Playwrights Horizons

Wives

Wives

Jaclyn Backhaus’s Wives, at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Margot Bordelon, is a raucous, funny, well-acted, and well-intentioned production that suffers from intermittent heavy-handedness and whose four distinct parts don’t fully cohere. The final of the four vignettes that comprise the 80-minute play tries to wrangle the previous three stories, which originated as ideas for three separate plays, into a harmonious symmetry, but it only muddies the waters so that Wives ends up feeling like partially thought-out ideas awaiting fuller exploration.

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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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Noura

Noura feature image

Heather Raffo’s Noura scrutinizes the issue of assimilation of refugees into American society by looking at the experience of the title character, an Iraqi woman. Noura (played by Raffo herself) is a stern but loving mother and wife who escaped the ISIS capture of Mosul with her husband, Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi). After setting down roots in the new country, Noura finds that she desperately misses her hometown traditions. Raffo’s play echoes a question that Arthur Miller, in his essay The Family in the Modern Drama, asks: “How may a man make of an outside world a home?” For Raffo, the question is: “What keeps a family together?” The play reveals ways that American life can create isolation more than togetherness.

Liam Campora (left) plays Yazen, or Alex, and Matthew David is Rafa’a, a family friend, in Heather Raffo’s  Noura.  Top: Raffo as Noura, with Nabil Elouahabi as her husband, Tareq.

Liam Campora (left) plays Yazen, or Alex, and Matthew David is Rafa’a, a family friend, in Heather Raffo’s Noura. Top: Raffo as Noura, with Nabil Elouahabi as her husband, Tareq.

Noura, one of the Christian minority in Mosul, holds on to the Christmas traditions she was raised with as the only things left from the rubble of her hometown. She remembers the way her old neighbors would visit her father’s house on Christmas for a jubilee of dancing, good food and conversation. But in America the fast-paced and alienating effects of social media and personal technologies, such as cell phones and gaming systems, have made it harder for her family to hold on to those traditions.

Her son, whom she calls Yazen but who is also known by an Americanized name, Alex (Liam Campora), is just interested in his PlayStation and hates the fast his family observes. He begs to live a normal American life. Tareq, meanwhile, has come to terms with his new life. He is no longer able to be a surgeon as he once was in Mosul; he now works at a sandwich shop and takes up shifts that cut into his spending time with the family. Noura is thinking of continuing her career as an architect and struggles with how small and uncommunal her family has become. Noura, directed by Joanna Settle, shows that retaining one’s true identity in a new country is a struggle filled with compromises.

There’s also the family’s close friend, Rafa’a (Matthew David) and Maryam (Dahlia Azama), an orphan from Mosul who is sponsored by Noura and Tareq. Rafa’a serves as an interesting sounding board to Noura’s concerns about the life in Mosul, as well as Tareq’s sacrificing of his career and whether or not they have made the right choices in the years they have lived in America. Maryam, who comes for the holidays before going back to Stanford, carries a secret that causes Noura to question holding on to the traditions. She feels pressure to reveal the secrets she carried overseas to New York. The shorthand question in Raffo’s play is summed up by one that Rafa’a asks: Is holding on the old ways necessary?    

Raffo and Elouahabi with Dahlia Azama (left) as Maryam. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Raffo and Elouahabi with Dahlia Azama (left) as Maryam. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

The set, designed by Andrew Lieberman, is grounded by a Christmas tree. Lighting designer Masha Tiriming’s lights gently swirl around the tree and glisten like stars in the darkness. It is a constant reminder of the holiday spirit: a time of togetherness and cheer, but it all looms over Noura’s family, who have splintered off from the traditions of her youth in Mosul. In the middle area is a tall structure that looks like a curved cage that encapsulates the family’s coming-together space; books, teapot, and other ornaments lie on the shelf attached to the structure. The table serves as a dinner table and a work station for Noura and is always cluttered. The floor and wall in Lieberman’s set are tiled with an Aramaic design that evokes the idea of the life that was left behind and the life that they are forced to embraced within their home.    

But they also recognize the drawbacks of their old life. The communal life that Noura yearns for is mostly out of the sadness of the past she has left behind. Mosul also has a rugged individualism where there are Christian communities and Muslim communities that have strict rules of when mingling amongst each other. Middle Eastern culture prides itself on “deeply interwoven social fabric of community,” Raffo states in the program, while American culture “prides itself on rugged individualism.”

The actors embody the conflicts with intensity, their characters all fighting to have their perspectives heard. “What’s wrong with feeling safe?” says Tareq. “I’m grateful that there is a place we can reinvent ourselves, a place we can forget.” Noura responds, “I don’t want to forget! I’m trying desperately to remember who the hell I am.” There aren’t any clear answers in how to live their lives as true Iraqi-Americans, and no one gains leverage over another’s opinion.

What Noura does successfully is explore the challenges of living free and happy as an immigrant in America from many angles, as the characters express the various ways identity and culture can fulfill one’s sense of being—but it also shows how malleable traditions may become in the need for survival.

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Log Cabin

Log Cabin

Arriving during gay pride month, Jordan Harrison’s new play explores currents of non-heterosexual identity in a nearly comprehensive way. Its characters cover the waterfront in terms of gender fluidity, with side trips to racial and class identity. Allen Moyer’s primary set is an apartment with ceiling-high bookcases and comfortable modern furniture. In spite of the elegance, however, Harrison’s characters might as well be living in the titular log cabin. They are sexual pioneers lost in a wilderness of fluctuating gender identity rather than ferocious animals and untamed nature.

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This Flat Earth

This Flat Earth

Lindsey Ferrentino’s This Flat Earth joins other recent plays in tackling a hot-button issue: Admissions at Lincoln Center examined affirmative action, and Miss You Like Hell at the Public is entwined with the deportation of illegal aliens, or undocumented immigrants, depending on one’s political leaning. Ferrentino’s chosen subject is gun violence in schools.

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Miles for Mary

Miles for Mary

Miles for Mary, the sly new play at Playwrights Horizons, has a lengthy writing credit: “Written by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Lila Neugebauer and Stephanie Wright Thompson in collaboration with Sarah Lunnie and the creative ensemble of Amy Staats & Stacey Yen.” That credit may be accurate, but it’s also a wink at the audience. Miles for Mary is a comedy about a committee at a high school, and, defying dire axioms about things done by committee, it’s a hoot.

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Mankind

Mankind

Robert O’Hara’s new play, Mankind, opens with a gay couple’s strained pillow talk, as one man, Jason (Bobby Moreno), advises his partner, Mark (Anson Mount), that he is pregnant—by Mark. From that simple start O’Hara spins a broad, futuristic satire of sexuality, feminism, religion, commerce and talk shows. It’s more than the playwright is able to manage smoothly, and much of it feels familiar, but it has its moments before it arrives at its circular ending, one reminiscent of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Twentieth Century.

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The Treasurer

The Treasurer

“Regarding suicide I just don’t have sad emotions,” says Jacob, the occasional narrator of The Treasurer, Max Posner’s deeply felt, sharply observed play about dementia and care-giving. Jacob (a no-nonsense, resentful Peter Friedman) is the hard-as-nails son who, along with Allen and Jeremy, the more accommodating brothers, must take care of his widowed mother, Ida (Deanna Dunagin, who charts a painfully realistic physical and mental decline). By the play’s end, Jacob is as sad as can be.

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For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday

For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday

Poor J.M. Barrie hasn’t had an easy time of it in the 21st century, with the notable exception of revivals of one-acts at the Mint Theater. The 2015 musical Finding Neverland, based on a film, focused on the dramatist’s struggle to find success after failure and the triumphant creation of Peter Pan, his classic 1904 play about the boy who won’t grow up—a play that, by the way, most of Finding Neverland’s audience had probably never seen, since nobody actually stages it. It’s known primarily through the musicalized version from the 1950s that starred Mary Martin, although the Royal National Theatre’s 1997 production, with Peter played by Daniel Evans, now artistic director of the Chichester Festival, and Ian McKellen as Captain Hook, showed the original is still a viable and glorious work.

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The Profane

The Profane

Secularism and faith square off in Zayd Dohrn’s The Profane, a play that takes as its focus two American families of Middle Eastern extraction. The premise is that a young couple from different backgrounds have fallen in love: It’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? with a 21st-century spin. Dohrn hasn’t strayed far from the formula, which includes parent-child friction, sibling rivalry and the occasional dollop of comical culture clash.

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The Light Years

The Light Years

The variety of lights—glittering constellations, moon, explosions, electrical mishaps, the earth—that Russell H. Champa has produced abundantly in The Light Years are inventive and terrific. They don’t, however, illuminate what playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen are getting at. Inspired by Bos’s childhood remembrances of family members who spoke of two world’s fairs held in Chicago, in 1893 and 1933, and by director Oliver Butler, who knew about real-life theatrical impresario Steele Mackaye, a forgotten innovator. Developed by Bos and Thureen for the Debate Society, The Light Years is a sort of pageant play glorifying scientific progress and human aspirations in the form of the inventions presented at the American expositions.

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Rancho Viejo

Rancho Viejo

Dan LeFranc’s Rancho Viejo, like his excellent 2012 play The Big Meal, echoes with cosmic significance. The Big Meal was life itself; in Rancho Viejo the subject is more difficult to discern, but it seems to be the way assimilation into a society comes about and the obstacles therein. The title is the name of a residential community that exists in Dane Laffrey’s set as one beige, minimalist, Southern California living room, with floor-length windows upstage looking onto a garden path, no matter which of several homes the action cycles through. The viejo—Spanish for “old”—applies to all but one of the characters, who are firmly in middle age.

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The End of Days

The End of Days feature image

Adam Bock’s rueful A Life covers both the title and its aftermath. It may borrow from—or perhaps merely echo—other plays, but in 80 minutes Bock conveys the fragility of mortality and the sadness of one person’s death in a deeply affecting way. Structurally, A Life is unusual. It begins with a long monologue, as David Hyde Pierce’s Nate, a middle-aged gay man, talks about his life, his ex-boyfriends, and his interest in astrology. The monologue lasts half an hour, and it may recall the tour de force that opens Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, although this monologue dovetails more organically into what follows.

Bock’s theme is virtually identical to that of A Delicate Ship (yet the result is more powerful), the Anna Ziegler drama staged by Playwrights Realm last season at Playwrights Horizons. That took its title from W.H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts, as the Greek figure of Icarus falls from the sky into the ocean:

Lynne McCollough as Lori Martin speaks of her brother Nate as Curtis (Brad Heberlee) looks on. Top: Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce as his best friend, Nate. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Lynne McCollough as Lori Martin speaks of her brother Nate as Curtis (Brad Heberlee) looks on. Top: Heberlee and David Hyde Pierce as his best friend, Nate. Photos by Joan Marcus.

“The expensive delicate ship, that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on."

The point of Auden’s poem is Bock’s too: no matter the gravity of one person’s death, life continues in its myriad small ways, even though they pale next to the end of an existence. In the half-hour opener, Hyde Pierce is able to connect deftly to his audience with the details of Nate’s past. Obviously famous from his work on television, Hyde Pierce is a consummately skilled stage actor as well. He has a wry comic delivery, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes bewildered, accompanied by nods of the head, hangdog eyes, pauses, repetitions and grimaces, as he relates his early life in Pawtucket, R.I.; his friendship there with a woman who got him interested in astrology; and the string of boyfriends that he has had, many of whose names rhymed: Sean, John, Ron, Johan, Jan. Every moment feels lived in and true.

Hyde Pierce’s casual yet powerful performance ensures that we come to care about Nate before his life-ending event. (Alas, it’s impossible to discuss this play without this spoiler.) Some of his friends, he says, wonder why he never paired up with Curtis (Brad Heberlee), his longtime best friend, but it’s not in the cards, Nate says. Their bond is conveyed in a lovely scene as the two friends sit on a New York City park bench and watch muscular men jog by, trading amusing expressions of admiration and frustration.

As Nate returns home, he suffers a heart attack. What follows under Anne Kauffman’s superb direction is another extraordinary bit of stagecraft. For perhaps four minutes—an eternity in stage time—nothing moves and one hears only Mikhail Fiksel’s urban soundscape outside and registers the subtle lighting by Matt Frey that indicates the passage of time.

Heberlee with the mortician (Marinda Anderson) in  A Life .

Heberlee with the mortician (Marinda Anderson) in A Life.

Two scenes then pick up the thread of Bock and Auden’s theme more directly. The mortician’s office arrives to collect Nate’s body while the stricken Curtis stands by, a bit bewildered as the mortician, Jocelyn (Marinda Anderson), takes a call on her cell phone. It seems inappropriate, but it’s also true: other lives continue in all their small, messy ways even as one life ends. There are even comic moments amid the tragedy, as Jocelyn persistently mishears the phone number Curtis is trying to give her, and they go back and forth trying to get it right.

In the following scene the drama literally stops, as it does in D.H. Lawrence’s The Daughter-in-Law after the husband comes home from the mines and washes up, drawing its power from the simplicity of action. On a gurney in the funeral home, Nate’s body is prepared, as Jocelyn and her assistant comb the hair, cut the nails, and glue the lips shut—while discussing family flare-ups and inconsequential bits of botany and biology. The effect is to set in relief, amid the mundane babble, the gravity of a life lost.

Bock’s final scenes follow Nate’s funeral, Curtis’s breakdown (Heberlee’s part isn’t flashy, but he inhabits it feelingly), a speech by Nate’s sister (Lynne McCollough, who is equally good as a mousy mortician’s assistant), and a voice-over (there have been some already) from Nate. The voice-over carries the promise of something beyond. It’s a graceful and powerful ending to a simple story, brilliantly staged and presented.

Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd St. between Ninth and Tenth avenues) is presenting Adam Bock's A Life through Dec 4. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and at 7 p.m. on Sundays. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. During Thanksgiving week (Nov. 21-27), the performance schedule will be Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $59-$99 and may be purchased by phone at (212) 279-4200 or by visiting phnyc.org.

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Air Pump Wheezes

Anne Washburn’s perplexing Antlia Pneumatica takes its name from a constellation. In the 1750s, French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille “pulled together leftover stars and made new constellations,” explains Adrian, a visitor to a remote Texas home. The astronomer named one of the constellations he created “the air pump,” known by its Latin name as Antlia Pneumatica. It’s one of the few fascinating points in Washburn’s meandering play.

Adrian is an unexpected guest at an isolated house in Texas Hill Country, where several people have gathered for a Big Chill-style reunion, although that isn’t immediately apparent. The hostess is Nina (Annie Parisse) and Adrian (Rob Campbell) is a lover of hers from 16 years earlier. Already present when Adrian pops in are Ula (Maria Striar), a frizzy-haired compatriot, and Liz (April Mathis), an African-American woman who is Nina’s sister. 

Subtitled “a play about place, space, grace,” Antlia Pneumatica is structured as a collection of scenes around a kitchen island, monologues, stories, recitations and audio conversations. Most of the latter involve Nina’s two children, who are 5 and 7, but there is a scene of a nighttime encounter of two of the adults that proves a red herring. During these voice-overs, for seemingly interminable stretches, the stage is dark. Although a note from the playwright extols the art of listening to rather than seeing a play, the scenes come off as a torturous radio show and may spur you to cancel your subscription to NPR.

Insofar as Washburn’s title has any parallel to the action, it seems to be that she has used bits and pieces and leftovers as the meat of her story, in the same way that Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille collected unused stars for his constellations.

The deceased friend is named Sean, and he lived in New York; most of the characters had lost touch with him following his downward spiral into alcoholism. Much is made of who is coming for the scattering of Sean’s ashes, and a viewer has to listen closely to realize that, as the play progresses, other characters have arrived besides the ones who are on stage. New cars belonging to new names are parked in the driveway. 

The conversations seem deliberately mundane and opaque, and although director Ken Rus Schmoll imparts a certain sporadic charge to them, and there’s a sense that the characters know one another so well they use shorthand to communicate, the effect is frequently to leave the listener at a loss.

A friend named Len (Nat DeWolf) arrives, full of stories about olden times for the children. One of them explains the origin of the term “bachelor.” Originally, he claims, “bachelors was the term for unattached men who would stumble from the brush and happen across a celebration and get invited in out of politeness... back then it was the polite term for a man who was really all but an animal.” If the speech has a point, it seems to be that man has only recently evolved from barbarity, that his time on earth is dwarfed by the stars. The prevalent mood is bewilderment: the lives shown are a random collection of half-memories and dreams. Yet a sense of flailing uncertainty and a rueful glance back at the wake of one’s life don’t carry the gravitas that one suspects Washburn wants.

When Len arrives carrying the ashes of Sean (earlier the character who was picking them up was a woman, but who knows what happened to her?), there’s talk about where to scatter him, and Nina even suggests baking a teaspoon into food they’d consume. This plot twist is not only unpalatable, but it has been done to death: the mistreatment of cremated remains in the theater is a Ph.D. thesis waiting to happen.

Late in the play, a friend named Bama arrives, and Crystal Finn brings an espresso shot of energy to the lethargic proceedings as a fast-talking Southern charmer. (Finn appears earlier in a scene with the others, all standing at the forestage and speaking directly to the audience; there’s no effort to explain who her character is or why she’s there and then disappears until the end.) A recollection from Bama sparks a story from Len that ends the drama on a supernatural note. The cast sings a song as the play peters out.

Washburn has a following and her work is produced regularly, but she also has skeptics. Obscure and unsatisfying, Antlia Pneumatica will give the latter plenty of reason to carp.

Anne Washburn’s Antlia Pneumatica runs through April 24 at Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves. in Manhattan). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday-Saturday and at 7 p.m. on Sunday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visit TicketCentral.com.

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Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun

Stop for a second and think about the way in which one interacts with one’s family, the way one assimilates to one’s society, how one honors one’s ancestors, how one speaks one's truth, and most importantly, how one heals oneself. Familiar, written by Obie Award winner Danai Gurira, challenges its audiences to think of all these situations. However, it is also a play that one must watch in order to fully understand how it can be powerfully healing and a life-changing experience for the audience.  

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, Familiar tells a story of a Zimbabwean family living in Minnesota. The eldest daughter, Tendi (Roslyn Ruff), is getting married in a matter of days, and her rehearsal dinner is in a matter of hours. As the family prepares for the rehearsal dinner, Tendi and her fiance Chris (Joby Earle) announce to the family that in addition to a traditional Christian wedding, they are including a Zimbabwean ritual. This unexpected turn causes secrets to be revealed, old wounds to reopen, and forces the family to speak the truths about the past.

With a natural build of suspense and ability to hold an audience's attention, this play focuses on a black family whose main goal is not to assimilate but rather to heal their own lives. This strong message explores issues such as how families cope with assimilation to societal norms in the United States, how they deal with the struggle between balancing cultural traditions and religious traditions, as well as how they heal after experiencing traumas from a homeland filled with pain and death.  

Although not based on her life, Gurira draws upon her own experience to create a credible script. Similarities between her life and the script includes how her Zimbabwean family also moved to the U.S. and how she was raised in Iowa while the family in the play live in Minnesota. In addition, the script allows the actors to unapologetically speak Shona as she presumably also did in her household. Unlike other shows that often translates anything other than English, Familiar takes advantage of an opportunity to be authentic, as well as give any audience member who speak Shona a small taste of home.

The ensemble includes, the father Donald, played by Harold Surratt, who grounds each scene with subtle facial expressions and dialogue. Myra Lucretia Taylor as Anne, Tendi’s aunt, is a strong and demanding presence on stage that is the main person connecting the family back to Zimbabwe heritage and ancestors. Anne’s sister Margaret, played by Melanie Nicholls-King, is the glue that keeps the family under control, even when she might feel her own life is falling apart. A definite gem in the performance by being the character that continually handles her sisters Anne and Marvelous (Tamara Tunie), as well as continually attempting to keep everyone calm. Ito Aghayere as Tendi’s sister, Nyasha, whose relentless need to bring the family back to their traditions heals the family.  Her energy and enthusiasm propels the play forward and brings it back to a nourishing place.  

The ensemble's chemistry and impeccable timing is a tremendous success to the production. Ruff and Tunie exhibit the vulnerable bond between mother and daughter. To balance them out are the future family members, “white boy from Minnetonka,” Chris (Earle) and his brother Brad (Joe Tippett). Their natural comedic interactions add to the play and cause the audience to laugh and scream in enjoyment. Overall, it is the ensemble’s conversations and arguments that encourage open discussion about past family issues, current events and pushes the audience to question their own lives.

One of the great things about Gurira’s script is that it allows talented black actors to play fully developed characters who aren't afraid to broadcast their powerful voices. This adds to the production because it facilitates deeper conversations about real issues that occur within Zimbabwean families, African families, black families and even to an extent, indigenous families that live in the U.S. This gives audience members accessibility to a larger topic and awareness to the constant struggle families have between assimilation and preserving their culture.
 
There are moments within the play that may be seen as unrealistic. This includes the very dramatic change from the comedic, light-hearted first act to the serious and dramatic second act. It includes a spontaneous flirtation between Brad and Nyasha after bonding between a hilariously over-dramatized situation. Gurira also introduces mouth-dropping, over-the-top scenarios during the second act that allows character’s such as Marvelous and Tendi to become vulnerable in order to see how they overcome obstacles and heal themselves.
 
This production could not have been done without the talented eye of Taichman. Her vision along with the tedious work of the designers brought the text to life which lead to a spectacular performance. This includes the immaculate timing of jokes, the build towards the emotional confessions, the authentic Mbira music, as well as the healing and freeing traditional dancing that took place. Her attention to details brought unity and fluidity to every aspect of the production.  

From any seat, the audience can see all aspects of the highly-detailed set designed by Clint Ramos. Marvelous’ and Donald’s house is two floors with hallways, real doors and family pictures lining the wall. It is a breathtaking set that anyone would want to live in, including the audience who sit in comfortably cushioned seats, as if sitting on individualized mini couches. To support this design, Obie Award winner and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau incorporates the lights into the structure of the set to allow it to seem natural. Even the window is lit so that it appears as if looking out on a snowy day in Minnesota.  

Another noteworthy design element was the sound design by Tony Award winner Darron L. West. During intermission, the recordings of celebratory Mbira music by the Shona people of Zimbabwe filled the theater. With a very hectic and hilarious ending to Act One, the traditional music played during intermission is a great way to gently introduce the audience to Zimbabwean music, as well as connects with the Mbira that is presented by Nyasha during the performance.  

With accurate details of Zimbabwean culture and some cliché subplots, Familiar takes the discussion about race and culture to the forefront, as well as ignites a necessary conversation about the shaming and blaming of one’s heritage. 
 
Familiar has extended their run until April 10 at Playwrights Horizon’s Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $75 to $90. To purchase tickets, visit www.TicketCentral.com and www.Facebook.com or call 212-279-4200.
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High-Risk Tech Support

Jordan Harrison’s fine yet unsettling play, Marjorie Prime, is set in the future, but follows its own path. It has neither the dystopian darkness of Minority Report and dozens of other sci-fi films, nor the impulse to satire seen in Woody Allen’s classic Sleeper, and more recently, in Stephen Kaliski’s play Gluten! Rather, it takes a low-key, subtler approach to a coming world in which mankind uses artificial intelligence. It is ambitious and canny about the problems that might pose, and its 80 minutes pack a wallop.

The title character, Marjorie (Lois Smith), is 85 as the play begins. She is talking to her husband, Walter, who appears to be decades younger. But, in fact, he is Walter Prime, a designation for a computer image that is programmed with the memories and intelligence of her late husband. She has chosen the age of Walter, and the resultant computer not only absorbs information about him from her but also from others. It is, in fact, the future: the first tip-off is that Marjorie remembers visiting New York at Christmastime in her youth and seeing The Gates.

Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery), and son-in-law Jon (Stephen Root), have acquired the computer to keep Marjorie company in her old age. Tess, a deeply unhappy person, is uncomfortable with the thing, and with technology in general. “Science fiction is here, Jon. Every day is science fiction,” she complains. “We buy these things that already know our moods and what we want for lunch even though we don’t know ourselves... We treat them like our loved ones.”

But Jon has persuaded her to try out the Prime. Even so, the truths that are communicated to Walter Prime may not be whole. Tess resists telling the Prime about Damian, her brother who committed suicide after bullying at school—it is left unclear for the audience whether Damian was gay or mildly autistic, but he was noticeably different, according to Tess. Marjorie has put away her memories of Damian, hiding photographs in an attic where they were discovered by Tess and Jon when Marjorie had to leave her home of 50 years.

Tess, meanwhile, struggled in the shadow of Damian, always feeling second-string, and hating her brother for taking her mother’s attention with his suicide. The family history comes out gradually, as characters die and their Primes are programmed by the survivors.

Laura Jellinek’s set suggests a future with more questionable taste in décor: she employs strongly patterned wallpaper and furnishings in pastels of turquoise, celadon, lime and teal that imbue the rooms with an antiseptic claustrophobia. (In a glaring misstep, however, she has a kitchen cupboard open outward from the bottom—impractical in any century!) Ben Stanton employs side lighting and shadows effectively. They seem to stifle as much as illuminate.

Harrison’s script relies heavily on dialogue. He carefully sows crucial tidbits early on that have a payoff for those listening closely to what the Primes eventually present as the truth. (However, the notion that Jon would feed Walter Prime data about a Christmas visit to New York City in which she saw saffron “flags” in Central Park without checking on Marjorie’s memory is not credible, since he’s so careful about gathering the facts at other times. The Gates were up for only two weeks in February 2005, not at Christmastime.)

In a particularly touching passage, Harrison comments on the quality of life in old age, as Tess complains, “There’s the half where you live and the half where you live through other people... Any new experience you have, someone is experiencing for you, to be kind. ‘Look, Mom, it’s nice outside.’”

The direction by Anne Kauffman is equally skillful, as Smith, Emery, and Noah Bean’s Walter morph into Primes who are different in degree from their human models. The final scene, as three of the characters talk about the past, is both mundane and eerie. It’s clear that an approximation of humanity may be possible with the Primes, but such crucial elements of experience as truth and memory may become casualties of their technology.

Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime is running at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.) in Manhattan through Jan. 24. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $75-$90 and can be purchased by calling 212-279-4200 or visiting TicketCentral.com.

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In a Rut in Idaho

Samuel D. Hunter made a big splash—excuse the pun—with his play The Whale, for which he won a special Drama Desk Award in 2013. Earlier this year he was honored with a MacArthur “genius” award. His latest play is Pocatello, at Playwrights Horizons, where The Whale was mounted, and it takes place, as his plays usually do, in Idaho. But, although it starts out ambitiously, it falters midway.

Set in an Italian restaurant along the lines of Applebee’s or Old Country Kitchen, the play explores the bonds of families under stress. The opening scene sets the tone, as customers at two tables bicker and snipe. At one table is the family of the manager, Eddie (a trim, wry T.R. Knight), complaining about the lack of gluten-free pasta, among other things. At another are the wife, daughter and father of Troy (Danny Wolohan), a waiter at the restaurant. They’re the only diners during what a multicolored banner proclaims is Famiglia Week. And they’re all straight from hell.

The introductions of the characters, in the midst of chaos, are carefully choreographed by director Davis McCallum with overlapping dialogue and flurries of action all over Lauren Helpern’s inviting, pitch-perfect set, replete with hanging grapes. 

Meanwhile, Eddie strives to recreate the joyous meals of his childhood, but his family, already reluctant to meet, slinks away. Since Eddie is gay, at first it seems that Hunter is exploring the way that gay people must make their own families (a subtext of many Noel Coward plays, e.g. Present Laughter). After all, Eddie is also the patriarch of his "restaurant family," which, along with Troy, who used to work at a paper mill, includes Isabelle, a waitress, and Max (Cameron Scoggins), a waiter and former methamphetamine addict whom nobody else would hire. But unbeknownst to the staff, the restaurant is slated for closure, and Eddie hasn’t told them their jobs are in jeopardy.

The plot twists abound, and for a long while Hunter manages to juggle them skillfully. It is no easy thing to make decency interesting on stage, but Knight does it extremely well, usually wordlessly. He flashes a wry smile at times, or does subtle takes as other characters speak. He’s engaging and likable even as Hunter’s story starts to unravel.

The central conflict between Eddie and his family, in particular his mother, is related to his coming out. It’s simply inconceivable that a character as sensitive and intelligent as Eddie wouldn’t have traced the stress and estrangement from his mother to that event, especially since the behavior that we witness amounts to unvarnished emotional abuse. Her confession is written as a big revelation, but it feels like bogus pop psychology.

In an important scene, Eddie’s sister-in-law, Kelly (Crystal Finn), tries to explain that Nick and his mother want to run from Pocatello. “You’re trying so hard, with your family, with this place,” she tells him, but maybe you’re not gonna fix all this. Maybe it’s not worth fixing.” She echoes Nick’s exhortation: "Get out of town, make your own life.” It’s a suggestion that will probably have already occurred to the viewer, and it makes Eddie seem like a bit of a sap for not recognizing it.

The acting is generally fine. Scoggins and Jessica Dickey as Tammy enliven their addict characters with a variety of colors, and Wolohan and Hogan excel in a deeply touching exchange when Troy finds his father has escaped the assisted living home and made his way to the restaurant.

The last scene, in spite of its lack of credibility, does carry an interesting ambiguity—whether Eddie and Doris have made a pact to live in limbo, i.e., Pocatello, or whether they are at the start of a new phase of their lives. But by that time the viewer may not think it matters.

Playwrights Horizons presents Pocatello through Jan. 4. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit playwrightshorizons.org or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.

 

 

 

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