Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Incredible Journey of Mr. Toole

You don’t have to read the Pulitzer Prize winning book A Confederacy of Dunces to have a great time at the show Mr. Toole. The show stands perfectly well on its on without reading Mr. Toole’s hilarious and Pulitzer Prize winning book. As a matter of fact, a remarkable amount of the story takes place after Mr. Toole himself leaves the scene. For a lover of the book, this is no surprise. A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously, and Mr. Toole tells the tale.

Ryan Spahn and Linda Purl in Mr. Toole
Ryan Spahn plays John Kennedy Toole- called Ken, returned from the army and teaching poetry at a girl’s college, while writing at night. He lives with his parents, his mother Thelma (Linda Purl in an epic turn) and his father John (well played by Stephen Schnetzer). Mother Thelma lives through her son in a possessive and suffocating manner. Ken is stuck at home, unable to afford leaving either financially or emotionally.

Ken is despondently alone, despite a gay love life and students that adore him. One young lady in particularly, Lisette (Julia Randall) has a crush on him and his writing that endures. He cannot break from his mother, even after Simon and Schuster show an interest in is novel. That interest results in two arduous years of rewrites that ultimately result in a final rejection which destroys him.

Thelma at a loss for purpose, then takes up the task of getting his novel published. Her single-minded determination destroys her marriage, her health and nearly her life. Her brother Arthur (Thomas G. Waites) saves her from a nursing home. But she is redeemed, in the end, by another writer, Walker Percy (John Ingle). Mr. Percy helps her to get the story published.

Mr. Toole is a wonderful experience, albeit not perfect. It is a little long, and the use of dual read poetry was superfluous for me. But these are minor issues in a show I adored. Playwright Vivian Neuwirth brings complex emotions to the fore and Director Cat Parker keeps the show moving briskly along.

Mr. Toole
Playwright: Vivian Neuwirth | Director: Cat Parker | Cast: Julia Randall, Ryan Spahn, Thomas G. Waites, Linda Purl, Stephen Schnetzer, John Ingle

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Sabbath Girl Delights at 59E59

The Sabbath Girl, now at 59E59 theaters, is a wonderful little romantic comedy of a show.  It starts Lauren Annunziata as Angie, a together young lady with a desire able job at a gallery and a brand-new apartment. As she shows off the apartment to her grandmother, Angelina Fiordellisi, we can feel the happiness.

She is interrupted from setting up her place by a knock on the door. This introduces Seth, Jeremy Rische, her neighbor. Seth is looking for the old occupant, who would sometimes help him on the sabbath. And now we have the New York meet cute. Together young girl, in her first apartment without roommates, and shy, adorable Orthodox Jewish man who needs help. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is going, but it is a sparkling journey none the less.

The Sabbath Girl with Lauren Annunziata and Ty Molbak

The complications are raised by Ty Molbak as Blake, a hot new artist Angie is trying to get at the gallery and Laura Singerman as Seth’s sister, Rachel. Ty is a great flirt, sexual and interesting, a far cry from the overbearing and obnoxious suitors in most rom-coms. It is great choice as we see Angie’s interest in this man grow.

Seth’s sister, Rachel, on the other hand, is a bit more formulaic. She does not approve of Seth’s attraction to a woman outside of their world and is not pleased. Rachel attributes Seth’s interest in Angie as a response to a bitter divorce and failing in his faith. Both obstacles are overcome in The Sabbath Girl that runs along quickly and well-paced. It is a smooth 85 minutes, but never feels rushed.

The older voice of sanity here is grandmother Nona, played by experienced performer Angelina Fiordellisi. Nona is Angie’s sounding board and confidante. She offers reasonable advice, a shoulder to lean on and is a constant reminder of the happiness real love can bring.

The Sabbath Girl was written by Cary Gitter and directed beautifully by Joe Brancato. If you are looking for a nice evening out, The Sabbath Girl is great. And, if you see it with someone you love, it is even better.

The Sabbath Girl
Playwright: Cary Gitter | Director: Joe Brancato | Cast: Lauren Annunziata, Angelina Fiordellisi, Ty Molbak, Jeremy Richse, Lauren Singerman

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Aren't Roommates the Worst? - The Commons

There is a certain humor in The Commons that will appeal to many people. It is that type of mean spirited, uncomfortable humor that borders on bullying, but is okay since it is on stage because we know the characters aren’t real. Usually played out in family serio-comedies where the various family members can’t escape, like Thanksgiving or a will reading. In case of The Commons, it is four roommates who agree to spend a year together in the form of a New York lease.

The four roommates are older lease holder Robyn (Ben Newman), combustible exotic Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh), mean girl Dee (Julia Greer) and loser Cliff (Ben Katz) - who is pathetic because he tries to be a nice guy. The relationship dynamics are developed and then hardened with the repetition of the dreaded roommate meeting. The meetings usually come down to this; something has bothered Dee and she will explain it. Then she will explain it four more times, as if to a slow child in a remedial class. Cliff will apologize and try to do better, but Dee has to keep complaining about it long after everyone has agreed with her.

l-r: Ben Katz, Ben Newman, Julia Greer in THE COMMONS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
 There is no making Dee happy. She complains that she lives in the loudest room but won’t change despite everyone’s offer. Dee can’t stand dirty dishes, even after someone else has done them. Dee values honesty, but actively makes fun of people behind their back. Cliff’s greatest character flaw is that he is a male and is trying to be pleasant. It is not clear if Dee hates all men, or just the two that live in the apartment with her, but she hates them both with a gusto unbounded.  But then again, she’s not wild about Janira either.

I am not sure if The Commons has a moral, besides don’t live in a communal situation. There was no character growth, Dee was just as mean as she moved out as she was during the majority of the show, and the other characters were still just as confused by it. The one person Dee did get along with was Cliff’s ex-girlfriend Anna (Olivia Abiassi), a presence that was introduced and swept away too quickly.

Playwright Lily Akerman has captured the dynamic of a horrible living situation, but I am not sure that the story tells us much. Director Emma Miller moves the pace along well, The Commons doesn’t feel rushed, and it does cover the year in 100 minutes. The sniping was too mean spirited for me to enjoy, but it will hit the spot for many audience members.

The Commons
Playwright: Lily Akerman | Director: Emma Miller | Cast: Ben Newman, Olivia Khoshatefeh, Julia Greer, Ban Katz, Olivia Abiassi

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Doctors Jane and Alexander Surprise and Charm

Doctors Jane and Alexander functions under a bit of misdirection. Promoted as a play about the playwright’s grandfather, Alexander W. Wiener who discovered the Rh factor in blood, it is more about familial relationships, the stories we create for each other and personal longing. And it is a wonderful evening.

The piece grew from the playwright’s conversations with his mother, after she had stroke. Max Wolkowitz plays Edward (the playwright) and Alyssa Simon plays his mother, Jane. They have a wonderful and tender chemistry onstage. Much of their conversations, particularly their early conversations, revolving around Jane’s father, Dr. Alexander S. Wiener (Len Rella). 

Max Wolkowitz, Maxwell Zener and Alyssa Simon in Doctors Jane and Alexander

Alexander was a famous doctor who helped develop blood typing and discovered the Rh factor. This work was the precursor of DNA testing and was critical in saving lives of transfusion patients as well in criminal work. But his fame and work is only a small piece of Doctors Jane and Alexander. The piece is built from documentation, whether transcripts of conversations or published material. And much of the conversations with Jane start about her father, but meander away from the topic.

So instead of a dry discussion about the inventor of Rh blood typing, we get a story of family full of expectations and drive. Jane reflects back on her assumption that she would be wildly successful, as her father was. In fact, in a family of doctors and lawyers, the playwright has his own self-doubts about his career. This is a direct reflection of Jane’s appraisal of herself, and it bonds the two characters. Acceptance and enjoyment of life is almost a refutation of the paths they have chosen.

There is plenty of comedy in the play too, much of it provided by the interplay between the playwright, Edward, and his brother, David (Maxwell Zener). They argue as only brothers can, over everything and nothing. The point isn’t the argument, the point is the relationship.

Doctors Jane and Alexander progresses gently, telling the story of Jane’s career path and how it echoes her father’s and son’s. The interviews start directed towards Dr. Wiener’s work, but over time the story of Jane’s life proves compelling. As Edward discovers the real person behind the persona of mother, he finds how much he loves and admires this woman. It is touching without being schmaltzy.

The acting here, particularly Max Wolkowitz and Alyssa Simon, is fantastic. There is an excellent group of players in the other roles as well. And the technical craft, the lighting and sets, are top notch.

There are some missing puzzle pieces. I wanted to understood more about the mental issues both Doctors had. The topic is broached early, then dropped out of deference to the family.

Edward Einhorn wrote and directed this play and it is very much about his own family. But it is much more than a love letter to his family, it is an ode to the people in all families. And an exploration of the rich lives we may not see, even when they are right in front of us.

Doctors Jane and Alexander
Playwright: Edward Einhorn | Director: Edward Einhorn | Cast: Len Ralla, Alyssa Simon, Max Wolkowitz, Maxwell Zener, Craig Anderson, Yvonne Roen, Ann Marie Yoo

Monday, January 27, 2020

Paradise Lost the John Milton Way

Paradise Lost now at the Theater Row Theaters, by the Fellowship for Performing Arts (FPA) is a piece “Inspired by John Milton”. That would be John Milton’s epic 17th century poem about the Angelic Civil War which pitched Lucifer and his cohort against God and, on a parallel track, the story of Adam and Eve in Eden.

David Andrew Macdonald and Lou Libertore pondor the outcome of the Angelic Civil War

It is tricky play to try to review from an independent viewpoint. To quote from FPA themselves, “FPA’s objective is to engage and entertain its patrons by telling stories from a Christian Worldview that have the power to capture the imagination of a diverse audience.” That is a lot to live up to, and Paradise Lost does an excellent job of trying to pull the various pieces together. It is presented in current English, albeit occasionally falling into free verse, with modern touches sprinkled throughout in visual sight gags and throwaway bits. But, it still requires a buy-in to the idea of a Miltonian version of hell: lake of fire, mutinous Angels and a loving but mute God.

Lucifer (a magnetic David Andrew Macdonald) commands the stage, whether in rallying the fallen Angelic troops with soaring rhetoric or gently tempting Eve. His cohort includes the fallen Angels Beelzebub (comic relief by Lou Liberatore) and his wife / daughter Sin (Alison Fraser as a wizened sex bomb). Sin was created, fully formed, by jumping out of Lucifer’s forehead whereupon then immediately copulated and had a child, Death - which seems much more old Greek than old English to me.

Meanwhile, back in the victor’s camp, God has created a new experiment called Man and a place for him to live, the Garden. There we are first introduced to Eve, newly formed and coming to understanding with the world. Marine Shay plays Eve as a fun, questioning and rounded person. Adam, dutifully played by Robbie Simpson, is less questioning and more grateful of God’s bounty. But, then God never talks to Eve, but did talk with Adam.

Paradise Lost actually spends a lot of time trying to understand Eve and her motivation. She is visited by Lucifer and treated by him as an independent person. She is visited by Gabriel (Mel Johnson Jr.) where she is again chastised not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, without any reason. Now both Adam and Gabriel have told her not to or it will displease God, but God never speaks to her. On the other hand, Lucifer, also an Angel, tells her to eat of the fruit and fulfill the destiny God has created for her.

Of course, we know the ending. Woman eats the apple and condemns all mankind to pain, guilt and death because, women - am I right?

Adam and Eve (Robbie Simpson and Marina Shay) in love
The playwright Tom Dulack does a good job of presenting this story. Since I haven’t read John Milton’s 10 volume epic poem, I am not positive of how well he captured the spirit of the piece, but I thought it was well written. Directed by Michael Parva, the story moves along quickly enough, but I found myself frustrated by the story.

The playwright has given Eve more of a story and motivation, but now she is just manipulated by man and Angels. She isn’t worthy of being spoken to by God, but she is somehow responsible for the downfall of all of mankind.

Should you see it? It is an interesting and fun retelling of the downfall of Angels and men. But it requires one to accept that God is omnipotent and benevolent, despite all the evidence being to the contrary.

Paradise Lost
Playwright:Tom Dulack | Director: Michael Parva | Cast: David Andrew Macdonald, Lou Liberatore, Alison Fraser, Marina Shay, Robbie Simpson, Mel Johnson Jr.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Grand Horizons: Everyone Gets a Chance to Shine in this Dramedy

Grand Horizons has a fantastic cast. Anchored by Jane Alexander, the talented group of actors breathes life into Grand Horizons, allowing it to deliver beyond the boundaries of the page. Because what limits the play is baked into the script and format.

Grand Horizons is the story of an elderly couple, Nancy and Bill, played by Jane Alexander and James Cromwell. The story opens as they go through the ritual of breakfast in their new “senior living” apartment. During this silent ritual, the ennui of Nancy is palpable, cumulating in a request for a divorce. The request is met with a simple acknowledgement from Bill.

Next we are introduced to the two sons of the couple; Brian (Michael Urie) the gay, overly dramatic younger son and Ben (Ben McKenzie) the older, structured brother. With Ben is his wife, Jess (Ashley Park) a former counselor, who wants to work on the parental issues. The children try to understand exactly what has caused this change in their parents’ relationships, but Nancy and Bill are not helpful. This leads to a great deal of comedic tension, and bit of character development of Brian and Nancy.

Brian spends the first night at his parents’ house a brings home a horny and funny man, Tommy (Maulik Pancholy). Tommy’s attempt to get laid with the self-absorbed Brian is actually hilarious. But Tommy knows a lost cause when he sees it and leaves.

After the intermission, we are introduced to Bill’s lady friend Carla (a welcome Priscilla Lopez). Nancy explains how to take care of her husband to the new girlfriend and Carla suddenly sees what she is signing up for. In the second half Ben McKenzie and Ashley Park are also giving scenes to shine in.

Grand Horizons plays like a comedy-drama TV show, which may or may annoy the viewer. The format and timing makes it seem like one just watched the first two episodes of a pretty good series. I’d be interested in what happens to Nancy and Bill next. But it doesn’t deliver a full punch as a play. We get a fantastic cast where everyone gets a scene or two where they get to shine. Only Jane Alexander gets the chance to develop a character, and she is fantastic.

I can’t fault the cast, they are nearly perfect in execution. And Director Leigh Silverman creates a pace that both allows the action to play out naturally and doesn’t ever get bogged down. Playwright Bess Wohl has created a detailed and interesting story, but it left me wanting to know what happens in the next few episodes. 

Grand Horizons 
Playwright: Bess Wohl | Director: Leigh Silverman | Cast: Jane Alexander, James Cromwell, Priscilla Lopez, BeMcKenzie, Maulik Pancholy, Ashley Park, Michael Urie

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Alice Ripley brings The Pink Unicorn vividly to life

The Pink Unicorn is a one woman show, with Alice Ripley delivering a stunning performance as a young mother of a gender neutral child. Ripley plays Trisha Lee, a single mother in a conservative Texas town, where her child challenges the town’s norms.

The play, written by real Texan Elise Forier Edie, lays out the story of Trisha in a confessional manner. Her child, Jolene, decides she is genderqueer and then plans a Gay Straight Alliance at her high school. This being Texas, a number of roadblocks rise in their path. First the school bans the club, then the school district steps in to ban all clubs. Throughout this, Trisha is forced into an activist role, because it is her child that is being discriminated against.

Alice Ripley in The Pink Unicorn - Jazelle Artistry
The Pink Unicorn is the story not just of a mother defending her child, but also of the growth of Trisha. She confronts her past as her family weighs in on the changes happening. And she confronts her second family, as the controversy roils her church, where friends and acquaintances stake out different positions. The subtly of Ripley’s performance is perfect and measured. She brings the audience along on this roller coaster, prompting laughs, tears and introspection.

Directed by Amy Jones, The Pink Unicorn is played on a tiny stage at The Episcopal Actors’ Guild at a church. The location gives The Pink Unicorn the intimate feel of a share at a small group meeting. Ms. Jones and Ripley use this space to pull an immediacy into the proceedings. It is a wonderful experience. 

The Pink Unicorn
Playwright: Elise Forier Edie | Director: Amy Jones | Cast