love

Love’s Lasting Effect

How tightly does the average American cling to a confabulation of love? If pop culture’s steady stream of uninspired TV shows and mildly erotic paperbacks is any indication, people seem to be grasping for any and all channels that lead to answering this question. Unsurprisingly, New York theater offers an intelligent, mesmerizing counter: The Effect, a play by Lucy Prebble. The Effect has a singularly moving tension at its core: can two people fall in love under “the effect” of a powerful anti-depressant? Or is love simply the side effect of that drug?

Barrow Street Theatre’s exceptional take on this award-winning play (it received rave reviews and multiple awards in London and has struck similar chords of awe Off-Broadway), pushes us to seriously consider a fanciful four-letter word that ordinarily inks the pens of poets. Director David Cromer orchestrates this production with white-knuckled excitement at the mere prospect of discovering something unknown about love. The Effect suggests a new, intoxicating interpretation of modern romance, unbothered by moral clichés or excessive sentiment.

The play opens inside a sanitized hospital room, with quiet colors and sensible chairs and white lab coats. Connie Hall (played by a fantastic Susannah Flood) is being interviewed by Dr. James, her clinical supervisor. She is careful and precise, answering every question with painstaking clarity—sometimes to humorous effect. Next, Tristan Frey (a terrific Carter Hudson) plops himself down in from of Dr. James and proceeds to flirt, extemporize and generally misbehave. These two main characters could not be more different from each other. In the confines of their six-week-long aphrodisiac existence as part of the drug trial of an antidepressant, Connie and Tristan discover each other in themselves, each pushing the other to believe in their respective ideas of love.

Cromer urges nervous humor in Flood and Hudson’s performances. The two protagonists carry conversations like precocious babes endowed early with the power of speech. Flood’s Connie is a study in fastidious, think-first-talk-later practicality, but Hudson’s inspired Tristan Frey is endlessly energetic, dancer-like and hell-bent on talking Connie into falling for him. It isn’t enough to say that their chemistry is palpable; when their eyes meet, each magnetizes the other’s performance, elevating the entire production to goosepimply electricity.

As for the emotional trauma of falling in love—for it is, the play argues, a kind of trauma—Cromer reserves such hefty work for Steve Key and Kati Brazda. Understated, Brazda plays the most unexpectedly affecting character, Dr. Lorna James. As the lead psychologist of the antidepressant study, James begins her arc as a dry clinical supervisor, reining in the sexual urges of Connie and Tristan with the amused authority of an animal handler. But as her interactions with Dr. Toby Sealey (Key) reveal, she hides a deep, corrosive wound, thanks in large part to her beliefs in love and attachment. It is through James that we see the real pitfalls of love—the ones Prebble wants to warn us about.

The players are not Cromer’s only tools, however; moving walls, suggestively dark corners and flashing text are sleek supplements to the overall effect of the play (the scenic design is by Marsha Ginsberg and lighting design is by Tyler Micoleau). These additives do not distract from the entire play, as one might expect, but rather enhance Prebble’s narrative. A particularly hilarious scene involves both Connie and Tristan taking a psychological test in which they must name the colors of the words that flash on a screen before them. James dryly notes that her subjects will falter at words that they associate with emotional burden. “Father,” “diet,” “breasts” and “guilty” prove particularly difficult for our lovers.

Cromer aims to show us a precise examination of falling in love, with all its awkward pauses, fitful first moves and, yes, even sex, in all its clinical vulnerability. Prebble’s commentary on modern love is a moving, masterly ode to humanity’s endless pursuit of answers to nebulous ideas. The Effect disturbs and excites—your notions of everything from intimacy to depression will take a hit, for the better.

Barrow Street Theatre’s production of The Effect runs through Sept. 4. Evening performances are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by visiting SmartTix.com, on the phone at 212-868-4444, or in person at the Barrow Street Theatre box office, open at 1 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.BarrowStreetTheatre.com 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Steps Before Marriage

For any couple—gay or straight—the road to marriage can be filled with potholes, breakdowns and driving down one-way streets in the wrong direction. David Auxier-Loyola’s semi-autobiographical The EnGaygement, follows the evolution of his relationship with Carlos (Seph Stanek) from dating to getting engaged in New York City. The EnGaygement was originally written to be a musical and is still being further developed. Its current version is being directed by Duncan Pflaster and performed as a cabaret show at the Metropolitan Room.

The production opens with the group song, “Just Another Night,” and David singing about spending another evening at a gay bar and longing for a soulmate. Carlos sings about looking for sex at a gay leather bar called the Eagle. David appears awkward, lonely and indecisive, and Carlos is determined and focused. After the group song, David cannot decide if he should call his diary a journal because “journal” sounds more masculine for a 35‐year‐old man. Instead of reading from his diary-journal entries, David suddenly performs the song, “Like a Perfect Song.” David sings about finding true love after having his heart broken and then being alone again in the end. There are 17 songs in this show with 12 A. being a reprise of “Like a Perfect Song.” Musical director and arranger, Mark York, plays the piano beautifully throughout this performance.

In scene two, Carlos starts by saying, “Once upon a time” and then distinguishes that he is not telling a fairy tale but a "manly tale" about a princely, handsome man. Carlos then sings about his many failed relationships and how he is content with dating himself in the song, “Single and Lovin’ It.” Next, David has dinner at the apartment of his friend Colleen (Colleen Harris) and her “southern, liberal, bisexual, agnostic, PC‐hating, musical theater lovin' son of a bitch” husband, Jason (Jason Whitfield). Lastly, cast members Chris-Ian (Chris-Ian Sanchez) and Elliott (Elliott Mattox) provide comic relief.

The value of this production is its characterization of gay culture and its ability to have the characters’ personalities relate with theatergoers. The cast brings high energy and makes the text come alive. Within this space, Sanchez’s remarkable singing and acting talents stand out brilliantly.  Sanchez’s facial expressions and his ability to naturally dive into his character makes this show worth watching. On the other hand, the characters and their challenges seem outdated—like they are all still stuck in the '90s. It is unclear if this production is supposed to take place during the 1990s in New York City. The legalization of same-sex marriage or the popular use of dating apps are not present in David and Carlos’ world.

The ensemble also does not effectively represent the ethnically diverse lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in New York City. In doing so, The EnGaygement feels more like it takes place in New Jersey or Long Island. A more conceivable representation of New York City’s LGBT community would be the addition of a transgender character. Colleen and Jason seem more like good friends, siblings or cousins than a married couple in love. Likewise, one of the weaker scenes is when Carlos divulges that a rock hit his neck and he was a victim of gay bashing on Gay Street and Christopher Street.

The larger challenge with the current evolution of this production is its inability to powerfully stand for something extraordinary. Much of the material in this production revolves around superficial antics and heartache that is shared between two grown men who are supposedly in love with each other. It is like spending an evening watching two gay men break up, get back together, break up again, and then sing about why they cannot find love. Some of the cast members also appear to be reading their lines from the script and it gives the impression that the production is more of a public reading. At times, The EnGaygement feels more like a vanity project than a potentially new, bold musical. This limits the production’s ability to travel outside of the New York City market and reach future audiences who are seeking this material. More dialogue between the songs can further develop the plot and characters. Most importantly, Auxier-Loyola can make a bold choice and commit to either having The EnGaygement live in New York City’s cabaret world or as an Off-Broadway musical. Right now, The EnGaygement lives somewhere as a work in progress—like a house that is starting to lose its original floor plan because it is always in a state of renovation.

The EnGaygement is recommended for theatergoers who enjoy listening to live singing while having a drink at a plush venue. It is not recommended for those seeking an accomplished musical or an innovative cabaret show that will leave them transformed. There is no doubt that this production has vast potential and a very talented cast, but its holes are showing because its overall aim and direction fall short.

The EnGaygement runs until June 22 at the Metropolitan Room (34 West 22 St. between 5th Ave. and Ave. of the Americas) in Manhattan. Evening performances are April 21, May 24 and June 22 at 7 p.m. with no matinee performances. Tickets range from $20-$115 (plus a two-drink minimum). To purchase tickets, call 212-206-0440 or visit metropolitanroom.com.

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Nothing But the Truth

Why Not Just Tell the Truth is an ambitious, yet over-reaching, play at The Tato Laviera Theatre. It is extremely current and very raw, with great music selection for a television show. Based on a web series, of the same name, it brought the challenges of the average TV show to the stage; the need for a talented script doctor and a seasoned director. The play desperately wants to be edgy, however what’s missing is an understanding of theatrical character development, voice projection and pacing. The playwright offers 25 separate scenes in three acts, and as he explains before the current rises, the play is in your face; however it lacks the tightness cinema may forgive but the stage demands.

Written, co-directed and produced by Carleton King, who also plays the lead, Why Not Just Tell The Truth is challenged by King assuming too many duties. His character is on stage for most scenes, never allowing him the latitude to tighten the script or deliver deeper, richer characters. As an actor, King’s vision for the role of Jason requires a deeper, spiritual quest (especially as he argues with God). Throw the Bible on the ground but make it matter. The audience is afforded less time with the characters enduring long scene changes that soften the impact of drama

As a teenager, Jason inherited an extremely large sum of money from his parents. He has been married for two years to a woman who verbally taunts him all the while cheating on him. After finally separating, she is physically abused by her new boyfriend, ridiculed by Jason’s new female companion who proclaims herself a “high-powered attorney” and eventually returns to Jason longing for whatever it is she thinks they had. While Jason has no desire to take her back, her new boyfriend, who is unhappy with her departure, exacts his revenge but on the wrong person. Jason’s best friend Tony struggles with the transition from the dating scene to a more serious relationship, having perfected the persona of a player. Jason’s childhood sweetheart-turned-mafia "hybrid princess" is still longing for a relationship with Jason knowing that his wife is not good for him. Tony, returning from the dead to offer Jason advice, comes off as a cliché rather than sage closure for the character. 

The young actors, who anxiously want to do a respectable job delivering every line, lacked exciting direction with a script that includes a lot of story but provides little room for character nuance. Rarely does co-directing enhance the result and in this case merely muddies the result. Why Not Just Tell The Truth is co-directed by Melissa Diaz. Repeatedly, dialogue is swallowed making scenes difficult to understand, and in almost in every scene someone is outside of the pool of light. The lighting technician, Hector Orta, chose not to light stage right but rather use a wide follow spot. A more seasoned director would have caused the actors to deliver more than just basic emotions, while addressing the most important need of an audience—the desire to care.

The Tato Laviera Theatre is a great space with stadium seating, a large stage to work with and an awesome light board. The main set includes a sofa, end table and a Queen Anne, high back chair, and stage left, which is Tony’s bedroom, has a single bed pushed up against the wall. Stage right starts off empty; however throughout the evening, two chairs and a table are noisily moved on and off set. Since most of the scenes that take place in this part of the stage utilize the table and chairs, it would have been simpler to work around them and light the area appropriately. Additionally, stagehands are too often seen, voices are heard from back stage and lighting, and music cues are missed.

Why Not Just Tell The Truth does not have that luxury of a boom mic or editing room. The musical selections are well chosen for a TV show or movie, but on stage, it fragments the story rather than bring it together. The bones of the play—love, betrayal, revenge and forgiveness—are spoken about but without deeper development of the characters, believability has to be suspended leaving little truth to tell.

Performances of Why Not Just Tell The Truth, produced by Tru Luv Entertainment, run on Friday, Feb. 19 at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at The Tato Laviera Theatre (240 East 123rd St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves.) in Manhattan. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting https://www.eventbrite.com/e/why-not-just-tell-the-truth-the-play-tickets-19703885853.

Read our Q&A interview with Carleton King on his inspiration behind Why Not Just Tell The Truth.

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The (Not So Secret) Life of Men

It’s no secret that the early days of dating are about as easy to navigate as a combat zone. A million and one books have been written on the differences between men and women and their communication and dating styles. Elsinore County’s Antony Raymond’s yeah, i met this girl… explores the life of three men in various stages of their journeys in dating.

Expertly cast are Christopher Heard as Joe, the blonde, California pretty boy, Eric Doviak as Ben who is smooth-talking and looks like he just walked out of an episode of "Mad Men," and Dan McVey who plays Guy with enough ennui to make any girl fall for him. The play is set in a bar, which Guy has inherited from his father where the guys congregate to hash out their various experiences and theories about women and dating. The play focuses on their inner life, and at first, they seem caddish and shallow; reinforcing stereotypes about what they want in a woman: eye candy. Guy calls out to the others: "That's my type!" and Ben replies: "What? Hot!" But as the play unfolds we see they also want love and can be as insecure and uncertain about it as women are.

Raymond does an excellent job of using the small stage. With the help of lighting designer, Daryl Embry, tableaus are created and broken, and the stage comes to resemble various settings including a nightclub and restaurant. The actors work well together. At first, the dialogue seems to come too fast; patter that falls off a nervous tongue, but as momentum picks up, and scenes change in seconds, the aerobic patter is needed to maintain the rhythm of the action.

There are many enjoyable things about this play, but the writing is what makes it exceptional. Raymond has his finger on the pulse of the inner lives of men and women and compacts their feelings about dating and romance in today’s era of new age thinking and technology into small and poignant vignettes. He also admits how men can come up short in communication. At one point, Ben tells his friends he broke up with someone by leaving her a voice message. They chide him, so he admits he sent a text as well. When they ask what he said in the text, he confesses that he texted to say he left a voice message. They cringe, and so do we, but also laugh.

Well captured is the arbitrary and contrived nature of dating. At one point, a couple sits at a table, getting to know one another by asking each other questions. The intensity of the questions build quickly, and take on the tone of an interview created by someone's overbearing mother. They begin with the mundane: “What is your favorite color?,” but soon climax to the most loaded question of all: “Do you want to meet my parents?” Within in a few minutes, they are arguing about the future, and the relationship is over.

Also special to this play is how tightly choreographed the scenes are. Stacey Roca, Amanda Kristin Nichols and Zina Wilde represent a gamut of female archetypes. Reminiscent of a Sam Shepard play, but much more humorous, is a scene in which the three women cycle through the arms of the three men. It captures how fickle the heart can be depending on what it wants. Sometimes you just want sex and other times you want love and intimacy. The scene suggests that ultimately it’s about the chemistry. If you’re interested in finding out what lays beyond that, you will need some time.

Love does happen—to Joe, the one who is seemingly the most flirtatious and disinterested in a committed relationship. He gets engaged but gets his heart broken. The reason is not what you think. Guy continues to swear off musicians only to be infatuated by each one that comes into his bar to play open mic. Ben is the most cynical of the three friends and chastises the others when he declares: “You keep looking for some perfect girl to come along and save you, or some broken bird that you can save, but that’s not going to happen (…) There’s no perfect person out there for anyone except the person in the mirror.” It’s hard to tell if he’s the most enlightened or the most narcissistic. We are told to love ourselves first before we can have a meaningful relationship, and that is what Ben is suggesting.

However, it is Guy’s belief that there's a woman out there for every man; a binary, that aligns us more as social creatures. He even believes in a more cosmic connection and meditates on this: “You got to think about the ying and the yang. Without good there can’t be a bad. Could it be possible there is someone out there that was created with us and for us?” Let’s hope so! It definitely seems better to grow “old and wrinkly” with someone, as one of the actress' declares, then to remain moored on an island of cynicism and defeat. After all, no man is an island.

Elsinore County’s production of yeah, i met this girl by Antony Raymond is running through Feb. 14 at Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between First Ave. & Avenue A) in Manhattan. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting www.elsinorecounty.com

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Love is a Dangerous Game

The small stage where Almost Mata Hari: Lovers, Letters and Killers by Eva Dorrepaal which explores the life of Mata Hari, the infamous courtesan-cum-spy, as well as parallels to the dangerous loves in her own life, is tucked away in the basement of Theater for the New City. This venue has many theaters; two are in the basement on opposite sides of the building. But the spectator is rewarded with the discovery of finding the right door. And descending the dark staircase is the perfect entrée to Dorrepaal’s world. Set as a living room, it looks as if it will explode with one false move: clothing and bric-a-brac are strewn everywhere. Short directives such as “Breathe” are pasted everywhere, as are Dorrepaal’s notes about Mata Hari: a timeline of her life and lists of men. The feeling is potentially claustrophobic and one wonders if Dorrepaal has been reading up on the avant-garde theater provocateur, Antonin Artaud’s concept of a “Theatre of Cruelty” which called for the "communion between actor and audience in a magic exorcism (…) to shock the spectator into seeing the baseness of his world.” Artaud was known to stage plays or scenes in isolated places where, one person who attended an Artaud play in the '60s, claims, “there could have been a murder and no one would have known.”

Dorrepaal appears debased at first—her clothing is disheveled, and she is harried and seemingly uncomfortable. She recalls an early abusive relationship: a broken jaw leads her to a dentist whom she eventually takes up a relationship with. Dorrepaal’s play begins in an emotionally Artaudian vein: two hours of listening to stories about violent relationships would have definitely felt entrapping and scary. She briskly changes pace and shifts the focus.

As an actress, Dorrepaal is fidgety, breathless and wide-eyed, which gives the impression of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. However, there are interesting angles being worked which reveal three distinct layers: how an actress prepares (Dorrepaal refers to the method acting approach of using sense memory), her personal stories about past lovers, and her response as both an actress and woman to the story of Mata Hari’s life. The premise of Dorrepaal’s show is that she is an actress writing a play about Mata Hari. However, Dorrepaal inserts herself into the performance, and comments on the difficulty of acting, as well as the role of Mata Hari. Under the guide of a less gifted actress, this triadic approach could have been confusing, but Dorrepaal is a masterful performer. And funny too. In one scene, Dorrepaal is playing Mata Hari as a dancer and courtesan. She changes in front of us and puts on an Indian dance costume, with a spangly bra and a full skirt. As Mata Hari she’s dancing, but after awhile Dorrepaal, the woman, gets fed up and screams: “She’s so crazy” (about Mata Hari) and “Fuck, I’m going to have to hire a choreographer” (about herself as a performer). There are many more moments like this that lift the show from a purgatory exploration of women’s abusive relationships to a true exploration of the complexity of being a woman, of love and of being an actress.

Dorrepaal brings to light the dangerous nature of love. Mata Hari had many lovers—particularly military men in high commanding positions—and was rewarded richly with money and goods. She was known to be a spy but no one knew whether she did it for the money or because she could. In the end, she was convicted to death by a firing squad for being a spy; supposedly betrayed by one of her lovers. Dorrepaal informs us that “she died like a man” because she refused a blindfold. Dorrepaal also experienced dangerous love, first with the man in her early years who broke her jaw, and then with Dragan Zabek, an “irresistible mystic who worked as a street performer.” Dorrepaal leaves Holland, her native land, when she wins a green card only to learn that Dragan killed his former girlfriend—viciously strangling her and dragging her from one place to another—and then hung himself in prison.

Dorrepaal is an intriguing actress. She is tall and thin and looks like she has lived life. Her natural hair, which is a wiry reddish brown, often behaves like the wig she dons when she portrays Mata Hari. When she flips it over to one side, it stays there. Other times, it flairs around her face, making her look angry or seductive depending on the angle. Dorrepaal is a shape-shifter as a performer.

In another actor, this could prove frustrating or make her seem uncommitted to her role, but in Dorrepaal, we see a range of emotion pass across her face in a small time span. Sometimes she looks beautiful, other times tormented. This shape-shifting of emotion seems more true to life in the face of dangerous love, which heightens the senses so that desire, fear and uncertainty exist simultaneously.

Almost Mata Hari: Lovers, Letters and Killers, written and performed by Eva Dorrepaal, runs until Jan. 24 at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave. between East 9th and 10th Sts.). Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 212-254-1109 or visiting www.theaterforthenewcity.net.

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Chasing the American Dream

The Golden Bride ("Di Goldene Kale"), a joyful operetta from 1923 performed on the compact stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is set in a small Russian village and begins with a tongue-in-cheek song about money. In Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, the cast sings “Oi, Oi, The Dollar” when Goldele, a young woman who has been raised by another family learns that her father, who moved to America when she was a child, has died and left her a fortune. Thus begins a tale that folds real-world politics (the metamorphosing face of Russia, immigration and the pursuit of money in America) into a fairytale of love and marriage.

Goldele, buoyantly played by Rachel Policar, loves Misha, the son of the family she has grown up with. Misha is handsome and honorable. They claim their loves goes back to childhood but we can also see why she loves him: Cameron Johnson's Misha is reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio with his movie star good looks and understated seriousness. Goldele's Uncle Benjamin (played by Bob Ader), however, wants her to move to America and marry his American-born son Jerome. Expertly played by Glenn Seven Allen, Jerome is the opposite of Misha: he is square-jawed and jaunty and speaks of baseball and jazz. Jerome is not interested in Goldele anyway: after a few weeks in the Russian village, he's fallen in love with Khanele played by the wonderful Jillian Gottlieb, who is physically and vocally light as a feather.

The story has many elements of a Shakespearean comedy: a young girl grows up without her mother, but when her father dies and leaves her a fortune, she wants to find her mother. Goldele's urge to find her mother is so strong that she declares to Misha and all the other suitors in the village that she will marry anyone who can can find her mother.

In Act II, everyone comes to America including Goldele's surrogate mother, father, Khanale, and Pinchas, the village matchmaker. Bruce Rebold, wonderfully comic as Pinchas, brings out the  central role of the matchmaker's role in Jewish culture (think Fiddler on the Roof and the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker"). Pinchas hasn't lost any time once he gets to America and offers suitors to the maids who work for Goldele's uncle. They all seem promising enough, but then we learn they have a fault or two. One is rich but blind. Another is kind but missing a leg. And one is tall and handsome but works two jobs: as a window washer and as a waiter at Yonah Schimmel's, the famous knish place still standing on Houston Street.

Although Goldele doesn't need a matchmaker, she may need a shrink. Why does she offer her hand to any suitor who can find her mother when Misha is clearly the best candidate? The others: a deaf shoemaker, a roly-poly cantor, and a tailor, are bumbling and seemingly inept. They are definitely no match for the handsome and worldly Misha. But the primal draw to find her mother is understandable. Perhaps knowing our parents completes us.

Everyone quickly adapts to the rich life in America and play tennis, drink cocktails at tea time and buy new clothing. They continue to speak Yiddish once in the new country, but Goldele's (surrogate) mother, Toybe (played by Lisa Fishman) likes to try out her English. When she shows her husband, Pinchas, a new dress, she asks: “How do you like she?” His response: “You look like a delicious beef roast,” is all the funnier because it hits home the personal or familiar struggle with English as a foreign language. Then he asks: "Why are we speaking English?"

The Golden Bride touches upon some of the basic struggles that immigrants have and the question of why people leave their homeland. The reality of history looms behind the family. In 1923, when the play was written, the changing political climate after the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as World War I (which ended in 1919), would result in poverty, famine and persecution for many. The family is aware that America is a hopeful place even to them who are lucky enough to enter into a life of wealth and ease.

Beautifully rendered sets by John Dinning are highlighted in the final act when the family gathers for a masquerade party. Finishing in true Shakespearean form, a masked stranger appears who brings news to Goldele about Misha and about her mother. But who is this man? And why does he know so much? Although we know, it’s impossible not to feel like cheering when the truth is revealed to Goldele as well.

The cast is superb and their infinite vocal talent is allowed to shine under the aegis of conductor and musical director Zalmen Mlotek with choreography and musical staging by Merete Muenter. The full-bodied singing and dancing accompanied by a live orchestra in The Golden Bride is an especially rare treat in Off-Broadway theater today.

The Golden Bride runs until Jan. 3 in the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place between 1st Place and Little West St.) in Manhattan. Check the Museum of Jewish Heritage for the full performance schedule. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.

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