Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sojourners & Her Portmanteau


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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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.