In Torch Song Trilogy, currently playing at Studio Theatre in a heartfelt production by Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn, it’s telling that protagonist Arnold’s drag queen persona sports a modest vintage dress and a 1940s, Andrews Sisters-style wig rather than sequins and size-12 platform heels. For all his brash stories and double entendres, Arnold, played impeccably by Brandon Uranowitz, is a true romantic at heart, and something of an anachronism in New York City’s pre-AIDS gay scene. He moons about his apartment, staring at a rotary phone that maddeningly refuses to ring, and in one terrifically funny scene, manages to form an unlikely emotional attachment to an anonymous guy who’s just manhandled him (and more) in the back room of a bar.
That bar shares a title (“The International Stud”) with the first act in Harvey Fierstein’s three-play trilogy, which won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play and remains resolutely charming 30 years later. Bundled together, the three hour-long pieces trace Arnold’s evolution from a needy, angsty, wistful lost soul to a matriarchal tour de force, with enough heartbreak along the way to furnish a Dolly Parton record.
Kahn also manages to make each one quite distinct, theatrically: “Stud” is a series of monologues where Arnold regularly breaks the fourth wall; “Fugue in a Nursery” features conversations but is set entirely within the confines of a giant bed; and the last play, “Widows and Children First,” is set in Arnold’s home and is almost sitcom-like in its faux-naturalism.
When it comes to aging gracefully, Miss Saigon appears to be less of the Château d’Yquem/Helen Mirren type and more of a Boones Farm/Joan Rivers varietal. Signature Theatre’s current production of the Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil musical about a doomed love affair during the Vietnam War, loosely based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, begs the question: Why revive such a horrendously dated show?
The fact that it’s one of the most successful musicals of all time probably helps, as does Cameron Mackintosh’s upcoming West End revival in 2014. Alas, if Signature’s production is anything to go by, Miss Saigon is yet another add to the long list of ’80s relics best left alone. Director Eric Schaeffer has masterminded a technically elaborate, well-choreographed production, but he can’t make up for the show’s infantile lyrics, heavy-handed sentiment, and improbable plot, not to mention its Kenny G-esque saxophone solos and awkward racial stereotypes.
The most awkward of these is, of course, Kim (Diana Huey), the sweet, submissive Vietnamese orphan who’s forced into prostitution but ultimately ends up rescued by her first customer, Chris (Gannon O’Brien), an ethical young john who typically shuns Saigon’s seedy nightlife. Understudy O’Brien took over the role from Jason Michael Evans when the latter pulled a muscle in his throat shortly before press night, and does a fairly steady if uncharismatic job in the lead role. Huey, however, is very strong, elevating her flat courtesan into something more believable, and drawing on real emotion in songs like “Sun and Moon.”
Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, a Pulitzer finalist in 2011, comes to Woolly Mammoth September 9 through October 6, following a hit off-Broadway run. The play features two couples in an unspecified US city: white-collar professionals Mary and Ben—who has been laid off—and the more footloose Sharon and Kenny. Ultimately, the four collide in ways that shake their foundations. Here’s a conversation with D’Amour.
How did the idea for Detroit come about?
I wrote it in the summer of 2009, and a couple things came together. I’ve always had an obsession with two kinds of people, in this case two kinds of couples, who are drawn together at a certain point in their lives—part fate, part intuition. And underlying it was the fact that I was writing it during the economic crisis when a lot of people I knew were unemployed, as well as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was raised in New Orleans, and I had many family members who had to redo their homes after the storm, so these ideas of destruction and rebirth were very much on my mind.
How did those ideas of reinvention and resilience feed into the play?
I think of Mary and Ben as people who’ve gone down a certain track without really questioning it—that middle-class path where you go to college, then get a steady job, then get married and have kids. It’s not necessarily a bad track to go down, but it’s almost like a pre-written script. They’re in denial about the fact that the life they’ve chosen isn’t a good fit, but they haven’t had time to imagine something different, so they’re escaping through different ways, whether it’s via the internet or via alcohol. They’re at a point where things could still be reinvented but someone needs to shake them into it, and this odd, not entirely functional relationship with Sharon and Kenny gives them the opportunity to rethink things.
OPENING THIS MONTH
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn directs Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein’s three short plays about a Jewish drag queen in New York City. The show won the 1983 Tony Award for best play. September 4 through October 13 at Studio Theatre.
New York’s Bedlam Theater stages Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan in repertory at Olney Theatre Center, cross-referencing Shakespeare’s tragedy with Shaw’s account of Joan of Arc’s life. September 4 through October 20.
In Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience, J.K. Rowling’s seven books about a plucky young wizard get condensed by actors Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner into just over an hour of family-friendly songs, sketches, and an onstage Quidditch match. The comedic show received an Olivier nomination in Britain last year. September 5 through 15 at Sidney Harman Hall.
Forum Theatre artistic director Michael Dove directs the local premiere of Agnes Under the Big Top, Aditi Brennan Kapil’s play exploring the immigrant experience. The New York Times wrote: “This lovely, brooding new play bodes well for the future of the theater.” September 5 through 28.
Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella star in The Velocity of Autumn, Eric Coble’s new play about an elderly woman who is intent on going out with a bang and the son who tries to intervene, at Arena Stage. Molly Smith directs the show in advance of its Broadway engagement. Read our interview with Parsons here. September 6 through October 20.
Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution was praised as a “smart, engrossing play” by the New York Times when it opened in 2010. The local premiere, at Theater J, stars Nancy Robinette as the matriarch of a politically active family mired in conflict. September 7 through October 6.
Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, a Pulitzer finalist in 2011, comes to Woolly Mammoth following a hit off-Broadway run. The play features two couples in an unspecified US city who collide in a way that shakes their foundations. September 9 through October 6.
National Geographic Live hosts a short run of Bell, a new play written by PBS’s Jim Lehrer about Alexander Graham Bell. It stars Rick Foucheux as the pioneering inventor. September 12 through 21.
To spend two hours with Mag Folan, Martin McDonagh’s monstrous, malodorous, malingering horror of an old crone, is to rapidly find yourself drawn into a sympathetic alliance with her daughter, Maureen, a 40-year-old spinster whose life experience is limited to feeding chickens and force-feeding her mother nutritional drinks. Trapped together in a tiny, isolated cottage, and in the kind of needy, resentful relationship analysts can only dream of, the two wrestle in a game of perpetual one-upmanship that seems to be their only form of entertainment beyond a tinny, staticky radio.
Round House Theatre’s superb production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directed by Jeremy Skidmore and running through September 15, amplifies the horror in McDonagh’s grim but funny masterpiece until it starts to feel for all the world like a hybrid of Samuel Beckett, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Father Ted. When the lights go up on Mag (Sarah Marshall), she’s a movie nightmare come to life, with graying, pallid skin, wild hair, and a gurning mouth. By contrast, Maureen (Kimberly Gilbert) is a picture of dowdiness with flat, stringy hair and a patterned sweater (the costumes are by Frank Labovitz). Her mother eagerly tortures her, sending her back and forth to the pantry with endless requests, but glimmers of cruelty from the younger woman seem to suggest the balance of power isn’t as one-sided as it might seem.
The slate tiles and dingy white walls of Tony Cisek’s set, which depicts a small kitchen surrounded by a stone fence, add to the sense of stifling tedium—there’s no view to appreciate from the small, dirty window, and the only reminder that a world outside exists is the television, which spews forth a series of Australian soap operas, a sunny, comical contrast to the chilly neglect of the room. When one visitor, Ray Dooley (Joe Mallon) does stop by, he seems itchily uncomfortable and desperate to leave; his brother, Pato (Todd Scofield) also finds himself in the house and seems relatively comfortable until the war of attrition between the two women eventually forces him to leave.
Betrayal is at the core of The Velocity of Autumn, a new play by Eric Coble that’s having a pre-Broadway run at Arena Stage—specifically how betrayal can provoke desperate people into committing unconscionable acts. The main character is a potential suicide bomber, but one who defies profiling: She’s a septuagenarian, played by Oscar winner Estelle Parsons, who’s reeling from the news that her children want to put her into a home. We caught up with Parsons, 85, to discuss how she prepared for the role, and how she manages to stay more physically fit than actors a quarter of her age.
Alexandra is quite a character. How did you go about preparing for the role?
Awful, isn’t it? I’m quite healthy, you know, and in good shape, so I’ve been giving an awful lot of thought to how I can really look fragile, as if I couldn’t stand up, and how I’m going to present myself as someone who should be taken care of by her children, which is sort of the opposite of me. It’s a challenge in the sense of looking fragile and acting fragile but also maintaining a robust theatrical presence. It isn’t easy.
How would you describe her state of mind?
I was really drawn to the play because I think she’s enraged with the way she’s been treated by her kids and enraged by the fact that she’s gotten old. So often in these plays I read about old ladies they seem very timid and accepting and victimized, so I was thrilled to find somebody who’s ready to blow herself up, and who has that vigor in her spirit if not her body.
It seems like there’s a lot of potential for humor despite the bleakness of the premise.
I know. I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but I’m a comedienne—I’m funny, and I’ve been funny all my life. Stephen [Spinella, her costar] and I both have a robust sense of humor. For me, it’s not all that funny, of course, being sent to a home, but I’ve done a lot of Brecht, and I think often people can laugh at me because they sense that I’m a survivor, and they can feel secure. But there’s nothing better in the world than getting laughs, and I know how to do that.
How do you play someone who’s so different from yourself?
If the character’s strongly, truthfully written, then I just let it happen. That’s the way I’ve developed myself all my life, and I can trust the life experience and the things I’ve been storing inside myself all these years to come out when I need it.
Broke-ology marks a number of firsts for the local theater scene: It’s the first full play produced in the Anacostia Playhouse, the first play presented east of the Anacostia River by Theater Alliance, and the first area staging of a drama by Nathan Louis Jackson, whose work has been gathering acclaim since Broke-ology played at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2009. Theater Alliance artistic director Colin Hovde, on record as saying he’s no fan of “kitchen-sink dramas,” has made an exception for Broke-ology, which even features a kitchen sink in the set. “The play is naturalistic,” Hovde says, “but it’s in the spirit of Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and Eugene O’Neill. It has magical elements but is really about family and people.”
Running August 16 through September 8, Broke-ology is about a father and his two sons who are struggling to support one another after the father’s health fails. The elder son, who has a blue-collar job, expounds on his theory of “broke-ology,” the complex science of being broke. His younger brother returns home following his postgrad studies to find his family resenting his absence. “It’s a powerful story that deals with issues that are relevant to the community of Anacostia, but it is in no way didactic or presumptuous,” Hovde says. “For me, having it be the first Theater Alliance play in Anacostia is about opening a dialogue and beginning a relationship.”
For more than a decade, Theater Alliance was based at Northeast DC’s H Street Playhouse, which moved to Anacostia after rents priced it out of the neighborhood. The company hopes to maintain a presence in the Capitol Hill area while presenting works in its new location. Broke-ology’s cast and crew include Howard alums G. Alverez Reid and Marlon Russ as the father and one of his sons, Helen Hayes Award-winning costume designer Reggie Ray, and New York director Candace Feldman.
Says Hovde: “One of the things I love about Nathan is that as a black writer, he doesn’t write black plays—he writes plays. Broke-ology presents a beautiful picture of a family that happens to be black, but he doesn’t make that the central concern. His is a strong way to approach storytelling and a voice that needs to be heard.”
Broke-ology. August 16 to September 8 at Theater Alliance. Tickets ($25) at theateralliance.com.
This article appears in the August 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
In June, we wrote about how Silver Spring’s Forum Theatre is in danger of losing its home in a black-box theater currently managed by Round House. Today, the Washington Post reports that the company is introducing a new pricing structure for its upcoming season: letting audiences pay whatever they want for tickets.
The strategy is relatively untested among theater companies, but Forum’s artistic director, Michael Dove, tells the Post he hopes it will “make theater accessible to everyone, and get past the idea that it’s only for someone in a certain economic bracket.” In June, Dove talked to Washingtonian about how much he appreciates the diversity of audiences in Montgomery County, and how “the type of audiences that come to our shows really inform the work that we do.” Forum has a $110,000 annual budget and doesn’t pay rent to its current landlord, Round House, although that deal will presumably change when Round House Theatre no longer manages the Silver Spring space.
OPENING THIS MONTH
A Chorus Line is at Olney Theatre August 1 through September 1.
August 5 for one show only, Taffety Punk presents its seventh annual Bootleg Shakespeare event, staging, rehearsing, and performing Love’s Labour’s Lost in a single day.
Keegan Theatre stages A Few Good Men, Aaron Sorkin’s play about a military cover-up at Guantanamo Bay. August 10 through September 7.
Theater Alliance presents the debut production in the Anacostia Playhouse, Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology. August 14 through September 8.
Signature Theatre’s production of the smash musical Miss Saigon plays August 15 through September 22.
Rorschach Theatre presents Neverwhere, a theatrical adaptation of the fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. August 16 through September 15.
Round House Theatre’s The Beauty Queen of Lenane by Martin McDonagh runs August 21 through September 15.
When Carolyn Cole shyly approaches the stage and starts singing, eventually crescendoing into a killer high note, it’s hard to avoid transforming into a teenybopper American Idol audience member in the process, squealing and cheering in approval. The girl can wail.
Such frenetic applause wouldn’t be out of place. Signature Theatre’s Spin: A New Musical, part of its Siglab series of shows in workshop form, takes place in a universe similar to the Ryan Seacrest-hosted show. Cole plays Makalo, an unlikely contestant on a show called Idol Chatter, a singing competition that has yet to receive national attention though it’s hosted by a former boy-band singer, Evan Peterson (James Gardiner). It doesn’t give away much to say that Makalo (performing under the name Adonna) ended up on the show after seeking out the dad she never knew, and the musical, based on the Korean film Speedy Scandal, is as much about their attempts to piece a relationship together as it is an amusing satire of the music industry.
Still a work in progress, Spin, with a book from Brian Hill and direction from Eric Schaeffer, can be problematic at times. With almost 30 musical numbers, including a few too many expositional songs (like the “Family Tree” routine, in which Evan tries to explain a white lie to Makalo’s young son, Jesse), it could use some trimming. There are also some structural issues. An intensely choreographed medley, also named “Spin,” falls awkwardly after curtain call. One character, the photographer Danny (Stephen Russell Murray), has creepy promise at first as a sinister-seeming stalker, but the show hurriedly fits him into a more integral role later, a transition that feels abrupt. The show also has the tendency to be schmaltzy, particularly in the climactic “What If?” when Peterson looks back on the mistakes he’s made.