Monday, February 22, 2010

StageGrade Is Here

First things first: Here's the new link. Now the letter...

Dear Critic-O-Meter fans:

You may have noticed that for the past month, there's been no new content here, even though the New York season has swung into high gear and we're about to enter the pre-Tony rush. What gives? Has our beloved Critic-O-Meter been put out to pasture? What are Rob and Isaac up to?

Well, the answer is simple: A few months ago we were approached by entrepreneurs Doug and Jonathan Rand (of Playscripts, Inc.) about turning Critic-O-Meter from a wooden puppet into a real boy. We love this blog, but it's cumbersome to edit and to monetize and looks, well, like a blog. We've always been big fans of Metacritic; it was one of our inspirations for creating this site in the first place. The idea of turning Critic-O-Meter into a cleanly designed, easy to browse, post, and update site with the potential for more reader involvement (and the chance to make a little money for our efforts) is a dream come true.

So please enjoy our new site, StageGrade, developed with the invaluable assistance and heavy lifting of the Rands and developer Martin Gordon. There've been a couple of changes, but the basics are the same. It's still Rob and Isaac along with writers Linda and Karl. But now there's a lot more content to explore. You can look up a reviewer and see all the grades they've given. When you look up a show, you'll see the grade distributions much more clearly and get all of the logistics of the show up front, including a link to buy tickets to a show if it suits your fancy. Finally, and this is probably the biggest change, we've switched from using mean (or average) scores to using median scores, as we've collectively decided that this more accurately reflects the consensus of the reviewers and better keeps shows scores from being dragged down or inflated by outliers.

We've also added the shows we've missed since our final post on Critic-O-Meter. We've been so consumed with the data entry and bug fixes necessary to get a new independent website up and running that we haven't been able to keep up with the old site, which we are now putting out to pasture.

Over the coming months, we're going to be improving the interface and look of StageGrade and adding new features as we go. We were just so excited to share it with you all that we present it in its current condition, functional, useable, but still a work in progress. If you have any suggestions or any features you'd like to see, please e-mail us.

We're looking forward to making StageGrade a great one-stop shop for the scuttlebutt on the latest shows in New York theater. Thank you for joining us on the ride. Read On »

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Coming Soon

Dear Critic-O-Meter readers: We know we've been silent a while, but stay tuned for big news about a brand new iteration of our play-review-grading enterprise. It will be worth the wait, we promise. Read On »

Friday, January 29, 2010

Time Stands Still


(photo by Joan Marcus)

By Donald Margulies. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Through Mar. 14.

Donald Margulies' new four-hander earns its B+, with reviews that are mostly solidly admiring and warm, if not effusive. Telling the story of an injured war photographer, played by the pretty-much-universally acclaimed Laura Linney, and her rocky longtime near-marriage with a sensitive war correspondent, played by Brain d'Arcy James (also praised to the skies for his first post-Shrek performance), the show gets its share of kudos for complexity, thoughtfulness, and subtlety, though some critics credit the actors (who include the unlikely couple of Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone) and director Daniel Sullivan for its success more than Margulies. This point of view--that the actors are better than the material--gets its strongest expression in Elisabeth Vincentelli's withering diss.

The New York Times A
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Margulies’s finest play since the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends.” Like that keenly observed drama about the growing pains of adulthood, the new play explores the relationship between two couples at a crucial juncture in their lives, when the desire to move forward clashes with the instinct to stay comfortably — or even uncomfortably — in place...Mr. Margulies is gifted at creating complex characters through wholly natural interaction, allowing the emotional layers, the long histories, the hidden kernels of conflict to emerge organically...Although “Time Stands Still” is deceptively modest, even laid back in its structure and sensibility, consisting of a handful of conversations among just four characters, the range of feeling it explores is wide and deep.

New York A
(Stephanie Zacharek) There’s a mournful tug beneath the surface of Time Stands Still, but the material, directed here by Daniel Sullivan, is also colloquial, lively, and inquisitive without being preachy.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) The work is smart, stylish, timely and layered with an intriguing seriousness that inspires discussion after the curtain comes down...It is Linney who galvanizes the production, expertly riding the rhythms of Margulies' insightful writing. There is an unsparing directness to her performance — not to mention a superb sense of timing — that makes this photographer one of the most compelling characters to grace a Broadway stage this season.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) Compellingly demonstrates what a master playwright can do with great economy and efficiency, and with four fine actors who conjure up a commanding cross section of our conflicted, compromising or intransigent world...A rare play that encompasses universal issues and personal problems with equal compassionate insight...No actress conveys better than Linney the intellectual and professional woman riven by antithetical needs, wittily pursuing unencumbered freedom while also craving sexual and emotional fulfillment. D’Arcy James excels as a similarly workaholic, thinking and feeling man, discovering from the example of friends his perhaps even greater need for settling down into family life...For orchestrating such dissonances and harmonies, admire Sullivan’s direction.

Time Out NY A
(Adam Feldman) The central figure of Donald Margulies’s prickly, unsettling new drama, Time Stands Still, [Sarah] is played with expert strength and impatience by Laura Linney...Margulies is onto something interesting here: extreme violence as a form of escapism...Once again, the masterful director Daniel Sullivan has taken a solid play—taut and well-constructed, with hardly a single detail extraneous—and given us the smartest version of it possible. All four characters (including Mandy, who could easily have slid into dismissive caricature) are treated with respect and acted with skill. Manhattan Theatre Club’s naturalistic production doesn’t aim to blow you away. But it may well leave you wounded.

The Hollywood Reporter A-
(Frank Scheck) Though this latest work occasionally suffers from a surfeit of themes and a lack of focus, it's a nonetheless absorbing, ultimately very moving piece that is receiving a beautifully acted Broadway production...The playwright's gifts for sharp, witty dialogue and incisive characterizations are well on display, helping to smooth over the play's occasionally bumpy structure...Under the expert direction of Daniel Sullivan, the four performers shine.

Theatermania B+
(Dan Balcazo) Layered and thought-provoking...Linney delivers a powerful performance, demonstrating the grit and stubbornness that makes Sarah admirable but not always likable...D'Arcy James is completely convincing as a principled man with a fervent belief in the good that his work does, who is also tired and wanting a more comfortable life than he's had so far...The play, tightly directed by Daniel Sullivan, is full of interesting ideas, but Margulies wisely avoids making his work solely about issues.

USA Today B+
(Elysa Gardner) Donald Margulies tends to write smartly crafted, accessible plays that tell us nothing we don't already know. Luckily, these works attract actors who can transcend their clichés and mine their intelligence and good-natured humor...The characters and dilemmas are variations on themes we've encountered before—if not in life, then in films and TV dramas...Linney['s]...unmannered lucidity and utter lack of vanity make Sarah more convincing and sympathetic. Likewise, Brian d'Arcy James' natural, vital performance ensures that his role isn't reduced to a sensitive modern male in distress. A winning Eric Bogosian also turns up, ideally cast as Richard, Sarah's wry editor and former lover, now keeping company with the much younger and less cultured Mandy. Though the latter character seems to exist principally as a foil for Sarah, Alicia Silverstone gives her a warmth and gentle substance.

Variety B+
(David Rooney) A thoughtful, absorbing work, its strengths maximized in the crystalline naturalism of Daniel Sullivan's production and the incisive interpretations of four astute actors...Tends to tack on ethical debate points that reveal as much of the playwright's voice as those of his characters. This makes the drama somewhat amorphous and less satisfying than it could be. But there's a ring of truth to the emotional experience being thrashed out onstage that keeps it compelling...Unapologetic Mandy has an integrity that grows as the play and Silverstone's enormously likable performance evolve, which puts the others to shame...As strong as the ensemble work is, it's Sarah's play, and the meticulous Linney reinforces that ownership without ever sacrificing her give-and-take with the other actors.

Backstage B
(Erik Haagensen) Laura Linney proves yet again she's one of our finest actors. Even when others are speaking, we are drawn back to Linney, watching her reveal more and more simply by listening and observing. I can think of no one today who achieves quite the same empathetic translucency, and you can imagine Margulies keeping it in mind when creating her character...But though the play gives Linney resonant opportunity, Margulies' largely well-observed, intelligent four-hander ultimately can't transcend its predictability. While the journey holds our interest, the destination is disappointing...Margulies seems to want this to be a tough consideration of our complacency in the face of documented horrors, but he doesn't gain serious traction...Daniel Sullivan smartly directs as much between as on the lines, but he can't keep the proceedings from feeling slightly static.

Talkin' Broadway B
(Matthew Murray) Though it draws on the hallmarks of the readjustment genre, Time Stands Still has considerably more on its mind and no shortage of interesting ways to broach the topics...When Richard takes center stage, which he does only rarely, the play screeches to a stop. This isn't Bogosian's fault - he brings a mature sense of responsibility and a deadpan humor to his role, but it's not enough to make Richard feel like much more than a functionary.

(Roma Torre) An impressive work that serves as a dynamite showcase for some stellar acting...It's a taut two hours expertly directed by Daniel Sullivan with Laura Linney delivering one of her finest portraits as the seen-it-all Sarah. Margulies is a master at probing the nuances of relationships and he is beautifully served by the entire company...For all its virtues, the play doesn't wholly succeed. It's a situation drama with a narrow premise that tends to contrive its conflicts and the characters don't always seem true to nature.

New York Post D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Had she been written better, Sarah would have been an interesting challenge for the actress -- and she could have handled it -- but author Donald Margulies ("Sight Unseen," "Dinner With Friends") only looks at murky waters, afraid to dive in...Sarah and James argue -- about the ethics of bearing witness to war, about an affair Sarah had in Iraq, about the sacrifices required by coupledom -- as every scene predictably flares up into contention...Under Daniel Sullivan's direction, the cast of this Manhattan Theatre Club production rises above the material it's been handed. Richard is a sketch of a nice guy, but Bogosian fills it with substantial decency. Silverstone imbues Mandy -- a part written with infuriating condescension -- with a kindness and generosity that make Sarah and James look like rude jerks.

The New York Times A 13; New York A 13; Associated Press A 13; Bloomberg News A 13; Time Out NY A 13; The Hollywood Reporter A- 12; Theatermania B+ 11; USA Today B+ 11; Variety B+ 11; Backstage B 10; Talkin' Broadway B 10; NY1 B 10; New York Post D+ 5; TOTAL: 145/13=11.15 (B+)
Read On »

Venus In Fur

Grade: B-

By David Ives, Directed by Walter Bobbie. At Classic Stage Through February 21st.

David Ives goes all meta (not to mention Miike) in his adaptaiton "the infamous erotic novel of the same name", setting the S&M tale of the Battle of the Sexes in an audition room where an adapter/director is slowly (and comically) undone by a seemingly-ditzy actress. The reviews are all over the map, ranging from A to D-! General points of consensus: Even those that like the play agree that Ives doesn't quite pull of its ending, even those who dislike the play praise newcomer Nina Ariadna's performance, who gets the kind of notices that actors sacrifice goats for. After that, everything's in dispute.

New Jersey News Room A
(Michael Sommers) You want funny? You want sexy? Then you'll want to see "Venus in Fur." Grab your seats now. Classic Stage Company, where "Venus in Fur" premiered Tuesday, accommodates less than 200 viewers and this bewitching show promises to be one extremely hot ticket.

Just Shows To Go You A
(Patrick Lee) Arianda’s rich, many-layered performance is the kind of debut that makes your jaw drop. You watch her, marveling at her navigation of the role’s changing moods and deepening colors, and think of dozens upon dozens of roles you want to see her play, everything from The Owl And The Pussycat to The Sea Gull. She’s nothing short of astonishing.

New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) The gamesmanship gets a little repetitive and confusing as Mr. Ives struggles to keep the suspense building and the mystery of Vanda’s identity — and Thomas’s psychology — elusive. But if Mr. Ives never quite settles on a satisfying solution to the mystery he presents, the play is still nifty, skillfully wrought entertainment, an enjoyable game of kitten-with-a-whip and mouse.

Time Out NY A-
(David Cote)Venus in Fur does lose some of its drive and focus toward the end, but this Classic Stage Company production has manifold strengths: Walter Bobbie’s breezy direction, John Lee Beatty’s chic set and Ives’s witty, nimble dialogue…not to mention the remarkable Arianda. More audiences should have the pleasure of being dominated by a major talent like hers

Associated Press B+
(Jennifer Farrar) David Ives' humorous off-Broadway play, "Venus in Fur," is inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's erotic 1870 novel. Ives has crafted a modern take on a classic tale, skillfully twisting his plot and characters in a fast-paced journey into one man's entrapment by a clever, vengeful female. With taut direction by Walter Bobbie, Ives plays off the novel's eroticism to portray power shifts between an unsuspecting playwright/director and a young actress ostensibly auditioning for his new play, which is also based on the novel.

NYPost B-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) David Ives' new "Venus in Fur" stands out in several ways, and one of them is that it's packed with layers and ideas. So packed, in fact, that by the end it's bursting at the seams. It's exciting, but a challenge: Only masterful actors at the top of their game could keep it all together -- and the ones here struggle to keep up...A more experienced cast may have helped, but Arianda and Bentley aren't ready to handle the hairpin turns their multifaceted characters must negotiate. Her entrance is a triumph of comic timing, for instance, but she's unconvincing as a steely seductress, while he strains to suggest Thomas' sexual epiphany. Alas, they still have a few kinks to work out.

Joe Dziemianowicz D+ if, like me, you've never seen Arianda onstage before...She recalls Tracey Ullman at her most audacious and Barbra Streisand in her "Owl and the Pussycat" days. As she blows through Vanda's various moods — seductive, sweet, scary, among them — she's irresistible. But that's still not enough to recommend the play. The better-known Bentley ("American Beauty") gives such a flat performance that he's no help. But the bigger issue is that Ives' play, though filled with zingers, gets repetitive midway and leads to a lame conclusion.

That Sounds Cool D+
(Aaron Riccio) Relationships don't need to be between equals--they rarely are, and this play knows it--but they require real passion, and too much of Ives's script comes across as artificial, using a classic novel to take swings at modern conventions, and a modern frame to talk about classic psychology. The result is analytic when it should be emotional, and glib when it should be serious, and Venus in Fur is constantly undercutting its struggle by refusing to actually have stakes that are grounded in reality.

Variety D
(Marilyn Stasio) David Ives ("New Jerusalem") and his collaborator, helmer Walter Bobbie, take all the fun out of sexual power games in "Venus in Fur" by talking the subject to death. Nice idea, adapting Leopold Sacher-Masoch's erotic 1870 novel to a contempo Off Broadway theater audition -- notoriously fertile ground for the sado-masochistic dynamic between director and actor. The wit breaks down, though, once Ives starts piling on plot contrivances to support the thematic parallels. Even more of a misfire, scribe allows his protagonist to dilate at insufferable length on his own cleverness. The boot and the whip are too good for this bore.

NY Theatre D-
(David Gordon) The thing about Venus in Fur—David Ives's present-set "adaptation" of Leopold Sacher-Masoch's erotic novel of the same title from 1870—is that if the last 45 minutes weren't as mind-boggling as they are, it would be a fascinating, entirely worthwhile piece of theatre. But as it stands, this production at the Classic Stage Company under the direction of Walter Bobbie is only truly worth it for one thing: the performance of a newcomer named Nina Arianda.

NJNR A 13; JS2 A 13; TONY A- 12; NYT A- 12; AP B+ 11; NYP B- 9; NYDN D+ 5; TSC D+ 5; V D 4; NYTH D- 3; Total = 87/10 = 8.7 (B-)
Read On »

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

As You Like It


By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Mendes. BAM Harvey Theater. Through March 13.

Critics mostly write about Sam Mendes' cold staging of the Shakespeare comedy As You Like It, but their reviews are closer to lukewarm. There aren't glowing raves or scathing pans, though some critics think the melancholy helps the production while others say it might work better when The Tempest joins the play in repertoire. Some critics praise the entire cast, while others say the Brits outshine the Americans, but nearly all pick Juliet Rylance (Rosalind) as the standout.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) The act ends with the death of Orlando's old servant Adam, an addition on Mendes' part. In the original text, the elderly retainer simply disappears after his last scene. Mendes has staged this sequence with a heartbreaking tenderness. After Stephen Dillane as Jaques delivers the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, Alvin Epstein's Adam quietly waves goodbye to his young master and silently expires to the strains of Mark Bennett's sweetly melancholic score. This marks the passage of time and the fact that death is an inevitable part of the cycle of life, the cycle that Orlando and Rosalind are just beginning.

The New York Observer A
(Jesse Oxfeld) The actors are less well known—Thomas Sadoski, as Touchstone in As You Like It, might be the most recognizable name to American theatergoers—but their performances, and the production, are no less good. As You Like It is a charming and romantic play—if also, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, somewhat ridiculously plotted—and it’s a joy to watch the hijinks unfold, especially on Tom Piper’s gorgeous, painterly Arden Forest set.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) You have every reason to think, watching all this unfold, that Mendes has unleashed another razor-edged reconception that sucks the life and fun from one of William Shakespeare's most characteristic comedies. Not quite. By the time Mendes and his exemplary company are through, he hasn't violated tradition, but enhanced it. The second half restores the play's color and augments its vibrancy with the knowledge that for the city dwellers and countryfolk alike - all of whom are hapless in their own ways - that the dark always precedes the lark. In fact, by the time the rebels and revels have concluded, you may strain to remember exactly what seemed so off about the foray into sadness in the first place. Don't happy endings always need a bit of strife?

TheaterMania A
(Andy Propst) Having an actress who can convincingly play a young man is just one of the hurdles that directors and theatergoers face in Shakespeare's As You Like It, and in Sam Mendes' solid staging of the comedy that's playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre, Juliet Rylance beautifully fits the bill... Uniting the disparate plot lines is another challenge of the play and in Mendes' lucid production, they seem to fit together perfectly, thanks to the hint of hoar frost that pervades both the court sequences and those in the forest. For the former, scenic designer Tom Piper backs the action with an almost bunker-like wall and lighting designer Paul Pyant cuts the space with steep angled white light, creating a sense of a vicious totalitarian state. After the action has shifted, the forest is barren and fog-filled, though ultimately, a spring of sorts comes.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) The play may have plenty of laughs, but "As You Like It" is also a tale of separation: the gulf between parent and child, brother and brother and, most importantly, its two young lovers. And Mendes, director of such films as "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road," has found the darker elements in a play usually awash in sunnier production values. What softens Mendes' wintry ideas (including a forest of bare trees by set designer Tom Piper) is the warm, thoroughly entrancing presence of Juliet Rylance, who plays Rosalind. She is one of Shakespeare's most spirited heroines, and the actress is a delight, whether swooning over a surprisingly gloomy Orlando or scampering about in male drag as an adventurer named Ganymede.

Lighting & Sound America A
(David Barbour) Leaving Sam Mendes' production the other night, I realized I had never before seen As You Like It taken seriously. It was a shock, to be sure, because, over the years, I've had my fill of William Shakespeare's comedy. At times I've felt that if I had to endure one more boisterous romp through the Forest of Arden, I'd do something desperate with a carving knife. It's because, in most productions, the director hustles the audience through the play's dark early scenes, preferring to concentrate on the mistaken-identity mix-ups and cross-dressing comedy of the second half. It's a perilous decision that can result in an evening of coy and self-congratulatory antics. Shakespeare is many things, but he is never, ever cute. Thank heaven that Mendes understands this; he gives full weight to the early scenes set in a dukedom turned dictatorship.

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Mendes’s arrestingly somber staging of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy firmly favors adversity over sweetness. The cold snap is not just a case of a British director’s perversely shoehorning shadows into a sunshiney play. For all the spirited comedy of “As You Like It,” true love arrives only after strenuous study and emotional hardship. Although at least half of the lovebirds in Shakespeare’s overstuffed aviary appear to fall in love at first sight, the play makes clear that the human heart is fickle, easily deceived, sometimes perfidious. The mettle of love must be tried and tested, and tried again, before its sweet felicities can be safely indulged.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The staging by Sam Mendes, one of the brains behind this transatlantic theater company, gets off to a glacial start that fails to find traction or pull us into Shakespeare's language. Then, when the talking literally stops, the show finds its voice and its magnetic pull. This is the moment when a lovestruck Orlando (Christian Camargo) can't bring himself to say a word to the fair Rosalind (Juliet Rylance), who's equally smitten. It's a wonderful moment that jolts the show to life.

Bloomberg News B+
(John Simon) One may have doubts about almost postmodern dress here, and about exiles in the Forest of Arden disposing over sundry costume changes, but strict realism was surely not uppermost in Shakespeare’s mind. It may be that Tom Piper’s austere castle facade for the early scenes is a trifle too forbidding, but not even Elizabeth Arden could have made the forest, which it served to hide, look prettier and more alluring. The excellent lighting designer, Paul Pyant, does wonders here, making that fine forest look truly enchanted. Catherine Zuber’s otherwise pleasant costumes have their inconsistencies: Some characters in the woods are shod, some barefoot, some successively both.

Entertainment Weekly B-
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) It takes almost two acts and about an hour for director Sam Mendes' production of As You Like It — now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 13 — to set the right tone. And though it's a comedy, the breakthrough moment comes courtesy of neither the play's cross-dressing antics nor its complex love triangles. Rather, it arrives when perma-pessimist Jaques (the divine Stephen Dillane) begins his famous monologue: ''All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players.'' Though he's describing man's slow march toward death, Dillane couldn't be more dynamic.

Time Out New York C+
(David Cote) Would that the director and his ensemble had let the balmier clime buoy the pacing and performances. Rylance delivers a spunky Rosalind and Camargo is disarmingly earnest, but their wooing-school scenes are played rather too humorlessly and slow. Dillane’s drawling delivery, while dryly amusing, verges on self-indulgent. And despite shrewd direction and many pretty stage pictures, Mendes maintains too stately and somber a tone. You’d think he prefers the cold, gray time of year to hot, frisky months.

The Financial Times C-
(Brendan Lemon) He cites a passage from Ted Hughes, yoking the locations of As You Like It and The Tempest, which is the Bridge Project’s other production this year. Hughes says that “the Devil’s Island where Prospero now finds himself” was “what remained of the Forest of Arden after the holocaust of the tragedies”. Such a reading may make sense to theatre-goers watching the two plays in repertory, but for the rest of us the initial mire can seem a bit thick. Stephen Dillane, as Jacques, presides over the evening’s first half, his Eeyore-ish gloom joined to mordant line readings: his Dylan impersonation during one of the forest court’s infectious singalongs (marvellous music by Mark Bennett) detonated the largest laugh.

On Off Broadway C-
(Matt Windman) Severely out of place with everyone else is the typically excellent Thomas Sadoski, who is too high-strung and manic as Rosalind's clown Touchstone, desperately screaming his lines with a rough delivery. On the other hand, Stephen Dillane is so low-key as the melancholy Jacques, who delivers the "Seven Ages of Man" speech, that you hardly notice him. Let me stress that this is in no way a bad or even mediocre production. In fact, it's quite smart and occasionally engrossing. And I really look forward to checking out "The Tempest" next month. But at least for me, this "As You Like It" just never felt altogether dramatically convincing or emotionally moving.

Variety D+
(David Rooney) Imbalance of another kind also hobbles the production, calling into question the success of the Bridge Project's trans-Atlantic formation. Almost across the board, the British cast members are superior to their American colleagues; their characters are more robustly inhabited and their command of the language more easeful... Shortcomings among the minor players are more damaging, however, particularly Ashlie Atkinson's squawking country shrew, Phoebe, fishing for easy laughs with her contemporary finger-snapping attitude; Michelle Beck's dreary Celia; and Jenni Barber's shrill caricature as lusty wench Audrey, played like Britney Spears off her meds. Even the ever-reliable Alvin Epstein strays from the poignancy of his loyal old servant into cartoonland in his second role as the vicar Martext. The comic mugging, crass pantomime shtick and reveling rustics of act two almost make you long for a return of the earlier lugubriousness.

New York Post C
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Prime among the Brits is Juliet Rylance. To say she does Rosalind justice is an understatement: We're only in January, but it's unlikely we'll see a more insightful, more luminous performance all year. She comes up with one irresistible grace note after another, whether bursting out in girlish excitement or teaching lessons in love with witty, confident poise... And then there's the home team, which seems completely befuddled by the characters, the language -- pretty much everything having to do with the show.

Backstage A 13; Observer A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; TheaterMania A 13; AP A 13; Lighting & Sound America A 13; The New York Times A- 12; The Daily News B+ 11; Bloomberg News B+ 11; EW B- 9; TONY C+ 8; The Financial Times C- 6; On Off Broadway C- 6; Variety D+ 5; New York Post C 5; TOTAL: 153/15 = 10.2 (B)
Read On »

The Orphans' Home Cycle Part III


By Horton Foote, Directed by Michael Wilson. At The Signature Theatre through May 8th

Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle comes to a close, and while every reviewer concedes the journey is worth it, some feel that the third part is most definitely the weakest. Which isn't the same as saying it's bad-- the lowest grade in this set is a B- -- but just that the final trilogy of plays in the cycle lacks focus and seems edited to the point of choppiness. Not everyone feels this way of course, David Cote at Time Out, Jonathan Mandell at The Faster Times, Erik Haagensen at Backstage and Melissa Rose Bernardo are all ecstatic. To put it another way, there's a real split in this crop of reviews. Reviewers who use covering the third part as a way of opining on the whole cycle heap praise on the entire undertaking, while those that consider the third part on its own are left feeling respectful, but hardly over-the-moon.

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) Now that the end of the cycle has been reached, I'm happy to say that what I hoped for after seeing Part One is true: Foote's final gift to the stage is glorious, an essential American masterwork.

The Faster Times A+
(Jonathan Mandell) The characters soldier on through their sorrows without much fuss, just as the playwright depicts their everyday struggles with an engaging modesty and familiarity. It is an approach that contrasts so heavily with the explosive, excessive, confrontational dramas to which we have become accustomed (or deadened) that “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” almost seems like the invention of a new art form. Having now seen all nine plays in three evenings over the last month – plays that will be presented in three programs in repertory at the Signature Theater Company through the end of March — I can say that I have found it the most rewarding theatrical experience of the season and probably one of the most memorable in my life.

Time Out New York A
(David Cote) [Foote has taken] nine plays and resculpted them into something elevated and elemental, like Greek tragedy. It’s not that the final part of his trilogy, The Story of Family, includes any cathartic spasms of matricide and revenge, even if Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck) has stored up a lifetime of resentment toward his mother. I mean the action exists in a kind of suspended reality—not bound by the laws of time and faintly ritualistic. So fine-tuned is the ensemble’s acting, and so precise is Michael Wilson’s direction, this temporal strangeness only heightens the complex pleasures of Foote’s melancholy masterpiece.

Entertainment Weekly A
(Melissa Rose Bernardo)After nine hours of The Orphans' Home Cycle, it seems ungrateful to want more: There are, after all, nine plays and three productions on display at Off Broadway's Signature Theatre; director Michael Wilson and his 22-member cast have done remarkable work, imbuing Foote's epic piece with a delicate intimacy. Even though you can always go back to visit — parts 1–3 rotate in repertory through March 28 — it's hard to leave Home.

New York Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Superior acting, direction and design work — hallmarks of the first two segments of "The Orphans' Home Cycle" — are front and center in this final installment. But there are some gaps. "1918" suffers from being compressed to an hour, and having Hallie Foote, so singular in voice and manner, double as a different character is distracting. And the presence of Horton's long-absent mother, Corella (Annalee Jefferies), doesn't quite square with what's come before.

New Jersey Newsroom A-
(Michael Sommers) In editing these nine full-length plays to one-hour versions each, Foote — who died last March at the age of 92 — compressed time significantly to the point where occasionally the action seems oddly choppy. But for viewers who invest their affections in the characters, witnessing the engrossing arc of Horace's personal journey plus the sincere realism of the acting goes a long way to ease such bumps in the text. Truly giving an ensemble performance, some 20-some actors do beautifully by the many people of long-ago southeastern Texas. Maturing believably in sober looks and attitude, Bill Heck's deep-feeling Horace manfully shoulders his burdens. Maggie Lacey positively glows as ever-supportive Elizabeth. The one and only Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter) not only nicely depicts mournful Mrs. Vaughn but in "Cousins" shines drolly as a nouveau-riche relation who reports her disappointment with Europe.

NY Post B+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Closure at last! With a total running time now up to nine hours, Horton Foote's "The Orphans' Home Cycle" finally draws to an end with the opening of its third and last three-act installment, "The Story of a Family." It's been a long, steady ride since the first one opened in November, and reaching the destination brings a fulfilling sense of completion.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) After already having spent six hours with the man, Horace has, by this third collection of one acts, become an old friend. He anchors Foote's intricately woven tapestry of life in fictional Harrison, Texas, during the first three decades of the 20th century.Part 3, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company, is called "The Story of a Family," and is directed — like Parts 1 and 2 — by Michael Wilson with stunning clarity. Its themes are pretty much summed up by one of the characters in the evening's second act: "A family is a remarkable thing, isn't it? You belong. And then you don't. It passes you by, unless you start a family of your own."

New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) The three short dramas that make up “The Story of a Family,” which opened on Tuesday night, are both the starkest and most sentimental of this lovingly painted life-and-times portrait, directed by Michael Wilson in a co-production of the Hartford Stage and the Signature Theater Company...That organic balance between things great and small is less assured in “The Story of a Family” than it is in the two earlier groupings, “The Story of a Childhood” and “The Story of a Marriage.” All the plays had to be trimmed — each to roughly an hour — to make the cycle’s presentation possible. And given the steady stream of momentous occurrences in this last section, the telescoping effect can start to feel surreal, with birth, death, disgrace, departure and reunion all happening within absurdly brief stage time. You wish that the poor characters (and sometimes the poor audience) were given at least a chance to catch their breath between deaths.

TalkinBroadway B
(Matthew Murray) So, sadly, does Part 3 as a whole. If “Cousins” fixes the thematic point of the epic, neither it nor its companion plays ultimately contribute as much, as deeply, as those in the preceding two evenings. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t see Part 3 if you’ve already devoted six hours to Parts 1 and 2 - you should. Nor is it to say that Part 3 isn’t basically satisfying - it is. But the payoff is not quite the equal of the investment, and if Parts 1 and 2 spanned the quality gamut from “amazing” to “otherworldly,” Part 3 must content itself with a solid, earthly, qualifier-free “good.”

TheaterMania B-
(Dan Bacalzo) The final installment of what has been a remarkable theatrical achievement -- combining nine of the late playwright's works into one three-part epic that follows the life of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck), a character based on Foote's own father. However, this last trio, subtitled The Story of a Family, is unevenly presented and only partially fulfills the promise of the material.

North Jersey B-
(Robert Feldberg) After the extraordinarily affecting "Part 2," which followed Horace's courtship of Elizabeth Vaughn (Maggie Lacey) and their marriage, "Part 3" turns out something of a disappointment, although still worthwhile for followers of the story. (All three of the evenings are being presented in repertory, so if you missed the first two parts, you'll be able to catch up.)

Village Voice B-
(Michael Feingold) What significance Foote means us to draw from Horace's story isn't always clear. Taken as a whole, the trilogy shows a steady slippage of focus. Full of group comings and goings that, in Michael Wilson's production, often look mechanical, Part 3 seems awash in the reiterated family data and town gossip that, in earlier segments, function as a dramatic contrast to Horace's embittered silence. Even the climax, in which he finally explodes at his insufficiently caring mother, is overshadowed by a secondary character's having a similar but showier explosion. Still, the work has enough substance to support its three-evening length, especially with performers like Pat Bowie, Annalee Jefferies, Maggie Lacey, and Pamela Payton-Wright to articulate it.

BS A+ 14; TFT A+ 14; TONY A 13; EW A 13; NYDN A- 12; NJNR A- 12; NYP B+ 11; AP B+ 11; NYT B 10; TB B 10; TM B- 9; NJ B- 9; VV B- 9; TOTAL: 147/13= 11.31 (B+)
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Monday, January 25, 2010

A View From the Bridge


Photo by Sara Krulwich
By Arthur Miller. Directed by Gregory Mosher. At the Cort Theatre through April 2010.

Scarlett Johansson gets raves for her Broadway debut. Even the dissenting opinion (Guardian, Financial Times) acknowledges that her work exceeds the celebrity-showcase standard set by other film starlets such as Jennifer Garner and Julia Roberts. Meanwhile, Liev Schreiber's meticulous, aggressively subtle style finds another match in Arthur Miller's working-class tragedy about a Red Hook dock worker whose desire for his niece leads him to betray everyone else. Critics acknowledge some weaknesses in the storytelling -- some want more of a tragic punch by the end while others find the story something-less-than-Greek in its scope and depth. That aside, most applaud Michael Christofer as the laywer-narrator-chorus device/character.

Wall Street Journal A
(Terry Teachout) The play itself isn't even slightly profound, but it is, almost alone in Miller's oeuvre, largely devoid of pseudopoetry and wholly to the dramatic point, and Mr. Mosher, who has returned at last to Broadway after a decade-long absence, has staged it with a lean, clean, deceptively soft-spoken intensity that pulls you straight to the edge of your seat and keeps you there until you get up to go home. Fold in the dead-center acting of a first-string cast led by Liev Schreiber and you get a production so hard-hitting that you'll want to see it twice—assuming that you can get tickets, which I very much doubt.

New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) I had wondered if “Bridge” really needed another revival. New York saw a first-rate production only a dozen years ago, directed by Michael Mayer, with Anthony LaPaglia, Allison Janney and the young Brittany Murphy (who died at 32 last year). But this latest incarnation makes the case that certain plays, like certain operas, are rich enough to be revisited as often and as long as there are performers with strong, original voices and fresh insights ... Mr. Schreiber is such a complete actor that he has often thrown productions into imbalance, highlighting the inadequacy of the performances around him. That is not a problem here. That the excellent stage veteran Ms. Hecht holds her own with Mr. Schreiber is no surprise. That Ms. Johansson does — with seeming effortlessness — is.

Variety A
(David Rooney) Sometimes it's high praise to call a stage director's work invisible. The compliment applies to Gregory Mosher's searing revival of "A View From the Bridge," though it by no means indicates any lack of craftsmanship or insight. Returning to Broadway after a considerable absence, Mosher has instilled in his outstanding cast an unconditional trust in Arthur Miller's text, evoking a time, a place and a 1950s blue-collar community with penetrating integrity. Each scene flows seamlessly from the one before in a production that expertly plants the seeds of inexorable tragedy yet grips with a tension and volatility that make every moment seem unpredictable.

Backstage A
(David Sheward) Now Liev Schreiber, one of the few American star-level actors to return to the stage on a regular basis, sinks his teeth into this meaty steak of a character and has a regular feast. His Eddie has a vulnerability and thoughtfulness often overlooked. You can tell he not only harbors sexual urges for his wife's niece Catherine but also loves her like a father. These conflicting emotions play across Schreiber's face as Catherine explains her growing love for Rodolpho, an illegal immigrant the family is protecting ... Scarlett Johansson matches Schreiber's intensity as the inexperienced but determined Catherine. This film star makes an impressive Broadway debut, clearly conveying what this girl wants—to be a grown woman—and pushing against the only obstacle in her path: her overly attentive uncle ... Director Gregory Mosher wisely keeps the staging simple so the dramatic fireworks blaze all the brighter. Set designer John Lee Beatty's row of brownstones towers over the players like a menacing giant as they enact this modern version of a Greek tragedy.

Time Out New York A
(Adam Feldman) The fateful plot unspools as it must, with a helpless lawyer (the superbly troubled Michael Cristofer) serving as the chorus; the surprises come not from the story, but from the way that Miller conflates the older strains of the plot with newer psychological insights about the strata of masculinity. (Eddie’s obsessive suspicions that Rodolpho is “not right” sexually are projections of his own impotence and guilt.) Johansson does fine work as the ripening apple of domestic discord, and the excellent Jessica Hecht is touching as Eddie’s hectoring wife, Beatrice. But this is ultimately Schreiber’s play, and his hooded emotionality—first guarded, then blubbering—is exquisitely matched to Eddie’s self-deflating sense of manhood: menacing in simmer but pathetic in boil.

Washington Post A
(Peter Marks) Surely the production, which had its official opening Sunday night at the Cort Theatre, is one of the most satisfying evenings of Miller in memory ... Schreiber is nothing short of remarkable as Eddie ... He manages to make Eddie's decisions -- whether to pick up a phone and dial immigration, or to lash out in an act of sexual frustration -- seem the explosive products of an urge beyond the control of the intellect ... The surprising achievement belongs to Johansson, who proves to be capable of far more than collaborating in eyebrow-raising star casting. She's got the broad vowels and engaging innocence for Catherine, and she makes you believe in the teenager's flickering awareness of Eddie's inappropriate attraction. And even after Catherine's allegiance shifts to Rodolpho, the actress allows you to appreciate fully the pull she still feels toward Eddie, how, perhaps, that might have deepened Eddie's confusion. The acumen on display raises the Cort's thermostat from what might have been coolly sobering to positively scorching. You'll leave, happy to have felt the theatrical heat.

USA Today A
(Elysa Gardner) Johansson disappears so completely into the role of Catherine, the plucky but naïve niece of a longshoreman, that you won't stop to consider the qualities that make her distinctly suited to the part. Only afterward will you likely realize the actress's youthful sensuality and capacity for good-natured goofiness constitute a perfect fit for this sheltered 17-year-old struggling to come to terms with her effect on men — her uncle, in particular ... Where some directors wax operatic trying to convey Miller's intricate morality and heated humanism, Gregory Mosher opts for a more naturalistic approach. Michael Cristofer, playing a local lawyer who doubles as the play's narrator, alternately participating in the action and reflecting on it, provides a tone that's at once conversational and theatrical ... Johansson and Schreiber make the tension between Eddie and Catherine excruciatingly poignant, by showing us there's still great affection between this misguided man and the woman he can no longer love like a child.

Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) Memorable Eddies have come in all shapes and sizes; the latest, Schreiber, ranks very high on the list. Everything's hidden; Schreiber's gift for letting you see what he's not showing matches this role perfectly, as does his burly physical presence. He gets especially strong support from Johansson, clearly an actress of skill and presence, not merely another two-dimensional puff pastry. Mosher makes one or two odd slips: He rushes the epilogue, slightly dampening the effect of Cristofer's intriguing, broken-rhythmed Alfieri, and he lets Hecht fall into the most common trap for actresses playing Bea, which is playing Eddie's negative view of her. Even so, the staging builds powerfully; John Lee Beatty's set and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting are exceptionally evocative.

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) While it may sound odd to say so of something featuring betrayals and brutal death, the show that opened at the Cort last night is wickedly entertaining: Those two hours fly by. There are flaws (John Lee Beatty's set is literally creaky, for one), but the toned-down approach of director Gregory Mosher and his cast pays off. Largely it's because the performances successfully look inward, avoiding cheap, crowd-baiting histrionics -- and "A View From the Bridge" certainly has potential for those.

New York Observer B+
(Jesse Oxfeld) As directed by Gregory Mosher, this View From the Bridge is intense, emotional, physical and moving. It’s impressively economical—every line, movement, reaction exists only to build the tension to what Miller, in a foreword to the script, calls Eddie’s inevitable “catastrophe.” The only times it slackens—and this is Miller’s fault, not Mr. Mosher’s—is when Mr. Alfieri, Eddie’s lawyer, shows up to once more explain what’s going on. It’s unnecessary, and it takes you out of the story. It also prompts the question: When an attorney follows you around all day to explicate the implicit, does he charge an hourly fee or a retainer?

Gothamist B+
(John Del Signore) Her performance feels wholly authentic and earned, and during her anguished love scene I could see tears streaking her cheeks. You can fake that on film, but not on stage. The rest of the ensemble has soft spots ... Thankfully, Schreiber's portrayal of Carbone is so lived-in, so visceral, that he more than makes up for the cast's weaknesses. Carbone does something despicable, but you never see Schreiber judging his character, and his empathetic take on the role humanizes Carbone's monstrous deed. I'm a standing ovation purist, and think the gesture should be limited to only the most phenomenal performances, but I jumped to my feet along with the rest of the audience when Schreiber took his bow.

The Faster Times B+
(Jonathan Mandell) It is the siren call of Catherine’s beauty that drives what Miller intended as a twentieth century American update of an ancient Greek tragedy, the story of a man who loves his niece in the wrong way, and it is the lure of Scarlett Johansson on the stage that makes “A View From The Bridge” worth seeing. She is not the only reason. The rest of the cast collectively transport us back to the working-class Brooklyn of the 1950’s. Liev Schreiber’s performance in particular is sure to get high marks all around, and there are a number of surprising performances (though at least one was not a good surprise). John Lee Beatty’s set, which shows a tenement skyline that is almost majestic in its grubbiness, and then revolves to reveal the modest interior of the characters’ home, helps to emphasize that this is a story of plain people caught up in high tragedy. In the end, though, it remains a struggle, if not a stretch, to consider this play the unassailable modern classic that some people seem to be proclaiming it.

Theatre Mania B+
(David Finkle) It's a large credit to Mosher that every one of Miller's down-to-earth, yet-larger-than-life characters -- including neighborhood lawyer Alfieri (Michael Cristofer), who narrates the unrelentingly downbeat tale -- is profoundly etched ... From the instant Schreiber's Eddie scuffs in to join a coin-pitching game with two fellow workers (Robert Turano and Joe Ricci), the actor has every nuance in place for his depiction of a morally conflicted man who is imprisoned by illicit desires but damned if he's going to cop to them ... While the play never packs less than a knock-out dramatic punch, it does have its weaknesses. It's one thing to use Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and colleagues as models, but it's quite another to keep calling attention to the tactic.

New York Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) If the play's overstated narrative structure and bald symbolism (including a girl fetching and lighting her uncle's cigar) keep it from being on Miller's A-list (and they do), those weaknesses recede in Gregory Mosher's exceptionally well-acted, well-staged revival ... It's an outer-borough tragedy, ancient columns not included. Schreiber may be playing a surrogate Greek hero, but it's down-to-earth honesty that makes his work so gripping. Johansson's acting is dynamic yet understated. Movie stars like her are summoned to Broadway because they draw attention to the box office. On stage, though, she blends in beautifully with the cast.

Financial Times B
(Brendan Lemon) Is there another New York-based actor who can talk tough on-stage better than Liev Schreiber? ... Making her Broadway bow, Johansson generates minimal inner life and looks slightly odd with dark hair. Yet she provides a headier dose of theatrical Viagra than did another Broadway debutante, Nicole Kidman, a decade ago in The Blue Room at this same theatre, the Cort ... Insisting that concerns of basic justice and honour be paramount, Mosher stages Bridge unfussily. His concept, in essence, is his casting. Fortunately for him, Michael Cristofer, as the lawyer narrator, sounds the right notes of tragic inevitability, and Morgan Spector, as the artistic Rodolpho, makes an impression.

The Guardian UK C+
(Alexis Soloski) the neighbourhood attorney Alfieri, played by Michael Cristofer, assures the audience that "this is Red Hook, not Sicily," and that its inhabitants "are quite civilized, quite American. Now we settle for half, and I like it better." Mosher appears to take Alfieri at his word, offering a lucid, no-nonsense version of the script that somehow doesn't give its all. It moves rapidly from scene to scene (though one wishes he didn't so often rely on tacky rotating scenery to get from one to the next), and checks actorly tendencies toward indulgence. Yet Mosher harnesses little of the show's power. One shouldn't fault Schreiber, who lends Eddie a lumbering sensuality, and portrays a man beset by emotions he can't acknowledge or articulate. He's best in his most physical scenes, channeling his malice and despair into violence. He's ably supported by Jessica Hecht, as his careworn wife, and by the grainy voiced Cristofer as his ineffectual adviser. Johansson, who sports tight sweaters and nipped-waist dresses, toils to master her character's speech and posture, ably capturing the flat tones and "wavy walk" of a working-class girl advancing on womanhood. But she never quite conveys Catherine's ambivalence and distress.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) [F]or most of the first act, when Catherine is longing to escape the oppression of poor Brooklyn, Johansson convinces as a ripe Italian girl unsure of what options she really has. But when Catherine meets Eddie’s distant relatives from the old country, Marco (Corey Stoll) and Rodolpho (Morgan Spector), and blooms in the light of Rodolpho’s apparent love, Johansson still seems like the same pre-wilted flower. In neither voice nor manner does she progress beyond the lost girl of the opening scenes, which throws the rest of the story into turmoil ... Schreiber cannot cite stage inexperience as an excuse for his own one-note portrayal ... as long as Eddie is no more than the loving but lumbering lout who’s sacrificing everything he is for his family’s future, Schreiber is in complete command of the character’s brusque devotion and resigned world-weariness. The trick of the play, however, is that isn’t the real Eddie. A bigoted nationalist whose feelings for Catherine constantly threaten to transcend avuncular affection, Eddie’s truly an ugly stereotype given skyscraper stature so that Miller’s warnings about the importance of United States unity may unfold unimpeded. Schreiber, unfortunately, never goes the full way. His Eddie gets angrier and darker, yes, but never becomes big enough to consume the whole country. By the end of the play, when Eddie must face down Marco for control over his family (and by extension his homeland), Schreiber’s glimmering smolder is simply not sufficient for consuming him - let alone us - in the mythic conflagration Miller intended.

Wall Street Journal A 13; NYTimes A 13; Variety A 13; Backstage A 13; Time Out New York A 13; Washington Post A 13; USA Today A 13; Village Voice A- 12; NY Post A- 12; NY Observer B+ 11; Gothamist B+ 11; The Faster Times B+ 11; Theatre Mania B+ 11; NY Daily News B+ 11; Financial Times B 10; The Guardian UK C+ 8; Talkin' Broadway C- 6. TOTAL: 194/17 = 11.4 (B+)
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