Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Theater: Kelli O’Hara Shines Through the Dark Addiction of “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Once Upon a Mattress” Is a Love Letter to Sutton Foster, “Pride House” Is an Enjoyable Cherry Grove History Lesson and “Our Class” Is an Uncompromising Look at a Real-Life Tragedy

The Days of Wine and Roses (c) Joan Marcus

Broadway: Days of Wine and Roses 
At Studio 54 

The extraordinary actress Kelli O’Hara has never shied away from the darker elements of her characters in such musicals as A Light in the Piazza and Far From Heaven or the opera The Hours. But in Days of Wine and Roses, the musical adaptation of the 1962 Blake Edwards film, the darkness is front and center with O’Hara as a woman falling prey to alcohol addiction with no life raft in sight. Her performance is so raw and angry and heartbreaking that one hopes her dressing room is filled with puppies to help with any post-performance hangover. O’Hara plays Kirsten, a secretary for a big advertising company in the late 1950s, who falls in love with a salesman at the company, Joe (Brian d’Arcy James). Joe, who uses alcohol to get through this fast-paced world and, maybe, so he can have a drinking partner, introduces the otherwise non-drinker Kristen to her first Brandy Alexander. The two become functional drunks (“two corks just bobbing around”) as they get married and have a baby, but things start to spiral out of control when Kristen accidentally sets fire to their apartment, and they have to live with her widowed father (Byron Jennings) — his greenhouse gives the show the other half of its title. Caught in-between all this is their daughter Lila (the wonderful Tabitha Lawing) and the question is “will this couple’s love for her be enough motivation to fight their addiction?” The musical creators, Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel, made two major changes from the movie: the setting has been moved from San Francisco to New York and while the movie slowly becomes a redemption arc for Joe (played by Jack Lemmon), the musical subtlety pulls the focus onto Kirsten (played in the film by Lee Remick) and her tragic fall from being a good girl to an addict drinking with strangers in motels. Because of this change, a lot of Joe’s bouts with detox have been cut, while every moment of Kirsten’s descent is dramatized with an almost horror story precision. Guettel, whose A Light in the Piazza is still one of my favorite Broadway musicals of the modern era, has provided the pair with bouncy songs to highlight the good times but by the end, his score has turned tragically operatic. It is a beautiful Broadway follow-up for this talented composer. And while Brian d’Arcy James is powerful as the equal parts slimy and honorable Joe, it really is, with director Michael Grief’s sensitive guiding hand, O’Hara’s show. Lucas’ book could have delved more into Kirsten’s psyche (her mother’s death when she was young seems to be an unexplored element), but O’Hara makes us almost believe that her last act is not an act of cowardice, but of bravery where she accepts the reality that she cannot change. O’Hara never sugarcoats Kirsten’s choices, and the tragedy of her character is even more heartbreaking because of it. This is Kelli O’Hara’s best performance, and she deserves all the roses. 

Once Upon a Mattress (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Once Upon a Mattress 
Presented by Encores! at New York City Center 

What a coincidence that in the same week composer Adam Guettel opened his latest musical Days of Wine and Roses on Broadway, City Center presented his mother Mary Rodgers’ 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress (which starred Carol Burnett in her Broadway debut) at Encores! One of director Lear deBessonet’s best decisions for the “revisal” of this beloved high school staple was to reward the audience with a Sutton Foster retrospective. Foster plays the comedic heroine Princess Winnifred as a close cousin to her also swamp-dwelling Princess Fiona from Shrek the Musical; she has the cute bobby wig from Thoroughly Modern Millie; she is surrounded by cast members Harriet Harris and Francis Jue from that musical and the show has hired Amy Sherman-Palladino (the creator of her TV series Bunheads) to update and pepper modern references to the original Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer script. So when she finally enters the stage, climbing the castle wall after “swimming the moat” (that line itself is a joke said ad nauseum in the course of five minutes), the audience, who has been anxiously awaiting this moment for almost a half hour, finally gets a chance to release their love for one of the most beloved performers on Broadway today. And that’s even before she starts to pull an endless amount of stuff from her person, remnants from the much-talked about moat. And Foster, it has to be said, is a joy to watch, but like the rest of the cast before her entrance, she is dancing as fast as she can to keep the audience from realizing what a thin musical Once Upon a Mattress really is. Will this plucky, down-home princess be able to pass the test of feeling a small pea under 12 mattresses in order to marry the adorably clueless prince (Michael Urie)? The always reliable Urie utilizes every physical comedy trick from his acting arsenal to make us laugh, while two other standouts in the cast have to be Cheyenne Jackson as a sort of clueless but always brave member of the court and recent Tony Award-winner J. Harrison Ghee as our sassy narrator. But if the point of Encores! is to introduce audiences to songs from neglected shows, the clowning surrounding many of them leaves a lot of the lyrics unheard in breathlessness. Foster herself tries to sell the most famous Mary Rodgers-Marshall Barer number, “Shy,” while running around the stage as if the song needed all this stage business. Thankfully for her second song, “Happily Ever After,” Foster is allowed to just sell the song alone, which she does winningly. It is telling that throughout the entirety of the show, the most suspenseful moment is Foster climbing the precarious number of the titled mattresses and flopping around with no support, and possibly falling at any moment. That is the drama missing from the actual show. 

Pride House (c) Richard Rivera

Theater: Pride House 
Presented by TOSOS at The Flea Theater

At first, it seems Chris Weikel’s play about the early days of Fire Island’s Cherry Grove community may be a bit too on the nose with its title Pride House, but it turns out it’s a happy, historical coincidence that Weikel mines with relish. The actual house apparently still stands, however, I’m not sure if the smaller guest cottage named “Prejudice House” is real or part of Weikel’s liberty with the real-life events he was inspired by. The play takes place in September of 1938 (a historically important time for Fire Island, which I didn’t know) at the titular house of Beatrice Farrar (Jamie Heinlein), which she shares with her gay ex-husband Thomas (Patrick Porter). They are hosting a party for friends (mostly artists, mostly homosexuals) and Farrar, in a moment of misplaced generosity, invites the Gerards (Gail Dennison and Desmond Dutcher), her old fashioned (he calls her Mother) but influential neighbors. Even with these conservatives and an equally judgy homeowners’ association afoot, Beatrice still loves having her flamboyant Manhattan friends over. For this three-act play, Weikel spins a fun tale of the gay lives of Beatrice’s friends, including Natalia, a lesbian actress, and John (Aaron Kaplan), a famous gay writer and critic is referred to as “theater adjacent” (I take offense). Also at the house is a gaggle of flamboyant theater folks (Tom Souhrada, London Carlisle, Alex Herrera, Jake Mendes), the precursor of the found family community that will be the staple of modern Cherry Grove. They lovingly call Beatrice “Queen Bee” and, not surprisingly, the real drama is set to be between Queen Bee and Mother for the future of the little enclave they call home. Although a bit overstuffed (I didn’t even mention the two French children also lodging in the house), Weikel has a knack for creating a unique world and keeping us interested in everyone who crosses the threshold. Pride House is lovingly directed by Igor Goldin (Yank) and the huge, talented cast is fun to watch, with Heinlein, Souhrada and DiSalvo being the standouts. The play is launching the 50th season for TOSOS (The Other Side of Silence), which was founded by the playwright Doric Wilson as one of the first LGBTQ+ theater companies in New York. They should be proud indeed. 

Our Class (c) Pavel Antonov

Theater: Our Class 
Presented by the Mart Foundation and Arlekin Players Theater at BAM 

If you saw the recently Oscar-nominated Auschwitz set film The Zone of Interest and thought it needed more horror and anti-Semitism, then the unflinching and shocking Our Class is for you. Also set in Poland before, during and after World War II, the play follows the fate of 10 classmates, evenly split between Jews and Catholics, as they have a front-row seat to the historic ethnic cleansing from both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play (which was performed in English at the Royal Court in London in 2009) is inspired by a real tragedy in a small town at the start of the war and focuses on how it affected the lives of these Polish citizens. I am sad to say I was unfamiliar with this horrible act of violence, so when the play ends its first act with it, I and the rest of the audience are shocked into a mostly quiet intermission. The second act focuses on the aftermath as well as the eventual uncovering of the truth. The play starts with the cast as young classmates as they say goodbye to Abram (Richard Topol) who is moving with his family to New York. Without the likable Abram to unite them, the ugly reality of anti-Semitism becomes evident in their class. Director Igor Golyak has taken an almost Brechtian approach to his production, presenting the story as an acting exercise for these talented actors, who start off with scripts in their hands and using whatever props they can find in the rehearsal room of a set to tell the story. Sometimes the effect is inspired, as when Abram leaves Poland and literally walks out of the theater into the streets of New York, and when the first victim slowly moves into the white chalk outline on the wall of his death pose, but many of the theatrical tricks (including balloons, ladders, videos, a lot of chalk, ceiling netting and more) unfortunately distract more than enlighten. Still, after the harrowing retelling of this historical event, the play does end with some hope (as opposed to The Zone of Interest) that actually feels earned. At three hours, the play (presented by the Mart Foundation and Arlekin Players Theater) never lets the audience off the hook, but it sadly keeps us at a distance. One wonders if a less actor-y and more realistic treatment might have been more engrossing and effective.

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