Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transcending Marriage Has Its Own Risk and Rewards

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How To Transcend A Happy Marriage, opening at the Lincoln Center’s Mitzie Newhouse Theater, is an untidy show. Beautifully acted and well signposted in the first act, the second act is a bit of a mess.
It starts with a friendly pair of married couples, Paul & George – played by Omar Metwally and Marisa Tomei and Michael & Jane – played by Brian Hutchinson and Robin Weigert. The ladies (George is a woman) have been friends since High School and are still close. Both have children now, Paul and George three younger children, Michael and Jane one teenage girl. They get together occasionally for dinner, drinks and the odd game of scrabble.
One such night, Jenna mentions a temp at work, Pip, who is a Bohemian in a polymorous situation, living with 2 male partners. She is an free spirit who will only eat meat she has killed, wears want she wants and lives a wild life. Some jokes, questions and mild titillation arise about Pip and her lifestyle. And so then the couples decide to invite Pip and her men for New Year’s Eve.
Omar Metwally, Marisa Tomei, Lena Hall, Austin Smith, David McElwee
Later, before George leaves for the party, Marisa Tomei addresses the audience directly, letting us know things take a bad turn. This admission plants a layer of expectation and dread before New Year’s Eve begins.
At the party, enter Lena Hall as the fascinating and sexual Pip, trailing her two male partners (David McElwee and Austin Smith) – smart, sensual and opinionated in their own right. The seven spend New Year’s Eve drinking, flirting, talking and eating hash brownies. Yeah, you know where this is going. Pip is a magnetic figure; eyes follow Ms. Hall no matter what she does. Her sexy rendition of “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round The Mountain” is an oddly erotic tour de force.
Varying amounts of justification, guilt, acceptance and self-reproach, follow the sexual shenanigans. The discussions are, in varying amounts: interesting, redundant and self-indulgent. It is as if we, as a society, have sexually and emotionally regressed since the 1960s (or decades earlier if you happened to see Unfaithfully Yours at The Mint).
How To Transcend a Happy Marriage is, oddly enough, bound by a set of societal limitations that seems slightly archaic to me. The characters appear (to themselves) to be breaking beyond norms, but their actions as normative as possible in the situation. I would have expected no different conclusion had this been written during the Eisenhower Administration.
How To Transcend... is beautifully acted, particularly by Marisa Tomei and Lena Hall. But ultimately it leaves a frustrating taste in your mouth, a self-congratulatory Greenwich Connecticut flavor.
How To Transcend a Happy Marriage | Playwright: Sarah Ruhl | Director: Rebecca Taichman | Cast: Lena Hall, Brian Hutchison, David McElwee, Omar Metwally, Naian Gonzales Norvind, Austin Smith, Marisa Tomei, Robin Weigert

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Joan of Arc via Patti Smith and Cardinal Dolan

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Joan of Arc Into the Fire is a heady brew of an exciting, if occasionally misfiring, first half and a somnambulist and dirge like second half – sprinkled throughout with camp moments both accidental and planned. Mix them all together and put them on stage, and you end up disoriented and a bit annoyed.
This isn’t how Joan of Arc Into The Fire should treat us. David Bryne provides great music, but pedestrian lyrics. Alex Timbers has directed the hell out of this play, using a very busy turntable set, great lighting and fantastic costumes, trying to distract us from the story. Jo Lampert doesn’t just play Joan of Arc, she inhabits the role to perfection.
Cast of Joan of Arc Into The Fire
But at the end of the day, or 90 minutes, you are still left with a story that is not a great fit for a musical. Joan of Arc Into the Fire trims the story down to its essence, but its essence is still a dichotomy.
The first half, here the much more fun half, is full of fire, power, war and the celebration of God’s messenger. We see Joan, a farm girl, be chosen by God to fight the occupying British for France. She convinces the army to take her on as a recruit. Throughout the play the ensemble works wonderfully together. The cast produces energy and fire. They are great! Sure, there is a slight Mulan vibe to some of it, but you can overlook that. You also have to overlook the Dauphin’s robe, which he appeared to have nicked at a Comicon Wizarding convention. It was distracting.
In the second half, we get to the depressing part of the story. Short story, she is captured and sent to burn at the stake by the church. But that takes the second half of the show, and seems even longer. There is a lot of plaintive singing to a suddenly unresponsive God. A lot. There is a great  (and on purpose) camp number by the ensemble as charlatan priest and choir. But the campiness of that number makes you wonder if you should have been laughing during the entire production, and I don’t think that was the point.
Jo Lampert and the cast
From the very first scrim “…she resisted”, there is an overt political tone to the piece. The inequality of women versus men is highlighted. Joan also shows the corruptive price that power and pride bring. But this political tone is a bit undercut by the easy targets of the church and God, which is a feature of the story.
Joan of Arc Into The Fire is quite often interesting, powerful and exciting, but you are faced with a second half that is almost none of those things.
Joan Of Arc Into The Fire |Book, Music and Lyrics: David Byrne | Director: Alex Timbers | Cast:  Jo Lampert, Terence Archie, James Brown III, Jonathan Burke, Rodrick Covington, Sean Allan Krill, Mike McGowan, Dimitri Jospeh Moïse, Adam Perry, John Schiappa, Kyle Selig, Michael James Sahw, Mare Winningham, Mary Kate Morrisey

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Electrifying White Guy On The Bus Will Stay With You Long After You Leave


Robert Cuccioli and Danielle Leneé
There are some unsettling arguments in the first third of Bruce Graham’s terrific and powerful play, White Guy On The Bus. The arguments are unsettling for everyone on stage and most of us in the audience in that - are-WE-allowed to say that? - kind of way. But these questions are ultimately important because they go to the root of this incisive play.
Roz and Ray are a well off suburban white couple living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Ray is a financial numbers guy, ready to move to the next phase of life; maybe retirement, but definitely spending more quality time with his wife. Roz is perfectly content with their current life, lifestyle and work. She is a teacher in an urban, primarily poor, black high school. They are joined for drinks one night by Christopher and Molly, a younger couple. Christopher is the young man who was raised next door and views Ray and Roz as surrogate parents. Molly is his new wife, a teacher at an all girls, very rich private school.
The discussions in question revolve around Roz and Molly’s ideas towards minorities, the opportunities they have and the choices we all make. Roz is smart but unyielding, and delivers damning accusations under the banner of “telling it like it is.” Molly is a modern liberal who tries to defend her ideals against Roz’ real world experiences. The reason this argument is difficult to watch is that these are two white women of privilege, who both acknowledge it, and both make excellent arguments. 
The discussions they have is one that “nice” people don't have in public. This is make doubly clear by the efforts the men make to turn the conversation to other topics. What makes it even more angst producing, is that Roz is a better debater, more experienced and yet makes the more racially based points. The audience wants her to be wrong, even as you know she reaches out to change the world for the better more than we do or Molly can.
L-R: Susan McKey, Jessica Bedford, Robert Cuccioli and Jonathan Silver in WHITE GUY ON THE BUS. Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media Inc.
A concurrent story plays out with Ray, the numbers guy, riding a bus and starting a conversation and ultimately a friendship with a young black woman, Shatique. Ray is the White Guy On The Bus and Shatique is a single mother, attending nursing school to better her life. In the meantime, Shaitque's son lives with her own mother in a better neighborhood with a better school district until she finishes school.
Saying how these worlds intersect would give too much away. However, it is fair to say they don’t collide as expected, but meld like two spotlights ultimately ending up on the same target.
The acting here is fantastic. As Ray, Robert Cuccioli brings subtlety, passion and quiet depth to his role. Shatique is play by Danielle Leneé with a minimum of stereotyping and makes every moment feel real. Susan McKey plays Roz, perhaps the hardest role. Roz is a great teacher and is dedicated to her students, but still can be a harsh and prickly debater. Ms. McKey pulls this off well, with a huge hat tip to playwright Bruce Graham’s work. Jessica Bradford and Jonathan Silver do fine work as the younger couple Molly and Christopher, but their characters take a more obvious arc.
Director Bud Martin does a wonderful job with these actors, this delicate story and minimal staging. Keeping the pieces separate but intersecting is not easy, but he handles it with precision and aplomb. White Guy on The Bus is definitely worth the trip to 59 E 59 theaters. I promise it will stay with you long after you leave.
White Guy On The Bus | Playwright: Bruce Graham | Director: Bud Martin | Cast: Robert Cuccioli, Jessica Bedford, Danielle Leneé, Susan McKey, Jonathan Silver

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sunday In The Park With George is a Play About and A Work Of Art

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This show is spectacular. 
Sunday In The Park With George is a well known and seen musical. Start with a difficult, dissonant score by Stephen Sondheim and then add a definitive, widely viewed and heard recording by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin and you have the recipe for a disappointing revival. But the show in the newly restored Hudson Theater is the opposite of disappointing. It borders on revelatory.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford
Sunday In The Park With George is a musical about the fanatical drive of the artist Georges Seurat to create. And, in particular, to create his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Jake Gyllenhaal inhabits the character of Seurat with a fervor that is masterful and eloquent - and a voice that handles the score wonderfully. Annaleigh Ashford is Dot: his muse, lover, model companion and yet a distant second to his art.
This Sunday In The Park With George breaks past of its boundaries and is a joyful experience. This is a triumph of the actors and director, because most of the show isn’t about joy, it is about obsession, drive and containment.
The score mimics Seurat’s use of pointillism by creating harmony out of distinct notes. In Seurat’s paintings you have to step back to get the full effect. In this version of Sunday, the music is somehow less remote. The musical method of hammering single notes, endemic in the score, is used more sparingly by director Sarna LaPine. Instead, some of the songs blend the music together allowing the meaning and emotion to sail through.
And that emotional depth is where Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Ashford shine extra brightly. Seurat is captive to his art, expressing through it all of the emotions he cannot otherwise express. Even more challenging, his art isn’t emotional when you are close to it. You have to step back and view the whole to see the warmth and love. Mr. Gyllenhaal captures the love of the artist for his work and the dreams that people will judge him not by his actions, but by artistic results. And the disappointment when they cannot see what he sees.
In the first act, Seurat draws and paints a variety of individuals strolling in the park as his relationship with Dot grows and then grows apart. The vignettes reveal much about of the repressed and rigid class differences in Paris at the time. Propriety rules their lives, except for George and Dot. George is ruled by a passion for art, which can manifest as disinterest in his fellow man. Passion for George, and life itself, rule Dot. When these two cannot resolve their differences it isn’t a rejection, but rather an acceptance of their differences, a bittersweet acceptance.
At the end of act one, these individual interactions and sketches resolve into the painting as portrayed in a Tableau Vivant on stage. And then, the beauty and love Seurat had for these characters and their moments of individuality is obvious. And stunning.

The second act of Sunday takes place in the present - when a much younger George, perhaps the great-grandson of the painter, is delivering an artistic installation. Here Mr. Gyllenhaal plays the artist who has lost the fervor of creating art by the overwhelming pressure to fund art. It takes a trip back to Paris and the visit of the spirit of Dot to inspire him again. (And yes, for once, the Chromolune is handled amazingly.)
If you can, go see Sunday In The Park With George. It is one of those shows people will talk about for years. But be warned it is still Sondheim, and the people that hate his work won’t be persuaded by these.
(more pictures below - because I loved it)
Sunday In The Park With George | Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim, Book: James Lapine | Director: Sara Lapine | Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Annaleigh Ashford, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jenni Barber, Phillip Boykin, Mattea Conforti, Erin Davie, Claybourne Elder, Penny Fuller, Jordean Gelber, Robert Sean Leonard, Liz McCartney, Ruthie Ann  Miles, Ashley Park, Jennifer Snachez, David Turner, Max Chernin, Mayann Hu, Michale McElroy, Jaime Rosenstein, Julie Foldesi, Laura Irion, Andrew Kober


 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Disconcerting and Disquieting: Kid Victory Is Good But Isn’t Easy

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Kid Victory is the new musical from John Kander and Greg Pierce at the Vineyard Theater, and it is a doozy. It’s best to deal with the biggest item up front – this is NOT a musical that everyone will love.
Brandon Flynn
It is a fairly up and perky musical about a terribly conflicted story. Kid Victory is the story of Lucas’ reactions, upon his return to his family after being held in captivity for a year by a psychotic and probable sex criminal.

Yeah, there’s that. 
Brandon Flynn plays Lucas with fantastic depth, not just when acting but in reacting and even in repose. It is not the type of story one expects in a musical. Worse, there is the additionally layering of the fact that Lucas was flirting with the assailant before he was abducted - which isn’t the type of grey area normally explored in happy musicals.
The viewer’s ability to live with that particular story in a musical will define if you like the Kid Victory or not.  If you find the idea offensive, you might not be able to get past it. I very nearly walked out early, but I am glad I didn’t.
Kid Victory follows Lucas’ return to his home and small hometown after the experience. His parents (Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jankins) are dealing with his return, by not dealing with the experience. They try to help integrate him immediately back into his old life, which is impossible. His old friends and church acquaintances, which have taken on a large part of his parents’ life since his abduction, offer, too enthusiastically, to help. It is more than he can take.
Lucas takes a job with the town Bohemian, Dee Roscioli as Emily. Here he finds a sanctuary and friend. Little by little, we learn what happened to Lucas.  He meet a man in an online game, Michael (wonderfully creepy Jeffry Denman). The fact that Lucas met him willingly, although didn’t go with him willingly, is at the root of Lucas’ inability to deal with the abduction. There was also the unspoken, but obvious sexuality that was assumed in their meeting.
Kander and Pierce’s music is oddly out of place, and yet perfect for Kid Victory. Some numbers are whimsical and others are love songs of yearning, completely at odds with each other and the reactions we should have. They adds to the emotional dissonance of Kid Victory, which keeps the viewers from ever really being comfortable. For example, after some of the songs, the audience really wants to applaud, but is it appropriate to applaud in this environment?
Brandon Flynn and Dee Roscioli
Director Liesl Tommy has handled a truly odd show deftly. I can’t imagine Kid Victory ever finding a large audience, but I thought that about Next To Normal so my radar on that isn’t great. Ultimately, Kid Victory is a very good show, but not a great one - and I fear a great one would be needed to overcome the audience's squeamishness about the topic.
Kid Victory at The Vineyard Theater| Playwrights: Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Greg Pierce | Director: Liesl Tommy | Cast: Ann Arvia, Joel Blum, Laura Darrell, Jeffry Denman, Brandon Flynn, Daniel Jenkins, Dee Roscioli, Karen Ziemba, Blake Zolfo

A Tedious Loss of Faith In Man From Nebraska


Man From Nebraska is the 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist play from the amazing author Tracy Letts, author of August: Osage County. The audience’s enjoyment of this piece will depend on one’s tolerance for silence as identifier for desperation. For me, it the images and quiet desperation between the main characters was magical for 30 minutes, tedious for the next 30, then just annoying. Your mileage may vary.
Reed Birney is an amazing actor, and here – as Ken – he gives another fantastic performance as a man who has lost his faith. Unfortunately, it is the fantastic performance of a very passive man. While completely believable, sometimes you just want to slap him and scream, “Wake Up!”.
Annette O'Toole and Reed Birney in Man From Nebraska
The piece starts with Ken and his wife, Nancy, (Annette O’Toole – in an oddly written role) playing small vignettes with the minimal conversation. Nancy speaks a sentence or two and finds a comfort in their regular routine. Ken rarely speaks, but the audience can sense an undercurrent of dread and angst, even if Nancy can’t. Finally, but randomly, Ken breaks down one night and confesses to his wife he doesn’t believe in God anymore. In the middle of Baptist Nebraska, this terrifies Nancy.
Ultimately, after a lot of slow conversations with deep pauses, Ken decides to venture abroad in search of something. The Man From Nebraska finds a lot of the same angst in London, until he befriends Tamyra (a luminous Nana Menash) and adventure ensues. Ms. Boras gives a wonderful performance and livens the stage every moment she is on it.
Reed Birney and Nana Mensah in Tracy Lett's Man from Nebraska (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Without giving too much away, a rather obvious turn of events tumbles Ken back into his original life, but he is now transformed. Spiritually transformed, since his outward demeanor is passively the same.  All is tidied up by the final curtain. But it was a long slow slog back to the beginning.
In most traditional ways, it is a great play. The acting was perfect, the pace delivers what was piece calls for. Man From Nebraska is probably a great show, just not an enjoyable one.
It was a finalist for the Pulitzer, and the quiet, deliberate pace and mannerism will resonate with many people. The sets (Takeshi Kata), with one amazing exception, mimic the show; they are minimal and understated, showing up to emphasis the distance between people. Director David Cromer has succeed in delivering exactly what he wanted. The acting is uniformly first rate and the pace is very much at one with the show. If it sounds interesting, or if you are a Reed Birney fanatic, see it.
Man From Nebraska | Playwright: Tracy Leets | Director: David Cromer | Cast: Reed Birney, Annika Boras, Heidi Armbruster, Tom Bloom, Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Annette O’Toole, Kathleen Peirce, William Ragsdale

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fade Fails On Too Many Levels

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Full Disclosure: I am from Los Angeles and have friends – male, female, gay, straight, minority and white – that work in Hollywood. You may want to discount anything I write after this as coming from an insipid asshole – I am sure the playwright would.

Did you know that people in Los Angeles are vapid, sun worshipers that are too stupid to carry on a conversation, yet devious enough to stab each other in the back to get ahead? They only drive because that way they can be alone with their stupidity and as they plot to climb the studio ladder on  shoulders of their betters? That Hollywood is both a neighborhood and a suburb (as is all of Los Angeles) and is made up of only misogynist men and backstabbing co-workers (of both sexes)? Of course you do, you watch New York Theater and it is a constant source of humor.

Well, if you want to watch an hour and half of ranting about the evils of Los Angeles, coupled with complaints about appropriation and use of stereotypes of Hispanics, then rush down to the Cherry Lane Theater and watch Fade.
Annie Dow and Eddie Martinez in Fade @ The Cherry Lane Theater
I get it. I get that Fade is using the protagonist’s own stereotypes to comment on how we as a society are blind to our assumptions while often vilifying the actions of others. The “mote and the beam” set in Hollywood’s treatment of minorities. However, Spielbergian beating us about the head and shoulders to drive these points home is a bit much. And, the author’s visceral hatred of Los Angeles and the people in it are tiresome and distracting.

Fade is about a Mexican writer, Lucia, invited to work on a television show about a Latina lead. Lucia was hired in order to give the show authenticity. Annie Dow does fine work at Lucia. She seethes with righteous anger at the system, and tries to befriend the only other Hispanic on the lot, a janitor named Abel (wonderfully played by Eddie Martinez). Lucia’s original clumsy attempts to bond with Abel, because he is the only Hispanic she sees, are handled deftly by both actors. 

Lucia is frustrated because the (white, old, lazy) men in the writer’s room don't respect her and treat her like the help. It sounds particularly tone deaf as she explains how this is insulting to Abel, as he cleans her office (get it – irony). Ultimately she gets a chance to write and introduce to the show a three dimensional Hispanic man, and she goes to Able for help - because in her 24 years she has never met an actual person. They bond over Abel’s troubled past which he makes her promise not to use.

In a plot point so predictable it is painful, she uses Abel’s story for her own writing. She gets ahead in her job and moves up, because Hollywood rewards cheats. She becomes a power-bitch herself, dresses in pumps and power jumpsuits and loses the sweet girl from Mexico she thought she was.

I don't know if it is an economy of writing style, or a purposeful choice based on Lucia’s point of view or a habit from writing TV shows, but the plot as given is a problem in Fade. The only time Abel tells Lucia anything about himself, she immediately uses it in exactly the way she promised not to. Since months have passed, we can assume other things were said, but we don’t really see any of it. So when he gives his big reveal, you know she will make it her own. It is a bit like those old who dunnit TV shows, where the biggest guest start is the murderer.

Fade has some great acting, but a lot of sloppy stereotyping. Fade is stereotypically insulting against: Hispanics in general, Latina women in particular, white men and the city of Los Angeles. I enjoyed parts of the show, but I cannot recommend it. I kind of feel like this is an elaborate trick to see if someone will call out the show for stereotyping, even though it was written by an excellent Latina writer.

Fade | Playwright: Tanya Saracho | Director: Jerry Ruiz | Cast: Annie Dow, Eddie Martinez