Monthly Archives: November 2011

Here Comes the Fall Season

*published on Sept 8, 2011 in EDGE

After an earthquake, record heat, and a near miss hurricane (which closed the Broadway, every cultural institution and the entire MTA transit system), we are certainly due for a wonderful inspiring, diverting and hilarious fall season.

Here EDGE offers a few tidbits to whet your palate and get you to unleash your credit cards to make reservations.

Star power

“The Mountaintop,” a drama, by Katori Hall, is set on the evening of April 3,1968, the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Samuel L. Jackson, making a return to Broadway after 20 years, plays King. He is a man alone with his thoughts, talking to a hotel employee, played by Jackson’s longtime friend, the incomparable Angela Bassett. At The Bernard Jacobs Theatre. Previews September 22, opens October 13)

Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King in a publicity photo for "The Mountaintop"

Hollywood also comes to Broadway with the World premier of “Relatively Speaking,” three one-act comedies by Oscar nominee Elaine May, and Oscar winners Ethan Coen and Woody Allen. It is directed by John Turturro and stars among others, Marlo Thomas, Julie Kavner, Steve Guttenberg, Ari Graynor, Danny Hoch and Lisa Emery (remember “Footloose,” the original). It begins previews on September 20 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with an opening date of October 20.

David Henry Hwang’s play “Chinglish” is about a crash course in Chinese gulped down by an English-speaking businessman. Hwang’s previous plays, including the Tony-winning “M.Butterfly” and the Pulitzer-Prize runner-up “Yellow Man,” excite and create jolts between cultures. At the Longacre Theater. Previews begin October 11 opening October 27.

Sex and the city, 1930s style

Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” comes to Broadway starring Kim Cattrall; do we still need to say, of “Sex in the City” fame? She plays Amanda to Canadian actor Paul Gross’s Elyot. At the Music Box Theater previews November 6, opens November 17.

Kim Cattrall in the London production of "Private Lives," coming to Broadway

Nina Arianda wowed audiences last season (and scored a Tony nom) for “Born Yesterday.” Just prior to that she did the same off Broadway with her performance in David Ives’ provocative “Venus in Fur.” Will she repeat when the show moves to Broadway where she’s paired with British hunk Hugh Dancy? At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Previews October 13, Opens November 8.

Also moving up from downtown is the Judson Church version of “Lysistrata Jones,” a sexy jump from Aristophanes regarding the power of chastity via gospel and funk. At the Walter Kerr Theatre Preview November 12, opens December 14.

Back again

Revivals, revivals, revivals. Soon to open is the much anticipated transfer from DC’s Kennedy Center of “Follies,” the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical about a haunted party held in an old Broadway theater featuring Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines and Elaine Paige. Will this cult hit at last be a Broadway hit? At the Marquis Theater; in previews, opening September 12.

Bernadette Peters in the revival of "Follies"

Another, but very different, 1970s musical “Godspell” returns at the Circle in the Square with teen-throb Hunter Parrish (from Showtime’s “Weeds”) as its star. Previews start on October 13, with a November 7 opening.

Musicals reinvented

Still scheduled (though rumors are flying that it might be cancelled) is the musicalized version of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” retitled “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which is currently in a sold-out run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis. But it has found it has two strikes against it – the damning words of both Stephen Sondheim and New York Times critic Ben Brantley, which is said to have the producers thinking of scuttling its New York run, still scheduled at the Richard Rodgers Theatre; previews begin December 17 with a opening scheduled for January 12, 2012.

The most curious revival of all looks to be “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” which playwright Peter Parnell turns into a time-tripping, gender-crossing love story featuring Harry Connick, Jr. as a psychiatrist whose patient, a gay florist, may be the reincarnation of a female 1940s nightclub singer, with whom he falls in love. The 1965 Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane tuner is being revamped by Michael Mayer, Tony-winner for “Spring Awakening.” At the St. James Theater, previews begin November 12, opens December 11.

Old and new

Frank Langella is back on the boards in “Man and Boy” playing a very mean dad in a revival of British playwright Terrence Rattigan’s depression era drama. It failed in 1963, but a recent London revival has sparked interest in this Broadway revival presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Previews begin September 9 with an October 9th opening at the American Airlines Theater.

The Roundabout is also presenting the New York premiere of Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” a dark comedy about a pair of gay brothers living in Rust Belt Pennsylvania whose father is killed unexpectedly in a college-prank-turned deadly. Tony-winner Joanna Gleason heads the cast. Karam attracted considerable attention with his earlier play “Speech and Debate.” At the Laura Pels Theatre. Previews begin September 28, opens October 20.

Kelsey Kurz and Joanna Gleason in a publicity photo for "Sons of a Prophet"

Broadway premieres

Theresa Rebeck is building a considerable career with plays like “The Understudy,” “Mauritius” and “Spiked Heels.” Her latest — “Seminar” is a biting satire of the world of literature. Alan Rickman stars as a famous novelist giving writing classes to four aspiring novelists. Among his students are up-and-coming stars Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater. The literary fur flies at the John Golden Theatre, previews begin October 27, opening November 20.

Alan Rickman, who is to star in Theresa Rebeck’s "Seminar"

One of the most acclaimed plays of recent years to turn up at regional theaters is “Stick Fly,” Lydia Diamond’s piercing look at issues of race and class in a well-to-do African-American family vacationing at their Martha’s Vineyard summer home. Produced by Alica Keys and directed by Kenny Leon, the cast features Dulé Hill, Mekhi Phifer, Tracie Thoms, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Condola Rashad. At the Cort Theatre, previews start November 18, opening December 8.

Love stories

In December “Bonnie and Clyde” becomes a musical with a Frank Wildhorn/Don Black score. The musical, which follows the criminal exploits of Depression-era folk heroes Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, arrives after successful runs in Southern California and Florida. Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes, who starred in the show’s Florida run, play the title characters. At the Schoenfeld Theatre; previews begin November 4, opens December 1.
Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes in the new musical "Bonnie and Clyde"
Tony-winners (both for “Evita”) Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin team again for an intimate evening of song that promises something a bit different from the standard concert – a love story told in some of the greatest songs ever written. Called “An Evening with Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin,” it comes to the Ethel Barrymore, previews November 16, and opens November 21.

Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin bring their evening of love songs to Broadway this November

Mr. Brook & Mr. Beckett

Off-Off Broadway at the Public Theater, in Richard Nelson’s “The Sweet and Sad” a family has lunch on the tenth anniversary of September 11; and, yes, the play opens that same day. The family – the liberal Apple family of Rhinebeck, NY – was seen last season in Nelson’s “That Hopey Changey Thing,” which followed them on Election Night 2010. At the Public Theatre, through September 25.

More at the Public is monologist Mike Daisey musing on the former Apple CEO touring his Chinese factories. “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” which runs at the Public Theatre from October 11 – November 17.

The Theater For A New Audience presents legend Peter Brook directing a collection of Beckett shorts called “Fragments,” opens November 9. Author’s prejudice, (I would watch Brook direct the opening of an envelope.) The show consists of “Rough for Theatre I,” “Rockaby,” “Act without Words II,” “Neither” and “Come and Go.” At the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Howard Gilman Performance Space; runs November 9 and closes December 4.

Acclaimed director Peter Brook

Hemingway on stage

The Elevator Repair Service enacts another prose work, the final in its ’lit’ trilogy. These are the folks who brought you “Gatz” (their innovative stage adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” in which the entire novel was read aloud). this time it is Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,’ called “The Select.” New York Theatre Workshop now previewing opens September 11, closes October 9.

A scene from the Elevator Repair Service’s "The Select"

Playwrights Horizons’ season debuts with Itamar Moses new play “Completeness,” a love story of two scientists colliding. Directed by Obie Award winner Pam MacKinnon; at Playwrights Horizons, September 13 – 25.

La MaMa, famed old guard of experimentalism, whose fearless leader, Ellen Stewart passed away this January, will present a gala 50th Season. Too many shows to list but check it out; the official birthday is October 18th day. If you haven’t visited the La MaMa archives, they are open to the public and you can see the receipt for the first theater as well as masks, scripts and videos from the birth of experimental theater. For more information, visit the La MaMa website

Politics take center stage

The Lincoln Center Theater presents a commissioned play (by J.T. Rogers), “Blood And Gifts,” which tells the story of the secret spy war behind the official Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. Spanning a decade and playing out in Washington DC, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the talented Bartlett Sher is at the director’s chair. The play was a sell-out hit last year at London’s Royal National Theatre. Mitzi Newhouse Theater preview Oct 27 with an opening on November 12.

A scene from the Royal National Theatre production of "Blood And Gifts"

And LC goes back to Broadway with Jon Robin Baitz’ “Other Desert Cities” starring Stockard Channing, Rachel Griffiths, Stacy Keach; directed by Joe Mantello. The drama concerns a Republican couple with ties to the Reagan Administration whose comfortable retirement is thrown into turmoil when their daughter announces she is writing a volatile political memoir. The fireworks transpire at The Booth Theatre, previews October 12, with an opening on November 3.

Wilson meets Macheath

And in Brooklyn, BAM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, celebrates its 150th anniversary presenting the uber-talented Robert Wilson’s vision of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Berliner Ensemble’s “The Threepenny Opera.” At the Gillman Opera House October 4 – 8. Also don’t miss a talk with BAM artistic director Joe Melillo and Director Wilson on Oct 6, 6pm at BAM Rose Cinemas.

A scene from Robert Wilson’s production of "The Threepenny Opera" by the Berliner Ensemble

The acclaimed performance ensemble Phantom Limb-led by the company’s Co-Artistic Directors Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff presents “69oS.” a show that melds puppetry, theater, film, music, dance, and photography to create dynamic tableaux vivants inspired by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary 1914 trans- Antarctic expedition. The work, presented in its New York premiere, features Sanko’s original score – as recorded by collaborators Kronos Quartet. November 2-5 at the Harvey.

St. Ann’s celebrates

And more Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape at BAM’s Harvey Theater December 6-18 with John Hurt as the protagonist. St. Ann’s Warehouse, always cutting edge, celebrates its 30th anniversary with (among others) the opera “Stop the Virgins,” co-created by Karen O & KK Barrett and directed by Adam Rapp. (October 12-22).

Among the eight shows that follow in the season are Irish director-playwright Enda Walsh’s apocalyptic solo show “Misterman” with Cillian Murphy (November 30 – December 21); Also an appearance by The Wooster Group, who will be collaborating with the New York City Players on a program of early Eugene O’Neill works bundled together as “Early Plays ,” which runs from February 15 – March 4, 2012.

Cillian Murphy in "Misterman"

Eisenberg writes and stars…

Back in Manhattan at the Cherry Lane Theatre Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Social Network,” makes his New York debut as a playwright with “Asuncion.” Two liberal friends’ self-perceptions are challenged when a young Filipina woman becomes their new roommate. Eisenberg also acts, Kip Fagan directs. Presented by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, previews October 12, opens October 27.

Justin Bartha and Jesse Eisenberg. The young Hollywood actors co-star in Eisenberg’s play "Asuncion"

And the Manhattan Theater Club presents at the City Center Stage I, “We Live Here,” a world premiere by Zoe Kazan (yes, Elia Kazan’s granddaughter). The commissioned work is about a contemporary family coming together through grief and celebration. At the City Center Stage I, September 22 – October 30.

And finally, outta town, but worth the travel. The George Street Playhouse, in New Brunswick, N.J. “It Shoulda Been You” directed by David Hyde Pierce, with book and lyrics by his partner Brian Hargrove and music by Music by Barbara Anselmi. It stars Tyne Daly, the always hilarious Harriet Harris, Edward Hibbert, and Howard McGillin; and is designed by the always-divine William Ivy Long. A peek into Long’s studio promises acres of frothy wedding fantasy. The fun begins on October 4 and runs through November 6. For more information, visit the theater’s website.

Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling

*published on Oct 13, 2011 in EDGE

Adam Rapp is a new playwright of wild, wide, wonderful talent and sometimes I wish they distributed a skeleton key to his metaphors, symbols, and intentions along with the program. That said, I am still open to be in thrall of the characters and the way the work makes me think, especially if I am left pondering meanings long after the performance has concluded.

Rapp’s newest play, “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling,” is directed by Neil Pepe and produced by the Atlantic Theater Company, where Pepe has been the artistic director since 1992. It is presented with the audience sitting on three sides of a lush, suburban dining room, (well-considered by designers Andrew Boyce and Takeshi Kata) installed at the Classic Stage Company’s comfortable space on East 13th Street.

Christine Lahti, Cotter Smith, and Reed Birney in Adam Rapp’s "Dream of Flying, Dreams of Falling" (Source:Kevin Thomas Garcia)

The work resembles a 21st century incarnation of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”. There are three couples. The first is Sandra Cabot, pronounced SOndra, the mistress of the house (played with knife sharp precession and pitch perfect characterization by Christine Lahti) and SOndra’s husband Dr. Bertram Cabot, played as a wishy-washy foil for Lahti’s edge and ire by the very competent, meek-assuming Reed Birney.

They are joined by their neighbors Dirk and Celeste Von Stefenberg for a dinner party somewhere close to New Haven, where both men attended Yale and rowed crew. The men regale the audience with two versions of the fight song, the wan and weary, “Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow, Eli Yale.”

Dirk is portrayed well, stiff upper lip and all that, by Cotter Smith, and we learn he was involved in one of the many financial scandals making their way through our society. Yet Dirk is unbowed, it seems, by the taint. He wears his Nantucket “reds” with a worn pride and allows both Sandra and Bert to poke him to test his still rock-hard abs.

Dirk’s wife is the meek Celeste who attempts to give tiny pats and props to all comers for good works, nice Chanel suits, or a well-trained maid. Betsy Adams as Celeste makes the audience pity her or want to warn her of the plans swirling around the dining table. While she murmurs empty platitudes, her husband and neighbor plot.

The plots flow from Sandra, (the Martha-like character from Virginia Woolf), drinking nearly a hand’s worth of fingers of single malt while flirting shamelessly with Dirk and inveigling him to kill Bert so they can run away together.

An expert multitasker, Sandra is also attempting to elevate her maid to become a French-speaking, Shakespeare-spouting savant who is alternately banished and summoned by intercom to clear, recite, speak, rinse, and repeat. The maid, Wilma, is played with a slight seethe, resign, and great comic timing by Quincy Tyler Bernstine.

Even when hauling dead geese down to the basement to feed the female lion (yes, you read that right), Wilma has the calm and collected disdain that wordlessly says, “Whatever you rich, white people want. You are all crazy anyway.”

The final guests at the dinner are the children of the two couples: Cora Cabot, a will-o-the-wisp played with a backbone of steel and the libido of a porn star. She comically embarks on an art project where she collects arm hairs from all the guests.

Katherine Waterston convinces us of her lust and desire while waltzing shoeless around the dining room. Cora ogles and finally copulates with the Von Stofenberg’s son James on the dining table where the remains of an uneaten goose teeter on a platter.

James’ entrance has been heralded by sotto voce conversations where we learn he has been in Stockbridge recovering for two years. Many of a certain generation learned that Stockbridge was code for rehab when James Taylor sang about it. In limps James to join the group for dinner, dragging a cane, his hand swathed in bandages.

Shane McRae works James with painfully shy discomfort and he rises to the occasion to shove Cora into the serving table, across chairs, and finally onto the table, where poor hapless Wilma is attempting to clear. He entangles the maid, a dining chair, and the audience into laughter by the silly hijinx. (The bandaged arm is disconcerting; if he flung himself off a building in a suicide attempt two years ago, why is he still bandaged?)

But this is a small conundrum compared to the literal and symbolic lion in the basement whose milk has been used to concoct a crème brulee, which all the guests pass on, as they are too full of the specially-sourced goose.

Throughout the play geese hit the windows or pummel the roof and guests discuss dreams of flying off to exotic places or just falling out of the mundane lives that trap any and all of us.

Arriving at the theater by way of the Occupy Wall Street Protests in Washington Square Park, I was particularly taken by the subplot in which the fallen banker Dirk seems to finally punish himself by protecting his Yale crewmate, but we are never sure what befalls him.

In “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” there is often laughter, and a nearly farcical sense of coming and going, well wrought by director Neil Pepe. But underneath it all roils the malignant unrest of the rich, and those who serve or are sucked into their orbits.

“Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” plays through October 30 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. For info or tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit http://atlantictheater.org/

Relatively Speaking: a review

*published on Oct 28, 2011 in EDGE

To speak frankly, rather than relatively, I have to say that “Relatively Speaking” is a dreary, mostly unfunny evening of shtick. I welcome watching “Modern Family” on the telly more than shelling out many shekels for what often amounted to a pile of recycled Borscht belt humor.

Marlo Thomas and Lisa Emery in "George is Dead" by Elaine May, one of three short plays in "Relatively Speaking" (Source:Joan Marcus)

That said, there were some wonderful performances and moments when the audience, who I am sure came from Woody Allen’s extra callbacks, were in fact yukking it up. But I laugh often at the new sitcoms and I can be in my PJ’s, which I find adds to the hilarity. So why brave the beastly weather and hand over the big bucks?

I suppose the answer, as ever, comes to me in the form of amazement at the craft of acting, of standing up and offering yourself to a huge hall of strangers and convincing them you are someone else. This happened often in “Relatively Speaking”, but was quickly followed by my questioning, ’Is this best they can find for these talented actors’?

Let me lay out the three plays. The first in the troika, and by far my favorite, is Ethan Coen’s “The Talking Cure”. For those of you in comas for the last few years or enjoined from reading or seeing any movies by virtue of a bad divorce settlement, Coen is one in a set of brothers who made 15 movies like “Fargo”, “Blood Simple”, and most recently, “True Grit”.

Coen’s work is a quick clip of montages featuring prisoner Danny Hoch and shrink Jason Kravis. Let me take this moment to say the cast and director John Turturro all are bold-faced names; now let’s see if they can deliver. These scenes are funny and modern as Hoch, who is a master mimic, chides the doctor with the uncertainty of who is the mental patient and who is the doctor. Kravits nervously takes the bait every time.

The banter is entertaining enough, but then the magic of theater happens and the prison cell splits in half and center stage is occupied by a formal dining room where prisoner Hoch’s parents argue while his mother is pregnant with him.

Kudos to inspired designer Santo Loquasto for making this scene so pitch-perfect. Prisoner Larry’s parents argue over everything including if Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun were invited for dinner people would have said, “We are having the Hitlers over.” Let’s admit that Hitler jokes are a tough sell, especially to the audience in a Broadway house, but like Mel Brooks, Coen pulls it off. The stage is set for the next two plays to carry on with the fire of funny left smoldering when the first curtain drops.

But there it sits, like a lox, not getting the yuks back. Elaine May’s offering, “George Is Dead” was so painful, long and seriously unfunny that I wondered why they touted this evening as three One-Act Comedies in big letters right on the program cover and in all the press.

For me, this was a very sad piece. True, even Shakespeare makes merry with mechanical moments, but this was dour. The wonderful Marlo Thomas is an heiress whose husband George drops dead. She has noone in her life and so in the middle of the night, she rings the doorbell of her former nanny’s grown daughter, played with icy uncertainty by the wonderful not-seen-enough, Lisa Emory.

Thomas’ Doreen is a self-absorbed rich bitch who needs to be coddled by anyone from the caring class. She proclaims, “I am always stunned that people listen.” I think the correlative is, if you can pay for it you do not need to acquire any of the skills that the 99% has had to learn in order to survive.

With the Occupy Wall Street foment blocks to the south it is difficult to find humor in a woman besotted with the grief that her house is too large, her furs need storage, and finally that once again she will be taken care of by her former nanny. A grand, consoling Patricia O’Connell leaves her grown, hapless daughter once again toddling behind, wishing for her mother’s care, when that can only be bought by the rich. Are you laughing? Because for me, nothing is funnier than abandonment, emotional cruelty, and the rich winning the day.

After a sobering intermission is Woody Allen’s offering. I admit a prejudice against Mr. Allen’s work: in his 42 films to date, many of them depicting NYC, he rarely casts — let alone features — a person of color. Other than the help.

That said I strive to remain open, because I often find him funny. His play-ette “Honeymoon Motel” opens again schticky-funny; he had me laughing when the groom bangs the bride’s head carrying her into the tacky motel room, round bed and all. Through a series of quick back-and-forths, we learn that they are not the meet-cute newlyweds, in fact, a la “The Graduate”, the bride, Nina played sexy and stupid (and I mean that as a compliment) by Ari Graynor fled the alter to be with Jerry, Steve Guttenberg.

And so in comic unfurling we learn that Jerry is the stepfather of the intended groom. Very Woody Allen: older man with bad boundaries makes off with a woman much younger, not really available to him, but what the heck, it’s funny right?

The bride needs pizza before she can jump onto the round bed and that is the opening for the rest of the wedding party to knock on the door. The happy couple keeps answering the door thinking, this time it will be pizza.

The bride’s parents arrive, Julie Kavner (yes, Marge from “The Simpsons”), and it is hard not to hear Marge telling her husband, Mark Linn-Baker, who is perfectly fine, that she had an affair with their therapist and her boss. Would Marge do that?

The groom who was meant-to-be arrives, the rabbi comes in all enormous hands aflutter, unwittingly eulogizing everyone whose name he mentions. Richard Libertini as the rabbi was the one to whom I gravitated for the glue and humor in this scene, he was wonderful.

The shrink from the first play arrives; a best friend comes and stops by drawn by Jerry’s Smart Car in the parking lot. Finally, the stage is filled with nine white characters and the pizza arrives, brought by Danny Hoch, who to my amazement is playing the same character, although I know this actor is capable of 30 voices in as many seconds.

The Rabbi wants s sausage slice, and such are the jokes. The rest leave and the couple and pizza guy remain in the room. It turns out the pizza guy has all the wisdom. “If you wait too long in life your cheese gets hard.” Curtain.

I think it proves that if you wait too long, you can get plays produced on Broadway, based on the past and not on what we see now, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

I wish “Talking Cure” was the last play after intermission, then I would suggest a ticketless second act invasion, but it is the first and then you would have to muddle through the other two.

“Relatively Speaking: 3 One-Act Comedies” has an open-ended run at Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47 St. For info or tickets call 877-250-2929 or visit http://relativelyspeakingbroadway.com

Behind ’Sleep No More’ : Shakespeare, Hitchcock & celebrity sightings

*Published on Nov 1, 2011 on EDGE

Jonathan Hochwald is one of a troika of producers for the runaway hit “Sleep No More.” He is a romantic with a flinty financial brain and a keen artistic eye.

Although he agreed to meet me on his 19th wedding anniversary, his wife did stop by at the end so they could take a walk together in the slanting crepuscular light, after stopping by to take the pulse on scores of dancers, designers, bartenders, tech crew and security staff who make it possible for theater goers to traipse through the created from whole cloth McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street.

’Macbeth’ through a dark glass

The name of the hotel is an homage to Hitchcock suspense classic “Vertigo” and inside the overlapping connective tissue continues to thread its way through every iota of this production as the new hotel becomes the home of London’s Punch Drunk Theater Company’s take on “Macbeth” as seen intensely through a dark glass.

Hochwald’s other producers at Emursive are Arthur Karpati, a real estate wizard and Randy Weiner, a lauded producer of hybrid nightlife, which mixes spectacle, drama and a place to drink. He is the producer of the acclaimed “Donkey Show,” a disco retelling of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and the founder and manager of The Box downtown.

A scene from "Sleep No More"

Weiner is married to Diane Paulus the artistic director of A.R.T. in Boston, where “Sleep No More” made its US debut to sold out crowds and rave reviews. Hochwald has been a producer for decades is the president and founder of Madstone Productions, a New York-based company of touring concerts and theater founded in 2005. From 2006-2010, he was the executive vice president of Madison Square Garden Entertainment. All three men are fathers and it seems as if their skill sets and temperaments combine and overlap to create an unstoppable force that has made “Sleep No More” such a gob smacking success.
Watch this Broadway.com video on “Sleep No More”:

A goose bump experience

Hochwald and his wife Jenn Stone saw the piece in Boston and were smitten and hell bent to bring the work in NYC. When asked if there is a litmus test he uses to lock on to a project Hochwald describes, “a sensation akin to goose bumps, a presence of greatness. You know this all can sound very unscientific, but in fact these reactions really transpire. When I first saw ’Sleep No More’ it happened, it was a veritable awe-inspiring event. I left wanting to tell everyone I knew about it. It was a combination of deep talent and a unique, and this word is overused, but a singular experience in the theater. The work was really immersive and that is what we named our new producing company Emursive.”

Immersive theater, site specific theater, experimental theater, “Sleep No More” seems to have taken these monikers’ to new high. The piece is based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” a play long plagued with bad ju-ju and yet there is no worry among the cast or Hochwald to attempt to thwart the curse by saying the Scottish Play as many in the theater will do. They fully embrace all that will come their way. The play as interpreted by the Punch Drunk artistic directors Maxine Doyle and Felix Barrett concentrates making sure that every image, aroma and action from MacBeth is embedded into an evening long show which encompasses over 100,000 square feet of theatrical playground. There are five floors and 100 rooms to explore.

A scene from "Sleep No More"

Audience finds own version of ’MacBeth’

Hochwald is clear that the logistics for at first creating, and then running a play on such an enormous physical scale is “mind-blowing” But he goes on to say ” the love poured into this work to create brick walls, pine forests, grave yards, entire villages, and write love letters and then dance and act montages every night where the audience, fully masked, wanders and rushes and chases after the cast in order to find their own version of the play, takes a commitment, passion, soul and love that rings through and cannot ever be faked. I think that is why we never worried about the curse of Macbeth because the positive we poured in, the love counters the curse. I certainly hope saying this won’t reverse our amazing luck and success.”

Jonathan Hochwald

The work opened in April and was scheduled to run for six weeks, but it has just had another extension, even Hochwald can’t keep track of how many this is, and it is scheduled to run through December 10. Every show, eight shows a week are fully sold out, with a $75 or $95 ticket price.

Watch this Theatermania.com video with interviews of the producers of “Sleep No More”:

No ads to promote it

What of the many unique aspects of “Sleep No More” is how it is booked – audience can choose (if available) reservations at five different times Mondays through Saturdays, with five additional late night seatings on Fridays and Saturdays. Getting a booking is the hard part – the show has been all but sold-out for every performance with ticket prices of $75 and $95. The show’s success has been pretty much viral – the producers have yet taken out ads to promote it.

Hochwald says he believes that ads are ” about positioning, and although it sounds esoteric, this event has to be felt not positioned. We took a leap that people would literally find the work remarkable and they would then remark to everyone around them that it had to be seen. The play would leave you no choice but to talk about it, liked or hated, you must talk about it. That is what has happened.”

A scene from "Sleep No More"

Incredible word of mouthThe success is based on word of mouth and incredible editorial response. It is the darling of the celebrity crowd where bold faced names like Natalie Portman, Justin Timberlake Spike Lee, Kevin Spacy, Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon and the Olsen twins, don Venetian beaked carnival masks to gawk and scurry after the actors much they way they are often hounded on the streets of NY, London and LA.

Punch Drunk’s Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle, the co-creators of "Sleep No More"

The feeling in the McKittrick Hotel is Hitchcock, Kubrick, Shakespeare and a Halloween party on the perfect drug concoction. According to director Felix Barrett,” It is a 360-degree experience where you get lost in a parallel world and you are empowered by anonymity. You take the liberty to do things outside of your normal life. And life is not normal here.”

Watch American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus discuss “Sleep No More”:

NYC experience

Normal life may not be happening in the halls of three former Clubs: Twilo, Spirit and Bed, now transformed into an abandoned hotel from the 30s, but the bustle of the city is all around in the far reaches of West 27 Street. In fact that was one of the main draws for Hochwald and his group. “We had an opportunity to create this piece in way far out, Sunset Park, Brooklyn and then this came up and I felt, as a New Yorker, that the direction real estate has gone in the city means that so much of the life for artists has brought about a fundamental seed change in Manhattan. Doing the piece in the heart of Manhattan felt like another part of the artistry. This was what we all came to NYC to do and experience.”

When asked for the cost to mount and run the work as well as the payback to the investors, Hochwald is coy,” Let’s just say that is was insanely expensive and continues to be because there are so many people, 150 people, at work on the stages, behind the scenes, making sure for example that there are love letters fresh each night, that the aroma of caramel is evident in the sweet shop, that there are three kinds of blood, washable, edible and what is indelible on the walls.

A scene from "Sleep No More"

A kind of mandela

That alone boggles the mind. But with all that attention to detail and eight shows a week, the investors are all very happy that they pitched their lot in with Emursive. And we are overjoyed to present this work that is literally embedded with so much detail, passion, respect and ultimately a kind of joy. It really is a kind of mandala, or a sand painting that is constantly shifting and morphing. For us this is a living breathing thing and we see it get better and better. In fact we hope that the McKittrick Hotel can host other artists and artistic events.”

A scene from "Sleep No More"

This notion of new pieces coming into the ghostly haunt intrigued me but Hochwald’s cell rang, his attention was drawn out of the cafe and back across the street. His wife appeared for their anniversary walk and the sun was dipping into the Hudson. The scene changed and we parted company on 27 Street as the audience began queuing up outside.

For more information on “Sleep No More,” visit the show’s website.

Watch Amanda Palmer sing “My Funny Valentine” at a performance “Sleep No More”:

Angels of Swedenborg: a review

*Published on Nov 1, 2011 in EDGE

Let me lay bare my prejudice for experimental theater, and multicultural, multidisciplinary work. I came by this love and lust honestly as I worked as the executive director of the now 50-year-old LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club for over a decade during the ’80s and ’90s. We produced 60 shows a year — that’s no typo — and I saw them all, albeit sometimes in a state of terrible sleep deprivation as I also had my two children while I was doing this job.

Dancers in Ping Chong’s "Angels of Swedenborg" (Source:Sam Rudy PR)

I will tell you about the two kids because I dragged them, towed them, hauled them with me from the time they were days old until now in their mid 20s. And they love it, to differing degrees. I think experimental theater is perfect for small children who really have no sense of a linear story line or why it is unsettling for a character to switch from English to French and then to a made-up language. In fact, as I see it, experimental theater or new work, call it what you will, is actually the perfect reflection of what it must feel like to a small child to attempt to make sense of the world.

With all those prejudices out in the transparent present tense I was transported and transformed by Ping Chong’s 1988 “Angels of Swedenborg”, recreated so lovingly at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. I hauled my four-year old goddaughter with me, and fed her before we went to the matinee: a must for experimental work. I told her she could not talk during the show (many adults might take good note of this).

I told her that the show was like being in someone else’s dreams and that sometimes it might be loud, or different, or even scary, but at the end the lights would come up, as there is no grand curtain for these shows. Most of the time we would go backstage and everyone would be restored to their regular selves.

So the lights dimmed and an LED crawl told about the Swedish philosopher and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. We saw a blond man in a laboratory and we also saw what looked like a large boxing ring, fenced in on three sides with a white picket fence holding in a pen of large, snowy feathers.

Opera music filled the theater, wrapped around my ears and cuddled under my arms. It filled me so full with visions and sound that I relaxed into my seat and watched, and breathed. A puckish, brown, furry creature began to frolic in the feathers. An unknown script like Aramaic or mirror writing filled the screen, a moon appeared, more creatures cuddled and coddled Swedenborg in his laboratory where he smoked and scribbled and the LED screen told about places like Kinshasa or the Hotel Raffles or Paris.

We learned from the program that Swedenborg wrote about the existence of angels and devils and believed that “devils, like angels, are not a species apart but derive from the human race. After death some individuals choose, hell some heaven.” Since we were watching this on Halloween weekend the chase between good and evil, light and dark and angels and devils seemed to abound. Outside the streets of the East Village echoed the notions explored in the feather-covered stage and the magic went on and on.

The company that enacted the dance between good and evil are all members of LaMaMa’s resident company, The Great Jones Company, a group who until the death of the founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart in January, performed mostly in works directed by her. But the shows must go on, and a mantle was passed to the extremely talented, multifaceted artist Ping Chong to put the Great Jones Company to best use.

Ping Chong was an early adapter of technologies on all levels to create other theater worlds. He is an internationally known director, choreographer, filmmaker and a maverick in using all these skills melded together to form one cohesive piece. Chong has created over 40 different pieces in the 39 years he has been working and “Angles of Swedenborg” is not to be missed, as it is a seamless synthesis of all the elements.

Yes, there are beautifully danced moments of nearly a dozen angels swimming and whirling in the feathery firmament. But then there is a large questioning overlord, a god perhaps, who asks quirky questions in French and English in a synthesizer voice. And there is an angel banished, and a moment when one of his friends wants to save him; we all know that feeling. And through it all the music, the electronic sounds build and consume.

My small friend slept soundly on my lap for a portion of the piece and I rested on her hot curly head, taking in her dreams, the plays’ reveries and wonderment, and that so much can be wrought from evenings or afternoons spent wrapped in another’s visions.

The play ended and the applause rallied sleepers and allowed us to see the thespians unmasked and beaming. We did go backstage to thank and greet, and then we headed out into what passes for reality. All of us who sat and dreamed in the theater together were richer for the time spent inside another’s philosophies and dreams.

“Angels of Swedenborg” runs through November 13 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMaMa, 66 East 4th St. For info or tickets call 212-475-7710 or visit http://lamama.org/ellen-stewart-theatre/angels-of-swedenborg/

Working Hard, Staying Upbeat at Moody’s

*published on September 28th, 2011 for Our Town, Downtown

The building workers union gives an annual award to honor longevity, and this year’s recipient, George Bell, was tracked down in Georgia in the middle of a barbecue so that he could share some of the wisdom and tenacity that led him to this place.

George Bell began working for Moody’s predecessor 37 years ago.
Photo by Andrew Schwartz

George Bell, 60, grew up in the south, and you can still hear the soft echoes in his cadence and parlance as he drawls through the ether from Georgia to New York.

“I grew up in Newbury, North Carolina, but I came to New York City when I was 21 years old because all my brothers and sisters were there already,” he said in a telephone interview. “I had spent summers in the city and liked it, so I came up and got a job in Miller Meat Packing in Brooklyn, on Myrtle Avenue. I worked there for about a year, and then I worked for a cabinetmaker all while I was living in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I started at Dunn and Bradstreet, that is Moody’s, in 1974. They were on 99 Church Street at the time. We moved buildings, we are now at 250 Greenwich Street [7 World Trade Center], but I am still with them.”

Maintenance, it turns out, is a wide-ranging occupation. Bell sets up conferences and does light construction as well as keeping things clean and, above all, safe. When asked if he was an organized child, Bell lets out a wonderful low rumbling laugh and says, “Well, my mother isn’t around now so she can’t say anything other, so yes, I will say I was neat and tidy as a child. I guess I do like order.”

Bell has a 23-year-old son named Connis, which is Bell’s middle name. Connis lives with his mother, but Bell has many cousins with whom he visits. In fact, he was taking his annual summer trip with the cousins when we caught up with him in between banana pudding, ribs, cornbread, sweet corn, grilled shrimp and chicken.

Back up north, Bell recalls the days at Moody’s in both 1993 and 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked. On both occasions he was working and saw a lot, although he doesn’t say much about it other than the fact that the maintenance workers were called back first, a week after 9/11 “to make order and clean up.”

Bell loves to take photographs and through the years he has taken some pictures of conferences that Moody’s has used, but his favorite place for photography is the roof of 7 WTC. “I love to go up and look down and see the city from that high up. The pictures can be beautiful.” Bell works long hours, usually arriving between 6:30 and 7 a.m. for the 8 a.m. shift. “ I like to get to work early, although there have been many different companies handling maintenance in this building, I always say I work for Moody’s and I think folks know I can be relied upon. During my shifts I have seen so many things: babies born, robberies, people sick, big conferences and of course the two attacks, but I have always been reliable. I guess people see that. I think I am good in a crisis.”

When the transit strike hit the city, Bell walked from Brooklyn to Downtown Manhattan for three days, always arriving early. “I lost weight with all the walking and it was cold. A few days before Christmas, Moody’s gives kids parties for the holiday and they had to be set up and broken down and I thought, well, can’t let the kids down. When someone asks me for something, 89 percent of the time I can do it.”

It seems Bell’s employers think he delivers on an even higher percentage.

Chinglish by David Henry Hwang: a review

All of us are looking to be understood, not just heard, but also profoundly understood and that is the big theme of David Henry Hwang’s newest play, “Chinglish” at the Longacre Theatre. Hwang takes the global issue of finding an ear and a market for whom we all are metaphorically and sites it firmly in modern China, where everyone clambers to do business with the former sleeping giant, who is now dominating the world economic stage.

To read my full review, you can click here.