You’re invited to a soiree at The Talk House – think Players Club – a ten year reunion of those originally involved with the play Midnight in the Clearing With Moon and Stars. Though critically unsuccessful, the production was a good experience for all involved. What appears to be colored water and penny candy are offered on trays. (When the play formally begins, party-goers avail themselves of a veritable cornucopia of tantalizing appetizers. You’ll salivate.) The company mingles with entering audience. Feel free to talk to the actors.
Catch-up conversation sounds like anything one might hear at theater hang-outs like Bar Centrale – the decline of real craft, its ersatz replacement, memories of what brought this group together, and allusions to what each is doing now. Much of this is banal. You might find yourself drifting off. Intermittent references to such as a play called The Elephant Does Forget with a “memorable dialysis scene” attempt to keep this part of the scenario from flatlining.
Matthew Broderick, Annapurna Sriram, Michael Tucker, John Epperson
Robert (Matthew Broderick), the playwright, has moved on to a television series called Tony and Company he could author with one hand behind his back. His star, Tom (Larry Pine), also the lead in Midnight, disparages the show. (Television is primary entertainment.) Bill (Michael Tucker) has morphed into a discouraged agent. Ted (John Epperson – Lypsinka in other incarnation) now writes advertising – jingles, we presume – as he intermittently tickles the corner ivories. Costumer, Annette (playwright/actress Claudia Shear), struggles as a bespoke seamstress.
Running Talk House is the palpably maternal Nellie (Jill Eikenberry), who one infers was once an actress, and young Jane (Annapurna Sriram) who left to try her luck on the boards, but returned tail between her legs. Our last character is Dick (Wallace Shawn) now an alcoholic, a “pitiful hanger-on” who’s been charitably taken in by the club, but seems beyond repair.
Michael Tucker, Claudia Shear, Larry Pine, Jill Eikenberry
Time passes slowly, though in amiable enough company. When dystopia enters on cat feet one barely notices at first. Desperate for incomes, several attendees are unquestioningly committing government sanctioned murder = “targeting” on the side. Shrug. Only Bill seems to find anything immoral or unusual in this ordinarily undiscussed, status quo, and his objections pass.
We’re reminded, as if everyday news were insufficient, that a fascist government works from lists, that it’s vigilant of those who might do “harm”, i.e. anyone who might object to singular rule, anyone different; that horrific “methods” are often ignored or rationalized as people acclimate. It’s them or us. Who is who?
Unfortunately, Shawn has a tendency to overwrite. The pith is both buried by endless uninteresting chat and dissipated by the number of sketched characters involved. Though Robert briefly shows unexpectedly conservative colors (Broderick might’ve credibly made a feast of this were he given more to reveal) and Jane is more angry at her lack of professional success than that to which she’s been reduced, most of those present are not very engaging. Annette, partly due to the wonderful Shear and Nellie to Eikenberry’s authenticity, are sympathetic.
Matthew Broderick, Annapurna Sriram
Undoubtedly meant to show the insidious nature of grim historical past and conceivably hovering future, the end result evokes nothing more than a shudder of recognition. While one applauds the playwright’s alert, it’s difficult not to be disappointed with its minimal effect.
There’s not a weak link in this excellent, iconoclastic cast which includes writers and performers one might otherwise never see on the same stage.
Scott Elliott directs with naturalness and imagination. People drift from Derek McLane’s well defined parlor set to an unseen kitchen area and back, helping us focus on those who remain. Everyone seems credible and comfortable. Stage business is fine. Use of music is appealing.
Photos by Monique Carboni
Opening: John Epperson, Matthew Broderick, Jill Eikenberry, Annapurna Sriram, Larry Pine, Claudia Shear
The New Group presents
Evening At The Talk House by Wallace Shawn
Directed by Scott Elliott
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through March 12, 2017
92Y’s estimable Lyrics & Lyricists series ended its current season with a bang as the excellent Ted Chapin, President & Chief Creative Officer of Rodgers & Hammerstein, presented an evening illuminating Richard Rodgers and his work after the death of iconic collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II.
Not just a celebration, the show gave us a glimpse into the artist’s behavior, philosophy and process. This was imaginatively accomplished with a combination of excerpts from filmed interviews with the composer, his family, and associates, narrative by our knowledgeable host, and actor Larry Pine playing the honoree, utilizing Rodger’s own words. Chapin’s light touch and selectivity are always a pleasure. Pine is terrific, not just reading, but embodying the celebrant. Pleasing arrangements by Joseph Thalken, Charming Stage Direction/Choreography by Lorin Latarro, and evocative Projections by Matthew Haber, create a well crafted show.
Larry Pine as Richard Rodgers
“There is no valid reason for hiding honest emotion.” Richard Rodgers
Chapin divides Richard Rodgers life into three chapters: collaboration with Lorenz Hart in the 1920s and 1930s, collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II through World War II, and a robust afterward reflected in tonight’s show. “If I am successful,” Pine declares as Rodgers, “I know full well it’s because some of the talents of Oscar and Larry (Hart) have rubbed off on me.”
Rodgers lyric writing began with the updated 1962 remake of the film State Fair starring Ann Margaret, Pat Boone and Bobby Darren- not exactly performers to whom one might turn for a Rodgers and Hammerstein interpretation, and continued in tandem with composing through his last musical, 1979’s I Remember Mama.
We hear songs from and stories about No Strings, the film of The Sound of Music , Do I Hear a Waltz? (lyrics-Stephen Sondheim), Androcles and the Lion, Two by Two (lyrics Martin Charnin), Rex (lyrics Sheldon Harnick) and I Remember Mama (lyrics Martin Charnin) as performed by four talented vocalists, each of whom had best moments.
Karen Ziemba, too long away from the Broadway stage, captivated with a rendition of “Loads of Love” (No Strings) which offered characterization, grace and infectious brightness. Every major theater turned the show down because it crossed a color line with its interracial relationship. It landed on 54th Street.
“I know I give the appearance of not being sentimental, but this isn’t true. I believe people have an emotional need for melody just as they need food.” Richard Rodgers
Subdued until her performance of “Someone Woke Up,” Leona’s joyful discovery of Venice from Do I Hear a Waltz?, Betsy Wolfe irresistibly tries to take in everything at once. A perfect ingenue, she moves with ease and innocence. Contralto is confident and appealing, soaring without stress. Rodgers felt that trying to emulate the sound of a place or culture was a mistake and stuck to his own musical ideas wherever and whenever a musical was located.
Betsy Wolfe; Ben Crawford
A buoyant “What Do We Do? We Fly!” from the same show is performed by the company. Ostensibly crammed into tiered airline seats, they gesture and complain with graphic frustration.
Ben Crawford’s vocals, though technically lovely, seem self conscious until he inhabits Noah in “Ninety Again” from Two by Two. Singing to and flirting with his astonished wife, Esther, cavorting all over the stage like a gleeful 17 year-old, ending with a buck-and-wing and push-ups, Crawford’s throat opens to reveal resonance and sincerity. The Broadway show’s esteemed star, Danny Kaye, tore a ligament, returned in a wheelchair, and became ungovernable, ad-libbing and pinching the ladies.
The song is followed by “An Old Man” performed by Ziemba as Esther. The hug that he gives you is hardly a hug…Accompanied only by piano, the actress brims with weathered affection. It’s truly touching.
Chapin tells us a sweet story shared by lyricist Sheldon Harnick who was nervous working with the forbidding Rodgers at a time in his life when the composer needed lyric structure on which to build. Harnick was fearful of being graded and found wanting, yet Rodgers appeared visibly relieved when his new collaborator expressed enthusiasm at the setting of an early tune.
Crawford and Wolfe offer “Away From You” (Rex), a song played for Andrew Lloyd Weber by his father who considered it one of the best melodies of the 20th century. (Rodgers was Lloyd Weber’s idol.) Both performers are engaging, strings add winning texture.
“Strangers” (Androcles and the Lion) is begun by T. Oliver Reid whose gentle, cottony delivery floats the lyrics. He and Betsy Wolfe, who joins the expressive duet, aptly end up back to back on a stool. Reid’s vibrato-filled “I Do Not Know a Day I Didn’t Love You” (Two by Two) sounds like operetta. His precise tenor seems swept away by emotion.
We close with the company’s “Sing Me a Song” (Rex), a waltz by an artist one can arguably call America’s waltz king. It’s an oom-pah-pah arrangement, at one point even vocally simulating a calliope. Everyone’s smiling.
Richard Rodgers was by all reports an outwardly gruff man- something writer Sherman Yellen recognized as symptomatic of his generation, and an alcoholic, yet wrote some of the most timeless, romantic melodies in the annals of American music (not to mention unexpected lyrics.) His work is immortal. Ted Chapin has more than done Rodgers justice with this eloquent evening.
Joseph Thalken (piano), Karen Ziemba, T.Oliver Reid, Ben Crawford, Betsy Wolfe
Theater novices are often teased by veterans into looking for the key to the curtain. “I’ve been in the theater more than half a century…all my life I’ve been looking for that key and I’m still looking.” Richard Rodgers
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Joseph Thalken (piano), Ben Crawford, Betsy Wolfe, T.Oliver Reid, Karen Ziemba
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
I Have Confidence: Rodgers After Hammerstein
Ted Chapin-Artistic Director/Writer/Host
Joseph Thalken-Music Director/Arrangements/ Orchestrations
Based on a concept by Bill Rudman of “On the Aisle”
92Y at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street
Next Season’s Lyrics & Lyricists begins with Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years