Bess Wohl’s new comedy Make Believe portrays a quartet of Gen-X siblings at two points of life-changing family crisis. The first is in 1980, when the Conlees, two sisters and two brothers, are small children. The second is 32 years later. In both instances, the kids are gathered—it’s tempting to say “barricaded”—in a gargantuan nursery at the top of their parents’ luxe suburban home.
Reality Curve Theatre of Vancouver is making its first visit to New York City with Zayd Dohrn’s early play Reborning. Ten years ago, when Dohrn was unknown, this unsettling, if far-fetched, comedy-drama was part of the Summer Play Festival at the Public Theatre. Since that time, the playwright, who heads the graduate dramatic-writing program at Northwestern University, has penned a number of provocative yet non-preachy scripts that explore social issues through clashes—always fierce, sometimes violent—among recognizable characters.
Paul Swan, an oddball of bygone Manhattan, is the protagonist of Claire Kiechel’s new play, Paul Swan Is Dead and Gone. The playwright is Swan’s great-grandniece, though too young to have known him. She has assembled an ambitious theater piece, more fantasia than drama, that depicts his story of self-invention.
Willy Holtzman calls his pocket-size play about Judy Holliday Smart Blonde. Not a bad title, considering Holliday’s reportedly high IQ and her early success, on stage and screen, as Billie Dawn, the seemingly dumb, actually discerning protagonist of Garson Kanin’s 1946 smash-hit comedy Born Yesterday.
Over the next few months, the estimable Mint Theater, committed to rediscovering lost theatrical treasures, is producing three works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker. The first is The Price of Thomas Scott, a 1913 comedy-drama that features a top-notch ensemble of New York actors in a handsomely designed staging directed by Jonathan Bank.
In the middle of the last century, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—producers, publicists, and prolific playwrights—were leading lights in the American entertainment industry. They are now remembered for writing Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history, and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their 1945 hit State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize and became a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That play is typical of the witty comedies with serious-minded underpinnings that Broadway audiences relished during World War II and after.
The challenging economics of New York theater makes two-actor plays a holy grail for Off-Broadway producers. Among the numerous two-handers of the past three or four theater seasons, none has had a more arresting first act than Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. Set in an Alpine aerie, with Cold War elegance courtesy of scenic designer James J. Fenton, Switzerland depicts a showdown between Patricia Highsmith (Patricia J. Scott), author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a man she has just met named Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold).
When actors address audiences directly, they’re said to breach the stage’s “fourth wall.” In The Mortality Machine, it’s the audience that does the breaching, penetrating all parts of the playing space and performing assigned roles side-by-side with the professionals. In this two-hour drama—site-specific, immersive, and improvisatory—part of the mystery for the playgoer is who else has bought a ticket and who’s being paid to act.
Bernard and Rory, the only characters in Erin Mallon’s The Net Will Appear, are next-door neighbors in Toledo, Ohio. Bernard is a curmudgeonly 75-year-old with a penchant for bird-watching. Rory, age 9, is a wiseacre whose chatter is laced with malapropisms and bawdy phrases she doesn’t understand fully.
The play opens with the characters’ first encounter—contentious and funny, with a promise of dramatic fireworks to follow. The two are on adjacent roofs, seeking sanctuary from family life. Bernard (Richard Masur) craves solitude; Rory (Eve Johnson), who’s never inclined to silence, tries repeatedly to engage Bernard with her juvenile brand of badinage.
Bernard is an Episcopalian with a drinking problem. He’s polite, though sometimes impatient; and he keeps his own counsel. Rory is a Jewish student at a Roman Catholic grade school. Her conversation is unfiltered. “Everyone thinks you’re a psycho,” she informs Bernard. The odds appear slim that these dissimilar souls can find common ground. In situation comedies of this ilk, though, strange bedfellows inevitably end up best friends.
Before the first scene is over, it’s evident that under its veneer of comic palaver, The Net Will Appear is a melancholy study of youth and age. “I don’t have much past and you don’t have much future,” Rory informs Bernard with a child’s unwitting cruelty. As the action progresses through the seasons of a year, Mallon introduces themes of social importance—most notably, the kinds of anguish suffered nowadays by the youngest and the oldest in American society.
Rory—a child of divorce who seldom sees her father—feels uncertain and out of place in the household her mother has established with a new husband. Rory’s mother is suffering from postpartum depression; the stepfather is egotistical; and a new half-sister is usurping all the affection the family can muster.
Bernard is principal caregiver for his wife, Irma (one of the play’s several offstage characters). Irma’s personality is being leached away by dementia; and Bernard grieves for the loss of his adored companion while attending to the remnant of her that hasn’t been extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease.
Mallon’s script is efficiently constructed and poignant, but there’s little verisimilitude here. The dramatic situation is contrived; the characters are fabricated rather than observed; and the dialogue rises only intermittently above the glossy superficiality of 1980s television comedy. According to formula, the play’s strange bedfellows come to appreciate, even love, each other. Rory’s innocence awakens Bernard’s paternal instincts and, under his tutelage, she becomes sensitive to the wonders around them. “First robin sighting of the season,” he says. “Look at that beautiful red breast.” (Rory, who thinks “breast” is a dirty word, is mightily titillated by that remark.)
While Rory’s guilelessness ultimately endears her to Bernard, the play’s spectators are likely to respond with varying degrees of tolerance for the cute-as-pie dialogue Mallon has concocted for the little girl. The topical references that punctuate Rory’s comic patter are particularly irksome. Take, for instance, the wacky names she gives her possessions: a favorite doll is called Netflix, her cat is Dr. Phil, and the bathtub is “Harriet Tubman.” Like so much else in The Net Will Appear, these jokes, with their transitory shelf life, are disposable.
What’s most satisfying about this production is Masur’s distinguished performance. Renowned for character roles on Broadway, in movies, and on television, Masur makes Bernard’s grief-stricken monologue about his wife’s vanishing personality the most authentic and memorable sequence of the play. Undeterred by W.C. Fields’ warning that actors should “never work with children or animals,” Masur gives a touching performance, enhanced by evident empathy with his younger co-star but never upstaged by her undeniable (for want of a better word) cuteness.
The Net Will Appear takes place entirely on the rooftops of the two houses. Scenic designer Matthew J. Fick has supplied a realistic, eye-appealing set, with the roofs separated by a space at center stage that’s supposed to be too wide for either character to jump across safely. Each actor is confined to his or her roof throughout the 80 minutes of the performance. That spatial separation is a tough assignment for players who’re supposed to depict affection that escalates scene by scene. Mark Cirnigliaro’s capable direction minimizes the awkwardness of all that distance, but direction can’t transform counterfeit dialogue into dramatic gold. What saves the day is Masur’s virtuosity, which redeems a predictable comedy-drama and makes the joyous final scene soar like one of Bernard’s beloved songbirds.
The Net Will Appear runs through Dec. 30 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For information and tickets, call (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.
Almost 15 years have passed since Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part premiered Off-Broadway. In 2004, stories of authority figures preying on children, though in the news, were not the media commonplace they’ve become. This solo drama about the author’s sexual relationship with an adult counselor from a Roman Catholic boys’ camp was an eye-opening tale of childhood trauma and its myriad aftereffects. Back then Moran’s accomplished performance of his own material, mixing pain and humor, registered as valiant self-exposure, affording audiences unprecedented insights about a stigmatized subject.
Over the past decade and a half, society has become increasingly conscious of predatory sexual behavior. It’s now accepted that this gruesome social phenomenon has always been more prevalent than acknowledged. The topic permeates media discourse, so it’s no wonder that the Barrow Group, the theater company with which Moran developed this play, is reviving it. But is it possible, after all that has been learned, for The Tricky Part to retain the supercharged impact it had in those less wised-up days when it premiered?
Honored with a special citation from the Obie committee and two Drama Desk nominations in the 2003–04 season, The Tricky Part chronicles Moran’s growing up middle-middle class and Catholic in suburban Denver. The academically gifted Marty (as he was called then) was the kind of charismatic kid who regularly lands leading roles in school plays. Seeing the onstage photograph of the 12-year-old, the audience can’t miss how filled with promise this lad must have been in 1972 when counselor Bob—30-ish, likable, and a consummate manipulator—asserted himself as mentor and seducer. (The photograph of Marty, visible onstage throughout the performance, was taken by Bob at the start of their relationship.)
On an overnight camping trip, Bob—rumored to have been a seminarian—fondles the vulnerable Marty. Drawing the boy into his sleeping bag, Bob initiates three years of sexual dominance that are followed by years of residual influence. The barely pubescent Marty knows nothing of sex beyond an elliptical account in the Boy Scout handbook. He’s conscious of being attracted to men (a fact Bob must have sensed), and he’s simultaneously aroused and repelled by Bob’s adult body and his caresses.
The bond that develops between man and boy becomes an obsession for Marty, upsetting his emotional balance with a blend of guilt, shame, and fear. Tormented by suicidal thoughts throughout high school, Marty has close calls with pills and his father’s .22. In due course, his anxious, depressed adolescence is replaced by a depressed adulthood that’s haunted with recollections of Bob’s misconduct and marked by compulsive sexual behavior.
Seth Barrish, who directed the original, does the same for this production, showing the delicacy of a conductor interpreting a complex symphony transcribed for a single instrument. In the course of 90 minutes, Moran’s performance varies widely in tempi and dynamics, yet the momentum never lags.
Elizabeth Mak’s lighting, effective throughout, is crucial to the dramatic power of the sequence depicting Bob’s first sexual overture and Marty’s capitulation. This long, central scene would be raw and discomfiting under any circumstances, but Mak, by decreasing illumination gradually until nothing is visible except the actor’s face, lends it an unnerving sense of intimacy.
At 58, Moran still has sufficient boyish charm to be credible as he travels backward in time. His beautifully written script steers clear of self-pity, pop psychology, and agitprop, and dramatizes with exquisite simplicity a complex individual’s response to adversity. Since the original Off-Broadway engagement, Moran has performed this drama for runs of various lengths in London, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Denver, Canada, India, and Poland. Yet his emotional interpretation of the script and all its characters is vivid, believable, and unremittingly forceful, as though he’s living these experiences for the first time.
What’s “trickiest” about Moran’s saga is that his relationship with Bob, both historically and even after the confrontation that provides the play’s climax, has positive as well as sinister aspects. “I want to disown it,” says the grown-up Martin, “but it flashes through me that with this guy I rafted a river, watched a calf being born, cleared a field, conquered a glacier, learned a heifer from a Holstein, a spruce from a cedar.” Bob did damage, yet Moran wouldn’t be the strong figure he is today, nor would his play have its distinctive moral voice, without the totality of his experiences.
The Tricky Part runs through Dec. 16 at The Barrow Group (312 W. 36th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Monday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Dec. 8 and 16. For information and tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit barrowgroup.org.
As our country’s partisan roistering continues its crescendo, the adventurous Ars Nova is presenting a space-travel yarn, set 300 years from now, that speaks to the autocratic tendencies of the current regime in Washington, D.C. Rags Parkland Sings the Songs of the Future, subtitled A Science-Fiction Folk-Concert Musical, features 15 numbers in a variety of styles composed by Andrew R. Butler.
Maitland White, the protagonist of Philip Barry’s unjustly forgotten comedy You and I, has a blissful marriage, children on the cusp of adulthood and a highly remunerative corporate job. To all appearances, he’s the world’s most contented man, sharing a luxe existence with his loving family in the roaring days before the stock market crash of 1929. What no one around him knows is that Matey retains the great ambition of his youth. And, in middle age, that secret urge—to be a professional painter—is becoming increasingly insistent.
The three principal characters of Jaki McCarrick’s drama The Naturalists are refugees from a society that, in their view, damages the earth and is toxic to the human heart. The time is 2010; the place, the Republic of Ireland’s Border Region. Brothers Francis and Billy Sloane (John Keating and Tim Ruddy) have settled into middle age as small-time farmers, accustomed to being alone with each other and the glorious landscape around them.
Lillian Hellman left the theater a couple of decades before she left this world. In her remaining years, she published memoirs depicting herself as a conscience-driven adversary of misogynists, Nazis, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When public intellectuals such as Mary McCarthy, Norman Podhoretz, and Diana Trilling took issue with what she wrote, Hellman let rip with insults and invective. By the time she died in 1984, Hellman’s name was associated more with public feuds than with the literate Broadway plays that had made her famous.
Three productions of Henry VI, William Shakespeare’s seldom staged trilogy, have cropped up Off-Off Broadway since January. The latest, by the ambitious National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), brings epic pageantry and violence to the intimate Mezzanine space at the A.R.T./New York complex on West 53rd Street.
The Mint Theater is reviving another thoroughly engaging play you’ve never heard of. This time it’s Miles Malleson’s Conflict, a 1925 political comedy, with fast-paced direction by Jenn Thompson and brightly polished performances from a noteworthy cast of seven.
Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the adventurous downtown troupe known for theatrical adaptations of iconic modernist works, is parodying Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams in a new play by Kate Scelsa that has the cleverest title in town—Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf. The production is directed at breakneck speed by the company’s founder, John Collins. It features visuals by Louisa Thompson (scenery), Amanda Villalobos (properties), and Kaye Voyce (costumes) that give the proceedings the kitsch-cluttered aesthetic that’s an ERS signature.
A.R. Gurney, who died in June 2017, was prolific to the end. Like Verdi, Henry James, and Philip Roth (a recently deceased contemporary of Gurney’s), this urbane playwright exercised robust creative powers far beyond customary retirement age. Judging by the number of high-profile revivals since his death (most notably last season’s superb Off-Broadway production of Later Life), Gurney’s wit and insight are still integral to American drama.
The Gentleman Caller combines kernels of fact with lots of fancy. In this two-character play, Chicago dramatist Philip Dawkins imagines the early friendship of Tennessee Williams (1911–83) and William Inge (1913–73). Beginning as a rowdy pastiche of sex comedies popular on Broadway when Inge and Williams were active there, the play turns darker in a handful of well-written monologues that are highly engaging but don’t add up to a convincing portrait of either character.
Classic Stage Company and Transport Group are taking a fresh look at Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Critical estimation of this lyrical drama—the playwright's fourth Broadway outing—has fluctuated since its 1948 premiere. After the original New York presentation, Summer and Smoke seemed destined for obscurity. But Jose Quintero’s 1952 production for Circle in the Square was a triumph and, according to many commentators, marked the birth of Off-Broadway. The current revival, under sure-handed direction by Jack Cummings III, discards the realistic trappings of mid-20th-century American theater and features a nearly ideal cast.