Friday, October 21, 2016

Vietgone ***

Qui Nguyen’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I is hard to fit into a neat category. While the prevailing tone is comedic, it deals with some very serious issues. Its central focus is a Vietnamese couple who meet in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Quang (Raymond Lee) is a helicopter pilot wracked by guilt for being unable to rescue his wife and children when Saigon fell. Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) is an emotionally closed-off woman who wanted to escape with her younger brother but ended up being forced to take her difficult mother instead. Sexual sparks fly when Tong and Quang meet, but the emotional baggage they carry is a barrier to building a relationship. Besides, Quang wants to return to Vietnam to rejoin his family. We also meet Quang’s best friend, an American naval captain, a translator, a camp guard, a hippy couple, a redneck biker and even a character who purports to be the playwright. All the female roles except Tong are played by Samantha Quan; all the male roles except for Quang are played by Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson. The play incorporates a love story, a road trip with a hilarious kung fu sequence, a send up of ethnic and national stereotypes, broad (sometimes too broad) humor, all in the context of presenting an alternative view of the Vietnam era as seen from the other side. While the play is not a musical, every once in a while, when emotions are running high, a character will suddenly break out into rap. It’s unfortunate that I had just seen Hamilton a week before because the quality of the rap lyrics here (to music by Shane Rettig) can in no way compare to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work. The cast members are appealing, but the acting is uneven and often unsubtle. The first-rate production benefits from an excellent scenic design by Tim Mackabee, featuring a western scene of a highway with utility poles, power lines and billboards, greatly enhanced by Jared Mezzocchi’s projections. Anthony Tran’s costumes are excellent too. Director May Adrales skillfully holds it all together. It’s an unruly play that could use a slight trim, but its energy and inventiveness go a long way to make up for its shortcomings. I found it refreshing and worthwhile. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sell/Buy/Date ***

It’s hard to believe that 12 years have passed since I first saw the incredibly talented Sarah Jones perform “Bridge & Tunnel,” her love letter to the immigrants of New York City, in which she created about a dozen characters of different ethnicities. It moved to Broadway and was awarded a special Tony. Since then, Ms. Jones has been busy with a variety of activities, including serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and advocating for women in the sex industry. When Manhattan Theatre Club announced her long-awaited return to the New York stage, it was cause for celebration. Once again Ms. Jones plays multiple characters, loosely connected by some involvement in selling or buying sex. The framing device has a British professor at some future time giving a lecture on changing attitudes toward sex work over the decades. Her lecture is enhanced by BERT (bio-empathetic resonant technology) which presents her students (and the audience, of course) with not only the words, but also the emotions and memories of each research subject. Most of the characters are vividly created and some of the points they make are thought-provoking. The lecture is punctuated by several interruptions during which the professor attempts to resolve a problem that is delaying her appointment as head of a new department. I thought this subplot undercut rather than enhanced the main idea. Dane Laffrey’s elegantly simple set is beautifully lit by Eric Southern. Carolyn Cantor is the director. While is was a great pleasure to see Sarah Jones again, I was slightly disappointed by the material. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Kingdom Come **

Jenny Rachel Weiner’s romantic comedy with poignant overtones is the latest offering at Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre. Somewhat like LCT3, this program offers first-rate productions of works by emerging playwrights at affordable prices. Looking around at the audience, Roundabout seems to be more successful than LCT3 in drawing a younger audience. If you saw “Catfish,” you have an idea of the plot, except that in this instance both people are using deceitful online profiles. The twist is that they genuinely fall for each other. How the situation is resolved isn’t quite what you may expect. The characters are Samantha (Carmen M. Herlihy), a morbidly obese woman who rarely leaves her bed; Dolores (Socorro Santiago), Samantha’s home health aide; Dolores’s studly son Dominick (Alex Hernandez), an actor/busboy in L.A.; Layne (Crystal Finn), a repressed lonely bookkeeper; and Suz (Stephanie Styles), Layne’s younger, prettier, less inhibited coworker. Deceit breeds complications. The personable actors all make the most of their roles. There are some funny moments and clever twists along the way, but the material seemed thin and a bit forced. The set by Arnulfo Maldonado is simple but attractive. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are apt. Kip Fagan’s direction is smooth. Most of the audience reacted enthusiastically. For me, it was one online dating story too many. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

Falsettos **

When Lincoln Center Theater announced that it was reviving William Finn’s Tony-awarded musical (best book and best score), I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again. After seeing its two halves off-Broadway when they were presented as “March of the Falsettos” in 1981 and “Falsettoland” in 1990, as well as the Broadway version of 1992, I thought perhaps it would be better to keep my fond memories and skip it this time around. Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus and Chip Zien were so ingrained in my memory as Marvin, Whizzer and Mendel that I could not imagine anyone else in these roles. When Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells were announced as Marvin and Whizzer, I was even more uncertain. While Borle is extremely talented, he is not my vision of a gay neurotic Jewish New Yorker; nor is Rannells my idea of a hunk. I was disappointed that James Lapine was once again directing, because I thought a new director might give it an interesting new spin. Curiosity got the better of me and I bought a ticket. As the play opens, Marvin has divorced his wife Trina and moved in with his lover Whizzer. Marvin and Trina’s young son Jason (an excellent Anthony Rosenthal) is acting out. Marvin’s shrink Mendel takes a fancy to Trina. As luck would have it, both Stephanie J. Block and Brandon Uranowitz were out the night I attended so I saw their understudies Courtney Balan and Tally Sessions as Trina and Mendel; fortunately they were both very good. After intermission we meet the lesbians who live next door, Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe). During the first act, I was fighting the disparity between the concept of the two male leads in my head and the versions embodied by Borle and Rannells. They eventually won me over. After intermission, the book becomes more involving and even the songs get better. While the plot may be manipulative, I defy anyone to keep a dry eye at the end. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are fine. David Rockwell’s set is a puzzler. While I liked the Manhattan skyline backdrop that had several permutations, I thought that the large grey cube that dominated the set and was disassembled as needed to form various props looked cheap. For those who haven’t seen the show before, I would definitely recommend it as a time capsule of New York life in 1979 and 1981. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hamilton (revisited) ****

When I first saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly anticipated hip-hop musical about the life of one of our most intriguing founding fathers, it was still in previews at the Public Theater. The multi-talented Miranda not only wrote the music, lyrics and book; he is the co-arranger and, last but not least, the original star. This ambitious, inventive show remains strong across the board: the entertaining, informative and emotionally involving book is filled with moments of humor and pathos, the characters are vividly drawn, the lyrics are extremely clever, the deceptively simple scenic design (by David Korins) is effective, the costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are attractive, the choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) supports the action brilliantly, the cast is uniformly strong and the direction (by Thomas Kail) is fluid and assured. As for the music, Miranda makes a strong case for the expressive possibilities of hip-hop. Christopher Jackson, the only holdover in a principal role, has just the right gravitas for George Washington. The good news is that the newcomers to the cast are generally fine and the production is as sharp as ever. Javier Munoz’s Hamilton is just as impressive as Miranda’s was. Brandon Victor Dixon is a fine Aaron Burr even though he lacks Leslie Odom Jr’s lean hungry look. Seth Stewart is almost as good as Daveed Diggs was in two juicy roles — Lafayette and Jefferson. The replacements for Eliza (Lexi Lawson) and Angelica (Mandy Gonzalez) were a bit of a letdown after Philllipa Soo and RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry. I miss Brian D’Arcy James’s loopy King George, but Rory O’Malley is good. If the show has a fault, it is that Miranda was overambitious and included too much material. The finale remains a bit flat. I was a bit exhausted by play’s end, but it was a pleasant kind of exhaustion. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including intermission. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Love, Love, Love ***

Mike Bartlett’s (Cock, Bull, King Charles III) 2010 unflattering portrait of the British generation born around 1950 has arrived in New York at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. It follows a young self-absorbed couple over a 40+ year period. Kenneth (Richard Armitage) is freeloading in his hardworking older brother Henry’s (Alex Hurt) shabby London flat during his summer break from Oxford. When Henry brings home a date, the free-spirited Sandra (Amy Ryan), it does not turn out well for him. In the second act, set in a modern, attractive suburban home about 20 years later, Kenneth and Sandra have two teen-aged children — Rose (Zoe Kazan), a devoted violin student about to celebrate her 16th birthday and Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), a few years younger. It is clear that the couple feel hemmed in by their marriage and are not exactly model parents. In the final act, another 20 years later, we find Kenneth and Sandra in self-satisfied retirement while their adult children are floundering. The first act entertainingly sets up the central relationship. The second act, by far the most entertaining of the three, vividly shows how their situation has developed. The final act, alas, turns a bit polemical as Rose blames her parents and, by extension, their generation for her own problems. The dialog is sharp and the situations often amusing. You may cringe, but you’ll probably laugh. Amy Ryan is sensational, worth the price of admission. Richard Armitage and Zoe Kazan are also strong. Alex Hurt does his best with a one-note character and Ben Rosenfeld, with an underwritten one. The three distinct sets by Derek McClane and the period costumes by Susan Hilferty establish the time and place well. In the final act, more could have been done with makeup and wigs to make them look their age. Michael Mayer’s direction is assured and fluid. A few of the British references do not travel well. The ironic title comes from a Beatles lyric. If you appreciate fine acting and want to keep up with the works of an acclaimed contemporary playwright, you will probably find the play worthwhile. If you need sympathetic characters to identify with, you will probably not. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes, including two intermissions.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Life ***

Adam Bock’s bold new play at Playwrights Horizons defied my expectations. Even the scenic design turned out to be surprising. The problem for a reviewer is that it is difficult to say much about the production without spoiling the experience. David Hyde Pierce plays Nate Martin, a middle-aged gay man living in Manhattan. The latest in a long series of lovers has left him a month before the play begins. In the past, Nate has turned to astrology for guidance. His supportive best friend Curtis (Brad Heberlee) and he enjoy ogling hot men in Central Park. We also meet Nate’s sister Lori (Lynne McCollough) and two other women, Jocelyn (Marinda Anderson) and Allison (Nedra McClyde). About halfway through the play, events take a most unexpected turn. There is a long scene virtually without dialogue that tests the audience’s mettle. The remainder of the play follows the likely consequences of that scene. It is bracing in its conception, but likely to be disturbing for single people living alone in New York. Pierce does well in a challenging role (even though he seemed a bit old for the part). Heberlee is quite strong and the three women are all fine. Laura Jellinek finds an ingenious solution to presenting three different locations. Jessica Pabst costumed each character suitably. Director Anne Kauffman has wisely chosen to let the play breathe without rushing through difficult moments. Even though I found it unnerving, I was glad to experience it. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.