Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transcending Marriage Has Its Own Risk and Rewards

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Joan of Arc via Patti Smith and Cardinal Dolan

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

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

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