Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Deal Comes Away with Laughs, But No Easy Answers

The world premiere of A Deal at Urban Stages occurs just as the play is staged also being staged in China and one can’t help but wonder what lessons the Chinese audience will take away. A Deal depends on looking at stereotypes and assumptions with fresh eyes. That is a tough, but valuable, thing to ask audiences to do.
The funny comedy is deceptively simple. Wei-Yin Lin plays Li Su, a Chinese national who has just recently graduated from Colombia’s Master of Fine Arts program. Her parents, only known as Mr. and Mrs. Li, are played by Alan Ariano and Lydia Gaston. Mr. Li is a relatively high-ranking member of the Communist Party and he has put away some money to buy an apartment in New York for his daughter. He and his wife come to New York to buy an apartment and surprise their daughter. Mrs. Li has found memories of the stage when she was a younger woman and sympathizes with her daughter's dreams. They play then follows the child and her parents on concurrent paths.
Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin and Alan Ariano in A Deal
Li Su gets to opportunity to play the lead role in an off-Broadway play about a tragic abandoned Chinese girl and the system she struggles to grow up in. In order to sell herself to the producers, she convinces the backers and show-goers that she herself is an orphan, a product of the very system they are exposing. It is a poorly sold tale, but one the American backers are happy to exploit. This leads not just to Li Su getting the part, but to  television appearances, panel discussions and relative fame. Her parents, who don’t understand English, are none the wiser.
Mr. and Mrs. Li, after being cheated out of a down payment in Shanghai, engage the services of Peter (Pun Bandhu) an old flame and acting partner of Mrs. Li, to help them find an apartment in New York. Peter left China years ago, and is now a real estate agent in New York. Their interaction revolves around trying to get them settled in the city and Peter’s devotion to Mrs. Li. Mr. Li is annoyed at the country, the city, his wife’s ex-partner and the lack of order that China provides. He also cannot understand the idea of “becoming” an American. The pull of understood versus unexpected and stability versus opportunity is amplified by the undercurrent of Peter’s affection for Mrs. Li and the conflict that creates with Mr. Li.
A Deal looks at the dichotomy of choices and outcomes between the old and the new. Not just defined as old equals China, but generation versus generation. The China which Peter left isn’t the China that Mr. and Mrs. Li live in now. Their stereotypes of America are reinforced, just American’s expectations of China are self-reinforcing. Playwright Zhu Yi does a great job of exploiting these assumptions for laughs, but still leaving enough steel underneath the laughs to make us question our assumptions.
Helen Coxe and Seth Moore pick up multiple roles in the show, and their great acting – as with the entire troupe, is critical for making the show work so well.
It is a very good play, and Zhu Yi will do great things. That said, there are some rough edges that will hit viewer. A Deal is made up of a series vignettes, and there are a lot of them for such a short show. Occasionally this makes the show a little choppy. Director John Giampietro does a great job of making them seamless, but there are still a lot of changes. The longer scenes just pack a deeper punch.
A Deal | Playwright: Zhu Yi | Director: John Giampietro | Cast: Alan Ariano, Pun Bandhu, Helen Coxe, Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin, Seth Moore | website

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meteor Shower is Comedic Comet – Luminous and Lovely, then Over

Meteor Shower is hilarious. It is one of the funniest shows I have seen on Broadway and one that fully utilizes the medium. It isn’t a transfer or remake or reimaginering of some other piece. It is a wholly unique show.
Writer Steve Martin has produced sympathetic roles that are stereotypical, somehow both over the top and completely believable. Director Jerry Zaks has let this perfect cast loose on these roles, letting them play broad without dissolving into farce.
Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos play married couple Corky and Norm, a married couple from Ojai (a small spa town in the foothills of the California Coast). Corky and Norm are aggressively normal, neurotic South Californians, complete with moments of confessional discussions of marital and personal aggressions. They even start the evening with a pre-wine, you know, the wine before the guests arrive - so it doesn’t count. They both play the “straight man” to the high wire act of craziness provided by Keegan-Michael Key and Laura Benanti.
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumber & Laura Benanti (photo: Michael Murphy)
Key and Benanti play Gerald and Laura, the supersaturated ids of competitive marriage. Gerald and Laura have been invited up to Ojai to watch a coming meteor shower, the darkness in the country more conducive than the city lights of Santa Barbara. They arrive with mayhem on their minds. There is pure joy watching Keegan-Michael Key pontificate on the relationship of the cosmos to his own self-worth. You are swept up in the pure, uncomfortable oddness of the moment.
Meteor Shower provides a bountiful accounting of how far very normal and nice people are willing to go to accommodate the unexpected. Then, after the first third or so, the play tilts your expectations and reruns some of the previous interaction from a slightly different angle, with slightly different results. The replay signals that the audience is in for an multilayered experience rather than a singular narrative.
Gerald and Laura enter again, with more exposition, but different results. The confusion of both Corky and Norm is now reflected by the audience. Here the play spins off into ever more dubious realities, which Schumer and Shamos struggle to cope with. The audience has no problem following, because each moment is funnier than the last.
Go see Meteor Shower to watch fantastic comedic acting. Amy Schumer is simply hilarious as Corky, but is matched by the cast. Everyone involved seems to bring out the best in each other. The laughs will stay with you a long time, the memory of the show might not.
Meteor Shower | Playwright: Steve Martin | Director: Jerry Zacks | Cast: Laura Benanti, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Schumer, Jeremy Shamos | website

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Life On The Road As Therapy

The Mad Ones, now on-stage at 59 E 59 Theaters, is a musical of both youthful exuberance and heartbreak. In a very non-New York centric way, it uses the analogy of cars and the road for freedom. For most of America, it is an obvious metaphor.  The title itself refers to the characters from Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The RoadThe Mad Ones are the freewheeling group that speaks to our heroine.
L-R: Emma Hunton (as Kelly) and Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown) in Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s THE MAD ONES at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Richard Termine
Samantha (Krystina Alabado) is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and all the emotional baggage that entails. She longs to be crazy and free - in general terms like the characters in Kerouac’s novel and, in specific, like her friend Kelly (Emma Hunton). She and Kelly have taken road trips, stayed out late talking through the night, and planned to chuck it all and just drive away. Kelly was Samantha’s best friend and instigator. But Kelly was killed right before graduation, and Samantha has been frozen since.
Samantha’s mother, Beverly (Leah Hocking), is a dynamic professor, brilliant woman and overly protective single mother. She wants Samantha, High School Valedictorian, to attend an Ivy League school and become a success. Samantha is pulled between the future her mother wants and the future her friend Kelly offers. Thrown into the mix is her unobtrusive and supportive, if a bit dim, boyfriend Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Adam is just “there” for Samantha, the sweet boy without an agenda, unloved both Kelly and her mother.
These competing forces converge one night as Samantha is about to drive away from home, maybe to college, maybe just drive away. She sits caught between the competing visions of her future. The Mad Ones is a musical set against these competing visions, and the cast has the pipes to carry the show beautifully. Each actor has at least one moment in song that is touching, but the stars of this show are Krystina Alabado and Emma Hunton. Their voices are wonderful and their scenes together are a joy.
But this combination is also key to the drawback of The Mad Ones. Together, Kelly drives Sam into action. However, when alone, Samantha is a passive character. True, she longs for something, that something is frustratingly undefined. Samantha is a reactive creature: reacting to her friend, her mother or her boyfriend in turn. When alone, her youthful confusion has a tendency to turn into whining.
Most of the songs (Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk) are very good: catchy and fun or serious and soulful. There is an overreliance on the metaphor of a car as freedom, which grinds after a while. The sparse direction of Stephen Brackett is perfect for the space here. It is a spare story in a spare space and he allows the actors to fill it with pathos and song. The Mad Ones may not make you wish for a road trip, but you definitely want the best for our little Sam, all grown up now.
The Mad Ones | Book, Lyrics & Music: Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk | Director: Stephen Brackett | Cast: Krystina Alabado, Leah Hocking, Emma Hunton, Jay Armstrong Johnson | Website

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Off Broadway News Nov 15, 2017

The Drama League has revamped and expanded their “DirectorFest” festival. Taken place from January 13 – 22nd, it will showcase the new directors that have been working with the Drama League for the past year. In its 34th year, the festival will include five fully-staged productions, a showcase evening of new musicals, staged readings, discussion panels, books signings, workshops and conversations with America’s most notable directors.
Taking place over two weeks in venues across Manhattan, highlights of the festival include rarely-seen plays by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Enda Walsh (Once: The Musical), new works by Gabrielle Reisman, Alejandro Ricaño and more, all directed by the 2017 Drama League Directors Project Fellows: Laura Brandel, Bonnie Gabel, Matt Dickson, Flordelino Lagundino, and Rebecca Martinez.  Chosen last spring from over 330 applicants nationwide, these five visionary emerging directors recently completed their year of mentorship, assistantships, training and career development as part of The Drama League Directors Project.

Interesting Small Work “Foreign and Domestic” to play LES Nov 17 – 19
This looks interesting:
"Foreign & Domestic" is a 20-minute play that follows Lucy, an Argentinian immigrant living in NYC, who is forced to introduce her new boyfriend, all-American Jake to her closest friends - all of whom happen to be aliens.
Power play, immigration talk and war of the accents ensue!
There are FIVE consecutive shows each night, starting at 8pm. Tickets are $5 and are sold at the door (cash only). Please make sure to get there with enough time since the space only allows FIFTEEN audience members for each show.”
David Hyde Pierce Headlines a Benefit Reading of A Christmas Carol
David Hyde Pierce is doing a benefit reading of a Christmas Carol on Dec 11th.  There is some amazing talent with him: John Glover, Harriet Harris, Edward Hibbert, Julie White, Kathryn Meisle, Brian Reddy, Richard Topol and the Brooklyn Boys Choir. It is a benefit for The Acting Company.

Sam Underwood Reprises Losing Days

Sam Underwood, a favorite from stage and television, will be at 54 Below on Monday Dec 4th in Losing Days. Losing Days is a one man musical theater piece Mr. Underwood performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It gives New York audiences a chance to see this well received show and another chance to hear Mr. Underwood's voice - always welcome.
The show at 54 Below has been updated to include “The Boxroom Larrys”. And, part of the proceeds will go to a mental health organization.  See it if you can.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Romance Doesn’t Fit in a Trapezoid

The idea behind Romantic Trapezoid is interesting - it is an updated take on a 1930s sex comedy, complete with gender role reversal. The lead male character, Dave, teaches film, so the call backs make sense. Unfortunately the show never takes off.
The trapezoid is thus: Melissa (Elizabeth Inghram) is a sexy confident writer who enjoys the company of Dave, three nights a week, and other men other times. Dave (Zack Calhoon) is a love-struck mensch who wants to marry and settle down with Melissa. He has the Miriam Hopkins role here, hopelessly in love with Melissa and unable to force the her into marriage. Beth is the final part of the Trapezoid (all the other men are in one corner). Beth (Joy Donze) is Dave’s graduate assistant, who states she wants to marry Dave so Melissa better decide to take him or leave him. It isn’t clear if Beth is actually in love with Dave or if this is a ruse of Dave’s to force Melissa’s hand. You see, Melissa has the Clark Gable role here: handsome, suave and sure of herself and her sex appeal.  But just like poor dumb Clark Gable, she falls for the ruse, even though she knows it might be a ruse and all is wrapped up by the final reel.
Elizabeth Inghram and Joy Donze
But... a 1930s sex romp can be excused for not showing any sex. Romantic Trapezoid is  surprisingly lacking in romance or sex. And, in the black and white movies, it is funny to see a man get played by a woman. However, in person, it is a little creepy seeing a woman being manipulated by a man into marriage.
Wedging Dave into the role of impotent love toy is both unrealistic and unappealing. Poor Mr. Calhoon is called on to be a wimp, a stud, fun and a killjoy almost concurrently. Then, he is called on to give old movie dialog with a wink and a nod. It does not work. Melissa has an easier time of being a sexy but ungrateful louche. But her transition to jealousy is too generic to be fun.
Joy Donze is the only cast member with a believable story and she makes the most of it. Ms. Donze luxuriates in a role that might have been a throw away. She is hilarious.
Romantic Trapezoid tries to pull off a high wire act of witty banter winning out, just like in the movies. When it works it sparkles, but it doesn’t work enough.
Romantic Trapezoid | Playwright: Victor L. Cahn |  Director: Alberto Bonilla | Cast: Zack Calhoon, Joy Donze, Elizabeth Inghram | website

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Junk Revels in Nihilism

Junk, now playing at the Lincoln Center, is a play full of fantastic acting, interesting staging and intelligent writing. Unfortunately, it is also a depressing call back to the worst of the 1980’s that holds up a fun house mirror to today’s issues, making that horrible time look quaint by comparison. It is not a pleasant evening. Your tolerance for Junk will depend on how much you can appreciate great actors being horrible people.
The story is complex, but not complicated. At its essence, Junk tells the tale of a corporate raider, his lawyer, and the acquiring firm’s CEO and their struggle to acquire a steel conglomerate listed on the Dow Jones. These three are played excellently by Steven Psaquale, Matthew Saldivar and Matthew Rauch, respectively. Steven Pasquale is Robert Merkin, the new Time Magazine Cover Boy of junk bonds and leveraged debt. For Robert Merkin, takeovers are both personal and professional. As a Jewish man, he witnessed his father’s rejection by the (WASP) Wall Street power brokers. Today, his drive and desire to rip apart that world is equal parts revenge, greed and Napoleon complex.
Hunter and Prey - Steven Psaquale and Rick Holmes in Junk (Henry Stram- upstage right)
Rick Holmes is Thomas Everton Jr., CEO of Everton Steel, the takeover target. He is a nice guy CEO, although he may be cooking the books a little to save steel jobs in his hometown. His two lawyers are a Jewish man and an African American Woman (Henry Stram and Ito Aghayere) who try to explain the new paradigm of debt financing and the threat to his company. Everton is too rigid, too sentimental and a little too bigoted to make it in this new cut-throat world.
The final leg of the triangle of players is a Chinese American journalist (Teresa Avia Lim) and rich old white power player Leo Tressler (Michael Siberry - who is wonderfully morally superior). These characters provide the extensive exposition and creepy sexual politics.
There are a lot of shades of grey in the morality of this show, but not in the manner you’re used to seeing. Normally shades of grey define the mental conflict of the good vs. the bad guys. Here, everyone is a greedy S.O.B., there are no good guys. The grey here is displayed as some of the characters are, occasionally, less morally bankrupt than others.  America, as defined by Junk, is a fight between greedy upstarts with grudges to bear - who delight in humiliating their enemies, versus greedy white male racists. Women fare poorly, each one in Junk sells out her principals for money or power, often both. Men fare worse, only because there are more of them who provide a greater variety of repulsive moral traits.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar and director Doug Hughes do a fantastic job of explaining the way takeovers are financed, the impacts of “creative destruction” and showing that everyone in America is complicit. Junk might have provided an apt warning against smugness if Hillary Clinton had won the election. In the current political environment, however, it just feels like gratuitous piling on.  The American Dream is dead, we get it.
Junk | Playwright: Ayad Akhtar | Director: Doug Hughes | Cast: Steven Pasquale, Teresa Avia Lim, Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Rick Homes, Henry Stram, Ito Aghayere, Michael Siberry, Joey Slotnick | Lincoln Center Website for Junk

Boys In The Band Revival - (hat tip - Towleroad)

This news from Towleroad (link)

I have to say, I am of a mixed mind on this.

It is an amazing cast. And it is being directed by Joe Mantello - whom I admire as a great director.

But it is a painfully dated show, and ran when there was lots and lots of self-loathing by the Gay Community. And when there was no Transsexual or Bisexual communities.

If properly updated, this might be great.

If not updated, it is a bitch-fest cat fight that will make Kevin Spacey look like the height of enlightened homosexual.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Lee Pace Joins Angels in America!

Well dang.

I pretty much decided I did not need to see the new Angels in America. I know it has Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, but I still was able to pass it up.

I mean I have seen Nathan Lane (a great stage actor) in multiple roles. I have seen Angles in America a few times - included the original in Los Angeles before it transferred to Broadway.

And, although I really do admire Nathan Lane, Ron Liebman  will always be Roy Cohen to me.

But Lee Pace as Joe Pitt.  I LOVE Lee Pace. And I think he would be amazing in that role, which is very difficult (and made Joe Mantello).

So, there you go.  Now I am going.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The War That Remains After the Shooting Stops

Outside Paducah, The Wars at Home, is a searing set of vignettes written and performed by J. A. Moad II about the effects of recent and current wars across generations of boys and men. Outside of these stories, Mr. Moad has been key in getting the stories of veterans told in public. He has worked with the state of Minnesota and now New York to get the stories from Veterans told. With Outside Paducah he presents three stories that are poignant without being overly sentimental or graphic. Instead, Mr. Moad explores the emotions raised by military duty, both on the veteran, and the immediate family.
J.A. Moad II in OUTSIDE PADUCAH: THE WARS AT HOME, at the wild project, produced by Poetic Theater Productions. Projections by Lisa Renkel. Photo by Hunter Canning
The first story is told by the seven-year-old son of a veteran with a traumatic brain injury. The young boy’s family is moving to be closer to a VA hospital. He tries to make sense of a father who wails at night, a mother who won’t share all the information and his impending move from his friends and everything he knows. This story is perhaps the weakest of the three. Not in the story or the telling, but because Mr. Moad does not make an especially believable seven-year-old boy.
The second story is one side of a discussion for a bank loan for a father of an Iraqi veteran. This story is painful piece watching this man trying to come to terms with the world that has ruined the happy young man that his son was before the war. Mr. Moad transforms into the broken father right in front of the audience.
The final story is told by an Iraqi veteran who comes back to his old town, visiting a bar - one of the few places that hasn’t dried up back home. Here he tries to reconcile the desolation of his hometown and the mental state of his friend, with what he has been through in Iraq. His angst, confusion and memories compete to dominate his response. It is the best piece, both in writing and in Mr. Moad’s acting.
Each individual moment in Outside Paducah plays out with honesty and intimacy. Leah Cooper directed this piece well, including an effective, but not overwhelming, use of imagery and music.
Outside Paducah, The Wars At Home | Playwright: J. A. Moad II | Director: Leah Cooper | Cast: J. A. Moad II | website

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Too Personal Love Letter to Peter Pan

For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is obviously a personal and heart-felt play that is an homage to the playwright’s mother. As a personal valentine to her parents, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is sweet and touching. For anyone not related to that family, or intimately acquainted with this type of family, the play is emotionally remote.
The amazing Kathleen Chalfant plays lead character Ann so well that she often brings the audience with her on the journey. When For Peter Pan works, it does so because of the actors, particular Ms. Chalfant.
The story follows five siblings at the time of their father’s death. In the first third of the play, a group of siblings arrive at a mid-west hospital. There are three boys and two girls – David Chandler, David Jenkins, Keith Reddin, Lisa Emery and Ms Chalfant - to share their family vigil at father’s hospital bedside. This is an extended mid-west family of Catholics, a few now lapsed. Two of the sons are now doctors, but all five feel the weight of helplessness as they watch their father waste away. For a very long time he wastes away. It is a scene of worry and tedium, occasionally spiked with moments of panic.
 Ron Crawford, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Lisa Emory, Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel Jenkins

The second third of the show moves to a small wake around a dinner table. The five siblings discuss religion, the afterlife, growing up and their place in the family. During this discussion, the ghost of their father and the family dog meander about illustrating either that memories are what matters or that the afterlife is truly banal.
With no conclusion to the wake, except time to go to bed, the play transitions to the final third. Here Ann dons the Peter Pan outfit she wore in 1955 and replays part of the story with her siblings. It doesn’t take long to understand that Ann is dying, and this is her way of saying goodbye.
For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is inconsistent in both tone and pacing, which tries the patience of the audience. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The five actors are excellent, but the script calls out for something more. Why is the sprawling, extended family of spouses and children entirely missing from the action when the dead dog makes a few entrances?
Playwright Sarah Ruhl has written a work that will touch a few people deeply, but misses a larger target. Director Les Waters pulls a lot from the actors, but the entire thing didn’t amount to  
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday | Playwright: Sarah Ruhl | Director: Les Waters | Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, David Chandler, Ron Crawford, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Evolution of a Family Scorches Us in The Wide World

Simon Stephen’s new play, On the Shore of the Wide World, at the Atlantic Theater, rumbles up behind you slowly, over a series of short scenes. The play investigates three generations of the Holmes family, from a small town near Manchester England, by charting the relationship of the youngest generations’ Alex and his girlfriend Sarah.
Alex and Sarah seem an odd pair at first; he is a bit socially awkward around girls and she is a dynamo. Ben Rosenfield plays Alex, charting the characters growth over the course of the show from teenager to young man emotionally. Tedra Millan is wonderful as Sarah, barely changing her character in any obvious way over the course of the play, yet deepening Sarah at every step. Wesley Zurick is quite brilliant as the younger brother Christopher.  Alex introduces Sarah to the family, his father Peter (C.J. Wilson) and mother Alice (Mary McCann) in addition to brother Christopher.    
C. J. Wilson, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfield and May McCann (photo from Atlantic Theater Group)
The parents have fallen into a rut and the excitement of their son’s new love is both scary and frustrating. Their emotional drifting deepens as Alex’s relationship’s growth and they watch a repeat of their love, but now detached. Both long for that first rush of love, but can’t fully put it into words. Medical issues in the family make inevitable conflicts more urgent.
Bonnie Blair and Peter Maloney, two excellent actors, play the grandparents. If Peter and Alice recognize themselves at a different age in their son’s life, the grandparents are beyond even that. Their relationship has atrophied into habit and entropy.
Alex and Sarah set out for the wild world (London) and trigger introspection by the rest of the family, who have all settled into a pre-ordained life. Peter ends up having discussions, the ones he should have with his wife, with a young client. Alice finds emotional comfort from a man she hardly knows. A medical issue forces the grandfather to confront his own life and shortcomings.
On the Shore of the Wide World makes an interesting argument very subtly. That is, relationships follow a path, and we have to remember to not let that path become a rut. Peter and Alice struggle to change their family for the better, even when quite frustrated. Their inability to communicate is, at times, infuriating, but recognizable. Director Neil Pepe does a deft job of handling the multiple scenes without confusion or noise, letting the actors dominate a busy play.
On the Shore of the Wide World | Playwright: Simon Stephens | Director: Neil Pepe | Cast: Blair Brown, Odiseas Georgiadis, Peter Maloney, Mary McCann, LeRoy McClain, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfield, C. J. Wilson, Amelia Workman, Wesley Zurick | website

Monday, September 11, 2017

Hatred and Judgment Never Go Out Of Style

In the updated Suzan-Lori Parks’ play, Fucking A, the themes and character names from Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter make a return engagement in a bitter and dystopian future. Christine Lahti, embattled and angry, does a remarkable turn bring Hester Smith to life in Fucking A.
Brandon Victor Dixon and Christine Lahti (photo by Joan Marcus)
Hester and her son once worked for a rich family, before Hester was branded with an A - for Abortionist. Hester’s son illegally ate some of the family’s food, and was turned in to the authorities by the rich family's young daughter. Hester's son went to prison, a common story in this time and place, and Hester was given the option of forgetting about him or becoming an abortionist to try to work and pay off his debt. 
Hester works hard, saves her money and, with help from Canary Mary (a terrific Joaquina Kulukango) raises the funds to try and see her son. The fees to visit him, much less get him released from jail, keep increasing as he commits more infractions behind bars.
Meanwhile Canary Mary is carrying on an affair with the Mayor, whose wife cannot bear a child. Marc Kudisch and Elizabeth Stanley play the Mayor and his wife. And while the Mayor’s wife cannot conceive, the rest of the town’s people conceive too often, providing Hester with an endless stream of clients. Those clients, like Mary and Hester, speak a female centric “talk” language when keeping comments from prying male ears; or even when saying things out loud that are too wrenching to say in English.
Hester’s son, now called only Monster, escapes prison and comes back to the town; trying to make some connection, but falling back into crime. Brandon Victor Dixon is magnetic and haunting as Monster, a young man twisted into a caricature of himself by the world around him. The “talk”, the cast system, the reduction of minor criminals to monsters, and the public use of AND shaming of an Abortionist bring a tone of political familiarity and dread. Echoes of our current moral situation are impossible to miss. And the system makes everyone a loser.
Fucking A is an updated The Scarlet Letter, so things do not end well, but the twisted result honors Nathanial Hawthorne’s work. Director Jo Bonney gets great performances from the cast, and the pacing of this piece works beautifully.
Fucking A | Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks | Director: Jo Bonney | Cast: J. Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudish, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley, Raphael Nash Thompson | website

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Baroness is a Verbal Symphony, a True Story of Passion and Art

Dee Pelletier is pulling off a brilliant turn as Karen Blixen in The Baroness, Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair at the Clurman Theater. Karen Blixen (English pen name Isak Dinesen) was the author / protagonist in the book and movie Out of Africa. In The Baroness she is a force of nature, barely held in check by the surroundings of her home in Denmark.
The Baroness begins with the introduction of a renowned young author / poet, Thorkild Bjornvig – the Doctor she calls him, to living legend Karen Blixen. Thorkild (Conrad Ardelius) is, at first, honored by the meeting. But the business meeting soon transforms into something more. Exactly what that more is both obvious and dangerous. Thorkild and Karen begin an affair of the mind and soul. A sensual dance that isn’t consummated in the physical sense, but is overpowering emotionally. The Baroness becomes his mentor, guide and scold; pushing Thorkild through his writer’s block by forcing him to live her ideal of an artist’s life.
Conrad Ardelius and Dee Pelletier (photo by Ellinor Dei Lorenzo)
Throkild grows and flourishes under her direction. He begins to write more and morphs into a more emotionally aware individual. He also pulls out the best of Karen and sees past her façade of the Baroness. Their relationship vacillates between mentor, teacher and lover moment by moment. It is a captivating story and Dee Pelletier brings Karen Blixen alive in performance that is thoughtful, touching, compassionate and bitter in various turns.
The relationship ultimately begins to flounder on the inconsistency of Karen’s desires and Thorkild’s inability to meet her evolving demands. Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson) appears occasionally as Karen’s friend and the wife of Thorkild’s benefactor. Benedicte sees through Karen’s manipulation of this young artist, but is powerless to change the story’s trajectory.
Conrad Ardelius’ performance is difficult to judge at first. Thorkild is, in the beginning, stiff and tentative in his interactions with this famous whirlwind of a persona, which translates to a stiff performance. It isn’t until the final few scenes that Mr. Ardelius is allowed to fully break free from the constraints of Thorkild’s early life and we see flashes of brilliance in the Doctor, the man the Baroness has shaped.
The Baroness, Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair was written by Thor Bjorn Krebs, based on the detritus of the two characters' life together: the letters, stories and books about their friendship. It has been translated by Kim Dambaek, so I cannot give the full credit to either, but the combined writing flows beautifully. Henning Hegland directs this tale with a light touch, never making either character a paragon of virtue or caricature of temptation.
The Baroness, Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair | Playwright: Thor Bjorn Krebs, Translation: Kim Dambaek | Director: Henning Hegland | Cast: Dee Pelletier, Conrad Ardelius, Vanessa Johansson | website

Friday, September 1, 2017

Heady Humor Files in Charolais

Charolais is a rare thing, a whip-smart play masquerading a simple story. Sweetly written and performed by Noni Stapleton, Charolais is the tale of a love triangle – or maybe more than one triangle.
Noni Stapleton plays Siobhan, a big hearted Irish lass who is employed to help with the administrative side of a family farm. The farm is run by a strapping son and his embittered mother. Siobhan falls for the son, Jimmy, after watching him wrangle a cow out of a muddy field. And, oh, how she would like to be that cow... wrapped in Jimmy’s strong arms being gently rocked back and forth until free.
Noni Stapleton in CHAROLAIS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning
 Jimmy and Siobhan, thrown together in work, are soon enough together in the biblical sense as well. And, good Irish folk that they are, not long after Siobhan is with child, albeit without husband. Yet. Siobhan imagines a future of happy farm family, but two things stand in her way. The most formidable is Jimmy’s mother. Jimmy’s mum is not generally receptive to Siobhan in the best of times, and Jimmy is worried how she will react to Siobhan’s news.
Less obviously formidable, but with a greater hold on Jimmy’s heart is the beautiful Charolais cow. Jimmy has a devotion to that cow that frustrates and later infuriates Siobhan. It is a nearly unbreakable bond, so what is Siobhan supposed to do?
Telling more might ruin the story of Charolais, and the story is pitch perfect with a few surprises left. How much of this terrific play and pacing is director / developer Bairbre Ni Chaoimh’s work and how much is Noni Stapleton’s is hard to judge. But it is easy to judge that the final project is impressive in humor, scope and heart .
Charolais | Playwright: Noni Stapleton | Director: Baribre Ni Chaoimh | Cast: Noni Stapleton |website

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Would You Want to Know Your Future?

Bruce Norris’ A Parallelogram is a tightly written, fascinating exploration of one of life’s “big questions”. What difference would it make to you if you knew your own future. In particular to know that your future was pretty much set. Would it frustrate you, gnaw at you and effect your next actions? Would you bother still going through the motions? Could you change what has been precast? Can you be a better person if you tried?

Director Michael Grief takes this idea and runs with it, and aided by a terrific cast. Celia Keenan-Bolger is Bee, the woman who learns what her future holds. She struggles against what is to come, alternating between passivity and annoyance that she can’t change it in any major way. Stephen Kunken is Jay, her boyfriend and the unfortunate recipient of most of Bee’s frustration. Julian Castano is JJ, the Latino young man who loves Bee with all her quirks. And Anita Gillette is the older Bee, back to watch and talk with her younger self.
Stephen Kunken, Juan Castano, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Anita Gillette (phto: Joan Marcus)

In the first act, older Bee can only be seen by younger Bee. Other characters can neither see nor hear her. Jay gets a whiff of her cigarette smoke and keeps accusing younger Bee of smoking, causing one of those minor tiffs that blow up into a major argument. When Bee finally tells Jay what is happening he is, obviously, dubious.

The scene then shifts forward a few months. Bee is in the hospital, being tested for delusions. She has sunk into a depression. Jay is trying to help, in his own self-involved and clumsy way. JJ has gotten more entwined with their lives and Bee shows up, this time as a Doctor. Younger Bee recognizes her, and the two women (or one woman from two different times) verbally spar some more. Less about the present situation than the future they share.  To younger Bee’s frustration, the Doctor version of her adds asides and jokes that only the younger version can hear. She says things about Jay to his face, but only younger Bee hears them. Which raises the question is this real or an actual delusion?

I loved A Parallelogram right up until the last 60 seconds. If it had ended 1 minute earlier I could honestly say it was a great show. But the coda took out the key fulcrum of the play, was this real or a delusion. And it ripped the question of personal responsibility away. I am frustrated here. I want you to see this excellent show, but I passionately want them to remove the last 60 seconds. It makes a great show a bit of a time-wasting muddle.

A Parallelogram | Playwright: Bruce Norris | Director: Michael Grief | Cast: Juan Castano, Anita Gillette, Celia Keenan-Bloger, Stephen Kuken | website