Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Navigating a Minefield of Love and Loss

Teenagers in Love is playing at the intimate The Chain Theater in midtown. It is a surprisingly big play in the space. The emotions displayed by the talented cast are alternately exuberant and restrained, often filling the space and other times drawing us into the tight and ridged confines both physically and mentally.

Teenagers in Love is the story of Harp and Becca, teenagers then and adults now. As teenagers about to graduate from High School in New Jersey they were open free and wild – ready for the adventure of adult life. As adults, Harp and Becca are tentative, reaching out to rediscover the past and each other after 45 years of estrangement.

The play opens with Harp and Becca (Wayne Maugans and Renata Hinrichs) sitting uncomfortably at Harp’s plain table. Both the house and Harp are run down and tired. Becca is unsettled by the changes and trajectory that Harp’s life has taken. Becca is a nice middle-class woman who can’t explain her anxiety despite the obvious waves of anger, sadness, and fondness.

Renata Hinrichs, Ziggy Schulting, Jack Rasmussen, Wayne Maugans (photo: Ross Roland)

Their meandering banter and thoughts of their lost youth dissolve into the story of their graduation night. 

We are transported back to 1971 in the local bar where Harp and Becca (here Jack Rasmussen and Ziggy Schulting) bask in the warmth of friends and freedom from school. The group of friends include a young Black man, Ben (Jacobi Hall), Ben’s girlfriend Bonnie (Kaitlyn Mitchell) and occasionally Becca’s brother Donnie (Alexander Chilton). Together they laugh, drink, boast, sing, and drink, all watched over by Gladys (Jackie Maruschak) the mother hen bartender. Gladys has seen this before. Every year students graduate, promising to stay friends and come back to visit. But Gladys knows the truth, lacing a tinge of melancholy over the proceedings. They might come back for holidays every two or three years before disappearing into their new lives. But here and now, in 1971 Harp and Becca are loudly in love. Harp and Ben’s friendship is deep, and life spreads out before them all like an all you can eat buffet. 

Teenagers in Love Cast (photo: Ross Roland)

Returning to the present, Harp and Becca bond over the past they thought they forgot, but it comes back in fits and starts. Not just the intimacy and love, but pain as well. On that night in 1971, Becca’s brother Donnie died, falling off a cliff in the Palisades.

Harp was arrest for pushing and killing Donnie. Although Harp was acquitted of the crime, Becca still has doubts. She has returned to this place to let Harp know that new tests have been created to check Donnie’s hoodie for blood, and Harp’s blood was found. Becca wants to warn Harp that he would be subpoenaed soon to give testimony. Harp’s emotions run from sadness to anger. He was already acquitted 46 years ago, why now?

The story of Teenagers in Love is the story solving that night. Understanding the forces that swept them apart and led them into such different paths. Both Harp and Ben had scholarships to good schools, Becca had plans for Rutgers and beyond, but it seems nothing worked out as planned. Death, anger, and pain are too strong to be stopped, only delayed.

Sean O’Connor wrote Teenagers in Love pulling from his own remembrances of being young and in love with life. The power of those emotions is seductive in the play, touching our memories as well. Director Debra Whitfield does great work in keeping the story at the front through changes in setting, time, and tone. She and the cast make the transitions effortless and lets the actors work shine effortlessly.

Teenagers in Love is not a perfect play. There are many moving parts and one or two don’t always fit exactly rightr. But small missteps do not detract from the great acting, the transport back to the 1970s and the feelings of nostalgia and warmth which that acting brings to us. The player share with the audience that warmth and humor of their stories, tempered by sadness at the roads not taken.

Teenagers in Love
Playwright: Sean O'Connor | Director: Debra Winfield | Cast: Alexander Chilton, Jeff Woods Carlin, Jacobi Hall, Renata Hinrichs, Jackie Maurschak, Wayne Maugans, Kaitlyn Mitchell, Jack Rasmussen, Ziggy Schulting

TEENAGERS IN LOVE runs June 2 - 17 with performances Monday & Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Running time is 90 minutes. The Chain Theatre is located at 312 W 36th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues, New York, NY 10018. Tickets are $28 at

Monday, June 5, 2023

Fat Ham drops us into a southern family by way of Stratford (on-Avon)

Hamlet is a beautiful, long, and well-loved Shakespearian play set in the cold regal world of medieval Denmark. It’s spiritual cousin, Fat Ham, is quick moving, funny and touching play set in the middle class Black south. The parallels between the two are both subtle and obvious. Luckily for the audience, the differences abound with humor and current day problems.

For those of us that barely remember the plot of Hamlet, fear not. Fat Ham is easy to follow, basks in the sunlight keeping the best of the story but you do not need any knowledge of Hamlet to enjoy this. Like Hamlet, our hero Juicy (Marcel Spears) is thwarted and emasculated by his uncle, who quickly marries Juicy's mother after his father’s death. His mother (Nikki Crawford, now with a well earned Tony nomination) also makes the choice to marry his uncle, now stepfather. But in Fat Ham her reasons are clear and self-aware. Juicy's stepfather Rev (an overwhelming Billy Eugene Jones) is Rev, a preacher and a masculine bully that sees Juicy as a soft momma’s boy. A person he should shape into a “real” man, not a unique individual.

Nikki Crawford, Billy Eugene Jones, Calvin Leon Smith, Benja Kay Thomas, Adriana Mitchell and Marcel Spears

Juicy’s obvious gayness is just another reason for the Rev to torment him. A friction made worse by his mother’s desire to appease her new husband, often at the expense of her son.

Doesn’t sound like a comedy, but Fat Ham is definitely that. His best friend Tio (Chris Herbie Holland) is a go with the flow young man, who doesn’t understand Juicy’s reluctance to conform. Although Tio does admire Juicy for his strength. Tio floats along through life on a cloud of video games, pot, and a unchallenged life but is still preferred by Rev to Juicy.

Juicy’s emotional relief comes from his cousins Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Calvin Leon Smith). Opal is an obvious lesbian, yet it goes unremarked by the family. A denial maintained to paper over the family’s condemnation. Larry is a Marine on leave, coming to his aunt’s house to enjoy the bar-be-que and family. Opal works hard to be the support and outlet Juicy needs. Larry arrives a different man from the Marines. A role model of the family who carries doubts he doesn’t express.

Unlike Hamlet, there are no physical deaths in Fat Ham, but emotional rebirths instead. Juicy doesn’t descend into the depths of despair, but into the confusion and frustration of a child left out of a new family.

Marcel Spears brings to Juicy a multitude of emotions including joy, love, and anger. His mother has chosen her life and strives hard to keep Juicy in it. But Juicy won’t conform to meet the expectations of the new family. He will not be quiet and accepting. Even when he tries to accommodate his family to this new situation, he is belittled and bullied by the Rev, his stepfather.

Juicy uses humor to armor himself, even though it is not enough. Ultimately Juicy chooses not to remake himself into the Rev’s idea of manhood. He makes his own path, albeit in fits and starts. His definition of masculinity is based on honesty and self-acceptance. This determination gives this power to his cousin’s Opal and Larry. 

Fat Ham is funny and life affirming in a way Hamlet never was. Watch it.

Nikki Crawford, Marcel Spears, Billy Eugene Jones