“Bang.” “Bang.” “Turn.” “Brush.” Apparently that’s how steel gets made, or got made in World War II, with two men pounding it, one positioning it, and one more readying it for the next step. And a lot of steel gets made in Operation Crucible, Kieran Knowles’s vigorous retelling of the Sheffield Blitz, a 1940 calamity in the South Yorkshire town. Part-documentary, part-character study, and all-teamwork, this four-man entry into 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series is energetic and affecting, and a little disorganized.
A 16-year-old prep school student takes a train to New York City, spends some time in a bar, encounters odd sexual shenanigans in a hotel room, and struggles with an assortment of inner conflicts. In 1951, J. D. Salinger turned this scenario into gold with The Catcher in the Rye. But, in the TUTA Theater Company’s abstract and lumbering production of a 2011 play by Adam Rapp, these same elements hold little value. With extensive doses of narration broken only by a few unexplainable affronts of noise and light, The Edge of Our Bodies shares a border with the limits of our patience.
Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk are the Rihanna of musical theater. Just as the Barbadian pop goddess releases hit song after hit song while selling relatively few albums, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk are less known for their plays than for their individual tunes, which have gained them a rabid online following. Their contemporaries Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land) have conquered Broadway and Hollywood, but Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have connected with the millennial fan base like no other musical theater writers; they’re the official composers of the Internet. Now, several of their conversationally catchy pop songs have found their way into the long-gestating original musical The Mad Ones, playing at 59E59 Theaters.
There may be no better, or more controversial, example of humankind’s uneasy attempts to shape nature than the cow. When celeb geek Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted that cows are “biological machine(s) invented by humans to turn grass into steak,” avowed vegan Moby took to Instagram to call him an “ignorant sociopath” for making light of the “unspeakable suffering” humans wreak on billions of animals a year. Irish company Fishamble’s genial Charolais at 59E59 mines this same tension for dark humor and pathos, but with a much more intimate beef, between an Irish woman and a French heifer over the man who loves them both.
No matter how oppressively hot a New York summer can be, one of the dramatic oases in it has become the Summer Shorts Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theaters. Founded by artistic director (and often actor) J.J. Kandel 11 years ago, the mini-festival presents two bills of one-acts in repertory for several weeks. This year, Series B of Summer Shorts features Break Point, written and directed by Neil LaBute; A Woman, by Chris Cragin-Day, directed by Kel Haney; and Wedding Bash, written by Lindsey Kraft and Andrew Leeds, and directed by Kandel himself.
Bucket Club’s inventive Fossils is one of the quirkier Brits Off Broadway 2017 entries so far, with its plastic dinosaur people and range of questionable accents. If the script doesn’t equal the rich world that the company conjures through sound and light, the play is still a beautiful reminder of the diverse material that Britain’s robust training system and government arts subsidies can produce.
The theater has not been kind to the English port city of Ipswich lately. Alecky Blythe’s documentary musical London Road, a huge hit for London’s National Theatre and recently made into a film featuring a singing Tom Hardy (no, really), shows Ipswich’s working class to be petty and vindictive. In the revival of Henry Naylor’s Echoes, part of a double bill with new play Angel at the Brits Off Broadway festival, Ipswich is such a “dungheap” that it drives two women into the arms of religious extremists in Afghanistan and Syria. Compared to the hellscapes in which the women of Naylor’s “Arabian Nightmares” find themselves, though, Ipswich is the Garden of Eden.
There’s a famous joke about a man who prays for years to win the lottery. He tries to live a righteous life and promises to use the money for good, but his prayers grow increasingly bitter. One day, as he’s leaving church, having given God an earful, the clouds part and a voice booms, “Hey, moron, you have to buy a ticket!” A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, which launches 59E59’s 13th annual Brits Off Broadway festival this week, is about a man for whom buying the ticket is more than good advice; it’s his life philosophy.
The Birds, Conor McPherson’s creepy new play, is derived neither from Aristophanes nor Alfred Hitchcock. It does, however, share DNA with the 1963 film because both draw from a short story by Daphne du Maurier. (Hitchcock also used du Maurier novels as source material for Jamaica Inn and his Oscar-winning Rebecca.) Don’t expect to find real birds or even simulated ones in the pocket drama at 59E59 Theaters. Fans of the movie won’t find a pompous female ornithologist with environmental concerns or a schoolteacher with her eyes pecked out either.
Rather, McPherson, who has made a name for himself with eerie dramas that occasionally invoke the supernatural—The Weir, Seafarer and Shining City—has produced an apocalyptic vision with only four characters. It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that simultaneously echoes the Bible’s origin story in Genesis.
In a remote house in the United States—Sonoma County isn’t mentioned, nor is Bodega, Calif., where the iconic white schoolhouse in the film resides—a man and a woman have taken refuge following waves of bird attacks. Director Stefan Dzeparoski pulls the audience in close with two long aisles dividing Konstantin Roth’s set into quarters and a small central area that is the main playing space. Marked as House in chalk by Antoinette LaVecchia’s Diane, it is here that she has been nursing Nat (Tony Naumovski) for two days, since they found refuge from the bird attacks. As in the film, there is no explanation of the avian uprising, although the birds seem to arrive and depart with the tides (it’s an annoying and unaddressed question why land birds, like sparrows, robins and crows, would be affected by the tides as seagulls might be—surely they aren’t flying out over the ocean?).
Soon after Nat’s fever breaks, a strange young woman named Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) arrives. Although Diane and Nat are in their forties, and some warmth inhabits the periphery of their relationship, Julia is in her early twenties and she has been traveling with gangs of thugs but surviving—yet how? McPherson gives Nat a history of what might be mental illness, or at least mental instability; it makes Diane apprehensive. For her part, Diane meticulously chronicles their days in a diary—she’s an author who is estranged from her family. As the trust breaks down in this nuclear “family” the tension builds.
Ien DeNio’s sound design—scratchy radio broadcasts and the flutter and flap of lethal wings outside their shelter—further enhances a sense of isolation and raises the weirdness quotient. Moreover, there’s evidence of an occupant in a house across the lake, although humans are hard to find, and trips outside their shelter have to be timed between bird attacks.
After a reconnaissance mission during which she claims to have gotten lost, Julia shows up with cans of food from a house whose location she claims she can’t remember. But Diane later discovers the cans of food match gifts from the mysterious occupant across the lake, who, in a brief scene with her, brings them to her along with an unusual proposal. (Naumovski doubles as the character, wearing a terrific get-up designed by Kate R. Mincer, with an inverted birdcage for a helmet.)
The chills increase as Julia, the serpent in this macabre Eden, seduces Tony and becomes pregnant—or so she says. The play is a cautionary tale about violating the natural order and about facing the end of the world. Naumovski is excellent as the troubled hero, plagued by growing alcoholism and the demands to lead the threesome; Diane assumes the most rational role and yet at the end she proves ruthless; and Hutchinson-Shaw invests the high-spirited Julia with both immaturity and deceit.
Dzeparoski keeps the atmosphere dark and Kia Rogers’ lighting dim (contrary to points in McPherson’s script when windows are open). That’s effective in increasing the claustrophobia, but the director also tacks on a wordless coda that muddles the ending. McPherson’s finale, with objects chronicling the beginning and the end of the world in a spotlight, is more effective. Still, if you attend without the expectation of screaming, you’ll find this character study fascinating and unsettling.
Conor McPherson’s The Birds plays through Oct. 1 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (no performances on Sept. 21, 23, 28 and 30). Matinees are at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visiting 59e59.org.