PICTURES FROM HOME at Studio 54
Ekphrasis: a nifty word that means one art form discussing another art form. A famous example: Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” A never-to-be-famous example is Pictures from Home, the new play on Broadway about photography.
It is based on (I’m beginning to dread show descriptions that begin with “based on”) Larry Sultan’s photographic memoir which was first a book, then a museum show, then this play by Sharr White directed by Bartlett Sher. It boasts a sensational cast: Nathan Lane, Danny Burstein and Zoe Wanamaker.
Burstein plays the memoirist, a photography professor who spends a decade trying to figure his parents out by assembling thousands of pictures and home movies of them, spending every other weekend at their house to the neglect of his own wife and children, and asking endless questions. His need to understand them is crucial to his understanding of himself, a need that seems at once childish and intrusive and universal.
White’s play is an attempt to see life “beyond the frame” and creates a portrait of a family and a culture of New York Jews who create a sunny, prosperous California life for themselves; this creates an interesting portrait of a time and culture that feels honest.
Predictably, it’s Lane’s show; he can reduce an audience to helpless laughter and then command our attention as he rages about his “image.”
His Irving Sultan is Willy Loman whose salesman, instead of succumbing to defeat by the modern world, takes Dale Carnegie’s course and triumphs.
Wanamaker’s portrait of his wife, now a successful real-estate saleswoman, creates the very believable and moving “intimacy” of their endless loud quarrels. They are excellent shouters.
Burstein’s quiet role is thankless: he has all the explaining to do, trying to get us to see his “project” as important. He self-importantly tells us what anybody already knows: photography is the art that stops time. That he cannot stop time and keep his parents alive forever, is another truth we already know.
[Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, New York, NY] January 13-April 30, 2023; picturesfromhomebroadway.com
ENDGAME at Irish Rep
“Finished.” What a way to start a play. Beckett’s masterwork, Endgame then proceeds to unspool itself: “…it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.”
The “it” in question is the life being lived by the speaker of the line, Clov (the great clown Bill Irwin) and Hamm (the great Shakespearean John Douglas Thompson). Clov servant to the demanding, tyrannical, childish Hamm who is both blind and stuck in a wheelchair. Clov can see but can barely walk and cannot sit. “Every man his speciality.”
The actors have their specialities too: Irwin has a winsome, expressive face and rubber legs that are, despite everything, graceful. Thompson has a stentorian voice and, despite his immobility, an enormous presence.
This brilliant production at Irish Repertory Theatre in NYC, directed to perfection by Ciaran O’Reilly, begins with Clov’s drawing of the curtains. What is revealed is not morning but a brick wall. We laugh. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell (Patrice Johnson Cheyennes), Hamm’s mother who lives in a trash can tells us. In the trashcan next to hers is Nagg (Joe Grifasi), her loving husband. The play, like life, is filled with absurd and futile gestures; for instance Hamm carefully polishes his dark glasses, despite the fact that he cannot see.
Once he brings in a ladder, Clov is able to open the windows to report to Hamm the state of the world—one window looks out onto land, the other, the sea. The report on both is “Zero.” “Gray.” The world like the ocean, is “finished.”
Interpret at will:
The play is about the existential void.
The play is about marriage.
The play is about classism.
The play is about global warming and the end of nature.
The play is about religion, the relationship between God and man (note that Christ’s last words were “It is finished.”)
The set (Charlie Corcoran) offers its own interpretive possibilities:
Are we in a prison cell?
Are we in a womb?
Are we in skull and the two windows eyes?
This barely scratches the interpretive surface, but with Beckett it’s always best to see for yourself. This production is the rare chance to see two major actors in a brief and immense play.
[Irish Rep, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY] January 25-April 9, 2023; irishrep.org
CORNELIA STREET at Atlantic Theatre Company
This new musical (book by Simon Stephens, music and lyrics by Mark Eitzel) is for New Yorkers—people who are real estate obsessed, who barely blink when they hear about an office renting for $28,000/month, who get all misty-eyed and nostalgic for the bad old days of Times Square.
There really is a Cornelia Street in the West Village; an apartment once rented by Taylor Swift is on the market for $45,000 a month. This apartment is referenced on Swift’s album, “Lover.” And there really was a cafe and an interesting bunch of people hung out there. They really did lose their lease when the building was sold. Make me care—I’m from Philly.
The plot centers on the chef (twice Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz) who keeps running up bills by buying upscale ingredients, and alarming the owner Marty (Kevyn Morrow). His daughter (Lena Pepe) is failing high school until an older, streetwise stepsister Misty (Gizel Himenez) arrives. The cafe’s waiter (Estaban Andres Cruz) is charming and the regulars include a fortune-telling retired opera singer (Mary Beth Peil) and a tech guy John (Ben Rosenfield)—Google HQ is around the corner—is in love with Misty.The villain is coke hustler William (George Abud).
The plot is familiar, the singing voices serviceable, the characters underdeveloped, the songs pleasant but forgettable. The one big production number, “Dance” is awkward. Neil Pepe directs.
[Atlantic Theater Company, Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, New York, NY] January 20-March 5, 2023; atlantictheater.org