Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
According to the New York Times, prestige beauty sales in the United States rose six percent in the year ending in February, tallying $15.9 billion. Most women, it seems, prioritize keeping up appearances despite financial setbacks. The timely subject of War Paint is heated competition between two fabulously successful female entrepreneurs, both cosmetic pioneers.
Helena (Chaja) Rubinstein (1872-1965) came from Poland with homemade beauty recipes and had her first company success in Australia. London and Paris followed before opening a Fifth Avenue Salon in 1915. The lavish establishment featured a restaurant, gym, and rugs by Joan Miró. Rubinstein was an avid collector of art (she also sat for numerous commissioned portraits) and jewelry. The beauty innovator believed in making the most of a woman’s attributes. “There are no ugly women, just lazy ones.”
Down the street, Elizabeth Arden’s already established Red Door Salon would, by 1929, be one of 150 in the entrepreneur’s empire. (Florence Nightingale Graham chose Elizabeth to save money on signage and Arden from the name of a farm near her native Canadian home.) Arden innovations included the use of estrogen, makeovers and coordinating colors. It was arguably she who convinced “us” that women could wear makeup and still be ladies. Her motto: “Purity, Grace and Eternal Youth.”
Contrasting the outsider status of dark, diminutive Rubinstein (Patty Lupone) who was rejected by a co-op board because she was Jewish, turned around and bought the building, with blonde, blue-eyed, nouveau riche Arden (Christine Ebersole) who fraternized with socialite clients, makes a natural scenario. Both women were philanthropists, both were indomitable, short-sighted, and likely as lonely as portrayed. Neither achieved the kind of class acceptance she craved.
Creatives involved have done their homework. Some of the plot is concocted, certainly trading the important men in their lives didn’t occur. Douglas Still plays Rubinstein’s head of marketing, Harry Fleming, while John Dossett enacts Arden’s husband/head of marketing Tommy Lewis. (Both actors deserve better.) Still, much is accurate and rather interesting. (A litany of cosmetic ingredients might be somewhat curbed.) Watch for the early appearance of a lean, hungry Charles Revson. Two long, heavy handed numbers: A Fire and Ice television commercial and Lewis taking his wife’s Salon girls out could be easily jettisoned.
The musical takes us from the opening of Rubinstein’s atelier to the end of both careers.
Douglas Sills and John Dossett
Several of this year’s Tony Award aspirants for Best Musical have opened on Broadway with music and lyrics the weak link of elaborate productions. This is one of them. While Doug Wright’s book is grounded, clever, and illuminating, music by Scott Frankel is bland and repetitive, lyrics by Michael Korie range from congested to cliché.
There are exceptions to both. Elizabeth Arden’s/Ebersole’s “Pink” which despite a fluffy title becomes the moving eruption of a Valkyrie and the wry “Dinosaurs,” performed by Lewis/Dossett and Fleming/Sills stand out for musicality and expression. Titles like “If I’d Been a Man” and “Beauty in the World” promise much and deliver little.
Christine Ebersole’s Elizabeth Arden is palpably formidable. The actress doles out glimpses of vulnerability that make them all the more effective. Her interpretation of Arden is that of a cold woman. Ebersole is in superb voice.
As Helena Rubinstein, Patti Lupone’s vibrancy is equally forbidding, but her brush stroke is so wide, we see a cartoon. Despite impressively soaring vocals, Lupone is extremely hard to understand when singing. We do, however, feel her desperation.
Helena Rubinstein; Elizabeth Arden (Wikipedia)
Director Michael Greif gives each diva her due with grand entrances and clear-the-stage solos. Book scenes are well crafted. Extreme similarity in music makes it difficult to discern emotion in most vocal performance. Restaurant scenes at The St. Regis Hotel and the men’s two-hander at its King Cole Bar are deft. The ladies’ eating habits are droll.
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli reminds one of 1940 movie musicals. Make of that what you will.
David Korins’ fanciful salons offer evocative backdrop, but the neon signs of each lady’s name are irritating and unnecessary. (They might just as well read: APPLAUSE.)
Catherine Zuber’s Costumes are terrific, especially the hats. When it comes to the leads, color coordination is uncomfortably contrived, however.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Patti Lupone, Christine Ebersole and The Company
War Paint Book by Doug Wright Music by Scott Frankel Lyrics by Michael Korie Directed by Michael Greif Nederlander Theatre 208 West 41st Street
Nick Payne’s Constellations, (on Broadway in 2015), poetically explored The String Theory of Quantum Physics: In layman’s terms, what happens to everything else when a single aspect of a scenario changes and is it happening simultaneously on another plane? The play’s program specified “Place: The Multiverse” = the juncture? of multiple universes. Still fascinated with questions of free will, time, memory, and the way we function, the prolific playwright/intellectual here takes the human brain as its subject. One again drama is the medium.
Four excellent actors: Geveva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind, and Morgan Spector play a multitude of characters including psychologists, scientists, patients, a lawyer, a journalist…with turn-on-a-dime American and British accents. The piece, like its predecessor, is episodic, here broken into three larger chapters: ENCODING, STORING, and RETRIEVING, each begun with robotic voguing (by Peter Pucci) and a walk around the circular staging area accompanied by spacey electronic sounds/music. (David Van Tieghem) It’s a kind of a human rondo.
Morgan Spector, Geneva Carr
Identifiable stories play through in fragments. When Albert Einstein died, Princeton pathologist Thomas Harvey, conducting his autopsy (Morgan Spector), had a carpe diem moment and, turning to the icon’s executor, asked whether he might take the brain…which ends up in the trunk of his car before being dissected and studied…to little avail.
Martha (Geneva Carr, whose natural stage presence allows her to morph with focus), the adopted granddaughter of Einstein’s son and a clinical neuropsychologist, is approached by self-serving journalist, Michael (Charlie Cox) with questions of her paternity. Might she, in fact, be Einstein’s illicit daughter? (Not so far-fetched based on evidence.) All she has to do is take a DNA sample from Einstein’s brain to find out. That is, when Michael tracks it down.
Heather Lind, Geneva Carr
The intrepid headline hound convinces Doctor Harvey to accompany him cross country with a piece of the brain in order to see Einstein’s daughter –no love lost there – Evelyn (Carr), and request that sample. They drive. (How is one to airline check a brain fragment?)
Martha is, for the first time, exploring a gay relationship with Patricia (Heather Lind with a butch persona), also an adopted child, who would like her to help a lawyer friend (Spector) with professional testimony in a murder trial.
Anthony (a credibly on-the-verge Spector) is in and out of therapy (including with a compassionate but helpless Martha) and on Dagwood combinations of medication… rendering him impotent. About to embark on his honeymoon, he stops his meds, is fine for several days, then strangles his new bride to death, remembering nothing.
Heather Lind, Charlie Cox
Henry’s (a wonderfully innocent and touching Charlie Cox) amnesiac brain is poorly wired, though whether before or after an operation is unclear. His attention span is three to four thoughts, then everything starts fresh. The patient’s fiancé Margaret (Heather Lind) tries patiently (and palpably) to help, especially wanting him to regain his music, but gives up in despair. Doctors change over time…until Martha appears, triggering a moment of clarity/progress or, perhaps, just in the right place at the right time.
I’m sure I’ve left people and connections out. All four actors are top notch, but this is an impressionistic piece. Emotions are felt only in passing except perhaps those provoked by Henry who appears throughout. The mechanism we call brain retains its secrets.
Director Doug Hughes brings what humanity he can to the passing parade, keeps things moving and characters from becoming static.
Ben Stanton’s Lighting, Scott Pask’s minimal Set and Catherine Zuber’s grey-tone costumes collectively create an ephemeral canvas.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Geneva Carr (back), Morgan Spector, Heather Lind, Charlie Cox
Manhattan Theatre Club presents Incognito by Nick Payne Directed by Doug Hughes City Center Stage 1 151 West 55th Street Through July 10, 2016
When Arena Stage’s Artistic Director Molly Smith saw Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation at Lincoln Center, she was eager to have it produced in the nation’s capital. And why not? Washington is the city where these conversations once occurred in the homes of D.C.’s hostesses (think Susan Alsop and Kay Graham) who played a pivotal role in bringing together opposing sides at elegant parties. Back then, after-dinner arguments may have become heated, but the rivals continued to break bread together, even stayed friends. When the play premiered in New York, in June, 2014, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a year away. In the current campaign climate, one can’t imagine Trump, or any of his opponents, remaining civil while sharing a meal. This old social order did exist at one time, however, and our country was the better for it.
Michael Simpson and Margaret Colin
The play opens in the fall of 1979 and is set in the Georgetown townhouse of liberal-leaning Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin). This evening Hester’s guests are Kentucky Senator George Mallonnee (Todd Scofield), and his wife, Carolyn (Jjana Valentiner). On Hester’s agenda are two items: the passage of a Ted Kennedy sponsored bill that would help the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid, and the career advancement of her live-in lover, Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin).
Hester’s widowed sister, Jean Swift (Ann McDonough, in an excellent performance) supports her sibling’s causes and helps plan the get togethers, while never attending herself. Throughout the play, Jean serves as a reality check for Hester, often delivering advice and warnings in droll one-liners that never fail to produce laughs.
Hester’s son, Colin (Michael Simpson), arrives home from abroad earlier than expected. Hester is thrilled, not only to see him, but also with the prospect of presenting a united familial front to woo the reluctant senator over to her side. Her plans are dashed, however, when she witnesses her son’s turn to the dark side, egged on by his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (Caroline Hewitt). The two have just graduated from the London School of Economics, and Colin has returned a changed man, rejecting liberal opinions once embraced. Anna dispenses with any social niceties and plunges right in, criticizing everything Hester stands for and Colin once believed in. For her part, Hester looks with distain at Anna’s disheveled appearance and offers to lend her a black cocktail dress for the evening’s festivities. Anna accepts the dress, but not the idea that she should tone down her behavior. Joining the men for brandy and cigars and espousing her conservative views, she soon has the senator and his wife eating out of her hand – not what Hester had hoped for. What really stings, though, is Colin’s strident rejection of his mother’s ideals in front of the senator.
Margaret Colin and Tyler Smallwood
We flash forward for Act Two, finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Reagan years. Hester is now babysitting for her grandson, Ethan (Tyler Smallwood), who playfully bounces a rubber ball around the living room and asks to watch Cinderella on video. (There are jokes about using the VCR – remember those?) Hester’s love for her grandson is genuine and heartfelt. And like with Colin, she can’t resist sharing with Ethan her political views, something her son and Anna constantly complain about. This time around, Hester’s out to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. She and Jean have fashioned a letter that will run as an advertisement in newspapers where senators are still undecided about how they will vote. When Anna arrives to pick up Ethan, Hester scrambles to hide the letter, anticipating her daughter-in-law’s reaction. In contrast to the affection that Hester displays with Ethan, Anna remains all business. She’s left her bohemian look behind in favor of a severe dark blue suit in keeping with her position at the Justice Department, and she can’t seem to get out of business mode to cuddle her son.
Colin’s appearance has changed, too. His youthful bushy hair is now slicked back, Gordon Gekko style and he sports a ridiculous looking mustache. While Anna is supporting Bork’s nomination to the court, Colin is the one who has everything to lose if the effort fails. The New Hampshire senator Colin works for has gone all out to back Bork and could lose his seat. If the nomination is defeated and Hester’s role revealed, her son could lose his job. Anna finds the letter, confronts Hester, and delivers an ultimatum. Where do Hester’s emotions lie? With her son or with her politics? We learn the answers in the last scene, when we are transported to 2008, the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Caroline Hewitt, Margaret Colin, and Michael Simpson
Giardina has written an intelligent play with smart dialogue. The zingers oftentimes fly so fast it’s hard to keep up. This cast is up for the challenge. Brooklyn-born Margaret Colin is terrific as Hester, showing fierceness when defending her point of view, but warmth when watching over Ethan. Caroline Hewitt taps into Anna’s raw ambition. Because we all know someone like Anna as a fellow student, co-worker, or boss, the performance grates. Unlike with Hester, we never see a softer side to Anna, a hint of what Colin might have seen in her when he fell in love and married her. Michael Simpson’s Colin seems energized at the beginning of the play when he and Anna are a team confronting Hester. Yet by the second act, Colin seems defeated, resigned to his fate, having traded one strong-willed woman for another. He seems exhausted and beaten down, and Simpson allows us to see his despair.
Staging the play in the Fichlander, brings the audience into the action. The production team from Lincoln Center – Director Doug Hughes, Set Designer John Lee Beatty, Costumer Designer Catherine Zuber, and Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau – have worked their magic here, too.
While The City of Conversation places politics front and center, the play is really about family. We are expected to teach our children values and share our ideas with them, but at some point those children grow up and develop opinions of their own. One can only imagine the dinnertime conversations going on these days, if not in Georgetown townhouses, at tables around the country as young and old make decisions about the upcoming presidential election.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography:
Opening: Tom Wiggin, Margaret Colin, Caroline Hewitt, Todd Scofield, and Jjana Valentiner
The City of Conversation Fichlander Theater Arena Stage 1011 Sixth Street, SW 202-488-3000