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 over 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. Solondz’s playwriting debut, Emma and Max, lacks the gut punch of his finest film work, but showcases an artist still as obsessed as ever with trying to figure out why the hell people seem determined to get everything wrong.
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.”
The Broadway-bound Be More Chill is a Black Mirror–meets–Mean Girls musical with a cult following that has propelled it from its 2014 premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., to an Off-Broadway run. The power of social media and an obsessive teenage fan base took this little-known show and made it the second most mentioned musical on Tumblr in 2017 (behind Hamilton).
A Pirandellian lark and two plays with feminist concerns constitute Summer Shorts (Series A), the invaluable annual presentation of one-acts at 59E59th Street Theaters by Throughline Artists.
My Life on a Diet, Renée Taylor’s hilarious one-woman show (cowritten and codirected with Joseph Bologna, her late husband), is a testimony to the power of a story and the story teller. In a beautifully beaded champagne evening dress and matching sneakers, she’s the size of a pixie and just as energetic. When she told her doctor she’s going to do a one-woman show, he wonders how, at 86 years old, she’s going to move around the stage for an hour and a half with arthritis, bursitis, sciatica, the beginning of osteoporosis and a broken foot? She tells him “I can jump! I can kick! I can do the mambo!” Then she admits: “In the pool. On dry land, I can walk and I can sit. I just have trouble sitting after I walk and getting up and walking after I sit.” So, she arrives at a happy medium and stays seated for her performance.
In what has become a rite of summer in New York, the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP) has taken up residence at the Atlantic Stage 2. The company’s first offering is a double bill featuring Howard Barker’s The Possibilities, directed by Richard Ramagnoli, and Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke, directed by Cheryl Faraone. Although stylistically quite different, the plays generally fit together well in their emotionally dizzying and intellectually disorienting exploration of power and politics.
Can a sinner become a saint? That is the question John Wulp explores in The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, first produced in 1958 at the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and last seen in an Off-Broadway production the following year. The story is loosely based on the real life of Margery Kempe, a woman who lived in the 14th century and wrote the first known autobiography in Western literature. At the beginning of the play, Margery (the wonderful Andrus Nichols, who brings an energetic intensity to the role) declares, “Morality, damn all morality, damn, damn, damn.” A feminist long before the feminist movement, she seeks to shrug off the assumptions that inform her role as mother, housewife and religious community member. She hates it all and leaves home.
Jodi (Idina Menzel), the fortysomething central character in Joshua Harmon’s attention-grabbing new drama, Skintight, is having a bad time. She has arrived unannounced at her father’s Greenwich Village townhouse to help celebrate his 70th birthday, even though she has been warned not to by her dad. But she’s determined to connect with those who love her in her time of trial: in Los Angeles she has just attended the wedding of her ex-husband to a perky young 25-year-old.
The Mint Theater is reviving another thoroughly engaging play you’ve never heard of. This time it’s Miles Malleson’s Conflict, a 1925 political comedy, with fast-paced direction by Jenn Thompson and brightly polished performances from a noteworthy cast of seven.
Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the adventurous downtown troupe known for theatrical adaptations of iconic modernist works, is parodying Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams in a new play by Kate Scelsa that has the cleverest title in town—Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf. The production is directed at breakneck speed by the company’s founder, John Collins. It features visuals by Louisa Thompson (scenery), Amanda Villalobos (properties), and Kaye Voyce (costumes) that give the proceedings the kitsch-cluttered aesthetic that’s an ERS signature.
A.R. Gurney, who died in June 2017, was prolific to the end. Like Verdi, Henry James, and Philip Roth (a recently deceased contemporary of Gurney’s), this urbane playwright exercised robust creative powers far beyond customary retirement age. Judging by the number of high-profile revivals since his death (most notably last season’s superb Off-Broadway production of Later Life), Gurney’s wit and insight are still integral to American drama.
Liza Birkenmeier’s The Hollower is the kind of play that tries to push the envelope in a variety of ways but ends up as effective as a pile of shredded paper. Perhaps that may be viewed as a tortured metaphor, but it’s nothing compared to the torturous path of what passes for plot in The Hollower. If you find yourself adrift after five minutes, you’ll be in full consternation when you leave.
Peace for Mary Frances marks a promising debut for dramatist Lily Thorne. The play, produced by the New Group, follows the last weeks of the 90-year-old title character and her typically (well, maybe not so typically) dysfunctional family. The daughter of refugees from the Armenian genocide, Mary Frances is plagued by physical maladies. She has decided to resolve some old family issues and then shuffle off this you-know-what at home.