Monday, June 27, 2016

Average 2015-16 Ratings by Theater Company

Just out of curiosity, I tabulated the average score I gave the plays presented by each theater company during the past season. I was surprised how narrow the range was (only a difference of one star out of a possible five). On my rating scale, 2 is fair and 3 is good. Before you use this as a guide to choose which company deserves your subscription, be forewarned that each season is different. The company that had a series of hits this year could have a string of duds next year and vice versa.

Theater Company Average Rating

CSC 2.0
Playwrights Horizons 2.2
MTC 2.3
NYTW 2.33
MCC 2.5
Signature 2.6
Vineyard   2.67
Roundabout 2.71
Second Stage 2.75
Atlantic           2.75
Public           3.0
LCT 3.0

I do suggest that for companies that offer memberships as well as subscriptions, try the membership. Then you can pick and choose only those shows you want to see.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Oslo ***

Playwright J.T. Rogers is certainly not reluctant to take on complicated geopolitical topics. His 2011 play at Lincoln Center Theater, “Blood and Gifts,” was about American policy in Afghanistan. Now he is back at the Mitzi E. Newhouse with “Oslo,” an ambitious look at the story behind the secret negotiations that led to the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993. Happily, several people associated with that production have also returned: director Bartlett Sher, set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber and actors Jefferson Mays and Michael Aronov. The story revolves around Terje Red-Larsen (Mays), director of a Norwegian think tank devoted to applied social sciences, and his wife Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), an official in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, who come up with the idea of initiating and facilitating secret “back door” talks between two representatives of the PLO and a pair of economics professors from Haifa who, officially at least, have no ties with the Israeli government. Larsen and Juul have to win over the Norwegian foreign minister (T. Ryder Smith) and his deputy (Daniel Jenkins) to their risky efforts. The initial meetings between the PLO officials (Anthony Aziz and Dariush Kashani) and the Israelis (Daniel Oreskes and, doubling roles, Jenkins) are prickly, but they soon begin to make progress, lending support to Larsen’s theory that private, personal, incremental negotiations might succeed where public, impersonal, comprehensive talks have failed. The Israeli professors are eventually joined by and then supplanted by Uri Savir (Aronov,) Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and Joel Singer (Joseph Siravo), an attorney. We also meet the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Bellin (Adam Dannheiser) and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (Oreskes, also doubling). There are several other minor characters for a total cast of 14 actors in 21 roles. There are many complications and obstacles along the way. A play with three acts is a rarity today. The first act is intricately structured while the second act is more straightforward. The final act loses some steam in summarizing many of the events that have occurred since 1993. The cast is consistently strong, the simple but attractive set is enhanced by unobtrusive projections (by 59 Productions), the costumes are excellent and the direction is smooth. Be prepared to concentrate on a complex narrative for three hours. I found the end result more admirable than enjoyable. I kept thinking that it would make a fine miniseries. Running time: 3 hours, including intermission.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Out of the Mouths of Babes **

Set design by Neil Patel
Israel Horovitz’s latest play was commissioned by the artistic director of the Cherry Lane Theatre, Angelina Fiordellisi, as a vehicle for two theatrical treasures, Estelle Parsons and Judith Ivey. It’s a wildly uneven comedy about four women who gather in the Parisian apartment of a Sorbonne professor, ex-husband to three of them and former lover to the fourth, who has just died at 100. Evelyn (Parsons), 88, was his second wife who married him after the first wife’s defenestration. Evvie (Ivey), 68, broke up that marriage, but never wed him. Both have been invited to attend the funeral with complimentary plane tickets by his widow. Janice (Fiordellisi), 58, the depressive third wife, read about his death and shows up uninvited; after her many suicide attempts, it was assumed that she was no longer “available.” His widow, the luscious Marie-Belle, 38, from Senegal (Francesca Choy-Kee), claims to still be in communication with him, which we see mainly through the uncontrollable laughter his paranormal tickling attacks provoke. The four women bitch and reminisce, with most of the bon mots going to troupers Parsons and Ivey. There’s a bit of the supernatural at the end. It’s intermittently entertaining in a lazy way. As light summer entertainment, that may be enough for most. The spectacular art-laden Parisian loft designed by Neil Patel will definitely evoke real estate envy. (It turns out that many of the artworks are by celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Joel Grey and Billy Dee Williams. A guide is thoughtfully inserted in the program.) The costumes by Joseph G. Aulisi suit the characters admirably. Barnet Kellman’s direction skillfully maximizes the play’s assets. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes including intermission.

Superficially, Israel Horowitz has a lot in common with Alan Ayckbourn. Both were born in 1939, both have written over 70 plays, both developed most of their work for a provincial theater they headed and both have had substantial success. Judging from the limited number of their plays I have seen, I would have to say that Ayckbourn is by far the superior craftsman. Horowitz divides his time between the US and Paris and is much beloved by the French. According to the program, he is the most produced American playwright in French theatrical history. Go figure. 

A request: I wish that all playwrights would declare a moratorium on cunnilingus jokes; they have become a tiresome cliche. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Color Purple ****

I wasn't even tempted to see the 2005 production and would have skipped this one as well if not for the almost uniformly enthusiastic reviews. I have mixed feelings about John Doyle’s previous stripped-down versions of musicals, but this production, which originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, gets it right. By concentrating attention on the show’s talented performers and the lively gospel-inflected score, Doyle has come up with a production that packs an emotional wallop. The superb cast act and sing at a very high level. Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is riveting as Celie, from the abused pregnant 14-year-old to the middle-aged businesswoman she becomes. When she sang “I’m Here,” she brought the house to its feet. Just as good is Heather Headley, who replaced Jennifer Hudson as Shug Avery, the sexy songstress that no-one can resist. Her version of “Push da Button” is a knockout. Their duet at end of the first act, “What about Love,” is breathtakingly beautiful. Danielle Brooks is a powerhouse as Sofia; her “Hell No!” is a highlight. Joaquina Kalukango impresses as Celie’s sister Nettie. Isaiah Johnson is a strong Mister and Kyle Scatliffe is amusing as his son Harpo. Marsha Norman’s book has a lot to cover in a short time, but mostly succeeds in capturing the essence of Alice Walker’s novel. Since I had never heard of any of the composer/lyricists — Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the score. Doyle’s set consists of a wall of rough planks hung with spindle-back chairs that are removed from the wall and used as needed. Except for a few large wicker baskets and some fabric, they are the only props. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are appropriately drab in the first act and colorful in the second. Doyle was recently appointed artistic director at Classic Stage Company. After suffering through his version of “Peer Gynt” there recently, I had my doubts about the future of CSC. What he accomplished here gives me new hope. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Turn Me Loose ****

Joe Morton (“Scandal”) is giving one of the most riveting performances in town as comedian/activist Dick Gregory in this biographical play by Gretchen Law now at the Westside Theatre. Most of the action is set in the 1960’s when Gregory was building his career. Hugh Hefner gave him an important break with a gig at the Playboy Club, where his first performance was before an audience of hostile white Southerners. Gregory turns down appearing on the "Tonight" show until Jack Paar personally offers him the opportunity to be the first black performer invited to sit on the couch. We see Gregory onstage delivering uproarious highlights from his act as well as offstage at critical moments in his life. His close relationship with Medgar Evers is explored as an important influence. There are scenes set in the near present that are less compelling, but reveal Morton’s subtlety in portraying Gregory as an octogenarian. The only other person onstage from time to time is the fine John Carlin in a variety of small roles including emcee, heckler, stage manager and cab driver. Chris Barreca’s set design is basic. John Gould Rubin’s direction is smooth. Morton’s performance is simply too good to miss. Despite being selected by the Times as a Critic’s Pick, there were empty seats. The diverse audience made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Eclipsed ****

It’s hard to imagine that the same playwright Danai Gurira wrote both “Familiar” and “Eclipsed.” The former play was an enjoyable comedy of manners with African undercurrents. “Eclipsed “ is a devastating drama about the lives of four Liberian women living in a rebel compound as “wives” of the general. Gurira vividly differentiates her characters and captures their blend of cooperation and competition. Wife #1 (Saycon Sengbloh) was captured as a teenager and has come to accept her life. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), several years younger, is flighty and pregnant. They unsuccessfully attempt to hide The Girl (Lupita Nyong’o), a teenager who has fled to the compound, to prevent her from becoming Wife #4. It turns out that Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) has become a hardened rebel soldier; armed with a rifle, she will be no man’s victim. Wife #1 is too proud and scornful to accept her assistance when she periodically returns to the compound. Rita (Akosua Busia), part of a visiting delegation of city women trying to end the civil war, takes an interest in the wives. She tries to get them to use their given names so they can reconnect with their past and see a future. Wife #2 recruits The Girl as a soldier. An uncertain future awaits at war’s end. The ensemble acting is exceptional with Nyong’o a standout. Except for a few slow moments in the first act, the play is consistently gripping. The set and costumes by Clint Ramos are evocative. Liesl Tommy’s direction is assured. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois **

Based on my reaction to earlier plays by Adam Rapp (Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, The Hallway Trilogy, Red Light Winter), my expectations for his current play at Atlantic Stage 2 were low. To my great surprise, I found it both involving and touching. In Ellis (a superb William Apps), Rapp presents a man who has bipolar disease with psychosis, who has done some horrible things who commands both our fear and our compassion. When we meet him, he is nervously preparing to receive guests. His visitors turn out to be a pair of teenage girls, Monique (an irresistibly watchable Susan Heyward), a trash-talking 15-year old African-American girl and Catherine (Katherine Reis), a shy 13-year-old with asthma and IBS. Monique has “borrowed” her aunt’s driver’s license to drive Catherine to meet Ellis. We eventually learn who Catherine is and why she is there. The trio are joined by Barrett (Connor Barrett), who has enabled Ellis and Catherine to make contact online. Ellis’s attempt to hold it together falters, with frightening results. The visit concludes on a slightly hopeful note. Andromache Chalfant's generic apartment set is grimly realistic and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. The playwright directed with assurance. The play has some slow moments. If Heyward were not such a stage presence, I would have found her character an annoying cliche. Barrett’s role is a bit underwritten. Despite its shortcomings, the play succeeds in taking us to a place that we probably never wanted to go while getting us to care about someone we would rather dismiss. The audience reaction was quite mixed. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes; no intermission. NOTE. Avoid Row A; it’s behind row AA and not elevated.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Indian Summer **

Gregory S. Moss’s new play at Playwrights Horizons has a lot going for it -- three appealing young actors — Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler and Joe Tippett — and a first-rate production with an attractive set design by Dane Laffrey featuring an inviting beach, apt costumes by Kaye Voyce, great lighting by Eric Southern and smooth direction by Carolyn Cantor. There’s a fourth actor, Jonathan Hadary, whom I usually find annoying, but in this case appropriately so, because his character is also annoying. Daniel (Campbell) is an awkward scrawny 16-year-old whose mother has dumped him for an indefinite period on his step-grandfather George (Hadary) a recently widowed eccentric, who lives in a shack in a small Rhode Island beach town. On the beach, Daniel meets Izzy, a scrappy, sexy townie. It is obvious that their initial hostility will soon change. Izzy’s boyfriend Jeremy, 10 years her senior, is a martial arts master who has developed his own private philosophy. Fortunately, Jeremy is played by Tippett (Familiar), who brings humanity to a cartoonish role. As Izzy, the stunningly gorgeous Kibler knows how to hold our attention even as the lines she must spout become increasingly implausible. I wish that the actors had not been forced to struggle with a Rhode Island accent. What starts as a simple summer idyll goes seriously off course in the second act with a bizarre scene between George and Izzy. George’s hijacking of the play’s ending is the final misstep that wiped out my early good feelings. The mostly-subscriber audience, probably relieved at not having to confront anything too edgy, loved it. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

War **

After enjoying all three plays I have seen by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon and Gloria), I arrived at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater with high expectations. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Although I credit the playwright for his ambition and imagination, I did not feel that he had produced a coherent work. From reviews, I gather that the play has changed considerably since its 2014 Yale Rep premiere, Nevertheless it still did not seem like a finished product. The focus is divided among too many themes including sibling rivalry, family secrets, the scourge of dementia, dealing with parental illness, meeting parental expectations, racism in America and Germany from WWII to the present and man’s underlying simian nature. Particularly in the second act, there are too many long monologues that interrupt the flow. Roberta (the able Charlayne Woodard) is a well-to-do middle-aged African-American divorcee who has been rushed to a Washington hospital after suffering a stroke while visiting the ape house at the zoo. Her daughter Joanne (Rachel Nicks), a would-be children’s writer, is married to Malcolm (Reggie Gowland), a low key school teacher of no particular distinction, who is white. They have a young daughter. Joanne has only recently resumed a relationship with her mother after long years of estrangement. Her hostile brother Tate (Chris Myers), a political functionary working in Boston, flies in to be at his mother’s bedside and immediately lashes out at everyone including the kindly nurse (Lance Coadie Williams). We later learn that Tate and his male partner have recently split. Roberta was brought to the hospital by a mysterious woman who speaks almost no English; this is Elfriede (Michelle Shay), a German half-sister that Roberta has only recently discovered and, somewhat implausibly, never mentioned to anyone. Malcolm discovers a man staying at Roberta’s apartment, Elfriede’s angry son Tobias (Austin Durant), who is out to get a share of his late grandfather’s legacy. The nonstop shouting and bickering between Tate and everyone else grows quickly tiresome; Tate is so relentlessly nasty that I eventually cringed whenever he opened his mouth. The play’s most interesting feature is that for much of the first act we witness the comatose Roberta trying to regain her bearings with the assistance of a pack of gorillas led by Alpha (Williams again) whose language is projected as subtitles. It did not work for me. Simian imagery pervades the play from the monkey-sound taunts at Roberta’s father in Germany to the ape house at the zoo and the apes in her struggle for consciousness. Mimi Lien’s elegant scenic design is evocatively lit by Matt Frey. Montana Blanco’s costumes are apt. I can’t fault director Lileana Blain-Cruz for failing to bring all the disparate elements together better. While this evening was a disappointment, three hits out of four is still an enviable record for a playwright. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including intermission.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Confusions ***

In addition to the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 79th play, “Hero’s Welcome,” 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway season is presenting his 17th play, actually an evening of five loosely connected short plays, which, although enormously popular in England, has somehow never reached our shores. Five of the six actors from “Hero’s Welcome” are back, playing 22 roles. 

In “Mother Figure,” Lucy (Elizabeth Boag) is a young mother whose  rarely at home traveling salesman husband Harry has left her alone with her three small children so long that she has forgotten how to relate to adults. When her not-so-happily married neighbors Rosemary (Charlotte Harwood) and Terry (Stephen Billington) pop in unexpectedly, she treats them as misbehaving children with amusing results.

In “Drinking Companion,” we meet the pathetic Harry (Richard Stacey) haplessly trying to pick up an attractive young woman Paula (Harwood) and/or her friend Bernice (Boag) in a hotel bar attended by a fey waiter (Billington).

“Between Mouthfuls” takes us to the hotel restaurant where the same waiter (Billington) is serving two tables, each with an unhappily married couple. At one table we have Martin (Stacey), a workaholic careerist and Polly (Harwood), his neglected wife just back from a Mediterranean holiday. At the other table are Martin’s boss Mr. Pearce (Russell Dixon) and his wife (Boag) who suspects him of infidelity on his recent business trip. The gimmick is that we hear only what the waiter hears. As he moves away from either table, we no longer hear that couple’s conversation. The dinner turns out badly for both couples, but entertainingly for us.

After intermission we get “Gosforth’s Fete,” the hilarious tale of a small town fair during which everything that can go wrong does. Gosforth (Dixon), the local big wheel, is frantically struggling with arrangements. When their distinguished guest Mrs. Pearce (Boag), the town councillor arrives, he asks the rather dim vicar (Stacey) to show her around. The village spinster Milly (Harwood) who is serving tea for the event announces to Gosforth that she is pregnant with his child. Since the malfunctioning PA system has mysteriously sprung to life, her announcement is heard by all assembled including her scoutmaster fiance Stewart (Billington). More mayhem follows.  The actors get ample opportunity to demonstrate their superb timing and talent for physical humor.

The final piece, “A Talk in the Park,” brings the evening to a melancholy close. Five lonely people play a game of musical chairs on four park benches, each one changing benches to escape an unwanted conversation only to drive the next benchmate to similarly distraction. 

The first two plays run on a bit too long after making their point. The plays that precede and follow intermission are the most entertaining. For me the dry patches were more than compensated by the hilarious moments. 

The creative team is the same as for “Hero’s Welcome.” For details, see that review (

They announced a running time of two hours including intermission, but it actually ran 2 hours 25 minutes.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Theater Suggestions: Second Chances

Three plays that I enjoyed are back for reprises this summer — “Small Mouth Sounds” at Pershing Square Signature Center, “Skeleton Crew” at Atlantic Theater Company and “Sense & Sensibility” at The Gym at Judson. Check for dates and discounts.

Here are links to my reviews of these three shows:

Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed ****

There is an embarrassment of riches onstage at The Music Box in this tribute to the first all-black musical to reach Broadway. Brian Stokes Mitchell plays the genteel F.E. Miller and Billy Porter is Aubrey Lyles, his abrasive partner in a blackface vaudeville team who suggested expanding one of their skits into a musical. Joshua Henry is lyricist Noble Sissle and Brandon Victor Dixon is composer-pianist Eubie Blake, the pair who join them in this enterprise. Audra McDonald is Lottie Gee, star of the new show. In addition to their usual talents of acting and singing, the five leads join the fantastic dancers in performing Savion Glover’s brilliant tap choreography. Mitchell, whom I have found overbearing in recent years, manages to submerge his ego into the role with fine results. McDonald, as always, is a phenomenon; it is inconceivable that she was not Tony-nominated. Dixon and Porter are both fine. Adrienne Warren is a knockout both as the show’s second female Gertrude Saunders and as her successor Florence Mills. Brooks Ashmanskas, the sole Caucasian onstage, is a delight playing several of the men who placed obstacles in the production’s path. The abundant talent of the performers is equalled by the superb sets by Santo Loquasto, the riotous costumes by Ann Roth, the evocative lighting by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhower and the wonderful arrangements and orchestrations by Daryl Waters. Director George C. Wolfe keeps the show moving energetically. It is the book, also by Wolfe, that I found wanting. The story of mounting a show against all obstacles seems cliched, even with racial prejudice added to the list of problems. With five main protagonists, there is too little time to develop any of them very deeply. Perhaps the book should have focused on Lottie, especially her long affair with the married Blake and her sacrifice of career advancement for him. I don’t see how the show could possibly have been considered a revival because Wolfe tosses out virtually the entire book of the 1921 show. Only one song “(I’m Just) Wild about Harry” is presented in its original context. The second act, which chronicles the fading fortunes of those involved with the show and the show itself is more told than shown. At times I felt I was watching an illustrated history lesson. Nevertheless, you won’t find more talent on one stage anywhere else on Broadway. With all the book’s flaws, the story represents an important piece of theater history and black history that should not be forgotten. Sadly the audience was practically all-white. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes. NOTE: Avoid seats in the first few rows if you want to see the dancers’ feet.