Review: ‘The Children’ on Broadway


“The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood stars Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay, and Francesca Annis. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

A moment from when I was in college: A group of teens in hoodies, torn jeans, fake leather jackets on a warm fall day sit on a sidewalk in Evanston not far from a busy shopping street near the lake.

As I approach where those kids are, an older woman coming from the opposite direction eyes those kids hard and says loud enough for me to hear, “It looks like the ‘60s, hanging out. Boy you have a lot to live up to.”

“Up to?” I say, not knowing what she meant but wondering what it was that that generation left us to grow up with Ronald Reagan, cuts to taxes, and cuts to welfare, and leaving to a sudden rise in homelessness and people on the street. I was also thinking about a research paper I had just done about the underground press of the 1960s, the flourishing of a counter-cultural literature and how the FBI infiltrated it by creating their own underground presses, and how most of the magazines died out, though a few became alternative newsweeklies. That, to me at that time, was what the ‘60s was—a flowering, a wilting, a fading away.

The woman looked at me like I was crazy, or maybe she was crazy, saying “Up to? Up to? Up to?” to me as she walked away. (The kids, by the way, just sat there and watched this all unfold—a silly sideshow to whatever it was they were up to that day.)

That moment came back to mind when I recently saw the Broadway production of the play “The Children” at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre in Manhattan. It features the same crew from the Royal Court production: directed by James Macdonald; and starring Francesca Annis, Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay. The play is written by Lucy Kirkwood.

Spoilers ahead.


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#tbt review: Intergalactic Nemesis live-action graphic novel

This review originally appeared in the Times Union on Jan. 12, 2012.


A scene from “Intergalactic Nemesis”

“The Intergalactic Nemesis” has landed at Proctors in Schenectady with an answer to the question, “What exactly is a ‘live-action graphic novel’?”

That’s how “Nemesis” bills itself, and though that term may bring to mind Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” series of movies, “Nemesis” is a stage-play hybrid: part radio show and part slide show.

Three actors at microphones voice multiple characters, while a Foley artist creates sound effects from objects on the tables before him — such as shoes, crinkled paper and even a box of macaroni and cheese — and a keyboardist maintains a dramatic score. Meanwhile, one comic book image after another is projected on a screen that towers above the people. The show uses more than 1,200 images.

The story is set in 1933 and reporter Molly Sloan, her assistant Timmy Mendez and a mysterious and heroic librarian named Ben Wilcott join forces to thwart the impending invasion of sludge monsters from the planet Zygon, who are aided by the evil hypnotist Mysterion.

The show has plenty of charm. A lot of that has to do with watching the quick work of Foley artist Buzz Moran and his delighted expression when he shakes a metallic sheet to create booming sounds of thunder.

Other fun moments come from the multiple voices the actors assume for different characters, especially when those characters are having a dialogue and one actor does both voices. The actor Chris Gibson stands out in this regard, as he hams up the maniacal laughter of the evil Mysterion, who is often in dialogue with Wilcott.

Silences are also effectively used, as when a revelation leaves the characters dumbfounded and the actors say nothing as the screen shows one surprised face after another. Also of note are the humorous ways the three actors create crowd conversation noise at a fancy party and on a street in Tunisia, and how they create the sound of applause by gently slapping their cheeks.

The show has enough of these moments to make up for some of its weaknesses, such as an overlong and static first act. A lot happens in that act, and I don’t want to give it away, but it does more to set up situations in which the characters react them to, instead of revealing to us who these characters are and what motivates them. In that regard, the second act is much better. I also wished that more of Tim Doyle’s images were better drawn, because too often the expressions and body positions seemed awkward and distorted.

One of the difficulties of this hybrid show is knowing what to watch: the images or the actors and Foley artist. In some ways, it seems as if it is playing against too much nostalgia for a clear focus. But if you’ve never seen a Foley artist at work, then this a must-see. Best of all, it is appropriate for audiences of all ages, from those who’ve never known a world without iPhones to those who once gathered around the wireless (radio, that is) for nightly news and entertainment.


Moss Hart, Act One and the persistence of You Can’t Take It With You

Tony Shalhoub as George S. Kaufman and Santino Fontana as Moss Hart in "Act One" at Lincoln Center (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Tony Shalhoub as George S. Kaufman and Santino Fontana as Moss Hart in “Act One” at Lincoln Center (Photo by Joan Marcus)

“Act One” officially opens at Lincoln Center later this week, but this weekend I saw a preview showing of it. It’s good. Not great — the story of the life of Moss Hart, the playwright who grew up poor in the Bronx and had only a eighth-grade education (he had to go to work) but who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The production is magnificent — a rotating set, great period costumes, top-notch acting from Tony Shalhoub (as an older Moss Hart, narrating Our Town-style; as the father of the 11-year-old Moss Hart; and as George S. Kaufman, who works with the young adult Moss Hart); the young adult Hart is strongly played by Santino Fontana, who may be best known as the voice of the evil prince Hans in the movie musical “Frozen”; and Andrea Martin, nailing multiple roles.

The play (written and directed by James Lapine), though, moves a bit slowly in, yes, Act 1, and feels very much like a less madcap Moss Hart play — a little dated in trying to stay true to the source material, Hart’s 1959 autobiography about his Dickensian early 20th-century life. What also seems dated is the ease of access Hart had to some of the brightest minds of his day, despite his lack of education. Perhaps a 21st century analogy would be talented computer coders and programmers who drop out of college and gain access to the best and brightest in that field.

What was most interesting to me though was what happened before I saw the show. I wanted to see the play in no small part because I had acted in Hart and Kaufman’s “You Can’t Take it With You” in high school, back in the 1980s.

At work, one of my coworkers, when I told her I was going to see the play, said, “I performed in ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ in high school.” She’s in her 60s, which means her high school days were in the 1960s. And also at work, another colleague said, “I was in ‘You Can’t Take it With You’ in high school!” That colleague, however, is an intern, a college senior, and her high school days were in the 2000s.

There it was, three generations of people all working at the same place all having been in the same play, which was first performed 1936 and won the Pulitzer in 1937.

So if you love the theater, and if you’ve been in any of Hart’s plays (such as “The Man Who Came to Dinner”), then this play is highly recommended.





‘The Farnsworth Invention’ @ Albany Civic Theater, 5/5/12

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ALBANY — Aaron Sorkin earned his claim to fame with quick and punchy dramas such as “A Few Good Men” and “The West Wing.”

The Albany Civic Theater’s production of Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention,” which opened Friday night, nails his trademark speed with a gripping and satisfying tale of two self-made men whose powerful intellects set them on a collision course.

Philo Farnsworth, a precocious self-taught inventor in Utah, came up with the idea of transmitting live images over the air in real time — while still a teen. Yes, the play doesn’t stint on using correct terminology — electrons and dissector tubes, for example — but his invention is repeated enough that all audience members should get a basic understanding of the science as well as its importance.

David Sarnoff, meanwhile, was an immigrant who taught himself English, started as an office boy at Commercial Cable Company and later led RCA and NBC, because he was able to pursue the idea that radio transmissions (and, later, television) could be used to communicate not from just one person to another, but from one person to a mass audience.

Part of the fiction of the play is that Farnsworth and Sarnoff, who never met in real life, trade off duties of telling each other’s stories — and they often argue about the tales. The drama at the center of their lives is not just the pursuit to create a workable television, but also a patent lawsuit to determine who gets the credit — and the financial reward — for inventing television.

Isaac Newberry as Sarnoff stands out for his strong and convincing performance as a smart and charming, though sometimes smug, executive. He is well matched with Tom Templeton as Farnsworth, who captures the manic joy of brilliance set loose on a quest of discovery.

Director Aaron Holbritter deserves much of the credit for this production, for getting his cast of 17 (most playing multiple players) to maintain the play’s demanding pace. Also of note is his sound design, with music and effects that enlarge the space and intensify the drama.

Among the ensemble, Ken Goldfarb (as Zworykin and a radio announcer in particular), Briavel Schultz (as Betty) and Adam M. Coons (Crocker) stand out for being consistently engaging.

One of the big criticisms of the play (it ran on Broadway in 2007) was how much Sorkin reworked the facts. Spoiler alert: Perhaps the biggest reworking is that Farnsworth lost the patent dispute and died penniless, drunk and obscure; whereas in real life, he won and RCA had to pay him royalties.

Is the art worth such sacrifices of truth? The Albany Civic Theater’s production seems to be a resounding yes; however, an uneasiness lingers in the irony that an inability to work with the truth comes from a writer whose most famous line, from “A Few Good Men,” is: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Perhaps Sorkin was talking to himself?

Theater review
“The Farnsworth Invention”

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Continues: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through May 20
Where: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany
Length: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $15
Info: 518-462-1297;

Which Broadway shows do you think Proctors will announce Tuesday?

On Tuesday night, Proctors will announce its 2012-13 Broadway series, the big money-maker for the Schenectady venue.

Back in January, I took a stab at guessing which five shows would hit the boards in the old Vaudeville house.

Here are my guesses (the first three will be beginning their first U.S. tours later this year):

  • “War Horse,”
  • “Anything Goes,”
  • “The Book of Mormon,”
  • “Fela!” and
  • “American Idiot.”

I chose “Fela!” and “American Idiot” because they seem like fun shows that are now touring but haven’t played Proctors, yet. Other shows in that category include “Billy Elliot,” “Les Miserables” (the 25th anniversary edition), “Mary Poppins” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”

What would you like Proctors to announce tomorrow night?

Big Picture: Theater that matters (Act 2)

Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

Tim Miller stands in the middle of the floor at Highways Performance Space & Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. He’s surrounded by 25 arts journalists, including me.

He directs us by saying something like, “Let’s take 50 seconds and move around the stage riding a skateboard while frying eggs and dodging machine gun fire and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.”

And we — the fellows of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute and Theater and Musical Theater — slide our feet across the floor, flick our wrists and bend our waists while saying the pledge. People bump into each other. It isn’t pretty, but Miller is giving us an entrance into the creative process of performance art.

In last week’s column, I wrote about a critic’s take on theater that matters. This week, I’m writing about Miller’s take.

Miller may be best known as one of the “NEA Four” — four artists who had NEA grants overturned in 1990 by the first Bush administration because of their subject matter. Miller’s art often has to do with his identity as a gay man, and the loss of government funding was seen as an attempt by a conservative administration to stifle creative expression.

The “NEA Four” sued the government in 1993 and eventually were awarded their grants, though Miller had part of his grant revoked in 1998 when the Supreme Court ruled that standards of decency can be used in federal funding of the arts.

Miller, a co-founder of Highways, tours the country performing and teaching. The exercises he took us through were just a warm up.

Now Miller has us stand in a circle, close our eyes, think about an important moment and to imagine a movement or a gesture that expresses that moment.

We open our eyes and go around the room acting out our movements without words. Some people took a few steps, others seemed to stretch, and one person made a violent shoving motion. Without words or context, the movements were a mysterious dumb show.

Miller puts us in groups of three. He tells us to create scenes from our gestures using our group as actors and to think up six short, strong sentences to go with the movements. We have 10 minutes. Then we perform.

One person re-enacts his wedding ceremony with his partner, reciting lines of Walt Whitman. The man’s shove, in context, reveals he pushed a woman away from an oncoming vehicle, saving her life. The scenes åre intimate and revealing. Some people even cry, overcome with emotion, when we talk about what was shared. It’s the most intense ice-breaker ever.

Then Miller puts our actions into a bigger context.

He says he believes art was vital to our lives, that people were painting on caves long before they were ever batting balls or building businesses.

But, he says, when the tsunami struck Indonesia in 2004, killing hundreds of thousands of people, he felt his ideas about art were worthless. He wished he knew how to do something practical, like a relief worker. How relevant is art in the face of disaster?

Later, though, he saw a BBC news program that showed children orphaned by the tsunami acting out a piece of performance art. One child stood on a chair, surrounded by other children who waggled their fingers and raised their arms to suggest rising water. The interpreter’s voice spoke in short, strong sentences about how the waters rose and one by one people died. Then the BBC program showed the children together laughing.

Miller says the children were doing what we had just done as a group. When he saw those children, then he understand that art was important for survival, that it gave them the tools to get them through trauma, that it allowed them the hope to save their humanity.

Miller’s words leave us silent.