Theatre Row

Felix Starro

Felix Starro

The decision to avoid going into the family business can be a wise one, especially if that business involves the questionable practice of psychic healing. However, if that choice also means surrendering not only the family name, but one’s entire identity, then scamming the sick and elderly might seem to hold merit. Such is a young man’s quandary in Felix Starro, the sincere and split-focus new musical by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo that opens the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s 30th anniversary season. Under the direction of Ralph B. Peña, this nearly two-hour dive into the meaning of faith is the first musical created by Filipino Americans to appear Off-Broadway.

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A Jewish Joke

A Jewish Joke feature image

A Jewish Joke is a one-man show about partnerships, but that is just one of its several paradoxes. The play explores Jewish comedy, though from the serious viewpoint of its effect during the era of the Hollywood blacklist, when humor could either get a guy out of a jam, or reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes. Many old jokes are told during the 90-minute production; however, they are delivered with such odd undertones that it is impossible to tell whether director David Ellenstein was hoping for legit laughter or uncomfortable sighs from the vintage zingers that are rife with sexism and prejudice. And Joke is a play about writing which, when it falters, does so because the script is, at times, contrived or repetitious. When it succeeds, it does so because Phil Johnson, of San Diego’s Roustabouts Theatre Company, so fully inhabits his role that his character’s stressed-out persona transcends the page.

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz in  A Jewish Joke , written by Johnson and Marni Freedman.

Phil Johnson as Bernie Lutz in A Jewish Joke, written by Johnson and Marni Freedman.

Johnson portrays Bernie Lutz, a film writer for MGM Studios in its mid-20th-century heyday. Though successful at his craft, he looks the worse for wear. His sad brown suit is wrinkled, his tie atrocious, his eyeglasses cheap, and his limp comb-over barely covers his scalp. He would be considered Kafkaesque, except that on this particular morning he finds he has been transformed into, not a cockroach, but a commie. His name, along with that of his lifelong friend and writing partner, Morris Frumsky, have turned up in Red Channels, the right-wing publication that, in 1950, accused scores of entertainers and journalists of having ties to the Communist Party (Real-life names cited by Red Channels ran the artistic gamut from Orson Welles to Dorothy Parker to Leonard Bernstein.).

It seems Morris had recently taken Bernie to a soirée that was more than just the cocktail-weenie extravaganza Bernie thought it to be. The fact that Morris is nowhere to be found as the play begins, despite the fact that their latest flick, The Big Casbah, is set to premiere that very evening, telegraphs all we need to know about Bernie’s impending doom. But Johnson, who co-wrote the piece with Marni Freedman, walks us through Bernie’s very bad day nonetheless. First, it turns out that the government had sent him a warning letter regarding the “important work of investigators under Senator Joseph McCarthy,” but he conveniently had torn it into three pieces without bothering to read it, allowing him to now build tension by slowly finding each section amid the piles of crumpled papers strewn about his bungalow. Then his colleagues begin disassociating. Danny Kaye shows him the door. Louis B. Mayer has no time for him. And when Harpo Marx gives him the silent treatment, he reaches a crisis point: testify against Morris to clear his own name, or protect his pal and risk sacrificing his career.

Bernie treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Photographs by Clay Anderson.

Bernie treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy. Photographs by Clay Anderson.

Without other characters in the room to play against, Bernie frequently turns to the audience and tells one of the many off-color gags he has collected on index cards. Most are groaners and, whether meant to be awful or not, they do keep the audience from becoming too emotionally caught up in Bernie’s dilemma. It’s the old “alienation effect,” a technique pioneered by another member of the Hollywood blacklist, Bertolt Brecht.

Bernie also has framed pictures of his wife and his parents with which to interact. But mostly, he is on the phone. Indeed, the plot revelations are entirely dependent on the seemingly endless number of calls that Bernie makes and receives. The playwrights employ a couple of devices to minimize the drudgery. Rather than repeatedly having to dial the rotary phone, Bernie has an unseen secretary place his calls. Somehow, she is able to do so with lightning speed, adding a surreal aspect to the evening. And Bernie answers the phone each time with a different one-liner (“Bernie’s Yacht Club”). None are particularly funny, but it beats enduring a hellacious string of hellos.

Production supervisor/designer Aaron Rumley provides a desk for Bernie to work behind, and I will just assume that its drawers are full. Why else install hooks across the front of it and glaringly hang from them the scripts that Bernie risks forfeiting? Regardless, Johnson, who has been touring and perfecting this role since 2016, when the show won Best Drama at the United Solo Fest NYC, makes it work, taking his character’s motto to heart: “When there is no mensch, be the mensch.”

A Jewish Joke, by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson, runs through March 31 at The Lion Theater (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit ajewishjoke.com.

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Ordinary Days

Ordinary Days

The trials and tribulations of living in New York City are explored in Ordinary Days, a sweet and thoughtful musical exploring the alternating wonder and frustration of life in the Big Apple. Currently being presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row, Ordinary Days chronicles four New Yorkers in 2007 as they navigate their everyday lives while pondering their larger futures.

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Attack of the Elvis Impersonators

Attack of the Elvis Impersonators

Attack of the Elvis Impersonators, at the Lion, has no subtitle, so here’s a helpful suggestion: The Attention Deficit Disorder Musical. Lory Lazarus, who perpetrated book, music, and lyrics, just staggers from premise to premise, seizing on some new plot point and leaving whole subplots behind to die of malnutrition. Some of them contain good ideas. More don’t.

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Festival to have two-month run

The 2017 United Solo Theatre Festival, the world’s largest festival of solo performances, will be held at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd St. between 9th and 10th avenues in the studio theater) from Sept. 14 to Nov. 19. The festival presents renowned artists and new talents featured in local and international shows. Performance genres range from drama, storytelling, puppetry, and multimedia shows to stand-up, magic, improvisation, dance, and musical. For tickets ($37.50) and information visit http://unitedsolo.org/us/ufest/.

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Orion

Orion

Orion, a new play by Matthew McLachlan and directed by Joshua Warr, opened on Valentine’s Day, but the theatrical lovefest dishes out more than sweet nothings. Indeed, this playwright’s first full-length production serves up handfuls of hearty truths. 

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tick, tick...BOOM!

For the late Rent composer Jonathan Larson, the “tick, tick, boom” in his head were the sounds signaling the passage of time as he matured and yet struggled to achieve success in the theater. Although Tick, Tick… BOOM! was originally written as a highly autobiographical solo piece, it was reworked after Larson’s death and the success of Rent to include two more characters, a girlfriend and a roommate. Fans of his 1996 hit rock musical are likely to thoroughly enjoy the Keen Company production of Tick, Tick… BOOM!

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Order in the House

Are all plays that are lost and recovered theatrical treasures? At first, A Day by the Sea, the Mint Theater’s production of a neglected 1953 play by British dramatist N.C. Hunter, suggests the answer is no. However, under Austin Pendleton’s steady and gentle direction, we gradually see how effectively Hunter scratches the surface of social interactions to reveal what lies beneath: sadness, anger, and disappointments, as well as hopes and dreams. As the play opens, Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), a civil servant living in Paris, has come for a visit to see his mother at the family’s seaside estate. He doesn’t really want to stay. He barely sits down, and when offered a lawn chair, appears extremely uncomfortable in Elfer’s fine characterization. He captures Julian’s physical and social awkwardness. His stooped posture and pinched face communicate frustration, and his body seems to lean toward the exit, like he’s yearning to make a quick escape.

David Anson (George Morfogen, left) gets an earful from Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin) in N.C. Hunter's "A Day by the Sea." Top, from left: Julian Anson (Julian Elfer), Laura Anson (Jill Tanner), and William Gregson (Curzon Dobell). Photos by Richard Termine.

Julian’s mother, Elinor Anson (Jill Tanner), has been keeping up the estate, but she is particularly frustrated by Julian’s lack of interest in the villa, and also by her aging uncle, David Anson (George Morfogen), who seems about to expire. Morfogen brings the right combination of lethargy and energy to the role, showing both a doddering elder and someone who’s not quite ready to give up on life. Elinor frets over the household expenses, part of which go to alcohol consumed by David’s live-in caretaker, Doctor Farley (Philip Goodwin), who often launches into dark, despairing tangents. Julian’s response is “the drinking isn’t dangerous, just boring.” Additionally, there is the estate’s accountant, William Gregson (Curzon Dobell), who also seems to be in limbo.

A group of visitors is also in the mix. Frances Farrar (Katie Firth), who is staying at the villa with her children while she disentangles herself from a marriage, has been away for 20 years. She was raised by Elinor, along with Julian, after she was orphaned. Though hardly scandalous today, in the period of the play divorce is talked about with a hushed air. Frances is what might be called a “hot mess.”

Another “hot mess” is the nanny, Miss Mathiesen (Polly McKie) who, at 35, has never been married, but has her eye on the doctor. The actual day of Hunter’s title occurs in the second act (of three), and it brings forth the tensions that lead to Julian’s recognition of his stiflingly rigid life. Elinor insists he join the family for the outing, which forces him to meet his boss, Humphrey Caldwell (Sean Gormley), at the beach, where Caldwell delivers unpleasant news. At first Julian’s reaction is angry and impulsive: he uncharacteristically climbs a cliff to retrieve a lost kite for one of France’s two children. Climbing the cliff, retrieving the kite, and tearing his trousers—all seem to loosen him up, and he becomes more candid and open.

A Day by the Sea initially seems like a play of manners. Hunter and his fellow playwrights (Noel Coward among them) were replaced in the 1950s by “the angry young men,” a group of writers who focused on the working class and their struggles living in postwar Britain, still reeling from the devastation of World War II. Plays like John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party presented human nature in a cynical way and had characters who were cruel and self-serving as they scrambled to survive.

Frances Farrar (Katie Firth) and Julian (Elfer) appear content for a moment.

Although Hunter’s play is not raw like those of Pinter and Osborne, it’s not Disney either—not everyone lives happily ever after. Instead, it shows how much we really just march through life. Expert lighting by Xavier Pierce and the sets by Charles Morgan suggest the ease and comfort of an English seaside villa, but they don’t undermine the fact that personal revolutions are often frustrating, fraught with despair, and don't always lead to the expected outcome. In the end Julian tries to make sense of it all but finds no simple answers. He looks out at the vista and talks about possibly transforming the landscape to get a better view of the sea. His mother, who has done nothing but goad and chastise him for not being more successful as a civil servant, is clearly happy that he might stick around a little longer. And why not? What more perfect setting to contemplate life?

The Mint Theater production of A Day by the Sea runs through Oct. 23 at the Beckett Theater (410 West 42nd St. between Ninth and Dyer avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with a special matinee on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Tickets are $57 and may be purchased online at Telecharge.com, by phone at 212-239-6200 or in person at the Theatre Row box office. For more information, visit minttheater.org.

 

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A Stroll Down Memory Lane

The Marvelous Wonderettes, a 2008 jukebox musical that is being revived at Theater Row, shows how far women have come since the days of the Drifters, with naive bobby-socksers at the high school gym lost in crinolines and pink. Roger Bean’s playful show features a nostalgic storyline that spans the decade 1958-68 as it focuses on the lives of four women in high school and then, in the second act, at their 10-year reunion.

Christina Bianco plays the bossy, fiery Missy, who is in love with their teacher, Mr. Lee. Kathy Brier is Suzy, happily in love. Jenna Leigh Green is the vamp, Cindy Lou, and Sally Schwab portrays the ever-duped-in-love Betty Jean. Each character represents a different aspect of women’s issues, whether it’s marriage, work, or loyalty, and the story follows the evolution of women’s rights. As the girls weave their narrative of life since the high school prom around the lyrics of the old favorites straight from the American Bandstand Top 10 charts, the audience gets a sparkling overview of women’s struggles to make their dreams come true.

Under the direction of Tom and Michael D’Angora, the top-notch cast share a glimpse at that journey as they deliver the lyrics of the oldies but goodies, such as “Leader of the Pack” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” The production is full of color and glitz; it feels like memory—the way the mind’s eye makes it pretty and delusional about how simpler the times were then. It is not a thought-provoking, deep show, even though Bean hits on some serious themes, such as women coming together in sisterhood rather than being pulled apart by the social forces that have often oppressed them, though the themes are not fully realized yet.

The women sing with superb harmony (the musical director is William Wade) and dance, perfectly synchronized, to the choreography of Alex Ringler. The well-rehearsed moves work beautifully as the women swirl in their jelly-bean-colored prom dresses, created by Bobby Pearce. All the chiffon and crinoline in rhythm with the music makes an audience sway and bask in the joy of more innocent times. 

William Davis has designed a crisp, clean set of right angles and Day-Glo colors—exactly what is remembered of those halcyon days. With family-friendly slapstick, the direction is perhaps a bit too over-the-top in its pantomimed physicality, but at the same time it is faithful to the period variety shows like those of Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.

The high school competition between Cindy Lou and Betty Jean over the unseen, two-timing Johnny has the potential to make some important points about women and how they are pitted against one another because of society’s codes, but as yet isn’t strong enough. This becomes more obvious in the second act, when the girls come back to perform at the 10-year high school reunion. A very pregnant Cindy Lou, crying her woes over a faithless husband, embodies the issue of staying committed to a marriage and raising a family in an unhappy union.

Meanwhile, Missy, who is still trying to catch Mr. Lee and yet hold onto her own identity, is a clear reflection of the issues of independence women faced during this period. As the girls rally around her and berate the unawares Mr. Lee (played by an audience member brought on stage), reminding him that “He doesn’t own her,” the ladies improvise terrifically.

This is a classy production with a group of very talented young women. Although it’s a fun blast from the past, we really have come a long way, baby.

The Marvelous Wonderettes is playing at the Kirk Theatre (410 W 42nd St.) in an open-ended run. Evening performances are at 8:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, visit http://www.theatrerow.org/kirknowplaying or call (212) 239-6200.

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