Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tiny Beautiful Things ** C

Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns from The Rumpus, an online website, was a bestseller. Actor Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) thought it would be a good idea to adapt it for the stage and enlisted Marshall Heyman and Thomas Kail to assist with the concept. Kail (Hamilton) also directs. The result is this sporadically involving 80-minute production now at the Public Theater. An epistolary play with no direct interaction between characters is not an easy thing to bring off, but it can be done (cf. Love Letters). Here, however, it is an unequal exchange with one person responding to questions from several others. Three actors — Phillip James Brannon (Nat Turner in Jerusalem),  Alfredo Narciso and Natalie Woolams-Torres — play a variety of people with a variety of problems, large and small, who write to Sugar for advice. Sugar differs from the typical advice columnist by her willingness to share her own painful experiences with her readers. Nardalos portrays her with no-nonsense directness, folding laundry or packing school lunches as she speaks. Each time one of the other actors appears, he or she is playing a different person so there is little opportunity to build a character. One notable exception is an extended scene in which Narciso plays a man whose son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver; he is absolutely wrenching. While the questions more or less resemble ordinary speech, Sugar’s answers come out in polished prose. I would have preferred reading them at my leisure over hearing them on a stage. Rachel Hauck’s set of Strayed’s kitchen and living room looks so lived in that I found myself studying its details when my interest lagged. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes suit the characters well. Thomas Kail’s direction tries hard to enliven a basically static situation. I admired all the good intentions, but I found the effort ultimately misguided.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Your Feet ** C+

If exuberance were all it took to make a Broadway musical a winner, this jukebox bio-musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine would make the grade. The infectious music of this Cuban-American couple is played by a terrific orchestra that is onstage for the big numbers. The two leads, Ana Villafañe and Ektor Rivera, are both excellent and are supported by a fine cast that includes Andrea Burns, Alma Cuervo and a young tap-dancing terror named Eduardo Hernandez. The dance numbers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, are relentlessly energetic. David Rockwell’s hyperactive set features two tall panels made of shutters that move around a lot. The costumes by Esosa are a treat. Jerry Mitchell’s direction is slick. Unfortunately, all the show’s strengths are largely undone by a lame book by Alexander Dinelaris. Its weaknesses are less apparent during the lively first act, but become increasingly problematic during the weak second act. The abrupt and rather flat finale morphs into an unusually lively extended curtain call. Go for the music and the dancing and try to ignore the book. It has been running for over a year, so clearly it has found an audience. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Looking Back at 2016

Judging from the shows I saw in 2016, New York theater has had a better year than in 2015. This year I awarded **** (Very Good) ratings to 17 shows. Last year there were only 9.

Here are my 4-star shows listed alphabetically:

The Color Purple
Dear Evan Hansen
Fiddler on the Roof
The Golden Bride
“Master Harold” …and the Boys
Noises Off
Old Hats
Sense & Sensibility
She Loves Me
Shuffle Along
Thank God for Jokes
Turn Me Loose
The Wolves

Only 3 shows received my * (Poor) rating, as compared to 8 last year.

In alphabetical order they are:

Newsical: The Musical
Our Mother’s Brief Affair

Incidentally, a few people asked whether I had ever awarded a show 5 stars. The answer is yes: The Piano Man and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2013 and a previous version of Old Hats in 2012. Let’s hope that with the new rating system it won’t be too long a wait until the first A+.

I hope you had many enjoyable theatrical experiences this year and will have even more in the coming year.

With best wishes for the Holiday Season,
Bob Sholiton

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Theater Reviews: A Change in Scoring

Loyal reader,

For some months, I have been concerned that my 0-to-5 star rating system lacks sufficient nuance. In particular, a 3-star rating covers so much territory that it is not all that informative. Therefore, I am testing a letter-grade system with pluses and minuses to see whether that is more helpful. I have added a letter score to all the reviews since July of this year to give you an idea how it would work. If you scroll to the bottom of this screen, you will see "Blog Archive." Click on the name of each month starting with July 2016 and you will see the names of the plays I reviewed that month with both a star and a letter rating. Please let me know what you think. If you have trouble using the comment function, just send me an email at If there is general approval, I will switch from stars to letters starting in January.

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

Bob Sholiton

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Babylon Line ** C-

Making fun of the conformity of life in Levittown 50 years ago is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. The target is too easy. Nevertheless, Richard Greenberg’s look at a creative writing class in the local adult education program, now in previews at Lincoln Center Theater, initially shows promise. The presence of such stalwarts of the New York stage as Randy Graff, Julie Halston and Frank Wood as three of the students is a big help. Josh Radnor (Disgraced) is no slouch either as their teacher, an unsuccessful writer who makes the weekly trip from Manhattan to earn a few dollars. Ms. Graff plays a stereotypical overbearing yenta, who would be objectionable if she weren’t so amusing. Ms. Halston, as one of her friends, is more open-minded. Maddie Corman portrays another friend, who has a rocky marriage. Frank Wood plays a veteran suffering from what we now call PTSD, who seeks release in his writing. Michael Oberholtzer plays a strange young man, possibly on the spectrum, who is working on a magnum opus. The final student is a mysterious woman who has lived in Levittown for many years, but is unknown to the others. This character, portrayed by Elizabeth Reaser, whom I have admired on other occasions, has for some reason been saddled with a Southern accent that comes and goes. (Perhaps there was a course on Tennessee Williams next door and she wandered into the wrong classroom.) The first act proceeds smoothly, but after intermission things go seriously off the rails. The second act is overlong and overwrought, burdened with lame gimmicks and false endings. Richard Hoover’s classroom set is excellent. I can't vouch for the accuracy of  Sarah J. Holden’s period costumes, but they seem appropriate. Director Terry Kinney gets tripped up in the second act problems. There are several entertaining moments along the way, but by the end most of the goodwill I felt after Act One had vanished. At least it’s an improvement over Greenberg's last play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which he briefly references. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dead Poets Society ** C-

One of the mini-trends of the current season is the adaptation of award-winning films into plays. First there was Terms of Endearment (which I have not seen) and now this Classic Stage Company production based on the 1989 film which starred Robin Williams and included a trio of young actors (Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles) who went on to successful careers. I hope this trend of recycling movies is nipped in the bud. While there have been many films that were turned into successful musicals, adapting a movie for the stage without musicalizing it doesn’t seem to add any value. In this case, even though the adaptation was done by the screenwriter, Tom Schulman himself, who has trimmed over 20 minutes from the film, the result is a Cliff Notes version that came across to me as bland and pointless. Jason Sudeikis is fine as the charismatic English teacher who urges the preppies in his class at Welton Academy to seize the day. The six young men who play the students (Zane Pais, Thomas Mann, Cody Kostro, Bubba Weiler, William Hochman and Yaron Lotan) are also very good. David Garrison is effective as the headmaster, Paul Nolan. Stephen Barker Turner does his best with the one-note role of Mr. Perry, whose demands on his son provoke a crisis, and Francesca Carpanini looks pretty as the love interest of one of the students. Their valiant efforts were largely sunk by the play’s blandness. Even the ending misfires: after disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Sudeikis briefly returns, but his reappearance has little impact. John Doyle’s direction is mostly straightforward, the main quirk being that books pulled off the library shelves are used in place of classroom furniture. Scott Pask’s attractive set features a library wall of books, complete with rolling ladder. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes looked right for 1959. Japhy Weideman’s lighting and Matt Stine’s sound design are quite effective. All this effort seems misguided as the play itself has so little point to it. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Band's Visit *** B+

Atlantic Theater Company is presenting this musical adaptation of the popular 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian police band that inadvertently becomes stranded overnight in an isolated town while on a goodwill visit to Israel. The music and lyrics are by David Yazbek (The Full Monty) and the book is by Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig). The songs are well-integrated into the story with much of the music being performed by actors playing band members. The book, faithful to the screenplay almost to a fault, incorporates large chunks of dialog from the film. It is virtually impossible to develop 20 characters in any depth in 95 minutes even without making time for a dozen songs. In some cases, we get a bare sketch, but in others, the characterization actually goes deeper than in the film. The show is greatly enhanced by a fine cast and high production values. Katrina Lenk makes an excellent Dina. John Cariani (Something Rotten!) brings richness to the role of Itzik. Ari’el Stachel is just right as the band’s young hunk Haled. George Abud and Sam Sadigursky are standouts as actor-musicians. Last but not least, Tony Shalhoub brings dignity and compassion to the role of Tewfiq, the bandleader. The evocative scenic design by Scott Pask (Something Rotten!) makes effective use of a revolving stage. Sarah Laux’s (The Humans) costumes fit their characters well. The direction by David Cromer (Tribes, Our Town) is fluid and assured. The result is an intimate, engaging show with an edge of poignancy. I could not suppress a twinge of regret over how badly the situation in Egypt and Israel has deteriorated since 1996, the year in which the story is set. Running time: one hour, 35 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ride the Cyclone *** B

I wish I had not read the rapturous Chicago reviews of this offbeat musical by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond now playing in an MCC production at the Lucille Lortel Theater. My expectations were so high that I ended up being slightly disappointed. The plot is unusual in that the characters are all dead when the show begins. Six teenagers from the chamber choir of St. Cassian School in Uranium City, Saskatchewan have just been killed in a freak roller coaster accident. They find themselves in a macabre purgatory presided over by The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), a mechanical fortune teller who has the power to grant one of them a return to life. Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), born to hippie parents, is an obnoxious overachiever. Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), the chubby nice girl, is Ocean’s best friend. Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the only gay boy in town, idolizes Marlene Dietrich. Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), a nerd with a physical disability, dreams of being an intergalactic superhero. Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper) puts on a tough act but is a romantic at heart, longing for his fiancee back in the Ukraine. Finally, there is the mysterious Jane Doe (the vocally blessed Emily Rohm), who was decapitated in the accident, whom her fellow students do not recognize and whose body remained unclaimed. Each teenager sings a song to make the case for being the one chosen to return to life. The eclectic score has a wide variety of styles from pop rock to hip hop to faux Ukrainian folk song. The performers are all appealing. The scenic design by Scott Davis is wonderful, as are the costumes by Theresa Ham and the projections by Mike Tutaj. The choreography by Rachel Rockwell, who also directed, is lively. Why then was I slightly disappointed? In trying to tell us enough to care about each character, the show occasionally loses momentum. The interaction between the students and Karnak drops out for an extended stretch. The ending somehow did not have the impact I anticipated. Nevertheless, there is much to admire, particularly for a younger audience. If you liked “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which I was reminded of, you will probably enjoy this show. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Women of a Certain Age *** B+

The final play in Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” now at the Public Theater, is set in the kitchen of the Gabriel family home in Rhinebeck, New York a couple of hours before the polls close on Election Day. The characters are the same as in the first two plays: Mary Gabriel (the superb Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, was the third wife and now widow of Thomas Gabriel, a playwright who died exactly a year ago. His younger brother George (Jay O. Sanders), a cabinetmaker, also taught piano until hard times forced them to sell the family piano. George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) works for a local caterer, but business is slow so she is also working part-time as a maid in a nearby hotel. Their son Paul is away at college, but his future there is uncertain because of their reduced financial status. George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an unmarried assistant costume designer, is visiting from Brooklyn. Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s mother, who resides in a nearby assisted living facility, has had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress and teacher, is renting the room over the garage. She is performing a solo piece that evening based on the writings of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The modest supper of shepherd’s pie and paintbrush cookies they are preparing may be the last time the family is together in the family home. A financial crisis brought on by Patricia’s gullibility has forced the sale of the house. Their conversation ranges far and wide, from vintage cookbooks to gentrification to outside money’s influence on local politics. In preparing the house for sale, they run across a box of letters sent to Patricia when she was 13, shortly after the sudden death of her older sister. The attempt to tie the reasons for the sister’s death to a notorious incident long ago at Harvard seemed clumsy and out of place. The Gabriels do not yet know the election results, but their future does not look bright regardless of the outcome. In contrast to the family in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, their misfortune is entirely unearned. Anyone who has not seen at least the middle play of the trilogy may not get a lot out of this one. The ensemble cast is outstanding. Susan Hilferty designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. The playwright directed. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Rancho Viejo ** C-

When I looked back at my review of Dan LeFranc’s previous production at Playwrights Horizons (The Big Meal in 2012), my heart sank. If I found that one overlong at 90 minutes, how would I possibly make it through his new 3-act play, which clocked in at 3 1/2 hours at the first preview? (It’s down to 3 hours 5 minutes as of last night.) From what I gather, there have been so many changes almost nightly that the play might be substantially different by the time it opens next week. I doubt that its essential core will be altered though. Basically, it’s a look — a long look — at the vacuousness of comfortable suburban life in a fictional community in Southern California, likely in Orange County. Add to that several absurdist touches and a few less than profound discussions of the nature of happiness and art. We meet four couples, three of retirement age and one still working, plus an enigmatic teenage boy and a scene-stealing dog. The main focus is on Pete (a marvelous Mark Blum) and Mary (a subdued Mare Winningham), a childless couple who have just moved to town and are trying without much success to fit in. Pete is a marvelous creation. If there were an Olympic event in social awkwardness, he would take home the gold. Mary might nab bronze. One of the play’s main sources of pleasure is to await the next unbelievably awkward remark out of Pete’s mouth. Forget Asperger’s; he’s on a spectrum of his own. Mary’s problem is subtler: it is her neediness for friendship that drives people away. When Pete learns that Richie, the unseen son of Patti (Julia Duffy) and Gary (Mark Zeisler), is getting divorced, he becomes inappropriately upset and obsessed with the idea of saving Richie’s marriage. The other couples are Mike (Bill Buell) and Anita (Ruth Aguilar). The vibrant Anita is Guatemalan; she has a few long speeches in Spanish that go untranslated. Leon (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), an African-American IT guy, and Suzanne (Lusia Strus), a real estate agent with an eye problem, are an unmarried couple with a large dog Mochi (Marti). Much of the first two acts takes place at parties at the home of one couple or another. Since the same set (by Dane Laffrey) represents the generic Southwestern living room of all four homes, it is sometimes hard to figure out where a given scene is taking place. Not that it matters much. Tate (Ethan Dubin), the sullen teenager who has little to do except lurk in the first two acts, comes into focus in a very strange scene near the beginning of Act 3. Does he ever! Jessica Pabst has dressed everyone aptly. Daniel Aukin’s direction seems attuned to the material. There are several funny moments, but the plot and the character development are minimal. I doubt that these are people that you would seek out to spend an evening with. I was pleasantly surprised that very few audience members left during either intermission.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical *** B

While it’s hardly new, this adaptation of the 1942 film that starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire is a welcome addition to the Broadway season. If you are stressed out by the state of the nation, get yourself to Studio 54 where you can return to a simpler, gentler America, at least for 2+ hours. Gordon Greenberg (who also directed) and Chad Hodge have tossed out a few songs (including the blackface number), added several other Berlin standbys, and reworked the plot to make it slightly less ridiculous. For those old enough to remember, it wasn’t the plots that drew us to Hollywood musicals. As Jim Hardy, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) lacks Bing Crosby’s pipes, but is otherwise fine. As Ted Hanover, Corbin Bleu is an amazing dancer and a charming presence. Megan Sikora is a hoot as Lila Dixon, their dance partner with more ambition than loyalty. As Linda Mason, Lora Lee Gayer looks and acts the part of the local schoolteacher with hidden talents. Comic relief is added by two new characters — Louise (Megan Lawrence), the politically incorrect lesbian live-in “fix-it man” and Charlie Winslow (Morgan Gao), a local child who usually bears ill tidings. The production is quite lavish. The scenic design by Anna Louizos features multiple sets. The 40’s costumes by Alejo Vietti are sensational. The lively choreography by Denis Jones (Honeymoon in Vegas) is well executed by a chorus of 16. Two numbers are showstoppers — “Shaking the Blues Away” and “Let’s Say It with Firecrackers.” The large orchestra and attractive arrangements give Berlin his due. And hearing “White Christmas” twice more won’t kill you. This Roundabout production may be the musical equivalent of comfort food, but a little comfort is most welcome these days. Running time: two hours 15 minutes, including intermission.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

This Day Forward *** B-

It’s good to have another Nicky Silver play onstage at the Vineyard Theatre, which has nurtured his work for over 20 years. Few playwrights can spin hilarity out of tragic circumstances as well as Silver. Perhaps his most popular play is The Lyons, with its deeply dysfunctional Jewish family that included an overbearing mother (a role Linda Lavin was born to play), a tyrannical father, a conflicted gay son and a less-than-appreciated daughter. If you enjoyed The Lyons, you will feel right at home here. The first act, set in 1958 in a room at the St. Regis, features a bridal couple whose wedding night is thrown into disarray by the revelation of a secret. In the second act, we learn how the consequences of that night have played out 46 years later. The dialog is often brutally funny. To say more would be to reveal too much. The entire production is topnotch. The cast of six (Andrew Burnap, Michael Crane, Holley Fain, Francesca Faridany, June Gable and Joe Tippett), some doubling roles, are all superb. The sets for both acts, by Allen Moyer, are perfection. Kaye Voyce’s costumes suit their characters well. J. David Brimmer’s  fight direction is worthy of note. Longtime Silver collaborator Mark Brokaw directs with a sure hand. With Silver, the style sometimes threatens to overwhelm the substance, but that is a flaw I can accept. Running time: 2 hours, including intermission.

Sweet Charity *** B-

It has been 50 years since this show arrived on Broadway with a formidable array of talent behind it: music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, a book by Neil Simon based on a Fellini film, Gwen Verdon in the title role and, last but certainly not least, choreography and direction by Bob Fosse. To be honest, it has never been one of my favorite musicals. I find the book too disjointed and cliched and the characterizations exaggerated. Still, it has some catchy songs and several terrific dance numbers. Now The New Group has revived the show in a stripped-down version, modest even by Encores standards. The cast has 12 instead of the original 30 and the orchestra has been reduced to five over-amplified musicians. For a show that has so many dance numbers, the choreography is critical. Joshua Bergasse has the unenviable task of following Fosse’s exceptional work. While he has demonstrated talent elsewhere (On the Town), he is no Fosse. Sutton Foster, while one of the most talented actresses in musicals, is no Gwen Verdon. In the opening number, her neediness is shown as so grotesque that it is hard to feel much sympathy for her. Her perkiness is tiring, but she demonstrates a real flair for physical comedy. The always watchable Shuler Hensley makes a fine Oscar, the man she hopes will be her rescuer. Joel Perez is a standout in all four of his roles. The racially mixed ensemble is very good. Derek McLane’s scenic design features a a bare square stage with a brick back wall and two runways. Furniture is rolled in as needed. The audience is seated on three sides. The costumes by Clint Ramos bring back the 60s in all their excess. I do wish they had sprung for more than one dress for Charity. The directorial choice by Leigh Silverman to emphasize the extent to which the show is an artifact of the 60s robs it of some immediacy. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to see Foster and Hensley on stage. If you never saw or don’t remember Fosse’s choreography, you won’t be bothered by its absence. Despite some reservations, I did not regret seeing this production.  Running time: two hours, ten minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Homos, or Everyone in America ** C

Jordan Seavey’s new play at Labyrinth Theater Company presents a lot of problems. First, there’s that title. Why the pejorative? Why the claim to universality? Forget everyone in America; even with respect to the gay community, the play’s focus is on a very narrow segment. Then there’s the staging. The small theater has been reconfigured into several sections of platforms of various heights. Most of the action takes place in the narrow corridor between sections. Where you sit can either leave you too far from the actors or too close for comfort. Then there's the tricky sequencing; the story is told in fragments that move backward and forward in time. Often it’s hard to tell what precedes what. Jumbling the timeline does not lend the material greater heft. We follow the ups and downs of the relationship between The Academic (Robin de Jesus) and The Writer (Michael Urie) over several years. We also meet Dan (Aaron Costa Ganis), a hunky guy that both hanker for, and, briefly, Laila (Stacey Sargeant), a sales clerk in a fancy soap shop. For much of the play, the two lead characters are bickering. They touch base, at least superficially, with a variety of topics, both personal and social. The Writer is described at one point as a gay Woody Allen. I found him basically unsympathetic, even when played by an actor as appealing as Urie. Robin de Jesus is very strong, especially at the play's climax. The scenic design, such as it is, is by Dane Laffrey (The Christians). Jessica Pabst’s costumes are apt. Mike Donahue (The Legend of Georgia McBride) directed. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World a/k/a The Negro Book of the Dead ** C

Seeing Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the War, Parts 1, 2 & 3 was one of the highlights of my theater-going year in 2014, so I was eagerly awaiting Signature Theatre’s revival of this early work from 1990. Be careful what you wish for. According to the ushers, the running time was 80 minutes; it actually came in at 67 minutes. Let’s just say that I was not sorry that it ended 13 minutes sooner than expected. In principle, I admire the decision to mount such a complex, significant work, but in actuality I found it tough to sit through. The cast of 11, led by the talented Roslyn Ruff as Black Woman With Fried Drumstick and Daniel J. Watts as Black Man With Watermelon, perform with total commitment. I found the structure, in which the play is divided into panels and choruses, the titles of which are projected on the rear wall, confusing. The dialog has a lyrical, almost incantatory quality at times with many phrases and sentences returning, often with slight variation as in jazz. I got that the central character repeatedly dies, by electrocution, hanging and other unpleasant means and understood the plea that black history should not be allowed to remain undocumented and therefore become lost. I grasped why Ham (Patrena Murray), the source of biblical justification for animus against blacks, is a character. Ditto for Old Man River Jordan (Julian Rozzell) as well as And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger (Reyanldo Piniella), an allusion to Native Son. But why Before Columbus (David Ryan Smith) and Queen-Then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut (Amelia Workman)? I missed the apparent allusion of a character named Yes and Greens Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread (Nike Kadri) or one called Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork (Jamar Williams) or Prunes and Prisms (Mirirai Sithole.) Calling one the Voice on Thuh Tee V (William Demeritt) seemed pointless. The significance of breaking eggs and eating feathers was lost on me. There are some funny moments, including a scene that’s a worthy riff on Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.” The choreography by Raja Feather Kelly provided some of the most enjoyable moments. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design is effectively spare. Montana Blanco’s costumes are wonderful. Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction is fluid. What the play lacks in coherence, it almost makes up for in sheer energy. Unfortunately for me, I prefer coherence. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Sweat **** A

After acclaimed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, the timely new play by Pulitzer winner and MacArthur fellow Lynn Nottage (Ruined; By the Way, Meet Vera Stark; Intimate Apparel) has finally arrived at the Public Theater. It was worth the wait. The play might have been subtitled “Reasons To Hate NAFTA” or “How the Rust Belt Creates Trump Voters.” However, while corporate greed, globalization, racism and immigration policy all underlie the action, the play is not a sociopolitical screed. Nottage wisely keeps our attention on vividly drawn characters and on how forces beyond their control are refracted in their lives. Most of the action is set in 2000 at an after-work bar popular with employees of a metal tubing plant in Reading, PA. We meet three middle-age women — Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), Tracey (Johanna Day) and Jessie (Miriam Shor) — who have worked together on the plant floor for over 20 years. Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis) and Tracey’s son Jason (Will Pullen), who also work at the plant, are best buddies. Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) also frequents the bar. Stan the bartender (James Colby) used to work at the plant too until he was injured by a defective piece of equipment. Oscar (Carlo Alban), the bar’s Hispanic porter, might as well be invisible for all the attention he gets from customers. Cynthia is black, but her race has never been an issue until she is promoted to management over others. Her new position is hardly enviable when the plant owners decide to downsize. The play’s first and final scenes are set in 2008. As the play opens, parole officer Evan (Lance Coadie Williams) is conducting separate interviews with Jason and Chris, who have finished prison terms for a crime they committed eight years earlier. We flash back to 2000 to see the escalating events that led to the shocking crime and finally back to 2008 to see the consequences. It all makes for a gripping experience. The cast is uniformly excellent. John Lee Beatty’s revolving set is evocative, as are Jennifer Moeller’s costumes. Director Kate Whoriskey (Ruined) once again does Nottage full justice. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Notes from the Field *** B-

Anna Deavere Smith’s latest foray into “first person documentary storytelling,” now at Second Stage Theatre, is about the failure of our education and criminal justice systems, which have created a school-to-prison pipeline for youth from poor communities. As she did so memorably in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” she impersonates a diverse array of people related to an event or social problem and brings us their own words verbatim. Before the evening begins, a grim series of statistics about racial inequities in our schools and so-called justice system is projected on six large panels, putting me in a funk before Ms. Smith even reached the stage. The 18 scenes of excerpts from interviews and speeches that followed were intercut with photographs and video clips of some of the most egregious examples of racial bias in recent years. Some of the moments were painful to relive. Much attention is devoted to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The sermon at Gray’s funeral is one of the most powerful sections of the evening. Stockton and Klamath, CA and Columbia, SC are the locales of some other important pieces. Although there is an attempt to shed a ray of hope at the end of the evening, I did not find it convincing or comforting. The scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez and projections by Elaine McCarthy are effective. Some of Ann Hould-Ward’s costume choices are peculiar: I have no idea why Smith’s slacks in the first act had worn-through patches or why she was barefoot. For some stretches of the evening, bassist Marcus Shelby is onstage with Ms. Smith, to little effect. Some of the dialects and intonations came across as artificial: I have never heard anyone say “impurr” instead of “impair.” The material lacked a clear arc and some of the excerpts should have been trimmed. Leonard Foglia directed. While most of the audience responded enthusiastically, several people near me did not return after intermission. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Two Class Acts *** B-

For the final offering at its White Street home before moving to a new theater four blocks south, The Flea is presenting a pair of one-act plays by A.R. Gurney. This is fitting because Gurney has written several plays for them over the last several years and will have one of the performing spaces in the new building named for him. The two plays are separately ticketed, but it is advisable to see them back to back on the same evening. (The Flea's ticket prices are so low that the cost ot the two plays together is less than one play at most theaters.) Both deal with college faculty who teach Greek literature. 

In Squash, which we must deduce is set in the 1970’s, professor Dan Proctor (Dan Amboyer) likes to unwind with a game of squash after work. One day he is accosted in the locker room by a student, Gerald Caskey (Rodney Richardson), who allegedly is there to turn in a term paper early. He then admits that he also wanted to see Dan naked. (Yes, there’s brief non-frontal male nudity and Dan’s body is worthy of a Praxiteles.) Gerald later comes to Dan’s office to complain about the low grade on his term paper and find out whether it was because of their locker room encounter. Meanwhile Dan’s wife Becky (Nicole Lowrance) begrudges the time Dan spends on squash rather than at home and wishes he would do more to improve his chances of getting tenure. Implausibly Dan goes to a bar recommended by Gerald, unaware that it is a gay bar. He comes to question his own sexuality and eventually approaches Gerald. However Gerald has made discoveries of his own.

For Ajax, the smaller downstairs theater has been converted to a classroom with student tables and a lectern. Each student table has a syllabus for “Intro to Classic Greek Drama” on it. Meg Tucker (Olivia Jampol, who alternates with Rachel Lin) is a failed actress who is filling in as an adjunct instructor for a professor on sabbatical. Her lesson plan is disrupted by the late arrival of Adam Feldman (Chris Tabet, who alternates with Ben Lorenz), an enthusiastic but willful student who insists on writing an adaptation of Sophocles’s Ajax instead of a term paper on Aeschylus. His retelling of the story through the prism of PTSD is a big success when it is staged at a small venue on campus. Adam has persuaded the reluctant Meg to play the role of mistress to his Ajax. The university decides to stage Adam’s play at their main theater to promote their image. At this point the play goes seriously off the rails. Adam keeps revising the play and eventually turns it into an allegory about the Israelis and the Palestinians. The consequences are predictable. In a “happy” ending, we learn that the play will find a home at an adventurous New York theater called The Flea. 

Both plays starts promisingly, but end disappointingly. The acting runs from fair to good, with Amboyer standing out. The immersive sets by Jason Sherwood are excellent. In Squash, the long rectangular space is divided into four square playing areas for the locker room, dining room, office and bar, with two rows of seats facing each other along the long walls. The costumes by Sky Switser are appropriate to the characters. Stafford Arrima’s fluid direction is admirable.

Neither play is top-drawer Gurney, but, for me at least, even second-drawer Gurney is enjoyable. Running time for the two plays together: two hours total, including the time between plays.

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Master Harold" ...and the Boys **** A

A superb revival of Athol Fugard’s 1992 masterpiece, directed by the playwright, is the latest offering at Signature Theatre. In this semi-autobiographical work, Fugard portrays a critical moment in the longtime relationship between Hally (Noah Robbins), a 17-year old Afrikaaner, and two black employees of his family’s business, the wise Sam (Leon Addison Brown) who has tried to be a mentor to Hally and the impulsive Willie (Sahr Ngaujah). Hally’s father, badly injured in WW II, is an alcoholic. His mother has been forced to be the family breadwinner, first by operating a boarding house, since then by running a tea room. The lonely, seething, embittered Hally has turned to Sam and Willie since early childhood for companionship. When a telephone call from his mother bodes ill for Hally’s future, he lashes out at the only people he feels any control over. There are lighter moments of Sam and Willie preparing for a dance contest and of Hally recollecting happier times, but the play builds inexorably to its lacerating climax. Every aspect of this production is top-notch. All three actors fully inhabit their roles, the realistic set by Christopher H. Barreca is excellent, Susan Hilferty’s costumes are fine and Fugard’s direction is, as one would expect, assured. I could quibble that the play’s metaphors are occasionally a bit heavy-handed, but it is indisputably a modern classic. I highly recommend seeing it. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Harvest *** B

One of the things that theater can do is to take us to places we are unlikely to visit and introduce us to characters the likes of whom we would probably never meet. In that regard, Samuel D. Hunter’s new play at LCT3 is a success. We meet several members of an evangelical church in Idaho Falls who are about to depart on a mission to a war-torn Middle Eastern country. (The wisdom of sending Christian missionaries to a troubled Muslim country is an issue beyond my grasp.) In the play’s attention-grabbing opening scene, we witness five church members experiencing the intense rapture of speaking in tongues. It’s a gripping five minutes and a tough act to follow. Ada (Zoe WInters), the mission leader, is several years older than the others, who seem to be in their twenties. Marcus (Christopher Sears) and Denise (Madeleine Martin) are a married couple. The sensitive Tom (Gideon Glick of Significant Other) is subject to panic attacks. Unlike the others, who are going for four months, Tom’s close friend Josh (Peter Mark Kendall) has made the commitment to stay on, perhaps for life. Three days before departure, Josh’s estranged sister Michaela (Leah Karpel) suddenly returns to town, allegedly to talk him out of going. We also meet pastor Chuck (Scott Jaeck) whose relationship to one of the missionaries is revealed late in the play. We learn something but not enough about the motivations to undertake the mission. We don’t find out much about Marcus and Denise’s background. It seemed unlikely to me that a smart, feisty woman like Denise would pick a dullard like Marcus. Hunter succeeds in establishing the centrality of the church in the lives of its members as a beacon of truth in a predominantly Mormon environment, with a mission to share their truth with Muslims. It’s a fascinating peek at an unfamiliar worldview. However, the play loses vitality along the way and, for me at least, shed more heat than light. The five talented actors who play the missionaries give it their all — they must lose a few pounds during each performance. Dane Laffrey’s set presents a convincing version of the basement of a church that doesn’t have much money. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are apt. Davis McCallum’s direction once again demonstrates a sympathy for Hunter’s sensibility. Hunter (The Whale, The Few, Pocatello), a MacArthur Fellow, is definitely a playwright to watch. He has empathy for his characters and does especially well with ensembles. I don’t think this is his best work, but it is still worthwhile. Running time: one hour 50 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Spamilton *** B-

Over the years, Gerard Alessandrini has provided immense pleasure with over 20 editions of his clever, funny series Forbidden Broadway. Writing a parody of Broadway’s current megahit was almost inevitable. First, let me warn you that if you haven’t seen Hamilton or at least become familiar with the score and you aren’t a big fan of Broadway musicals, especially those by Sondheim, you will not likely enjoy this show. Even though I had just seen Hamilton earlier this month, I found some of the skits hard to follow. Some of the funniest moments are when Alessandrini wanders away from his main target and gives us scenes from fake musicals such as “American Psycho in Paris” and “The Lion King and I.” The cast — Nicholas Edwards, Chris Anthony Giles, Larry Owens, Dan Rosales and Nora Schell — are terrific, as is guest diva Christine Pedi. The costumes by Dustin Cross are a hoot. The amusing choreography by Gerry McIntyre gets maximum use out of a postage-stamp-size stage. While there are many hilarious moments, I found this show less consistently enjoyable than Alessandrini’s earlier efforts. The show is at the Triad, a night club with uncomfortable general admission seating, iffy sightlines and a two-drink minimum. Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Vietgone *** B+

Qui Nguyen’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I is hard to fit into a neat category. While the prevailing tone is comedic, it deals with some very serious issues. Its central focus is a Vietnamese couple who meet in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Quang (Raymond Lee) is a helicopter pilot wracked by guilt for being unable to rescue his wife and children when Saigon fell. Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) is an emotionally closed-off woman who wanted to escape with her younger brother but ended up being forced to take her difficult mother instead. Sexual sparks fly when Tong and Quang meet, but the emotional baggage they carry is a barrier to building a relationship. Besides, Quang wants to return to Vietnam to rejoin his family. We also meet Quang’s best friend, an American naval captain, a translator, a camp guard, a hippy couple, a redneck biker and even a character who purports to be the playwright. All the female roles except Tong are played by Samantha Quan; all the male roles except for Quang are played by Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson. The play incorporates a love story, a road trip with a hilarious kung fu sequence, a send up of ethnic and national stereotypes, broad (sometimes too broad) humor, all in the context of presenting an alternative view of the Vietnam era as seen from the other side. While the play is not a musical, every once in a while, when emotions are running high, a character will suddenly break out into rap. It’s unfortunate that I had just seen Hamilton a week before because the quality of the rap lyrics here (to music by Shane Rettig) can in no way compare to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work. The cast members are appealing, but the acting is uneven and often unsubtle. The first-rate production benefits from an excellent scenic design by Tim Mackabee, featuring a western scene of a highway with utility poles, power lines and billboards, greatly enhanced by Jared Mezzocchi’s projections. Anthony Tran’s costumes are excellent too. Director May Adrales skillfully holds it all together. It’s an unruly play that could use a slight trim, but its energy and inventiveness go a long way to make up for its shortcomings. I found it refreshing and worthwhile. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sell/Buy/Date *** B

It’s hard to believe that 12 years have passed since I first saw the incredibly talented Sarah Jones perform “Bridge & Tunnel,” her love letter to the immigrants of New York City, in which she created about a dozen characters of different ethnicities. It moved to Broadway and was awarded a special Tony. Since then, Ms. Jones has been busy with a variety of activities, including serving as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and advocating for women in the sex industry. When Manhattan Theatre Club announced her long-awaited return to the New York stage, it was cause for celebration. Once again Ms. Jones plays multiple characters, loosely connected by some involvement in selling or buying sex. The framing device has a British professor at some future time giving a lecture on changing attitudes toward sex work over the decades. Her lecture is enhanced by BERT (bio-empathetic resonant technology) which presents her students (and the audience, of course) with not only the words, but also the emotions and memories of each research subject. Most of the characters are vividly created and some of the points they make are thought-provoking. The lecture is punctuated by several interruptions during which the professor attempts to resolve a problem that is delaying her appointment as head of a new department. I thought this subplot undercut rather than enhanced the main idea. Dane Laffrey’s elegantly simple set is beautifully lit by Eric Southern. Carolyn Cantor is the director. While is was a great pleasure to see Sarah Jones again, I was slightly disappointed by the material. Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Kingdom Come ** C-

Jenny Rachel Weiner’s romantic comedy with poignant overtones is the latest offering at Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre. Somewhat like LCT3, this program offers first-rate productions of works by emerging playwrights at affordable prices. Looking around at the audience, Roundabout seems to be more successful than LCT3 in drawing a younger audience. If you saw “Catfish,” you have an idea of the plot, except that in this instance both people are using deceitful online profiles. The twist is that they genuinely fall for each other. How the situation is resolved isn’t quite what you may expect. The characters are Samantha (Carmen M. Herlihy), a morbidly obese woman who rarely leaves her bed; Dolores (Socorro Santiago), Samantha’s home health aide; Dolores’s studly son Dominick (Alex Hernandez), an actor/busboy in L.A.; Layne (Crystal Finn), a repressed lonely bookkeeper; and Suz (Stephanie Styles), Layne’s younger, prettier, less inhibited coworker. Deceit breeds complications. The personable actors all make the most of their roles. There are some funny moments and clever twists along the way, but the material seemed thin and a bit forced. The set by Arnulfo Maldonado is simple but attractive. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are apt. Kip Fagan’s direction is smooth. Most of the audience reacted enthusiastically. For me, it was one online dating story too many. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

Falsettos ** C+

When Lincoln Center Theater announced that it was reviving William Finn’s Tony-awarded musical (best book and best score), I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it again. After seeing its two halves off-Broadway when they were presented as “March of the Falsettos” in 1981 and “Falsettoland” in 1990, as well as the Broadway version of 1992, I thought perhaps it would be better to keep my fond memories and skip it this time around. Michael Rupert, Stephen Bogardus and Chip Zien were so ingrained in my memory as Marvin, Whizzer and Mendel that I could not imagine anyone else in these roles. When Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells were announced as Marvin and Whizzer, I was even more uncertain. While Borle is extremely talented, he is not my vision of a gay neurotic Jewish New Yorker; nor is Rannells my idea of a hunk. I was disappointed that James Lapine was once again directing, because I thought a new director might give it an interesting new spin. Curiosity got the better of me and I bought a ticket. As the play opens, Marvin has divorced his wife Trina and moved in with his lover Whizzer. Marvin and Trina’s young son Jason (an excellent Anthony Rosenthal) is acting out. Marvin’s shrink Mendel takes a fancy to Trina. As luck would have it, both Stephanie J. Block and Brandon Uranowitz were out the night I attended so I saw their understudies Courtney Balan and Tally Sessions as Trina and Mendel; fortunately they were both very good. After intermission we meet the lesbians who live next door, Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe). During the first act, I was fighting the disparity between the concept of the two male leads in my head and the versions embodied by Borle and Rannells. They eventually won me over. After intermission, the book becomes more involving and even the songs get better. While the plot may be manipulative, I defy anyone to keep a dry eye at the end. Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are fine. David Rockwell’s set is a puzzler. While I liked the Manhattan skyline backdrop that had several permutations, I thought that the large grey cube that dominated the set and was disassembled as needed to form various props looked cheap. For those who haven’t seen the show before, I would definitely recommend it as a time capsule of New York life in 1979 and 1981. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hamilton (revisited) **** A

When I first saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s highly anticipated hip-hop musical about the life of one of our most intriguing founding fathers, it was still in previews at the Public Theater. The multi-talented Miranda not only wrote the music, lyrics and book; he is the co-arranger and, last but not least, the original star. This ambitious, inventive show remains strong across the board: the entertaining, informative and emotionally involving book is filled with moments of humor and pathos, the characters are vividly drawn, the lyrics are extremely clever, the deceptively simple scenic design (by David Korins) is effective, the costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are attractive, the choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) supports the action brilliantly, the cast is uniformly strong and the direction (by Thomas Kail) is fluid and assured. As for the music, Miranda makes a strong case for the expressive possibilities of hip-hop. Christopher Jackson, the only holdover in a principal role, has just the right gravitas for George Washington. The good news is that the newcomers to the cast are generally fine and the production is as sharp as ever. Javier Munoz’s Hamilton is just as impressive as Miranda’s was. Brandon Victor Dixon is a fine Aaron Burr even though he lacks Leslie Odom Jr’s lean hungry look. Seth Stewart is almost as good as Daveed Diggs was in two juicy roles — Lafayette and Jefferson. The replacements for Eliza (Lexi Lawson) and Angelica (Mandy Gonzalez) were a bit of a letdown after Philllipa Soo and Renée Elise Goldsberry. I miss Brian D’Arcy James’s loopy King George, but Rory O’Malley is good. If the show has a fault, it is that Miranda was overambitious and included too much material. The finale remains a bit flat. I was a bit exhausted by play’s end, but it was a pleasant kind of exhaustion. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including intermission. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Love, Love, Love *** B

Mike Bartlett’s (Cock, Bull, King Charles III) 2010 unflattering portrait of the British generation born around 1950 has arrived in New York at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. It follows a young self-absorbed couple over a 40+ year period. Kenneth (Richard Armitage) is freeloading in his hardworking older brother Henry’s (Alex Hurt) shabby London flat during his summer break from Oxford. When Henry brings home a date, the free-spirited Sandra (Amy Ryan), it does not turn out well for him. In the second act, set in a modern, attractive suburban home about 20 years later, Kenneth and Sandra have two teen-aged children — Rose (Zoe Kazan), a devoted violin student about to celebrate her 16th birthday and Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), a few years younger. It is clear that the couple feel hemmed in by their marriage and are not exactly model parents. In the final act, another 20 years later, we find Kenneth and Sandra in self-satisfied retirement while their adult children are floundering. The first act entertainingly sets up the central relationship. The second act, by far the most entertaining of the three, vividly shows how their situation has developed. The final act, alas, turns a bit polemical as Rose blames her parents and, by extension, their generation for her own problems. The dialog is sharp and the situations often amusing. You may cringe, but you’ll probably laugh. Amy Ryan is sensational, worth the price of admission. Richard Armitage and Zoe Kazan are also strong. Alex Hurt does his best with a one-note character and Ben Rosenfeld, with an underwritten one. The three distinct sets by Derek McClane and the period costumes by Susan Hilferty establish the time and place well. In the final act, more could have been done with makeup and wigs to make them look their age. Michael Mayer’s direction is assured and fluid. A few of the British references do not travel well. The ironic title comes from a Beatles lyric. If you appreciate fine acting and want to keep up with the works of an acclaimed contemporary playwright, you will probably find the play worthwhile. If you need sympathetic characters to identify with, you will probably not. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes, including two intermissions.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Life *** B+

Adam Bock’s bold new play at Playwrights Horizons defied my expectations. Even the scenic design turned out to be surprising. The problem for a reviewer is that it is difficult to say much about the production without spoiling the experience. David Hyde Pierce plays Nate Martin, a middle-aged gay man living in Manhattan. The latest in a long series of lovers has left him a month before the play begins. In the past, Nate has turned to astrology for guidance. His supportive best friend Curtis (Brad Heberlee) and he enjoy ogling hot men in Central Park. We also meet Nate’s sister Lori (Lynne McCollough) and two other women, Jocelyn (Marinda Anderson) and Allison (Nedra McClyde). About halfway through the play, events take a most unexpected turn. There is a long scene virtually without dialogue that tests the audience’s mettle. The remainder of the play follows the likely consequences of that scene. It is bracing in its conception, but likely to be disturbing for single people living alone in New York. Pierce does well in a challenging role (even though he seemed a bit old for the part). Heberlee is quite strong and the three women are all fine. Laura Jellinek finds an ingenious solution to presenting three different locations. Jessica Pabst costumed each character suitably. Director Anne Kauffman has wisely chosen to let the play breathe without rushing through difficult moments. Even though I found it unnerving, I was glad to experience it. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Encounter ** C

This production, conceived, directed and performed by Complicite co-founder and artistic director Simon McBurney, certainly qualifies as the most unusual offering currently on Broadway. It was inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, which tells the story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre and his search for the reclusive Mayoruna tribe in the Amazon rainforest. They find him before he finds them and his stay with them is harrowing but enlightening. What makes this piece so unusual is that the work is basically an enhanced radio play in which aural elements greatly outweigh the visual. Each audience member is supposed to listen through the provided earphones rather than directly. The 3D sound design, by Gareth Fry and Pete Malkin, is highly immersive, but the novelty wore off for me rather quickly. The scenic design by Michael Levine features a back wall covered by sound-studio foam with evocative lighting by Paul Anderson and projections by Will Duke. McBurney (or Richard Katz, who performs on Tuesday evenings and Wednesday matinees) chats up the audience with a demonstration of the audio wizardry before he begins the story, in which he plays both narrator and McIntyre. The story is frequently interrupted by the voices of expert commentators and, annoyingly, McBurney’s 5-year-old daughter. There are mystical and philosophical overtones and a rather ham-fisted critique of modern materialism. Although it held my interest better than anticipated, I did not find it compelling theater. Richard Katz's performance was sufficiently impressive that I did not feel I missed out on anything that would have changed my opinion of the play, Running time: one hour 50 minutes, no intermission.

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Cherry Orchard ** C-

Many consider “The Cherry Orchard” to be Chekhov’s masterpiece. I do not share that opinion. To me, it falls short in many respects. It revisits many themes that Chekhov addressed more artfully in his earlier plays, particularly in “Uncle Vanya.” It has too many characters to develop more than sketchily. Furthermore, most of these characters are insufficiently compelling to merit our attention. The plot has an element that I have never understood: it defies reason that Ranevskaya (Diane Lane) would hold a party on the very day that her estate is to be auctioned. However, the verdict of history is that the play is a major classic, so it was intriguing to see what a promising American playwright, Stephen Karam, would do with it in his “new version” for Roundabout Theatre.

The verdict is mixed. The translation is quite idiomatic, but the central concept of the production did not work for me. Karam tries to draw analogies between the effects of serfdom in Russia and the legacy of slavery in America. Instead of nontradtional (P.C. for colorbiind) casting, we have color-coded casting. Three characters who represent Russia’s future — nouveau riche landowner Lopakhin (Harold Perrineau), proletarian student Trofimov (Kyle Beltran) and the lucky neighbor Simeon-Pischik (Chuck Cooper) — and one who escapes it — manservant Yasha (Maurice Jones) — are all played by black actors. All the others, who are more or less victims of social change, are played by white actors — Ranevskaya, her daughterr Anya (Tavi Gevison), her stepdaughter Vanya (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother Gaev (John Glover), governess Charlotta Ivanovna (Tina Benko), clerk Yepikhodov (Quinn Mattfield), maid Dunyasha (Susannah Flood) and servant Firs (Joel Grey). It’s an interesting idea, but I did not think it was a valid analogy. For one thing, serfdom was not based on race. I'm not sure why the tramp who interrupts the picnic scene suddenly begins reciting Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus."

Most of the actors were creditable, but not memorable; however, they did not seem to be working as an ensemble. The party scene, lively to a fault, seemed to belong to a different play. The incidental music by Nico Muhly did not suggest Russia. A brief melody after the party scene incongruously recalled the “mazel tov” song heard at Jewish celebrations. Scott Pask’s set design was low-key, although I did like the Calderesque mobiles that represented the cherry trees. There’s an area rug in act one that two actors tripped on. Some of Michael Krass's costuming choices were puzzling, especially a particularly garish outfit for Lopakhin. Director Simon Godwin, an import from London, did not seem to have a sure grip on the material. It isn’t a terrible production, just a misguided one. Running time: two hours 20 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Roads to Home *** B+

To mark the 100th anniversary of Horton Foote’s birth, Primary Stages has mounted a meticulous production of this Texas triptych, unseen in New York since 1992. The first two plays are set in Houston in 1924. In “Nightingale,” Mabel Votaugh (Hallie Foote) and her next-door neighbor Vonnie Hayhurst (Harriet Harris) are interrupted by an unwanted visit from Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brookheiser), a young woman who is clearly unstable. Like Mabel, Annie grew up in Harrison, Texas and has begun to visit Mabel daily to relive memories of home. Annie’s husband (Dan Bittner) comes to claim her and urge her to come home to their two small children. In “Dearest of Friends,” the most satirical of the three acts, we meet Mabel and Vonnie’s husbands. Jack Votaugh (Devon Abner) is a couch potato who asks to be awakened from his nap when it is bedtime. Eddie Hayhurst (Matt Sullivan) has fallen in love with a younger woman and begs Vonnie for a divorce. The final and saddest piece is “Spring Dance,” which takes place in Austin four years later. The formal attire in which Annie and the three men are dressed suggests a country club dance. The high wall at the back of the stage suggests otherwise. Two other Harrison natives are at the dance — Dave Dushon (Bittner), a young man who never speaks, and Greene Hamilton (Sullivan), who is easily excitable. Cecil Henry (Abner) is a man who expects to be leaving soon. As the act proceeds, the characters and the audience experience increasing disorientation and confusion. Some people find Hoote’s work too homespun, provincial or even corny. I am not one of them. He is adept in finding the universal in the particular. The production is topnotch. Jeff Cowie’s set design and David C. Woolard’s costumes are excellent. Director Michael Wilson (The Orphans’ Home Cycle, The Trip to Bountiful) once again demonstrates his affinity for the playwright’s work. The actors are very good. Hallie Foote was literally born to play the heroine in her father’s plays. (In the original production, she played Annie.) Harriet Harris successfully dials down her big personality to fit the ensemble. I liked Rebecca Brookheiser better in the third act than in the first. The three men are fine in their dual roles. If you appreciate Foote, you will be more than satisfied with your time spent at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Running time: two hours, five minutes including intermission.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

All the Ways To Say I Love You ** C

Neil LaBute’s new play for MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre is really just an hour-long monologue for an actress on the far side of 50. But when that actress is Tony winner Judith Light, who’s going to complain about it? Light plays Mrs. Johnson, a long-time high school English teacher and counselor, looking back 15 years to a relationship that profoundly affected her marriage, her career and her soul. To say more would be to give away too much. Those expecting the usual dose of bile and surprise from LaBute will be disappointed. Light is impressive — just learning all those lines is amazing — but her performance is too often overheated with few quieter moments to relieve the intensity. Rachel Hauck’s set recreates a high school office convincingly. Emily Rebholz’s has dressed Light plausibly. I wish director Leigh Silverman had gone for a wider emotional palette. Running time: one hour, no intermissionion.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Front Page *** B-

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s much revived and adapted 1928 comedy is back on Broadway in a lavish, star-studded production led by Nathan Lane as editor Walter Burns and John Slattery as reporter Hildy Johnson. A slimmed-down John Goodman plays Sheriff Hartman, Jefferson Mays is the hypochondriac reporter Bensinger, Holland Taylor is Mrs. Grant, Hildy’s intended mother-in-law, Sherie Renee Scott is Mollie Malloy, the doxy with a heart of gold, and Robert Morse is Mr. Pincus, the befuddled messenger. And those are just the actors listed above the title! When minor roles are filled by the likes of Dylan Baker, Patricia Connolly, David Pittu and Lewis J. Stadlen, the casting can only be called profligate. The action takes place in the press room of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago, which overlooks the gallows where an alleged Communist who killed a black policeman is scheduled to be hanged in several hours. The repartee among the reporters fills most of the first act, which takes a long time to build up steam. Things get livelier in the second act after the doomed man escapes. There is snappy dialogue and madcap physical comedy. The play really comes to life when Nathan Lane finally makes his entrance late in Act II. A touch of tragedy struck a discordant note. The third act ties up loose ends nicely. The actors are in top form, most of all Mays and Morse. I was slightly disappointed with John Slattery, an actor I have long admired but who seemed a bit old and a bit off as Hildy. In some ways, the material seemed dated: the print media no longer command the attention they did in 1928 and are no longer the exclusive province of men. Other things seemed all too timely: there are still trigger-happy cops, civic corruption and cynical courting of the black vote. The set design by Douglas W. Schmidt is excellent and the costumes by Ann Roth are spot-on. Jack O’Brien’s direction is fluid, but he has not yet found a way to enliven the first act. It was an enjoyable, if not memorable, opportunity to return to the era when plays could have three acts and more than two dozen roles. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including two intermissions.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wolves **** A-

The Playwrights Realm is a theater company, now in its tenth year, with a clear mission: developing and presenting first-rate productions of plays by emerging playwrights. Every Fall they present a play by a newcomer (e.g. Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes). The lucky playwright receives a year-long residency with substantial perks. In the Spring they offer a play by one of their alumni playwrights (e.g. Anna Ziegler’s A Delicate Ship). The latest evidence that they have found a winning formula is this debut work by Sarah DeLappe now at the Duke on 42nd Street. The title refers to an indoor soccer team of nine adolescent — 17-ish — suburban girls whom we see mostly during their pre-game warm-ups and practice sessions. The play opens with two overlapping conversations, one about the Khmer Rouge, the other about feminine hygiene products. As the play progresses, we observe how each player attempts to navigate the difficult shoals between girlhood and womanhood, moving between personal concerns and the world at large. Although each one has her moment, some characters are developed more fully than others. I had some trouble remembering who was who, especially since they are only identified by the numbers on their identical uniforms. The numbers are often hard to see and there are strong physical resemblances among a few of the actors. The emphasis is not on plot, although there is a major offstage development that propels the last section of the play. The cast (Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Samia Finnerty, Midori Francis, Lizzy Jutila, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan, Lauren Patten and Susannah Perkins as the team members and Mia Barron as a soccer mom) is outstanding, individually and collectively. The ensemble work in their drills is amazing (and looks exhausting). Director Lila Neugebauer (The Wayside Motor Inn) certainly knows how to manage a lot people onstage at once. Laura Jelinek’s scenic design features an astroturf field, brightly lit by Lap Chi Chu, flanked by facing stadium seating. Asta Bennie Hotsetter’s costumes looked like authentic uniforms. Although I found the final part of the play a bit manipulative (and I wished that the armless wooden seats were more comfortable), my overall impression was highly favorable. I look forward to Sarah DeLappe’s future work, as well as The Playwrights Realm’s Spring alumni production — The Moors by Jen Silverman. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Nat Turner in Jerusalem ** C-

In a period of seemingly endless racial strife, what could be more timely than another look at the oft-told tale of Nat Turner and the bloody, unsuccessful slave rebellion of 1831? Alas, this particular version, set in Turner’s jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia on the night before his hanging, does not shed much light or heat on events and is too dependent on gimmicks. To give playwright Nathan Alan Davis his due, he does not attempt to sugarcoat Turner’s brutal murder of white women and children. It is easy to believe that the Turner portrayed by Phillip James Brannon thought he was doing God’s will. We also meet Thomas R. Gray, the attorney to whom Turner allegedly dictated his confession, and one of the prison guards. The gimmick here is that both characters are played by the same actor, Rowan Vickers. The main thrust is that Gray is determined to get Turner to confess to knowledge of other rebellions. His goal is not so much to find the truth as to increase the marketability of his book, which he has already hastened to copyright. The alternating scenes with the guard do not seem to have much point and culminate in a scene that is so over-the-top that I was embarrassed. The scenic design, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, was gimmicky too: the platform on which the action takes place is moved between scenes from one end of the rectangle between the facing bleacher seats toward the other — and then back again. The costumes by Montana Blanco were fine and the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger was effective. The sound design by Nathan Leigh was aggressively loud. The direction by Megan Sandberg-Zakian was sluggish. The hard bleacher seats are extremely uncomfortable; there is a thin cushion for the seat but nothing to pad the wooden back. Discomfort made the 90 minutes seem longer. After 185 years, Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and its aftereffects still evoke deeply conflicted reactions. Perhaps it is enough that the play reminds us of that, even if it doesn't contribute much to the ongoing conversation.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

What Did You Expect? *** B

The second installment of Richard Nelson’s trilogy “The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family,” now at the Public Theater, brings us back to the kitchen of the Gabriel family in Rhinebeck, New York, this time on September 16, 2016. Those of you who saw the first play, “Hungry,” will recall that it is set in the same place on March 4 of this year. Thomas Gabriel, a playwright and novelist, had died several months before. Mary Gabriel (Maryann Plunkett), a retired doctor, was his third wife and now his widow. His younger brother George (Jay O. Sanders) is a piano teacher and cabinetmaker. George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley) works for a local caterer. George’s sister Joyce (Amy Warren), an unmarried assistant costume designer, is visiting from Brooklyn. Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), George and Joyce’s mother, now resides in a nearby assisted living facility, but is there for dinner. Somewhat peculiarly, Thomas’s first wife Karin (Meg Gibson), an actress, is also there, having rented the room over the garage. As the family prepares supper, they discuss a wide range of subjects, many of them literary. An erotic passage from Wharton, a famous picnic attended by Melville and Hawthorne, and a found letter from a famous artist all command their attention. The topics they are trying to avoid are the pressing ones — a family financial crisis brought on by Patricia’s gullibility. the downside of the gentrification of Rhineback for locals, the disinterest of wealthy Democrats in the working class. a generalized sense of anxiety and the upcoming election. As usual, Nelson brings things right up to date with a reference to Hillary’s pneumonia and Jimmy Fallon’s messing up Donald Trump’s hair on TV. The political elements seemed less important and less integral this time, almost as if they were grafted onto the play. The varied conversations also seemed less part of a coherent whole this time. Anyone who has not seen the previous play may not get a lot out of this one. Nevertheless, the ensemble cast is once again superb. Susan Hilferty again designed the costumes and, with Jason Ardizzone West, the cozy set. The playwright directed. We will have to wait until Election Day for the final play “Women of a Certain Age” to see what is in store for the Gabriels. Running time: one hour 40 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Aubergine *** B

Julia Cho’s new play at Playwrights Horizons is a flawed, uneven work, but it packs an emotional wallop. Ray (Tim Kang), an assimilated Korean-American chef, moves in with his estranged father (Stephen Park) to care for him during his final days. Ray’s former girlfriend Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim) forgives him and pitches in to help. Lucien (Michael Potts), a refugee from a war-torn African country, is the kindly, helpful home hospice nurse. Ray’s uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) flies in from Korea as soon as hears about his brother’s condition. Diane (Jessica Love) is a wealthy foodie who appears in the opening and final scenes (and, in my humble opinion, should be excised). A common thread that stitches the play together is the important role of food in our memories and family relationships. Each character gets a food-centered monologue. Some of the dialog is in Korean with translations projected on the rear wall. There are many engaging moments, but they don’t fit together all that well. Some trimming would improve the play, especially dropping the facile ending. Derek McLane’s high-concept scenic design is dominated by a huge semicircular wooden wall that looks like the side of a huge vat. It parts and swings away to reveal a semicircular interior with partial concentric rings. The circle of life, perhaps? Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are appropriate to each character. Kate Whoriskey’s direction is a bit sluggish at times. Don’t see it when you are hungry. You also might want to avoid it you have recently faced or are about to face the loss of a loved one. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Maestro ** C-

Perhaps I am becoming jaded or maybe I just have been making bad choices lately. In any case, for the third time this week, I found myself surrounded by an audience having a far better time than I was. Onstage at 59E59 Theatre A was Hershey Felder performing as Leonard Bernstein. Apparently Felder has made a career out of using his pianistic and acting skills to create one-man theater pieces about such composers as Beethoven, Grieg and Gershwin. Bernstein does not fit neatly into this  group as he was more renowned as conductor than composer, a never-ending sore spot for him. Felder’s approach to his life is mainly chronological and gamely attempts to cover many aspects: conductor, educator, social activist, bisexual and flawed husband. The early scenes with his father, speaking with a heavy Yiddish accent, were embarrassingly stereotypical. Were it not for the lavish production featuring an impressive set by François-Pierre Couture and projections by Christopher Ash, I might have thought I was attending an enrichment program at a home for elderly Jews. The musical clips were frustratingly brief with more music by other composers and less by Bernstein than I would have expected. I was certainly surprised that the longest and most prominent excerpt was from Wagner’s Liebestod. There was a brief moment near the end, in which Bernstein lashes out at the world, that gave me a sense of how much more powerful the piece could have been. Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) directed. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.