Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

B-

New York Theatre Workshop, in association with The Playwrights Realm, is presenting in repertory two plays from Mfoniso Udofia’s projected nine-play cycle about the Nigerian diaspora. 

The first play, Sojourners, presented barely a year ago by The Playwrights Realm, is set in Houston in the late 70’s. Chinasa Ogbuagu (The Qualms) plays Abasiama Ekpeyoung, a diligent biology student at Texas Southern who works all night as cashier at a gas station even though she is eight months pregnant. Her slacker husband Ukpong Ekpeyoung (Hubert Point-du Jour, The Model Apartment) is allegedly studying economics there too, but he has been seduced by American ways, is growing restless in their arranged marriage, and repeatedly disappears for days. Moxie Wilis (Lakisha Michelle May, Everybody) is a barely literate young prostitute who turns up at the gas station to apply for a job that will get her out of the life. Disciple Ufot (Chinaza Uche) is a lonely, devout Nigerian student who also turns up at the gas station and thinks that meeting Abasiama is a sign of divine intervention. Moxie and Disciple vie for Abasiama’s attention. When the baby arrives, Abasiama is faced with difficult choices about her future. The play has some narrative bumps, but is carried along by the excellent acting. I did feel that the ending was so underwritten that its import might be missed.

Her Portmanteau, which takes place in New York 30 years later, reveals some of the consequences of her decision. Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Adapero Oduve), a woman of about 30, arrives at JFK and discovers that her mother Abasiama Ufot (Jenny Jules, The Crucible), who was supposed to pick her up and take her home to Massachusetts, is not there. Instead she has sent her daughter Adiagha Ufot (Chinasa Ogbuagu again) to get her and take her to her own Manhattan apartment. For the rest of the play the three women strive to work through the complexities of their relationship to find some kind of closure. Once again the acting is superb and goes a long way to mitigate the play’s slow pacing, narrative infelicities and repetitiveness. 

The set design by Jason Sherwood has a frame resembling a large double-hung window, but with bright lights in it, overhanging the stage. Its two panes are used for projections. The stage turntable was quite effective until it broke down shortly before the end of the second play. Loren Shaw’s costumes befit the characters well. Director Ed Sylvander Iskandar (The Mysteries and These Seven Sicknesses at The Flea) keeps the actors going at full throttle too much of the time.

On weekends both plays are presented in one day. It doesn’t really matter in which order you see them. I saw the “second” play in time first, which made it interesting while watching the “first” play to look for clues to how things had reached that point. Both plays have flaws, but the strong performances make them worth a visit.


The running time for Her Portmanteau is one hour 45 minutes with no intermission. The length for Sojuourners is two hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

D

After runs in Seattle, New Brunswick (NJ) and Boston, this oddity has made its way to Second Stage’s Terry Kiser Theatre. Its bona fides include a score by Brendan Milburn (music) and Val Vigoda (lyrics), two of the creators of the delightful 2006 musical Striking 12; a book by Joe DiPietro, Tony winner for Memphis, and direction by Obie winner Lisa Peterson. Val Vigoda  (GrooveLily, Trans-SIberian Orchestra) is a hardworking performer, who plays an electric violin in addition to acting and singing. Wade McCollum (Wicked) is an appealing actor with a strong voice and lots of presence. The dubious concept for the show is that a sleep-deprived single mother in Brooklyn whose baby daddy has abandoned her and whose job as a composer for video games is not going well, records a dating video on “Cupid’s Leftovers” that is answered by the famous polar explorer of a century ago. For reasons unclear to me, Shackleton is inspired by her and she becomes the muse that sees him through his travails. She, in turns, learns courage from him. As someone who was deeply moved by the story of Shackleton and the brave crew of the Endurance, I was distressed to see this story misappropriated for so frivolous a purpose. To project film clips and stills from their expedition to prop up this silly show is almost a desecration. Perhaps a younger audience unfamiliar with his story and with a taste for electronic music will find the show more congenial. I found it a pointless waste of time. Incidentally, Second Stage Theatre seems to be distancing itself from this production; their name does not appear in the Playbill. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Baghdaddy

B-

An earlier production of this clever musical was a Times Critic’s Pick two years ago when the show was burdened with the title “Who’s Your Baghdaddy Or How I Started the Iraq War.” Now it is playing at St. Luke’s Theatre. The location is appropriate, because the opening scene is set in a church basement. There’s free coffee and donuts onstage before the play as if we were gathered for an AA meeting. This support group, however, is not for alcoholics, but for the CIA operatives responsible for the Iraq War. Whether through stubbornness, careerism, delusion, error or deception, each has done something that leads to war. We also meet a junior agent in the German intelligence service, whose knowledge of Arabic leads to his being assigned to interrogating an Iraqi defector, code name “Curveball,”  who claims he worked on building mobile labs for the manufacture of biological weapons back in Iraq. When the German agency seeks technical assistance from the CIA, complications multiply. The talented cast (Brennan Caldwell, Jason Collins, Bob D’Haene, Brandon Espinoza, Joe Joseph, Claire Neumann, Larisa Oleynik and Ethan Slater) perform with gusto. The music by Marshall Pailet (who also directs) is eclectic, the lyrics by A.D. Penedo are often clever, and the book by both of them, based on an unproduced screenplay by J.T. Allen, is almost consistently lively. The choreography by Misha Shields adds fun. The barebones set by Caite Hevner suits the production. My only quibble is that it could benefit from a slight trim. The play is certainly timely as the prospect of getting into a war by accident seems all too real. Running time: two hours, including intermission.

The Price

B+


While Arthur Miller’s 1968 play is not generally considered among his best, this is its fourth Broadway revival and the second by Roundabout Theatre. Clearly, it has its advocates. It stands out from most of Miller’s plays in that there is quite a bit of humor, at least in the first act, and it is told in real time on a single set. It has four juicy roles that, in this case, are filled by a starry cast. Mark Ruffalo plays Victor Franz, a NYC cop nearing 50, who is in the attic of the townhouse where he grew up, waiting for a furniture dealer to arrive to make an offer on all the old-fashioned heavy furniture stored there. He is joined by his wife Esther (Jessica Hecht), who has never fully accepted the limited expectations her marriage has brought. The furniture dealer who eventually arrives is Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito), an 89-year-old man, who provides both comic relief and wisdom. We learn that Victor has been estranged from his elder brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) since their father’s death 16 years ago. The Depression left their father a hollowed-out man after he lost all his money, his wife died, and the family was forced to move into the attic of their townhouse. While Walter stayed in medical school and became a wealthy surgeon, Victor dropped out of college to care for his father, gave up his dream of being a scientist, lived with his father in dire poverty until joining the police force. Victor has attempted to contact Walter to notify him about selling the family furniture, but Walter has not returned his calls. After lots of back and forth, Victor and Solomon reach a deal. Solomon is in the midst of paying Victor in $100 bills when Walter suddenly arrives, ending Act One. Most of the overlong second act is the confrontation between Victor and Walter, during which old grievances are aired and new realizations are formed. Tony Shalhoub, resplendent in his camel hair coat and shiny suit, is superb as the smooth-talking Walter, perhaps the most complex character. The role of Esther fits Jessica Hecht like a glove and she gives one of her best performances in years. Casting Danny DeVito as Solomon was a stroke of genius. It is hard to believe that this is his Broadway debut. Though tiny in stature, he is a commanding presence. Mark Ruffalo, an actor I greatly admire, does not seem entirely comfortable in the role of Victor, although his performance improves as the play progresses. Derek McClane’s wonderfully cluttered set has dozens of pieces of furniture hanging from the ceiling, but has no walls so we see a city skyline of water towers against a cloudy sky. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are perfection. Unlike Ivo van Hove’s recent versions of A View from the Bridge and The Crucible, director Terry Kinney has taken the play at face value, rather than attempting to force his stamp upon it. Miller doesn’t need gimmicks. Running time: two hours, 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Antipodes

C-

After being underwhelmed by Circle Mirror Transformation and angered by The Flick, I decided that Annie Baker was not a playwright I would ever appreciate. Then along came John, the first play of her Signature Theatre residency, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Now we have her second work for Signature, this strange piece that is essentially a fantasia on storytelling. I am beginning to think that John was a fluke, because I was once again disappointed. The set, by Laura Jellinek, is a conference room with grey carpet on the floor and walls, an enormous oval table surrounded by Aeron office chairs, a large oval light fixture overhead and a pile of colorful boxes of flavored soda water on the floor. The audience sits on the two long sides. Unfortunately, this configuration leads to at least three of the actors having their back to you for the entire play. When we arrive, a young man with a laptop is seated near one end of the table. He is soon joined by five men and a woman. Finally an older man, clearly the boss, arrives and sits at the head of the table. This is Sandy (Will Patton) who is in charge of the six writers around the table who are tasked with telling stories that will lead to the creation of an unspecified new project, perhaps a video game. Brian (Brian Miskell), the young man with the laptop, is there to transcribe their stories. Sandy emphasizes that anything goes in their stories, except for dwarves, elves and trolls. He induces them to tell about their first sexual experience, the worst thing that ever happened to them and their biggest regret. Dave (Josh Charles) and Danny M1 (Danny Mastrogiorno) dive right in. Adam (Phillip James Brannon) doesn’t have much to say until late in the play when he tells the longest, most fully developed story. Danny M2 (Danny McCarthy) has trouble getting into the spirit of things. Josh (Josh Hamilton) is troubled that he has yet to receive his ID badge or his paycheck. Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell) placidly knits most of the time. Sarah (Nicole Rodenburg), Sandy’s secretary with the affect of a Valley girl, pops in now and then to take lunch orders and announce the latest reason for Sandy’s absence. The passage of time is marked primarily by her changes of costume. Although storytelling is not part of her job, she tells one of the evening’s best tales. Some of their stories are raunchy, others gory and at least one, poetic. The stories that comprise most of the evening have no narrative arc that I could detect; nor do they really tell much about the characters who relate them. The relationships among the various writers go virtually unexplored. There are flashes of humor including a running joke about each writer having a different idea about how many kinds of stories there are. There’s a neat trick that I never figured out whereby food mysteriously appears on the table. What there is not is a cohesive plot or fully-developed characters. I suspect that the playwright had more fun coming up with ways to tease the audience than the audience has watching the play. Lila Neugebauer (The Wolves) directed. Running time: one hour 55 minutes; no intermission.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Doll’s House, Part 2

A-


It is virtually unheard of these days for a new play to arrive on Broadway without having at least one regional production first. Received wisdom has it that there’s no audience for new American plays on Broadway. The enthusiastic reception given Lucas Hnath’s clever new play at the Golden Theatre suggests that rules are made to be broken. When Jayne Houdyshell gets prolonged entrance applause, you know you’re not in a typical Broadway audience. It’s even more surprising that the play, presented as a sequel to the mirthless Ibsen classic, turns out to be hilariously funny. I decided to attend with some trepidation because I had been disappointed in the two previous Hnath plays I had seen — The Christians and Red Speedo.  Sometimes the third time is a charm. From the first moment, I was engaged by this version of what happened to Nora Helmer 15 years after she left her family. Hnath has written four juicy roles for four fine actors. Laurie Metcalf (The Other Place), always worth seeing, shines as Nora. Houdyshell (The Humans, Well), a Tony-winning treasure, is delightful as Anne Marie, the longtime family servant. Chris Cooper brings depth and nuance to the role of Torvald. Condola Rashad (Ruined) is cool and collected as daughter Emmy. Heath’s snappy, dialogue is anachronistically modern. So are the sparse furnishings in Miriam Beuther’s thrust set — two pairs of Scandinavian Modern chairs, a small table with a box of Kleenex, and a large plant. On the other hand, David Zinn’s costumes are faithful to the period. The oversize door, perhaps the most famous one in modern drama, is on a wall that reaches to an enormous height. The thought-provoking plot balances the conflicting motivations of each character, when each is forced to make a choice that will affect the others. It’s almost too formulaic and the ending, for me, was less than satisfying. Except for punctuating the scenes by blackouts with the characters’ names projected in huge letters on the set, Sam Gold’s direction (The Glass Menagerie, Fun House) is unfussy. I could have done without the loud percussive pop music that preceded the play. Nevertheless, the play’s strengths far outweigh any weaknesses.. And you don’t really need to know Ibsen’s play to enjoy this one. It was an extremely worthwhile 90 minutes of theater

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bandstand

C

The deliberately drab set by David Korins that greets the audience at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre does not exactly portend an evening of frivolity. Nor does a list of the main characters — six veterans of WWII, damaged either physically or emotionally by their war experience, and a young war widow, all trying without much success to return to normality. Donny Novitski (Cory Cott), a young piano prodigy/composer when the war began, can’t find regular work. Nor can he summon the courage to pay a promised visit to his best friend’s widow, Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes). When a nationwide contest is announced to choose a new swing band for a part in a Hollywood movie, Donny recruits five vets played by James Nathan Hopkins, Brandon J. Ellis, Alex Bender, Geoff Packard and Joe Carroll, to be in the band. All six men not only act, sing and dance, but really play their instruments. Julia, who turns out to be not only a fine singer but a talented poet, becomes their vocalist. Unfortunately there is too little time for the book by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker to do more than briefly sketch the characters. Will this motley Cleveland crew win the Ohio contest and go on, despite many obstacles, to the finals in New York? Will they get there riding the Cleveland Limited in first class and stay at the Astor? What starts as a rather dark, unusual, nuanced story loses its edge and morphs unconvincingly into an upbeat, rather conventional crowdpleaser. The music by Richard Oberacker sounds jazzier than swing at times. With one powerful exception, the quiet numbers are better than the showy ones. Beth Leavel, as Julia’’s mother, has one lovely song. The dance numbers are not as enjoyable as I would have expected from the choreographer of Hamilton, Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed. The costume design by Paloma Young seemed to have no consistent approach. There are enough satisfying moments that one wishes there were more. I really wanted to like it, but left disappointed. Running time: two hours 35 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Pacific Overtures

B+

It was interesting to see Pacific Overtures the day after The Hairy Ape. Both are radically conceived revivals of works that are not generally considered to be among their creator’s finest. Both revivals succeed in making the case that these works should not be overlooked. John Doyle is working his way through the Sondheim canon; he has directed Company, Sweeney Todd, Passion and Road Show. In the first two of these, the actors were burdened with also being the musicians. Fortunately he has not repeated that gimmick for this CSC production. What he has given us is an intimate, streamlined, modern dress version with a fine cast. Pacific Overtures differs from his other shows in that it is basically a musicalized history lesson with characters that are sketched rather than fully developed. With a lovely score ably orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and an interesting book by John Weidman with additional material by Hugh Wheeler, it doesn’t need fancy sets and costumes to make its case. [However I must say that I enjoyed the visually lavish Roundabout revival in 2004.] In this production, Doyle’s design is basically a long runway platform that continues up the wall on one side like a scroll and has a Japanese seat near one end. The audience face each other along the long sides and the musicians are at one end. The performers move fluidly both along the platform and both side aisles. Most of the cast of ten play multiple roles. George Takei plays the reciter. Ann Harada adds humor as the madam and the French admiral. Stephen Eng and Megan Masako Haley are strong as the hapless Kayama and his wife Tamate. Karl Josef Co, Austin Ku, Kelvin Moon Loh, Orville Mendoza, Marc Oka and Thom Sesma round out the fine cast. They all wear contemporary Western attire accessorized on occasion by silks that recall the famous “Great Wave” print. Sometimes a stripped-down production is valuable in revealing what is essential about a show. It works quite well here. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission. NOTE: I advise against front row seats particularly if you are short, because the runway platform is quite high. Also, front row seats have no arms.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Hairy Ape

A-


While it can’t duplicate the excitement with which Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play was greeted 95 years ago, this gripping revival accomplishes the difficult task of making this problematic play acceptable for a 21st century audience. The Park Avenue Armory has imported a production originally done for the Old Vic and adapted it to take advantage of the enormous space of their drill hall. A bank of bright yellow stadium seats greets you upon arrival. The action takes place on a revolving stage with elements that roll into view as needed. One element is a long bright yellow container open in front that serves first as the stokehole of an ocean liner and later as the gorilla’s enclosure at the zoo. Richard Jones’s creative direction and Stewart Laing’s striking design are enhanced by stylized movements choreographed by Aletta Collins, brilliant lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and music and sound design by Sarah Angliss. Bobby Cannavale’s (The Motherf**ker with the Hat) visceral performance as Robert Smith (Yank) anchors the production. David Costabile (Titanic, Billions) shines as Paddy, the salt who misses the good old days. Catherine Combs (A View from the Bridge) is fine as Mildred Douglas, the rich young lady who wants to see how the other half lives but, when she sees Yank, calls him “a filthy beast” and then faints. Becky Ann Baker (Good People) is good as her disapproving aunt. The other cast members also excel. Yank, who had not only accepted but relished his place in the order of things is so unhinged by Mildred’s reaction to him that he loses his bearings and starts the downward spiral that ends at the zoo. While O’Neill’s take on class conflict and the search for identity in the industrial age may have lost some of its power today, this production makes the best possible case for giving the play another chance. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Groundhog Day

B-

Andy Karl is such a charming, likable performer that he is reason enough to see this Broadway musical based on the 1993 film about an obnoxious weatherman caught in a time loop in Punxsutawney, PA on February 2nd. His ownership of the role of Phil Connors is enough to make you forget Bill Murray. The book, by the film’s screenwriter, Danny Rubin, follows the movie quite closely. The problem of including loads of repetition without inducing boredom is solved with some success, particularly in the second act. The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (Matilda) are workmanlike. My main complaint about the show is that it is overproduced. The set by Rob Howell is overcomplicated and hyperactive to the point of distraction. The busyness onstage is frenetic to the point of exhaustion. Clearly no one involved with the production, including director Matthew Warchus (Matilda, God of Carnage) believes that less is more. I was also annoyed by the gratuitous profanity; dropping an F-bomb serves no purpose other than titillation. Peter Darling (Billy Elliott) has choreographed some lively numbers. [Unfortunately the star sustained an injury during “Philanthropy,” a big number near the end of the show, and will miss at least two performances.] Andrzey Goulding designed two attractive video collages that replace the curtain before each act. Barrett Doss, as love interest Rita Hanson, is pleasant but no Andie McDowell. Both Karl and the show just won Oliviers. The audience last night loved it. Running time: two hours 35 minutes.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

C

The hardest-working actors on Broadway are onstage at the Lyceum Theatre in this London import, a witless farce in which they repeatedly risk life and limb. One must admire the cast of eight (Rob Falconer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Charlie Russell, Dave Hearn and Nancy Zamit) for creating vivid characters and precisely executing the script’s many slapstick bits. It’s amazing that they can get through a performance without serious injury. The underlying conceit is that a college drama society is presenting a hoary mystery, ”The Murder at Haversham Manor.” One could argue that the real star of the production is the set by Nigel Cook that is ready to injure the actors in innumerable ways. The costumes by Roberto Surace are a hoot. Lewis, Shields and Sayer are credited as authors. Director Mark Bell keeps things moving relentlessly. While I feel a bit churlish criticizing a work that had me laughing uncontrollably several times, I had a problem with the play’s length. I would have liked it twice as much if it had been half as long. Two plus hours of repetitive slapstick without much plot or any wit is more than I can enjoy. If you really, really love slapstick, you may have a wonderful time. It did win the 2015 Olivier for best comedy. Running time: two hours ten minutes including intermission.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Profane

B+

This new family drama with comic overtones by Zayd Dohrn (Outside People), now at Playwrights Horizons, deals with two New York Muslim-American immigrant families, forced to confront their cultural and religious differences by the possibility of a marriage between family members. The Almeddins are a secular, liberal, cosmopolitan family living in Greenwich Village. The father, Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian), is a novelist. who usually writes about life in exile. Naja (Heather Raffo), his wife, is a former dancer. Their scrappy elder daughter Aisa (Francis Benhamou), in her late 20s, is also a dancer, but is now working as a bartender and living at home. Younger daughter Emina (the radiant Tala Ashe of  The Who and the What) is at school in Syracuse where she falls in love with Sam Osman (Babak Tafti of Small Mouth Sounds), son of a religious Muslim family. Act One takes place at the Almeddin apartment over Thanksgiving weekend, when Emina brings Sam home to meet her family and surprise them with the news of their engagement. There are intimations of secrets in both families. Act Two takes place several months later at the lavish Osman home in White Plains, where the Almeddins have come to meet their future in-laws. Peter Osman (Ramsey Faragallah), owner of a restaurant supply business, is a jovial man who tries hard to put his guests at ease. His wife Carmen (Lanna Joffrey) is uptight and grudgingly polite to them. We also meet Dania (Francis Benhamou again), the young woman living with them who prefers to stay out of sight. The evening does not end well. At play’s end we are back in Raif’s study for a scene that, for me, was a letdown and diminished my appreciation. Most of the characters are vividly written, to the degree that I was eager to know more about their stories. Many of the family relationships ring true. As a non-Muslim, Dorhn was bold to write the play; perhaps his outsider status adds to the universality of its themes. I am ambivalent about the title and a plot point that increases the drama but clouds the message. The set by Takeshi Kata creates two attractive but quite different homes. (Stick around during intermission to watch the interesting set change.) Jessica Pabst’s costumes are appropriate to the characters. The direction by Kip Fagan (Grand Concourse, Kingdom Come) is unfussy. I was thoroughly caught up in the play until the final scene. I wish the author had come up with a stronger ending. Running time: one hour 55 minutes including intermission.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gently Down the Stream

B

It has been far too long since we have had a play by Martin Sherman (Bent, When She Danced) on a New York stage. Thanks to the Public Theater, the drought is over. Even better, it has Gabriel Ebert (4,000 Miles, Matilda, Preludes) as one of its two leads. As Rufus, a bipolar Brit with a penchant for older men, Ebert once again proves that he is one of the finest actors of his generation. Beau, the expat cocktail pianist who is the object of his attention, is played by Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, Hairspray), which, depending on your point of view, is either the best or worst thing about the play. Listening to Fierstein’s raspy voice for an extended period has always been a problem for me. In this case, the problem is compounded by the New Orleans accent by way of Brooklyn that he adopts. That's a lot to get through to appreciate the subtle acting beneath. Christopher Spears (The Harvest) is fine in the third, smaller role of Harry. His rendition of “The Man I Love” is not one you’ll soon forget, even if no match for the snippets of Mabel Mercer songs that punctuate the play. The importance of oral history to preserve the lives of marginalized people that society prefers to disregard is one of the play’s themes. Illustrating how relationships change over time is another. There are several monologues for Beau that eventually explain why he has become so mistrustful of the possibility of happiness for gay men. What he reveals about the gay history of the last 50 years contains little that will be unfamiliar to a New York audience. Sherman’s dialogue sparkles with wit, but his structure is a bit lumpy and the final scene seems pasted on. Derek McClane’s (Noises Off, I Am My Own Wife) set presents a London flat guaranteed to inspire real estate envy. The costumes by Michael Krass (Noises Off, Machinal) are apt. Director Sean Mathias (Waiting for Godot, No Man’s Land) manages to minimize the play’s structural problems. While the play doesn’t represent Sherman at his best, it still provides an entertaining and occasionally moving evening. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Monday, April 3, 2017

THE HUMANA FESTIVAL: Report from Louisville

I have just returned from Louisville, where I attended the 41st Humana Festival of New American Plays. Every year, Actors Theatre of Louisville presents fully staged productions of six previously unseen plays. Recent plays that went on to a New York production include Lucas Hnaths' The Christians, Charles Mee’s The Glory of the World and Colman Domingo’s Dot. Another Humana play, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, will kick off Playwrights Horizons next season. 

Over the years, three plays that originated at the Festival — D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends — won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While none of this year’s six plays is likely to be up for a Pulitzer, two of them could well make it to New York.

Andrea Syglowski and Jessica Dickey (photo by Bill Brymer)
Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler depicts the emotional, financial and professional difficulties surrounding first-time parenthood for three Long Island mothers — Jessie (Jessica Dickey), Lina (Andrea Syglowksi) and Adrienne (Liv Rooth) — and a dad, Mitchell (Jeff Biehl). The vividly written characters are superbly brought to life by the able cast. Although it has lots of humor, it presents real problems that real people face, without judging their choices. I approached the play with low expectations, because the topic was not of particular interest to me and I had not enjoyed Metzler’s 2011 play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Close Up Space. I was pleasantly surprised when the play turned out to be an emotionally and intellectually satisfying experience. Director Davis McCallum (The Harvest, London Wall) let the play make its case without distraction. I predict that this play has a promising future.

The Cast of Airness (photo by Bill Brymer)
Airness by Chelsea Marcantel is another play with a topic — competitive air guitar — that held little interest for me. Once again I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are colorful and their air guitar routines are exhilarating. The plot, about a new female performer trying to make a breakthrough, is less than compelling, but the air guitar scenes are so vibrant that I was more than willing to overlook any plot shortcomings. Angelina Impellizzeri as Astrid “Cannibal Queen” Anderson, Nate Miller as Ed “Shreddy Eddy” Leary, Marc Pierre as Gabe “Golden Thunder” Partridge and Brian Quijada as reigning U.S. champion David “D Vicious” Cooper are standouts. Lucas Papaelias as Mark “Facebender” Lender aces his touching monologue. Marinda Anderson, in the leading role of Nina “The Nina” O’Neal, tries hard to enliven the least interesting role. Director Meredith McDonough wisely hired the current world air guitar champion, Matt Burns, as a consultant and ended up casting him as the announcer of all the regional contests. Deb O’s set design nails the seedy bar atmosphere. Kudos to movement director Jenny Koons for her fine work. The show is a real crowd pleaser that I can easily see being picked up by other companies. 

Scott Drummond and Sam Breslin Wright
(photo by Bill Brymer)
We’re Gonna Be Okay by Basil Kreimendahl is set in Middle America during the Cuban missile crisis. Two couples, each with a teenage child, live in adjoining houses. Efran (Sam Breslin Wright), the wealthier husband, tries to persuade his working class neighbor Sul (Scott Drummond) to build a bomb shelter under the border of their properties. Efran’s vivacious wife Leena (Kelly McAndrew) is opposed to the idea, but Sul’s fearful wife Mag (Annie McNamara) prevails on her husband to agree. Efran and Leena’s baseball-obsessed son Jake (Andrew Cutler) and Sul and Mag’s moody daughter Deanna (Marie Trabolsi), who can’t abide Jake,  don’t get a vote. As Act II opens, both families are living in the shelter. The stressful situation leads to changes in each character. The satire is amusing, as are the deliberate anachronisms. I was fully engaged with the play until five minutes before the end when, for me at least, it went off the rails. When the teenagers suddenlly decide to act out their sexual identity confusion, it came across to me as ludicrous. The abruptness of the ambiguous ending came as a surprise. The actors are fine and the sets by Dane Laffrey and costumes by Jessica Pabst are excellent. Lisa Peterson’s direction is assured. Were it not for the disappointment of the last five minutes, I would have left the theater quite contented. 

Alex Trow and Ben Graney (photo by Bill Brymer)
I Now Pronounce by Tasha Gordon-Solmon describes a wedding party that spins out of control after a sudden death during the ceremony. We meet the rabbi (Ray DeMattis), the bridal couple Adam (Ben Graney) and Nicole (Alex Trow), two bridesmaids — the inebriated Michelle (Clea Alsip) and the amiable Eva (Satomi Blair), two groomsmen — angry Dave (Jason Veasey) and hangdog Seth (Forrest Malloy), and three shrieking flower girls (Carmen Tate, Mary Charles Miller and Brylee Deuser). I should confess that I have a low tolerance for shriekers or drunkards. The dearth of sympathetic characters also presented an obstacle for me. Finally, the production provides an unfortunate example of color-blind casting backfiring. Casting a black actor to play the most obnoxious character in the play perpetuates the stereotype of the angry young black man. I hope that was not the playwright’s intent. For me, the play’s humor was not enough to compensate for its shortcomings. Stephen Brackett directed.

Jon Norman Schneider
(photo by Bill Brymer)
The most controversial offering of the Festival was Recent Alien Abductions by Jorge Ignacio CortiƱas, which Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters chose to direct. The play opens with a long monologue by a sullen Puerto Rican teenager named Alvaro (Jon Norman Schneider) during which he analyzes in great detail the 25th episode of The X-Files. He asserts that this episode was tampered with in reruns for possibly nefarious reasons. During the monologue, he repeatedly mentions his ill feelings toward his older brother Nestor. In the next scene which, according to the program, takes place 23 years later, we meet Alvaro’s family — brother Nestor (Rafael Benoit), his ailing mother Olga (Mia Katigbak), Nestor’s wife Ana (Elia Monte-Brown) and their neighbor Beba (Carmen M. Herlihy). Patria (Ronete Levenson), a woman from New York, is visiting the family to obtain their permission to publish Alvaro’s science fiction stories. We soon learn in dramatic fashion what the circumstances were that led Alvaro to seek refuge in fantasy. The long monologue and an extended scene that took place behind a closed door so it was difficult to figure out who was speaking were not to the liking of some theatergoers who left during the first two scenes. There’s also a long violent scene that made me squirm. While I admired the attempt to tell a story elliptically, I was not fully engaged. Perhaps I would have been more involved if I had been a fan of The X-Files. Perhaps not.

The Cast (photo by Bill Brymer)
The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield is less a coherent play than a collage of loosely related scenes designed to showcase the talents of the 19 Acting Apprentices of the 2016-17 Professional Training Company — and to give a workout to the many trapdoors in the stage floor of the Bingham Theatre. The four playwrights who created the scenes are Jeff Augustin (Little Children Dream of God), Sarah DeLappe (The Wolves), Claire Kiechel and Ramiz Monsef. Various scenes touched on Kentucky history, the lives of inventors, racial bias, feminism, disco and an attempt to prevent the invention of the cellphone. Like most pastiches, some parts were better than others. I had the feeling that the cast was enjoying it more than the audience. The piece succeeded in showing off the versatility and elan of the young actors, so it accomplished its purpose.

An enjoyable Festival extra was a lecture by Taylor Mac on his philosophy of theater. 

While this year’s Festival offered no blockbuster hits, it provided many enjoyable moments in a variety of works, at least a couple of which seem to me good candidates for further exposure. The bottom line is that I was glad that I attended.

NOTE: I attended the Festival as a participant in a Road Scholar program that included a variety of activities that greatly enhanced the experience. We toured the three venues and costume shop, had sessions with dramaturgs of five of the plays, learned how new plays are marketed, met with the company’s media technologist, and even wrote our own 12-line plays under the guidance of the education director. We were housed in a nearby first-class hotel, provided with most meals, given a wine and cheese party at the theater, invited to a post-performance soiree, taken on a sightseeing tour of Louisville and a visit to the excellent Speed Art Museum. In addition, our fellow travelers were all devoted theater buffs, which made for good conversation. If you decide to go to next year’s festival, I strongly recommend making your arrangements through Road Scholar.




Saturday, March 25, 2017

Latin History for Morons

B

It’s hard to believe that it’s over 25 years since I first saw John Leguizamo in his one-man show Mambo Mouth. On the basis of his new show at the Public Theater, I can report that he is still a consummate entertainer who owns the audience. Marriage and fatherhood may have mellowed him a bit, but he still ventures into X-rated territory. Upset that his 8th-grade son has been repeatedly bullied at school, he sets out to boost his son's self-estem by helping him write a report about his hero. He tries to instill the son with Latino pride by telling him about heroic historical examples from the Aztecs to the Incas and onward. It’s a loose structure that gives Leguizamo plenty of opportunity for hilarious impersonations and dance moves. He presents his findings as a mock lecture complete with blackboard scribblings. At its best, it’s very entertaining, but it occasionally sags and becomes repetitive. Nevertheless, it’s always a pleasure to see Leguizamo at work. Rachel Hauck designed the classroom-like set. Tony Taccone, whose work with one-person shows includes Bridge & Tunnel and Wishful Drinking, directed. Running time: one hour 40 minutes: no intermission.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

How To Transcend a Happy Marriage

B-


In case the bird-headed huntress featured on James McMullan’s wonderful poster for Sarah Ruhl’s new play at Lincoln Center Theater is insufficient warning to expect something unusual, the dead goat hanging upside down over the living room set should surely do the job. An attractive young woman removes it from the hook and carries it off before the play proper begins. A fortyish couple, George (Marisa Tomei) [was it really necessary for the playwright to name the female lead George?] and Paul (Oscar Metwally) are having dinner at the suburban home of their closest friends, Jane (Robin Weigert) and Michael (Brian Hutchison). Jane mentions Pip (Lena Hall), a temp in her office who is both polyamorous and hunts her own meat. They are all intrigued and decide to invite Pip and her two live-in lovers, Freddie (David McElwee) and David (Austin Smith) for a New Year’s Eve party. The party proceeds rather well as they discover such common interests as Pythagoras and Shakespeare. They move on to a karaoke session that spins out of control. Their revels are interrupted by the untimely arrival home of the hosts’ 16-year-old daughter Jenna (Naian Gonzalez Norvind.) The dialogue is smart, funny and sexy, the actors have achieved a fine ensemble and the direction is seamless, once again demonstrating how well-attuned Rebecca Taichman (The Oldest Boy) is to Ruhl’s sensibility. The set design by David Zine and costumes by Susan Hilferty are first-rate. While the first act is nearly perfect, the play has serious second-act problems. An attempt by Pip to teach George to hunt deer has unfortunate consequences. In the scene that follows, there is a sudden introduction of possibly magical events, which, to me, weakens rather than strengthens the play. Freddie and David become mere plot contrivances. Worst of all, we are forced to question or even invalidate what we have seen with our own eyes in the first act. The play partially recovers its footing, but not soon enough to restore all the positive feelings it generated before intermission. While I have no problem with magical realism, I don't feel it works here. The points that I thought Ruhl wanted to make about the limits or limitlessness of love and the difficulties of parent and child to acknowledge each other’s sexuality do not need magical embellishment. It’s a flawed play with a very enjoyable first act. Running time: one hour 50 minutes including intermission.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Light Years

D+

Somewhere in the Playwrights Horizons program notes, it says that The Debate Society (Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, writers; Oliver Butler, developer and director) have been working on this piece for seven years. I wish the results of all their time and effort had produced a more satisfying result. This tale of thwarted aspirations loosely ties together two family stories linked to the Chicago world’s fairs of 1893 and 1933. One of the plots involves a real person, Steele MacKaye, a flamboyant actor, playwright, producer and inventor of such theater innovations as folding seats and fireproof curtains. In 1893 MacKaye (Rocco Sisto) had grandiose plans to build the Spectatorium, a 12,000-seat theater filled with the latest in theatrical technology, to house an epic panorama about Columbus. Master electrician Hillary (Erik Lochtefeld) and his loyal assistant Hong Sling (Brian Lee Huynh) are working on the “mooncart,” a large contraption with hundreds of light bulbs that will provide the celestial climax of the Spectatorium show. He even brings it home so he can work on it at night. Hillary’s lively, attractive wife Adeline (Aya Cash) displays a keen interest in her husband’s work. The Panic of 1893 leads MacKaye’s investors to abandon him and the Spectatorium is never completed. The second story introduces us to Lou (Ken Barnett), an unsuccessful jingle writer who hopes to find work at the 1933 fair. His wife Ruth (Aya Cash again) struggles to keep the family from starving by working long shifts at a pancake house at the fair. Their 11-year-old son Charlie (Graydon Peter Yosowitz) has his heart set on a stamp commemorating the Graf zeppelin. Out of desperation, Lou reluctantly seeks employment as a musician in a night club. The apartment Lou and family have rented is in the home formerly occupied by Hillary and Adeline. Their landlord is a mysterious figure who lives in the attic. In the play’s most implausible premise, the unfinished mooncart still sits in the living room. Things do not end happily for either family. The alternation of scenes between the two time periods is not really confusing, but produces a repeated loss of focus. Just as the aspirations of almost everyone in the play are not achieved, neither are the aspirations of the play’s creators. Despite the fine acting, impressive set design by Laura Jellinek, great period costumes by Michael Krass and an amazing lighting design by Russell H. Champa, the play fizzles rather than sizzles. I would have preferred a play about the fascinating life of Steele MacKaye. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Seating alert: During a few short scenes, the actors are in the wide aisle between rows D and E. If your seat is in rows A through D, be prepared to twist around in your seat to see the action.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

War Paint

C

Take the librettist (Doug Wright), composer (Scott Frankel), lyricist (Michael Korie), Tony-winning star (Christine Ebersole) and director (Michael Greif) of a much-loved musical (Grey Gardens); for good measure, add another Tony-winning diva (Patti Lupone), throw in Tony winners for choreography (Christopher Gatelli) and costume design (Catherine Zuber) plus the scenic designer of Hamilton (David Korins), and you should have all the ingredients of a wonderful show. And don't forget to include plot points that will appeal to Jews and gays, two staples of the Broadway audience. Unfortunately, this new musical about Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, now in previews at the Nederlander Theatre, does not fully deliver on its promise. While there is much to admire — the two leads, a sumptuous production, some good songs with intelligent lyrics — there is little to love. The story of the parallel careers of these two cosmetic giants, while instructive about an interesting aspect of American social history, is a bit bloodless. There were very few moments when I was moved. John Dossett plays Arden’s husband and sales manager. Douglas Sills plays Rubenstein’s closeted business manager and companion. Their switcheroo seemed a bit too formulaic. Some judicious trimming is in order. At two hours 45 minutes including intermission, it risks wearing out its welcome. It’s far from terrible, but with all that talent involved, the results are disappointing.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

If I Forget

B

If the goal of Steven Levenson (The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, book for Dear Evan Hansen) was to write a play that would elicit lively discussion afterwards, his new play at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre is a success. While at its core an intimate family drama, the play connects the personal to a wider arena of religious, political, sociological and philosophical concerns. We meet the three Fischer siblings, all in their forties, in July 2000 at the family’s longtime home in a middle class Washington neighborhood. They are gathered to celebrate their recently widowed father’s 75th birthday. The middle child Michael (the superb Jeremy Shamos), although an atheist, is a professor of Jewish studies at a New York area university where he has just been recommended for tenure. He mentions in passing that he is faculty advisor to Students for Nader. He and his gentile wife Ellen (Tasha Lawrence) have an emotionally troubled college-age daughter Abby who is currently on a trip to Israel. Michael was opposed to letting her go because peace talks between Arabs and Israelis have just collapsed and he fears for her safety. Elder daughter Holly (the assured Kate Walsh from TV’s Private Practice), a dilettante who fancies herself an interior decorator, has a bratty teenage son Joey (Seth Steinberg) and a shallow but wealthy lawyer husband Howard (Gary Wilmes) who is Joey’s stepfather. The younger daughter Sharon (Renata Friedman, u/s for Maria Dizzia), an unmarried teacher, who has borne the brunt of caring for her late mother and her ailing father, never fails to remind her siblings of that fact. Sharon has recently broken up with her boyfriend after finding him in bed with the [female] cantor. We learn that Michael has just completed an incendiary book called Forget the Holocaust that suggests that American Jews should stop using the Holocaust as a reason to give Israel a free pass for some of its actions. (If you think it unlikely that a professor would publish a controversial book likely to damage his career while he is awaiting tenure, just google Norman Finkelstein.) Although Michael sent his father Lou (Larry Bryggman) a manuscript of his book to read six month ago, Lou has never said a word about it. In a moving scene near the end of the first act, Lou describes what it was like to liberate Dachau. The second act takes place six months later, not long after the Supreme Court has interceded to elect Bush. Lou has suffered a stroke. Michael’s book has had consequences. The family has gathered to decide what to do about Lou’s care. Lou’s only asset is his former clothing store, now leased to a Guatemalan family at a below-market rate. Sharon’s opposition to selling the store because it is the family legacy has another less noble motive. Holly’s plan to rent the store for her own nonexistent design practice is mysteriously not supported by her husband, who turns out to have an unsavory secret. Michael pushes hard to sell the store, betraying some confidences in the process. At play’s end Joey asks Michael about his cousin Abby’s condition. We learn that she had an experience in Jerusalem that was either transcendent or symptomatic of her worsening mental condition. The play shifts gears from naturalistic to expressionistic in its final scene, which didn't work for me. One can fault the play for being overstuffed; there’s enough plot for three plays. On the positive side, the play presents a compelling picture of family dynamics, fortunately relieved by frequent flashes of humor. It raises important questions about Jewish identity in America today that seem even more relevant in the light of recent headlines. The dialogue is sharp and the cast is excellent. Derek McLane’s revolving two-level set and Jess Goldstein’s costumes serve the play well. Daniel Sullivan (Proof, Rabbit Hole) directs with his usual skill. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Come from Away

B+

This Canadian musical with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein could not have arrived on Broadway at a better time. With our national psyche bruised by angst, doubt, resentment and divisiveness, it is comforting to be reminded that people can behave with kindness, charity, openness and unity. The show tells the story of what occurred in Gander, Newfoundland where 38 flights were forced to land after U.S. airspace was closed on 9/11. 7,000 passengers and crew — and a few animals — were housed, fed, comforted and entertained by the residents of a town whose population barely exceeded the number of unexpected guests. An excellent ensemble of twelve play both the residents and the guests, changing roles faster than you can blink. The book is based on actual interviews the creators conducted during the tenth anniversary observance of the event. The locals include the mayor (Joel Hatch), a teacher, the librarian (Astrid Van Wieren), the head of the striking bus drivers union, an animal welfare lady (Petrina Bromley) and a newly arrived television reporter (Kendra Kassebaum). The passengers include a woman (Q. Smith) whose son is a NYC fireman, a gay couple both named Kevin (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa), a rabbi (Geno Carr), an Egyptian chef, an African family who speak no English, a young African-American man (Rodney Hicks) and an unlikely couple —a middle aged Texas divorcee (Sharon Wheatley) and a shy Englishman (Lee MacDougall) who take a fancy to each other. If a character can be singled out as the lead, it would be Beverley (Jenn Colella of High Fidelity and Closer Than Ever), a pilot, who gets the show’s only solo. The style of the music is mainly Celtic folk. Many of the songs sounded alike to my untrained ear. There is one lovely number where several passengers pray, each according to his or her custom. There’s  a rousing foot-stomping number set in a bar when some of the “come-from-aways” are initiated as honorary Newfoundlanders. The set by Beowulf Boritt features a forest of tree trunks on either side of the stage behind which the musicians are seated, a slatted back wall suitable for projections, a dozen or so mismatched wooden chairs and a turntable. Near the center of the back wall stand two damaged tree trunks possibly symbolizing the twin towers. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James help distinguish the characters. Kelly Devine is credited for “musical staging,” rather than as choreographer. Christopher Ashley’s direction keeps things flowing smoothly. The musicians get a well-deserved chance to show off during the curtain call. Judging from the audience’s enthusiasm, Broadway will welcome this feel-good musical. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Glass Menagerie

C


I don’t think that the new production of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, now on view at the Belasco Theatre, is a good choice for anyone who has not seen the play before. It is too quirky. Director Sam Gold seems to be operating in Ivo van Hove mode, trying too hard to put his own revisionist stamp on a classic. He has chosen to emphasize the comic over the poetic; I have never heard that much laughter at any previous production. Sally Field’s Amanda is understated, avoids histrionics, and works rather well. I do miss a Southern accent though. Joe Mantello at first seems much too old to play Tom, but since he is narrating a memory play, his age doesn’t really matter. His performance is very strong and dominates the evening. Finn Wittrock’s Jim O’Connor is a tad too energetic, veering dangerously close to cartoonish at times. And then there is Madison Ferris as Laura. The decision to cast someone confined to a wheelchair as Laura was a noble but misguided choice. It is unsupported by the text, which specifically refers to her walking around and makes no sense at all when her mother sends her out to run an errand. It might matter less if Ferris were better able to hold her own with the other actors. Andrew Lieberman’s set design has the enormous stage bare except for a table and chairs, some metal shelves and a crate of phonograph records. The costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic are appropriate. There are two scenes where rain falls on the set, which leaves the actors senselessly splashing around in puddles by play’s end; there seemed absolutely no point to it. Gold’s take on the play is interesting, but distorts the piece too much for my taste. Running time: two hours, five minutes; no intermission.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Moors

C

Jen Silverman’s dark, quirky comedy for Playwrights Realm brings us the world of the Brontes with a touch of Beckett. Agatha and Huldey are sisters living in the family manse after the death of their father. Agatha, a seemingly serene spinster, as played by Linda Powell (The Christians), is a dead ringer for Gertrude Stein. Her emotionally flamboyant younger sister Huldey (Birgit Huppuch of Men on Boats) has literary pretensions and tries to read her diary to anyone who will listen. Emilie (Chasten Harmon) is a pretty young governess who has just arrived after being recruited through letters allegedly written by the sisters’ unseen brother Branwell. The reasons for his absence and for her being hired to care for a nonexistent child are eventually revealed. Hannah Cabell (Men on Boats) plays the dour Marjory, the scullery maid, and Mallory, the parlor maid, who may be the same person. Andrew Garman (The Christians) plays the sisters’ large mastiff who suffers from loneliness and depression. Teresa Avia Lim plays the injured moor-hen the mastiff takes a fancy to and has philosophical discussions with. All the repressed emotion leads to an outburst of violence, followed by a song, complete with mic. The ending is rather low-key. The subplot of the two animals is interesting, but does not really cohere with the main story. The production is first-rate. The cast is uniformly strong, the understated set by Dane Laffrey is evocative, the costumes by Anita Yavich are wonderful, the lighting by Jen Schriever is effective and there’s lots of fog. Mike Donahue’s direction is smooth. What the play lacks in coherence, it almost makes up for in cleverness and originality. It would benefit from a 15-minute trim. It was well-received by the audience, which must have had a median age below 30. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Bull in a China Shop

C-

Mary Woolley led such an interesting life that it is hard to imagine that it could be turned into a boring play, but playwright Bryna Turner, making her professional debut with this LCT3 production, has managed just that. Among her many achievements, Woolley was president of Mt. Holyoke College for over 35 years and was largely responsible for transforming it from a sleepy regional seminary to a first-rate women’s college. One of her first official acts was to hire her lifelong partner Jeannette Marks, as a professor of English and, within the year, to make her department chair. Suspected favoritism toward Marks dogged Woolley’s career. What Turner has written came across to me as scattered chapters from a Cliff Notes summary of a biography. There was very little enlightenment and not much emotional involvement. Maybe it was more meaningful to lesbians. Since there were two excerpts from a lecture on Woolf’s Orlando, maybe it would have helped to have read that book. As I experienced the play, it shed little heat or light. I must confess that I had to fight nodding off a few times. The multicultural cast is led by Enid Graham as Woolley and Ruibo Quan as Marks. Lizbeth Mackay plays the college’s tradition-bound dean, Michele Selene Ang plays Pearl, a student with a crush on Marks, and Crystal Lucas-Perry’s character, Felicity, is either Marks’s landlady or roommate. The deliberately contemporary dialogue uses the title “Ms.” and is loaded with gratuitous F-bombs. Turner stretches anachronism too far for me when she describes a peace conference to which Woolley was sent by President Hoover: she says she wanted to tell Hitler to pull out of Poland. The conference was seven years before he invaded. Oana Botez costumes the leads in culottes. Did American women wear them 100 years ago? The set design by Arnulfo Maldonado features a back wall with a bright floral design and a large window, a slightly raked polished wooden floor and a walkway at the front. Before the play begins, the set is obscured by a large white rectangular object hanging down that looks like a mattress, but raises to form the set’s ceiling. When the play ended and the rectangle was lowered to its initial position, at least 15 seconds went by before there was applause. Lee Sunday Evans directed. Running time: 90 minutes; no intermission.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Significant Other

B-

Here's a link to my review of the off-Broadway version which, I gather, is substantially similar.

https://bobs-theater-blog.blogspot.com/2015/06/significant-other.html

Wakey, Wakey

D-

Reluctant as I am to repeat an expression I learned from Ted Cruz, I have to say that Will Eno’s latest work for his Signature Theatre residency is a nothing burger. The only possible reason to catch it is the all-too-rare opportunity to see Michael Emerson (Gross Indecency) back on stage. No one does misery better than Emerson, and he certainly has cause to be miserable here. He plays Guy, a dying man in a wheelchair, who feels the need to entertain the audience and repeatedly apologizes for not being up to the task. He shares his final words of wisdom, jotted down on index cards, and uses a remote to project old photographs of childhood, a word puzzle and a YouTube funny animal clip on a large screen. If you remove the repeated apologies, long pauses and photographic distractions, there’s probably not more than half an hour of dialogue. About half way through the proceeding (I am loathe to call it a play), he is joined by Lisa (the radiant January LaVoy), a caregiver who brings a bag of fortune cookies that she shares with the audience. The final moments are an assault on the senses involving video collage, bubbles, balloons, bright lights and a disco ball. To me, it came across as a desperate attempt by the playwright-director to distract the audience from the inadequacy of all that preceded it. I posit that under the pressure of owing Signature a new play, this was the best that Eno could throw together. No matter. I’m sure the establishment critics will call it brilliant. The main elements of Christine Jones’s scenic design are a bunch of packing cartons, a pile of disheveled clothes and a never-used door flanked by two small evergreens. Playing Bolero as background music before the play was a trite choice. It was only 75 minutes without intermission, but it seemed much longer.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Everybody

C-

No one can accuse playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon, Gloria, War) of repeating himself. Each play has been unlike its predecessor; the only common denominator (except for War) was their intelligence and theatricality. His latest effort, part of his residency at Signature Theatre, is a deconstruction of the 15th century Middle English morality play Everyman. In that tale, God enlists his assistant Death to lead Everyman to his final reckoning. Death consents to his plea to be allowed to bring someone else along, but no one is willing to make the journey with him. In this version, the lead character has been changed to the gender-neutral Everybody. The play has a gimmick: five actors (Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly and Lakisha Michelle May) draw lots to determine who will play Everybody and four other roles at each performance. There are 120 possible combinations. The other four actors (Jocelyn Bioh, Marylouise Burke, Liyana Tiare Cornell and Chris Perfetti) have the same role each time. Burke’s version of Death is so delightful that it hard to remember that one should be frightened. Bioh is also a treat as God and another role that I won’t give away. Friendship, Kinship, Cousinship and Stuff decide not to accompany Everybody, as do late arrivals Strength, Mind, Beauty and Senses. Although Catholicism is briefly mentioned once, religion is surprisingly absent from the play. A character not in the original, Love (Perfetti), turns up late in the play and, puzzlingly, proceeds to put Everybody through a series of humiliations as a price for accompanying him (or her). Only Love and Shitty Evil Things stick around for Everybody’s final journey. The emerging moral seemed muddled. I also think that a lot depends on who is playing Everybody; one reacts differently to the fate of a pregnant woman vs. a white-haired man. In another departure by the playwright, perhaps to break the monotony, there are several blackout scenes during which we hear friends arguing with a dying friend who is telling the play's story as if it were her recurrent dream. I, for one, do not enjoy sitting in the dark listening to disembodied voices. Brief reference someone makes to racial insensitivity seems to have no connection to the play. In another blackout scene we get a marvelous pair of dancing skeletons. The central feature of Laura Jellinek’s set is a row of seats facing the audience identical to ours. Gabriel Berry’s costumes are excellent. The lighting design by Matt Frey enhances the production greatly. Lila Neugebauer (The Wayside Motor Inn, The Wolves) directs with assurance. There is cleverness in abundance, but I was not moved. I suspect that those in the production were having a better time than those in the audience. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

All the Fine Boys

F

Maybe I would have reacted less harshly to this new play at The New Group had it not been the second play I had seen in a week dealing with inappropriate sex between adults and the underage. Maybe not. It is awful enough in its own right. We meet two 14-year-old girls, Jenny (Abigail Breslin, who played Little Miss Sunshine in the film) and Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman), hanging out in Jenny’s basement with a stack of videos for a sleepover. Although he play is set in 1980’s South Carolina, there is little sense of time or place. At least we are spared ersatz Southern accents. Their inane conversation drags on and on with he girls discussing the various boys at school, and Jenny observing that the ones Emily likes are beyond her reach. The play then alternates scenes of Emily and Adam (Alex Wolff), an artsy high school boy she has a crush on, with scenes of Jenny and Joseph (Joe Tippett, of Indian Summer and Familiar), a man twice her age that she inexplicably goes home with. One girl gets more than she set out for; the other gets less. The most glaring flaw in the play is the cartoonish depiction of Jenny as a grotesque figure with an unlimited appetite for junk food. The long scenes of her and Joseph are hard to watch. The staging is awkward with characters from the previous scene lingering on the set until after the next scene begins. It’s a stretch to believe the two women are teenagers, but that’s probably a blessing. I admire their gutsiness in taking on their roles. The set by Amy Rubin is appropriately ugly with dark deep-pile carpeting covering the floors and the walls and a much-used sofa. Tom Broecker’s costumes are apt. Playwright Erica Schmidt can’t blame the director for the outcome: she directed. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.


NOTE: If the play weren’t bad enough, the seats in the Ford Studio at Signature Center are wood laminate with no upholstery. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Penitent

D

I wish I could say that David Mamet’s new play at the Atlantic Theater Company marks his return to greatness. While it’s by no means his worst, it falls far short of his best work. It is about a psychiatrist Charles (Chris Bauer) who suddenly gets religion when a young patient commits a terrible crime. Although he has frequently testified as a mitigating witness for the defense, he refuses to do so in this instance. The boy accuses him of antipathy toward gay people, a charge supported by a newspaper piece misquoting the title of an article he wrote as “Homosexuality as an Aberration” instead of “Homosexuality as an Adaptation.” The bad press leads to worse for Charles. Meanwhile, his wife Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) does not understand his position. The stilted opening scene between them really gets things off to a bad start. We next see Charles with his friend/lawyer Richard (Jordan Lage), who urges him to relent and testify. The second act begins energetically with a scene between Charles and an attorney (the fine Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) deposing him who knows his way around the Old Testament. In the final scene, we learn the cost of Charles’s allegedly principled stand and, to my great annoyance, find out information that casts everything that preceded it in a new light.Tim Mackabee designed the minimalist set — a table and two chairs and two angled walls. Laura Bauer designed the costumes. Perhaps there was some deep significance I missed in the fact that Kath alternated between jeans with holes in the knees and jeans without holes. Atlantic’s artistic director Neil Pepe (Marie & Rosetta, Hold on to Me Darling) directed. The press, the legal system, psychiatry, religion, marriage and friendship all take a beating. There are no winners here, including the audience. Running time: 85 minutes including intermission.