30 Carats

The Pearl Theatre Company has launched its 30th season with George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, co-produced by the Gingold Theatrical Group. From now through October 13th, five members of the Pearl resident company and four other actors, under the able direction of David Staller, are demonstrating how farce — manic and mechanical in the wrong hands — can be at once sidesplitting and poignant when tackled properly.

Shaw (1856-1950) began writing You Never Can Tell in 1895, when the public’s appetite for farce seemed insatiable. Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas, the granddaddy of Victorian farces, was in the third year of its blockbuster London run; and just four months before, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People had taken the town by storm. In the Saturday Review, Shaw acknowledged Wilde’s technical flair but declared himself unstirred by Earnest: “It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening.”

You Never Can Tell concerns the household of Mrs. Margaret Clandon (Robin Leslie Brown), a feminist author who long ago fled her autocratic husband (Bradford Cover), taking their three children to live on the island of Madeira. At the play’s outset, she and the children — Gloria (Amelia Pedlow) and twins Dolly and Philip (Emma Wisniewski and Ben Charles) — are back in England after 18 years as expatriates. Mrs. Clandon has chosen a seaside resort as their point of reentry, believing this the last place the family risks bumping into the estranged father about whom the children know nothing.

The imaginative universe of You Never Can Tell is every bit as topsy-turvy as the worlds of The Importance of Being Earnest and Charley’s Aunt. Shaw embraces the trappings of melodrama and farce — improbable coincidence, mistaken identities, disguises and chance reunions of lost relatives. His ingénue and juvenile fall in love at first sight, as they might in any West End vehicle of the day. But, in Shaw's hands, each scene is a full-out debate; and as the playwright once remarked, “every line has a bullet in it and comes with an explosion.” Shaw's rapid-fire dialectic transforms the hoary odds and ends of 19th century dramaturgy. The result is witty and psychologically complex with enough melancholy to make the characters and their emotional dilemmas believable.

Gloria, the ingénue of You Never Can Tell, is an exemplar of the late 19th century’s “New Woman,” thoroughly schooled in feminist ideals and determined to “obey nothing but [her] sense of what is right.” Her swain, Valentine (Sean McNall), is a roué and self-proclaimed “duelist of sex,” whose values are antithetical to Gloria’s strict moral code. The couple's sparring pits intellect against heart (and flesh); the swift, surprising reversals in tactical advantage between the romantic warriors reflect the mantra voiced by an omniscient waiter (Dan Daily): “You never can tell, sir: you never can tell.” 

That mantra may seem as lighthearted as Wilde’s pun on the name Ernest. It points, however, to existential uncertainty, the uncontrollable nature of life itself. Near the end of the play, a barrister (Zachary Spicer), predicting what will happen to the lovers, speaks the evening's most memorable — and most dismal — line: “It’s unwise to be born; it’s unwise to be married; it’s unwise to live; and it’s unwise to die.” That vision is worlds away from Charley's Aunt; yet Shaw finds a satisfying balance between what's buoyantly old-fashioned in his comedy and the darker elements lurking beneath its bright, sparkling surface; and he rounds off the proceedings in a way that owes much to Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

The vocal fireworks of Shaw’s plays are no cakewalk for actors, especially when assumed accents are required; but every member of the spirited ensemble is up to the task. Staller, founder and artistic director of the Gingold Theatrical Group, keeps his players (handsomely costumed by Barbara A. Bell) in perpetual motion around a colorful environment, inspired by Art Nouveau and designed by Harry Feiner (scenery), Stephen Petrilli (lighting), and M.L. Dogg (sound). The high style of the show’s scenic conception and the well-calibrated irony of direction and performance (never devolving into camp) ensure that what’s silly in You Never Can Tell blends harmoniously with what’s serious.

You Never Can Tell is playing in the superbly-equipped theater on West 42nd Street to which the Pearl moved last season. For almost 30 years, this troupe occupied small venues in Chelsea, the East Village, and the basement of City Center. The current production vindicates all the toil, sweat, and money-raising of the Company's three-decade journey to its spacious new home.

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Cultural Wasteland

Anne Washburn's ambitious but labored Mr. Burns is subtitled A Post-Electric Play. The central conceit is that in the future an undefined catastrophe has occurred (there are references to a quarantine, a “bug,” and empty and burned cities). All electricity has stopped, and worse, nuclear power plants are melting down. Around a campfire (niftily envisioned by designer Neil Patel as a smoking TV set), a group of survivors share stories about episodes of The Simpsons to keep their minds off their plight.

The title refers, of course, to Homer Simpson's villainous boss at the nuclear plant in the cartoon series. Meanwhile, the principals (all carrying the same first names as the actors who play them) try to piece together TV episodes from jumbled memories as if each were another Homer — the blind Greek one — assembling The Iliad; they falter and trail off and balk and interrupt one another. Although the play was partly developed by the actors' own reconstruction of an episode, which may account for some self-indulgence, it's a plodding start to a demanding play. One wishes director Steve Cosson had sped things up a bit.

Among the most proficient of the reconstructors is Matthew (Matthew Maher), whose most helpful colleagues are Susannah (Susannah Flood) and Jenny (Jennifer R. Morris). Their reconstruction, however, is suddenly interrupted by a stranger, Gibson (Gibson Frazier), who arrives from Framingham, Mass. In one of Washburn’s best ideas, the campfire group asks his story, and then each, following a custom that has apparently arisen among the refugees and survivors, reads 10 names from a personal log in hopes that Gibson will have information on the survival of someone in the log that he carries; Gibson, in kind, reads 10 names as well. Although it's time consuming, one senses the isolation and disappointment as name after name brings no response.

Beset by fears of radioactive fallout from disabled plants, they trade rumors of heroic last-ditch efforts, underground seepage and no-go zones, and then they return to The Simpsons. Other bits of pop culture, from the film Cape Fear, with Robert Mitchum, and the remake with Robert De Niro, to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, also bubble up.

In the second scene, seven years have passed. The principals have been joined by Quincy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and they are preparing to put on a Simpsons episode, albeit on a shoestring. During the intervening years, rival troupes have popped up (as well as theater circuits), all laying claim to various episodes of The Simpsons. It may be amusing or disheartening that what these performers want to preserve seems so trivial next to Shakespeare or Moliere or Chekhov, whose works, one must assume, cannot be remembered so well.

Nonetheless, there are suggestions that civilization is making a comeback; there are haves and have-nots, and Gibson offers the opinion that Chablis will come back into fashion because “people are ready for status again.” In this world, though, wealthier troupes pay for lines to Simpsons episodes that are remembered by various people, and shysters try to sell bogus lines or claim credit for lines that they had nothing to do with. And the actors find solace in the high quality of their commercials. (Washburn doesn't clarify whether they are presented during the play.) The cast rehearses their episode, but the scene ends with a twist drawn from other kinds of TV series, such as 24 and Strike Back.

A leap forward of 75 years brings a well-appointed troupe —with nicely painted backdrops and excellent lighting (Justin Townsend’s work is exemplary in all three segments), performing an episode of The Simpsons in costumes and striking half-masks. There is music (by Michael Friedman). The result is a pastiche of The Simpsons that incorporates bits of G&S, a Greek chorus, rap, and the catch phrase from the 1940 Bob Hope vehicle The Ghost Breakers: “Feets, don’t fail me now!” A reference to Chablis suggests that the original script of the shoestring company has served as the template for the production.

In its own way, Washburn’s apocalyptic drama echoes the history of theater, as culture forms and re-forms itself, passing through natural disasters and war and accruing .classic bits over time. The idea is full of promise, but the work is too often taxing rather than compelling, and feels ramshackle at times. Even so, the actors work hard, and they are all good. Sam Breslin Wright has the title role, but the plays-within-the-play are too cumbersome, and the whole enterprise, calculated to spark one’s intellect, ends up numbing the mind.

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Miss Lonely Hearts

Closing out Theater for the New City (TNC)’s imaginative Dream Up Festival is an unusual offering from Hungarian-American troupe Pilvax Players, titled Liselotte in May. If you’re the type who has ever wondered what it was really like as Miss Lonelyhearts in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, then look no further. The play, written by Zsolt Pozsgai, centers around the eponymous character as she becomes desperate in her search for a soulmate. Just as she turns 30, Liselotte realizes, living all alone in her New York City apartment, that she has no one to share her life with. In a pathetic attempt to find her special someone, she posts a personal ad for a husband.

Sounds like the makings of your average romantic comedy — until you take into account the fact that each one of Liselotte’s suitors end up dead on the first date! In this vein, the play is more like a romantic comedy gone haywire, with the comedy part definitely amped up in the first half. Much of the funny bits are due to Chris Kardos’ scene-stealing performances as each of the lonely heart’s various suitors. 

Kardos is the ultimate character actor, effortlessly shape-shifting from one persona to the next. In one scene, he is an awkward and very nervous German butcher named Ludwig; in another, he’s a butt-crack-baring plumber with a New York accent. Each character has their own set of idiosyncrasies, and with this comes a whole lot of physical quirks, which Kardos takes on with much gusto as he falls over chairs and even gamely walks around with his coveralls dragging precariously to his knees, inciting much laughter from the audience. It is this sharp knowledge of physicality — coupled with his impeccable timing — that makes Kardos one talent to watch. 

As the play’s Liselotte herself, Kata Ruzsik is a vibrant actress and quite believable as a young woman frantic in her pursuit of happiness. Despite a few rushed line readings at the beginning, Ruzsik starts to hit her stride by the second scene. She takes in just as much as Kardos gives in terms of performance, playing against his suitors well and creating an energetic exchange between them that keeps us all enthralled. 

While the two actors’ comedic banter is certainly entertaining, it’s not all fun and games for Liselotte — after all, there is still the consequences of all those dead suitors to contend with. As each male character dies with each scene, the play’s tone takes a serious turn in its latter half. Maddened by the trauma of watching all of her paramours die so suddenly and tragically, the play culminates in the last of the deaths, as she meets Roland, an escaped psych ward patient whose poems Liselotte somehow seems to have memorized. It is here where her character takes a turn for the worse,

Presented by TNC artistic director Crystal Field, the whole premise behind the Dream Up Festival is for new works to push the boundaries of the form so that the play is presented in an untraditional way, and Liselotte definitely pulls this off. Much of the play — due to its inventive storytelling — felt very much like an independent film, both tonally and visually. Edina Tokodi’s set design reflects the femininity we see in Liselotte at the beginning of the play, with a simple set built around hanging canvases as the backdrop of her Bleecker Street-based apartment. As the play slowly takes its dark turn, Roland Udvari’s lighting design becomes noticeable in the form of second-long blackouts, with the actors sometimes repeating their lines — much like quick cuts in suspense films. 

This particular technique was intriguing; while at first confusing, it gradually became effective as the play went on, especially by the time Liselotte met troubled Roland. It called to mind the film Swimfan, which utilizes the same method, and in the end, it created the desired effect. In fact, a lot of these moments happened throughout the latter half, sometimes repeating certain scenes after another scene had passed, giving the impression that perhaps it was all a part of Liselotte’s imagination.      

Agota Hodi’s costumes are also worth mentioning, as they also echo the transition the title character goes through. At the beginning of the play, we find the still hopeful Liselotte in sophisticated heels and a demure but colorful sundress, cinched at the waist with a wide belt. She is like any other young, fashion-conscious city girl about to go on a date. As the scene-after-scene passes and bodies of her potential husbands drop like flies, Liselotte’s wardrobe is pared down to more organic, natural silhouettes and materials. For example, when we meet British radicalist Henrik, Liselotte’s costumes take on an artsy flair, as she is dressed in a white jersey dress. Then, by the time Roland comes around, she is in a loose shirt and black leggings, her hair up in a tousled bun and mascara running down her face. It is as if she morphs into the person she thinks each man wants her to be instead of them conforming to her needs.

Liselotte in May is certainly a play that explores the boundaries of imaginative storytelling and takes it to new heights. While it hit some snags rhythmically at the start, it eventually gains momentum and dares to challenge the way a play is performed. Supported by an outstanding cast and creative team, every element of the play — from the set to the lighting to the costumes — helped to achieve their vision cohesively and to great effect. Liselotte in May teases, delights and shocks to the core and makes for a memorable visit to the theater.

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Becoming the Black Man

The title of Will Power’s new play, Fetch Clay, Make Man, has fascinating echoes. It refers directly to its two protagonists, boxer Cassius Clay and Stepin Fetchit, the Hollywood film actor of the 1930s and ’40s whose portrayal of shiftless, lazy Negroes earned him widespread contempt. But the syntax of the title also brings to mind the creation story of the golem. The words themselves might be a mantra for its creator, and it's linked to Power’s theme: the American obsession with reinventing oneself, and the impossibility of escaping the past.

Set in 1965 in the week of a crucial boxing match with Sonny Liston, the play begins with Ali's summoning Fetchit to his Maine training camp. Reinvention is everywhere: Negroes are calling themselves blacks. Clay had just rechristened himself Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam. His intimates include Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks), a security chief with a past, and Sonji, his young wife, who rebels against Islamic strictures. In flashbacks we also meet William Fox (Richard Masur), the Eastern European Jew who founded Fox Pictures, which put Fetchit under contract for movies such as John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend, with Will Rogers, and Dimples, with Shirley Temple.

Power lets Fetchit make the case (as he did late in life) that his shiftless, whining character was actually subversive: he was being paid to work and by wiggling out of it, he actually forced white people to do the labor instead. But even through that lens it’s hard to discern a positive spin in the role, and it's likely director Des McAnuff avoids using any clips of Fetchit on film because viewers would find him less sympathetic with firsthand experience of his embarrassing portrayals.

Designer Riccardo Hernandez has set the action on a large, sterile, raised square, with the audience on three sides — a training room in Lewiston, Maine. Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Perry) enters this arena with just a hint of subservience, and he even does a brief shuck-and-jive movement to persuade Ali that it’s really him. Gradually, though, as Fetchit realizes Ali may be his ticket to redemption, he hatches big plans for himself and the boxer. Throughout, one senses that bitterness and ambition propel him, even when he outfoxes Fox to become the first black man with a screen credit and one of Hollywood's highest-paid performers. Ali, meanwhile, knows Fetchit was friends with Jack Johnson (the boxer played by James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope), and he suspects the character actor knows the secret of Johnson's rumored "anchor punch."

Fisher fills the bill physically and emotionally as Ali. Tall and strapping, the actor presents a rising legend who is immature, prankish, apprehensive and morally doctrinaire. He is determined to have a pure, Islam-respecting wife, and he’s deeply in love with Nikki M. James’s more easy-going Sonji, who has shrewdly hidden her past as a good-time girl. The Nation of Islam's world of black, white and gray is emphasized by Paul Tazewell’s costumes for the Muslims, but Sonji sheds her clerical robes and dons vivid purple and later orange outfits. Her dresses and a cobalt sports jacket for Fetchit are nifty visual signals that they don’t belong.

Masur shines in his few scenes as the blustering Fox, particularly an early monologue when he describes to Fetchit the way he surmounted his ancestry to become a “white man”: “Do I miss being me sometimes? Sure. Would I trade the new me for the old me? Not on your life. Trust me, it’s better on this side.”

As the fifth chameleon, Jelks mostly yells and glowers, enraged at what Fetchit represents yet bowing to Ali’s orders. Though, in the main, McAnuff's direction is helpful and propulsive, the antagonistic characters bellow often, and some of it becomes tiresome. And whether you take all the doubling of personae as evidence of Power’s single-mindedness about his theme or feel it has a sledgehammer effect may depend on your tolerance for the shouting.

However, the playwright adeptly backgrounds his story, from the amusing doggerel Ali loved to spout to the danger he faced from followers of Malcolm X, who had recently been assassinated. Ali chose rural Maine for the Liston fight to keep a closer eye on outsiders arriving in town. There is rich material in Fetch Clay, Make Man: Power has fashioned an intelligent drama from two iconic figures struggling with race and identity amid the social ferment of the 1960s.

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Is Ohio For These Lovers?

You’re throwing a dinner party. And you know that despite your best efforts at making sure the cheese plate and finger sandwiches are perfect, as soon as the alcohol starts flowing, the night is sure to be less than perfect. 

That’s the premise for Matthew Freeman’s Why We Left Brooklyn (The Dinner Party Play). The play’s two main characters, Michelle and Jason, are a married couple hosting a dinner party to mark their departure from the Park Slope apartment they’ve inhabited for the past eight years.  Jason (Andrew Schwartz) is finally throwing in the towel on his acting dreams and moving to Columbus, Ohio to become an adjunct professor. But while Jason’s feeling jaded and dejected about his original life-plan, his wife Michelle (Susan Louis O’Connor) has finally landed the book deal she’s always wanted. The plan is for Michelle to stay with their friends George, (David DelGrosso) and wife Franny (Marguerite Stimpson) to finish publicity for the book before joining Jason in Ohio. From the beginning, it’s clear that there is tension surrounding this temporary long-distance relationship.

The dinner party guests include George and Franny, former schoolmate Charlie (played by Matthew Trumbull in a delightfully quirky and endearing way), and Nicole (Moira Stone), a blunt but humorous mother of one who describes children as things which, “destroy your body, your sex life" and "turn you into an object of scorn and judgment.” But despite her insistence that twins would make her, “tear out my fucking eyes,” you get the feeling that she’s hiding a softer side behind her caustic exterior.

Also in the boxed-up Brooklyn apartment are Leanna (Sarah K. Lippmann), a wannabe writer going back to school for interior design, and boyfriend Harry (Jay Leibowitz), a chef at a popular new restaurant.

Finally, there’s Dawn (Rebecca Gray Davis) who feels unfulfilled at her job at a museum, and boyfriend Sanjeet (Imran Sheikh), an analyst who clearly isn’t in his element with this group, though he’s liked by all for his friendly, laid-back demeanor. Each character has a strong personality and a seemingly strong bond with Jason and Michelle. All except for Dawn and Sanjeet.

While the staging and blocking did nothing to draw the audience in, the dialogue was always quick and witty, though in real life I’ve never experienced an intoxicated group of individuals so adept at maintaining a single conversation.

The group dynamic was natural and despite being a two-hour play set in one room, the relatable and comedic banter kept the show moving. Throughout the three acts, the mood slowly changes as the dinner guests become drunk and as Jason’s departure draws closer. Instead of ragging on Charlie for forgetting a lime when buying Coronas or questioning the merits of yoga, the conversation switches to how the word “fresh” implies a sense of entitlement, which Jason accuses half his friends of possessing. George accuses Jason of being a quitter and giving up on his dream prematurely. Looming over conversations about President Barack Obama, Celiac Disease as the next fad diet, heirloom tomatoes and New York bagels, is the question of whether or not Jason and Michelle still want the same things in life. And what’s the difference between accepting reality, growing up and running away from your problems?

Why We Left Brooklyn is worth a visit, for the way the ensemble brings these vibrant characters to life and for the way dialogue leaves you able to tell exactly which ones you would be friends with in real life. Though certainly full of laughs, what we learn from these 10 characters’ stories is profound. Some dreams come true. Some dreams will never be realized. And sometimes, dreams change. 

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A Lesson of Love and Loss

From the moment the lights dimmed and music started, I knew that 23 Year Old Myth was not going to be your average jukebox musical. With a genre-bending soundtrack (ranging from the indie hits of Florence and the Machine and MGMT, to original material by members of the company such as Emma Barash and playwright Leslie Gauthier), the play – which is part of Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival is a musical about one girl’s journey of love and loss in the city, all told through the plucking strings of the ukulele. 

Loosely based on Gauthier’s own personal experiences, the play finds Girl 1 (played by Gauthier herself) falling in love with Girl 2 (Lindsay Cook), just as she is diagnosed with cancer. Narrated by a lone figure dressed as a subway busker, known as Ukulele Man (Brendan McDonough), 23 Year Old Myth is presented in a series of scenes that act as “snippets” of the journey. The transitions from scene to scene are clever, with the company not only doubling as stagehands but also as props — and even part of the set themselves — with some pushing and pulling the bed into place while one poses as a standing lampshade. Daniel Geggatt and Michael Steiner’s set is meant to reflect this youthful, metropolitan feel of the play: a single bed facing the audience lengthwise; and later on, a couple of chairs, hospital curtains, a metal food tray, as well the aforementioned handheld lampshades; and two blue subway pillars stand at opposite ends of the stage, with a single yellow line demarcating where the platform ends and where the tracks begin, a sign of the journey to come.

In the first few of these scenes, Gauthier memorably captures life as a twenty-something living in New York City: young, vital and alive. The show opens with the cast all dressed by Jenny Kessler in variations of blue jeans and white shirts, standing in various positions onstage and yelling out typical “New York-isms” in alternating spurts (“I lost my MetroCard!” “Wallet in Cab!”), as Girl 1 makes her way across the stage. She stands on a subway platform, singing along to Florence and the Machine’s “Between Two Lungs” at the top of her lungs – in all appearances, just a regular 22-year-old starting her life. In the middle of her private concert, Girl 1’s train arrives, and she runs for it, only to trip just as the doors close. Her journey has started, if with a little fumble. 

It is here we first take notice of Ukulele Man, who softly provides musical accompaniment throughout the play. He is not quite Stew of Passing Strange, though not quite Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, either. McDonough’s character seems more in the vein of Evita’s Che, a sort of hipster bearing witness to the struggles of Girl 1 with her illness and how it affects her relationships. Midway through he disappears, perhaps signifying how people in your life will come and go, depending on your need for them. He helps tell Girl 1's story with as much wit and pathos as needed, as do the rest of the vibrant cast. 

In fact, it is the company’s energy that truly makes this show, providing each scene with the right balance of both humor and humility, especially during the middle portion of the show, the bulk of which takes place during Girl 1’s time at the hospital. Together, they breathe life into Gauthier’s wonderfully natural dialogue and make certain moments seem as if we’re witnessing our own friends interact. 

In one scene, Girl 1 visits an old friend (the delightful Barash), who stumbles through the painfully realistic discomfort of greeting someone whom you know is dying. Girl 2 struggles with how to take every reaction to her situation. How does one go back to being young again when every question or proposal comes underscored with the possibility that you may die? This scene (and every scene before and after, for that matter) in the latter half of the show treads this line with beautiful execution, veering back and forth from laughter to tears, and back to laughter once again.

According to the show’s program, the show is based on “the parallels between falling in love and being diagnosed with a disease,” an idea which is represented through Girl 1 and Girl 2’s relationship. Cook’s Girl 2 is like any lover confronted with a disease; her portrayal is one of selfless strength and love at the beginning, yet filled with regretful inadequacy towards the end. Just as with the disease, their relationship goes through stages of positivity, denial, anger and finally acceptance. That is, after all, the journey of life.

23 Year-Old Myth is a story of mythical proportions, taking you on a journey where the littlest things can have the biggest impact. This unusual musical play takes you by surprise, bringing moments filled with laughter and tears, plucking at your heartstrings.    

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‘9-to-5 Clerical Poets’

Someone To Belong To, a self-proclaimed, “sweet little love story,” starts out with lyrics that are sure to cause any New Yorker sitting in the audience to nod their head in agreement. “A typical day in New York is no cause for popping a champagne cork,” sings the ensemble. Based on the book by Lori Steele and Christine DeNoon, this new musical with music and lyrics by David DeNoon, has its celebratory moments.

Set in 1963, Someone To Belong To revolves around two love stories involving four main characters. Davis (played by Chris Ware), a writer who feels he’s wasting his potential working in an advertising agency, falls for his often-frazzled but endearing secretary, Annie (played by Samantha Eggers). Unfortunately, Annie becomes engaged to cheesemaker Ted, played to comedic perfection by Jonathan Desley. Two other copywriters at the advertising agency, the strong and determined Lois (Katherine Henly) and the ladies’ man Joe (Justin Colombo) are in an open relationship. This works for the two non-committal flirts until Joe realizes he may have fallen in love. The core cast is solid but the real standout is the hilarious secretary Miss Sasslebaum, played by Carla Nager.

When Christine DeNoon’s father, David DeNoon, passed away, she had no idea that he had penned over 100 songs. Upon finding them in 2012, seven years after his death, she decided that they deserved to be heard and gathered a team to shape 11 of his songs into a musical. The show’s memorable anthem, “The Great American Would-Be Novelist,” essentially tells the story of DeNoon’s real life. A talented songwriter, DeNoon, like the character Davis, felt trapped working as a copy editor at an advertising agency. 

Many of DeNoon’s songs contain clever, catchy lyrics such as “Here’s To Manhattan,” “Some Get The Bumpy” and “Don’t Bad-Mouth New Jersey” while others leave something to be desired. Christine DeNoon, who has experience in improv, certainly injects some laugh-out-loud lines to the script, though sometimes the jokes are somewhat cheesy (literally “You don’t like cheddar? But cheddar makes everything better! Hot damn I’m on a roll!”).

For a small New York International Fringe Festival production, the lighting, choreography and costumes are all commendable. Director Leslie Collins does a great job with the show, which while predictable, leaves audiences smiling as the curtain closes. 

But as you understand the love-lives of Davis, Annie, Joe and Lois, you can’t help but feel that the better story already took place, when Christine DeNoon discovered her father’s binder of songs and decided to bring them to life.

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Portrait of an Angry Young Man

“Welcome. Welcome to Vienna, the city of joy and gaiety. Of love and romance. The city of dreams. The year is 1910. On the eve of the Great War. On the eve of the end of the world.” And so begins Final Analysis, Otho Eskin’s award-winning play, now in repertory with Breakfast With Mugabe at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. 

Final Analysis, which takes place in the course of a single day in a Viennese coffee shop, focuses on the lives of some of Vienna’s most well-known residents: Sigmund Freud (Gannon McHale), the man who created a new science of the mind; Gustav Mahler (Ezra Barnes), one of the greatest composers and orchestral conductors of his era; Alma Mahler (Elizabeth Jasicki), his wife who would have love affairs with the leading artists of Vienna; and Ludwig Wittgenstein (Michael Satow), who dominated philosophical thought for half a century.

One of the most compelling scenes from director Ludovica Villar-Hauser features a conversation between the young Wittgenstein, and the elder Freud. Wittgenstein, contemptuous of the decaying society that surrounds him and disgusted by his own homosexual desire, has arrived at the point of hopelessness. And he sees no way out, no salvation.

Ludwig: "Our world is infected by a plague. That is the source of her hysteria, as you call it. Not some distasteful event in her childhood."

Freud: "Plague? What are you talking about? I’ve seen no reports of plague."

Ludwig: "Because it is silent. Invisible. Your science will not prevent annihilation — for her, for you, for all of us."

Freud: "That’s only coffee-house talk."

Ludwig: "Vienna is dying. The Empire is dying. Europe is dying. If you listen carefully, you can hear the death rattle of a dying world."

What I most enjoyed about this play were the deep philosophical questions which it asks about love, art, ethnic identity, and perhaps most interesting of all, hate.

Is hate love’s dark companion?

Eskin explores this question through the character of the Young Man played excellently by Ryan Garbayo. This Young Man would go onto to be one of the twentieth century’s most reviled figures: Adolf Hitler (who lived in Vienna from 1909-1913).

The Young Man begins the play as a starving, but determined artist who tries to ingratiate himself to Vienna’s cultural elite. He attempts to sell his painting of Vienna’s cityscape to Alma Mahler; he tries to persuade Wittgenstein to invite him to one of his famous soirees; and he forces a disinterested Gustav Mahler to read the opening pages of his opera.

So what happens to this ambitious artist?

Alma laughs at him, refuses to buy, and declares that it may be his destiny to starve. Wittgenstein scoffs and treats the anti-Semitic Young Man with contempt. And the most crushing blow of all is delivered by Gustav Mahler, one of the Young Man’s artist heroes. What does Mahler think of his opera?

“This is worthless trash!” he says.

Soon after this rejection, the Young Man abandons his love of art and his grandiose artistic ambitions. “I wanted to be an artist, to create beauty — to do something that would make people remember me. But the world denies me my canvas and paints.”

Instead he chooses to embrace the hate that simmers inside him. “My hatred keeps me warm at night, feeds me when I’m hungry, keeps me company when I’m alone, gives my life purpose. So long as I can hold onto that rage, I can survive. I have something to live for. I can triumph.”


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Seeing is Believing

For centuries, the macabre has found its way into the canon of theatrical performance, capturing the imaginations of audiences around the world. From Shakespeare’s original Macbeth to Punchdrunk’s current site-specific production based on the Scottish play, Sleep No More — the thrill of the dark unknown is still being sought by audiences today. Such is the case with Xoregos Performing Company’s Danse Macabre, which made its premiere at Theater for the New City earlier this month. Danse Macabre owes much of itself to the traditions of “Grand Guignol,” a term for the graphic horror style of theater that first found its footing at Paris’ Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol during the late 1890s. This style often contains stories with themes of amorality, and often alternated the gory scenes with humorous skits and musical vaudevilles. Danse Macabre certainly succeeds in translating these elements into our modern times. It never aspires to reach the shock-horror scale that so many films of the genre resort to, but instead takes its time as each scene unfolds, until it finally creeps up on you. 

The show opens with a series of skits written by various playwrights: a collection of scenes that at first seem ordinary, but soon start veering toward the dark and disturbing. With the company playing multiple roles, this was never more evident than in the show’s latter two skits, “Daddy’s Boy” by Pamela Scott and “The Bender” by Jack Feldstein. In “Daddy’s Boy,” a recently-divorced detective (Nick Giedris) tries to convince his young son to “play a trick” on his ex-wife by pretending to shoot her. The son (Trevor DeVone), the “Daddy’s Boy” in question, goes back and forth between hesitation at the request and desire to please his father. In the end, he eventually decides against it — or does he? In “The Bender,” a young girl (Janice Amano) stumbles drunkenly out into a darkened street and into her friend standing on the curb (Nicolas Cerkez).  She starts what ends up being a mostly one-ended conversation, even flirting with him. All the while, he looks around cautiously, as if to make sure no one else is around, before reaching into his coat pocket and…

Well, you get the idea. Both scenes are quietly creepy, making you look over your shoulder and think twice about talking up that cute stranger on the train ride home. However, while this is all part-and-parcel of what the show intends, not all of it will leave you with the goosebumps. Much of Danse Macabre also has its moments of comedic relief — most of which could be found in the other three skits — “Out of Bounds” by Dylan Guy, “Zandar the Magnificent” by Joel Trinidad and “Among My Souvenirs” by Dave DeChristopher. 

“Out of Bounds,” starts off rather tame as we meet Wally (Sam Eckmann) and Crunch (Cerkez), two friends just conversing over a beer. The conversation seems to start off innocently enough — with the two sharing a quick-witted exchange not unlike the kind heard in old films of the 1950s — until Wally starts telling Crunch about a dead mouse he’s been keeping in a box. Or, at least it looked dead when Crunch opened it. In “Zandar the Magnificent,” a send-up on those phony crystal ball prophets (with Giedris as the eponymous seer), a woman named Jo (Pamela Stewart Ehn) asks him to foresee her fate, only for a freak accident to occur, causing the once-phony to suddenly acquire “the gift.” 

Last but certainly not the least, “Among My Souvenirs” is perhaps the funniest of the three, if unexpectedly so. In the scene, a young working stint named Caryn (Natalie Margiotta) finds her apartment infested with mice. After exterminating them, she is stuck with figuring out what to do with their dead remains, until she suddenly remembers everyone she seeks revenge on. With Margiotta narrating, she is helped by the other members of the company in reenacting her demented revenge spree, inciting much laughter from the audience.

As the series of skits ends, there is a two-minute pause before the title dance piece starts. It is a dreamlike sequence, with a young girl in a nightgown surrounded by ghoulish figures and eventually being led away by a mysterious man in a cape. The dancing, choreographed by director Shela Xoregos after the original work of historian-choreographer Angene Feves, is simple in its movement and feels more like watching a mini-play in the vein of The Red Shoes take place. It is here where Raiza Peña’s costumes really shine, especially with the ghouls; she uses the familiar sight of figures under sheets, an idea which seems juvenile and trite, but here looks and feels just as creepy as their movements.

All in all, Danse Macabre is an experience to, well, experience! With minimalistic sets by Lisa Barnstone and beautiful lighting by Don Cate, the show feels like an old vaudevillian set, but with a Twilight Zone-like twist. Full of plot twists and cliff hangers, played to spine-chilling perfection by the company, Danse Macabre will leave you simultaneously laughing and squirming in your seat.  

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Theoretical Physics for Dummies

“Do you feel like you’re in science class?” an audience member asked me as I stood in line for the restroom during the intermission of And It Spins Twice, playing as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Shockingly, for a show set in parallel universes where three fourths of the characters are theoretical physicists discussing concepts like gravity, membranes and string theory, I did not feel like I was in science class. 

It says a lot of playwright Alexis Roblan’s script, which uses clever metaphors like guitar strings and the Titanic to make these complex ideas a little easier to swallow. Instead of groaning at the mention of protons, neutrons and electrons, audience members will find themselves drawn into the two stories being told.

In one universe, Lucia Grillo plays Beth, a theoretical physicist and physics professor whose husband Ryan, played by Thom Christensen, has just left her. Grillo’s Beth is either angry or weepy throughout the show, which is understandable given her circumstances. But despite all her crying, it never really made me care.

In the other universe, a more compelling story unfolds, thanks in part to the wonderful chemistry between Marlena Kalm’s Liz (a theoretical physics graduate student) and Thom Christensen’s parallel universe version of Ryan (a singer/songwriter obsessed with the idea that somewhere out there in the vast expanse of space, another version of himself could be Bono.) The two are just starting out their relationship, which is dotted with humor. When Liz tells Ryan she’s addicted to his eyes, he retorts, “Not my hot 40-year-old-man body?” But their relationship gains a depth to it as the piece progresses and the two take on much more meaningful conversations.

In both universes, Liz and Beth are approached by June (Julia Campanelli), a “cosmologist, astrologer, author, healer and inspiration” to Beth and a world-renowned physicist to Liz. She’s convinced that Liz and Beth’s equation for predicting the collision of two universes’ membranes is correct, and that the time is now.

Director Michael Padden does a great job staging the show, seamlessly flowing between the two parallel universes with the help of lighting designer and stage manager Joe Cabrera. Though the set is not elaborate, consisting of only two tables and three chairs, it is more than adequate. The minimal set helps the audience to focus and contemplate on the questions being raised throughout the show.

Questions like, would you want to know if the world were about to end? And if you did know, how would you want to spend your last day? (Ryan suggests he would, “drink absinthe, and eat chocolate, make love to my girlfriend and get my favorite pizza from the West Village.”) Another probing question is do you believe in supersymmetry? The theory that “every subatomic particle in existence has a superpartner, an exact complement, a mirror image which completes it?”

And perhaps the most moving question is whether or not there is a rhyme or reason for anything. Both Liz and Beth at one point during the play wonder, “I never thought there was a plan, but there are supposed to be rules, aren’t there?”

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The Haunted Dictator

Breakfast with Mugabe, a troubling, Macbeth-like play, which won the prestigious John Whiting Award in 2006, has finally arrived in New York (The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre). The play, written by Fraser Grace and directed by David Shookhoff, centers around the malevolent spirit or ngozi which haunts Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

A departed spirit may become an ngozi either through dying violently or not receiving the proper burial rites. The ngozi appears to Mugabe in the guise of one of his former freedom fighting comrades, General Josiah Tongogara. Tongogara was expected by many to become the first president of independent Zimbabwe. And as such, he was a threat to Mugabe’s own political ambitions, much in the same way that Banquo was a threat to Macbeth’s ruthless desire to be king. Tongogara’s death, which occurred just before the 1980 elections that brought Mugabe to power, was officially ruled an accident. Yet rumors have always swirled regarding Mugabe’s involvement in his former comrade’s untimely end.

Che Ayende, who plays Gabriel, the President's bodyguard, nearly steals the show. His good looks and deadpan humor instantly won over the audience. Ezra Barnes plays Dr. Andrew Peric, the white psychiatrist who is hired to cure the President of the ngozi. In addition to being a psychiatrist, he is also a farmer involved in a court battle to stay on his land, as embittered war veterans encroach on his property. Michael Rogers brings intensity, vulnerability and well-placed humor to his portrayal of Mugabe. And Rosalyn Coleman, who looks gorgeous in traditional African garb (thanks to costume designer Teresa Snider-Stein), is Mugabe’s younger wife — 40 years younger! She is desperate to see the President cured, so that he will finally let her go and allow her to start a new life. 

A testament to this play’s power is that it will likely upset at least two different factions. Firstly, those who would like to see Mugabe portrayed two-dimensionally as a psychopathic dictator; and secondly, those who would like to see Mugabe championed (however few) as an unjustly treated African freedom fighter whom Western powers have conspired to destroy. 

Over the last decade, highly touted documentaries including Mugabe and the White African directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, and memoirs such as The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin have documented the turmoil, strife and chaos which have engulfed Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The narrative presented in such works has been rather simple: Mugabe is a racist dictator, hell bent on expelling all white farmers from Zimbabwe and redistributing their land amongst his cronies; and it is Mugabe’s land distribution policy and refusal to relinquish power which has plunged the country into a crisis.

Thankfully, Breakfast with Mugabe does not take us down this well-trodden path. A fact that speaks to Fraser Grace’s talent as the writer, but which may doom the play at the box office. The simple narrative of bad man Mugabe against heroic white farmers would have been a much easier sell. It would have demanded less of the audience: less imagination, thought or sophistication. But instead Grace has created an imaginative and complex piece of theater which plunges the audience into one man’s sick and guilty conscience. 

I hope that Grace and the strong cast of Breakfast with Mugabe are rewarded for their efforts. 

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Sliding Down the Pole

If you're wondering what to see at this year's Fringe Festival, you won’t go wrong if you head to Valerie Hager’s autobiographical, solo show, Naked in Alaska. It chronicles the joys, frustrations and heart break Hager experienced in her 10-year career as a stripper which took her from Tijuana all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska.

So it’s just another stripper confession story, chock full of cliches and stereotypes?


Over the last few years, the stripper memoir has become an American cultural phenomenon. Booty-shaking, pole-climbing, tell-alls, such as Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl, Ruth Fowler’s Girl, Undressed and Lacy Lane’s Confessions of a Stripper were runaway best-sellers which spawned numerous imitations. It’s a genre ridden with cliches and one of the most persistent (and annoying) is the female protagonist who comes from a educated, middle-class background and is the “last person you would ever expect to be stripping." (Cody says, “I had spent my entire life choking on normalcy, decency and Jif sandwiches…for me stripping was an unusual kind of escape.”)

Stripping may have been an escape for Hager, but it was hardly an escape from normalcy, decency or peanut butter sandwiches. Rather, hers was an escape from a harrowing adolescence. Describing her young, troubled self, Hager says “I was this young girl who was a secret bulimic for over a decade, who became a crystal meth addict and was expelled from high school.”

It’s that kind of unadorned honesty and humility that makes the show so compelling.

Early in the show, Hager and her impressive director Scott Wesley Slavin demolish the “Last Girl in the World" cliche and use the show’s multimedia format to great effect. The play opens with Hager shooting up crystal meth, while a montage of childhood photos rapidly flashes on a projection screen. It was an exciting and promising opening to a show which didn’t fail to deliver. 

As it should have been, Venue #5 at the Lower East Side’s Theater of Whimsy was tightly packed with exuberant and slightly tipsy theater lovers. Throughout the evening, Hager’s energy, honesty and humor kept the crowd rollicking with laughter and applauding her seductive pole dancing. She has talent, guts, charisma, a taut petite frame and a treasure trove of distinct mannerisms, voices and impersonations. Over the course of the show, she plays a dozen characters, and plays them well. (Charlie, a stooped-back, foul-mouthed, African-American stripper, was a particular crowd favorite.)

“It’s a show dedicated to the outcast, the forgotten,” Hager says. “I wrote Naked in Alaska for any of us who have ever felt different and or on the fringe.” While the show may be dedicated to outcasts and other marginal figures, Hager’s search for something to belong to, her own “tribe,” is something that many, if not all us, can relate to. 

So get down to the Theatre of Whimsy (aka the C.O.W.), grab a few drinks at the lobby bar, and catch Naked in Alaska before it moves on to Chicago’s Fringe Festival at the end of the month. Because as one audience member said after the show, “I am so glad I came. So glad.”

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A Widower's Sexual Salvation

“I’m standing in the street feeling murderous toward this prostitute, thinking about stabbing and stabbing and stabbing her and I know she doesn’t deserve it.”

This expression of raw emotion is uttered in the compelling Second Act of Toni Press-Coffman’s Touch. Directed by Deborah Mathieu-Byers, these powerful words are spoken by the play’s protagonist Kyle Kalke (Jonathan Berenson), a heart-broken astronomer, struggling to come to terms with the murder of his wife Zoe (Rachel Spencer). He tries explaining to his best friend Bennie Locasto (Mike Petrie, Jr.) how he began seeing a prostitute in the wake of his wife’s murder.

The moment Kyle, full of rage and desire, first encounters the prostitute is the point of attack when the play should begin because something vital is at stake where a conflict will lead up to a crisis and the protagonist has reached a turning point in his life. Yet inexplicably, Press-Coffman, an experienced and award-winning playwright has made the near fatal error of filling the first act with tedious exposition and characterization.

How could someone so accomplished make such a miscalculation? I have no idea. But it’s as if she didn’t realize how good the writing and acting are in the second act — at times electrifying and chilling. As Lajos Egri said in his 1946 classic treatise on playwriting The Art of Dramatic Writing: “A play should start with the first line uttered. The characters involved will expose their natures in the course of conflict. It is bad playwriting first to marshal your evidences, drawing in the background, creating an atmosphere, before you begin the conflict.”

Yet in the opening monologue, which seems to drag on interminably, Press-Coffman seems determined to disregard Egri’s wise counsel. She marshals her evidences, draws in the background, and creates an atmosphere, before beginning the conflict. We learn that Kyle was an introverted nerd who became fascinated with astronomy and star gazing, and how he fell in love with and eventually married the Annie Hall-like Zoe. Mercifully, the opening monologue ends and so does the first act as Kyle recalls the night his wife was murdered.

It is in Act II where the play really begins.

The energy in the theater changed when the prostitute Kathleen (Dorothy McMillan) strode onto the stage in daisy dukes over fishnet stockings, and a red bra under a lace top (kudos to costume designer Miodrag Guberinic). Kathleen filled the theater with the sweet stank of sex. As she strutted to the front of the stage and began soliciting audience members, she supplied the edge, sexual energy, and spunk the play so desperately needed. But why did we have to wait so long to see her?

Interestingly, Kyle is a much more compelling character when talking about his raw, strictly sexual relationship with the prostitute, than when he is reminiscing about his love for his murdered wife. While explaining to his best friend the erotic charge and rejuvenating force which Kathleen has brought into his life, he comes alive. In these moments, the writing and the acting sparkle. In one passage Kyle says, “Because I can feel myself making and expending energy again. Because when I’m lost inside this woman’s body, I don’t think about who killed Zoe. I don’t think about how much pain she might have been in before she died.” If only there had been more moments like these!

As advertised, this staging of Touch by Avalon Studios NYC was a multimedia affair — Jarrel Lynch (production design), Nicholas Ortiz (photography) and Max Ridgeway (media design). Unfortunately, the use of the jumbo screen which hovered above Marija Plavsic Kostic’s stage — two opposing chairs and a raised platform with a pile of rocks — could hardly have been less imaginative. Throughout Act I, this potentially powerful media serves merely to echo the protracted backstory: Kyle mentions first seeing Zoe in a science class. An image of Zoe leaving a classroom flashes on the screen. Kyle recalls their winter vacation in New York. Pictures of a snow-covered New York flash on the screen.

What a waste.

These images would have been much more compelling if woven seamlessly throughout the play, rather than dumped at the beginning. If images of Kyle’s murdered wife had flashed on the screen during his tense and initially guilt-ridden encounters with the prostitute, they would have added layers of meaning and heightened the dramatic intensity.

One only hopes that this play is restructured and restaged. There is too much good, serious and compelling work here not to be put together more thoughtfully.

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Mommas on the Prowl

It seems hard to believe that Cougar the Musical is celebrating a year’s run Off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theatre. The show brings to mind those mismatched couples one sees periodically who provoke the thought: “What’s she doing with him?” (Or vice versa.) In this case, the unprepossessing half is the show itself, a smartly crafted, moderately pleasant musical comedy about three women who seek sexual liberation in middle age.

The women — Clarity, Mary-Marie and Lily — are played by actresses who have been with the show from early days (respectively, Brenda Braxton, Babs Winn and Mary Mossberg); they are joined by a newcomer, Andrew Brewer, who plays a variety of young studs (and one female). Collectively, they are the element that makes one’s head turn — superb talent making a good deal of hot air seem like it's propelling a shiny zeppelin.

Written primarily by Donna Moore, with additional music by Mark Barkan, John Baxindine, Arnie Gross, Meryl Leppard and Seth Lefferts in a variety of combinations, Cougar has the requisite “he done me wrong” song, as Lily, having filed divorce papers, finds herself in the dating pool again and attending Over 40 and Fabulous meetings. Mary-Marie is the wealthy proprietress of a bar for older women, a “den of antiquity”; although she is persistently wooed by the unseen Frank, she resists dating a man her own age (54) and is determined to find a young stud for sex. The third heroine, Clarity, is a self-possessed career woman who has raised her child and denied herself any physical relationship, apart from one with a personal mechanical device, which she sings about in the evening’s most cringe-inducing song, “Julio.” But Braxton radiates so much class that she makes it palatable — barely.

The women all connect in a manicurist’s office, and the song they sing there, “Shiny and New,” is one of the highlights of the show. In fact, the female power anthems — “I’m My Own Queen,” “My Terms,” “Love Is Ageless” and “Say Yes” (whose sentiment uncomfortably echoes that of “Yes” from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 70, Girls, 70, and is used in the same preachy, affirmative way) — are less interesting than the ones that have to do with character.

One of the best of them is “Let’s Talk About Me,” a Cole Porter-ish list song that name-checks Alvin Ailey, Eva Gabor, Stephen Hawking and Manolo Blahnick, among others, in its clever lyrics. It’s sung by Lily and Buck, a would-be actor who’s working as the bartender at Mary-Marie’s watering hole, and Brewer and Mossberg lend a delicate touch to the romantic banter so that you’d almost think they were the leads in a Porter show.

The songs, however, are hung on a book that often settles for sitcom humor. When Lily meets Mary-Marie and tells the story of how she was shoehorned into the role of mother and housekeeper, she says, “I was doing time.” “Prison?” asks Mary-Marie. “Marriage,” says Lily.

To be fair, a large portion of the audience was having a great time, applauding at the message songs and even lending an occasional shout-out. It’s a truism that the right casting is the most important element of any project, and director/choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett certainly deserves credit for her finds. Winn, with a resemblance to Betty White, summons memories of Sue Ann Nivens, the middle-aged man-trap that White embodied on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Winn is an adroit physical comedian and, like the others, possesses a strong singing voice. As Clarity, Braxton is a crisp, composed presence and the real belter; although the lady is well into middle age, her looks scream, “Thirty-five, max!”

Mossberg’s Lily is a likable linchpin, yet the actress can’t really put over Lily’s life-changing decision about Buck. The notion that an older man and a much younger woman might be emotionally and intellectually soul mates was the core of Woody Allen’s Manhattan back in 1979. That resolution was a daring choice of hope and affirmation, in spite of uncertainty. In 2013, the authors of Cougar advocate a woman’s right to pair with a younger partner, then undercut their message with a plot twist that feels bourgeois, defeatist and unsatisfying, no matter how they spin it.

Brewer, with less than a fortnight under his belt, has seamlessly integrated his characters with the others, and his roles give him ample opportunity to display a wide-ranging talent. His Buck is low-key and genial, while his Latin lover is a bit more high-strung and polished. He delivers hard-boiled noir dialogue adeptly (in a scene that seems out of place), and he sings and dances with panache. He has the looks of a leading man — specifically, Ryan Reynolds, with whom he also shares splendid comic chops. Like the women, he deserves a bigger show for his talents. But for now, they are burnishing Cougar the Musical, and that’s reason enough to check them out.

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In a Dark Place

Rebecca Gilman’s 1999 play, The Glory of Living, ambitiously revived in a shoestring production by Revolve Productions at The Access Theater, feels very timely indeed. With the horrific revelations of the torture and rape of three young women in Cleveland still fresh in the news, Gilman’s examination of two lethal losers resonates powerfully.

Gilman, whose play won an Evening Standard Award in London and set her on course to her better-known works, Spinning into Butter and Boy Gets Girl, splits the two acts of her play by letting us first get to know Lisa (Hannah Sloat), a reticent young woman whose rough-and-tumble home life is deftly outlined, and Clint (Hardy Pinnell), the roistering man who takes her away from it all and into a life of crime and sexual depravity.

Almost all the scenes in Act I progress over months and years. They take place around a bed in a motel room, where Clint, whose high spirits conceal a small, suspicious mind, gradually seeks more sexual fulfillment than Lisa (they have quickly married) can provide. It’s a good sign the marriage is in trouble when the pillow talk turns to “Your mother’s a drunk whore.”

Eventually the pair progress to kidnapping young women, and the compliant Lisa acts out Clint’s sexual fantasies. They involve luring young women into a vehicle and kidnapping them, drugging them and having sex. After that, the young women disappear. It’s a mark of Sloat’s affectless, sullen performance that she comes across as ambivalent about what she does; it’s not until Act II that one realizes something is fundamentally wrong inside her. Still, Lisa has a hang-up about leaving the women’s bodies in the wild for animals to find. She surreptitiously telephones police and guides them to the corpses. But that apparent kindness backfires once she is traced and she and Clint are arrested.

The second act examines Lisa during her incarceration for murder, and here set designer Alexandra Regazzoni provides stunning visual counterpoint. The first act is awash in bright colors and contrast. For the second, Regazzoni places a clear plexiglas wall between the audience and the action, with chain link fences on the other three sides, and a gray-and-black color scheme. It’s a nice touch, subtly emphasizing the danger the young woman poses. Tuce Yasak's lighting complements the concept: warm amber in Act I; harsh white fluorescents and pockets of darkness in the second. The inspiration carries over to Regazzoni’s apropos costumes — there’s a peach of a blouse for Lisa’s slutty mom in Act I that has a plunging neckline and weird pieces of cloth hanging from it; the blouse screams “trailer trash.” (The action is set in Alabama, though it might take place anywhere in rural America.) 

As Act II unfolds, The Glory of Living (an ironic title, since almost nobody in the story has an smidgen of glory in their lives) assumes the routine of a Law & Order episode. Lisa meets with her court-appointed lawyer Carl, who tries to get her to help with her defense. Her descriptions of events suggest that Clint’s hold on her wasn’t absolute. Why didn't she flee? Why didn't she turn him in? Even after one has seen Clint’s brutality toward Lisa and his sexual hang-ups, Gilman relays enough ambiguity that one has to ask, “Is it possible Lisa is more dangerous than Clint?” Investing the production with unsettling silences and claustrophobia, director Ashley Kelly Tata maintains the uncertainty to the end; between what the authorities allege and what is shown to the audience, there is a gulf large enough to make one doubt that truth is ever discoverable in actual legal proceedings.

Tata has also gotten mostly good performances from the supporting team, especially Richard Hutzler as Lisa’s lawyer and Stephen James Anthony (the only Broadway veteran, from War Horse) as Steve, the boyfriend of one of the slain women; he survived Lisa’s attempt to kill him. They share a scene, and Anthony’s compelling performance melds regret, loneliness, bewilderment and anger into a memorable portrait of a victim/survivor, while Hutzler as the attorney treads a fine line to get information to help his client without alienating the witness.

The Glory of Living isn't an easy piece. For August entertainment, there is nothing frivolous or summery about it, but this ambitious production affirms Revolve as a troupe that's willing to tackle serious topics without regard to the temperament of the season.

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An All-Around Messy Situation

Hoarding is a jumping-off point for Jay Stull’s interesting but unfocused drama, The Capables. The dire medical phenomenon has been the subject of reality television, but it has rarely been used dramatically: its most notable appearance was in Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play The Dazzle, about the real-life Collyer brothers in 1947.

Now that the disorder is widely known, however, it is bound to crop up more often, and Stull’s first play employs it primarily for comic effect. The disease, though given astonishing visual presence by George Hoffmann and Greg Kozatek’s extraordinary set, which appears to be the result of mating a toy drive with a flea market, is ultimately just window dressing — and inevitably more orderly than the real thing — for the personal conflicts of the family of the title.

Those conflicts spill over to encompass the crew of the reality TV show that is invited into the home of Anna Capable (Dale Soules) by her daughter, Jessy. To help Anna clear out the family home, Jessy has persuaded her reticent, fundamentalist Christian mother to unburden herself on a broadcast. Part of Jessy’s worry is the near-blindness of her father, Jonah, a fan of classical solo piano music. Inexplicably, director Stefanie Abel Horowitz has him waving his arms as if directing the music in his imagination, apparently unaware that solo piano recitals do not involve conductors.

It’s surely Stull’s bad luck that a razor-sharp satire on reality TV, Good Television, premiered at the Atlantic just a few weeks ago, with several striking similarities to The Capables, including a ruthless producer and an obsession with entertainment over human needs. Here the TV producer is David (Charles Browning), a hard-driving team leader who wants “authentic and spontaneous displays of emotion” to fuel his ratings. Among his assistants is a cameraman, Tommy, a dryly humorous, easygoing participant played by Micah Stock with a slight goofiness and reassuring demeanor. Those qualities help him in a budding romance with Jessy (inhabited with deceptive verisimilitude by cross-dressing performer Katie, aka Jay, Eisenberg).

Stull has a gift for writing sarcasm and arguments: disputes over the use of the word “retarded” and riffs on McDonald’s food choices produce some good comic moments. But the horrors of hoarding are sidelined in favor of the unscrupulous behavior of reality TV; a family mystery the Capables are hiding; and the liaison between Jessy and Tommy.

Fresh off her performance in Hands on a Hardbody on Broadway, Soules displays another expert Southern accent (the setting is Virginia). She is by turns blustering and proud, overbearing and condescending, and when the therapist from the show (Jessie Barr) tries and fails to persuade her to discard items, it’s one of the comic high points of the evening. But she also reveals a cruel streak.

Amid the strands of his plot, Stull has also stuck a peculiar flashback, in which young Anna and Jonah meet. Young Anna is portrayed by an effective Dana Berger, crying and cursing from some he-done-her-wrong interaction. Approached by a concerned young Jonah, her hard-edged, scowling Anna insults and baits him, and the scene drags on past the turning point when Anna, finally playing nice, could have earned some sympathy. But Max Woertendyke’s Jonah — confident, easygoing and sympathetic — is a gem. He conveys an innate kindness in the character that puts over an unlikely plot twist, and Stull’s ear for dialogue helps, as in Max’s description of Anna: “You got a serious hatred for the innocent and what most would call devotion or love you describe it like the plague, like it something shameful.” Still, the bit of back story doesn’t have a payoff sufficient for the time it takes up.

Also too lengthy by far is the opening scene of Act II, when Tommy and Jessy take a trip out to the woods, and Tommy begins to reassure Jessy that although she hardly knows him, he won’t rape her. It’s the comedy of discomfort that’s fashionable today, and although Stock plays it deftly, the pace dwindles to a standstill; the play needs pruning by Stull and/or Horowitz.

Ultimately, the playwright ties up the knots of his plot with a finale that Mark Twain would call a “stretcher.” There is a good deal of talent here, obviously attracted by the promise of the script. But Stull's nascent talent needs stronger directorial focus and more discipline to help it grow. 

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Alligator Summer

The terrifically titled Alligator Summer unfortunately outshines the play it’s attached to. Playwright Dylan Lamb has subtitled the work A Southern Gothic Atrocity in Three Acts, and although director Brandi Varnell’s production doesn't follow that structure, the Southern Gothic Atrocity part is a tribute to truth in advertising.

Lamb seems to have drawn inspiration from a variety of classic Southern sources: The Glass Menagerie (there’s a young narrator like Tom, and the play is a memory from 1944), the eccentrics of James Wilcox’s novels, and A Confederacy of Dunces—which, had the title not already been taken by John Kennedy Toole, would almost have been ideal for the characters in Alligator Summer. They are practically all dim bulbs, though they’re not in confederacy. They’re at one another’s throats.

The play concerns two families whose names signal that this is a parody of sorts: Antietam Julep, Atticus Julep, Ethylann Gettysburg, Antebellum Gettysburg. Antietam (Nicholas Yenson) is the narrator, announcing that it’s a memory play, filtered through time and alcohol, and evoking Williams's masterpiece. The families are neighbors, and Ethylann Gettysburg (Jackie Krim) is having an affair with Atticus Julep (Mark A. Keeton), cuckolding her gold ol' boy husband Bundle (played with a sympathetic decency by Nathan Brisby).

As the memory begins, all the characters but one are gathered in an attic, around the bed of Attica Julep (Annalisa Loeffler), who is dying of typhus. Or perhaps not. From here they enter and exit through a window. Somewhere outside is son Toby (Dylan Lamb). Down below, one is given to believe, is a host of alligators swimming around, although it later turns out they're not swimming. When Toby returns from “his ambiguous errand”( as Bundle knowingly terms it in a meta-theatrical comment), he recalls the alligators’ arrival. “First days was rough, mind you," recalls Toby. "I’d gone to fetch this whiskey barrel…and as I’m rolling it out the back I beheld an endless army of Gators, strolling on down Main Street…” Swimming or marching, the toothy amphibians have nonetheless taken over the town of Willow Delta, and in the manner of an Ionesco play (e.g., Rhinoceros), there’s no lucid explanation of why.  But it’s certainly the reason that Bundle urges Antebellum to use “inside voices…or the gators may hear you.”

If Lamb has a serious message to convey via metaphor or Kafkaesque allegory, it’s not apparent. One senses that the situation is just a springboard for an overheated parody of melodrama, and at that level it works. Still, so much campiness ought to be consistently funny, and Alligator Summer, though it has a good share of laughs, is more often laden with determined quirkiness than with hilarity.

Varnell understands that such material must be played straight by the actors, and they perform with commitment their Southern eccentrics, no matter that they're removed from discernible reality. As Toby, author Lamb shows a skilled comic dryness, and he has given himself some juicy monologues; Toby is a rake given to anti-gay bigotry and murder, but Lamb plays the florid language with just enough humor to make him the most enjoyable redneck of the bunch. “Now listen close,” Toby counsels his brother Antietam. “A boy can become a man in two ways, each as ‘ceptable as the other. He can kill a man less deserving of life than he, or make satisfying, preferably consensual love to a pretty woman.” And there’s something canny about that “than he” rather than “than him.” It’s a nice flourish of grammatical accuracy that demonstrates the author’s genuine talent for dialogue.

Yenson gives a sympathetic portrayal of the confused and struggling Antietam, who is supposedly 13. Though the actor is clearly older, he taps into a mix of sweating desperation and shame (he’s gay but not out) and admiration for his older brother that make the discrepancy irrelevant. A scene in which Toby insists that Antietam prove his heterosexuality by having sex with young (and overeager) Antebellum Gettysburg (Erin E. McGruff) employs the name of another famous Civil War battle in a manner calculated to make the Daughters of the Confederacy blench.

In spite of the performances, Varnell hasn’t found an overall tone for the piece, apart from sweaty desperation. One senses that the play is meant to be much funnier than it is, but at least it marks Lamb as a young writer with a gift for a certain kind of dialogue and a sharp sense of humor. When he breaks away from the inspirations so evident here and finds his own voice, he's likely to fulfill the promise he shows.




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Sea Dogs on Shore

The Boat Factory, a two-hander from Northern Ireland currently playing as part of the Brits Off-Broadway festival, has a bit of a split personality. Its first half details the early life of the main character, Davy Gordon, and the way he becomes a worker in Belfast’s boatyards, along with their rich background. The boatyards date back to ancient times, and the two actors, Dan Gordon (who is also the playwright) and Michael Condron, embody a variety of characters to catalogue the major steps in Belfast’s glorious maritime history—it was at Harland and Wolff, the boat factory of the title, that the Titanic was built. Happenstance Theatre Company, from Belfast, even provides an impressive souvenir booklet about the factory.

The play draws on a tradition of British dramatic works (not to mention those of Shaw) about public issues involving the working classes, politics, and industry, such as John Arden’s Vandaleur’s Folly (1978) or David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2003). But in this case, Gordon’s recounting of the vessel-making visionaries and the growth of the industry comes across initially as rather dry and parochial for an American audience. It’s not just the unfamiliar words and accents (only minimally an issue), but the lists of ships, Belfast landmarks, and people whizzing by that make it hard to connect.

Gordon does his best to alleviate the unfamiliarity. For instance, the headlong race through history is handled with stream-of-consciousness and word association, and such passages have rhythms that sound like poetry. Davy: “The boats—the trade—we must act—Act—in Parliament—Irish acts—”

Geordie: “Acts—Romans—Corinthians—Galatians—Ephesians—Ahhh—men.”

Davy: “Acts for cleansing the Ports of Galway, Sligo, Drogheda and Belfast—Clarendon Dock—Hugh Ritchie—John Ritchie—Alexander McLaine.” 

Still, the amount of information thrown at the listener may make you feel you've been dropped into a novel by James Joyce. The actors play a lot of parts, sometimes switching to the same character back and forth. There’s not a really strong focus except for the complex narrative itself, making it hard to connect to one person for very long—even Davy, who’s played by Gordon alone.

The second half of Philip Crawford’s production, however, is almost a different play. In it, Gordon develops Davy’s friendship with a young man named Geordie, introduced in the first part, and their relationship provides a way to engage with the play more easily than in the first half. Although Condron plays Geordie, he’s also assigned the bulk of the other roles, including the comic ones. He’s especially good as Clifford, a mentally challenged young worker with a cherished tool belt. Although Clifford's job is secure because of nepotism, he is the butt of practical jokes and abuse from others. His nemesis is the big boss, Mr. Marshall (Gordon, fitting easily into the role of a heavy). After Davy becomes Clifford’s protector, he learns a crucial secret that Clifford knows about the boatyard.

But it’s the friendship of Geordie and Davy that anchors the second half, and the actors shine. Although a key element—Geordie’s love of Moby-Dick—is introduced rather late in the play, most of the writing is sure-footed. One might wish that Gordon hadn’t written a shoe salesman who is gay in quite so hackneyed a manner, although Condron brings it off, or that the poetic litanies about hammers, nails, saws, and chisels didn’t become so predictable; at the same time, the accumulation of details echoes the passages about whales and harpoons and gams in Melville’s great novel. They give the story a texture.

The set of scaffolding on both sides of the stage and a map of the Belfast shipyards that covers the upstage wall are simple but effective. (Graphic design is attributed to Andrew Campbell). It’s clear that the production is a labor of love and civic pride, and its two performers make a success of it.

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No More Business as Usual

In 1992, when Stephen Daldry revived J.B. Priestley’s warhorse An Inspector Calls, the British playwright was largely forgotten. Daldry’s inventive staging was a runaway triumph in London and New York, but only sporadically were Priestley's other plays revived here: Dangerous Corner at the Atlantic, The Glass Cage at the Mint. However, they added to the suspicion that Priestley’s obscurity was unfair. Now the Finborough Theatre, arriving from London with Cornelius for the Brits Off-Broadway festival, provides the most damning evidence yet.

Priestley’s play is about many things: a society in change, the callousness of the business world, and the way that work defines people. James Cornelius, a partner in Briggs & Murrison, an aluminum importer, is awaiting the return of Murrison, who has been scouring the country for orders. Meanwhile, the firm’s finances are shaky; creditors are beating at the door, and the staff is awkwardly trying to avoid them in the street or give them assurances of imminent payment that they know to be uncertain.

Over two turbulent weeks, as the firm totters and falls, Priestley examines the victims, their past hopes, and their probable futures. They include Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin), a middle-aged spinster whose commitment to the business hinges on her secret love for Cornelius; Biddle (Col Farrell), an elderly and kindly loyalist who doesn’t care to retire yet; and Lawrence (David Ellis), a frustrated office boy.

Beset by the creditors and flummoxed by various attitudes of the staff, Cornelius has a further problem when Judy Evison (Emily Barber), a lovely young woman, arrives to fill in for her sister, who is a secretary at the firm but has been called away to care for an ailing husband. The outspoken Judy, played by Emily Barber with pluck and confidence, is also a competent, unemployed secretary, and Cornelius reluctantly allows her to fill in.

Cornelius bears surprising parallels to current events, not just in the fallout of the company’s collapse, which is engendered by falling prices and export barriers that sound familiar to the modern ear, but in other ways. A former airman (Andrew Fallaize, in a poignant cameo of a man struggling to keep his honor in desperate straits) arrives to sell business supplies, but he almost faints. Trying to establish himself in the civilian world, the ex-officer is starving and falling through society’s cracks. Cornelius’s advice—“Think of some way to make money”—is absurdly futile. “I’m not allowed to earn a living in any of the old ways,” laments the flier. 

Priestley’s details create a mosaic of a world in flux. A stream of door-to-door salespeople arrive, but when a young woman enters, selling shaving products, the male workers are astonished. In one of many comical moments, Miss Porrin flies off the handle, labeling such saleswomen “vulgar, shameless sirens.” When Lawrence complains of being 19 and still at a boy’s job, Cornelius asks, “What do you want to do?” Lawrence answers, “Something to do with wireless and gramophones. I’m really interested in them.” And Cornelius responds, “So is everybody else of your age…. Wireless and gramophones and motor-cars and aeroplanes.… And how everybody’s going to make a living out of that beats me.” 

As Cornelius scorns those future staples of modern technology, you may find the words “smartphones,” “tablets” and “apps” leaping to mind. Everything, new and old, can be turned into a business transaction: the aged Biddle is collecting estimates for his eventual cremation. As the demise of Briggs & Murrison approaches, Cornelius begins to question whether he has any future. Clearly he has always taken his lead from Murrison, but the arrival of a changed Murrison undermines all their hopes.

Director Sam Yates has drawn sterling performances from 11 of the dozen cast members, and the bar is set high from the moment Beverley Klein’s hearty cockney charwoman enters. Klein reappears later as the landlord’s niece, unrecognizable in her change; she and others, like Fallaize, vividly take on multiple roles.

Unfortunately, Alan Cox in the title role is problematic. From moments after his first entrance, Cox plays to the audience in a noticeable way. If he turns, he lingers full front just long enough to acknowledge the viewers; late in the play, when he toasts Judy’s happiness with a flask, he turns from her to hold the flask up full front to the audience. It’s a habit that’s irritating and tiresome and distracts from the story; Yates should have curbed it, because Cox is just fine when he’s fully focused on his fellow actors.

Still, Priestley’s astonishing play shines through, and the wide net Cornelius casts in its look at British society—there are romantic subplots as well—is a sad reminder that few dramatists nowadays, except Tony Kushner, offer such breadth in a single work.

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Revels in a Grey Area

The satirical musical Cuff Me: The Fifty Shades of Grey Unauthorized Musical Parody has popped up almost as quickly as a topical bit on Saturday Night Live, and it’s best, perhaps, to think of it as a goofy SNL sketch that lasts 90 minutes. Fifty Shades of Grey, is, of course, the 2012 erotic trilogy by E.L. James about the initiation of its heroine, Anastasia, into submissive sex with the rich, handsome Christian Grey. By many accounts—including those of the narrators of Cuff Me—James’s self-published works feature turgid writing, light-years from the explorations of sex written by D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. But then who would come to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: The Unauthorized Musical Parody? Probably not the middle-aged to elderly women who lined up after the show to have their programs signed by the charming cast of four.

Any parody promises silliness, and Sonya Carter’s production delivers. Carter keeps the action moving at the speed of farce, which is a good thing, because the plot neither requires nor deserves a lot of thought. The show is at its strongest musically; the writers Bradford McMurran, Jeremiah Albers, and Sean Michael Devereux have fitted their lyrics to well-known pop hits, from Madonna’s Like a Virgin to Frank Loesser’s Baby, It’s Cold Outside to La Vida Loca. (On occasion, however, the lyrics are hard to follow, partly because of the swiftness and partly because of the sound design.) The choreography, which is uncredited, suggests that the energetic cast all have advanced degrees in writhing. They also wiggle, jump up and down, swivel their hips, and occasionally twist nipples. The abundance of pelvic thrusts, flicked tongues, and hands smoothing torsos may grow overly familiar as the show progresses, but then sex is the only topic at hand. 

The action is framed by two women in bright track suits who meet in a nail salon. One (Tina Jensen) is unfamiliar with the story; the other (Alex Gonzalez in drag) undertakes to explain it. And as she does, the story of Anastasia and Christian unfolds.

As Anastasia, aka Ana, the lovely Laurie Elizabeth Gardner has lungs of iron that can belt out a number. In addition to her looks and voice, Gardner has the twin gifts of great comic timing and being a dexterous physical comedienne. She seems to have modeled Ana on Goldie Hawn, right down to Hawn's giggle from Laugh-In. Whether or not that’s true, her interpretation of a dumb bunny is spirited fun. A sample exchange:

“I’m having a problem with my phone,” Ana tells her best friend Kate. “Spotty reception?” Kate asks. Ana: “No—I’ve never been good at math.”

Matthew Brian Bagley as Christian plays with a drier humor. His aloof hero is less frenetic, often a straight man to Gardner’s idiocy, and there’s a running joke that he’s not gay. When Ana pointedly asks him if he is, he says, “What I do in the confines of my bedroom with other guys is none of your business. And it doesn’t make me gay.” Still, there are several indicators, among them a super sight gag from set designer Josh Iacovelli as Christian sits at a café table. (Costumer Riona Faith O’Malley matches him with a sartorial gag of her own.)

The two supporting players—the chameleonic Rodriguez and the plus-size Tina Jensen, undertake a variety of characters with elan. Rodriguez is particularly good as a Zumba instructor and a lawyer named Willy Blowman, and if you can spot the double entendre, be assured there are many more on the same level. The latter, in addition to the nail salon client, plays Ana’s inner goddess, and her best friend, Kate, and has a singing voice as powerful as Gardner's.

Under Carter’s direction, the predominant tone is hysteria. The story hurtles forward, and the jokes seem to be thrown out to see what will stick, as if her template were the wall of the sex shop on stage that displays a wild variety of fetish paraphernalia. Nothing is taken too seriously, not even the show itself, as characters periodically break the fourth wall: When Blowman misunderstands an order from Christian, he is told, “Not you. You have a quick change.”

For a show extolling sex, there’s very little, in fact. Gardner gets down to black undergear and garters, and Bagley does a strip to briefs and plays a late scene bare-chested, but Fifty Shades is about fantasy, anticipation, and expectation. That said, some of the elements, particularly a contract that Christian wants Ana to sign to be his submissive, sit uneasily with musical comedy. An audience used to, say, Guys and Dolls, will find language and descriptions of kinky behavior far beyond mainstream limits of bawdiness, let alone good taste.

Still, it’s not likely Fifty Shades will be more than a musical of its moment, and already a fleeting one at that. But it provides an impressive calling card for four talented performers, and some lowbrow fun with a frisson of transgressive pleasure.

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