Sunday, February 28, 2016

Dot ***

Hard as it may be to envision a hilarious comedy about a family facing the mother’s descent into dementia, that’s exactly what Colman Domingo has written in his new play at Vineyard Theatre. Dotty Shealy (Marjorie Johnson) is the matriarch of a middle-class black family who have lived in their West Philadelphia row house since 1954. The father, now deceased was a successful physician. Her eldest child Shelly (Sharon Washington), now in her mid-forties, is an attorney and a single mother. Middle child Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore), now 40, is a gay freelance music critic in New York, where he lives with his activist white husband Adam (Colin Hanlon). Youngest child Averie (Libya V. Pugh) is a brash would-be entertainment whose 15 minutes of YouTube fame has led only to a cashier’s job at Shop Rite. Fidel (Michael Rosen) is a sweet-natured unlicensed health care aide from Kazakhstan who takes care of Dotty three days a week. Jackie (Finnerty Steeves), a white neighbor who was Donnie’s high school sweetheart and who fled to New York when she learned he was gay, has suddenly returned to town and has joined them for their Christmas celebration. There is much hilarity, but the underlying situation of Dot’s deterioration is no joke. During the second act, the play bogs down a bit with some didactic moments and some sentimentality. The ensemble cast work well together. Scenic designer Allen Moyer is a triple threat: he offers a pointillist front curtain depicting the exterior of the family home, a first act kitchen that really looks lived in, and an attractive living room for the second act. Costume designer Kara Harmon has dressed the characters aptly. Director Susan Stroman shows that her talent is not limited to musicals, although she does manage to slip in a delightful dance duo for Dot and Adam. Despite the play’s flaws, the overall effect is very winning. The audience loved it. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Red Speedo **

Now in previews at New York Theatre Workshop, this new play by Lucas Hnath (The Christians) addresses several issues that arise from our obsession with competitive sports, such as the commodification of athletes, the cultivation of athletic prowess to the exclusion of all else, the temptation of performance enhancing drugs and the relentless pursuit of self-interest regardless of harm to others. A strong case of pathological sibling codependency overlays the other issues. Ray (Alex Breaux) is an Olympic hopeful swimmer, whose success has come at the cost of intellectual and emotional stuntedness. His brightest idea has been to get a hideous tattoo on his back to make him more easily recognizable by television viewers. He has a great entrance in the titular swimwear, plunging into the one-lane pool with a plexiglas wall that fills the front of the set. His sleazy older brother Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney) is also his attorney and his would-be agent. When a stash of drugs is found in the team locker room’s refrigerator, Peter tries to persuade Coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) to look the other way until after the Olympic trials so that Jay’s tentative endorsement contract with Speedo will not be threatened. Jay’s ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoe Winters) has lost her sports therapy license, partially due to some unethical behavior by Peter. Many plots and counterplots collide. Unfortunately the play sheds far more heat than light. The lack of a sympathetic character is not necessarily fatal to my interest in a play, but it certainly doesn’t help that there is no one to root for here. Breaux looks the part and is quite convincing as Jay. Rooney’s portrayal of Peter has only one note — extremely annoying. Fernandez is OK as the coach. Winters doesn’t get much chance to make an impression. Kudos to set designer Riccardo Hernandez for a convincing set. Boos to sound designer Matt Tierney for the loud horn blasts between scenes. Fight coordinator Thomas Schall has done wonders — rarely have I seen onstage brawling that was so realistic. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz does her best with an unsatisfactory ending. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: I do not recommend seats in the first two rows, because you are below the level of the pool deck.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Familiar ***

This lively, overstuffed new play by Danai Gurira (Eclipsed) now in previews at Playwrights Horizons runs the gamut from sitcom to high drama in its two plus hours. The action takes place in real time late in the afternoon before the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of the Chinyamwira family’s 34-year-old daughter Tendi (Roslyn Ruff). Tendi and her Caucasian fiancĂ© Chris (Joby Earle) are members of a charismatic Christian church who have vowed premarital abstinence. Tendi’s parents Donald (Harold Surratt), a successful attorney, and Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), a scientist/professor who has assimilated to American ways with a vengeance, left Zimbabwe over 30 years ago and are living the good life in a suburb of Minneapolis. Clint Ramos’s finely detailed two-level set presents a house worthy of a home design magazine, sure to evoke real estate envy in the heart of every New Yorker. Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha (Ito Aghayere), a singer/songwriter/feng shui consultant based in New York has just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe to get in touch with her roots, but her family doesn't express much interest in her trip. Margaret (Melanie Nichols-King), Marvelous’s depressed younger sister with a drinking problem might well have wandered in from a production of “A Delicate Balance.” A crisis develops when Marvelous’s elder sister Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor) arrives unexpectedly from Zimbabwe, determined to perform roora, an ancient bridal price ritual, over the strenuous objection of Marvelous. Sibling rivalry is strong in both generations of sisters. When he learns that the roora ceremony requires the groom to have an intermediary, Chris hurriedly recruits his slacker younger brother Brad (Joe Tippett), with hilarious results. During the second act, the mood gradually darkens and the revelation of a shocking family secret changes everything. The play’s many extremely funny moments make the darkward turn all the more unsettling. Director Rebecca Taichman has nimbly steered the actors through the change of tone. The strong ensemble acting succeeds in making the specific seem universal. Susan Hilferty's costumes contribute greatly to the production. The humanity and good humor went a long way toward making me willing to overlook some of the holes in the plot. It’s far from perfect, but well worth seeing. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Smokefall **

“The greatest act of courage is to love” or so say two characters in Noah Haidle’s absurdist family dramedy at MCC Theater. We see how four generations of a Grand Rapids family grapple with this challenge. In the first act, we meet Violet (Robin Tunney), accidentally pregnant, on the verge of giving birth to male twins any day. Her 14-year-old daughter Beauty (Taylor Richardson), whose daily diet includes bark, dirt and paint, announced three years ago that she had nothing more to say and hasn’t spoken since. Her husband Daniel (Brian Hutchinson) secretly feels overwhelmed and, as we learn from the narrator Footnote (Zachary Quinto), is about to abandon his family. The colonel (Tom Bloom), her father, has been sliding into dementia since the death of his wife. The first act ends with an attention-grabbing scene in which the two fetuses (Hutchinson and Quinto), dressed as vaudevillians, sing Sondheim, philosophize and express their fears of leaving the womb. If I had left at intermission, I would have been content. Unfortunately, the second act heads off in directions that I found unsatisfactory, jumping forward and flashing back in time and mixing characters from different time periods in the same scene. There is one particularly confusing actor doubling and another character who does not age for 75 years, all to little discernible purpose. Mimi Lien’s scenic design employs a lot of pressed wood. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are wonderful, especially the ones for the twin fetuses. When presented in Chicago, the play was such a success that the Goodman Theater moved it from its small stage to its mainstage to ecstatic reviews. Although the current production has the same director, Anne Kauffman, something seems to have been lost on the trip east. The New York cast, entirely new, seems competent so I am not sure they are to blame. I wish the play had been able to maintain the promise of its first act. Running time: one hour 40 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Smart People **

I really wanted to like Lydia Diamond’s play at Second Stage. It isn’t often that we get a chance to witness four attractive intellectuals with Harvard ties talking about the important issue of racism in America. It’s even more unusual when the discussion is punctuated by lots of humor and simulated sex. Nevertheless, I found the play somewhat unsatisfying. Diamond’s structure uses a lot of short, fragmentary scenes, often for one character addressing an unseen second person. Some of these scenes, e.g. Brian (Joshua Jackson), a white neuroscience professor criticizing his students; Valerie (Tessa Thompson), a black actress reading for an audition; Jackson (Mahershala Ali), a surgical resident arguing with his superior; Ginny (Anne Son), a shopaholic Asian-American psychologist browbeating a salesperson, are amusing, but the fragments do not fit together all that well. The whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The center of attention is the fallout from a research study by Brian demonstrating that whites are hard-wired to react negatively to blacks. Ginny points out that Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics are usually left on the sidelines in a discussion of race. It is unclear whether Jackson’s problems with authority are more rooted in racism or in his hot temper. I felt that the sex scenes and the gratuitous brief male frontal nudity were thrown in to grab the audience’s attention between didactic moments. The action begins in 2007 and ends with the inauguration of Obama in January 2009. While there is one scene about campaigning for Obama, the significance of his election did not seem related organically to the rest of the play. The stunningly attractive cast make their characters lively. Among the characters, I thought that Ginny was by far the most interesting and found myself wishing that the play had been focused on her. Ricardo Hernandez’s streamlined minimalist set was efficient if not visually interesting. The projections by Zachary G. Borovay seemed generic, contributing little to the production. Paul Tazewell’s costumes suit the characters well. The direction by Kenny Leon seemed a bit slack. I do give the playwright credit for writing a play that is likely to provoke lively discussion. Running time: one hour, 55 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Noises Off ****

Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Michael Frayn’s classic 1982 farce has a lot going for it. The cast of nine populating a second-rate traveling theatrical company is uniformly strong. Andrea Martin is a delight as the well-named Dotty Otley, an actress near the end of her career beset by the difficulty of remembering stage business. Campbell Scott is just right as the smarmy, condescending director Lloyd Dallas, who is carrying on two simultaneous affairs. David Furr is delightful as the vapid Garry who seems unable to complete a sentence. Megan Hilty is perfection as the curvaceous bimbo whose acting skills are limited. Tracee Chimo, as assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor, is good, but doesn’t really get the chance to show her mettle to the extent that other recent roles have offered. Kate Jennings Grant, as Belinda Blair, the company gossip, is fine as the sanest person on the stage. Jeremy Shamos, who for good reason is rarely unemployed, is hilarious as the nervous wreck Frederick Fellowes who needs to know the motivation for every line. Rob McClure as the high-strung company and stage manager Tim Allgood brings trembling to a new level. Daniel Davis is a hoot as Selsdon Mowbray, whose appearance onstage requires keeping him away from the bottle. Set designer Derek McLane captures the look of a Tudor-style country modernized for the taste of the 1970’s. Michael Krass’s costumes present some of the excesses of that decade with wicked fun. We get to see the first act of “Nothing On,” the ridiculous bedroom farce the company is presenting, three times, with escalating chaos. The first is at the late-night dress rehearsal. The second, a month later, is seen from backstage, where the manic off-stage cast and crew are acting out their own wordless scene. The final time is from the point of view of the audience near the end of the play’s tour. Director Jeremy Herrin keeps everything running like clockwork. Lorenzo Pisoni deserves special mention for his fine work as comedy stunt coordinator. An added treat is tucked into the Playbill -- Frayn's amusing program book for "Nothing On." If the play has a flaw, it is its length. Can there be too much of a good thing? Two hours twenty five minutes seemed a bit too long for something so slight.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Old Hats (2016 Version) ****

Three years ago Bill Irwin and David Shiner brought this two-man show to the Signature Theatre where it was wildly successful. Happily, they are back. Here are some excerpts from my 2013 review:  “Their hair may be a bit grayer and sparser, but these two talented mimes have not lost an iota of inventiveness or plasticity. The several skits they perform alone and together keep the laughs coming, almost without pause. Between skits and at intermission, the lovely composer/singer/pianist” Shania Taub “leads a band of five in her catchy songs with wry lyrics. Individually, Irwin and Shiner are superb, but the sparks they create together make their joint skits even funnier. "A Magic Act," featuring Shiner as a slinky magician with a pomaded ponytail and Irwin in a blonde curly wig and high heels as his assistant, is by itself worth the price of admission. The two break their silence for a moment early in the second act with an amusing outcome. In “Cowboy Cinema,” Shiner plays a silent film director shooting a saloon scene with four "volunteers" from the audience with hilarious results. The clever projections by Wendall K. Harrington add to the fun. G.W. Mercier's scenic and costume designs are delightful. The sound design by John Gromada contributes to the merriment. Tina Landau's direction keeps things lively." If you need a good laugh, there’s no better place to spend two hours.