“Dear Evan Hansen”–A Note to Loneliness

 

“Dear Evan Hansen” is “13 Reasons Why” meets “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” This original Broadway musical premiered this year and has received critical acclaim. At the upcoming 71st Tony Awards (this Sunday, June 11), “Dear Evan Hansen” is nominated for nine awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Actor in a Musical.

The title character, Evan Hansen, is a shy teenager almost incapacitated by some sort of cognitive or  social anxiety disorder.   Assigned by his therapist to draft letters about why each day will be good, one letter becomes the catalyst for the plot of the story. This letter was never meant to be shared, a lie that was only meant to be seen by the therapist. But for Evan a life he never dreamed happens as the letter’s impact unintentionally gains momentum and opens a portal for a chance to finally fit in. With unintended consequences, Evan Hansen’s letter reshapes events of a fellow student’s (Connor Murphy) suicide, resulting in both Hansen’s mom and Connor’s family experiencing heart-piercing grief. There is no justification for those left behind by a suicide and Connor’s death threatens the very existence of his family.

Deeply personal and profoundly contemporary, Dear Evan Hansen is about social media’s ability to unintentionally magnify “little lies” until they take on a life of their own. At that point there is no easy way out. As the lonely protagonist, Evan Hansen desperately wants to connect, even in cyberspace, but remains in an emotional abyss.   It’s also about how we project ourselves in our world, both physical and digital–but it’s not the “real you.” Our vanity metrics of “likes” become addictive and the dependency continues its hold on us.

The memorably soulful and emotionally resonant songs, by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, based on a story from Pasek’s adolescence, strike the same complex notes that expose the tensions and conflicts of Evan Hansen.  The breathtaking stage design simulates social media’s continuous flashing and lightng, with computer screens in long hangings cascading behind and next to the performers on stage, reminiscent of the imaginative and Tony-award winning design for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is unforgettable, operatically emotional theater that should become a national sensation.

 

“A Doll’s House Part 2”–Knocking on the Door

 

A door slams. The viewer is stunned. Nora makes the shocking decision to leave her husband and three young children. That is where A Doll’s House, the iconic 1879 play by Ibsen, leaves off.

Now the young playwright, Lucas Hnath, has continued Nora’s story in this intriguing Tony-nominated play asking us to imagine her life fifteen years later. Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2, opens with a knock on that door. Nora is back.

Nora (Tony-nominated Laurie Metcalf) returns home, but not as we imagined. Now a wealthy best-selling author whose books are loosely based on details of her married life, Nora has become rich on selling the view that marriage is a woman’s prison. We soon learn that Nora herself remains married. Consequently, all contracts and investments she has made in the past fifteen years are now null and void, since married women could not engage in business without their husband’s consent. Unless she can get her husband Torvald to divorce her, she is now worse off than she once was. She may be tried as a criminal.

Metcalf, Houdyshell, Rashad, and Cooper

Yet this is a very different Nora. She’s no longer the person who had to appear “smaller” and “barely visible” in order to be desired by her husband as feminine, needing protection and support. A Doll’s House Part 2 asks the same question Ibsen did in 1879: Can a woman find her own voice in an exclusively male-dominated society?

A Doll’s House Part 2 raises high stakes. In the original classic, Nora chooses her own freedom over that of caring for her young children. Here we see her try to forge an alliance first with her children’s nanny, Anne Marie (the multiple Tony-award nominated   Jayne Houdyshell) and later with her adult daughter, Emmy (played with poignant grace by Condola Rashad). First, Anne Marie, in a scathing rebuke, rejects Nora’s offer of money. After all, Anne Marie has given up caring for her own child in order to be a nanny for Nora’s. Then, Emmy moves in to blistering effect–extolling the virtues of being a married woman and mother, responsibilities Nora rejected.

Chris Cooper & Laurie Metcalf

The astounding Laurie Metcalf constantly acts within her acting, as if she is listening to her own argument in opposition to Torvald’s countering dialog, a riveting feature of this play. Like Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge (novels by Evan S. Connell), we see scenes from the same marriage but from completely different perspectives, with very little intersection. Torvald (in a quiet but searing performance by Chris Cooper) is her counterpoint and both actors reveal their wounds in every facial expression, even in the comic relief interjected before the breakdown of the human spirit becomes unbearable.   They box each other into a corner.

Yet, how can people expect to stay together when they are always, individually, changing? Even their emotional truths are disjointed. That is the puzzle and it is left unsolved. Nora as a character will always be defined by her never-to-be-completed quest for independence and fulfillment. The perception that a woman who puts her own needs above her children’s is violating a sacred pact —and the collision of viewpoints: freedom versus duty and obligation, relationships versus solitude, marriage and family versus individual growth —is explosive in the context of gender and social class. A Doll’s House Part 2 almost dares us to see the hypocrisy in considering Nora’s quest and struggle for identity as a human being separate from her roles as mother and wife. The price she has paid to even think it is possible may be too high. How could she have left her children out of self-care and self-love? What about social convention?

A Doll’s House Part 2 is staunchly unapologetic and an extraordinary accomplishment in literature. Each character is given center stage to see the consequences of his or her own failings, a series of unfortunate and tragic events, with visceral angst.

“The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would,” Nora confesses to Torvald. But she’s not prepared to concede defeat. Hnath brings Nora’s struggles to a new generation, knocking on our door once again.

 

“The Humans” –A Family Thanksgiving for a Fearful Middle Class

 

 

Ticket to "The Humans"It starts as just another family drama on Thanksgiving. But family Thanksgivings can be horrific, chilling celebrative occasions for some of us. “The Humans” written by the Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephen Karam is just that. The aging dad worries about money, one daughter moans about her student debt, the other is heartbroken by her breakup with her lover, the mother’s Catholic values needle both of them: the younger daughter on the benefits of marriage instead of living with her boyfriend and the older daughter’s evil lesbian life. And we can’t forget Granny — called Momo – who has dementia and will probably not survive another Thanksgiving. This Off-Broadway play interweaves wit, tenderness and blistering brutality in the voices of six emotionally and physically damaged family members at the edge of the abyss.

The sixty-year old father and his wife are taking care of his elderly mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Though lower middle class, the parents have managed to provide a law school education for their older daughter and a pre-Ph.D. musical composer in their younger. Autobiographical bile gets ejected from all family members.

TheHumans02_1000x387

With a two-floor set design where we see at least two characters at the above level secretly engaged in gossip about the family members below, we clearly understand the troubles beneath the surface, the lower level metaphorically representing things unsaid, a family’s dark underbelly. Feelings shift and the upper level is just as unsettling and fractured. Nothing is as it seems. In the final scene the lights go out completely.

“The Humans” has searing emotional scenes — Aimee’s sorrowful phone call with her ex, eavesdropped by her father; a dinner-table reading of an email from Momo, written when she is aware of the early signs of Alzheimer’s; the mother fighting for dignity at her daughter’s belittling of her interest in a scientific article. There’s also comic relief: when Momo sings Irish lyrics in her solitary fog. It’s tremendously moving: the momentary illusion that they can still experience joy as a family.  Karam distinguishes himself in portraying this dysfunctional family.   This family  really is not so different, after all, from any ordinary family with its difficulties and setbacks. With warmth and compassion, even tenderness, the casual cruelty of some of the dialogue is funny, not because the words convey jokes but because the characters are communicating unimpeachable truths.  Cutting through a history of friction, misunderstanding, and support, every facial expression, non-verbal gesture, as well as dialogue, points to how much they need one another or think they do.

These are all themes and subplots I am fascinated with and also explored in my debut novel, Things Unsaid.

Note: The title of this post is taken verbatim from Charles Isherwood’s review of “The Humans”, NYT, Oct. 25, 2015. His title says it all.  “The Humans” moves from Off-Broadway to Broadway in January 2016 with the same cast.  The script is available on Amazon.

“Photograph 51”—Rosalind Franklin: Double Helix and Double Crossed

 

Nicole Kidman
Nicole Kidman

The critically acclaimed play, “Photograph 51”, currently in London, and written by Anna Ziegler, exposes the obscurity of a brilliant crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, who identified the chemical structure needed for understanding the molecular composition of DNA as well as raising the question: Are women still sidelined in the scientific world?

Kidman Photo51Most people familiar with the double helix have probably associated it with Nobel Prize winners Francis Crick and James Watson. The critical scientific role Rosalind Franklin played at King’s College London is still, to a great extent, sadly overlooked.

Photograph 51 refers to the pioneering Xray-diffraction image of the DNA double helix, the elegant result of Franklin’s pioneering crystallography technique. Together with a seminal research paper, Photograph 51 was given by one of her graduate students to Maurice Wilkins, her laboratory supervisor, without her knowledge. Passed on to Watson and Crick who were racing for the Nobel Prize before Johannes Salk (also researching DNA), Franklin’s Photograph 51 was not acknowledged until decades later by other scientists. (She had died four years earlier from ovarian cancer at the age of 37.) None of the Nobel Prize winners paid tribute to Rosalind Franklin’s pioneering work. (Watson was later to portray Franklin negatively in his book on the history of his research, the best-selling The Double Helix, which ironically started a deeper investigation into her contributions.)

Nicole Kidman’s powerful and commanding performance as Rosalind Franklin, avoids stereotypes of a female intellectual without social skills. Rosalind Franklin had a reserved personality, often bristly and uncompromising, which compounded her distance from her colleagues’ sexism, petty academic jealousies, and anti-Semitism. Kidman’s Franklin reveals subtle layers of vulnerability underneath the hostility to colleagues who had promised her a laboratory of her own but relegated her to assisting Wilkins. Later, Wilkins would be the conduit who robbed Franklin of her place in the history of science. Kidman, as Franklin, reveals through her stillness and her posture, her backstory with her parents. She retreats into her own world, a quiet determination to prove her hypothesis about DNA, and the tentativeness of women not to make mistakes or take risks in a male-dominant profession or be sanctioned for life.

Kidman’s performance captures not only the complexities of Franklin’s personality but also luminous intensity as the scientist absorbed by the findings of photograph 51. It is a fine performance, and a subtle one, in which Kidman reminds us that the scientific life can be informed by private passion but at great personal sacrifice. Her gaze both chills and fascinates, radiating and demanding, in a singularly self-possessed presence. At curtain call, I noticed a flick of tears from Kidman’s cheek after a particularly moving finale.

Photograph 51’s stage design sets the tone: a bombed-out Gothic university laboratory evokes a tomb, the death of Franklin’s prospects for scientific recognition. My only complaint is that, given the title and the complex scientific theory, there was not even one projection of photograph 51 on a screen so the audience could see the visual image of Franklin’s ideas.

Note: Kidman is in discussion for a possible Broadway production.

 

 

 

Shakespeare’s Henry IV – Conflict between Father and Son

 

Guest blogger: Patricia Robertson

Henry 1Shakespeare has a keen understanding of the human psyche, including family dynamics. This is apparent in the 2015 Michigan Shakespeare Festival (July 11-August 16) production of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, masterfully combined and abridged into one bringing out the best and highlighting the conflict between King Henry and his son, Hal, Prince of Wales. henry2

This familiar family saga ends with Prince Hal requesting that his father’s advisors’ treat any sons he has as they treated him, a touching tribute to his father. Thus the wound between father and son is healed and doesn’t continue to the next generation unhealed and without recovery, as so often happens.

Family struggles are the stuff of life. The love and acceptance of fathers is essential to the well-being of their children. In telling the story of a conflict between father and son, Shakespeare’s play resonates today as a universal human theme.  If you are in Michigan at this time, please take advantage of the opportunity to see this festival!

Note: Patricia Robertson has released her novel, Still Dancing, the sequel to her novel, Dancing on a High Wire, and is looking forward to writing the next book in the series during NaNoWriMo this year. She blogs about life and writing at http://patriciamrobertson.com .

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”—The Mystery Life of a Savant

 

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Two weeks ago we saw “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, the theatrical adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 young adult novel on Broadway, after it had become a record-breaking sensation in London, and now has been nominated for six Tony awards, including Best Play, Best Leading Actor in a Play (the phenomenal Alexander Sharp in his first Broadway play after graduating from Juilliard) and Best Direction (Marianne Elliot).

The main character is fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has an extraordinary mathematical brain but has difficulties with every day life, probably due to Asperger syndrome or another form of autism. When he discovers his neighbor’s dog dead, pitchfork standing straight up in his body, he sets out to solve the mystery but begins a journey that will change his life forever. “Math wasn’t like life because in life there are no straightforward answers at the end,” he observes.

Christopher’s brain is wired for abstract numbers in a way that allows him to see the solar system — indeed, the whole universe — with great clarity. What he can’t relate to is the world of human beings. He attends a school for children with special needs, and is absorbed in thoughts about prime numbers,  beautifully rendered on stage as an electronic grid with unnerving convulsions of light and sound and visual projectiles signaling Christopher’s off-kilter state of mind in numerical forms.

The only way Christopher manages to survive in this world is by drawing on his mathematical skills. He is never more endearing than when he’s applying these skills to a problem, or explaining to the vicar why there is no heaven and no God. The fifteen-year-old’s efforts to overcome his fears and function in the world outside his own mind puts him in terrifying situations. The stage design pulls out all stops and has him navigating an escalator in mid-air, or striding sideways halfway up a wall. We, the audience, live for such moments. Called “one of the most fully immersive shows ever to wallop Broadway” by The New York Times, “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” is a theatrical phenomenon that simply must not be missed. If this play does not come to a theater near you, read the book—a classic everyone should enjoy!

 

“Orphans”–Fostering and Festering

la-et-cm-alec-baldwin-tony-orphans-close-broad-001

This year the 1983 play “Orphans” by Lyle Kessler is nominated for two Tony Awards: Outstanding  Revival of a Broadway Play and Outstanding Featured Actor (Tom Sturridge).  I hope that this emotional tour-de-force wins both awards!

This play debuted with Ben Foster (from “Six Feet Under”) as Treat, Tom Sturridge (“Being Julia”) as Philip, and Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) as Harold.  The story opens in a  dilapidated Philadelphia house shared by two brothers: Treat, a small-time hoodlum, and his younger mentally disabled brother Philip, who hides in a closet when Treat is not home. Philip is afraid of life outside.  With dire warnings from Treat every day, Philip darts around the house, jumping from couch to stairs, like Spider-Man or a flying squirrel. Treat has forced his brother to live a dangerously isolated existence through lies and insults.

The brothers’ delicate and codependent relationship is thrown off-balance after Treat brings home a drunk man, Harold, whom he has met in a bar and has kidnapped.  Harold has a criminal past and a suitcase full of stocks and bonds. When Treat’s plan goes awry, Harold hires him to be his bodyguard and, having himself been an orphan, sees some of himself in the two young men.  Soon he moves in and becomes their surrogate father.

Since the two brothers have lived alone since they were kids, Harold appears to be the kind of father the boys have always longed for.  He introduces the ways of a gentleman (fashion, international food, home decor) and Philip ingests everything. But Harold poses a threat to Treat who has relished his power as Philip’s father figure.  Yet Treat’s role as a father has not only wounded his younger brother but also borders on self-destruction. Treat’s discovery that Philip has taught himself how to read is a heartbreaking and emotionally explosive scene. (Think “The Glass Menagerie” when the mother realizes her daughter is more aware than she had assumed.)

The three actors eviscerate each other–ferociously–but also desperately need each other. The ferocity of the rage is raw and intimidating, unforgettable and daunting.  As Treat Foster’s rage is a dangerous assault on himself.  Baldwin’s Harold is genuinely caring and enormously humorous.

And Sturridge is playing the sort of role that comes with “Tony nominee” blazoned on his chest: a mentally challenged, socially deprived character. When he realizes the role his brother has played in stunting his development, he manically flies from the couch to the stair banister and back, sweat dripping and mucus running down his chin and t-shirt.  He has inhabited the part as if possessed by it.  The physicality is astonishing.

By the end of the play the audience was stunned, most especially by Sturridge’s astounding acting. Philip may be the unstable character in “Orphans”, but he’s the one you remember.A contemporary “Death of a Salesman” meets “Glass Menagerie”, the play surprises at every level. This play deserves to be televised as well as produced in other venues.   “Orphans” well deserves its two Tony nominations.

“Death of a Salesman”–Trapped by the American Dream

Last week we had the unforgettable experience of attending “Death of a Salesman” at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.   One of my absolutely favorite plays has been revived five times on Broadway, broadcast in several television productions and produced twice for the silver screen.   Starring some of the most highly regarded actors in the US, “Death of a Salesman” still electrifies 63 years after its debut in 1949. This Arthur Miller tragedy is as timely as the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sixty-three-year old Willy Loman (the magnetic Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the central tragic figure who has a fire in his belly.  Broken by the optimism essential to being a successful salesman, Willy Loman’s blood pumps with the belief that he can make things happen, can dream the impossible dream, almost surely a self-willed delusion. Willy is a hope-inflated man who has injured his family gravely.  His wife (played by the luminously reserved Linda Emond) brings an iron-strength to her role as protector of her husband’s fragile mental health.   She is also an unsung hero. We feel an ache for her when all the air goes out of her husband with her famous warning, “Attention must be paid”.

But the story belongs to Willy Loman and to his older son, Biff (brilliantly acted by Andrew Garfield of “Social Network” fame). The searingly brutal father-son relationship takes center stage in the most devastating emotional outbursts between the loneliest of lonely figures–Willy–and the disillusioned, lost Biff.  The words, like shards of glass, are gut wrenching.

But there is also another, younger son, Hap aka”Happy”, (the remarkable Broadway debut of Finn Wittrock), the outlier who follows in his father’s footsteps but is ignored nonetheless.   All four main characters harbor unspeakable, unhealed wounds.   Hoffman, as Willy Loman, hides his self-doubt from both sons while outwardly projecting the optimism so essential to “sell”: “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Only his wife, propping up his ego, listens to his insides crumpling, his waning faith in the system he believed would always support him: “There were promises made.” And Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, understands:   “You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.”

There are things that have happened–that can’t be spoken of–and that is the tragedy.  The Loman family is disintegrating in spite of their efforts and intentions.  Biff is blind-sided by his father’s callous lack of respect for his mother, Hap wants to be the success his father coldly ignores, and Linda just wants to make it through another day with her Willy. “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”, she says– but one link in the chain affects the others.

Willy’s misdirected pride inevitably causes him to disintegrate. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unique contribution to this classic drama is that he acts without soliciting pity or conveying self-loathing.  We left the theater with a tremendous sadness for someone who strived so exhaustively for the American dream.

“The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”–Nothing is Forever

While visiting New York City last week my husband and I had the immense pleasure of seeing two absolutely hilarious musicals, “The Book of Mormon” and “Avenue Q”, the former premiering on Broadway last March,   the latter still enjoying a seven-year run.

“The Book of Mormon” is the hottest play on Broadway right now.  Nominated for 14 Tony awards–one short of the record, it is irreverent, over-the-top, and politically incorrect as only the creators of “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, can be.  Yet “The Book of Mormon” is absolutely astonishing for its satire, music, and singing.  Described as “God’s favorite musical,” this show from the co-composer/lyricist of “Avenue Q” features a pair of incompatible Mormon missionary recruits who are sent to Uganda, with a  track record of no converts.   In the course of the show, the two young Mormons gain more insight into themselves as they realize the good nature of the AIDS-plagued, poverty-stricken Ugandan villagers and the deception they are propagating.  Complex moral lessons are sandwiched between outrageously scatological dialogue and raunchy costumes.  If you can laugh at religion’s dark side without feeling wounded, at stereotypes that could be construed as offensive (but no one is exempted), and memorable lyrics in the songs “Turn It Off”, “Man Up”, and “I Believe”, you will find this subversive Broadway show to be amazing.  Its primary comic plot device is the absurdity of religion when it divides and alienates, instead of uniting. Through humor, incredible lyrics, and voices powerful beyond belief, this controversial, heart-stopping musical is a wonder. Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells, the two brilliant young performers playing zealous missionaries, and Nikki James as the young Ugandan woman fervently trying to be open to their missionary message, have mesmerizing, crystal clear voices that are a delight to the ear.  To say more would be to spoil this winner from the  “South Park” creators!

Two days after seeing “The Book of Mormon”, we saw “Avenue Q”, the long-running 2004 Tony award winner, at a small Off-Broadway theater, the New World Stage, for a more intimate performance. Laugh-out-loud funny, this seven year-old musical is far from dated, except perhaps for the Gary Coleman character. “Avenue Q” tells the story of a recent college grad named Princeton who moves into a rundown New York apartment on Avenue Q.  Without the prospects of a job in the near future, (how timely is that?)   Princeton meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the internet porn surfer), Lucy the Slut , and other furry characters, all modeled after Sesame Street puppets.

The set design is also straight out of Sesame Street, with the characters sitting on the front stoop singing their tales of woe.  Uniquely designed rooms resembling a large doll house add to the reality/fantasy divide underscored by each actor who holds a Sesame Street-style puppet, manipulating the puppet’s mouth while singing or reciting dialogue.  The dramatic convention is highly original and plays to the major theme: young adults who can’t quite believe they’ve grown up.  They’re no longer  on Sesame Street.

When I saw these two musicals within days of each other, I couldn’t separate them. They felt like two sides of the same story:  Bright-eyed young people hoping for success as defined by their dreams but utterly stunned that their prospects are not what they thought they would be.  In “Avenue Q” the songs “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” and “Schadenfreude” say it all.  The lyrics are mind-blowing for capturing the time of youth through the eyes of this decade!  Puppets make the real world seem like fantasy.  In “The Book of Mormon”, the animation genius of Trey Parker and Matt Stone comes to life on stage with human characters in the familiar dialogue we associate with “South Park”.  One musical mirrors the other, not surprisingly, since the composer for both musicals is Robert Lopez, and the original director of “The Book of Mormon”, Jason Moore, was the award-winning director of “Avenue Q”.  But the similarity of themes in both musicals can be felt viscerally.  “Avenue Q” just left San Francisco, but it may be brought back by popular demand.   I hope you can see both of these musical spectacles!