Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

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 fa├žade 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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Paintings and Songs Enliven Dear Jane

The author of Dear Jane is Joan Beber, who has made a name for herself with her paintings and performance art. Here she is expanding into the territory of playwright and is not as successful. The best parts of Dear Jane are the imagery and paintings. These visual pieces tend to keep the continuity of the show together, working against a confusing non-linear and non-traditional structure.
Dear Jane is seemingly the story of the author, Joan Beber, here called Julie (Jenny Piersol). Juie is writing the story of her life in vignettes. Julie is a twin of Jane (Amada Rose), and many of the vignettes are framed as letters or discussion between the two women. We move in time between 1940s and the present as Julie grows up, gets married, gets divorced, gets degrees and creates art. The story is a reflection back onher own life.
This life story is told in a non-linear format, with jumps and starts in the order which the fictional Julie is ready to tackle her demons. Julie gives us clues as to what is important, what is still painful and what she has come to terms with. 
Jane (Amanda Rose) looks on as Julie (Jenny Peirsol) and her boyfriend Michael Romeo Ruocco  chat. Photo by Russ Rowland
This technique is further complicated by the manner in which the play is presented. Dear Jane is presented as a rehearsal by a community theater group. This gives the playwright the ability to not only reorder things in the play, but to change that reorder on the fly in this “rehearsal” and for everyone to step out of character. Either format, the non-linear storytelling or the rehearsal path, would be challenging, but together they force the audience to really work in order to follow the show. It is often not successful.
There are some touching moments, some beautiful singing and some very trite moments. Throughout the show, the specter of Jane haunts the stage. Sometimes Julie and Jane interact, sometimes they eye each other wistfully and sometimes Jane watches the proceedings with a detached bemusement. It is unclear if Dear Jane is an explanation, an apology or proclamation, and the wandering ghost of Jane doesn’t help clear it up.
Outside of Jane and Julie, the other five actors play various roles, major and minor. The acting is exceptionally good, but the characters are rather one dimensional – which makes sense since these are Julie’s remembrances of the characters. I found Dear Jane more rapid-fire musings than a fully realized play. I think the author’s background in performance art may not be serving her well in this medium.
Dear Jane | Playwright: Joan Beber | Director: Katrin Hilbe | Cast: Holly Cinnamon, Jon Kovach, Jenny Piersol, Amada Rose, Machael Romeo Ruocco, Brandon Timmons, Santina Umbach | Website

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Interviews with the Actors of Dickless (this month 59E59 and in August in Edinburgh Fringe)

The Road to Edinburgh for Dickless – Part 1
Last summer I watched a few plays being read at Mass Rhetoric, a showcase put on by the Fundamental Theater Project (link). One of those show in the early stages was Dickless, being performed by Lauren Downie and Tessa Fairey. I was impressed with the play and the players and so I was pleased to see that the Fundamental Theater Project is taking Dickless to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and showing it at 59E59 before it heads out.
Last week I sat down with Lauren Downie and Tessa Fairey, along with playwright Aisha Josiah, Director Jamie Sims and FTP Artistic Director Sam Underwood. We discussed Dickless, the process of creating the show and the road to Edinburgh. The interviews are not word for word here, but based on my recollection and summary.

What brought you to this piece originally?
Tessa Fairy: It is a pretty universal piece and a highly emotional journey by the characters. These characters represent the experiences we have all had.
Lauren Downie: When I do the piece, it is easy for me to use my own Scottish background, because I know people like these characters. People that are struggling and going through their problems.
TF: It’s the same for me. These characters can be found in England or Scotland or the US.
Aisha, did you do that purposely?
Aisha Josiah: No. (laughter) I mean I knew it was going to happen, but I wrote Dickless from my perspective. My mother is English and my father is American, so I never felt fully part of either culture. I am have always felt a little “different” from my peers and that comes through. And everyone, at some point, feels different. So that experience is universal.

From my perspective, the format of the play is very British. That is, a character talking to the audience; and not just talking to the audience like a one person play, but telling a story.
AJ: I never really thought of it that way, but my background is partially British, so maybe that’s it. And people have said my writing is more poetic than some of my American peers. I’m not sure that is a good thing.
Sam Underwood: Part of it, the British part, is a joy of language and story-telling. I think it goes back at least to Shakespeare, you see that we love telling a story, even when it is told by a single person.
Jamie Sims: Part of it is also the dynamics of the English system. We still have an active radio drama outlet in the BBC.
LD: You can see that a lot of the actors have done BBC radio dramas – where the voice inflection is the tool you have to use. So we are more comfortable using the format.
TF: And, from an acting point of view, it can be very powerful. The 59 E 59 theaters just put on Iphigenia in Splot and the audience reaction was excellent. (Note: Iphigenia in Splot was part of 59E59 theaters “Brits Off Broadway” program this year.)
LD: The audience and reception was great. Even though there were some idioms and jokes that the US audiences might have missed, the emotion came through and people loved it.
Lauren Downie and Tessa Fairey
Have you made a lot of changes since it was in your Mass Rhetoric show?
TF: Not a lot of changes. The biggest, of course, is that Lauren and I are alternating nights now instead of alternating halves with the character shift. That has required some rethinking to get our own voice.
LD: When we did the show first, we each started with a character. Even later when we shifted characters, you can’t help maintaining the choices the other actress did. I ended up doing the character of Saff in the same way that Tessa did. And she did the character of The Oli the same way I did, because I did it first.

So has that change be tough?
TF: It has a bit. It means that I have to find this person all over again. Jamie has been great with that. He has pushed me and Lauren to really give find that second character of our own.
LD: Jamie has been great doing that. And he came in late to the process, but he came right up to speed.

In part two, we will look at the change in directors, what the FTP has in mind for Edinburgh and the decision to showcase the play in New York before it head to Edinburgh.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Coming to Grips with Living

Marvin’s Room forces the audience to confront and reevaluate dying. Because dying is not dead. In 1990, when the play was written, tens of thousands of young men in the US were dying of AIDS. For hundreds of thousands of people, maybe more, dying was becoming a new normal. Dying, as it turns out, is still living. Marvin’s room isn’t about AIDs, but does address what dying means, how it affects us, how seeing death on the horizon focuses us to focus on the important things and overlook the small shit. But the intervening 25 years since Marvin's Room was written have taught all Americans all that lesson, over and over. The show has lost the urgency of the new but not found an emotion to replace it.
In Marvin’s Room, two sisters come together in the face of a probable terminal diagnosis. Bessie (Lilli Taylor) and Lee (Janeane Garofalo) haven’t seen each other in at least eighteen years. Bessie moved to Florida to care for their father and aunt who were both dying. Lee stayed in Ohio, had two sons, at least one horrible marriage and a run of very bad luck. Because of a recent diagnosis, Lee and her sons travel down to Florida to be with the family.
Jack DiFalco and Janeane Garofalo (photo Joan Marcus)
Bessie takes care of her father Marvin, a stroke victim 20 years ago – who remains unseen, but his occasional moans are heard from a room at the back of the stage, an ever-present reminder of death waiting just out of reach. She also takes care of her Aunt Ruth (Celia Weston) who was dying, but a cure was found; now Ruth isn’t confident on how to live. Lilli Taylor brings a simmering level of controlled frustration to the role. A child who was forced into a parental role at too young an age, Bessie lets out just enough annoyance so that her anger doesn’t explode. Lilli Taylor breaths a lot of expository in small moments.
Lee is an aging free-spirit with problems of her own. Her eldest son Hank (Jack DiFalco) is in an institution because he burnt down the family home, after a run in with Lee’s most recent partner. Lee and her other son are now living in a church basement.
Bessie is diagnosed with Leukemia, and Lee and the children travel down to Florida to be tested as bone marrow donors. Getting these various feuding family members together is easy, keeping them from fighting 24/7 is much harder.
Celia Weston and Lilli Taylor (photo: Joan Marcus)
Lille Taylor and Janeane Garofalo are excellent as the two sisters. Both try to control their resentment towards each other with varying levels of success. Celia Weston is perfect in the smaller role of self-aware crazy aunt – she brings a nice level of realness to a role that could easily lapse into caricature. Jack DeFalco as the young Hank is terrific. Hank is on the cusp of adulthood, with no role models and an anger issue. And, although he isn’t sick, his mother has given up their relationship for dead.
There are some problems with Marvin’s Room. The pacing of the first half is awkward, made worse by the sets and staging. The sets are sparse, and spread widely across the American Airlines Theatre stage - which seems to have grown to airplane hanger dimensions. This means that the characters tend to hike to the next scene. This delay is exacerbated by the more solitary moments in the first half, and a stage where everything spins, twists or rotates. We seem to watch solitary figures hike uphill quite often. In the second half, more characters and less churning yields a much better paced show.
Anne Kaufman, a virtuoso director off-Broadway, gets very nice performances form the cast, but still seems to be learning to deal with the size of the Broadway theater (and The American Airlines Theater is a tough stage in the best of times). Marvin’s Room is good, but doesn’t quit live up to the expectations one has for such a famous show. Plus, I don’t get the Flamingo.
Marvin’s Room | Playwright: Scott McPherson | Director: Anne Kauffman | Cast: Janeane Garofalo, Lilli Taylor, Celia Weston, Jack DiFalco, Carman Lacivita, Nedra McClyde, Luca Padovan, Triney Sandoval | Website

Friday, June 23, 2017

Emotions Bloom in Afterglow

Two things stand out starkly in Afterglow. First, that is a lot of naked male flesh up there having a really good time. Second, and this knowledge grows on you more slowly, there is amazing acting happening on stage.
Afterglow is the first play by writer / director S. Asher Gelman. It is the story of Josh and Alex, a married gay couple who are about 6 months away from having their first child. Josh and Alex have an open relationship. That is, Josh and Alex are allowed to have sex with other men, either together or separately, with only two rules. They must be honest and they can’t spend the night with a tryst, they have to come home before morning. Josh, played by Brandon Haagenson, is a dynamic 30-year-old theater professional. Alex, played by Robbie Simpson, is an equally handsome Chemistry post-grad student. They live in New York with plenty of money.
Brandon Haagenson, Patrick Riley (photo: Mati Gelman)
Afterglow opens immediately after a sexual encounter with a younger man, Darius, played by Patrick Reilly. In the afterglow of their tryst, charming banter, flirting and plans flow between the guys. Darius and Josh seem to hit if off exceptionally well, which Alex is accommodating of.
The rest of Afterglow proceeds on an expected path of growing affection between Darius and Josh, a growing feeling of alienation from Alex and a rocky ending for all. Afterglow comes complete with the occasional shower, plenty of witty banter, serious discussions, laughs and sex along the way. It sounds trite, but this cast brings a real sense of honesty and emotion to the proceedings. You can fully feel the growing bonds between all three of these men. And those slowly growing emotions make the audience have a real stake in what happens later in the show.
Reilly, Haagensen & Robbie Simpson (photo: Mati Gelman)
The copious nudity in the show also has a purpose, both metaphorical and factually. In the first few moments, the audience is hyper aware of their nudity. All three actors walk around nude quite a bit. Metaphorically, their emotional guards are down when they are unclothed. Adding clothes, the stereotypical gay outfits are used as shorthand to add a layer of detachment. Factually, the sheer amount of nudity early takes the titillation out of the images. We see these men and their emotions, not their body parts.

Having lavished praise on the show, let me call some attention to the drawbacks. First, Afterglow is rather traditionally moral. Monogamy may not work, by polyamory is not an answer – it will lead to problems for everyone involved and it’s often the result of a lopsided power relationship in a monogamous relationship. That may or may not be true, but it is presented as the way of the world here, and therefore the outcome is preordained.

Second, that is a lot of handsome, Caucasian flesh on stage. The actors reinforce that this “problem” - too many people to love, plenty of money and too many good-looking people to have sex with - is a bit more upper middle class whining than actual hardship.
I think some people may also have an issue with the length of Afterglow, it is a bit longer than two hours. I did not find it too long. I found the time excellently used to slowly build connections and honesty. This is writer / director Gelman’s first play, and I was extremely impressed by the work done here by everyone. A special shout out has to go to Scenic Designer Ann Beyersdorfer who did a truly spectacular job with the space. Afterglow is a bittersweet love story that will touch you.

Afterglow | Playwright & Director: S. Asher Gelman | Cast: Brandon Haagenson, Patrick Reilly, Robbie Simpson | link
Brandon Haagensen and Patrick Reilly (photo: Mati Gelman)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bastard Jones is a Great Ride

I’ll be honest, I had pretty low expectations going into The Bastard Jones. The Cell theater is not impressive; it is small with limited facilities. The lead, Evan Ruggiero, seemed stunt casting of an Ellen DeGeneres alumni. And, if the idea of a musical Tom Jones was so great, why hadn’t it been done before, the play is more than 360 years old!
Instead, I was blown away by an amazing cast, witty script and songs and one of the most purely fun evenings I have had in the theater in a long time. It is the story of Tom Jones – a bastard raised in the home of a country squire. Written as a response to the hypocritical puritans of King George the III’s time, it can be considered quite bawdy or extremely raunchy, depending on your puritanical moral compass. 

Tom Jones is blessed with a charming personality, a magnetic sexuality and endowed with a generous stamina. Being a bastard, he is not limited by societal norms in his ability to share his unique gift. Which is to say, the show doesn’t shy away from sex, silly sexual innuendos and dumb jokes, although there is almost nothing that is coercive (towards women at least) in the show.
Cast of The Bastard Jones photo: Carol Rosegg
Evan Ruggiero, far from being stunt casting, is fantastic as young Tom. He is young charming and happy; blessed with a great voice and a sly smile which make him perfect for the role. Elena Wang is Sophia, the beautiful Preacher’s daughter for which young Tom pines. She is a great actress with beautiful voice. Rene Ruiz is the narrator and master of ceremonies, before joining into the show, and he plays the audience like a virtuoso.
The entire cast is excellent, both funny and well voiced. However, a particular call out has to go to Crystal Lucas-Perry who can sing, saunter and connive with the best of them.
My biggest problem with the show was the length, at 2 ½ hours it is a long evening. And some of the songs were less than memorable, while others were wonderful. So, don’t go expecting a finely tuned and polished show. The props and set are improvised, the venue is small and gives off a “let’s put on a show” vibe.
What The Bastard Jones has is an energy that is wild, an extremely clever book, lyrics and music and the feeling that you are witnessing the start of something unique. Marc Acito has done a great job directing this cast and bringing the story to life.
The Bastard Jones | Book & Lyrics: Marc Acito, Music and Lyrics: Amy Engelhardt | Director: Marc Acito | Cast: Evan Ruggiero, Elena Wang, Alie B. Gorrie, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Matthew McGloin, Tony Perry, Rene Ruiz, Adam B. Shapiro, Cheryl Stern | Website

Evan Ruggiero as Tom Jones and Rene Ruiz (photo: Carol Rosegg)

1984 is a Hot Mess

1984 the book was ahead of its time, with a message that still resonates today. 1984 the play lifts a lot of the ideas from the book, which still resonate, but dresses those ideas up with gimmicks and waters them down with dirge-like precision and oppressive staging. We get it, the future sucks and the future is now.
Tom Sturridge is Winston, an everyman stuck in a future where reality and truth are no longer absolutes. He struggles to make sense of the world using logic and memory, two concepts that have lost all meaning in the world he faces. Oliva Wilde is Julia, another victim of the future, defies the government by living life to the fullest. Shortly after meeting and bedding Winston, her personality dissolves into being the female Winston with the same neurosis and unhappiness.
Olivia Wilde and Tom Sturridge enjoying a day at the office in 1984 (photo: Julieta Cervantes)
1984 is played without an intermission and breaks down into four rather distinct blocks of exposition and action. In the first part, Winston tries to understand the world he is faced with. It is a world that repeats endlessly, but not consistently. Drudgery and confusion are broken up by outbursts and Big Brother sponsored HATE sessions. This part of the show works best, by layering on confusion and an oppressive dread. Sparks of human interaction come to the fore, ebbing and flowing like tides. Ultimately, Julia presses Winston to break out of this recurring echo and escape with her for a meeting out of Big Brother's sight.
In the second block, Winston and Julia's relationship is established and grows. They find a modicum of happiness in a secret apartment, played offstage to cameras and projected high on a large screen above the sets. It feels partially live and partially pre-filmed but well edited. It is well done, but if I wanted to watch a movie, I wouldn’t be shelling out money to sit in the Hudson Theater.
The third block is a rather short set of transitional scenes where Winston and Julia meet with Party Official O’Brian (Reed Birney, excellent as always). Believing O’Brian is a member of the resistance, they pledge loyalty to the underground group that is fighting the government. Winston reads, to Julia, parts of the party’s manifesto from the projected off-stage area. He reads aloud the portions that relate to alternative reality and official lies that tie this show to the current political situation. The metaphors are delivered to the audience via sledge-hammer.
The fourth block is an overly long bit of torture porn, sure to thrill the sadists among us. A happy ending epilogue feels tacked on.
Reed Birney, Olivia Wild and Tom Sturridge (photo: Julieta Cervantes)
The problem with 1984 is that is honors the book too literally. The ideas behind the story and the lessons 1984 has to teach us are what make it relevant. It isn’t the fun house effects, the slipping, shifty narrative and certainly not the ham-handed torture scenes. 1984 spends a long time building our relationship to Winston, to then subject him to the physical tortures laid out in the book seems both cruel and too easy. We have created new cruelties that are less physical and might play better here.
The sets and lighting are clever but not illuminating. The projection system is overused. I understand that this production ran to great acclaim in London and may do the same here. But, if so, it is because we are starved in trying to make some sense out of our current political situation. 1984 is a too easy response.
1984 | Book: George Orwell, Adaptation: Robert Icke & Duncan Maxmillan| Directors: Robert Icke & Duncan Maxmillan | Cast: Tom Sturridge, Oliva Wilde, Reed Birney, Wayne Duvall, Carl Hendrick Louois, Nick Mills, Michael Potts, Cara Seymour | Website

The Limitations of Language Haunt In a Word

The new play, In a Word by Lauren Yee is raw beyond language. It is emotionally raw and true and painful and sometimes funny. It accomplishes a great deal in 80 swift minutes.
In a Word is the story of Fiona who is gut wrenchingly portrayed by Laura Ramadei. Fiona and her husband Guy (an excellent Jose Joaquin Perez) lost their son two years ago, and they haven’t been able to really talk to each other about it. Anger and guilt and frustration and self-preservation have thrown up a wall of silence between them. And in the two years since, neither has been able, or willing, to work through the silence.
Over the course of the play, the story of Tristan, their son, is told. How he came into their lives, how he disrupted their life and how they learned to accommodate him and their marriage. But now Guy is ready to talk and to start living again. Guy is ready to move on with his wife, but Fiona isn’t really ready to be a wife again.

Laura Ramadei, Jose Joaquin Perez (background Justin Mark) - photo Hunte Canning
Justin Mark plays Tristan (and a variety of other roles) with a painfully open honesty that is heartfelt and touching. He is terrific.
In a Word is not a linear play. Flashbacks tell us who these people are, how they got here, what changed and what they are missing. Any child will change a marriage. A difficult child will change a marriage a lot. A missing child may well destroy this one. The shifts in story are easy to understand, well laid out and bring a clarity to the piece.
The beauty of In a Word lies is demonstrating what cannot be expressed. Is there a word for heartbroken / relieved? Can you be sad / guilty / self-loathing and in love? Lauren Yee has written a wonderful play where the words are important, critical and still not enough. It is though provoking and intelligent.
Excellent direction by Tyne Rafaeli makes In a Word feel complete and satisfying from a story that might not be either. Some scenes are played and then replayed from different perspectives, with the listener hearing something different than what the speaker is saying. And yet, it is never confusing for the audience.
In a Word is lovely, sometimes funny, always sincere and moving. It makes me ache for the right words to explain it.
In A Word | Playwright: Lauren Yee | Director: Tyne Rafaeli | Cast: Jose Joaquin Perez, Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei | Website