Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Trouble in Mind is Relevant and Fantastic

Trouble in Mind is an eerily precedent show. Written and premiering off-Broadway in 1955, it is an illuminating show about the depictions of black actors on stage and screen. Producers, who wanted to take the show to Broadway in 1957, ironically asked the author to tone down the Black references in the play. Which is specifically what the play is about. Playwright Alice Childress would not comply, and so we come to the Broadway Premiere of Trouble in Mind some 66 years late. It was worth the wait.

Brandon Michael Hall, Jessica Frances Dukes, Michael Zegan, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper (Joan Marcus)

Trouble in Mind covers a few days of a play rehearsal, with the new actors running through their lines and blocking.  LaChanze plays Wiletta Mayer, the first to arrive to a bare stage set. She has a bit of banter with building manager Henry (Simon Jones). It is a small but critical moment that establishes that Wiletta and Henry both love the stage. This builds a bond with Henry (and the audience), who feels the same. Soon they are joined by a young Black man, a first time actor and recent college graduate, John Nevins (Brandon Michael Hall). 

Since it is John’s first real stage job after college, Wiletta explains the power dynamics in the theater world. Blacks have learned a method to keep the peace and their jobs; laugh at jokes no matter if they are funny, do not argue over a scene, and defer when asked, are among a few of them. John listens but takes very little to heart as he is, and expects to be, treated as an equal. Wiletta cannot help but cynically note the types of roles Blacks get: servants, mammies, outlaws and slaves.

During their talk Millie (Jessica Frances Dukes) comes in. Millie is Wiletta’s closest frenemy. The two ladies talk, joke and exchange friendly insults as they wait for the rest of the cast. Next up is Judy (Danielle Campbell) the new white ingénue. Judy is fresh, idealistic and a recent transplant from Connecticut. Then Sheldon (Chuck Cooper) arrives, and now the cast is mostly in attendance. Unaware of the unspoken rules, Judy socializes with the rest of the cast, all Black, on stage.

Finally, the director Al Manners (Michael Zegen) arrives with a pep talk and a smile. Al has worked with most of the cast before and greets them warmly. Mr. Zegen is great in this role, giving a razor’s edge performance between friendly and dismissive. His character’s friendship with Wiletta and the cast makes the Al a sympathetic character.  Still, the Black cast cannot help but giggle as John notices all the mannerisms in Al which Wiletta had warned him about. A run through starts and the intelligent Black cast members slip into on stereotypical roles, their English easily switching to a “Stepin Fetchit” dialect.

All goes well until a scene comes up that Wiletta objects to. She and Al superficially discuss it, but Al quickly pulls rank, pledging to raise the issue to the playwright. When Wiletta brings it up again the next day, Al notes that the writer and director want it the way it is. Wiletta explains that a real mother, black or white, would never act in this way.

LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, Michael Zegen (Joan Marcus)

Wiletta’s objection grows into an argument as Al demands she play the scene as written. Their friendship cannot overcome the disagreement. In fact, this disagreement goes right to the heart of their relationship.

Trouble in Mind speaks to many of us. If you grew up watching old movies or TV, author Alice Childress’ play leads you to question your own memories and stereotypes. The play is funny and angry, justifiably so. What is a heart breaking is how little, in the 66 years since this was written, has changed.

The cast is glorious. LaChanze blows through you as Wiletta, the veteran actor who has swallowed her feelings 1 time too many. Michael Zegen takes his natural charm and adds just enough condescension. He sees Wiletta’s pushback as unjust to him, since he has done a lot to help the cast. Jessica Frances Duke plays her character so over the top you have to love her. She is balanced by Tony Winner Chuck Cooper’s stoicism.  Veteran and excellent director, Charles Randolph-Wright, keeps this play from ever feeling dated or ponderous. Trouble in Mind has waited a long time for its Broadway Premiere, but it is worth it.

Trouble in Mind

Director: Charles Randolph-Wright | Playwright: Alice Childress | Cast: LaChanze. Michael Zegan, Chuck Cooper, Danielle Campbell, Jessica Frances Dukes, Brandon Michael Hall, Simon Jones, Alex Mickiewicz, Don Stephenson


Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Easy Charms of Small Town America are reflected in Mornings at Seven.

(Ally Mills has replaced Judith Ivy due to an accident. This review has been changed to include her performance.) 

Patty McCormack and Lindsay Crouse as Ester and Cora

Mornings at Seven has an easy charm that harkens back to a simpler time. You can tell the play is a classic from my use of the word harken, at least I didn’t say old timey. The play tells the tale of 4 sisters, all in their mid 60s or older, who all live very close to each other in the 1920s. And they have for many years. These sisters are.

The sisters, 3 married and 1 not, talk every day and are involved in each others’ lives.  Over the course of 50 years of adulthood, small irritations have grown into large annoyances. albeit hidden.

One day comes that upsets the order of their lives. As a blurb would say, old wounds are opened, lies exposed and the sisters’ dynamics will never be the same. The headline would be correct, but the proceedings are a bit more leisurely than that implies.

A wonderful cast of older actors have been assembled for Mornings at Seven and they perform flawlessly. Cora and Thor (Lindsay Crouse and Dan Lauria) live in one home on stage. Cora’s younger sister, and the only unmarried one, Arry (a great Ally Mills) has lived with them since they were married decades ago. 

Across the yard, Ida and Carl (Alam Cuervo and John Rubinstein) live with their son Homer (Jonathan Spivey). The day’s adventures are kicked off when Homer brings home his fiancé for the first time after 5 years of engagement. His fiancé Myrtle (Keri Safran) is confused by the family tensions but is understandably ready to get married.

Alma Cuervo, Jonathan Spivy and Keri Safran as Ida, Homer and Myrtle

The last sister and her husband are Ester and David (Patty McCormack and Tony Roberts). They are the richer and more educated part of the family and live about a half mile away. David keeps Ester on a short leash as he hates the rest of the family.

With such a rich and experienced cast, the pace and tone of the show is magnetic. The richly designed set and the famous faces are things you expect on Broadway, not at a small theater just off the scene. It turns out the Theatre at Saint Clement’s gives Mornings at Seven a cozy accessibility to the show. 

Hosting Homer and Myrtle puts his father Carl in a bit of a state. Carl has “spells”, today we would call them mild anxiety attacks. Carl has a problem with both meeting new people and self-doubts about his life choices. Carl is much better with his hands than with his personal interactions. One of the things Carl has done is built a house for his son and his wife, to be given to Homer then he gets married.  

The house has sat empty for 5 years, and when it looks like Homer and Myrtle have broken up, Carl is ready to rent it out. And Cora has designs on it. She wants the house to finally move away from Arry and be with just her husband. 

Mornings at Seven is not full of big laughs or huge drama, but instead is a warm, humorous and familiar hug. It is a story that these actors bring to life with the ease of experience. Patty McCormack and Ally Mills stand out in a cast of stellar performances. 

Director Dan Wackerman has delivered a beautiful revival of this classic. T is a fantastic show if your tastes run to convivial entertainment. A special call out has to go to Harry Feiner to scenic design.

Mornings at Seven

Director: Dan Wackerman | Playwright: Paul Osborn | Cast: Lindsay Crouse, Alma Cuervo, Dan Lauria, Patty McCormack, Ally Mills, Tony Roberts, John Rubinstein, Keri Safran, Jonathan Spivey


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Nollywood Dreams Upends Expectations

Nollywood Dreams, at the MCC Theater, by Jocelyn Bioh, is an entirely different (highly entertaining) look at the “Hollywood” dream of millions. Set in “Nollywood”, the third of the major entertainment centers (after Hollywood and Bollywood), this based in Nigeria. But you don’t need to know any of this going in. The background is set quickly and simply, familiar to everyone who has consumed Hollywood stories. And the actors in this show are amazing. They bring an authentic and unique portrayal of the characters.

Nollywood Dreams is the story of a young woman, Ayamma (Sandra Okuyboyejo), who is planning take part in an open casting call for a new movie, “The Comfort Zone”. Directed by famed Nigerian Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III), the movie promises to be someone’s big break.

(L-R)Charlie Hudson III, Nan Mensahy, Ade Otukoya, Sandra Okuyboyejo, Abena

The truth is, Gbenga’s old flame, Dede (Nana Mensah) is going to play the part and the open call is just a publicity stunt. Dede is a force of nature, like lightning, impressive and a bit scary.  Ayamma’s sister Fayola (Emana Rachelle) is a voice of reason, or just too busy to be bothered. That is, until Ayamma has her heart broken, and then Fayola can be a tiger to protect her sister – albeit a slow tiger.

The face of Nollywood and the star of the movie is handsome star Wale Owusu. Wale is played Ade Otukoya, pulling off charismatic, famous, and friendly all at once. Wale charms everyone he meets, particularly Adenikeh (Abena) an Oprah like daytime talk show favorite that everyone watches.

Adeniken is an over-excited and exciting TV host. She fills us all in on the gossip around the move “The Comfort Zone”. Her show documents the twists and turns of making a movie. Abena is hilarious in the role.

The names, the accents, the settings, all of these are strange only for a moment. As the story progresses you quickly forget all the differences, just as an audience quickly falls into the rhythms of Shakespeare. These are stereotypes from nearly every Hollywood movie. Here they are played over the top in a hilarious but honest way. And, just as in a Hollywood story, the entertainment is not in the ending but the joyousness in getting there.

Emana Rachelle, Sandra Okuyboyejo

The story unfolds in Ayamma and Fayola’s home / office, in the Nollywood Dream’s office and on the set of Adenikeh’s show. Much of Nollywod Dreams is over the top in a planned and authentic way. The show is a traditional showbiz story, interpreted with a decidedly Nigerian take on fame. The cast, a mixture of Nigerian and Brooklyn actors, breath life to the dreams of these people.

I loved Nollywood Dreams. It surprised and engaged me. The story, by Jocelyn Bioh, follows familiar path in a unique way. The direction, Saheem Ali, is tight, even when chaos ensues. I also have to call out the production design by Alex Basco Koch, it kept the show grounded.

Nollywood Dreams

Director: Saheem Ali | Playwright: Jocelyn Bioh | Cast: Abena, Charlie Hudson III, Dandra Okuboyejo, Nana Mensah, Enama Rachelle, Ade Otukoya


Wednesday, November 10, 2021

My Little Pony Takes A Turn to the Dark Side

Despite its name, The Antelope Party is not about a group of happy herbivores frolicking in the sun. The play is happy and light, until it takes an unexpected turn. The Antelope Party was written in 2018 and postponed by the pandemic in 2020. It finally comes to the stage in New York with power and prescience far beyond what was implied in 2018 or 2020. 

The Antelope Party opens on a group of people at a completely different type of party. Five friends share a common interest in My Little Pony role playing and meet up once a week. They all take the parts of the various characters from the TV show. The group is made up of 3 bronies (male cosplayers) and 2 Pegasisters (female cosplayers). Each of the weekly meetings starts with a sharing session, which is cleverly laid out to the audience with a combination of love and disbelief.

Ben Mawere, Caitlin Morris and Will Dagger

With two players missing and one new member, the story opens with this sharing session. Shawn (an amazing Will Dagger) starts by explaining how his life was saved by the group and how much he loves it. Ben (wonderful Edward Mawere) is the founder of the leaderless group. Ben and Rachel (Caitlen Morris) worry about Maggie (Lindsley Howard) and Doug (Quinn Franzen), late to show up without a word. Newcomer Jean (Anna Ishida) realizes quickly that this isn’t the group she signed up for, and leaves.

Doug into the room, and tells the story that Maggie was grabbed on the street by a vigilante gang. From his discussion we find it isn’t safe to wear their pony outfits on the street as the vigilantes tend to look at any others as outsiders. There is a generalized feeling of unease in their appearance in the city.

When Maggie does shows up the next week, she explains she was not kidnapped. She recognized her cousin and went in the car voluntarily. But she shuts down all questions about the evening and her cousin. Later we find her father is one of the heads of the vigilante group, The Antelope Party. The party is a slightly fascist group intent on confronting those that don’t follow their ideas about true Americans.

Caitlin Morris, Quinn Franzen

Maggie and Shawn, who is enamored with her, join The Antelope Party. In a short amount of time, they both pressure everyone to sign a pledge approving of the party. It is interesting because Maggie is a woman of color and therefore close to being an outsider in the Antelope’s view. Doug sings on quickly, but Ben, a Black man, and Rachel, a bisexual woman, have serious doubts about the group.

The Antelope Party slowly morphs from a local organization to a powerful group dedicated to harassing people out of power. Here, The Antelope Party becomes a grim prophecy on what has come to pass in reality. The machinations of the Bronies as they navigate this new environment are both familiar and foreboding.

The Antelope Party is well paced and directed by professional Jess Chayes. The playwright, Eric John Meyer brings the action from farcical to deadly serious in a manner that is internally consistent, and externally frightening. It is another great production by the Dutch Kills Theater Company. The stage of the Wild Project is small, but the intimacy works perfectly in the venue.

The Antelope Party
Director: Jess Chayes | Playwright: Eric John Meyer | Cast: Will Dagger, Quinn Franzen, Lindsley Howard, Anna Ishida, Edward Mawere, Caitlin Morris | website