Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summer Shorts - Series B ***

The tepid program offered by Series A of this year’s Summer Shorts festival at 59E59 Theater is partially redeemed by the three plays in Series B.

“Black Flag” by Idris Goodwin presents two freshman roommates meeting for the first time after a summer of online contact. Sydney (Francesca Carpanini) is from Georgia and Deja (Suzette Azariah Gunn) is from Detroit. Things get off to a bad start when Sydney hangs a Confederate flag over her bed, heedless of how it might affect her black roommate. Sydney regards it as a symbol of Southern pride given to her by her mother to remind her of her roots. Deja is reluctant to make a fuss and tries not to be provoked. Her Japanese-American boyfriend Harry (Ruy Iskandar) is less forbearing. The play ends on an ambiguous but satisfying note. The situation is a bit contrived and the scene with the boyfriend seemed false, but I credit the playwright for taking on a timely topic and giving it a nuanced presentation. The actors were convincing and the direction by Logan Vaughn was unfussy. 

“Queen” by Alexander Dinelaris (“On Your Feet” and “Birdman”) was inspired by the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story “The Woman Who Came at Six O’Clock.” Queen (Casandera M. I. Lollar) is a world-weary hooker who shows up every day at six at the restaurant owned by Joe (Saverio Tuzzolo), a bachelor who has loved her unrequitedly for years and treats to to drinks and supper every night. On this day, Queen is quite agitated when she arrives and asks Joe, who is famous for his honesty, to lie for her. When a detective Chris McFarland) arrives and asks about Queen, Joe is put to the test. I thought Ms. Lollar looked too young and pretty to be convincing as Queen. Director Victor Slezak let the play overheat at times.

The evening’s most theatrical and most ambitious work is “The Dark Clothes of Night” by Richard Alfredo, an affectionate send-up of film noir and those who love it too much. Much is demanded of its three fine actors, who excel in the 13 roles they play. Dana Watkins is both Rob, a film professor in a failing marriage, and Burke, a sleuth with an attraction to femmes fatales. Sinem Meltem Dogan is wonderful as his wife Sylvie; an annoying student Emily; a nurse; Delilah Twain, the rich beautiful widow who hires Burke, and Delia, her younger sister. James Rees is a delight as Rob’s academic colleague Barry, a detective, the sisters’ dotty father, a wacky couples therapist and an evil doctor. The dialogue is archly hilarious. The production is greatly enhanced by projections by Daniel Mueller that evoke the noir milieu. The play falters a bit in its final moments, but not enough to dampen one’s enjoyment of an extremely clever work. The multitalented Alesander Dinelaris directed.

For the other productions credits, please see my review of Series A.

Summer Shorts - Series A **

The Festival of New American Short Plays is celebrating its 10th year with two series of three plays each at 59E59 Theater. The three plays in Series A, performed without intermission, last barely 80 minutes. 

“The Helpers” by Cusi Cram, presents two characters, a retired psychiatrist (Maggie Burke) and a former patient (David Deblinger), who meet on a bench in Greenwich Village on a cold winter day to settle some unfinished business. It’s a brief character sketch that doesn’t go very deep. The acting is adequate as is the direction by Jessi D. Hill.

Neil LaBute is back again this year with “After the Wedding,” in which a husband and wife (Frank Harts and Elizabeth Masucci) who have been married 5 or 6 years, face the audience in separate pools of light and engage in two overlapping monologues that start by relating amusing bits about their marriage but end up telling about a tragic event that occurred at the start of their honeymoon which they have tried hard to avoid thinking about. Since this is LaBute, there is some sexual content. The actors are convincing and Maira Mileaf’s direction is smooth. 

“This Is How It Ends” by A. Rey Pamatmat, by far the longest of the three plays, is an unwieldy absurdist look at the end of the world as seen by a gay man Jake (Chinaza Uche), Annie (Kerry Warren), the roommate he found on Craigslist  who reveals that she is really the Antichrist and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Death (Nadine Malouf), Famine (Rosa Gilmore), Pestilence (Sathya Sridharan) and War (Patrick Cummings). It turns out that the latter two are a downlow item. The plot is too disjointed to make much sense although director Ed Sylvanus Iskander (“The Mysteries” at The Flea) bravely tries.

The simple set by Rebecca Lord-Surratt features a back wall of louvred panels that swivel to reveal a smooth surface for projections on the reverse side. The costumes by Amy Sutton for the Four Horsemen are quite amusing. 

All in all, it was not a very satisying program. Before the first play, there was an interesting stop-motion short film of the crew assembling the set. The start was delayed for ten minutes by an argument over a seat between a man in a wheelchair and a woman with a walker that forced the house manager to intervene and got a round of applause from the audience when calm was restored. Would that the plays had been equally involving.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Men on Boats **

The Playwrights Horizons revival of last summer’s Clubbed Thumb hit production has received almost unanimous critical acclaim. The Times made it a Critic’s Pick and it has been extended by popular demand. Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus's subject is the famed Powell expedition of 1869, during which 10 intrepid men in four small boats set out to traverse the Green and Colorado Rivers from Wyoming to Nevada and become the first white men to travel the length of the Grand Canyon. The top-notch cast, ably directed by Will Davis, recreates the rhythms of daily life, the rivalries, the insecurities, the dangers and defections the group endured. The perils of sailing through white water is memorably captured by effective choreography. The play’s gimmick is that all the roles are played by women. Its sensibility is archly contemporary, rather than historical. For the first twenty minutes or so, this worked for me. However, the play soon became repetitive and cartoonish. It eventually seemed like a very long pointless skit that trivialized its subject and wore out its welcome long before it ended. I will grant that the cast was uniformly good, the scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado was attractive and the costumes by Asta Bennie Hostetter were apt. The audience seemed to love it; the young woman next to me broke into uproarious laughter at least once a minute. I wish I had been able to join in the approbation. Perhaps I would have been less disappointed if my expectations had not been raised so high by all the praise. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Butler ****

Kudos to 59E59 Theaters for bringing this worthwhile production by the New Jersey Repertory Company, based in Long Branch, to New York. What playwright Richard Strand has written is an unlikely blend of biography, Civil War history, drama and comedy that is both entertaining and informative. Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) is an actual historical figure, whose long and varied career includes the incident depicted in the play. As a newly minted Union officer sent to take command of Fort Monroe in recently seceded Virginia, Butler must decide what to do with three runaway slaves who have arrived at the fort seeking sanctuary. The first scene, an extended exchange between Butler and his hapless adjutant Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), may initially appear to go on too long, but it cleverly sets up most of what follows. The leader of the runaway slaves is Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), a man who has paid dearly for his habit of running off at the mouth. When Mallory pleads his case with Butler, the two develop an unexpected kinship. Butler tries to find a way to get around the Fugitive Slaves Act so he will not have to hand over Mallory and the other two slaves to Major Cary (David Sitler), the prickly Confederate officer who has been sent to claim them. It hardly seems like promising material for comedy, but the play is very funny. The four characters are vividly drawn and well acted by the cast, all holdovers from the original production. Jessica L. Parks’s attractive set for General Butler’s office looks authentic, as do Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes. Joseph Discher’s direction is seamless. It adds up to a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Privacy ***

The collaboration between London’s Donmar Warehouse and the Public Theater is off to a good start with this ingenious production created by writer James Graham and director Josie Rourke. Substantially revised from the 2014 Donmar version, the play is an informative essay on the uses and abuses of cybersurveillance, wrapped in the tale of an emotionally closed British writer who moves to New York to learn to open up a bit (or is it really just to pursue his ex?). The admirable Daniel Radcliffe, who never repeats himself in his choice of roles for the New York stage, plays the writer. The other actors — De’adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch and Reg Rogers — skillfully play a multitude of roles including psychiatrist, parents, neighbors, cyberexperts and intelligence agency officials. We even get an appearance on video by Edward Snowden. There’s also an onstage digital researcher (Harry Davies). Audience participation is an important part of the proceedings. People are urged to turn on their cellphones (silent mode, of course), log onto the theater’s wi-fi network, use Google, take selfies and email photos of favorite New York locales. None of this material goes to waste. The first act sets up the basic situation and settles the writer in New York. In the second act, both funnier and scarier, he ventures into the world of online dating. Radcliffe is front and center the whole time except for a lengthy episode in Act Two which begins as a case of identity theft and turns into something darker. There's a demonstration of the mountain of information collected by one's smartphone that is truly alarming. Lucy Osborne’s set is simple but witty; it features the ultimate overstuffed couch for analysis and a New York skyline made of Amazon cartons. Duncan McLean’s projections add a lot, including identifying the many characters. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are unobtrusive. Occasionally the informative and entertainment elements of the play get in each other’s way. At other times the material threatens to become repetitive. Nevertheless, it makes for a most unusual theatrical experience. Too bad the entire run is virtually sold out. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Golden Bride ****

After a successful run last winter, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s (NYTF) production of this Yiddish operetta is back for a summer season at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. A big hit when it was produced on Second Avenue in 1923, it was still being revived 25 years later. With a luscious, eclectic score by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod and a deliriously frivolous libretto by Frieda Freiman, it provides a time capsule of the popular Yiddish musical entertainment of its day. NYTF has given us a lavish production with 20 actors, an orchestra of 14, attractive sets (by John Dinning), colorful costumes (by Izzy Fields), evocative choreography (by Merete Muenster) and skillful direction (by Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner) that does not condescend to the material. The uniformly talented cast is blessed with some outstanding voices including Rachel Policar as Goldele, Cameron Johnson as Misha and Rachel Zatcoff as Khanele. Adam B. Shapiro is a hoot in the comic role of Kalmen. The silly plot revolves around a poor girl in a Russian shtetl whose mother disappeared when she was a toddler, who comes into a large inheritance from her father in America and who offers to marry whichever suitor finds her mother. Forget the plot and just relax and enjoy the great singing, dancing and comedy. There are surtitles not only in English but also in Russian. The audience, which seemed to be composed mainly of Russian speakers, loved it. If you like operetta and are interested in the history of Yiddish theater, you will too. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Average 2015-16 Ratings by Theater Company

Just out of curiosity, I tabulated the average score I gave the plays presented by each theater company during the past season. I was surprised how narrow the range was (only a difference of one star out of a possible five). On my rating scale, 2 is fair and 3 is good. Before you use this as a guide to choose which company deserves your subscription, be forewarned that each season is different. The company that had a series of hits this year could have a string of duds next year and vice versa.

Theater Company Average Rating

CSC 2.0
Playwrights Horizons 2.2
MTC 2.3
NYTW 2.33
MCC 2.5
Signature 2.6
Vineyard   2.67
Roundabout 2.71
Second Stage 2.75
Atlantic           2.75
Public           3.0
LCT 3.0

I do suggest that for companies that offer memberships as well as subscriptions, try the membership. Then you can pick and choose only those shows you want to see.