Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Aren't Roommates the Worst? - The Commons


There is a certain humor in The Commons that will appeal to many people. It is that type of mean spirited, uncomfortable humor that borders on bullying, but is okay since it is on stage because we know the characters aren’t real. Usually played out in family serio-comedies where the various family members can’t escape, like Thanksgiving or a will reading. In case of The Commons, it is four roommates who agree to spend a year together in the form of a New York lease.

The four roommates are older lease holder Robyn (Ben Newman), combustible exotic Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh), mean girl Dee (Julia Greer) and loser Cliff (Ben Katz) - who is pathetic because he tries to be a nice guy. The relationship dynamics are developed and then hardened with the repetition of the dreaded roommate meeting. The meetings usually come down to this; something has bothered Dee and she will explain it. Then she will explain it four more times, as if to a slow child in a remedial class. Cliff will apologize and try to do better, but Dee has to keep complaining about it long after everyone has agreed with her.

l-r: Ben Katz, Ben Newman, Julia Greer in THE COMMONS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
 There is no making Dee happy. She complains that she lives in the loudest room but won’t change despite everyone’s offer. Dee can’t stand dirty dishes, even after someone else has done them. Dee values honesty, but actively makes fun of people behind their back. Cliff’s greatest character flaw is that he is a male and is trying to be pleasant. It is not clear if Dee hates all men, or just the two that live in the apartment with her, but she hates them both with a gusto unbounded.  But then again, she’s not wild about Janira either.

I am not sure if The Commons has a moral, besides don’t live in a communal situation. There was no character growth, Dee was just as mean as she moved out as she was during the majority of the show, and the other characters were still just as confused by it. The one person Dee did get along with was Cliff’s ex-girlfriend Anna (Olivia Abiassi), a presence that was introduced and swept away too quickly.

Playwright Lily Akerman has captured the dynamic of a horrible living situation, but I am not sure that the story tells us much. Director Emma Miller moves the pace along well, The Commons doesn’t feel rushed, and it does cover the year in 100 minutes. The sniping was too mean spirited for me to enjoy, but it will hit the spot for many audience members.

The Commons
Playwright: Lily Akerman | Director: Emma Miller | Cast: Ben Newman, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Julia Greer, Ban Katz, Olivia Abiassi

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Doctors Jane and Alexander Surprise and Charm


Doctors Jane and Alexander functions under a bit of misdirection. Promoted as a play about the playwright’s grandfather, Alexander W. Wiener who discovered the Rh factor in blood, it is more about familial relationships, the stories we create for each other and personal longing. And it is a wonderful evening.

The piece grew from the playwright’s conversations with his mother, after she had stroke. Max Wolkowitz plays Edward (the playwright) and Alyssa Simon plays his mother, Jane. They have a wonderful and tender chemistry onstage. Much of their conversations, particularly their early conversations, revolving around Jane’s father, Dr. Alexander S. Wiener (Len Rella). 

Max Wolkowitz, Maxwell Zener and Alyssa Simon in Doctors Jane and Alexander

Alexander was a famous doctor who helped develop blood typing and discovered the Rh factor. This work was the precursor of DNA testing and was critical in saving lives of transfusion patients as well in criminal work. But his fame and work is only a small piece of Doctors Jane and Alexander. The piece is built from documentation, whether transcripts of conversations or published material. And much of the conversations with Jane start about her father, but meander away from the topic.

So instead of a dry discussion about the inventor of Rh blood typing, we get a story of family full of expectations and drive. Jane reflects back on her assumption that she would be wildly successful, as her father was. In fact, in a family of doctors and lawyers, the playwright has his own self-doubts about his career. This is a direct reflection of Jane’s appraisal of herself, and it bonds the two characters. Acceptance and enjoyment of life is almost a refutation of the paths they have chosen.

There is plenty of comedy in the play too, much of it provided by the interplay between the playwright, Edward, and his brother, David (Maxwell Zener). They argue as only brothers can, over everything and nothing. The point isn’t the argument, the point is the relationship.

Doctors Jane and Alexander progresses gently, telling the story of Jane’s career path and how it echoes her father’s and son’s. The interviews start directed towards Dr. Wiener’s work, but over time the story of Jane’s life proves compelling. As Edward discovers the real person behind the persona of mother, he finds how much he loves and admires this woman. It is touching without being schmaltzy.

The acting here, particularly Max Wolkowitz and Alyssa Simon, is fantastic. There is an excellent group of players in the other roles as well. And the technical craft, the lighting and sets, are top notch.

There are some missing puzzle pieces. I wanted to understood more about the mental issues both Doctors had. The topic is broached early, then dropped out of deference to the family.

Edward Einhorn wrote and directed this play and it is very much about his own family. But it is much more than a love letter to his family, it is an ode to the people in all families. And an exploration of the rich lives we may not see, even when they are right in front of us.

Doctors Jane and Alexander
Playwright: Edward Einhorn | Director: Edward Einhorn | Cast: Len Ralla, Alyssa Simon, Max Wolkowitz, Maxwell Zener, Craig Anderson, Yvonne Roen, Ann Marie Yoo

Monday, January 27, 2020

Paradise Lost the John Milton Way

Paradise Lost now at the Theater Row Theaters, by the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) is a piece “Inspired by John Milton”. That would be John Milton’s epic 17th century poem about the Angelic Civil War which pitched Lucifer and his cohort against God and, on a parallel track, the story of Adam and Eve in Eden.

David Andrew Macdonald and Lou Libertore pondor the outcome of the Angelic Civil War

It is tricky play to try to review from an independent viewpoint. To quote from FPA themselves, “FPA’s objective is to engage and entertain its patrons by telling stories from a Christian Worldview that have the power to capture the imagination of a diverse audience.” That is a lot to live up to, and Paradise Lost does an excellent job of trying to pull the various pieces together. It is presented in current English, albeit occasionally falling into free verse, with modern touches sprinkled throughout in visual sight gags and throwaway bits. But, it still requires a buy-in to the idea of a Miltonian version of hell: lake of fire, mutinous Angels and a loving but mute God.

Lucifer (a magnetic David Andrew Macdonald) commands the stage, whether in rallying the fallen Angelic troops with soaring rhetoric or gently tempting Eve. His cohort includes the fallen Angels Beelzebub (comic relief by Lou Liberatore) and his wife / daughter Sin (Alison Fraser as a wizened sex bomb). Sin was created, fully formed, by jumping out of Lucifer’s forehead whereupon then immediately copulated and had a child, Death - which seems much more old Greek than old English to me.

Meanwhile, back in the victor’s camp, God has created a new experiment called Man and a place for him to live, the Garden. There we are first introduced to Eve, newly formed and coming to understanding with the world. Marine Shay plays Eve as a fun, questioning and rounded person. Adam, dutifully played by Robbie Simpson, is less questioning and more grateful of God’s bounty. But, then God never talks to Eve, but did talk with Adam.

Paradise Lost actually spends a lot of time trying to understand Eve and her motivation. She is visited by Lucifer and treated by him as an independent person. She is visited by Gabriel (Mel Johnson Jr.) where she is again chastised not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, without any reason. Now both Adam and Gabriel have told her not to or it will displease God, but God never speaks to her. On the other hand, Lucifer, also an Angel, tells her to eat of the fruit and fulfill the destiny God has created for her.

Of course, we know the ending. Woman eats the apple and condemns all mankind to pain, guilt and death because, women - am I right?

Adam and Eve (Robbie Simpson and Marina Shay) in love
The playwright Tom Dulack does a good job of presenting this story. Since I haven’t read John Milton’s 10 volume epic poem, I am not positive of how well he captured the spirit of the piece, but I thought it was well written. Directed by Michael Parva, the story moves along quickly enough, but I found myself frustrated by the story.

The playwright has given Eve more of a story and motivation, but now she is just manipulated by man and Angels. She isn’t worthy of being spoken to by God, but she is somehow responsible for the downfall of all of mankind.

Should you see it? It is an interesting and fun retelling of the downfall of Angels and men. But it requires one to accept that God is omnipotent and benevolent, despite all the evidence being to the contrary.

Paradise Lost
Playwright:Tom Dulack | Director: Michael Parva | Cast: David Andrew Macdonald, Lou Liberatore, Alison Fraser, Marina Shay, Robbie Simpson, Mel Johnson Jr.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Grand Horizons: Everyone Gets a Chance to Shine in this Dramedy

Grand Horizons has a fantastic cast. Anchored by Jane Alexander, the talented group of actors breathes life into Grand Horizons, allowing it to deliver beyond the boundaries of the page. Because what limits the play is baked into the script and format.


Grand Horizons is the story of an elderly couple, Nancy and Bill, played by Jane Alexander and James Cromwell. The story opens as they go through the ritual of breakfast in their new “senior living” apartment. During this silent ritual, the ennui of Nancy is palpable, cumulating in a request for a divorce. The request is met with a simple acknowledgement from Bill.

Next we are introduced to the two sons of the couple; Brian (Michael Urie) the gay, overly dramatic younger son and Ben (Ben McKenzie) the older, structured brother. With Ben is his wife, Jess (Ashley Park) a former counselor, who wants to work on the parental issues. The children try to understand exactly what has caused this change in their parents’ relationships, but Nancy and Bill are not helpful. This leads to a great deal of comedic tension, and bit of character development of Brian and Nancy.

Brian spends the first night at his parents’ house a brings home a horny and funny man, Tommy (Maulik Pancholy). Tommy’s attempt to get laid with the self-absorbed Brian is actually hilarious. But Tommy knows a lost cause when he sees it and leaves.

After the intermission, we are introduced to Bill’s lady friend Carla (a welcome Priscilla Lopez). Nancy explains how to take care of her husband to the new girlfriend and Carla suddenly sees what she is signing up for. In the second half Ben McKenzie and Ashley Park are also giving scenes to shine in.

Grand Horizons plays like a comedy-drama TV show, which may or may annoy the viewer. The format and timing makes it seem like one just watched the first two episodes of a pretty good series. I’d be interested in what happens to Nancy and Bill next. But it doesn’t deliver a full punch as a play. We get a fantastic cast where everyone gets a scene or two where they get to shine. Only Jane Alexander gets the chance to develop a character, and she is fantastic.

I can’t fault the cast, they are nearly perfect in execution. And Director Leigh Silverman creates a pace that both allows the action to play out naturally and doesn’t ever get bogged down. Playwright Bess Wohl has created a detailed and interesting story, but it left me wanting to know what happens in the next few episodes. 

Grand Horizons 
Playwright: Bess Wohl | Director: Leigh Silverman | Cast: Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, BeMcKenzie, Maulik Pancholy, Ashley Park, Michael Urie
-->

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Alice Ripley brings The Pink Unicorn vividly to life

The Pink Unicorn is a one woman show, with Alice Ripley delivering a stunning performance as a young mother of a gender neutral child. Ripley plays Trisha Lee, a single mother in a conservative Texas town, where her child challenges the town’s norms.

The play, written by real Texan Elise Forier Edie, lays out the story of Trisha in a confessional manner. Her child, Jolene, decides she is genderqueer and then plans a Gay Straight Alliance at her high school. This being Texas, a number of roadblocks rise in their path. First the school bans the club, then the school district steps in to ban all clubs. Throughout this, Trisha is forced into an activist role, because it is her child that is being discriminated against.

Alice Ripley in The Pink Unicorn - Jazelle Artistry
The Pink Unicorn is the story not just of a mother defending her child, but also of the growth of Trisha. She confronts her past as her family weighs in on the changes happening. And she confronts her second family, as the controversy roils her church, where friends and acquaintances stake out different positions. The subtly of Ripley’s performance is perfect and measured. She brings the audience along on this roller coaster, prompting laughs, tears and introspection.

Directed by Amy Jones, The Pink Unicorn is played on a tiny stage at The Episcopal Actors’ Guild at a church. The location gives The Pink Unicorn the intimate feel of a share at a small group meeting. Ms. Jones and Ripley use this space to pull an immediacy into the proceedings. It is a wonderful experience. 

The Pink Unicorn
Playwright: Elise Forier Edie | Director: Amy Jones | Cast

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

God Show Up, and He Has Notes

The theater has a varied relationship with God. He is a remote, but powerful motivator in some Shakespeare and a play like Joan of Arc. He is a presence off-stage, influencing the actions of men in plays across the ages. In God Shows Up, he is a direct character, appearing on the television show of a popular televangelist.

God makes an appearance on the non-denominational, but quite capitalistic, Dr. Thomas Issac Rehan show, live from St. Louis, in the ex-home field of the Rams to answer questions, participate in some give and take, and generally boost the ratings of the show. It is a unique event, one that Dr. Rehan takes full advantage of. As for God, his motivation is only slowly reveled. He has come back to correct some mistakes and characterizations in the holy books and set the record straight with regards to many things said in his name.

Lou Liberatore and Christopher Sutton in God Shows Up
Christopher Sutton plays the televangelist with the easy cadence and charm of a snake-oil salesmen. He handles an obnoxious role extremely well, bringing a genial confidence even when he is discovered to be lying. Lou Liberatore does a great job with the character of God. He is easy going, charming, and bemused by Thomas’ television act. After a bit expectation setting by his character, Mr. Liberatore settles in to the role of God excellently.

The final actress is LeeAnn Hutchison with a rather small part, but it grows in ways I don’t want to spoil.

Most of Gods Shows Up proceeds with humor and a breezy confidence. The play does mock religions’ capitalistic tendencies and the inconsistencies of doctrine, but goes out of its way to be positive about the adherents motivations and actions. It is clever, funny and intelligent without being condescending.

But the play steps into some questionable territory towards the end by drawing a direct connection between Satan and our crop of self-interested televangelists that is a bit over the top and unnecessary. However, that connection does make Christopher Sutton's final words a bit chilling.

Directed by Christopher Scott, God Shows Up moves along nicely. It is aiming for a nice off-Broadway shelf life and it would be well earned, albeit not with evangelical southerners.

God Shows Up
Playwright: Philip Filichia | Director: Christopher Scott | Cast: LeeAnn Hutchison, Lou Liberatore, Christopher Sutton | Website

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Music Hall visits 59E59

At the 59 E 59 Theaters, a very funny throwback show is going on. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, is a Music Hall style review that travels from humorous to hilarious. The piece plays off a 1942 US Army pamphlet of the same name that tried to explain the British to American servicemen.

L-R: James Millard, Dan March in Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli 
The audience is treated as a newly arrived squadron of Army Air Corps being briefed on the traditions of the British. The three man cast is excellent and also wrote the story: Dan March, James Millard and Matt Sheahan. They each play a main character and occasionally bring secondary characters to life.

The play doesn’t have an overarching theme, but plays off a series of vignettes that flow as information to the new troops. All are funny, but some are hilarious. Matt Sheahan’s explanation of the British monetary system in the forties - the time of shillings, pence and farthings - is confusing, impenetrable and wildly funny.

Dan March’s American Colonel is the epitome of a period of US bluster and self-importance. He is the ugly American that makes you laugh both with and at him.

James Millard plays a perfect American guide, trying to bridge the differences, keep the peace and move the training along, without offending either side. Mr. Millard also indulges in the odd British tradition of dressing up in female drag and acting with broad farcical effect. It is dated and silly, but still oddly charming and humorous. 

The audience loved the show, despite a wide range of ages. The three man troupe engages in a lot of audience banter. To their credit, they are able to work both when the audience joins in, and when they have a bunch of stiffs sitting there.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a slight and dated show, but somehow it works even better as a period piece. Today the jokes would be stereotypes and not funny, but here, taking the piss out of both sides, it is all obviously in good fun.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain
Director : John Walton / Playwrights & Cast: Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan