In 2000 Rob Ackerman made an impressive debut with Tabletop, a play about the cutthroat world of television commercials. Centered around a dictatorial director hell-bent on the perfect close-up of a fruit drink topped with a swirl, the play raised a number of issues about art, commerce, and workplace politics. Ackerman’s newest work, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, in an excellent production by Working Theater, serves as a companion piece to Tabletop. Also set in a television-commercial sound studio, Gumballs satirically reveals the moral compromises individuals make when confronted with artistic, economic, or personal intimidation.
It’s just a side benefit to an already crackling evening, but if you see Handbagged, the latest in 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series, you’ll also take in snippets from several current Broadway offerings. The 1981 Irish hunger strikes (The Ferryman)? They’re here. Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of several Brit tabloids, beginning with the Sun in the late ’60s (Ink)? Also here. And The Cher Show may present three different-aged Chers, each commenting on the others, but Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s 2010 play having its New York premiere,makes do with older and younger versions of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, each interacting with the past and present and occasionally murmuring, “I didn’t say that.”
God of Marz, Rachel Shaw’s new play presented by Red Planet Theater Company, includes a warning upfront. A voice-over eschews the usual no-photos and no-cellphones reminder and (ungrammatically) informs the audience that “nothing the characters say or do does in any way reflect the views of the author, actors, directors, stage managers, costume designers, or the venue of this production. Some may find the material offensive and, if so, please leave quietly with no regrets.” Aside from the assumption that the play then does reflect the views of the lighting and scenic designers, for instance, some audience members might harbor an expectant thrill of an inflammatory evening at the theater. Alas, that’s not the case.
A British celebrity cook’s life isn’t so camera-perfect in Torben Betts’s Caroline’s Kitchen, a U.K. transplant now playing in 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off-Broadway festival. The high-tension new play centers on BBC cooking host Caroline (Caroline Langrishe), the “darling of Middle England,” whose privileged life goes up in flames over the course of an evening—along with the roast.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the opening entry in the annual Brits Off-Broadway series, is less a play than a boisterous entertainment, inspired by an actual 1942 booklet issued to American soldiers and airmen arriving in Britain to help battle the Nazis. What the creators spin from it is a curious pastiche: part culture clash, part British music hall, seasoned with sometimes hoary comic clichés and a genial spirit.
No one attends the symphony for a surprise ending, or to watch the string section go rogue. The enjoyment lies in the way that each instrument performs as expected, to the height of the players’ abilities, creating controlled harmonies and disciplined rhythms that pull at the heart while being pleasing to the ear. So it is with Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, the absorbing new comedy from The Mad Ones that finds six parents, each with an instantly recognizable personality, playing off one another during a market-research session at a pace that can only be described as musical.
Charlie’s Waiting, a new dark comedy by Mêlisa Annis, demonstrates its young author’s flair for weaving comedy and drama together, as well as a wicked imagination. The “what if” behind the plot creates tension that is palpable.
Annis’s play opens in an English country residence, designed by Meganne George with a sparse, clean, white interior. Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s stylish direction utilizes it as a blank canvas on which to paint a picture of domestic bliss, yet Annis tells a story of characters whose lives are messy with deceit and lies.
Playwright Matt Williams created the TV series Roseanne, co-created the TV series Home Improvement, and was a writer on The Cosby Show, which is to say that the man knows a little something about domestic comedies in which hard-working parents love and nurture their large families. In his new play, Actually, We’re F**ked, he attempts to go in a different direction, exploring whether two young couples who are barely holding their marriages together can stop fretting, navel-gazing, and betraying each other long enough to have, or even want, a ch**d.
Hurricane Diane packs a lot into its 90-minute running time. It’s the type of idea-driven play that in lesser hands might become more academic journal article than piece of theater, but writer Madeleine George and director Leigh Silverman have crafted the evening with a deceptively light touch. Not since Dr. Strangelove has humanity’s inevitable annihilation been such a good time.
The twisted identities and raucous antics of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night have delighted audiences for centuries—and a new production is showing why. Directed by Lynnea Benson, Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night offers an enjoyably accessible take on the Bard’s famed tale.
Over the next few months, the estimable Mint Theater, committed to rediscovering lost theatrical treasures, is producing three works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker. The first is The Price of Thomas Scott, a 1913 comedy-drama that features a top-notch ensemble of New York actors in a handsomely designed staging directed by Jonathan Bank.
In the middle of the last century, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—producers, publicists, and prolific playwrights—were leading lights in the American entertainment industry. They are now remembered for writing Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history, and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their 1945 hit State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize and became a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That play is typical of the witty comedies with serious-minded underpinnings that Broadway audiences relished during World War II and after.
The title of Ray Yamanouchi’s new play suggests there is only one American tradition. Is it fireworks on the Fourth of July? Is it celebrating Thanksgiving? Or is it putting out flags on Memorial Day? The walls at the 13th Street Theater hint that Yamanouchi’s view is much darker. There are posters for shows like A Darkey Misunderstanding and the musical BigMinstrel Jubilee by William H. West (1853–1902) and one that cautions “Negroes Beware: Do Not Attend Communist Meetings,” along with a 19th-century advertisement about the Democratic Party (the face of a white-bearded man) and the Republican party (a black man with unruly hair). More modern flyers hang there too: a picture of Angela Davis with the words “Black Power” and a recent Black Lives Matter poster.
It’s surprising that Ah, Wilderness! doesn’t get done more often. Eugene O’Neill’s only full-length comedy—not, he later said, an autobiography, but a look back at the teen years he wished he’d had—the gentle two-acter is warmhearted, smart about intergenerational conflict, and extremely influential. It’s the template for every stage family comedy from You Can’t Take It With You to Morning’s at Seven and beyond, not to mention countless TV sitcoms, up to and including Modern Family. It rings with universal truths that are easy to identify with, and it’s not hard to stage.
Jordan Jaffe’s comedy-drama Whirlwind hinges on a hot topic: environmental activism. It’s also descriptive of the relationships at its center. Bethany Goodbridge (Annapurna Sriram) handles issues of environment, health and safety at Arrow Energy, a San Francisco firm that builds wind farms. Her boss, Cooper (Johnny Wu), is an arrogant corporate type who likes to brag that he has his own jet. He also has more than a businesslike eye on her. Christian Conn plays the man who brings the whirlwind into their lives and ruffles their feathers—an apt description, since he is irate that one of the company’s isolated wind farms is killing birds at a terrible rate.
Neil LaBute burst upon the New York theater scene 20 years ago with Bash, a trio of one-act plays. It is a form he frequently returns to, and for the fourth year in a row he is represented by an evening of three one-acts under the umbrella title, LaBute New Theater Festival. Anyone familiar with the playwright’s work knows that his plays often attempt to shock—or at the very least agitate—his audiences with provocative, you-can’t-say-that-in-public pronouncements and confessions. Seemingly ordinary and recognizable individuals give voice to amoral and dark thoughts, and a successful LaBute play prompts a fair amount of uncomfortable laughter and occasional squirming in one’s seat.
“Obscene, provocative, criminal, controversial”—those are words used to describe Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comedian and scathing social critic who gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. I’m Not A Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce, written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, captures both the acerbic and the soft sides of Bruce, who was a man seeking a voice in an oppressive time for free speech.
Unlike, say, a film such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clueless has the rare good fortune of clearly representing its historical moment without coming off as a creaky relic. Writer/director Amy Heckerling set her 1995 film in a sort of alternate reality, where the fabulously rich teens of Beverly Hills (already its own parallel universe) reference Kenny G and Christian Slater while dropping hyper-intelligent aperçus disguised as Valley Girl slang. Light on its feet and funny as hell, Clueless was in the ’90s but not of the ’90s.
Jeremy O. Harris makes an impressive splash with Slave Play, a fascinating, often hilarious, sometimes bumpy, and ultimately serious look at sex and power in modern interracial relationships. The New York Theatre Workshop production also whets one’s appetite for Daddy, a second play of Harris’s that will be seen in the spring at the Vineyard Theatre.
A relationship goes crashing into the shores of money, love and drugs during a beach vacation in Krista Knight’s often confusing Selkie, named after a mischievous mythical creature in Scottish folklore. A selkie, also known as a water fairy can transform into beautiful woman with the removal of her magical cloak. Knight’s play, though, is set in a warmer climate. It begins with a married couple, Deanna (Toni Ann DeNoble) and Keaton (Federico Rodriguez), making their way to their hotel room in a foreign country. They’re giddy with excitement and ready to tackle this vacation as if they are on spring break, but they’re actually Americans on an extended trip, for reasons never clarified.
Life x 3, Yasmina Reza’s high comedy about a dinner party gone seriously wrong, falls almost midway between her breakthrough hit Art (1994) and the equally acclaimed God of Carnage (2005). That may partly explain why this 2000 play has remained in the shadows, but on the surface it also seems a mere artistic exercise for the Iranian-born French playwright. As the title implies, Life x 3 examines the same evening from three different angles, but it also comments on its characters’ stresses and petty conflicts in relation to the universe. The excellent production is a welcome, if unusual, revival by the New Light Theater Project, which usually presents new plays.
Todd Solondz is one of the few white, male enfants terribles of ’90s American independent cinema to maintain the incisive edge that made his reputation. While contemporaries such as Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh have built careers out of the ideological compromises that come with a Hollywood budget, Solondz has paid the price for his obstinacy, making only eight films in nearly 30 years and moving to the margins of culture. For most people, Solondz is the man who made a pedophile sympathetic in 1998’s Happiness, but his true signature is the ability to cut through identity politics to expose the fear, anxiety, and depression at the center of the American dream.
Director Kimberly Senior engages the audience from the first beat of Sakina’s Restaurant, performed by its author, Aasif Mandvi, for the 20th-anniversary production of his Obie Award–winning play. Dispensing with the fourth wall, she introduces the central character, Azgi, carrying a suitcase in the aisle of the auditorium, and he lights up the space with his greeting, “Hello, my name is Azgi,” a bright, toothy smile and a twinkle in his eye. Azgi has received a letter from America and is about to set off on the journey of a lifetime—leaving his native India to live and work in a restaurant in the U.S.
Popcorn Falls, James Hindman’s new two-hander, begins with a burst of energy. With “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana blaring through the speakers, the performers, Adam Heller and Tom Souhrada, sprint about the stage preparing the props, costumes, and set pieces for the screwball play to follow. Indeed, the mad dash is intended to set the scene for the evening’s romp in which the two actors play a combined total of 21 different characters.
If you thought you knew A.R. Gurney, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Final Follies, Primary Stages’ collection of three Gurney one-acts, reveals facets of the late, beloved playwright that steer clear of the collective impression of him. Yes, WASPs frequent the stage, though not exclusively, and Gurney is concerned as usual with questions of status, repression, and traditions passed on from generation to generation. But he wanders into what seems very un-Gurney territory—with uneven but often beguiling results.
It’s getting a little late in the day for a contemporary coming-out comedy. Isn’t that battle pretty much over, and aren’t plays like Gemini and Torch Song Trilogy period pieces by now? That said, David Adam Gill gets a fair amount of comic mileage out of Experimenting with Katz, his “new comedic play” about, shades of Albert Innaurato or Harvey Fierstein, Michael Katz (Paul Pakler), a youngish gay man with self-esteem issues, romantic issues, and severe mother issues. Gill hasn’t quite merged his characters and themes into a cohesive whole, and he needs to acquaint himself with the Delete key—Katz, small as it is, runs more than 2½ hours. But he knows how to make us laugh, and, a few contrivances notwithstanding, care a little, too.
Maitland White, the protagonist of Philip Barry’s unjustly forgotten comedy You and I, has a blissful marriage, children on the cusp of adulthood and a highly remunerative corporate job. To all appearances, he’s the world’s most contented man, sharing a luxe existence with his loving family in the roaring days before the stock market crash of 1929. What no one around him knows is that Matey retains the great ambition of his youth. And, in middle age, that secret urge—to be a professional painter—is becoming increasingly insistent.
Richard Saudek, the creator and performer of the one-man show, Beep Boop, is a self-confessed “idiot who likes to make faces at himself in the mirror.” If his program bio is to be believed, “when he was ten, he ran off to perform in the circus as a young clown, then left the circus at the age of sixteen to pursue other theatrical stuff, such as commedia dell’arte in Florence; improv in Chicago; stilt-walking in Shanghai; burlesque opposite Steve Buscemi; and has portrayed madmen and fools for over a decade all over NYC.” Whether Saudek’s resume is 100 percent accurate or not, one thing is certain: his kind of rigorous talent does not happen overnight.
James and Jamesy in the Dark is an extraordinary piece of theater that fits no mold but its own. It draws on many sources—or pays homage to them—but it is a unique, thought-provoking delight. Two gifted physical performers (in whiteface and dressed top-to-toe in gray outfits, including gloves) embody the title characters. Eventually, the audience comes to recognize the taller one as Aaron Malkin’s more phlegmatic James and the shorter, more emotionally fragile one as Alastair Knowles’s Jamesy.
The Gingold Group in New York thrives on the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Each month, artistic director David Staller assembles a cast for readings of them, but far too seldom is a Shaw work fully staged in New York. As Staller’s production of Heartbreak House shows, Shaw is still timely, almost uncannily so. Set during World War I, the play is an examination of the British nation; its characters encompass rich and poor, young and old, gentry and businessmen and clergy. In the view of the shrewd old socialist, it is, in the words of heroine Ellie Dunn, a “house without foundation—I call it Heartbreak House.”