59E59 Theaters

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

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. At different times it calls to mind Teahouse of the August Moon, Sgt. Bilko, The Andy Griffith Show, and the caricatured aristocrats in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Print Friendly and PDF

The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game

Last year’s Off-Broadway production of Daniel’s Husband by Michael McKeever focused on a loving gay couple whose lack of a legal document deprived the title character (named Mitch) of the right to determine the care of his spouse, who was stricken with a serious disease. It was easy to sympathize with the principals, whose desire for normal domesticity elicited sympathy. Charles Gershman takes a more daring tack in his new play The Waiting Game: his “hero,” Paolo, is a meth-smoking lodestar of promiscuity.

Print Friendly and PDF

Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat

Ghosts and demons are expected to rise up on Halloween, and the ones within the haunted house of Jack Neary’s twisted and brutal tragicomedy, Trick or Treat, do not disappoint. The walking dead linger on the staircase while the spirits of deceased relatives, as well as some long-buried secrets, emerge to effectively tear apart a family. Hints of betrayal, mental illness and physical violence pervade the air, so don’t even ask what happened in the basement. Not that Neary’s characters are wearing white sheets, bloody robes or devil horns. No, this is a far scarier and more tragic clan: a passive-aggressive, Irish-American, middle-class family in eastern Massachusetts.

Print Friendly and PDF

On Blueberry Hill

On Blueberry Hill

Sebastian Barry, the Irish playwright who made a theatrical splash with his 1995 play The Steward of Christendom, has since then become as renowned for his novels (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Days Without End, A Long Long Way) and only sporadically returned to the theater. On Blueberry Hill, a presentation of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, is less a traditional play than two intertwined monologues—like The Pride of Parnell Street, a 2007 play from Barry’s hand that was presented by the same company, Fishamble, or Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—but it is riveting.

Print Friendly and PDF

Goodbody

Goodbody

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.

Print Friendly and PDF

Mother Night

Mother Night

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.

Print Friendly and PDF

All I Want Is One Night

All I Want Is One Night

Time has not been kind to Suzy Solidor, the Parisian nightclub sensation of the 1930s. Solidor earned a reputation as “the most-painted woman in the world,” and her image was captured by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Tamara de Lempicka, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and dozens of others. Known primarily for her erotic songs about lesbian desire, Solidor is all but forgotten today, but the immensely gifted singer and actress Jessica Walker may just rescue her from the footnotes of entertainment history. Walker’s new work, All I Want Is One Night, which is part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters, offers compelling reason to become reacquainted (or, as the case may be, acquainted) with the cross-dressing French cabaret singer.

Print Friendly and PDF

Secret Life of Humans

Secret Life of Humans

Like the Scottish-American songwriter with the same name, British playwright David Byrne is concerned with life during wartime, and captivated by one of life’s great questions: “Well, how did I get here?” In this coolly cerebral and beautifully staged production of Secret Life of Humans, Byrne, who codirects with Kate Stanley, transports us through the present day, the 1940s and the 1970s, with pit stops at the dawn of humanity. He explores a one-night stand, a marriage abruptly ended and, of all things, the darkly ironic and secretive career path of real-life mathematician Jacob Bronowski. As fuel for the fire, Byrne pulls big ideas from historian Yuval Harari’s bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, as well as Bronowski’s 1973 BBC series, The Ascent of Man.

Print Friendly and PDF

Replay

Replay

“Dodgy prawns,” insists the narrator in Replay, the affecting solo show written and performed by Nicola Wren, were the cause of her violent physical reaction upon hearing of a man’s suicide. It wasn’t pregnancy or anything else. The narrator, a woman police officer (identified only as W in the program), assures the audience that she is made of sterner stuff than to be shaken by the emotional impact of meeting the wife and daughter of the man, who took his life earlier that day. Dodgy prawns: This is her story, and she is sticking with it. As W describes in painful detail the personal turmoil surrounding her visit to the London home, one begins to suspect the prawns may be receiving a bum rap.

Print Friendly and PDF

Hal & Bee

Hal & Bee

As inspirations go, the combination of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is certainly an odd one, yet those sources are echoed in Max Baker’s charming, offbeat comedy Hal & Bee.

Print Friendly and PDF

Beneath the Gavel

Beneath the Gavel

The project of Connecticut-based Bated Breath Theatre Company is to devise theatrical productions in partnership with museums. For its Off-Broadway debut, the troupe has collaborated with the New Britain Museum of American Art to create Beneath the Gavel, which offers a mêlée of perspectives on the visual art world: the fast-paced realm of auctions, the struggle of young artists to make a living, and the larger picture of art history and its various historical movements. While each one of these approaches to the art world would makes for an interesting and meaty show, Beneath the Gavel tries to treat them all, and suffers because of it.

Print Friendly and PDF

Kunstler

Kunstler

There should be a whole new word for “disheveled” to describe Jeff McCarthy in Kunstler. As William Kunstler in Jeffrey Sweet’s one-act snapshot of the liberal 20th-century lawyer, McCarthy looks terrible, sporting un-manicured sideburns, messy gray hair with Poindexter eyeglasses nestled in it, an awful tie, and a suit that looks like it was rolled around in dirt before curtain. The look reinforces that this legal near-icon wasn’t into appearances, and it jibes nicely with the shambling, authority-challenging portrait McCarthy and Sweet paint. After a strong beginning, Kunstler settles down into wandering monologue, and leaves some vital questions about its subject insufficiently answered. Still, this Kunstler-at-law is lively company. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Life Is for Living

Life Is for Living

He was a jack of all trades artistic and master of them all. Trendsetter and admired cultural icon, Noel Coward was a British actor, playwright, dancer, composer and lyricist of songs, musicals and operettas, screenwriter and director, painter, novelist, and diarist, whose style, rapier wit, and intellect dominated the worlds of British theater and entertainment throughout the 1930’s, ’40s, and ’50s. Coward is the larger-than-life subject of Simon Green and David Shrubsole’s intimate evening Life Is for Living: Conversations with Coward at 59E59 Theaters. The presentation, the newest in a series of this British team’s collaborations devoted to Coward, uses Coward’s songs with excerpts from his diaries, verse, and letters, to offer us a glimpse into the breadth, artistry, life, and wit of the Master.

Print Friendly and PDF

Looking for God and Love

Serious pianists love to study the great composers in order to explore and channel the music they are to perform. Hershey Felder, the writer and star of the solo show Maestro, is a serious pianist and composer in his own right. He is also a gifted and highly successful singer, director, and producer. His one-man show is the natural rumination of one serious musician about another. A revelatory moment as Hershey Felder playing Leonard Bernstein demonstrates Dimitri Mitropoulos’s conducting style. Top: Felder, a virtuoso pianist, plays a nine- foot Steinway center stage as Bernstein.

Maestro is the story of the larger-than-life phenomenon that was Leonard Bernstein: conductor of the celebrated New York Philharmonic and orchestras worldwide; the second most performed classical composer in the United States, who also wrote the scores for the hit West Side Story and other Broadway shows; the creator of 53 Young People’s Concerts and proselytizer on behalf of the classical music tradition to the millions he reached on TV and in lectures all over the world. In this and other plays, Felder has created a piece of biographical theater. His one-man plays about Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Irving Berlin, and now Bernstein, use story, song, and music to probe the lives of great musicians and deepen our understanding of music itself.

Bernstein’s overarching passion was to compose. In Lenny’s voice, Felder explains what lies behind the works he composes: “and in every one of these pieces, I am busy looking for God. And for love. Because as composers, that’s what we’re always doing.” This desire, the desire to compose and all it encompasses, is the spine of Felder’s play. Will Bernstein find God? Will he find love? Will he write the great works he so badly wants to write?

Felder takes on Lenny, the controversies about his life and his music, and looks for the truth behind the noise of his fame. He shows us a man whose betrayal of his marriage and loss of his wife to cancer upended his life. And he shows us a man who, for all of his achievements as a composer, was never embraced by the classical composing establishment, which rigidly favored atonalism. Bernstein not only believed that tonality and melody were at the heart of all great classical music, he wrote successful musicals; brought classical impulses into his popular music; brought popular idioms into his serious classical compositions; and was just too populist in every way to win the seal of approval of that elite club whose tenets he rejected. He paid a heavy price.

Felder as Bernstein on a television set. Photos by xxxxxxxx.

Beautifully directed by Joel Zwick, the work uses projection and lighting (Christopher Ashe) as well as audio (Eric Carstensen) in striking, even brilliant ways. Does Felder do justice to Bernstein? Do we know the man more deeply after the play than we did before? These are questions that theatergoers will answer for themselves. But in bringing us a character whose passion and achievements were in music, Felder’s own musicianship, his teaching moments riffing on music that occur throughout the play, and his prowess at the keyboard, bring us more deeply into the soul of Bernstein than this genre might have otherwise permitted.

A solo show is a special feat for any actor. Maestro runs one hour and 45 minutes and includes challenging work at the keyboard, some of it while also singing or speaking. At the same time, is it mean-spirited to say there is a bit too much West Side Story and that, if the final song were cut, the play would end on the more tragic note intended by Felder, without sentimentality? Interestingly, as a baritone, Felder sings in a soft and lilting popular style and also in a steelier, more trained classical style, sometimes combining both, just as Bernstein was forever migrating from one style to the next in unexpected ways. Vocally this usually works—but not always.

Did Bernstein find God and love in his composing and in his life? In the most powerful moment at the end of the play—better experienced than described here—Bernstein combatively turns and asks questions of the audience. Then he recites a poem Bernstein wrote in which he sums up how he views his life in the face of his approaching death. Did Bernstein find God and love in his composing? No, Felder says, not in Bernstein’s eyes. And yes, Felder says, in the eyes and hearts of all of us who listen to his story and, even more important, to the maverick genius and passionate heart of the music that beats beneath it.

Maestro runs through Oct. 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tues.–Thurs. and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. (Additional performances are at 2 p.m. Sept. 29 and Oct. 13. There are no performances on Sept. 24 or Oct. 11 or at 7 p.m. Oct. 2.) Tickets are $25–$70. For more information, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

Print Friendly and PDF

Consumerism Gone Mad

What would you do to get a home? How far would you go? What if it were free? These are just a few of the questions posed to the audience by Jill and Ollie, a young married couple at the center of Philip Ridley’s sharply satirical Radiant Vermin. If anyone ever thought rampant consumerism is an American phenomenon, look no further. Ridley takes strategic aim at relatively new spectacle in the UK and hits a bull’s-eye.

Playing Jill and Ollie, Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey, along with the charming and talented Debra Baker, bring Ridley’s hilarious script to life. Jill and Ollie, who have a newborn on the way, intimate early on that they are not proud of what they’ve done, but they have received a letter from the "Department of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes" offering them a free home. The letter invites them to meet Miss Dee (Baker) at their new residence to receive the keys. After much back-and-forth, Jill and Ollie decide to meet her in the rundown, relatively empty neighborhood. Miss Dee arrives and produces the contract from a satchel that is very reminiscent of Mary Poppins’. Although they have concerns about the local homeless camps near the house, they sign the contract.

The antics begin the first night in their new home when Jill and Ollie hear someone in the kitchen downstairs. Ollie, who looks like he wouldn’t hurt a mouse, investigates wielding a brass candlestick. The fight with the intruder, who was rummaging for food, is brutal fun, with Verey showing off a gift for physical comedy: he chokes himself and pulls at his own hair before taking a fatal swipe at the intruder with the candlestick. The actor is affable and charming, yet quick and nuanced. Ollie runs to get Jill and, instead of finding a body, they return to find a brand-new kitchen, “the kitchen we saw in Selfridge’s!” But they quickly learn that “renovating” takes on serious implications.

Ridley is known for examining the darker side of humanity, and Radiant Vermin is no exception. There are few if any props, and yet between the detailed script and superb staging by David Mercatali, it is as if everything described is physically in place. Playing only against a solid white backdrop, Verey and Johnson not only portray their characters but also each neighbor as the houses begin to fill up around them and the “keeping up with the Joneses”-type conversations with the neighbors, about furniture and lighting, gardens and automobiles, builds to a mad pace. In order to “remodel,” Jill and Ollie lure more homeless in. The neighborhood becomes a hotbed of consumerism: the “Never Enough Shopping Centre” is opening nearby and their unfettered remodeling begins to tear at the fabric of their souls. Baker reappears as Kay, one of the homeless they have brought home. In a touching scene, she relates the rumors on the streets about people luring the homeless, who never return.

The crescendo, when Jill and Ollie are cajoled into throwing their son’s first birthday party for all the neighbors, is outstanding. Between Ridley’s fantastical writing, Mercatali’s direction, and Verey and Johnson’s acting, numerous neighbors come to life in a frenzy of mime, dialect, and comedic timing. Lighting choices by production designer William Reynolds heighten the frenetic dialogue at the birthday party. If occasionally amid the British accents some of the words are lost, the birthday-party scene is nevertheless priceless.

Verey and Johnson are the heart of this fast-paced black comedy, delivering Ridley’s satiric dialogue. He allows a peek behind the curtain of civility and jabs at human nature. It’s easy to see with Radiant Vermin just how seductive our buying habits become with just a little coaxing. If this is the best Britain has to export, long live Brits Off Broadway.

Radiant Vermin continues at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues) through July 3. Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and at 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 3:15 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

 

Print Friendly and PDF

She Won the Lottery

James Fritz’s play for two voices, titled Ross & Rachel, appears to have as its impetus the long-running TV show Friends. The characters of Ross and Rachel were one of the first to be known in the pop lexicon by one name, “rossnrachel”—inseparable and sometimes insufferable. Make no mistake, though: Ross & Rachel is no sitcom or walk in the park—those names aren't even used in the play.

Originally published as a paperback, Ross & Rachel is a tightly written tour de force for Molly Vevers, who easily modulates between “he” and “she” in this fast-paced drama. Fritz raises a number of questions and challenges about being in a relationship from the moment two people meet and how they interact with others at a party. Imagine a couple, not so much as individuals but as a couple conversing with others, practically talking over each other in side-by-side dialogues.

“How long have you two been together now?”
“You’ve still got that look about you.”
“Did you ever hear how we first met?”
“Right from the first moment I saw her, standing next to my sister, I knew.”
“Not now, honey.”
“Strap yourselves in, you’re not gonna believe this story.”
“They don’t want to hear about that.”
“You guys think that’s good? Tell them about how we got back together. She tells it better than I can.”

Vevers delivers this type of dialogue consistently for nearly 60 minutes. She is quite good in this challenging role, especially as the subject matter evolves into difficult, almost unimaginable events. A number of inquiries are examined and played out. Where does “I” end and “you” begin? Just how much will women often give up to be in relationship? Is it true that any man is better than no man? Does “until death do us part” really mean what it says?

Fritz wrote the male character as a typical guy. However, a revelation of an illness he has leads to a demand of her that seems hugely selfish. But the "Ross" character (those names are never heard throughout the work) doesn't seem written egotistically enough to warrant her acquiescence to his request. Or is she just mad?

Vevers begins the performance dressed only in a white cotton waffle-weave spa robe, holding a cup of tea and sipping from it casually as if to have a chat. Eventually she pours the remainder into the shallow pool she is standing in. She then fills the cup from the pool and proceeds to drink from it three times, spitting out the rancid water each time. Cringeworthy, but to what end? The action yanked the focus from the dialogue.

The design elements don’t help much. The lighting design by Douglas Green don’t live up to Vevers’ performance. Lighting appears as an afterthought—almost nonexistent light and a strand or two of twinkle lights hang overhead. Only at one point was the light dramatic enough to complement the brutal dialogue—when Vevers is lit crosswise, creating two distinct shadows on opposite walls. Alison Neighbor has designed a set featuring a shallow, round, black pool of water—which Vevers never leaves after the first 10 minutes or so—surrounded by eight votives on the floor.

To complete the play, director Thomas Martin has Vevers clap three times. The lights go to black, as if it were the “Clapper” lighting commercial or Jeb Bush begging an audience with “You can clap now.” Cue music. Vevers is too fine an actress and the dialogue too complex to incorporate silly moves and allow for a nonsensical set design—it’s unnecessary and distracting.

Ross & Rachel is strong and powerful, and it demands attention, and Vevers brings the words alive. What is striking is her drive to connect with each audience member, most telling in a monologue about coffee. She has a manner and a presence reminiscent of fine actresses from another era. This is her era, her time.

Ross & Rachel is part of Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues). Performances run through Sunday, June 5. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

Print Friendly and PDF

Bringing Home the Bread

Six men who work in a bread factory call themselves “bread plant operatives,” a glamorous, James Bondian phrase to describe a life of working-class burden, in Richard Bean’s Toast. First staged in 1999 and now revived at 59E59 Theaters as part of Brits Off-Broadway, with Snapdragon Productions, Bean’s freshman play is littered with such comeuppances to the class divisions inherent in British society. Its main players are blue-collar breadwinners (and bread-makers) who live paycheck to paycheck; they are given to cursing creatively, and often, about their jobs, their wages and their “lasses.” Bread isn’t the only thing that’s baking in Toast; director Eleanor Rhode imbues nervous energy into a production that proves both raucously entertaining and moving. 

It’s the 1970s, and a side-burned Blakey (Steve Nicolson), the foreman at the Rosedale Street Bakehouse, is clocking in. In the canteen, he (obviously) makes himself a cup of tea, before grudgingly greeting Colin (Will Barton), a harrumphing, middle-aged man with strike wages to complain about. Three other players also enter: Peter (Matt Sutton), a talkative young man with an ambitious itch; Cecil (Simon Greenall), an ever-smiling, avuncular bread-maker and Dezzie (Kieran Knowles), a former ship’s deckhand with a new home, and incidentally, a loving wife who takes hot-water baths—a luxury in their lives. Lumbering through these life-threads is Nellie (Matthew Kelly), a bread mixer at the factory for 30 years and the type of man who works ceaselessly and unquestioningly till senescence overtakes him. 

At the behest of his (unseen, yet somehow still present) boss Mr. Beckett, Blakey takes a student called Lance (John Wark) under his wing. Immediately out of place in his tweed jacket and crisp, affable accent, Lance is an outsider in the blue-collar bubble of the bread factory. We, like Lance, slowly grow accustomed to the spirited slang of Northern English accents: “‘Kinell!” “Are you pulling my plonker?” He might as well be from another country, as the audience is, and still feel the same rift in social connection. The other workers immediately nickname him “Sir Lancelot.” But in due course, Lance begins to tease and pull at Toast’s existential strings; class conflict is negated in the face of wanting to live a meaningful life, it seems. 

All are worried, some violently so, that the factory’s central oven will break down and put them all out of work. When a tin inside the oven gets jammed, tempers flare and panic sets in. It’s indicative of the weight and salience these men afford their jobs. To say that Nellie’s work is his life seems a conflation of identities—his life’s work is baking bread. His legacy is baking bread. A threat to their labor, which shares so intimate a friendship with life for these characters, is tantamount to sacrilege. “The bakehouse is my church,” says Blakey, for there is no other arena of life that exists so dependably, and so religiously, as his work at the bread factory. 

Unsurprisingly, Bean’s particular brand of screwball satire, most famously shown in One Man, Two Guv’nors, is found only in shades here. Peter and Cecil carry on a balls-grabbing competition; Blakey gives his crotch a great deal of unconscious comic readjustment as well. Yet for all of Toast’s good humor, farce gives way to a darkly spiritual kitchen-sink drama.

Rhode’s trump card is Matthew Kelly’s devastatingly haunting portrayal of Nellie, the ever-laboring, broken yes-man. Arms varicose with dermatitis and lungs heaving with cigarette smoke, Nellie’s monosyllabic dialogue leaves plenty of room for an actor of Kelly’s ability to indulge in invention, and he does not disappoint. Even Kelly’s deadpan stares take on uncomfortable, survivalist meaning. Is his reticence keeping him sane as he mixes bread day in and day out, year after year? John Wark’s Lance is a chattering antithesis of sorts to Nellie’s silence, yet has the most trouble keeping his wits about him as the play proceeds. 

The fairly stifling vacuum of factory life, so apparent in the nervous, chaotic conversations of the characters, is almost nonexistent in the physical space that Toast occupies. Set designer James Turner has made the canteen a blinding white and pastel blue; stark white light bathes the canteen (Mike Robertson is the lighting designer) almost constantly. Swinging doors lead out towards the factory, while a Max Pappenheim’s constant soundtrack of grinding machinery plays behind each performance. Holly Rose Henshaw has provided appropriately understated clothes that affirm the greatest concern of the characters: their job. 

But spread on every open surface is a fine film of white flour. It sticks to the walls, on door handles and the forearms of the workers—it is the non-erasable costume that the characters wear, reminders of their station. Matt Sutton’s Peter hastily wipes every chair before sitting down on it, but it manages to stick to his bell-bottomed jeans all the same. 

Richard Bean’s Toast runs in the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues) through May 22. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m. and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $70. To purchase them, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.  

 

Print Friendly and PDF

No Words…

The thing most everyone loves about birds is their ability to fly, yet one of the first things we do is catch them and put them in a cage. The same can be said of love. Told without a single spoken word, Butterfly, currently at 59E59 Theaters, unwraps a story of a kite-maker who is courted by a customer but is smitten with a butterfly catcher. The hour-long production is rich with symbolism, European and Asian sensibilities, and movement choreographed to haunting original music.

Beautifully acted by Naomi Livingstone, Chris Alexander and Ramesh Meyyappan, who also created and directed the play, Butterfly opens with the three characters miming kite flying with synchronized, lyrical movement. Meyyappan, as the butterfly lover Nabokov, is the first to break off with hand motions of a butterfly fluttering around the stage. It becomes clear quickly that both the customer (Alexander) and the butterfly catcher are more than interested in the ubiquitous Butterfly (Livingstone.)

Alexander, as the customer, is charming in a boyish manner, always bringing Butterfly a wrapped gift when he comes to purchase kites. Butterfly flirts with him but is taken aback when he comes in close. It is Nabokov who steals her heart, much like he catches his butterflies. Excited that he is moving in with her, she changes and alters her behavior and routine to fit his mood. At first Butterfly is taken with his butterfly-net acumen, but she is horrified at watching the chloroform kill the butterfly so that Nabokov can mount his specimen.

The gift of a comb from the customer sets jealousy in motion. Butterfly is at the brunt of it as Nabokov aggressively combs her hair with the gift. In an effort to appease him, she attempts to return the comb to the customer. Filled with the rage of rejection, he forces himself on her. When Nabokov learns of this, he rejects her. The dramatic, wrenching scene is played out twice. It becomes evident that she is replaying the scene, much like anyone who has been the victim of violence replays the event over and over in his or her head. Her barely audible wailing is the closest thing to a spoken word.

What follows is a series of exquisitely portrayed events: a dream sequence using a doll in the likeness of Nabokov, the birth of her child employing bold and visual imagery, and the young child’s exploratory actions into the world through puppetry. With controls aptly handled by Alexander and Meyyappan, an inquisitive, lifelike cloth puppet makes its way around the stage, climbing onto a desk pulling pins from the butterfly shadowbox, finally tearing the butterfly in two. Butterfly’s rage sends him flying across the floor. Alexander and Meyyappan disappear as the puppeteers, much like those in Nick Stafford’s adaptation of War Horse, but their acting does not. They are the doll in the dream walking across the sleeping Butterfly; they also become the curious child making its way into a new world. Nothing else exists.

The haunting and expressive puppet and detailed dolls are attributed to the skillful Gavin Glover. Neil Warmington has developed a fluid set with three bakers’ racks on wheels, first creating the kite-makers’ workspace and later transforming it into their home and a workshop for Nabokov. Also credited with costuming, Warmington could have use a lighter touch with a softer-soled shoe. Lighting is limited and sketchy, and shadows, while important, left the actors in the dark too often. However, it is the inspiring original music by David Paul Jones, married to the choreography of Darren Brownlie, that is the undercurrent of Butterfly.

The word creative is particularly limiting if used to describe Meyyappan, especially given the way he sees and delivers life onto the stage, and Butterfly is more than the typical story of courting, lovers and jealousy. However, what becomes clear is that he is a master storyteller. Expressing all of these emotions while conveying complicated humans without words is what propels Butterfly to soar.

Part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, Butterfly runs through May 14 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues. Evening performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.

Print Friendly and PDF

Boy? Girl? Or Both?

Darren and Janet are the typical white couple, living typical middle-class lives, and waiting for their baby to arrive. Will it be a girl? Will it be a boy? What the couple was not expecting was for the baby to be, well, both.  

Explaining gender and sex with an interesting twist, Happily After Ever is a pleasant way to begin a conversation about a hot-button issue. The play begins with Darren (Jeffrey Brian Adams) and Janet (Molly-Ann Nordin) meeting for the first time at a bus stop. “It’s so endearing and not at all coincidental that we happen to be two such attractive, single people sitting next to each other and waiting for a bus that won’t come,” Janet says as the two sit on a bus bench in the rain. And as quickly as their conversation started, the two become married, and suddenly Janet is pregnant—all  within about 10 minutes. This lighthearted, rom-com scenario of falling in love at first sight quickly changes when the couple finds out that their baby is intersex. The happy-go-lucky couple is then stuck with the tough decision—what sex should the baby be? 

The intersex baby becomes the “odd cookie out” in this cookie-cutter world, leaving Darren and Janet to figure out how to balance their love for their new bundle of joy with their fear of raising a child that is not like everyone else. For the rest of the play, the audience sees into the couple’s home and listens in on their conversations around what sex their baby should be. In addition to their baby’s sex, the couple comments on the way they act and how it is heavily influenced on their gender. With satirical humor drenched in almost every line, the conversations between the couple are upbeat and often produce chuckles.

To add pressure to these new parents, their neighbors, Jerry (Brennan Lowery) and Dharma (Marlon Meikle), come over every week for game night. This odd couple are the typical judgmental neighbors. They add to the satirical humor and outwardly judge themselves and their neighbors’ lives. Although they are jealous that the younger couple have a baby, their dissatisfaction of a baby being more than one sex increases the fear in Darren and Janet’s already distraught minds. Even their talking dog Tommy (Jim Anderson) can smell the sadness on Janet.

In a desperate need to go back to normal, the couple tries different ways to cope with their situation. They even try to ignore their infant:

Darren: I can’t think, Janet. It’s like there’s a noise that won’t go away…. It’s almost like…
Janet: A baby.
Darren: Not quite. Although now that you mention it…
Janet: It’s the baby, Darren.
Darren: Right. The baby.

Obviously this tactic does not work. Their distress escalates to a point where by the end of the play, Darren and Janet have to choose the baby’s sex. Will they choose a boy? Will they choose a girl? Or will they choose to leave the baby as it is and be both?

Sitting in an intimate theater, the audience will get a chance to laugh at the absurdity of the way gender is perceived through the eyes of two typical newlyweds with an atypical child. But in focusing on white middle-class adults, Zlatos steers away from delving into the experience of intersex people. Instead, she focuses the humor on the people who are not intersex. 

Costume designer Stephanie Levin helps to amplify these gender perceptions in costumes that reflect both femininity and masculinity. With a cute polka-dot dress for Janet and a fitted shirt and trousers for Darren, the couple is picture-perfect for any Friday night game night with the neighbors. To add to the contrast of female and male on stage, set designer Rebecca Lord-Surratt paints the stage with baby blue walls and hot pink floors, diagonally divided by a suburban green lawn. The set pieces are great for quick transitions and easily transform to the appropriate piece furniture during each scene, while the lights designed by Megan Dallas Estes give the set a crisp, clean sitcom feel. They fit perfectly in this quirky, perky look at gender issues.

Director Sherri Eden keeps up the quickly paced dialogue. The chemistry between Janet and Darren is a little more believable than the chemistry between Dharma and Jerry—however, both fall a bit flat. Their relationships lack a passion and connection with each other that makes their interactions with their significant others less interesting and exciting to watch. However, the overall performances of the actors are engaging and keep the audience giggling throughout.  

Happily After Ever is an enjoyable show with easy and lighthearted jokes. Shining light on the daily life of a struggling couple, their neighbors, and a talking dog helps the audience become aware how gender and sex heavily influence the way people think and act.

Happily After Ever runs until April 16 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St. between Park and Madison avenues) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3:30 pm. on Sundays. Tickets are $18. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.

Print Friendly and PDF

Shards of Light

How many times has someone attempted to explain the "situation" in the Middle East? And, of those times, how many have felt one-sided? No matter how hard the best of us try, the reasoning often has a bent, a leaning toward one side or another. “It’s complicated,” after all. In Wrestling Jerusalem, Aaron Davidman presents 17 voices of men, women, Israelis, Palestinians, Brits, doctors, farmers, and rabbis, among others, in a manner that can be heard and understood with refreshing deference. His affinity for the material, as well as the struggle and heartbreak of people, is breathtaking.

As the playwright, Davidman has done his homework. “You might say it all started in 1948” or “You might go back to World War I,” he says, but wherever you might think he is leading you, it’s not where he’s going. Wrestling Jerusalem is in uncharted territory. Six Day War, Intifada, United Nations Resolution 181, Invasion of Lebanon, or the settlements: he unwraps the causes and the concerns, the politicians and the terror attacks with such deftness that he draws the audience into being concerned regardless of any predilection they had when they walked in. He causes one to care, to want to know more. “If, if, if, if, if, if,” he declares. If only this hadn’t happened or if that hadn’t occurred, things would be different, right? It’s the manner in which he constructs the inquiry that is at heart of his invitation to look deeper, practically challenging the audience not to care.

Davidman’s skill reaches well beyond his writing. His talent as an actor, adept at the nuance and complexities of characterization, is thoroughly engaging. Each of the 17 is based on people he has encountered in his attempt to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whether in North America or on his travels through Israel and Palestine. Like a chameleon he embodies the subtleties of Farah, a Palestinian woman in her 30s, or Professor Horowitz, a British man in his 50s, or Rabbi Moses, an American in his 60s. Davidman sings Yiddish songs from his days at children’s camp to the cherished “Shalom Aleichem.” He dances to folk songs from the homeland as Allen Willner’s lighting creates shadows around him. It is equally as powerful to observe him on the ground pushing invisible sand, as it is to viscerally feel his fear crossing the Israeli border into Palestine; he is that passionate.

The backdrop for this extraordinary experience is a beautiful, yet simple painted tarp along the back wall designed by Nephelie Andonyadis. At times it has the feeling of windswept sand and at others a ragged mountain range, depending on the lighting of Willner who colors the backdrop and space with rich oranges and yellows, or a vibrant blue, and then in an instant throws Davidman into the harsh, bright sunlight of the Ben Gurion tarmac. Bruno Louchouarn is responsible for original music and haunting sound effects. Credit for the keen direction of Wrestling Jerusalem goes to Cuban playwright and director Michael John Garcés. He brings a rich and varied background in community-focused plays, which is particularly evident in this production.

There are many profound and wrenching moments in the 90-minute Wrestling Jerusalem. Davidman’s character, Ibrahim, a Palestinian cries, “The only Israelis my children have known drive tanks, invade neighborhoods, intimidate their parents at checkpoints. The only Israelis I have known own the water trucks that deliver my water. My water.” His interaction with Rabbi Moses, who emphatically declares, “Adonai Echad does not mean there is only one God. Adoni Echad means God is One. What’s the difference? There’s a huge difference. God is One. One, not the number. One, the truth of indivisibility.”

All of which is extremely important in a landscape where people, politicians, and religion drive the conversation as to “who does the Holy Land belong to?”

“As the muezzin’s call to prayer floats out over the Wall,” Davidman tries to make sense of it all. “Please. You can hear the cry inside the cracks. Please, God, help me. Help us. The Wailing Wall holds the tears of generations.” His inquiry into the Middle East conflict may not answer any questions or even the ones everyone has come to expect, however he wrestles the word humanity into the bright light of day. “’And it’s the work of human beings,’” say the Kabbalists, “’to find those sparks, those fragments of goodness, and put them back together. It’s how we heal the world, they say.’”

Wrestling Jerusalem runs through April 17 at the 59E59 Theaters (59th between Madison and Park Avenues) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:15 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8:15 p.m. Matinees are Sunday at 3:15 p.m. There is no late seating. Tickets cost $35. To purchase tickets, go to 59e59.org or visit TicketCentral.com.

Print Friendly and PDF