A short break before I finish the series on our August-September trip to the lands bordering the Baltic Sea.
1. “The Select”, a dramatization of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, at the New York Theatre Workshop, performed by a company calling itself “Elevator Repair Service”. ERS seems to focus on taking a book, reading it pretty much verbatim or abridging it, and putting it on the stage. It’s obviously not a reading, because it is being acted, but it is also not a play, because the script was written for the printed page, and not for live performance. So you do with it what you can, which in this case was, I thought, a little confusing, because ERS couldn’t seem to decide whether it was providing a halfway straight adaptation, or pure satire. They seem to have opted for the latter, with overstated performances (including an over the top bull fight or two, with the bull played by a table with horns, pushed by one of the characters) and overstated drinking (yes, the book has more than its share of alcohol, but the performance tops that by a long shot), and overstylization by the various characters (if that’s a word), and sound effects (such as whiskey being poured into a glass (over and over) that are unique, and clever and, now and then, annoying. Enjoyable enough to watch, because it was basically silly and light, ERS also had a hard time dealing with one of the central characters of Hemingway’s book, Robert Cohn, an American temporarily-expatriate Jew, who becomes (in the book) an object of derision and disgust, giving the book an anti-Semitic gloss that it can’t quite shake off. This has, to me, always made the book uncomfortable, and similarly made watching the play uncomfortable, as the actors and directors did nothing either to blunt or to satirize the anti-Semitism, leaving it pretty much there, in your face. An odd evening of theater, I guess. No regrets that I went, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
2. “The Heir Apparent” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, on the other hand, is pure delight. If I were a playwright, I would probably want to be David Ives, whose spectacular “Venus in Furs” we saw at the Studio Theatre earlier this year. Ives “adapted” the 17th century French farce by Jean-Francois Regnard, translating and updating it in rhyme (often outlandish rhyme), and with occasional modern allusions. There is no lesson to be learned here – the plot is as old as the hills. The wealthy, miserly, arrogant bachelor is nearing the end of his life – to whom will he leave his money? His nephew wants to get all of it, so that he will be financially set and can marry his girlfriend, whose agreement will only be possible with the help of her mother, who will only give it if the nephew gets the money. And there are the two young servants, who also become allied with other three. The uncle, believing himself to be on death’s door, engages a lawyer to write his will, but appears to have died before the lawyer arrives, making it necessary for the servant to pretend he is the uncle, which seems to be working until the uncle revives in the room next door and walks into the room where the will is being dictated. You can figure out what happens next. Great acting by Floyd King, Carson Elrod, Nancy Robinette and the rest of the cast. It’s still there – go see it.
3. “Imagining Madoff”. “Imagining Madoff” is closing at Theater J this weekend, so you probably won’t have a chance to see it. You might remember that this is the play originally meant to dramatize an imaginary conversation between Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel (one of Madoff’s victims) and Bernie Madoff, but was changed to replace Wiesel with an imaginary Sol Golkin as a result of Wiesel’s outrage. At any rate, that’s an old story (although an interesting one), unrelated to the merits of the play as it now exists. There are three characters in this play: Madoff, Galkin, and Madoff’s secretary. The secretary sits off the stage at an interrogation table talking to unseen investigators, Madoff is sometimes talking to Golkin, and sometimes talking to an unseen reporter, and Galkin is either by himself or with Madoff (Galkin is portrayed as the treasurer of his synagogue, an institution whose funds are managed by Madoff), and wants Madoff to also handle his personal funds. He is a Holocaust survivor, a community leader, a religious scholar and a translator. He and Madoff are having a lengthy conversation at Galkin’s house, which lasts until 5 a.m. (and they drink at least as much scotch, for reasons unclear, as all the characters did in the oversoused “The Select”). The best thing that can be set about the play is that the three actors (Rick Foucheux, Mike Nussbaum and Jennifer Mendenhall) are spectacular – the play in the hands of lesser performers would not nearly be as effective. The second best thing is, I believe, the skill with which playwright Deb Margolin has crafted each sentence. There are no throw-away lines here, nothing sloppy; each line is precise and accurate. This is helpful to highly profesThe weakness is that, beneath the acting and the professional word smithing, there is not much of a play here. Mendenhall is the most believable character. Madoff is not Madoff, and you don’t learn anything about what was going on in his mind. You hear a lot of women (whom he likes), baseball (which he can’t quite understand), and religion (for which he has no use), but nothing about how he feels about his developing Ponzi scheme. Galkin is a not quite believable, although he is an attractive character. If you want to learn something about the Madoff affair, this is not for you. If you are interested in first class performances, you can’t do better.