Dramas about alcoholism are usually dour and lugubrious, like the films Days of Wine and Roses or The Lost Weekend. It’s a surprise, therefore, to find playwright Sean Daniels has taken a leaf from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in—quick cuts, actors switching roles expeditiously with the help of a costume elementa, wry humor—to deliver what turns out to be, in the end, a story that can’t escape the sadness and seriousness of the ruin alcoholism can wreak. In spite of the grim story, the journey feels different and fresh.
Tennessee Williams’s 1945 breakout play, The Glass Menagerie, takes place in “memory,” as the brooding narrator/protagonist Tom announces at the start. In Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch’s production at the Wild Project, Tom’s memories not only haunt the character but literally haunt the entire production with an array of spooky stage effects, which lay a chill on the evening that only the playwright’s poetry can defrost.
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.
If Jack Kerouac was the epitome of 1950s beat culture, road-tripping his way across America, then the photographer W. Eugene Smith might just have been his stationary counterpart, discovering jazz, drugs, and artistry in the squalid comfort of his own home. Jaymes Jorsling, in his ambitious and at times stunning new play, (A)loft Modulation, unleashes Smith’s story from linear time, changes the names to poeticize the innocent, and blasts it full of jazz, all the while exploring what it means to be an American, and what it means, simply, to be.
Runboyrun and In Old Age, by Mfoniso Udofia, a master at wordplay, capture the power of letting go of the past. The two plays are part of Udofia’s nine-part cycle that focuses on several generations of Nigerian immigrants who have settled in America. In Runboyrun and In Old Age, a catharsis occurs when the truth is revealed, and characters meet this new feeling with both hope and sadness.
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.
Novenas for a Lost Hospital is a memory play told through several narrators that celebrates St. Vincent’s Hospital, a Catholic charitable hospital in the West Village that was founded in 1849 and closed in 2010. The novenas (devotional prayers in Catholicism), of which there are nine, give structure to the elegant sections that move back and forth in time from the founding to the closing. The effect is part drama, part history lesson, and part activism/immersive theater.
Keith Hamilton Cobb has written a thrilling part for himself in American Moor, a powerful look at Shakespeare, Othello, and the plight of black actors trying to pursue their craft with honesty. Cobb himself stars, although his character in the script is called the Actor. The play arrives at a moment when race and white privilege dominate the zeitgeist. Some of the material is familiar, but much is unique and insightful.
A bum hip and a broken marriage drive the chatter in Michael Tucker’s disjointed therapy session of a play, Fern Hill. Making its New York premiere at the 59E59 Theaters, following a 2018 run at the New Jersey Rep, the production boasts a cast full of familiar faces, including Tucker’s wife and former L.A. Law co-star, Jill Eikenberry, in the central roll of Sunny, a gloomy woman who must decide if she is capable of tolerating a cheating spouse. Indeed, tolerance is this drama’s leitmotif as Sunny and her hubby are joined by two other couples, at their upstate New York farmhouse, to decide just how much of one another, and of themselves, they can take.
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.
The title question of Poseidon Theatre Company’s immersive/interactive production Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe? The Cooping Theory 1969 is probably not one most people have asked themselves, even if they were aware that the great author had died mysteriously in 1849. Even less likely to be known is the second phrase in the title: “the cooping theory.”
The motel room drama is a genre all its own. Its structure generally involves a short stay in a strange, tight space where two or more friends, spouses or lovers have it out with one another, while anything from bad weather to existential threats keep them from fleeing. Examples range from Sam Shepard’s dynamic Fool for Love to A.R. Gurney’s contemplative The Wayside Motor Inn. In his 2018 one-act, Only Yesterday, television writer and first-time playwright Bob Stevens adds a couple of new elements to the form. His work is inspired by actual events, and the characters happen to be two of the most famous men in the world: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Thus confined by reality and familiarity, the results are nostalgic, if not exactly explosive.
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.
Mac Wellman is a grand master of absurdity, and the Flea Theater is currently presenting a festival of five plays in rotating repertory. Two of them, Bad Penny and Serenity Forever, are classic examples of Wellman’s work, which often weaves together an exploration of the everyday with mythology, the metaphysical, and American consciousness.
If nothing else, the Bridge Production Group deserves a shout-out for tackling difficult material. Just 10 minutes into a mere 70 minutes’ running time, See You, by Canadian writer Guillaume Corbeil, is more than likely to provoke thoughts of how swiftly mortal lives are over, and whether your own demise will occur before the play ends. In short, See You is a stultifying, irritating work—playwriting by lists.
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.
The decision to avoid going into the family business can be a wise one, especially if that business involves the questionable practice of psychic healing. However, if that choice also means surrendering not only the family name, but one’s entire identity, then scamming the sick and elderly might seem to hold merit. Such is a young man’s quandary in Felix Starro, the sincere and split-focus new musical by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo that opens the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s 30th anniversary season. Under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, this nearly two-hour dive into the meaning of faith is the first musical created by Filipino Americans to appear Off-Broadway.
Having presented excellent revivals of Sean O’Casey’s three most important plays, the Irish Rep has turned to Little Gem, a new play by Elaine Murphy, that’s riskier. The play consists of three intertwined monologues. The structure may not appeal to everyone, and it’s a work that will find more resonance among women, but the performers, under the direction of Marc Atkinson Borrull, bring all their considerable power to invigorating a story that doesn’t rely on flash or action.
Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical is a high-octane show that has a way of staying with you long after the curtain closes. The songs are taken from Meatloaf’s 1977 debut album, Bat Out of Hell, which provided a narrative about love and teenage angst for a generation of rock-and-roll fans. Director Jay Scheib, best-known for contemporary stagings of classical and contemporary works, has combined straightforward musical theater elements with avant-garde practices (such as a handheld camera that isolates and projects the faces of the characters in situ). The overall affect is of a raucous rock musical that captures the spirit of a concept album.