Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder (Revisited) ****

Although I rarely see a show more than once, an invitation to join a family outing brought me back to this Tony winner. Here's what I had to say in December 2013:

Jefferson Mays, established master of multiple roles since "I Am My Own Wife," outdoes himself by playing eight distinct characters in this delightful new Broadway musical by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics). He portrays all the members of the D'Ysquith family, male and female, who are blocking Monty Navarro's (Bryce Pinkham) ambition to become Earl of Highhurst. The news from Miss Shingle (Jane Carr), an old family friend, that Monty's mother was disinherited by the D'Ysquiths for marrying a Castilian sets Monty on a path of revenge. If the plot sounds familiar, it's based on the same novel as the classic Alec Guinness film "Kind Hearts and Coronets." There are two women in his life, Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), a sexy schemer he can't resist, and Phoebe (Lauren Worsham), a virginal D'Ysquith cousin who falls for him. Part of the fun is seeing how Monty does each family member in. The wonderful Edwardian jewel-box set by Alexander Dodge, the excellent costumes by Lisa Cho, the clever projections by Aaron Rhyne and the amusing choreography by Peggy Hickey add greatly to the experience. Director Darko Tresnjak keeps everything lively. Pinkham manages the difficult task of making us care about a serial killer and Mays is simply amazing. The music, falling somewhere between operetta and music hall, is pleasant and the lyrics are a witty treat. My only quibble is that it's a bit too much of a good thing -- the first act is just short of 90 minutes. I hope that the lack of a star with greater name recognition in the hinterlands will not prevent it from having the success it deserves. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

I am happy to report that, although it has been running for close to two years, the production is as lively and polished as it was in 2013. Jefferson Mays is still with the show and Bryce Pinkham has returned, so the two key roles are in expert hands. Scarlett Strallen is an excellent Sibella and Catherine Walker is good as Phoebe. The sets, projections and costumes continue to delight. The music seemed a little more monotonous this time and the lyrics were occasionally lost by less than ideal enunciation, but the show is still a wonderful treat.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Drop Dead Perfect **

Last year’s sold-out production of this camp melodrama by Erasmus Fenn (a pseudonym) was a Critic’s Pick by both the Times and Time Out. That information plus the prospect of seeing Everett Quinton of Ridiculous Theatrical Company fame again raised my expectations high for the current revival at Theatre at St. Clements. Too high, it turns out. While this overwrought tale of Idris Seabright (Quinton), a wealthy woman in the Florida Keys has its madcap moments, they are too few and far between.
While Quentin gets to wear a parade of knockout 50’s outfits, he doesn’t get enough opportunity to really show off his plummy acting chops. Jason Edward Cook is delightful as Idris’s ward Vivien who yearns to leave the Keys to find her way as an artist in Greenwich Village. (It wasn’t until I read my program afterwards that I realized Vivien was played by a man.) Timothy C. Goodwin is solid in the dual roles of narrator and Idris’s pill-pushing attorney who has his eye on Vivien. The sudden arrival from Cuba of the studly Ricardo (Jason Cruz) sets the overly complicated plot in motion. Ricardo is the son of Idris’s sister Lucy and Ricardo Sr. (Lucy and Ricky, get it?), who ditched Idris for her sister.
Cruz gets a non-frontal nude moment and a shirtless scene with ludicrously stuffed boxer shorts. The interior of a cozy Florida cottage of the 50’s is captured well in James J. Fenton’s attractive set. Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s period costumes are a hoot. William Neal’s sound design cleverly incorporates portentous clips from 50’s movies. Joe Brancato directed. It’s all very silly, but not quite silly enough. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Delicate Ship ***

The Playwrights Realm is presenting this intriguing new play by Anna Ziegler at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Sarah (Miriam Silverman), a social worker in her early 30s, and Sam (Matt Dellapina), a budding musician, have been a couple for several months. Their quiet Christmas Eve at Sarah’s apartment is interrupted by a sudden knock at the door. The uninvited guest is Nate (Nick Westrate), Sarah’s close friend since childhood. Bearing champagne and weed, Nate insinuates himself into their evening. Sam and Nate have neither met nor heard of each other before. Nate is an intensely self-centered overgrown child, filled with existential dread that the world existed before him and will go on after him. He has longed for Sarah since childhood as the only person who can save him and has showed up that night to persuade her to choose him. Like Icarus in Breugel’s famous painting, he fears that his suffering may go unnoticed. Each character breaks the fourth wall periodically to tell the audience about previous as well as future events. The urge to please one’s parents is a theme that recurs. The title comes from the image of time as a ship delicately navigating the shoals between past and future. The events of that evening have a profound effect on all three characters.The actors are all excellent, the set by Reid Thompson is evocative, the costumes by Sydney Maresca are fine and the direction by Margot Bordelon is smooth. The playwright is not always in full command of her material, but shows considerable promise. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Whorl Inside a Loop **

Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan, who brought us “Everyday Rapture” a few years ago, are back at Second Stage with another work inspired by actual events. In 2011 the two of them gave a one-day workshop on personal narrative for a class of convicted murderers at an upstate prison. It was so successful that they kept coming back to develop the prisoners’ narratives into a show that was presented for a prison audience. Now they have turned a fictionalized version of that workshop into a play. Scott plays The Volunteer, an actress whose less than noble reasons for being at the prison to teach a 12-session workshop are not at first revealed. Worse, after pledging to the men that their stories would not leave the room, she proceeds, in secret, to use them to develop a play for the public. There is a half-baked subplot that has Hillary visiting the prison to see a performance. The prison scenes alternate with considerably less successful scenes outside in which the prisoners crudely impersonate Scott’s husband, son, lawyer, producer, hair stylist and Hillary. One wishes that the authors had stuck to the prisoners’ narratives, which are quite powerful and well-performed. The other parts of the play are muddled and dilute the impact. A twist at the end that raises the question of who is actually telling whose story didn’t quite work for me. I had trouble separating Scott’s performance from the unsympathetic character she portrays. The rest of the cast — Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr. — is excellent and the core material is worthwhile. Too bad they didn’t just go with that. Michael Mayer co-directed with Scanlan. Incidentally, the title refers to a rare fingerprint pattern. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes; no intermission. 

P.S. Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre has to be the least audience-friendly theater built in the last 20 years. The seats are narrow and low, the padding is thin, the legroom minimal and there are no handrails on the center aisle. To sit for more than an hour was punishing.

Monday, August 10, 2015

King Liz ***

Karen Pittman, so good recently in “Disgraced” both off and on Broadway, is the main reason to see this soapy sports drama by Fernanda Coppel (Chimichangas and Zoloft) at Second Stage Uptown. Pittman plays Liz Rico, an African-American woman in her 40s who has moved from life in the projects to the top ranks of sports agents. When her boss Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen) urges her to recruit Freddie Luna (an excellent Jeremie Harris), a high school kid from Red Hook with a juvie record, she follows her ambition rather than her judgment. Things do not turn out well for either of them. There is a subplot about romance between Liz and Coach Jones (a fine Russell G. Jones). Some of the better moments depict Liz’s rough relationship with Gabby Fuentes (Irene Sofia Lucio), her ambitious assistant. Caroline Lagerfelt plays Barbara Flowers, an allegedly friendly TV interviewer. Some of the writing is heavy-handed and the second act drifts toward melodrama, but the quality of Pittman’s performance makes it worth seeing. It’s never less than lively. Dane Laffrey’s sleek set is attractive and flexible. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are apt. Lisa Peterson’s direction is assured. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Summer Shorts: Series B *

The second installment of the Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theater features works by Lucy Thurber (The Hill Town Plays), Robert O’Hara (Bootycandy) and Stella Fawn Ragsdale.

In Thurber’s Unstuck we meet Pete (Alfredo Narciso), a man too depressed to leave the house even on his birthday. In three scenes he interacts with his sister Jackie (Lauren Blumenfeld) who badgers him to critique her hilariously inept tap-dance routine, his narcissistic friend Sara (Carmen Zilles), who offers him a birthday cupcake and a song and, finally, his patient live-in girlfriend Deirdre (KK Moggie), who tries to snap him out of his depression. Unfortunately Pete’s lethargy was contagious and, for me, more than cancelled out the liveliness of the three women. Laura Savia directed.

O’Hara’s Built has an interesting premise. Mrs. Back (Merritt Janson), a disgraced former teacher has a rendezvous with Mason (Justin Bernegger), a studly 25-year-old with whom she had sex at school 10 years ago. Their encounter is more than a little kinky. The brief male nudity suggests why she found him so irresistible. Their perspectives on their earlier relationship differ. Unfortunately, the play ends with a twist that comes out of nowhere and makes very little sense. Bernegger certainly gives it his all. Who was it who said that there’s nothing wrong with being an exhibitionist as long as you put on a good show? The playwright directed.

Ragsdale’s Love Letters to a Dictator gets off to a bad start and never recovers. Stella (Colby Minifie, recently in Punk Rock), a farm woman with the same name as the playwright enters with a large laundry basket under her arm. Instead of setting the basket down and sitting, she balances on one foot struggling to take her boots off while still holding the basket. Nothing that follows makes much sense either. Stella has left her family behind in Tennessee to move to New York to be a writer. It is also mentioned that she left to avoid ostracism over the wrong kind of love. Unable to adjust to city life, she moves to a farm in the Hudson Valley. Out of the blue she begins corresponding with the North Korean dictator and seeks his advice over whether to return home. She hangs her correspondence from clothespins on a line that stretches across the stage. When Kim Jong-Il dies, she writes a final letter. That’s about it. Logan Vaughn directed.

While the actors in all three plays were commendable, the material did not rise very far above the level of exercises for a playwriting workshop. The sets and costumes were by the same people who designed Series A. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission. It seemed longer.