Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Young, Stupid and Political at Camp Siegfried

Johnny Berchtold and Lily McInerny star in Bess Wohl's Camp Siegfried, directed by David Cromer, at Second Stage Theater.
(© Emilio Madrid)

Camp Siegfried starts with an unknown and uncomfortable part of history. From 1936 to 1941 there was a movement among some German Americans to convince the United States to adopt Third Reich answers to the problems of the world, and to ally with Hitler. Camp Siegfried takes place in a summer youth camp directed by the American Bund - or German American National Socialists - before Hitler’s regime started the wars and the country’s aggressive hatred was clear. The movement crashed after America’s entry into World War II.

So, a minefield.

At the start of the play the analogies to present day America seem blatantly obvious. Telegraphed like Steven Spielberg milking our emotions. But the analogy becomes more tortured until it is muddled with the experiences of these two teenagers. Johnny Berchtold and Lily McInerny play the unnamed young people.

These two actors navigate a situation that becomes less overtly political and more personal as the story progresses. It is not just a political history lesson, it is also an emotional journey of young people. These two navigate a summer camp of adolescence as infatuation convinces them they are in love.

The Bund, like the Nazi Youth, promotes the idea of pure germans reproducing. That is the purpose for women. Sex and pregnancy are encouraged by the members of the right ages - she is 16 and he is 17.

Johnny Berchtold and Lily McInerny star in Bess Wohl's Camp Siegfried, directed by David Cromer, at Second Stage Theater.
(© Emilio Madrid)

But camp draws to a close. The couple’s relationship disintegrates as the summer comes to an end. Their “plans” for the future, like ours at that age, are brought to an end. That end can be bittersweet for some, but for these two the end is fierce. The confront the future and finally themselves. They have been changed by the experience and respond differently, as well do. This is the least engaging part of the play and the most distant from the characters we have seen. They act as if removed from the time period and reality of rest of the piece.

Camp Siegfried’s Senior Production Manager is Michael Catalan and the designs add greatly to the experience. They create a space that is both expansive and claustrophobic. It serves the emotions of youth excellently. Written by the wonderful Bess Wohl (writer of Grand Horizons), it walks the delicate line between young desire and family expectations. Director David Cromer brings the show to life with a light touch that lets the story develop naturally.

Camp Siegfried

Playwright: Bess Wohl | Director: David Cromer | Cast: Johnny Berchtold, Lily McInerny

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Friday, April 15, 2022

Cryano Explodes with Passion at BAM

Wow. 

Cyrano de Bergerac is playing at BAM and it is beautifully intense and poetic. As Cryano, James McAvoy burns with a heat that enflames the neutral palette on stage. Cyrano de Bergerac is acted in "spoken word prose". That is my best description of it. Cyrano has a cadence, rhythm, and language all its own. Translated from the French, with also had a unique cadence in 1890s, the dialog reinforces Cryano’s love of language, while also distancing him from other characters in the play. Like Shakespeare, the dive into a new speech pattern takes a bit of adjustment but is then it is captivating. 

As Cyrano, James McAvoy is mesmerizing and impossible to ignore. He strides the stage demanding attention and receiving it. He dominates whether sitting, standing, or fighting. 

James McAvoy, intimidating and commanding as Cryano

Nearly all of us know the outlines of the story, Cyrano de Bergerac is in love with the fair Roxanne, but she is infatuated with another, Christian. Roxanne is blind to Cryano’s affections because they have been friends from youth. Addtionally, Cryano describes that no one could love him, nor even see him fully due to his expansive nose. His nose is a sight to behold as described and joked about. In this play Cryano’s nose, his giant protuberance, his defining feature is described, but not depicted on McAvoy’s face.

Roxanne, Cryano’s cousin comes to him with tales of love. Cryano allows himself to believe the target might be himself. He is silently crushed when Roxanne revels that target is not Cryano but is Christian, a youthful handsome man. Not only is Roxanne infatuated with Christian, but she implores Cryano to take care of him in the military they both are part of. 

Roxanne (played wonderfully by Evelyn Miller) is the light of warmth and charm. It is easy to understand Cryano’s love. Like Cryano she is alsot in love with language and words. She entreats Cryano to have Christine write her letters of love. But Christine is at sea using words to describe anything. And so Cryano writes Christine’s letters to make Roxanne happy.

Roxane (Evelyn Miller) and Cyrano

The famous scene where Cryano speaks for Christine to Roxanne is carried out with precision and emotion. The scene plays out in a series of musical chairs allowing separate conversations to happen on the same stage. Eben Figueiredo is Christian - the handsome but witless suitor of Roxanne. His love perhaps not less full than Cryano’s, but he is useless in documenting it in a way Roxanne can appreciate.

But rich and powerful De Guiche (a slimy Ton Edden) desires Roxanne as well. Seeing Christine’s love for Roxanne as a block to his own salacious intentions, he sends Christine (and Cryano) off to war. Where Cryano promises to Roxanne that he will get Christine to write every day. Letters that he writes, and that further inflame her love.

War means tragedy. And tragedy in this case means that Christine falls in battle. Christine’s early death is amplified by his (actually Cryano’s) letters and dooms Roxanne to live alone with his memory. Tragedy also means that Cryano does not reveal his actions or intents until it is too late.
Cryano and Christine (Eben Figueiredo)

This new version is by Martin Crimp and directed by Jamie Lloyd. I have never seen the original or a recent version, but I was captivated by this Cryano de Bergerac. I’m afraid I have be spoiled and will never see a different version that is this spellbinding.

Cryano de Bergerac | Playwright: Edmond Rostand, with new version by Martin Camp | Director: Jamie Lloyd | Cast:
James McAvoy, Evelyn Miller, Eben Figueiredo, Michele Austin, Veneeka Dadhria, Adam Best
and Nari Blair-Mangat


Friday, April 8, 2022

Power and Impotence at The United Nations

Thirdwing’s new production of The United Nations: The Border and the Coast playing at The Wild Project in the Lower East Side, is funny, thoughtful, and captivating to watch. The show reveals its hand slowly but steadily. The conflicts running through the show aren’t announced with giant signposts. Instead, the conflicts grow organically, as a result of actions not as a cause of those actions.

The immediate incident that propels the story is a military coup in Burkina Faso and the ensuing UN work to help, somehow. The show looks at how international support and the UN machinations effect the outcome. But these discussions are only an introduction to the action; it is not a dry and unemotional work about the UN’s Mission.

To provide help to this small African country, the German representative must convince his Russian counterpart to move support through the Security Council. In the Council, a veto from Russia or the other 4 permanent members will stop any further action. The German and Russian representatives are Rudolph (Matthew Sanders) and Agata (Yelena Shmulenson) respectively. They are fantastic. Mr. Saunders is fluent in German and English and he acts beautifully in either language. Rudolph is a man with the best intentions for the world. And in this case, he sees a problem he can fix. Even if he cannot fix the world, he can at least try to fix this one problem. Ms. Shmulenson is fluent in both Russian and English, and equally effective in both. She portrays both the power of Russia and the lack of agency she has from the men who rule in Moscow. 

The translators offer a different dynamic. Diane (Kelly Lord) translates for the Secretary of the Security Council and Conor (Ryan Blackwell) translates for the Russian representative. They are expected to hear and translate, but never engage or share information. Outside of the UN, Diane and Conor live together in a relationship that defined by much more traditional roles. Conor is more senior at the UN, but more hapless at home. Mr. Blackwell invests Conor with a mix of male stupidity, unexpected depth, and venerability.

The final twosome is made up of Fatima (Arya Kashyap) and Pesh (Arif Silverman), two office drones hoping to move into the real work of politics. Fatima is the more driven and invested of the duo but is held back by a gendered assumption that she is one of those “angry and excitable woman.” 

The dynamics of all three relationships begin under the same general conditions. The men view these relationships as equal partnerships, if they think about it at all. The working women understand the differences, assumptions, and sexual politics behind the scenes.

The UN's attempt at intervention plays out over months.  During the course of the time, emotions rise up and frustrations run through. Rudolph becomes more and more frustrated at being ineffectual. Fatima is disillusioned by the inability of the UN to bring results or even progress to address to world problems. She is angered as Pesh moves up the hierarchy quickly to where he can affect policy but doesn’t. And she is disappointed in herself that this bothers her. 

The United Nations looks at power, expectations, and actual results. It filters the problems and answers at both the international and personal level. The show is not didactic, the woman are not all saints and the men are not all evil. Instead it looks at the humanity in all of the players, and questions the motivations of even the best of us.

The United Nations is a terrific play with the characters laid open on a simple stage. The actors succeed because of both great acting and a wonderful script and direction by Cameron Darwin Bossert. The focus on separate actions is due to the excellent work of Lauren Arneson. It is a show that stays with you long after the night is complete.

Director / Playwright: Cameron Darwin Bossart | Cast: Matthew Sanders, Yelena Shmulenson, Arya Kashyap, Arif Silverman, Kelley Lord and Ryan Blackwell

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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Kimberly Akimbo Suspends Belief Too Much

Some stories do not translate easily into musicals but work nonetheless. Other stories do not.  World premiere musical, Kimberly Akimbo definitely falls into the second category. Although technically a musical about Kimberly, who ages 4 to 5 times more quickly than normal, the show throws everything against the wall to see what sticks.

Kimberly Akimbo gives us judgement free theft and grand larceny by minors. Aiding and abetting grand theft, with the only parental figure Kimberly has, is treated as a big joke. It gives us extortion, murder, and assault, all without judgement or consequences.  In fact, the only thing that does bring results is when someone is mean to Kimberly, then cosmic karma is visited upon the perpetrator. 

Front: Bonnie Mulligan, Victoria Clark, Justin Cooly, Stephen Boyer, Ali Mauzey (Ahron R. Foster)

Let’s start with the basics, Kimberly is a 16 year old child, but wrapped in an old lady's body because she has a disease that only affects 1 in 50 million people. Somehow, even with this extremely rare and complex disease, she lives with her alcoholic father and abusive mother, with nary a health care worker, or responsible adult, in sight. Sarcasm aside, Victoria Clark is fantastic in the role of Kimberly. She brings a freshness and teenage angst to Kimberly, as well as the role of young caretaker for the family that cannot function without her. 

Her tentative crush / love interest is Seth, played perfectly by Justin Cooley. A young actor in his Off-Broadway debut, he navigates the tricky role in a touching and believable way, out of step with the rest of the cast, bar Kimberly herself. However, the character is given an extremely annoying habit of making anagrams – and singing about them.

Bonnie Mulligan is hilarious in the role of Debra. Debra is young Kimberly’s aunt. Dedicated to a life of low-level crime, Debra is the closest Kimberly has to an adult role model. And that is saying something as Debra enlists all 6 high school students into a scheme that involves forgery, theft, and mail fraud. Which, of course, works and no one gets caught.

Kimberly’s parents, played by Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey, are an alcoholic mess and inattentive and mentally abusive mother. The story occurs around Kimberly’s 16th birthday, which is the average age of death for someone with her condition. No disrespect, but it is a Hallmark movie you always wanted, if you wanted the killer babysitter to get away with it and marry the unsuspecting husband – all the while singing about it.

Most of the singing is excellent, although the songs were not terribly memorable. The ice skating on stage was a little disconcerting, but not out of character for the show.

Kimberly Akimbo starts a bit odd, and then gets odder as time goes on. The audience I saw it with started with loving the songs and showed it with extended applause. But they grew less and less enamored as the story became unmoored from reality. There are the bones and music of a great story in there somewhere. It is too bad it is all mixed up.

Victoria Clark and Justin Cooly on the lam (Ahron R. Foster)

I neither loved nor hated Kimberly Akimbo, but I admired its convictions to stay true to this odd fantasy. I didn’t admire it enough to recommend it to everyone. I think to really enjoy it, you would have to treat it as a very black comedy, which I do not think it is what the producers intended.


Kimberly Akimbo


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Trouble in Mind is Relevant and Fantastic

Trouble in Mind is an eerily precedent show. Written and premiering off-Broadway in 1955, it is an illuminating show about the depictions of black actors on stage and screen. Producers, who wanted to take the show to Broadway in 1957, ironically asked the author to tone down the Black references in the play. Which is specifically what the play is about. Playwright Alice Childress would not comply, and so we come to the Broadway Premiere of Trouble in Mind some 66 years late. It was worth the wait.

Brandon Michael Hall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Michael Zegan, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper (Joan Marcus)

Trouble in Mind covers a few days of a play rehearsal, with the new actors running through their lines and blocking.  LaChanze plays Wiletta Mayer, the first to arrive to a bare stage set. She has a bit of banter with building manager Henry (Simon Jones). It is a small but critical moment that establishes that Wiletta and Henry both love the stage. This builds a bond with Henry (and the audience), who feels the same. Soon they are joined by a young Black man, a first time actor and recent college graduate, John Nevins (Brandon Michael Hall). 

Since it is John’s first real stage job after college, Wiletta explains the power dynamics in the theater world. Blacks have learned a method to keep the peace and their jobs; laugh at jokes no matter if they are funny, do not argue over a scene, and defer when asked, are among a few of them. John listens but takes very little to heart as he is, and expects to be, treated as an equal. Wiletta cannot help but cynically note the types of roles Blacks get: servants, mammies, outlaws and slaves.

During their talk Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes) comes in. Millie is Wiletta’s closest frenemy. The two ladies talk, joke and exchange friendly insults as they wait for the rest of the cast. Next up is Judy (Danielle Campbell) the new white ingénue. Judy is fresh, idealistic and a recent transplant from Connecticut. Then Sheldon (Chuck Cooper) arrives, and now the cast is mostly in attendance. Unaware of the unspoken rules, Judy socializes with the rest of the cast, all Black, on stage.

Finally, the director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) arrives with a pep talk and a smile. Al has worked with most of the cast before and greets them warmly. Mr. Zegen is great in this role, giving a razor’s edge performance between friendly and dismissive. His character’s friendship with Wiletta and the cast makes the Al a sympathetic character.  Still, the Black cast cannot help but giggle as John notices all the mannerisms in Al which Wiletta had warned him about. A run through starts and the intelligent Black cast members slip into on stereotypical roles, their English easily switching to a “Stepin Fetchit” dialect.

All goes well until a scene comes up that Wiletta objects to. She and Al superficially discuss it, but Al quickly pulls rank, pledging to raise the issue to the playwright. When Wiletta brings it up again the next day, Al notes that the writer and director want it the way it is. Wiletta explains that a real mother, black or white, would never act in this way.

LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen (Joan Marcus)

Wiletta’s objection grows into an argument as Al demands she play the scene as written. Their friendship cannot overcome the disagreement. In fact, this disagreement goes right to the heart of their relationship.

Trouble in Mind speaks to many of us. If you grew up watching old movies or TV, author Alice Childress’ play leads you to question your own memories and stereotypes. The play is funny and angry, justifiably so. What is a heart breaking is how little, in the 66 years since this was written, has changed.

The cast is glorious. LaChanze blows through you as Wiletta, the veteran actor who has swallowed her feelings 1 time too many. Michael Zegen takes his natural charm and adds just enough condescension. He sees Wiletta’s pushback as unjust to him, since he has done a lot to help the cast. Jessica Frances Duke plays her character so over the top you have to love her. She is balanced by Tony Winner Chuck Cooper’s stoicism.  Veteran and excellent director, Charles Randolph-Wright, keeps this play from ever feeling dated or ponderous. Trouble in Mind has waited a long time for its Broadway Premiere, but it is worth it.

Trouble in Mind

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright | Playwright: Alice Childress | Cast: LaChanze. Michael Zegan, Chuck Cooper, Danielle Campbell, Jessica Frances Dukes, Brandon Michael Hall, Simon Jones, Alex Mickiewicz, Don Stephenson

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Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Easy Charms of Small Town America are reflected in Mornings at Seven.

(Ally Mills has replaced Judith Ivy due to an accident. This review has been changed to include her performance.) 

Patty McCormack and Lindsay Crouse as Ester and Cora

Mornings at Seven has an easy charm that harkens back to a simpler time. You can tell the play is a classic from my use of the word harken, at least I didn’t say old timey. The play tells the tale of 4 sisters, all in their mid 60s or older, who all live very close to each other in the 1920s. And they have for many years. These sisters are.

The sisters, 3 married and 1 not, talk every day and are involved in each others’ lives.  Over the course of 50 years of adulthood, small irritations have grown into large annoyances. albeit hidden.

One day comes that upsets the order of their lives. As a blurb would say, old wounds are opened, lies exposed and the sisters’ dynamics will never be the same. The headline would be correct, but the proceedings are a bit more leisurely than that implies.

A wonderful cast of older actors have been assembled for Mornings at Seven and they perform flawlessly. Cora and Thor (Lindsay Crouse and Dan Lauria) live in one home on stage. Cora’s younger sister, and the only unmarried one, Arry (a great Ally Mills) has lived with them since they were married decades ago. 

Across the yard, Ida and Carl (Alam Cuervo and John Rubinstein) live with their son Homer (Jonathan Spivey). The day’s adventures are kicked off when Homer brings home his fiancé for the first time after 5 years of engagement. His fiancé Myrtle (Keri Safran) is confused by the family tensions but is understandably ready to get married.


Alma Cuervo, Jonathan Spivy and Keri Safran as Ida, Homer and Myrtle

The last sister and her husband are Ester and David (Patty McCormack and Tony Roberts). They are the richer and more educated part of the family and live about a half mile away. David keeps Ester on a short leash as he hates the rest of the family.

With such a rich and experienced cast, the pace and tone of the show is magnetic. The richly designed set and the famous faces are things you expect on Broadway, not at a small theater just off the scene. It turns out the Theatre at Saint Clement’s gives Mornings at Seven a cozy accessibility to the show. 

Hosting Homer and Myrtle puts his father Carl in a bit of a state. Carl has “spells”, today we would call them mild anxiety attacks. Carl has a problem with both meeting new people and self-doubts about his life choices. Carl is much better with his hands than with his personal interactions. One of the things Carl has done is built a house for his son and his wife, to be given to Homer then he gets married.  

The house has sat empty for 5 years, and when it looks like Homer and Myrtle have broken up, Carl is ready to rent it out. And Cora has designs on it. She wants the house to finally move away from Arry and be with just her husband. 

Mornings at Seven is not full of big laughs or huge drama, but instead is a warm, humorous and familiar hug. It is a story that these actors bring to life with the ease of experience. Patty McCormack and Ally Mills stand out in a cast of stellar performances. 

Director Dan Wackerman has delivered a beautiful revival of this classic. T is a fantastic show if your tastes run to convivial entertainment. A special call out has to go to Harry Feiner to scenic design.

Mornings at Seven

Director: Dan Wackerman | Playwright: Paul Osborn | Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Alma Cuervo, Dan Lauria, Patty McCormack, Ally Mills, Tony Roberts, John Rubinstein, Keri Safran, Jonathan Spivey

Website


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Nollywood Dreams Upends Expectations

Nollywood Dreams, at the MCC Theater, by Jocelyn Bioh, is an entirely different (highly entertaining) look at the “Hollywood” dream of millions. Set in “Nollywood”, the third of the major entertainment centers (after Hollywood and Bollywood), this based in Nigeria. But you don’t need to know any of this going in. The background is set quickly and simply, familiar to everyone who has consumed Hollywood stories. And the actors in this show are amazing. They bring an authentic and unique portrayal of the characters.

Nollywood Dreams is the story of a young woman, Ayamma (Sandra Okuyboyejo), who is planning take part in an open casting call for a new movie, “The Comfort Zone”. Directed by famed Nigerian Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III), the movie promises to be someone’s big break.

(L-R)Charlie Hudson III, Nan Mensahy, Ade Otukoya, Sandra Okuyboyejo, Abena

The truth is, Gbenga’s old flame, Dede (Nana Mensah) is going to play the part and the open call is just a publicity stunt. Dede is a force of nature, like lightning, impressive and a bit scary.  Ayamma’s sister Fayola (Emana Rachelle) is a voice of reason, or just too busy to be bothered. That is, until Ayamma has her heart broken, and then Fayola can be a tiger to protect her sister – albeit a slow tiger.

The face of Nollywood and the star of the movie is handsome star Wale Owusu. Wale is played Ade Otukoya, pulling off charismatic, famous, and friendly all at once. Wale charms everyone he meets, particularly Adenikeh (Abena) an Oprah like daytime talk show favorite that everyone watches.

Adeniken is an over-excited and exciting TV host. She fills us all in on the gossip around the move “The Comfort Zone”. Her show documents the twists and turns of making a movie. Abena is hilarious in the role.

The names, the accents, the settings, all of these are strange only for a moment. As the story progresses you quickly forget all the differences, just as an audience quickly falls into the rhythms of Shakespeare. These are stereotypes from nearly every Hollywood movie. Here they are played over the top in a hilarious but honest way. And, just as in a Hollywood story, the entertainment is not in the ending but the joyousness in getting there.

Emana Rachelle, Sandra Okuyboyejo

The story unfolds in Ayamma and Fayola’s home / office, in the Nollywood Dream’s office and on the set of Adenikeh’s show. Much of Nollywod Dreams is over the top in a planned and authentic way. The show is a traditional showbiz story, interpreted with a decidedly Nigerian take on fame. The cast, a mixture of Nigerian and Brooklyn actors, breath life to the dreams of these people.

I loved Nollywood Dreams. It surprised and engaged me. The story, by Jocelyn Bioh, follows familiar path in a unique way. The direction, Saheem Ali, is tight, even when chaos ensues. I also have to call out the production design by Alex Basco Koch, it kept the show grounded.

Nollywood Dreams

Director: Saheem Ali | Playwright: Jocelyn Bioh | Cast: Abena, Charlie Hudson III, Dandra Okuboyejo, Nana Mensah, Enama Rachelle, Ade Otukoya

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