REVIEWS: “THE CLOSET” AND “THE SOUND INSIDE” AT WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

Williamstown Theatre Festival

You know it’s officially summertime in the Berkshires when the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival kicks off. This year, the iconic institution celebrates its 64th season, holding its inaugural performances last week.


Up first on the Main Stage is The Closet. Written by Douglas Carter Beane (XanaduSister Act) and inspired by the French play Le Placard by Francis Veber, this world premiere comedy is running from June 26-July 14. Starring Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick (Brighton Beach Memoirs; How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying), Tony Award nominees Jessica Hecht (A View from the Bridge) and Brooks Ashmanskas (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me), as well as Ann HaradaBen AhlersWill Cobbs and Raymond BokhourThe Closet is an uproarious contemporary farce guaranteed to make its audience ache from non-stop laughter.

The Closet

Set in modern-day Scranton, Pennsylvania, the play tells the story of Martin O’Reilly (Broderick), a middle-aged man who’s all but given up on his dreams of a bright future. He’s barely holding onto his dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his son (Ahlers) thinks he’s too boring and ordinary to spend even a minimal amount of time with him. At work, his impending firing is an open secret that office gossip queen (a scene-stealing Harada) loves to spread. Meanwhile, Martin obliviously and regularly accepts baked goods from his co-worker Patricia (Hecht), whose crush on him is as subtle as the giant crucifixes that adorn the office of the Catholic supplies distributor where they work.

Martin’s life is soon turned upside down with the introduction of his new roommate, Ronnie Wilde (the always hysterical Ashmanskas) – a flamboyant man who is as loudly boisterous as the patterns on his blazers. It’s not long before Ronnie infiltrates both Martin’s personal and professional lives.

Upon learning what Martin’s boss, Roland (Cobbs), is planning on doing at lunch that day, Ronnie concocts a wild and lavish scheme to convince Martin’s colleagues that the two of them are a gay couple. As a result, he can argue that if they do let Martin go, it would be because he was gay. Therefore, the already-floundering company would get terrible PR for its discriminatory treatment of a gay worker (despite the fact that they would be completely within their legal rights to fire him for that reason – Ugh).

The chain of events that ensues is a rollicking and whimsical ride in which every character is ultimately pushed to come out of their own respective closets, whatever they may be. Brilliantly directed by Mark Brokaw (How I Learned to Drive), The Closet is an undeniably laugh-out-loud satire about political correctness, yearning to fit in, and the pursuit of love in extraordinary places.

An equally intelligent and slapstick comedy, The Closet manages to both entertain and pack a poignant punch. After all, there’s an encouraging message at the heart of the show: live life as your most authentic self. In these uncertain times, that’s a reminder that’s never in short supply.

The Closet


The Sound InsideUp first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s more intimate Nikos Stage is another world premiere play. Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Rapp (Red Light Winter) and starring Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds; Angels in America), The Sound Inside is the absolute must-see show of the summer. Directed by freshly minted Tony Award winner David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), this cerebral drama runs from June 27 – July 8.

Although she enjoyed some literary success early in her career, Yale University professor Bella Baird (Parker) hasn’t published a novel in nearly two decades. Now in her early 50s, Bella is diagnosed with cancer and given less than a 20% chance of survival.

Enter Christopher (Will Hochman). A freshman in one of Bella’s English classes, Christopher is unlike his contemporary peers. He doesn’t “do e-mail” and prefers discussing the merits of William Faulkner to taking selfies. One day, he shows up to Bella’s office hours without an appointment. Despite his professor’s insistence that he follow protocol and schedule a formal session through the university’s online calendar, Christopher keeps appearing unannounced. He tells Bella that he’s writing a novel and that, as someone enamored by her class, early prose and expertise, he needs her help in fleshing it out.

As Bella and Christopher spend more time together, she aids him in developing not only his novel’s characters and plot, but also (most importantly) his literary voice. At one point when his new mentor asks for an update on his progress, Christopher explains that he can’t think about anything other than his book. He says he feels like the novel is writing him instead of the other way around. With a knowing smile, Bella describes this as “the free-fall,” the part of a writer’s process in which their work begins to pour out of them like a faucet. This is the point when the author’s mind becomes so completely consumed by their story that the lines between what’s real and what’s fiction become a blur. It’s the stage that can only be reached when you listen and give in to the sound inside.

But as Christopher inches towards the milestone of completing his first draft, Bella becomes consumed by a different kind of force. In order to achieve the harrowing new goal she’s set for herself, she needs someone to help her – but as discreetly as possible. A prized loner with a rapidly intensifying disease, she decides to turn to the one person who she feels she can fully trust: her student. The result is a staggering exploration of not just what people are able to do for one another, but also what mortality means for an artist.

Parker’s tour-de-force transformation into Bella is a master class in stage performance. Her nuanced and raw portrayal allows audiences to peel back enough layers of Bella to become fully immersed in her audacious and often erratic psyche. Parker’s performance skillfully juxtaposes Bella’s sorrow and confidence, painting a vivid portrait of a simultaneously hungry and depleted woman on a quest to define her legacy.

The jaw-dropping reveal in the play’s climax dares its viewers to refocus the lens through which they not only examine Bella but also the overwhelming and sometimes shocking power art can have over its creator. The Sound Inside is a bold, remarkable and unforgettable character study that will haunt, challenge and inspire you long after the curtain closes.

The Sound Inside

Originally published on PopBytes

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD RETURNS TO BROADWAY IN “SYLVIA”

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Annaleigh Ashford is redefining what it means to be a funny girl on Broadway.

It’s no coincidence that the Great White Way’s last true laugh-out-loud play was You Can’t Take It With You, in which Ashford was featured. In a show full of heavyweights like James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne and Elizabeth Ashley, Ashford was not just the most hilarious actor on stage, but she also took home the show’s sole Tony Award. Only 29 at the time, Ashford’s win already felt overdue, thanks to her standout and consistently side-splitting performances in Kinky Boots, Wicked, Hair, andLegally Blonde, and the Off-Broadway productions of Rent and Dogfight.

Now, Ashford is back on Broadway with Sylvia, A.R. Gurney’s endearing and comedic exploration of the relationships between dogs and their human masters. In her first starring role, the triple threat comedienne plays the titular character of Sylvia, a stray dog that gets adopted by a middle-aged New York couple after a chance encounter in Central Park.

UntitledTo prepare for the role, Ashford took her own dog – a toy Australian shepherd named Gracie – to obedience, agility, and sheep herding classes. Instead of just dropping Gracie off, Ashford stuck around and diligently observed and studied the canines. She also immersed herself in nine books—both non-fiction and fiction– about dog psychology. And from the first moment that she leads her body on stage with her nose, it’s instantly clear that this homework more than paid off.

Ashford wears knee-pads and patches of fur to add to the illusion that she’s man’s best friend as she jumps up and down off chairs and sofas, rolls around the stage, and sprints through the aisles of the theater. But her costume is not what transforms her into an animal. It’s the nuanced and dedicated physicality she brings to the part that makes those watching really forget that they’re not actually baring witness to a talking dog. She’s so committed, in fact, that when an audience member’s cell phone interrupts mid-performance, she reacts as any dog would to an unexpected high-pitched sound – by “barking” (or yelling “Hey hey hey!” as it’s represented in the show) until the ringing stops.

“We don’t have that many highly physical female clowns,” Sylvia director Daniel Sullivan told NPR. “I mean, she is really extraordinary in her ability to keep a thing very true and honest and, at the same time, much larger than life, physically.”

When Sylvia debuted on the New York theater scene in an Off-Broadway theater in 1995, it was Sarah Jessica Parker who originated the title role. Now, twenty years later, her husband Matthew Broderick is co-starring in the show’s Broadway premiere. As Greg, the man who takes Sylvia home to his less than enthused wife, Broderick is at his best. As Kate, Julie White excels at playing the skeptical and confused wife who just wants to come home at the end of the day without finding bite marks in her favorite shoes and books – and her marriage.

But no matter who else is on stage, this is truly the Annaleigh Ashford show. Even seasoned stage veterans and Tony-winners like Broderick and White sometimes struggle to maintain a straight face and not burst out laughing at the comedic gold Ashford churns out line after line and movement after movement.

While Greg and Sylvia become more and more dependent on each other, attached at the hips as it were, her presence in his life illuminates who he needs to be in order to become the happiest possible version of himself. This means that maybe the job where he’s been for years but constantly feels put down by his boss is no longer the right fit for him. However, this also means that his wife of 22 years might start to feel jealous that Greg is calling Sylvia “sweetheart” and saying “I love you” much more frequently than he does to her. What ensues is a complex and ultimately heartwarming look at the importance of being honest and willing to compromise with the ones we love.

“By the end, there’s a sense that I’m perceived as the other woman,” Ashford said to USA Today. “From Sylvia’s point of view, this is the man I love. I treat him like my dad in a lot of ways, but he’s also the great love of my life.”

While Kate doesn’t initially take too kindly to Sylvia’s addition into her and Greg’s lives, it becomes increasingly apparent to her that the kinship her husband feels with this dog is unlike any he has felt before. With their kids off at college, Kate enjoys a reawakened professional drive as an English teacher. But for her husband, that same rejuvenated sense of purpose derives from his relationship with their dog. Despite her initial reluctance, she comes to see that, for Greg, Sylvia is not only a pet but also a source of inspiration. And thanks to this dog, her husband is more fulfilled than ever.

UnknownGurney’s decision to make Sylvia have the ability to talk is genius. This tactic not only lends itself to constant hilarity, but also allows the show to paint a very real, multi-layered picture of what humans and dogs expect from one another. The conversations that Sylvia has with both Greg and Kate brilliantly illustrate who these characters are, what they’re thinking, where they are in their lives, how they feel about one another, and what they need to achieve to feel accomplished both as individuals and as a couple heading into the later years of their lives.

The audience members who have doggy bags under their seats to take home to their pooches from their pre-theater dinners can relate all too well to Gurney’s touching ode to the significance of the deep bonds between people and dogs. And for those audience members who have never understood the appeal or entertained the notion of owning a pet,Sylvia shines a light on not just how beautifully symbiotic such companionships can be, but also how much caring for another creature can bring out the qualities within yourself you may need to enhance your own life.

Although Sylvia’s limited run only goes through January, Ashford’s fans can look forward to catching the actress in her popular role as Betty DiMello on the upcoming fourth season of Showtime’s Master of Sex. And on November 13th, her acclaimed cabaret act, Lost In The Stars, will be released via Broadway Records as her first solo album recording.

With this show, Ashford has upped her A-game to a whole new level, and she certainly shows no signs of slowing down. She masters a role that could have very easily fallen flat or not resonated even a little bit as funny or poignant in the hands – or in this case, paws – of a less skilled actress. It’ll be exciting to see if this terrific performance lands her back-to-back Tony Awards, and her first in the Best Actress category (time to start watching out for that record, Audra McDonald!).

Whether or not you’re a dog lover, Sylvia will charm and amuse you, and you’re likely to find yourself barking its praises all the way home.

Click here to fetch tickets to the show, now playing at Broadway’s Cort Theatre through January 24, 2016.

Originally published on PopBytes

TEN MUST-SEE BROADWAY SHOWS THIS FALL!

You Can’t Take It With You

STARRING: James Earl Jones, Rose Byrne, Annaleigh Ashford, Kristine Nielsen, Fran Kranz, Elizabeth Ashley, Johanna Day, Byron Jennings, and Reg Rogers
WHEN: Now through January 4, 2015
WHERE: Longacre Theatre / youcanttakeitwithyoubroadway.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: In her dazzling Broadway debut, Rose Byrne (Damages) continues to show off the comedic chops she displayed in Bridesmaids and Neighbors. With a cast that includes screen and stage legend James Earl Jones (Star WarsThe Great White HopeFences), the always hilarious Kristine Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), and a scene-stealing Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), You Can’t Take It With You is a raucous comedy about an eccentric family that clashes with the conservative and rigid parents of the daughter’s fiancée when they come to dinner on the wrong night. This revival includes everything from snakes to fireworks to Russian royalty to prison sentences to ballet dancers – what more could you ask for?
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You Can’t Take It With You

This Is Our Youth

STARRING: Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson
WHEN: Now through January 4, 2015
WHERE: Cort Theatre / thisisouryouthbroadway.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: Set in New York in 1982, this Kenneth Lonergan-written play chronicles 48 hours in the lives of three materialistic teenagers. Michael Cera (Arrested DevelopmentSuperbad) makes his Great White Way debut as Warren, a dejected 19-year-old who has just stolen $15,000 from his father, while Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down) plays his drug-dealing friend whose apartment acts as the show’s setting. Rookie Magazine founder and Editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson rounds out the cast as Jessica, a fashion student that Warren tries to impress with his newfound cash. Tackling issues of adolescence against the backdrop of the Raegan era, This Is Our Youth has all the makings of a contemporary classic.
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This Is Our Youth

Hedwig & The Angry Inch

STARRING: Andrew Rannells (through October 12), Michael C. Hall (starting October 16), Lena Hall
WHEN: Now
WHERE: Belasco Theatre / hedwigbroadway.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: Winner of this year’s Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, the premiere Broadway production of this rock musical tells the story of a fictional rock and roll band fronted by a transgender woman from East Berlin. Hedwig tells her story in an extended monologue, recalling a romance that never came to fruition after a botched sex change operation tore the couple apart. A thought-provoking musical with a genius score, Hedwig stars Andrew Rannells (GirlsThe Book of Mormon) through October 12, at which point Michael C. Hall (Six Feet UnderDexter) will don the illustrious wig of the title role.
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Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Cabaret

STARRING: Alan Cumming, Michelle Williams (through November 9), Emma Stone (from November 11-February 1, 2015), Danny Burstein, Linda Emond
WHEN: Now through March 29, 2015
WHERE: Studio 54 / cabaretmusical.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: This fall, Alan Cumming will be on your TV screen as the neurotic and brilliantly manipulative Eli Gold on CBS’ The Good Wife and at your local bookstore with the release of his gripping new memoir, Not My Father’s Son. But you’re not truly a fan of Cumming’s until you’ve seen his career-best performance as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. Reprising his Tony Award-winning role from the 1998 production, Cumming is joined in the Kit Kat Klub by Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine; Brokeback Mountain) as the self-destructive Sally Bowles. And when Williams trades in her pink boa, it’ll be picked up by Emma Stone (The HelpEasy A) – who was originally rumored to play Bowles when this revival was first announced. With an unforgettable score by Kander and Ebb, Cabaret shines a spotlight on 1930’s Berlin when sex was rampant and the darkest period in Germany’s history was just around the corner.
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Cabaret

A Delicate Balance

STARRING: Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Martha Plimpton, Lindsay Duncan, Bob Balaban, Clare Higgins
WHEN: October 20 – February 22, 2015
WHERE: John Golden Theatre / adelicatebalancebroadway.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: Three-time Tony Award-winner Glenn Close (DamagesSunset Boulevard) makes her overdue return to the Broadway stage in this revival of Edward Albee’s exploration of a long-married couple during the course of a weekend when their daughter returns home after the dissolution of her fourth marriage. Meanwhile, their home also acts as a refuge for some of their friends and an alcoholic sister. And you thought your family reunions were dramatic.
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A Delicate Balance

It’s Only A Play

STARRING: Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, Rupert Grint, F. Murray Abraham, Micah Stock 
WHEN: 
Now through January 4, 2015
WHERE: 
Schoenfeld Theatre / itsonlyaplay.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: 
Terrence McNally’s biting, hilarious satire on the world of theater makes its Broadway debut with an all-star cast. As a panicked playwright nervously awaits the reviews of the opening night of his new show, he shares his anxieties with the production’s drug-addled lead actress, a television star, a snide critic, a first-time producer, a young director, and the coat check guy. What ensues is a chaotic, and uproarious look at what it takes to put up a Broadway production.
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It’s Only A Play

The Elephant Man

STARRING: Bradley Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Alessandro Nivola, Anthony Heald, Scott Lowell, Kathryn Meisle, Henry Stram
WHEN: 
November 7 – February 15, 2015
WHERE: 
Booth Theatre / elephantmanbroadway.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: 
Set in 19th century England, The Elephant Man is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, star of a traveling freak show. As Merrick’s popularity rises, he attracts the attention of a beautiful actress who’s fascinated by his story and profound intelligence. Cooper and Clarkson have both proven to be some of the most versatile screen actors around, so it’ll be exciting to see how that translates to the stage. Sorry Ryan Murphy, but this is the freak show we’re most excited about.
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The Elephant Man

Side Show

STARRING: Erin Davie, Emily Padgett, Ryan Silverman, David St. Louis, Matthew Hydzik
WHEN: October 28 – TBD
WHERE: St. James Theatre / sideshowbroadway.com
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: Academy Award-winning director Bill Condon (ChicagoDreamgirls) makes his Broadway debut with this retooled musical revival based on the incredible true story of twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Set in the 1920s and 30s, Side Show follows the sisters’ journey as they go from being vaudeville acts to glamorous Hollywood stars, all while looking for love and a sense of normalcy under the spotlight. The original 1997 production launched the careers of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, and based on what we’ve seen so far, Davie and Padgett seem to be on the same path.
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Side Show

Les Misérables

STARRING: Ramin Karimloo, Will Swenson, Caissie Levy, Nikki M. James, Andy Mientus
WHEN: Now – TBD
WHERE: Imperial Theatre / lesmis.com/broadway
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: Ramin Karimloo. Plain and simple, Karimloo is the most talented actor to ever take on the role of Jean Valjean. Making his Broadway debut after a successful career on the West End, Karimloo has a jaw dropping voice that makes this musical soar to breathtaking new heights (and it doesn’t hurt that he’s not upsetting to look at either). With this revival, Broadway has found a leading man who has the ability to not only make an old musical feel new and exciting again, but someone who will undoubtedly become one of the most revered stage actors of our time.
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Les Misérables

The Real Thing

STARRING: Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon
WHEN: 
Now through Jan 4, 2015
WHERE: 
American Airlines Theatre / roundabouttheatre.org
WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT: 
This revival of Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed play-within-a-play explores what happens when life starts imitating art. A playwright who’s unhappily married to the lead in his current play about a marriage that’s falling apart starts to have an affair with their mutual friend. But as their relationship progresses, he starts to wonder where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie. A complex look into married life, this production promises to pack a punch as powerful as the performances within.
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The Real Thing

Originally published on PopBytes