59E59 Theaters

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday

The motel room drama is a genre all its own. Its structure generally involves a short stay in a strange, tight space where two or more friends, spouses or lovers have it out with one another, while anything from bad weather to existential threats keep them from fleeing. Examples range from Sam Shepard’s dynamic Fool for Love to A.R. Gurney’s contemplative The Wayside Motor Inn. In his 2018 one-act, Only Yesterday, television writer and first-time playwright Bob Stevens adds a couple of new elements to the form. His work is inspired by actual events, and the characters happen to be two of the most famous men in the world: John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Thus confined by reality and familiarity, the results are nostalgic, if not exactly explosive.

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Tech Support

Tech Support

Time travel. It’s such a promising stage subject, why haven’t playwrights tackled it more? A chance to compare and contrast eras and attitudes, to explore the progress we’ve made and what we’ve lost. Debra Whitfield’s little comedy Tech Support attempts all of the above, throwing in some #MeToo concerns and pointed observations about our inability to keep up with the galloping pace of technological change. It’s a friendly, well-meaning effort. And it’s frustratingly low-impact.

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It’s just a side benefit to an already crackling evening, but if you see Handbagged, the latest in 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series, you’ll also take in snippets from several current Broadway offerings. The 1981 Irish hunger strikes (The Ferryman)? They’re here. Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of several Brit tabloids, beginning with the Sun in the late ’60s (Ink)? Also here. And The Cher Show may present three different-aged Chers, each commenting on the others, but Handbagged, Moira Buffini’s 2010 play having its New York premiere, makes do with older and younger versions of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher, each interacting with the past and present and occasionally murmuring, “I didn’t say that.”

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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.

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The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game feature image

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.

Paolo’s husband, Sam, has overdosed on heroin and is on life support, brain-dead, although Paolo has since found solace with Tyler, a new boyfriend, who is desperately trying to find a job but is also extricating himself from Paolo’s influence. Gershman deserves credit for taking a darker approach, but the result is puzzling and unsatisfying.

Julian Joseph (left) plays Tyler, and Marc Sinoway plays Paolo in Charles Gershman’s  The Waiting Game.  Top: Sinoway with Joshua Bouchard as Geoff.

Julian Joseph (left) plays Tyler, and Marc Sinoway plays Paolo in Charles Gershman’s The Waiting Game. Top: Sinoway with Joshua Bouchard as Geoff.

Paolo is more interested in drugs, whether it be a joint or crystal meth. His sex life with Tyler (Julian Joseph) has deteriorated, and Tyler is hanging on in the hope that Paolo may do an about-face and forget Sam. As Tyler points out, “Paolo, you visit like three times in the time that we’re dating. You barely see him in three months…” But Paolo is not thinking straight: he is consumed by the fact that Sam had been having an affair with another man long before his overdose. “All you’ve been saying is that I need to get over Sam,” he tells Tyler. “After ten diff— Ten beautiful years. And the sad thing is I can’t fucking tell much of the time if that’s you being possessive.”

When Paolo meets a man named Geoff at the hospital, he knows that it’s Sam’s new lover. Geoff (Joshua Bouchard), who works in finance, seizes on the chance to meet and talk with Paolo. He wants to persuade Paolo to assign him the conservatorship over Sam’s life because he is, in effect, now the real husband. Paolo, in exchange, demands sex with Geoff. Tyler gets wind of this new twist and, for him, it’s the last straw.

The melodrama is thick, downbeat and contrived. Still, there is something intriguing—although unresolved—in the messages Paolo is receiving on his laptop that he thinks are from the stricken Sam. It’s not his imagination, because Tyler sees them, but it’s also a bit loopy. If it’s not Sam’s spirit, it might be Geoff playing mind games.

There’s little the actors can do to salvage this goulash. There are indications that Paolo hasn’t had it easy in this relationship: he is clearly an emotional mess, riddled with guilt, but Marc Sinoway relies mostly on a sullen pout, broken only occasionally by a smile of faux bonhomie toward Tyler.

Paolo and Tyler share a light moment. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Paolo and Tyler share a light moment. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

The moral center of the play, even more than Joseph’s likable Tyler, is Geoff, the new lover who wants and needs to take care of Sam. Bouchard persuasively embodies decency; his teary-eyed strength stands in contrast to Paolo’s self-destructiveness, and even when he succumbs to sexual blackmail, it’s for Sam’s benefit. (Perhaps it helps, too, that the paleness of Bouchard’s skin gives him an otherworldly, angelic aura, but his magnetism doesn’t depend on that.) Still, even the gay milieu doesn’t enliven the action much.

Director Nathan Wright and his designer, Riw Rakkulchon, have introduced a dose of surrealism into the small black-box space that is as baffling as it is useful. There’s a box marking the perimeter of the playing area, and key props in the plot line: Paolo’s laptop, a pile of New Yorker magazines, Sam’s books of poetry, pipes for crystal meth, and lighters. Each is placed with equal weight, although the cards only come into play in the final moments. Meanwhile, Ibsen Santos, who is Sam, has all the while been hovering upstage, crossing in slow motion, or standing like a ghost figure behind a scrim. On it projection designer Kat Sullivan shows words plucked from the dialogue; then the letters move around to turn them into nonsensical anagrams, but it doesn’t bring one any closer to deducing what Gershman is trying to say.  

The Snowy Owl production of The Waiting Game plays through Feb. 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.

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Trick or Treat

Trick or Treat feature image

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.

Set on Halloween, the play’s first act builds to an earthquake of a revelation, while Act II is a series of aftershocks that cause sustained damage. That listing the specifics would mean unmasking all the fun is testament to the integrity of Neary’s nifty script. The past and present actions of each family member are so tightly interwoven that to mention a father’s long-ago instinctual defense of his young son is to divulge why his daughter would grow up to marry the man she did. Suffice it to say that this is a play that pits paternal protection against marital devotion, and measures the stark difference between preserving the family and preserving the family name.

Claire (Jenni Putney) offers sympathy to her father (Gordon Clapp) after a hard day in Jack Neary’s  Trick or Treat . Top: Teddy (David Mason) and Johnny (Clapp) in a difficult father-son moment. Photographs by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Claire (Jenni Putney) offers sympathy to her father (Gordon Clapp) after a hard day in Jack Neary’s Trick or Treat. Top: Teddy (David Mason) and Johnny (Clapp) in a difficult father-son moment. Photographs by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

When we first lay eyes on Johnny Moynihan, he is seemingly alone in a large, cluttered house, preparing to receive trick-or-treaters. But, in a sensitive and engrossing performance from Gordon Clapp, something is clearly wrong. A permanent frown mars Johnny’s face, and his bulky, shuffling body seems to slowly be crushing in on itself.  When his daughter, Claire (Jenni Putney), comes to call, we get a hint of Johnny’s New England accent—“Park the car,” he tells her—and an inkling of his woes. His wife, Nancy (Kathy Manfre), a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s, has reached the stage of the disease where he can no longer properly look out for her.

As Johnny describes to Claire what he has been through in dealing with Nancy over the course of the day, it might seem that the viewer has been trapped in a very depressing play about a devastating illness. But, as Johnny divulges just how he treated his dear wife in the wake of being freaked out by her behavior, it becomes clear that he is not so kindly, even though he always hands out the full-sized candy bars to the neighborhood kids, and that Neary has more on his mind than just compassionate care.

Soon Johnny’s son, Teddy (David Mason), arrives and hears of his mother’s condition. The family tensions grow palpable as we learn that Teddy is in line to become the police chief of their small town, a position once held by Johnny’s father but which Johnny never achieved. Teddy, however, has a history of violence, and Claire’s husband, an editorialist for the local paper, is out to keep him from getting the promotion. As if the tension between the three were not heated enough, nosy neighbor Hannah (Kathy McCafferty) keeps dropping by to act as a catalyst for a series of blow-ups. That she is an ex-girlfriend of Teddy’s makes matters no less volatile. By the time all the domestic matters have been sorted out, with previously undisclosed allegiances revealed and exit strategies put into place, Johnny is left virtually alone to wallow in the tragic consequences of his decisions. His world view of what it means to honor and to keep, in sickness and in health, is radically altered.

Hints of betrayal, mental illness and physical violence pervade the air, so don’t even ask what happened in the basement.

Clapp’s powerhouse execution of a father with all the wrong dreams receives strong support from his co-stars. Though we know a lot about Teddy before he even enters, Mason’s flying off the handle and reaching for serenity make for an explosive mix. Putney, meanwhile, supplies the right blend of compassion and disgust as the beleaguered Claire, and McCafferty makes Hannah a believable interloper, unable to stay away even as things get worse every time she drops in.

Director Carol Dunne brings a masterly pacing to the proceedings, pulling focus toward important clues while navigating the audience through a patchwork of lies. Among the clutter of scenic designer Michael Ganio’s well-worn living room are baskets of toys that may be there for Johnny’s grandkids or for a much sadder reason. Meanwhile, a jack-o’-lantern, bearing a demonic smile, looks on approvingly from atop a bookshelf.

Trick or Treat runs through Feb. 24 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.

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On Blueberry Hill

On Blueberry Hill feature image

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 here by the same company, Fishamble, or Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—but it is riveting.

Niall Buggy plays Christy in Sebastian Barry’s  On Blueberry Hill.  Top: Buggy (seated) with David Ganly as PJ, his cellmate.

Niall Buggy plays Christy in Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill. Top: Buggy (seated) with David Ganly as PJ, his cellmate.

Although inherently lacking the excitement of actors facing off in conflict, monologues in the right hands can be thrilling. Barry dresses his in poetic imagery that recalls the glories of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Indeed, the Christian name of Synge’s hero, Christy Mahon, has been borrowed for one of the two characters, cellmates and killers. Director Jim Culleton’s production puts Barry’s gift for storytelling on full display, as the author teases out their tragic history in bits and pieces and keeps the audience guessing at why and how they became cellmates, and whether there is any connection between them.

The first speaker is PJ (David Ganly), a plump man early in middle age who is in prison (Sabine Dargent provides the minimal set, bunk beds supported by a cylindrical metal frame) for a crime that may not quite have been one. He recalls his childhood and his struggling mother in the 1960s: “We hated the English but that didn’t mean we loved ourselves,” he says, and Ganly stammers slightly as PJ; he often has downcast eyes as he describes the events that brought him to prison, but then sin weighs particularly hard on him because he was a seminarian. He is a man whose soul trembles with guilt.

While in seminary, he made friends with a younger man, Peadar, “a perfectly normal young Irish boy except he was shining with beauty. … With an accent on him that would mash spuds.” They fell in love, but on an outing to a nearby island their lives take a horrific turn in a split second that leads to PJ’s incarceration.

Meanwhile, in Christy’s monologues, we learn of his hardscrabble life. The son of a tinker who was killed in a knife fight, Christy has been the mainstay of his family since he was young. He’s daring, or perhaps foolhardy but lucky, as he takes on operating construction machinery with which he has no experience:

And the big thing on a building site is, if they ask you can you do something, you always say yes, or I always did, and one time it was ‘Can you drive a dozer?’ and I said yes, sure I had the bit of practice on a pal’s motorcycle in Ireland….

Ganly as the anguished PJ. Photographs by Patrick Redmond.

Ganly as the anguished PJ. Photographs by Patrick Redmond.

The combination of life-threatening recklessness and comic ego proves winning in Niall Buggy’s performance. He is an angry, forceful man, but in 20 years he has had no contact with his wife or children. If PJ agonizes constantly over his fatal act, Christy accepts his punishment more stoically. But he has happy memories of meeting his wife at a dance where “On Blueberry Hill” was played and of their wedding:

[H]aving the feed at the Pierre Hotel, and us all coming out into the late twilight of a summer’s night, happy as larks with the skinful of beer and burnt chicken, oh yes, and the wide bay lying there before us like the bedclothes of God.

Both Ganly and Christy conjure up the others in their lives, the richness of their freedom, both in happiness and pain. Says Christy:

Mayhem. Anger. You can do anything with anger. I mean, the bit of the gospels that I really like, when PJ is reading to me, as he does sometimes in the night-times, is the time JC goes ape-shit over the moneylenders. Some of the holy bits go over my head, but that bit I understand. I understand it perfectly.

And they conjure a third character, the guard McAllister, who puts them in a cell together as a cruel joke. He never appears, but he’s a crucial component of the story, and Barry is a master storyteller—as are the two actors and their characters. As they draw toward the end of their lives, one feels sorrow at the loss of two good men, their crimes notwithstanding. It’s well worth the visit.

The Fishamble production of On Blueberry Hill runs through Feb. 3 as part of the Origins 1st Irish Festival at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 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, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 from noon to 6 p.m. or visit 59e59.org.

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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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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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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.  


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