Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever

Bad Penny and Sincerity Forever

Mac Wellman is a grand master of absurdity, and the Flea Theater is currently presenting a festival of five plays in rotating repertory. Two of them, Bad Penny and Serenity Forever, are classic examples of Wellman’s work, which often weaves together an exploration of the everyday with mythology, the metaphysical, and American consciousness.

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Playwrights Realm schedules two world premieres

The Playwrights Realm will present two world premieres in its 2019–20 season as part of its mission of supporting new dramatists. The first production will be Anna Moench’s The Mothers (beginning Sept. 13 at the Duke on 42nd Street). The play is described as part “social satire” and part “survival tale” and incorporates work with the Radical Parent-Inclusion Project (RPI), an initiative launched by Playwrights Realm in association with Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL). The initiative focuses on socio-economic issues involved in parenting. The second play will be Noah Diaz’s Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, which takes a look at the characters from elementary-school readers from the 1950s. Diaz examines the characters as grown-ups; his play will begin in April 2020. For more information, visit playwrightsrealm.org.

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Tender Napalm

Tender Napalm

Tender Napalm, directed by David Norwood, is a postmodern love/hate story that examines the lines between fantasy and reality. When the play opens, a man (Amara James Aja) and a woman (Ayana Major Bey), face off and speak to each other in poetic language, filled with violent imagery and sexual innuendos. The abstract and poetic language, coupled with the nonlinear narrative, gives the play a surreal feel. 

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The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz

Harlem Repertory’s The Wizard of Oz is a theatrical romp accompanied by a lively jazz trio. Directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant, themes of self-discovery, connection to family and facing one’s fears are well tackled and performed by a wonderful multicultural cast. They bring to life the events that propel the Kansas schoolgirl, Dorothy, on a magical mystery tour as she follows the yellow brick road.

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Original Sound

Original Sound

Original Sound, deftly written by Adam Seidel, explores the idea of what it means to be an original music artist in the age of the Internet, which has made it easy to borrow pieces of others’ work (“sample”) and use in your own. At the center of the story are Danny Solis (the sublime yet down-to-earth Sebastian Chacon), a Nuyorican mix artist who is having a hard time getting by in life because all he wants to do is make music, and Ryan Reed (Jane Bruce, a talented singer/songwriter in her own right) who is an upcoming star with a recording contract.

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The Saintliness of Margery Kempe

The Saintliness of Margery Kempe

Can a sinner become a saint? That is the question John Wulp explores in The Saintliness of Margery Kempe, first produced in 1958 at the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and last seen in an Off-Broadway production the following year. The story is loosely based on the real life of Margery Kempe, a woman who lived in the 14th century and wrote the first known autobiography in Western literature. At the beginning of the play, Margery (the wonderful Andrus Nichols, who brings an energetic intensity to the role) declares, “Morality, damn all morality, damn, damn, damn.” A feminist long before the feminist movement, she seeks to shrug off the assumptions that inform her role as mother, housewife and religious community member. She hates it all and leaves home.

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Loveless Texas

Loveless Texas

Inspired by Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost, Boomerang Theatre Company’s Loveless Texas is a toe-tapping musical comedy set during the early years of the Great Depression. Although many of the characters hold the same names as in the Shakespeare play, the story begins with a twist: Berowne Loveless Navarre (the hugely talented Joe Joseph) and his buddies—Duke Dumaine (Colin Barkell) and Bubba Longaville (Brett Benowitz)—are playboys who travel from New York to Paris. Along the way they do all the things that upstanding young men shouldn’t be doing: chase women, drink liquor and spend the Navarre family money. 

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Is It a Crime?

Director Whitney Aronson’s approach to August Strindberg’s rarely produced Crimes and Crimes is to streamline and bring out the dark comedy that the play encompasses. Her adaptation of the Swedish playwright’s work has been updated to present-day New York City. She has taken the attitude that the realism and harsh events that occur in the original version undermine the notion of it as a comedy. For her adaptation, she says in a note, she wanted the audience to see and understand Strindberg’s play. Aronson’s version begins with Jean (Ivette Dumeng) and her show dog Maid Marian (played by actress Katie Ostrowski), a Hungarian sheepdog, frolicking in the park, enjoying their time as they wait for Jean’s husband, Maurice (Randall Rodriguez). Emile, Jean’s brother, later joins them, and they discuss Jean’s concern that Maurice is planning to leave her. (Aronson doesn’t explain why these residents of New York should have French names.)

Ivette Dumeng (right) plays Jean and Kate Ostrowski is the dog Maid Marian in August Strindberg's "Crimes and Crimes." Photo by Jonathan Slaff. Top: Randall Rodriguez as Maurice with Christina Toth as Henriette. Photo by Remy.

Jean is afraid that she will not be able to afford Maid Marian’s dog show expenses if Maurice divorces her. Emile and Jean speak of how Maurice, an author, rarely takes her on his book tours or to social affairs. She tells Emile, “I don’t know, but I have a feeling that something dreadful is in store for me.” Suddenly Maurice appears and begins caressing Maid Marian, whom he clearly loves. He also gives the impression that he loves Jean and enjoys her company and physicality. In fact, he invites her to the opening of one of his plays and she refuses. She tells him she will be better at home with Maid Marian. They part ways, and the play begins to unfold the “something dreadful” that Jean fears.

Maurice goes off to meet and start an affair with Henriette (Christina Toth), who is in a lesbian relationship with his close friend (a man plays the friend in Strindberg’s original). The tension increases: Maurice must now decide if he stays with his wife or goes with his new lover. As he contemplates his decision and how difficult it would be to see Maid Marian if he divorces Jean, the dog mysteriously dies.

One of Aronson’s most radical changes to Strindberg’s original text is that Maid Marian is a replacement for the mistress’s daughter. She writes that she made this choice because she wanted the play to be more believable: “I actually did it because in the original, the child dies and nobody really cares.”

Although there’s a logic behind Aronson’s choice, it may not resonate with the same intensity as Strindberg’s. “I thought that the audience would not be able to forgive anyone in the play for so easily moving on from the death of a human child. A treasured animal’s death, though tragic and upsetting, is more consistent with the general reaction and behavior that Strindberg’s characters demonstrate.”

But even though the change from child to animal does lighten the mood and makes Maurice’s actions somewhat more forgivable, some of the plot stretches credibility. After the dog’s death, animal law enforcement appears to investigate the crime. As serious a crime as animal abuse is, it seems rather fantastical that a Broadway-type play would be pulled because of animal abuse. In any case, Maurice is charged as the main suspect, but he is eventually exonerated. Within hours of his release, Maurice’s reputation is ruined, and his play is pulled.

Whether the choice to change the daughter to a sheepdog is fully justified or not, it does not take away from the lightness of the play. It does, however, make the circumstance melodramatic and absurd, which brings out the humor in the play.

Matthew Hampton and Holly Albrach’s costuming of the characters is impeccable: fashionable and in line with the current New York scene. They employ an approach to the Hungarian sheepdog that seems to draw inspiration from puppet theater. It was entertaining and just simply delightful to the eye.

The sound design by Andy Evan Cohen makes the transition between scenes lively, using instrumentals of popular pop songs. They are played with a classical twist, so the audience is left to try and identify the familiar tune.

Aronson has accomplished her goal. The play has witty moments and comic scenes. The absurdism makes for great melodramatic humor as well. The revision keeps the audience focused on its entertaining and engaging story for the entire duration.

Crimes and Crimes plays through Aug. 20 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., in Manhattan. For tickets, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.strindbergrep.com.

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Liberty for All

Liberty: A Monumental New Musical captures an America not unlike the one we see today: a place where people want to come, but also where many struggle to find work and build a simple but stable life. The story begins when Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, a French artist, lovingly completes his statue and sends her to the United States (it's a gift from France to commemorate a century of independence), as if she were his own child. Liberty (played by teenage actress Abigail Shapiro) comes looking for a pedestal on which she can stand to spread her message of hope and freedom.

However, when she arrives at Ellis Island, she is given the same treatment as every other immigrant. She is poked and prodded, and given the twice-over; only to be rejected—after all, what is her purpose here anyway? Hope? That’s not enough. Commissioner Francis A. Walker, who was responsible for the census in the mid-1800s (played with a debonair charm by Brandon Andrus), schedules her to return to France on the next boat. Liberty perseveres. After all, hope is not only for the immigrant, but for everyone seeking freedom and a better life.

The wonderful cast brings life to a variety of characters: an Italian immigrant (Nick Devito), an Irish foreman (Mark Aldrich, who also plays news mogul Joseph Pulitzer), a Russian knish seller (Tina Stafford, who moves gracefully between the Russian Olga, and a wealthy American heiress named Regina Schuyler), a former slave (C. Mingo Lingo), and a native American Indian (Ryan Duncan).

Liberty is a love song to New York—a city that embraces everyone, or at least tries to—but it’s also a history lesson. There’s a great deal of information about Emma Lazarus, played with tight-lipped determination by Emma Rosenthal, who is the most well-drawn character in the play, and the most interesting. She teaches English to Giovanni, an Italian immigrant who seems to hang around the port (is he being deported, or just a loafer?). His improved English increases his betting options: “Ten to one!” he says triumphantly and skitters off. Emma looks after him with a wry smile, clearly amused. This intrigue, however, is forbidden: Emma is from an affluent Jewish family that has been in America for four generations. Hanging around the port and new immigrants is not what a society girl is supposed to do, even if she is a poet, and Regina Schuyler, a wealthy woman who puts her money where it will give her the highest profile, makes sure Emma knows she’s being watched.

With book and lyrics by Dana Leslie Goldstein, there are some laughs along the way. Particularly funny are “The Charity Tango” sung by Liberty, Commissioner Walker and Schuyler, and “We Had It Worse” in which the Russian immigrant Olga and the Irish immigrant Patrick McKay compete to see who had  it worse when they first arrived in America. However, as they crescendo in their comparisons, they also discover they agree on something when they sing: “Kids have no idea what hard work is” (…) “Soft” (…) “like a boiled cabbage,” and do a double-take in each other’s direction; they finish the song with a broad smile.

The production is fun, and kid-friendly, but very uneven. While the libretto is outstanding, the music by Jon Goldstein sounds canned; all the tracks seem to have been created on a synthesizer. The stage also feels small, not only because it is small, but because Evan Pappas's staging lacks dynamics and, at times, deflates the production. Some choreographed movement would have given the actors some breadth and depth and the production real musical-theater flair. Nonetheless, the cast clearly has their musical theater chops, and is led to a hopeful finale by Lady Liberty, who proves that perseverance pays off—a message we know is often true.

Liberty: A Monumental New Musical plays an open run at 42 West, 514 West 42nd St., between 10th and 11th avenues. Performances are Sundays at 2 and 5 p.m.; Mondays and Wednesdays at 3 and 7 p.m.; and Thursdays at noon and 3 p.m. Tickets are $72/$36 (premium/child premium); $63 (adult); $27 (children 4-12) and may be purchased by visiting LibertyTheMusical.com.

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Ripped From the Headlines

Kim Davies’ deftly written new play, Stet, is inspired by the hotly debated 2014 Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” which detailed a purported gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. The publication later retracted its story amid accusations of poor journalistic practices. 

Stet follows journalist Erika Novak (Jocelyn Kuritsky), a journalist assigned to write a story about rape on college campuses. The unsentimental Erika claims to be exhausted—“raped out” is the way she puts it—from a media saturated with similar stories, but her editor, Phil (Bruce McKenzie), challenges her to find a new way to cover the story—cutting to the heart of what really happens to the victims in the aftermath of sexual assault. The playwright herself is no stranger to the heavy topic. As an undergraduate, she attended a college with a pervasive date-rape problem. In 2014 her play Smoke was produced at the Flea Theater and received critical acclaim. Smoke took place at a bondage and fetish party.

In Stet, journalist Erika wades through endless accounts from victims as she tries to find one that stands apart from the typical “rape is bad” story. She discovers Ashley (Lexi Lapp), a college freshman with a horrific story of violent sexual assault by multiple men during her first few weeks on campus. Her accusations, ignored by the school because she didn’t file an official report, implicate a fraternity on campus.

Erika and Phil have found their hit cover story. Erika’s research leads her to Christina Torres (Dea Julien), the project coordinator for Sexual Misconduct Response and Prevention at Ashley’s college. Erika is frustrated by Christina’s confirmation that many cases go unreported to police or campus security, but Christina is adamant that her job is to support the victim in whatever course of action she wishes to pursue. Erika also speaks with Connor (Jack Fellows), the leader of “One in Four,” an activist group on campus. Connor also happens to be vice president of the fraternity Ashley claims is responsible for her rape.

As Erika becomes more invested in the piece, Ashley grows more and more concerned about the implications of speaking out against her attackers. When Ashley says she no longer wants to be a part of the story, Erika talks to Phil about presenting Christina’s personal story instead—a much more “normal” rape story involving drinking and an acquaintance.

Erika, clearly affected by the emotional nature of the piece and her own connection to the topic, must grapple with presenting a story that will turn heads and land her her first cover piece or relating a familiar tale that is often ignored. Kuritsky does a wonderful job portraying Erika’s transformation from unattached, factual journalist to emotionally involved storyteller, helped by Jo Winiarski’s straightforward set, alternating between Erika and Christina’s offices yet morphing easily into a college bar with the help of walls that double as screens. Thanks to Katherine Freer’s projections, the screens add a multimedia element to the production. Scenes from the advocacy event “Take Back the Night” play on the walls as well as text messages between Erika and Ashley.

Multiple red flags throughout her investigation give Erika pause and in the end, she must use her journalistic moral compass to decide what story she shares with the world. Will she forge ahead despite the truth and “let it stand”—literally the meaning of the Latin stet, a common term in editing journalistic copy.

Stet presents audiences with a myriad of moral questions throughout its hour and forty minute run time, which flies by due to the snappy script and smooth staging by director Tony Speciale. The supporting cast of characters really shine as well. As Christina, Dea Julien brings an immediately energetic and likable personality to the stage. There isn’t a line she throws away the entire time she’s performing—brilliantly delivering small talk and moving monologues with the same level of skill.

As Connor, Jack Fellows speaks powerful and thought-provoking dialogue while believably remaining the typical “frat bro.” McKenzie plays Phil with a frustrating lack of self-awareness and detachment.

Davies’ script is full of lines that may sound cruel or politically incorrect when they come out of the actors’ mouths, but what is so powerful is the realization that similar things are said time and time again in the national conversation around sexual assault.

Stet runs through July 3 at the Abingdon Theatre Company (312 West 36th St.) through July 3. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m., and there is an additional matinee at 3 p.m. June 25. You can order online at http://abingdontheatre.org/stet/ or by calling the box office at 212-868-2055. (A portion of all ticket sales will be donated to Take Back the Night.)




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’Tis Better to Have Loved ...

Out of the Mouths of Babes, a fun new situational comedy by Israel Horovitz, explores both the light and dark sides of life. In it, four women, three older and one younger, gather on the eve of a funeral. The deceased was a man they were all either married to or lovers with. In the opening scene, Evelyn (the remarkable Estelle Parsons) and Evvie (the earthy yet fiery Judith Ivey) meet in his apartment. It is familiar to them both because they lived there at apparently separate times. However, it turns out there was some overlap, and you know what that means.

Added to the mix is the morose Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi, an actress with the commanding and stentorian voice of an old-school stage actress, and founding director of the Cherry Lane Theatre), who was not invited at first because she was thought to be dead—she has a history of suicidal tendencies. Her first attempt was out a window in the very same room where they are all meeting. She left him for the same reasons the others did: infidelity. Marie-Belle (effervescently played by Francesca Choy-Kee), the thirtysomething kooky and idealistic most recent girlfriend of the departed (who was 100 when he passed away), has invited them all here. She appears to have psychic access to the deceased man and channels his thoughts as well as appears to remain, literally, in touch with him when she breaks into fits of laughter from the tickling matches he engages in with her from beyond the grave.

Death, rarely welcome, but always inevitable, can provide a microscope for the living to look at their lives in the present. Although at first they are cynical and even antagonistic toward one another, the women develop a rapport and join together in their concern for Janice. Whenever they lose sight of her, they immediately bond and frantically ask: “Where’s Janice?” And, unfortunately, at one moment when the other women are caught up in a reminiscent reverie about the past and the man who is now gone, their worry proves valid. There is nothing funny about suicide, but a topic can be made funny by the right ratio of drama to comedy. Under Barnet Kellman’s direction, the balance is perfect.

Neil Patel’s scenic design not only captures the airy and orderly nature of a Parisian apartment but is further complemented by the warm and intimate space of the Cherry Lane Theatre where the play is running. Paintings adorn the walls in Parisian salon style (and turn out to be the works of famous actors such as Rosie O’Donnell, Billy Dee Williams, and Joel Grey, among others). The one painting, however, that is given the most attention is Untitled Peonies, a work that Evelyn recognizes as her own creation from when she lived in the apartment in the ’60s. She can’t believe he still has it hanging on the wall.

Each of the women—Evelyn, Evvie, and Janice—left the man for the same reason. His unfaithfulness drove them away, but the initial bitterness and anger over his infidelity covers up the sadness and lament for the loss of a great love. When Evvie says, “He was a collector,” she means it as a bad thing. However, Horowitz suggests that collecting things, like lovers or paintings of former lovers, is a way of celebrating life.

Marie-Belle turns out to have an odd agenda. She extends the idea that they should all live together after the funeral. She claims she is rich, and although she appears to be an interminable airhead, has made a lot of money playing the stock market on advice from a friend. Between the apartment and the money, she feels they could have a good life together. Perhaps she is onto some kind of new age, enlightened concept of co-housing. Janice jumps at the chance, rather than out the window again. Evelyn, who is 88, and Evie, who is 68, warm to the idea. It’s attractive, not only because of their age, but because, truth be told, they are lonely, and living together may be a good antidote. They certainly know the apartment, and for all the bad memories, there are lots of good ones as well. It was their home once before. Why not again?

Israel Horovitz’s Out of the Mouths of Babes is playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. (near Sixth Avenue South). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111, go online to www.cherrylanetheatre.org, or purchase them at the Cherry Lane box office. 

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What If—Robots?

What would happen if technology rebelled against us? One possibility is explored in Mac Rogers’ Universal Robots, a science-fiction play set in Czechoslovakia after World War I. It is inspired by the 1921 sci-fi drama R.U.R., by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. Čapek’s play, whose initials stand for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” introduced the word “robot” to the English language and was instrumental in establishing the robot as a character.

Rogers expands upon Čapek’s world and creates his own universe filled with wired beings. The play eases into the realm of human-like robots in the first act. It begins with the gathering of the ensemble of robots (of which the audience is not aware) chanting of how they tell their story to remember. Remember what? This chant will surface again and connect many dots for the audience of whose story they are truly telling.

As the play opens, the characters are gathered at their local watering hole in Prague. The café is frequented by a playwright, Karel (Jorge Cordova), his sister, Jo (Hanna Cheek), who is a sculptor, and their barrage of friends. Here, they drink, laugh and discuss many of society’s conundrums. Life is good. Helena (Brittany N. Williams) enters the café, pushing a wheelchair containing an automaton, and introduces them to the object that will change their world. She asks them to come see the lab where the human-like robot was created. Their intrigue and fear grow, yet they ultimately agree to go with Helena to visit the plant and meet the automaton’s creator, Helena’s mother, Rossum (Tandy Cronyn).

After their visit, the world they know changes. They decide to embark on a mass production of automatons. They fear the loss of human employment and self-efficiency but establish ground rules to keep their creations in balance. They all agree to an established set of boundaries, and a union is formed. The robot production begins.

As the play progresses, Hitler is on the rise and a representative from the United States visits the President of the Czech Republic (Sara Thigpen), who is one of the major people in charge of the automaton project. Up to this point the group had decided that the automatons would not be used for war or programmed to kill, and now they are faced with saving millions of people or going against their values. They choose humanity—or do they?

Rogers outlines the deterioration of many of the close-knit human relationships from the beginning of the play. The pressure and guilt of programing the robots to kill prove to be too much to handle for some. One relationship with a sweet, sad dynamic is that of Jo (Hanna Cheek) and the robot Radius (Jason Howard), who was a human waiter, Radosh, who passed away and is later reincarnated as the face of the lead automatons. Radius is no longer human, but the physical association and emotions that tie Jo to Radius are very human. It brings up the question of where does humanity live, in the flesh or the soul? Howard shows versatility as he skillfully switches from human to robot with his diction and physicality. In his scenes with Jo he is able to capture the softness of a human yet parallel it with the sterility of a robot.

Rogers does a fantastic job of posing such deeply rooted questions that force the audience to really think about choices, good, evil and humanity as a whole. Rogers delves deeply into these complex themes and creation questions. He poses a hypothetical where choosing the lesser of two evils could be at the expense of humanity. Although the play deals with relevant issues, at times it feels as if he might be trying to tackle too many deep questions for one sitting.

Director Jordana Willams has put together a diverse cast of 10 in Universal Robots, a powerful, thought-provoking play that should be appreciated not only by sci-fi enthusiasts but anyone who is interested in thinking about the world’s “what ifs.”

Universal Robots runs through June 26 at the Sheen Center (145 6th Ave.; entrance on Dominick Street). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. tonight and Wednesday through Saturday; there is also a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $18 for students and may be purchased online at web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/957321.

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Cognitive Dissonance

So much has been written about elephants—their vast capacity for family and emotions, as well as the horrific plight of being hunted and maimed for the ivory—that it’s easy to see why Jakob G. Hoffman chose this magnificent species as a subtext for his play, A Persistent Memory. It is the story of a young, wealthy philanthropist, David Huntington (Drew Ledbetter) attempting to make sense of his issue with time and lapses of memory. Elephants and memory—two things that have a long association.

There are numerous threads of the plot that transcend time in David’s world, one where he is never without his journal. It’s difficult to know whether David journals because he’s continually trying to make sense of the difficult losses he has experienced or as an antidote to his self-diagnosed early-onset Alzheimer’s. His addiction to sugar pills to calm his nerves doesn’t appear to help. While in Uganda he meets Olivia (Victoria Vance), a middle-aged, UNICEF worker from Belgium. David’s Ugandan friend from boarding school (Richard Prioleau) has called ahead to introduce them. She tells him of new, strange behaviors by the local elephants and alludes to events that have happened in his life, which makes David uncomfortable. Regardless of what she has been told, she is attracted to him.

Elijah’s girlfriend Carly (Claire Warden) is a concert violinist with a drug problem, and while it seems they have had intense sexual relations, those have now dwindled, to Carly’s annoyance. Kasem (Ariel Estrada), a Thai man and elephant expert, is soliciting funds from David’s family foundation. He is easily angered when David mispronounces his name—it’s KAH-sam—and he walks with a limp that is never explained. Lastly, Marie (Lisa Bostnar) is the fiancée of the elder (unseen) Huntington. She wants father and son to move on from the tragedies that have upset their lives.

Hoffman attempts to address drug and alcohol addiction; sexual issues, from latent homosexuality to middle-aged crises and affairs; trauma, including murder, suicide, and death; depression; and possibly early-onset Alzheimer’s. Those are just the human issues. Stories of elephants in captivity being abused and the ravages of elephant poaching are woven throughout.

Hoffman’s non-linear approach to memory issues works well—“I thought I had already been there”—to show the nagging thoughts plaguing David. Being totally present in any situation is difficult for him. However, because none of the story lines is linear, they prove so confusing that the ending, when it comes, is unexpectedly abrupt. Both playwright and director allow the script to get lost in an abundance of stories that never dig deep enough into the meaning of existence, a question that also preys on David's mind.

Silly script details torture A Persistent Memory, specifically with regard to David and his dialogue. When Olivia hands him a picture of Lake Victoria, his commentary on Africa is childlike: “I can remember growing up, if someone would mention Africa to me, I would immediately think of Tarzan movies, apes—that sort of thing,” but he never moves into a more learned dialogue about Africa.

The redemption of A Persistent Memory is the talented, diverse cast. It is unnerving to witness Warden as Carly experiencing an overdose, and Prioleau’s subtle delivery of Elijah’s affection for David is moving. As Kasem, Estrada’s devotion to the elephants is heartfelt. Vance’s monologue in the AA meeting talking about her devotion to good vodka, neat, is clear and on point.

As David, Ledbetter shows exasperation with not only himself and others, but his lapses of memory are profound. Director Jessi D. Hill uses the actors well to create a fluid expression of time against David’s memories weaving in and out, but in the end A Persistent Memory still feels like a series of vignettes.

When a play feels like it’s not coming together, it’s easy to hear dialogue that reinforces what’s wrong with the script. In a conversation with Elijah about coming late to Carly’s violin performance, David says, “I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s like my mind decided to log it away as something that already happened. Like a past memory. Forget it. I know it doesn’t make any sense.” And, too often, neither does A Persistent Memory.

A Persistent Memory is playing through June 18 at the Beckett Theatre (410 W. 42nd St., between 9th and 10th avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. There is an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, June 15. Tickets are $49.50. Due to the subject matter, this may be inappropriate for ages 12 and under. For more information and to purchase tickets visit http://www.apersistentmemory.com/

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The Secret's Out

Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey is a delicious observation of a well-lived, if secret, life that is easily enjoyable even if one hasn’t heard of the subject. A writer, illustrator, and animator who is best known for his macabre cartoon books for children, such as The Doubtful Guest and The Unstrung Harp, and the opening graveyard credits of the PBS series Mystery!, Gorey left a treasure trove of ephemera and memorabilia when he passed away in 2000. Drawing from 1,074 items in Gorey’s home, writer and director Travis Russ has crafted an engaging script, assembled a trio of charming and vibrant actors and a production team that bring to life a vision of the artist, brimming with creativity. 

Phil Gillen, Aidan Sank, and Andrew Dawson play Gorey at three stages of his life: in his early 20s after college, in his late 30s, and just before his death, in his mid-70s. They interact easily with one another and occasionally break the fourth wall to address the audience. Although the dialogue carries an undercurrent of “What would you tell your younger self?” it has much more to it.

In one instance, it’s clear the older Gorey (Dawson) knows the answers to the younger Gorey’s query but won’t say, leaving the younger version (Gillen) visibly shaken. In the moments where the older Gorey relives events from earlier days, Dawson shines. Sank, the middle-aged Gorey, delves into the collection of vintage postcards of dead children with curiosity and deference. What is unique about the actors is that all three share similarities, including mannerisms and inflections. However, each delivers the attributes of the character in keeping with his period of Gorey’s life.

Russ and Carl Vorwerk, who designed the set, fill the intimate space with memorabilia, creating an atmosphere in keeping with Gorey’s collecting habits. Three tall, open-shelving units are filled with leather traveling cases, LPs (including Balanchine, a Gorey favorite), a Harvard scarf, and a myriad of notebooks. The back wall is complete with hundreds of 8½” x 11 sheets of paper with Gorey’s drawings and writings.

Lighting and projection designer John Narun uses the wall  to display videos including a clever projection where the elder Gorey “climbs” into a white frame and draws moving characters on the wall. Narun’s lighting is brilliantly crisp and dramatic. At times it is so striking that, when Gillen and Sank are seated around the writing table, their shadows on the back wall subtly appear to move in and out from a single person. Sound designer Emma Wilk with music arrangement by Chad Stoffel have an absolutely blast with an old phonograph using music from the 1940s as well as creative sound effects, in particular for the 8mm film projection.
Gorey was known for his passion for cats, and in his later years wrote puppet shows complete with libretto. In homage, Russ writes for the elder Gorey: “I’m currently working on Madama Butterfly. It’s just community theater, but it fills the days. Now, I must warn you, this is not your standard, traditional Madama Butterfly. It is a modern—slightly bastardized—version. Very pastiche.” He goes on to say that the part of Madama Butterfly is played by a homeless Abyssinian cat, here created by puppetry designer Elizabeth Ostler and manipulated by Gillen and Sank.

There is a moment or two near the end where Gorey falters and seems unsure where it should end. The scenes and transitions linger a little too long, and it’s evident that the play is winding down, but when? Having used a voice-over interview previously, the use of it again seemed redundant for the finale.

For the greater part of the evening, Gorey is smart and cleverly crafted from the things the quixotic artist left behind. Gillen, Sank, and Dawson make the absolute most with the great material provided, as well as one another, in a well-equipped playground. Even seated with their backs to a third of the house, they never forget the audience, engaging them at every turn. The young Gorey enjoys one of the best lines, “You know, my friend Ted Shawn, the choreographer—he used to say, “When in doubt, twirl.” Gorey never has to resort to twirling.

Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey is playing at HERE, 145 Avenue of the Americas through May 22. (Entrance is on Dominick Street one block south of Spring Street.). Take C/E trains to Spring Street stop. Tickets are $18, For more Information and tickets, visit  www.LifeJacketTheatre.org or here.org, or call 212-352-3101. 

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Bodily Functions

What’s odd about Body: Anatomies of Being at the New Ohio Theatre, is that, as much as it wants to break the audience out of being shocked by nudity, the script doesn’t measure up. The dialogue goads the audience to be comfortable with the body and all of its functions, “Wake up. Fart. Pee. Blow nose while pooping. Burp. Yawn. Drink water. Burp. Cough. Blow nose. Pick at clogged hair follicle under right arm. Burp.” But seriously, to what end? When all the actors have plucked and trimmed their pubic hair to a landing strip, are you really that comfortable with the body? A number of challenges steer this production off purpose.

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No Words…

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

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Shards of Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost in Space

Real theater ignites our sense of moral duty and mirrors what is good and bad in our society. Writer Seanie Sugrue clearly does that in One Way to Pluto!, a seething reprimand of our irrational times. With humor and bite, Sugrue uses engaging dialogue to serve his thematic purpose: that we are fragile and easily broken in a brittle, capitalistic, greedy, political society that has lost its empathy. His characters’ rich dialogue stings in this punked-out philosophical commentary on our world.

Sugrue’s drama is reminiscent of the works of Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett. The playwright, who also directs, combines quick-witted moments with original music (by the downtown band Acquiesce) to create a CBGBs-style energy, earning its label of “punk theater.” With fine craftsmanship, Sugrue and his troupe, including designers, have memorably fused words and music together.

The story begins when Peter Cooper, a young musician struggling to find himself in New York City, wakes up to an escort, Tiffany (a sexy Jenni Halima), who demands money, and to Sean Dempsey, his irate Irish landlord, screaming for several months’ rent. Peter escapes the tougher realities of life as a poor artist, grappling with his sexuality by shooting up, dressing in drag, and running away.

Patrick Brian Scherrer gives a seismic performance as Peter, whose torment fits Sugrue’s dramatic response to the many serious issues of today. (The character performs a painful drug dance in drag that shows his inner turmoil.)
Sean (Myles O’Connor) as the ferocious landlord fed up with trying to help Peter  espouses the playwright’s views with righteous indignation, spitting out lines like, “Everyone wants to die until they find out they’re going to.”

The Utah-born Tiffany, Peter’s paid-for one-night stand, offers him a no-nonsense perspective on life as she flits around disgusted at his living conditions—dirty and sparse. Social commentary on the city’s housing situation from the escort in ripped stockings really lends the piece a raw, punk edge.

Particularly fun to watch was Peter Halpin’s eccentric performance as Johnny, a “Billy Idol wannabe” Romeo who fires Peter from the band. Halpin’s kinetic, slithery movements were hilarious. Johnny changes persona with each new rock-and-roll fad, and Halpin’s ability to switch from Sid Vicious characterizations to a Rod Stewart “club” performance without forsaking the role of Johnny enhanced Sugrue’s insight into the superficiality of the gentrification of arts in New York City. Contrasting with the wilder moments is a scene when Peter steals from his mother, Molly: Mary Tierney conveys maternal anxiety and shows that an addict’s pain affects those who love him. And Courtney Torres plays a nerdy, college student, Charon, willowy and vulnerable and intruding on Peter’s homestead. Charon’s neurotic fluidity dances in step with Peter’s.

A minimalist set reflects the grit and grunge of the punk scene meshed with a Waiting for Godot motif and works brilliantly. Although manic chaos is on the surface of Peter’s struggle, the power of the play is in nothingness: the tone and mood of the set stand in juxtaposition to the thought-provoking dialogue.

A desperate Peter lands in Strawberry Fields, where he meets a homeless man named Dwight. In this whacked-out world, Dwight is the voice of wisdom, an “alchemist” in the urban desert. Played playfully and seamlessly by John Warren, he offers solid answers to the protagonist’s questions.

The most riveting scene occurs in a psychedelic trip to Pluto, where Peter and Dwight see all that is right and wrong in the world. Scherrer lets loose an inspiring rant about “planet of hate.” They ultimately conclude, as Dwight suspected, that John Lennon was right—“all you need is love.”

The play ends poignantly, with Dwight and Peter in their Central Park homestead, at peace with the world. The dramatic juxtaposition of Scherrer’s high-strung Peter with Warren’s mellow Dwight really captures the pathos of the final moment. While Sugrue berates the world for its hate-mongering, he also offers hope after so dark a journey.

Sugrue and Locked in the Attic, fellow producer Amanda Martin, and the historical 13th Street Repertory all have reputations for being politically bold in their presentations. This ensemble of artists inspires social awakening with an “in yer face” punch.

One Way to Pluto! ends tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets at $15 may be purchased at www.13thstreetrep.org or at onewaytopluto.brownpapertickets.com. More information about the jammin' soundtrack may be found at www.aquiesce.com.

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Life Can Be Lethal

Compelling characters and complex questions about crime and punishment are at the heart of playwright Eduardo Ivan Lopez’s latest play, Natural Life, at the T. Schreiber Studio.

Like many of Lopez’s plays (Ribbon Creek, The Legend of Sam’s Point, Barth’s Dilemma), Natural Life draws inspiration from true stories and historical facts. Claire McGreely (Holly Heiser) has spent the majority of her adult life in prison, and now awaits execution for the murder of her husband, Virgil (Joseph D. Giardina).

In an effort to set the record straight before her death, Claire contacts network news anchorwoman Rita Hathaway (Anna Holbrook) and offers her an exclusive interview as well as the revelation that she is ending her quest for an appeal. Claire divulges to Rita that she wants to die.

But as Rita continues to speak with Claire and learns about her troubled past in flashbacks, the straight-shooting journalist’s preconceived notions about justice come into question. Jake Turner’s skilled direction keeps the action moving swiftly and clearly through the time jumps as Claire’s difficult childhood becomes achingly apparent. Sexually abused by her uncle from the age of 5, Claire was an alcoholic by age 11 and a prostitute by 14. The abuse continued when she married Virgil. Raised by her grandmother (Noelle McGrath), Claire received advice, she says, like “sex was all that men wanted. And if I was going to lie down with them, I should always get something in return.” It becomes clear that Claire is a victim as well as a killer.

Rita voices her growing belief that perhaps Claire doesn’t deserve to die to Gov. Ben Dushane (Bob Rogerson), with whom Claire’s fate ultimately lies. But the audience is confronted with the fact that a life in prison may be a more severe punishment for Claire, who explains, "My choice is death by slow deterioration or death by lethal injection, fast and, hopefully, painless. To die quickly or slowly … For all intents and purposes, my life is over."

Heiser’s portrayal of Claire McGreely is powerful and nuanced. She expertly crafts a character that has many sides and leaves no doubt that her case is not a simple one of black-and-white murder. Even more impressive is Holbrook, who creates an instantly likable and admirable character in Rita Hathaway. Her Rita looks as if she could star in a popular television series—impressively smart, driven, tactful and yet endearingly human.

The cast is rounded out by television station executive Dan Coleman (Don Carter) and prison guard Harris (Joseph Calderone). Carter provides the only comic relief throughout the play with his portrayal of a pompous, deceptive (“Well, technically, I guess I lied”) businessman with whom Hathaway must contend. The seven-person cast remains on stage throughout the performance, seated in a row of chairs behind the action, reminiscent of a jury—judging Claire’s every move.

Helping clarify the flashbacks are locations and dates of the action, displayed on screens built into the walls of an otherwise understated set by Pei-Wen Huang-Shea. The screens serve multiple purposes throughout the show thanks to sound and video design by Andy Evan Cohen. They don’t just set scenes but serve as prison surveillance cameras, office videogames for Coleman, and jail-cell television for Claire.

The intimate space, raw performances, and impressive script make for many emotional moments. The first act starts off grippingly at the climax of the story before circling back to show why Claire McGreely ended up pointing a gun at her husband.

Natural Life is thought-provoking and commanding. The subject matter is timely, and fans of recent pop-culture phenomena such as Making a Murderer, Serial and The Newsroom are likely to be riveted by this exploration of the justice system, the prison system, guilt and the media.

Natural Life plays at the T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre & Film (151 West 26th St., 7th Floor) through April 2. Tickets may be purchased for $20 general admission by calling the box office at 212-352-3101 or online at www.tschreiber.org. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on March 23 and 30.


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Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun

Stop for a second and think about the way in which one interacts with one’s family, the way one assimilates to one’s society, how one honors one’s ancestors, how one speaks one's truth, and most importantly, how one heals oneself. Familiar, written by Obie Award winner Danai Gurira, challenges its audiences to think of all these situations. However, it is also a play that one must watch in order to fully understand how it can be powerfully healing and a life-changing experience for the audience.  

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, Familiar tells a story of a Zimbabwean family living in Minnesota. The eldest daughter, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), is getting married in a matter of days, and her rehearsal dinner is in a matter of hours. As the family prepares for the rehearsal dinner, Tendi and her fiance Chris (Joby Earle) announce to the family that in addition to a traditional Christian wedding, they are including a Zimbabwean ritual. This unexpected turn causes secrets to be revealed, old wounds to reopen, and forces the family to speak the truths about the past.

With a natural build of suspense and ability to hold an audience's attention, this play focuses on a black family whose main goal is not to assimilate but rather to heal their own lives. This strong message explores issues such as how families cope with assimilation to societal norms in the United States, how they deal with the struggle between balancing cultural traditions and religious traditions, as well as how they heal after experiencing traumas from a homeland filled with pain and death.  

Although not based on her life, Gurira draws upon her own experience to create a credible script. Similarities between her life and the script includes how her Zimbabwean family also moved to the U.S. and how she was raised in Iowa while the family in the play live in Minnesota. In addition, the script allows the actors to unapologetically speak Shona as she presumably also did in her household. Unlike other shows that often translates anything other than English, Familiar takes advantage of an opportunity to be authentic, as well as give any audience member who speak Shona a small taste of home.

The ensemble includes, the father Donald, played by Harold Surratt, who grounds each scene with subtle facial expressions and dialogue. Myra Lucretia Taylor as Anne, Tendi’s aunt, is a strong and demanding presence on stage that is the main person connecting the family back to Zimbabwe heritage and ancestors. Anne’s sister Margaret, played by Melanie Nicholls-King, is the glue that keeps the family under control, even when she might feel her own life is falling apart. A definite gem in the performance by being the character that continually handles her sisters Anne and Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), as well as continually attempting to keep everyone calm. Ito Aghayere as Tendi’s sister, Nyasha, whose relentless need to bring the family back to their traditions heals the family.  Her energy and enthusiasm propels the play forward and brings it back to a nourishing place.  

The ensemble's chemistry and impeccable timing is a tremendous success to the production. Ruff and Tunie exhibit the vulnerable bond between mother and daughter. To balance them out are the future family members, “white boy from Minnetonka,” Chris (Earle) and his brother Brad (Joe Tippett). Their natural comedic interactions add to the play and cause the audience to laugh and scream in enjoyment. Overall, it is the ensemble’s conversations and arguments that encourage open discussion about past family issues, current events and pushes the audience to question their own lives.

One of the great things about Gurira’s script is that it allows talented black actors to play fully developed characters who aren't afraid to broadcast their powerful voices. This adds to the production because it facilitates deeper conversations about real issues that occur within Zimbabwean families, African families, black families and even to an extent, indigenous families that live in the U.S. This gives audience members accessibility to a larger topic and awareness to the constant struggle families have between assimilation and preserving their culture.
There are moments within the play that may be seen as unrealistic. This includes the very dramatic change from the comedic, light-hearted first act to the serious and dramatic second act. It includes a spontaneous flirtation between Brad and Nyasha after bonding between a hilariously over-dramatized situation. Gurira also introduces mouth-dropping, over-the-top scenarios during the second act that allows character’s such as Marvelous and Tendi to become vulnerable in order to see how they overcome obstacles and heal themselves.
This production could not have been done without the talented eye of Taichman. Her vision along with the tedious work of the designers brought the text to life which lead to a spectacular performance. This includes the immaculate timing of jokes, the build towards the emotional confessions, the authentic Mbira music, as well as the healing and freeing traditional dancing that took place. Her attention to details brought unity and fluidity to every aspect of the production.  

From any seat, the audience can see all aspects of the highly-detailed set designed by Clint Ramos. Marvelous’ and Donald’s house is two floors with hallways, real doors and family pictures lining the wall. It is a breathtaking set that anyone would want to live in, including the audience who sit in comfortably cushioned seats, as if sitting on individualized mini couches. To support this design, Obie Award winner and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau incorporates the lights into the structure of the set to allow it to seem natural. Even the window is lit so that it appears as if looking out on a snowy day in Minnesota.  

Another noteworthy design element was the sound design by Tony Award winner Darron L. West. During intermission, the recordings of celebratory Mbira music by the Shona people of Zimbabwe filled the theater. With a very hectic and hilarious ending to Act One, the traditional music played during intermission is a great way to gently introduce the audience to Zimbabwean music, as well as connects with the Mbira that is presented by Nyasha during the performance.  

With accurate details of Zimbabwean culture and some cliché subplots, Familiar takes the discussion about race and culture to the forefront, as well as ignites a necessary conversation about the shaming and blaming of one’s heritage. 
Familiar has extended their run until April 10 at Playwrights Horizon’s Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $75 to $90. To purchase tickets, visit www.TicketCentral.com and www.Facebook.com or call 212-279-4200.
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