The Siegel Column

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Pal Joey: one fatal flaw

When the least successful lead performance in Pal Joey is Joey (Matthew Risch), you know the show is in trouble. Stockard Channing walks away with the piece as Vera Simpson, tossing off her lines with a dry wit and putting over "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" with the acting chops of, well, a Tony Award winner. Right behind her comes the surprise of the night, Martha Plimpton (Gladys Bumps), singing and dancing as if she were born to it. Even the ingénue, Jenny Fellner (Linda English), gives an endearing performance. Matthew Risch, the understudy for Christian Hoff given the opportunity of a lifetime to step into the show's title role, dances well and sings adequately, but lacks the one fundamental asset that any actor must possess who plays this role: charm. Lacking that one essential ingredient, Joey Evans is simply a callow, shallow villain without the incandescent spark that allows the audience to understand why Vera Simpson takes him under her wing and why Linda English is so smitten with him.

Richard Greenberg has done a smooth job of re-imagining John O'Hara's original book, and there is no lack of wonderful songs in this quintessential Rodgers & Hart score. The set design by Scott Pask is visually compelling, the costume design by William Ivey Long is downright award-worthy, while the lighting by Paul Gallo is atmospheric, and the choreography by Graciela Daniele is stylish. In other words, the show is less than the sum of its parts. Joe Mantello might have directed this show to the peak of perfection in every area except the one upon which the show lives or dies. If Christian Hoff couldn't do it (for whatever reason), there were plenty of other people who might have played the role of Joey Evans and made it work: Michael Berresse comes immediately to mind.

They say that casting is ninety percent of direction. Yup.

Catch-22: impressive attempt that just falls short

You've got to give the Aquila Theater credit for gumption. Their attempt at adapting Joseph Heller's sprawling anti-war novel Catch-22 to the Lucille Lortel stage is nothing if not audacious. Lovers of the book (including these critics) may well find Peter Meineck's adaptation wanting, even as they are wowed by the same Mr. Meineck's exciting direction and imaginative set design. It would appear, of course, that Mr. Meineck's sense of style overwhelmed his sense of the story. But, by the same token, those who are not familiar with the book (and in the ensuing decades since its release, there are probably plenty of people who've never heard of it), they may be mightily impressed even with this truncated version of Heller's great novel.

A small, talented cast plays a wide variety of Heller's crazy characters. At the center, though, is John Lavelle as Captain Yossarian; the actor seems too much a leading man to play the quirky everyman who wants nothing more than to get out of flying combat missions during World War II's Italian campaign. Supporting Lavelle, the rest of the cast is first rate with special mention to Christina Pumariega who plays Nurse Duckett, Nately's Whore and various other characters with an intense, period zeal. Also memorable are David Bishins as Dunbar, Richard Sheridan Willis as Doc Daneeka, and Chip Brookes as Milo Minderbinder. The real star of the show, though, is Peter Meineck, who has given this production, if not the novel, so much pizzazz.

Back Back Back hits a home run!

Only one member of this writing team is a baseball fan, yet both of us were completely riveted by the thinly veiled look at the tragic careers of José Canseco and Mark McGwire, using the name Raul and Kent, respectively, in this powerful play titled Back Back Back by Itamar Moses. Added to this, in a supporting but important role, is the infielder Walt Weiss, known as Adam in this three-hander about the illegal use of steroids by major league baseball stars. Who knew that drug use by baseball players would make such an insightful and penetrating play about that nature of winning.

Daniel Aukin's flawless direction takes his three actors—all exquisitely well cast—through more than twenty years, from first breaking into the major leagues right through the point of testifying before Congress years after leaving the game. Jeremy Davidson gives a literally towering performance as Kent, a slow-talking but smart giant who is a leader in more ways than one. His physical and vocal performances in the piece, as he transforms himself over the years, are stunning. James Martinez plays the fast-talking, wound-up Raul with considerable flair, while Michael Mosley gives Adam a sense of reality that helps ground this play about super athletes with a character of more mortal abilities.

Back Back Back is just about a perfect play because it features a superior script, actors who could not have been better cast for their roles, and direction that takes full advantage of both.


-- Barbara and Scott Siegel


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