A Tale of Writing, Simon Stephens and Heisenberg

I don’t think I could ever write a play.

As I am writing this, my mind lingered over to the possibility of writing for the stage at some point in the future - like, in a part-time Sharr White-esque fashion - and yes, I don’t think I have it in me to do so. Sure, I’ve seen A LOT of shows and have years of writing experience, but, of course, that doesn’t mean I can just up and write the next The Humans. Allow me to bow out and leave the playwriting to the actual professionals.

Heisenberg - playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater - is the show that prompted me to think about playwriting while also confirming that it’s probably not my calling. Like most of the great new plays, I could just never write something like this.

Having seen a few of his works, I figured Simon Stephens to be some sort of writing sorcerer. Not just his adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but Punk Rock was also a gem of layered suspense and shock that spoke about humanity on a larger, more cynical scale.

Heisenberg feels like it exists more in the former’s subverted realism-esque universe, such as, in the very station where Christopher Boone is scrambling to catch his train, he could have walked past the bench where Georgie, an American woman in her 40’s, randomly kisses Alex, an Irish man in his 70’s, on his neck from behind (Heisenberg officially commences mere moments after that). The reason why both worlds felt so (wonderfully) similar to me is that suspending disbelief came organically and it took minimal effort to convince me that all three characters exist in a reality where an exciting adventure awaits them.

That’s quite an achievement given Heisenberg's constructs lend more credence to the fact that Georgie and Alex would probably not engage in further conversation after their initial…ummm, ‘exchange', which can be described as awkward at best or bizarre and creepy at the worst. After maybe 3 minutes of apologies for the misunderstanding and miscellaneous small-talk, it is more than apparent that both individuals aren’t compatible in any regard. She is ditzy and may or may not have lied about her love life and professions (take one guess), while also having an ulterior motive as to why she pursues Alex so vociferously, going as far as visiting him at his butcher shop after their initial not-so-meet-cute. He’s reserved and set in his ways, replying with few words and exhibiting little interest in Georgie during the early-going while she haphazardly stumbles around (physically and verbally) in their interactions.

Several breaks - and set-changes - pepper the run-time, each one indicating a fast-forward in these character’s journeys together, which goes on to include dinner-dates, sex and a full-fledge romantic relationship. As unconventional as it may be, Stephens’ writing nails it over and over again as these two vastly different people build a believable rapport with each other, the age difference and unsuitable natures all aside. The dialogue is funny and pleasant, not to mention, occasionally sad as Georgie and Alex let their guards done to reveal some of the pain they harbor around. And it’s a nice, unstraining thought that two random individuals can meet and establish a bond regardless of whatever, you know...

Like Georgie and Alex’s interest in each other, the audience can’t help but observe and be intrigued as to where things may go. And once the beautiful final scene comes around and after the final fade-to-black, my thoughts began to theorize what is in-store for these characters. Ambiguous (and abrupt) endings can polarize an audience, but Stephens side-stepped a more tantalizing route for something subdued and heart-warming.

The other aspects of this production are all on-point, starting with Mark Brokaw’s primitive, but effective direction. On-stage seating is never not awesome and with a series of risers upstage and with the normal in-house audience with consideration, Brokaw directed the cast and their “tables and chairs” set-up with minimal movement and shape-shifting, with nary a bad angle (as far as I can tell) from either vantage point while also letting Stephens writing and the performers do their stuff.

Mary Louise Parker’s performance as Georgie is delightful and manages to impress in one important regard: as insufferable and occasionally dubious Georgie can be, the audience does more than just tolerate her - we play along and even cheer a little as she wears Alex down. It’s not shocking to hear someone drop the ‘F’ bomb on stage, but Parker’s no-filter, Giggles McAdorable delivery landed every time for some of Heisenberg’s best laughs. Usually, two-character plays don’t have characters like Georgie - I imagine it is out of concern of jumping the shark should the character not land right away (if at all) - but in Parker’s performance, Georgie has many shades to her, so much so, she sustains our attention throughout.

And while Denis Arndt has the more quiet, reactive role between the two, he doesn’t overshoot subtle and wind up being boring. His “quiet, but confident” schtick is perfectly calibrated to offset Georgie’s Georgie-ing, while also crescendo-ing into his final monologue, which Arndt performs with a palpable exuberance without raising his voice all that much.

Manhattan Theatre Club should become the sole proprietor of these two-character handlers (that is, if it isn’t already). The last revival of Collected Stories, Venus in Fur, Constellations, and now, Heisenberg is quite the strong pedigree of shows if you ask me.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus


Oh, Hello Alex Timbers

Not-So-Spoiler Alert: I love Alex Timbers.

For those of you that know me, this is not exactly a shocking revelation given (1) he's Alex Timbers, c'mon now... and (2) even with a mis-directed scene or a not-so-good show, a common trait of his direction is it's "unapologetic, over-the-top, WTF" gusto that you can't help, but applaud his boldness and his penchant for boundary-breaking (in every intrinsic and external meaning of that superlative). Want to make a show A SHOW or THE SHOW? Call Alex, step out of the way of his magical hair flips and watch him strut his stuff.

To date, he had a hand in two of the most FUCKING HYSTERICAL shows I've ever seen - Peter and the Starcatcher and The Robber Bridegroom. Sure, both shows had a lot of other factors going for it - fantastic set-pieces, the former's stellar book and excellent performances from both ensembles - but all of that does not come together sans the director and Alex Timbers (plus the late-Roger Rees on Peter) brought his A-game on both occasions.

One would think that Timbers directing an actual comedy - not a dramedy, but a full-fledged, start-to-finish comedy - starring actual comedians/comedic actors would be easy-as-pie given his facility with the genre, but unfortunately, I did not find his newest offering, Oh, Hello on Broadway, playing at the Lyceum Theatre, to be outrageously funny. It was just, like, 'haha' funny. In parts. In-between several long eye-rolls.

You see, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll play George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon respectively, two septuagenarians tasked with conjuring up a memoir for the stage, "show-within-a-show" style. The entire affair is a one-act, no-intermission send-up of…well, everything. Amongst the targets are New York and its inhabitants, shows that have once resided at the Lyceum (Steel Magnolias, I am My Own Wife, amongst others), pop and theatre culture, theatrical devices and constructs…the list goes on and on.

Some parts land those elusive belly laughs, namely, a dozen or so one-liners out of the 15,741 scripted attempts. And Mulaney and Kroll clearly have talent to spare, delivering select lines or bits with grand relish that you can't help but play along with their character's antics. And during a segment about half-way through, where George and Gil roast interview a different special guest each night - the night I attended, the special guests were Aziz Ansari from Parks and Recreation and Master of None, plus his father - Mulaney and Kroll handled the improvisation with ease and generated a funny rapport with the also-game Ansaris. In fact, any moment of improvisation were highlights overall.

If I had to peg why things never come together, the biggest culprit has to be the story…or rather, the not-story as it were. For a show where thousands upon thousands of try-hard one-liners and jokes come up, it is quite disconcerting that no effort was put into crafting something more tangible on the story side. George and Gil come out, they vamp for the audience, they walk us through something something another something something Aziz Ansari and his Pop are here something something…sorry, but I actually don't remember much of what transpired. And while Mulaney's and Kroll's performances are more right then wrong, their performances slipped into monotony after a little while. George and Gil deliver nearly all of their lines with a droll, DGAF disposition - and there is no character arc or development to be found - so how could that not become tedious?

Of course, there is 1 or 2 parts of Oh, Hello on Broadway that are so outrageously Alex Timbers-esque, I was just happy to take in his vision at all, no matter how mitigated it was (especially considered he peaced out of Frozen a few weeks back, a departure that doesn't speak well for that show now). I'm all for more comedy on Broadway because, while the last year was uncommonly stellar drama-wise, the only comedic high-points off the top of my head were the aforementioned Robber Bridegroom, Noises Off and a little bit of Alex Brightman and Jennifer Simard. That, my friends, is a little too low for me - my BFFs recently called me out for only bringing them to seriously, serious dramas with life-ruining feels. Broadway - and ESPECIALLY Alex Timbers - has done and still can do comedy oh so well.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus


Tony Nominations 2016 - The Substandard and the Overlooked

The Substandard

The Not-So-Bright Star - I thought this year’s crop of nominees were well-selected, but it wouldn’t be the Tony Award nominations if there wasn’t one crack-induced decision(s). Case in-point...their out-of-left-field love for Bright Star, a musical where (minor spoiler-alert, but it’s extremely relevant, I promise) a baby in a bag gets thrown out of a moving train’s window like a Chinese Throwing Star. In slow motion. That actually happens. Because the plot said so. And I’d have to see it again to be sure, but it wasn’t even the book’s worst portion despite being UNINTENTIONALLY HILARIOUS. For the most part, I found Bright Star pretty boring as we tread back-and-forth between both stories and I couldn’t get over the fact that the ensemble kept swaying and weaving in-and-out of several scenes, almost crashing into the set/other actors 10,457 times. Sure, the bluegrass orchestrations were nice and unconventional for Broadway, but five whole Tony nominations makes me think that the nominators were so overly-excited for an original musical and legendary Steve Martin taking a shot at Broadway, that they were willing to forgive the 75% of the show that was problematic.

School of Rock’s Actual Quality - Oh please. I love Alex Brightman and his rockin’ ragamuffin cohorts a lot. And they do, in fact, make School of Rock a fun, entertaining show. But the rest of it? Yeah, no. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score doesn’t churn out enough great songs and the best ones are (1) composed for the film (2) from Stevie Nicks or (3) more of a credit to the talented cast. Julian Fellowes book has little variation from the original film, story, jokes and character-wise, and what few changes there were didn’t add much (i.e Principal Mullin’s character arc, her LAME love-connection with Dewey). I applaud the noble intentions from all parties involved, especially for what could have been a total cash-grab of a production, but had School of Rock not been nominated for Best Musical, would anyone have called bullshit? Does it really stack up when compared to Hamilton, Shuffle Along or Waitress? Me thinks not.

The Overlooked

And Godra Gets her 10th Nominati-…Wait, WHAT? - In what bizarro, alternate universe does Audra “Queen Meryl Streep of Theatre” McDonald not get nominated for a Tony? Because, y’know, that almost never happens (no really, this is the second time out of ten Broadway shows she was NOT nominated). I really don’t like this and I am uncomfortable. Especially because it seems like a lot of factors beyond her control played a part in the decision to pass over her - Shuffle Along’s 10 other nominations and high Box Office grosses (meaning, monetary incentives are out), to defy the obvious expectation that she gets nominated for everything and most importantly, the fact that she is departing in June to do Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill on the West End (usually, Tony nominees in currently-running shows are around for a longer period of time). Let’s just mop up our shock (and tears, if you are the crying type) knowing that our resident Fabulady will get her 9th nomination one day in the future because that is what she has done 90% 80% of her Broadway career.

Waitress Needs More Love - "Best Musical! Jessie Mueller! Christopher Fitzgerald! Sara Bareilles! Okay, we’re out,” said the Tony nominators. It’s cute how they thought Waitress is worthy of only four nods when not-crazy people everywhere were expecting something in the high-single or double-digit zone. It sickens me that Jessie Nelson’s book, filled with humor, charm and the most complex women since Fun Home, was side-stepped for lazy faire like Bright Star and School of Rock. What about Diane Paulus’ direction? Keala Settle or Kimiko Glenn’s great performances? Everything else? I guess after bestowing Fun Home with so many honors last year, the Tonys took a breather and opted to reward strides in diversity instead of gender this year. Um, yeah, they do know you can reward both of them, right? Whatevs…at the end of the day, this show features a lot of pies and performs in a theatre that smells like it; I think we all know who the real winners are.

Hottie with a (Bloody) Body - American Psycho, for all of its flaws, is built and tailored around its lead performance and Benjamin Walker was extremely convincing as a financial bro-dousche, OCD, possible serial killer with a Ken Doll-like physique. And after the reviews jizzed all over him, it looked like the stars would align in his favor. Alas, it didn’t happen. I can’t say I would trade any one of the nominee’s spots for him, but I do feel bad that he was snubbed yet again (the first time was for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). If I were Benjamin Walker, as I often pretend I am, I would say “FUCK THIS SHIT” and eat carbs. By the looks of his body, it appears he hasn’t had them in months.

The Real Star of On Your Feet! - I know people inexplicably loved this show a lot more then I tolerated it (yes, the music’s great, but its not exactly reimagined or incorporated into the story with any finesse), so I was surprised the Tony nominators didn’t give On Your Feet! more of the “crowd-pleasing, crowd-favorite” votes. At the very least, a new category should have debuted called “Best Performance by a Pair of White Short Shorts - Josh Segarra’s Superb Thighs and Ass.” It goes without saying, but they’d have that award on LOCK. DOWN. Fiyero pants, who?

All 40 of Jesse Tyler Ferguson - Note to Broadway: one-man shows mean nothing, apparently. Fully Committed’s story was pretty limited, but the same cannot be said for Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s efforts. You could ding some of his character portrayals for being repetitive, but his performance is a whirling dervish of hilarity as he cycles through so many characters, back-and-forth, with no help elsewhere. It’s a shame he couldn’t be included in the Best Actor race, especially with all of the DRAMATIC, way-too-serious characters/performances that were recognized instead. Comedy requires talent too, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Yes, one-man and one-woman shows are Tony-bait as fuck, but they’re not off-the-table. They couldn’t be more on the table, for that matter.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus