Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Invincible Never Lets up on Laughs or Poignancy

Invincible is a story that explores our views and expectations of others in the current political dynamic. Amazingly, Invincible does this with a large dose of humor, running from oddly quaint and British to dark humor that is jet black. And the four excellent actors deliver the show with honesty and surprising clarity.
Invincible tells the story of middle class couple Oliver and Emily, a British version of Yuppies, but who are hit by economic forces and move to the North of England to save money. Alastair Whatley is the rather put upon Oliver, trying to juggle the new location along with Emily’s fragile mood swings, two children and a lack of funds. Emily (Emily Bowker) is a nervous, strident old school Laborite, who still spouts Marx when she isn’t berating the downfall of the world, based on whatever floats into her view. Emily is that horrible person at a party who still believes everything she heard in university and insists on sharing her views with you. Onstage, Emily is funny and awful, in person Emily would be insufferable.
LtoR Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag and Alastair Whatley in Invincible (photo:
Trying to fit in to the block, they invite the next-door neighbors over, Dawn and Alan. Elizabeth Boag and Graeme Brookes bring a loveable quality of terrifying honesty to this funny working class couple. Dawn finds Oliver and Emily posh, but confusing. Alan shows up post-soccer match with a can of beer and insanely high spirits. The culture clash is inventible and hilarious. The British markers for class are copious and broad: cricket versus football, esoteric music, distain for sports patriotism, public versus neighborhood schools, the list is long and Invincible references many of them.
But, slowly and slyly, Invincible changes the focus from easy jokes to human interaction. Not the assumed “we’re all the same underneath”, but a more difficult and painful truth that maybe we grown so far apart economically and socially that we it is almost impossible to connect. In the US, this divide runs politically, but a similar divide indeed.
The second act of Invincible is touching and funny, but I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t. I will say it is beautifully directed by Stephen Darcy, who varies the pace of the show effortlessly. Torben Betts writing rings true to me, but I haven’t lived in England in 30 years, so other would know better than I. Invincible is a hugely enjoyable play that doesn’t skimp on story, laughs or a proper ending.
Invincible | Playwright: Torben Betts | Director: Stephen Darcy | Cast: Elizabeth Boag, Emily Bowker, Graeme Brooks, Alastair Whatley | website

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Farce Explodes Across the Artificial Jungle

The TBTB group (Theater Breaking Through Barriers) celebrates the 25th Anniversary of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company by bringing to stage The Artificial Jungle, directed by an original Ridiculous Theater member Everett Quinton. That’s a lot of baggage to hang on a simple little farce; the 25th anniversary of a famous group and movement and a theater group dedicated to the advancing the work of writers and performers with disabilities. But entering the Clurman Theatre, all of the baggage melts away in a funny little show that doesn't take itself too seriously at all.
Anita Hollander, Alyssa H. Chase, David Harrell, Rob Minutoli & Anthony Michael Lopez - Photo Carol Rosegg
The Artificial Jungle plays as The Postman Always Rings Twice done via a Carol Burnett skit, set in a lower east side pet store. It is goofy, farcical and very funny. The play, by the prolific Charles Ludlam, is loud and preposterous but doesn’t fall to slapstick. It all works because the actors might be playing everything over the top, but they take it seriously. The actors here are great, pulling out all the stops without ever breaking character with even a wink and a nod. It is this group of professionals that sell The Artificial Jungle.

It is the story of the Nurdinger family, owners of a neighborhood Pet Store. Husband Chester (David Harrell) is a satisfied man who is content with life – family dinners, weekly dominoes and selling the odd pet. Wife and femme fatale Roxanne (Alyssa H. Chase) is not in the same mental space, to say the least. She is disgusted by pet shop chores, her husband’s lack of drive and her mother-in-law’s mere existence. Mother Nurdiger (Anita Holland) is doting mother to Chester and realistic pet shop owner employer to Roxanne.
In a more nuanced drama, we would be shown what motivated Roxanne and Chester’s marriage, where the anger came from and how it built up. The Asphalt Jungle has no time or desire to deal with these back stories. Instead a handsome drifter is hired to work in the store almost immediately (Anthony Michael Lopez) and Roxanne waste no time in plotting with him to get rid of the bouncy and chipper Chester. Rob Minutoli does some admirably funny work as the police cousin of the Nurdingers. Puppetmaster Satoshi Haga handles the duties of the piranhas.
The Artificial Jungle moves quickly with lots of plotting, loud kissing and meaningful stares. Originally down with a fair amount of Ridiculous Company members in full drag, director Everett Quinton brings the same zaniness to this troop of actors. It is a very funny show.
The Artificial Jungle | Playwright: Charles Ludlum |  Director: Everett Quinton | Cast: Alyssa H. Chase, David Harrell, Anita Holland, Anthony Michael Lopez, Rob Minutoli | website

Investigating a Crime and Understanding the Stories of Our Lives

The New York Neo-Futurists’ gem of a small piece, A Simple Art, is a wonderful play that I am going to spoil by giving it too much exposure. But I can’t think of a way to tell the everyone how magical this piece is without talking about it. A Simple Art is one of those plays that is best seen after you stumble into the room, clueless and having just wandered by. However, as it is located up a long staircase on 8th Ave in mid-town, no one but a few hot-yoga students will ever "just wander by". And so, I must set expectations to get you to hike up the stairs (hint - take the elevator). Here are the expectations - go see this, it’s great!
Nessa Norwich, Kyra Sims and Alex Vlahov in A Simple Art
A Simple Art bills itself as “a true crime documentary play”. One of the writers / performers knew a fascinating man, Father Eric Freed. On New Year’s Eve, 2014, Father Eric was murdered in a quiet, lush part of Northern California. Neo-Futurist Alex Vlahov went on a personal journey to investigate and document the murder of his old teacher, Father Eric.
A Simple Art starts quite basically: the cast explaining who Alex talked to, where Humboldt County is located, the economic and historical background of the area. The three performers, Alex, Kyra Sims and Nessa Norich, are constantly moving: engaging with each other, standing in for towns people, displaying examples of items and, in a few cases, playing the French horn. Recordings, music and general noise fill the stage.
All of these elements come together to tell the story of the night Father Eric was murdered. But more than that, they diagram how stories are created and affect us all. There is an evocative moment when the sound of a hotel sign swaying in  the wind is played. In context it is frightening and sad and you can feel the cold Pacific wind in that snippet of electronically captured dissonance.
A Simple Art moves for that singular story to the greater stories of all of us. I loved it. Running at a spare 90 minutes or so, the team ignores the 4th wall. They don’t just address the audience, but they interact and pull us into their world. Don’t take my word for it, wander by and see it.
A Simple Art | Creators / Performers: Nessa Norish, Kyra Sims, Alex Vlahov (also Directed) | website