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Part Two: Off-Broadway reviews, 2015 

Shows for Days, Of Good Stock, and The Flick

As promised, here are some Off-Broadway show reviews by CL's theater critic Perry Tannenbaum. Here's what he saw and how they rate:

Show For Days. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
  • Show For Days. (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Shows for Days (***1/4) — After writing a wonderful vehicle for Nathan Lane, The Nance, Douglas Carter Beane is back at Lincoln Center with a memory play. Considering the mixture of darkness and light in that Lincoln Center production, you might expect the tone of Beane's reminiscences to lie somewhere between Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie and Neil Simon's Broadway Bound. As it turns out, the story of Beane's initiation into theatre is more lighthearted than either of those memory pieces, slyer, more funny, and more showbizzy.

With Michael Urie of Ugly Betty fame serving as Beane's surrogate, you can also expect the narration to be gayer and feyer. Cal shuttles back and forth between 1973 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and the present-day Mitzi Newhouse Theater where we're all sitting, frankly letting us in on the differences between the characters we see and their real-life counterparts, even confiding in us when some are composites. As a result, what sometimes comes across as self-absorbed cleverness from Cal is actually a nuanced view of the practical business of producing theatre layered with descriptions of the writer's artistic process as he remakes real-life into an effective theatre experience.

Sometimes talking to us as he's moving furniture around for the next scene, melting into action as a 14-year-old and then out of it as a wry theatre veteran, Urie navigates so deftly that all these bumps in the road become part of the fun. Patti LuPone is certainly having her fun, reveling in the bumpy ride she inflicts as Irene, the community theatre diva of Reading, running the company that produces the shows she stars in and tilting at all the windmills that the town's backward cultural landscape provides.

Irene is a ruthless warrior hero who will do anything to house and financially sustain her company. She's also the elemental force that prods Cal into trying his hand at play writing, saddling him with a deadline, no less. The whole wacky bustle of the company is evoked with just four more characters: bullish lesbian stage manager Sid, temperamental self-absorbed ingénue Maria, gay leading man Clive, and the switch-hitting Damien, a buck actor who screws around with both Irene and Car.

As Urie shuttles back and forth, obviously neither 14 nor 56, we tend to overlook the fact that as a young, corruptible teenager, Cal's presence in the company might be a time-bomb. So in the final reckoning, as Cal catalogues the real-life aftermaths of the people he has depicted, the recoil we feel snapping back to reality gets an extra edge as the liaison with Damien plays out.

You've probably read about LuPone snatching a cell phone out of the hands of a rude audience member, adding to her diva legend. If you're at Lincoln Center, in the intimate Newhouse space, you can understand her frustration. Aside from the ushers and the audible announcements, there's a flyer in each playbill reiterating the warnings against phones and photos. It's actually bigger than the playbill, sticking out almost two inches, so you can't miss it. Count that as one extra – and truly unnecessary – windmill for LuPone to tilt against. Through August 23.

Of Good Stock. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
  • Of Good Stock. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Of Good Stock (***) — If the waning popularity of united threesomes is demonstrated by On the Town's droopy box office, quarreling trios like those in Crimes of the Heart and August: Osage County continue to excite and amuse. Like the recent Stick Fly, Melissa Ross's new comedy drama brings its quarreling sibs to New England, a good place to explore the foggy borderland between family pride and class prejudice.

Like the Weston sisters in Osage, the Stockton sisters of Cape Cod are the daughters of a renowned author who has died. Jess is the eldest sibling and the heir to the oceanside home, where she and her husband Fred have invited the other sisters — and their significant others — to celebrate her 41st birthday. It's an uneasy triumph, for Jess has succeeded in living longer than her mom only after having a breast surgically removed, and she's still undergoing chemo.

Each new arrival is a treat because of the acting, Lynne Meadow's snappy directing, but most of all, Ross's keen understanding of all the relationships we see continuing, resuming, or just getting started over this often-awkward weekend. Ross's sequencing of arrivals is also shrewdly judged.

Jennifer Mudge and Kelly AuCoin are superb as our hosts in the opening. As Jess Mudge repeatedly gives way to a slew of anxieties about her future, her family, and how this potentially explosive celebration is going to play out. AuCoin shows us how adept Fred has become at soothing Jess and picking up the slack during her illness — and how ruefully at peace he has become about his plight, his shortcomings, and his insignificance as a writer.

Their maturity is underscored when we encounter Celia, the baby sister and the self-acknowledged flake of the family. Jess becomes a different person from the wife we saw in the previous scene: nosey, overprotective, and pedantic. Heather Lind pretty much steals the show as Celia, and with good reason: although her love-life has been a mess, Celia is perceptive enough to call her sisters on each of their annoying faults, taking a snarky delight in needling them that is irresistibly contagious, especially when she targets middle sister Amy.

From early indications, Celia's boyfriend has all the earmarks of another disaster. Just his name, Hunter, draws scorn from Jess, and the fact that he's a college dropout only stiffens her opposition. But Nate Miller makes the man from Missoula, Montana, a cuddly teddybear and his sizing up of the Stocktons as an outsider — and one of 12 siblings — is as spot-on as Celia's is from the inside.

Amy and her fiancé Josh are preceded by the tuneful and twee wedding invitation that her sisters — and the audience — have already had a good laugh over. She's so intently focused on preparations for her upcoming "destination" wedding in Tahiti — and as Celia aptly points out, on herself — that Josh is beginning to get cold feet. Alicia Silverstone plays this drama queen's narcissism, her garish materialism, and her crying tantrums with enough movie-star flair to warrant a panic attack from Josh.

But midway through Act 1, Ross pens a nice man-to-man dialogue on the beach, where Frank and Josh confide in one another over Cuban cigars and a flask of Scotch. So Greg Keller maintains a convincing dignity as Josh when he returns to the fray. A nicely wrought fray it will be as Ross and this fine cast bring us to intermission, with an abrupt announcement and two revelations detonating almost simultaneously.

My big disappointment comes late in Act 2 when the three sisters gather on the beach for an impromptu powwow — with enough Scotch to get everybody wasted. After I've grown so much more invested in the other sisters, the denouement becomes too much about Amy when she gets the big monologue. It's almost as if getting Silverstone to play Amy obliged Ross to reshape her rich script for Silverstone, instead of for us. Through July 26.

The Flick. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
  • The Flick. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The Flick (**1/2) — Okay, I get it: gathering your audience into one theater and getting them to watch the action in another theater is a cool idea. But when a director's pacing is glacially slow and an uneventful script is excruciatingly long, two hours and 54 minutes added to a 19-minute break, that coolness becomes as refreshing as yesterday's spilled Coke on an asphalt floor at the multiplex as you tiptoe through the gook.

Yet critics, possibly hoping to speed the holy resurrection of Samuel Beckett, have raved about this new play, and panelists at Columbia University have awarded Annie Baker with a Pulitzer Prize for her achievement. While I was watching this drama unfold, another Baker play was opening at UpStage in NoDa, Circle Mirror Transformation, which I saw four years ago in New York. I'm certain that the Charlotte audience got the better deal, for the older script is more lively, interesting, and dramatic.

Action takes place in a movie theater in Worcester County, Massachusetts — a real movie theater, mind you, one of the last in America to project 35mm film onto its screens. Partially drawn to the site by its precious rarity, film buff Avery takes a summer job there in 2012, joining the cleanup crew. So if you're tickled by the anti-theatrical, anti-action-flick spectacle of a professional actor silently and laboriously sweeping popcorn kernels across a row of theater seats to a dustbin in the aisle, you've definitely come to the right place. And if you can glean comical meta-meaning from professional stagehands, re-littering the same rows of theater seats with more popcorn between scenes, you may experience The Flick as a comedy riot. For a while.

There is a modicum of comedy when Sam, a career sweeper, introduces Avery to the intricacies of his craft. That university students – and actors – can be expeditiously taught these skills may strike you as funny, but not knee-slappingly so. Baker does expand the absurdity by making Avery hyper-geeky, able to link any two movie actors Sam can name in six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon fashion within the space of a minute, no smartphone required. But that's the only instance when Baker pulls speed out of her toolbox.

As a reviewer, I can fast-forward to the plot that materializes at around the two-hour mark, but there's no expediting the ordeal for a ticketholder. The real reason everything moves so slowly has nothing to do with any artful building of suspense, but I can credit Baker with constructing a Bermuda Triangle of arrested communication skills. Sam's ignorance robs him of all but the most elemental narrative and descriptive powers, Avery is a shy and withdrawn type of nerd, and Rose, the projectionist, is sullen and hermetic, often appearing high above in her booth without chipping in anything to the trickles of conversation below.

When some drama is whipped up, it's largely because of Rose. Her promotion to the upstairs slot has roused Sam's jealousy and resentment because he was passed over. His jealousy doubles when he suspects Avery of making a move on Rose — when actually it is she who will initiate a seduction. But he's brought to a boil, for both personal and professional reasons, when he learns that Rose has shown Avery how to run the projector. That was something Sam had asked Rose to do for him.

So when we finally reach that point, Baker brings some deftness to the climactic confrontations and Gold allows his cast to promptly pick up their cues. Until then, the only way we can tell that Matthew Maher as Sam, Aaron Clifton Moten as Avery, and Louisa Krause as Rose are really acting is by the protracted length of their pauses. Finally — finally! — they turn up their emotional temperature and prove their mettle, particularly Maher in Sam's clumsy heartfelt confession. Even then, there's a kinship between Sam and Garrison Keillor's taciturn dad on Prairie Home Companion.

Except for a laudatory blurb, I hadn't read Charles Isherwood's worshipful review in the New York Times, but it's hard to resist quoting the funniest rejoinders I read in the reader's comments: "Annie Baker [does] for the stage what an ATM security camera does for cinema," "BTW — audience snoring is not part of the show," and my favorite, "Makes Waiting for Godot look like Die Hard."

If you long for the inspiration to write that kind of blurb, Baker's challenges to conventional theatre may very well offer you nirvana. Through August 30.

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