Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Days To Come Struggles To Little Affect


Lillian Hellman’s play Days to Come was never going to be an easy show, but I was surprised to find it the rare Mint Theater miss. It’s not that it is bad, it just isn’t compelling, and its one possible chance is hamstrung by timing.

Days to Come, written and premiered in 1936, meanders between the story of a manufacturing strike hitting a tight knit Ohio town and a secondary story about the factory’s owner’s wife. 

Larry Bull, Chris Henry Coffey, Ted Deasy, Rodrick Hill, Janie Brookshire

The story of the strike revolves around the impact of the strike on the factory owner, who loves this little town and its people. The factory owner, Andrew Rodman (an underused Larry Bull), is a good man forced to hold down wages which causes him great angst but it causes his co-owners, a business friend and his sister, no angst what so ever. In fact, the co-owners force him to hire “strikebreakers” and he is too naïve to know that this is just another term for hired guns. The handsome young union organizer played Roderick Hill, is under no such allusions. He tries to keep the striking workers from responding to the threats and taunts of the strikebreakers. If they respond physically, then the police (many of them newly deputized thugs) can arrest them and break the strike. And while this is the main story, most of that action happens off stage. The conflict is represented onstage by an old friend of the boss and the new union organizer who show up to try to talk sense into the owner, versus a stereotype of evil in the head thug (well played over the top by Dan Daily) and the uncaring sister (Kim Martin-Cotton).

And then there is the story revolving around the wife. Julia (Janie Brookshire) is barely a wife to the very passive Andrew – this is not Mr. Bull’s fault, the story is written in a manner to suggest he has a great weakness in character, manifest by the inability to inspire his wife. As in Ms. Hellman’s play Little Foxes, the female lead is headstrong and demanding. Here she is also an adulteress and ungrateful, bringing downfall upon the men that she crosses paths with. But in today’s age of #metoo, Ms. Brookshire plays her not as a narcissistic adult, but as a sensitive, albeit emotionally adolescent girlish-woman trying to come to grips with her feelings. I longed for a bit of 1930s Bette Davis or Joan Crawford to crawl out and let loose that she enjoyed her life, but no such luck. Her contemporary motivation was in stark contrast to the 1930’s attitude of all the other players. She dumps her husband’s business partner early in the show, but it isn’t more than a few moments before the brash handsome union organizer shows up. What will happen?

Roderick Hill, Janie Brookshire

Days to Come wraps up this show with an attack on the striking workers, the end of the strike, the end of Mr. Bull’s hopes for a unified town, the end of at least one affair and one marriage and the ambivalence of Julia towards all of it. I was disappointed because I really do love the Mint and look forward to everything they present. This was a rare failure, despite some exceptional acting by Misters Bull, Hill and Daily.

Days to Come | Playwright: Lillian Hellmen | Director: J. R. Sullivan | Cast: Mary Bacon, Jane Brookshire, Larry Bull, Chris Henry Coffey, Dan Daily, Ted Deasy, Roderick Hill, Betsy Hogg, Kim Martin-Cotten, Geoffrey Allen Murhpy, Evan Zes

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Head Over Heels is a Feast of Fun

A good recipe can make a fine dish, be it food or musical theater. Just the right amount of Act I intrigue with lyrical exposition and Act II redemption with swooning love songs, built on a recycled movie can brew up a sweet and charming (if expected) story. But, like a great cook, Head Over Heels throws out the recipe book and tosses all kinds of unexpected odds and ends into the pot. Sixteenth century pastoral story, check. Music by a 1980s new-wave girls band, check. Modern update to a sex comedy, done. And out of this eclectic grab bag, Heads Over Hells tears off the stage to grab your interest and rarely let it go.
Taylor Iman Jones opens Head Over Hells with a snap and a bang
The word exuberant seems designed for this evening of entertainment that will put a smile on your face; a smile that doesn’t leave until hours after the curtain comes down. It is headed by a trio of young women who discover their strength and their loves. The voice of these three will stun you as they grow to take over the stage.

The story, for those of us not up to date on 16th century pastoral romances, is thus. The King of Arcadia faces a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi that he will lose his kingdom after 4 conditions come to pass. Two concerning his daughters and two concerning him. To avoid this fate, he takes the entire court on a fanciful march into the woods on a flimsy lie. The King and Queen (Broadway veterans Jeremy Kushner and Rachel York) set out bickering in word and tune.

They are joined by their daughters Pamela (Bonnie Mulligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), the subject of two of the prophecies.  Pamela has rejected all suitors to date and depends on her servant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) for company. Philoclea, alternatively, has had her love, lowly shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) rejected by her father. These three women, Bonnie Mulligan, Alexandra Socha and Taylor Iman Jones give Head Over Heels its fantastic voice. They can sing sweetly or belt out the songs of the Go-gos with heart, edge and flair. They can sound like the young lady rockers when they want to and yet can interpret songs in a way you never heard, so that words tell a fresh story. These three are what kicks Head Over Heels into overdrive.

Andrew Durand carries much of the comic weight (with an amazing assist from Bonnie Mulligan) as Musidorus who will go to any lengths for his beloved. The Oracle is played, well over the top, by Peppermint, an actor who honed their skill’s on Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Bonnie Mulligan rips it up as Pamela
It is pure old style hokum rendered new by the talented cast, including a chorus of sexual mischievous dancers and actors. Spencer Liff provides quite a modern twist for the choreography. Arcadia is rendering in cartoon glory by Julian Crouch’s scenic design and Kevin Adams’ lighting. Tom Kitt has rearraigned some of the Go-go’s tunes and kept others which sound as fresh as you remember. This mélange of ingredients has been masterfully directed by Michael Mayer, making the show glide along quickly.

Had I not seen the audience, I would wonder who this show appeals to. I know that fans from the 1980’s would embrace the music, and LGBT fans would embrace the heart of this show (and the dynamic turn of Peppermint). But everyone in the theatre loved this show and had a great time, from the young girls and out of towners who weren’t sure what to expect to the locals who might be a bit apprehensive of another jukebox show. Head Over Hells delighted us all.

Head Over Heels | Book:Adapted by James Magruder Original Book: Jeff Whitty | Director: Michael Mayer | Cast: Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Milligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robbins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York

Friday, July 20, 2018

Edward Gero Brings Scalia to Life in The Originalist


The Originalist has a lot to say about the Constitution, the Supreme Court and our country’s inability to discuss politics and find a middle ground. In this, it is more relevant now that it was when written in 2015. It is also a bit harder to watch now than in 2015.

Edward Gero inhabits the role of Judge Antonin Scalia, and brings him to life with vitality, humor and panache. Scalia loudly believes in ruling from the court on the original intent of the authors of the constitution, not any interpretation. Mr. Gero sells Mr. Scalia’s ideals with forcefulness and self-assurance and deals with liberals with contempt. Like the real Justice Scalia, he invites a liberal into his den, but only one smart enough to engage with him.

Tracy Ifeachor plays Cat, the liberal law clerk that becomes sparring partner, sounding board and, ultimately, friend. Ms. Ifeachor does a great job with the part, challenging the Justice enough to work with him, but not enough to truly offend him. This is not the dramatic stretch it might seem; Justice Scalia did often employ one liberal clerk on his team.

L-R: Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in  THE ORIGINALIST. Photo by Joan Marcus
 
In the course of The Originalist, Scalia and Cat banter back and forth, the conservative judge and the liberal clerk. If they don’t always find a middle ground, and they rarely do, at least they are honest enough to listen to each other and understand their viewpoints. Throughout Cat’s year with the Judge, she proves her intellectual value repeatedly.

But there is a problem with The Originalist, and it is that the world has changed in ways that were unexpected. Justice Scalia was often on the wrong side of very close decisions and the play gives him a voice, trying to explain to future audiences what motivated this man and what made him tick. Yet less than one year later Justice Scalia passed away. His replacement was appointed by President Obama, whom Scalia hated, but that man was never confirmed or even interviewed. Rather the seat was stolen and given to another believer in original intent. Throw-away comments that would be funny if history proceeded according to precedence, are now arrows at the heart of our system.

Edward Gero’s irascible Justice Scalia was endearing because he was the last stand of an embittered, privileged group of angry white men. Now that he isn’t the last stand, but perhaps at the forefront of the next few decades, the show isn’t nearly as funny. In trying to find a middle ground, Scalia mocks Cat as lacking the killer instinct which will doom liberals. She notes back that history is on her side. It turns out Justice Scalia was right.

The cast here is fantastic, both Mr. Gero and Miss Ifeachor are brilliant. Brett Mack, in a small role, was so perfectly loathsome I wanted to smack him from his entrance in annoying preppy boots. Author John Strand gives us a wonderful play that strives to make the point that we need to value the opinion of the other side, and Director Molly Smith brings it to life on stage. Unfortunately for the country, they are signing (Opera) to the choir.

The Originalist | Author: John Strand | Director: Molly Smith | Cast: Edward Gero, Tracy Ifeachor, Brett Mack | website

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
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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.

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