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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Epic Proportions'
Alan Tudyk, Kristin Chenoweth, and Jeremy Davidson in witty spoof of 30's movies, "Epic Proportions." (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Contents: November 1, 1999:
(1))"Epic Proportions" at the Helen Hayes Theatre
(2))"Look Back in Anger" at Classic Stage Company
(3))"Life is a Dream" at Brooklyn Academy of Music
(4)"The Whiteheaded Boy" at Brooklyn Academy of Music
(5)"Mud" and "Drowning" at Signature Theatre Company
(6)"A Streetcar Named Desire" at New York Theatre Workshop

"Epic Proportions"
By Larry Coen and David Crane, directed by Jerry Zaks
Produced by Bob Cuillo, Brent Peek, Robert Barandes, Matthew Farrell, Mark Schwartz, Philip & Patricia Barry Productions, and Robert Dragotta
The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44 St.
Opened September 30, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 6, 1999
This clever, witty spoof of Hollywood will have you in stitches. If that's a trite cliché, it's appropriate, because Larry Coen's and David Crane's send-up of the movie biz is full of them, but fortunately their script is a lot more intelligent and entertaining than the Biblical extravaganzas they parody.

Kristin Chenoweth is a delight as Louise Goldman, the perky, chirpy mix of camp counselor, cheerleader and aerobics instructor who with clipboard in hand is Assistant Director in Charge of Atmosphere Personnel. That means she directs 3400 movie extras. She gets a lot of help from Alan Tudyk as Benny Bennet, an aspiring actor, and Jeremy Davidson as his brother Phil, who ends up an extra by accident.

Phil, who got his experience directing a marching band, also becomes the movie's director by accident, a caustic commentary on how the folks who make movies get there. From a sweet unassuming youth, he turns into a self-absorbed autocrat, which is another apt observation. The play in a subversive way has a lot to say about the fools and autocrats who rise to power in Hollywood and also some comic comments about screen glamour and machismo.

It's the Arizona desert in 1932, and the impresario D.W. DeWitt (Richard Shull) is making a movie about the Old Testament. It starts in the land of the Pharaohs and is called "Exeunt Omnes," translation, "Everybody out." (You know it's the 30's, because Louise has blonde marcelled hair.)

The thousands of extras are little more than slaves who are subject to brutality, unreasonable demands, and have only two bathrooms. They are also dragooned for set construction: they have to build the pyramids under the crackling whip of a fey tyrant.

The extras count off into 1's, 2's, 3's and 4's to make the crowd's actions more diverse (the 1's jump up, the 2's twist to the side, etc), and then get directions from Louise. When they roar at the killing of the king, she admonishes, "I just don't feel like you've seen a man die here," and tells them that she wants horror, fear, anger, sardonic amusement. She instructs the 4's, "You're bitter, but you have to hide the pain." You don't stop laughing, especially since you realize the kernel of truth here is more like a cornfield.

The protagonists are all a little naïve. Louise is from Alaska; papa died when the glacier moved.

But they are very serious. When Benny, seeking motivation for his part fanning the bejeweled and sequined queen (given an outrageously comic portrayal by Ruth Williamson), asks, "Have I always been a slave," Louise tells him, "You always were a slave, the queen doesn't know you exist, you've been a slave since you were made a eunuch." He replies on second thought, "Maybe I could just fan her."

When he learns that he's really a prince who's been raised by a flock of wild sheep, he bleats that he's come to claim the throne that is "mi-i-i-i-i-ine."

We don't see much of the uberdirector DeWitt, an avuncular white-haired guy who sits inside a pyramid at a reel-to-reel projector working on a porn film. When he does come out, he's wearing a robe and carrying two film cans the way Moses carried tablets.

There are gags nonstop. I loved poor Louise as a glamour girl marooned on a pedestal because her dress is too tight to let her climb down. And the anti-macho Benny, who when a sword is flipped at him to use, screams and jumps away from it.

The characters suffer plagues, chaining and near death before they rebel. But the audience doesn't suffer at all.

"Look Back in Anger"
By John Osborne, directed by Jo Bonney
Produced by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13 Street
677-4210 ext. 10.
Opened October 17, 1999
Closes November 14, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 15, 1999
Jimmy Porter is an English working-class man who's managed to graduate from college, albeit not Oxbridge, and whose resentment against the classes above him is so obsessive and consuming that it's destroyed his chance at professional success. It's also landed him in a neurotic marriage with a passive-aggressive middle-class woman who is getting back at her parents at the same time she participates in a sexual game of furious fighting -- mostly verbal abuse by Jimmy -- and making up -- his abject apology, her forgiveness. A modern shrink might call this psychological co-dependency.

John Osborne's 1956 play, which premiered at London's Royal Court, electrified or infuriated audiences. The psychological games are not so shocking today, but they're still a peg on which to hang powerful performances, and in this taut, realistic production by Jo Bonney, Reg Rogers is a riveting Jimmy. The others in the cast seem blown away when he takes the stage. It is a memorable and powerful production.

Jimmy is confused about his own place in the world. His education seems to have led him to a point where he feels he really doesn't belong in any class. He's an intellectual snob, making an inordinate fuss about reading trendy columnists or listening to classical music, yet he refuses to identify with the hated educated elite. He is self-confident, articulate, cultured, yet so filled with class rancor that he can't function. He has tried his hand at journalism, advertising, and selling vacuum cleaners, and now works in a sweet stall.

He is not the normal leftist working-class intellectual. There have been others who got degrees that pulled them up. Later we learn that his father was wounded in the Spanish Civil War and that at ten, he watched him die for a year. That appears to have seared his soul.

He is in a sex war as well as a class war. He rails against the oppressive upper classes, but is tyrannical toward women, especially his wife, Alison (Enid Graham). About her family he jibes, "Brother Nigel, the platitude from outer space. He'll end up in the cabinet." About her mother: "She's as rough as a night in a Bombay brothel." He seems to have married Alison both to thumb his nose at the upper classes and to have a convenient place to vent his fury. He insults her, calling her "pusillanimous" and "wanting firmness of mind." He accuses her first having no self, then of devouring him. They fight bitterly and then play sexual games: he's a bear, she's a rabbit. The bear, of course, devours the rabbit.

Portrayed by Graham in a self-effacing manner, Alison seems drab even in appearance, with her orange cardigan, black and white flecked strait skirt, and short, pixie-cut hair. Her continual ironing at the start is the visual expression of her subordinate status. Their flat is equally dreary, with a painted backdrop bedstead and shelf of books, a kitchen table, two nondescript easy chairs, piles of books and newspapers.

But far from making women victims, Osborne makes them complicit in Jimmy's dysfunctional behavior. Alison's friend Helena (Angelina Phillips) throws herself at him. Her father blames the family's estrangement from Jimmy on Alison's mother, who even hired detectives to investigate him, a cynical commentary also on the way the middle class -- particularly women -- welcomes workers into their bosom.

Though Jimmy sleeps with women, he prefers the company of his friend, Cliff (James Joseph O'Neill). He asks him, "Why do we let these women bleed us to death?" and he tells him he's worth many Helenas.

Rogers speaks with his body as well as his voice, twisting in boredom, twitching with nervous energy, given to frantic, outrageous, brilliant outbursts of nasty sarcasm or sexual flirting. Bonney has directed a play lush in detail, from having Jimmy prancing with newspapers on his head to blowing an offstage softy-crying jazz trumpet, and she has created a stultifying, almost claustrophobic atmosphere in that small, bleak flat.

"Life is a Dream"
By Pedro Calderon de la Barca, translated by John Clifford, directed by Calixto Bieito
Produced by Royal Lyceum Theatre Company and Brooklyn Academy of Music
The Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
718 636-4100
Opened October 12, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 14, 1999
Calixto Bieito's brilliant conception of Calderon de la Barca's 1635 work turns it into a modern morality play and allegory of political opportunism. The translation by John Clifford makes the work contemporary without losing the poetry. It is a stunning production, a poetic and symbolic treatise as much as a narrative.

Characters in modern dress and attitudes act out a parable of good and evil and also conflicts between duty and the heart. In this story, a prince who has been abused and brutalized is restored to power and then acts like the animal he was raised as. Thrown back in his prison, he realizes that his power was ephemeral and that the way to ensure his well-being is to do good instead of evil.

A simple story, a profound lesson. To emphasize that this is a lesson and not a story, Bieito has stripped it of naturalistic elements and staged it in a stark set, a ring filled with blackish gravel. The staging, the costumes and the acting are stylized and modern, with a sense that the 17th century tale they depict is merely a way station in centuries of similar events.

Segismundo (George Anton), bare-chested, bald, a thick chain round his neck, has been thrown into the tower prison as an infant by his father, King Basilio (Jeffery Kissoon), who was frightened by a prophecy that the child would grow up to kill him and provoke the country to civil war. He's had contact only with Clotildo, (Sylvester Morand), an officer in modern army dress who exudes nobility, and who gives him curt advice about acceptable behavior.

Calderon, writing in the 17th century of royal absolutism and the conquest of America, propounds the inherent right of liberty and questions why some people are not free. Distraught, Segismundo cries in a mellifluous Scottish accent, "Why should I have less liberty than a brute? I have more life than a stream, why should I have less liberty? How can god give freedom to brute, bird, fish, stream and deny it to me?

Calderon questions the definition of honor. Rosaura (Olwen Fouere) has come from Moscow to seek revenge against Astolfo (Nicholas Bailey), the duke of that principality, who dishonored and deserted her. She stumbles upon the tower and asks Clotildo for help in killing Astolfo; she doesn't know Clotildo is her father.

Calderon posits the dilemma of listening to duty versus the heart. The king does not want to subject his country to chaos, but feels guilty for what he has done to his son and wonders if he has acted justly.

And the playwright questions the validity of predestination versus free will. The king considers that, "We should not too easily believe what is predicted will occur" -- he would contradict the heavens to show that human beings have control over their destiny.

All these were questions of a man distraught about what he saw around him. Calderon wrote this play when he was 34; he took holy orders when he was 50 and wrote few plays after that.

The plot of "Life is a Dream" turns on the decision of Basilio, who is getting old and thinking about the future, to let Segismundo out for a day to see if he will use power wisely or abuse it. Clotildo will drug him, so that he wakes up confused in the prince's bed. If he deports himself cruelly, he will be returned to prison and told he has dreamed.

Calderon seasons the plot with ambition. The king's niece Estrella (Hilary Maclean), who wears a blue evening gown and a diamond necklace, and his nephew, Astolfo, the duke of Moscow, who is given an autocratic toughness by Bailey in military jacket and black boots, are plotting to succeed him.

A huge silver-framed mirror overhead shows Segismundo his reflection in wine silks pants and shirt. He mounts the large wood throne in the middle of the gravel pit. Of course, he behaves atrociously, "mooning" Astolfo, berating his father for stealing his life, attacking Estrella, and on a whim throwing a servant out the window.

When Segismundo is tossed back into prison, he undergoes a profound change. Instead of anger, he feels humility. Anton switches movingly from animal fury to a demeanor that is sweet, calm, sad and pitiful. He is humbled by the realization that life is "a delirium, an illusion, a shadow, a fiction." Fast on visions of greatness comes pain of disillusionment. "I won't do it," he proclaims. "I don't want false power. I don't want false majesty." He shouts to audience, "I know what will happen to my triumph and glory. I'll just wake up." This is Calderon's message to the royals at Spain's Golden Age of wealth and power.

Bieito also comments on events through Clarin (Sylvester McCoy), the clown in baggy suit and black bullfighter's hat, and sometimes a red nose, who arrives as Rosaura's horse, then later mimes a hokey Napoleon and a dog. He climbs over the audience and hands out the playing cards of fate. Like a vaudeville comic, he quips, "I'm on a starvation diet and it's worse than the Diet of Worms." He's also ready to make deals with anyone for his survival.

There's some quirky modern humor in Clifford's translation. Segismundo, speaking about Rosaura, says, "Anyone who wants to protect his honor can't look at her beauty." To which she replies, "For god's sake, what's that supposed to be about?"

After Segismundo is freed by a soldier, he leads a civil war, and in his victory, in a military greatcoat and with the mirror flipped to show the audience, expounds, "If life threatens you with evil, it cannot be overcome by acting with injustice and cruelty. It can only be overcome with intelligence and strength and meeting evil face to face."

But Calderon is too smart to let his anti-hero get away with such a noble image and to wrap things up too neatly. He gives the moment a cynical twist that puts the entire evening in perspective. Segismundo imprisons the soldier who freed him, explaining, "Once the moment of betrayal's past, it's important to get rid of the traitor."

"The Whiteheaded Boy"
By Lennox Robinson, adapted by Barabbas...the company, directed by Gerard Sternbridge
Produced by Brooklyn Academy of Music
The Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. Brooklyn
718 636-4100
Opened October 6, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 7, 1999
The Barabbas troupe from Dublin has turned a hoary 1916 Irish classic into a lively, clever, witty, clownish almost surreal physical piece of theater. It shows off the prodigious acting talents of the four players and gives you a sense of the playwright's social views while avoiding a staging that now would border on hokey melodrama.

The Geoghegan family has set its hopes on the success of son Denis (Louis Lovett) who George (Mike Murfi) has been supporting at Trinity College in expectations he will become a doctor. (Whiteheaded boy, of course, means fair-haired boy or golden boy.) When Denis returns, having again failed his exams, the family is thrown into turmoil.

What will happen to Jane (Murfi) who is engaged to Donough Brosnan (Veronica Coburn)? What about Kate (Coburn) who wants to live in Dublin? And most important, what will the neighbors think?

Honest, good-natured Denis couldn't care less. He wants to do what he wants with his life, to be free. "He's Ireland, asking for freedom," it's pointed out. At one point, the insouciant fellow is shown in a pinkish dressing gown playing a saxophone.

But the family plots to send him to Canada to hide their shame. He decides he can't marry his fiancee Delia (Coburn) in such circumstances, but when he breaks the engagement, her father John Duffy (Raymond Keane) threatens to sue for breach of promise.

The play is a critique of middle class social pretensions which, played straight, is rather simplistic and dated. But the Barabbas troupe sets up an aesthetic as well as ideological conflict. Denis is a dandy in white suit and blonde hair and acts completely naturally. The others all wear nondescript baggy black trousers and gray sweater-jackets and cavort in a stylized way.

The make-believe set is a dining room of cardboard table and arm chairs and a living room featuring a cardboard couch, with a backdrop wraparound photo of a village street of brick and stone houses and shops. Players occasionally refer to a miniature doll house of the entire dwelling.

Under Gerard Sternbridge's animated choreographic direction -- which includes making sure no one bumps into anyone else as they spin and dip to change personae, the actors move with exaggerated steps and motions, from stomping to flouncing, with Murfi shifting gait and voice for example, as he morphs from George to Jane to Baby sometimes in the midst of a three-way conversation. Three of the actors play 11 parts. They achieve as much through mime as through dialogue. Character traits are defined broadly. Son Peter (Keane) eats food out of people's hands like a lap dog.

There's also some attempt at politics. Aunt Ellen (Coburn) lauds the practice of cooperation, by which she means cooperative endeavors: "It will be the salvation of Ireland." It certainly was the salvation of this play."

"Mud" and "Drowning"
By Maria Irene Fornes, directed by David Esbjornson
Produced by Signature Theatre Company
The Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42 St.
Opened September 26, 1999
Closed October 10, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 6, 1999
Maria Irene Fornes's plays "Mud" (1983) and "Drowning" (1986) are elliptical hymns to people's yearnings. The first is about the thwarted desire of a poor farm woman for education and self-improvement in middle America in the 1930's. The second is a surrealistic vision of a man's pining for a woman whose photo he sees in a newspaper. Both plays are about the status of women and how they are viewed by men. In the first, she is men's servant and victim. In the other, she is men's fantasy.

"Mud," which won an Obie Award in 1984, is directed by David Esbjornson in a moving, spare, direct, uncluttered fashion.

Mae (Deirdre O'Connell) stands ironing a pair of man's trousers in a dilapidated house with a wall of pealing paper and splotched paint, an old wood table and mismatched chairs, and an old rifle leaning beside the fireplace mantle. Symbolically, she never seems to finish ironing the pants.

In her 20's, she is perky and assertive in her housedress and tousled red hair. Lloyd (Paul Lazar), about her age, is bedraggled and pathetic in old shirt and dirty torn jeans. He was taken in by her father and on dad's death stayed and became her bedmate.

They get into an argument about her study of arithmetic. He doesn't know what it is. His problem is getting an erection. She's desperate for knowledge, trying to better herself.

"I'm pressing, jerk, what are you doing?" she says disdainfully. "I work, I wake up and open my eyes and work. What do you do? You're a pig, you'll die like a pig in the mud. Your skin will bloat in the mud. I'm going to die in a hospital in white sheets. I'm going to school and learn things. When I finish school, I'm leaving. You can stay in the mud."

The dialogue proceeds in such direct sentences that describe Mae's simple wants and her desperation.

She finds succor in Henry (John Seitz), an old neighbor with white stubble and overhanging belly. She tells him she feels hollow and offensive and that most people are. "We are base and spend our lives with small things," she says. "I have no one to talk to. I feel I don't have a mind." She feels that when she talks to Henry, she hears something inside her head and tells him, "I want your mind." A play on "I want your body."

Passionate words such as "I am a hungry soul, I am a longing soul" might be cloying and hokey, if they were not delivered in such a direct, understated manner. Instead, their effect is powerful.

She must deal with a sudden catastrophic event and both men's insistence that she be there for them forever. "Can't I have a decent life!" she wails. The men protest, "I love you Mae." Even in her desperation, she thinks Lloyd is "a good boy." She learns the hard way that they're all good boys till you threaten their manhood.

Deirdre O'Connell is superb as Mae, giving the role a sensitive mixture of pathos and spunk. Paul Lazar and John Seitz are perfectly creepy as the good ole boys you'd love to hate.

"Drowning" is a curious, surreal conversation between two fatuous fat men at a cafe. Their heads, with gobs and folds of fat that descend over their necks, and their stuffed stomachs give them a shape like eggs. They move in rolls and speak slowly, methodically.

They are middle class burghers. One reads the "Neue Zuricher Zeitung," a prominent Swiss daily. Pea (Marc Damon Jonhson) wants to meet a woman whose photo is in the paper.

At a later time, Pea feels anguish and despair, because he's met her and she finds him repulsive. She accuses him of being a piece of meat with no brains or soul and demands, "Don't rub against me any more."

A third friend, Stephen (Jed Diamond) arrives, looking like a walrus. Roe (Philip Goodwin) says of Pea, "He's drowning. He hurts too much."

With all those gobs of fat, he really seems a piece of meat. Is this a woman's acerbic joke on unattractive men who fantasize about beautiful ladies?."

"A Streetcar Named Desire"
By Tennessee Williams, directed by Ivo van Hove
Produced by New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Opened September 12, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 2, 1999
Ivo van Hove's conception of Tennessee Williams' moody, languorous play is disconnected, disjoined, deconstructed, and expressionistic with the director's trademark gratuitous nudity and unintentional self-satire.

The best part about the production I saw was the acting by Carolyn Baeumiler, understudying for Elizabeth Marvel as Blanche DuBois. She embodies to perfection the cool, sultry, neurotic Blanche, from her body language to the Southern accent and edgy anxiety of her speech.

In Williams' story, Blanche DuBois, who lives in Mississippi, is paying a visit to her sister Stella in New Orleans at the small apartment she shares with her husband, Stanley. Blanche and Stella come from a once prosperous family that never lost its pretensions even as it lost its money. Stanley is working class, Polish and crude. Blanche provokes Stanley household like a burr under a saddle. Little by little, as her pretensions are stripped away, the sexual secrets of her life are revealed.

The play starts with Baeumiler bare-breasted and dressing to drums and atonal electronic music, which perhaps represents her state of mind.

At the backdrop is a line of percussion instruments, bells, hanging metal rods, upended bedsprings, and metal chains on which dangle changes of clothes. On the plank stage are some plain wood chairs and, at one corner, a bathtub, a key locus of action. Blanche takes bubble baths, neighbor Eunice pushes Stanley's head under water several times, and he and Stella end up in the tub together.

The clothes corner is also active. There is so much undressing (to the buff) and dressing that you begin to feel like you're at a spa, or maybe in Loehmann's.

Van Hove's direction is so stylized that sometimes the production seems like a piece of music rather than a play. He moves from silences to explosions, but the screams are so startling, so exaggerated, that they are comical and not credible.

When Stella puts her head under Stanley's red tank top, after he's swabbed her with black grease as a sign of his dominance, it seems silly. When she is angry, her anger is not believable.

Characters sit on the floor or on chairs, staring ahead and not at each other, to symbolize their alienation. Stanley expresses his fury by spasmodic writhing on floor. Blanche crawls on hands and knees to Mitch (Christopher Evan Welch), the shy, sweet man who's taken an interest in her.

At one point, when Blanche is alone in the house with Stanley, she says, "Close the curtains before you undress any further," and he declares, "This is all I'm going to undress right now." Everyone laughs, since he's essentially naked, except for pajama bottoms twisted around the bottom of his legs.

Bruce McKenzie as Stanley Kowalski, is one-dimensional, more like a petulant frat boy than a sexy working-class man. Jenny Bacon gives an efficient performance as Stella.

The final rape scene has Blanche, alone in the bathtub, flailing in a way that reminds one of a fish flapping at the end of a hook. Imagery is not supposed to be ridiculous. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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