Socrates begins at the end, with the famed philosopher already dead, and Plato, his most famous student, trying to understand why. Giving away the ending is always risky, but in playwright Tim Blake Nelson’s hands, the story becomes a type of metaphysical puzzle. The question isn’t who did it—Plato tells us up front it was the city of Athens—but how a supposedly great civilization could so easily eradicate a great mind, especially one who went to great lengths to disavow his greatness. There’s more than a hint of the Christ in the play’s portrayal of Socrates, but the gospel being preached isn’t one of peace and forgiveness, but reason and democracy.
Jackie Sibblies Drury is not content to let audiences just watch her plays; she wants to make them conscious of how and why they are watching. In Fairview, her 2018 breakout, this meant disrupting a black family sitcom with tone-deaf white voices. For Drury, the mundane is anything but; it’s in banal, everyday interactions that society’s fault lines become most clearly visible, if we know how to see them.
Hurricane Diane packs a lot into its 90-minute running time. It’s the type of idea-driven play that in lesser hands might become more academic journal article than piece of theater, but writer Madeleine George and director Leigh Silverman have crafted the evening with a deceptively light touch. Not since Dr. Strangelove has humanity’s inevitable annihilation been such a good time.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, in revival at the Abrons Arts Center, is about the Catholic activists who burned 378 draft records with napalm in Catonsville, Md., in 1968, because “pouring napalm on pieces of paper is preferable to pouring napalm on human beings.” Its author, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, was a member of the Nine and a lifetime antiwar activist. In his play, Berrigan edits and interweaves excerpts of the trial to build arguments against the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism.
Unlike, say, a film such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clueless has the rare fortune of so clearly representing its historical moment without coming off as a creaky relic. Writer/director Amy Heckerling set her 1995 film in a sort of alternate reality, where the fabulously rich teens of Beverly Hills (already its own parallel universe) reference Kenny G and Christian Slater while dropping hyper-intelligent aperçus disguised as Valley Girl slang. Light on its feet and funny as hell, Clueless was in the ’90s but not of the ’90s.
With two plays Off-Broadway this year, playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and director Awoye Timpo are quickly becoming a creative power couple. The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company saw a novelist return home to Nigeria after years away, while Good Grief, which has just opened several blocks east at the Vineyard Theatre, explores the lives of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S. through their children.
Two very different Nobel laureates haunt Conor McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country: Bob Dylan and Samuel Beckett. If Dylan’s music, which provides the emotional framework of this unorthodox jukebox musical, seems an odd fit for the Beckettian limbo in which McPherson has ensconced his characters, that’s just a testament to the worlds contained in Dylan’s songs.
Todd Solondz is one of the few white, male enfants terribles of ‘90s American independent cinema to maintain the incisive edge that made his reputation. While contemporaries such as Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh have built careers out of the ideological compromises that come with a Hollywood budget, Solondz has paid the price for his obstinacy, making only eight films over nearly 30 years and moving to the margins of culture. For most people, Solondz is the man who made a pedophile sympathetic in 1998’s Happiness, but his true signature is the ability to cut through identity politics to expose the fear, anxiety, and depression at the center of the American dream. Solondz’s playwriting debut, Emma and Max, lacks the gut punch of his finest film work, but showcases an artist still as obsessed as ever with trying to figure out why the hell people seem determined to get everything wrong.
Like many teenagers in the late 1980s and early 90s, Heidi Schreck was obsessed with Patrick Swayze. Unlike many teenagers, Schreck earned money for college by winning speech contests in American Legion halls across the United States. What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck’s reimagining of those speeches, is less about America’s founding document than the country’s history of violence against women. The play’s humdrum title is misdirection. What the Constitution Means to Me is feminist agitprop autobiography masquerading as civics lesson, not blurring the line between the personal and the political but denying that such a line ever existed.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire has lived many lives since Caryl Churchill wrote it 42 years ago. The piece’s ambition is grand, but its scope is intimate, allowing for immense freedom of interpretation. Director Rachel Chavkin’s revival at New York Theatre Workshop focuses on its chamber roots as an ensemble piece for six actors.
It’s almost quaint to remember the pearl-clutching inspired by The Jerry Springer Show in its late-1990s heyday. The daytime tabloid presented America as a bottomless basket of deplorables, with any number of people willing to air their dirty laundry in public for a chance to be on TV. Though our current political circus offers more than enough trashy tragicomedy, the still-running Jerry Springer Show once claimed the corner on tacky, made-in-America escapism.
The Manhattan Theatre Club stage at City Center is giving off major Disney World Jungle Cruise vibes these days. Birds call over the syncopated groove of Nigerian percussionist Solomon Ilori’s 1963 deep cut “Tolani (African Love Song)” as patrons enter the theater. There’s a Tara Buddha statue downstage right, some Persian rugs, a scarlet chaise lounge and some cushions on the floor, and the proto-Afrobeat music morphs into the Middle Eastern goblet drums and chirpy marimba that have been cornerstones of “world music” for decades. It’s almost disappointing when no chipper, punning Adventureland employee pulls up to take you downriver.
Signs of the decline and fall of the American Empire are everywhere visible, but perhaps nowhere more than in the Rust Belt, which has decay and depression hammered right into its nickname. Detroit may be its most potent symbol, but this ribbon, stretching from New York to Wisconsin, is peppered with towns both large and small that have never quite recovered from the trauma of deindustrialization.
For the past half-century, Adrienne Kennedy has carved out a unique niche for herself in the American avant-garde. Her one-act plays, such as Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), A Rat’s Mass (1966) and Ohio State Murders (1992), are dense with allusions to pop culture, especially the movies, and fascinated with European royalty. Though riffing on Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, they are often semi-autobiographical, animated by Kennedy’s experiences as a black woman in America but shaded by her time abroad in Ghana and London. Elliptical and surreal, they cut right to divisions and hypocrisies at the heart of American society. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Kennedy’s first new play in a decade, may be her most narratively straightforward work yet, but even at a svelte 45 minutes it is no easily digestible scrap.
Billy Crudup has built a career playing charming rogues in films like Almost Famous, Eat Pray Love, and last year’s 20th Century Women. It makes perfect sense when his character is revealed as (11-year-old spoiler alert!) the real villain of Mission: Impossible III because Crudup is credible as both hero and villain; there’s always a hint of psychosis underpinning his boy-next-door looks. He’s indulged this duality in his stage roles as well (The Elephant Man, The Pillowman, The Coast of Utopia), but none has exploited the dark under his light as successfully as Harry Clarke, David Cale’s new one-man show at Vineyard Theatre.
Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk are the Rihanna of musical theater. Just as the Barbadian pop goddess releases hit song after hit song while selling relatively few albums, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk are less known for their plays than for their individual tunes, which have gained them a rabid online following. Their contemporaries Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land) have conquered Broadway and Hollywood, but Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have connected with the millennial fan base like no other musical theater writers; they’re the official composers of the Internet. Now, several of their conversationally catchy pop songs have found their way into the long-gestating original musical The Mad Ones, playing at 59E59 Theaters.
The boy who wouldn’t grow up has become the character who won’t die. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has been endlessly staged, filmed, remixed, twisted, and contorted since its 1904 premiere at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, and the insatiable Pan pangs show no sign of ceasing. Bedlam’s current adaptation at another Duke, on 42nd Street, is the second Peter Pan–inspired show to run on the Deuce this season.
The “home place” in the title of Irish playwright Brian Friel's 2005 drama is Kent, England, where the family of widowed landowner Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) originated. Gore, residing in Ballybeg, Ireland, speaks of Kent as a paradise lost, though he’s never really lived there. He and his son David (Ed Malone) administer their Irish estates with an uneasy liberality toward their tenants, made all the more uneasy by the recent murder of another local English landlord.
New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat has called it “an 18th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has vowed to shutter it in the next decade. Most people don’t think about it unless they’re flying out of LaGuardia, but many don’t have that luxury: Rikers Island, the bête noire of the East River, is one of the largest and worst prisons in America and a hotbed of violence and neglect. Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2000 play Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, in revival at Signature Center, aims to counteract that neglect and remind its audience of the discarded, forgotten lives behind its iron gates.
Duke Vincentio of Vienna doesn’t have time to sit and chat. He’s got a dukedom to observe in disguise. “Our haste from hence is of so quick condition,” he says at the start of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, “that it prefers itself and leaves unquestioned matters of needful value.” Elevator Repair Service’s gaga production of the play at the Public Theater is in as big a hurry as the Duke, but achieves the opposite effect: it tears through the niceties of Shakespeare’s plot only to screech to nearly a full stop in the scenes of highest tension, ensuring that none of the most meaningful fragments of “needful value” passes unheard, if not unfelt.