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NYC Theater Review—Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Long Day’s Journey into Night
Written by Eugene O’Neill; directed by Sir Richard Eyre
Performances through May 27, 2018

 
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey into Night (photo: Richard Termine)
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s greatest play, is an epic-length exploration of a self-destructive family—the father, retired stage actor James Tyrone; his morphine-addled wife Mary; and their sons, alcoholic Jamie and poetic but sickly Edmund (the author’s self-portrait)—in which  the four characters take turns psychologically and emotionally pummeling one another and themselves, building into a dramatically potent accumulation of vitriolic acid that, in the right hands, makes for a shattering theatrical experience.
 
O’Neill himself went to a sanatorium for TB around the time the play is set (1912), which lends credence to the notion that this incriminating but insightful glimpse into the disastrous effects of a family’s self-destruction helped lead to his own successful playwriting career. (Ironically, although he wrote this play in 1941-2, it wasn’t staged until three years after his 1953 death, for which he posthumously won the Pulitzer and Tony Awards.)
 
Sir Richard Eyre’s London production, in the cozy confines of the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has many faults, led by Rob Howell’s angled and expressionist set, which though it generously allows for Peter Mumford’s gorgeously textured lighting, is too refined and elegant for what should be a semi-rundown Connecticut summer cottage. Although aware of the broken music in O’Neill’s painful, at times melodramatic words, Eyre too often overemphasizes the tragic aspect of these people bumping up against one another like small craft in a tempest-tossed harbor, allowing wincingly overdone moments among the capable cast. 
 
While Rory Keenan makes an aggressively cynical Jamie, Matthew Beard’s Edmund is a lanky, blurry portrait of a would-be artist; neither actor either acquits himself admirably or embarrasses himself. Similarly, Jeremy Irons is too boisterous as James, with overly hammy line readings and gesticulations getting in the way of his performance—that despite the fact that James Tyrone is an actor…and an elderly, hammy one at that.
 
Lesley Manville’s Mary should be the heart of this Journey, and despite a distractingly flat American accent, she often has searingly dramatic moments as the drug-addicted wife and mother in denial about everyone, including herself. It’s too bad, then, that Eyre coaxes her into forced or overstated histrionics, which end up giving her final, poignant lines of dialogue far less resonance than they—and O’Neill—deserve after 3-1/2 hours of unparalleled emotional devastation. 
 

Long Day’s Journey into Night
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY
bam.org

Encores! Closes 25th Season with "Me and My Girl"

 

EncoresMeAndMyGirlLeadsJMarcusHello, Dolly! at the Shubert may have audiences humming up the aisles, but Encores! 25th Season closer Me and My Girl at City Center, through May 13, has the cast dancing in the aisles and everyone doing the infectious “The Lambeth Walk.” This revival, with Tony winner Warren Carlyle directing and choreographing, of the show that was the 1937 toast of the West has a great score by British hit maker Noel Gay [real name: Richard Armitage] and enough wise-cracking one-liners to keep you laughing for weeks.

The musical was unwrapped out of moth balls in 1984 on the West End, and arrived two years later on  Broadway (Tony nomination, Best Musical). The book, part slapstick antics, part stinging commentary on the British upper class, and lyrics, are by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber. Gay’s score pays high tribute to the British Music Hall tradition. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Two-time Tony winner Christian Borle (Falsettos, Something Rotten) literally seems born to the manor his character, cockney East Ender Bill Snibson inherits. His adroit comic timing and dancing are impeccable (Tony winner, After Midnight; currently Hello, Dolly!) has well chosen Olivier Award-winning Laura Michelle Kelly (Finding Neverland) as the girl of the title.

EncoresMeAndMyGirlCBorleJMarcusShe and Borle, reunited after their Mary and Bert well into the run of Mary Poppins, have great chemistry. She’s the one “Me” won’t let go of when he inherits millions and a title – in spite of the determined machinations of Duchess Maria, brilliantly portrayed by Harriet Harris, to get him to choose a suitable mate; and the temptations of lascivious (She’s No) Lady Jaqueline, played by long-legged beauty Lisa O’Hare (Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder).

Bill has a lot of help from Sir John, Chuck Cooper (Tony winner, The Life; Prince of Broadway), and, thanks to 1984 script revisions by Stephen Fry and director Mike Ockrent for the West End revival, his friend Henry Higgins. golden-voiced Cooper gets ample opportunity to strut his rarely seen comic skills.

Co-starring in the cast of 31, Bill Buell, Mark Evans (The Play That Goes Wrong – who knew he could sing and dance?), John Horton, Simon Jones  (Farinelli and the King, many more), and, stealing scenes as his DNA seemingly demands, the irrepressible Don Stephenson as the family solicitor.       

EncoresMeAndMyGirlLOHareCBorleJMarcusCarlyle’s has created a stunning sequence, a tribute to the style of Gene Kelly, that showcases Borle’s debonair side in “Leaning on a Lampost”; and generates huge laughs with Borle and Cooper’s duet, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Kelly’s big moment comes by way of the poignant ballad “Once You Lose Your Heart,” which became a massive hit for the composers.

The choreography boasts ballroom, tap, and, why the heck not, some contemporary high-kicks courtesy of O’Hare. As always, Carlyle has assembled a winning dance ensemble. There are two memorable show-stoppers: the Act One finale “The Lambeth Walk” [which launched a 30s craze], with Busker costuming and spoons and anything else he could pull out of his hat (including having his dancers have way up the aisles and across center orchestra); and the Act Two opener, “The Sun Has Got His Hat On,” led by dashing Evans.

This Encores!, with the cast off book, is so polished it feels like a true Broadway production. As with all the City Center concert stagins, it was assembled with less than two weeks of rehearsal, so kudos to Carlyle, assistant choreographer Sara Edwards Butler, and assistant director Kasey Graham.

One of the joys of any Encores! is the nearly-30 strong orchestra under the direction of music director Rob Berman. They certainly don’t disappoint with the rousing overture, entr’acte, the Act One finale and the Act Two opener.

To learn more, go to: www.NYCityCenter.org

May '18 Digital Week III

Blu-rays of the Week 

Unforgotten—Complete 2nd Season 

(PBS Masterpiece)

In the second season of this compulsively watchable PBS Masterpiece series, investigators Cassie Stuart and Sunny Khan once again focus on an initially baffling cold case: the remains of a body found crammed in a suitcase, the deceased killed 27 years before, and (again) no shortage of suspects.

 

 

 

The twists and turns of the investigation are compelling throughout all five hours, thanks to smart writing and finely-shaded performances by Sanjeev Bhaskar and especially Nicola Walker as the detectives. It all looks supremely good on Blu.

 

Bruckner/Messiaen 

(LSO)

The London Symphony Orchestra and music director Sir Simon Rattle tackle a pair of uncompromising works in this excellent 2016 performance: the imposing, epic Romanticism of Anton Bruckner’s hour-long Symphony No. 8, and the subtle shadings of Olivier Messiaen’s 25-minute Coleurs de la Cite Celeste/Colors of the Celestial City.

 

 

 

The playing, of course, is stupendous, particularly by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as the exceptional soloist in the Messiaen work; hi-def video and audio are both fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Thousand Maniacs 

(Arrow)

In what was his finest moment of gory exploitation, Herschell Gordon Lewis directed this ridiculously silly 1964 splatter flick about clueless Northerners who stumble upon murderous Southerners and find themselves victims in a re-litigation of the Civil War.

 

 

 

It’s nuttily entertaining in its way (and based on the musical Brigadoon, of all things); an extra Lewis feature, Moonshine Mountain—also 1964—is less interesting foolishness. The films look decent in hi-def; extras include Lewis’s intros to both films and Maniacs commentary, video essays, interviews and an appreciation. 

 

DVD of the Week

Marx Reloaded 

(Icarus)

Jason Barker’s breezy 52-minute documentary, from 2011, filters the devastating effects of the then-recent financial collapse through a Karl Marx lens, offering the failures of capitalism as proof that it’s time to take a fresh look at Marx and see how relevant his ideas are in an era of even greater financial inequality.

 

 

 

Barker interviews several philosophers, including the famous Slovenian Slavoj Žižek, and includes a dated parody of The Matrix in its occasionally amusing animated segments. The lone extra, Marx for Beginners, is a diverting six-minute 1978 short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CD/DVD of the Week 

Messiaen—Catalogue d’Oiseaux/Catalogue of Birds 

(Pentatone)

Olivier Messiaen’s compositions are drenched in birdsong, from his chamber and orchestral works to even his masterpiece, his lone opera Saint Francois d’Assise. But it’s his massive, multi-part Catalogue of Birds—seven books of thirteen pieces, each based on a bird from a specific region of France, and composed in 1956 to 1958—that’s the apotheosis of these works.

 

 

 

And who better than fellow French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard to do justice to this often treacherously demanding music, especially the 30-minute centerpiece, The Reed WarblerOn three CDs, Aimard purposefully traverses some of Messiaen’s greatest solo piano music; on DVD, the pianist introduces each of the pieces, along with discussing Messiaen’s technique and legacy.

Theater Review—Alan Ayckbourn’s “A Brief History of Women” at the Brits Off Broadway Festival

A Brief History of Women

Written and directed by Alan Ayckbourn

Performances through May 27, 2018

 

Laura Matthews in Alan Ayckbourn's A Brief History of Women (photo: Tony Bartholomew)

Something new from Alan Ayckbourn is always cause for rejoicing, even when it’s relatively minor like his 81st play, A Brief History of Women. (He’s already completed his 82nd.) Not quite farce or satire but pitched somewhere in between, this play in four parts lets silliness and bad behavior butt heads with the sympathy the playwright extends to even his most risible characters.

 

The protagonists are Anthony Spates and Kirkbridge Manor; the former appears first as a naïve 17-year-old footman to a rich family at the manor in 1925, then reappears in each of the play’s three following scenes, each taking place 20 years after the previous one. The manor house changes along with Spates—it’s a girls’ school in 1945 (Spates teaches there), an arts center in 1965 (Spates runs the place) and a hotel in 1985 (Spates is the retired manager)—leading one to ask if those changes are for the better. 

 

That question isn’t answered, however, because although Spates and the house figure in all four scenes, they are mainly bystanders to the human comedy going on around them over a 60-year span. The teenage Spates gets his first real kiss from the lady of the house after her elderly husband has a heart attack, while the 37-year-old teacher looks on helplessly as his lover (still shattered by the death of her fiancée during World War II) fatally climbs on the rocket that climaxes the school fireworks display. 

At age 57, the arts center’s head ends up as the back half of a cow, rehearsing with the actress who just discovered her director husband’s cheating on her, while the retired (and widowed—he married the cow’s front half) 77-year-old returns to the hotel, where he meets the original lady of the house, now well into her 90s.

 

The glory of Ayckbourn’s writing is that, even when it’s a minor work—at least when compared to the masterly The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Intimate Exchanges, Comic Potential and Private Fears in Public Faces, to name just a handful—there’s always an especially felicitous observation or an empathetic moment that tears your heart out, like Women’s lovely and understated finale: an unforeseen reunion brings closure to Spates’s entire life…and that of the manor itself. 

 

Director Ayckbourn treats writer Ayckbourn’s work nimbly, including the droll use of sound as the characters move from one room to another, the invisible opening and closing doors allowing conversations to rise or fall as rooms are left and entered. These and other adroit touches work handily on Kevin Jenkins’s spiffy set, which brings the ever-changing house to life over six decades, and his clever costumes visualizing the passing of the years.

 

Playing two dozen characters, the formidable cast of six—Anthony Eden as the delectably hangdog Spates, aging 60 years but remaining ageless, laugh-out-loud scene-stealer Russell Dixon, and the versatile and funny Laura Matthews, Laurence Pears, Frances Marshall and Louise Shuttleworth—keeps the play shuttling forward, even when Ayckbourn himself nearly sabotages it with a drawn-out third episode in the arts center concerning a “Jack and the Beanstalk” rehearsal that goes on far too long.

 

But even the occasional hiccup can’t erase another noteworthy Alan Ayckbourn stage event.

 

A Brief History of Women

Brits Off Broadway, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

59e59.org

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