Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

It Takes a Village to Undermine a Home

Matthew McLachlan’ new play, This G*d Damn House, is set in a hoarder’s dream home. Into this living room of junk, two brothers enter in disgust. The house smells of trash and cat urine. In quick succession the seed of the story is planted. This G*d Damn House has been foreclosed and the brothers must clean it out before 9AM tomorrow, 14 hours later.

The brother Danny, played by Gabriel Rysdahl in the leaner role, is confused and frustrated with the state of his childhood home. Jacob is played by Kirk Gostkowski who surprising, understated, and fantastic. Danny and Jacob both discover and reveal more trash and information the deeper the piece goes, but Jacob is given more depth and Gostkowski burns slowly until he hits the wall and goes ballistic.

Sachi Parker, Kirk Gostkowski and Gabriel Rysdahl (photo: David Zayas Jr.)

Their mother Angie (a great turn by pro Sachi Parker) is passive aggressive and a self-delusional liar. Angie is in denial about nearly everything concerning her family. She is surprised that the house is in foreclosure, she claims to have made every payment. She counts on the love and support of her sons, which she raised well and single handedly after their father left – she believes. Angie explains to the boys, repeatedly, that everything must be put in storage, and nothing left behind. Everything in the home is critical to her life. Joining this trio is Angie’s Teacher’s Aid Hannah (well played by Rica De Ocampo). Hannah stops by to help with the packing, stepping out to check on her grandmother every now and then.

Angie’s latest complaint is that Jacob and his wife Ally (Christina Perry in a small but pivotal role) will not divulge the sex of their baby. Angie blames this on Ally. In fact, Angie tends to blame Ally for nearly everything that went wrong in Jacob’s life. This is just another of his mother’s constant digs that Jacob takes.

Gabriel Rysdahl and Rica De Ocampo (photo: David Zayas Jr.)

This G*d Damn House takes a traditional family story and turns it into a hilarious, scathing, and moving story of family dysfunction and the lengths we go to keep our family intact. The house here is full of trash and secrets, the trash being moved and the secrets flowing out with nothing left to hide them. Each brother responds to situation differently.  Danny is shocked by the state of the house and by their mother’s manipulative personality. But he has always kept Angie at arm’s distance and lives in New York. Angie’s quirks and disappointment are simply background noise to Danny. Jacob, on the other hand, has been the one helping his mom consistently. He and his wife live close by and Jacob is familiarly immune to the drama Angie causes. Normally.

The play is refreshing for anyone whose home life was bad, but not “chockfull of drama” bad. This G*d Damn House is full of the small lies we tell ourselves to get through life. Life can be hard and heartbreaking, but it is the only life we know. Playwright Matthew McClachlan has dissected this home life of Angie’s, finding the truths and emotions lying dormant. Director Ella Jane New gives life to a great story told on a small stage. The show brings claustrophobia into even sharper relief in the smaller theater.

This G*d Damn House
Playwright: Matthew McLachlan | Director: Ella Jane New | Cast: Sachi Parker, Kirk Gostkowski, Gabriel Rysdahl, Christina Perry

Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Seagull / Woodstock Soars at Signature Theater

The Seagull / Woodstock is brought to life with an outstanding cast and a great new adaptation by Thomas Bradshaw at the Signature Theater. The show is well paced, relatable, and often hilarious. If none of this sounds like The Seagull you know from Chekhov, you would be correct. I do not like being a critic that refers to previous iterations of a play, but it is hard not to do here. This adaptation is that entertaining. Set in New York and populated with English names, the characters of The Seagull / Woodstock are distinct and the show much easier to follow. But Chekov’s rumination on love comes through stronger than ever. Self-love, romantic love, obsessive and jealous love, they all flow as easily as water on stage.

The Seagull / Woodstock is set in Woodstock New York - the town, not the concert. Here the Broadway Diva Irene rules the social set by force of an oversized personality. Parker Posey plays Irene with a sharp edge and a patter that reminds you of Parker Posey the actress. But Irene’s persona, dreams, and fears quickly drive the real Parker Posey out of the viewers mind. Irene is the local star who everyone wants to be friends with, in the group of rich theater refuges from the City. Irene’s boyfriend William (an outstanding Ato Essandoh) is a published writer. His easy-going charm and sex appeal hangs around him like an aura.

Ato Essandoh, Parker Posey, Daniel Oreskes and David Cale

We meet the group as they gather for Irene’s son Kevin's (Nat Wolff) play featuring his girlfriend Nina (Aleyse Shannon). Done on a makeshift stage in the woods, Kevin's friends as well as his mother and her boyfriend attend. The play within the play is an experimental piece with Nina interacting with the audience. It is not a good play and has progressed to the terrible when Irene loudly puts an end to it. But that does not put an end to Nina's fascination with author William.

Irene’s co-owner and life long bestie Samuel (David Cale) is attendance. He is the lovable gay housemother to the gang, but with a restrained personality. As peacemaker he tries to keep the group's snarkiness in check. Husband and wife, Darren and Pauline (Daniel Oreskes and Amy Stiller) are old friends and neighbors. Old friends whose marriage now seems like a set of rounds in a boxing match. Also in attendance is old hunk Dean (Bill Sage), a man who drifts through the show effortlessly and grounds the proceedings. Darren and Pauline’s daughter Sasha (Hari Nef) sets up the story of unrequited love. 

A local young man Mark (David Foley) is in love with Sasha. Sasha tells Mark that she cannot love him and cannot force herself to love him because she is in love with Kevin, Irene’s son. Kevin, meanwhile, is in love with Nina. But Nina has becoming smitten with William, the writer and Irene’s partner. Barbs disguised as jokes and anger barely disguised at all, are tossed around as these friends meet in various groups. All the while with an undercurrent of love and friendship

The second half of The Seagull / Woodstock takes place two years later. Samuel is dying in hospice and his friends travel to Woodstock to gather once more and say goodbye. David Cale doesn’t play Samuel as a tragic character, but as a man happy to see his friends one last time.

In the proceeding two years Nina had an affair with William. It only ended when Nina’s baby was stillborn. Nina left William (or he left her) and is now traveling the country as an actress in road company’s playing in third string cities. William and Irene are still together, despite his long affair with Nina. Kevin has given up playwriting and has had a book published. Sasha, realizing that Kevin will never love her, has married Mark, but treats him with contempt. In the second half, the characters still ring with laughter but it is forced and brittle.

Ato Essandoh and Aleyse Shannon

And, in the end, The Seagull / Woodstock proves the adage that if you introduce a gun in Act I, you will use it by Act III.

Thomas Bradshaw has delivered a fantastic adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull. He brings the story and feelings center stage. This in a show that usually feels remote and clinical. Director Scott Elliot makes use of the stage, the entrances and lighting to breathe a robust life into the show. His direction of the cast is spot on. The Seagull / Woodstock is fantastic and extended. Go see it!

The Seagull / Woodstock
Playwright: Thomas Bradshaw, based on Chekov | Director: Scott Elliot | Cast: David Cale, Ato Essandoh, Patrick Foley, hari Nef, Daniel Oreskes, Parker Posey, Bill sage, Aleyse Shannon, Amy Stiller, Nat Wolff

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Letters From Max: A Glimpse Into The Heart

Sarah Ruhl’s new play, Letters From Max, is not a traditional type of play that is the style today. That isn’t to say it is bad, in fact just the opposite, it is wonderful. But it does take a bit to get into the play.

It is a simple story, deceptively simple. Letters From Max is an adaption of their book, Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship. And in the beginning, it seems indulgent. Letters From Max is the story of a writing teacher, author Sara Ruhl, and Max, a student in love with words and poetry.

Because Sara Ruhl is the play’s author AND one of the two characters, you question her accounting and memory. She is the strong woman who is a mentor and steps up to be a glorious friend to Max. But the audience's acceptance of  Ruhl as the perfect mentor is hesitant at first.

However, Letters From Max slowly moves from seeming a self-satisfied look back into a more complete understanding of Max and of Ms. Ruhl’s love and admiration for each other. Max’s mind formulates words and poetry as instinctively as breathing. Max cannot speak or write without falling back on words as an expression of his very being. It is a passion we all have, but Max can use this passion to bring to life his art.

Jessica Hecht plays Sarah. The role of Max is switched between Ben Edelman and Zane Paris, with the non-performer playing music and seamlessly delivering and removing props and business. I saw Zane Paris as Max and he was mesmerizing. Paris’ Max was strung with energy of a puppy, playing and testing his limits.

Jessica Hecht and Zane Paris (credit Joan Marcus)

Max applies for a spot in Ruhl’s class for playwrights, even though he has never written a play. After Sarh reads his application, she spots potential. And she justifies this unusual decision in dialog. As she explains why she allowed Max in. “Because funny poets are my favorite kind of human being.”

And both Max’s and Ruhl’s the words are near transcendent. In Letters From Max poetry and expository are the characters' lifeblood. And they are a matched pair. Both Max and Sarah find comfort in their writing, their poetry, and their platonic love of each other. They seem to understand each other beyond the limitations of themselves. Together they bring to life the beauty of the world and themselves.

But Max, very early and very clearly, is sick. Sick with cancer, which he handles bravely. In letters and occasional visits Sarah keeps Max’s spirit up. Cancer ultimately claims Ben as his thoughts and words are the last of him to succumb.

Letters From Max is beautifully crafted piece. It is crafted for those with a love of words. Both characters speak their poems occasionally, as a projection of the words are displayed on the stage. The cadence and artistry of the poems are rendered stark as the emotions of the artists convey.

There is a scene, a small break early, as a series of stills is projected onto a wall. It is a physical representation of the very early revolving stills. That contraption that first tricked our mind into seeing movement over a century ago. But, once dissected apart, each panel is both individual and part of the overall whole. It is a metaphor that encapsulates the characters perfectly, self aware without being self indulgent.

Jessica Hecht and Ben Edelman (credit Joan Marcus)

Letters From Max ends with his death, which is not a spoiler, it is obvious early on. But his words live on in his work and in the book which Sarah Ruhl created from their exchange. Each exchange is charged with love and heartbreak. And Letters From Max brings that love and heartbreak to the audience.

I have never been much of a poet fan. That changed a bit with the gorgeous poems of Amanda Gordon, touching, poignant, and hopeful all at the same time. Letters From Max makes we want to dig a bit deeper.

Director Kate Whoriskey is in love with words as well. She sets the tempo of the play and underlines it with hints of music and light. It is a deeply moving piece.

Letters From Max
Playwright: Sarah Ruhl | Director: Kate Whoriskey | Cast: Jessica Hecht, Zane Paris, Ben Edelman

The Wanders: Fantastic Acting Wasted on a Too Familiar Story

Now "wasted" might be a bit too much, but not by a lot. The Wanderers is funny, and the writing of the dialog is excellent. The acting is excellent. But the play is frustrating and problematic.

To summarize the plot very crudely and simplistically, The Wanderers is the story about a rich white Jewish author with a Pulitzer Prize going through a textbook mid-life crisis. Sure, he has a lot of excellent justifications of this banal proceeding. His parents divorced, his wife bores him, he doesn’t like his kids, he has a crisis about his talent – which is Philip Roth level of indulgence. A comparison the playwright makes explicit by name, in case you missed the parallels.

Top: Lucy Freyer as Esther, Dave Klasko as Schmuli, Eddie Kaye Thomas as Abe,
Sarah Cooper as Sophie, Eddie Kaye Thomas again, Katie Holmes as Julia Cheever

The Wanderers opens with an Orthodox Jewish woman on her wedding night. And immediately you think, well how long until this ends in screams and divorce? Because there are no plays that begin with a woman’s voice in Orthodox setting where the woman doesn’t leave, die, or get killed. I understand it. Happy Jewish Orthodox women don’t write plays. But still, it saps the surprise right out of the gate. 

(aside) On a side note, is “Schmuli” a real Jewish Orthodox man’s name or a term of endearment? If is a real name, then why does every other man have the name Schumli in plays? Is it real or just a shorthand way of saying “uptight Jewish man”?

Let me take a moment to applaud the acting. The cast is uniformly great. Katie Holmes - in particular - is amazing. It helps that she has the only role that surprises the audience and is not a cliché. But each and every cast member is great.

Back to the story. The Wanderers shows the story of the Orthodox husband and wife (Schumli and Esther) is interspersed with a contemporary story of a husband and wife of agnostic jews (Abe and Esther). Sophie and Abe are having doubts about their marriage. Abe is the 40-something Pulitzer Prize winning novelist with a beautiful wife and good children who is going through a midlife crisis. Abe is also who were are supposed to identify with.

And the, out of the blue, Abe receives an email with praise from a beautiful, married, successful Hollywood starlet. And their email exchanges push Abe to realize he kind of hates his life. Remember he is rich, married, successful, and a prize-winning author which kind of makes his whining fall flat. And we aren’t really supposed to hate him, but to understand his pain.

And here we face the issue that crops up occasionally when seeing a play; we can no longer empathize with the character, because he is an asshole. Suddenly the axis of the show changes and instead of pulling us into the story we only see every action and emotion as fake. 

I enjoyed the staging and sets immensely, for a while. There are books, bookshelves, and pages everywhere. It sets the stage and mood for a story about book lovers. And then you kind of hate Abe, and the set suddenly seems pretentious. And worse, falsely self-deprecating.

Again, I loved the acting. There wasn’t a bad actor in the group. I believed that men were total, self-absorbed idiots with no saving graces. I loved them as actors and hated them as carboard characters.

The playwright is Anna Ziegler, who is a marvelous playwright normally. And, in The Wanderers the dialog is often witty and well written. I just hated the story. Barry Edelstein directed the show, which moved along at an appropriate speed. Appropriate is not always engaging, but it was appropriate.

At the end of the day, The Wanderers is a show I might suggest to some people. If you are looking for great acting and haven’t had your fill of Woody Allen, this is your show.

The Wanderers
Playwright:Anna Ziegler | Director: Barry Edelstein | Cast: Sarah Cooper, Lucy Freyer, Katie Holmes, Dave Klasko, Eddie Kay Thomas

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Family Dynamics Rebuilt in The Best We Could

The Best We Could (a family tragedy) is a thoughtful and entertaining play deconstructing myths around parenthood and responsibility. It doesn’t blow up those relationships, but it does reevaluate parental roles in the context of growing up and leaning into adult values.

Brain D. Coats and Aya Cash 

The Best We Could uses a father daughter cross country road trip to highlight the subtle changes in attitudes and roles. The outstanding cast starts with Aya Cash as the daughter, Ella, and Brian D. Coats as Marc, the father. The trip is proposed by Peg (Constance Shulman). Peg is Lou's wife and she is pushing to get him engaged in life again. Lou has lost his job at a biomedical research institute. He has become old man now struggling to find a job in his field. 

Marc and Peg depend on his income and so the job lose is devastating for the couple. On top of this, Brandy, the couple’s dog, dies. But the dog’s death does provide an opportunity to motivate Marc. Peg convinces him to fly out to the west coast to pick up his daughter and new dog, then drive back to New Jersey with the new dog. Separately Peg convinces her daughter that she must accompany her father because Marc is depressed and defeated. 

And so the trip begins with a slow reversal of roles, which progresses as the trip continues. Marc is a chatty and distracted man, interacting with strangers, much to Ella’s annoyance. Ella struggles to get him focused on the road, his job, or the sights, but nothing truly engages his attention until they hit Denver. In Denver Marc visits an old friend and colleague, Lou (Frank Wood). Lou’s company has an opening and Marc asks, more and more adamantly, for a job at the company. We realize there is more to his story as Marc gets desperate and will even take a lower paid and lower seniority job. Lou got his first big break with Marc and yet Lou seems hesitant to promise anything. 

Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Peg attempts to talk with Amanda (Maureen Sebastian). Amada, who seems obsessed with Zumba, declines to interrupt her workout to speak with Peg. This is where a sense of dread begins. Peg manically asks for Amada's help and is rebuffed repeatedly. Suddenly the reason that Marc was fired becomes even more murky.

When Marc loses out on Lou's job, Ella confronts Lou and demands to know why. Thus begins the slow revel as to what happened and the consequences. The story is obvious, but freshly told. The parental roles are now almost fully reversed as Ella goes back to speak with her family about what she has learned.

The Best We Could is told on a bare stage with Maureen Sebastian narrating the story, the backstory and the consequences of the casts’ actions. Ms. Sebastian is fantastic both acting in and narrating the show. She switches from dispassionate observer to cast member and back with ease and honesty.

Author Emily Feldman has created a nuanced play that is funny, familiar and both heartwarming and heart wrenching. At a speedy 90 minutes, it does not seem rushed or mawkish. Much of the credit goes to Director Daniel Aukin who allows the cast to move deliberately without sacrificing the emotions behind the story. Produced on an empty stage, The Best We Could (a family tragedy) focusses on the story of a family that loses its own story. It is great.

The Best We Could (a family tragedy)
Playwright: Emily Feldman | Director: Daniel Aukin | Cast: Aya Cash, Brian D. Coats, Maureen Sebastian, Constance Schulman, Frenk Wood