Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fulfillment Center

C-

I would not have been so disappointed with Abe Koogler’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II if had not started promisingly. For the first 30 minutes or so, I thought it was heading confidently to an interesting destination. Unfortunately, as it progressed, the playwright seemed to lose control of his material and the play ended up at a dead end. In the well-written first scene, Alex (Bobby Moreno; Grand Concourse), the 30ish manager of an Amazon-like warehouse in New Mexico, is testing the speed of a 60ish prospective employee, Suzan (Deirdre O’Connell; By the Water, The Vandal). The interaction between the nice guy stuck in an unforgiving job and the down-on-her-luck ex-singer who desperately needs work is both funny and revealing. In the next scene we see Alex with his longtime girlfriend, the sassy Madeleine (Eboni Booth), who has just moved, reluctantly, from New York to be with Alex until an expected move to greener pastures in Seattle in six months. How they came to be an interracial couple and why they have stayed together almost ten years without even getting engaged are questions that remain unanswered. In the third scene we see Madeleine at the campground where she is staying as she tries to strike up a conversation with John (Frederick Weller; Mother and Sons; Glengarry Glen Ross), a taciturn 40ish carpenter whose most recent girlfriend has kicked him out. In the remaining scenes, each character meets with one of two others. The men never meet and the women never meet. The writing weakens, the play meanders and it finally grinds to a halt. Andrew Lieberman’s set, such as it is, is a long sand-colored platform running the length of the theater plus a couple of folding metal chairs. The audience sits on both long sides of the platform. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s  costumes are apt. Daniel Aukin is a director whose work has included some fine evenings of theater (4000 Miles, Bad Jews, The Fortress of Solitude) as well as some terrible ones (Fool for Love, Rancho Viejo, Placebo, What Rhymes with America?). His work here includes one gesture that I hate: forcing the actors not in the present scene to sit impassively at the edge of the stage in plain sight. It’s always a pleasure to see Deirdre O’Connell. Eboni Booth is a fresh new face. Bobby Moreno makes his “nice guy” role believable. Frederick Weller’s mannerisms annoyed me less than usual. With more work, the play might have amounted to something better. As is, it’s a missed opportunity. I very much doubt that the playwright knew where he was headed when he began. Running time: one hour 25 minutes; no intermission.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Traveling Lady

C-

This revival of Horton Foote’s 1954 play now in previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre does not make a strong case for the play. As usual for Foote, the setting is the mythical Harrison, Texas in the 1950’s. Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty), an attractive young woman, arrives in town with her five-year old daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), looking for a cheap house to rent. She is directed to Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) who plies her for personal information. It turns out that her husband Henry (PJ Sosko) has been in prison for six years and has never met his daughter. She expects him to arrive in Harrison, where he grew up, within the week. She is startled to find out that Henry has already been in town for a month and is living with and working for Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), a do-gooder who fancies herself able to cure alcoholics. While the neighbors try to locate her husband, Georgette and her daughter rest at the home of Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi) and her brother Slim Murray (Larry Bull), a young widower. We learn that Siim’s allegedly beloved wife actually abandoned him and wouldn’t even let him visit her as she lay dying. We also meet Clara’s next-door neighbors, the crusty old Mrs. Mavis (Lynne Cohen) who wanders off every chance she gets and her hapless daughter Sitter (Karen Ziemba) [Really, where do Southerners come up with these awful names for their daughters!]. Will Henry stay sober? Will Margaret Rose get to meet her father? Will Slim find true love? Will Mrs. Tillman keep her faith in human nature? Will Georgette catch a break? I was not at the edge of my seat waiting to find out. While the ensemble is mostly good, Austin Pendleton’s  direction is flat. The set by Harry Feiner and costumes by Theresa Squire are adequate. The need for most of the actors to enter via the theater’s center aisle and up a few stairs grows tiresome quickly. While it’s always a pleasure to see Karen Ziemba, she is wasted in a nondescript supporting role. In the short-lived 1954 Broadway production, the title role was played by Kim Stanley. Perhaps someone with her charisma is needed to breathe life into this play. Unless you are a fanatic Foote fan, you can skip this one. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission

Monday, June 12, 2017

My Eyes Went Dark

C-

This drama now at 59e59 Theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway season is based on an actual event. In the summer of 2002, the wife, son and daughter of Vitaly Kaloyev, an architect from the North Ossetia region of Russia, died in a collision between two airplanes near the German-Swiss border. [Spoilers ahead] Kaloyev was unhinged with grief, became obsessed with the flight controller on duty at the time of the crash and decided to take justice into his own hands. When he returned to Russia, he was treated as a hero. There are only two actors in playwright/director Matthew Wilkinson’s version of the story. Declan Conlon plays the architect, now called Nikolai Koslov. Thusitha Jayasundera plays Koslov’s wife as well as several other roles. This should have been a powerful story, but it failed to engage me for one important reason. The character of Koslov, at least as interpreted by Conlon, is so unremittingly unlikable that it was difficult to be invested in his fate. Furthermore, the story is told out of sequence and is sometimes confusing. Resorting to colored lights and loud noises does not improve the material. Late in the play, it is suggested that Koslov’s rage against the flight controller was caused by displaced guilt. By that point, I no longer cared. Running time: one hour 15 minutes; no intermission.

Invincible

A-

As a fan of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, I was disappointed that the current Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters does not include one of his plays. Not to worry. Instead, we have this impressive play by Torben Betts, an Ayckbourn acolyte who learned his lessons well. In this comedy of manners with strong sociopolitical overtones, we meet two memorable couples. Oliver (Alastair Whatley) and Emily (Emily Bowker) have recently moved to northern England from London. They rationalize that their move is to provide a better life for their children, but the truth is that they can no longer afford London since Oliver has lost his civil service writing job in the latest government belt-tightening. Abstract painter Emily, whose idea of a coffee table book is Das Kapital, claims she wants to live among the “real people.” They rent, because she does not believe in private ownership of property and they are not married, because she thinks it is a decadent institution. She is, to put it mildly, high-strung and overprotective, for reasons we will find out later, of their sleeping toddler, checking the monitor constantly. The ineffectual Oliver generally yields to her wishes. They decide to invite their next-door neighbors, Alan (a perfectly cast Graeme Brookes) and Dawn (the marvelous Elizabeth Boag, seen in New York in Ayckbourn’s Hero’s Welcome and Arrivals and Departures) over for tea. Postman Alan is an ordinary bloke whose only sin is that he is boring. Voluptuous Dawn married too soon and now regrets it. The awkward encounter between the privileged hosts and their down-to-earth guests is a monumental clash of class and culture. One example: when Alan goes on about watching football on TV, Emily counters that devotion to sports teams and watching TV makes people stupid. The hilarious first act leads to darker moments in the second act. Dawn, worried over the safety of her son on duty in the Iraq war, observes that the sons of the upper classes never have to serve. Alan muses on the difficulty of scraping together a living. We gain insight on why Emily is so dour. Oliver finally asserts himself. There are crises. The characters are extremely vividly drawn and their problems resonate for us. The actors are all strong, especially Graeme Brookes, whose take on Alan is worth the price of admission. The set and, particularly, the costumes by Victoria Spearing, assisted by Minglu Wang, are assets to the production. Director Stephen Darcy is not afraid to give each scene time to breathe. It’s a play that provides both lots of laughs and lots to think about. Running time: two hours 20 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Animal

C-

Rejoice, Rebecca Hall fans. That marvelous mistress of misery is back in town. You can really see her up close at Atlantic Theater’s Stage 2 which has been reconfigured to divide the audience in two on facing sides. In this psychological drama with a dash of feminism by British playwright Claire Lizzimore, she plays Rachel, a young married woman who is suffering from deep depression. Her long-suffering husband Tom (played by Morgan Spector, her real-life husband who met her during the run of Machinal) can’t seem to help her. Her therapist Stephen (a droll Greg Keller; Belleville) apparently can’t either. We also see Rachel mistreating an old woman (Kristin Griffith); being kissed by Dan (David Pegram, War Horse), a shirtless stud who may or may not have broken into her house; and conversing with a mysterious little girl (Fina Strazza). After 85 minutes of exhausting, escalating emotions, the play is suddenly wrapped up and tied in a bow by an unexpected and unsatisfying explanation. I felt manipulated. Rachel Hauck’s set is minimalist to the point of near invisibility.. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are congruent with the characters. Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s direction had a few things that annoyed me, e.g. having Rachel and Tom occasionally speak to each other through microphones from opposite sides of the stage. If you are an avid Rebecca Hall fan as am I, you will be rewarded. (Many will find the sight of David Pegram's torso rewarding too.) If Hall is not your cup of tea, skip it. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.


NOTE: If you have mobility issues, check with the theater before attending. The elevator has been broken for several days. There is alternative access via a freight elevator, but it involves a long detour through the bowels of the Google Building and one long flight of stairs. 


Bella: An American Tall Tale

C+


What are the odds that two shows about 19th-century black women with large derrieres would arrive on Theatre Row within a month of each other? And yet the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus at Signature Theatre has just been followed by the New York premiere of Kirsten Childs’s musical at Playwrights Horizons. I skipped Venus, because the prospect of watching an innocent woman being exploited and forced to appear in a freak show sounded too depressing. Although Childs’s work also includes a segment when the title character becomes a circus attraction, the prevailing spirit is far from depressing. Bella (Ashley D. Kelley) is a naive girl from Tupelo, Mississippi with a rich fantasy life who is forced to leave town after injuring a rich white man who was trying to rape her. She heads by train toward New Mexico, where her boyfriend Aloysius (Britton Smith) is a Buffalo Soldier. On the train she is looked after by a protective porter (Brandon Gill). After a fanciful adventure I will not describe, she ends up as a circus attraction who becomes a big star in Europe but, a la Josephine Baker, was scorned when she returned to America. There are many other characters: Ida Lou (Marinda Anderson, a black widow heading to Kansas where she thinks life will be safer; Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller), an old maid on her way to likely servitude as the mail-order bride of a widower with six children; a kindly couple, an inept gang of robbers, Bella’s mother (Miller again) and Aunt Dinah (Anderson again) and the grandmother (Natasha Yvette Williams) who is succumbing to dementia. Finally, there is the Spirit of the Booty (Williams again), whom you must see to believe. The cast of twelve are all talented, with Kelley and Miller the standouts. The production is lavish: Clint Ramos’s set has a Western-themed proscenium with a red velvet curtain. a painted scrim, a stage within a stage that moves back and forth and a revolving platform. [Was there a sale on stage turntables this spring? This is the fifth play I have seen recently with a revolving stage.] Dede M. Ayite’s costumes are inspired. Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography adds a lot to the production. Robert O'Hara (Bootycandy) directed. Childs’s music mixes many styles and occasionally seems derivative: there is a song near the end that sounds very similar to the disco anthem “I Will Survive.” A hilarious number in the second act called “White People Tonight” got a big reaction. It all goes down easy, but seems muddled and overstuffed. It has already shed 20 minutes in previews but could profitably lose a few more, preferably in the first act. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cost of Living

B+

After a successful run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, Martyna Majok’s (Ironbound) powerful four-character drama has arrived at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I at City Center. The lead character, Eddie (Victor Williams, Luck of the Irish), begins the play with a well-written and well-performed 10-minute monologue that reveals that he is a long-distance truck driver who recently lost his wife. Next we meet Jess (Jolly Abraham, Coram Boy), an attractive woman in her twenties who is applying for a job as helper to John (Gregg Mogzala), a Harvard-educated grad student with cerebral palsy who is confined to a wheelchair. Jess works as a barmaid and needs the extra income. In a flashback, we meet Eddie’s wife Ani (Katy Sullivan) who lost her legs in an accident and is a bundle of rage. Two of the play’s most moving scenes take place in bathrooms where we see Jess shaving and showering John and Eddie giving a bath (and possibly more) to Ani. The play's strengths include  not portraying the disabled characters simplistically and in giving equal time to the needs of their caregivers. Each character is vividly sketched to the point that I wished I knew more about them. Until the final scene, each character interacts with only one other character. In that scene a new heartbreaking connection is made. I wish the author had omitted a brief manipulative reversal at the very end. The entire production is first rate: the acting, the revolving set by Wilson Chin (Aubergine, My MaƱana Comes), the character-appropriate costumes by Jessica Pabst (The Ruins of Civilization) and the smooth direction by Jo Bonney (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark). I read that the author expanded this work from a two-character play and the opening monologue. The combination was not totally successful; some of the stitches show. Nevertheless, seeing it is a worthwhile, if painful, experience. Running time: one hour 45 minutes, no intermission.