Cactus Flower April 16th, ’11

Yes, another play I already knew because I saw the movie. I know. I could’ve been more original, it’s broadway after all – or off-broadway as it is. But the movie with Walther Matthau, Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn was fun, and Maxwell Caulfield was playing dentist Julian,  so I just had to 😉 …

Unfortunately my front row ticket was useless as a wiring problem caused the backstage lights to fail and – the performance had to be cancelled. It did help that Caulfield came on stage with an apologetic smile and said we’d have to reschedule this dentist’s appointment due to electricity trouble. He indeed possesses considerable charm!

So I did a bit of improvising and came back the next day with a new ticket, ditching Ben Stiller’s House of Blue Leaves in the process – and it was the right decision – the play, the actors – a cute little comedy about love and life and a considerable midlife crisis was taking place on the small stage of the Westside Theatre Upstairs, perfectly executed and delivered with flourish and joy – all conspired to produce a fun night out. The set, as it turned out, consisted mostly of different colored boxes that were lit to be the apartment, the dentist’s rooms or the bar. (Which was why they weren’t able to do the show the day before) and were cleverly arranged and indeed enough of a “hint” to illustrate various places.

The plot: Charming Julian is a rich single dentist who doesn’t want committment – which is why he tells all his girlfriends that he is married. This works until he meets Toni (Jenni Barber), a big eyed, sweet naive girl with a  heart too big for her own good who doesn’t mind being his affair. Everything works out perfectly until a writer, Jack Weston, moves in next door to Toni and saves her from half heartedly committing suicide because Julian had – again – left her alone; this time at their one year anniversary. Toni arranges that Jack contacts Julian to tell him that she is “still alive”, as she’d written a good bye letter to her lover. But poor Jack is brushed off on the phone by Julian’s efficient but prickly nurse Stephanie. Therefore Julian gets the letter and rushes to Toni’s rescue – only to find her, much to his chagrin, in a friendly conversation with Jack – or is it just friendly? Torn apart by jealousy Julian decides to marry Toni – but then there is his wife, as Toni points out. Piling one lie upon another, Julian now claims his “wife” wants a divorce anyway and wouldn’t be hurt by their separation. But – Toni insists on meeting the non existent woman.

Therefore Julian, not ready to set things straight, talks Stephanie into playing his wife. She, secretly harbouring feelings for the immature but charming doctor, finally agrees and plays the part too god. Now Toni doesn’t want to set her own happiness before that of Stephanie. Slapstick and comedy ensues until finally the fitting lovers come together.

Now this comedy was “born” in the sixties and had a rather revolutionary novel concept then: an unmarried girl agrees to an illicit affair with a married man,  doesn’t mind being the mistress and still is a loveable character. This could have led to a rather drab adaption, but we lucked out: Max Caulfield – who’s really rather charming 😉 – has enough comedic timing to pull his suave flirty character off without seeming like an ass, Jenni Barber as Toni is a hoot as the naive, sweet gullible girl in search of her place in life and in love. And Lois Robbins as Stephanie is absolutely brilliant as the “Cactus”, the woman in the background who knows that without her the practice wouldn’t be running at all. Doing the jealousy game herself too, she finally gets her reward – a “reformed” Julian who got wise at last. The three play off of each other with considerable fun and give the dusty play a brilliant new shine.

Only drawback: the torrential rains of the fringes of the tornado kept me from waiting at the stage door. I have to manage to get an autograph from Max Caulfield – he was really superb!

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Born Yesterday April 16th, ’11

Well, if you saw the last remake of Born Yesterday with Melanie Griffith, John Goodman and Don Johnson – please eradicate this decidedly unpleasant experience from your mind. Rather try and get a hold on the original movie by George Cukor – with William Holden and the marvellous Judie Holliday if you want to prepare for this theatre event in advance (or if you’re unlucky enough not to make it to Broadway in time).

Because this show is a must see. I booked it for Robert Sean Leonard and Jim Belushi – and to my surprise found the female lead,  Nina Arianda, the true and real star of this production, easily outshining and outplaying Leonard (Wilson from the TV-show House) and even being a brilliant match to the leading comedian on stage, Belushi!

The young actress which I hadn’t seen or heard of before was absolutely fabulous as the not so dumb Billie, who discovers that not only can learning be fun with the right incentive (well, not in this case, though, but I’ll explain that later) but also that she easily outwits all the high and mighty men who try to use her for their corrupt political games in Washington. And all that “with a little Knowledge” – so the original title of the play.

The story is probably very well known: Harry Brock who made his millions with trash and is proud of his humble beginnings, is coming to Washington to buy himself more influence in the form of a Senator – with him comes his girlfriend; former dancer Billie Dawn whose life now consists of wearing expensive clothes and furs, entertaining Harry and signing papers, as she unknowingly is holding a high percentage of her corrupt boyfriend’s empire. Harry was quite happy with her easygoing ways, but now – in Washington – he realises how “dumb” this blonde is. And he organises an out of work journalist, Paul Verrall, who’s living in a less posh part of the hotel he’s in to “polish” Billie in the finer ways of life so that she might survive society events in tricky Washington. Never would Harry have guessed that not only is Billie not at all the dumb blonde he had accused her of being, she’s just not educated. Nor that his girl would realise what she was used for and emancipates herself from him.

You need of course strong actors to not veer into cheap slapstick and still be believable – the original after all is more than half a century old. But with the likes of the fabulous Nina Arianda – who spoke the squeaky part like a pro and made you love her instantly; even more so after she discovers books and her intellect in the process and stands up to Harry – and Jim Belushi – whose self made millionaire attitude is totally believable and who owns the stage through sheer talent every time he’s on – it’s easy to transport the idea of the play even though the characters are wearing period clothing. The idea that a woman can have brains and be pretty, can be honest and fall in love with someone who loves her mind, a novelty then, unfortunately isn’t that common nowadays to not be a topic modern enough for a current show.

The way Jim Belushi portraits Harry Brock – as someone who crawled out of his dirt poor origins to someone to be reckoned with – is endearing even though it repulses you a bit. It is clear from the get go that most of Harry’s outbursts are born from insecurity and the need to confirm his superiority in a less than friendly environment. And Belushi is just grand – no matter if he’s in a suit or in socks and an evening gown, he owns the stage and shares it only with Arianda.

Which brings me to the weakest part – and the weakest actor of this play. Robert Sean Leonard’s Wilson plays second fiddle to House, and he plays third or fourth fiddle in the current cast of Born Yesterday. I saw the play in pre-runs (more to that later) and met him before as he entered the theatre – he is incredibly friendly and nice to his fans. Unfortunately neither his part nor it seems his talent are juicy / big enough to hold a candle to Arianda and Belushi’s comedic timing. Yes, he is supposed to be the shy journalist and teacher who discovers the gem hidden behind all that make-up and those fancy dresses. But his portrayal of Paul never makes you see the love he harbours for the girl he can’t have – until he can. He is a bit wooden and truest when he has to play “uncomfortable”. All of which probably wouldn’t have been that plain to see, if it weren’t for the massive talents of both Belushi and Arianda.

Belushi said in an interview that he wanted to play this part since he was 19, that he liked and understood Harry – and therefore he actively pursued the producers to hire him. I like that attitude – even more so when it’s paired with true talent. – When I was waiting for Belushi in front of the theatre I finally talked to a theatre hand who said: Oh, Mr Belushi has been here for about three hours. He’s rehearsing the fight scene and still going over some lines with Nina. First I thought – another actor who doesn’t know his text? But when I saw them on stage together I realised: that was just polishing an already shiny play to perfection. Despite the fact that I saw a pre-run version, there were no hesitance, no insecurity, no faltering on stage – just a brilliant pair of comedians working together with high precision and timing.

Yes, I loved it. Yes, Belushi is effing great – and so’s Arianda.

That Championship Season Apr.14th, ’11

ny broadway

A great choice for a first day in New York. Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Brian Cox, Jim Gaffigan and Jason Patrick That Championship Season by Jason Miller is a startling character study of how one step in the wrong direction really can screw up the lives of everyone involved.

For years now the basketball players who won that championship season some twenty years ago meet in the Coach’s house to celebrate. Now, in 1972, they pick apart their lives – and the more drunk they get, the more truths are revealed. There is the Mayor, who is preparing to get reelected. The spin doctor, who will make him win again. The businessman, who will finance the campaign, and the lost little brother, the youngest of the group, who with a little help will get his life back. And then there is Coach, who had a bad ulcer and is recovering from surgery.

But the businessman (Noth) fears for his investment, as the Mayor (Gaffigan) has no chance of winning again, the spin doctor (Sutherland) is actually a teacher and married with four kids, and only trying to get the Mayor reinstated. The Coach (Cox)  is full of racism and frustration and the little brother (Patrick) doesn’t care one bit about anything.

When it turns out that the Mayor’s wife slept with the businessman to get a donation, and they want to bring in a real spin doctor, ruining the teacher’s career in the process,  all their lives shatter into pieces, with ironically the alcoholic the only constant, as even Coach has his secrets and regrets of not being married and dying of cancer.

As it all comes down to one wrong decision – to injure the best player in the last game of the championship – and their lingering guilt about it they gather again, reinforcing their pact, keeping their secrets within their tight circle.

The play itself is a bit wordy, with intermission after only 20 minutes, and could use some tightening towards the end. But that was more than made up by the actors involved. Brian Cox is brilliant as the racist coach who ruthlessly pushed his team to success and still does. Chris Noth’s businessmen is every ounce a slimey money maker with no conscience at all, down to bedding 17 year olds and then shipping them to Mexico for an abortion. Jim Gaffigan gives the dimwitted Mayor a face and a voice – everything is politics.

And Kiefer Sutherland actually IS the weak, frustrated teacher and family man who lets himself get used and walked over by everybody, even knowing that he won’t ever have the career he is dreaming about. The way he is fiddling with his new “fake” teeth and defensively crossing his arms makes him look like a mouse desperately trying to play with the big boys.

Only his alcoholic younger brother (Jason Patrick) stays true to his destroyed life – but unfortunately Patrick is also the weakest of the actors involved. His sarcastic observations come across as desperately funny without actually being that funny, but that might also just be because he is surrounded by some really terrific actors.Which on the other hand was a pleasant surprise for me – after my recent experience with another TV-actor who obviously wasn’t cut out for a career on stage. But both Noth and Sutherland were absolutely brilliant in their parts – and made their pathetic loser characters absolutely believable.

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I also couldn’t help myself – stage door beckoned and I found myself in the confines of iron gates once again. Chris Noth is every bit a leading man – jovial, funny, warm hearted – and unfortunately he mostly received obligatory “I loved you in SatC” calls – which is actually sad as his part there was rather one dimensional, while his stage character is layered and incredibly well played.

Kiefer Sutherland on the other hand seems to be a rather introverted man thoroughly enjoying his success – sober and incredibly well and fit looking he patiently wrote autographs and smiled into every phone shoved into his face. (I am a bit testy about this bit, as one fan was standing behind me, constantly screaming into my ear and almost deafening me, until she finally got the pic she wanted. My right ear still itches.)

Both – as well as the rest of the cast – come out after every show to tend to their fans – something I very much appreciate of course. So now I’m the proud owner of a signed program and very happy to have seen Sutherland and Noth live on stage.