New York Theatre (Part 1)

Finally managing to do a round-up of New York theatre from the beginning of the month. So in no particualr order, starting with the plays….

Sylvia 

I booked this in part because my a fluke of fate I’ve not missed Matthew Broderick in anything he’s done on stage for nearly 15 years. Somehow the man formerly known as Leo Bloom and my New York stage schedules overlap. Also it’s a play about a dog, how could I resist?

I will admit to some reservation when I realised that the dog in question is played by a human (Analeigh Ashford here) but within minutes of her arriving on stage her ‘Sylvia’ had won me over much like Broderick’s Greg in the play. Ashford’s dog really is hilarious (there’s a sentence you don’t get to write every day.) blending physical comedy and action to embody the dog, while talking to Greg she manages to encapsulate what any dog lover knows to be the mannerisms of a canine without it being too cartoonish.

It is of course hilarous at times, and in this, an early preview, with Ashford’s legs flying over the sofa while exclaiming as the dog, Broderick struggled to keep it together. Not only is there physical comedy but wit also, Sylvia being the wittest retriver I’ve ever enountered-with an excellent line in sarcasm as well. Additional comedy is also found from Robert Sella’s performance as, well everyone else in the play. First appearing as the creepy dog-walker that inhabits every dog walking park (dog owners will soon recognise) he also appears as ‘Phyllis’ and ‘Leslie’. As the former doing a line in drag performance that can teach the most seasoned of drag queens a lesson, and in the latter the play using his triple role to make some witty and interesting remarks about gender portrayl-while keeping a firm sense of humour in place.

At it’s heart though, the play has real heart. Sylvia represents the mid-life crisis of Greg and the breaking down of his marriage with Kate. Although the dog initally drives them apart-with Greg spending more and more time and attention on Sylvia, and Kate growing ever resentful, actually Sylvia helps teach them both a lot about love and each other. Sweet and a bit sentimental ‘Syliva’ is highly entertaining, and as a conisor of dogs on stage, up there with the best I’ve seen-real dog or not.

A View From a Bridge 

A play and staging that couldn’t be more differnet from ‘Sylvia’s light comedic traditional play, Ivo Van Hove’s reworking of Arthur Miller’s classic play is dark and intense, made more so by it’s straigh trhough staging and on-stage seating.

Having seen this in the NT Live broadcast in the UK I knew what to expect but was keen to see the production live, and see new addition (and personal favourite of mine) Russell Tovey. Niether disappointed. The on-stage seating is really worth doing (and worth noting substantially cheaper!) for the intimate intensity of this production.

Van Hove is known for his radical interpretations of texts, and this is no exception. Stripped back completly the whole play takes place inside a plain boxed off section of stage which opens like peeling a lid off a coffin at the start. One door at the rear of stage and no props, the actors enter and exit but no other indication of scene changes other than subtle musical cues takes place. Mr Alfieri in his role as narrator patrols the edges of the box, sometimes sitting and observing scenes as they unfold. All the characters inside are barefoot throughout, and when Alfieri (played here by Michael Gould) removes his shoes to step inside and take his part within the action, returning to the outside and putting his shoes back on to continue narrating.

Mark Strong holds together this production with impressive prowess. Doubtless and intimidating figure physically he comands the space without giving Eddie an overbearing physical presence too early. His is a slow burn up to the level of delusion and anger that sees the life he thinks he has built around him crumble with tragic consequences. Likewise the relationship with Catherine (Phoebe Fox) and his wife Beatice (Nicola Walker) is managed subtly by Van Hove. The early indicators that all may not be ‘normal’ in his relationship with Catherine (the lighting of the cigar, his reluctance to let her take the job) walk a grey line between a protective unlce, and the possablity of something deeper and possibly more distrubing to their relationship. This grey area, and a level of uncertainty about who thinks what or may do what is maintained across the prodcution. The stripped back nature of the performance helps the audience to in fact make their own mind up about Eddie. And although many may come familar with the play, and with their own preconceptions about Eddie’s motives and actions, this production does allow the actors to open up further questions within each of their roles, making it a refreshing interpretation of a classic.

The whole cast, alongside the pillars of Michael Gould’s narration and Mark Strong’s inimitable Eddie, are exceptional. Although I’d personally pay to see Nicola Walker read the phone book, there is no denying her strength in this role, more than holding her own as Beatrice against Strong’s performance as Eddie, and showing different angles and shades of Beatrice between the performances I’d seen of this production. Russell Tovey as a newcomer to this produciton, and perhaps not the obvious choice for Rodolpho shows the range of his acting abilities.

The final sequance in which, like much of the production, the lines of what really happened are blurred, and as with the rest of the production clear cut fight choreography is replaced with a movement piece that makes the actions of the final scene much more open. The intensity that has built over the two hours straight through performance is held by the final moments, as blood rains down on everyone and the box of the stage closes it’s lid once again.

Van Hove’s interpretations of plays often divide opinon and this is no exception. The stripped bare production puts much in the hands of its audeince, and asks new questions of an old play. It’s not a textbook interpretation, but it’s a compelling one.