In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruellest month.
And while he most certainly wasn’t talking about Boston theater, the same sentiment could be applied to the unusually shallow offerings popping up around town.
Aside from Moonbox’s unmissable Cabaret (playing through April 28) and Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s joyous Much Ado About Nothing (playing through May 6), there hasn’t been much to get excited about.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of current Boston theater. I’ll let you decide which is which.
TRUE WEST AT HUB THEATRE COMPANY
Sam Shepard’s 1983 dark comedy about two brothers, one a mischievous drifter and the other a successful Hollywood screenwriter, is a good example of why Shepard is considered one of the most original voices in 20th-century American theater.
The Ivy League-educated screenwriter Austin (Bob Mussett) is looking after his mother’s southern California home while she’s on vacation in Alaska, looking forward to some quiet time to hammer out a new screenplay, a western. Then his brother, Lee, played by a terrifically deranged Victor Shopov, shows up unexpectedly after spending three months in the desert and totally upends Austin’s peace and quiet.
When Austin’s sleazy agent (a miscast Robert Orzalli) drops in to check on his progress, Lee successfully pitches him an idea for a movie. The already tumultuous relationship between the brothers essentially goes up in flames as Lee holds Austin hostage and demands that he help him finish his screenplay. By play’s end, not only have the brothers reversed roles, but their behavior turns animalistic, leaving their mother’s quaint kitchen looking like a campsite descended on by bears.
Hub’s production, directed with impressive verve by Daniel Bourque, is wonderfully funny, though it could stand to offer a bit more grit. Mussett and Shopov are giving extraordinary performances, particularly the latter, who imbues Lee with the devilishness of a young Jack Nicholson. This one’s worth checking out, and with all performances being pay-what-you-can, there’s no reason not to.
TRUE WEST. THROUGH 4.38 AT HUB THEATRE COMPANY AT FIRST CHURCH IN BOSTON, 66 MARLBOROUGH ST., BOSTON. HUBTHEATREBOSTON.ORG
ANNA CHRISTIE AT THE LYRIC STAGE
At nearly 100 years old, the old girl is definitely showing her age.
Eugene O’Neill won one of his four Pulitzer Prizes for Anna Christie, the story of an emotionally damaged former prostitute (Lindsey McWhorter) who reunites with her coal barge captain father, Chris (Johnny Lee Davenport), after 20 years of estrangement. While anchored with her father near Provincetown, a strapping young stoker named Mat (Dan Whelton) is rescued by Chris and Anna.
Although she’s sworn off men, Anna falls for Mat instantly, and the feeling is mutual. Ten minutes after being dragged on board, he’s already talking about giving up drinking and settling down. The timing of all this is uncanny, which robs the story of any would-be emotion, rendering the final two acts of the play a giant shrug. The stakes seem nonexistent, and I found myself scratching my head over why there was so much tension between the three characters. (Mat wants Anna, Anna wants Mat, Chris wants none of it, and then Mat flips out when he finds out that Anna use to be a prostitute.)
Director Scott Edmiston, who on paper seems like the perfect person to breathe new life into this old creaky play, has also adapted it anew, dramatically shortening the running time and streamlining the plot. While the shorter running time is appreciated, this adaptation does not begin to make the case for Anna Christie.
Dan Whelton gives the best performance as Mat, though his Irish accent could use some work. Johnny Lee Davenport seems detached and distracted, which isn’t a total deal breaker since Chris is described as a “long lost old man,” but he replaces emotion with bellowing and growling, which is plain bizarre. And McWhorter, who is remarkable early in the play, continually approaches moments of emotional watershed but promptly backs away from them. The production, overall, is gentle and methodical but too polite. It winds up being as colorless as the bland wooden pallets that make up the set.
It all looks great, though. Charles Schoonmaker’s costumes are spot-on, and the atmosphere is alluring, thanks to Karen Perlow’s lighting and Dewey Dellay’s original music. Janie E. Howland’s set is handsome, though the Saran wrap sea degrades matters.
But in a way, it’s fitting that the “old devil sea” continually referenced throughout the play is made out of Saran wrap, as lifeless and artificial as the production itself.
ANNA CHRISTIE. THROUGH 5.6 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
ON YOUR FEET AT BOSTON OPERA HOUSE
No one is expecting a jukebox musical about the life of Emilio and Gloria Estefan to be revolutionary, but what’s surprising is how joyless and dull it is.
It’s hard enough to shove an entire music catalogue into a fictional plot, let alone into the actual autobiographical story of the artists. More than just shoehorning a couple dozen songs into a musical, the problem with these kinds of musicals is that when they aren’t done right, they seem to approach a kind of deification of the artist. (Jersey Boys and Beautiful avoid this pitfall.)
Is Gloria Estefan’s rise to fame, near death, and rapid comeback truly interesting enough to warrant an entire musical? Not really. And forgive me for this, but save for a few songs, I don’t find much in her catalogue worth celebrating, though it is cool that the orchestra is made up of five original members of the Miami Sound Machine.
As is often the case with these kinds of shows, the cheese can be forgiven in the name of dazzling spectacle, but On Your Feet is woefully strapped for such sparkle. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is mostly astounding (it accounted for the show’s sole Tony nomination), though only one production number is worth exclaiming over, and that’s mostly thanks to the moves of a very young dancer and his maracas. (That isn’t a euphemism.)
Mauricio Martínez makes the biggest impression as Emilio, who oozes easy, undeniable charm. But Christie Prades, who acts Gloria well enough, is vocally unimpressive and unable to inject any life into this melodramatic evening of missed opportunities.
ON YOUR FEET. THROUGH 4.29 AT THE BOSTON OPERA HOUSE, 539 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. BOSTON.BROADWAY.COM
THE LYONS AT TITANIC THEATRE COMPANY
Nicky Silver has made a career out of the quirks of family dysfunction. And although few modern stage families are as—well—grotesque, the Lyons have one thing other stage families do not: Rita.
The Jewish mother to end all Jewish mothers, Rita (played by Shelley Brown) is locked and loaded in her Chanel jacket, thumbing through an issue of House Beautiful as the husband she never loved dies in the hospital bed next to her.
Oh, don’t be sad. She’ll be totally fine. She’s actually looking forward to redecorating the house.
She’s clueless and reckless and mean, and her children—one a recovering alcoholic and the other a shell of a human who has imaginary boyfriends—are very clearly products of her parenting.
The play’s first act, which takes place in husband Ben’s hospital room (Ben is played with a distinguished bark by Phil Thompson), is entertaining enough as his two children, Lisa (Alisha Jansky) and Curtis (David Josef Hansen), arrive at the hospital upon receiving word that their father is dying. (Rita and Ben decided not to tell the kids until the end.)
But what begins as rich family drama with some genuine laughs quickly turns contrived and then—worse—improbable as the family battles it out: spilling secrets, insulting one another, and—in Lisa’s case—storming out of the room and falling off the wagon.
Nothing about The Lyons rings true, and although it isn’t a bad play, it crumbles under the weight of mediocre performances. If the play is best not taken too seriously, then it would help if the production suggested some whimsy.
Of course, if all the comedic bits landed with the crackle that they’re supposed to, the play’s flaws would be glossed over. The main problem with this production is that it is rife with missed comedic opportunities and bad timing. Director Josh Glenn-Kayden is never quite able to get his cast to hit the stride that the play requires.
As Rita, a gift of a part for any actress, Shelley Brown is almost aloof, one of the few things that Rita has probably not been accused of in her lifetime. She needs to be more fierce and enigmatic, and the play suffers a great blow as a result.
The play’s second act mostly rests on the shoulders of David Josef Hansen’s Curtis, who has been cursed with a ridiculous subplot that feels like it belongs in another play. (His performance, a bit whiny, does not rise above the material.)
The characters are not supposed to be likable; it is very much the point of The Lyons that these people are terrible and grotesque. However, Glenn-Kayden’s production seems not to know what to do with this information, and the result is a half-baked exercise in how not to do dark comedy.
THE LYONS. THROUGH 5.5 AT TITANIC THEATRE COMPANY, 539 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. TITANICTHEATRE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.