Edward Karam

[Veil Widow Conspiracy]

[Veil Widow Conspiracy]

Playwright Gordon Dahlquist’s [Veil Widow Conspiracy] wields those unnecessary, pretentious brackets as a warning, perhaps, that there’s a lot of extraneous information in his overstuffed 75-minute play. Set in three locations, the National Asian American Theatre Company production opens on a couple who are seemingly sheltering from some dire events outside, primarily conveyed through sirens. It’s an apocalyptic Brooklyn, but too briefly and sketchily presented to capture one’s interest.

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Long Lost

Long Lost

Donald Margulies’s new play, Long Lost, almost revels in overly familiar plot elements. Focusing on two brothers who haven’t seen each other in years, Margulies draws on the good brother/bad brother dynamic of the Cain and Abel story; it pops up in Hollywood films as different as Arsenic and Old Lace and Legends of the Fall, but perhaps most pertinently in Duel in the Sun, where the brothers form two points of a love triangle. Here the siblings are David (Kelly AuCoin), a successful consultant, and his older brother, Billy (a gray-bearded Lee Tergesen). In Margulies’s story. David’s wife Molly (Annie Parisse) glancingly forms the third point. But another oft-mined trope is also at play: the stranger who arrives in a settled household and disrupts it is a staple of drama from The Playboy of the Western World to Picnic.

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Luzia

Luzia

Cirque du Soleil’s latest extravaganza, Luzia, draws on a Mexican theme for its storyline, but in a way that proves more accessible than some of the earlier productions. It’s subtitled “A Waking Dream of Mexico,” and under that guise it presents the feats of strength, agility and clowning with less obligation to a plot that can feel murky. An announcer sets it all up: he is a pilot of Flight 2016 to Mexico; the audience is in the passenger seats; and as the plane takes off, the fliers are meant to relax and doze into an in-flight fantasia.

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Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen

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.

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Safeword

Safeword

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).

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The Pain of My Belligerence

The Pain of My Belligerence

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.

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Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain

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.

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The White Devil

The White Devil

The Red Bull Theater, founded in 2003 to focus on Jacobean drama (those English 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.

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The Mother

The Mother

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 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.

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Daddy

Daddy

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. 

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The Shadow of a Gunman

The Shadow of a Gunman

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.”

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The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game feature image

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.

Paolo’s husband, Sam, has overdosed on heroin and is on life support, brain-dead, although Paolo has since found solace with Tyler, a new boyfriend, who is desperately trying to find a job but is also extricating himself from Paolo’s influence. Gershman deserves credit for taking a darker approach, but the result is puzzling and unsatisfying.

Julian Joseph (left) plays Tyler, and Marc Sinoway plays Paolo in Charles Gershman’s  The Waiting Game.  Top: Sinoway with Joshua Bouchard as Geoff.

Julian Joseph (left) plays Tyler, and Marc Sinoway plays Paolo in Charles Gershman’s The Waiting Game. Top: Sinoway with Joshua Bouchard as Geoff.

Paolo is more interested in drugs, whether it be a joint or crystal meth. His sex life with Tyler (Julian Joseph) has deteriorated, and Tyler is hanging on in the hope that Paolo may do an about-face and forget Sam. As Tyler points out, “Paolo, you visit like three times in the time that we’re dating. You barely see him in three months…” But Paolo is not thinking straight: he is consumed by the fact that Sam had been having an affair with another man long before his overdose. “All you’ve been saying is that I need to get over Sam,” he tells Tyler. “After ten diff— Ten beautiful years. And the sad thing is I can’t fucking tell much of the time if that’s you being possessive.”

When Paolo meets a man named Geoff at the hospital, he knows that it’s Sam’s new lover. Geoff (Joshua Bouchard), who works in finance, seizes on the chance to meet and talk with Paolo. He wants to persuade Paolo to assign him the conservatorship over Sam’s life because he is, in effect, now the real husband. Paolo, in exchange, demands sex with Geoff. Tyler gets wind of this new twist and, for him, it’s the last straw.

The melodrama is thick, downbeat and contrived. Still, there is something intriguing—although unresolved—in the messages Paolo is receiving on his laptop that he thinks are from the stricken Sam. It’s not his imagination, because Tyler sees them, but it’s also a bit loopy. If it’s not Sam’s spirit, it might be Geoff playing mind games.

There’s little the actors can do to salvage this goulash. There are indications that Paolo hasn’t had it easy in this relationship: he is clearly an emotional mess, riddled with guilt, but Marc Sinoway relies mostly on a sullen pout, broken only occasionally by a smile of faux bonhomie toward Tyler.

Paolo and Tyler share a light moment. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Paolo and Tyler share a light moment. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

The moral center of the play, even more than Joseph’s likable Tyler, is Geoff, the new lover who wants and needs to take care of Sam. Bouchard persuasively embodies decency; his teary-eyed strength stands in contrast to Paolo’s self-destructiveness, and even when he succumbs to sexual blackmail, it’s for Sam’s benefit. (Perhaps it helps, too, that the paleness of Bouchard’s skin gives him an otherworldly, angelic aura, but his magnetism doesn’t depend on that.) Still, even the gay milieu doesn’t enliven the action much.

Director Nathan Wright and his designer, Riw Rakkulchon, have introduced a dose of surrealism into the small black-box space that is as baffling as it is useful. There’s a box marking the perimeter of the playing area, and key props in the plot line: Paolo’s laptop, a pile of New Yorker magazines, Sam’s books of poetry, pipes for crystal meth, and lighters. Each is placed with equal weight, although the cards only come into play in the final moments. Meanwhile, Ibsen Santos, who is Sam, has all the while been hovering upstage, crossing in slow motion, or standing like a ghost figure behind a scrim. On it projection designer Kat Sullivan shows words plucked from the dialogue; then the letters move around to turn them into nonsensical anagrams, but it doesn’t bring one any closer to deducing what Gershman is trying to say.  

The Snowy Owl production of The Waiting Game plays through Feb. 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.

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The Dance of Death

The Dance of Death feature image

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.

Christopher Innvar (left) is Kurt and Cassie Beck is Alice in August Strindberg’s  The Dance of Death.  Top: Innvar and Beck with Richard Topol as Edgar, the captain.

Christopher Innvar (left) is Kurt and Cassie Beck is Alice in August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death. Top: Innvar and Beck with Richard Topol as Edgar, the captain.

Edgar is the commandant of a remote artillery fortress, and the couple live in penury, constantly squabbling and insulting each other. Alice’s temper has just led her to dismiss their maid. The captain, meanwhile, has alienated everyone on the base—“I refuse to mix with that scum”—so that they have no friends.

Using McPherson’s lively refurbishment, one that is rife with gallows humor, director Victoria Clark has delivered an inspired and beautifully acted production for one half of Classic Stage Company’s Strindberg celebration—a version of Mies Julie is the other part. Anyone conditioned to think a Strindberg play is simply unrelieved gloom will be surprised by how funny Clark’s production is. When Edgar mentions their upcoming anniversary, Alice asks, “You really want to celebrate that?” 

Captain: Well of course I do. Don’t you?
Alice: I thought we might show more decorum by keeping our long miserable mistake to ourselves.

McPherson has made tweaks to the dialogue that have enhanced payoffs, as in a passage about wine.

Captain: Have we any of that zinfandel left, chilling away down there in the wine cellar?
Alice: We don’t have a wine cellar.
Captain: What happened to our wine cellar?
Alice: You mean the laundry room?

Strindberg’s original has no mention of a laundry room—only that the wine cellar hasn’t existed for five years. McPherson’s interpolation is not only faithful to the non-existence of the wine cellar, it adds a comic twist.

Perhaps most noticeable is the alteration of a passage in Strindberg when the captain and his wife speak about making their miserable marriage more palatable by bringing a third party into the household. In the original, the captain suggests that Alice bring in a woman friend; she suggests he bring in a male chum. But McPherson sexualizes the passage so deftly that one wonders if Strindberg’s original wasn’t merely a coded version of the same idea:

Captain: You know, I was going to suggest… that perhaps, some evening, we might eh… well, invite a female companion up for a… for an evening. You know.
Alice: I’d prefer we invited a male friend.
Captain: Right. Well… I’m not sure that worked out too well the last time. I mean it is a while ago and it was certainly interesting. I’m not saying no, but my God…
Alice: Yes, I know, afterwards was…
Captain: Yes, the aftermath was…

Beck and Topol play a couple locked in a toxic marriage in Strindberg’s classic. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Beck and Topol play a couple locked in a toxic marriage in Strindberg’s classic. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

As the unhappy couple, Richard Topol and Cassie Beck are terrific. They find the nuances in the advances and retreats of their constant battle. Topol’s captain is overbearing and smug, but declining physically. As for Alice, Strindberg’s misogyny is on display, as Beck’s chilly spouse hopes for her husband’s demise. By turns Topol and Beck bring out the nihilism in the dialogue, the grim, life-or-death struggle of their marriage. They are well-matched monsters.

Their battle takes a serious turn when Kurt (Christopher Innvar), the doctor who introduced them and who has just been assigned to the garrison, arrives. The concerned and sympathetic Kurt is drawn into their web until Edgar manages to have his son transferred to the fort. Since Kurt is forbidden by the courts ever to see his children, Edgar’s callousness in bringing the boy so close infuriates him. Meanwhile, Alice once had a fling with Kurt, and she hopes to persuade him to take her away.

Strindberg’s expressionism is also on display in the production, in moments of hallucinatory horror (helped by effective lighting from Stacey Derosier, original music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, and sound by Quentin Chiappetta), as the disoriented Edgar succumbs to trances and staggers around the stage.

The captain holds out hope for an end to this toxic marriage: “If we can be patient,” he says, “death will come, and then, perhaps, life begins.” But the grim truth is that “the dance of death” is just another term for life itself.

The August Strindberg repertory productions of The Dance of Death and Mies Julie play through March 10 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St., between Third and Fourth Avenue). Performances are Wednesday through Sunday. For the repertory schedule, visit classicstage.org.

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The American Tradition

The American Tradition

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.

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Whirlwind

Whirlwind

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.

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On Blueberry Hill

On Blueberry Hill feature image

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 here by the same company, Fishamble, or Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—but it is riveting.

Niall Buggy plays Christy in Sebastian Barry’s  On Blueberry Hill.  Top: Buggy (seated) with David Ganly as PJ, his cellmate.

Niall Buggy plays Christy in Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill. Top: Buggy (seated) with David Ganly as PJ, his cellmate.

Although inherently lacking the excitement of actors facing off in conflict, monologues in the right hands can be thrilling. Barry dresses his in poetic imagery that recalls the glories of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Indeed, the Christian name of Synge’s hero, Christy Mahon, has been borrowed for one of the two characters, cellmates and killers. Director Jim Culleton’s production puts Barry’s gift for storytelling on full display, as the author teases out their tragic history in bits and pieces and keeps the audience guessing at why and how they became cellmates, and whether there is any connection between them.

The first speaker is PJ (David Ganly), a plump man early in middle age who is in prison (Sabine Dargent provides the minimal set, bunk beds supported by a cylindrical metal frame) for a crime that may not quite have been one. He recalls his childhood and his struggling mother in the 1960s: “We hated the English but that didn’t mean we loved ourselves,” he says, and Ganly stammers slightly as PJ; he often has downcast eyes as he describes the events that brought him to prison, but then sin weighs particularly hard on him because he was a seminarian. He is a man whose soul trembles with guilt.

While in seminary, he made friends with a younger man, Peadar, “a perfectly normal young Irish boy except he was shining with beauty. … With an accent on him that would mash spuds.” They fell in love, but on an outing to a nearby island their lives take a horrific turn in a split second that leads to PJ’s incarceration.

Meanwhile, in Christy’s monologues, we learn of his hardscrabble life. The son of a tinker who was killed in a knife fight, Christy has been the mainstay of his family since he was young. He’s daring, or perhaps foolhardy but lucky, as he takes on operating construction machinery with which he has no experience:

And the big thing on a building site is, if they ask you can you do something, you always say yes, or I always did, and one time it was ‘Can you drive a dozer?’ and I said yes, sure I had the bit of practice on a pal’s motorcycle in Ireland….

Ganly as the anguished PJ. Photographs by Patrick Redmond.

Ganly as the anguished PJ. Photographs by Patrick Redmond.

The combination of life-threatening recklessness and comic ego proves winning in Niall Buggy’s performance. He is an angry, forceful man, but in 20 years he has had no contact with his wife or children. If PJ agonizes constantly over his fatal act, Christy accepts his punishment more stoically. But he has happy memories of meeting his wife at a dance where “On Blueberry Hill” was played and of their wedding:

[H]aving the feed at the Pierre Hotel, and us all coming out into the late twilight of a summer’s night, happy as larks with the skinful of beer and burnt chicken, oh yes, and the wide bay lying there before us like the bedclothes of God.

Both Ganly and Christy conjure up the others in their lives, the richness of their freedom, both in happiness and pain. Says Christy:

Mayhem. Anger. You can do anything with anger. I mean, the bit of the gospels that I really like, when PJ is reading to me, as he does sometimes in the night-times, is the time JC goes ape-shit over the moneylenders. Some of the holy bits go over my head, but that bit I understand. I understand it perfectly.

And they conjure a third character, the guard McAllister, who puts them in a cell together as a cruel joke. He never appears, but he’s a crucial component of the story, and Barry is a master storyteller—as are the two actors and their characters. As they draw toward the end of their lives, one feels sorrow at the loss of two good men, their crimes notwithstanding. It’s well worth the visit.

The Fishamble production of On Blueberry Hill runs through Feb. 3 as part of the Origins 1st Irish Festival at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 from noon to 6 p.m. or visit 59e59.org.

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Real

Real feature image

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.

The guests, Dominique’s best friend (Gabriela Garcia) and her husband, a professor (Keith Reddin plays the Polonius-like character, knowledgeable but loquacious, with an emphasis on irritating blather rather than comedy), are astonished. But it’s symptomatic of Nogueira’s obliqueness that one never learns just what instrument it is that Dominique plays, although composer Quentin Chiappetta has provided lovely music for a chamber trio (violin, viola, cello) that is integral to the plot and that one hears periodically and at length. The central conceit of the play is that the fugal form of the music introduces a main theme and then another joins it, and, by the end, the second theme has become the primary one, and the initial theme is subordinate; it connects easily to the work on display.

Darwin Del Fabro plays Dominic, a struggling composer in 1934, in Rodrigo Nogueira’s  Real.  Top, from left: Gabriela Garcia, Rebecca Gibel and Keith Reddin.

Darwin Del Fabro plays Dominic, a struggling composer in 1934, in Rodrigo Nogueira’s Real. Top, from left: Gabriela Garcia, Rebecca Gibel and Keith Reddin.

Dominique has become obsessed with a play she’s reading, and it’s actually a passage about that play, and its historical basis, that provides the most startling moment in Nogueira’s 70-minute drama.

Dominique: It’s about a young artist. An immigrant, actually, who lived here in the 1930’s, during the Mexican Repatriation.
Best friend’s husband: “Mexican Repatriation”?
Dominique: I didn’t know about this either. It was part of the plan to save the country from the Depression: mass deportations based on whether or not a person looked Mexican. … One million people were forced to leave. Most of them birthright citizens.
Best friend’s husband: How come I never heard of that?
Dominique: Because we tend rewrite history to create good memories that never existed.

At the end of the first scene, Dominique, with a bend and a heave of her chest, as if she’s having a heart attack or about to cough up an alien, becomes this young male artist, who is a composer named Dominic (Darwin Del Fabro), living in 1934. Thereafter the scenes alternate between Dominique and Dominic, marked out by music.

The actors in the modern segment portray ones in the earlier era as well, but the only characters to whom Nogueira has assigned names are Dominic and Dominique. Perhaps it’s his intention to show that the artist stands isolated from others no matter when he or she lives. Both Dominique and Dominic struggle with family obligations that hinder or interrupt their work, but there’s also a good deal of the story that is frustratingly uncertain. The chief allies in Dominic’s life are a maid (Garcia), who is a friend, and a second professor, who is a mentor (Reddin again). It is this professor who may provide a clue to Nogueira’s point: “Something is always happening to us. What is life but an interminable series of happenings? Or better, one never-ending happening.”

The key adversary in Dominic’s life is his overbearing father, and, under Erin Ortman’s direction, the brutishness that Pollock conveys as the father is more overt than that of the husband, whose flashes of temper are enough for the brawny actor to indicate a bully. Dominic’s father wants his son to abandon composing and return to his control. He knows Dominic is gay—he finds him with lipstick on—and he means to stamp it out. There is a subtext here, too, of society’s mistreatment of both homosexuals and women as inferior beings whose struggle to become mainstream artists poses greater hurdles than heterosexuals face.

Reddin as a dinner guest (left) speaks with his host, Dominique’s husband (Charlie Pollock). Photographs by Miguel de Oliveira.

Reddin as a dinner guest (left) speaks with his host, Dominique’s husband (Charlie Pollock). Photographs by Miguel de Oliveira.

Gibel as Dominique has the trickiest part, since she seems at times to be oblivious to her surroundings, and she is often a cipher. She has scant maternal pride in her child, and her transformation into Dominic raises questions that Nogueira leaves up to interpretation. Is Dominic dreaming of the future—he seems to know of Dominique’s existence—or is each channeling the other’s personality, forward and backward in time? Is one story real and one imagined? Are both real? Or is the story, as the professor has noted, one “never-ending happening”?

If one does not come away with an answer, Real at least shows Nogueira’s gift for poetic lyricism, and the questions he raises linger. It’s not a straightforward piece of theater, but it’s often fascinating, and it’s refreshing to find a theatrical voice as iconoclastic as Nogueira’s.

The Tank’s production of Real runs through Jan. 20 at 312 W. 36th St., 1st Floor. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 563-6269 or visit thetanknyc.org.

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Slave Play

Slave Play

Jeremy O. Harris makes an impressive splash with Slave Play, a fascinating, often hilarious, sometimes bumpy, and ultimately serious look at sex and power in modern interracial relationships. The New York Theatre Workshop production also whets one’s appetite for Daddy, a second play of Harris’s that will be seen in the spring at the Vineyard Theatre.

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The Hard Problem

The Hard Problem feature image

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 title phrase used by scientists: 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.

The playwright begins with an amusing bit of misdirection, as a man and woman debate what appears to be her plea in a case of jewel theft that she is involved in. Soon, though, it’s apparent that they’re engaging in game theory, specifically, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The woman, Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), is trying to decide the best way to proceed. Her companion, Spike (Chris O’Shea), is her tutor, and he is trying to instill in her the necessity of admitting nothing, a survival strategy that will be familiar to anyone who has watched a police show on TV. “Two rational prisoners will betray each other even though they know they would have done better to trust each other,” he explains. The exercise is to prepare Hilary for a job interview at the Krohl Institute, which studies brain science.

Karoline Xu (left) is Bo and Adelaide Clemens is Hilary in Tom Stoppard’s  The Hard Problem.  Top: Clemens with Chris O’Shea as Spike.

Karoline Xu (left) is Bo and Adelaide Clemens is Hilary in Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. Top: Clemens with Chris O’Shea as Spike.

In Hilary, Stoppard has, unusually for him, written a fascinating female character who carries the story. Clemens invests her with anguish, politeness, uncertainty and decency—all of which run counter to Spike’s hard-nosed ruthlessness. O’Shea’s Spike is also a casual sexual liaison for Hilary, and O’Shea offsets his good looks by imbuing the transactional Spike with a genteel chill.  

Hilary gets the job at Krohl while her principal rival, Amal (Eshan Bajpay), is rejected. But after Amal draws the attention of Krohl himself (Jon Tenney, who alternates ruthless telephone conversations with moments of near-tenderness with his teenage daughter Cathy), he gets a job on the business side of the company. In exploring how the brain works, the Krohl Institute scientists hope to explain the nature of consciousness; however, Krohl, a billionaire hedge-fund manager, is only interested in ways the science can help him corner or disrupt business markets.

Hilary’s reluctance to embrace the mercenary tenets that Krohl, Spike, and Amal follow is due to her having given up a child for adoption when she was a teenager; the emotional trauma of her actions leads her to prayer and belief in a supreme being.  The atheistic Spike, however, finds prayer a useless indulgence. A likable devil’s advocate, he moves out of her orbit, only to return later on. But while he’s there, the debate is lively:

Spike: It’s pathetic to rely on a supreme being to underwrite what you call your values. Why are you afraid of making your own?
Hilary: You don’t claim to make your own. What’s the difference between a supreme being and being programmed by your biology?
Spike: Freedom. I can override the programming.

Other characters come into play: Julia (Nina Grollman), an old school friend of Hilary’s, and her partner Ursula (Tara Summers), who works at Krohl and gives Hilary advice to get her through that first interview. And Leo (Robert Petkoff), who hires her and mentors her. Most important is perhaps Bo (Karoline Xu), who becomes Hilary’s assistant and has a theory of her own that she wants to pursue with Hilary’s backing.

Jon Tenney plays a billionaire hedge fund manager and Katie Beth Hall is his adopted daughter in  The Hard Problem.  Photographs by Paul Kolnik.

Jon Tenney plays a billionaire hedge fund manager and Katie Beth Hall is his adopted daughter in The Hard Problem. Photographs by Paul Kolnik.

In Stoppard’s hands, the characters’ motives are always clear even when the intellectual demands on the audience are at their fiercest.

Hilary: I haven’t written anything which isn’t in plain sight. What is to be done with the sublime if you’re proud to be a materialist? To save the appearance of value, no theory is too unlikely, no idea too far-out to float so long as it sounds like science … elementary particles with teeny-weeny consciousness; or a cosmos with attitude; or the life of the mind as the software of a biological computer. These are desperate measures, Spike!

But after Hilary, in an altruistic move, supports a theory of Bo’s for which Bo, a math whiz, has provided statistics, things take an unexpected turn, and Hilary’s roller-coaster ride at Krohl comes to an end, albeit with a delicate emotional coda. As a playwright of ideas, Stoppard has no peer, and The Hard Problem, while it requires listening closely, is not hard to watch.

Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem plays through Jan. 6 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater (150 W. 65th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit lct.org.

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All Is Calm

All Is Calm

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.

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