play

Is It a Crime?

Director Whitney Aronson’s approach to August Strindberg’s rarely produced Crimes and Crimes is to streamline and bring out the dark comedy that the play encompasses. Her adaptation of the Swedish playwright’s work has been updated to present-day New York City. She has taken the attitude that the realism and harsh events that occur in the original version undermine the notion of it as a comedy. For her adaptation, she says in a note, she wanted the audience to see and understand Strindberg’s play. Aronson’s version begins with Jean (Ivette Dumeng) and her show dog Maid Marian (played by actress Katie Ostrowski), a Hungarian sheepdog, frolicking in the park, enjoying their time as they wait for Jean’s husband, Maurice (Randall Rodriguez). Emile, Jean’s brother, later joins them, and they discuss Jean’s concern that Maurice is planning to leave her. (Aronson doesn’t explain why these residents of New York should have French names.)

Ivette Dumeng (right) plays Jean and Kate Ostrowski is the dog Maid Marian in August Strindberg's "Crimes and Crimes." Photo by Jonathan Slaff. Top: Randall Rodriguez as Maurice with Christina Toth as Henriette. Photo by Remy.

Jean is afraid that she will not be able to afford Maid Marian’s dog show expenses if Maurice divorces her. Emile and Jean speak of how Maurice, an author, rarely takes her on his book tours or to social affairs. She tells Emile, “I don’t know, but I have a feeling that something dreadful is in store for me.” Suddenly Maurice appears and begins caressing Maid Marian, whom he clearly loves. He also gives the impression that he loves Jean and enjoys her company and physicality. In fact, he invites her to the opening of one of his plays and she refuses. She tells him she will be better at home with Maid Marian. They part ways, and the play begins to unfold the “something dreadful” that Jean fears.

Maurice goes off to meet and start an affair with Henriette (Christina Toth), who is in a lesbian relationship with his close friend (a man plays the friend in Strindberg’s original). The tension increases: Maurice must now decide if he stays with his wife or goes with his new lover. As he contemplates his decision and how difficult it would be to see Maid Marian if he divorces Jean, the dog mysteriously dies.

One of Aronson’s most radical changes to Strindberg’s original text is that Maid Marian is a replacement for the mistress’s daughter. She writes that she made this choice because she wanted the play to be more believable: “I actually did it because in the original, the child dies and nobody really cares.”

Although there’s a logic behind Aronson’s choice, it may not resonate with the same intensity as Strindberg’s. “I thought that the audience would not be able to forgive anyone in the play for so easily moving on from the death of a human child. A treasured animal’s death, though tragic and upsetting, is more consistent with the general reaction and behavior that Strindberg’s characters demonstrate.”

But even though the change from child to animal does lighten the mood and makes Maurice’s actions somewhat more forgivable, some of the plot stretches credibility. After the dog’s death, animal law enforcement appears to investigate the crime. As serious a crime as animal abuse is, it seems rather fantastical that a Broadway-type play would be pulled because of animal abuse. In any case, Maurice is charged as the main suspect, but he is eventually exonerated. Within hours of his release, Maurice’s reputation is ruined, and his play is pulled.

Whether the choice to change the daughter to a sheepdog is fully justified or not, it does not take away from the lightness of the play. It does, however, make the circumstance melodramatic and absurd, which brings out the humor in the play.

Matthew Hampton and Holly Albrach’s costuming of the characters is impeccable: fashionable and in line with the current New York scene. They employ an approach to the Hungarian sheepdog that seems to draw inspiration from puppet theater. It was entertaining and just simply delightful to the eye.

The sound design by Andy Evan Cohen makes the transition between scenes lively, using instrumentals of popular pop songs. They are played with a classical twist, so the audience is left to try and identify the familiar tune.

Aronson has accomplished her goal. The play has witty moments and comic scenes. The absurdism makes for great melodramatic humor as well. The revision keeps the audience focused on its entertaining and engaging story for the entire duration.

Crimes and Crimes plays through Aug. 20 at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., in Manhattan. For tickets, call (212) 868-4444 or visit www.strindbergrep.com.

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Ripped From the Headlines

Kim Davies’ deftly written new play, Stet, is inspired by the hotly debated 2014 Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” which detailed a purported gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. The publication later retracted its story amid accusations of poor journalistic practices. 

Stet follows journalist Erika Novak (Jocelyn Kuritsky), a journalist assigned to write a story about rape on college campuses. The unsentimental Erika claims to be exhausted—“raped out” is the way she puts it—from a media saturated with similar stories, but her editor, Phil (Bruce McKenzie), challenges her to find a new way to cover the story—cutting to the heart of what really happens to the victims in the aftermath of sexual assault. The playwright herself is no stranger to the heavy topic. As an undergraduate, she attended a college with a pervasive date-rape problem. In 2014 her play Smoke was produced at the Flea Theater and received critical acclaim. Smoke took place at a bondage and fetish party.

In Stet, journalist Erika wades through endless accounts from victims as she tries to find one that stands apart from the typical “rape is bad” story. She discovers Ashley (Lexi Lapp), a college freshman with a horrific story of violent sexual assault by multiple men during her first few weeks on campus. Her accusations, ignored by the school because she didn’t file an official report, implicate a fraternity on campus.

Erika and Phil have found their hit cover story. Erika’s research leads her to Christina Torres (Dea Julien), the project coordinator for Sexual Misconduct Response and Prevention at Ashley’s college. Erika is frustrated by Christina’s confirmation that many cases go unreported to police or campus security, but Christina is adamant that her job is to support the victim in whatever course of action she wishes to pursue. Erika also speaks with Connor (Jack Fellows), the leader of “One in Four,” an activist group on campus. Connor also happens to be vice president of the fraternity Ashley claims is responsible for her rape.

As Erika becomes more invested in the piece, Ashley grows more and more concerned about the implications of speaking out against her attackers. When Ashley says she no longer wants to be a part of the story, Erika talks to Phil about presenting Christina’s personal story instead—a much more “normal” rape story involving drinking and an acquaintance.

Erika, clearly affected by the emotional nature of the piece and her own connection to the topic, must grapple with presenting a story that will turn heads and land her her first cover piece or relating a familiar tale that is often ignored. Kuritsky does a wonderful job portraying Erika’s transformation from unattached, factual journalist to emotionally involved storyteller, helped by Jo Winiarski’s straightforward set, alternating between Erika and Christina’s offices yet morphing easily into a college bar with the help of walls that double as screens. Thanks to Katherine Freer’s projections, the screens add a multimedia element to the production. Scenes from the advocacy event “Take Back the Night” play on the walls as well as text messages between Erika and Ashley.

Multiple red flags throughout her investigation give Erika pause and in the end, she must use her journalistic moral compass to decide what story she shares with the world. Will she forge ahead despite the truth and “let it stand”—literally the meaning of the Latin stet, a common term in editing journalistic copy.

Stet presents audiences with a myriad of moral questions throughout its hour and forty minute run time, which flies by due to the snappy script and smooth staging by director Tony Speciale. The supporting cast of characters really shine as well. As Christina, Dea Julien brings an immediately energetic and likable personality to the stage. There isn’t a line she throws away the entire time she’s performing—brilliantly delivering small talk and moving monologues with the same level of skill.

As Connor, Jack Fellows speaks powerful and thought-provoking dialogue while believably remaining the typical “frat bro.” McKenzie plays Phil with a frustrating lack of self-awareness and detachment.

Davies’ script is full of lines that may sound cruel or politically incorrect when they come out of the actors’ mouths, but what is so powerful is the realization that similar things are said time and time again in the national conversation around sexual assault.

Stet runs through July 3 at the Abingdon Theatre Company (312 West 36th St.) through July 3. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m., and there is an additional matinee at 3 p.m. June 25. You can order online at http://abingdontheatre.org/stet/ or by calling the box office at 212-868-2055. (A portion of all ticket sales will be donated to Take Back the Night.)

 

 

 

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Life Can Be Lethal

Compelling characters and complex questions about crime and punishment are at the heart of playwright Eduardo Ivan Lopez’s latest play, Natural Life, at the T. Schreiber Studio.

Like many of Lopez’s plays (Ribbon Creek, The Legend of Sam’s Point, Barth’s Dilemma), Natural Life draws inspiration from true stories and historical facts. Claire McGreely (Holly Heiser) has spent the majority of her adult life in prison, and now awaits execution for the murder of her husband, Virgil (Joseph D. Giardina).

In an effort to set the record straight before her death, Claire contacts network news anchorwoman Rita Hathaway (Anna Holbrook) and offers her an exclusive interview as well as the revelation that she is ending her quest for an appeal. Claire divulges to Rita that she wants to die.

But as Rita continues to speak with Claire and learns about her troubled past in flashbacks, the straight-shooting journalist’s preconceived notions about justice come into question. Jake Turner’s skilled direction keeps the action moving swiftly and clearly through the time jumps as Claire’s difficult childhood becomes achingly apparent. Sexually abused by her uncle from the age of 5, Claire was an alcoholic by age 11 and a prostitute by 14. The abuse continued when she married Virgil. Raised by her grandmother (Noelle McGrath), Claire received advice, she says, like “sex was all that men wanted. And if I was going to lie down with them, I should always get something in return.” It becomes clear that Claire is a victim as well as a killer.

Rita voices her growing belief that perhaps Claire doesn’t deserve to die to Gov. Ben Dushane (Bob Rogerson), with whom Claire’s fate ultimately lies. But the audience is confronted with the fact that a life in prison may be a more severe punishment for Claire, who explains, "My choice is death by slow deterioration or death by lethal injection, fast and, hopefully, painless. To die quickly or slowly … For all intents and purposes, my life is over."

Heiser’s portrayal of Claire McGreely is powerful and nuanced. She expertly crafts a character that has many sides and leaves no doubt that her case is not a simple one of black-and-white murder. Even more impressive is Holbrook, who creates an instantly likable and admirable character in Rita Hathaway. Her Rita looks as if she could star in a popular television series—impressively smart, driven, tactful and yet endearingly human.

The cast is rounded out by television station executive Dan Coleman (Don Carter) and prison guard Harris (Joseph Calderone). Carter provides the only comic relief throughout the play with his portrayal of a pompous, deceptive (“Well, technically, I guess I lied”) businessman with whom Hathaway must contend. The seven-person cast remains on stage throughout the performance, seated in a row of chairs behind the action, reminiscent of a jury—judging Claire’s every move.

Helping clarify the flashbacks are locations and dates of the action, displayed on screens built into the walls of an otherwise understated set by Pei-Wen Huang-Shea. The screens serve multiple purposes throughout the show thanks to sound and video design by Andy Evan Cohen. They don’t just set scenes but serve as prison surveillance cameras, office videogames for Coleman, and jail-cell television for Claire.

The intimate space, raw performances, and impressive script make for many emotional moments. The first act starts off grippingly at the climax of the story before circling back to show why Claire McGreely ended up pointing a gun at her husband.

Natural Life is thought-provoking and commanding. The subject matter is timely, and fans of recent pop-culture phenomena such as Making a Murderer, Serial and The Newsroom are likely to be riveted by this exploration of the justice system, the prison system, guilt and the media.

Natural Life plays at the T. Schreiber Studio for Theatre & Film (151 West 26th St., 7th Floor) through April 2. Tickets may be purchased for $20 general admission by calling the box office at 212-352-3101 or online at www.tschreiber.org. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on March 23 and 30.

 

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Shut Up, Sit Down, and Enjoy!

A mix between stand-up comedy show and play (it’s billed as a “plomedy”), Shut Up, Sit Down and Eat has charm, wit, laugh-out-loud humor, and a few touching, “aw”-worthy moments as well.
Four Italian Americans—three men and a woman—sit in a waiting room for a group therapy session. The only problem is, it becomes clear the shrink isn’t showing up. Instead, these four strangers trade memories and stories in their own hysterical form of therapy.

The comedy is based on a shared Italian-American experience. The three men continually bless themselves at the mention of Sinatra, bicker over the proper terminology for sauce vs. gravy, and make some off-color jokes about zeppoles. Nonetheless, non-Italians are sure to find the show wholly relatable as well, as it touches on universal themes like family, death, marriage, and sex.

The cast of four features comedians Tina Giorgi, Joe Moffa, Chris Monty, and Eric Tartaglione. These talented individuals, along with Tom Ingegno, also wrote the script. Giorgi, Moffa, Monty, and Tartaglione each bring their own style to the show, and none overshadows the others thanks to skillful directing by Eve Brandstein.

Each actor plays a character with the same name, raising the question of just how much truth lies in these vignettes. Tina Giorgi, the lone female, is fascinated by the psychological terminology in her book. Married to a Southerner, she feels utterly trapped between the two different worlds inhabited by her and her husband’s families. Giorgi delivers the most moving monologue of the production, though she is also capable of deadpanning about sperm and turkey basters at another point in the show.

The divorced Moffa recently lost his job and now must contemplate the ways of hanging himself in a basement apartment with six-foot ceilings (taping his ankles to his ass, naturally). He may be able to joke about it, but it becomes evident that he’s truly hurting—especially because of the strained relationship with his daughter, which he is at a loss to salvage.

Monty still lives at home with his parents and grandmother, but is sick of being treated like a child. He has met a girl he cares about, despite the fact that she’s Polish, so what’s stopping him from moving out and moving on with his life? Perhaps it’s the fact that his grandmother makes him great biscotti.

Tartaglione is perhaps the funniest of the four, conjuring thoughts of Danny DeVito. But, as with the rest of his castmates, Tartaglione has an impressive ability to transition seamlessly from vulgar jokes to heartfelt confessions. He is married to a woman who drives him crazy. But who isn’t driven crazy every now and then by a significant other? What really makes his performance memorable is his love for his adopted daughter, who took his last name and decided to keep it when she got engaged.

The production’s lighting subtly distinguishes the play’s action is it moves from the private thoughts of the characters to a series of individual short monologues that range from tear-jerking to gut-busting.

An intimate space lends itself to this type of show, but the sound of other productions could be heard through the Snapple Theater’s thin walls. It was an unfortunate and sometimes frustrating distraction.

Shut Up, Sit Down and Eat offers more than a few cheap mafia jokes. Audiences catch a glimpse into the relatable lives of four complex individuals—with with a countless number of hopes, fears, dreams, regrets and, most important, jokes.

Performances of Shut Up, Sit Down and Eat are Sundays at 5:15 p.m. through the end of December at the Snappple Theater Center, 1627 Broadway. The run is open-ended; tickets may be purchased here

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6 Women in Search of an Auteur

Mario Fratti’s Six Passionate Women, currently on view at Theater for the New City, concerns a creatively (and sexually) frustrated Italian filmmaker and the women from whom he seeks inspiration for his next movie. Nino (Dennis Parlato)  is a cad who aims to spark his imagination by crawling into bed with multiple partners. He’s also a pied piper, with all six passionate women of the title under his spell.

Sonia (Giulia Bisinella) is trying to seduce Nino and land a leading role in his film. The motherly Valia (Donna Vivino), like Sonia, wants to see her name in lights. Nino’s wife, Marianna (Coleen Sexton), is in denial about her husband’s transgressions, though her best friend (Laine Rettmer) tries to tip her off about Nino’s infidelity. Franca (Carlotta Brentan), Nino’s loyal assistant, has fallen in love with the boss, despite her usual levelheadedness. Then Mrs. Gunmore (Ellen Barber) arrives on the scene. A rich American widow, embittered by years of living with an unfaithful husband, she promises Nino funds to produce his film. What she really wants is to lure him into creating a film that will reveal his hatred of women. As the drama proceeds, the six passionate women band together to punish Nino for the impact he has had on their lives.

With a running time of only 90 minutes, Six Passionate Women suffers from too many plot lines, too little time. The narrative is unfocused and the characters underdeveloped. Without knowing the characters sufficiently, the audience cannot care about them. There are a number of interesting scenes in the play, but Fratti leaves crucial questions unaddressed. For example, it’s clear that Nino and Marianna have a deep love for each other, despite Nino’s inability to be satisfied by one woman. How did they meet? When did he first stray? How and why has she put up with it for so long? There is a perplexing point at which the play’s focus shifts from the women manipulating Nino to make a film about his misogyny to the women making a film about hating Nino. Adding to the confusion are the facts that Fratti never convinces his audience that Nino hates women or that any of the women other than Mrs. Gunmore believe that Nino is a bad person.

Fratti collaborated with playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston on Nine, the 1983 Broadway musical adapted from Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8-1/2. Nine, which garnered seven Tony Awards, concerns a blocked filmmaker on location in Venice with a number of passionate women. Six Passionate Women reportedly served as an early inspiration or template for the musical’s libretto. If Six Passionate Women is viewed as a “draft” of the musical to come, the lack of structure and focus suddenly makes much more sense.

The play, ably directed by Stephan Morrow, is well-acted by a cast of eight. (In addition to Nino and his six women, there is another man, best friend William, played by Kevin Sebastian). The production’s lighting, costumes and set are dull and uninspired. Audiences will be charmed by the performances of Parlato and Brentan, who give the production its style and verve. But they're likely to leave the theater wishing they'd spent the evening with the passionate women of 8-1/2 or Nine.

 Six Passionate Women plays through Oct. 26 at Theater for the New City, 155 1st Ave., between 9th and 10th streets. Tickets can be purchased here.

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