Live From New York | ‘The Mother … With the Hat’

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Kansas City Star theater critic Robert Trussell is filing dispatches from Broadway this week.

NEW YORK | OK, let’s just call it “The Mother . . . With the Hat.”

That’s not what this funny, deeply humanistic play by Stephen Adly Guirgis is called, but neither the program nor the marquee can print the full title without the judicious use of a couple of asterisks.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way since “Tea and Sympathy.”

I wasn’t surprised when I heard a couple of theatergoers grumbling about the “degradation of the theater” as I left the show. Here we are, some 35 years since David Mamet began his playwriting career and 27 years since his “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with its epithet-laden arias, claimed the Pulitzer Prize. And yet, the use of language — some language, anyway — in the theater remains controversial.

Whatever.

In my view there’s a hunger for material like this — superbly crafted, brilliantly performed plays that avoid pretentiousness, celebrate the human spirit with honest humor and poignancy and try to capture the reality of daily life in all its messy, glorious chaos.

The question of the hat, and to whom it may belong, triggers the action in this cleverly constructed piece about love, sex, betrayal, addiction and recovery among a group of present-day working-class New Yorkers.

Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock (Joan Marcus)

Dominating this Cadillac cast is Bobby Cannavale as the muscular, high-strung Jackie, a recovering addict on parole who is elated because he just landed his first real job since his release from state prison. He comes home to his little apartment to celebrate with the woman in his life, Veronica, a simmering coke user played by the excellent Elizabeth Rodriguez.

Jackie’s celebratory amorous mood disappears in a flash when he spies a hat on a table and demands to know whose it is. What ensues is a chain-reaction of accusations, destruction and deception as Jackie falls from his working-the-program high to an abject state of confused torment.

Jackie turns for help to his sponsor, Ralph D (Chris Rock in his Broadway debut), a seemingly serene, platitude-spewing figure who gets by on a steady diet of vegetable juice. His lonely, angry wife Victoria (the luminous Annabella Sciorra) seems unimpressed by Ralph’s success in sobriety, mainly because she knows just how dishonest he is. Indeed, Ralph may abstain from drugs and alcohol, but he’s still got a junkie’s mind.

Elizabeth Rodriguez (Joan Marcus)

At one point Jackie turns to his cousin Julio (Yul Vazquez), a slightly effeminate but formidable health-food chef and notary public, whose skill as a massage therapist allows him to use his fingers as potentially lethal weapons (or, as he puts, it go “Van Damme”). Julio loves his cousin but doesn’t mince words about how self-obsessed and callous Jackie is.

What emerges between Jackie, Veronica, Ralph and Victoria is a sort of round-robin of actual and would-be sexual relationships because, after all, love and sex are the most potent drugs of all. And just as actual narcotics do, they make people crazy.

Director Anna D. Shapiro (who won a Tony for staging “August: Osage County” in 2008) moves the action quickly and clearly in a play that runs about 100 minutes without an intermission. Cannavale, Rodriguez and Vazquez are simply electrifying, turning their characters’ inarticulate eloquence into sheer poetry.

Rock may not have the acting chops of his colleagues, but his performance is solid and the character of Ralph fits his established comic persona like a glove. Sciorra’s work is heartfelt — volcanically emotional at times — but she often seems challenged to project the performance beyond the first row.

Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal makes an enormous contribution with an ingenious series of sets that rapidly shift from one realistic location to another with revolving platforms and furniture that pivots up through trapdoors.

The fact this show is up for five Tony Awards — including Best Play — tells us all we need to know about the quality of this work. But Guirgis, like many playwrights who see life as a perpetual mix of the tragic and the absurd, gives us something more than a raucous comedy.

Ultimately it’s a love story about Jackie and Veronica. As Jackie prepares to go back to prison for a parole violation, he tells the love his life that he’ll do anything — anything — for them to be together.

We can’t help but root for them but as the play concludes all we know for sure is that maybe they will and maybe they won’t.

But there are no guarantees. Just like real life.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

Live From New York | ‘Spider-Man’ is vastly entertaining

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Editor’s note: Kansas City Star theater critic Robert Trussell is filing dispatches from Broadway this week.

NEW YORK — Here’s my advice: If you trek to New York and shell out for a ticket to “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” grab a seat in the dress circle.

Sometimes that’s called the mezzanine and sometimes the first balcony. For this show it’s called the Flying Circle for the simple reason that it offers the best view of the truly spectacular flying effects, including the climactic airborne battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin.

The final confrontation was impressive enough for a near-capacity audience to roar its approval Tuesday night at the Foxwoods Theatre. But then this crowd roared its approval for a lot of what went on in this already legendary show.

To put it mildly, I’ve never seen anything like it, in a Broadway house or anywhere else. The show, whose troubled history has been exhaustively documented by the New York press, is a strange hybrid that combines elements of conventional Broadway musicals, theme-park rides and Cirque du Soleil razzle-dazzle.

The creators pursue serious artistic ambitions while dishing up spectacle designed to get the same sort of response if you woke up one morning and saw a mastodon grazing in your back yard. At first glance you wouldn’t believe your eyes but you couldn’t wait to tell your friends about it.

This is not a review, of course. The producers wouldn’t like that.

Actor Patrick Page appeared at Missouri Repertory Theatre in the 1990s.

The show has already set a record for the number of previews (134 as of Tuesday, the night I saw it) and won’t officially open until June. 14. So this is just a series of impressions, a gut reaction, an accounting of what I saw and heard Tuesday at the Foxwoods Theatre after the show was retooled during a three-week hiatus.

“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is the biggest, fattest musical of all time and has found a place in the history books by being the most expensive Broadway musical ever — $65 million and climbing.

But we don’t really need to go over the show’s troubled history — the cast injuries, technical problems and the departure of director Julie Taymor, who helped write the book and developed the piece from its inception. What matters now is what the show is — and what it’s likely to be when it officially opens.

What it is, much to my amazement, is entertaining. Vastly entertaining.

Yes, it’s an example of bloated excess and insists on seeking some sort of meaning in the fantasy adventures of a character created for comic books printed on cheap pulp. But the show in performance answers a question that I’ve heard repeatedly endlessly: How on earth could you spend $65 million on a Broadway musical?

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano

The answer is simple: By doing things in a theater that nobody in his or her right mind had ever attempted. Like all the flying. Like having maybe a half dozen performers play the title character at different times. Like George Tsypin’s brilliant, forced-perspective scenic design that emulates the art of Marvel comic books. And Eiko Ishioka’s mind-blowing costumes that seem to bring the Sinister Six — Carnage, Electro, Swiss Miss, et al — to life in three dimensions. This is a show with a thousand moving parts.

All of which might suggest that this is a show swallowed up by special effects. But strangely enough, it also happens to be an actor’s show. Reeve Carney, who plays Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) is a charming performer with a terrific rock voice, but the real star of the show is Patrick Page, who seems to be having the time of his life as scientist Norman Osborne, who becomes the Green Goblin.

Page is an accomplished stage actor — he appeared at what was then Missouri Repertory Theatre twice in the 1990s, in “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Deputy” — who chews this show’s formidable scenery with gusto and finesse. It’s tough for any actor to relax into a show as laden with special effects as this one, but Page looks like he belongs there. He has some of the show’s funniest lines, including an aside about the production’s gargantuan cost, and he makes the most of a bit in which the Goblin tries by telephone to get through to the editor of the Daily Bugle only to be frustrated at every turn by a labyrinthine menu.

The show has fun at the expense of the Fourth Estate. Michael Mulheren registers a nice comic performance as Bugle editor J Jonah Jameson, who at every turn is just wrong, wrong, wrong in his assumptions about the biggest story in his life — a super-hero defending his city against a host of super-villains. At one point he even utters the words so often spoken by real newspapers journalists in the age of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle: “We’re dinosaurs!”

Philip Wm. McKinley, a director who worked at Starlight and the New Theatre often in the ’90s, was chosen to take over the show after Taymor’s departure. She now receives credit for the “original direction” and McKinley is identified as a “creative consultant.”

Based on reports and unauthorized reviews by frustrated critics who got tired of waiting for the show to open, it’s my guess that the new “Spider-Man” is a lighter, less pretentious affair than it may have been early on.

The producers brought in playwright/screenwriter/comic-book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to punch up the original book by Taymor and Glenn Berger and McKinley has always demonstrated a shrewd instinct for giving the public what it wants.

The original version included Arachne, a mythological character dreamed up by Taymor to become a competitor with sweet little Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano) for the attentions of Peter Parker. But Arachne (played by T.V. Carpio) has been transformed into a benevolent figure, a sort of guardian spirit who watches over Peter — and whose presence seems largely irrelevant to the narrative.

And then there’s the music. The songs by Bono and The Edge took their knocks from some of the critics who reviewed the show early in previews, but I have to say this score includes some of the most effective songs I’ve ever encountered in a rock musical. There are times when Carney is in full voice that you can close your eyes and easily imagine Bono singing these tunes.

There’s a whole of team of arrangers, orchestrators and music supervisors, of course, and now and then the arrangements threaten to swallow up the songs. And listening to the cast recording, when it eventually becomes available, might not convey just how well the songs work amid all the humor and visual spectacle. But we’ll see.

I can say this: All the music, projections, lighting effects, aerial stunts, trap doors and elevators conspired to create indelible images in this writer’s memory that won’t fade away anytime soon.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Read more theater news at kansascity.com.

© 2012 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.