Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Trainspotting Live Splashes Down In New York City

For those audience members that might not have visited the Roy Arias Stage before, the walk up to the second floor for Trainspotting Live NYC is a bit of a surreal experience. The staircase winds up through a tall, nondescript stairwell and drops you into a warehouse like interior, a bar behind you and the greeter the only indications you’re in the right place. Grab a drink, and line up to enter the (graffiti filled) black box theater to the flashes of neon, the beat of 1990s dance music and the exuberant cast and you know you’re in for something wildly different.
Trainspotting Live is an immersive experience not just of light, music, and the occasional liquids but of joy, despair and elation. It is based on the book, not the movie, so some scenes may seem out of sequence or lacking altogether - if your only experience with Trainspotting is the 1996 movie of the same name. But in the moment, alive with intensity, it doesn’t really matter.
Andrew Barrett as Renton in Trainspotting Live
Many of the set pieces are funny, gross and rude. The audience is treated occasionally as a coconspirator, sometimes as an enemy and sometimes simply as voyeurs. But the audience never feels forgotten or superfluous.
For those that have no connection to the book or movie, some of the surprising moments can be jarring.  Trainspotting Live is the story of Renton and his group of friends, surviving in the heroin scene in Edinburgh in the 90s. Andrew Barrett does an amazing job anchoring Renton inside this immersive funhouse of a show. Renton is ring master, bedrock and sounding board for his friends: Tommy and Sick Boy. Greg Esplin (Tommy) and Tariq Malik (Sick Boy) are, like Mr. Barrett, excellent in holding our attention in the course of the evening. Mr. Esplin is particularly effective as his good boy spirals off the rails after a bad love affair.
The other cast members, Lauren Downie, Pia Hagen, Tom Chandler and Oliver Sublet, pull duty as multiple characters, bringing the story to vibrant life. Each and everyone of them have standout moments that bewitch, enthrall or jar the audience into attention. To watch Lauren Downie seamlessly switch from an uptight mum into a frightening date who is demanding to lose her anal virginity is quite an impressive sight (if a bit scary).
Andrew Barrett, Lauren Downie, Pia Hagen and Olivier Sublet
Renton’s journey is documented from party boy to heroin enthusiast to detox, to the one sober member of his team, as his friends take paths that are sometimes parallel and sometimes skew far away from Renton’s own.
There are some scenes that are designed (in the book and the show) to gross us out. In particular, the embarrassing morning after a night of sex and the most disgusting toilet in Scotland scenes, will put some people off. But for the audience I was with, those scenes somehow morphed into bonding moments that brought us along with the storytellers.
Trainspotting Live is crazy fun entertainment. I love the immersiveness of a show like Sleep No More, but Trainspotting Live takes it up a few notches as the actors acknowledge and revel in the audience, blithely taking us on a youthful, embarrassing and exhilarating trip most of us have long since outgrown.
Trainspotting Live | Playwright: Irvine Welsh (novel) Harry Gibson (Adaptation) | Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Greg Esplin | Cast: Andrew Barrett, Tom Chandler, Lauren Downie, Greg Esplin, Pia Hagen, Tariq Malik, Olivier Sublet | website

Monday, June 25, 2018

Log Cabin: Wide to the Right

The time of the gay stereotype is thankfully over. Theater no longer has to show gays as a tragic sideshow or sassy gay friend, now gays can be anything. Log Cabin chooses to show them as confused defenders of the status quo against the trans community. Such is progress.
Log Cabin is set over 7 years of rapid political and societal advancement in the gay and lesbian community – from 2012 to 2017. And we view these changes through the well-meaning eyes of one gay and one lesbian couple, who are longtime friends. Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Philip James Brannon play Ezra and Chris, an interracial couple who seem pretty well suited to each other. Pam and Jules, the lesbian couple, are played by Cindy Cheung and Dolly Wells respectively. They seem easy and at ease with each other, full of easy tender moments instead ravishing desire.
Cindy Cheung, Dolly Wells, Jessie Tyler Ferguson, Phillip James Brannon
The play opens with Ezra and Chris telling the women about Ezra’s father’s unacceptance of them as a couple, which astonishes Ezra. This discussion is followed quickly by Ezra’s uncomfortableness about the status of his oldest friend, then Helen, now Henry. The juxtaposition is Spielbergian in it’s painful obviousness. Ezra also gets to flail about uncomfortably as Pam and Jules discuss having a baby: you see Chris wants a child and Ezra does not. Not only does Ezra not want a child, he does not want to talk about it.
Time flies by and soon the baby has arrived. Since he doesn’t speak, various characters get to have imagined conversations with the child to explore their insecurities. Henry (né Helen) also drops by for dinner. He brings Myna, a free spirit  andlove interest, along. Henry and Myna are played by Ian Harvie and Talene Monahon. What follows is why one should never decide to have a long-postponed conversation with your transsexual ex-prom date in front of strangers. Mitchell Ezra manages to offend everyone even as he is admitting to his own insecurities.  Jules disappears into the baby’s room, only to be joined later by Henry who then flirts / berates Jules into masturbating in some bizarre self-misogynistic way. Perhaps the underlying erotic tension of the moment only eluded me, but the moment seemed forced and artificial.
After spending the evening fighting, Ezra decides to accede to Chris’ desire to have a child, because that is one of the top reasons to bring a new person into the world, to make up after a fight. Then Ezra and Chris make this magic moment even sweeter by going to Henry and asking him to go off testosterone in order to get pregnant and partner with them in forming a family. Remember, when we last saw Henry - only moments earlier - he was being an asshole to the boys and cheating with a lesbian mom, but such are how happy homes are made. For a moment I wondered if Log Cabin was actually written by a member of the moral majority to show how disgusting the homosexuals really are, I am still not convinced it wasn’t.
Ian Harvie, Talene Monahon, Dolly Wells, Jessie Tyler Furgeson & Phillip James Brannon
When another year has passed and we next we see the company, Henry is pregnant (looking remarkably like the first pregnant man spread in Time a few years ago), Jules and Pam don’t discuss that evening and Ezra and Chris are broken up over an infidelity. In one of the few moments that felt real to me, Cindy Cheung gives a heartfelt speech on the meaning of relationships and forgiveness that almost made me forgive this show. Almost.
Log Cabin was written with incredible wit and verve by Jordan Harrison, but I could have used some real emotion. I don’t enjoy saying this, I though Mr. Harrison’s piece Marjorie Prime was a fantastic show and was looking forward to Log Cabin. Pam MacKinnon does an excellent job of direction, helping ground the piece as much as possible. Log Cabin is very good when it isn’t frustrating or overly showy. But those moments don’t come often enough for me to recommend this.
Log Cabin
Playwright: Jordan Harrison
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Cast: Phillip James Brannon, Cindy Cheung, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ian Harvie, Talene Monahon, Dolly Wells

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Skintight Wears Its Beautiful Skin Lightly

It takes a moment for your mind to adjust to Idina Menzel in a non-musical, but only a moment. She steps onto the Laura Pels’ stage and takes command, her character demanding supportive noises from her father.  Playing Jodi Issacs, a mother in her mid-forties whose husband left her for a 24 year hottie, Idina blazes with self-righteous pity and a small amount of anger that comes off more as serious annoyance. Jodi is about to get a lot more annoyed.
Jodi has flown in from LA to surprise her father on his 70th birthday and to bask in a little parental comfort. Her father, Elliot (Jack Weatherall), doesn’t want to celebrate his birthday, hates surprises and doesn’t do parental comfort well. Elliot is gay fashion designer that sells sex and the clothes that support it. It is impossible not to think of Calvin Klein, since the backstory of the poor Hungarian Jew that makes good mimics Mr. Klein (although the home borough of Bronx has been replaced by the trendier Brooklyn) and because Mr. Weatherall projects exactly what one would expect Mr. Klein to be like.
Jack WEtherall, Will Brittain, Idina Menzel and Eli Gleb

Worse, for Jodi, is that Elliot has a much younger boyfriend, Oklahoma boy Trey (Will Brittain) chosen mainly for handsome looks. Trey is the same age as Jodi’s son Benjamin (Eli Gleb). The fact her ex-husband and her father are now both involved with sexy creatures in their 20s, means that Jodi’s escape to New York is very little escape after all.
And this house was never her home. It is a steel and grey showplace that, at first, doesn’t really look like anyone’s home, but Elliot and Trey fit the place well. Jodi walks right up to the point of demanding her father choose her or Trey, but pulls back when the answer becomes obvious.
Skintight is very funny, occasionally titillating and a lovely chance for every actor to show off in a few great scenes. On the other hand, it rarely connects to the audience. Everyone stays in their lane when I would have expected a little more chaos.
Eli Gleb and Will Brittain
Will Brittain has moments that stand out, because his character is often charged with being more than an attractive cardboard cutout of a character. I would like to have seen more chances taken with the excellent cast.
Playwright Joshua Harman uses Skintight to ask if beauty is as critically important as our society has made it. His answer is that – yes, it is. And the answer is dispatched with very little irony. Director Daniel Aukin moves the pieces of the play excellently, but I was left somehow wanting more.
Playwright: Joshua Harmon
Director: Daniel Aukin
Cast: Will Brittain, Eli Gleb, Indina Menzel, Jack Wetherall, Stephen Carrasco, Cynthia Mace

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Conflict Points a Way Forward

The Mint Theater team somehow seems to find perfect shows for our time by scrounging around old and forgotten pieces of theater. Conflict is no exception, in fact, it might be one of the Mint’s best shows. Even with the Mint’s transformative eye to detail and period, it doesn’t take long for Conflict to register with our current political situation. 

Conflict is a love story layered onto a discussion about politics and class (this is a British play, after all), all of this played out during an election. The handsome young Conservative in this soon to be triangle is Major Sir Ronald Clive (Henry Clarke). The young woman who is the object of his affections is Lady Dare (Jessie Shelton). The Labour candidate is an old friend of Clive’s, Tom Smith (Jeremy Beck). 

Jeremy Beck, Jessie Shelton and Henry Clarke
 The story starts with Clive and Dare coming from an evening out at that woozy hour where the edge of night transforms into morning. Sparkling conversation and flirtation ensues, but their manner and interaction indicate the fizz has been drained from their relationship. Dare goes to bed as her father, Lord Bellingdon (Graeme Malcolm) enters. Lord Bellingdon and Clive find a man lurking on the grounds and capture young Tom Smith. But it turns out Tom Smith is no theif, but an old chum of Clive’s from Cambridge, albeit fallen on hard times.

Moving forward a year, an election comes up and Clive stands as the Conservative candidate and, a rehabilitated Tom,s tands as the Labour candidate. Lady Dare is fascinated, first by Tom, then by the ideas he has about politics, then by Tom again.

What makes Conflict rather brilliant is the way that the discussion about politics is front and center, but not central to the story. Both men are sure they are right, but they are willing to listen to one another. They are moved by a sense of duty and civility to participate in politics. Similarly, both men care passionately about Lady Dare, but are willing to listen to her. 
Here, Lord Bellingdon is, unfortunately, the embodiment of the status quo just as the young voters (not seen but referenced) are the embodiment of struggle. His stand for convention against the future is the unmovable object which is thwarted by Lady Dare’s unstoppable train.

Conflict is also the story of physical and emotional love that was probably quite daring in 1925, and would still be in many parts of the country. In the country so recently wrapped in Victorian morals, change in the social rules occurs at a blistering pace.

All four major actors are moving and impressive in their performances. If Jeremy Beck and Jessie Shelton stand out, it is because it is their story of transformation and honesty.

Directed with a light touch by Jenn Thompson, Conflict was written by Miles Malleson who also wrote Unfaithfully Yours, recently done by the Mint. The audience at the Mint Theater often skews older, which is a shame. Young theater goers are missing out on an excellent and timely play. Conflict is proof that ideas, principals and entertainment can age and become even more relevant.

Director: Jenn Thompson | Playwright: Miles Malleson
Cast: Jeremy Beck, Henry Clarke, Graeme Malcolm, James Pendergast, Jessie Shelton, Jasmin Walker, Amelia White

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Dutch Masters Keeps Us On Our Toes

André Holland, better known as an actor, brings a deft hand as a director to Greg Keller’s play, Dutch Masters. It is an intriguing, tense and thoughtful two hander that rifts on race and class while exploring a relationship between two young men who meet by happenstance on the subway.
Set in 1992, before cell phones made everyone feel a little safer and the subway was a bit more frightening, Eric, an African – American young man, initiates a conversation with Steve – a young white man trying to ignore everything around him. Talking on the subway is disconcerting enough, and Eric makes it more so by pushing a conversation even though Steve is trying to politely ignore him. The play keeps the audience guessing at motives. Eric is too interested in Steve, sometimes threatening and other times ingratiating. When Eric convinces or demands that Steve get off the train to get high with him, we don’t understand much, except this is a bad idea. 
Jake Horowitz and Ian Duff in Dutch Masters - Photo, Spencer Moses
What follows is fascinating. Eric slowly dishes out information that convinces Steve that Eric knows a lot more than he lets on. Small insights and random details about Steve’s life. It is enough to keep Steve interested and uncomfortable. After this, the play turns, again and again, in ways that are unexpected.
Ian Duff plays Eric, a street kid who is smart, with a forceful personality both seductive and a bit frightening. Mr. Duff is excellent in the role, playing off the street-ness of Eric without falling into stereotypical behavior.  Steve is played by Jake Horowitz. Mr. Horowitz does a great job in a role that is deferential without being too wimpy. Steve tries extra hard to not be a racist, but is tripped up by Eric’s actions, only to find they are often an act.
Dutch Masters is about the way these two young adults see life, often even the same incidents, through completely different eyes. Sometimes the views are aligned, but more often disparate vantage points preclude a common understanding. It is done wonderfully and I recommend Dutch Masters highly. It is a surprising and interesting show designed to pull you off center.
Dutch Masters | Playwright: Greg Keller | Director: André Holland |Cast: Ian Duff, Jake Horowitz | website

Friday, March 2, 2018

Amy Surprises Us; The Orphans, Less So

Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino states in the program that she was inspired to write this story, in part, by her own Aunt, who was Downs syndrome. As I reviewer, I have to point out that my Aunt also had Downs syndrome, and was born only a decade or so before the characters here. I don’t know if that effects my review, but I know that it effected my response, and making Amy and the Orphans very relatable for me. It isn’t necessary, at all, to be familiar with an individual to invest in this play – I just want to give readers full knowledge that my review may be skewed.
Amy and the Orphans is not well served by the poster for the show. It is not a happy go lucky three-person road show full of pluck and sappy sentiments. Instead it is a tough but humorous story of the response of children to their parents’ death.  Mark Blum and an almost unrecognizable Debra Monk are Jacob and Maggie, adult siblings traveling back to Montauk for their father’s service. They meet at La Guardia airport in order to drive to the pick up their Downs syndrome sister, Amy, for the service.
Debra Monk. Jamie Brewer and Mark Bloom
From the first moment, the tensions are thick and the jokes are a little too numerous. 
After her adult sons have moved out and her husband has divorced her, Maggie is tough and unyielding. She is still made at Jacob for his actions at their mother’s service. Jacob has gone full on Californian Christian, forsaking his religion, heritage and gluten, not necessarily in that order. Before being able to “get on the road” with an almost religious fervor, the duo must stop at an institution and pick up Amy, their Downs syndrome sister. Both and moved out of the area and rarely see their sister anymore. There is an unspoken dread at the prospect.
Amy, in an excellent performance by Jamie Brewer, proves to be more independent and headstrong than they remember. And Amy comes with a care-giver that mandated by the state and loved by Amy, Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga in a wickedly funny role). Kathy bows to neither sibling in her understanding or love of Amy. The siblings project their own insecurities on Kathy and respond to them.
The play moves between the airport, the institution, the road and their father’s house with ease. In between are moments at the service and flashbacks to a couple in therapy we only understand later are the parents in their youth.
Jacob and Maggie, like their parents before them, struggle with what they owe to their sister. How much are they willing to upend their lives to do the right thing, and what is the right thing? The undercurrent, which rises up quickly, is that Amy is not party to these decisions. Amy, however, has ideas of her own.
Ms. Ferrentino has crafted a serious and funny piece about our expectations with regards to our family. She and Director Scott Ellis have crafted a show with Jamie Brewer that doesn’t seem forced, stereotypical or artificially positive. Ms. Brewer is in command of her character bringing tartness normally and a sweetness in a flashback that underscores how far she has had to grow.
I loved Amy and the Orphans, as a complete show. It was not a performance piece that allows a Downs syndrome actor to shine, which I feared it might be. Jacob and Maggie don’t travel the expected (and trite) path that they learn some life lesson from their disabled sister. Instead they have to confront their own expectations of each other and their parents to move on.

Amy And The Orphans | Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino | Director: Scott Ellis | Cast: Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk, Mark Blum, Vanessa Aspillaga, Diane Davis, Josh McDermitt

Monday, December 18, 2017

Farinelli Charms the King and the Audience

Farinelli and the King, now at the Belasco, is a wonderous play. It is slightly magical, beautiful musically, a little funny and utterly charming without being twee. By way of ingenious use of staging, candlelight and proscenium build out, the Belasco feels intimate, although I would avoid the balcony for this show.
Mark Rylance plays the King of Spain who suffers from delusions and depression. The show opens with Mr. Rylance having a discussion with a goldfish, a moment he can’t distinguish between dream or nightmare. The audience can feel the weight of his position in the soliloquy. As King he is as trapped in his role as the goldfish is trapped in the bowl.
Farinelli (Sam Crane), left, and King Philippe V (Mark Rylance
Mr. Rylance is once again charming in a period role. He can transition from funny to enraged to incompetent in a flash. The Queen (a lovely tempered Melody Grove) wants to help her King recover and keep the monsters, imagined and real, at bay.  The royal court, embodied by Edward Pell as his chief minister – in over the top outfits and wigs, but a measured performance, is ready to force the King to abdicate. The chief minister dispatches the Queen to take over the court.
In London, the Queen hears the Opera star Farinelli, and is convinced that his voice will help to stabilize the King. When Farinelli does arrive and sing, the moment is transformative. Watching the King listen to the music the audience can see the beauty and calmness spread across his face, and the relaxation in his carriage. Farinelli is played by Sam Crane in a touching performance as he grows to love the King and the Queen. Farinelli is sung, marvelously, by Iestyn Davies (or the equally sublime James Hall). During the moments of song, the actor and the singer concurrently play Farinelli shadowing one another: they dress the same, and Mr. Crane follows the singer’s lead in demeanor and gesture.
Farinelli joins the King and Queen both in court and later when they take up residence outside Madrid. The King is able to recuperate, and Farinelli drops his mask as performer to embrace his full personality. Of course, Kings have responsibilities, and their time away from court must come to an end, but it was a moment that was precious to the three and a joy to watch.
Farinelli and the King feels like a moment captured in amber, a bit dreamy and otherworldly in the best possible sense. Director John Dove gives the play room to grow organically from the actors involved. Jonathan Fensom’s designs enhance the feeling of being let in on a small secret performance. I am not an Opera fan, but Mr. Davies’ performance of Handel’s pieces are like small presents from the past to us today.
Farinelli and the King | Playwright: Claire van Kampen| Director: John Dove | Cast: Mark Rylance, Sam Crane, Melody Grove, Huss Garbiya, Colin Hurley, Edward Pell, Iestyn Davies, James Hall