Friday, November 30, 2012

Dreamgirls at Signature Theatre in Virginia

The holiday season brings out the crowd-pleasing shows.  Signature Theatre gives us a vibrant revival of Dreamgirls, the story of a Supremes-style girl group navigating their way to fame and the heartbreaking consequences of such a rise.   The book by Tom Eyen and score by Henry Krieger provide terrific roles for an ensemble briskly directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner.  The simple two-story set designed by Adam Koch provides a platform that dazzles the eyes whether giving a glimpse of show-biz from the wings or the backstage drama.   The incredible costumes designed by Frank Labovitz are an architectural marvel.   As pointed out in an interview in the Washington Post, the Dreamgirls have eleven performance costumes some of which require very fast changes.  One of those changes is six seconds.   Using a variety of techniques from layering to having an evening gown double as a top those quick changes flow.  If an occasional glimpse of a foundation garment happens it can be forgiven given the monumental task at hand.

Signature Theatre has cast this show with an incredible ensemble of performers who do more than justice to this score.   David Bazemore grows from mild-mannered songwriter to a mature man capable of standing up for himself.   Cedric Neal burns up the stage as Jimmy and his character's flameout is sad to watch as Mr. Neal does an excellent job of charming the audience during all of his numbers.  As Curtis, Sydney James Harcourt has all the persuasive charm of a snake.  Curtis can be a one-note slime ball in lesser hands, but Mr. Harcourt makes you see Curtis as genuinely caring for the ladies in the beginning.  He manages to make Curtis less a hissable villain than the misguided controlling Svengali that is the character's actual nature.

As for the ladies themselves, like the Supremes there are four rather than three.  Kara-Tameika Watkins as the replacement Michelle Morris is the least developed character, but she exudes charm and wins the audience over as her situation is not her fault.  Crystal Joy as Lorell is sweetly naive, but gains inner strength as she must handle her disappointments as she breaks free from Jimmy Early's spell.  Shayla Simmons Deena" is physically gorgeous.  Ms. Simmons shows us there is much more to Deena than a pretty face and lovely voice.  Deena's journey from shy mama's girl to lead singer to a woman capable of breaking free from Curtis' control is simply wonderful to watch.   If that was the main story of Dreamgirls she would have nailed all the emotional points.   This is not Deena's story.  It's Effie's.

Effie White has been an award-winning role for many actresses.   Do not be surprised to see Nova Y. Payton add herself to that list.  Her Effie is a force of nature.   A woman of strength who knows that she is not one to stay in the background.   Yet Effie is complex, occasionally not likable as she is always thinking of herself.   When Effie reaches the crucial point of the show, Ms. Payton's rendition of  "(and I am telling you) I'm Not Going" is electric, heartbreaking and powerful.

Dreamgirls is being performed in The Max theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through January 13, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Theatre Dining Review: The Catwalk Cafe at Arena Stage

As part of the multi-milion dollar renovation of Arena Stage in Washington, DC a wonderful dining area was created.   Located on the rooftop of the Kreeger Theatre, the Catwalk Cafe provides cafeteria-style service with menus inspired by the current shows.   New to the menu this season is a prix fixe three course meal which can be a bargain compared to the a la carte offerings.

The prix fixe menu is available pre-ordered and pre-paid for $19.  The regular price is $29.  For this price you get soup or side salad as a starter, entree, entree salad or panini as a main course and dessert.   If you are ordering the main entrees they alone cost $18.  So for an additional $1 you get the salad/soup course and dessert.

For the current productions of My Fair Lady and Pullman Porter Blues your choices include:

Cockney salads -  Country English Salad, Asian Salad or Classic Caesar Salad.  The English and Caesar salads can have chicken or shrimp added for an additional cost.

Soups - Chicken Noodle or Minestrone.

Pullman's Panini"s - Three Cheese Grilled Cheese, Roasted Portobello, Blackened Chicken & Fresh Mozzarella or a Kids Grilled Cheese.

Loverly Entrees come with a choice of three sides - Chicken Marsala or Hearty Beef Stew, the later served in a bread bowl.

Sides - Braised Red Cabbage with Apples, Honey Glazed Carrots, Parsley Boiled New Potatoes, Buttered Egg Noodles or a Dinner Roll.

Locomotive Desserts - Arena Stage Poster Cookies, Individual Sticky Toffee Pudding, Red Velvet Cupcake or Jumbo Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Children's meals are available and include Kids Grilled Cheese or Bowl of Soup, one side and a choice of the cupcake or chocolate chip cookie for dessert.

The only downsides are that the entrees come with possibly too much food, particularly the beef stew in the bread bowl, which really doesn't need additional starchy sides.   It would be nice if there was a steamed vegetable available as a side dish for those who do not want a glaze or a sauce.

If you order the panini it does not come with any additional sides.   So you must either purchase an additional side or bag of chips.

Drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic are extra, although cups for complimentary ice water are available.

It is essential to make reservations to guarantee seating.  The Cafe is available for dining two hours before curtain time.   To save money, definitely reserve the three course prix fixe menu in advance.  A list of those patrons who have pre-paid is kept at the cashier's where you pay for your meal.

For additional information and to reserve the Catwalk Cafe please visit

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Fair Lady at Arena Stage

Arena Stage presents a simply lovely production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.  With radiant performances and a design palette bursting with color, this classic tale adapted from Pygmalion the play and film by George Bernard Shaw has settled into the Fichander Stage for the holiday season.

This is the story of a poor Cockney flower girl who seeks to improve her life by learning to speak English more gentile and the phonetics professor who agrees to do so to win a wager that he can pass her off as a duchess in six months time.  Their journey exposes the prejudices of the English class system and leads to insights and understanding as both characters discover their humanity and an abiding affection grows between them that transcends their initial student/teacher relationship.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has made some brilliant choices in bringing her vision of this show to vibrant life.  In particular the design choices are  fanciful yet clearly delineate the different classes portrayed in the play.  The Cockney characters are a riot of steampunk color, the palette for Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering and the servants staid muted earth tones and sensible black.   Most welcome is the famous Ascot scene forever linked to the black and white scheme of the Broadway and film's award-winning designer Cecil Beaton.   Here, costumer Judith Bowden provides a stunning array of jewel tones and pastels, the hats, many executed by Arena Stage's milliner Deborah Nash, are more than worthy of the Alexander McQueen runway-style inspiration.

Molly Smith's other inspired move is to embrace the multicultural casting which she used to great effect in her 2010 production of Oklahoma!  Her choices of casting not only give opportunities to actors who might not be considered for major roles in the classic musical canon, but are thoughtfully applied and justified by historical research.

It is terrific to see many performers that are well-known to Washington, D.C. theatergoers. Sherri L. Edelen steers the Professors household as the housekeeper Mrs. Pierce, adapting comedically well to the disruptions in her well-ordered routine.  Thomas Adrian Simpson has an edge of charm to his occasionally obtuse Colonel Pickering.  Catherine Flye commands the stage in her all too brief appearances as the disapproving mother of Professor Higgins.  James Saito adds a bit of a wink and a sly nod attitude to the famed philosophical dustman, Alfred P. Doolittle.

Nicholas Rodriguez makes a welcome return to Arena Stage as the ardent Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  His rendition of On The Street Where You Live elicits a few sighs as Mr. Rodriguez charms the audience.  His physical transformation during Show Me as he strips the veneer of his stiff upper class bearing to match the ardent passion of Miss Doolittle is delightful.

Benedict Campbell is not the first Henry Higgins to largely abandon the speak-singing style of Rex Harrison but the decision to do so is wise.  Mr. Campbell shades his Higgins' arrogance with the simple cluelessness of a man who simply has few social skills.  When this Pygmalion is confronted by his growing feelings for his Galatea Mr. Campbell breaks down his barriers in a manner that does not betray the nature of Professor Higgins' character.   Mr. Campbell's rendition of I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face is deeply affecting, a true revelation of human emotion.

This production truly belongs to the incredible Eliza Doolittle of Manna Nichols.  Eliza is a dual-natured woman and it is hard to find an actress who can equally portray the survalist gutter snipe and the refined lady.  Ms. Nichols manages this task by never allowing the refined Eliza to completely lose her true self.  When Eliza proclaims that she is no longer fit for anything other than to sell herself in marriage, it is a genuine cry of despair as the consequences of the transformative experiment hit home.  Ms. Nichols has a soaring soprano voice that does marvelous justice to the many beautiful songs in Lerner and Loewe's score.

If there is any flaw in this production it may come from your fellow audience members.  My Fair Lady is so well known that you should not be surprised to hear those around you humming or not so quietly singing along with the actors.  It is a very minor irritant that should not distract from a loverly evening of theater.

My Fair Lady is being performed in the Fichander Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through January 6, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company

Twas a cold night in Reston on a warm cozy stage....

The bad boys of abridgment are in fine comedic form with their newest production The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged).   Framed as the Multicultural Interfaith Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant held annually at St. Everybody's Non-Denominational Universalist Church, this rollicking romp lovingly skewers every holiday tradition you can imagine.

Our three intrepid fellows, Austin Tichenor, Reed Martin and Matt Rippy try desperately to entertain their stranded audience when bad weather prevents the Pageant's other performers from arriving.   Using found props they tackle everything from caroling to English panto.  Ramadan, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa do not escape the parody express, but it is the many, many, many traditional and not so traditional Christmas events that are the target of witty barbs laced with snowflakes and eggnog.  

The audience will be roped in to the merriment.  Do not be surprised to find yourself singing along to a familiar carol, participating in a white elephant gift exchange or screaming out the responses to the first authentically Christmas English pantomime.

The three members of the RSC give their All Lang Syne in their performances.  As a matter of fact Mr. Tichenor and Mr. Reed bare their souls and a few other parts that will sear an image into your mind that you will never forget.

This production is only touring for a brief few weeks this 2012 holiday season.  If the Reduced Shakespeare Company is coming to a theater near you make sure you do not miss this delightful show.

The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged) is being performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company on selected dates in November and December 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

The Conference of the Birds at the Folger Theatre

Imagination and creativity are in full bloom in the Elizabethan theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Director Aaron Posner mounts a delightful production of Jean-Claude Carriere and Peter Brook's adaptation of The Conference of the Birds.   This 12th century Sufi poem by Farid Uddi Attar uses the birds of the title as a metaphor.  Their long arduous quest to find their king stands in for mankind's longing to attain enlightenment.

The birds of the world are sad as they have no king.  A wise hoopoe (a type of kingfisher) advises that the birds do have a king, the mythical Simorgh, but they will have to undertake a long difficult journey to find him.  Many of the birds are frightened and come up with various excuses as to why they should not undertake the journey.  Some birds give up, others die, but those who succeed are given the reward they seek.

Interspersed with fables that illustrate the challenges the birds face, The Conference of the Birds invites comparison with The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales.  In fact, anyone who has witnessed Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the former or her Ovid's Metamorphosis which is being mounted at Arena Stage in 2013 will find a great deal of similarity in The Conference of the Birds staging methods.  

Meghan Raham's scenic design enhances the Elizabethan-style stage succeeding in disguising the pillars and balcony in an unobtrusive way.  Olivera Gajic's costumes flow over the actors' bodies.  They are not literal bird costumes, which is a good thing.   Yet, some of the pieces which are added to the basic earth-tone garments, such as the beautiful robe donned by the peacock are suggestive of the bird theme.  Tom Teasley provides a one-man musical accompaniment that is rich in its themes and perfectly balanced without overpowering the actors' words.

The ensemble of eleven led by Patty Gallagher's Hoopoe are a unit.  Whether flying as a flock or listening as a few tell a story, they embody the birds they represent with a clarity of motion and feeling that makes this a worthy evening of theatrical storytelling.

The Conference of the Birds is being performed at the Folger Theatre through November 25, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit

Friday, November 9, 2012

Annie at the Palace Theatre

The popular 1977 musical Annie has returned to Broadway.   While this production contains some truly wonderful performances, particularly our beloved leading orphan and the billionaire whom she enchants her way into his heart, this current incarnation feels uneven and flat.   This is a shame as there is the kernel of a truly brilliant show lying tantalizing out of reach.

Annie, based on the comic strip with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin  tells the tale of our intrepid heroine.  Left in an orphanage as a baby with half of a heart locket and a note promising to return one day, Annie dreams of being reunited with her parents.  To that end she frequently runs away from the man-starved, alcoholic Miss Hannigan who runs the orphanage. During one of her escapes she finds a stray dog, whom she names Sandy. The two bond as Annie sings that Tomorrow will be a better day.  Returned to the orphanage by the coppers, Annie is about to be punished when Grace Farrell, assistant to the billionaire Oliver Warbucks arrives to invite an orphan to spend Christmas with the richest man in America.  Once there, Annie charms her way into Warbucks heart and he asks if he can adopt her.  Annie declines saying that she will someday find her real parents.   A national appeal draws the attention of Miss Hannigan, her shady brother, Rooster and Rooster's gal pal, Lily who plot to claim the reward money by posing as Annie's parents.  Exciting adventures and even a visit to FDR eventual lead to a happy ending for everyone.

Despite a terrific set and costume design, director James Lapine and choreographer Andy Bankenbueler never seem to let this production fill the cavernous Palace Theater.  Large production numbers such as NYC and New Deal for Christmas don't raise the roof.   Some character interpretations seem out of place in a storybook musical.   You know you have a problem when Clarke Thorell's Rooster Hannigan is a much more compelling character when he is impersonating Annie's father than he is when he's playing the slippery con man.   Easy Street the villains' signature number usually stops the show.   Here it just feels flat and uninspiring.

Katie Finneran like every subsequent Miss Hannigan has the ghost of Dorothy Loudon haunting the minds of theatergoers or those with access to You Tube.   It is refreshing that she is trying a different interpretation.  However, her Miss Hannigan seems mired in natural realism instead of the comically evil foil we are dying to love to hate.

The orphan girls are charming and each has a distinct personality.  They do seem to have had their voices infected by the Noo Yawk dialect of the Newsies newsboys from the other side of Times Square.

Lilla Crawford's Annie is tough, but utterly charming and her smile lights up the far reaches of the Palace's highest balcony.   She has a clear belting voice and shows genuine emotion particularly in her signature tunes Maybe and Tomorrow.   She is well matched by her Daddy Warbucks.  Anthony Warlow equally commands the stage and has great poignancy in his second act Something Was Missing.   When the two combine on I Don't Need Anything But You the potential of this revival is fully realized for probably the only time in the entire two hours plus running time.

A special nod must go to famed animal trainer William Berloni who has once again worked his magic in finding a very special dog to portray Sandy.  Young Sunny is a rescue dog who, as stated in her biography has the "soulful eyes" of the original Sandy.   Mr. Berloni's amazing work over the decades since the original production of Annie to find incredible animals for the theater has given so many abandoned animals a chance at an amazing life.  Sunny and her understudy Casey are ambassadors for the thousands of shelter animals that need a second chance.

Annie is playing the Palace Theater on Broadway.   For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

War Horse - U.S. National Tour at the Kennedy Center

Michael Morpurgo wrote the novel War Horse in 1982.   He was deeply moved by stories he had learned from relatives and acquaintances about their experiences in World Wars I and II.   When he moved to Devon in the mid-1970's he became interested in the compelling stories of the horses that served in wartime.     It is known that  tens of millions of men lost their lives or were wounded on all sides during World War I.   The cost to the civilian population was equally devastating.    Through conversations with local Devon villagers, Mr. Morpurgo learned of the loss of the horses pressed into service.  8 million horses died serving in the Great War.    Used as cavalry mounts and to pull ambulances and guns, the British army alone used approximately 1 million horses in the war effort.   Of those million, 62,000 returned home, the rest died or were sold after the war, usually to be used in the devastated areas of France and Belgium as meat.     Mr. Morpurgo made the bold decision to tell the story of World War I from the point of view of one of those horses.    By doing so, he was able to tell a balanced story of the war from the point of view of the British and German forces and the French civilians caught in the middle.    The difficulty becomes how does one translate such a work to the stage.    

War Horse began in the United Kingdom as a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain.   In 2011 the Broadway production opened at Lincoln Center in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.   In New York, the creative staging coupled with the relatively intimate feeling the Beaumont Theatre created led to an emotionally engaging evening of theater.  How does War Horse work when adapted for the variety of staging conditions inherent in a national tour?  At Lincoln Center the stage was equipped with a turntable and the thrust stage and initmate raked balcony placed the action of the play close to the audience.  The Opera House at  Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center is cavernous.  As a result, some of the more intimate moments are lost.   Yet, the operatic nature of this play's scope becomes more apparent.  The cast may not be able to bring Joey and the soldiers into the audience as they did at Lincoln Center.   The National tour's cast still manages to create a compelling heart-felt tale of the ravages of war, told through the experiences of an amazing horse.

The original novel told the story entirely from the point of view of Joey the horse.  The script by Nick Stafford opens up the story to include not only Joey, the beautiful thoroughbred and draft mix who remains the focal point, but also the coming of age of the young Devon farm boy who loves him,  Albert Narracott.    This is not just a story of World War I, it is truly the story of Albert and his family and how they deal with the difficulties in life.    Albert's father, Ted is an alcoholic who is bound and determined to prove himself to be as successful as his brother, Arthur.   Ted was unable to serve in the Boer War and has a huge chip on his shoulder in the mistaken belief that because he stayed home no one in the village respects him.   Ted is a foolish man and risks his family's security by outbidding Arthur in a horse auction for young Joey the colt, but imperils the family farm as he spends the mortgage money to buy the horse. 

It is through this foolish act that Joey and the young Albert meet.    Through gentle persuasion Albert gains Joey's trust and trains him and soon they are galloping the countryside.   Arthur cannot stand that Ted bested him and by plying him with alcohol gets him to bet that Joey can learn to plow a field in one week's time.    Albert is furious with his father, but agrees to try on the condition that if he succeeds then Albert will become Joey's owner.    Yet, Ted betrays his son when shortly after the contest, Ted learns that the British Army will pay 100 pounds for an officer's cavalry mount and sells Joey.    Joey is sent to to France where he will see the carnage of war, first as a British cavalry horse.  Then in the ensuing chaos of battle Joey ends up on the German side, alongside another British horse, Topthorn.    Respite is little and Joey sees and suffers many torments.   Meanwhile, young Albert runs away from home, lies about his age and  joins the army to find his beloved horse.     Will Joey and Albert ever be united again?

The set design by Rae Smith is deceptively simple.  The few set pieces are easily manipulated by the actors whether in the trenches at the front or the Narracott farm.  There is a large scrim-like gash across the top of the stage. Upon this scrim projections of  marvelous sketches are drawn in front of our eyes showing everything from the Devon countryside to the growth of Albert and Joey's bond to the haunting skies over a battlefield.   Rae Smith also designed the wonderful sketches and the perfect costuming.   

Adrian Sutton has created a stunning score reminiscent of the time period.  The score is equally intimate as needed and at times lushly epic to accompany the scale of the war scenes.  John Tams original songs are timeless and could easily be of the time period.  Those songs are poignantly sung by John Milosich accompanied by the instrumentation of Nathan Koci.  The direction adapted from the original by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris by Bijan Sheibani emphasizes the emotions inherent in the story.    Adrienne Kapstein's movement and choreography for the horse sequences must be witnessed in person to see their effectiveness.

That brings us to the horses.   Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company has created utterly amazing life-size puppets to portray Joey, Topthorn and all of the other horses in the production.    Each horse takes three actors to bring to life.  Due to the exertion required, multiple actors portray the horses.  At the performance this reviewer attended Joey was portrayed as a Foal by Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica, Joey as a stallion by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui, Topthorn by Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns and Gregory Manley, Coco by Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger and Heine by Grayson DeJesus and Jason Loughlin.    The performance by these actors requires a Herculean effort over the course of the 2 hour and 40 minute running time.  These actors more than deserve their in costume and out of costume curtain calls. 

And what a performance it is.   These puppets are steps beyond the most effective puppetry that used on on the stage (yes, including The Lion King)    These horses not only must move in a stylized, yet realistic fashion but they manipulate their ears, mouths and tails, must be able to bear the weight of the human characters and they breathe.    It is incredible to watch and draws applause from the audience at moments early in the performance, but quickly the audience forgets the artistry of the puppets and accepts them as the leading characters of the story.

As for the human characters the ensemble is a wonderful cohesive unit, whether portraying soldiers, villagers or, upon occasion the fences of a horse pen or the barbed wire of No Man's Land.  Ultimately this is a story of a boy and his horse.   As the boy, Albert, who must learn the cruelties of the world through his foolish father's behavior and later during his insane decision to go to war to find his horse, Andrew Veenstra delivers a nuanced emotional performance despite the great distances the Opera House keeps between the actor and the audience.    It is through Mr. Veenstra that the puppet Joey becomes a living horse in the audience's eyes.   We love Joey because Albert loves Joey.   We root for their reunion, but the journey is long and we must witness, along with Albert the terror of war and the senseless losses along the way.     We are invested in this story because of the performances of Mr. Numrich and the actors who bring Joey to life.

This production premiered at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre in South Bank, London in 2007 and transferred to the West End in 2009.   The Broadway production will close in early 2013.  If you have a chance, please see the National Tour as War Horse is the embodiment of theatrical event.

Parental advisory:  While this play is based on a children's novel, bear in mind that it depicts scenes of war.   It contains gun shots and strobe lighting and very loud sound effects.  There are also a few instances of profanity in the context of battle scenes.    Some young children may be upset by the deaths of humans and horses alike.

The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse concludes its performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC on November 11,2012.  For additional performances on the schedule for the national tour and ticket information please visit

Grace at the Cort Theatre

Craig Wright's play Grace, first performed in Washington DC at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2004 is now making it's Broadway debut at the Cort theatre.  Grace is a challenging work for the average audience member.    Beginning with its shocking ending and then winding back so that we see how this tragedy came to be, Grace can be slightly off putting.   Add in that it takes place in two identical Florida condominiums and that scenes take place at the same time within both spaces and Grace could be a muddy mess in the wrong directoral hands.   Dexter Bullard shapes this story in such a manner that an attentive audience will catch on to the script's eccentricities.   Briskly paced Grace builds from a hopeful second scene until it reaches the breaking point.  It becomes inevitable that the tragic scene which opens the play cannot be avoided.

The Grace of the title has a great deal to do with religious faith.  The married couple Steve and Sara have sold their business and moved from Minnesota to Florida to open a chain of gospel motels.  They have done so with the honest belief that what they are doing is God's work and that the persons who have agreed to finance the venture will follow through on their promises.  Grace also refers to an acceptance of the horrors of the past for the plays other two characters.  Sam, Steve and Sara's reclusive neighbor, is recovering from an accident which killed his fiancee and left him with extensive burns.  The fourth person in this tale is Karl, the elderly exterminator who does not believe in God because of the events he took part in as a young man in World War II Germany. His family tried to help the Jews which led to a terrible incident which haunts Karl to this day.  

Paul Rudd takes what could be an insufferable character and makes him somewhat sympathetic through pure honesty.   Steve is that born-again Christian with the capital C who uses every opportunity to share his faith with everyone he meets.  Mr. Rudd is so friendly and engaging that, despite the fact that Steve is one of those people you just want to slam the door on for being compelled to always discuss religion and seem oblivious to other people's discomfort, that you almost forgive him his transgressions    His spiraling out of control as his Job-like trials overwhelm him is the train wreck you cannot stop watching.    Yet his inability to not see what his blind focus on the hotel chain and not on the needs and desires of his wife clearly lets the audience see how the devastating finale will come to pass.

Kate Arrington as Steve's wife Sara is a more compassionate character.  Sara is just as religious, fervently praying with her husband.  She is increasingly left out of the business decisions and thus seeks meaning in her uprooted life by attempting to befriend the reclusive Sam.  Michael Shannon portrays Sam with deep intensity.   Sam in his hands is a man filled with anger and regret, lashing at the world, yet really punishing himself for deeds and words he cannot take back.   As Sara becomes alienated from her husband a close bond grows with Sam.  The release of pent-up emotions becomes a state of Grace for these two characters.

The fourth character, Karl only appears briefly in the play, but his appearances are significant.  Ed Asner takes on what seems to be at first a simple busy-body workman role designed for comic relief.  Yet, when confronted by the well-meaning Steve to share why he no longer believes in God, Mr. Asner delivers a harrowing tale of the nightmare that was World War II.  When Karl finds redemption for the horrific act he was forced to partake in so long ago, his acceptance of what he sees as God's grace becomes the catalyst for the play's finale.

Grace is a challenging work. The play does have some flaws in its confusing structure yet in the hands of these four actors and the capable direction of Dexter Bullard  ultimately leads to a satisfying evening of theatre.

Grace by Craig Wright is being performed at the Cort Theatre in a limited engagement through January 6, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit or

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Heiress at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Ruth and Augustus Goetz' drama The Heiress based on the novel by Henry James receives a thoughtful revival under the sure direction of Moises Kaufman.   A tale in which the conflicts simmer to a slow boil can appear tedious and old-fashioned in lesser hands.   The revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre provides a satisfying evening of theater that can only come from good pacing and perfect casting.

Dr. Austin Sloper lives in an mansion in Washington Square in 1850's New York City with his only surviving child, the plain and awkward Catherine.   Catherine can never live up to the dazzling accomplished beauty that her mother was, and her father makes it clear that he believes that no one will ever wish to marry Catherine except to gain the immense fortune she will inherit.  At a social gathering Catherine meets Morris Townsend a charming young man and the two quickly fall in love and make plans to marry encouraged by Catherine's romance and intrigue-loving Aunt Lavinia.   Dr. Sloper makes it clear that he questions young Morris' intentions as Morris has already squandered a small inheritance.   Dr. Sloper reluctantly takes Catherine to Europe for six months to quash the romance.  Upon her return, Catherine makes plans to elope with Morris despite her father's decision to disinherit his daughter of 2/3rds of her income.   Whether Morris genuinely loves Catherine or is the fortune seeker her father claims leads to the climax of the tale and a life lesson Catherine never forgets.

The Heiress is a riveting tale.  The scene is perfectly set with the opulent scenic design of Derek McLane matched with the period costumes of Albert Wolsky.   The ensemble of ten actors is outstanding, led by the four well-known actors who portray the leads.   Judith Ivey is charming as the romantic Aunt Lavinia.  She conveys a genuine warmth for her socially inept niece.  Her defiance of Dr. Sloper in the hopes that despite Morris' motivations Catherine can achieve personal happiness provides needed comic relief from the drama.   As Morris Townsend, the suitor, Dan Stevens quickly gets the audience on his and Catherine's side.  It is only when the text dictates it that the unsavory aspects of Mr. Townsend surface.   It is a credit to Mr. Stevens that this character maintains some sympathy even as his motivations burble to the surface.

David Strathairn is appropriately stern and matter-of-fact when it comes to the life lessons he is forced to give his daughter Catherine.  At times cruel in his contempt for his disappointing daughter the audience still has some understanding of this unsympathetic man.  Jessica Chastain at first seems to adopt a few very artificial mannerisms in her depiction of Catherine's awkwardness.  However, her commitment to those mannerisms makes them a natural part of this sheltered young lady's persona.   Her growth as Catherine travels from shy girl who embraces her first chance at romantic happiness is delightful to watch.   When Catherine turns on the other characters as she harshly learns the lessons her father has drummed into her head leads to a commanding performance as Catherine transforms before our eyes into a confident woman who knows well what her life's sad destiny will be and fully embraces that destiny.

The Heiress is being performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre through February 10, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit or