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Photo: courtesy of The National Theatre

Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries

On the eve of his birthday, complete with a surprise birthday cake presented after his encore (with an enlightening reprise of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday”), Mandy Patinkin’s performance on November 29 was reflective and introspective, sparse and somber. 

At 67, Mandy Patinkin is not slowing down, evident by the 30-city Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Diaries tour celebrating Patinkin’s four decades as a multiple Tony-winning Broadway performer, and presenting the diversity of songs covered on the quartet of Diary albums, recorded and released during the last year.  

Produced by Thomas Bartlett, probably better known to many as a songwriter, producer, and musician for artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Yoko Ono, and The National (amongst many others), the covers of American standards, Broadway classics, and contemporary troubadours of the Diary albums are touchingly melancholic, evocative and rich in their understated simplicity.

At DC’s rose-colored National Theatre on Friday night, however, the depth and richness of the recordings were replaced by a sense of haunting, nostalgia, and a preoccupation with loss. Patinkin entered in all black, with his curly hair longish in back and slicked back from his expressive face and greying beard. The stage set was simple: a piano, a stool, a chair (all in black), a single dangling Edison-style bulb on an extended cord. 

Patinkin’s impressive vocal range, too, remained stubbornly baritone, though still expressive in his distinctive phrasing, his breathy run-on pacing (the delightful “Trouble in River City”) or lowered and growly in many of the more somber covers, making his occasional higher register that much more thrilling but missed.

 Accompanying Patinkin was Adam Ben-David on piano, a little more prosaic than Bartlett but also more playful, emphasizing the lightheartedness of Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat” or the impishness of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the most operatic of rock anthems, pared down to Patinkin’s single baritone voice rushing through the usual competing melodies. 

These lighter moments were occasional, as many of the covers, including Randy Newman’s doleful “Wandering Boy,” to the keening of Joshua Rayzner’s “Refugees/Songs of the Titanic,” and Rufus Wainwright’s apocalyptic “Going to a Town” (with a transposition of Wainwright’s “America” with “Jerusalem” in the refrain “I am so tired of …”) took the celebration of Patinkin’s storied career on a dark turn.

 The title of the tour “Diary” implies a vulnerability, as in Patti Smith’s recent speaking tour/concert about a year of loss and rebirth for her new book The Year of the Monkey, Alan Cumming’s bawdy, cheeky, and political cabaret Legal Immigrant, or the bare confessional of Conversations with Nick Cave, but Patinkin lets his choice of songs tell his story. 

There are glimmers of his affable storytelling during an extended anecdote about accidentally eating a THC-infused chocolate bar while on an extended road trip, or a first date with his wife, actress Kathryn Grody. But his most telling anecdote was the tragi-comic death of comedian Dick Shawn who died onstage while reclining on a sofa during a bit, prompting Patinkin to joke that he would like to go out the same way. 

Having just finished filming his final episodes of the Showtime Original Series Homeland, recording four albums with a new producer after the retirement of his longtime musical collaborator Paul Ford, and embarking on a tour in support of these new releases, Patinkin’s pace of artistic output as acclaimed actor, singer-songwriter, and concert performer is impressive and invigorating. The tour concludes in February 2020, as the final season of Homeland premieres, giving Patinkin time to kick up his feet for a bit, enjoy a chocolate bar, and dream up his next project.

For more on the work of Mandy Patinkin, visit www.mandypatinkin.org.

The National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, DC; (202) 628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Erika Rose + Craig Wallace in Fences // Scott Suchman

August Wilson’s “Fences” Tackles Issues of Race, Identity + Family

August Wilson’s Fences offers an enduring look at the everyday struggles of black Americans through the lens of ex-ball player Troy Maxson and his complicated relationship with his family. Though the groundbreaking Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh, the text has resonated with theatregoers since its run in the late 80s on Broadway and will continue to do so at Ford’s Theatre from September 27 to October 27. We spoke with director Timothy Douglas, one of the foremost Wilson interpreters, about why he’s drawn to the playwright’s work and how Fences continues to hold relevance with today’s audiences.

On Tap: Fences is a legendary production. Its Broadway runs featured both Denzel Washington and James Earl Jones as Troy, and Washington recently directed and starred in the Oscar-nominated film adaptation. Why do you think this material is so powerful 34 years after August Wilson penned it?
Timothy Douglas: August Wilson is one of the world’s great playwrights, and the play can speak and reflect [on] the ongoing relevance in and of itself and the world it exists in. It’s a milestone in inviting the intimacy of what it’s like to be black in America, so you can get a sense of that while August unfolds his own story.

OT: How difficult is the balancing act of honoring the source and adding your own personal twist to a story like this?
TD: Any well-written play, and specifically Fences, for me is like dough. I have to knead the dough and let it rest. When I come back, it expands. I can’t bring anything to Fences. I’m the conduit for which the play further expresses itself. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

OT: One of DC’s notable actors who you’ve directed before, Craig Wallace, is set to play Troy. How excited are you for him to be able to take on this role?
TD: One of the reasons Ford’s programmed this play is [because] Craig Wallace is at a point in his career where he’s ready for Troy and Troy is ready to be interpreted through him. I’m the one who holds the reigns of this great union, but I’m just there to make sure they’re speaking for each other.

OT: Throughout your career, you’ve been involved in a number of August Wilson plays. Why do you keep coming back to his works?
TD: These works will never be the definitive production because it’s impossible to encapsulate it all in one production. It’s my sixth time directing Fences, and I am just picking up where I left off and seeing how much deeper I can dig into the basement of it.

OT: This play obviously deals with race and issues around race in America. Does it mean more to you directing this play in the nation’s capital?
TD: It does. In my experience, the majority of audiences in DC are typically white and don’t know the realities of black people in America. For the first time in my life, there are more white people engaged in the curiosity of what it’s like to be black in America, so they can better perceive the material of this play.

August Wilson’s Fences runs from Friday, September 27 through Sunday, October 27. Times vary. Tickets $20-$70.

Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org

Photo: courtesy of Studio Theatre

Unanswered Questions Remain Relevant in “Doubt: A Parable”

Where did society’s curiosity go? What happened to the doubts? These are some of the questions that playwright John Patrick Shanley asks in his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt: A Parable. Studio Theatre brings the thoughtful play to 14th Street from September 4 to October 6 with associate artistic director Matt Torney at the helm. The story centers on a 1964 Brooklyn Catholic school where a charismatic priest takes an interest in a young boy, leaving the school’s headmaster suspicious of foul play. As Studio prepares to ask the play’s many questions, we talked to Torney about this contemporary masterpiece and its jarring subject matter.

On Tap: Why did you decide this season was the right fit for Doubt?
Matt Torney: The first thing is that it’s one of the plays that seems to be many years ahead of its time. In the preface, the playwright talks about the year he’s living in [as] an age of certainty [where] everyone was very certain about what they believed and what they experienced. He wanted to know what happened to doubt, what happened to curiosity. We’re always looking for contemporary classics, and the political time we’re living in is fraught and certainty is rampant. We thought it was a great time for us to visit the play, and to see how it’s aged and how it can reengage.

OT: What specifically drew you to the play?
MT: I’m from Ireland [and] I went to a Catholic school, and the idea of what it means to be a Catholic and have that history is something personally relevant to me. This play made me feel uncomfortable and scared me a little bit, and that’s always a good sign. It got under my skin, and I had some questions I didn’t have answers to.

OT: What is your approach when directing a play with so much clout and acclaim? Does it make you want to bring your own vision more or less?
MT: My process always begins with the actors. We have to make it feel very alive. Even when you do contemporary classics, you don’t want to treat them as museum pieces. You have to make it feel vivid right now. The thing that drew me to it is that the questions felt very alive to me. The play hadn’t been answered or solved, and the questions it was built on were so relevant and poignant.

OT: One of my favorite aspects of Studio’s productions are the set pieces and the intimacy of the spaces. How are you approaching Doubt from those perspectives?
MT: Just the [set design] alone is perfect for an intimate space. You’re being invited into a private office and a private garden. It’s an enclosed world that’s opened up a crack [and] you’re able to peek into [it]. What happens behind closed doors? What are the conversations about power and faith?

OT: What would you say to people who are unfamiliar with the play? Why do you think it’s not to be missed?
MT: [At] the center of the play is an accusation against a priest. There’s not much evidence to prove it, but there’s a lot of circumstances that cause the accusers to be certain. That mystery of the play is interesting dramatically because who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t clear. There’s a huge gray area of challenging power dynamics and gender dynamics.

Doubt: A Parable runs from Wednesday, September 4 through Sunday, October 6. Times vary. Tickets $60-$80.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org