Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play **

Your reaction to Anne Washburn’s innovative play, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, may hinge on whether you are an avid fan of the animated TV series The Simpsons. Your familiarity with the characters will give you a head start in appreciating the plot. Washburn uses this popular cartoon series to show the important role pop culture plays in binding our society together. Much of the action focuses on an episode from the series’s fifth season called “Cape Feare,” a spoof of the twice-made Hollywood thriller. During the first act, survivors of a recent nuclear disaster sit around a campfire and pass the time by remembering lines from the show. In the second act, set seven years later, rival bands of roving performers survive by reenacting episodes from TV shows, complete with commercials. In the third act, set 75 years later, we see a stylized version of the “Cape Feare” episode in music and verse, presented as an inspirational pageant. The play was commissioned by The Civilians, a self-styled center for investigative theater; most of the cast (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Worthmann, Sam Breslin Wright) are associate artists of the group and director Steve Cosson is their artistic director. The play is enlivened by Michael Friedman’s music and Sam Pinkleton’s choreography. Neil Patel’s sets and Emily Rebholz’s costumes hit the mark. There is a terrific two-part theatrical effect at play’s end. I wish the first two acts were tightened up a bit: it’s a long slog to intermission and a smattering of people did not return. The final act ties many loose ends together, but it’s a long wait to get there. In case you were wondering, Mr. Burns is the name of Homer Simpson’s boss, the owner of the nuclear power plant responsible for the disaster. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, including intermission.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Old Jews Telling Jokes ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If laughter is indeed the best medicine, this comedy revue, which has been running at the Westside Theatre for over a year but is closing next month, will give you a generous dose. At a trim 70 minutes, it's longer than an hour of therapy, much cheaper (especially on TDF), and much more entertaining. The title is a bit misleading -- two of the actors are young and I doubt they are all Jewish -- but who cares? Many of the jokes are old chestnuts, but the affable cast (original cast members Marilyn Sokol and Todd Susman, plus replacements Dara Cameron, Chuck Rea and Steve Vinovich and pianist Jeremy Cohen) deliver them as if they were newly minted. A surprisingly high percentage of them are very funny. The jokes are arranged around various themes and presented at a rapid pace. David Gallo's minimalist set includes an upholstered sectional which, of course, has transparent plastic covers. The videos are stylishly clever. As a bonus, we get a clip of Alan King performing. I feared it would become monotonous, but it moves along so briskly thanks to director Marc Bruni, that I was sorry when it was over.  Alejo Vietti's costumes are a hoot. Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent are credited as the "conceivers."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

rogerandtom ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
If you are looking for something a bit different, head to HERE in SoHo for Personal Space Theatrics' revival of Julien Schwab's Pirandellian comedy. First off, the clever set design by David Esler will grab your attention: a typical urban apartment suggested by room outlines taped to the floor with a few furnishings including a sofa, a toilet and sink, a miniature bed and taut horizontal wires to indicate each room's corners. The apartment is occupied by Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt), whose soon-to-be ex-husband Richard (Richard Thieriot) is in the process of moving out. Suzy is awaiting the arrival of her brother Roger (Eric T. Miller), who is due shortly to join her for the opening night of a play by their brother Tom, from whom he has long been estranged. Instead, Richard arrives with one last box to pack up. When Penny calls Roger to find out why he is late, a cellphone goes off in the audience. The phone belongs to Roger, whom Richard (or William if you prefer -- the name of the actor allegedly playing Richard) badgers to come up onstage and join the play. Thus, the fun begins. Roger says he has no sister. Penny claims to be unaware that she is an actress in a play. And so it goes for 65 minutes. I will confess that for me, the inventiveness got a bit stale before the play ended. I think it would be better as a 30-minute one-acter. Nevertheless, the actors are uniformly excellent, the direction by Nicholas Cotz is assured, and the attempt to stray from the tried-and-true was refreshing.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Harbor **

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
In this Primary Stages production at 59E59, the harbor is Sag Harbor, where architect Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart) and his somewhat younger husband Kevin (Randy Harrison), a would-be writer, live a seemingly idyllic, unencumbered life. This idyl is punctured by the unexpected arrival in a live-in van of Kevin's long-absent sister Donna (Erin Cummings), a single mother who fancies herself a singer, and her preternaturally wise 15-year-old daughter Lottie (Alexis Molnar), who has a taste for Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Early on, Ted has a terrific rant about his hatred of young children and mothers who display an undeserved sense of entitlement. His feelings do not deter Donna from her mission of manipulating her brother into persuading Ted that they should raise her forthcoming child so she can go off and get a job singing on a cruise ship. (The fact that she claims it is too late for an abortion when she is not even showing the slightest baby bump perplexed me.) Their one-night visit turns into a few months. When Ted learns of Donna's plan and Kevin's reluctance to turn her down, he and Kevin have a gripping conversation that lays bare Ted's true perception of Kevin and of the underlying nature of their relationship. A new equilibrium emerges. The play touches on many interesting topics, such as peer pressure on gay couples to parent, the fragility of equilibrium in a relationship, and the dangers of a life based on illusion. Unfortunately, the tone is wildly uneven: playwright Chad Beguelin seems uncertain whether he is writing a sitcom, a soap opera or a serious drama. When the snappy one-liners recede and the tone turns more serious in the second act, it is a bit unsettling. The actors acquit themselves honorably with the sometimes unconvincing dialogue. Andrew Jackness's scenic design cleverly has the living room walls covered in a faint pastel representation of the house's exterior, but the furnishings looked a bit sparse for this couple. Candice Donnelly's costumes are apt. Director Mark Lamos keeps things moving briskly. (Something strange happened about 10 minutes into the play. An amplified voice instructed the actors to stop while they traced the source of a hearing aid that was creating interference. After a few minutes, the play resumed with the actors repeating most of one scene. It was an unfortunate intrusion). Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Choir Boy **

I wish I had not read the glowing reviews of Tarell Alvin McCraney's drama with music at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, because they set me up for disappointment. The a cappella singing of the actors portraying members of the gospel choir and the headmaster of an elite black prep school is gorgeous, but the drama into which the music is blended could use deeper character development and fewer subplots. Jeremy Pope is strong as the effeminate student choir leader who is as much bully as victim. Nicholas L. Ashe, Kyle Beltran, Grantham Coleman and John Stewart are all fine as the other students. Charles E. Wallace is admirable as the headmaster and Austin Pendleton is believable as the retired historian brought in to hone the boys' intellect (a la "History Boys"). The plot is often contrived and predictable. Jason Michael Webb made the fine vocal arrangements. David Zinn's set and costumes are excellent and Trip Cullman's direction is smooth. I might have enjoyed it more had I been expecting less. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

First Date ***

(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
This new musical at the Longacre Theatre takes us through a blind date between Aaron (Zachary Levi of TV's "Chuck"), an uptight, awkward Jewish financial analyst, and Casey (Krysta Rodriguez of TV's "Smash"), a Gentile free spirit with commitment issues and a taste for bad boys. The clever gimmick is that we also get to meet all the significant people in their lives who supply a ton of emotional baggage for the encounter. A versatile ensemble of five (Bryce Ryness, Kristoffer Cusick, Blake Hammond, Sara Chase and Kate Loprest) portray the waiter, Aaron's best friend, mother, grandmother, future son and ex-fiancee as well as Casey's sister, father, ex-boyfriends, therapist and gay best friend. The music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, who have written for Disney, is merely serviceable, but the book by Austin Winsberg has many flashes of wit. It helps a lot that Levi and Rodriguez are such appealing performers with good chemistry. David Gallo's set is not very attractive but functional. David C. Woolard's costumes are appropriate for the characters. Bill Berry's direction is unobtrusive. The theater was full and the mostly young audience was wildly enthusiastic. Good word of mouth may trump the critics here. I enjoyed it a lot more than "Nobody Loves You," which the Times made a Critic's Pick. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.