Thursday, September 15, 2005

On Broadway

With the opening of Oscar®-nominated director John Madden’s film version of Proof this weekend (in limited release) and on September 30 (in wide release), I thought I would revisit my review of the play by David Auburn from three years ago.

Proof (the film) includes in its cast Gwyneth Paltrow (who appeared in the play on London’s West End and received her own Oscar® for her leading role in Madden’s 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love), Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Hope Davis as the four principals. The screenplay, by Auburn and Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur Miller), adds at least another seven characters who do not appear in the stage version.

My take on Proof is incorporated into this review essay, which appeared in The Metro Herald on August 14, 2002. :

Heritage Rep’s Summer Season: Entertaining, Provocative

Charlottesville, VA — The Heritage Repertory Theatre’s 29th season has drawn to a close, after offering audiences a mix of comedy, music, and drama with professionalism and glimpses at the stars of the future.

The season opened with 10 performances of Anything Goes, the tried-and-true 1934 Cole Porter musical. Boasting many of Porter’s most familiar songs – “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “All Through the Night,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and the title song, among others – this is one of those musical comedies for which the audience comes into the theatre humming the tunes.

Based primarily on the 1962 off-Broadway revival, this production of Anything Goes included songs interpolated from other Porter musicals, including “Let’s Misbehave” and “Friendship.” Director Robert Chapel captained this lighthearted musical with a light touch, bringing audiences an evening of entertainment in which (as the Emcee in Cabaret might say) they were able to “leave their cares outside.”

Most of the cast of Anything Goes also appeared in other shows in the rest of HRT’s repertory season, in dramatic, comic, or musical roles, and this classic gave them the jump-start they needed for the summer.

As a bookend to Anything Goes, the more recent revue Smokey Joe's Cafe consists of songs from the early rock-and-roll era, with no heavy message nor social significance. Made up entirely of songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (with other collaborators), Smokey Joe’s CafĂ© is a tribute to the Brill Building, New York’s headquarters for pop tunesters in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The professional-quality cast was able to belt them out, doo-wop, and dance with athleticism, but only a handful of songs qualify as “classics” – notably “Spanish Harlem,” “Kansas City,” and “On Broadway” – leading to an entertaining but ultimately unsatisfying evening. The excellent set design by Tom Bloom deserves special mention, however, as do the costumes by Janine Marie. Director/choreographer Cate Caplin delivered what she promised, and most audience members were pleased with the result.

What came between these two was much more profound, however, particularly the two non-musical plays, Proof (directed by Douglas Sprigg) and Comic Potential (also directed by Chapel, who chairs the UVA Department of Drama).

Both these plays provided a platform for actress Sarah Dandridge to prove her mettle. In two very different roles, she was given a chance to demonstrate an amazing acting range. In David Auburn’s Pulitzer- and Tony®-winning Proof, as the late-blooming, emotionally adolescent 20-something daughter of a famous mathematician, Dandridge was brooding, introspective, shy, and intelligent. In Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential, playing a robotic soap-opera performer – no, really, her character is an android, or “actoid” – she was able to eat up the scenery, a wild, unpredictable, furiously funny turn.

Her leading man in both plays, Jason Odell Williams, was also afforded an opportunity to show his depth as an actor. His role in Proof, as a young mathematician facing his limitations, was complex, in that we must like him while wondering whether he is ultimately trustworthy – a test also required of Dandridge’s character.

Proof is one of those great, recent plays about the life of the mind. (Margaret Edson’s W;t and Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love also fit in this category.) It expresses the passion that some people feel about their intellectual pursuits, passions so intense that they are inexplicable to outsiders – even to members of one’s own family. In Proof, the sharing of this passion – in this case, higher mathematics – is what resolves the play’s central conflict. Moreover, Proof asks us whether the line between genius and insanity can ever be defined, and whether, once defined, it is a barrier or not. It doesn’t answer this question, but it makes us ponder it.

Comic Potential gives all its actors a chance to show off their comedic abilities. Ayckbourn constructs a number of set-pieces that are impossible to describe in just a few words, but, in online-chat-speak, they leave you ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing). Set in the not-too-distant future, Comic Potential pokes fun at television executives, billionaires, Wellesian film directors, and, well, audiences, too. It makes us examine what is fundamental about our humanity and asks whether love is what separates us from even the most intelligent machine. It does in comedy what Steven Spielberg attempted to do in his film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

For a good date night, it’s hard not to recommend I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, a musical revue by Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music). Still playing off-Broadway after more than six years, this production is directed by Jack Donahue, a University of Virginia graduate who is also a cabaret artist, actor, and singer.

Four performers take on various roles in this revue, which follows male-female relations from first date through marriage and children to widowhood and retirement. It consists of songs and sketches that any couple (married, divorced, or someday-to-be-married) will see reflective of real life. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is one of those shows that has moments for everyone to say, “I know him!” or “I did that!”

A lot is demanded of the four performers in this show – Geno Carr, Nathan Moore, Kiira Schmidt, and Nancy Snow – especially considering that all four of them also appeared in Anything Goes (with Moore, Schmidt, and Snow in principal roles in that show!). They all deliver nicely. Carr has a rubbery face made for comedy, Moore seems able to handle anything thrown at him, Schmidt is both a terrific dancer and a natural comedienne, and Snow has a lovely voice. We’ll be seeing them all again, doing big things.

Special mention should be made of Jack Donahue’s one-man show, Summer Songs, which played for one brief week at the beginning of HRT’s season in the intimate Helms Theatre. Donahue, who is based in New York, has spent the better part of the past year at his alma mater, teaching theatre and directing the University Drama Department’s production of Cabaret last spring. Donahue is one of those young singers who values the standards – he has a special affinity for the songs of Johnny Mercer, but he delivers with equal aplomb the works of Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Henry Mancini, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin ... the giants of 20th-century popular music. If you have a chance to catch Donahue’s cabaret act – in New York or elsewhere – don’t pass it up. You’ll end the evening with a smile on your face and a song in your heart – more than one song, actually.

The Heritage Repertory Theatre performs each summer in the University of Virginia’s Department of Drama Building, using both the large Culbreth Theatre and the smaller Helms Theatre for its shows.

The Heritage Rep knows how to hold on to its performers. This year Geno Carr starred as Applegate in Damn Yankees, which Kiira Schmidt choreographed, and he and Nancy Snow performed together in a revue of Frank Sinatra songs, My Way, along with Perry Medlin (who does a mean, and I mean mean, if spot-on, impersonation of Liza Minnelli) and Ashley Hunter -- a production also choreographed by Schmidt.

Proof is by no means the first play to explore the interplay and dividing line between genius and madness, nor is it the last. One recent example of the genre is The Highest Yellow, written by John Strand with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa. The Highest Yellow, which focuses on the strained relationship between Vincent van Gogh and his doctor, premiered last year at Signature Theatre in Arlington. It featured Marc Kudisch as van Gogh, Jason Danieley as Dr. Felix Rey, and Judy Kuhn as Rachel, the prostitute to whom van Gogh presented his severed ear.

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