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.
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.
Over the course of the trial, the group’s members attempted to draw connections between issues, only to be told, “We are not trying that case.” Berrigan cannily demonstrates how all social and political issues are linked, no matter how much the powers that be might wish it otherwise. There is little self-awareness in this hyperbolic play (which, for example, draws parallels between the U.S., with its involvement in Vietnam, and Nazi Germany) but plenty of fervent belief in its own virtue.
Yet the play engages in its own bit of division by almost entirely removing the point of view of the war’s victims in order to celebrate antiwar activists. With a cast of only Asian-American actors, this production, directed by Transport Group artistic director (and Catonsville native) Jack Cummings III and co-produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company, provides a small corrective to the play’s narrow viewpoint.
Actors David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong are generous performers. Their well-rehearsed connectivity overcomes Cummings’s hyperactive staging, which seats the audience on spartan wooden pews around the perimeter of the Abrons stage (the theater’s actual seats are unused) and often pulls the actors to opposite corners of the set to bring them nearer to the viewers.
The performers shift characters and locales quickly to accommodate the verbatim format, as witnesses take turns testifying. Unfortunately, these shifts happen so often that each role is given only the most superficial characterization; there’s no time for the internal tensions and oppositions that make a character interesting. Katigbak is best able to find colors in the characters she plays, while Huynh has been directed to deliver every line at a relentlessly humorous, overbearing pitch.
In this he reflects the production as a whole. From R. Lee Kennedy’s blood-red lights, which bathe the space as the actors enter the theater to the accompaniment of Barry McGuire’s 1960s protest classic “Eve of Destruction,” to sound designer Fan Zhang’s Brian Eno–lite score and omnipresent low rumbles, shaking the pews, the evening is monochromatically morose. The subject matter is undoubtedly solemn, but by denying the pleasure of activism, the full-body thrill when the match strikes the napalm, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has made the Vietnam War the one thing it was not and theater the one thing it should never be: boring.
The evening’s best theatrical moment comes near the end of the play, when the stage curtain on one side and the loading door on the other side drop quickly, cutting the audience off from the outside and blinding them with white-hot lights. Setting aside the hypocrisy of a production with so little self-awareness daring to interrogate and implicate its paying audience, the moment at least packs a visceral thrill. Yet the thrill dissolves when the curtain rises at the end to reveal the empty auditorium filled with haze and more blinding white lights, into which the actors disappear as though passing through the pearly gates. The angry protest music of the actors’ entrance becomes the New Age-y strains of DJ Drez’s sitar-heavy “India Dub” of “For What It’s Worth” (you know: “Stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down”), and a benign evening honoring activists blossoms into full-blown, tone-deaf hero worship.
Berrigan’s fawning platitude is little better than the propaganda that implores Americans to honor “the troops.” The truth is, we don’t need any play, ever, and it’s past time that productions like The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which mistake gravitas for gravity and crocodile tears for emotional heft, stop taking that fact for granted.
The Transport Group and the National Asian American Theatre Company’s production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine plays through Feb. 23 at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit transportgroup.org.
Unlike, say, a film such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Clueless has the rare good fortune of 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.
Making everyone else feel lazy, Anyanwu also leads the cast of Good Grief as Nkechi, a young woman whose sprightly energy masks a deep seam of pain. Growing up in ultra-white Bucks County, Pa., Nkechi and her brother Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha) have always felt out of place, but the death of MJ (Ian Quinlan), Nkechi’s soulmate, has struck them both in ways they can neither fully understand nor articulate. Parents Papa and NeNe (Homecoming Queen vets Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes) are doing the best they can to understand Nkechi’s pain, but the generational and cultural divide may be too wide.
Anyanwu’s play mostly avoids the clichés that tend to reduce stories of death to stages-of-grieving checklists. Good Grief acknowledges the fickleness of memory by jumping around in time and doubling back on certain scenes, to show first how Nkechi (who goes by “N” since people have a hard time saying her name) wishes certain events happened, versus how they actually happened, inevitably in much more mundane, messy fashion.
N drops out of pre-med following MJ’s death, but she isn’t sure if it was just a convenient excuse to leave something she was only doing to please her parents. This is familiar ground for second-generation immigrant stories, but the tropes are made fresh by Timpo’s magical-realist direction, which favors natural, relaxed speech but concedes that even reality often feels unreal, especially when experienced through the prism of extreme emotional duress. Timpo and sound designer Daniel Kluger together create the play’s most moving scene by having N’s sobs emanate from the stage speakers instead of N herself, who cowers in a corner. This experience of sadness, as though viewed from outside oneself, is immediately familiar and heartbreaking.
Set designer Jason Ardizzone-West further divorces N’s memoryscape from tangible reality by rendering rural Bucks County without a single tree or hint of nature. The set is all steel girders and sliding panels of augmented pegboard. Like Ardizzone-West’s Emmy-winning design for this year’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, the set serves primarily to sculpt and bend Oona Curley’s lights. Yet small stabs of realism, such a stereo playing Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” anchor meaningful moments with a kind of solidity, as with all forms of nostalgia.
Pop-culture nostalgia is actually the emotional currency for the younger characters in the play. In a single scene, N and Bro reference The Wire, Clarissa Explains It All, The Hulk, Coach Carter, Lean on Me, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, “Conjunction Junction,” and DRS’s 1993 tribute to fallen friends, “Gangsta Lean.” These throwbacks are more than conversation fodder for the characters, though; they are landmarks that continue to define their self-image. Anyanwu seems to be suggesting, though without any reinforcement from the production itself, that it is this very adherence to pop culture totems that keeps N and Bro from properly dealing with their pain, and not their perceived difference from their white town. (And the play does go to great pains to imply that this difference is illusory, down to the inclusion of a nice white boy, JD, played by Hunter Parrish.)
The only “good” grief on display in Good Grief is Papa and NeNe’s. Though their Nigerian identity isolates them from their Americanized children, it also has allowed them to thrive while their children flounder. As N sobs upstairs, Papa and NeNe dance and rekindle their affection. It’s not cruel indifference, just hard-won perspective. “Go back to school,” Papa advises N. “Do first, feel second.”
Good Grief ends on a note of cosmic rejuvenation which the play, for all its creativity, never quite earns. In the end, grief is grief and there are really only two endings likely: triumph or capitulation. N is the play’s lodestar, but by framing her existence almost entirely through the men in her life, the outcome feels increasingly arbitrary. N deserves to be more than her sadness. Grief can be good or bad, but it isn’t necessarily interesting.
Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief plays through Nov. 18 at the Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.
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 in 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.
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.
The play plants its femme-centric flag with preshow songs like Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” and Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” with the lyric “I keep pushin’ forwards but he keeps pullin’ me backwards.” These he’s dominate the stage, with row after row of photos of pale, stale, and male veterans lining the walls of Rachel Hauck’s Legion Hall set, reconstructed more from Schreck’s memory than precise research. The play is not anti-veteran, but neither does it equivocate about the primary source of violence against women. In fact, Schreck implicates the whole audience in this violence, or at least invites them to consider their complicity, by pretending to be her American Legion onlookers. “You are all men,” she says, though Schreck’s ultimately hopeful play implies that the condition is not terminal, and might even be treatable; Mike Iveson, who joins Schreck onstage as the competition arbiter, eventually removes his costume to reveal his “true” self, which Schreck hopes can represent “positive male energy.”
What the Constitution Means to Me is built on such fluctuations of identity, with Schreck slipping in and out of character as her younger and current selves. Her conversational introduction engenders an easy and immediate intimacy with the audience. Raised to be “psychotically polite,” Schreck is a generous, responsive entertainer, tailoring her performance to the crowd’s humor and at one point waiting for an overwhelmed patron to leave before continuing a story of abuse. Hers is no vanilla presence, however; after a few more walkouts, she conceded that “those of you who are still here seem to be nice.” Schreck spends most of the evening playing her current self, so What the Constitution Means to Me might be more appropriately termed a stand-up routine than a play.
This obscuring of identity, so well-suited to the theater, at once broadens and limits the play’s scope. The stories of Schreck’s great-grandmother, a mail-order bride from Germany who died of “melancholia” in a mental institution at age 36, and her mother, who was repeatedly sexually abused, are affecting and horrifying. Yet it is never apparent if Schreck is speaking as herself or as the version of herself created for this play, and when she conjures tears at her ancestors’ trauma, it’s hard to not feel like the audience is being taken for a ride, or at least instructed how to feel.
The play’s coup is the inclusion of a high-school-age debater from New York City; Rosdely Ciprain and Thursday Williams alternate in the role. Though the debater doesn’t enter until late in the show, her arrival brings the hope that allows Schreck to cope with the “staggering facts of violence against women.” Schreck and her young companion engage in playful scripted debate, again uneasily walking the “real”/performed divide, but the vision of young, diverse womanhood leading the charge is undeniably moving.
To call What the Constitution Means to Me timely is to state the obvious, yet it’s sheer theatrical serendipity that this play, long in development, should come out right when the confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice is affirming our country’s ugliest tendencies. There is no period in the history of this country, though, in which its anti-patriarchal message would not be timely; that’s the whole point. Schreck demonstrates again and again that women’s bodies, just like those of African-Americans and all immigrants deemed “bad,” have been left out of the Constitution from the beginning. At the end of the play, Schreck and the young debater model community-building by asking each other questions submitted by audience members. Yet despite the evening’s timeliness, its optimism feels increasingly ingenuous. The play’s final line, “Are we done?” spoken by the young debater as a comedic throwaway, is chilling in ways the play neither intended nor can do much about.
Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me plays through Oct. 28 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with a special 7 p.m. closing performance on Oct. 28. For tickets and information, visit nytw.org.
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.