Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

A long-awaited return of God of Carnage

God of Carnage is a play about the perils of modern relationships in an age of unique issues coupled with old problems. Although it is ostensibly about 2 sets of parents who are meeting due to their children’s fight, it dissolves into something more nuanced and a lot louder. Arguments and disagreements pop up between the married couples, between men and women, and between expectations of acceptable behavior.

The four leads are excellent: David Burtka, Carey Cox, Gabe Fazio and Christina Noll. Carey Cox in particular sneaks up on you with a performance that is seemingly nervous and mousey until she explodes later in the play. The women have the meatier roles here and they relish them, Christiana Noll in particular.

Gabe Fazio, Cary Cox, David Burtka and Christiana Noll
with subtitles projected on the back wall.

The story follows Alan and Annette (Burtka and Cox) as they visit with Michael and Veronica (Fazio and Noll). Alan and Annette’s son Benjamin struck Michael and Veronica’s son Henry with a stick. Benjamin broke two of Henry’s teeth and the parents are trying to resolve the situation in an inclusive manner. All 4 are yuppie parents with prestigious jobs, except Michael, who is a self-made wholesaler of kitchen goods. Veronica takes the lead in trying to resolve the issue of the boy’s fight, dominating the early going.

A solution appears easy, until Veronica insists that Benjamin apologize for hitting Henry. This goes well, until Veronica demands not just an apology, but a sincere apology from Benjamin. When Alan and Annette explain that Benjamin thinks he was justified by the actions of Henry. Alan agrees that there may be blame on both sides, much to Veronica’s annoyance.  Worse, her husband Michael seems to agree with Alan. 

As the situation continues, a shifting set of relationships dominate different moments. At times the men agree with each other as the women do the same. At times the couples agree within their marriages. And then it all changes again. The adults in God of Carnage act like children fighting between each other, complete with shifting allegiances and inexplicable outbursts.

There are problems with God Of Carnage that this production cannot fix. The play starts slowly, builds over time, and then just ends. Perhaps this is an analogy for the unfinished business of being human, but it still is unsatisfying.

The play is produced as part of The Breaking Trough Barriers theater group. TBTB is an off-Broadway theater company that is dedicated to advancing the work of professional artists with disabilities. One extremely affecting part of their presentation is the use of subtitles for the hearing impaired. These are projected on the back wall which is made up of uneven bright red rectangles. It is a great job, but it takes a little getting used to for people who are not hearing impaired. 

Written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, God Of Carnage is still fresh even though it premiered on Broadway 14 years ago. Director Nicholas Viselli has brought an excellent production team and actors back to for this play off-Broadway. It is a story that is universal, updated to be more accessible.

God of Carnage
Playwright: Yasmina Reza (translation Christopher Hampton) | Director: Nicholas Viselli | Cast: David Burtka, Cary Cox, Gabe Fazio, Christiane Noll

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

You can’t look away from Jodie Comer in Prima Facie

Prima Facie may be used as an adjective meaning "sufficient to establish a fact or raise a presumption unless disproved or rebutted." In the play Prima Facie that describes the way Lawyer Tessa wins or losses in law - and she nearly always wins. Jody Comer is Tessa in this one hander, and she is astounding in her Broadway debut.

Prima Facie works so well because Jodie Comer is a dynamo. She jumps enthusiastically. She moves tables and pull volumes off the shelves manically as she explains her profession and how much she loves it. She can disassemble the testimony of victims of sexual assault to get her clients off. And to Tessa this is not complicated. Her job is to defend clients and she is good at it. Great at it. She believes in the law and believes every defendant deserves an active defense. Tessa does sound a bit defensive about this, although she actively ignores the consequences.

Jodie Comer in Prima Facie

Tessa hails from Liverpool and has no desire to return. She has a disassociated relationship with her family and her hometown. She doesn’t want to belong to either. Tessa justifies her singleminded focus to become a lawyer and how she had to fight to be accepted. As a woman from a lower-class background, Tessa must struggle against stereotypes and richer classmates in order to succeed. And now that Tessa has succeeded, she savors it.

After a great success in the courtroom, followed by drinking at a local bar, she goes back to the chambers with another lawyer. He is a man from the same firm, and they proceed to flirt and then have great sex. They go out again a few nights later. After more than a few drinks, she invites him to the her house where they screw again - making love is not the right word for the relationship they have. The night of drinking and sex ends up where it often does for us mortals, head over the toilet, puking her guts out. Her date helps her through this and then carries her to bed. Where he proceeds to try to make love again, which Tessa objects to. But he forces himself on her. 

It is date rape clearly and she struggles with how to react. After weighing the effect of her next actions, she must choose between ignoring this or pressing charges against a man she willingly slept with, twice. Ultimately, she presses charges and the case goes to trial. Tessa naively believes in the integrity of the system and knows she will win the case, because the rape obviously happened.

But she doesn’t win. In fact, the very tactics she has used against accusers is used against her. And, although Tessa knows what is happening, she cannot help but to fall into the same traps she expounded on earlier. Tessa responds the turnabout with outrage. Anger at the system she has used for so long. And anger directed at the defense by using law and doubt to thwart justice.

Jodie Comer truly brings out Tessa’s disappointment and heartbreak in the role. Tessa the lawyer shrinks as she becomes Tessa the victim. To visually underline this change, the creative team uses lighting and the noise of a nervous heartbeat to effectively bring more than just her voice to the fore. Not just does Tessa’s demeanor change, her visage changes as time progresses. Her blond hair, free and full early moves to a wet brown pulled into a tight bun mimicking her journey into self-doubt and insecurity. It is fantastic.

Having sung her praises, I must say last few minutes of the Prima Facie drag. Tessa goes on a rant that essentially covers in words what happened to her on stage. It is an unnecessary coda to a near perfect show.

Prima Facie
Playwright: Suzie Miller | Director: Justin Martin | Set and Costume Design: Miriam Buether | Cast: Jodie Comer

Monday, April 24, 2023

Sean Hayes Amazes in Good Night, Oscar

Even those who have witnessed Sean Hayes on Broadway being hilarious (Act of God) and singing with Kristen Chenoweth (Promises, Promises) will be blown away by his performance in Good Night, Oscar. His performance as Oscar Levant is incredible, but it is a last scene performance as Oscar Levant at the piano that surprises and stuns in the best possible way.

Good Night, Oscar tells the story of one of Oscar’s performances on TV’s “Tonight starring Jack Paar.” Oscar Levant was a composer, pianist, actor and a regular guest on Jack Paar. He was admired by both New Yorkers and Jack Paar for his quick wit and cutting comments on this live program. Good Night, Oscar reprises one of the those TV shows.

Ben Rappaport & Sean Hayes ( PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN)

The story opens with Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), head of NBC, discussing with Jack Paar (Ben Rappaport) this evening's performance. Jack Paar is in Los Angeles for sweeps week, and he made a deal with the network to feature anyone he wants. He wants Oscar Levant, who has been on before and is both a pianist and a wit. Ben Rappaport is great as the quietly subversive Paar.

As showtimes nears, with no Oscar in sight, the network President becomes more and moreangry. Jack Paar finally learns the truth from Oscar's wife June (Emily Bergl). She has had Oscar committed to a mental institution. But, June continues, Parr isn’t to worry as she has signed him out for 4 hours and he will arrive momentarily. Which he does not. Sarnoff gets even more anxious and Paar keeps the show holding for Oscar. There is a funny bit where Sarnoff wants to cancel Oscar and bring on Xavier Cugat, a severe disappoint that Jack Paar is desperate to avoid.

When Oscar does show up he is jumpy, nervous, and hesitant about appearing on TV. As he gets more angsty, he tries to get to the pills he craves from his medical watchdog. Oscar is a mess waiting for the show and Mr. Hayes brings out the biting side of Oscar's personality. Oscar is touchy, cranky, and unpleasant to be around. He is watched over by medical supervisor Alvin Finney (Marchánt Davis) who brings both compassion and annoyance in the role.
Emily Bergl & Sean Hayes ( PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN)

And then the Tonight show begins. Jack Paar brings out Oscar and on television he is witty and self-deprecating. This version of Oscar is extroverted and edgy. After the Paar – Levant interview is done, Paar and his wife beg Oscar to play the piano. This is what people expect, but a high Levant wants no part of it.

And yet, Oscar Levant does play. And he plays stunningly. Sean Hayes was trained as a classical pianist, and it shows. The rendition he plays is mastereful. Hayes brings down the house with his playing. It makes the audience want to hear more.

Sean Hayes is astonishing in this role. Oscar Levant was irascible, horrible, and self-centered as well as pithy, charming, and talented. Hayes brings all this together in a single evening, swerving between moods with ease.

Good Night, Oscar is brilliant. In addition to Sean Hayes, both Ben Rappaport and Emily Bergl transport us to that period with their emotions. Playwright Doug Wright and Director Lisa Peterson bring a seemingly innocuous moment into relevance and pathos. They are helped by a design, production, and costume team that works seamlessly. I loved it.

Good Night, Oscar
Playwright: Doug Wright | Director: Lisa Peterson | Cast: Sean Hayes, Emily Bergl, Marchant Davis, Ben Rappaport, Peter Grosz, Marchánt Davis

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Petticoat Junction Updated with Laughs and Heart

I walked in assuming Shucked was not a play for me. I wanted Salvador Dali meets Dolly Parton even knowing that was too much of an ask. Shucked is more of “psychedelic Hee Haw” than Dali, but the absurdist take on the story works great. Beautiful voices, funny jokes, and great camp, make Shucked an absolute delight. Honest.

The story is simple. A hamlet sits in the middle of giant corn fields where no one goes in or out of the town. Corn is the lifeblood of this town. And it is expressed in song, dance, and jokes. Then, one day, the corn crop withers. A young woman leaves the town and seeks out a “corn expert”. She finds a con-artist and brings him back to town. Hijinks ensue, true love is discovered and rediscovered, much is made about family and acceptance by a multi racial cast.

Ashley D. Kelly and Grey Henson bring in the corn and laughs

The cast is disparate in looks and voice. This is important because the songs were written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. They are experienced song writers primarily in country music field,  but their song writing encompasses nearly every genre in this candy colored musical. The set itself is skewed; off-center and leaning it looks like it's going to tip over any minute.

The spunky young woman who leaves Cob County to find a corn expert is Maizy, played with eager earnest wit by Caroline Innerbichler. She has a sweet country voice and Maizy has some spitfire in her. When her fiancé Beau (the always great Andrew Durand) forbids Maizy from leaving, she packs and goes anyway. Beau delivers a few great tunes in rockabilly to share his heartache.

In the big city of Tampa, she meets Gordy (John Behlmann doing his best slimy city slicker routine), who is a corn doctor. She doesn’t realize that Gordy’s “corn” expertise is limited to picking up rich clients as their podiatrist. She brings him back to Cob County where Beau and Maizy’s cousin Lulu  simmer in distrust.

Skeptical cousin Lulu is played by a fantastic Alex Newell. Her song “independently Owned” brings the house down. She sings with humor, heart and pair of lungs that are hard to beat. Ultimately Lulu ends up in love with Gordy and Maizy ends up back with Beau. None of this is exactly surprising, but that summary does not do the play justice. 

Alex Newell - a showstopper

Beau’s brother is Peanut. A hilarious turn by Kevin Cahoon who seems to channel Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall to give Shucked some good ol' country humor. His jokes pop up out of the blue leaving the audience roaring. His style is reminiscent of Phyllis Diller where the jokes come so rapid fire that you are bound to be overwhelmed with laughter at some point.

The final two characters of the show are Storyteller 1 and 2 – Ashley D. Kelly and Grey Henson. They steer us through the show, providing background and humor. Sometimes that humor is laugh out loud funny, sometimes the jokes are groaners. Storyteller number 2 (Henson) might take a bit of getting used to. He plays a very stereotypical gay man, and the audience starts wondering if he is the butt of a joke. Instead, he turns out to be one of the funniest performers in the show, albeit Cahoon still claims top honors there.

The songs in Shucked are very good but were a bit problematic to me. They seem less like plot points and more like potential singles, complete with endings more suited to radio than Broadway or Nashville. The songs mainly work but the trailing endings have more in common in radio pop. It frustrated and confused people that were desperate to applaud.

Andrew Durand and Caroline Innerbichler

I enjoyed Shucked and had a great time. It reminded me a lot of Something Rotten! Another show that defied expectations with wit, surprising songs, and great overacting. The book for Shucked was written by Robert Horn who brings a heap of jokes to the Nederlander Theater. Director Jack O’Brian keeps a lot of balls in the air to keep the show from tipping into meanspirited parody. 


Playwright: Robert Horn | Music and Lyrics: Shane McAnally & Brandy Clark | Director: Robert Horn | CastJohn Behlmann, Kevin Cahoon, Andrew Durand, Grey Henson, Caoline Innerbichler, Ashley D. Kelly, Alex Newel