Frank Dain: The Magic of Mathis, Water by the Spoonful and The Other Place
Frank Dain is charming, Water by the Spoonful is heartbreaking and The Other Place is riveting.
January 24, 2013
(Laurie Metcalf and Zoe Perry in The Other Place)
Frank Dain: The Magic of Mathis (4 stars)
Water By The Spoonful (3 ½ stars)
The Other Place (5 stars)
Doing a tribute show to a singer as iconic as Johnny Mathis could be a disaster, but not when it’s put together by a performer as accomplished as Frank Dain. Poised, purposeful and polished, Dain put his smooth, lyric baritone to good use last month via a generous sampling of Mathis’s astonishing repertoire in the show The Magic of Mathis. Filled with charming and witty patter, the show struck the perfect balance between homage and biography while allowing the singer to put his own stamp on material we’ve enjoyed for decades.
When Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year, theater insiders were stunned that Jon Robin Baitz’s searing Other Desert Cities and Stephen Karam’s moving Sons of the Prophet were both snubbed. Having now seen director Davis McCallum’s production of Spoonful at Second Stage with its original cast, I have to agree with the pundits who were shocked with Hudes’s selection. First staged in 2011 at Hartford Stage, Spoonful is a good play but not a great one. It’s not as accomplished as Baitz’s or Karam’s dramas and certainly not a play that should have won the Pulitzer. (Then again, following dubious winners such as Clybourne Park and Next to Normal, perhaps the selection of Water by the Spoonful is par for the current course!)
Spoonful revolves around two parallel stories: Iraqi war veteran Elliot and his cousin Yaz are forced to confront painful family history in the midst of planning a funeral, while Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa, moderates an Internet chat room for recovering crack addicts. As the focus of the first play in Hudes’s planned trilogy of disconnection and dysfunction, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, Elliot has the far more interesting story here, especially as portrayed again by the intensely brooding Armando Riesco, who has charisma to burn. Seriously injured in Iraq and now working in a dead-end job making sandwiches at Subway, Elliot is caught between grieving for the aunt who raised him and lashing out at Odessa for her appalling treatment of him as a child. But Odessa, compassionately portrayed (perhaps too compassionately?) by Liza Colón-Zayas, only has time for the fellow addicts in her chat-room reality, and that’s where Hudes’s play becomes problematic. Yes, the Internet is the way many people communicate today, albeit anonymously, and as Hudes’ play points out, without emotional rewards. But does it make for compelling (and believable) drama?
To be sure, Spoonful is well acted and often moving, but Elliot’s story starts to get lost amid the cyber chatting and it has no connection to the peripheral characters except through Odessa. Let’s hope the final chapter in Hudes’s trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, brings the focus back where it belongs. Song premieres at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in April, again starring Riesco as Elliot, and will undoubtedly find its way to New York.
A play about a research scientist succumbing to the disease she’s been developing and selling a potential pharmaceutical cure for may not sound like riveting theater, but in the hands of Emmy-winner Laurie Metcalf, it’s electrifying. Sharr White’s devastating The Other Place, fluidly and sharply directed by Joe Mantello, becomes a showcase for Metcalf’s superb ability to reach into an audience’s psyche and grab hold of it. Portraying Juliana, a woman desperately trying to hang onto her own emotional reality, Metcalf plumbs the depths of hope, despair and the most terrifying kind of denial. It’s the kind of performance that wins awards, and rightly so. Ably supported by Metcalf’s real-life daughter Zoe Perry, John Schiappa in a variety of supporting roles and the excellent Daniel Stern as Juliana’s long-suffering husband, The Other Place is a harrowing, breakneck journey where you’ll want to look away—but can’t!
Water by the Spoonful plays through February 10 at Second Stage (305 W 43rd St, 2st.com). The Other Place plays through March 3 at MTC’s Friedman (261 W 47th St, TheOtherPlaceBroadway.com).