Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Theater Review: An Enjoyable Metaphysical Trip on “The Coast Starlight,” Judy Gold Hilariously Gets Things Off Her Chest in “Yes I Can Say That!” and A Dazzling Donna Murphy Highlights “Dear World”


The Coast Starlight (c) T. Charles Erickson

Theater: The Coast Starlight 
At Lincoln Center Theater 

The iconic premise in the otherwise forgettable Gwyneth Paltrow movie, “Sliding Doors,” is that we follow Paltrow’s character down two paths, one in which she makes the train home and the other where the titled doors close in front of her and she has to take the next train. In our new “Everything Everywhere All at Once” multiverse reality, six strangers, who find themselves on The Coast Starlight train at different points in its itinerary from Los Angeles to Seattle, bond in a “what if we actually connected” way. The two people who take the entire trip are T.J. (a solidly jittery Will Harrison), a navy medic who is about to be deployed back to Afghanistan, and Jane (Camila Canó-Flaviá), an inspiring artist going to visit her long-distance boyfriend. They notice and are attracted to each other right away but they barely talk. In fact, if we add up the dialogue that is actually spoken in real life between these two and the other four passengers we will soon meet, the play would be no longer than fifteen minutes. Keith Bunin’s conceit is that these six people are on the same train but meet on a metaphysical plane in which we the audience are the only ones who witness their interactions and how they would advise each other’s current predicaments. As twee as this sounds, director Tyne Rafaeli invests the production with enough surreal touches to keep us on our toes. Entering the train at various times along the 36-hour ride are Noah (Rhys Coiro), Ed (Jon Norman Schneider), Anna (Michelle Wilson) and Liz (Mia Barron) bringing different energies to the dynamics, with Barron coming in like a tsunami and Wilson as a healing presence. The play’s ending feels right even if the real-world interaction between these characters couldn’t match the “what if” scenario that preceded it. 

Yes, I Can Say That! (c) James Leynse

Theater:  Yes, I Can Say That! 
Presented by Primary Stages at 59E59 

Some comedians are going through an identity crisis these days with audiences divided by the right, who believe comics are becoming too political, and the left, who think their humor isn’t politically correct or culturally sensitive. Judy Gold tackled these issues in her 2020 book (co-written with Eddie Sarfaty), “Yes I Can Say That!” Now, with the help of director BD Wong, the book has been adapted into a funny, pointed and enjoyable one-woman show. Gold, who has mined her Jewish upbringing (especially her relationship with her late mother) and her lesbian motherhood in equal measure, reprises some of her stand-up topics here in between her real goal, which is to present the history of social comedians to make audiences think, sometimes feel uncomfortable, but also laugh. Her greatest admiration is for the women who also had to deal with the sexism of the time just to get a chance to perform. Heroes like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers are talked about in reverent turns. Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis, not so much. “Yes, I Can Say That!” feels more serious than her earlier shows like “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother” and “The Judy Gold Show: My Life as a Sitcom,” and that might give some audience members who are used to her quite rat-a-tat-tat patter pause. But I was glad to hear her perspective, especially when she talks about playing for culturally sensitive college students and the time her joke involving a Hasidic woman made her a target of Jewish newspapers. Director Wong moves things swiftly, although the conceit of keeping her stand-up portions in the back with a mic got a bit repetitive after a while. The simple but effective set by Lex Liang (who also did the costumes) is filled with notecards that comedians use to write down comic bits to try out at their next stand-up gig. I always enjoyed Gold’s humor and this show is no exception. You will have a lot of laughs along with some stimulating tidbits about the people who paved the way for Gold to do what she does.

Dear World (c) Joan Marcus

Theater:  Dear World 
At Encores (closed) 

Broadway composers Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim, whose musical styles could not be more different, have one thing in common: They both wrote a Broadway musical in the 1960s starring Angela Lansbury that flopped. Thankfully in between Sondheim’s 1964 “Anyone Can Whistle” and Jerry Herman’s 1969 “Dear World,” Lansbury had a little show called “Mame” (also written by Herman), otherwise musical theater would have lost Lansbury to Hollywood forever. Both shows were socially satirical, which probably didn’t sit well with conservative Broadway audiences at the time (the enemy was corrupt capitalism), although musical theater fans found much to love in both shows. Fast forward to today and in comes Donna Murphy, current musical theater royalty for her Tony Award-winning performances in “Passion” and “The King and I.” Murphy took on Lansbury’s role as Cora in Encore’s concert staging of “Anyone Can Whistle” in 2010 and is now taking on Lansbury’s Countess Aurelia at the same venue. And she, as it seems the reviews at the time said about Lansbury, was fabulous in both. And both shows, as is the mandate of Encores, gave contemporary audiences a chance to hear a score to uneven musicals that will probably not get bigtime revivals anytime soon. Based on Jean Giraudoux’s play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” with a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Murphy plays the Madwoman, an eccentric but beloved fixture of Chaillot society, who discovers in her moments of lucidity that an evil corporation means to destroy their city by drilling for oil. She is joined by two of her cohorts, the Madwoman of the Flea Market (Andréa Burns) and the Madwoman of Montmartre (Ann Harada), to rile up the community to stand up and fight for their city. There’s nothing inherently wrong with “Dear World.” The story feels important and the characters are well defined–there is also a love story between a bar maid and a sad office lackey, played by Samantha Williams and Phillip Johnson Richardson, respectively–but the second act feels both undernourished and rushed at the same time. A mock trial seems to be taking up a lot of space, although it does give the versatile Christopher Fitzgerald (as the Sewerman, don’t ask) a chance to shine. But make no mistake, this is Donna Murphy’s world, and dear, we only live in it to adore her, which director Josh Rhodes knows full well. Hopefully, there will be a recording to preserve Murphy’s luminous versions of “I Don’t Want to Know” and “Kiss Her Now.” So, bring on Donna Murphy as Mame or Mrs. Lovett next. 

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