Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

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