manhattan theatre club

‘Airline Highway’ Dares You to See Yourself In Its Characters

A group of addicts, sex workers, and nightclub regulars gather at the Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans to celebrate the life of ailing burlesque performer and community matriarch, Miss Ruby. The group is a family of sorts, and a dysfunctional one at that. Having known each other for years, none of them seem to have been able to free themselves from their own particular rut. For example, Krista is a young stripper highly dependent on others for her own self-confidence. She used to reside at the motel but is now homeless and worse off than ever. Tanya is an aging prostitute with a drug addiction whose past fills her with regret.

Complicating things is the return of Krista’s ex, Bait Boy, now Greg. Bait Boy left New Orleans to shack up with an older, wealthier woman in Atlanta and is on track to becoming a ‘normal’ middle-class, white-collar man. He arrives to Miss Ruby’s funeral with his step-daughter, Zoe, an honor roll student writing an anthropology paper on ‘subcultures,’ a term that implies inferiority in more ways than one.  She decides to write about the Hummingbird Motel gang. The characters resist Zoe’s detached, scientific  study of their lifestyle and consistently remark on the foolish notion that one night spent with them could result in a comprehensive analysis of their lives and behaviors.

The cast of Airline Highway. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Zoe’s reductive study is a healthy reminder to the audience to not approach the characters in the same way. Audiences often walk out of a play with the assumption that the play has provided a whole and comprehensive view of its theme or characters, and we can then summarize either with a simplified statement or message.For some plays, this is the endgame: Spend two hours with a small group of people and understand what they’re all about by curtain call.

Lisa D’Amour sophisticated script, however, acknowledges two important things–1) you can’t ‘figure’ someone out by observing a fraction of their daily lives, and 2) that act of detached study is an act of superiority, especially when the subjects are perceived as lower on the socioeconomic ladder. There’s a world of depth to her characters.  Any realistic representation of them is assuredly incomplete, and we can only do our best to respect their truths and experience their lives.

Happily, Steppenwolf makes this an easier task with a lineup of courageous performances. Though Julie White and K. Todd Freeman deserve their Tony nominations (as Tanya and Sissy Na Na, respectively) it’s hard to isolate any one of these complicated and indisputably honest portrayals. D’Amour’s dialogue is rich and nonlinear, jumping between characters and interactions so that the result is a clutter of intricately woven fractals, seamlessly directed by Joe Mantello. Airline Highway is messy, it’s fragmented, it alternates wildly between joy and disappointment. But that’s life. And somehow, it magically bonds together into a brilliant and exciting piece.

For more thoughts on Airline Highway, listen to our podcast!

Airline Highway runs through June 7 at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater

MTC’s ‘Tales From Red Vienna’ and the Issue of Portraying Sexual Violence

Manhattan Theatre Club always presents exciting and provocative pieces, and for this reason I jumped at the chance to get tickets for Tales From Red Vienna‘s first public performance.  It also helped that the last time Nina Arianda, Vienna’s leading lady, worked with MTC, it was the totally mind-blowing Venus in Fur, one of my all-time favorite plays and performances.

I felt moved enough by this performance to discuss a larger issue at hand than whether the play was worthy enough of your hard-earned (or not… that’s cool too) cash. Those of us who read the press for the play know that the plot centers around a young widow who “reluctantly turns to the oldest profession’ in order to makes ends meet. So expect there to be a sex scene or two, right?

Well, the very first scene in Red Vienna delivers a sex scene, sure. But it’s also unmistakably a rape scene. Before a single word of David Grimm’s script is spoken, Arianda’s un-introduced character, who is later named as Helena, steps into a standard 1920’s era apartment. A few steps behind her follows an un-introduced man. Helena is dressed in black mourning garb and is visibly distressed by the man’s entrance. The man approaches her and begins to caress her, Helena still noticeably upset. She tenses up and resists, but the man forcefully lift her up on a table, lifts her dress, and has violent sex with her despite her protests. After he finishes with her, he fixes himself in a mirror, whistling a short ditty, while Helena remains on the table, watching his movements with an expression of disgust, anger, and fear. As soon as he exits, she begins to sob.

There are many reasons why a playwright might want to open a play with such a scene, but any of the reasons must be very seriously considered. I’ve never been one to complain about too much sex or violence in television and film. Violence can be artfully used to explore a theme or message, or it could be used purely for entertainment, and most people are usually able to tell the difference. A movie like 300, for example uses it abundant sex and violence as entertainment– more specifically for viewers to marvel at its carefully orchestrated battle scenes, epic visual effects, and some hot bods. Sex and violence in something like A Clockwork Orange might set critics pondering about what such images show about the characters’ relationships to each other and their interior lives, or how disillusioned youth reacts against society… or whatever. That’s not to say that 300 fans are less smart, or that they can’t make up their own theories of why so much violence is so penetratingly popular. But that’s really the face value of these movies and audiences usually know what to expect when they enter the theater.

Nina Arianda and Michael Esper in Tales From Red Vienna

The rape scene at Vienna‘s start is a shocking one. I felt the air in the theater immediately tense up and the couple next to me gasped and sighed “oh god” a few times. Sexual violence is an emotional and provocative issue, and its places the audience under a particularly imposing emotional duress.  When you place a scene like that at the very start of the play, the aim presumably is to confront your audience bluntly with the themes and tones of the play, much like the first line of a novel.  Obviously the play is about sex, marriage, and relationships, but this scene shows a sordid, aggressive, and abusive relationship.  It’s a scene that immediately forces you to sympathize with the victim and hate the rapist. (I am of course operating under the belief that an act of sexual aggression is still an act of sexual aggression even in when it involves a prostitute.) A scene like this makes me assume that everything from this point on in the play is going to either lead up to this scene or depict its consequences. That doesn’t mean the rest of the play MUST be serious and brooding or political. It can have layers of humor and romance, etc. just like any other great play. But the rape must have a place in the play’s narrative, right? And we wouldn’t expect a quaint, cutesy living room drama, right?

Well, um, I mean… that’s kinda what we got. The scene immediately following the rape takes place in the same setting, a domestic living room, but the night’s proceedings are forgotten. There’s a wise-cracking maid (Kathleen Chalfant), who might have made a great supporting character in another play. In this one, it feels a bit out-of-place. Vernacular words like “stiffy,” as well as the maid’s ongoing dates with a town professor, are all not only anachronistic, but also uncomfortable after the play’s initial scene. In fact, nearly everyone in this play seems to talk as if Joss Whedon had co-writing credits.

To clarify, I’m not against humorous, light-hearted scripts. Nor do I necessarily have a problem with anachronistic material. But when you have a play about a middle-class widow who battles class and gender politics in 1920’a Vienna, and who has suffered a rape in the first scene of the play, there’s a responsibility to portray her circumstances with thoughtfulness and truth. Notable plays like Clybourne Park or Venus In Fur were brilliant because they took heavy subjects like gentrification and sexism and presented them with wonderfully entertaining, yet still provocative pieces.

[Spoiler Alert]  There’s also the fact that Nina Arianda’s Helena ends up falling quite head over heels for the man of the opening scene (Michael Esper). In their subsequent encounters, there’s very little mention of the rape. In fact, Helena seems to be the one who is embarrassed by it.  So… wait a minute. Vienna presents to us an intense scene that shocked us and made us hate this man for what he did. And now we’re supposed to believe that Helena’s experience weighs so little on her new love? This leads me to believe that Vienna’s opening scene is purely for shock value. It weighs little to nothing on the story or on her choices. It is only a easy way to voyeuristically instigate audiences with something that is consequentially ignored or forgotten later in the piece. This is a betrayal of the audience’s trust, as well as a poorly judged and inconsiderately manipulated depiction of sexual power.


Families and WWI: The Snow Geese and The Winslow Boy

Two of Broadway’s most anticipated plays feature families dealing with difficult events on the brink of World War I.  The Snow Geese, written by Sharr White, depicts the struggles of a floundering family matriarch (Mary Louise Parker) shortly after the sudden death of her husband. The death means that her two sons must settle the Gaesling family’s affairs, though both do so in extremely different ways. On the one hand, the rambunctious and idealistic Duncan (Evan Jonigkeit) returns from university and enlists in the war effort. His more serious-minded brother Arnold (Brian Cross), however, uncovers a history of financial mishaps while sorting his father’s estate, and must break his brother’s and mother’s idealism with the cold, hard facts of their situation. Meanwhile, their aunt (Victoria Clark) and German-born uncle (Danny Burstein) face discrimination as the anti-German sentiment rises.

The Snow Geese’s Mary Louise Parker

The other play is a revival of The Winslow Boy, by Terrence Rattigan. This play does not deal directly with the war itself (it is mentioned in conversation a few times), but more so on the disruptive changes occurring in the British family structure in the years leading up to it. The Winslow boy in question is Arthur Winslow (Spencer Davis Milford) who is expelled from his prestigious military academy for allegedly stealing another student’s mail package. That’s the British army for you. His father (Roger Rees) decides to dispute the charges, resulting in a more than two-year long court case that holds unexpected consequences for the rest of the Winslow family, especially his suffragette daughter (Charlotte Parry).

The cast of The Winslow Boy

The decade preceding the start of World War I is a really fascinating one because of all the changes British society is undergoing. Women’s Rights, class and political upheaval, revolution in Ireland, and changing views on art and tradition are all brewing controversy and change in these few years; and if these are the volatile gunpowder in a societal keg, the upcoming war explodes it.

That’s why the two plays’ focus on families trying to hold on to the last remaining vestiges of their pasts makes absolute sense for the time period. For the Gaesling family, the past has a far more ephemeral quality. It comes in drug-induced dreams about the dead, a soiled legacy, and doubts about how the family has come to their current situation. Arnold is the hard realist who must break the family’s ties with the past, first by seeing it for what is really is.

With the Winslow family, the past is altogether far more tangible. The production makes a point of demonstrating objects, costumes, and scenery with great realism. There’s even a photograph taken (by one-scene actor extraordinaire Stephen Pilkington, also the pita guy in One Man, Two Guvnors) with a antique camera. The Snow Geese also features extraordinarily realistic sets, but it is far more dreamlike in its lightning and movement.

The endings of both plays are happy, yet slightly somber. Duncan Gaesling is off to home, a little down-trodden but optimistic nonetheless. Arthur Winslow’s case ends and it is not clear whether he is to be reinstituted at the academy. Regardless, both boys will be plunged into the  trenches, and odds are they’re not going to come out. Nearly a million British soldiers died, a fact that would more readily come to mind for British audiences than American. I was hoping that The Winslow Boy would make mention of this; perhaps Arthur’s expulsion from the military has a bright side in that he won’t have to, well, be in the military. Still, he may have volunteered, as did many patriotic young boys and their friends, or conscripted depending on his age in 1916. Either son could have survived the war, but returned home disabled or shell-shocked. The real-life Arthur Winslow, George Archer-Shee, was killed, aged 19, at the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. Rattigan doesn’t ruin his happy ending with that tidbit of information, though I would have liked to see how a play like this would have dealt with that reveal. This is only the cusp of the Gaesling and Winslow family struggles.

On a lighter note, can I just mention that Roger Rees, who played the Sheriff of Rottingham in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who played Maid Marian in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, are playing husband and wife in this show? It’s like a terrible, wonderful dream land.

7 Awesome and Not-So-Awesome Things about MURDER BALLAD

murder ballad

Murder Ballad, a new rock musical currently enjoying a 2013 run at the Union Square Theatre (after playing with Manhattan Theatre Club last fall), is some good bloody fun. Here is LMezz’s killer rundown of the production:

Awesome: The space.

This was our first time in the Union Square Theatre, which is the perfect location for a rock musical. (Union Square! Hipsters! Street Bong Sellers!) The show is set in the round, with audience seating in all four sides of the theatre, along with additional lounge seating in the playing space. The upstage section is spanned by a bar, the stage-right portion by a pool table, and the stage-left section by the band. Just by entering the theatre, you can sense that some rock musical awesomeness was about to be had.

Awesome: There’s a working bar onstage!

The onstage bar is a working one during the pre-show, and audience members can order drinks. Closer to the start of the show, the actors enter in character and “blend in” with the surroundings. It is an effective way to establish the characters before the beginning of the show.

Not-So-Awesome: There’s a working bar onstage!

This is not a point against Murder Ballad per se, but to what I sense will be (is already?) a trend in shows that allow you to order drinks and drink them on stage. Both the off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations of Once feature the pre-show bar, and I’m sure many other productions will have doe-eyed audience members that are oh-so-surprised as they wander on stage to order the same bottle of beer they could have purchased in the lobby. Or maybe I’m just bitter that we had to wait so long to have an even readier access to booze in the theatre.

I could have used one of these for the Broadway production of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Awesome: Two ladies wrote this!

Julie Jordan came up with the concept and book for Murder Ballad and teamed up with Juliana Nash, who composed the music and co-wrote lyrics. This is the first rock musical (let alone musical) I’ve seen written only by women (If you know any others, leave a comment!), and I hope it’s not the last.

Awesome: The cast.

Most of the cast from MTC’s fall mounting of Murder Ballad have returned this spring. John Ellison Conlee, who reprises his role as Michael, is so believable as a loving husband and father that it’s exciting to see him finally snap. Will Swenson, playing bartender and scorned lover Tom, embodies everything moody and dangerous. After quitting acting this spring, original cast member Karen Olivo has been replaced by Caissie Levy. While I was sad to have missed Olivo last fall, Levy is fantastic in her own right as Sara, the troubled center of the love triangle.

But the definite show-stealer Rebecca Naomi Jones, who is equal parts scary and sexy as the Narrator. She plays the role with great comedic timing and a wicked gleam in her eye, and when she takes the stage, she owns it. By the time the final song has ended, you realize that she has been trolling you all along—and don’t even care.

U mad?

Not-So-Awesome: The Movement

Director Trip Cullman had the task of staging a sung-through rock musical—in the round. This wasn’t an easy one, and he was effective in having the actors playing to all four sides throughout the show.

But this wasn’t to say that there weren’t a few hiccups. Sometimes the choreography seemed unmotivated, with the actors thrashing and jumping about the stage even though their songs were already making their emotions clear. It was as if someone had seen the musical version of American Idiot too many times and said, “Yes! More of that stuff!”

With all the pushing, shaking, pulling, and running that was going on, it made you wonder how the characters had time to have affairs in the first place. Speaking of which…

Not-So-Awesome: Where’s the passion?

Murder Ballad is the story of a “love triangle gone wrong.” One way it goes wrong is in the lack of passion among the characters. All of the characters had chemistry with one another, and it definitely shows, as they make out on the pool table, the bar, and everywhere in between.

But it may be the abundance of physical contact that dampens the passion. David Mamet says that he doesn’t ever write explicit sex scenes because it will take people right out of the story. I’m not sure I totally agree with Mamet, but he has a point. Murder Ballad’s characters make out so much that I marveled on how they were able to sing afterwards instead of marveling about their story.

Another bit of marveling: Do they need understudies? I’m available.

The constant physical contact breaks the sexual—and dramatic—tension. It results in actions that are unearned, relationships that are undeveloped, and emotions that are expressed, but not felt. Which might be what Murder Ballad is about, after all.

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