The Ensemble for the Romantic Century puts together hybrids of theater, classical music—both vocal and instrumental—and readings of letters or diaries to create its productions. For Hans Christian Andersen, its latest offering, the group has increased the hybrid entertainment by adding puppetry for its story of the life of the great Danish fairy-tale writer: marionettes, hand puppets, and some that are much larger.
Two years ago, S. Asher Gelman made a splash with his first play, Afterglow, which examined a threesome of gay men. Scheduled to take advantage of Gay Pride month, it ran well over a year. Gelman’s second play, Safeword, has more challenging subject matter. The title comes from BDSM, which is, for those who haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, bondage and discipline (BD) and sadomasochism (SM). This time, however, Gelman’s plot feels more contrived, and its effect isn’t as strong.
The first scene of Halley Feiffer’s new drama is a bear trap. It seizes one’s attention and won’t let go. Feiffer, who stars as Cat, is having drinks and hors d’oeuvres with Guy, a restaurateur whose wife she has profiled for The New Yorker. He’s explaining to her his design of the Japanese restaurant they are in; as performed by Hamish Linklater, he is arrogant, charming, playful, insulting, and possibly dangerous. When he says to her, “I’m a serial killer,” and quickly follows it up with “I’m joking,” it’s not completely reassuring.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the opening entry in the annual Brits Off-Broadway series, is less a play than a boisterous entertainment, inspired by an actual 1942 booklet issued to American soldiers and airmen arriving in Britain to help battle the Nazis. What the creators spin from it is a curious pastiche: part culture clash, part British music hall, seasoned with sometimes hoary comic clichés and a genial spirit. At different times it calls to mind Teahouse of the August Moon, Sgt. Bilko, The Andy Griffith Show, and the caricatured aristocrats in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
The Red Bull Theater, founded in 2003 to focus on Jacobean drama (those playwrights who were overshadowed by Shakespeare) has in recent seasons been incorporating non-Jacobean plays into its offerings, so it’s a pleasure to see the company back on home ground with John Webster’s potboiler The White Devil. Webster is best known for The Duchess of Malfi, perhaps the greatest non-Shakespearean play of the period; The White Devil’s complex plot is inspired by the same Italian family.
Florian Zeller’s play, The Mother, is subtitled “a black farce.” If that conjures images of slamming doors and maids running around frantically in their underwear, forget it. The frenzied activity in Trip Cullman’s highly stylized production is almost entirely provided by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, and although she strips down to a slip and garters at one point to put on a sexy red dress, it’s not at all lubricious or funny.
Psychosexual hang-ups were at the center of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play earlier this season, and they form an important part of Daddy, his newest work. Daddy, too, has an interracial gay relationship at its core, but this time Harris’s interests encompass homophobia, ageism, materialism, parental strife, fundamentalist Christianity, and the philosophy of art.
On Aug. 14, 1924, after a third night of sold-out houses at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, inveterate Irish playgoer Joseph Holloway noted in his diary: “The Shadow of a Gunman [has] been staged for three nights with the usual result—that crowds had to be turned away each performance. . . . Certainly [Sean O’Casey] has written the two most popular plays ever seen at the Abbey, and they both are backgrounded by the terrible times we have just passed through, but his characters are so true to life and humorous that all swallow the bitter pill of fact that underlies both pieces.”
Last year’s Off-Broadway production of Daniel’s Husband by Michael McKeever focused on a loving gay couple whose lack of a legal document deprived the title character (named Mitch) of the right to determine the care of his spouse, who was stricken with a serious disease. It was easy to sympathize with the principals, whose desire for normal domesticity elicited sympathy. Charles Gershman takes a more daring tack in his new play The Waiting Game: his “hero,” Paolo, is a meth-smoking lodestar of promiscuity.
The reinvigoration of a classic can sometimes depend on a good new translation, and the Irish playwright Conor McPherson (already represented this season by the musical Girl from the North Country) has done a sterling job putting juice back into August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, one of the Swedish playwright’s masterpieces. The central couple, a captain named Edgar and his wife, Alice, are close to their 25th wedding anniversary, but their union resembles a pitched battle.
The title of Ray Yamanouchi’s new play suggests there is only one American tradition. Is it fireworks on the Fourth of July? Is it celebrating Thanksgiving? Or is it putting out flags on Memorial Day? The walls at the 13th Street Theater hint that Yamanouchi’s view is much darker. There are posters for shows like A Darkey Misunderstanding and the musical Big Minstrel Jubilee by William H. West (1853–1902) and one that cautions “Negroes Beware: Do Not Attend Communist Meetings,” along with a 19th-century advertisement about the Democratic Party (the face of a white-bearded man) and the Republican party (a black man with unruly hair). More modern flyers hang there too: a picture of Angela Davis with the words “Black Power” and a recent Black Lives Matter poster.
Jordan Jaffe’s comedy-drama Whirlwind hinges on a hot topic: environmental activism. It’s also descriptive of the relationships at its center. Bethany Goodbridge (Annapurna Sriram) handles issues of environment, health and safety at Arrow Energy, a San Francisco firm that builds wind farms. Her boss, Cooper (Johnny Wu), is an arrogant corporate type who likes to brag that he has his own jet. He also has more than a businesslike eye on her. Christian Conn plays the man who brings the whirlwind into their lives and ruffles their feathers—an apt description, since he is irate that one of the company’s isolated wind farms is killing birds at a terrible rate.
Sebastian Barry, the Irish playwright who made a theatrical splash with his 1995 play The Steward of Christendom, has since then become as renowned for his novels (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Days Without End, A Long Long Way) and only sporadically returned to the theater. On Blueberry Hill, a presentation of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, is less a traditional play than two intertwined monologues—like The Pride of Parnell Street, a 2007 play from Barry’s hand that was presented by the same company, Fishamble, or Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—but it is riveting.
The simply and ironically titled Real takes place in two time periods, New York in the present day and in 1934. The shift between them calls to mind one of Alan Ayckbourn’s time-travel plays, but playwright Rodrigo Nogueira’s voice is completely different. In the opening scene, a woman named Dominique (Rebecca Gibel), a retired concert performer, is hosting a dinner party with her husband (Charlie Pollock), who has revealed to the couple who have joined them that Dominique is practicing again.
Jeremy O. Harris makes an impressive splash with Slave Play, a fascinating, often hilarious, sometimes bumpy look at sex and power in modern interracial relationships. The New York Theatre Workshop production is also a prelude to Daddy, a second play of Harris’s that will be seen in the spring at the Vineyard Theatre.
Fans of Tom Stoppard who are used to the fizzy humor of Travesties, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or Arcadia should be cautioned that The Hard Problem finds him in his other mode, tackling serious issues with less levity, as he did in The Coast of Utopia and The Real Thing. This time around the paramount concern is the scientific label used as the title: how does consciousness come about? Connected to it are notions of altruism vs. egoism, with doses of coincidence, conscience, evolution, divinity, business ethics and other meaty subjects thrown in. And yet there are still moments of humor in Jack O’Brien’s fascinating production of this twisty play—a brainiac’s sumptuous meal laid out for the layman.
War, bloodshed, and a cappella music seem unlikely companions in a Christmas show, but All Is Calm is a holiday production without parallel. Subtitled The Christmas Truce of 1914, it revisits in letters and songs of the period a Christmas Eve in World War I when soldiers in the trenches suspended their enmity and joined one another for a night of celebration in no-man’s-land. The story has been told before, notably in Joyeux Noël, France’s 2005 Oscar nominee for best foreign film. But even with its melancholy trappings, All Is Calm is a deeply moving and spiritually thrilling piece of theater.
Life x 3, Yasmina Reza’s high comedy about a dinner party gone seriously wrong, falls almost midway between her breakthrough hit Art (1994) and the equally acclaimed God of Carnage (2005). That may partly explain why this 2000 play has remained in the shadows, but on the surface it also seems a mere artistic exercise for the Iranian-born French playwright. As the title implies, Life x 3 examines the same evening from three different angles, but it also comments on its characters’ stresses and petty conflicts in relation to the universe. The excellent production is a welcome, if unusual, revival by the New Light Theater Project, which usually presents new plays.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, has not aged well. Brecht himself never saw a production of his allegory about the rise of German National Socialism, and what improvements he might have made in rehearsal cannot be known, but John Doyle’s version at Classic Stage Company seems a heavier slog than usual for a play already rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.
With a title like The Book of Merman, one might expect a big, brassy, loud and overbearing musical, but in fact the creators, Leo Schwartz, who wrote the score and DC Cathro, his co–book writer, have turned out a parody of show music that’s surprisingly unassuming and mild-mannered. One might easily guess there’ll be sparks that fly from just what the title implies: an unabashed mashup of The Book of Mormon and the style of Ethel Merman. Happily, the show avoids the vulgarity of The Book of Mormon while smartly ribbing show-music aficionados and playing off several Merman hits from Cole Porter, Jule Styne and Irving Berlin.