The Seagull or How to Eat It at NOMA’s Sculpture Garden through Oct. 30
It’s telling that the front page of the program for The Seagull or How to Eat It lists it as being “by Gab Reisman and Anton Chekhov”.
Others might have billed something similar (and there’ve been many such adaptations) as “an adaptation by [playwright’s name] based on Anton Chekhov”. In this case, however, “by Gab Reisman and Anton Chekhov” seems wholly appropriate for this Mandeville-set, present day telling of Chekhov’s tale of artistic inspiration/creation (and the lack thereof) and varying romantic entanglements, some fulfilled, most not.
For Reisman, while peppering the script with references to Woody Allen & Mel Brooks, Meryl Streep & Zadie Smith as well as Trader Joe’s, has, for the most part, dutifully transcribed Chekhov’s lines to present-day speech without fully capturing the rhythms of our times. Or rather, we see people in present day clothing sounding, despite certain references they drop, as tho they still belong in the 19th century.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Seagull or How to Eat It is an eminently enjoyable 2+ hours that shows how little behavior among a certain set has changed in over 100 years. And yet, throughout the production, I had the nagging feeling that some slight adjustments should have been made to make it feel more of our own time. In other words, I wish there had been a little more Reisman in the script and, perhaps, a little less Chekhov.
(By comparison, Sam Meyer’s The Cuck, an adaptation of Euripides’ Electra seen here in June, though still set in ancient times, featured dialog that had the feel of today’s speech patterns and characters that sported contemporary attitudes which imbued this centuries old story with a fresh and vital spirit.)
Because Reisman remains so true to Chekhov, one wonders when exactly this Seagull takes place. Certainly, not in the last two years as there’s no mention of Covid and probably sometime before 2016 as no one talks about Trump as would likely be the case.
So let’s say, with its cell phones and laptops, it takes place during the Obama era. Fine. The cast features three characters played by Black actors. Fine. The North Shore, however, has never exactly been known as a bastion of liberalism. It just seemed there could have been and, perhaps, would have been by these putative Mandevillians some acknowledgment, however slight, of such racial dynamics. Of course, a playwright can deal with whatever she wants (or does not want). To ignore race entirely, however, seems like a missed opportunity for enlarging the play’s focus.
Reisman also shakes up some of the characters’ genders and sexualities. Fine. Chekhov’s Pyotr, a retired senior civil servant, becomes Pete a gay retired city government official. Fine (especially with knowing references to the “Golden Lantern”). When mention was made that he had been a City Councilmember, however, not so fine, as New Orleans has never had an openly gay Councilperson.
More importantly, as in Chekhov, Polina (here “Polly”), a middle-aged woman, has an affair with Dr. Dorn, who’s about the same age as her. Reisman’s Dorn, however, is female. Fine. Might a fairly sheltered woman like Polly on the North Shore go off to have a fling behind her husband’s back with another woman giggling like a school girl? Perhaps. But it would have been more likely, and more dramatically interesting, had she hesitated, unsure of the path she wanted to take, until passion overwhelmed her.
Still, Reisman gives us lots to chew on. Is a 17-year-old girl today having a long term affair with a middle-aged man more or less cringey than it would’ve been in 1899? How do people go on when their romantic partners ignore them? What counts as art?
If The Seagull or How to Eat It loses a bit of steam in its second act (Chekhov’s fourth, two years after the first three), it also has one of the saddest lines in the entire play when Irene, the actress mother of writer Connie, says that she doesn’t have time to read her son’s articles in Harper’s or The New Yorker. Ouch.
Director A. J. Allegra serves the script extremely well. Beautifully paced and staged, the NOLA Project production successfully captures the rhythms and interrelationships of Reisman/Chekhov’s text.
The cast, a mix of old and new Project faces, fully inhabits all the roles.
Elizabeth Argus, a veteran of Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre, makes her NOLA Project debut as Irene and proves herself to be as fine a dramatic actress as she is at musical comedy, unafraid to bring out both Irene’s bitchiness and neurotic neediness.
Ross Brill, also a Project debutante, similarly fulfills Connie’s melodramatic insecurities and childishness, tho one pities him for having a mother like Irene.
Payj “PJ” Ruffins, outstanding earlier this year in School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, appropriately transitions from the glowingly naive Nina to the older, wiser one with knowing precision.
Kyle Daigrepont as Pete, Delphine J. as Dorn, Mandy Zirkenbach as Polly along with Garrett Prejean as Irene’s husband, a famous writer bored with the jet set, and Khiry Armstead and John Collins, representing two different versions of “Mr. Cellophane”–each contributes a finely detailed portrait of a person coping with life as best they can.
First among equals, however, is Natalie Boyd as Polly’s daughter Mandi, Chekhov’s Masha. Dressed in black and radiating an endless dourness, Boyd delivers the play’s most famous line (“Because I’m in mourning for my life” (in answer to “Why do you always wear black?”) here deliciously rendered as “Every day of my life I’m at a funeral for my life.”) with an ennui that masks her pent-up passion. Dancing on the razor’s edge where comedy meets tragedy, Boyd’s magnificent Mandi manages to be simultaneously sour and sweet…and a heckuva stand-up comic.
Reisman, like Chekhov, concludes on an aptly melancholic note. If this is indeed a Seagull from the Obama era, little do they realize, though, how much sadder their futures will be.
[For tickets and more information, go to https://www.nolaproject.com/seagull]
Bette Davis: Larger Than Life, Jessica Sherr’s one-woman show about the great film actress, plays at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen through October 23. What could’ve been a Wikipedia entry come to life, as too many of these bio-shows tend to be, instead turned out to be a fascinating portrait of an artist as a driven woman.
Sherr effectively weaves Davis’ personal and professional lives together, and shows how she continually fought the studio system, sometimes winning, sometimes not, so that she could control her fate and fulfill her true artistic ambitions. It’s not always a pretty picture–Davis could be vain and temperamental–but Larger Than Life keeps you engrossed for its 85-minute running time as you witness the emotional toll Hollywood took on the two-time Academy Award winner.
Wearing, at times, gloves and a scarf once owned by Davis, Sherr doesn’t slavishly imitate Davis’s iconic mannerisms, but certainly captures her personality. If I didn’t mind that Sherr occasionally broke the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, commenting on the performance, it was somewhat disconcerting that she went up on her lines a few times given that she’s been doing this show for about 10 years; most confusing was when she substituted “The Petrified Forest”, a hit from 1936, for “Beyond the Forest”, a flop from 1949, as the movie which contained the famed “What a dump!” line. Davis, a perfectionist who always knew her lines, would not have approved.
[For tickets and more information, go to https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/bette-davis-larger-life]
Those who enjoy fringe-y theater should head to the Fortress of Lushington for Fat Squirrel’s production of The Canopic Jar of My Sins by Justin Maxwell. More an imaginative op-ed piece than a fully realized play, it puts Ralph Wiley on trial for discovering Polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) which is used to make all sorts of plastic things that are wreaking havoc on our environment. In his defense, PVDC is also a component of many useful things as well.
Among the other characters are Robert Oppenheimer (riotously portrayed by Cammie West), an albatross, the Last Easter Islander, and the Angel of Canopic Jars. Hey, I said it was fringe-y. Alas, the script is also too repetitious for my taste; 10-15 minutes could probably be cut out of each act to good effect.
Staged by Bennett Kirschner with flair and well-acted by a cast of four (Laura Bernas (Ralph Wiley), Becca Chapman (Albatross/Islander), Andrea Watson (the Angel) as well as West), The Canopic Jar of My Sins runs through October 28. [https://fatsquirrelnola.square.site/product/canopic-tickets/15]
JPAS recently gave the regional premiere to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony Award winner In The Heights, a musical focusing on the Dominican community in upper Manhattan. If I continue to have reservations about Miranda’s score and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book as I had after seeing the Broadway production in 2008, interestingly, this time around I preferred the second act to the first.
And while I also had reservations about JPAS’ production, directed and choreographed by Michelle Pietri, so much warmth and heart permeated the stage that it would be churlish to list them now, after it has already ended its run. That said, any show that left me with a lump or two in my throat had to be doing something right.
New in New York
I’ve always appreciated and admired Tom Stoppard; in fact, I once wrote a play a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead spinning a tale around two of the minor characters of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Some of his more recent outings such as Rock ‘n’ Roll and revivals of Jumpers and Travesties, though, have left me kinda cold. Or rather, they were good without being terribly memorable.
His newest play, Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre), however, shall be unforgettable to all who have the good fortune to see this spellbinding magnum opus, one of the stellar dramatic achievements of the 21st century.
Dealing with an upper class Viennese Jewish family from 1899-1955, the play unfolds in the same apartment over the course of three generations. Stoppard gives us the sweep of history but particularizes it with brilliant dialog, characterizations both funny & poignant, and a tremendous sense of narrative momentum so that, despite its 2+ hour running time with no intermission, you constantly want to find out what will come next.
While I defy anyone to get all the family relationships on first viewing, it doesn’t really matter as we always comprehend what’s at stake. One theme that especially resonated was the slipperiness of memory and the need to tell a personal story so that it’s not forgotten. With this semi-autobiographical work, Stoppard provides a detailed account of a singular family that rises to symphonic heights in its four movements.
Impeccably directed by Patrick Marber with a large cast, each of whose members draws an incisive portrait of his or her character(s), Leopoldstadt reminds one of how truly magnificent theater can be. [https://leopoldstadtplay.com/]
Another memorable family is at the heart of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Hudson Theatre through Jan. 15). The Lomans have been chasing the American Dream since the play debuted in 1949; what’s notable about this production is that for the first time on Broadway the Lomans are portrayed by Black actors, including native New Orleanian Wendell Pierce as Willy.
That the Lomans are here Black certainly shades how one perceives their story. But because Salesman, with its universal themes, is not about race, I found that aspect secondary to Director Miranda Campbell’s broader vision which makes it clear that Willy is in the beginning stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s while also dealing with suicide-provoking depression. Written in the post-WWII era, Miller did not have access to our current understanding of mental illness, but for the first time for me, Willy’s oft ill-advised actions made sense.
Cromwell presents the story straightforwardly and if the first act can be a bit repetitious as it lays out exposition, the second is riveting, in part, because Cromwell, immensely abetted by Lighting Designer Jen Schriever, employs a less realistic, more expressionistic approach to reflect what’s going on in Willy’s mind.
Pierce gives a galvanic performance. You pity him but can’t ignore that he’s in some ways his own worst enemy. Sharon D. Clarke, as Willy’s steadfast wife Linda, electrifies with her bone deep determination to stand by her man, however flawed he may be. André De Shields, popping up in Willy’s thought as his older, successful brother Ben, gives an intriguingly mannered performance, one that works as someone who haunts Willy’s psyche. The rest of the cast, including Khris Davis and McKinley Belcher III as sons Biff and Happy, are all fine. [https://salesmanonbroadway.com/]
Another dysfunctional family appears in Double Happiness. Or rather two that have been brought together by marriage.
Emily Locke’s new play, performed recently at The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Chinatown, is seemingly a Chinese-American riff on Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. There’s a reception, food is served, and you get to interact with the characters.
On a deeper level, however, Double Happiness investigates what it means to be a Chinese-American today as the materfamilias from the bride’s and groom’s sides face off in an absorbing debate over assimilation vs. traditional values.
If Double Happiness wisely stays away from the caricature-driven style of T’n’T’s Wedding, a pinch more humor would’ve made it even tastier. Still, as in the movie Minari, Grandma (why doesn’t she get a name like the other characters?), piquantly played by Lora Yuen, provides a healthy dose of sly fun.
While I wish Locke had broadened her script’s focus a bit to allow us to get to better know, say, the Best Man and Maid of Honor, how can you not love anything that includes a Chinese American version of a second line around a Manhattan block?!
Director Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li did an excellent job, particularly in one passage when interconnected conversations were occurring on opposite sides of the reception hall; he orchestrated it so the audience was able to follow both exchanges clearly.
While the entire cast winningly brought their characters to life, the mothers stood out, in part because they had the juiciest material to work with.
As Mary Lee, the West Coast-based mother of the bride, N. Yao epitomized bougie snobbishness, sprinkling her conversation with French phrases, endlessly extolling the virtues of Napa County, and generally looking down her nose at everybody in an utterly convincing way.
Penelope Hsu’s Joyce Sun, groom Alex’s mom, radiated a steeliness that made you appreciate her adherence to tradition until it turned into an unwelcome inflexibility. Hsu, an actual doctor by day, however, made Joyce’s eventual thawing completely believable allowing for a happy resolution.
A ten-course meal accompanied Double Happiness; all the food was very good and if it could’ve been just a bit warmer, such a minor shortcoming is understandable given the challenges of trying to serve dozens of people all at once, especially considering that MOCA is a museum not a restaurant.
Speaking of which, I’d strongly encourage you to visit MOCA at 215 Centre Street and check out its exhibits about the Chinese in America. It’s a fascinating history, engagingly presented, that doesn’t shy away from the shameful discrimination and prejudice that the Chinese have encountered since first coming to America.
In fact, given the talents of Yao, Hsu, Yuen and the other members of the cast, it makes you wonder when there might be an Asian-American version of, say, Death of a Salesman or Glass Menagerie or Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway. It’s about time. [https://www.mocanyc.org/]
As for Cost of Living (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Nov. 06), I may be in the minority, but I hated this play, possibly more so because I came to it with high expectations, given that it won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for drama and all.
I felt playwright Martyna Majok’s authorial hand manipulating the characters throughout the story of two physically challenged people and their caretakers. While the visibility given to marginalized peoples is welcome, John, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and Ani, a double amputee after an accident, exist solely for the development of the other two characters.
Majok condescends to the character of Jess, John’s hired caretaker; that a recent Princeton grad might be down on her luck is surely plausible, but allow her the intelligence that she clearly has to get some sort of job befitting it (sure, there’s nothing wrong with her being a bartender but it’s such a cliché). In the scene in which John hires her, it seems like the only qualification she needs is to be able to lift him. Surely, someone like Jess would bring a lot more to the table than just that.
As for John, he–from the moment he snidely says “Cambridge” for where he went to school (rather than “Boston” as any decent Harvard alum would do)–comes off as the most wretched human being I’ve seen on stage in a long time. I had to stifle the urge to push him out of his wheelchair.
Might such an ugly human being exist? I suppose. Might such an ugly human being exist who has cerebral palsy? I suppose so too. But to place a person like that on stage and accord him no character development is simply flabby writing which actor Gregg Mozgala, who does have cerebral palsy, leans into; you can practically feel him twirling his metaphorical moustache.
Surprises? Other than one brief moment involving Katy Sullivan’s scratchy-voiced Ani (the only interesting performance on stage) I could see some lines coming from a mile away. Heavy-handed dialog, tedious if mercifully short scenes, the best thing I can say is that Majok’s follow-up play Sanctuary City was marginally better.
You want an extraordinary, superbly constructed, devastatingly moving play? Get tickets for Leopoldstadt.