Saturday, July 23, 2016

Butler **** A

Kudos to 59E59 Theaters for bringing this worthwhile production by the New Jersey Repertory Company, based in Long Branch, to New York. What playwright Richard Strand has written is an unlikely blend of biography, Civil War history, drama and comedy that is both entertaining and informative. Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) is an actual historical figure, whose long and varied career includes the incident depicted in the play. As a newly minted Union officer sent to take command of Fort Monroe in recently seceded Virginia, Butler must decide what to do with three runaway slaves who have arrived at the fort seeking sanctuary. The first scene, an extended exchange between Butler and his hapless adjutant Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), may initially appear to go on too long, but it cleverly sets up most of what follows. The leader of the runaway slaves is Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams), a man who has paid dearly for his habit of running off at the mouth. When Mallory pleads his case with Butler, the two develop an unexpected kinship. Butler tries to find a way to get around the Fugitive Slaves Act so he will not have to hand over Mallory and the other two slaves to Major Cary (David Sitler), the prickly Confederate officer who has been sent to claim them. It hardly seems like promising material for comedy, but the play is very funny. The four characters are vividly drawn and well acted by the cast, all holdovers from the original production. Jessica L. Parks’s attractive set for General Butler’s office looks authentic, as do Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes. Joseph Discher’s direction is seamless. It adds up to a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Privacy *** B

The collaboration between London’s Donmar Warehouse and the Public Theater is off to a good start with this ingenious production created by writer James Graham and director Josie Rourke. Substantially revised from the 2014 Donmar version, the play is an informative essay on the uses and abuses of cybersurveillance, wrapped in the tale of an emotionally closed British writer who moves to New York to learn to open up a bit (or is it really just to pursue his ex?). The admirable Daniel Radcliffe, who never repeats himself in his choice of roles for the New York stage, plays the writer. The other actors — De’adre Aziza, Raffi Barsoumian, Michael Countryman, Rachel Dratch and Reg Rogers — skillfully play a multitude of roles including psychiatrist, parents, neighbors, cyberexperts and intelligence agency officials. We even get an appearance on video by Edward Snowden. There’s also an onstage digital researcher (Harry Davies). Audience participation is an important part of the proceedings. People are urged to turn on their cellphones (silent mode, of course), log onto the theater’s wi-fi network, use Google, take selfies and email photos of favorite New York locales. None of this material goes to waste. The first act sets up the basic situation and settles the writer in New York. In the second act, both funnier and scarier, he ventures into the world of online dating. Radcliffe is front and center the whole time except for a lengthy episode in Act Two which begins as a case of identity theft and turns into something darker. There's a demonstration of the mountain of information collected by one's smartphone that is truly alarming. Lucy Osborne’s set is simple but witty; it features the ultimate overstuffed couch for analysis and a New York skyline made of Amazon cartons. Duncan McLean’s projections add a lot, including identifying the many characters. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are unobtrusive. Occasionally the informative and entertainment elements of the play get in each other’s way. At other times the material threatens to become repetitive. Nevertheless, it makes for a most unusual theatrical experience. Too bad the entire run is virtually sold out. Running time: 2 1/2 hours including intermission.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Golden Bride **** A-

After a successful run last winter, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s (NYTF) production of this Yiddish operetta is back for a summer season at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. A big hit when it was produced on Second Avenue in 1923, it was still being revived 25 years later. With a luscious, eclectic score by Joseph Rumshinsky, lyrics by Louis Gilrod and a deliriously frivolous libretto by Frieda Freiman, it provides a time capsule of the popular Yiddish musical entertainment of its day. NYTF has given us a lavish production with 20 actors, an orchestra of 14, attractive sets (by John Dinning), colorful costumes (by Izzy Fields), evocative choreography (by Merete Muenster) and skillful direction (by Bryna Wasserman and Motl Didner) that does not condescend to the material. The uniformly talented cast is blessed with some outstanding voices including Rachel Policar as Goldele, Cameron Johnson as Misha and Rachel Zatcoff as Khanele. Adam B. Shapiro is a hoot in the comic role of Kalmen. The silly plot revolves around a poor girl in a Russian shtetl whose mother disappeared when she was a toddler, who comes into a large inheritance from her father in America and who offers to marry whichever suitor finds her mother. Forget the plot and just relax and enjoy the great singing, dancing and comedy. There are surtitles not only in English but also in Russian. The audience, which seemed to be composed mainly of Russian speakers, loved it. If you like operetta and are interested in the history of Yiddish theater, you will too. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.