Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sojourners & Her Portmanteau


New York Theatre Workshop, in association with The Playwrights Realm, is presenting in repertory two plays from Mfoniso Udofia’s projected nine-play cycle about the Nigerian diaspora. 

The first play, Sojourners, presented barely a year ago by The Playwrights Realm, is set in Houston in the late 70’s. Chinasa Ogbuagu (The Qualms) plays Abasiama Ekpeyoung, a diligent biology student at Texas Southern who works all night as cashier at a gas station even though she is eight months pregnant. Her slacker husband Ukpong Ekpeyoung (Hubert Point-du Jour, The Model Apartment) is allegedly studying economics there too, but he has been seduced by American ways, is growing restless in their arranged marriage, and repeatedly disappears for days. Moxie Wilis (Lakisha Michelle May, Everybody) is a barely literate young prostitute who turns up at the gas station to apply for a job that will get her out of the life. Disciple Ufot (Chinaza Uche) is a lonely, devout Nigerian student who also turns up at the gas station and thinks that meeting Abasiama is a sign of divine intervention. Moxie and Disciple vie for Abasiama’s attention. When the baby arrives, Abasiama is faced with difficult choices about her future. The play has some narrative bumps, but is carried along by the excellent acting. I did feel that the ending was so underwritten that its import might be missed.

Her Portmanteau, which takes place in New York 30 years later, reveals some of the consequences of her decision. Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Adapero Oduve), a woman of about 30, arrives at JFK and discovers that her mother Abasiama Ufot (Jenny Jules, The Crucible), who was supposed to pick her up and take her home to Massachusetts, is not there. Instead she has sent her daughter Adiagha Ufot (Chinasa Ogbuagu again) to get her and take her to her own Manhattan apartment. For the rest of the play the three women strive to work through the complexities of their relationship to find some kind of closure. Once again the acting is superb and goes a long way to mitigate the play’s slow pacing, narrative infelicities and repetitiveness. 

The set design by Jason Sherwood has a frame resembling a large double-hung window, but with bright lights in it, overhanging the stage. Its two panes are used for projections. The stage turntable was quite effective until it broke down shortly before the end of the second play. Loren Shaw’s costumes befit the characters well. Director Ed Sylvander Iskandar (The Mysteries and These Seven Sicknesses at The Flea) keeps the actors going at full throttle too much of the time.

On weekends both plays are presented in one day. It doesn’t really matter in which order you see them. I saw the “second” play in time first, which made it interesting while watching the “first” play to look for clues to how things had reached that point. Both plays have flaws, but the strong performances make them worth a visit.

The running time for Her Portmanteau is one hour 45 minutes with no intermission. The length for Sojuourners is two hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me


After runs in Seattle, New Brunswick (NJ) and Boston, this oddity has made its way to Second Stage’s Terry Kiser Theatre. Its bona fides include a score by Brendan Milburn (music) and Val Vigoda (lyrics), two of the creators of the delightful 2006 musical Striking 12; a book by Joe DiPietro, Tony winner for Memphis, and direction by Obie winner Lisa Peterson. Val Vigoda  (GrooveLily, Trans-SIberian Orchestra) is a hardworking performer, who plays an electric violin in addition to acting and singing. Wade McCollum (Wicked) is an appealing actor with a strong voice and lots of presence. The dubious concept for the show is that a sleep-deprived single mother in Brooklyn whose baby daddy has abandoned her and whose job as a composer for video games is not going well, records a dating video on “Cupid’s Leftovers” that is answered by the famous polar explorer of a century ago. For reasons unclear to me, Shackleton is inspired by her and she becomes the muse that sees him through his travails. She, in turns, learns courage from him. As someone who was deeply moved by the story of Shackleton and the brave crew of the Endurance, I was distressed to see this story misappropriated for so frivolous a purpose. To project film clips and stills from their expedition to prop up this silly show is almost a desecration. Perhaps a younger audience unfamiliar with his story and with a taste for electronic music will find the show more congenial. I found it a pointless waste of time. Incidentally, Second Stage Theatre seems to be distancing itself from this production; their name does not appear in the Playbill. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Monday, April 24, 2017



An earlier production of this clever musical was a Times Critic’s Pick two years ago when the show was burdened with the title “Who’s Your Baghdaddy Or How I Started the Iraq War.” Now it is playing at St. Luke’s Theatre. The location is appropriate, because the opening scene is set in a church basement. There’s free coffee and donuts onstage before the play as if we were gathered for an AA meeting. This support group, however, is not for alcoholics, but for the CIA operatives responsible for the Iraq War. Whether through stubbornness, careerism, delusion, error or deception, each has done something that leads to war. We also meet a junior agent in the German intelligence service, whose knowledge of Arabic leads to his being assigned to interrogating an Iraqi defector, code name “Curveball,”  who claims he worked on building mobile labs for the manufacture of biological weapons back in Iraq. When the German agency seeks technical assistance from the CIA, complications multiply. The talented cast (Brennan Caldwell, Jason Collins, Bob D’Haene, Brandon Espinoza, Joe Joseph, Claire Neumann, Larisa Oleynik and Ethan Slater) perform with gusto. The music by Marshall Pailet (who also directs) is eclectic, the lyrics by A.D. Penedo are often clever, and the book by both of them, based on an unproduced screenplay by J.T. Allen, is almost consistently lively. The choreography by Misha Shields adds fun. The barebones set by Caite Hevner suits the production. My only quibble is that it could benefit from a slight trim. The play is certainly timely as the prospect of getting into a war by accident seems all too real. Running time: two hours, including intermission.

The Price


While Arthur Miller’s 1968 play is not generally considered among his best, this is its fourth Broadway revival and the second by Roundabout Theatre. Clearly, it has its advocates. It stands out from most of Miller’s plays in that there is quite a bit of humor, at least in the first act, and it is told in real time on a single set. It has four juicy roles that, in this case, are filled by a starry cast. Mark Ruffalo plays Victor Franz, a NYC cop nearing 50, who is in the attic of the townhouse where he grew up, waiting for a furniture dealer to arrive to make an offer on all the old-fashioned heavy furniture stored there. He is joined by his wife Esther (Jessica Hecht), who has never fully accepted the limited expectations her marriage has brought. The furniture dealer who eventually arrives is Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito), an 89-year-old man, who provides both comic relief and wisdom. We learn that Victor has been estranged from his elder brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) since their father’s death 16 years ago. The Depression left their father a hollowed-out man after he lost all his money, his wife died, and the family was forced to move into the attic of their townhouse. While Walter stayed in medical school and became a wealthy surgeon, Victor dropped out of college to care for his father, gave up his dream of being a scientist, lived with his father in dire poverty until joining the police force. Victor has attempted to contact Walter to notify him about selling the family furniture, but Walter has not returned his calls. After lots of back and forth, Victor and Solomon reach a deal. Solomon is in the midst of paying Victor in $100 bills when Walter suddenly arrives, ending Act One. Most of the overlong second act is the confrontation between Victor and Walter, during which old grievances are aired and new realizations are formed. Tony Shalhoub, resplendent in his camel hair coat and shiny suit, is superb as the smooth-talking Walter, perhaps the most complex character. The role of Esther fits Jessica Hecht like a glove and she gives one of her best performances in years. Casting Danny DeVito as Solomon was a stroke of genius. It is hard to believe that this is his Broadway debut. Though tiny in stature, he is a commanding presence. Mark Ruffalo, an actor I greatly admire, does not seem entirely comfortable in the role of Victor, although his performance improves as the play progresses. Derek McClane’s wonderfully cluttered set has dozens of pieces of furniture hanging from the ceiling, but has no walls so we see a city skyline of water towers against a cloudy sky. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are perfection. Unlike Ivo van Hove’s recent versions of A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, director Terry Kinney has taken the play at face value, rather than attempting to force his stamp upon it. Miller doesn’t need gimmicks. Running time: two hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Antipodes


After being underwhelmed by Circle Mirror Transformation and angered by The Flick, I decided that Annie Baker was not a playwright I would ever appreciate. Then along came John, the first play of her Signature Theatre residency, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Now we have her second work for Signature, this strange piece that is essentially a fantasia on storytelling. I am beginning to think that John was a fluke, because I was once again disappointed. The set, by Laura Jellinek, is a conference room with grey carpet on the floor and walls, an enormous oval table surrounded by Aeron office chairs, a large oval light fixture overhead and a pile of colorful boxes of flavored soda water on the floor. The audience sits on the two long sides. Unfortunately, this configuration leads to at least three of the actors having their back to you for the entire play. When we arrive, a young man with a laptop is seated near one end of the table. He is soon joined by five men and a woman. Finally an older man, clearly the boss, arrives and sits at the head of the table. This is Sandy (Will Patton) who is in charge of the six writers around the table who are tasked with telling stories that will lead to the creation of an unspecified new project, perhaps a video game. Brian (Brian Miskell), the young man with the laptop, is there to transcribe their stories. Sandy emphasizes that anything goes in their stories, except for dwarves, elves and trolls. He induces them to tell about their first sexual experience, the worst thing that ever happened to them and their biggest regret. Dave (Josh Charles) and Danny M1 (Danny Mastrogiorno) dive right in. Adam (Phillip James Brannon) doesn’t have much to say until late in the play when he tells the longest, most fully developed story. Danny M2 (Danny McCarthy) has trouble getting into the spirit of things. Josh (Josh Hamilton) is troubled that he has yet to receive his ID badge or his paycheck. Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell) placidly knits most of the time. Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), Sandy’s secretary with the affect of a Valley girl, pops in now and then to take lunch orders and announce the latest reason for Sandy’s absence. The passage of time is marked primarily by her changes of costume. Although storytelling is not part of her job, she tells one of the evening’s best tales. Some of their stories are raunchy, others gory and at least one, poetic. The stories that comprise most of the evening have no narrative arc that I could detect; nor do they really tell much about the characters who relate them. The relationships among the various writers go virtually unexplored. There are flashes of humor including a running joke about each writer having a different idea about how many kinds of stories there are. There’s a neat trick that I never figured out whereby food mysteriously appears on the table. What there is not is a cohesive plot or fully-developed characters. I suspect that the playwright had more fun coming up with ways to tease the audience than the audience has watching the play. Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves) directed. Running time: one hour 55 minutes; no intermission.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Doll’s House, Part 2


It is virtually unheard of these days for a new play to arrive on Broadway without having at least one regional production first. Received wisdom has it that there’s no audience for new American plays on Broadway. The enthusiastic reception given Lucas Hnath’s clever new play at the Golden Theatre suggests that rules are made to be broken. When Jayne Houdyshell gets prolonged entrance applause, you know you’re not in a typical Broadway audience. It’s even more surprising that the play, presented as a sequel to the mirthless Ibsen classic, turns out to be hilariously funny. I decided to attend with some trepidation because I had been disappointed in the two previous Hnath plays I had seen — The Christians and Red Speedo.  Sometimes the third time is a charm. From the first moment, I was engaged by this version of what happened to Nora Helmer 15 years after she left her family. Hnath has written four juicy roles for four fine actors. Laurie Metcalf (The Other Place), always worth seeing, shines as Nora. Houdyshell (The Humans, Well), a Tony-winning treasure, is delightful as Anne Marie, the longtime family servant. Chris Cooper brings depth and nuance to the role of Torvald. Condola Rashad (Ruined) is cool and collected as daughter Emmy. Heath’s snappy, dialogue is anachronistically modern. So are the sparse furnishings in Miriam Beuther’s thrust set — two pairs of Scandinavian Modern chairs, a small table with a box of Kleenex, and a large plant. On the other hand, David Zinn’s costumes are faithful to the period. The oversize door, perhaps the most famous one in modern drama, is on a wall that reaches to an enormous height. The thought-provoking plot balances the conflicting motivations of each character, when each is forced to make a choice that will affect the others. It’s almost too formulaic and the ending, for me, was less than satisfying. Except for punctuating the scenes by blackouts with the characters’ names projected in huge letters on the set, Sam Gold’s direction (The Glass Menagerie, Fun House) is unfussy. I could have done without the loud percussive pop music that preceded the play. Nevertheless, the play’s strengths far outweigh any weaknesses.. And you don’t really need to know Ibsen’s play to enjoy this one. It was an extremely worthwhile 90 minutes of theater

Tuesday, April 18, 2017



The deliberately drab set by David Korins that greets the audience at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre does not exactly portend an evening of frivolity. Nor does a list of the main characters — six veterans of WWII, damaged either physically or emotionally by their war experience, and a young war widow, all trying without much success to return to normality. Donny Novitski (Cory Cott), a young piano prodigy/composer when the war began, can’t find regular work. Nor can he summon the courage to pay a promised visit to his best friend’s widow, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). When a nationwide contest is announced to choose a new swing band for a part in a Hollywood movie, Donny recruits five vets played by James Nathan Hopkins, Brandon J. Ellis, Alex Bender, Geoff Packard and Joe Carroll, to be in the band. All six men not only act, sing and dance, but really play their instruments. Julia, who turns out to be not only a fine singer but a talented poet, becomes their vocalist. Unfortunately there is too little time for the book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker to do more than briefly sketch the characters. Will this motley Cleveland crew win the Ohio contest and go on, despite many obstacles, to the finals in New York? Will they get there riding the Cleveland Limited in first class and stay at the Astor? What starts as a rather dark, unusual, nuanced story loses its edge and morphs unconvincingly into an upbeat, rather conventional crowdpleaser. The music by Richard Oberacker sounds jazzier than swing at times. With one powerful exception, the quiet numbers are better than the showy ones. Beth Leavel, as Julia’’s mother, has one lovely song. The dance numbers are not as enjoyable as I would have expected from the choreographer of Hamilton, Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed. The costume design by Paloma Young seemed to have no consistent approach. There are enough satisfying moments that one wishes there were more. I really wanted to like it, but left disappointed. Running time: two hours 35 minutes including intermission.