Soft Power, the thrilling new musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori at the Public Theatre, wears many hats: it’s a funny and touching East-meets-West love story, a postmodern Rodgers and Hammerstein–style book musical with multiple narratives and commentary, and a dazzling celebration of the rhapsodic power of Broadway song-and-dance. But its most potent identity is as a cri de coeur from playwright Hwang on the violence he suffered before the election of Donald Trump and the palpable fear that Trump’s white-supremacist presidency has instilled in non-white Americans.
Hurricane Diane packs a lot into its 90-minute running time. It’s the type of idea-driven play that in lesser hands might become more academic journal article than piece of theater, but writer Madeleine George and director Leigh Silverman have crafted the evening with a deceptively light touch. Not since Dr. Strangelove has humanity’s inevitable annihilation been such a good time.
The Internet and technology allow us to be connected more than ever—but sometimes, it makes it easier to feel alone. This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Goose Dreams at the Public Theater, an alternately gentle and hard-hitting look at life and loneliness in the digital age.
Written by Hansol Jung and directed by Leigh Silverman, Wild Goose Dreams centers on Guk Minsung (Peter Kim), a so-called “goose father,” who lives alone in South Korea while sending money to his wife (Jaygee Macapugay) and daughter (Kendyl Ito) in America, and Yoo Nanhee (Michelle Krusiec), the North Korean escapee whom Minsung meets online and soon begins an affair with. The show spotlights the couple’s fledgling relationship amid their lonely lives: Minsung isolated in a tiny apartment, watching his wife drift away through Instagram posts while his daughter blocks him on Facebook, and Nanhee as a low-ranking government administrator plagued by guilt over the father (Francis Jue) she left behind in North Korea. “We are together because we are alone, and being together paralyzes that terrible feeling for a while,” Nanhee angrily tells Minsung during a fight, though love blooms out of the pair’s initial desire for companionship.
The endearing love story is told with a light touch. The two find peace with each other amid their bleak lives through tender in-person moments and nervous online exchanges, carefully conversing in the slightly stilted English of people speaking a foreign tongue. (“Do you wish to talk about the problem of love?” Minsung asks Nanhee.) But this is no straightforward romance. The play takes place in a world of magic realism, where the understated love story is offset by Nanhee’s dreams of guilt and hallucinations of the father she left behind. These visions are wildly fanciful—penguin costumes (by Linda Cho) are used liberally—yet they grow increasingly antagonistic, as Nanhee fears the consequences of her defection by North Korea’s oppressive regime. “You left us to cross the river. You knew what that meant for us,” Nanhee imagines her parent saying.
The characters’ online lives add another layer, as Nanhee and Minsung’s Internet usage is personified through spoken interjections—“no new emails, no new messages”—and musical interludes (composed by Paul Castles) by the production’s chorus. Performers shout out Internet buzzwords — “Win a free trip to the paradise of your dreams!”, “28 reasons skinny is the new fat!”—before joining in a sung binary code chorus. The tactic is a refreshing alternative to the screened projections other shows use to depict the Internet; using ensemble members acknowledges the humans behind online usernames, and their overlapping and cacophonous voices illustrate the chaotic nature of the average Internet session.
These three aspects of the world of the show—the romance, the Internet and Nanhee’s dream world—collide in both helpful and detrimental ways. The dream sequences and the Internet scenes’ boldness can overpower the gentle tale, and they often take precedence over the love story at the production’s core. An overlong Internet scene at the beginning of the piece gets the storytelling off to a slow start, and Nanhee’s metaphoric visions dominate many of her interactions with Minsung to slightly tiresome effect.
Yet these other elements’ brashness is advantageous as well, demonstrating the outside forces’ weight on the characters and how the digital world and Nanhee’s dreams drive their actions as the show pushes into tragedy. The vibrancy of these worlds builds out the pair’s otherwise solitary existences, showing the vastness of their inner and online lives in contrast to the quietude of their lonely realities. In addition to the play’s various performed realms, Clint Ramos’s scenic design successfully blends loudness and simplicity, transporting the audience to urban South Korea not through elaborate set pieces, but through immersive bright imagery and signage coating the walls of the theater.
The show’s central love story is told effectively by Kim and Krusiec, who bring the show to life through their understated chemistry. Kim brings a sadly sweet eagerness and naiveté to Minsung that’s both endearing and deeply heartbreaking, while Krusiec’s blend of emotional guardedness and smart determination captures Nanhee’s struggle between embracing her South Korean life and holding onto the North Korean one she escaped. Jue’s fiendish sprightliness in his role as Nanhee’s imagined father matches his whimsical dream persona, yet also captures the emotional heft needed when the fantasies turn dark. Though these performers face stiff competition from Wild Goose Dreams’ flashier elements—and sometimes are drowned out by it—their take on this digital, fantastical, yet deeply human tale shows that this story still deserves to rise above the noise and be heard.
Wild Goose Dreams runs through Dec. 16 at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with matinees at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information, visit publictheater.org.
Billy Crudup has built a career playing charming rogues in films like Almost Famous, Eat Pray Love, and last year’s 20th Century Women. It makes perfect sense when his character is revealed as (11-year-old spoiler alert!) the real villain of Mission: Impossible III because Crudup is credible as both hero and villain; there’s always a hint of psychosis underpinning his boy-next-door looks. He’s indulged this duality in his stage roles as well (The Elephant Man, The Pillowman, The Coast of Utopia), but none has exploited the dark under his light as successfully as Harry Clarke, David Cale’s new one-man show at Vineyard Theatre.
The musical Sweet Charity has good bloodlines—book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse—yet the 1966 show has never occupied the top tier of musicals, such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof or Gypsy. It has hardly languished in obscurity—there was a decent Broadway revival in 2005—but the New Group production directed by Leigh Silverman is such a persuasive delight that you may come away thinking it is top-tier after all. The production benefits from a terrific performance by Sutton Foster, a two-time Tony winner (and star of TV Land channel’s popular series Younger) in the title role. Foster is better known for big-budget Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, but it’s a thrill to see her work magic in close quarters.