The new New York season has begun, where fall is spring, and buds are budding all over the place. In the tiny June Havoc Theatre, a saucy new comedy has arrived, a highly original concept for a play nicely executed by its co-authors, Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman. They’ve called it Inventing Avi and director Mark Waldrop has assembled a cast of 6 adroit actors who know how to play comedy in the old George Abbott tradition of ‘hit your mark, say the words loud and clear, wait for the laughs, but keep up the pace.’ Alix Korey is hilarious as Judy, the full-steam-ahead theatre producer sister of Mimi, a middle aged diva of the stage, better known for her long run on a popular soap opera. They collaborate on the production of a hit play from a sexy Israeli writer, a play that seems autobiographical, but the story is actually stolen from a place closer to home than either sister could ever imagine.
One complication: the play, actually written by a WASP from the mid-west, cannot get off the ground until he, David Smith, conjures up Avi Aviv, the Israeli, whose opening monologue leads us into the intrigue and the fun. Juri Henley-Cohn delivers an Avi who turns everyone on, and Stanley Bahorek brings energy and a comic sensibility to David Smith that would have given him constant employment in the heyday of George Abbott, when every season on Broadway brought us a comedy the likes of Kiss and Tell, What a Life!, Never Too Late or My Sister Eileen. Young Mr. Bahorek would have been castable in all of them and it’s nice to know his brand of light comedy playing has not disappeared totally, for you don’t see much of it around any more.
That’s probably because comedies have grown darker through the years; Neil Simon and Jean Kerr are yesteryear’s masters of the form, and Chodorov and Fields, F.Hugh Herbert and Kaufman and Hart precede them by a decade or two. But here come Messrs. Cary and Feldman to bring a fresh and zany plotline along with some comedy zinger laugh lines to keep us listening and laughing through two whole acts, in themselves something of a welcome rarity in this era of one-act ninety minute wonders.
It’s not a master work; it sags here and there, but I won’t harp on that because I want to encourage these writers to go on writing. We need them and their sort. Alix Korey has played loudmouth ladies before in plays like 45 Seconds from Broadway, Ain’t Broadway Grand, [Andrew Lippa’s] The Wild Party and Suburb, but “Judy Siff”, a combination of Adele Holzer and Fran Weissman with a touch of Lynn Loesser thrown in, is the kind of wealthy airhead into which Ms. Korey can sink her comic teeth and if the evening belongs to anyone, it’s hers – with Emily Zacharias as her equally monstrous sister Mimi puffing away just behind her. A comedy full of antic fun and I had a fine time. I think you will too.
The Abington Theatre Company’s production of Inventing Avi (and other theatrical maneuvers) continues through November 1 at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W 36th St, NYC.
Next up: the long running Disney production of Mary Poppins, which I missed when it first opened in November 2006. My visit was occasioned by the first night of Laura Michelle Kelly, the leading lady who’d first played the famous nanny in the London production two years prior to that. To get to the good news quickly, Ms. Kelly is a pure delight in the role. She has loveliness of face and form, a clear pitch perfect light soprano voice, grace and style in her footwork, and a way with an arch comic line that sends it sailing out to us. She and Christian Borle (late of Legally Blonde, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Spamalot) join a cast that includes Jeff Binder and Rebecca Luker and the rest of the cast of character folk playing maids, butlers, Nanny Miss Andrew, Admiral Boom, and the two wild and unappealing children whose behavior needs rerouting. The results are a tad uneven, with signs of longrunitis having hit some of the more seasoned veterans of the company. Though Jenny Galloway as “Mrs. Britt” the housekeeper has an original take on the character, she’s allowed it to slide into parody over the course of her engagement. She gets her laughs but she’s working awfully hard to get them. The same might be said of Janelle Anne Robinson as “Mrs. Corry” who lends so much energy and sass to her sections of “Supercalifragisticexpialidocious” that she fairly bursts apart right in front of us. She’s ear-burstingly loud and playing it by the numbers. I think Richard Eyre, the director, needs to have a visit to, as George S.Kaufman once said to a long-running cast, “take out the improvements.”
However, there is much to admire in this Disney offering. The sets and costumes are scrumptious, the dance and vocal arrangements, the special effects are all dandy, and the audience seemed delighted. It’s a bit long for little kiddies, and some of them tend to cry or fall asleep, but most seem delighted. And Ms. Kelly is a true treat — carrying the show on her very capable shoulders along with the rest of her very capable self. She seems to be having the time of her life, is in full command at all times, and makes her achievement appear effortless. She’s a spring breeze. Her vis-à-vis, Mr. Borle, as Bert the Chimney Sweep, has an abundance of talent, but he’s working a tad too hard at selling it to suit my taste. Ms. Kelly on the other hand, makes all her work seem improvisational, and it’s refreshing. It has in it what we know as ‘star quality’.
Two fixable problems: The children, as played by one of three sets of youngsters (so I don’t know which boy and girl played on my night), should be toned down about 8 notches. The young girl playing Jane Banks screeched so I never really understood anything she said in the first act (the act in which she is always angry). The young boy playing her brother Michael, was a cute little stripling, the sort that used to drive W.C.Fields up the wall. And the sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy distorts all upper registers and all choral numbers to the point where the lyrics require titles flashed upon a screen. I know I’m a small voice in the wilderness on this point, but as I’ve seen how well sound can be handled on many a musical show, I feel I must speak out when it’s handled badly. I was with a party of six at this performance, and all, ranging in age from youngish to oldish, agreed the decibel keeper at the rear of the orchestra, with his monstrous console, required a cautionary word.
Bring your ear plugs, but if you haven’t seen Mary Poppins, that musical that features her would be a fine way for you to discover the charms of Ms. Laura Michelle Kelly, a welcome addition to the A list of international musical theatre stars.
I finally caught up with the Broadway smash comedy God of Carnage at the beginning of its second run. Its four stars had all of August off, and are now back at their nightly battling over who is to blame for the two broken teeth that one couple’s son inflicted on the other couple’s pride and joy. What begins as a social call, with all the coffee and cake amenities, ends in a free-for-all that involves the most riotous behavior since the Marx Brothers tackled high society. In the marvelous hands of Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini, this is a must for all young actors interested in mastering the arts of comic timing, mime, listening and playing broad comedy always based on truth. In the wrong hands, this material written by Yasmina Reza (Art) could seem trivial and simple-minded. I saw it in London over two years ago with a very different, but equally adroit cast headed by Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer, again directed by the cool and controlling Mathew Warchus. He also helmed the successful revival of Boeing Boeing and he certainly deserved the Tony he received for the current offering. I think it was a wise decision to relocate the play to a small suburb of a large American city. In London it was played by a British cast playing Parisian couples, for the play was set in France. Here it seems very comfortably at home with little change in dialog, merely changes here and there in local references, and the lack of accent makes it all seem closer to home for American audiences.
To watch Mr. Gandolfini try to control his rage in the opening moments of the play, by smilingly agreeing with everything his wife Ms. Harden says, gets us off to a rollicking start. To have a glimpse of Mr.Daniels giving no quarter but trying hard to behave (and not succeeding) as his wife Ms. Davis plays all the well-mannered cards at her disposal is another treat. By the middle of this 90 minute one-acter, when the chaos begins, the tempo and temperature rise, the very mod upper middle class living room of the hosts is virtually destroyed, and after the climax some sort of calm is restored, though neither of the marriages will ever be quite the same. As they both needed to implode, I had the feeling there was some kind of catharsis, and I suspect these four will go on living with their respective spouses (why do I think that should be “spise”?) being careful not to pull the emotional levers that were pulled on this particular evening.
It’s lovely when a genuine box office smash can be a rewarding and provocative comedy that is presented in the sparkling manner that Broadway at its best is so good at. And this is Broadway at its best. It will be interesting to see what happens when these four stars take off for other venues in late November and four others bravely step up to bat. It worked with Art but this management must go through careful sifting to find two couples who can carry this romp as well as the two who are playing it now. Whoever they are, their work will be cut out for them.
God of Carnage continues at the Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue), NYC.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: