By: David Sheward
Sutton Foster in Sweet Charity
The recent presidential election has shifted the subtext of two Off-Broadway plays. With the unexpected triumph of Donald Trump as president, irony has been added and at the performances attended, the audience sighed with regret at lines which would have had a different meaning if the outcome had favored Hillary Clinton. Both still offer
telling and sharp snapshots of America at this moment as we are balanced on a
knife-edge precipice between a conflicted recent past and an uncertain future.
The most ironic post-election moment in Notes from the Field, Anna Deavere Smith’s latest hybrid foray into journalism and theater, comes late in the evening. As Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Education Fund, Smith
states in the next three years, the country will be making a major investment and
hopefully it will be in education. After speaking those lines, the
actress-playwright turned her face from the audience and paused for a few
moments to dead silence. One can only imagine that with Trump headed to the
White House, Smith may have been struck by the missed opportunity for a
renaissance in public education, given the Donald’s statements on drastically
cutting federal government funding in this area.
It’s a heartbreaking image in a play of heartbreak. As with her earlier works, this is a collection of monologues derived from the authour’s interviews with hundreds of subjects affected by the same topic with Smith playing all of the characters. She’s examined the Crown
Heights riots (Fires in the Mirror), the Rodney King controversy (Twilight:
Los Angeles, 1992), the relationship between the White House and the press
(House Arrest), and the American health care system (Let Me Down Easy).
In Notes, she plays educators, politicians, students, and activists
caught in the school-to-prison pipeline. She begins with the staggering number
of high-profile incidents of fatal encounters between unarmed African-American
men and the police and then moves to individual stories of the struggling
public school system, revealing how the two are connected.
Among the most striking portraits are a Latino mother going to extreme lengths to keep her kids out of trouble, a
woman imprisoned as an accomplice to murder regretting her choices but deriving
joy from training dogs, and a teacher detailing the arduous work of keeping
order in her classroom (“It’s like running a jail without a gun”). Each of the
17 characters comes to intense life as Smith assembles a vibrant collage of
voices. Leonard Foglia provides smooth direction and transitions between the
pieces while cellist Marcus Shelby elegantly accompanies and humorously
interacts with Smith.
The election has an even greater impact on Richard Nelson’s Women of a Certain Age, the third and final
play in his trilogy about an American family in this tumultuous year. We are
once again in the Gabriel kitchen in the upstate New York town of Rhinebeck. It’s
election day, Nov. 8, in the early evening, a few hours before the returns come
in. As the Gabriels prepare a meal, they revive old hurts, face new challenges,
and seek comfort as the nation is about to change. As in the earlier works in
this cycle, Hungry and What Did You Expect?, politics creeps
slowly into the conversation, but it’s underscores everything that is said in
The play takes place before the ballots
are finally counted and much of the political dialogue focuses on Clinton and
what her victory would be like. But the prospect of a moderate woman president
instead of a fire-breathing demagogue does not brighten the Gabriels’ discourse
or outlook. (The eventual outcome makes the discussion all the more
shattering.) The family house must be sold, all of its members are still
grieving the recent death of elder brother Thomas, a playwright, and are facing
limited employment prospects. None have faith in government no matter who runs
it. Once again, Nelson’s quiet subtle direction and his Chekhovian script evoke
a realistic, slightly humorous, and movingly melancholy milieu. The cast
continues to excel. Maryann Plunkett’s gracious Mary, Jay O. Sanders’ befuddled,
teddy-bearish George, Lynn Hawley’s feisty Hannah, Amy Warren’s wounded,
passive-aggressive Joyce, and Meg Gibson’s desperately needy Karin pull at our
heartstrings without tugging too hard. Most devastating of all is Roberta
Maxwell’s defeated matriarch Patricia. The fiery spirit she exhibited in the
earlier plays is quenched by circumstance and bad choices. Maxwell shows us the
ember of Patricia’s barely-flickering personality as she attempts to make sense
of a confusing new world.
The current political climate even has
resonance in a revival of a seemingly frivolous musical from the late Golden
Age of Broadway. Sweet Charity was conceived as a star vehicle for Gwen
Verdon by her then-husband Bob Fosse in 1966. Shirley MacLaine headlined the 1969
movie versions and subsequent Broadway productions starred Debbie Allen and
Christina Applegate respectively. Cy Coleman’s peppy score and Dorothy Fields’ witty
lyrics still snap, crackle and pop despite the occasional dated reference. Neil
Simon’s book transforms the heroine of Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria from
a soft-hearted Roman prostitute to a soft-hearted Manhattan dance-hall hostess.
The position of women allowing customers to paw them as they tango together has
vanished from our culture, but the exploitation of female sexuality continues—even
allegedly by the president-elect and the ousted head of Fox News. Director
Leigh Silverman puts a dark, feminist spin on the musical in her intimate
revival for The New Group at the Signature Center.
The band is all female, offering an
ironic slant on female objectification, and costume designer Clint Ramos has
dressed Charity and her fellow not-quite sex workers in matching spangled
halters and big wigs so they look alike, a chorus of overpainted dolls catering
to male fantasies.
Shining through the gloom is the luminous Sutton Foster as the heartbreaking Charity. Her sad-clown antics bring
to mind the tender-toughness of Giuletta Masina (of the original Fellini work),
the comedy genius of Lucille Ball, and the musical-theater pizzazz of Verdon
and MacLaine. This is a performer who will do anything to illuminate her role
from literally crawling all over a repulsive boyfriend to being splashed in the
face with water (twice) to barring Charity’s confused and torn soul in the
climactic “Where Am I Going?”
Shuler Hensley is brilliantly neurotic as her pathetic suitor Oscar and Joel Perez impressively quadruples as the abusive boyfriend, an Italian movie star, the scuzzy manager of the dance hall,
and a flaky cult leader. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are
delightfully gritty as two of Charity’s co-workers.
At the end of the show, Charity is standing is alone in Central Park with no love, no money, and no job, but she looks at the dawn and smiles with hope. The Gabriels have less optimism, but here’s to looking ahead like Charity with belief in ourselves and our national destiny.
Notes from the Field: ****
Nov. 2—Dec. 18. Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.,
NYC. Tue—Thu, 7 pm; Fri—Sat, 8 pm; Sat, 2 pm: Sun, 3 pm. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $92—$107. (212) 246-4422. www.2st.com
Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field
Women of a Certain Age: ****
Nov. 8—Dec. 4. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC.
Tue—Sun, 7:30 pm; Sat, Sun, 2 pm. Running time: 100 mins. with no intermission.
$65. (212) 967-7555. www.publictheater.org. Photo: Joan Marcus
Women of a Certain Age
Sweet Charity: ****
Nov. 20—Jan. 8. The New Group at the Pershing Square
Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue—Fri, Sun, 7:30 pm; Sat, 8 pm; Wed,
Sat, Sun, 2 pm. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission.
(212) 244-7529. TheNewGroup.org. Photos Monique Carboni
Emily Padgett, Donald Jones, Jr., Sutton Foster, Joel Perez, Cody Williams in Sweet Charity