Reviews

Shadow of Heroes

Shadow of Heroes feature image

Shadow of Heroes, a gripping and sad tale, ruminates on the question: “Where does fraud begin and truth leave off?” It brings to life the true story of László (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) and Julia Rajk (Erin Beirnard), Marxist leaders in the Hungarian resistance during World War II. László and Julia are fierce and clear-eyed leaders whose actions helped create the post-war government in Hungary. But it is János Kádár (Michael Turner), a nebbishy friend who seems barely capable of carrying out the underground tasks asked of him, who survives the rise and fall of factions and, after the war, becomes a central figure in the newly formed government, while László and Julia are imprisoned and later martyred.

Ernő Gerő (David Logan Rankin, left), Hungarian party leader after the war, and László Rajk (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) talk candidly about politics. Top: Gerő (Rankin) toasts the new Hungarian Communist party with Beater, a partisan (Joseph J. Menino, left).

Ernő Gerő (David Logan Rankin, left), Hungarian party leader after the war, and László Rajk (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) talk candidly about politics. Top: Gerő (Rankin) toasts the new Hungarian Communist party with Beater, a partisan (Joseph J. Menino, left).

The portrait of Hungarians living under a totalitarian government is well wrought in Robert Ardrey’s gripping 1958 drama, directed by Alex Roe. The Author (Joel Rainwater) adeptly narrates the historical events, and there are many to follow, as the story outlines how politics is played like a chess game. After the war, László is made foreign minister. Someone asks, “When did he become foreign minister?” The response is “This morning.” But for each advance, there is a coup. László is soon accused of anti-party actions and imprisoned, tortured and hanged.

Ernő Gerő (a standout performance by David Logan Rankin), the Communist party leader after the war, cuts an imposing and sinister figure. Other characters, such as Viktor (H. Clark Kee), a cruel but bumbling general; his brutal son (James Ross; a talent to watch) who tortures the prisoners, including Rajk, show how personal views were redirected as political winds changed.

The Soviets played a complicated role in the Hungarian Revolution. Zenon Zeleniuch is the cold, emotionless Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary who helped suppress the revolution. He is not the only ideologue in this history lesson. When Gerő isn’t clear about something, he says, “Can’t you tell me something in party terms?”

László (John-Gilbert) (R), in the grip of Rakosi (Zenon Zeleniuch) (L) on his way to prison. Photographs by Emily Hewitt.

László (John-Gilbert) (R), in the grip of Rakosi (Zenon Zeleniuch) (L) on his way to prison. Photographs by Emily Hewitt.

A very simple set (Vincent Gunn) of large wooden boxes, which are moved around to create scenes, gives a sense of the poverty of society during the Hungarian Revolution. Jessie Lynn Smith’s lighting, balancing light and dark, captures the shadowiness of both the actions of so many, as well as the way heroes (such as László and Julia) were cast to the corners during this tumultuous time. Sidney Fortner’s costumes expertly exaggerate the difference between peasants (in drab, worn-out clothing) and politicos (in sharp, well-cut suits). The actors play multiple roles and include Margaret Catov, Steve Humphreys and Joseph J. Menino.

“Don’t look at your watch,” László tells János. “Looking at a watch doesn’t change time.” How right he is. People disappeared, were killed quietly, or executed publicly. At one point, János is brought down from his political pedestal, imprisoned and tortured so badly his hand is crippled. But then he is appointed to head the party, where he served for more than 30 years. (It’s hard to keep track when government appointments changed like a game of musical chairs.) What is the cost of totalitarianism? The cost is the truth and everyone’s changes according to political need, and for their own protection, making even a simple thing like friendship a complicated and sometimes dangerous proposition.

Shadow of Heroes plays through Dec. 9 at the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 E. 4th St., between Avenues A and B). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. To purchase ticket, call (800) 838-3006 or visit the box office or metropolitanplayhouse.org/shadow.

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui feature image

Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, has not aged well. Brecht himself never saw a production of his allegory about the rise of German National Socialism, and what improvements he might have made in rehearsal cannot be known, but John Doyle’s version at Classic Stage Company does little to ameliorate a play rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.

In keeping with Brechtian theory, announcements of events help the audience along: here, loudspeakers describe turning points in German history, from the Nazi appropriation of Hindenburg’s support to the Anschluss with Austria in 1938. A chorus periodically chants a forecast or a commentary, such as, at the opening:

Raúl Esparza (left) plays the title role and Eddie Cooper is Ernie Roma in Bertolt Brecht’s  The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.  Top: A scene from the play, with George Abud (center).

Raúl Esparza (left) plays the title role and Eddie Cooper is Ernie Roma in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Top: A scene from the play, with George Abud (center).

…The mysterious
Dullfleet murder!,,,
Justice lies in coma!
Togetherness in gangsterdom!...
Who rubbed out Ernie Roma?...
And in the grand finale of the show:
Crooks conquering the town of Cicero!

Brecht chose satire and allegory as the primary means of telling his story of gangsters in Chicago taking over the Cauliflower Trust—a grocery combine that stands in for Weimar Germany. Ui’s henchmen have names that correspond to their Nazi models: Givola for Goebbels, Giri for Goering, Roma for Ernst Roehm.

They speak in Shakespearean iambs, a counterpoint to their criminal status. The disconnection between flowery language and lowlife shenanigans is a comic technique that Charles Portis used effectively in True Grit and that the Oscar-winning film Tom Jones employed in 1963. In George Tabori’s translation, also from 1963, it’s all musty and too clever by half. “But I won’t tolerate no hebetude,” says Ui at one point, using a nifty word scarcely heard or written any more, with a meaning not discernible from the context. The surprise of the formal language from the mouths of thugs quickly wears thin.

More direct references to Shakespeare are also distracting. Richard III is invoked by name, for instance, and a late scene echoes Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne. Apart from that, Ui recites most of “Friends, Romans, countrymen” and later says, “Is this a Luger that I see before me?” And Roma refers to his “salad days.”

The performers, for the most part well-spoken and clear, bring little nuance to the blunt script. The exception is Raúl Esparza in the title role. As Ui, he sports a creditable Brooklyn accent and invests the character’s low self-esteem with comic spin that may recall a certain President’s narcissism:

Nobody talks about me any more.
Yeh, fame is kinda short-lived in this burg!
“Whatever happened to Arturo Ui?”
Two months without a brawl, and twenty murders
All forgotten.

As he climbs the ladder, he takes lessons in walking and rehearses throwing blame on others—“Oh, that doesn’t sound right!” Ui’s character veers toward self-aggrandizement, and Esparza calibrates the danger and the comedy superbly. By the time he says, “What I demand is trust and trust again!” it’s clear that the revival is keyed to this particular moment in American political life. But it makes the Julius Caesar in Central Park with a Donald Trump lookalike in the title role seem subtle by comparison.

Omozé Idehenre plays Betty Dullfeet, and Christopher Gurr is her husband. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Omozé Idehenre plays Betty Dullfeet, and Christopher Gurr is her husband. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Also coming off well is Eddie Cooper’s Ernie Roma, a giant of a thug who emanates danger and power, but speaks the heightened lingo with the finesse of Sydney Greenstreet. George Abud handles the words authoritatively and often quickly, but with admirable clarity, although his two roles, Clark and Ragg, are secondary. Actress Omozé Idehenre is a formidable (male) opponent of Ui and the Cauliflower Trust; director John Doyle’s gender-blind casting neither adds nor detracts.

Doyle has the actors rush around and shout a good deal to disguise the talkiness of the play, but there is an immediacy in his three-quarters staging. Doyle has designed a sort of rough theater set: a chain-link fence perhaps 20 feet high separates the upstage, which contains lockers, from the playing area, and it lends an industrial coldness to the proceedings, something Brecht would have appreciated. Hats dot the upstage wall (costume designer Ann Hould-Ward’s selection of pork pies, bowlers, cloth caps, et al. are a significant plot element, scalps for Elizabeth A. Davis’s ruthless Giri: “Her prime perversion, believe it or not,/Collecting the hats of the people she shot.”)

Brecht aficionados may find it worth the effort to add Arturo Ui to their lists, but this tiresome production may discourage those who have never seen Brecht’s great works—Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle—from giving them a try. That would be too bad.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs through Dec. 22 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St.) Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; an additional student matinee is scheduled for Nov. 29, and there are no performances on Nov. 22 or 23. Tickets may be purchased by calling (866) 811-54111 or visiting classicstage.org.  

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Cleopatra

Cleopatra

If you think a mega-famous pop star like Beyoncé and an ancient Egyptian queen like Cleopatra have nothing in common, think again. They are both worshipped religiously by their followers, both have expensive taste in clothes and jewelry, and both have a penchant for dating famous bad boys. Or at least those are the parallels teased out by the new immersive pop musical Cleopatra, now playing at the Chelsea Music Hall venue. In this production, historical accuracy goes out the window in favor of flashy dance numbers, sultry love ballads, and audience involvement. Cleopatra is equal parts drag show, pop concert, and Broadway musical, and, though it has some rough edges, it is surely a good time.

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The Hidden Ones

The Hidden Ones

During the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Nazi regime forced countless Jewish families and individuals into hiding. Though they were not interned in concentration camps, these stowaways were subjected to another, silent, reign of terror—in which every creak and cough could result in discovery, detainment, and almost certain death. Thus, the scene is set for The Hidden Ones, an immersive theater production that brings audiences into the secret hiding place of two families at the end of World War II

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Beautiful Day Without You

Beautiful Day Without You feature image

Origin Theatre Company, established in 2002, is dedicated to presenting American premieres of works by European writers. Origin’s current production, Beautiful Day Without You, is a commissioned play by Marco Calvani. Primarily known in Italy, Spain, and France, Calvani is an actor, director, and playwright, and he has collaborated several times with playwright and provocateur Neil LaBute. Beautiful Day Without You is Calvani’s first full-length play in English.

Directed by Erwin Maas, the play treats a number of contemporary issues in the U.S., including racism, homophobia, drug use, and the limitations of the health care system. Emphasizing the racial and gender divisiveness metaphorically, the play is framed by the specter of a dead puny dog of mixed breed (and awaiting an autopsy in a refrigerator’s salad crisper) and an offstage Doberman, a powerful purebred descended from notable European lineage and described as “supreme breed.” There are also a few shocking twists and more than a few scabrous epithets along the way to the unconvincing conclusion. In short, this is Neil LaBute territory with even less subtlety.

Richarda Abrams (left) plays Janet Blount, an out-of-work nurse, and Anne Son is Rachel Huang, an animal control officer, in Marco Calvani’s  Beautiful Day Without You . Top: Son with Dan Butler, who plays Bob Sacco, a belligerent Doberman owner.

Richarda Abrams (left) plays Janet Blount, an out-of-work nurse, and Anne Son is Rachel Huang, an animal control officer, in Marco Calvani’s Beautiful Day Without You. Top: Son with Dan Butler, who plays Bob Sacco, a belligerent Doberman owner.

Bob Sacco (Dan Butler) proudly boasts of his white European ancestry and is the owner of Blaze, the “supreme breed” Doberman. Blaze is accused of killing Pippi, a small mongrel dog, owned by Janet Blount (Richarda Abrams), an African American, out-of-work nurse. The hot-tempered and alcoholic Bob claims to have no recollection of the incident, and Janet, who calls the deceased animal her “baby,” apparently took the animal home after the attack rather than to a veterinary hospital. In just one of many implausible plot points, it is only after Bob refuses to take responsibility for his dog’s actions that Janet threatens to call the police.

Rachel Huang (Anne Son), an Asian-American lesbian (all of the characters’ individual identities are underscored in the play) is the animal control officer assigned to investigate the case. As the play progresses, the trio develop an unlikely codependent relationship. Bob has a stroke, Janet becomes his nurse, and Rachel finds support and assistance from the other two in helping to cope with her heroin-addicted wife.

The connections joining the characters are tenuous at best, and the play lacks satirical bite and caustic social commentary. That said, Calvani deserves credit for tackling pressing cultural issues in the U.S. They seem to derive, however, from the perspective of an outsider, one who hasn’t been steeped in America’s boiling identity politics. For instance, quotidian racism and homophobia, except when addressed by neo-Nazis and white nationalists, tend to be insidious in their carefully contained subtext and in deep-rooted discriminatory practices. Here, bigotry and bias are expressed openly and carelessly. For instance, Rachel overtly refers to Janet and other African Americans as “you people”; Janet points to Saint Paul in the Bible for justifying her attitudes toward homosexuality; and Bob describes a presumably effeminate dog with an anti-gay slur and bemoans the rise of African American fraternities at Northwestern. Ranting about the changing demographic in the Chicago suburb, he says:

When we moved here this neighborhood used to be so close-knit, quiet, harmless. I mean, look at it now! I swept my sidewalk only yesterday and go look at it now! A disaster, junk everywhere! They are dirty, loud, lazy. And most of all they are poor! I don’t know how it happened but somehow we became less and less and less!

Janet (Abrams) nurses a stricken Bob (Butler). Photographs by Deen van Meer.

Janet (Abrams) nurses a stricken Bob (Butler). Photographs by Deen van Meer.

The characters and their devotion to one another come across not as simply insensitive but borderline psychopathic.

Maas’s direction does not mitigate the play’s tilt toward overstatement. The evening begins (and ends) with the three actors jogging in place and picking up the pace to a fevered sprint. The mad dash and heightened emotions rarely slow down enough to let the audience take a breath, and the evening becomes rapidly enervating.

As the emotionally on-edge Bob, Butler (the bullying Bulldog from television’s Frasier) is aggressively forceful, but he injects his performance with a few moments in which he reveals vulnerability as well as abject grief over the death of his wife. Blount, as the financially struggling nurse with her own family problems, holds her own against her belligerent neighbor. Son’s character is the least fully drawn, but she too has some nice moments as she exposes the character’s efforts to keep personal issues out of her professional life.

Guy De Lancey designed the set, lighting, and costumes. The entire theater, including the floor and audience seats, is draped in white painter’s canvas. The impression is that of a liminal space, a world somewhere between earth and heaven, art and reality, and being and becoming. Regrettably, this is a play that would have been more effective if it were grounded in the here and now.

Beautiful Day Without You plays through Nov. 25 at the West End Theatre (263 West 86th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. There are no performances on Nov. 21 and 22, but there is an added matinee at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24. Tickets range from $35 to $65 and can be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting origintheatre.org.

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Lewiston/Clarkston

Lewiston/Clarkston feature image

Low-wage workplaces in two towns separated by a river provide the backdrop for Lewiston/Clarkston, two 90-minute dramas separated by a meal break. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter peppers these compelling plays with characters who are descendants of 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But their reasons for traveling, or staking territorial claims, have more to do with personal setbacks and family tragedy than with discovery or affirmation. If Lewis and Clark were dispatched westward by Thomas Jefferson, these beaten-down distant relatives, making their way through a drug-addled world of subdivisions and superstores, seem as if they were sent on the road by Jack Kerouac.

Chris (Edmund Donovan) and Heidi Armbruster as his mother, Trisha. Top: Arnie Burton plays Connor, the platonic roommate of Kristin Griffith’s Alice, in  Lewiston,  the first half of Samuel D. Hunter’s linked plays,  Lewiston/Clarkston.

Chris (Edmund Donovan) and Heidi Armbruster as his mother, Trisha. Top: Arnie Burton plays Connor, the platonic roommate of Kristin Griffith’s Alice, in Lewiston, the first half of Samuel D. Hunter’s linked plays, Lewiston/Clarkston.

Lewiston, the more intriguing of the two works, is set at a fireworks stand off a rural highway in Lewiston, Idaho. Alice (Kristin Griffith), a sturdy and stoic septuagenarian, runs the place while holding tight to the 20 acres of family land that have yet to be overrun by new construction. Alice’s helper, platonic roommate and voice of reason is Connor (Arnie Burton), a former butcher who just wishes that Alice would sell off her property so they could go live in a nice condo with a swimming pool. Hunter keenly shows the pair to be stuck in an unnatural stasis. Field mice, shaken by the shrinking fields, have taken to gnawing through the stand’s inventory to eat the gunpowder, while the only fireworks Alice can legally sell are those that stay tethered to the ground. “Fountains, sparklers, smoke bombs, little rolly things. Not much else.” But then Alice’s 24-year-old granddaughter, Marnie (Leah Karpel), comes to call, providing the spark that will blow up their unstable calm.  

It is Marnie’s first visit since she was a child, and although she arrives with just a backpack, she brings no shortage of emotional baggage. She and Alice are both haunted by Marnie’s mother, who arrives as a disenfranchised voice on a collection of cassette tapes that Marnie has inherited. Marnie’s connection to the land, meanwhile, is full of ironies. Her childhood home is now a gas station. She has built, and abandoned, an urban farm in Seattle. The very concept of urban farming sounds crazy to Connor, but not as crazy as her vegetarian lifestyle. “Oh well lah dee dah, look who’s too good for the food chain,” he says mockingly. All three characters get under one another’s skin as they weigh the importance of holding on to the past against the sacrifices of letting it go. Precise, charismatic performances from Griffith and Burton, as survivors who have had to swallow a lot over their lifetimes stand in juxtaposition to Karpel’s sensitive work as a woman whose own problems are just beginning. Under the fine direction of Davis McCallum, the trio brings a perfect tension to the proceedings.

If Lewis and Clark were dispatched westward by Thomas Jefferson, these beaten-down distant relatives, making their way through a drug-addled world of subdivisions and superstores, seem as if they were sent on the road by Jack Kerouac.

Where Lewiston is about finding home, Clarkston is about fleeing it. Where Lewiston slowly peels back layers of story to reveal harsh realities, Clarkston tears open its wounds and lets them seep. The action, this time, takes place in Clarkston, Wash., under the cold, fluorescent lights of a Costco, that great American icon of overabundance amid poverty, with its shelves full of 80-inch televisions and giant tubs of cheese puffs.

Two night-shift workers, Chris and Jake (Edmund Donovan and Noah Robbins), are getting to know each other. There are commonalities. They are both in their early 20s, both have fled their families, and both are gay. But the tensions lie in their differences. Chris is outwardly rugged yet sensitive enough to want to be a writer. He has been living on his own for six months, needing to escape his mother, Trisha (Heidi Armbruster) and her struggles with drug addiction. Jake is scrawny and sickly, carrying a disease that he is sure will kill him before he turns 30. He has escaped his apparently caring and well-to-do family in Connecticut, because it is the only thing in his life that he can escape. Chris plans for the future while Jake sulks: “It’s a terrible time to be alive. There’s just nothing left to discover.”

Noah Robbins, foreground, as Jake, and Donovan as Chris in  Clarkston . Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Noah Robbins, foreground, as Jake, and Donovan as Chris in Clarkston. Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Gut punches come hard and fast to Chris. His dream is crushed, his mother falters, and he learns a hard truth about his absent father. Jake provides little solace as they attempt to become more than just friends. He considers suicide in front of Chris one moment and further aggravates Chris and Trisha’s broken relationship the next.

Hunter is perhaps counting on Jake’s sickness to make him a sympathetic character, but despite (or perhaps because of) a performance from Robbins that captures all of Jake’s irritating qualities, he is difficult to like. Chris is in need of comforting, but it is hard to buy the attraction he feels. We are left wanting more interaction between Donovan and Armbruster, who are no less than captivating in the scenes that they do have together. Hunter is also too carefree, at times, in his setups. We learn, early on, that Jake tends to drop things and that neither man has ever been to the Pacific Ocean, so we know it is only a matter of time before Jake indeed drops something important and the two make a beeline for the coast.

McCallum and his production team keep things intimate, staging the plays for an audience of 51 in what was formerly the house of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Folding chairs on a carpeted playing area have replaced the battered old installed seating, and communal tables come out between plays, allowing the audience to compare appetites while contrasting the West Village to the West.

Lewiston/Clarkston is playing through Dec. 16 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday, with special Friday matinees at 1 p.m. on Nov. 9, 16, and 30. For tickets and information, visit rattlestick.org.

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Good Grief

Good Grief featured image

With two plays Off-Broadway this year, playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and director Awoye Timpo are quickly becoming a creative power couple. The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company saw a novelist return home to Nigeria after years away, while Good Grief, which has just opened several blocks east at the Vineyard Theatre, explores the lives of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S. through their children.

Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) rekindle their romance in Hgozi Anyanwu’s  Good Grief . Top: N (Anyanwu) and MJ (Ian Quinlan) as their younger selves.

Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) rekindle their romance in Hgozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief. Top: N (Anyanwu) and MJ (Ian Quinlan) as their younger selves.

Making everyone else feel lazy, Anyanwu also leads the cast of Good Grief as Nkechi, a young woman whose sprightly energy masks a deep seam of pain. Growing up in ultra-white Bucks County, Pa., Nkechi and her brother Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha) have always felt out of place, but the death of MJ (Ian Quinlan), Nkechi’s soulmate, has struck them both in ways they can neither fully understand nor articulate. Parents Papa and NeNe (Homecoming Queen vets Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes) are doing the best they can to understand Nkechi’s pain, but the generational and cultural divide may be too wide.

Anyanwu’s play mostly avoids the clichés that tend to reduce stories of death to stages-of-grieving checklists. Good Grief acknowledges the fickleness of memory by jumping around in time and doubling back on certain scenes, to show first how Nkechi (who goes by “N” since people have a hard time saying her name) wishes certain events happened, versus how they actually happened, inevitably in much more mundane, messy fashion.

N drops out of pre-med following MJ’s death, but she isn’t sure if it was just a convenient excuse to leave something she was only doing to please her parents. This is familiar ground for second-generation immigrant stories, but the tropes are made fresh by Timpo’s magical-realist direction, which favors natural, relaxed speech but concedes that even reality often feels unreal, especially when experienced through the prism of extreme emotional duress. Timpo and sound designer Daniel Kluger together create the play’s most moving scene by having N’s sobs emanate from the stage speakers instead of N herself, who cowers in a corner. This experience of sadness, as though viewed from outside oneself, is immediately familiar and heartbreaking.

Set designer Jason Ardizzone-West further divorces N’s memoryscape from tangible reality by rendering rural Bucks County without a single tree or hint of nature. The set is all steel girders and sliding panels of augmented pegboard. Like Ardizzone-West’s Emmy-winning design for this year’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, the set serves primarily to sculpt and bend Oona Curley’s lights. Yet small stabs of realism, such a stereo playing Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” anchor meaningful moments with a kind of solidity, as with all forms of nostalgia.

N and JD (Hunter Parrish) release long-buried emotions. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

N and JD (Hunter Parrish) release long-buried emotions. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Pop-culture nostalgia is actually the emotional currency for the younger characters in the play. In a single scene, N and Bro reference The Wire, Clarissa Explains It All, The Hulk, Coach Carter, Lean on Me, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, “Conjunction Junction,” and DRS’s 1993 tribute to fallen friends, “Gangsta Lean.” These throwbacks are more than conversation fodder for the characters, though; they are landmarks that continue to define their self-image. Anyanwu seems to be suggesting, though without any reinforcement from the production itself, that it is this very adherence to pop culture totems that keeps N and Bro from properly dealing with their pain, and not their perceived difference from their white town. (And the play does go to great pains to imply that this difference is illusory, down to the inclusion of a nice white boy, JD, played by Hunter Parrish.)

The only “good” grief on display in Good Grief is Papa and NeNe’s. Though their Nigerian identity isolates them from their Americanized children, it also has allowed them to thrive while their children flounder. As N sobs upstairs, Papa and NeNe dance and rekindle their affection. It’s not cruel indifference, just hard-won perspective. “Go back to school,” Papa advises N. “Do first, feel second.”

Good Grief ends on a note of cosmic rejuvenation which the play, for all its creativity, never quite earns. In the end, grief is grief and there are really only two endings likely: triumph or capitulation. N is the play’s lodestar, but by framing her existence almost entirely through the men in her life, the outcome feels increasingly arbitrary. N deserves to be more than her sadness. Grief can be good or bad, but it isn’t necessarily interesting.

Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief plays through Nov. 18 at the Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.

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The Book of Merman

The Book of Merman

With a title like The Book of Merman, one might expect a big, brassy, loud and overbearing musical, but in fact the creators, Leo Schwartz, who wrote the score and DC Cathro, his co–book writer, have turned out a parody of show music that’s surprisingly unassuming and mild-mannered. One might easily guess there’ll be sparks that fly from just what the title implies: an unabashed mashup of The Book of Mormon and the style of Ethel Merman.

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Days of Rage

Days of Rage  feature image

Steven Levenson’s fast-paced and hilarious play, Days of Rage, opens in October 1969. America is riven. The war in Vietnam has taken more than 30,000 American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated. Twenty thousand mostly young people turned out to protest the war in Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and police are assigned to contain and control the crowd at all costs. Eight of the protesters, later known as the Chicago Eight, were put on trial in late August 1969. Word goes out to bus protesters to the trial. Both the protesters and the Chicago Eight see the case as a way to put the nation itself, its racism and unjust war, on trial. Levenson’s powerful play focuses a sharp gaze at politics and the hidden volatility that can tip over into violence and the spilling of blood.

Levenson writes with great clarity about the fundamental unclarity of the human situation. Several times Jenny talks in startling detail about the effects of napalm and the Vietnamese children it has killed. It is the spring of her idealism and of her willingness to resort to violence. Hal has no satisfying response to her.

The play, adventurously directed by Trip Cullman, opens with a crash of music and blaring lights that subside quickly, leaving the audience facing the interior of a house: a living room below and bedroom above. It is in this house that the intimate political and personal saga of “the collective” unfolds. Spence, Jenny and Quinn (Mike Fest, Lauren Patten, and Odessa Young, respectively) have quit school to join the movement and, with two more of their friends, created “the collective.” The loud period music of Darron West’s brilliant sound design punctuates the short scenes capturing the heady mix of weed, idealism, radical politics and youth that fills the house.

For those old enough to remember, the mix is pitch-perfect. These are days of free love, of radical politics, of revolution, and of rejecting parents, school, and, most passionately of all, the war in Vietnam. Spence has a volume of Lenin that he reads. As members of the collective, the three share all decisions (money) and responsibilities (dishes). Even their bodies are on a rotating schedule: “We share everything,” Spence explains to Peggy. “Why should our bodies be any different?"

The timing and ensemble work of the actors is flawless. Spence, Jenny and Quinn spend their days fruitlessly trying to sign people up for free rides to Chicago for the protest. The story takes off with two events. Hal (J. Alphonse Nicholson), whose brother is fighting in Vietnam, is a gentle black man who works for a living and whose quiet attention stirs Jenny into life and into a reevaluation of that life as a romance buds. How will Hal’s presence in Jenny’s life play out in a collective in which everything is shared?

Lauren Patten (left) is Jenny and J. Alphonse Nicholson is Hal in Steve Levenson’s  Days of Rage.  Top: Tavi Gevinson (left) plays outsider Peggy, and Odessa Young is Quinn. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Lauren Patten (left) is Jenny and J. Alphonse Nicholson is Hal in Steve Levenson’s Days of Rage. Top: Tavi Gevinson (left) plays outsider Peggy, and Odessa Young is Quinn. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

At the same time, a wacky outsider, Peggy (Tavi Gevinson), desperate for a place to crash even with $2,000 in her pocket, swears allegiance to the Revolution and worms her way into the group. It is Peggy who first insists she is being followed by the FBI. It is Peggy who will try to get the collective to expel Jenny, and it is she who will supply Spence with a gun, egg him on to use it, and push the collective over the edge. This is the edge that Levenson sets out to explore, the cocktail that will or will not explode into violence.        

Levenson writes with great clarity about the fundamental unclarity of the human situation. Several times Jenny talks in startling detail about the effects of napalm and the Vietnamese children it has killed. It is the spring of her idealism and of her willingness to resort to violence. Hal has no satisfying response to her. Are there times in which violence makes sense? But shattering news arrives: two friends have accidentally blown themselves up in an attempt to bomb a Detroit bank as an act of political protest. Hal points out that innocent workers in the bank, whose only “crime” is that they were trying to make a living, would have been killed if they had succeeded. It is now Jenny and her friends who are silent. Clearly, this violent protest cannot be the answer, either.     

There is a second instance in which a bomb fails to explode—in a story Jenny shares with Hal. They are spooky moments, in which life appears to be imitating art since this play was already in previews when the country was startled by pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats which have also not exploded. The year 1969 is a window into our fraught times, and Levenson uses it just as Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials to focus his unsparing gaze on the McCarthy years in The Crucible.  

Days of Rage is playing through Nov. 25 at the 2nd Stage (305 West 43rd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets from $40. For tickets and information, call (212) 246-4422 or visit 2st.com.

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Gloria: A Life

Gloria: A Life

Gloria: A Life, by Tony-nominated Emily Mann, captures Gloria Steinem’s ascent from a young journalist relegated to “women’s interest” stories to an icon of the feminist movement. Active in promoting women’s rights from the 1970s on, she is famous for saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The play is performed in two acts: the first act is the story of Steinem’s life, and the second is a “talking circle,” in which the audience is invited to carry on a conversation about the themes of the play.

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Girl from the North Country

Girl from the North Country

Two very different Nobel laureates haunt Conor McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country: Bob Dylan and Samuel Beckett. If Dylan’s music, which provides the emotional framework of this unorthodox jukebox musical, seems an odd fit for the Beckettian limbo in which McPherson has ensconced his characters, that’s just a testament to the worlds contained in Dylan’s songs.

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Travisville

Travisville feature image

Ensemble Studio Theatre has long been a company that nurtures new plays, but the author of its current offering, Travisville, has never had one staged before. Nevertheless, in his debut, William Jackson Harper, an actor who appeared on Broadway in All the Way, about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attempt to pass the Civil Rights Act, has written a thrilling and important drama so rich in detail and nuance that it could have come from a seasoned writer. Tackling the same legislation as his own starting point, Harper sifts through the granular, day-to-day effects of it, the promise vs. the reality. The story he tells is all the more forceful thanks to the impeccable cast that embodies his humane characters.

Bjorn DuPaty (left) plays minister Ora Fletcher, and Denny Dale Bess is the mayor, Ainsley Gillette, in William Jackson Harper’s debut play,  Travisville.  Top: Minister D. L. Gunn (Nathan James, right) addresses a meeting of ministers (from left, Ivan Burch as Howard Mims, Brian D. Coats as Alden Hurst, and DuPaty).

Bjorn DuPaty (left) plays minister Ora Fletcher, and Denny Dale Bess is the mayor, Ainsley Gillette, in William Jackson Harper’s debut play, Travisville. Top: Minister D. L. Gunn (Nathan James, right) addresses a meeting of ministers (from left, Ivan Burch as Howard Mims, Brian D. Coats as Alden Hurst, and DuPaty).

Co-produced by Radio Drama Network, Travisville takes its name from a section of Dallas (though it’s unnamed in the play), where an urban development project has targeted a largely black section of town. It will displace the residents, and those who profit will be the white developers. It’s an old problem that blacks have had to face repeatedly, and an element of August Wilson’s Jitney, too. What emerges under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, however, is the sense of stifling oppression. Although the Civil Rights Act has just been passed, the white mayor, Ainsley Gillette (Denny Dale Bess), urges a calm to let attitudes change gradually. Going along is Brian D. Coats’s elder Alden Hurst, a dying but still vital leader of the city’s black congregations. Gillette has persuaded Hurst to agree to the razing of Travisville as a boon to the community, white and black.

Two newcomers threaten to upset the established order, however. One is Ora Fletcher (Bjorn DuPaty), a young minister Hurst is grooming as his successor. Fletcher, married to a sympathetic and pregnant wife (a warm and lighthearted Stori Ayers). Fletcher hasn’t got his footing in local politics yet, but as he learns how it operates, the audience does too.

The second person upsetting the apple cart is Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best), a young organizer of sit-ins and an activist, but one not immune to logic and discussion. He has sparked a local crisis by leading a sit-in at a lunch counter that resulted in “rednecks” getting into a fight with him, and three arrests. Gillette is upset about it, although another minister, Nathan James’s D.L. Gunn, is taking a firmer stand with the mayor than Hurst:

Gunn: It’s not exactly against the law for a Negro to sit a lunch counter anymore. It just sounds like a fight to me.
Gillette: Right. But…come on.
Gunn: …Come on what?
Gillette: This is gonna take some time. This can’t…this won’t just happen overnight.
Gunn: Of course. However, to be fair, this hasn’t been overnight.

As the play, co-produced by Radio Theatre Network, unfolds, Zeke urges black residents to stand up for their rights and not accept low-balling offers for their homes, which the city plans to seize by eminent domain. Many blacks, fearful of ending up with nothing, balk at Zeke’s proposal, but Shawn Randall’s Orthell Dawson sees the point. His wife, Georgia, though, isn’t keen on fighting, and Lynnette R. Freeman, in a wrenching speech, details why:

I don’t need this. I keep my mouth shut all day. Picking up after these white folk, spending time with their kids while mine have to go Sister Franklin’s. … Then, on the off day I get to bring my babies to work, they still have to come after the little white kids I’m being paid to raise. Eat after they eat. Play with stuff when they done.

Sheldon Best (left) as Zeke Phillips listens to Georgia Dawson talk about her struggles. Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Sheldon Best (left) as Zeke Phillips listens to Georgia Dawson talk about her struggles. Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Most of the actors double in roles, as black ministers, homeowners, and church folk. Canny costume designer Suzanne Chesney provides charcoal suits for the middle-class blacks and a beige suit for the mayor; when he wears gray, it’s still lighter than the grays of the black characters. And Chesney gives Ayers as a slightly comic church lady an appropriately bright hat for worship.

The conflict between Hurst on the one side and Fletcher, Gunn, and Phillips on the other plays out deftly in Harper’s hands. “We’re not a monolith, young man,” Fletcher tells Phillips at one point. Nor is Gillette a stereotype; he may feel obliged to see the big picture, but he’s aware that his actions will hurt the black population, and Harper allows some sympathy for the delicate balancing act he has. All in all, Travisville is a powerful drama from an exciting new voice in the theater.

The Ensemble Studio Theatre and Radio Drama Network production of Travisville runs through Oct. 28 at Ensemble Studio Theatre (545 W. 52nd St., almost at 11th Avenue). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 and 25–27 and at 5 p.m. Oct. 28; there is also a matinee at 2 p.m. Oct. 27. For tickets and information, visit ensemblestudiotheatre.org.

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Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future

Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future

As our country’s partisan roistering continues its crescendo, the adventurous Ars Nova is presenting a space-travel yarn, set 300 years from now, that speaks to the autocratic tendencies of the current regime in Washington, D.C. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, subtitled A Science-Fiction Folk-Concert Musical, features 15 numbers in a variety of styles composed by Andrew R. Butler.

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Ordinary Days

Ordinary Days

The trials and tribulations of living in New York City are explored in Ordinary Days, a sweet and thoughtful musical exploring the alternating wonder and frustration of life in the Big Apple. Currently being presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row, Ordinary Days chronicles four New Yorkers in 2007 as they navigate their everyday lives while pondering their larger futures.

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On Beckett

On Beckett feature image

Aficionados of the bleak works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett may want to pay a visit to the Irish Rep’s production of On Beckett. But be advised that a passion for the author is a helpful prerequisite. Actor-comedian Bill Irwin takes a deep dive into the works of the Nobel Prize–winning playwright—he calls it a “personal memoir.” Irwin proves a trustworthy guide through several of Beckett’s works, from the world-famous Waiting for Godot to the obscure work Stories and Texts for Nothing.

At the start, Irwin says wryly, “My knowledge of Samuel Beckett’s work is deep. In places.” One of those places is Waiting for Godot, a peak of modern dramatic literature. Irwin played Lucky in the 1988 Broadway production with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and he shares a story or two about it; the character of Lucky is mostly silent except for a burst of energy in a rambling five-minute speech. In a 2009 Broadway revival he played one of the two tramps, Vladimir, to Nathan Lane’s Estragon. Even though Irwin may be best-known as a silent clown like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, his dramatic bona fides are also rock-solid. He won a Tony Award in 2005 as George, opposite Kathleen Turner in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All those talents come into play in On Beckett.

Bill Irwin indulges in baggy-pants clowning for his performance of  On Beckett ; it contrasts with the grimness of other passages (top).

Bill Irwin indulges in baggy-pants clowning for his performance of On Beckett; it contrasts with the grimness of other passages (top).

At the Irish Rep, Irwin performs on a nearly bare stage, and most of the show is a solo turn. (For the last moments of Godot he brings on a young actor, Finn O’Sullivan, who plays the boy who appears at the end of both acts to announce that Godot isn’t coming, but he will be there the following day.)  

Irwin addresses the minutiae of Beckett scholarship, starting with pronunciation. Is the title character pronounced God-OH or GOD-oh? (The British prefer the latter pronunciation; the former is generally American.) He says that he used to pronounce it the American way until the Broadway production, directed by the British Anthony Page.

“Why does this writing call me?” he asks. “All I can say is we were taught to emulate Socrates—my generation—good liberal arts citizens. Taught to emulate Socrates—except for the suicide—and the gay sex—but we were urged to examine our lives—lest they be found not worth living.”

While Irwin eventually tackles Waiting for Godot, he delves into the much less-known Texts for Nothing, a series of numbered prose monologues, bringing out the poetry and the bleakness in the works:

The graveyard, yes, it’s there I’d return, this evening it’s there, borne by my words, if I could get out of here, that is to say if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, to know exactly where would be a mere matter of time, and patience, and sequency of thought, and felicity of expression. But the body, to get there with, where’s the body? It’s a minor point, a minor point. And I have no doubts, I’d get there somehow, to the way out, sooner or later, if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come, the other words, sooner or later, and the power to get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the beauties of the skies, and see the stars again.

And Irwin’s analysis of this long passage is as erudite as you’d find in a college seminar:

Those last lines echo the final lines of Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno—as the characters climb back up from Hell: “And so we came up and once again beheld the stars.” And that line is the epigraph in William Styron’s book Darkness Visible—A Memoir of Madness. About severe depression. “Darkness visible” is a line of Milton’s, from Paradise Lost. There seem to be some shared touchstones for all who have descended to a hell, and returned.

Irwin discusses the importance of various hats used by Beckett characters. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Irwin discusses the importance of various hats used by Beckett characters. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

To leaven Beckett’s grim worldview, Irwin brings spoonfuls of sugar with his own expert clowning into play. He dons baggy pants, an oversize coat and various hats—a boater, a bowler (standard issue for the tramps in Godot) and a porkpie, among others. Physically, he slouches, wambles, and stands straight, and at one point does a classic bit of business involving pressing a button at a podium that purportedly makes the podium rise or descend. There is no mechanical apparatus, of course: he is creating the illusion through his own extraordinary physical grace.

On Beckett is a perfect marriage of actor to material. Irwin loves it, and one can’t imagine a better guide, with more insight, into the touchstones of modernism that Beckett created.

Bill Irwin’s On Beckett runs through Nov. 4 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd St., Manhattan). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.

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Emma and Max

Emma and Max

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.

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Goodbody

Goodbody feature image

Despite the seemingly predictable setup of its initial premise, Joseph C. Ernst’s Goodbody cleverly subverts expectations. It opens on the striking image of a young woman waking up over a dead body, with a smoking gun in her hand and no memory of what happened just moments before. In the corner of the barn sits a man, bound in a chair—the only person who can help her remember. While this all seems like the makings of your average Quentin Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy, such appearances can be deceiving.

Raife Baker as Spencer and Amanda Sykes as Marla in  Goodbody . Top: Baker with Alex Morf as Charlie Aimes. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Raife Baker as Spencer and Amanda Sykes as Marla in Goodbody. Top: Baker with Alex Morf as Charlie Aimes. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

After a shaky start, the play eventually finds its groove over the next hour or so, displaying an interesting dichotomy of its own to rival that of its characters. Stuck together, the gun-wielding Marla (Amanda Sykes) and chair-bound Spencer (Raife Baker) must each rely on the word of the other as means of escape from their unusual predicament.

Marla: You had me running around out there like I’m the Hardy Boys, thinking some big bad guy was gonna find us, and the whole time you were just trying to get the gun! Holy smoke.
Spencer: There is a big bad guy!
Marla: How do I know you aren’t the big bad guy?

All this is further complicated by the entrance of bumbling cop-turned-mobster Charlie Aimes (Alex Morf), who longs to be taken seriously, only to be comically undermined by his ever-constant need to unsheathe his gun from its holster (as well as by Spencer’s equally constant need to call Aimes by his vulgar childhood nickname).

Rounding out the cast of characters is the omnipotent Chance O’Leary (Dustin Charles), one-half of the O Brothers, a prominent family of Irish mobsters. In a grotesque game of show-and-tell, each vacillates between trust and doubt.  Through a series of misunderstandings, a pattern begins to emerge as each character’s façade slowly fades away and all hell breaks loose.

As the play’s oddball trio of small-time criminals, actors Sykes, Baker and Morf each create a believable dynamism between them, buoying Ernst’s often nonsensical, hilarious dialogue (not an easy feat considering the various acts of violence they commit against one another throughout). Morf, in particular, provides some much-needed levity as the naive and eager-to-please Aimes—especially in scenes shared with Baker, whose Spencer acts as a quick-witted foil to his counterpart. As for Sykes, her Marla walks the line between innocent airhead and ravenous avenger with comedic ease; while Charles’s cherub-faced Chance deliciously serves both morality and malice, at once reminiscent of many a crime boss before him. (Lukas Haas in Brick and Ralph Fiennes’ Harry in In Bruges, for instance, spring to mind.) 

Marla comforts an uneasy Spencer.

Marla comforts an uneasy Spencer.

From physical façades to actual façades, Matthew McCarren’s set and lighting design help to not only bolster its theme of hiding in plain sight, but its claustrophobic atmosphere, as well. Taking its cue from the film world, McCarren’s subversion of the ordinary in his use of farming tools as deadly weapons helps to add stakes to the trio’s situation, especially once Chance makes his entrance. Under Melissa Firlit’s direction, the actors’ make effective, economical use of the small stage, taking advantage of McCarren’s inclusion of a ladder, one of many key props for the plot at its center. And the action in this dark comedy,  whether it’s the initial, heart-pounding gunshot or the somewhat comical showdown, is helped by Cliff Williams’ fight direction, with each sequence inciting in the audience both gasps and giggles alike.   

With its deftly crafted humor amid literally stomach-curdling violence, Goodbody successfully pays homage to the action-comedy genre with unabashed, bloody brio.

Goodbody plays through Nov. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison, Manhattan). Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information, visit 59e59.org.

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Sakina’s Restaurant

Sakina’s Restaurant

Leslie R. Herman

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. 

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The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini

Harry Houdini is arguably the most famous magician of all time, but the circumstances around his death remain suspiciously murky. Did he truly die suddenly of appendicitis, or were there more malevolent forces afoot? Cynthia von Buhler’s The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini combines murder mystery, film noir, and comic book genres to create a genuinely fun immersive theater experience wherein audiences can explore the mysteries surrounding Houdini’s death.

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Mother Night

Mother Night feature image

The works of Kurt Vonnegut are having a mini-renaissance in New York this year. His 1970 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June has reopened at the Duke after an Off-Off-Broadway run in the spring. Now comes Brian Katz’s stage adaptation of his early novel Mother Night (1962). Vonnegut aficionados may note a few tenuous links to his masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and it’s a pleasant introduction to the writer, so vital to the 1960s but so out of fashion nowadays.

Originating in San Francisco at the Custom Made Theatre Company, Katz’s adaptation, which he has directed, can’t really substitute for the novel or as a credible meal in itself. However, as an aperitif to whet the appetite for the full Vonnegut experience of works like Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, it will do. Certainly fans of Vonnegut will find familiar elements.

You admire pure hearts and heroes. And you believe in romance. You’d be an authentic hero, about a hundred times braver than any ordinary man.

The central character is Howard J. Campbell Jr. (Gabriel Grilli), a prisoner in an Israeli jail awaiting trial for Nazi war crimes. (Campbell also puts in an appearance in Slaughterhouse-Five.) A playwright who was born in America but raised in Germany after age 11, Howard married Helga, a German actress with Nazi sympathies (Trish Lindstrom), and eventually became a speechwriter and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda. (The adaptation has cameos by Adolf Eichmann and Josef Goebbels.)

Like the novel, the play uses Howard as a narrator and jumps backward and forward in time. If at first Vonnegut seems to be exploring the thoughts and behavior of a dyed-in-the-wool American turned Nazi, a redeeming complication is introduced: Howard was, in fact, a double agent whose broadcasts, punctuated with pauses, hems and haws, and coughs, communicated top-secret information to the listeners. Only FDR and Howard’s handler, Wirtanen (a woman now, in a departure from the novel, played with steely determination and yet kindness by Andrea Gallo), were aware of his spy status. Wirtanen has gleaned the best way to recruit Howard from reading and seeing his plays: “You admire pure hearts and heroes. And you believe in romance. You’d be an authentic hero, about a hundred times braver than any ordinary man.”

Mother Night, like several Vonnegut’s novels, has a picaresque feel, and Katz’s production conveys the various episodes without seeming too disjointed as it jumps from Berlin parties to Greenwich Village to the Israeli prison. But Howard, as a writer/recorder/narrator, isn’t as interesting as the eccentrics who come into his orbit. They include Helga’s family: her sister Resi (also Lindstrom) and their father, a Nazi police chief. Howard also falls in with a gruff old painter name Kraft (Dave Sikula), who turns out to be a Communist agent living in Greenwich Village. There he also encounters an American Aryan supremacist, Jones (Eric Rice), a religious nut whose declarations sound eerily contemporary.

Everything we do is to make the country stronger. Join with us, and let’s get the Jews! The Catholics! The Negros! The Unitarians! The foreign-born, who don’t have any understanding of democracy, who play right into the hands of the socialists, the communists, the anarchists, the anti-Christ and the Jews!

Jones seemingly reunites Howard with his long-lost Helga, who disappeared during the war in a visit to troops in Crimea, and now brings him a suitcase of all his early writings. Howard learns that her father was hanged by slave laborers working on his home in Berlin.

From left: Eric Rice, Matthew Van Oss and Dave Sikula play members of the ensemble in  Mother Night,  as well as individual characters. Top: Gabriel Grilli as Howard Campbell, with Trish Lindstrom as his wife, Helga. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

From left: Eric Rice, Matthew Van Oss and Dave Sikula play members of the ensemble in Mother Night, as well as individual characters. Top: Gabriel Grilli as Howard Campbell, with Trish Lindstrom as his wife, Helga. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

At some points, too, Katz introduces a chorus, and they are a bit more jarring; immediately after the reunion, the chorus appears to poetically describe Howard and Helga’s lovemaking: “…my love-slave girl met me in greedy kind/ until Mother Night herself,/ who had made the most extravagant demands on us,/ could ask no more./ Mother Night herself called an end to the game.”

But although the script is packed with incidents, the production doesn’t really catch fire as a thrilling piece of theater. Then, too, the actors have varying abilities. Gallo and Sikula, along with Dared Wright as Howard’s brutal nemesis, are the most successful. Yet although the eccentric characters are always welcome, Grilli’s Campbell feels bland as an Everyman manipulated by others. His story at times seems just to plod.

All the main characters, who have assumed identities contrary to who they really are, provide Vonnegut his baldly declared theme, and it doesn’t let Howard off the hook, secret hero or not. It’s repeated as almost the final line: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

The Custom Made Theatre Company’s production of Mother Night runs through Nov. 3 at 59E59 Theatres (59 East 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, visit 59e59.org.

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