Leslie R. Herman

Charlie’s Waiting

Charlie’s Waiting

Charlie’s Waiting, a new dark comedy by Mêlisa Annis, demonstrates its young author’s flair for weaving comedy and drama together, as well as a wicked imagination. The “what if” behind the plot creates tension that is palpable.

Annis’s play opens in an English country residence, designed by Meganne George with a sparse, clean, white interior. Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s stylish direction utilizes it as a blank canvas on which to paint a picture of domestic bliss, yet Annis tells a story of characters whose lives are messy with deceit and lies.

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Perp

Perp

In telling the story of an innocent young man wrongly convicted of a brutal murder, Lee Brock’s highly watchable production of Lyle Kessler’s Perp becomes a battle between good and evil. Its colorful characters challenge black-and-white assumptions, which in turn gives rise to universal questions about which side of this dichotomy they are on. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the play is the professional debut of Ali Arkane in the lead role. Arkane’s quirky portrayal of the protagonist Douglass is endearing through and through. With Douglass as the criminal center stage, Perp is one of the most serene crime dramas ever.

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Quicksand

Quicksand feature image

Quicksand is an apt name for the ambitious world premiere production of Regina Robbins’ theatrical adaptation of Nella Larsen’s semi-autobiographical work of fiction, written in 1928 and set in the same period. It chronicles the story of Helga Crane, a woman of both mixed ancestry and mixed race, who is, for that very reason, a tortured soul.

Born to a black, West Indian father who disappeared soon after her birth, and a white, Danish mother who raised her in the U.S. and in Denmark, the fair-skinned and exotic-looking Helga (Gabrielle Laurendine) cannot escape her bilingual, bicultural and biracial status. Her mother died when she was 15; her mother’s brother sent her away to school, where she received a good education; and she became a teacher at an all-black college. The conflict between her white and black selves produced a complex psychological character. Helga carries around a lot of heavy baggage, literally and figuratively, and her pain is palpable.

Gabrielle Laurendine, playing the exotic and enigmatic Helga Crane, poses for famous Danish painter Axel Olsen (Michael Quattrone) in  Quicksand . Top: Laurendine’s Helga surrounded by the Ensemble. Photographs by Anais Koivisto.

Gabrielle Laurendine, playing the exotic and enigmatic Helga Crane, poses for famous Danish painter Axel Olsen (Michael Quattrone) in Quicksand. Top: Laurendine’s Helga surrounded by the Ensemble. Photographs by Anais Koivisto.

The play begins in Tennessee, where she announces that she is quitting her teaching job, because she is “frustrated,” “tired” and “disgusted” by the “hypocrisy” and “cruelty” that pervade the all-black college, Naxos. Here, Laurendine’s Helga makes the first of many on-stage costume changes (the costumes are by Asia-Anansi McCallum). She also packs a hefty leather suitcase and boards the train to Chicago, hoping her uncle, Peter Nilssen, will be there for her. Her optimism is quashed by her uncle’s new wife, who is appalled by the mixed-race Helga’s claim to be family, and who assures her, “I am not your aunt, and my husband is not your uncle. Do not come back here.” The church provides Helga with no solace either, and she dismisses religion as “hollow” and “phony,” saying, “No one here cares about me.”

With no hope of permanent work and no one to keep her in Chicago, Helga gets a temporary position assisting a Harlem-based socialite, Mrs. Hayes-Rore (Veronique Jeanmarie) and finds her way to New York City. She is encouraged by the warm welcome she receives in Harlem, and is stimulated by the cultural and social renaissance of the 1920s under way there, but it’s not long before she becomes restless and dissatisfied. A letter from her uncle in Chicago, terminating his relationship with her, advises her to go to Denmark; he encloses a check for $5,000 which helps her decision to move on again.  

Denmark offers Helga a reception that is entirely different. Her Danish aunt and uncle embrace her; they provide her with a loving home and access to a bourgeois lifestyle; they introduce her to several eligible men, one of whom proposes to her, but she refuses to enter into a mixed marriage. Heading back to New York again, Helga struggles to find a place where she can feel at home. 

The conflict between her white and black selves produced a complex psychological character. Helga carries around a lot of heavy baggage, literally and figuratively, and her pain is palpable.

Interesting though Helga’s story may be, Anais Koivisto’s production is too long. It’s laden with layers of exposition, (including flashbacks, which are not incongruous but which can be a distraction; they ultimately confuse the flow, until the relevance becomes clear a beat or so afterward). It feels as if every single page of the novel is being acted out, with some repetition for emphasis, resulting in a sinking, never-ending feeling.

It is also weighed down by a large number of historical, social, cultural, and literary references. There are appearances by Booker T. Washington, Paul Robeson, and Al Jolson, to name a few. Many of them are lost amid the sheer volume of information the audience is asked to consume. A story of such epic proportions might work better if it were broken up into parts—there is enough material here for a trilogy.

On the other hand, the show is lifted and well-supported by charming interludes such as the train journey; the walk through Chicago, and the soup of the day, which are cleverly achieved by Allison Beler’s choreography, Tekla Monson’s simple, moveable set, and a versatile 11-actor ensemble that also serves as a chorus. Special credit goes to Laurendine, along with Malloree Hill, who plays Aunt Katrina, and Chris Wight as Uncle Paul for performing the opening scene of Act II in Danish, and managing to get their message across! 

Quicksand is at the IRT Theater (154 Christopher St., between Washington and Greenwich streets) through Dec. 15.  Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with added performances at 3 p.m. Dec. 7; 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 9; and at 4 and 8 p.m. on Dec. 11. For tickets and more information, call Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006 or visit www.everydayinferno.com.

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Sakina’s Restaurant

Sakina’s Restaurant

Leslie R. Herman

Director Kimberly Senior engages the audience from the first beat of Sakina’s Restaurant, performed by its author, Aasif Mandvi, for the 20th-anniversary production of his Obie Award–winning play. Dispensing with the fourth wall, she introduces the central character, Azgi, carrying a suitcase in the aisle of the auditorium, and he lights up the space with his greeting, “Hello, my name is Azgi,” a bright, toothy smile and a twinkle in his eye. Azgi has received a letter from America and is about to set off on the journey of a lifetime—leaving his native India to live and work in a restaurant in the U.S. 

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Beep Boop

Beep Boop

Richard Saudek, the creator and performer of the one-man show, Beep Boop, is a self-confessed “idiot who likes to make faces at himself in the mirror.” If his program bio is to be believed, “when he was ten, he ran off to perform in the circus as a young clown, then left the circus at the age of sixteen to pursue other theatrical stuff, such as commedia dell’arte in Florence; improv in Chicago; stilt-walking in Shanghai; burlesque opposite Steve Buscemi; and has portrayed madmen and fools for over a decade all over NYC.” Whether Saudek’s resume is 100 percent accurate or not, one thing is certain: his kind of rigorous talent does not happen overnight. 

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Intrusion

Discussing rape is not easy in any context. It has scarred our collective humanity; in many societies it is still a taboo subject; it is almost too offensive to broach. Intrusion, a one-woman show written and performed by writer/actor/activist Qurrat Ann Kadwani and directed by Constance Hester, finds a way. 

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The Stone Witch

The Stone Witch

The ups and downs of the creative process are personified as “beasts which must be tamed” in The Stone Witch, a new play by Shem Bitterman. The work is a somewhat convoluted and ultimately contrived attempt to tackle the psychological complexities of creating art. And while Steve Zuckerman’s production is visually and aurally rich, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

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Imperfect Love

Imperfect Love

Imperfect Love is a “serious romantic comedy” loosely based on the life and work of the 19th-century Italian actress Eleonora Duse and her nine-year love affair and tumultuous working relationship with the poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio. Set in Rome on the stage of the Teatro Argentina in Rome in 1899, the plot of Brandon Cole’s two-act period play follows the backstage dramas of a theater company struggling to produce a new work.

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Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill

Despite being written and directed by women, Steph Del Rosso’s Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill [or Fill x 7], directed by Marina McClure, is a macho exploration of the female condition. The production at the Flea Theater’s Siggy space, named for Sigourney Weaver, kicks off with confidence, succeeding in creating a stadium-sized atmosphere in a substantially smaller area. The raunchy, adrenalin-infused performance that Roland Lane gives as Noah, an ego-bound pop star on his Break-Up tour, fuels the theater with pheromones. He charms his demure, unsuspecting photographer girlfriend, Joni, acutely performed by Sarah Chalfie, from backstage onto the stage, like a deer in the headlights, and proceeds to embarrass her, leaving her mortified and alone.

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De Novo

De Novo

Imagine the life of a young lad who was never told that he was a good kid. “From the time [Edgar Chocoy] was born,” says immigration defense lawyer Kimberly Salinas (Emily Joy Weiner) in the documentary-theater piece De Novo, “he was seen as this poor kid from the slums of Guatemala City, then a gang kid from East L.A., then a criminal alien teenager in Immigration Court. I don’t think anyone ever got to see who he really was.” Salinas’s reflection makes clear that a seemingly trivial detail such as this can impose serious implications on a person’s self-esteem and that a life can sustain enormous consequences from it. 

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20th Century Blues

20th Century Blues

Aging is the lens through which Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues explores the relationships of four women who have known one another for 40 years. The play focuses on the baby-boomer generation and zooms in on how they deal with themselves, their friendships and their social status. 

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