Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review: Dying For It, Every Brilliant Thing

Dying For It
Atlantic Theater Company – Linda Gross Theater
Through January 18, 2015

Every Brilliant Thing
Barrow Street Theater
Through March 29, 2015

The common thread here is suicide, with both pieces evidence humor and great empathy.

“Dying For It” is a more conventional play, and a true ensemble-driven farce about suicide, at that. Playwright Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide,” which was banned in Russia when it was written in 1928 and not performed there until the 1980s, is the tale of a man so bereft of reasons to live under the Stalinist regime that he announces he will kill himself at an appointed hour. The townspeople seek to leverage his death as political statement, as representative of the failure of religion, and as a money-making proposition. There is music! There is comedy! There is love (and resentment)! This isn’t the greatest long-lost play of the century, but it works. The cast, with Joey Slotnick in the central role of would-be suicide Semyon Smyonovich Podeskalnikov, is particularly apt with a maniacal, frenzied performance. Directed by the Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe. (Seen January 6, 2015.)

“Every Brilliant Thing” falls into the looser category of “performance piece,” but is no less dramatic for it. This is the story of a son, played by Jonny Donahoe, whose mother first attempts suicide when the boy is 7. With an uncommunicative father, the boy’s response is to start a list of all the things worth living for — a 7-year-old’s view, of course. The son adds to the list over the years, as the mother attempts suicide repeatedly, and in response to other life events. That the mother will succeed is never in question. That the son will go through the worry of whether he is prone to suicide, and that his mother’s story (and their relationship) will cast shadows over his life, are also never in question. Donahoe takes a ringmaster’s approach to his material, incorporating the audience brilliantly (this is NOT “audience participation” in any usual sense), and weaves sweetness through the pain without diminishing the drama. Written by Duncan Macmillan and Donahoe; directed by George Perrin. See it. (Seen January 11, 2015.)

Review: I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard

Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2

Through February 15, 2015

Great writing, excellent acting, and highly unpleasant to sit through (intentionally so, which I suppose makes that a compliment). Famous playwright father David (Reed Birney) and aspiring actress daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin) tear each other apart while drinking, snorting, and waiting for the reviews of Ella’s first off-Broadway performance. The two characters in Halley Feiffer’s “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” are neither likable nor sympathetic, nor is the father’s late-in-the-play attempt at reconciliation easy to believe.

It’s hard to imagine any father-daughter in such an astringent relationship (if that’s what it is), even allowing for dramatic license of condensing a lot of lifelong pain into 90 minutes. Feiffer is cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer’s daughter; I can only hope this isn’t autobiographical.

That said, Feiffer knows how to write, how to build tension, how to create star turns. I haven’t seen her film, “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” which she both wrote and stars in, but in answer to Ella’s question to an interviewer in this play, “Did I move you?” Feiffer moved me to want to take a look at that film and to see her next play.

Mention also to Trip Cullman, whose direction puts Birney and Gilpin in a nonstop pas-de-deux through their own discomfort. Cullman’s work on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” had a similarly memorable choreographic fluidity. (Seen January 13, 2015.)

David Amram: Still Tearing Down Walls

At 84, David Amram is ever the musical polymath, playing French horn, piano, percussion, flutes of all manner from around the globe — all with four additional musicians (bass player and three percussionists) on the postage stamp-sized stage of what he lovingly refers to as the Cornelia Street Stadium.

(For those who haven’t been to the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, the joke stems from the fact that the music room downstairs squeezes in about 35 people. The miracle is that Amram, whose bags and instruments cover the floor of the tiny stage, hasn’t broken his neck in those 10 years navigating between the piano and the center-stage microphone throughout the evening.)

David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe, January 4, 2015; bassist Rene Hart behind him. Photo © 2015 Ira Mayer.

David Amram at Cornelia Street Cafe, January 5, 2015; bassist Rene Hart behind him. Photo © 2015 Ira Mayer.

With the turn of the calendar, Amram the symphony and chamber music composer, jazz musician, verbal improviser, first-ever composer-in-residence with the NY Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, world music celebrant, social commentator, and educator marks 10 years playing at Cornelia Street on the first Monday of every month. Last year, the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center held a mini-festival of sorts celebrating Amram’s life in music in recognition of his donating his papers to the Library.

Having not heard him perform in many years, seeing him the first Monday in January this year was a reminder of just how far his musical, social, political, and personal interests range, and how they all intermingle. I first reviewed his album “No More Walls” and met Amram in the early 1970s; his music is still about tearing down walls, crossing borders, manning the barricades of progressive politics, mixing the past (his years as part of what he doesn’t like calling ‘The Beat’ generation) with a brief exegeses on scat as the Cro-Magnon antecedent of rap.

On a blistery cold night right after New Year’s, Amram probably wasn’t joking that he feared the number of musicians might outnumber the audience. But that wasn’t the case at all, and those of us who ventured out — many of whom seemed to know Amram from some part of his life — were treated to a delightful ramble:

  • The classic jazz of “Take The A Train”
  • Recollections of the clubs he played with Charlie Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie
  • The “Waltz from ‘After the Fall’” which he wrote for the Arthur Miller play about Marilyn Monroe
  • Commentary on the benefits of being a vegetarian
  • Celebrations of Jack Kerouac — performing “Pull My Daisy” and accompanying six Kerouac poems read by actor/director Michael Kelly, and actors John Doman and Suzanne Hughes
  • Improvising behind contemporary poet and actor Frank Messina reading selections about 9/11 and baseball
  • Playing a Chinese flute that gave a warm glow to his closing (and plenty of other flutes throughout the evening, sometimes, in a trademark bit of showmanship he’s also been doing for years, playing two at a time)

The night was all of a meandering yet highly crafted patchwork piece. Amram’s is a worldview rare to encounter today. You can encounter it next Feb. 5th at the Cornelia Street Stadium and hopefully for many first Mondays thereafter.

PLAYING WITH AMRAM THIS NIGHT
Rene Hart, bass
Kevin Twig, drums and glockenspiel
Eliot Peper, bongos
Adam Amram, congas

DIGGING DEEPER
The documentary, “David Amram: The First 80 Years,” is available on-demand on Vimeo (and due soon as a DVD from Newport Classics).

Amram’s latest symphony is due next month, this one based on songs by Woody Guthrie.

Plenty on Youtube, including “Waltz from ‘After the Fall’” and “Pull My Daisy”.

One of my favorite Amram performances was when he and the late Steve Goodman improvised a song based on “Moby Dick” at the 1974 Mariposa Folk Festival. A recording of the workshop is in the York University Libraries, available exclusively for academic research because of a lack of clearances. Goodman recorded an abbreviated version under the title “Moby Book” on his album “Jessie’s Jig and Other Favorites.” The song is available here.

Frank Messina’s book of poetry about the NY Mets, “Full Count,” is available here.

Cornelia Street Café: www.corneliastreetcafe.com; for show reservations: 212-989-9319.

© 2015 Ira Mayer.