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.
“… I have been exiled from my body. I was ejected at a young age and I got lost. For years I have been trying to find my way back to my body, and to the earth.” Sounds poetic, doesn’t it, rather like the neopagan goddess movement? In fact, author/actress/activist Eve Ensler’s journey lead her past family and marital abuse, through indulgence of alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity to a liquor, drug and smoke free, physically active, vegetarian existence, albeit maintaining “lots of sex.” Ensler hastens to show she’s struggling, fallible, one of us.
Ensler is an evangelist. She believes women (read humanity) capable of the kind of enlightened activism that respectfully nurtures both our bodies and earth – where they reside; one that supports, defends, connects and celebrates. If we neither turn away nor harm, are courageous and willing she posits, there’s hope. One can only admire the example she sets.
In 2010, on the verge of opening City of Joy, an African healing sanctuary for women who experienced unspeakable violence, Ensler discovered she had uterine cancer. The disease “… threw me into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced what I felt sure was the beginning of the end.” (Ensler wonders whether she brought it on herself and if her trial is meant to teach.) It’s this two headed experience she shares. While her other plays featured the voices of many women, this one is markedly personal; highly specific and starkly raw. She stands before us naked from breast to soul.
The show includes grim details, but is pointedly not a deluge of suffering. Extremely deft, Ensler weaves humor (gallows and otherwise) through her story like a couturier. Her stay at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, aka “Tumor Town,” is often wryly described. Seen in the recovery room, she peeks beneath a blanket as if observing what remains after the surgeons’ excavation. Having to rate pain verges on one of David Letterman’s lists. “How’d I get it?!” Ensler muses, “…was it tofu… marriage failure…bad reviews…not being breastfed… Tab-oh my God, I drank so much Tab…”
Between treatments, telephone conversations with a Congolese woman named Angelique about difficulties with the African project (the grisly history and determination of those women is startling), and her own mother’s bout with cancer, helped keep Ensler from imploding. The first are frustrating, angering, energizing; the second debilitating, moving, and finally healing.
We hear about her alienated past, lengthy communion with a tree when she lacked strength for anything else, selfless volunteers, deep friendships, a birthday party in the hospital that sounds like Woodstock before the mud, and “things not to think about on day four of chemo: garbage-where does it go…the disappearance of bees…and if you’re in chemo now, Kellyann Conway…” When was the last time you stood and danced in front of your seat at theater?!
Ensler could easily have died. Instead, the artist persevered, enduring physical and emotional challenges few of us will ever face. (She’s fine.) That she kneaded pain, enfeeblement, and fear into recommitment to galvanizing humanitarianism is a case of making maggot occupied lemons into lemonade. I don’t mean to sound frivolous. This is a woman who found her deeper self in a foxhole, emerging grateful for the sun above and warm earth round her corporal form. Refusing pedestals, Eve Ensler inspires awareness and encourages participation. Off stage, she gives great hugs.
In The Body of The World is both powerful and entertaining; beautifully written in fluid vignettes and marvelously acted. One forgets Eve Ensler is also a highly skilled performer.
Director Diane Paulus, known for coordinating a stage full of thespians, here illuminates the heart and intention of her sole actress as masterfully as she manages stagecraft. Gestures can shock or amuse. Manipulation is invisible. Pacing is perfect.
Jill Johnson is credited with additional movement, so well integrated, it’s organic.
Transitions are ably effected through splendid, symbiotic Lighting Design by Jen Schriever, infectious Sound Design by M.L. Dogg and Dam Lerner, and Finn Ross’s superbly artful and illustrative projections. Scenic and Costume Design by Myung Hee Cho are aesthetically appealing, original, and, at the finale exuberantly fitting.
If you’ve been living under a rock, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” erupted Off Broadway in 1996, then spread worldwide establishing a new standard for frank discussion of women’s sexuality. It helped birth the anti-violence organization V-Day and then a sanctuary for rape victims in the Congo called City of Joy. Her memoir In the Body of the World was released on April 30, 2013.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club presents In The Body of The World Written and Performed by Eve Ensler Directed by Diane Paulus City Center Stage 1 131 West 55th Street
“Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.”
Chapter 2, Verse 15 of the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible
Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play, ostensibly drawing characters from her own family, has been a theater staple since its first outing. In New York, the role of Regina which originated with Talullah Bankhead has been played by such as Anne Bancroft and Elizabeth Taylor while Margaret Leighton, Maureen Sullivan, and Frances Conroy have counted among those featured as Birdie. This Manhattan Theatre Club production allows its leading ladies to play Regina and Birdie in repertory. One can choose whom to see in which role.
Laura Linney, Darren Goldstein
Keeping with 1900s Southern tradition, brothers Oscar (Darren Goldstein) and Ben Hubbard (a well grounded Michael McKean) inherited their father’s cotton business to the chagrin of sister Regina (Laura Linney). The two men are pompously nouveau riche, while she has to make due with being supported in less than the style to which she aspires by manipulated husband Horace Giddens (completely credible Richard Thomas), currently in a sanatorium.
Also enmeshed is Oscar’s sweet, alcoholic wife Birdie (Cynthia Nixon), married for inheritance and ancestry, so cowed she refers to herself as a “ninny,” his lazy, doltish son Leo (Michael Benz) superfluously employed by the bank, and Regina’s overprotected daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini), a daddy’s girl who the Hubbards plan to marry off to Leo.
A business opportunity to enlarge holdings and walk off with sizeable annuity emerges with the potential collaboration of northerner Mr. Marshall (David Alford – appealingly decorous). While Oscar and Ben have ready funds, Regina must secure her investment from the estranged husband she hasn’t even visited for five months. Feigning affection, this latter day Lucrezia Borgia immediately sends Alexandra to fetch the invalid. Horace, however, despite or perhaps because he’s learned his prognosis is fatal, is no longer the patsy she remembers. How will the Hubbard brothers keep this windfall in the family? How will Regina secure her own ambitious future? Each acts for him/her self.
Richard Thomas, Michael McKean, Darren Goldstein, Michael Benz
Laura Linney’s Regina makes southern gentility organic without losing the character’s edge. Imperiousness fits like a bespoke glove, avarice is palpable. So much emotion is internalized, however, one misses flashes – a moment of sheer hatred during blazing discourse with Horace, a moment of fear when at last Alexandra denies her.
Cynthia Nixon inhabits Birdie from the moment she enthusiastically flutters onstage. She’s vulnerable, wary, resigned, hopeful, hurt and desperate. Every warble in her voice and skittery move embodies Birdie. We can practically feel the tightness in her chest. All together splendid.
Francesca Carpanini, Richard Thomas
Director Daniel Sullivan excels at this kind of solid drama. His characters exist naturally and, for the most part, distinctively. Oscar is fidgety, Ben blustery and overconfident, Regina steely and graceful, Birdie like a trapped rabbit. Leo and Alexandra could use some individual attributes. Confrontations between Oscar and Birdie are superb as are moments of those between Regina and Horace. The stage is well and attractively used.
Unless I missed something, there’s an omission: Horace knocks over his medicine before heading for the stairs. We never see it observed, questioned, or cleaned up. There are paramount reasons for all three.
Scott Pask’s gracious turn of the century mansion is apt environs for this play. The ceiling is splendid. Jane Greenwood’s Costumes are flattering and character appropriate. Accents, it should be noted, sound authentic.
Also featuring Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal- the Giddins’ servants
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon
Jitney is the first play written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson for his ten chapter, decade by decade, Pittsburgh Cycle. Masterfully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Manhattan Theatre Club’s vibrant production is as good as it gets. Every member of this virtuoso ensemble inhabits a fully realized character with distinctive carriage, gestures, speech and attitude. Not a moment feels less than voyeuristic.
Keith Randolph Smith, Harvey Blanks
It’s 1977. Pittsburgh’s Hill District is deeply depressed, rife with homelessness, alcoholism, violence, drugs, dilapidated living conditions, empty political promises, and people trying to pull themselves up by frayed bootstraps. A rundown, storefront Car Service gorgeously realized (inside and out) by Designer David Gallo, is the ersatz clubhouse of lifelong friends who work for honorable, straight-from-the-hip Becker (John Douglas Thompson), in addition to whatever other jobs they can get. Each has his own idiocentric character and history gradually revealed like slowly peeled onions. Incoming requests for livery are answered in accepted pecking order.
Andre Holland, Carra Patterson
Drivers: Youngblood, aka Darrell (Andre Holland), rejects any client he thinks is “gonna mess up” his car. Barely out of his 20s, the young man’s ambition is to buy a house for girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and his son. Still, he might be running around with Rena’s sister. Motormouth gossip, Turnbo (Michael Potts) has opinions (and judgments) about everything and a sizeable chip on his shoulder. “Brown car. You be ready cause I ain’t waitin’.” Gentle giant Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) remains haunted by his service in Korea. Fielding (Anthony Chisom), once a tailor for Billy Eckstein, retains a dash of genteel style despite constant, full-tilt inebriation.
Friends: Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), a sweet doorman at a local hotel, clings to his job like a life raft but is also periodically sauced and Shealy (Harvey Banks), a leisure-suited numbers runner in almost perpetual good spirits.
John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden
Two pivotal events affect this eloquent slice-of-life scenario. Pittsburgh threatens to board up and then tear down the block, potentially robbing the group of familiar, relatively secure livelihood. And Becker’s son Booster (Brandon J. Deardon) is released from 20 years in prison for the murder of a woman who cuckolded him. Becker can deal with the city but has never been able to reconcile his son’s action.
There’s a feud, a gun, a death (nothing to do with the gun), collective defiance, romantic misunderstanding, and lots of stories. Though times are tough, camaraderie bonds, exhibiting spirit that, though beaten, can’t be squashed. Every actor pulls his weight.
Harvey Blanks, Michael Potts, Brandon J. Dirden, Andre Holland
Toni-Leslie James Costumes are wonderfully specific to character as well as period and economic level. Bill Sims Jr.’s Original Music feels like the pulse of these people.
Frederick August Kittel, Jr. changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father’s death in 1965.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith, Andre Holland
August Wilson’s Jitney Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (1927) states that neither the position nor velocity of an object can be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. Now apply that to gauging the substance and honesty of an extremely mercurial pairing.
This has to be one of the most unlikely, yet deeply convincing couples you’ll ever see on stage; a romantic, highly sexual relationship that slowly evolves despite reticence, red flags and trap doors at every turn. Playwright Simon Stephens (who wrote Harper Regan and adapted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) has created two marvelous characters who make what could have been yet another quirky-girl-gets-repressed- man-to-open-up scenario into something eminently richer and more satisfying. This is not a comedy per se, but you will laugh. A lot.
When we meet Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker) in her unkempt, early 40s, she’s just kissed the back of the neck of tucked, pressed, 75 year-old Alex Priest (Denis Arndt), a complete stranger. He jerks away. The young woman explains that, unthinking, she took Alex for her husband who’s been dead 18 months, describes his death, then segues to reflections on her honeymoon. “I miss every single bit of him, like on a cellular level.” Despite the fact neither character is traveling or meeting anyone, both are in a train station.
Georgie introduces herself, glomming onto Alex. “Can I take your photo?” “No.” “Are you a celebrity or a very arrogant person who puts yourself above people like me?” She’s aggressive to the point of belligerence, needy, and an unfiltered motor-mouth. He’s taciturn and wary. Georgie’s “an assassin” no, “a waitress,” who can, she declares read people. When Alex says he’s a butcher, she argues in disbelief. He exits.
Next thing we know (the play is episodic), she’s tracked him down at his shop. Alex finds this somewhat alarming. It turns out what little he’s shared about himself and his at-face-value banal life, is true, whereas everything she’s told him is a lie. Georgie does that. Parker’s splendid deliverance of often rapidly contradictory responses gives such equal credence to both, like Alex, we’re often left wondering.
While it’s true this is no ordinary butcher-his favorite thing about the profession he tells her, is the way animals join together at their seams, Alex is also not the cultured, romantic figure Georgie seems to presume. He leads a quiet, long celibate life and has never traveled. She presses on, “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?… I like your fingers…your eyes… You should take me out…”
Probably never having done a spontaneous thing in his life, he does take her out. At the restaurant, Georgie emits a head-turning scream when she learns Alex’s age. “You’re unbelievably old!’ (He looks terrific.) She nervously giggles and apologizes. “Don’t apologize. It’s surprisingly nice watching you giggle.” Can you hear the worm turning?
The heroine is obsessed with finding her son who has taken off to the United States. Alex plans to sell his shop. With uncertain futures, they make joyous love. Afterglow is adult, in iconoclastic character and beautifully dramatized. Georgie has a favor to ask. A BIG favor. Was it premeditated? Has Alex been used? Does he care? Both their lives radically change in unexpected ways. We’re left awash in possibility with no promise of success.
It’s fairly impossible to imagine anyone other than Mary-Louise Parker in this role. Her signature ability to communicate in start/stop/pause/stumble/rush/retract/outbreak sentences –without ever straying from character, has never been given more leeway. That the artist makes Georgie appealing even when annoying or insulting helps us understand Alex’s reaction. Timing is impeccable, physical acting perfection.
In his Broadway Debut at 77, Denis Arndt becomes a surprising leading man. The attractive, long-limbed actor is so compelling when silent, it’s sometimes difficult to pull one’s gaze away. Completely believable as a practical shopkeeper with few expectations, his character’s conservative, halting reaction to Georgie’s insidious seduction is a constant, low key delight.
Director Mark Brokow has a successful track record with characters. Here he presents two extremely different people with both solid specifics and finesse. Use of only metal chairs and tables is remarkably effective, even as a bed. (Alex’s entrance into said bed is sublime.) Georgie’s intermittent flailing never goes over the top. The graceful ending is a brief master class. Pacing is exquisite.
Note: I’m sorry, but I can find no reason to put audience bleachers on the stage facing the rest of us except to garner more money. Much of the time when actors’ facial expressions are paramount, we see only profiles. And it’s distracting.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Manhattan Theatre Club presents Heisenberg by Simon Stephens Directed by Mark Brokow Through December 11, 2016 Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th 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 Ray (Jeff Daniels) yanks Una (Michelle Williams) into his office lunchroom, we immediately know something’s very wrong. Vibrating with rage and panic, keeping his distance as if caged with a lioness, he wants to know how Una found him (a photo in a trade magazine) and what she wants. Fifteen years ago, 40 year-old Ray pursued and had sex with then 12 year-old Una shattering both their lives. He turned himself in, served time, moved, changed his name, and is in a relationship. She saw psychiatrists, traveled, finally holds down a job, and, after numerous lovers meant to punish her parents for separating them, has had a boyfriend.
He wears a shirt and tie like any white collar employee. She has on a thin, short, girlish dress and very high heels. (Costumes Ann Roth) Una closes the door, Ray opens it. Una kicks it closed with her foot. Ray opens it. Una slams it. His chin juts out; tension holds neck and shoulders rigid. She acts as if she’s in control but is obviously unstable. His words are spasmodic, hers measured.
Una insists on talking about what’s happened since. She’s aggressive, accusatory. Ray’s answers are succinct, defensive. He intermittently throws her coat and bag at the girl, trying to make her leave. She recalls how their liaison began, describing him as a predator. He remembers her preteen self as precocious, seductive. We watch him viscerally suffer.
She demands they go over what occurred the fateful night they were exposed. The two stories prove revelatory. Was the breech simply a matter of crossed wires? There are things Una kept from the police. Ray still thinks of her every day. Pain is omnipresent, internal conflict palpable, eruption imminent.
I saw the 2007 Manhattan Theatre Club production of this play which featured the same Director – Joe Mantello, the same Set Designer – Scott Pask, and, most importantly, one of the same leads – Jeff Daniels. Though details have faded, I remember feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me. Alas, that doesn’t happen this time around.
Jeff Daniels, who has grown as an actor over time, brings new comprehension and maturity to the role. Ray’s wrenching journey is manifest from the gut. Protest is torn from him, feelings bleed. Shame doesn’t prevent what the character perceives as love. In testament to David Harrower’s insightful writing, judgment about the immoral, illegal coupling doesn’t prevent one’s sympathy for the man. Daniels appears whole and credible.
Michelle Williams, however, does not. An actress I have admired elsewhere, Williams here seems all surface twitches. Either she hasn’t made decisions about Una’s emotions or her expression of them is too internal. Until the character breaks down at the end of the play, the stage belongs to Daniels. Without equal push-pull, the piece cannot be successful.
Director Joe Mantello, whose talents I have always appreciated, seems to have achieved only half what he set out to do.
Scott Pask’s sterile, gray Set Design provides an aptly cold and impersonal atmosphere.
Photos by Brigitte Lacomb
Blackbirdby David Harrower
Jeff Daniels, Michelle Williams
Directed by Joe Mantello
111 West 44th Street
Through June 11, 2016
Tickets at Telecharge or the box office