Friday, April 17, 2009

Joe Turner's Come and Gone

GRADE: A-

By August Wilson. Directed by Barlett Sher. The Belasco Theatre. (CLOSED)

This long-overdue Broadway revival of what is pretty universally recognized as August Wilson's masterpiece gets mostly hosannas from critics, who tend to start by praising the play and end by either exalting the director, Bartlett Sher, and his designers and cast, or quibbling slightly with Sher's non-realistic directorial touches. (That he's the first white director of a major Wilson revival gets a few mentions but no opprobium.) A few critics do more than quibble with Sher's choices, and one (John Simon, as if that's a surprise) dissents on the play's merits. Among the cast, critics single out Roger Robinson as the magical "binder" Bynum, but they differ on whether The Wire's Chad L. Coleman delivers in the crucial role of wandering churchman Loomis.


Variety A+
(David Rooney) August Wilson's gift for storytelling has rarely been more beguiling than in this lyrical 1986 drama, and in his searing revival, director Bartlett Sher makes every note strong and true...Yeargan creates kinetic art out of the assembly of a set, and then strips its elements away again to tighten our focus on the drama. That pattern works magnificently here...The play's ruminative pauses are every bit as gripping as its operatic crescendos...The musicality and complex humanity of these and other passages give the play an almost overwhelming cumulative emotional power, with even some of its most easygoing banter underscored by roiling melancholy...Once again proving himself a director of rare sensitivity, Sher has honored this extraordinary play with a production of piercing depth and shimmering beauty.

NY1 A+
(David Cote) This moody, moving production features a rock-solid cast of stage veterans and younger performers, and it captures perfectly the natural rhythms and mythic dimensions of Wilson's mid-career play, last seen on Broadway 21 years ago...Bartlett Sher's production remains fiercely true to the spirit of Wilson's humane and morally purging vision, in which the everyday shades into the expressionistic, and Loomis realizes that only an act of self-violence will free him from his past. "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" proves that Wilson's rich, cathartic dramas are with us for a good long time, no matter who's behind the scenes.

CurtainUp A+
(Simon Saltzman) Stirring and riveting...If one play can be singled out from the other nine brilliant and ambitious plays to be his masterpiece, this may be it. Certainly this wonderful Lincoln Center Theatre production will help place it among the must see plays of this season. A splendid ensemble, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, graces this stunning Broadway revival...Sher once again proves a master at keeping the integrity of the original. But it is the way he has anchored Wilson's earthy text to a spatially fluid reality that is simply stunning.

Wall Street Journal A+
(Terry Teachout) This revival, whose magnificent cast has been directed by Bartlett Sher with uncommon sensitivity, might just manage to break the late playwright's long string of bad luck. Or not: Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a long, occasionally knotty play that asks much of its viewers, and Broadway has become an increasingly inhospitable place for serious drama. Nowadays it generally takes a Hollywood star to keep a straight play open, and no one in "Joe Turner" has that kind of drawing power. So let me put it as simply as I can: This is a show you must see...It will remind you of how good live theater can be--and send you home unwilling to settle for anything less than the very best...Everyone on stage deserves to be remembered at Tony time.

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) As befits a play using song as a central metaphor, Wilson's writing brims with musicality, here beautifully orchestrated by director Bartlett Sher and his fine cast...The show's breakout performance belongs to Roger Robinson as Bynum, whose dancing eyes, impish grin, and effortless authority create the magic Wilson calls for...Despite its excellence, Joe Turner's Come and Gone lasted only 105 performances in its first Broadway appearance. Lincoln Center Theater is to be commended for giving us the opportunity to rediscover this American masterpiece.

Theatermania A+
(David Finkle) A remarkable production directed with boldness by Bartlett Sher and acted by a company unafraid of unleashing outsized emotions...The ensemble...is uniformly excellent at depicting unconsciously poetic citizens undergoing change, whether from country habits to industrializing city ways, from superstitious inclinations to hard-nosed practicality, or from chains to challenge. Praise is to especially be heaped on the brooding Coleman and the sagacious Robinson in the most pivotal roles.

Nytheatre.com A+
(Martin Denton) Joe Turner's Come and Gone is rewarding and full and—that rarity in theatre—authentically cathartic. In a Broadway season that has given us a real bumper crop of excellent plays to enjoy, this is one I can unconditionally recommend and even dub a must-see. Wilson shares so much of the human experience with us in this admirable and powerful play.

Talk Entertainment A+
(Oscar E Moore) A brilliant production. It is elegant. Down to earth. Poetic. Stylish. Lyrical. Mystical. Lusty and magical...Bartlett Sher...deserves every accolade coming his way. His vision has made the play an event that cannot be missed. It is theatrical bliss where there is hope for a new generation and love and laughter reign supreme.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Great works of art often tote heavy baggage. Yet the revival of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a drama of indisputable greatness, feels positively airborne. Much of Bartlett Sher’s splendid production...moves with the engaging ease of lively, casual conversation. Some part of you, though, is always aware that there’s a storm whipping within and around the breezy talk, a gale-force wind that picks up and scatters people as if they were dandelion seeds...Its characters, embodied by one of the strongest ensembles in town, seem reassuringly knowable instead of fancy figures in an allegory. This is true even when they’re describing mystical visions involving bones walking out of the ocean...It would be a shame if this production doesn’t find a wide and enthusiastic audience. It’s an (almost) unconditional pleasure to watch.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) This rich and mysterious play is filled with the writer's own sort of music - from the lyrical language to percussive outbursts. It's all expertly played in Lincoln Center's eloquent revival..Director Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific") seamlessly integrates realistic elements and the metaphoric, including the evocative set - fanciful floating windows with a so-real-you'd-pick-it vegetable garden. Sher has staged scenes that are dizzyingly powerful or beautiful (or both) - an ecstatic dance, a furious fit and a shimmering conclusion. But it's the compelling characters, superbly realized, that keep you rapt.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) One of Wilson's finest, rich in character and a poetry that suggests the world-weariness of the blues. Both come through in this impeccable Bartlett Sher-directed revival, more impressionistic than its predecessor but, nonetheless, ablaze in the theatricality you expect from Wilson...The powerful Chad L. Coleman makes a brooding Loomis, a spectral figure dressed in a long black coat and big broad-brimmed hat...Sher's design team accentuates the play's otherworldly character. Michael Yeargan's airy, non-naturalistic set seems to float across a stage that's often bathed in warm, soft lighting designed by Brian MacDevitt.

USA Today A
(Elysa Gardner) Wilson's dialogue has its own majestic music, and the actors here are intuitive players. Chad L. Coleman's Loomis speaks in a gruff but strained voice that reinforces the contradiction between his formidable physical presence and his broken spirit. Loomis...manages, as so many of Wilson's characters do, to find strength and the possibility of love under the most bitter circumstances. If that's not spiritual transcendence, I don't know what is.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) Bartlett Sher doesn't direct plays; he liberates them...Sher has an uncanny knack for taking plays of a certain age and releasing them from the constraints of naturalism...In Sher's hands, Joe Turner's Come and Gone is finally fulfilled as both a comic drama of black life in the early 20th century and as an incantatory vision of the black race at a turning point--struggling to shake off the taint of slavery and reaching out for freedom in a America transformed by industrial revolution. It's an extraordinary production.

Bergen Record A
(Robert Feldberg) Don’t expect rapid-fire action. You need to get into the playwright’s deliberate rhythm to appreciate the rich human and historic tapestry he creates, with lots of humor and poetic monologues filled with metaphors and mysticism...And his vision is beautifully realized in a production that’s been directed with warmth and clarity by Bartlett Sher.

Newsday A-
(Linda Winer) How good it is to finally have this shimmering, sprawling, haunting work back on Broadway, even if the Lincoln Center Theater's fine production, directed by Bartlett Sher, doesn't have all the gut-deep resonant style of Lloyd Richards' original...Sher...directs the large cast with passion, a few jarring special effects and an atypical - for Wilson - presentational clarity. But for all the lucidity, it's hard not to miss the spell of the off-center atmosphere, the luscious musicality that lingers beyond the straightforward meaning of Wilson's words. The experience is more like watching a marvelous play than like being allowed to overhear people as they live.

Entertainment Weekly A-
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone has enough energy and divine spark to tear down walls. So in this bold and beautifully atmospheric revival, director Bartlett Sher (and set designer Michael Yeargan) simply didn't build any walls...The haunting, collage-like Joe Turner — which takes its title from an old blues song — is the playwright's most complex and most spiritual drama...The hulking Coleman (perhaps best known as Cutty, the boxer, on HBO's The Wire), regrettably, is not entirely up to the task...unlike, for example, the sensational Roger Robinson, who plays Bynum, the aged rootworker.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) A critical success but commercial failure back in 1988, this challenging work demands the tender loving care only a well-funded nonprofit troupe can provide. Bartlett Sher's superb production captures all of the emotional and stylistic nuances of the play, even if his staging gets a bit gimmicky...Naturalistic drama teems with supernatural and religious elements as Loomis struggles to find both the wife he abandoned years ago and his own spiritual peace...Wilson's writing is so rich and emotionally resonant that it's a shame Sher gussies up the proceedings with abstract, shifting scenery and silly special effects. But these are quibbles about an otherwise beautifully acted production of a neglected masterwork.

Time Out NY B+
(Adam Feldman) This Lincoln Center Theater production's expressionistic touches are of a piece with the overt symbolism of Wilson's drama, which deals elliptically with slavery and its rippling aftershocks of dislocation and abandonment. The action is slow to develop: The long first act is full of novelistic storytelling and mood-setting, with exuberantly lyrical passages balanced by eloquent silences—and, as always with Wilson, exquisite parts for an ensemble cast...Some spectators may grow impatient with the pace of the journey that Wilson takes us on, but it is a fascinating trip. The play offers an experience beyond the ordinary to those who can make themselves open.

AM New York B+
(Matt Windman) Sher’s expressionistic touches – which include even a shower of gold glitter - would appear to be at odds with the play’s naturalistic qualities. But on second glance, one must remember that Wilson’s plays invoke a musicality of language and depth of emotion that transcend the boundaries of normal stage realism. And on the whole, this is an absorbing and satisfying production of a difficult three-hour play.

Village Voice B
(Michael Feingold) Written before most of the other cycle plays, Joe Turner has a dreamlike quality as it reels from bawdry and seduction up to the visionary metaphysics of its main story, most of which is packed into its elaborate, explosive final scene, in which prophecies and the expectations of psychological melodrama are fulfilled simultaneously...Bartlett Sher's production, its scenic elements constantly gliding on--and offstage, catches the dreamlike quality, but oddly combines it with a presentational acting style that pushes Wilson's innocently straightforward characters into irritatingly showbizzy postures: They're selling you the dream, not living it. Coleman, smoldering like a volcano about to blow, and Marsha Stephanie Blake, as a meekly lovelorn young woman, seem to have wisely ignored the incessant eyes-front directing; Roger Robinson, as a canny old mystic, cunningly turns the stagy flamboyance to the character's purpose, creating the show's best-sustained performance.

The Hollywood Reporter B
(Alexis Greene) As staged by Bartlett Sher, who directed LCT's supreme revival of "South Pacific," this is an operatic "Joe Turner": imposing, if at times grandiose. Michael Yeargan's minimal set is backed by the shadowy images of smoke stacks towering atop Pittsburgh's steel mills...Back in 1988, Lloyd Richards, Wilson's mentor and devoted director, staged a production filled with distinct voices and characterizations. Sher takes the play to the level of religious parable, an attention-getting and, in its way, forceful approach. But what the play gains in symbolism it loses in delicacy, since the larger-than-life style obliterates many of the details of Wilson's wonderful characters. Still, Sher elicits excellent performances.

Theater News Online B
(Matt Wolf) The song is surprisingly muted in the Lincoln Center Theater revival of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone...More than any other Wilson play, Joe Turner invokes metaphysics and ritual on the way to an ending that seems at once shocking and absolutely right...Just when you're expecting Joe Turner to rise up and overwhelm you, much as Herald Loomis is seen to be dramatically remaking himself, the production stops short of the operatic epiphany that was presumably intended...What rarely occurs is that verbal polyphony, alternately gorgeous and portentous, that has long rendered Wilson the most innately musical of American dramatists.

Bloomberg News B
(John Simon) Some of the plays are better than others, successful roughly in inverse proportion to the amount of metaphysics, mysticism and the supernatural they contain. In this respect, Joe Turner is one of the chief offenders, weltering in several kinds of high-flown overreaching...Almost everyone here is searching or waiting, including the cheerfully fantastical Bynum. The play is all about finding and binding, whether a missing person or a missing song. So far, so good. But there are also phantasmagoric visions of bones walking on water, debilitating possession by that ghostly vision, talking in tongues and mystical self-mutilation and a bit too much of that elusive, in-dwelling song...Bartlett Sher’s staging adds some unscripted but welcome touches, often visually stunning.

Talkin' Broadway C
(Matthew Murray) It's almost impossible to tell from Sher's unnecessarily overstuffed mounting that this second play (chronologically speaking) in Wilson's decade-by-decade examination of the 20th-century African American experience is among the rawest and most powerful. As he did with his 2006 LCT revival of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing!, Sher relies too much on his own pet tricks to present a story that's more than capable of telling itself...Wilson's plays reject this approach because they already contain all the symbolism and invention they require...Disconnecting the play's events - and especially Herald's revelations - from reality completely subverts the entire point of the play: the indoctrination of African ritualism into the texture of American society, and what that means for both the giving and receiving cultures...The shows Sher directs would greatly benefit from him getting over himself...Even so, Sher has elicited some strong performances from his actors...Coleman comes across the weakest.

Variety A+ 14; NY1 A+ 14; CurtainUp A+ 14; Wall Street Journal A+ 14; Backstage A+ 14; Theatermania A+ 14; Nytheatre.com A+ 14; Talk Ent A+ 14; The New York Times A 13; The Daily News A 13; Associated Press A 13; USA Today A 13; LS&A A 13; Bergen Record A 13; Newsday A- 12; Entertainment Weekly A- 12; New York Post B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; AM New York B+ 11; VV B 10; The Hollywood Reporter B 10; Theater News Online B 10; Bloomberg News B 10; Talkin' Broadway C 7; 294/24=12.25 (A-)