Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Friday, May 6, 2011

First Prize: A View Into The World of Classical Music Performance

First Prize offers a glimpse inside the world of classic music performance, written by a performer who has lived it. Isrela Margalit is a both a Playwright and a musician. In First Prize, she tells the story of Adrianna Woodland, a pianist striving to succeed in the field of classical music. Ms. Margalit’s familiarity with the source material makes this a fascinating tour.

The story uses an interesting dynamic which follows the pattern of memory, not really the pattern of events. Since road to success was so memorable, the play focuses primarily on the journey - the fights to audition, the failures, and the endless closed doors which probably figured very prominently in the playwright’s life. This journey is shown so well and so detailed, that once Adrianna achieves her goals you expect the show to wrap up. Instead, her successful years are very lightly touched on, 25 – 25 years fly by in a flash. And then the career wrap up takes center stage.

Brian Dykstra, Susan Ferrara and Lori Prince
It is a four person show. Adrianna, the focus, is played almost entirely by Lori Prince with an honest freshness. The other 3 actors portray a variety of characters, teacher, lover, agent, conductor, etc. They do an excellent job of defining their own various characters, not easy given how distinctive each of the actors look. All of these characters are reflections of Adrianna’s memories, and so there isn’t so much character development with these roles, but instead character changes based on Adrianna’s reactions to long ago kindnesses or slights. The other three talented actors are Brian Dykstra, Susan Ferrara and Christopher Hirsh.

First prize brings some fun and touching moments to the stage and is very enjoyable. But the play does suffer from an autobiographical viewpoint, reducing the believability and making it difficult to relate to the character. In particular, Adrianna probably wasn’t “farm fresh and wholesome” all the time. Her lover didn’t awaken overnight to resent her distance. Her teacher never says a word of correction, only praise, confidence building and sage old advice.

The play ends with Adrianna reflecting on her life, her love of music and the fact she wouldn’t have changed a thing, even though she seems bitter. Eh… I would have changed a couple things.

The fight to make it in the business, the trails, the honesty – that was beautifully done, and is rightfully the focus of the show. It should have stopped there. There was a truly wonderful moment where Adrianna Woodlawn was all alone in a hotel bar after a show. She and the bartender flirt, despite the fact she has a lover waiting at home. It summed up what Adrianna’s life would (and did) turn into. The moment summed up, in those few sentences and their interaction, where Adrianna was going to end up. We didn’t need it spelled out over the next 15 minutes.

First Prize is a very good show, with a little cutting; it would be an excellent show.
First Prize (Website and Tickets)
Playwright: Israela Margalit
Director: Margarett Perry
Cast: Brian Dykstra, Susan Ferrara, Christopher Hirsh, Lori Prince

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Be A Good Little Widow: A Richly Satisfying Dramedy at Ars Nova

Jill Eikenberry is a bitch.  Well, at least in her amazing performance as Hope in the Ars Nova production of Be A Good Little Widow, she plays one very convincingly.  Hope is a widow who lives a spotless, upper class life in Connecticut.  She keeps house, works and volunteers with other widows.  Death doesn’t throw her off her stride; it is the living she has problems with.

Chad Hoeppner, Wrenn Schmidt & Jill Eikenberry            photo: Ben Arons
Hope is convinced that her son’s new wife isn’t up to the task of homemaker.  When he dies suddenly, she is convinced her daughter-in-law will not be an adequate widow.  It is a captivating performance that Ms. Eikenberry gives, playing a very difficult woman with very little vulnerability.

But what makes Be A Good Little Widow work so well isn’t just Ms. Eikenberry’s performance.  Widow draws on remarkable performances from rest of the cast, particularly Wrenn Schmidt as the new wife, Melody.  Melody is the perfect foil to Hope, because she isn’t up to the task of “homemaker” as Hope defines it, and she knows it.  Ms. Schmidt’s Melody is a newly wed young woman - unsure of her role in the household and a bit overwhelmed by a new home in a new city with a husband that travels too much.  Hope has to work hard to point out fault with Melody, not because there isn’t any fault, but because Melody cops to it so quickly.

Melody is also a bit at sea in her relationship with her husband Craig (a nice turn by Chad Hoeppner).  She loves him, but doesn’t seem sure how to relax around him.  Craig has emerged from college into a good job, back in his hometown.  He's the perfect guy - and Melody is made insecure by it.  The only person she seems  fully at ease with is Craig’s young assistant, Brad, played by Jonny Orsini with a goofy charm.

Ms. Schmidt’s performance swivels from comedic to dramatic and back with the speed of a pinball machine.  Melody is overwhelmed by adult events, while still very much a young woman. The interaction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, always tense, is excruciating in these circumstances.

When Craig dies on a business trip, Hope treats Melody as she would any new widow.  Melody, who chaffed under her mother-in-law’s condescension as a new wife, cannot contain her emotions in this new situation, reacting randomly - but understandably.  The juxtaposition between how these two women deal with grief is wonderfully honest.

Be A Good Little Widow is deftly written by Bekah Brunstetter, who has a light touch.  A story like this provides a lot of opportunity to go wrong.  It is a tribute to the Ms. Brunstetter and Stephen Brackett, the director, that action states so tight and emotion so well executed.

Ars Nova is an intimate theatre, and this production uses the intimacy well, providing an excellent theatrical experience. 
Be A Good Little Widow (website and tickets)
Playwright:  Bekah Brunstetter
DirectorStephen Brackett
Cast: Jill Eikenberry, Chad Hoeppner, Jonny Orsini, Wrenn Schmidt

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Go and Investigate Locker 4137B

Locker 4173B, now playing at the Monkey, is the inspired work of the New York Neo-Futurists. Written and performed by Christopher Borg and Joey Rizzolo, it is a crunchy cartoon come to life, which only slowly reveals a warm emotional center – an off Broadway HoHo®, if you will.

Inspired by tales of riches, and ratings of reality television, our intrepid heroes set off to purchase a foreclosed storage locker, and weave a tale from the contents therein. They embark on the enterprise as archeologists, equal parts Phileas Fogg and Mr. Magoo. Their attire and attitude set a tone of humorous befuddlement. The gentlemen make erudite and joyous guides.
Christopher Borg and Joey Rizzolo, Writers and Performers in Loceker 4173B
Pompous self-importance is an effective choice in telling the story of Locker 4173B. The play starts as a lark, a happenstance method to construct a show. The stories which lockers reveal are played out for laughs, and are quite funny as presented. During the show, Yeauxlanda Kay reads from a journal with a dignity entirely out of proportion to the contents within.  There is excellent use of video footage, produced in a 1960’s classroom instruction style, to explain how a storage locker is purchased and where it is located. As presented, the video adds to the sense of whimsy.

But slowly the perspective changes and the proceedings gain heft. These faux archeologist's are not recreating some long lost civilization, but piecing together the history of the owners of these lockers. And, it is the story of owners who couldn’t afford rent, or weren't around to retire their contents. The realization brings out self-discovery in these two. Not the exaggerated self-discovery of slapstick, nor histrionics and gnashing of teeth, but a subtle honest discussion of their own memories which are triggered by these items.

Locker 4137B’s emotional punch sneaks up on the audience, prompting reflection and a bit of introspection. Director Justin Tolley does a good job of keeping the action moving for those most part.

The show could use some editing, as it bogs down in a few places. There is a long and detailed examination of a life, which later proves to be incidental. The length is particularly noticeable in the theater without air conditioning. However, these are minor blemishes in a very very good show. I highly recommend Locker 4137B.

Locker 4137B
The Monkey (tickets and website)
Director: Justin Tolley
Playwrights: Christopher Borg & Joey Rizzolo
Cast: Christopher Borg, Joey Rizzolo and Yeauxlanda Kay