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Theater Review: Adopting "The Kid"

The KidThe Kid

Book by Michael Zam
Lyrics by Jack Lechner
Music by Andy Monroe
Based on the book by Dan Savage
Musical staging by Josh Prince
Directed by Scott Elliott

Starring Kevin Anthony, Zachary Berger, Susan Blackwell, Jane Brockman, Jill Eikenberry, Jeannine Frumess, Ann Harada, Tyler Maynard, Brooke Sunny Moriber, Justin Patterson, Christopher Sieber, Lucas Steele, Michael Wartella

If you don't know who Dan Savage is before seeing The Kid, you will just moments into this hilarious, humane musical about Dan and his lover Terry’s attempt to adopt a baby. Savage is author of the savagely funny column, “Savage Love,” giving profane answers to no-holds-barred queries about sexual proclivities still considered taboo.

These people earnestly seeking advice about their peccadilloes in the opening number, “I’m Asking You,” drop us right into Dan’s lap, so to speak.

Expertly directed by Scott Elliott, The Kid makes no bones about being a conventional musical about an unconventional couple. After demonstrating that Dan—portrayed by the impressively laid-back Christopher Sieber, as subtle and low-key as he was boisterously over-the-top in Shrek and Spamalot—deals with questions outside the usual purview of Ann Landers or Dear Abby, the play spends the rest of its pleasantly heart-tugging two-and-a-half hours following a quintessentially American gay couple wanting to settle down, live in suburbia and raise a family.


For some viewers, that might signal some kind of retreat. But the creators of The Kid are too smart not to know that the best musicals have a heart: we wouldn't enjoy watching the hippies in Hair or the drag queens in La cage aux Folles if we didn't care about what happens to them. And so it is with The Kid, which doesn't have the need for a foul-mouthed Dan spouting off against hypocritical right-wing politicians or gently beating up readers who admit to eternally screwed-up relationships.

Instead, with Dan narrating their story, he and Terry are shown in a broader context, like any other prospective parents who worry about how to handle a newborn or wonder if they’ll make any lasting impression on their child.


To that end, The Kid introduces Dan's relationship with his open-minded mother, played by the supremely gifted and always appealing Jill Eikenberry. Mom first comes onstage to banter with her son and assure those in the audience who might not identify with or understand Dan's lifestyle that she'll explain things that need explaining, like “tea bagging” (which is not, however, explained). Eikenberry has a sweetly casual charm that puts the audience at ease. Though she has a disappointingly brief scene in Act I, she compensates with her Act II scene-stealing, topped by the heartfelt “I Knew,” the show's standout song.

The Kid, which is based on Savage's 1999 memoir, boasts a smartly amusing book by Michael Zam, whose zesty comic pacing makes Jack Lechner’s hit-and-miss lyrics and Andy Munroe’s serviceable music sound better than they are. Although Lechner hits lyrical bulls-eyes on the biting “They Hate Us” and haunting ballad “Spare Changin’,” Munroe's music glides reassuringly throughout. Yet only in the satirical “Gore Vidal” and reassuring “I Knew” do words and music transcend their otherwise professional competence. 

Happily, the production itself is top-notch. Lucas Steele's deftly-acted Terry is a perfectly handsome foil for Sieber's Dan, proving once again that opposites attract. Josh Prince stages the musical numbers with comic dexterity; the songs kicking off each act, “I’m Asking You” and “We’re Asking You?” are tongue-in-cheek mirrors of each other, musically and visually. The throwaway dance tune “Seize the Day” is nimbly choreographed for maximum effect, with the excellent cast moved around so mischievously that it belies the small stage—upon which Derek McLane’s spiffy set and Jeff Scher’s animated projections work handily.


The Kid threatens to become sentimental mush as the men fret over their unborn adoptee, whose mother is homeless, alcoholic teenager Melissa (played with bruising naturalness by Jeannine Frumess); the no-good father Bacchus (a lacerating Kevin Wartella) unexpectedly returns to make trouble. But whenever it’s ready to plunge into a sappy abyss, The Kid--aided by its creators' refreshing refusal to overdose on cynicism—easily wins us over.


The Kid

The New Group

410 West 42nd Street

New York, NY


Performances began April 16, 2010



Houston Has a Problem in "Enron"

EnronNorbert Leo Butz in Enron [pic: Joan Marcus]
Written by Lucy Prebble
Directed by Rupert Goold
Starring Norbert Leo Butz, Gregory Itzin, Marin Mazzie, Stephen Kunken

Morality play, cautionary tale, acidic satire: Enron is all of these and more. Lucy Prebble’s audacious play attempts to encompass the whole story of the energy giant's precipitous fall to earth with a thud.

Taking on the Bush years' first big bankruptcy disaster, Enron shows how it came about: from a combination of hubris, naiveté, arrogance and a uniquely American optimism, a belief that nothing bad can happen long as one doesn’t think it will. That’s essentially how Prebble paints Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, a Machiavellian character who truly believed (or pretended to) that what occurred under his watch—essentially a financial house of cards that Wall Street loved until its eventual collapse, making the stock worthless and ending the company’s improbable run as “the most innovative company in America”—was legal, ethical and good for shareholders, employees, and himself.

Prebble also shows Skilling at home with his young daughter, and we see that even family members are treated like employees and fellow executives: as props to prop himself up as their savior. Norbert Leo Butz shrewdly plays Skilling as a skillful juggler, parts innocence and nastiness, with a fervor underlying it all that makes us think—if only momentarily—that he wasn’t disingenuous about what he did, even when dressed in prison oranges to deliver the play’s final words about America’s love affair with money.

Alongside Butz, Gregory Itzin makes chairman Ken Lay a believably (and notoriously) devil-may-care figurehead, while Marin Mazzie (who looks dazzling in a succession of form-fitting dresses) registers strongly as Claudia, a composite of several Enron female execs.

Enron, the play, failed on Broadway even faster than the original corporation went under: it closes just over a week after opening, a huge flop by any standard. But there are mitigating circumstances. First, the play's title should have been anything but Enron, a buzzword that conjures up another era and dates it immediately, with most people—wrongly, of course—assuming that it concerns long-forgotten events. The current volatile stock market puts the lie to the “lack of relevance” claim, and what happens onstage is still being played out in company board rooms.

Too bad for those who stayed away: those who came saw a spectacularly entertaining piece of theater, staged with rip-snorting cleverness by Rupert Goold, furthering the Brechtian distancing devices already in Prebble's script, and introducing forceful, deliriously theatrical imagery to provokes visceral reactions in its audience.

The play's first image, three life-size blind mice standing in for Enron’s board members, return later. When Enron’s financial whiz, Andy Fastow (played by a brilliantly crazed Stephen Kunken), creates a scheme that he calls “raptors” to hide the company’s enormous losses from Wall Street, men wearing dinosaur heads similar to flesh-eating monsters of Jurassic Park slither around the stage, gobbling all the debt-laden cash Enron's drowning in. Sure, it’s an obvious metaphor, but it comes to humorously absurdist life onstage, perfectly capturing such tumultuous times.

Sure, Goold sometimes goes too far: a lengthy sequence about the rolling California electricity blackouts steered by Enron fills the stage with green light sabre-wielding traders, a la Star Wars, and comes off as amateur night at the cantina. Yet mainly, Goold's elaborately-done sound and light show (with several jokey musical interludes) proves that overkill is not too much when dealing with such a legendary—and still reverberating—flame-out that began this century in a dire direction that has appallingly continued.

Broadhurst Theater
235 West 44th Street
New York, NY

Closed May 9, 2010

"Iron Man 2" Puts Pedal to the Metal

Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Justin Theroux, based on the character created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson,  Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, John Slattery

For all its fantastical trappings, the Marvel Comics superhero movie Iron Man (2008) was at heart about being morally responsible for one's actions, even when those actions might be perfectly legal and arguably justifiable. Without making more of the sequel than it itself intends, Iron Man 2, rather than pursuing that notion and examining the consequences of taking responsibility, instead veers off into a less expected and ultimately more interesting direction: It's a story about how even when the fantastical happens, one doesn't necessarily change.

They say money changes everything, but lots of lottery winners will tell you that they themselves don't change but remain, often for the worse, who they are, despite brand new circumstances that beg for them to adapt and grow.

Industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) — who in the first film develops the jet-propelled battle-suit that makes him Iron Man, and announces that the superhero-cum-deterrent is he — has become, six months later, the biggest celebrity on Earth. "I've successfully privatized world peace!" he crows, only half tongue-in-cheek, at the start of Stark Expo, a yearlong scientific world's fair at the site of the 1964-65 World's Fair in Flushing, New York. "What more do you want?"

It turns out what we want isn't what we thought we wanted. Stark is, if anything, more of who he was in the first film — his idiosyncrasies deeper, his self-indulgences greater, his insouciance thankfully trumping any hint of piousness. While there's nobility in the greater outlines, becoming Iron Man hasn't made his details any more serious or his person any more reliable — and that's refreshing. Much as we all love Superman or Spider-Man, who when given great power took on great responsibility, it's nice to see that great power doesn't necessarily make you a choir boy — not even a brooding, self-tortured Bat-choir-boy.

Stark's hubris before a Senate committee, led by an aptly grandstanding Garry Shandling, is all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. His showboating fuels the rage of revenge-minded Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who updates technology jointly developed by his own castoff father and Stark's late dad (John Slattery, reprising his "Mad Men" look in a 1974 industrial film). He creates a bare-bones battle-suit with the addition of metal-rending electrical "whips," and eventually gets recruited by defense contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

 With head-to-toe Russian prison tattoos and as bad a badass as can be, Vanko remotely attacks Stark with a couple dozen battle-suit drones while taking the controls of a Mark II Iron Man suit piloted by Stark's friend Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, succeeding Terrence Howard). The long-ensuing battle fully and satisfyingly exploits the oversized visual possibilities of comic books, turning those Ben-Day dot newsprint images into flesh, as it were, and failing only in the truncated climactic battle with Vanko himself, over far too soon and simply.

For the record, Vanko here is never called Whiplash, after the character on which he's based, and neither is Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) called the Black Widow nor Rhodes dubbed War Machine. Yet even without those comic-book code names, Iron Man 2 furthers the comics' mythos while leaving the cinematic Stark almost but not quite the same. As in films about men in submarines and tanks, man-in-a-can movies like RoboCop, Steel and this one use the metaphor of metal as something that hides humanity and emotion.

The people inside a U-boat or the Iron Man armor may be flesh-and-blood and foible-filled, but the exterior, whether slicing through seas or roaring across the heavens, is intimidating and implacable. The tension and the drama come from where those counterpoints intersect. And in that respect, Iron Man 2 is fully fleshed-out, warts and all. It's the most slam-bang fun you can have while pondering the nature of identity, and whether we can ever really change who we are.

Oh, and stick around after the credits. Otherwise you might be a Thor loser.

For more by Frank Lovece:

Kevin's Digital Week 22: Faraway Worlds

Blu-ray of the Week
(Fox)Avatar Blu-ray
An undeniable visual triumph, Avatar’s runaway financial success is the unsurprising culmination of the recent turn toward movies that are made for our eyes only, since the movie’s splendid set design and computer-generated makeup and effects make its banal story, mediocre acting and laughable dialogue superfluous. Director James Cameron might have created a world and a myth that millions of people around the world have bought into hook, line and sinker, but that does not avoid the inescapable fact that his movie, regardless of its luster, is an old-fashioned adventure dressed up in hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stare-of-the-art camouflage.

Still, although it’s puzzling that it won the Oscar for Best Cinematography (how can you tell what was shot with what was created on computers?), it’s easy to see what has enticed the movie’s legions of fans; on Blu-ray especially, Avatar’s brilliantly varied use of color becomes addictive. But at more than two and a half hours and without any characters even remotely worth caring about or rooting for (Stephen Lang did his crazed-general bit much better on Broadway in A Few Good Men two decades ago), Avatar soon wears out its welcome, as the viewer’s eyes glaze over from the mind-numbing sameness. There are no extras included in the Blu-ray/DVD pack, and no 3-D either.

DVD of the Week

The Young Victoria The Young Victoria

An elaborately-costumed soap opera, The Young Victoria dramatizes the early years on the throne of the long-reigning English queen, whose name has become synonymous with an entire era after an eventful reign of 63 years. We see Victoria before ascending the throne at age 18, when she had to decide on a husband and, against much advice, chose Prince Albert, with whom she remained (and with whom she had nine children) until his premature death at age 42.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee doesn’t break any costume-drama rules, and if the movie is too conventional to a fault, it remains highly watchable, thanks to a first-rate physical production (led by Sandy Powell’s Oscar-winning costumes) and a group of good British actors, led by Emily Blunt’s spunky, touchingly vulnerable presence as Victoria and Rupert Friend as her sturdy Albert. The DVD’s extras comprise deleted and extended scenes, along with several too-brief featurettes about various aspects of the production, with an emphasis on the costumes, set design and attempts at historical accuracy.

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