The four main performers in Young Jean Lee’s provocative and hilarious play Straight White Men are precisely attuned, like the members of a string quartet, playing off each other to create something richer than the sum of their parts. They’re a true ensemble, though some are stars in their own rights: Josh Charles plays Jake, a divorced banker; Armie Hammer plays Drew, an acclaimed novelist; and Paul Schneider plays Matt, one-time valedictorian, Harvard man, and hardcore communist, now a temp living back at home, crushed by student-loan debt. All three are brothers, home for Christmas to see their widower father, Ed, played with gruff joviality by Stephen Payne.
Right off the bat, Todd Rosenthal’s set is a marvelously nondescript suburban home that looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the 1990s. Case in point: the chrome-face speakers atop the bookcases and the Raymour & Flanigan-style furniture that occupies the sunken living room, where the play—the first on Broadway by an Asian-American woman—is set.
Despite such realistic touches, Straight White Men, as directed by Anna D. Shapiro, goes to lengths to call out its artificiality. The stage is literally framed with handsome wood, a brass plaque at its bottom etched with the name of the play. But the theater is also improbably decked out like a club: seats upholstered in crushed velvet, a stage curtain of shiny silver strands, and, before the show, contemporary dance music blasting from the sound system. Emcees Kate Bornstein and Ty Defoe, both gender-nonconformist performers, explain in preshow remarks that this is intentional, to make the typically square Broadway audience uncomfortable—the way that people such as Bornstein and Defoe are often made to feel in normative spaces.
The two actors also appear between scenes, supervising the stagehands as they shift props and furniture, then literally positioning the other actors before the action begins, giving them—the typically marginalized—literal power over the straight white men. But Bornstein and Defoe’s presence mostly seemed to serve as a reminder to the audience that, despite the play’s stars, not everyone fits into the category that gives the play its name, providing a little diversity to a work that otherwise would have none.
The cisgender male actors on stage spend most of Straight White Men’s first act establishing a deep rapport, making their characters seem like a close group of guys, reliving past embarrassments and pushing each other’s buttons as only those intimate to us can. But every outrage would be quickly followed by a smile—as if true love means never taking offense or intending to cause it. The three younger actors especially engage in a seemingly infinite series of choreographed antics and practiced call-and-response, as if they’ve really lived their whole lives together, establishing infinite routines.
Mere description will fail to illustrate just how funny these can be. A scene in which Schneider squawks like a bird and Charles hysterically screams while Hammer recoils with a hangover will likely reduce you to tears of laughter. And in another equally uproarious scene, after all the characters have just walked away from each other following a fight, Jake blasts Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and dances rigorously, joined one by one by his brothers and then father.
There are often deeper emotions at work throughout Straight White Men. What at first appears to be a hard-earned, easygoing bonhomie between the four main characters soon looks more like a mask, obscuring their hurt and sadness. While eating Chinese food with his family on Christmas Eve, Matt starts crying, and afterward no one but Drew wants to talk about the moment. When they all finally do, Matt becomes a canvas onto which the other characters project their own worries and desires, as they fight over him by proxy, seeking to identify his problem with their own.
To Jake, Matt’s seeming failures are principled, the noble act of a privileged white guy sinking to the bottom so that other, more marginalized people may rise. (The brothers are steeped in the language of social justice, a remnant of their dead mother, who, for example, left behind a rejiggered version of Monopoly called Privilege, in which white people lose money for passing Go.) To Drew, Matt is psychologically damaged and in need of therapy—to focus on and repair himself in order to find happiness. And to his father, Matt has given up and needs a kick in the pants to rediscover his ambition.
Matt, however, says he’s happy with his simple life and the simple pleasures it affords him, and this is the drama’s lingering provocation: Can a person—especially a straight white man, with all the privileges that affords—really be happy without striving for greatness and professional and romantic successes? Most of the characters need to recast Matt’s ambitionless satisfaction as an outrageous tragedy of unrealized potential.
The play presents four possible prisms through which to view the ambiguity of Matt’s situation, and many in the audience are likely to choose one, consciously or not, that fits in best with the preconceptions with which they’ve entered the theater. But the play’s rewards come from instead embracing uncertainty and admitting, as few of the characters will, that the secrets to living a fulfilling existence are impossible to name.
Straight White Men is now playing at the Hayes Theater.
Review: American Moor Richly Illuminates the Experience of Acting While Black
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s play offers a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance.
Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor dramatizes an audition for the role of Othello, where a seasoned black actor endures patronizing comments and questions from a white director younger than himself. The play will interest Shakespeare fans, but also anyone interested in the life of an actor, the dynamic between actor and director, the dark side of creative collaboration, and the racial dimension of all these things.
The main incident in American Moor is a debate between the actor, Keith (Cobb), and the director (Josh Tyson) over the delivery of his audition text: Othello’s speech before the senators of Venice. Keith prefers a reserved delivery, while the director wants him to be more obsequious. This disagreement, with all it implies about the director’s discomfort with Keith’s own self-possession and his preconceptions about black performance, provides the occasion for the speeches and asides that make up most of the play: glimpses into Keith’s fraught history as a working black actor who loves Shakespeare and his increasingly furious internal monologue as he weighs the incompatible possibilities of, on one hand, standing up for himself and his reading of the passage and, on the other, getting the part.
These musings, Keith’s dispatches from “the corner of Me Street and Shakespeare,” amount to an indispensable work of creative criticism. In addition to the debate over the scene with the senators, American Moor allows us to see what it means to a black actor, who hasn’t had the opportunities he deserved, to have to bend to a white reading of Othello just to have a shot at getting the only big role in Shakespeare that he’s traditionally seen as fit to take on.
The director barks out Keith’s name like he knows him well and feels free to make comments about his body. He asks if Keith has any questions, as though his academic ideas about the play outweigh Keith’s lived experience of blackness and the sense of Shakespeare’s lines that comes from taking them into his body and memory. He “plays devil’s advocate” to Keith’s ideas in order to dismiss them and accuses him of playing the race card as though unaware that, as Keith puts it in one of the play’s best lines, by taking on Othello in the first place, he “picked up the race deck.” The play’s audition conceit creates a compelling analog to Othello’s audience with the Venetian senate; as Othello must placate white authority as he answers for his secret marriage to Desdemona, Keith makes his own stand in a creative context.
Race is at the heart of American Moor, but it’s also a pleasure to see Cobb dream his way into Shakespeare’s female roles as Keith recalls a past experience with an acting teacher. When first asked what role from the canon he would like to play—an inauthentic question, as it turns out, since the only acceptable answers are black characters—Keith went, not for Hamlet or Macbeth, but for Titania, the fairy queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The teacher scoffed at this choice and gratuitously corrected his pronunciation of her name.)
While the main analogy in Shakespeare to the situation between Keith and his would-be director is Othello’s speech in front of the senators, Cobb expands the range of association by channeling Cordelia before Lear as well, her refusal, in her integrity, to misrepresent herself in deference to her father’s authority. In this vein, we get to hear Keith recite, not only Romeo’s “teach the torches,” but also Juliet’s “Gallop apace.” If it’s familiar to imagine a black actor who dreams of playing Hamlet pigeon-holed into the role of Othello, it’s more striking to watch Cobb claim all of the Bard as his terrain and indulge his fantasy of playing Shakespeare’s women in love. Movingly, American Moor’s female dimension is also alive in Keith’s admiration for Desdemona, a character sometimes dismissed as one-dimensional, who in this show becomes a heroic figure, brighter than those around her, fiercely devoted and brave.
In addition to a compelling account of black performers’ ambivalence toward Othello, the burden that the play and its title role can be for them, American Moor also offers a promising avenue into the future of Shakespeare performance, a conversation with the text, in a modern idiom, as opposed to a translation of it, that brings us closer to Shakespeare’s language, not further away. With the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent foray into modern-English “translations” of Shakespeare and the release of strange, unsatisfying film adaptations like Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, not to mention David Michôd’s upcoming quasi-Shakespearean The King, the future of Shakespearean adaptation, how the old material will be reheated and served to 21st-century audiences, for better or worse, is up for grabs. It’s heartening, then, to see a rich, composite performance that incorporates Shakespeare’s language, thinks hard about it, and brings it into conversation with contemporary themes and concerns.
To take just one example, after delivering his version of Titania’s “forgeries of jealousy” speech, Keith teaches the audience that he learned from the OED that in Shakespeare’s day jealousy meant not only what it means to us but suspicion too. Later in the play, he applies the same phrase—the forgeries of jealousy, now with the added association of suspicion—to the microaggressions coming at him from the young director. In this way, the audience is guided deeper into Shakespeare’s words while, at the same time, those words are given new meaning, as they are applied to a situation we recognize, and recognize as morally serious.
American Moor is full of the love of Shakespeare’s language. In fact, Keith tells us that it was the power of Shakespeare’s words that impelled him to act and taught him how, not “the method” or any other technique. It’s this close relationship with Shakespeare’s language that makes the creative criticism of American Moor so powerful, and its rich, composite form so promising for the future of Shakespeare performance.
American Moore is now playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Review: The Actors Are the Thing in Betrayal, the Stage-Craft Not So Much
Jamie Lloyd’s gauzy new production of Harold Pinter’s play aims for the abstractly lyrical.
There’s no possibility of poetry in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Best known through its four Broadway productions in as many decades for its clipped exchanges and rewinding timeline, this anatomy of an affair strives to present life and conversations as they really are. (Walter Kerr’s original Broadway review shrewdly called the dialogue “vodka-dry.”)
But Jamie Lloyd’s gauzy new production—like the original, a West End transfer—aims for the abstractly lyrical. The mundane locales—a pub where former lovers reconnect, the cheap flat where infidelity blossoms, a bedroom where the dalliance sparks—all dissolve in the largely empty space, designed by Soutra Gilmour and featuring little more than a pair of chairs. Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton, and Charlie Cox, all directed to take 10-second pauses between most of their lines, float on turntables in counter-clockwise patterns around each other as the play moves them back and back and back in time. The underscoring—including a Vivaldi aria, a cover of “Enjoy the Silence,” and, bizarrely, three instrumentals from the Gone Girl soundtrack—similarly unmoors the play from any practical sense of time and space.
That disorientation is offset, though, by the whip-smart and sometimes bitterly funny performances of Hiddleston and Cox as, respectively, the wronged husband and his backstabbing best friend. Hiddleston’s Robert follows his most biting lines with a half-grimace, half-smile that becomes a toothier, more playful grin as the timeline moves backward. Robert’s furious when the play begins, but he’s also bemused at his friend Jerry’s total lack of self-awareness: The ultimate betrayal, Jerry suggests, is Robert keeping his knowledge of the affair to himself. Cox captures Jerry’s confused self-interest convincingly.
There’s an unvarying rhythm to Lloyd’s production, and treating every moment with the same dynamic and tempo—a mezzo-piano adagio, perhaps—makes Betrayal feel ever so slightly like a rehearsal-room exercise. Moments of brilliance do emerge from this elongation, like the electric spaces in one critical conversation between Robert and Emma in which Ashton’s eyes, so darting, shimmering, and wincing, work a mile a minute to convey rich, unspoken monologues. But that halting pacing starts to become monotonous, especially as Pinter pushes further back in time. The early scenes, as characters contemplate years of memories, get room to breathe, but those later ones, which take place before the trio considers the consequences of their actions, lack much sense of impulsive urgency.
Lloyd traffics, too, in bold-lettered symbols that tend to underestimate the psychological clarity of the characters’ sparse lines and the audience’s capacity for reading between them. We know the walls are closing in without needing to see the actual walls closing in. If the heavy-handed stagecraft (they’re drifting apart, literally!) isn’t an out-and-out betrayal of the actors’ self-sufficient performances, it’s not a great show of trust either.
Most of Pinter’s scenes play out as duets, but Lloyd keeps the absent figure in the emotional triangle always on stage, lurking, sometimes very close by, as a constant reminder of the third vertex of that triangle. Highlighting Emma as the odd one out during the tensely buddy-buddy scenes between Robert and Jerry emphasizes the possibility of an unspoken attraction between the two men. It’s not necessarily just a play about two friends competing for the same woman, and Lloyd even seems to hint at times that Robert knowingly allows Emma’s dalliance to develop as a sort of proxy for his own longing. Usually, though, Hiddleston and Cox seem to resist Lloyd’s choices that lean in that direction. There’s probably more depths to be plumbed from Robert’s sour jibe at his wife: “To be honest I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should have had an affair with him myself.”
There’s something vaporous, too, in Ashton’s performance, except for that one riveting scene with Hiddleston. Pinter told the New York Times back in 1979, when Betrayal was first opening on Broadway, that “the play is about a nine-year relationship between two men who are best friends” and the character of Emma still hasn’t fully recovered from that authorial oversight. Ashton seems more of the fuzzy, airy world of Lloyd’s imagination, at least when up against the grounded, affably quotidian men created by Hiddleston and Cox.
From the way she positions herself, legs splayed over her chair almost at 180 degrees like a praying mantis, to the carefully maintained indifference in her voice, Ashton’s Emma anxiously constructs the version of herself she wants to show the world, or, at least, the two men who seem to take up so much of it. In the final scene, we see her surveying herself in the mirror, perfecting that image, but Ashton never totally transcends Emma’s pawn-like purpose in the play or conveys what she’s hiding behind the veneer.
It’s that kind of fogginess that finally makes this production only intermittently memorable and rarely revelatory. The extraordinary acting moments tend to arrive in spite of Lloyd’s vision for the play rather than because of it. But when they do—in Hiddleston’s smile or Cox’s lazy swig of beer or Ashton’s pulsating eyes—they form a set of memories worth rewinding.
Betrayal is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Review: Hercules Wrestles More with Heroism Than with Female Liberation
If we’re going to update Hercules for 2019, let’s take Meg’s dreams of independence seriously.
It has been an extraordinary summer at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. First, director Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing gave us an unforgettable new Beatrice in Danielle Brooks, as well as a new way to imagine the war in the background of the play, replacing Shakespeare’s soldiers of fortune with soldiers for racial justice. Then, Daniel Sullivan set the Bard’s Coriolanus in a dystopian future where climate disaster has brought about a water crisis and exacerbated economic inequality. With stirring performances by Jonathan Cake and Kate Burton and a set design redolent of Mad Max, Sullivan transformed one one of Shakespeare’s least likable plays into a compelling and enjoyable one.
Even more special is Public Works’s new musical adaptation of Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules. With its simple story, Greek chorus of gospel singers, and iconic songs like “Go the Distance,” Hercules was asking to be adapted into a stage musical. The book for the show, by Kristoffer Diaz, stays close to the plot of the film while streamlining it a bit (bye, Pegasus) and updating its references. The lead actors—Jelani Alladin as Hercules, Roger Bart as Hades, and Krysta Rodriguez, a standout as Megara—are all winning in their roles, as is James Monroe Iglehart as Philoctetes (Phil for short), who delivers “One Last Hope” while an all-male workout troupe gets physical all over the stage. As Phil, Iglehart delivers the line that gets the loudest gasp of recognition from the audience: “Experience,” he says, “is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” The savvy-cynical edge of that line surfaces now and again in Hercules the musical, elevating the at times simplistic, go-the-distance source material.
But however charming they are throughout Hercules, the actors in the main roles can’t keep up vocally with the Muses, a chorus of five thrilling gospel singers: Ramona Keller, Brianna Cabrera, Rema Webb, Tamika Lawrence, and Tieisha Thomas. The highlights of this production are those moments when all five women are on stage: in “The Gospel Truth,” “Zero to Hero,” and the strongest of the new songs, “Great Bolts of Thunder.” The Muses also get the best costumes in the musical, ranging from the sparkling white of their first entrance, when they sweep away a more conservative choir in standard black robes (“We’ll take it from here!”), to the glam camouflage coveralls they sport in a later scene.
In addition to the Muses’s vocal prowess, it’s a joy to be reminded, in a lighter strain, of another late-summer production at the Delacorte in which American gospel music was woven into an ancient Greek story and themes: last summer’s glorious Gospel at Colonus. While the two shows would not seem to have much in common, in both, gospel bridges the divide between the ancient material and our modern sensibilities.
Director Lear DeBessonet, the founder of Public Works as well as the director of a memorable Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Delacorte in 2017, directs traffic as masterfully as always, arraying the stage with a vast number of ensemble members in ways that never feel intrusive. But the creatures she and puppet designer James Ortiz summon to the stage are a mixed success. Nessus the River Centaur becomes a lovely, loping ogre, the features of his blue body responding to an expressive physical performance by Joel Frost, who wears them like a huge suit. The Hydra, however, so thrilling in the film with its multiplying jaws—it takes a mountain to bring it down—is reduced here to a few heads, like those in a Chinese dragon dance that don’t put up much of a fight. The gods, Zeus and Hera, appear on high behind enormous, wonderful masks when they are in their glory and in sparkling, colorful suits when they are in human form; the terrors that Hades summons to destroy the world make an impression, particularly Gluttony, looking like Slimer from Ghostbusters.
It’s especially gratifying to see Hercules after seeing Coriolanus. There’s a tradition in scholarship of understanding Coriolanus as a Herculean, as opposed to an Aristotelian, tragic hero—a volcanic, out-of-place presence, rather than a flawed, mistaken one, tormented by fate—so the two plays complement each other well. Where in Shakespeare’s play the hero is destroyed by his inability to reconcile himself with the people he serves, in this version of Hercules, the people—of Greece, of New York City—band together to take their hero, who cannot make it on his own, across the finish line. This moment in the show is a little corny and probably less powerful than intended, but I felt an added resonance against the memory, from earlier in the summer, on the same stage, of Shakespeare’s wretched plebeians.
The set, just a few Greek columns and a little grotto for the band, doesn’t deliver that rush you get when you walk into the Delacorte and get your first look at what they’ve done with the stage. But this spare presentation turns out to be an advantage: With little to no set design, the action is framed, as is proper, by the great swaying trees beyond the stage and, farther off, by a clear view of Belvedere Castle. Throughout the performance, teenagers would bravely (and dangerously) creep out onto the rock face leading down from the castle to the lake below, briefly enjoying unobstructed rearview seats until police lights—but no impolite sirens—would flash them away. This, too, seemed a natural part of the show, one in keeping with the production’s desire to get all of New York City into the theater and onto the stage.
While, as always with Public Works, I was moved by the heart and humanity of the show, as we filed out of the theater, I felt dissatisfied with the handling of the original source material. Between the chorus’s promise to explore “What it is to be a hero” and Meg wondering, “What would I do in a world without men?,” the latter question seems more urgent and radical, but the former gets all the attention. This is particularly frustrating when the show’s answer to “What makes a hero?” is so familiar—that is, more than just strength. (The play does countenance the idea that real heroism would involve economic justice, but only passingly.)
If Hercules has a future beyond the Delacorte Theater’s stage, and I hope that it does, it would be great to see the independence that Meg sings about early in the show explored in a meaningful way. While she may be more than, as Phil says in the film, “your basic D.I.D.” (read: damsel in distress), Meg gets rescued in the show’s climax—the too-brief descent into the underworld—and ends up in the arms of the male hero. If we’re going to update Hercules for 2019, let’s take Meg’s dreams of independence seriously.
Hercules runs through September 8.
Review: Moulin Rouge! Is a Great American Musical for the TikTok Generation
This production’s pacing is more deliberate than that of the film, leaving the characters with more room to breathe.
With an updated set of musical mash-ups and medleys courtesy of arranger and orchestrator Justin Levine, Broadway’s Moulin Rouge! makes a good case for itself as the Great American Musical for the TikTok generation. Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, at least in terms of plot, plays much the same on the stage. It still tells the familiar tale of a performer, Satine (Karen Olivo), who’s dragged herself out of poverty only to find herself torn between true love with a poor musician, Christian (Aaron Tveit), and financial security with a cruelly possessive aristo, the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu). This production’s pacing is more deliberate than that of the film, leaving the characters with more room to breathe.
This isn’t to say that the show, directed by Alex Timbers, shifts away from the extravagance of Luhrmann’s film. Here, Christian doesn’t merely establish his bona fides to his bohemian partners, director Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Argentinian dancer Santiago (Ricky Rojas), by singing a few stirring lines from “The Hills Are Alive.” The talented musician also whips out lyrics from Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait.” And Satine’s big entrance is no longer heralded simply by “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” as it now also incorporates “Diamonds Are Forever,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and even the Commodores’s “Brick House.”
This production approximates the film’s opulent depiction of the Moulin Rouge with the tiniest of details, on and off the stage. It’s in the letters “M” and “R” dotting the doors of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and the gilded railings featuring figures of cherubs and windmills. And set designer Derek McLane transforms the stage itself into a sort of amusement park, beginning with the Tunnel-of-Love archways and extending to the miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower, Satine’s elephant-shaped dressing room, and, of course, the Moulin Rouge’s trademark red windmill façade. All the while, Catherine Zuber’s colorful period costuming helps to vibrantly fill the void left by the stage version’s necessarily reduced ensemble, a sort of illusory insinuation that’s fitting for a bunch of can-can dancers.
The show also makes effective use of the immediacy of its space. The first few rows of the audience are pocketed between the E-shaped stage, which dramatically extends into the auditorium. There’s much to look at on stage at any given moment, but Timbers knows how to direct our attention. Two sword-swallowing seductresses open this Moulin Rouge! with a performance made more riveting by the knowledge that something could go terribly wrong at any moment. And the show’s ferocious mix of danger and eroticism is amplified by Sonya Tayeh’s muscular choreography, which is bawdy yet precise but also violently sexy, insistent that you ogle every move. Big medleys like the one thematically clustered around Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” ooze the artistic ideals of the bohemians: “Truth! Beauty! Freedom! Love!”
Throughout, the performers sell the riskiest of choices. The Duke is meant to represent the antithesis of art, having funded the Moulin Rouge not because he enjoys the music that plays there, but because it gives him access to Satine. But the conventions of a Broadway musical now require him to sing, which is at odds with his character. Mutu gets around this by playing the role with a blistering self-awareness. He sings, sure, but in a way that subverts the lyrics to every rearranged pop song. When he sings the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” we’re very much aware of how un-Jagger-like he is, plodding as opposed to strutting across the stage, without a seductive, rebellious bone in his body. His performance of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” comes across as nasty and possessive, and his version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” is rearranged with an industrial timber so as to sound absolutely chilling.
There is, though, no way for the show to get around Tveit’s emotionally disconnected performance. His goofy charms and top-notch singing work well enough early on for the scenes in which Christian’s lightly wooing Satine with silly love songs. Elsewhere, though, he glides over the weighted words that the other actors intentionally struggle with, especially the standout Olivo, who has to find a way to sing through her character’s consumptive fit. Christian comes to believes that Satine has abandoned him in favor of the Duke, and is meant to rage at the thought of his lover sleeping with another man. This revelation is designed for maximum effect, set to “Roxanne” and accompanied by a brutal Argentinian tango, yet Tveit’s recitation lacks emotional range. Likewise, when Christian’s thoughts turn to suicide—he loads a gun while singing “Crazy”—there’s not even a hint of despair in his tone.
Moulin Rouge! is already a commercially appealing juggernaut of a musical, with an upbeat, lovestruck first act that sublimely distills the rich essences of all your favorite love songs into a heady, artistically satisfying experience. Sadly, one actor’s disconnect is enough to make the second act feel emotionally off-key. As a result, the show ultimately fails to uphold the bohemian ideal of love and art being fused in truthful fashion.
Moulin Rouge! is now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
Interview: Kate Burton on Coriolanus in Central Park and Her Path to Success
The actress discusses her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and more.
Kate Burton is no diva. Despite her illustrious theatrical lineage, the actress is warm and down to earth. Daughter of international movie star Richard Burton, she certainly had a fabled childhood, surrounded constantly by showbiz luminaries. Growing up, if she wasn’t spending summers with her famously tempestuous Welsh actor father and glamorous stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, she was mixing with celebrities at Arthur, the popular 1960s New York disco hangout owned by her mother, Sybil Christopher.
However, avoiding the pitfalls of inherited celebrity, Burton, a three-time Tony and Emmy nominee, has carefully forged her own path, balancing her lauded acting career with a stable family life for more than three decades. She’s currently playing the role of Volumnia in Coriolanus in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. I recently chatted with Burton about the production, her connection to New York, working with director Daniel Sullivan, and her path to success.
What is Coriolanus about to you?
It’s the story of an extraordinary warrior, a soldier who’s thrust into a highly political and governance-related situation—areas where he isn’t comfortable being. He loves war, combat, and the military world. He doesn’t love what a leader has to do in order to get the people to love him. And, of course, the juxtaposition of this with the fascinating time that we are living in—it does give you pause. That’s what makes Shakespeare so unbelievably enduring and so relevant, no matter which play you do and when you do it.
And what’s Volumnia’s function within the play?
She’s definitely the most powerful influence on her son. She’s the woman behind the throne. She saves Rome. Coriolanus is such a complicated character. He doesn’t respond like a normal son would in a lot of ways. It takes quite a lot of coaxing and pleading to get him to do what she wants him to do. It’s true that Jonathan Cake, who plays Coriolanus, and I are only 10 years apart in age, so I said to him that my interpretation is that he’s about five years younger, and I’m a little older. Volumnia was a single mother—no father is mentioned in the play—and she had him when she was young. So, she’s a lioness, a tigress, about her child. I’ve heard that Denzel Washington has a great quote about mothers and sons, something about the son being the last great love of a mother’s life, and the mother being the first great love of his.
So, what’s at the core of the relationship between this mother and son in the play?
There’s a fascinating dynamic between them. Shakespeare didn’t have tons of mothers and sons in his plays. Gertrude and Hamlet come to mind—another fascinating, very complicated relationship. With fathers and daughters it’s different because, of course, Shakespeare was so devoted to one of his own daughters. In the plays written in the Jacobean period—like Coriolanus—there’s a different dynamic than in [the plays written] in the Elizabethan period. I happen to have done a lot of Shakespeare plays from this same Jacobean period: Cymbeline, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale. You know, the monarch on the throne in that period was James and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots—kind of a fascinating mother! Doing this role is great for me because in my real life as a mother I’ve raised two wonderful children and I totally get it. Although I’m very cherishing, nurturing, I always play these kind of growling women. These are the characters I’m comfortable playing because it takes something completely different from me. For instance, my character in Grey’s Anatomy is a very hard woman, tough on her child, exacting, incredibly ambitions. Also, quite honestly, this is a perfect role for an older actress. It’s taxing but it doesn’t wipe you out. It is just six scenes.
I understand you also have some family history with Coriolanus.
My father had been a very famous Coriolanus, before I was born. And now that I know the play, I can totally see it: complicated, driving everybody nuts, yeah! We’re so lucky to have Jonathan playing the role. Not only is he such a talented actor, he has also played the part before. And, you know, with these big Shakespeare roles, it’s great if you can get a couple under your belt, because it takes time to digest it and get it into your bones. Kevin Kline played Hamlet twice, my father played Hamlet twice. And I’m looking to do the The Tempest again.
Speaking of which, what was it like to play Prospero, the lead male character in The Tempest? How did that come about?
It happened very organically four years ago when I did Cymbeline. Daniel Sullivan said he wanted me to play the Queen, and then he said he also wanted me to play the role of Belarius. I thought it was some spear carrier—two scenes, funny hat. But it was a huge role, and he wanted me to play it as a man. That was my first time playing a male role. Then I was all set to do something else last summer when I got an email with the subject line “Prospero.” It was from my great friend [director] Joe Dowling. I just replied, “Yes!” We talked about whether I should play it as a man, but this is one of those Shakespearean roles than can translate to a female playing the part as female. And, of course, Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave have done it. When I worked on it [at the Old Globe in San Diego] I realized that this role can really work naturally as a woman—the relationships with Miranda and Ariel and Caliban. So, now playing Prospero is something I would like to have another go at. I’m actually talking to a few people about it right now. Volumnia, to be honest, is a very masculine woman—just in the way she approaches things. She’s not some sweet little mom. The first thing that Shakespeare has her say in Corolianus is how pleased she is to send her son into war. I wanted him to seek danger because it created more spine, gave him more honor. So, I’m glad I’ve played a couple of male Shakespearean roles because it really helps me with Volumnia.
Is it true that acting wasn’t your first choice of profession?
I went to the United Nations International School here in New York City, and I was planning to be a diplomat. It wasn’t until my senior year at Brown University that I took an acting class. I had a professor who just loved the arts and he saw me in the plays that I did as extracurricular activity and he said that I have this gift and that I was squashing it down. My father at that time was so incredibly well known, but it wasn’t just that. It’s that I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue this mad life. It can be fantastic, but it can also be really challenging, because, you know, you’re an itinerant worker. I’d seen everything—my father, my step-mother, my step-father were all in show business. My mother had been an actress when she married my father, when she was extremely young. But she just didn’t love performing, although she loved rehearsing and she loved being backstage. Then she became an artistic director [founder of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor]. So, I came into acting with my eyes wide open. I’m also married to Michael Ritchie, who’s the artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, but he’s not an actor. We have a son who’s an actor, who also loves writing, but our daughter is interested in other things.
And your mother supported your choice to become an actress?
Oh, yes, she saw me in everything. She almost never said anything negative. I think if you have a child who’s an actor, you just have to be unconditionally supportive. It’s going to be their journey no matter what. The only disagreement that my dad and I had about any of it was that he wanted me to train. He never trained, by the way. I just want to point that out! He wanted me to train in England because I was offered an opportunity to go to Central School of Speech and Drama in London. I chose instead to go to the Yale School of Drama because I was American. I said to him, “I’m your daughter so let me find my own path.” I’ve met a few children of luminary types who are now graduating from school and I just say to them it’s all about you finding your own voice, you don’t want to be just considered the daughter of blah blah blah. So, as long as you find your own voice, that’s the most important thing.
How do you feel about the time it took for you to establish a name for yourself?
You know, I kind of had the right trajectory. I first worked in the theater. I did tons of plays in New York and a few out of town. I started in TV when I was a bit into my 20s and moved into more TV and film in my 30s. Then everything sort of happened with Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man, and that was in my early 40s. And then in my mid-40s, on TV, I got Grey’s Anatomy and then, five years later, Scandal. So, Hedda Gabler put me on the map in one way and Grey’s Anatomy in a completely different way. It all worked out nicely and then I moved to Los Angeles. I love L.A. and I get to do theater there as well. I’ve done two projects for my husband at the Taper and also The Tempest at the Old Globe.
So, here you are back in New York, doing theater in Central Park. What are you looking forward to this time?
I love coming back to New York, it’s my hometown. And this worked out perfectly. I like to do a play once a year and to be in New York ideally every couple of years. So, two years ago I did Present Laughter on Broadway and The Dead 1904 off-Broadway. This is my second time in the Park. I did Cymbeline there in 2015. That production was fantastic and challenging because it was multiple characters, as I was involved in all the fight scenes. And let us remember that we are outside and it’s hot and steamy. Now I’m playing a single character and I’m not in any of the fight scenes so I’m very happy! What I’m excited about is that the audience is going to discover this play that hasn’t been done in the Park since 1979. It’s so virulent and so vital. There’s a primal aspect to it. And, then, I mean, free Shakespeare in the Park. New York on a summer night! It doesn’t get any better than that.
Coriolanus runs through August 11.
Review: In Mojada, Immigration Is an Ill-Fitting Costume for a Modern-Day Medea
The play reduces Medea’s decisions to an act of madness, adding little to our understanding of the Medea mythos.
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, a modern-day adaptation of Euripedes’s Medea, begins and ends with scenes of Medea’s (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) life in a foreign country, prior to the woman murdering her own child. An argument can be made that, in this context, Medea’s actions are a direct result of the trauma she sustained while making the arduous crossing from Zamora, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, to Corona, Queens. But Alfaro, who once found success mirroring ancient tragedy in a contemporary Latinx moment with Oedipus El Rey, doesn’t convincingly make that connection. The contextual changes he makes to the circumstances of and relationship between Medea and Jason (Alex Hernandez) reduce Medea’s decisions to an act of madness, adding little to our understanding of the Medea mythos.
In Mojada, Medea and Jason, who aren’t technically married, must live in hiding. America’s a far less welcoming country than ancient Corinth, which also gives a new context to Jason’s decision to marry an American citizen. He expresses shame over trading sex with Pilar (Ada Maris), his wealthy developer boss, for the right to stay in one of her many properties and, eventually, for citizenship through marriage. He’s protecting himself and his son, Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken), not to mention gaining legal employment for Tita (Socorro Santiago), the loyal servant who followed the family from Mexico. His entire “crime”—sleeping with another woman—is contextualized as a necessary transaction, and the play backs him up, both in its depiction of the family’s precarious situation, and in the fact that Pilar herself, a Cuban immigrant, achieved her wealth and success by once marrying a rich American.
In Greek mythology, Medea enabled Jason and his crew of Argonauts to recover the Golden Fleece. He owed his success to her, and she rejected her father’s kingdom to relocate to a new country with him. Mojada’s version of Medea is far less empowered and helpful; in truth, it’s hard to see why she and Jason are together at all, since they seem to want entirely different things for themselves and their son. Jason embraces America, taking Acan to Coney Island and encouraging him to use American words like “dad” instead of “papi.” Conversely, Medea, who’s shown on multiple occasions clearing her mind with sewing and ritual prayer, not only stubbornly refuses any sort of cultural assimilation, but bristles at others’ show of it.
Throughout Mojada, Alfaro provides reasons for why Medea is closed off from Jason and the world: When she tries to be intimate with him, she’s reminded of her rape, and when she attempts to leave their home, she’s overwhelmed by the cacophony of sounds emanating from her bustling section of Corona. These traumas are real, and a tragic result of the price she continues to pay for having crossed into America, but Alfaro so briefly addresses them that they come across as thin excuses with which to make the agoraphobic Medea so reliant on others. In the end, neither her suffering nor her unauthorized status hold her back as much as the plot of Medea: She has to kill Pilar and Acan because that’s how the story goes.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s set—the backyard of a rundown two-story house—suggests both shelter and a place of danger, as if this family’s American dream might collapse at any moment. And Haydee Zelideth’s costuming points to an insidious erasure at work in the characters’ lives. Medea is a talented seamstress, but because she has no papers, she must standardize her work and cheaply sell it to middlemen. It’s further frustrating to her that while she proudly wears a plain white dress, her family begins to cast off the clothing they brought to America, with Acan trading in a Mexican jersey for an American one, and Jason happily upgrading to a pair of expensive boots offered to him by Pilar. Medea tries to foreground her culture, adding a colorful flourish to her attire before Jason introduces her to Pilar, but she never commands the focus of the room, and the rest of the cast’s clothing only grows more casual and everyday. These subtle elements do far more to give weight to Medea’s fears of being culturally erased than does blunt declamatory dialogue like: “That’s the problem with this country, you can get everything you want, but then you spend the rest of your life fighting to keep it.”
That Medea feels like a costume worn by Mojada to justify its existence becomes apparent with how easily the Medea-related content is cast off midway through the play. Twice, Alfaro shifts from active dialogue to passive monologues in which Medea recounts how her family crossed the American border. Instead of showing the ugly realities of death, dehydration, rape, and ICE that they encountered along the way, Alfaro uses terse poetry (“I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I am dead inside.”) and stale metaphor (“She makes a concoction. I drink it. It kills the soldier inside me.”) that keeps these things at a comfortable distance.
Mojada, under Chay Yew’s direction, attempts to make this recitation more direct by projecting images of Medea’s family’s journey onto the wall of their home. But these well-intended images of a nighttime desert, stretches of highway, Port Authority, could be snapshots from any family’s memories of travel; they’re so generic that they don’t specifically speak to the arduousness, the horror, of Medea and Jason’s journey to the States.
Mojada is at its most specific and resonant when it isn’t focusing on Medea, but on Luisa (Vanessa Aspillaga), a garrulous Puerto Rican who’s returned to America in the wake of Hurricane Maria, driven to succeed at any cost. In her case, this means entrepreneurially operating a churro cart (“Cops eat free”), despite the cultural scorn from her neighbors, and secondarily by adopting a new name, Lulu, so that she might be more appealing to hipsters. A character with no corollary in Euripedes’s play, she’s free to simply exist and tell her story, which she does, and in such a comic, rapid-fire fashion that when she abruptly starts to sob over her husband’s work-related back ailments and their lack of energy to have a kid, it may catch you off-guard. There’s a spark of humanity here that the rest of Mojada, beholden both to Medea and the Big Idea of immigration, is otherwise unable to ignite.
Luisa is actively hustling, and she details the steps and compromises she’s going to take to get the future she wants. Medea is more passive, making no effort to break out of her one-woman sweatshop. Alfaro is so fixated on having her make political pronouncements—“They can never build a wall big enough. But they will always try”—that she becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece, which is why her sudden and violent pivot feels so disproportionate. Medea, both the character and the play, create unearned drama for Mojada, moments that wrongly wrest focus away from thoughts of immigration. For a more effective classical tragedy, simply watch the news, with its raw images, wailing interviews, and chorus of pundits.
Mojada is now playing through Sunday, August 11 at the Public’s LuEsther Hall.
Review: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune Shines a Light on the Vagaries of Love
The play depends especially on the strength of its leads, and here it has two eager thespians who make the most of its drama.
The only characters in Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune are two single fortysomethings who work menial jobs at the same Manhattan greasy spoon. Johnny, a line cook, lives in Brooklyn Heights. Frankie, a waitress, lives in Hell’s Kitchen. The show opens toward what should be the end of their first date: after a round of sex at Frankie’s place. It’s three in the morning and she wants him to go home, but he wants to stay until they’ve agreed that they will fall intensely in love, get married, and have kids.
In the end, Frankie and Johnny stay up all night, batting back and forth about whether they can make a conscious decision, based on convenience, to love each other, even if they’re not naturally, helplessly falling head over heels for one another. The play offers the possibility of an old world-style romance in modern New York City, where few have to tie the knot for any reason but true love. “What people see in one another!” Johnny says. “It’s a total mystery.”
The 1987 play’s investigation of this mystery can feel thin, as its characters at times suggest cats chasing each other’s tails around the same circles over more than two hours. But the Broadway revival, now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street near Eighth Avenue (about 4,500 feet from Frankie’s apartment on 53rd and 10th), is great fun anyway, and more than a little moving, thanks to Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald. The play depends especially on the strength of its leads, and here it has two eager thespians who make the most of its drama, which in lesser hands could easily just feel like an acting exercise.
Shannon’s inherent menacing weirdness is perfect for Johnny. The character’s intimidating dominance comes across not only in his propensity for talking too much, but also in Shannon’s hulking intensity. It’s in the way Johnny stares at Frankie or lords his body over hers too closely—a little drunk on beer but intoxicated by amour. Johnny’s hyper-romanticism becomes increasingly threatening throughout the play, a weaponized malevolence, but Shannon also laces his character’s overeager declamations or goat-gotten indignations with great humor. An early laughing fit, which we eventually learn arose from a memory of an ill-timed fart, is particularly infectious. McDonald is no less sharp as Shannon’s exasperated straight woman, tripping over her words and getting a lot of laughs as an audience surrogate, amazed at the sparring partner who won’t just put his clothes on and go.
Director Arin Arbus coaxes performances from McDonald and Shannon that are certainly naturalistic, especially when they’re au naturel. Especially early on, the actors appear naked from head to toe. The costuming—or lack of it—often reflects something about the characters: Though they may initially both appear vulnerable, Frankie quickly dons a robe, a sign of her need to erect emotional barriers, while Johnny, who’s like an open book, hardly ever puts on a shirt. All the while, the city looms over the set: the back wall is the pale image of an apartment building façade, filling the stage with a stony exterior, another suggestion of Frankie’s “walls.”
The production retains the original’s 1980s setting, and it abounds in period signifiers, such as an oblique reference to the AIDS crisis, which once loomed especially large over the casual hook-up, like the one between Frankie and Johnny. At one point, Frankie, impressed when Johnny says he owns a VCR, starts to wheel around a small television on a cart around her practically furnished but slightly messy bachelorette pad, and the two listen all night to classical music broadcast on the radio. Johnny calls the station to request “the most beautiful music ever written,” a score for their strange night of up-and-down courtship. The late-night jockey, who’s been playing light piano music that Frankie admiringly calls “chaste,” opts for something a little more frankly beautiful: Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which is French for moonlight, though the term suggests something literally like the clarity of the moon.
The music is clear, as well, especially at the end of act two, when the action stops as the characters listen to it play out at length. This is a gabby play, but the instrumental offers the characters a respite, a chance to listen to something else—something more lovely, honest, and pure—than their own squabbling, stumbling dialogues. It’s so gentle and graceful that it provides its own sentimentally clarifying light. Basking in it, the characters seem to recognize their desperate loneliness—and maybe the audience its own, as well.
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Interview: Terrence McNally on the Timeless Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
The dramatist and his husband, producer Tom Kirdahy, discuss what makes Frankie and Johnny so enduring.
It takes a romantic like Terrence McNally to infuse so much warmth into a one-night stand. That’s what you sense as you watch Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. Well known for his ability to soothe the pain and anguish of his characters, and our own, with the balm of laughter, McNally takes a gentle approach in this romantic comedy about a waitress and a short-order cook whose first night of passionate sex looks as if it may blossom into something even more intense. The new Broadway revival of McNally’s 1987 play is directed by Arin Arbus and stars Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon as the pair of working-class loners who get swept up in something beyond their expectations.
McNally’s belief in true romance is fulfilled in his own life as well. Now 80 years old, he’s been together with his husband, lawyer and theater producer Tom Kirdahy, for nearly two decades. Next month, the eminent playwright will receive his fifth Tony Award—for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre—and PBS will air Every Act of Life, Jeff Kaufman’s documentary on his life and six-decade writing career. I recently sat down with McNally and Kirdahy in their New York apartment to talk about the Frankie and Johnny revival, McNally’s wonderful new lease on life, and the celebration of his career on Broadway.
Why revive Frankie and Johnny now?
Terrence McNally: I think the play still has lot to say to people. I’m delighted to have it back on Broadway with two magnificent actors. That’s the easy answer!
Tom Kirdahy: The play is timely and timeless. It’s better doing it now than it might have been even a year ago, because I think people are feeling very disconnected from one another. In the age of social media, people have the illusion of being connected with others, but, in many ways, we’re less connected than we’ve ever been before. Our country is very fractured, we have so many walls between us. Johnny is determined to tear down the walls that separate people, and Frankie, I think, wants those walls torn down but has shielded herself from the pain of rendering herself vulnerable. This is a play about two people taking a leap across the void of loneliness and trying to connect with one another. It feels so fresh and urgent, so “now.”
There was no social media in the ‘80s when you wrote the play, but you’ve noted how the availability of movies on VHS provided a similar obstacle to social interaction.
McNally: People were afraid to make any kind connection with strangers because AIDS was on everybody’s mind—gay and straight alike—and they were spending a lot of time alone on weekends. What kicked off the play, actually, was that I noticed these crowds at—was it called Blockbusters? I noticed them checking out 20 movies at a time because they had no intention to set foot out of their apartment once Friday night came. They would watch videos instead.
You’ve said that this is the first play of the second act of your life. Can you tell us something about that time when you began writing Frankie and Johnny?
McNally: Well, I was about to turn 50. I was at the end of a relationship and a good friend told me, “You’ve had your last cookie.” That was how they put it, which was rather harsh, but I know what they meant. It was the New York of graffiti and it seemed gray all the time. There were a lot of homeless [people]. There were a lot of people with greasy rags and squeegees who’d approach your car when you got to an intersection. You could rent any theater on Broadway, practically; they were all empty, gathering dust. It was the bleakest period I remember of New York. I’m not a bleak person and I wanted to imagine something positive. I’m a bit like Johnny that way. There’s a little of me in each character. This is the kind of play where you go, “No one is ever going to want to do this. Only middle-aged people would remotely be interested in it.” But I just wanted to write it. It was kind of my personal SOS. It was to connect to someone—and it turned out to be with an audience.
Only connect. Would you say that’s a theme through the plays you’ve written?
McNally: Probably. And people thinking they’re the only person in the world—never more acutely than in this play.
Did you have to do any updates or revisions for this revival?
McNally: No. We decided to leave it in period. Giving them cellphones and devices like that doesn’t make a play up to date. I will try to fix plays that I didn’t quite get right the first time. I’m 30 years older, and the play is 30 years older, so it surprised me in a way how much it moved me and how relevant it still is. What it is truly about is the distance between people. That stayed with us. Maybe that was my big theme in all my work: connection, which is so difficult. We have substitutes for it—like getting the Maria Callas [recording of] Lisbon performance of La Traviata—but people still want the real thing.
Do you think that audiences may be unprepared for the frank language and nudity in the play—more so than they were 30 years ago?
Kirdahy: I think so. At the first preview, the audience was so electric and so startled by the frank sexuality. I do think we might be entering almost more puritanical times, and I feel like this is a good antidote to that as well. We’re using an intimacy director for the first time on Broadway. Her name is Claire Warden. Working with her has allowed us to bring great reality to the sex in the play, and also ensure a safe space for our actors.
Now you’re speaking in the language of today.
Kirdahy: That’s correct. And in doing that I think we’re marrying the present with the past, but I do think the play’s comfort with sexuality and frank talk about sex is a bit startling and very, very exciting too.
If we say you’re now in your third act, would you agree that it started when you and Tom first got together 18 years ago?
McNally: I certainly don’t think I’d be sitting here if Tom had not come into my life. It was a very strong flash of lightning that went off when I met him, as something profoundly important happened. And to add to the drama, by our third date, literally, I found out I had lung cancer. That used to be a death sentence, but I’ve managed it for all these years. We also have an important professional relationship together. He’s easily the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He’s smart, he knows how to talk to creative people. He doesn’t operate out of fear, and he gets things done. And everybody likes him. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Congratulations on receiving the Tony for lifetime achievement. How do you feel about being recognized for six decades of work?
McNally: I feel pretty wonderful. I won’t pretend false modesty. To think how reviled my first play was. One review began: “The American theater would be a better place this morning if Terrence McNally’s parents had smothered him in his cradle.” That’s quite a journey, isn’t it?
Indeed it is. What’s remarkable is that in that play And Things That Go Bump in the Night, you portrayed gay sexuality openly on Broadway in 1965. And this was three years before The Boys in the Band made its landmark appearance off-Broadway.
McNally: I’m of the school “write what you know about,” so I didn’t think I was doing a breakthrough. Also, when you write a play, you don’t write a Broadway play differently than you write an off-Broadway one. You still have to bring the best you can to the project with honesty, develop interesting characters. I think what was innovative about And Things That Go Bump in the Night was that they were two men who had an active sex life. Because before that, gay men in plays were always the next-door neighbor comic-relief character, or the sad alcoholic who you’d find out in the third act had committed suicide. They were tragic and lonely and desperate, and were dead by the end—or they went on decorating, or fixing women’s hair, saying witty things about people. What The Boys in the Band did—that was a first I believe—was that all the characters were out gay men, with varying degrees of comfortableness with being gay. That was a seminal play, and it was great that it was revived last year with an all-star famous cast. Originally, they had trouble getting actors to be in it.
What do you think of when you look back to that era?
McNally: The changes we’ve seen are extraordinary. From men furtively darting down staircases into little bars to now—we have many friends with lovely children, male couples who have adopted. And it’s extraordinary that this has all happened in my lifetime. I remember when I went to Columbia [in 1956], almost the first time I went to a gay bar I saw my advisor there. He was startled to see me, and I never saw him there again. And for the four years he was my advisor, we never mentioned that we’d seen each other there. I think it could have been the basis of some kind of relationship, a friendship, who knows? But instead, it was this thing you never acknowledged. I never expected as a young man that I would be married one day. I expected to be in love and be loved by another man, but not publicly—that we could own a home together, adopt a child, do anything like that.
Yet, unlike many of your contemporaries, you were out from the start of your career.
McNally: Yeah. I was reviewed as a gay playwright in my first play and that’s simply because I was partners with Edward Albee and they all knew that. On the opening night of Bump—this was when everyone used to smoke in theaters—we had eight daily papers, and the eight critics, they were the last ones in because their seats were in the aisles and they could smoke until the very last second. And the lights were blinking, they put out their cigarettes, and as they went in, one of them said to the other: “Well, let’s go see what his boyfriend has come up with.” I just felt sick to my stomach when I heard that. It made me sad and angry. I thought in that second how they’re not reviewing a new writer, but reviewing a play by Edward Albee’s boyfriend. I wasn’t a person, I was bit of theater gossip.
That play, I knew it wasn’t a triumph at previews, but there were people who liked it. But the venom of the press—almost every negative review had words like “obscene,” “disgusting,” “immoral,” “vile,” and it was only because of the relationship between the two men, because they’d just had sex. But that didn’t deter me. I read the other day someone said that part of being a success at anything is starting over again after you fail. It’s when you give up—then you’re the failure. I never thought of giving up playwriting and, as I said to Tom the other day, I think I’d rather receive an award like this now than be praised too much when you’re in your 20s and 30s. The timing is right. I consider it the nicest 80th birthday present I could have.
The Broadway revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.
2019 Tony Nominations: Hadestown and Ain’t Too Proud Lead Field
Both shows were joined in the Best Musical category by Beetlejuice, The Prom, and Tootsie.
Nominations for the 73rd Tony Awards were announced this morning, with CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King and actors Bebe Neuwirth and Brandon Victor Dixon revealing the nominees in the top eight categories. Leading the pack with 14 nominations Hadestown, followed by Ain’t Too Proud—The Life of the Temptations with 12. Both shows were joined in the Best Musical category by Beetlejuice, The Prom, and Tootsie.
See below for a full list of the nominations.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations
Choir Boy by Tarell
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
What the Constitution Means to Me
Best Revival of a Play
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
The Boys in the Band
The Waverly Gallery
Best Revival of a Musical
Kiss Me, Kate
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Paddy Considine, The Ferryman
Bryan Cranston, Network
Jeff Daniels, To Kill a Mockingbird
Adam Driver, Burn This
Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Annette Bening, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman
Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery
Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton
Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me
Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Brooks Ashmanskas, The Prom
Derrick Baskin, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Alex Brightman, Beetlejuice
Damon Daunno, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Santino Fontana, Tootsie
Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Stephanie J. Block, The Cher Show
Caitlin Kinnunen, The Prom
Beth Leavel, The Prom
Eva Noblezada, Hadestown
Kelli O’Hara, Kiss Me, Kate
Best Book of a Musical
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations, Dominique Morisseau
Beetlejuice, Scott Brown and Anthony King
Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell
The Prom, Bob Martin & Chad Beguelin
Tootsie, Robert Horn
Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Be More Chill, Joe Iconis
Beetlejuice, Eddie Perfect
Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell
The Prom, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin
To Kill a Mockingbird, Adam Guettel
Tootsie, David Yazbek
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Bertie Carvel, Ink
Robin De Jesús, The Boys in the Band
Gideon Glick, To Kill a Mockingbird
Brandon Uranowitz, Burn This
Benjamin Walker, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Fionnula Flanagan, The Ferryman
Celia Keenan-Bolger, To Kill a Mockingbird
Kristine Nielsen, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Julie White, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Ruth Wilson, King Lear
Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
André De Shields, Hadestown
Andy Grotelueschen, Tootsie
Patrick Page, Hadestown
Jeremy Pope, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Ephraim Sykes, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Lilli Cooper, Tootsie
Amber Gray, Hadestown
Sarah Stiles, Tootsie
Ali Stroker, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Mary Testa, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Best Scenic Design of a Play
Miriam Buether, To Kill a Mockingbird
Bunny Christie, Ink
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Santo Loquasto, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Jan Versweyveld, Network
Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Robert Brill and Peter Nigrini, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Peter England, King Kong
Rachel Hauck, Hadestown
Laura Jellinek, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
David Korins, Beetlejuice
Best Costume Design of a Play
Rob Howell, The Ferryman
Toni-Leslie James, Bernhardt/Hamlet
Clint Ramos, Torch Song
Ann Roth, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Ann Roth, To Kill a Mockingbird
Best Costume Design of a Musical
Michael Krass, Hadestown
William Ivey Long, Beetlejuice
William Ivey Long, Tootsie
Bob Mackie, The Cher Show
Paul Tazewell, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Best Lighting Design of a Play
Neil Austin, Ink
Jules Fisher + Peggy Eisenhauer, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Peter Mumford, The Ferryman
Jennifer Tipton, To Kill a Mockingbird
Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden, Network
Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Kevin Adams, The Cher Show
Howell Binkley, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Bradley King, Hadestown
Peter Mumford, King Kong
Kenneth Posner and Peter Nigrini, Beetlejuice
Best Sound Design of a Play
Adam Cork, Ink
Scott Lehrer, To Kill a Mockingbird
Fitz Patton, Choir Boy
Nick Powell, The Ferryman
Eric Sleichim, Network
Best Sound Design of a Musical
Peter Hylenski, Beetlejuice
Peter Hylenski, King Kong
Steve Canyon Kennedy, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Drew Levy, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz, Hadestown
Best Direction of a Play
Rupert Goold, Ink
Sam Mendes, The Ferryman
Bartlett Sher, To Kill a Mockingbird
Ivo van Hove, Network
George C. Wolfe, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
Best Direction of a Musical
Rachel Chavkin, Hadestown
Scott Ellis, Tootsie
Daniel Fish, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Des McAnuff, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Casey Nicholaw, The Prom
Camille A. Brown, Choir Boy
Warren Carlyle, Kiss Me, Kate
Denis Jones, Tootsie
David Neumann, Hadestown
Sergio Trujillo, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, Hadestown
Simon Hale, Tootsie
Larry Hochman, Kiss Me, Kate
Daniel Kluger, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
Harold Wheeler, Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations
Recipients of Awards and Honors in Non-competitive Categories
Special Tony Awards for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre
Special Tony Awards
Jason Michael Webb
Regional Theatre Tony Award
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award
Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre
Broadway Inspirational Voices
Joseph Blakely Forbes
FDNY Engine 54
Tony Nominations by Production
Hadestown – 14
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations – 12
Tootsie – 11
The Ferryman – 9
To Kill a Mockingbird – 9
Beetlejuice – 8
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – 8
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus – 7
The Prom – 7
Ink – 6
Network – 5
Choir Boy – 4
Kiss Me, Kate – 4
Arthur Miller’s All My Sons – 3
Burn This – 3
The Cher Show – 3
King Kong – 3
Bernhardt/Hamlet – 2
The Boys in the Band – 2
Torch Song – 2
The Waverly Gallery – 2
What the Constitution Means to Me – 2
Be More Chill – 1
Hillary and Clinton – 1
King Lear – 1
Review: Agree or Disagree, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie Keeps Us at a Distance
The play’s always-at-arm’s-length subtext makes it hard for us to appreciate or connect with the material on an emotional level.
Six parents of varying demographics take part in a focus group. It’s 1979 and they’re there to answer questions about a popular children’s television show, Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie. The play, the mastermind of the Mad Ones theater company, shares the same title as this much-discussed show within a show, but the lessons taught to its adult audience are much less obvious, so much so that they’re likely to be missed entirely. The structural choice of following a focus group largely in real time limits the emotional range of the production, distilling too much to the instructions given to the focus group: “Thumbs up is agree, thumbs down is disagree; thumb to the middle is neutral, somewhat agree.”
Dale (Brad Heberlee), of the data-collecting company Blue Horizon, is an anodyne presence. His intentionally bland moderation makes for a problematic focal point for the play, since his task is to avoid conflict. In this way, he serves to turn moments that would make for entertaining drama into dry data. His lightning-fast questioning dredges up only the most superficial of responses, a process so dull that the production plays it for laughs, with Dale’s assistant Jim (Marc Bovino), always struggling to keep up as he hastily transcribes all of the notes onto a chalkboard. Dale’s not interested in these people, and only slightly more so in their answers, as shown by the way he parrots things back with queries that aim to get everyone on the same, easily digestible page: “Can you distill that down to one word?”
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie succeeds only by showing the struggle against such reduction: the subtle ways in which these parents, sometimes with only the choice of a single word, manage to maintain their humanity in the face of such aggressive neutrality. We learn a lot about June (Carmen M. Herlihy) not by her negative gut-response to a mouse puppet, but by the way in she psychoanalytically draws a distinction between the speaking and non-speaking puppets on the children’s program. Elsewhere, the hardscrabble divorcee Gloria (Stephanie Wright Thompson) is fleshed out less by what she says than by the way in which she’s desperately trying to impress and emulate her more successful female counterpoint, Cici (January LaVoy).
Ernest (Phillip James Brannon) is perhaps too straightforward, serving as the play’s conscience, but at least his refusal to bend on certain moral issues is rooted in a real sense of him as a father. Blue-collar Wayne (Michael Dalto) is particularly fascinating: When he describes a character on the unseen show within the show as “soft,” he’s being inadvertently homophobic, and yet when he’s called out on it, he’s also the most sincerely apologetic.
It’s in the slight pauses and earnest fumbles that these characters show themselves to be exceedingly human. This is an interesting, albeit subtle and attention-demanding conceit, because if you blink then you’ll miss what’s really going on beneath the surface. But it’s not always theatrically effective. Lila Neugebauer’s direction and You-Shin Chen and Laura Jellinek’s set can’t help but partially obscure some of the cast; they’re sitting at a round table, which inevitably leaves their backs to some of the audience.
It’s easy to respect Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie on an intellectual level, but its always-at-arm’s-length subtext makes it hard for us to appreciate or connect with the material on an emotional level. The drama exists in a negative space, by dint of what doesn’t happen in this focus group, a too-clever reflection of the group’s pivotal discussion around the role of consequences in a children’s television show. You can appreciate the play’s period-specific craft, the accuracy of Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costuming, or the precise rhythms of an ensemble-penned script that brings to mind the hyperrealism of Annie Baker, but it’s at a distance.
The play’s most direct arc is the most relatable. Roger (Joe Curnutte), one of the six parents, at first appears to be a fairly decent guy—so long as he’s being heard. Over time, as focus shifts to the others, he relaxes his genial salesman façade, revealing the smug and fragile man underneath. When he’s lightly ribbed for his disagreeability, he unleashes the entitled asshole lurking beneath that smile. For a while, he parrots Gloria, antagonizing her in plain sight; later, he goes a step further and places his hand on Cici’s leg as he makes sexual insinuations about her. He’s got a transformative arc, one that’s intentionally left incomplete, given that he faces no consequences for his actions. (Difficult, too, not to read into Dale’s humoring of Roger’s bad behavior as Trump-like: “I want to take a minute to reiterate that both of your opinions—both of your viewpoints—are valid and absolutely essential for our discussion.”)
This is another instance of the way in which the play uses negative space, and a marked delineation between the fairytale children’s programming that’s being discussed, and the grownup reality these participants are living in. But does having a solid thesis protect against narrative bloat or the subdued emotions? You are left to decide: Agree, disagree, maybe.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie is now playing at Ars Nova at Greenwich House.
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