Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Theater Review: “Which Way to the Stage” and “A Case for the Existence of God” are Plays About Finding a Purpose in Life, While Encores Goes “Into the Woods”

Which Way to the Stage (c) Daniel J. Vasquez

Theater Review: Which Way to the Stage 

The Manhattan Class Company has produced their second play about a woman’s hero worship of an actress. Two years ago, the show was “All the Natalie Portmans,” about a high school girl who goes into the fantasy world of Portman movies whenever life gets stressful. Currently, the object of obsession is Idina Menzel (or Adele Dazeem for those in the know) in Ana Nogueira’s “Which Way to the Stage.” Two stage door denizens - 30-somethings Judy (Sas Goldberg) and Jeff (Max Jenkins) - are waiting for Menzel while she performs in the 2015 Broadway show, “If/Then.” These theater fanatics and longtime friends not only debate the merits of shows (currently: Bernadette vs Patti’s in “Gypsy”) but are also practitioners as they are both hyphenate actors: Judy an actor-real estate agent and Jeff an actor-downtown drag performer. At an audition, Judy meets Mark (Evan Todd), a former finance guy who quit his job to persue acting, and they hit it off. This relationship starts a love/hate triangle with Jeff, who doesn’t believe Mark is straight and also resents that he already has a leg up in auditions with his charms and good looks. Nogueira knows her theater geek lingo and loyal friendship bonds. If you ever stood in an intermission bathroom line with any of them, this is the kind of talk you would hear verbatim. She also has an ease when casual conversation turns non-theater as well. But it’s only in her dramatic conflicts that the dialogue feels written instead of organic, especially when the topic turns to ownership of semantics and perceived privilege. The finale feels especially rushed and clunky, since it revolves around a character that hasn’t earned its symbolic resolution. All the actors are fun to watch, including Michelle Veintimilla, who expertly plays a couple of smaller roles, and although she coincidently resembles Menzel (spoiler alert), she never plays her, maybe because of a late rewrite. Of the main actors, Goldberg is especially good as Judy, highlighting both her vulnerability and insecurity particularly in the first half of the play. Unfortunately, what starts off as a funny and spot-on love letter to musical theater fans ultimately gets lost on its way to the stage. 

A Case for the Existence of God (c) Emilio Madrid

Theater Review: A Case for the Existence of God 
At Signature Theatre 

With a title as ponderous and portentous as “A Case for the Existence of God,” Samuel D. Hunter’s new play unexpectedly revolves around the mundane drama of applying for a mortgage loan, at least at the start. Ryan (Will Brill) is going through a divorce, and he meets a mortgage broker at his daughter’s day care named Keith (Kyle Beltram), which is lucky since Ryan is hoping to start a new life, building on a plot of land that used to be owned by his grandparents. Keith, a single gay man hoping to adopt the girl he is fostering, knows it’s going to be an uphill battle to get Ryan a loan with his credit score, even in Idaho (Hunter’s usual setting, this time in Twin Falls). During the loan process, the two become friends as they swap single-dad stories and how they are both struggling to find purpose in their lives, let alone the universe. Hunter is one of my favorite playwrights of his generation. He tackles big, spiritual subjects in the ordinary lives of his protagonists, like in my favorite of his plays “Pocatello.” But unlike his earlier plays, “Case” tackles the source of these subjects head on, and his goal may be too far a reach for this modest play. When the shift changes from mortgages to the metaphysical (director David Cromer is not subtle when that shift happens), it’s confusing, but in a way that you hope will be explained by the end. And while Hunter’s aim may have been to be profound about the themes hinted at by the title, the gravitas doesn’t feel earned. By bringing God into the equation, the theme of fate feels less like a debatable topic and more like an inevitability. With all that said, there is so much to like about this play and its world premiere production, starting with the incredibly versatile performances by Brill and Beltram – the play is always engaging and funny. The characters are likeable, but flawed which makes them relatable and us invested in their future, with the loan and adoption in the short run and their lives and destinies in the long run. The play is immensely enjoyable, and I know how hard it is to write a satisfying two-character play. It’s only the third character of (enter your deity of choice here), who is always hovering over the proceedings, that I had a minor quibble with. 

Into the Woods (c) Joan Marcus

Theater Review: Into the Woods 
At Encores at City Center 

Why does “Into the Woods,” the third and final produced concert in this year’s Encores slate, succeed when “The Tap Dance Kid” and “The Life” felt like noble failures? First of all, unlike the latter two shows, “Into the Woods” is a popular fan favorite that seems to have no problem getting produced (including a starry Oscar-nominated film in 2017). This concert, which plays until May 15, is sold out for the rest of its run. Not exactly the kind of show for a company that purports to find hidden gems in the Broadway musical history canon, but exactly the kind of show that will be a moneymaker for the company. Second, since this is its first professional New York presentation since the death of its composer, Stephen Sondheim, there is still much good will in hearing what is the last hit show of his career. And third, even though “Into the Woods,” with a book by James Lapine, has always suffered from a muddled second act, no one was going to rewrite Sondheim, while there were no qualms tinkering with “The Tap Dance Kid” and “The Life” so much that they barely resembled any of their creators’ original intent. Which is why this production of “Into the Woods,” with an intuitive but unfussy direction by Lear deBessonet, is just an absolute delight. It’s a crowd-pleasing show with an exceptional cast that doesn’t do anything revolutionary. No, there is one standout. In a cast that includes pop star Sara Bareilles as a charming Baker’s Wife, the funny Neil Patrick Harris as The Baker (stepping into the role at the last moment), a return-to-the-stage triumph of “The Gilded Age” star Denée Benton as Cinderella and the powerful Heather Headley as The Witch, it’s amazing that the character who steals the show is a cow, played with humor and sadness by puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa. Ever since Chad Kimbell’s performance in the 2002 revival, directors are beginning to realize who is the real hero of “Into the Woods.” Justice for Milky White.

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