Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Iphigenia in Splott

B

Every Spring, 59E59 Theaters bring us a series of imports from the UK under the rubric Brits off Broadway. This one-person play by Gary Owen originated in Cardiff and then had an acclaimed run in London. The main reason to see it is the electric performance by Sophie Melville as Effie, an angry young woman from Splott, a working-class neighborhood of Cardiff. Effie, whose means of support is unclear, alternates between binges and hangovers and describes herself as the kind of person you cross the street to avoid. I wish we learned more about what led to her self-defeating lifestyle. Effie stops spewing invective long enough to tell us the story of a recent affair with a wounded veteran that made her let down her guard long enough to hope for a better life. Of course it turned out badly. Effie pays a terrible price but acts nobly when she has an opportunity to seek redress. I was disappointed that the play morphed from a fascinating character study to a screed against social welfare cuts, even though, as a cautionary tale, it is certainly timely on this side of the pond as well. My other reservation is the difficulty I had making out some of the words because of the thick Welsh accent and rapid speech. Designer Hayley Grindle and lighting designer Rachel Mortimer have come up with a striking set that features a series of fluorescent lights that resemble a venetian blind aptly falling into disarray. Rachel O’Riordan’s direction is straightforward. The title’s comparison of Effie to Iphigenia is a bit of a stretch. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Derren Brown: Secret

A-


When I first heard that Atlantic Theater Company was filling a slot in their season with a performance by an Olivier-winning British mentalist rather than with a play, I was annoyed. After seeing Derren Brown in action, I forgive them. The show is not only very entertaining, but a lot more rewarding to sit through than their last play (The Penitent). It’s better crafted too, with a knockout finale that reveals in a delightful way how tightly structured the entire performance has been. It’s hard to say much about it, because the audience has been sworn to secrecy. What I can say is that Brown is a consummate performer who quickly has the audience in the palm of his hand. He establishes trust by sharing a secret from his own life. The often amazing mental feats he performs on audience members range from the simple to the intricate, with one packing quite an emotional wallop. Along the way, Brown also demonstrates a real talent for portraiture. The theme that we limit what we experience because of selective perception is vividly demonstrated. Of course, I wondered how these tricks worked, but explanations are not on the agenda. The seemingly random way he selected audience members made it unlikely that they were “plants.”  If you like to be amazed and delighted, you will have a good time. Just don’t expect a traditional play. My one reservation is that, at 2 3/4 hours including intermission, it is a bit too much of a good thing. Brown’s co-writers Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor also directed.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation

B-

It isn’t often these days that you see a straight play with 18 actors on Broadway, so I salute the producers for bringing us this expensive revival. John Guare’s popular 1990 send-up of limousine liberals is based on a true story about a young man (the excellent Corey Hawkins) who passes himself off as Paul Poitier, son of actor Sidney, to worm his way into the homes of several wealthy East Side couples who should know better.The story is told by one such couple, art dealer Flan Kittredge (a surprisingly underwhelming John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife Ouisa (Allison Janney, competent but no match for my memories of Stockard Channing),. “Paul” is well dressed, charming and articulate, knows details about their children at Harvard, and  dangles the promise of casting them in the film Cats that his father is coming to New York to direct. They let him stay overnight. When Ouisa goes to wake him the next morning, he is in bed with a hustler (James Cusati-Moyer). During the long scene in which his hosts chase him around the apartment, the naked hustler has ample time to demonstrate that he has all the requisites for a successful career. Later the Kittredges learn that their friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) had their own encounter with “Paul” the previous night. We eventually meet their horrid children (Colby Minifie, Keenan Jolliff and Ned Riseley) who are portrayed as cartoon characters. Chris Perfetti fares better as Trent, the young man who has inadvertently set the events in motion. My biggest complaint about the play is the episode in which “Paul” cons two young would-be actors from Utah (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte) with tragic results. It is an abrupt shift from the satire of the rest of the play. I found director Trip Cullman’s approach to the play generally too broad. Mark Wendland’s set is very red and very tall. Clint Ramos’s costumes are fine. The play aspires to deeper meanings that it never reaches. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Little Foxes

A-

While the critics never placed Lillian Hellman in the first rank of American playwrights, her work, at least as exemplified by this 1939 family drama, has much to recommend it and is certainly worthy of an occasional revival. She surely knew how to write a tight plot and juicy roles that allow actors to show their mettle. Manhattan Theatre Club has assembled a first-rate cast for this production, led by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who alternate the roles of Regina and Birdie. This tale of an avaricious family greedy to progress from rich to filthy rich bears an extra frisson of timeliness today. We meet the Hubbard family in Alabama in 1900. Brothers Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) are wooing a Chicago industrialist Mr. Marshall (David Alford) to build a cotton mill on their property. To keep the deal in the family, they need their sister Regina Giddens (Linney at my performance) to raise a third of the investment. Trouble is her husband Horace (Richard Thomas), who controls the pursestrings, is away in Baltimore convalescing from a heart condition and shows no inclination to return or even to respond to their increasingly frantic letters. Regina skillfully uses her leverage to win a better deal from her brothers and persuades her virtuous 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) to go to Baltimore to fetch Horace. Leo Hubbard (Michael Benz), the unsavory son of Oscar and Birdie, works in Horace’s bank and comes up with a shady plan that allows the brothers to proceed without Regina. When Horace returns, he discovers their plot and, unfortunately for him, reveals it to his wife. There is more scheming, a shocking scene between Horace and Regina and, surprisingly for its time, an ending in which evil is not punished, at least not explicitly. The role of Regina, catnip for such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis, suits Linney well; she captures both the steeliness and the traces of charm. However, she is almost overshadowed by Cynthia Nixon’s superb performance as her sister-in-law Birdie, a delicate wounded bird driven to drink by her husband’s abuse; her monologue in the final act is absolutely wrenching. Linney and Nixon are so persuasive in these roles that is hard to imagine them in reverse. Even the servants are well-cast — Charles Turner as the butler Cal and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie, the housekeeper whose eye rolls and facial expressions speak louder than words. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are marvelous. Scott Pask’s living room set is fine except that the staircase, focus of a crucial scene, looks strangely cramped. Daniel Sullivan directs with a sure hand. The play is far from subtle, but, with such a fine production,  it is very entertaining. Running time: two hours 25 minutes including two intermissions.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

B-

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

D

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

Baghdaddy

B-

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.