James Wilson

Native Son

Native Son

Describing the internal conflict resulting from being an African American in a white-dominated society, W. E. B. Du Bois famously stated, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” The fragmented black identity is a guiding motif in Nambi Kelley’s theatricalized Native Son, currently running in repertory with Measure for Measure at the Duke on 42nd Street. Adapted from Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, this version eschews the socially realistic approach of previous stage and film treatments and thrusts the audience into a 90-minute expressionistic fever dream.

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Barabbas

Barabbas

The premise of Barabbas, Will T. F. Carter’s new play currently in production at the Theater for the New City, is certainly intriguing. Set in a Peruvian prison during a period of insurgency and guerrilla warfare, the drama uses the story of Barabbas and Jesus to explore topics such as self-preservation, personal sacrifice and forgiveness. Unfortunately, the drama, which centers on the Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path) revolutionaries in 1980s Peru, never ignites any sparks.

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Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

In 2000 Rob Ackerman made an impressive debut with Tabletop, a play about the cutthroat world of television commercials. Centered around a dictatorial director hell-bent on the perfect close-up of a fruit drink topped with a swirl, the play raised a number of issues about art, commerce, and workplace politics. Ackerman’s newest work, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, in an excellent production by Working Theater, serves as a companion piece to Tabletop. Also set in a television-commercial sound studio, Gumballs satirically reveals the moral compromises individuals make when confronted with artistic, economic, or personal intimidation.

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God of Marz

God of Marz

God of Marz, Rachel Shaw’s new play presented by Red Planet Theater Company, includes a warning upfront. A voice-over eschews the usual no-photos and no-cellphones reminder and (ungrammatically) informs the audience that “nothing the characters say or do does in any way reflect the views of the author, actors, directors, stage managers, costume designers, or the venue of this production. Some may find the material offensive and, if so, please leave quietly with no regrets.” Aside from the assumption that the play then does reflect the views of the lighting and scenic designers, for instance, some audience members might harbor an expectant thrill of an inflammatory evening at the theater. Alas, that’s not the case.

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Madame Lynch

Madame Lynch

Eliza Lynch is Paraguay’s version of Eva Perón, Argentina’s famous class-climbing first lady. Madame Lynch, as she was known, was born in Ireland, emigrated with her family to France during the Irish Potato Famine (1845–49), and became a highly admired courtesan. In 1845 she met General Francisco Solano López Carrillo, who later became president of Paraguay, and she became the country’s most controversial de facto first lady. (The pair never married.) Once reviled by Paraguayans but now celebrated, the self-named “Empress of Paraguay” is the basis for the Drunkard’s Wife production of Madame Lynch, which is subtitled a “spectacle with music and dancing.”

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Enter Laughing: The Musical

Enter Laughing: The Musical

When Enter Laughing: The Musical opened in fall 2008, the York Theatre Company struck gold in their excavation and refinement of a 1976 flop musical, So Long 174th Street. Using the title of the play by Joseph Stein and novel by Carl Reiner on which it is based, Enter Laughing was hailed by critics as a musical gem, prompting the New York Times critic to write, “All you can do is wonder, how did this thing fail so badly the first time around?”

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Surely Goodness and Mercy

Surely Goodness and Mercy

Grace, blessings, and charity can come from the most unlikely sources and individuals. This is the central premise of Chisa Hutchinson’s Surely Goodness and Mercy, in which a precocious 12-year-old boy and a cantankerous school lunch lady are a pair of unlikely saviors. Set in Newark, N.J., the play shows that amid the grit and grime of urban life, simple acts of benevolence can have reverberating and profound effects.

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LaBute New Theater Festival

LaBute New Theater Festival

Neil LaBute burst upon the New York theater scene 20 years ago with Bash, a trio of one-act plays. It is a form he frequently returns to, and for the fourth year in a row he is represented by an evening of three one-acts under the umbrella title, LaBute New Theater Festival. Anyone familiar with the playwright’s work knows that his plays often attempt to shock—or at the very least agitate—his audiences with provocative, you-can’t-say-that-in-public pronouncements and confessions. Seemingly ordinary and recognizable individuals give voice to amoral and dark thoughts, and a successful LaBute play prompts a fair amount of uncomfortable laughter and occasional squirming in one’s seat.

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Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot feature image

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins with a declaration of futility. Estragon, one of the play’s tramps, attempts to remove an intractable muddy boot and despairingly announces, “Nothing to be done.” This sense of existential desperation pervades the New Yiddish Rep production, performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. Director Ronit Muszkatblit’s version has to be one of the bleakest in recent memory. While the approach may not appeal to casual theatergoers, Beckett devotees will find much to savor.

Richard Saudek plays Lucky in the Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett’s  Waiting for Godot.  Top, from left: David Mandelbaum as Estragon and Eli Rosen as Vladimir.

Richard Saudek plays Lucky in the Yiddish translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Top, from left: David Mandelbaum as Estragon and Eli Rosen as Vladimir.

Performing the play in Yiddish (Shane Baker has provided the translation) makes a great deal of sense because Godot can be viewed as a post-Holocaust response. Beckett was in the French Resistance, and he began writing the play just three years after the end of World War II. The monumental inconceivability of human cruelty, the Holocaust, and nuclear destruction pervade the text, and life, as reflected in the play, is senseless and completely expendable. As one of the characters says, people “give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

The production also draws on rich Yiddish performance traditions. Pre-show and intermission music includes Yiddish cabaret songs, and the pair of tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Eli Rosen and David Mandelbaum), verbally spar with the cadence of early 20th-century Jewish comics and Borscht Belt comedians.

As the pair waits for the elusive Godot, they devise ways to pass the time. Yet unlike with other productions, Muszkatblit and her cast have not thoroughly mined the play for laughs. In the characterizations by Rosen and Mandelbaum, mustering even momentary amusement proves to be an impossible endeavor. They are simultaneously dependent upon and bored with each other. As Estragon says, “There are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for us to part.” But like a couple in a codependent marriage, they bicker, hurl insults, and temporarily make up. This is their life, hour by hour, day by day, ad infinitum.

Pre-show and intermission music includes Yiddish cabaret songs, and the pair of tramps verbally spar with the cadence of early 20th-century Jewish comics and Borscht Belt comedians.

Their tedium is temporarily disrupted by the appearance of the arrogant landowner Pozzo (Gera Sandler) and his docile, bonded servant Lucky (Richard Saudek). Pozzo literally throws Estragon a bone, and Lucky provides a brief entertaining interlude. Even that becomes unbearable for the tramps. And when the boy (alternately played by Noam Sandler and Myron Tregubov) arrives at the end of each act to inform Estragon and Vladimir that Godot will not appear, the news is met with a collective shrug. 

The effect generally works, but at times the leisurely pace and (for non-Yiddish speakers) alienating supertitles can be wearying for the audience, partly because of the central performances. Individually, Rosen and, in particular, Mandelbaum offer convincing and moving portrayals, but as a tragicomic duo, they do not always seem to be in sync. Their banter sometimes seems rather hesitant, and their physical comedy (such as lifting dead-weight bodies and trading bowler hats) can seem a bit under-rehearsed. They lack, for instance, the natural, easy timing that other clowns (Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, to name just two) have brought to the parts. Granted, Rosen replaced another actor right before the show opened, so the pair still may be finding their rhythm.

Mandelbaum and Rosen as the tramps in Beckett’s existential tragicomedy. Photographs by Dina Raketa.

Mandelbaum and Rosen as the tramps in Beckett’s existential tragicomedy. Photographs by Dina Raketa.

Sandler’s Pozzo is not a force of nature as one often sees, but his downplayed, almost offhand abusiveness is frightening in its ordinariness. As Lucky, Saudek is scarily good. Oppression and cruelty have sucked the life out of the character, but when ordered to dance and “think,” he is able to summon the remaining vestiges of physical and intellectual presence. Saudek’s slow-build then unstoppable first-act monologue is a coup de théâtre.

George Xenos’s tattered costumes and minimal scenery provide a dash of theatricality and creativeness: the play’s fundamental set piece, a tree—or is it, as the characters debate, a bush? Or maybe a shrub?—is the skeleton of a patio umbrella. Reza Behjat’s lighting is similarly effective, and the primary lighting effect, the moon rising, is engineered by the boy, who hangs a crumpled, illuminated globe from a visible wire.

Yiddish theater appears to be making a long-awaited New York comeback. (The acclaimed Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof is set to reopen Off-Broadway in a few weeks.) And while this Godot may not be the revelatory production theatergoers have been awaiting, it offers an intriguing new perspective on a familiar and well-worn play.

The New Yiddish Rep’s production of Waiting for Godot plays through Jan. 27 at the Theater at the 14th Street Y (344 East 14th St. at First Avenue). The play is performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. Evening performances are at 7:30 Monday through Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased by calling (646) 395-4310 or by visiting www.newyiddishrep.org.

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Popcorn Falls

Popcorn Falls

Popcorn Falls, James Hindman’s new two-hander, begins with a burst of energy. With “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana blaring through the speakers, the performers, Adam Heller and Tom Souhrada, sprint about the stage preparing the props, costumes, and set pieces for the screwball play to follow. Indeed, the mad dash is intended to set the scene for the evening’s romp in which the two actors play a combined total of 21 different characters.

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