Isherwood) Parents who blithely slap price tags on their children’s foreheads, convincing themselves that a transfer of assets would be best for everybody, can really be depicted only as monsters or jokes. Christopher Durang might just manage to manufacture a creditable fantasy of black whimsy from the idea. But Mr. Schultz tries unsteadily to find some rational middle ground. “The Gingerbread House” aims to be a dark, comic parable about our self-seeking, commodified age, but Mr. Schultz’s vision is too blurry to make the events of the play believable on any level. A new director, Evan Cabnet, took over the production just a few days before the opening. Although the show moves briskly on a sleek, all-white set, Mr. Cabnet’s staging never reconciles the essentially naturalistic writing and the appalling, absurd situations, probably because they are fundamentally incompatible. It is hard to imagine any director making theatrical sense of Mr. Schultz’s daring but repellent conceit.

The New Yorker F+
(unsigned) Treating his characters with a facile misanthropy, Schultz never delivers on their comic potential. The thinness of the satire trips up an overqualified cast, including the droll delight Jackie Hoffman, in a throwaway role.

Backstage A+ 14; The Daily News A 13; New York Press A- 12; TONY A- 12; New York Post B 10; Theatermania B- 9; The Village Voice C+ 8; Variety D+ 5; The New York Times D- 3; The New Yorker F+ 2; TOTAL: 88/10 = 8.8 (B-)

No comments: