Playwrights Horizons is currently housing an unexpected thing in New York City: conservatives openly discussing their beliefs. And liberal New Yorkers are, and should be, flocking to it. Providing a respite from the shock-jock conservatism of Donald Trump and Fox News, Will Arbery’s new play Heroes of the Fourth Turning puts Catholic conservatism onstage in all of its messiness and nuance, daring its audience to listen to what the other side has to say—and maybe even making them care about the characters doing the talking.
Liba Vaynberg’s Round Table is a small play with huge aspirations. Focusing on a pair of nerdy lovers who meet through an online dating app, Vaynberg’s work is at heart a sentimental and sweet romantic comedy. Interspersed throughout, however, are scenes inspired by the legend of King Arthur as well as monologues that break the fourth wall to address heady quandaries about unrequited love, self-idealization, and mortality. To the credit of the winning cast and fleet direction, the intimate production at 59E59 Theaters does not collapse under its own ungainliness.
David Staller, the artistic director of the Gingold Group, has made his mission to celebrate the plays of George Bernard Shaw. To that end, the group offers readings of Shaw plays monthly and hosts discussions about him. One play each year receives a fully staged production. The current offering, Caesar and Cleopatra, is a rarity. Although it’s interesting, it’s less satisfying than, for instance, its low-budget Heartbreak House was last season.
Jaclyn Backhaus’s Wives, at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Margot Bordelon, is a raucous, funny, well-acted, and well-intentioned production that suffers from intermittent heavy-handedness and whose four distinct parts don’t fully cohere. The final of the four vignettes that comprise the 80-minute play tries to wrangle the previous three stories, which originated as ideas for three separate plays, into a harmonious symmetry, but it only muddies the waters so that Wives ends up feeling like partially thought-out ideas awaiting fuller exploration.
Jonathan Spector’s new play Eureka Day is the unusual satire that takes aim at left-wing politics. It is perhaps the most notable rare bird of its kind since Jonathan Reynolds’s wonderful Stonewall Jackson’s House, which appeared more than 20 years ago. Spector sets his play in Berkeley, Calif., a town whose radical politics have put it at the forefront of social change yet also earned it the nickname Berserkeley.
Time travel. It’s such a promising stage subject, why haven’t playwrights tackled it more? A chance to compare and contrast eras and attitudes, to explore the progress we’ve made and what we’ve lost. Debra Whitfield’s little comedy Tech Support attempts all of the above, throwing in some #MeToo concerns and pointed observations about our inability to keep up with the galloping pace of technological change. It’s a friendly, well-meaning effort. And it’s frustratingly low-impact.
Bess Wohl’s new comedy Make Believe portrays a quartet of Gen-X siblings at two points of life-changing family crisis. The first is in 1980, when the Conlees, two sisters and two brothers, are small children. The second is 32 years later. In both instances, the kids are gathered—it’s tempting to say “barricaded”—in a gargantuan nursery at the top of their parents’ luxe suburban home.
Food might not be the primary theme one would look for in Shakespeare, but Food of Love and Third Rail Projects have hit upon it, with pleasantly surprising results, in Midsummer: A Banquet at Café Fae, an unusual performance venue just south of Union Square. From the title it’s easy to guess that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the production; it’s not easy to predict the rest.
Harlem Repertory’s The Wizard of Oz is a theatrical romp accompanied by a lively jazz trio. Directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant, themes of self-discovery, connection to family and facing one’s fears are well tackled and performed by a wonderful multicultural cast. They bring to life the events that propel the Kansas schoolgirl, Dorothy, on a magical mystery tour as she follows the yellow brick road.
Rita Rudner is not quite a household name, but when she shows up in Two’s a Crowd, the new little musical for which she cowrote the book with her husband, Martin Bergman, and in which she stars, she commands entrance applause. If you don’t know who she is, here’s the scoop: The comedienne first showed up on 1980s late-night talk shows, usually Letterman or Johnny Carson, selling the persona of the modern, put-upon woman—frustrated with technology, female powerlessness, and men. She had a good run with it, wrote some books, and moved from network TV mostly to Las Vegas, where she has been steadily performing for almost two decades.
Reality Curve Theatre of Vancouver is making its first visit to New York City with Zayd Dohrn’s early play Reborning. Ten years ago, when Dohrn was unknown, this unsettling, if far-fetched, comedy-drama was part of the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theatre. Since that time, the playwright, who heads the graduate dramatic-writing program at Northwestern University, has penned a number of provocative yet non-preachy scripts that explore social issues through clashes—always fierce, sometimes violent—among recognizable characters.
Just in time for World Pride celebrations comes Camp Morning Wood, a quirky new nudie musical full of bouncy tunes, cheeky good humor and glitter that gets everywhere. It stars an attractive cast getting into some pretty hairy situations in the woods. Following in the footsteps of revues like Oh, Calcutta! and Naked Boys Singing, Camp Morning Wood takes it up a notch by incorporating nudity into a real plot.
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.