It has taken me a while to sit down to write this review, but I am not sure as to why this has happened.  I think it may be that it was such a disappointing experience that I didn’t want to think about it.  An anonymous writer once penned, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” but in this case, it didn’t.  Even though it’s been quite a while since I saw the performance, I’m still miffed at this production by the Fiasco Theatre Company which appeared at McCarter Theatre’s Berlind Theatre from May 3 to June 9.   It was a “new take” on Sondheim’s incredible musical, and whenever I see terms like “a new take,” “reimagined,” or “updated,” I immediately get suspicious.

INTO THE WOODS is another of “those” musicals; people either love it or hate this show that has been on Broadway three times chalking up a total of 1044 performances and garnering five Tony Awards and a host of other awards for those outings.  It is one of Sondheim’s most clever shows lyrically, and the clarity of the music and lyrics is essential to the success of the piece.

I have been fortunate in seeing this show done many times.  The original Broadway production was charmingly set with most of the woods suggested by a series of drops – very simply done.  The original London production was much darker with an almost gothic feel to the dark and foreboding woods and a huge cuckoo clock presiding over all.  An edge was added to this production which made it less accessible.  A pared-down, but successful production was mounted by students at The Royal Academy of Music in the 1990’s because they preserved the integrity of the music, lyrics, and book, and the most recent Broadway outing in 2002 which seemed unfocused for some reason.  There have been touring companies, as well as many regional companies that have met with various levels of success. However, all of these have tried to do just service to the material.

However, here, the show was unmercifully hacked down to a cast of eleven from nineteen as written with the musical accompaniment by a lone piano which simply does not do this rich score, originally orchestrated by the legendary Jonathan Tunick, any justice whatsoever.  Not only was it hacked to pieces, there was far too much “cutesy” staging and abject mugging going on throughout the evening that it interfered with and detracted from the script and score.  This production simply looked like there was no money and not enough people, so the company “made do” with a bargain-basement version.

It is a credit to the score by Sondheim and book by James Lapine that people were still able to enjoy it through all of the muck on stage in this production.  Knowing what this show can be made me realize how much more the audience would have enjoyed it if they had seen it unencumbered by antics, musical accompaniment that didn’t often get lost, and voices that were up to the task at hand.

Let me interject here that I am probably in the minority about this although there were audience members who left during the intermission on the evening I attended.  The show was extended.  I have had several conversations with those who saw it after me; several of whom had never seen it before.  Their responses included remarks like, “It was so imaginative,”  “They really made do with very little,” and “I thought the clutter on stage was wonderful.”  When I asked those who had not seen it before about specific plot points like The Mysterious Man being The Baker’s father, I was generally met with “He was?  Oh, I didn’t get that.”  In fact, many of them didn’t get much of the storyline, and it’s not because they are incapable of it.  They, like the theatre company, lost the plot somewhere along the way.

The story, in brief, mixes together the lives of several fairytale characters:  Cinderella, The Baker and His Wife (which seems to have been adapted for dramatic purposes from THUMBELINA), Jack the Giant Killer, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood.  Oh, there’s a bit of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White thrown in as well.  They all wish for something, and as they find out “Wishes come true, not free.”  The first act has a seemingly happy ending, Jack and his mother are rich, Cinderella is marrying her Prince, The Baker and His Wife have a child, and the Witch is once again beautiful.  However, that happiness is short-lived, and the second act deals with all of the repercussions of their transgressions with the few remaining characters wiser and stronger because of their ordeals.

The first problem with this production was the set.  There was no sense of focus on the stage.  Left and right featured floor to ceiling panels of piano sound boards, and the back of the stage was filled with ropes which one can only imagine were supposed to be piano strings.  Here comes the question, folks: “Why?”   Did it look like a woods?  No, it looked like a series of ropes.  The rest of the set consisted of unmatched tables, chairs – stuff spread about which often got in the way of the action and never helped the audience to truly establish a scene.  The costumes by Whitney Locher were simply a series of rag-bag things that made it look more like MARAT/SADE than INTO THE WOODS.  The witch came out particularly poorly with what looked like a black slip for a costume along with black opera gloves.   The physical production could only be described as “post-apocalyptic” grunge or a badly interpreted production of GODSPELL.

Vocally, the show was weak as well.  Only a few of the performers were up to the challenges of this score which requires solid singing along with extremely crisp diction.  Sondheim’s lyrics are dense and contain wonderful plays on the language.  For instance, Jack’s Mother sings the following about their cow Milky White (I’ll get to him in a minute):

“There are bugs on her dugs.  There are flies in her eyes. There’s a lump on her rump big enough to be a hump, son.  There’s no time to sit and dither while her withers wither with her”

Although Liz Hayes, who played Jack’s Mother and Cinderella’s Stepmother, was too young for the roles, she sang well and delivered and excellent performance, there were others who did not handle the music well.  They included Noah Brody who mangled the Wolf’s song and his work as Cinderella’s Prince, Andy Grotelueschen who gave a weak performance as Rapunzel’s Prince, and Paul J. Coffey who just seemed out of sorts as the Mysterious Man who is eventually revealed as The Baker’s Father, and sadly, Jennifer Mudge who was simply lackluster, wanting, and sometimes apologetic as the Witch.

There were some good voices and performances in the cast, but they were up against the dire physical production.  Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld were both charming as The Baker’s Wife and The Baker.  They showed that they understood the material and gave it its proper due.  Patrick Mulryan, who is a giant himself, gave an excellent performance as Jack, and Claire Karpen was charming as Cinderella.  Emily Young was wonderfully quirky as Red Riding Hood, but she did not have the proper edge to make the character fully successful.

Musically, Matt Castle worked valiantly to keep the company together with his piano playing which he had to augment to catch up or cover errors by the performers.   There is just too much music in this show for it to be reduced to one piano and be successful.  The addition of a few other instruments (including some really bad guitar playing) just made things more disjointed and sad.

One of the overused words I heard from the audience was “clever.”  Much of what was on stage was so clever that it didn’t seem to belong to this script in the same manner as the set did not belong with what was happening.

The Wicked Stepsisters were played by Grotelueschen and Brody as they stood behind a drapery rod with the dirty drapes acting as dresses.  They mugged so badly that their lines were obscured and the moment lost.  Grotelueschen was also guilty of this when he played Milky White.  His antics overshadowed what was being said, and he not only drew focus, he also upstaged the others who were delivering plot points.  Mugging was rampant throughout the evening.

The problems here more than likely came from their being two directors who were also in the show.  They truly needed someone to play referee and simply say, “NO” many times.  Brody and Steinfeld are both founders and artistic directors of Fiasco Theater, and they have been responsible for many interesting productions.  This is not one of them.  They were out of their depth with this production of INTO THE WOODS, and were too close to the project since they were in it and controlled it.  This may have worked for them in the past, but it did not work here.

INTO THE WOODS is a huge undertaking, and unlike others, I cannot get excited about “reimagining” works that are proven, especially when that reimagining means that the production will not do justice to the work, and Fiasco Theater certainly did not do justice to this work.

Absence did not make my heart grow fonder; I just got angrier and wish that all of those audience members who enjoyed what they saw would find a copy of the DVD of the original so that they could hear what the show should sound like.  I’m not saying that the original production of any show is always the best, but here, it was certainly far more understandable and enjoyable.

I really wanted to like this production because I truly love this show, but it was impossible for me to do so here

Ben Brantley of THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote in his review of the show, “Never mind that this production doesn’t feature anything like the usual highly polished, highly trained vocalists and orchestra customary for the rendering of Sondheim. Onstage you’ll find one upright piano (played by Matt Castle) and a few other instruments (a cello, a guitar, some woodwinds) scattered about for cast members to pick up from time to time. And some of the performers, to be blunt, can barely carry a tune.”   Perhaps Mr. Brantley can “never mind” that there are few singers or a decent production on stage for a show, but some of us who love the theatre still expect it.  This production was simply far too much about process and not nearly enough about production.   It was a glimpse at what happens in a workshop environment before all of the pieces are put together in a finished “whole.”  There was far too much of the “Let’s throw it at the wall to see if it sticks” on view here.

For some, a simple given name can determine one’s fate, and in Christopher Durang’s new comedy VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE celebrating its world premiere at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre through October 7, everyone seems a bit trapped by those names. It isn’t necessary to know Chekhov to appreciate and enjoy this offbeat comedy, but if you do, the brilliance of Durang’s writing is even more apparent.

Vanya and Sonia have been living a secluded life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. They stayed home to take care of their aging parents (who were academics who loved the classics – hence the names) while sister Masha went off to live her life and be a stage and film actress. Along the way, Masha made a series of films playing a nymphomaniac serial killer, enough money to pay for her parents’ final years and to keep her brother and sister, and live through five failed marriages. That’s about to come to an end. Masha is back in all her neurotic glory with a pec-popping toy-boy named Spike, and her career is in a state of flux. She does not have the money to continue to support her brother and sister, and the house might be sold. Although the basic plot may seem relatively simple and a bit mundane, the characters inhabiting it are far from that, and nothing is as simple as it seems.

Just as his namesake, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) bemoans the failings of his life, a life lived for others. He is over fifty, gay, and living with the realization that life has passed him by. He has obviously not had a relationship of any meaning and is simply in despair.

Sonia (Kristine Nielson), who like her namesake has also lived for others and tries to rationalize her and Vanya’s lives to a point. Although she hopes that there will be something better, she doesn’t seem to sure that it will ever come. Surprisingly, she currently likens herself to a wild turkey that sleeps in a tree and falls out during the night.

Masha (Sigourney Weaver in a role that is light years away from Ripley or Grace Augustine) is a bit of a cross between the “Mashas” of THE SEAGULL and THREE SISTERS. She makes strange choices in men whom she believes to be more than they are, but she also was raised to believe she was a fabulous actress which, judging from the roles which she discusses, is not the case. This is similar to the concert pianist Masha from the three sisters. There, however, all similarities joyously end. This Masha seems to surf on the edge of reality.

Nina (Genevieve Angelson) is true to her SEAGULL alter ego because she is infatuated with the fame of Masha and wants to be an actress herself. Fortunately, her fate, as far as we know, is not the same unhappy one.

Besides Spike (Billy Magnussen) an oversexed, narcissistic young actor, another non-Chekhovian character fits right in with this bizarre group. She is the housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant) who, like her Greek counterpart, suffers from bouts of premonitions that have hilarious consequences and that few believe.

The action takes place over the course of two days on a phenomenally detailed set by David Korins which is beautifully lit by Justin Townsend.

Director Nicholas Martin has chosen to keep the actors’ delivery stylistically similar to Chekhov’s syntax which is beautifully captured in the cadence of Durang’s script. This generally works well, and the disparity between the family members and the three outside characters is clear. However, some of his staging is cumbersome and extraneous involving excessive movement or the need to move furniture. This is just one of a few small issues that lessen the impact of the evening. The second act is a bit long at this point, and the cast needs to work on pacing so that lines do not get swallowed by the audience laughter of which there is a great deal. Since this is a new work, all of these should be corrected by the time that this show opens at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre in Lincoln Center on October 25.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story because the fun here is discovering all of the glorious quirks that make these characters work. There are, however, two interesting moments in act two. Kristine Nielsen has a telephone monologue which is not only beautifully written but is gloriously performed. She is simply stunning in a quiet moment where the audience cannot help but feel overwhelming compassion for her. She externalizes the pain she has felt since being adopted into this bizarre family at the age of eight so that it is palatable. This monologue alone is “worth the price of admission.”

The other moment, although a bit long and rambling, deals with another Chekhovian theme: the pain and loss that comes with progress. Vanya has lost a great deal of connection to life, and he bemoans the fact that Spike is indicative of the loss of social mores in America in an outburst decries his desire to go back to what he believes were more innocent days when Ed Sullivan, Ozzie & Harriet, I Love Lucy, and dial telephones among other things made life better. Although wonderfully funny and telling, it goes on too long which lessens its impact. It’s still, however, a list of things that have crossed the minds of many of us “of an age” who remember a time when it wasn’t necessary to be constantly attached to the world, a time when people were a bit more conscious of others around them.

It’s wonderfully silly, and I don’t think I will ever forget the visual of Weaver dressed as Snow White or the superb Maggie Smith imitation offered up by Nielsen as the “Wicked Witch from Snow White as played by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars” which is the kind of thing one comes to expect from Durang’s wonderfully quirky world view.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is one of those interesting shows that appears to be abject silliness initially, but once one digs through the surface artifice and manners, there are universal themes and situations that add up to much more.

Visit http://www.mccarter.org for more information about this production.

Christopher Durang and Cast

Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, and David Hyde Pierce of the McCarter Theatre Company’s production of VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE.

Review: THE HOW AND THE WHY

February 22, 2011

I wanted to post this review of THE HOW AND THE WHY after we saw it, but after reading it, I felt that it might cause people not to go see the play. New plays need audiences, especially during talkbacks and the like, so I decided to hold back on the posting. Unfortunately, life got in the way, and I am very late in getting it on the blog. In any event, these are my views of this new play and the recent McCarter Theatre production.

     Two women faced many unanswered challenges in Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center’s world premier production of Sarah Treem’s THE HOW AND THE WHY in their intimate Berlind Theatre which ran through February 13. The main difficulty facing this script is that there is more “how” than “why,” and the unanswered questions overwhelm the situation. It is not a bad play, and it offers a great deal of information and impetus for discussion; however, it simply does not offer the audience any kind of cohesive sense regarding why it happened.
     This two-hander featuring Mercedes Ruehl as Zelda and Bess Rous as Rachel Hardeman begins with the extremely uncomfortable first meeting of a mother and daughter twenty-eight years after the mother gave the daughter up for adoption. Rachel has become an evolutionary biologist like her mother and the man by whom she was impregnated – he never knew about Rachel. Coincidences multiply rapidly as the two women talk, and it is revealed that they both developed theories concerning menstruation in humans. Zelda’s theory, which came when she was twenty-seven, is based on an actual 1957 theory by George C. Williams called the Grandmother Hypothesis which outlines that women go through menopause in order to become caregivers in the community and ensure its continuation.
     Rachel’s theory in the play is based on the 1993 theory by Margie Profet which contends that menstruation is a woman’s body’s defense against “pathogens transported by sperm.” In other words, a woman cleanses herself against the onslaught of germs carried by sperm in order to survive. Shortly after Rachel and Zelda discuss this near the opening of the play, the first “why” question begins to form. Why, if Rachel’s theory deals with the concept that a woman’s body is repelling germs introduced by a man and is, in a sense, protecting itself from that man, does Rachel’s character sublimate herself to a man, her boyfriend Dean who is also an evolutionary biologist, and is willing to give him half of the credit for this discovery so that she can keep him?
     The insight that could have come from the discussion between these two women as to why the woman who developed the theory regarding nurturing gave up her child and never married and the woman who looks at menstruation as a defense against the invasion of men seems desperate to keep one would have been so much more interesting than some of what is discussed but never answered here. The psychology which would have given these two characters so many more shades of meaning is sadly never approached.
     Zelda gave up Rachel when Rachel was six days old. No reason was given. It is intimated by Rachel that Zelda put her career first, and, I suppose, that a lack of denial from Zelda is supposed to stand as affirmation. However, there is so much missing from this back story. Zelda was twenty-eight, unmarried, and because of complications with the birth, had to have a hysterectomy – which also seems coincidental – so she might not have felt that she could keep Rachel. She might have felt that she was not the right mother. The audience never knows. No, it is not necessary for all questions to be answered because life does not offer answers for everything, but it does offer answers for some things. Zelda knows why she gave up Rachel. Couldn’t the audience?
     Rachel appears in Zelda’s life a short while before a major conference is to occur at the college where Zelda teaches. In fact, Zelda is on the board of the conference to which Rachel applied but was not accepted. Rachel tells Zelda that she “called” the adoption agency and found out who Zelda was which seems highly unlikely, possible, but unlikely, and all of this occurred after Rachel was rejected from the conference. Did Rachel know who Zelda was and only now chose to find her for her own gain? Rachel is filled with anger towards the woman whom she says “gave her birth” but is not her mother, and their meetings are terse with Rachel being highly uncommunicative except about her theory. Also regarding Rachel’s theory, it was supposedly championed by a former student of Zelda’s who then attacks Rachel when she delivers her paper. Was it championed so that this third woman could also make a case for her theory which has something to do with menstruation in other animals such as chimpanzees?
     One last why, although there are several others, is why Zelda worked to get Rachel a conveniently vacant spot in the conference. Zelda seems neither happy nor upset with Rachel’s arrival. Could this, however, be Zelda’s way of punishing Rachel for ferreting her out after twenty-eight years? Zelda sees some possible problems within Rachel’s theory and briefly mentions them but does not stress Rachel’s need to address them. Rachel does not, of course, and she suffers from the attack as a result. Rachel loses Dean because Zelda tells her to deliver her theory alone, and Rachel believes she has been ridiculed by the conference attendees. She is demoralized, but Zelda does not seem to mind.
     Treem seems to be trying to use the biology the way Tom Stoppard has used math, science, and physics in plays such as ARCADIA and JUMPERS. They are similar here in that the biology seems to be the reason for this reconnection and all that follows. However, the characters are not realized deeply enough to be able to fully understand them. Even their basic motivations seem shrouded in too much mystery. It’s difficult to root for a character one doesn’t know or fully understand. Rachel just seems to be a miserable woman who never matured. Zelda is a true cipher who seems, at times, to enjoy manipulating Rachel only to offer caring advice. Which is it?
Rous does a creditable job with Rachel. She does look for levels and variety in the character which is mostly written to skulk around the stage in fits of pique. Rous does work to make her vulnerable and agreeable at times. On opening night, Ruehl seemed a bit unfocused and often had to struggle for lines, so it was difficult to tell what her motivations were. Perhaps those motivations and some of my whys were cleared up when Ruehl became more comfortable with the role. As it is, the pacing of the evening lurches as Ruehl works to retrieve a line. She does, however, have some excellent moments which seem to center around some of Treem’s more “Neil Simon-esque” lines.
     The star of the evening is the set by Daniel Ostling. The first act set of a university office, not unlike Princeton’s in feel, is extremely well detailed and beautifully realistic as is the second act “seedy bar” set that even includes cluttered tables and mismatched furniture.
     Is THE HOW AND THE WHY a bad play? No, definitely not. There are many positives in this evening that still make it interesting. It is, however, a play that needs development and focus. For some in the audience on opening night, it was a thought-provoking exercise. For others, it was “tedious” and “un-eventful.” I found it interesting and filled with promise which it doesn’t quite deliver – yet.