Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Theater Reviews: "Citizen Wong" Dramatizes a Shameful Moment in American History, James McAvoy's "Cyrano" is Not Quite on The Nose, and a Life is Examined in Broadway's "Birthday Candles"

Citizen Wong (c) John Quincy Lee

Theater: Citizen Wong 
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre at A.R.T. New York 

If you enjoyed the HBO drama, “The Gilded Age,” but wondered where all the Asian people were, please consider “Citizen Wong,” the new play by Richard Chang at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, your addendum to the show. At the same time (the late 1800s) the rich, white, socialites were moving uptown in Manhattan, and the more influential blacks were populating Brooklyn, the Chinese men who had helped to build the national railroad had settled into Chinatown and were being targeted by politicians. Eventually, President Charles Arthur passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted Chinese immigration and, according to the play, deporting the “undesirable” ones who were already here. Leading the fight was Wong Chin Foo, an educated lecturer and ultimately the founder of the first Chinese and English newspaper in New York. As portrayed by Whit K. Lee, he is charismatic and acerbic, and in Chang’s script, Chin Foo makes a lot of points that modern audiences will find very familiar with references to Anti-Asian hate crimes as well as using these perceived outsiders as convenient political targets. The play paints a wide canvas of history which may need the budget of an HBO to make work. As much as directors Ernest Abuba and Chongren Fan and the hard-working cast try, the play feels grounded when it should soar. Still, there’s a lot of informative background given and if the purpose of the play is to highlight the injustices in history, it succeeds handily. Ironically, the most effective part of the epic story is the intimate romance between Wong and Eliza Stanhope (Malka Wallick), a rich heiress who is sympathetic to his cause, especially since those scenes are so well-played by Lee and Wallick. May I suggest Julian Fellows hire Chang to help write for the second season of “The Gilded Age” where black journalist Peggy Scott crosses paths with Wong Chin Foo, maybe played by Harry Shum Jr. or Simu Liu. Wong Chin Foo (no relations) and his intriguing story would be quite the revelation in both the gilded and shameful history of New York City. 

Cyrano de Bergerac (c) Marc Brenner

Theater: Cyrano de Bergerac 

This is the second “Cyrano” this year in which there’s no nose in sight. At least in the movie musical version of “Cyrano” starring Peter Dinkledge, they acknowledge the conceit that Cyrano considers himself to be an outsider not because of his nose but because of his dwarfism. In Jamie Lloyd’s equally exuberant and dull National Theatre production, currently playing at BAM, the magnetic and hyper James McAvoy has a normal proboscis, making the audience imagine, “The Elephant Man” style, what’s obvious to everyone else in the play. From all the promo material, I thought the production would be sensory overload, with the rapping and the modern dress and the stark sets, but what isn’t shown, and is perhaps the weakest part of this otherwise engaging production: the AMSR. Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play is all over the place stylistically but for some reason, is also very faithful to the structure and plot beats, which means an almost three-hour running time. The first act is propulsive and spirited and follows the well-known story of Cyrano’s love of Roxanne, who in turn, is in love with Christian. He loves her too but really needs Cyrano’s help with the romantic wooing. But it seems like whenever Cyrano gets really serious about his love for Roxanne, he gets into this trance state and his speech falls into a monotone rhythm, stopping the show from any momentum it was building. Evelyn Miller is wonderful as Roxanne, although I still find the character quite loathsome in her requests and manipulation of Cyrano. Eben Figueiredo’s Christian sort of blends into the background with the huge cast, until a directorial change that is as startling as it is unrealized jolts Christian’s character in the second act. And then there’s McAvoy. He is a chameleon on screen in movies like “Atonement,” the “X-Men” franchise and “Split,” and he makes quite the splash in his New York debut. You can’t keep your eyes off him, although by using his natural Scottish accent, some lines are harder to catch than others. I just wish the production gave us more time to root for him as a hero and not spend so much time mooning with him over Roxanne. 

Birthday Candles (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Birthday Candles 
On Broadway at the Roundabout 

It’s probably hard for playwrights to accept that even if they come up with an interesting hook or structure, they still need to invest the play with an equally compelling plot. Noah Haidle’s “Birthday Candles” has plenty of the former but unfortunately lacks in the latter. The play follows Ernestine (a game Debra Messing) starting around her 17th birthday, as her mother is preparing to make her a cake. Her mother insists that Ernestine learns how to make the cake, and that’s the play’s real invention. “Birthday Candles” spans decades, jumping years from scene to scene to a different Ernestine birthday, but the actual cooking of the cake is made from beginning to end throughout the length of the 90-minute play. So, on her 17th, the mother lays out the ingredients and starts mixing, and by the play’s end, at her last birthday, the cake is out of the oven, finally baked. (Why the play isn’t called Birthday Cake is beyond me.) What happens between cake prep is the life of Ernestine, who at 17 wants to be a rebel and not do what’s expected of her, but like a lot of us, real life interrupts her dreams. Soon, she is married with children, and I have to give Haidle credit that the dramas this family endures is a bit more interesting than your typical middle-class Broadway family biography. His best invention is the long-suffering neighbor, Kenneth (the standout Enrico Colantoni), who has a long unrequited crush on Ernestine which we see continue throughout the many birthday celebrations. The other cast members do a good job with the many ages of their characters, but once we get into the latter half of Ernestine’s life, the play sort of drifts along in the familiar rhythms that director Vivienne Benesch has set up and rarely waivers from. That’s too bad, because I would rather hear what an elderly Ernestine has to say than her younger self. Messing, who is on stage the whole time, is very watchable and her comic timing is still sharp, but I think she plays the elderly card way too early in Ernestine’s timeline, giving her nowhere to go once it becomes obvious that she’s going to live a long (LONG!) life. Still, the audience I was in stayed on the play’s wavelength and its digestible themes of life, death and family. But when the lights came up and they wiped away their tears, I just wish they didn’t immediately wonder if they could make the 10pm train.

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