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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Stars of David,
Behind the Eye and
The Exit Interview

A Separate Peace
Joanna Glushak, Alex Brightman, Nancy Balbirer,
Brad Oscar, and Donna Vivino

Photo by Mark Garvin
Stars of David is Philadelphia Theatre Company's ambitious new musical that attempts to provide an overview of the way modern American Jews feel about their place in society. That's a big task, and even though Stars of David employs some of the biggest names in musical theatre, it can't help but fall short. Individual scenes in Stars of David are often excellent, and there are some terrific songs, but the whole thing is as thin as matzo.

Stars of David is based on Abigail Pogrebin's 2005 book of interviews with famous Jews reflecting on their faith and their heritage. For the stage adaptation, the creators selected eleven of Pogrebin's interviews and recruited some heavyweights to musicalize them, including Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire (Closer Than Ever), Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and William Finn (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). There's a song co-written by Marvin Hamlisch, who died this past summer, and two co-written by Jule Styne, who died eighteen years ago. (Boy, that Jule Styne must have a great agent.) Hairspray scribe Marc Shaiman's one contribution to the score was eliminated during previews.

Needless to say, the songs are Stars of David's best feature. My favorite song is the smartest: "Horrible Seders" by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), in which playwright Tony Kushner muses on the Jewish intellectual tradition while the melody keeps elongating in an effort to keep up with his wordy digressions. Nearly as good is Maltby and Shire's "Smart People," in which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks of how viewers describe his characters using words like "smarty pants" and "know-it-all"—words which, the songwriters cleverly point out, are just tactful synonyms for "Jewish." "Broken Pieces," by Hamlisch and his "The Way We Were" lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, is a lovely, comforting piece full of the team's trademark lush romanticism. Harnick's "The Book of Norman" is a cute tribute to TV producer Norman Lear. And Amanda Green's upbeat "Just Be Who You Are," the closest thing this show has to a showstopper, is a celebration of Fran Drescher's determination to succeed in show business without compromising her Jewish identity—or, as the song puts it, "put the Jew in Julie Andrews." (It's an indication of this show's misplaced sense of importance that it spends five minutes saluting Drescher, who was good on "The Nanny" but isn't exactly a towering talent.)

There are also touching, reflective songs, including Kitt and Pogrebin's "As If I Weren't There," in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg discusses how she felt excluded from religious traditions, and Sheik and Sater's moody "Through the Darkening Blue," about how designer Kenneth Cole allowed his children to be raised Catholic, then sought to give them some sense of their Jewish background. The score is uneven, but there's only one real clunker: Finn's collaboration with Will Aaronson, "The Jews Take Care of Everything." It's a song about Joan Rivers that is, like Rivers herself in recent years, more annoying than funny.

Stars of David isn't a revue; there's a book that ties everything together. Book writer Charles Busch has created a wispy plot about an author (loosely based on Pogrebin) who interviews celebrities while dealing with her own mini-crisis: her twelve-year-old daughter has decided to embrace her religion and have a Bat Mitzvah, and the author struggles to figure out why. Eventually, the author recognizes the importance of Judaism in her own life—but tellingly, like the people she interviews, she focuses on the cultural traditions and ceremonies of Judaism rather than the religion's precepts. (Only one of the songs, Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen's "Edgar Bronfman," discusses God.) The script holds some interest, but it lacks conflict (aside from one perfunctory argument) and feels flat.

Stars of David has received an excellent production. Gordon Greenberg's direction is crisp and efficient, and there's a fine cast: Nancy Balbirer is sincere as the author, Brad Oscar lends a sense of importance to authority figures like Bronfman and Cole, Donna Vivino is introspective as Ginsburg and sassy as Drescher, Joanna Glushak is bold as Rivers, and Alex Brightman captures Kushner's intensity. Set designer Beowulf Boritt's handsome bookcases, Howell Binkley's lighting, and Jason H. Thompson's projections create a remarkable sense of variety, giving the sense of many rooms on a single set.

Stars of David covers a lot of ground in just eighty minutes. But there are too many disparate themes and musical styles, and it just doesn't hold together. It's a show about faith that feels oddly lacking in inspiration.

Stars of David runs through November 18, 2012, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $51-$79, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org, or in person at the box office.



Kittson O'Neill and Alan Radway
Photo by Thomas Cain
Lee Miller was uncompromising, and so is Behind the Eye, Carson Kreitzer's play about her. Miller (1907-1977) began her career as a fashion model, served as the muse to surrealist artists like Man Ray, and went on to establish a strong reputation as an art and fashion photographer and as a war correspondent. Director Lisa Jo Epstein's production tells Miller's story without showing any of Miller's striking images, but provides plenty of striking stage images of its own. And it boasts a dynamic lead performance by Kittson O'Neill, who, like the real Lee Miller, grabs your attention and never lets go.

Kreitzer's dialogue is full of short, clipped phrases that propel the drama along, and Epstein supplies a busy, fluid staging with actors marching back and forth to simulate the bustle of Paris, mirrors that spin across the stage, and a table that gets turned on its side to simulate a bathtub (Simon Harding is the set designer). Miller seems arrogant at first—she proclaims that it's a "burden" being "the most beautiful woman in the room"—but she soon proves that she's the smartest woman in the room, too, and it's that combination that attracts so many men to her. She takes pleasure in being bold ("I've never been in distress a day of my life"), and she is portrayed as a visionary artist ("We were gonna change the way the world sees"). And even when she discusses a childhood that was filled with horrors, including a rape at age 7 that left her with gonorrhea, she is contemptuous of anyone who would analyze her or see her as a victim ("Think you got me all worked out?"). In Miller's world, there's no time for self-pity.

Kreitzer's play feels at times as if it's trying too hard to cover all the bases that Miller herself did effortlessly, and overdoes its efforts to portray Miller as a misunderstood genius. And in elevating Miller, the play diminishes the status of other artists, including Man Ray, Picasso, and Roland Penrose (Miller's second husband). But it generally does a good job of focusing and condensing a complicated life.

O'Neill, who is only offstage for one minute during a show that lasts nearly two hours, plays Miller with a confident delivery, a brash manner, an insistent gaze, and a sly, knowing smile. She does a superb job of conveying Miller's bracing intelligence and confident sexuality. Stalking the stage wearing costume designer Charlotte Cloe Fox Wind's white pantsuit (and sometimes wearing nothing at all), she portrays a Lee Miller who won't be satisfied until all her hungers are satisfied, but knows they never will be.

Charlotte Northeast, Allen Radway, James Stover and Robb Hutter provide strong support as the various women and men in Miller's life.

Behind the Eye runs through November 18, 2012, and is presented by Gas & Electric Arts at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $16-$25 and may be purchased by calling 215-407-0556, online at www.GasAndElectricArts.org, or in person at the box office.



Dan Hodge and Cheryl Williams
We're only a few moments into William Missouri Downs' The Exit Interview when two peppy cheerleaders interrupt the action onstage. The cheerleaders arrive to address the audience about, well, why the actors in this show will be addressing the audience ("This play contains Brechtian alienation devices! Yay, Bertolt Brecht!"). What's that? You don't know who Bertolt Brecht was? Don't worry, you don't have to do any research ahead of time—Downs' play will explain who Brecht was and also explain his technique of "alienation," which calls attention to the artificiality of stage dram. Basically, the idea is that by being reminded that you're watching a play, you'll get wrapped up in the ideas being debated rather than trying to identify with the characters onstage.

The Exit Interview certainly achieves this purpose, and it uses a lot of Brechtian devices to do so. Characters start a speech only to be interrupted by the stage manager giving them a replacement speech. Scenes are interspersed with commercials for local restaurants. And even the plot is filled with self-conscious absurdities. We see recently-fired college professor (and Brecht scholar) Dick Fig sit down for his exit interview with Eunice, a low-level human resources drone who peppers him with ridiculous questions like "If you were a snowflake, would you look forward to melting?"

A lot of this is really, really funny. Seth Rozin's lively direction keeps things rolling, and the hard-working cast is up to all the challenges in Downs' script. Dan Hodge is great at expressing all of Dick's mounting frustrations, and Cheryl Williams' Eunice is alternately clueless and conflicted. And the other actors (Meghan Malloy, Jennifer MacMillan, David Bardeen and Eric Kramer) are versatile quick-change artists who play everything from an uptight mother to a vain Fox News reporter to a lewd bishop.

But part of the reason the actors work so hard is that the play is so overstuffed with ideas for them to act out. Downs keeps throwing ideas at the audience, and the play becomes increasingly scattershot as it goes on. Even though the cheerleaders warn us at the beginning that the show will be offensive, big stretches of act two seem to be inserted just for offensiveness' sake, especially some superfluous swipes at the Catholic and Mormon Churches. Eventually the impulse to mock big targets simply because they're big grows tiresome—and, as the cop-out ending reveals, somewhat pointless. But, even though The Exit Interview doesn't quite pay off in the end, it's a lot of fun while it lasts.

Roman Tatarowicz contributed the flexible set design, and Kittson O'Neill (yes, her again) is the production's dramaturg.

The Exit Interview runs through November 11, 2012, and is presented by InterAct Theatre Company on the Main Stage of The Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $28-$35 and may be purchased by calling 215-568-8079, online at www.InterActTheatre.org, or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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