Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

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