Friday, November 17, 2023

Theater Reviews: Experimenting with Theatrical Realities Yield Mixed but Always Fascinating Results for “Arcadia,” “Scene Partners” and “Poor Yella Rednecks”

Arcadia (c) Ashley Garrett

Theater: Arcadia 
Presented by Bedlam at The West End Theatre 

For over 10 years, the theater company Bedlam has had a reputation for irreverent and cavalier productions of classic plays. Whether it’s an audacious theatrical conceit, modern acting techniques or swinging between minimal and maximum presentations, this brash company almost dares you to re-think beloved literary classics deconstructed within an inch of its original intent. Sometimes it works (like their superior Sense and Sensibility) and other times it feels like a noble failure (the perplexing mash-up Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet). Bedlam’s latest, Arcadia, which is one of Tom Stoppard’s most whimsical, dense and engrossing plays, thankfully falls into the former. Taking full advantage of The West End Theatre’s unique circular and domed playing space, director Eric Tucker’s barebones production makes sense once the audience gets back from intermission (after being politely but pointedly ejected from the theater). Until then, the first act may be confusing for those who are not familiar with Tom Stoppard’s play. His conceit presents us what happened in the Arcadian, the British estate of Lord and Lady Croom, who may or may not have hosted Lord Byron one weekend in 1809 that may or may not have ended in a duel, while also showing us some present-day scholars trying to decipher the surviving clues and how they get so much of it wrong. Of course, Bedlam being Bedlam, there are some stylistic choices that you must go with, including the cast having British accents in the past but American accents (as well as mannerisms – there’s a lot of yelling) in the present. But the second act, while not helping to clarify some of Stoppard’s more complex plot puzzles, at least has some ingenious (if perhaps too cute by half) set pieces that include an astonishing amount of physical precision on behalf of the cast. Again, how much of this is fidelis to Stoppard depends on your love of the original 1995 Broadway production. The huge ensemble has a good time playing off each other, with the actors who seem most able to straddle the Stoppard and Bedlam hybrid most successfully being Caroline Grogan’s inquisitive Thomasina, Lisa Birnbaum as her restless mother Lady Croom in the past and Mike Labbadia’s petulant Valentine in the present. Like many plays this season, Arcadia is a long sit (a little over three hours), but somehow Eric Tucker’s conceit and Stoppard’s genius finally does mesh, and I enjoyed it as much as any good carnal embrace. 

Scene Partners (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: Scene Partners 
At Vineyard Theatre 

Dianne Wiest is a national treasure. A two-time Oscar-winner for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, Wiest hasn’t slowed down in recent years, with her TV series Life in Pieces as well as impressive supporting turns in the films Let Them All Talk and, especially, I Care A Lot, where she gets to be deliciously wicked. She was last onstage as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, who shares a lot of characteristics with Meryl Kowalski, Wiest’s current role in John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Scene Partners as both try to continue living the life they knew while the everchanging world around them has become inhospitable. While Winnie is stuck (literally) in her world, Meryl’s life seems to have opened up after the death of her husband as she decides to move from Milwaukee to Los Angeles to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an actress. She is undeterred by the fact that she’s making such a life change in her 70s, leaving behind an emotionally manipulative and co-dependent adult daughter who knows how to make mom feel guilty. But it’s 1985, and Meryl is ready to start anew in LA as she moves in with her sister (Johanna Day), starts to take acting classes and even gets an agent. Her biggest obstacle seems to be her name, which everyone says will bring comparison to that other Meryl (who, ironically, was Wiest’s co-star in Let Them All Talk). So, for a while, this all feels like an inspirational Cinderella story of an older woman’s chapter two in life, but there are hints along the way that things may not be as rosy as Meryl’s outlook, including a recurring nightmare and some surreal happenstances on her way to stardom. Caswell’s play seems to take inspiration from Florian Zeller’s play The Father, which shows the slow descent into dementia through the eyes of its victim, with director Rachel Chavkin even incorporating a similar blinding light effect the earlier play used (in its Broadway incarnation) to disorient the audience from time to time. Although Scene Partners does ultimately end up in a similar place, Caswell overstuffs the play with too many quirky set pieces and tangents (he especially likes to skewer the film industry) that feel more cinematic and ambitious for what is ultimately a modest and intimate play. Still, the game cast (including a funny and verbose Josh Hamilton) effectively teeters between the real and the absurd. But it really is seeing Wiest on stage again that makes this evening as magical and worthwhile as it is, whether she’s flirting with a younger train conductor or singing (a little too thematically on the nose) Corey Hart’s Never Surrender at karaoke. The play occasionally feels unnecessarily over-caffeinated with busyness (including a lot of moving scenery), but Wiest, who rarely ever leaves the stage, is the calm eye in this hurricane, and her Meryl is both admirable and heartbreaking. 

Poor Yella Rednecks (c) Jeremy Daniel

Theater: Poor Yella Rednecks 
At Manhattan Theatre Club 

The one thing you can count on whenever you go to a play written by Qui Nguyen is unpredictability. His style, which is pretty hard to nail down, seems to be Asian hip-hop karate cowboy with a comic book sensibility. But with his recent plays, 2016’s Vietgone and now its sequel, Poor Yella Rednecks, which tracks the history of his parents’ life in Arkansas in the 1970s and 80s, he is maturing to more traditional theater topics, although he certainly hasn’t abandoned his unique voice (Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee appears as one of the narrators in Yella). Vietnamese immigrants Quang (Ben Levin) and Tong (Maureen Sebastian), whose courtship was explored in Vietgone, are now living in a harsher reality with a young son played by a puppet called Little Man (Jon Norman Schneider as both puppeteer and voice). But life is not easy for the small family (which includes Tong’s mother Huong, played by Samantha Quan) – lack of money is a constant hurdle as is Little Man’s inability to fit in at school with his poor English. Common immigrant issues are explored, including ambitions of owning a business and the heartbreak of assimilation that may involve rejection of traditions and mother country culture, all for the American dream. This dynamic feels analogous to Lee Issac Chung’s 2020 film Minari, about a Korean family, also with a grandma, in Arkansas in the 80s (as well) trying to start a farm. The son in Minari is obviously a stand-in for Chung, and in Yella, Nguyen makes it clear by having Schneider (sans puppet) in bookended scenes as an adult Nguyen interviewing his mother about his father for research for a play. There is a whirlwind of ideas and imaginative stagecraft by director May Andreas (who also directed Vietgone) that dazzles the audience, especially when the play falls into the usual trope of these biographical plays exploring the parents’ sacrifices and secrets unearthed. The “poetry slam” kind of songs peppered throughout are again amusing and even heartfelt, but Nguyen may have gone one too many times into this well as it becomes a bit predictable. The hardworking cast is exemplary here, especially Nguyen regular Paco Tolson, who plays many characters at breakneck speed, but is especially memorable as one of Tong’s white suitors whose broken Vietnamese (which is heard as broken English) is full of funny malapropisms. Levin and Sebastian are wonderful as the leads, bringing sexiness and humor to the early parts of their relationship and resentment and frustration to the latter. Special mention to the inventive sets by Tim Mackabee, with glowing letters spelling YELLA anchoring set pieces throughout the stage, and for also being the second play this fall (along with The Refuge Play) to utilize the bed of a truck effectively. While Poor Yella Rednecks certainly works as a stand-alone play, I certainly hope Nguyen has it in him for one more to make it a trilogy, to show us if chasing the American Dream was actually worth the sacrifices for this family.

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