Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fulfillment Center

C-

I would not have been so disappointed with Abe Koogler’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II if had not started promisingly. For the first 30 minutes or so, I thought it was heading confidently to an interesting destination. Unfortunately, as it progressed, the playwright seemed to lose control of his material and the play ended up at a dead end. In the well-written first scene, Alex (Bobby Moreno; Grand Concourse), the 30ish manager of an Amazon-like warehouse in New Mexico, is testing the speed of a 60ish prospective employee, Suzan (Deirdre O’Connell; By the Water, The Vandal). The interaction between the nice guy stuck in an unforgiving job and the down-on-her-luck ex-singer who desperately needs work is both funny and revealing. In the next scene we see Alex with his longtime girlfriend, the sassy Madeleine (Eboni Booth), who has just moved, reluctantly, from New York to be with Alex until an expected move to greener pastures in Seattle in six months. How they came to be an interracial couple and why they have stayed together almost ten years without even getting engaged are questions that remain unanswered. In the third scene we see Madeleine at the campground where she is staying as she tries to strike up a conversation with John (Frederick Weller; Mother and Sons; Glengarry Glen Ross), a taciturn 40ish carpenter whose most recent girlfriend has kicked him out. In the remaining scenes, each character meets with one of two others. The men never meet and the women never meet. The writing weakens, the play meanders and it finally grinds to a halt. Andrew Lieberman’s set, such as it is, is a long sand-colored platform running the length of the theater plus a couple of folding metal chairs. The audience sits on both long sides of the platform. Asta Bennie Hostetter’s  costumes are apt. Daniel Aukin is a director whose work has included some fine evenings of theater (4000 Miles, Bad Jews, The Fortress of Solitude) as well as some terrible ones (Fool for Love, Rancho Viejo, Placebo, What Rhymes with America?). His work here includes one gesture that I hate: forcing the actors not in the present scene to sit impassively at the edge of the stage in plain sight. It’s always a pleasure to see Deirdre O’Connell. Eboni Booth is a fresh new face. Bobby Moreno makes his “nice guy” role believable. Frederick Weller’s mannerisms annoyed me less than usual. With more work, the play might have amounted to something better. As is, it’s a missed opportunity. I very much doubt that the playwright knew where he was headed when he began. Running time: one hour 25 minutes; no intermission.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Traveling Lady

C-

This revival of Horton Foote’s 1954 play now in previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre does not make a strong case for the play. As usual for Foote, the setting is the mythical Harrison, Texas in the 1950’s. Georgette Thomas (Jean Lichty), an attractive young woman, arrives in town with her five-year old daughter Margaret Rose (Korinne Tetlow), looking for a cheap house to rent. She is directed to Judge Robedaux (George Morfogen) who plies her for personal information. It turns out that her husband Henry (PJ Sosko) has been in prison for six years and has never met his daughter. She expects him to arrive in Harrison, where he grew up, within the week. She is startled to find out that Henry has already been in town for a month and is living with and working for Mrs. Tillman (Jill Tanner), a do-gooder who fancies herself able to cure alcoholics. While the neighbors try to locate her husband, Georgette and her daughter rest at the home of Clara Breedlove (Angelina Fiordellisi) and her brother Slim Murray (Larry Bull), a young widower. We learn that Siim’s allegedly beloved wife actually abandoned him and wouldn’t even let him visit her as she lay dying. We also meet Clara’s next-door neighbors, the crusty old Mrs. Mavis (Lynne Cohen) who wanders off every chance she gets and her hapless daughter Sitter (Karen Ziemba) [Really, where do Southerners come up with these awful names for their daughters!]. Will Henry stay sober? Will Margaret Rose get to meet her father? Will Slim find true love? Will Mrs. Tillman keep her faith in human nature? Will Georgette catch a break? I was not at the edge of my seat waiting to find out. While the ensemble is mostly good, Austin Pendleton’s  direction is flat. The set by Harry Feiner and costumes by Theresa Squire are adequate. The need for most of the actors to enter via the theater’s center aisle and up a few stairs grows tiresome quickly. While it’s always a pleasure to see Karen Ziemba, she is wasted in a nondescript supporting role. In the short-lived 1954 Broadway production, the title role was played by Kim Stanley. Perhaps someone with her charisma is needed to breathe life into this play. Unless you are a fanatic Foote fan, you can skip this one. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission

Monday, June 12, 2017

My Eyes Went Dark

C-

This drama now at 59e59 Theaters as part of their Brits Off Broadway season is based on an actual event. In the summer of 2002, the wife, son and daughter of Vitaly Kaloyev, an architect from the North Ossetia region of Russia, died in a collision between two airplanes near the German-Swiss border. [Spoilers ahead] Kaloyev was unhinged with grief, became obsessed with the flight controller on duty at the time of the crash and decided to take justice into his own hands. When he returned to Russia, he was treated as a hero. There are only two actors in playwright/director Matthew Wilkinson’s version of the story. Declan Conlon plays the architect, now called Nikolai Koslov. Thusitha Jayasundera plays Koslov’s wife as well as several other roles. This should have been a powerful story, but it failed to engage me for one important reason. The character of Koslov, at least as interpreted by Conlon, is so unremittingly unlikable that it was difficult to be invested in his fate. Furthermore, the story is told out of sequence and is sometimes confusing. Resorting to colored lights and loud noises does not improve the material. Late in the play, it is suggested that Koslov’s rage against the flight controller was caused by displaced guilt. By that point, I no longer cared. Running time: one hour 15 minutes; no intermission.

Invincible

A-

As a fan of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, I was disappointed that the current Brits Off Broadway season at 59e59 Theaters does not include one of his plays. Not to worry. Instead, we have this impressive play by Torben Betts, an Ayckbourn acolyte who learned his lessons well. In this comedy of manners with strong sociopolitical overtones, we meet two memorable couples. Oliver (Alastair Whatley) and Emily (Emily Bowker) have recently moved to northern England from London. They rationalize that their move is to provide a better life for their children, but the truth is that they can no longer afford London since Oliver has lost his civil service writing job in the latest government belt-tightening. Abstract painter Emily, whose idea of a coffee table book is Das Kapital, claims she wants to live among the “real people.” They rent, because she does not believe in private ownership of property and they are not married, because she thinks it is a decadent institution. She is, to put it mildly, high-strung and overprotective, for reasons we will find out later, of their sleeping toddler, checking the monitor constantly. The ineffectual Oliver generally yields to her wishes. They decide to invite their next-door neighbors, Alan (a perfectly cast Graeme Brookes) and Dawn (the marvelous Elizabeth Boag, seen in New York in Ayckbourn’s Hero’s Welcome and Arrivals and Departures) over for tea. Postman Alan is an ordinary bloke whose only sin is that he is boring. Voluptuous Dawn married too soon and now regrets it. The awkward encounter between the privileged hosts and their down-to-earth guests is a monumental clash of class and culture. One example: when Alan goes on about watching football on TV, Emily counters that devotion to sports teams and watching TV makes people stupid. The hilarious first act leads to darker moments in the second act. Dawn, worried over the safety of her son on duty in the Iraq war, observes that the sons of the upper classes never have to serve. Alan muses on the difficulty of scraping together a living. We gain insight on why Emily is so dour. Oliver finally asserts himself. There are crises. The characters are extremely vividly drawn and their problems resonate for us. The actors are all strong, especially Graeme Brookes, whose take on Alan is worth the price of admission. The set and, particularly, the costumes by Victoria Spearing, assisted by Minglu Wang, are assets to the production. Director Stephen Darcy is not afraid to give each scene time to breathe. It’s a play that provides both lots of laughs and lots to think about. Running time: two hours 20 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Animal

C-

Rejoice, Rebecca Hall fans. That marvelous mistress of misery is back in town. You can really see her up close at Atlantic Theater’s Stage 2 which has been reconfigured to divide the audience in two on facing sides. In this psychological drama with a dash of feminism by British playwright Claire Lizzimore, she plays Rachel, a young married woman who is suffering from deep depression. Her long-suffering husband Tom (played by Morgan Spector, her real-life husband who met her during the run of Machinal) can’t seem to help her. Her therapist Stephen (a droll Greg Keller; Belleville) apparently can’t either. We also see Rachel mistreating an old woman (Kristin Griffith); being kissed by Dan (David Pegram, War Horse), a shirtless stud who may or may not have broken into her house; and conversing with a mysterious little girl (Fina Strazza). After 85 minutes of exhausting, escalating emotions, the play is suddenly wrapped up and tied in a bow by an unexpected and unsatisfying explanation. I felt manipulated. Rachel Hauck’s set is minimalist to the point of near invisibility.. Sarah J. Holden’s costumes are congruent with the characters. Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s direction had a few things that annoyed me, e.g. having Rachel and Tom occasionally speak to each other through microphones from opposite sides of the stage. If you are an avid Rebecca Hall fan as am I, you will be rewarded. (Many will find the sight of David Pegram's torso rewarding too.) If Hall is not your cup of tea, skip it. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.


NOTE: If you have mobility issues, check with the theater before attending. The elevator has been broken for several days. There is alternative access via a freight elevator, but it involves a long detour through the bowels of the Google Building and one long flight of stairs. 


Bella: An American Tall Tale

C+


What are the odds that two shows about 19th-century black women with large derrieres would arrive on Theatre Row within a month of each other? And yet the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus at Signature Theatre has just been followed by the New York premiere of Kirsten Childs’s musical at Playwrights Horizons. I skipped Venus, because the prospect of watching an innocent woman being exploited and forced to appear in a freak show sounded too depressing. Although Childs’s work also includes a segment when the title character becomes a circus attraction, the prevailing spirit is far from depressing. Bella (Ashley D. Kelley) is a naive girl from Tupelo, Mississippi with a rich fantasy life who is forced to leave town after injuring a rich white man who was trying to rape her. She heads by train toward New Mexico, where her boyfriend Aloysius (Britton Smith) is a Buffalo Soldier. On the train she is looked after by a protective porter (Brandon Gill). After a fanciful adventure I will not describe, she ends up as a circus attraction who becomes a big star in Europe but, a la Josephine Baker, was scorned when she returned to America. There are many other characters: Ida Lou (Marinda Anderson, a black widow heading to Kansas where she thinks life will be safer; Miss Cabbagestalk (Kenita R. Miller), an old maid on her way to likely servitude as the mail-order bride of a widower with six children; a kindly couple, an inept gang of robbers, Bella’s mother (Miller again) and Aunt Dinah (Anderson again) and the grandmother (Natasha Yvette Williams) who is succumbing to dementia. Finally, there is the Spirit of the Booty (Williams again), whom you must see to believe. The cast of twelve are all talented, with Kelley and Miller the standouts. The production is lavish: Clint Ramos’s set has a Western-themed proscenium with a red velvet curtain. a painted scrim, a stage within a stage that moves back and forth and a revolving platform. [Was there a sale on stage turntables this spring? This is the fifth play I have seen recently with a revolving stage.] Dede M. Ayite’s costumes are inspired. Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography adds a lot to the production. Robert O'Hara (Bootycandy) directed. Childs’s music mixes many styles and occasionally seems derivative: there is a song near the end that sounds very similar to the disco anthem “I Will Survive.” A hilarious number in the second act called “White People Tonight” got a big reaction. It all goes down easy, but seems muddled and overstuffed. It has already shed 20 minutes in previews but could profitably lose a few more, preferably in the first act. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Cost of Living

B+

After a successful run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, Martyna Majok’s (Ironbound) powerful four-character drama has arrived at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I at City Center. The lead character, Eddie (Victor Williams, Luck of the Irish), begins the play with a well-written and well-performed 10-minute monologue that reveals that he is a long-distance truck driver who recently lost his wife. Next we meet Jess (Jolly Abraham, Coram Boy), an attractive woman in her twenties who is applying for a job as helper to John (Gregg Mogzala), a Harvard-educated grad student with cerebral palsy who is confined to a wheelchair. Jess works as a barmaid and needs the extra income. In a flashback, we meet Eddie’s wife Ani (Katy Sullivan) who lost her legs in an accident and is a bundle of rage. Two of the play’s most moving scenes take place in bathrooms where we see Jess shaving and showering John and Eddie giving a bath (and possibly more) to Ani. The play's strengths include  not portraying the disabled characters simplistically and in giving equal time to the needs of their caregivers. Each character is vividly sketched to the point that I wished I knew more about them. Until the final scene, each character interacts with only one other character. In that scene a new heartbreaking connection is made. I wish the author had omitted a brief manipulative reversal at the very end. The entire production is first rate: the acting, the revolving set by Wilson Chin (Aubergine, My Mañana Comes), the character-appropriate costumes by Jessica Pabst (The Ruins of Civilization) and the smooth direction by Jo Bonney (By the Way, Meet Vera Stark). I read that the author expanded this work from a two-character play and the opening monologue. The combination was not totally successful; some of the stitches show. Nevertheless, seeing it is a worthwhile, if painful, experience. Running time: one hour 45 minutes, no intermission.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Rotterdam

B

Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters is presenting Jon Brittain's Olivier-winning play about the effects of a transgender transition both on the person involved as well as on their relationships with others. Alice (Alice McCarthy) and Fiona (Anna Martine Freeman) are two English lesbians who have been living and working in Rotterdam for seven years. The dour, buttoned-up Alice is trying to summon the courage to come out to her parents via email, when Fiona announces that she henceforth wants to be known as Adrian. Josh (Ed Eales-White), Fiona/Adrian’s good-natured brother, who was Alice’s boyfriend before she met Fiona, is supportive of his sibling’s decision. Alice, however, has trouble figuring out what it all means, especially about her own gender identity. Lelani (Ellie Morris) is a free-spirited young Dutch colleague of Alice’s who takes a shine to her. As Fiona transitions to Adrian, tensions increase. Freeman is extremely moving in a second-act scene when Adrian is overwhelmed by events. My main problem with the play is that Alice is such an uptight sourpuss that it is hard to understand why anyone would want her. Also, there are plot developments near the end that seemed forced. At 2 1/2 hours, the play seemed a bit bloated. The clever, attractive set by Ellan Parry makes maximum use of a small stage; the costumes, especially for Lelani, are vivid. Donnacadh O’Brian directed. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Government Inspector

B+

Red Bull Theater is presenting Jeffrey Hatcher’s clever adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comic masterpiece about corruption in a provincial Russian town. One of the strengths of the play is that it is simultaneously deeply Russian and universal. Hatcher has wisely decided not to update it or deemphasize its Russianness. He lets the audience find their own similarities to our times. This production’s biggest plus is the casting of Michael Urie (Buyer and Cellar, TV’s Ugly Betty) as Hlestakov, the wastrel who is mistaken for the visiting inspector. He demonstrates a previously unseen talent for physical comedy that is prodigious. As the mayor, Michael McGrath channels his inner Nathan Lane to our delight. Mary Testa is a hoot as the mayor’s wife. Arnie Burton chews the scenery as the postmaster and is droll as Hlestakhov’s servant Osip. Most of the other ten actors (Stephen DeRosa, Ryan Garbayo, Kelly Hutchinson, David Manis, Ben Mehl, Talent Monohon, Luis Moreno, James Rana, Tom Alan Robbins, Mary Lou Rosato) create vivid characters and work well as an ensemble. At two hours, the comedy wears a little thin. Alexis Distler’s set design is problematic. While the sets for each of the play’s three locations are effective, presenting them as a bilevel unit seems to be an inelegant and unnecessary solution. I advise against sitting in the first two rows, because you might get a stiff neck from looking up at the set’s upper level, where the last 3/4 of the action takes place. Tilly Grimes’s period costumes are wonderful. Red Bull’s artistic director Jesse Berger keeps things moving fluidly. If you enjoy farce and slapstick, well-performed, you will have an enjoyable time. Running time: two hours including intermission.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The End of Longing

D+

The final play in MCC’s season at the Lucille Lortel Theatre marks the debut of Matthew Perry (TV’s Friends) both as playwright and as New York stage actor. I wish I could say that his dual debut were more auspicious. MCC’s promotional material describes this “bittersweet comedy” as follows: “An alcoholic, an escort, a self-diagnosed neurotic and a well-intentioned dimwit walk into a bar... “ That would be the forlorn Perry, the luscious Jennifer Morrison (ABC's Once Upon a Time), the hilarious Sue Jean Kim (Aubergine) and the laid-back Quincy Dunn-Baker (The Wayside Motor Inn). In a rapid succession of short scenes, we learn what happens when they pair off into two unlikely couples. I could not get past the implausibility of a gorgeous, smart woman settling for a downbeat older lush. The pairing of an tightly-wound texting addict with an easygoing construction worker was only slightly more plausible. The play’s prevailing levity turns darker near the end, but then reverts to a predictable happy ending. Kim and Dunn-Baker do wonders to flesh out their basically one-note characters. Morrison does reasonably well with the thankless task of making her character seem believable. Perry is a notch below the others. While a failure on many levels, the play does have some good one-liners. Derek McLane’s revolving set cleverly lines the walls and even the ceiling with squares of wine and liquor bottles. Sarah Laux’s costumes are apt. Lindsay Posner's direction is brisk, perhaps to prevent us from having too much time to think about the play’s flaws. Matthew Perry is apparently still a big draw; after the play the street was crowded with people outside the stage door. Running time: one hour 45 minutes; no intermission.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Can You Forgive Her?

C-

Gina Gionfriddo has borrowed the title of an 1864 Trollope novel for her new play at the Vineyard Theatre. We are left to guess to whom “Her” refers. Is it Tanya (Ella Dershowitz, Alan’s daughter), the virtuous young single mother who is doggedly trying to win a place in the middle class after a bad marriage and who wants to avoid getting stuck with another PWP (partner without prospects)? Is it the flamboyant Miranda (Amber Tamblyn, Russ’s daughter) who is trying to work off the six-figure debt she ran up largely due to the cost of her liberal education by getting together twice a week with David (the wonderful Frank Wood), a sugar daddy she met online? Could it be Miranda’s unseen mother who enabled her irresponsible lifestyle? Is it the late mother of 40-year-old twice-divorced Graham (a solid Darren Pettie), who has left him a run-down beach cottage and boxes of her unpublished manuscripts that he feels both compelled to and reluctant to read? My choice for the identity of “Her” is the playwright herself and my answer is a qualified “yes.” After greatly enjoying her two Pulitzer-nominated plays “Becky Shaw” and “Rapture, Blister, Burn,”  I had high expectations. Unfortunately they were not met. There won’t be any Pulitzer nominations for this play. Nevertheless, despite the dubious premise that brings these four characters together, despite the awkward structure with a long opening scene between Graham and Tanya followed by an even longer scene between Graham and Miranda, the play has its redeeming features, including some wonderful dialogue. The scene following David’s arrival works particularly well. Unfortunately it is followed by a weak ending. Eshan Bay has a small role as Sateesh, the Indian man who is allegedly Miranda's date for the weekend. I would have guessed that the play was a piece that needed further work, but learned that it was produced in Boston a year ago. Maybe its problems are resistant to further improvement. In any case, I forgive the playwright for not being at the top of her form. Even her second-drawer material can be entertaining. Allen Moyer’s set presents an appropriately drab living room. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are excellent. I’m not sure what director Peter DuBois might could have done to improve the play’s coherence. Running time: one hour 35 minutes; no intermission. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Iphigenia in Splott

B

Every Spring, 59E59 Theaters bring us a series of imports from the UK under the rubric Brits off Broadway. This one-person play by Gary Owen originated in Cardiff and then had an acclaimed run in London. The main reason to see it is the electric performance by Sophie Melville as Effie, an angry young woman from Splott, a working-class neighborhood of Cardiff. Effie, whose means of support is unclear, alternates between binges and hangovers and describes herself as the kind of person you cross the street to avoid. I wish we learned more about what led to her self-defeating lifestyle. Effie stops spewing invective long enough to tell us the story of a recent affair with a wounded veteran that made her let down her guard long enough to hope for a better life. Of course it turned out badly. Effie pays a terrible price but acts nobly when she has an opportunity to seek redress. I was disappointed that the play morphed from a fascinating character study to a screed against social welfare cuts, even though, as a cautionary tale, it is certainly timely on this side of the pond as well. My other reservation is the difficulty I had making out some of the words because of the thick Welsh accent and rapid speech. Designer Hayley Grindle and lighting designer Rachel Mortimer have come up with a striking set that features a series of fluorescent lights that resemble a venetian blind aptly falling into disarray. Rachel O’Riordan’s direction is straightforward. The title’s comparison of Effie to Iphigenia is a bit of a stretch. Running time: 80 minutes; no intermission.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Derren Brown: Secret

A-


When I first heard that Atlantic Theater Company was filling a slot in their season with a performance by an Olivier-winning British mentalist rather than with a play, I was annoyed. After seeing Derren Brown in action, I forgive them. The show is not only very entertaining, but a lot more rewarding to sit through than their last play (The Penitent). It’s better crafted too, with a knockout finale that reveals in a delightful way how tightly structured the entire performance has been. It’s hard to say much about it, because the audience has been sworn to secrecy. What I can say is that Brown is a consummate performer who quickly has the audience in the palm of his hand. He establishes trust by sharing a secret from his own life. The often amazing mental feats he performs on audience members range from the simple to the intricate, with one packing quite an emotional wallop. Along the way, Brown also demonstrates a real talent for portraiture. The theme that we limit what we experience because of selective perception is vividly demonstrated. Of course, I wondered how these tricks worked, but explanations are not on the agenda. The seemingly random way he selected audience members made it unlikely that they were “plants.”  If you like to be amazed and delighted, you will have a good time. Just don’t expect a traditional play. My one reservation is that, at 2 3/4 hours including intermission, it is a bit too much of a good thing. Brown’s co-writers Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor also directed.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation

B-

It isn’t often these days that you see a straight play with 18 actors on Broadway, so I salute the producers for bringing us this expensive revival. John Guare’s popular 1990 send-up of limousine liberals is based on a true story about a young man (the excellent Corey Hawkins) who passes himself off as Paul Poitier, son of actor Sidney, to worm his way into the homes of several wealthy East Side couples who should know better.The story is told by one such couple, art dealer Flan Kittredge (a surprisingly underwhelming John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife Ouisa (Allison Janney, competent but no match for my memories of Stockard Channing),. “Paul” is well dressed, charming and articulate, knows details about their children at Harvard, and  dangles the promise of casting them in the film Cats that his father is coming to New York to direct. They let him stay overnight. When Ouisa goes to wake him the next morning, he is in bed with a hustler (James Cusati-Moyer). During the long scene in which his hosts chase him around the apartment, the naked hustler has ample time to demonstrate that he has all the requisites for a successful career. Later the Kittredges learn that their friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) had their own encounter with “Paul” the previous night. We eventually meet their horrid children (Colby Minifie, Keenan Jolliff and Ned Riseley) who are portrayed as cartoon characters. Chris Perfetti fares better as Trent, the young man who has inadvertently set the events in motion. My biggest complaint about the play is the episode in which “Paul” cons two young would-be actors from Utah (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte) with tragic results. It is an abrupt shift from the satire of the rest of the play. I found director Trip Cullman’s approach to the play generally too broad. Mark Wendland’s set is very red and very tall. Clint Ramos’s costumes are fine. The play aspires to deeper meanings that it never reaches. Running time: one hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Little Foxes

A-

While the critics never placed Lillian Hellman in the first rank of American playwrights, her work, at least as exemplified by this 1939 family drama, has much to recommend it and is certainly worthy of an occasional revival. She surely knew how to write a tight plot and juicy roles that allow actors to show their mettle. Manhattan Theatre Club has assembled a first-rate cast for this production, led by Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon who alternate the roles of Regina and Birdie. This tale of an avaricious family greedy to progress from rich to filthy rich bears an extra frisson of timeliness today. We meet the Hubbard family in Alabama in 1900. Brothers Ben (Michael McKean) and Oscar (Darren Goldstein) are wooing a Chicago industrialist Mr. Marshall (David Alford) to build a cotton mill on their property. To keep the deal in the family, they need their sister Regina Giddens (Linney at my performance) to raise a third of the investment. Trouble is her husband Horace (Richard Thomas), who controls the pursestrings, is away in Baltimore convalescing from a heart condition and shows no inclination to return or even to respond to their increasingly frantic letters. Regina skillfully uses her leverage to win a better deal from her brothers and persuades her virtuous 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Francesca Carpanini) to go to Baltimore to fetch Horace. Leo Hubbard (Michael Benz), the unsavory son of Oscar and Birdie, works in Horace’s bank and comes up with a shady plan that allows the brothers to proceed without Regina. When Horace returns, he discovers their plot and, unfortunately for him, reveals it to his wife. There is more scheming, a shocking scene between Horace and Regina and, surprisingly for its time, an ending in which evil is not punished, at least not explicitly. The role of Regina, catnip for such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead and Bette Davis, suits Linney well; she captures both the steeliness and the traces of charm. However, she is almost overshadowed by Cynthia Nixon’s superb performance as her sister-in-law Birdie, a delicate wounded bird driven to drink by her husband’s abuse; her monologue in the final act is absolutely wrenching. Linney and Nixon are so persuasive in these roles that is hard to imagine them in reverse. Even the servants are well-cast — Charles Turner as the butler Cal and Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie, the housekeeper whose eye rolls and facial expressions speak louder than words. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are marvelous. Scott Pask’s living room set is fine except that the staircase, focus of a crucial scene, looks strangely cramped. Daniel Sullivan directs with a sure hand. The play is far from subtle, but, with such a fine production,  it is very entertaining. Running time: two hours 25 minutes including two intermissions.

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 Cortiñas, 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.