Thursday, March 18, 2010

Theater roundup: Poetic 'Buffalo,' sharp 'Song,' shocking 'Blasted'

John Leonard Thompson and Dennis Creaghan
in American Buffalo.

By Hap Erstein

After some of playwright David Mamet’s recent anemic attempts at whimsy (Romance, November), it is a pleasure to be reminded by his 1977 Broadway breakthrough, American Buffalo, how visceral and, yes, poetic he can be.

The poetry is of the fragmentary, high-profanity, elliptical street type, but at Palm Beach Dramaworks, a trio of capable actors are demonstrating that the dialogue need not sound disconcertingly stylized just because it looks that way on the page.

Mamet would go on to chronicle such workplace settings as a real estate office (Glengarry Glen Ross) or a Hollywood executive’s suite (Speed-the-Plow), both used as metaphors for America’s corrupt business practices. Maybe he is doing the same with Buffalo’s rundown basement junk shop, but this tale of society’s low-lifes attempting an apartment break-in to steal a rare coin collection is satisfying enough without insisting on an allegorical meaning.

Certainly Mamet is interested in issues of loyalty, friendship and an interpersonal code of trust, as well as a belief that the underdogs are likely to remain so.

Director William Hayes reins in the play by slowing its pace, transforming the repetitive, malaprop-laden conversations into something that approaches naturalism. A neat trick, and a boon to the play, regardless of what the playwright might think of it.

Dennis Creaghan turns in another fine performance as pony-tailed shop owner Donny, mentor and protector to wayward street kid Bobby (Matthew Mueller, who downplays the character’s drug-addled brain). But the evening belongs to John Leonard Thompson as Teach, the swaggering, trigger-tempered bully, who enters and takes over the heist, just as Thompson takes over the production.

See American Buffalo and be reminded what a riveting storyteller Mamet can be.

AMERICAN BUFFALO, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, April 4. Tickets: $42- $44. Call: (561) 514-4042.

* * *

Composer-lyricist William Finn first came to our attention almost 30 years ago with his off-Broadway musical March of the Falsettos, which established him as a chief writer of gay and Jewish themes, even though many of his predecessors have been both.

His distinctive style of quirky rhythms, conversational lyrics and heart-on-sleeve emotionality have made him popular among theater people, though few of his works have ever reached mainstream audiences.

In part to correct that, a diverse collection of his material was turned into a revue, Make Me a Song, which is receiving a buoyant production at Mosaic Theatre in Plantation, a company that rarely strays into the realm of musical theater.

Michael Larsen directs a very capable cast of four -- Stephen G. Anthony, Patti Gardner, Julie Kleiner and Joey Zangardi -- plus the occasional vocal assist from musical director/pianist David Nagy. Simplicity is the key to Larsen’s approach, placing the emphasis squarely on the songs, though occasional overly cute touches creep in.

With the exception of an extended suite of songs from Falsettos, all of these numbers are detached from their theatrical context. But they can stand on their own, allowing the cast to turn them into individual dramatic playlets, often far from their original settings. If this very winning, entertaining show has a drawback, it is its lack of continuity between songs, a bit of their background that would enhance their enjoyment.

Maybe it’s just me, but the fact that the title tune was written to lead off an evening of Finn’s songs by Mandy Patinkin, which never happened, is of interest. Or that the song Hitchhiking Across America was penned for a show on exactly that subject, but after Finn wrote it he discovered he had said everything he wanted to about it, so he abandoned the project.

Or most frustrating, two of the revue’s best numbers, I Have Found and Stupid Things I Won’t Do, were written for an adaptation of Kaufman and Ferber’s The Royal Family, but the show has been abandoned over performance rights issues.

Either Anthony has some of the evening’s strongest numbers -- like the comic anger of Stupid Things and a running-gag vignette series called Republicans -- or he just makes it seem like he does with his delivery. Gardner scores with a character sketch of a demanding teacher (Only One from a separate revue, Elegies) and Kleiner, a reed-thin singer with an unexpectedly powerful voice, belts out an emotion-laden tribute, Anytime (I Am There).

Composer revues such as Make Me a Song are usually relegated to the summer months down here, but a show like this -- as well-performed as this one is -- demonstrates that it can hold its own in a theater like Mosaic’s prime subscription season.

MAKE ME A SONG, Mosaic Theatre, 12200 W. Broward Blvd., Plantation. Through Sunday. Tickets: $37. Call: (954) 577-8243).

* * *

Betsy Graver and Todd Allen Durkin in Blasted.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

Expectations have so much to do with our response to theater, or any of the arts. So it would have been preferable if director Joseph Adler had low-keyed the arrival of the late playwright Sarah Kane’s Blasted.

Instead he touted it for months in advance as the most shocking and potentially offensive play he has ever produced, which is saying something when you consider the body of work he has challenged South Florida with at GableStage.

Still, while he insists such warnings are to avoid offending anyone, those who go steeling themselves for something truly out on the theatrical limb may well go away disappointed. Yes, as advertised, there is plenty of simulated sex in many gender permutations, yes, there is considerable gore and human mutilation, and there is a seismic blast that leaves a British hotel in complete shambles.

(This last is realized so well by scenic designer Tim Connelly that one wonders how it can be reassembled for another performance, let alone what GableStage does on matinee days.)

Yet do not be surprised if you cannot find a cohesive storyline in among this carnage and carnality. Kane, who also wrote 4.48 Psychosis, performed a few seasons ago by North Miami’s Naked Stage, will never be confused for a tidy writer. She figured out how to shock audiences, but not how to engage our minds or emotions.

If anything, Blasted is more political in its intent than it is sexual, though the two elements are often interchangeable. The first part of the 90-minute, intermission-less evening concerns a pistol-packing journalist and perhaps assassin (Todd Allen Durkin), who crudely attempts to seduce and then rapes a young woman prone to giggle fits and epileptic seizures.

Soon entering the picture is a gruff soldier (Erik Fabrigat) with an indeterminate accent who proceeds to rape the journalist/hitman. Mutilation follows, which Kane may or may not have intended as a theatrical allusion to King Lear, but that is what came to mind.

Certainly the actors are fully committed to the bleak visions that Kane and Adler intend and their performances impress even as they repel. Nevertheless, it all seems to be shock for shock’s sake, even if you find yourself pummeled, which is likely.

BLASTED, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Continuing through Sunday, March 28. Tickets: $37.50-$42.50. Call: (305) 445-1119.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"She figured out how to shock audiences, but not how to engage our minds or emotions" You Just don't get it do you, Hap?