High Tension in the Rockies

The couple one first meets in the Debate Society’s production of Jacuzzi are as laid-back as can be. Helene and Derek (Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, respectively, who are also the co-authors) are lounging in the Jacuzzi of the title, taking in their surroundings—a Colorado chalet with knickknacks about. Outside are winter light and snow, and one’s first impression is that Derek and Helene, who are a couple, are renting the chalet (a slant-roofed building, designed by Laura Jellinek, that displays objets d’art on shelves built into the roof interior). When Chris Lowell’s athletic Bo arrives unexpectedly, he is surprised to find them there, but then he’s a day early. He has come for the weekend to join up with his father, Robert, from whom he has been estranged. 

Bo is a troubled young man; after drinking too much and joining Derek and Helene in the hot tub in a sexually charged scene (skillfully directed by Oliver Butler, who is also credited with “development”), he starts to spill secrets but thinks better of it. Enough has been said: there was an affair with an older Frenchwoman who had a child; somehow they ended up in Romania, where something terrible happened that causes him anguish.

To avoid spoiling what happens next, let’s just say that nobody is who or what they seem in this twisty, exhilarating, and disturbing work. There’s a hint of something amiss when, on the following morning, Bo learns that Derek’s name is Erik, not Derek as he thought, and apparently blames his mistake on drink—though it’s not a mistake. There are echoes of Tartuffe or Jean Genet’s The Maids as Erik and Helene, who have been sprucing up the chalet for Robert, ingratiate themselves with him. 

The script is smartly developed, teasing out secrets in the characters’ stories. A throwaway reference from Robert explains that the chalet, long in his ex-wife Jackie’s family, came to him in their divorce “’cause of what I had over her head.” Helpful and likable as Helene and Erik seem initially, their presence grows more sinister. A periodic voice-over reveals the cheery Helene as more complex and in charge; the physically imposing Erik takes cues for his behavior from her. They are well behaved, but are they for real? 

As Robert, Peter Friedman is alternately exulting and embittered, comically complaining while denying he’s complaining; a flash of anger at his son, revealed in a single line, is a clue to the depth of discord in their relationship. He's also a man who buys what he wants. Robert and Jackie were psychologists, and are now successful authors, and their neglect and abuse of Bo is slowly revealed. “When my parents were on Donahue they locked me in the hotel room and told me not to watch TV,” Bo says, as his father protests. And later, as Bo describes a childhood birthday party, his father lets drop that he was a guinea pig: it was “one of these parties where Jackie and I were testing interactions.”

Bo’s upbringing is surely a reason for his lack of empathy with others—he suggests that Helene and Erik’s working life is comparable to an internship he once had. Lowell deftly shows that Bo is an erratic, emotional mess; he has lost the ability to trust anyone, and his parents are to blame. But his suspicious nature also heightens his awareness of danger, and director Butler throughout keeps the suspense building.

As well as Jacuzzi plays out, it leaves open many questions. Must the price of success be to pervert or destroy natural emotions? Is the amorality of the wealthy more easily spotted than that of the working class? And does their ability to escape justice because of their resources make them fair prey? But then, the best drama always leaves room for debate, and what better group for Ars Nova to present a commission to than the Debate Society? Jacuzzi should ensure them further support.

Jacuzzi plays through Nov. 15 at Ars Nova on the following schedule: Mon.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays at 2 p.m. For tickets, call Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or visit arsnovanyc.com.



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Vanya @ 11th Avenue

The Pearl Theatre Company, which occupies a fine modern facility on West 42nd Street near 11th Avenue, has selected Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, in a translation by the late Paul Schmidt, to open its 2014–15 season. Subtitled “Scenes from Country Life,” this comedy—or, rather, this special, melancholy kind of comedy—is one of four major plays the dramatist wrote near the end of his relatively short life.

The characters of Uncle Vanya are recognizable in their frustration and disappointment; their bickering and folly are readily believable. Though short on plot, the text is rich in dialogue and subtext. It's a beloved and influential play, constantly revived all over the world. Recent American works such as Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang (the most produced script in professional theaters around the U.S. this season, according to American Theater magazine) and The Country House by Donald Margulies (newly opened at Broadway's Friedman Theatre) owe it a conspicuous debt. When Uncle Vanya returns to New York, attention must be paid.

The play takes place on a country estate run by Sonya (Michelle Beck) and her maternal uncle (Chris Mixon), the title character. Sonya's father, Alexander Serebriakov (Dominic Cuskern), is a vainglorious scholar whose career and vitality are winding down. Serebriakov's luxurious city existence has been financed by the hard work and frugal living of Sonya and Vanya on the farm. Arriving in the country for an open-ended stay, the professor and his much younger wife, Yelena (Rachel Botchan), interrupt the rhythms of country life. Their selfish, inconsiderate ways exacerbate resentments that have festered in the family for years; and Yelena's flirtatious allure leads to intrigue (or attempts at intrigue) and emotional havoc among males in the vicinity, especially Vanya and a family friend, Dr. Astrov (Bradford Cover).

The Pearl's production, directed by company artistic director Hal Brooks, is exquisite to behold. With movable pillars and fast traveling curtains, scenic designer Jason Simms transports the action efficiently from one room to another. A backdrop in soft colors, revealed when actors sweep the upstage curtains aside, brings the Russian countryside on stage; and Seth Reiser's expertly modulated lighting lends a sense of time passing from day to night and back to day at a languid pace appropriate to Chekhov.

This Uncle Vanya has no shortage of capable actors. Robin Leslie Brown brings intelligence and a light touch to the role of Marina, the old nurse who soothes shattered nerves and offers a long view of life. Cover's interpretation of Dr. Astrov is complex and arresting; his speech about reforestation is appropriate to the play's 19th-century setting yet sounds like something that might have been delivered at United Nations Climate Summit 2014 last month. 

Mixon makes Vanya's disillusion palpable in the first two acts; but he plays the late scenes in a manic fashion that's anathema to Chekhov’s subtle brand of comedy and, at times, reminiscent of 1970s television sitcom. Other promising performances—Beck, Brad Heberlee as a neighbor nicknamed Waffles, and Carol Schultz as the foolish mother of the professor’s deceased first wife—suffer from direction that squeezes a sort of hilarity out of the script rather than trusting the playwright’s rueful humor. Botchan strikes the appropriate balance of insouciance and formidable stage presence for her role; but this Yelena seems to have wandered onto the Pearl stage from a play of later vintage than Uncle Vanya and from a different country than the other characters.

For a number of years, the Pearl has been one of the few companies in New York City consistently performing the so-called classical repertory of Western drama. The troupe’s tagline is “defining classics for New York,” and its work, whether up or down, is worth following. Uncle Vanya doesn't represent the Pearl anywhere near the top of its form; but next month the company, in tandem with the Gingold Theatrical Group, will present George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, directed by David Staller. If Major Barbara has the style, pace, and Shavian spirit of last season's You Never Can Tell, audiences will undoubtedly forget the shortcomings of Uncle Vanya and may even line up to renew their Pearl subscriptions early.   

Uncle Vanya is playing through Oct. 12 at the Pearl Theatre Co. (555 West 42nd St.). Running time 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.; and Thursday–Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65, senior $39, student rush $20, Thursday rush $20, and may be purchased at pearltheatre.org or by calling 212-563-9261.

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Political Pandering

The cleverly titled Tail! Spin! is only tangentially related to a deadly airplane maneuver. Think of “tail” as a euphemism for sex, and “spin” as the result, and you’ll be close to the subject of the sketches satirizing four politicians whose sex scandals were once hot but now are receding from memory. "Tailspin" might be applied to what happened to their careers as a result.

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70 Minutes on the Midnight Express

A stool and a water bottle.

That’s all Billy Hayes needs to weave a riveting 70-minute tale at the Barrow Street Theater.

Scratch that. Hayes didn’t create this tale with a needle and thread. The tale didn’t need to be woven. It was lived.

And this real-life story is probably more interesting than anything he could have dreamed up as an aspiring writer growing up on Long Island in the late 1960s.

In Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, the gray-haired writer, actor, director and ex-convict recounts his story succinctly, yet grippingly.

It began in 1969 with a big-dreaming twentysomething (himself) smuggling hashish from Istanbul to the United States as a quick way to make some money and finance his wanderlust. In the hard-to-recall days before the Transportation Security Administration and full-body scans, strapping marijuana to your body and walking onto a plane headed to JFK was apparently no big thing—and he was able to pull off the stunt multiple times. Until he didn’t.

Increased security in Istanbul after a terrorist attack in 1970 brought Hayes’ carefree drug-smuggling days to a grinding halt as he was searched before boarding a plane back to the United States. After removing two kilos (more than four pounds) of pot that were strapped to his body, customs officials transported Hayes to Sağmalcılar Prison, where he was sentenced to four years. Just 54 days before he was set to be released, Hayes stood before a court and was handed a life sentence (reduced to 30 years by the sympathetic judge).

So how did he come to stand before an audience on an Off-Broadway stage, telling his story to people who may have have read a book he penned or watched a film about his life? I’ll leave that to Hayes to tell you.

Given the 70-minute running time, Hayes is able to move things along without painting the picture of five years in prison with too broad a stroke. Imaginative language first depicts a young man exploring a beautiful city before portraying the far harsher scenes of life behind bars. The details that Hayes chooses to share with the audience range from eye-opening to heart-wrenching to humorous (a prison full of men being served beans every day?).

A number of times throughout the show, Hayes makes revelations that are shockingly honest and deep. While admitting to a sexual relationship with a Frenchman to a room full of strangers may have taken some guts, a more difficult concept to wrap one's head around is the thought that, at one point, Hayes found himself beginning to appreciate life in prison. It was there he was able to learn important truths about himself and life. Instead of sounding ludicrous, Hayes sounds intuitive and inspiring as he describes what it’s like to be always lonely but never alone, finding comfort and solace in yoga, and enjoying the sheer joy of existence.

While certainly not detached from the things that he speaks about, there are only a few key moments throughout the performance where Hayes is noticeably moved. By far the most emotional moment is when he recalls being asked to write his first letter home to his family.

Despite being scripted, Riding the Midnight Express does not sound overly rehearsed or robotic. No costumes, no set and no supporting cast are needed to keep the audience interested—though lighting does add an element of drama as it brightens and lightens along with the mood.

Hayes delivers a well-spoken, eye-opening, compelling and honest story—free from finger-pointing, anger or exaggeration.

Given the fact that I’m not a huge movie person and was born in the 1990s, is it acceptable to confess that before last night, I had never heard of Billy Hayes? Regardless, after seeing him tell his dramatic story on stage, I’m a little embarrassed about the admission.

But mainly I’m grateful that now I know. And instead of watching the dramatized Hollywood version, I got to hear it straight from the extremely well-spoken source. 

Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes plays Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at The Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow St.). Click here for tickets

Photo by Carol Rosegg 

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New York Horror Stories

In their 11th year of scaring the residents and tourists of New York City, producers Timothy Haskell (creator of Nightmare) and Steve Kopelman (producer of Rob Zombie’s Great American Nightmare) have once again devised an unforgettable haunted house, with the theme Nightmare: New York. 

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A Cop and Clowns Walk into a Bar…

The lights are dimmed, the room is silent. “You can sit here,” the usher says. “Oh, and don’t forget this.” As if it came out of thin air, it appears between his finger tips and he places it in the palm of my hand. I look down, and there it is — a bright red clown nose. I look up and realize that everyone in the room is a clown with the same red nose. I look back and a clown appears out of the darkness into the doorway I had just walked through. I knew then that this was not a regular clown act.   

Now I know what you are thinking, and no, this was not a nightmare. It was the set of Clown Bar — a show about a cop named Happy Mahoney who returns to his old clown life to figure out the murder of his brother, Timmy, and seek revenge. Written by Adam Szymkowicz, this play combines the visual familiarity of the bright clown costumes and exaggerated clown make–up with the 1930s gangster’s ambiance. 

In this performance directed by Andrew Neisler, the audience is introduced to the world of the play with red noses of their own, waitresses dressed in proper clown attire, and a 15-to-30 minute pre-show. The stage is set up so the actors have the space to perform on a small stage at the very end of the room, as well as walk up and down the center row of a very cozy bar. From the beginning to end, the vibrant costumes and well-designed set captures your eyes. Throughout the show, the lighting perfectly frames the actors to help the audience look in the right direction while the mime pianist makes you laugh as he plays the appropriate tune to set the mood or to help support a singing number. 

Credit must also be given to the actors on the stage. With a straight face, the cast delivers ironic word play, double entendres, puns and even bad jokes that keep the audience in their seat wanting more. To be able to get the audience’s attention no matter where in the room they deliver a line is a reflection of their talent. Clowns such as Petunia (played by Jessica Frey) and Dusty (played by Salty Brine), catch your attention and make you fall in love with their characters, no matter how many clowns they may or may not have killed that day.

The only warning I give to you is to be careful where you sit. On the one hand, while the cozy atmosphere of the bar adds to the world of the play, it causes some audience members to have partial view. For example, although it's exciting to sit on the small stage to be close to the action, depending on the angle, some of the staging can be lost if you are too close or too far away. 

On the other hand, by sitting that close to the action, you are able to interact with the actors. While some audience members are sprinkled with the glitter of the gun shots, others become a part of the act. 

Overall, these criminal clowns are successfully able to take the audience on a ride into the underbelly of clown crime in order to solve the murder of Timmy Mahoney — the unfunny clown. Although I only chuckled a few times, the impressive set, costume and talent makes it worthwhile show. Just be ready for puns and a room full of clowns — and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Clown Bar ran through Sept. 27 at The Box (189 Chrystie St. between Stanton and Rivington).

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The Endless Pleasure of Rouge

If there's any theater company instantly able to capture a mood and entice the senses all in the course of one evening, it is undeniably Austin McCormick's Company XIV. The company, founded by McCormick in 2006, combines the high elegance of the late-18th century with the smoky jazz cabarets of the early-20th century to make for one divinely decadent romp. I had the pleasure of reviewing their previous outing, Nutcracker Rouge last year and of that show, I wrote the following: "McCormick’s choreography and staging displays a keen understanding of (and obvious passion for) aesthetics and perfectly captures the pulchritude of performance.

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Invest In Your Theater Experience

If you thought Governors Island was only for bicycling, picnics and electronic music concerts — think again! Because theater visionaries David Evans Morris and Kristin Marting have transformed the island's historic Pershing Hall into a "living market" for their latest immersive theater creation entitled Trade Practices, which kicks off the 2014-15 season at HERE Arts Center. Like our nation's economy, Trade Practices is intricately structured and impossible to wrap your head around. The rooms of Pershing Hall have been transformed into departments of a fictional currency-printing corporation, Tender, Inc. Each audience member receives a roll of cash and, accordingly, the power to invest their time and "money" into whichever storyline they choose. Part of the fun and frustration of Trade Practices (and immersive theater in general) is knowing that every audience member's experience must be different, and that one can't possibly see or experience everything.

By dividing the threads of action into separate spaces, Marting and Morris have created for themselves an unprecedented freedom to play with style and form. Within each plot line, the collaborators dive enthusiastically into genres such as satire, participatory theater, dance, melodrama, musical theater, and so much more. More emphasis is placed on unity of theme or thought than stylistic or aesthetic unity (as in Punchdrunk's cinematic behemoth of immersive theatre, Sleep No More). Yet this schizophrenia of style works wonderfully for the piece, ensuring that audience members are never, ever bored and never, ever sure what is going to come next. 

A particularly charming stylistic tangent is the musical numbers performed in the "Owners" story line, as well as every incident of full-ensemble choreography that takes place on the trade floor, where the entire audience convenes between each plot episode. These dance numbers smack of the virtuosic yet amateurish choreography of Elevator Repair Service productions, as well as the quirkily empowered dance moments in the work of Young Jean Lee (no surprise since Trade Practices incorporates actors and collaborators from both). Fully committed to the song and dance, the brilliant ensemble cast is present at every moment — be it wacky, heartfelt or politically charged.  

The complexity and thought behind the text of Trade Practices (written by Eisa Davis, Robert Lyons, Erin Courtney, Qui Nguyen, KJ Sanchez, and Chris Wells) indicates some serious dramaturgy and research, and the program indicates a bevy of bankers and financial workers that lent their knowledge to the project. There are times, however, that the finance-speak becomes overwhelming for those of us without a banking background. Rather than weighing down the piece, however, these moments only serve to enhance the feeling of intricacy and insurmountability of the economy — a formidable beast of our own creation. For audience members who are finance-savvy, the moments of intense economic debate are likely to be stimulating. Regardless, Trade Practices manages to unmask the relationship between money, power and the human condition. The results are messy, but undoubtedly thought-provoking (and worth the ferry ride to Governors Island).

Trade Practices ran until Sept. 21 at HERE Arts Center (145 Avenue of the Americas). For more information, please visit www.here.org. 

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Prince George of Broadway

The Mint Theater, upstairs in a loft building on West 43rd St., pursues forgotten plays with the vigor of a dachshund digging for moles. Over the course of 18 years, this dogged Company has unearthed a surprising number of theatrical treasures buried by time, as well as a few mislaid scripts (but only a few) of primarily academic interest. Since the Mint's founding, the professionalism of its productions has risen steadily. The company is now among the foremost nonprofit theaters in New York City. Next month an audience of unprecedented magnitude will see this accomplished group's work when London Wall by John Van Druten, presented on-stage at the Mint last spring, is telecast as the inaugural episode of Theater Close-Up, a weekly series hosted by Sigourney Weaver on New York public broadcasters WNET and WLIW.

While waiting for its television debut, the Mint has unveiled a top-flight production of The Fatal Weakness, a 1946 comedy by George Kelly, directed by Jesse Marchese. Last year, the satiric Philip Goes Forth, another Kelly revival at the Mint, was noteworthy for acting and design; the play itself proved more historically intriguing than dramatically satisfying. In The Fatal Weakness, sprightly, intelligent dialogue and engaging turns of plot overcome the liability of Kelly's sluggish, old-fashioned exposition. Even in its less engaging moments, The Fatal Weakness is an ideal vehicle for the Mint's two masters of high-comedy style, Kristin Griffith and Cynthia Darlow. 

In the 1920s, Kelly graduated from vaudeville (for which he wrote popular sketches) to Broadway, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for Craig's Wife. Though frequently satiric and always concerned with the follies of the American middle and upper-middle classes, Kelly's plays are too varied to be summed up in a phrase. The Fatal Weakness is an urbane comedy of manners which was presented originally by The Theatre Guild in 1946 with the great comic actress Ina Claire in the leading role. It played 119 performances, a respectable Broadway run for a non-musical play in those days and sufficient to recoup the producers' investment. Kelly was 63 when the play closed; he survived another 27 years, but The Fatal Weakness was his last new work on Broadway. Except for a 1976 television adaptation, introduced by Kelly’s famous niece, Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco, The Fatal Weakness has hardly been seen since it closed on Broadway in 1947. 

The heroine of The Fatal Weakness, Ollie Espenshade (Griffith), is the kind of mid-century matron who would have been susceptible to the happily-ever-after hype surrounding the nuptials of George Kelly's movie-star niece to Rainier III, Prince of Monaco. (That much-chronicled event took place less than a decade after the play's premiere.) Ollie's "fatal weakness" is a combination of sentimental heart and romantic imagination. After 28 years of marriage, she has discovered that husband Paul is having an affair with an osteopath (an off-stage character). As one might expect, Ollie is incensed. When her busybody friend Mabel Wentz (Darlow) procures details of Paul's clandestine activities, Ollie's fancy shifts into high gear; and, as Ollie's rose-tinted imagination transforms Paul and the osteopath into Abelard and Heloise, The Fatal Weakness barrels forward on an unexpected narrative route.


Griffith makes Ollie's extravagant unworldliness endearing and, for the most part, credible. Marchese has surrounded her with actors who have a knack for Kelly's kind of urbane, out-of-kilter comedy. In addition to Darlow (a consummate, poker-faced comedian), the cast includes Cliff Bemis as the wayward husband, Victoria Mack as the unsympathetic daughter, Penny, and Sean Patrick Hopkins as the bewildered son-in-law, Vernon. Patricia Kilgarriff wrings maximal humor from the role of a parlor maid whose purpose in the script is largely, perhaps exclusively, expository. Garbed in handsome costumes by Andrea Varga (including, most notably, lavish frocks and lounging attire for Griffith), the cast cavorts around a richly detailed drawing room, designed by Vicki R. Davis (with period-appropriate bric-a-brac and props provided by Joshua Yocom). The single stage set, which received a round of applause when the curtains first parted at a recent performance, features high reflective panels that ought to be distracting but, in fact, contribute a dazzling visual effect to the scenic design throughout the evening.     

The Fatal Weakness belongs in the company of those distinctively American high comedies written between the World Wars by Kelly's contemporaries Philip Barry (The Philadelphia Story) and S.N. Behrman (No Time for Comedy). Kelly's plays have fallen out of sight to a degree that Barry's and Behrman's have not. With several more Kelly plays ripe for revival, the Mint may redress that situation in seasons to come. In the meantime, New York audiences are learning that there's more to George Kelly's story than that famous niece. 

The Fatal Weakness was scheduled to play through Oct. 26 but has now been extended through November 2, 2014, at the Mint Theater Company (311 West 43rd St.). Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes. Performances are 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. There is a special matinee at 2 p.m. on Oct. 15 and no performance on Oct. 14. Tickets are $55 and $27.50 and may be purchased at www.minttheater.org or by calling 866-811-4111.

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A Long Trek to Bardo

For This Lingering Life, playwright Chiori Miyagawa has drawn elements from nine Noh plays. Initially, she writes in a program note, she wanted to “pay homage to the culture.” But once she began, she revised and adapted them extensively. Elements of the 15th-century theatrical form remain—in its content (several characters are warriors, crazy women, or supernatural beings, such as ghosts or angels) and style (there’s an emphasis on language over physical action, and Becky Bodurtha’s excellent costumes draw on ancient warriors and peasants as well as modern-day dress). 

In other ways, though, the play has little to do with the Noh experience. It consists of vignettes and features a multiracial cast and gender-blind casting. Those elements don’t detract from the whole, but they don’t add much either, except the recognition that a modern sensibility has had a hand in the production. The same goes for the time jumps between past and present, as well as elements of meta-theater, when characters break the fourth wall. “I must be the narrator,” says Meg MacCary’s Woman with Tragic Hair. “Hold on—I have no training as a narrator.” Later on Amir Darvish’s beggar son says to the remorseful father who threw him out, “Classically speaking, I should forgive you”—not only a meta-theater joke, but a meta-theatrical in-joke.

Ronald Cohen plays an elderly host (not the narrator), who helpfuly describes the stories at the outset. One is advised that characters from the five kinds of Noh plays will appear: a warrior, a demon, a woman, a ghost, and a deity, and sometimes more than one. In a program note, Miyagawa says she didn’t like any characters from the women plays, but she felt “duty-bound … to include at least one of them,” so she picked an angel from that group, and “discarded the plot entirely.”

Whether this picking and choosing willy-nilly really pays homage to Noh plays is beside the point. Miyagawa’s plundering of characters to fit into a new plot produces a play that hangs together awkwardly and never catches emotional fire in spite of a game company, Cake Productions. The multiple threads are held together by MacCary’s crazy woman with hair that grows straight up as she searches for her brother, who is blind. She encounters a number of the other characters on her quest to find Bardo, where spirits go after death and wait for reincarnation.

Among the 28 characters are a warrior from the 12th century (Stephanie Weeks, moving persuasively as the opposite gender) who threatens a man dressed in a modern suit (Enormvs Muñoz) with a sword. The man kills the warrior, finds the warrior’s flute and takes it; they seem to reenact the scene over centuries. Two young lovers (Marta Kuersten and Luke Forbes) stand on a floating bridge they use to meet, but the girl’s parents sabotage planks of the bridge, leading to the young man's drowning. Two young guys in tracksuits (Forbes and Vanessa Kai) show up, as does a gardener (Kai as a man) who is hoodwinked into believing the young daughter of the wealthy employer has the hots for him. Two modern-day backpackers (William Franke, who resembles a young Garrison Keillor, and Forbes) encounter a distraught mother in brightly colored clothing searching for her son.

Some moments work well, especially the tenderness in the  young lovers’ scene, and the occasional line startles: “Everyone alive is already haunted.” There are good comic moments, too, especially from MacCary, and a scene between Darvish and a small-town, park-bench gossip (Muñoz) is very amusing. Darvish also plays the mother of a slain man and in all his roles exhibits a vocally attractive performance, with a smooth, low resonance. But too much is choppy, elliptical, and confusing.

Director Cat Miller keeps the action moving, though at times the actors seem a bit stiff. Whether that is to reflect the stylization of the Noh originals is unclear, but the actors try their best to infuse flavors into what feels like a half-cooked goulash.

This Lingering Life plays at the HERE Arts Center through Oct. 4, with evening performances Wednesdays through Sundays at 7 p.m. and matinees on Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, visit www.here.org and click on Sublet Series shows, or call 866-811-4111.

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Odds Against Happiness

Some excellent performances give buoyance to Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, a comic series of vignettes that are awkwardly interrelated but provide plenty of laughs as well as fodder for thought. The story follows a young black gay man from his troubled childhood through to adulthood, as if in snapshots. 

Phillip James Brannon plays Sutter, the son of a flashily dressed single mother (Jessica Frances Dukes) who has little patience for his childish questions about words such as “period” and “bootycandy.” (She explains the slang term as “the candy for the booty,” i.e., a penis). In Brannon’s strong, well-modulated performance, one can detect the seeds of shyness that continue into adolescence, when he has an obsession with Michael Jackson, including dressing like him. When Sutter tries to tell his family that a strange man has followed him home, his mother (now played by Benja Kay Thomas), as self-involved as ever, doesn’t believe him and even disturbingly suggests "you musta done something" to attract the man's attention. She and his stepfather ban him from school musicals and urge him to take up sports as a solution. “Kung fu,” recommends Lance Coadie Williams’s uninterested parent. 

Though his parents can't understand him, the unhappy Sutter reaches adulthood as a confidently gay man, aloof but with a quiet strength that belies his indifferent upbringing. Bootycandy, however, also includes scenes that seemingly have no relation to Sutter — a preacher (Williams) who announces to his congregation with wild flamboyance that he’s gay; a lesbian “divorce” ceremony that’s silly and a little stale; and a phone conversation among four black women (two each played by Dukes and Thomas) who are costumed with cleverness by Clint Ramos. 

O’Hara, who directed and is himself black and gay, has no qualms about satirizing the bizarre names some black parents give their children, nor about employing the drawling caricatures that once characterized shows like Amos 'n' Andy. If anything, the drawls are broader here. An older black woman on the telephone berates her daughter for naming her grandchild Genitalia: “How you gon go n name that chile genitalia fool?” The daughter in the sketch (Dukes, who excels at embodying dim-wittedness) sounds like a female Stepin Fetchit, but the effect cheerily gives the raspberry to political correctness. The scenes, although imparting a choppy feel to the play, serve to identify the social milieu surrounding Sutter. 

There is darkness, however. Eventually, in the second half, we learn more about the hero. Sutter’s close friend is Larry (Williams), and in a bar one night they pick up a straight white man eager for gay sex. There’s a horrific twist in which O’Hara shows us the profound damage created by Sutter's upbringing, and how reverse racism simmers. The only person Sutter can relate to, the only one who has ever encouraged him in his adoration of Michael Jackson, is his aged grandmother who raised him and now lives in a nursing home; but even she wants a bribe before she “recognizes” who he is. 

Unfortunately, Bootycandy sometimes indulges in meta-theatrical antics. In Act I, a white moderator (Jesse Pennington), assembles a panel of five black playwrights on the stage of Playwrights Horizons. O’Hara’s premise is that the five playlets we’ve witnessed are the works of the quartet, but the gag strains to make us believe that the playwrights don’t really know why they’re appearing in the panel discussion or what the topic is. 

In Act II, after a tense sequence, the actors rebel against the playwright/actor Sutter, and the fourth wall is again knocked down. There are hints of autobiography in Bootycandy (the moderator asks a black playwright how she got the surname O'Malley, and she answers, "Slavery"), but O'Hara hasn't transformed all of them coherently into a whole; there's a ramshackle feel to the work. Still, there’s no question that he's a playwright worth watching. 

Bootycandy runs through Oct. 12 at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Aves.). Evening performances of Bootycandy are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets start at $75 and are available by calling 212-279-4200 or visiting www.playwrightshorizons.org.

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Young, Randy and Irish

The Irish are famous for their gift of gab, and Dylan Coburn Gray’s Boys and Girls, the play that opens the 1st Irish Festival at 59E59 Theatres, fits into that tradition. The “play” is more accurately a series of monologues by four actors, all of them about youthful urges for sex. A young male called A uses the Internet for porn; C, a young woman, philosophizes about the most vulgar term for a vagina; B is a virgin and laments his decent upbringing with a hapless comic spin; and D has received a declaration of love from an ex-boyfriend she still hangs out with.

But the subject matter of teenage Irish sexual mores is parochial at best. Though at times Boys and Girls echoes writers like Synge, in its portrait of the Irish lower class, and Shaw, in its hints of social commentary, it is mostly like Joyce, with its obscure, topical Dublin references and heightened language — a mixture of Joycean stream-of-consciousness, modern rap, and Irish youth slang. The speech is likely not only to confuse but to alienate listeners. It starts almost immediately and doesn’t let up, as in A’s passage about trawling for pornography on the Internet:

“A pop-up offers a top-up on my penis, quick! Hop up on the table and shazoom! Ladies won’t be able to resist your mister’s va-va-voom. They’ll jump for that Topman-chinos-lump as they spy with their admiring little eye: a gee-busting hump-snake like a lesser man’s thigh.”

To listen to the like for an hour is to have one’s patience sorely tried. One ameliorating aspect is that the actors — Ronan Carey as A, Maeve O’Mahony as B, Seán Doyle as C, and Claire O’Reilly as D — have been directed by the author to deliver the lines conversationally, and, for the most part, the percussive forced rhymes of rap are less dogged here, but they’re still eminently noticeable, and it’s often a struggle to comprehend the meaning. (To be fair, hearing the words is easier than making sense of them on the page, and the Irish accents aren’t nearly so formidable as one might expect.) The casual delivery is welcome, but rhyme, sound, and alliteration still intrude so much that they become obstacles to understanding. Anyone who has listened to a Richard Wilbur translation of Moliere’s comedies in rhymed couplets will find that Gray’s play suffers by comparison. The following passage is an example of the strain:

"And regardless. Between pills and my arduous bout of self-lovin, the hard-on’s not turned on and there’s no fire lit in the oven. Worth holding out to acquit oneself well. Some other time, fingers crossed. Or so I tell myself. Over and over as with his arm round my shoulder I clontarfwards trudge. Such is a night out.”

This kind of aural pinwheel is interesting in small doses, but it also diverts attention from substance. Gray rhymes “uncouth” with “ruth” at one point, a show-offishness that grows irritating. Does anyone ever use “ruth” in conversation? Does anyone use "surcease"? There's an uncomfortable strain toward intellectualism that also undermines the narration.

The program comes with a glossary that covers such Dublin venues as the Button Factory (“Buttoner”) and HUSSLE (a hip-hop nightclub), as well as Jedward, who are “insane, blond, Irish twins who are kind of famous because of X-factor. They have really big hair.” Although the glossary will inform you that “gee” (with a hard “g”) in the first example above is a term for “vagina,” you won’t find “clontarfwards” in it. In any case, it’s unlikely that a viewer could remember any of them as they whiz by in the monologues. The effect parallels Shaw’s comment that “America and Britain are two countries separated by a common language,” if you substitute “Ireland” for “Britain.”

Although O’Reilly’s D seemed a little off vocally, the performances all suffice, with Doyle’s vulnerable but self-aware C a particular pleasure. The set is simply four chairs on which the actors sit, and occasionally rise and change places. Yellow light bulbs, 23 in all (by designer Ilo Tarrant), hang on wires above and behind them. But with so much conveyed by language, one longs for the vocal music of an Ian McKellen or a Michael MacLiammoir. That’s impossible, given that the actors are so young, and their training has only recently begun. 

Boys and Girls plays through Sept. 28, with evening performances at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and on Sunday, and at 8:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are Saturday at 2:15 p.m. and Sunday at 3:35 p.m. Tickets are $25, with a $15 special price on Sunday nights.

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What do you get when you put together political scandal cover-ups, a villain who plots through songs, extremely flexible chorus boys, a family secret and a musical within a musical? Propaganda! The Musical. An official selection of the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), which ended July 27th, Propaganda! is one of 24 original new musicals showcased throughout NYMF's month-long run. The musical itself centers around a young man called Rookie, who takes over his grandfather's super-secret government bureau — with much hesitation — after Grandpa not-so-mysteriously dies from a cup of Starbucks coffee poisoned by his number two at the bureau, Agent X.

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Fuzzy Gore on W 42

A press release for the Puppet Shakespeare Players’ Puppet Titus Andronicus announces, first and foremost, that one of the show's producers is Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame. As though that's not eye-catching enough, the press release hails this production as a “fresh, comedic take on Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ play.” Whether Titus Andronicus may fairly be dismissed as the “worst” play in the Bard’s canon is matter for debate; but this early tragedy is undoubtedly Shakespeare's most gruesome. So filled with horrors is the plot that Charles and Mary Lamb omitted it from their classic collection of Shakespearean tales for young readers.

Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, perhaps in collaboration with George Peele, near the beginning of his career and possibly as early as 1591. The lurid plot, chockablock with adultery, murder, rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism, follows the tradition of Renaissance revenge tragedy. Many years after Titus, Shakespeare would transform the materials of English revenge drama into Hamlet, the most masterful revenge play of all time. Titus, with dramatic construction as gangly and ill-coordinated as an 11-year-old kid, shows little indication that this fledgling playwright is the genius of Hamlet. It's not hard to understand why the youthful, energetic Puppet Shakespeare Players approach Titus Andronicus with a lack of reverence.  

In creating Titus, Shakespeare relied on several sources, most notably Ovid’s story of Philomela and her sister Procne, wife of King Tereus of Thrace. Tereus rapes Philomela and excises her tongue to prevent her disclosing what has happened. Philomela outsmarts Tereus by chronicling her misfortune in a tapestry and sending it to Procne. The sisters get revenge by killing Tereus’s son and serving his flesh, disguised in a culinary treat, to the unwitting father. Ovid’s tale ends in metamorphosis: when Tereus tries to kill the sisters, all three are transformed into birds. Shakespeare's tragedy utilizes the elements of Ovid's tale minus the mystical conclusion.

Events in Titus Andronicus are so unrelentingly gruesome that imaginative stagings have often repelled play-goers. When Lucy Bailey’s production opened at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank of the Thames earlier this year, the London Times reported that “the stage blood and mutilation” were “so realistic” that “spectators were dropping like flies.” Under Ryan Rinkel's direction, Puppet Shakespeare's Titus substitutes whimsy for horror. Adam Weppler employs appropriate swagger as Titus, the brilliant military strategist devoid of talent for life on the home front; and Sarah Villegas lends similar extravagance to the role of Tamora, wily Queen of the Goths, who wreaks havoc when brought to Rome as part of Titus's spoils of war. But the humans of this Titus Andronicus are upstaged by their fuzzy puppet colleagues. The real stars of the piece are the villain, Aaron the Boar (Aaron the Moor in Shakespeare's original), agilely manipulated by puppeteer A.J. Coté, and ingénue Lavinia, animated with remarkable vigor by puppeteer Mindy Leanse.  

This production of Titus dispenses with Shakespeare's first act, summarizing the action in a hip-hop inflected song. Much of what remains in the abbreviated text of this Titus is lost in haphazard declamation or chaotic staging. The Puppet Shakespeare adaptation consists largely of loathsome acts perpetrated on charming, Henson-esque puppets. The incongruous combination of gore and charming, plush creatures is arguably a commentary — rudimentary commentary, but commentary nonetheless — on the overheated materials of Renaissance revenge tragedy. 

At some moments during the show's two hours, it's tempting to speculate that Shakespeare, who was always mindful of the groundlings, might applaud the ribaldry of Puppet Shakespeare's take on Titus Andronicus. But it's pointless to rely on Puppet Shakespeare for anything in the way of insight about the Bard or the nature of tragedy. The slapstick of their Titus is relentless; the actors have at their disposal an abundance of silly string, which is supposed to be puppet puke. That's enough to keep most of the audience in stitches all evening.

Puppet Titus Andronicus, inspired  by William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, presented by The Puppet Shakespeare Players and STT Productions/Dee Snider at the Beckett Theatre (410 West 42nd  Street) ran until August 16.

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Kicking Feminism

Early in Micheline Auger’s Donkey Punch, frank banter and satirical jabs suggest the playwright has written a sex comedy. But Auger is out for more than just laughs. Gradually, in Audrey Alford’s production for the Ivy Theatre Company, the dramatist’s comedy-drama becomes a troubling look at the state of feminism. 

Two women are the focus of the plot: the plump, wryly comic Sam (Lauren Dortch-Crozier), easygoing and unhappy with life, and her high-octane friend Kareena (Cleo Gray), who takes on the role of Sam’s mentor. 

Kareena has recently put Sam in contact with Kyle, a man Kareena once communicated with online, but only briefly, before she met her boyfriend Teddy. Now also talking to Kyle online, Sam has discovered that he makes soft-core “horror porn” films; his latest is called Donkey Punch. Sam is reluctant to meet him because she assumes his work degrades women, but Kareena insists Sam is a prude and needs to widen her erotic horizons; she encourages a first date. (It’s at this point, ironically, that  a role reversal briefly occurs. An unenlightened Kareena learns from Sam the meaning of Kyle's title. It refers to a sexual practice — bizarre and obscure, judging by the surprised reaction of the audience — that heightens a man’s climax during intercourse.) 

Auger has a good deal of fun with the contrast in sexual awareness between the high-earning Kareena and the struggling, diffident Sam, who has hitherto worked as an actress in commercials. “You’re a strong and independent woman,” Kareena exhorts Sam. “You should have a dildo.” Trying to meet her on less intimate ground, Sam responds (with a delivery that evokes a laid-back Jo Anne Worley): “Better health insurance would be nice.”  

Once Sam and Kyle (Jon McCormick) meet, a Pygmalion transformation occurs: Sam bleaches her hair, enlarges her breasts, and ends up the focus of a documentary that entails Kyle’s filming her wherever they go. The repressed Sam embraces life, but it upsets the worldview of the nominally liberated — actually controlling — Kareena. 

Unfortunately, Kareena’s a hard character to like. She is taken aback when Sam begins to talk about her sexual exploits and realizes that Sam’s experience now outstrips hers. A career woman with a vengeance, Kareena declares, “There’s a lot of fish in the proverbial ocean and I’m hot and make a ton of money.” Her feminism is a tangle of contradictions: she advocates pole dancing as “good for your core…it’s totally liberating” but defaults to feminist mantras as well, such as “Bitches before bros.”  

Perhaps the most objectionable thing about Kareena is her emasculating treatment of Micheal Drew’s sensitive Teddy. In Drew’s gentle performance, the strapping boyfriend cooks and attends to her tenderly, but never seems wimpy. Yet when Teddy tries to enter a conversation, Kareena rebuffs him with “We’re having girl talk.” When the accommodating Teddy declares, “I can be one of the girls,” she says, “No, you can’t.” (How many boyfriends would even make that offer?)

Although there’s little about Kareena that’s endearing or redeeming, it’s to Gray’s credit that one is able to feel the character’s confusion and pain even while withholding sympathy — and that includes after she is unexpectedly raped. (Crucially, she doesn’t protest; nonetheless, the sex scene is clumsily staged in a way that tries to be brutal and coy at the same time). 

Meanwhile, Kyle doesn’t conform to any of Sam’s preconceptions. She expects him to call women “bitches” and “hos,” but McCormick, in a nicely understated performance, turns out to be quiet, thoughtful and confident. 

Auger has created four fascinating characters, and situations that make one think, but she doesn’t really offer a diagnosis. Has feminism just created a huge muddle? Have the signals become so mixed, and the dialogue between the sexes so charged, that the old verities of feminism are no longer grounded in reality? Are men now just as much the victims? Auger’s coup is to provide an entry point of discussion.

Donkey Punch runs through Aug. 31 at the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $45 and may be obtained by calling 212-691-1555 or visiting www.sohoplayhouse.com.

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Agent of Change

Have you ever met a pimp? Or talked to a 19-year-old prostitute? Or tried to avoid your menopausal boss who keeps screaming for the stapler you know you didn’t take? For most people, the answer would be no. But for Helena D. Lewis, she has met these people and many more unique individuals.Call Me Crazy: Diary of a Mad Social Worker is a brilliantly written play, filled with poetry that makes you wonder, “did this really happen?” In her autobiographical one-woman play, Lewis recounts her interactions with 25 people in order to understand how she slowly lost her mind and why she became just as crazy as everyone else. 

With clear transitions between the scenes and distinguishable characters, Lewis did a beautiful job at constructing a play that is easy to follow and understand. While some character portrayals make the audience erupt in laughter, others make you question whether you should be laughing at these very off putting (and sometimes borderline offensive) impersonations. However, it is through the harsh realities that she forces us to face that we finally see that change cannot be made without someone as dedicated as Lewis.

This plays relies heavily on the audience’s ability to use their imagination.  When walking into the space, one must be prepared to see a mostly empty stage. The venue, Nuyorican Poets Café, provides Call Me Crazy a very intimate environment allowing the audience and Lewis to feed off each others' energy. Lewis uses the two long black flats on stage left and right to indicate a different location or character change. The only other set piece is a folding chair located in the center of the stage. In addition, Lewis only used roughly seven props that are easily stored in a pocket or hidden onstage. The very minimalistic set and props help keep the focus on Lewis and her powerful dialogue.

The less smooth transitions occur during the costume changes and lighting transitions. Although she does not change her costume for each character, the few costume changes that occur are a bit awkward. However, this is to be expected when one woman is playing all the characters and has only a matter of seconds to put on/take off a jacket or shirt.   

The lighting is predictable and did not have much of a design concept. It seemed as if the lights were used to add light to the stage rather than add depth to the design. Overall, the lighting was a very simple design — the lights changed color to imply a change in the mood or changed direction to prompt the audience where to look on the stage. 

However, the minimalistic design concepts are often overshadowed by Lewis’s performance. If you are looking for a funny and motivational show, Call Me Crazy is the show for you. Within five minutes, you will be hooked on Lewis’s story of how she strove to change the world for the people who are often ignored in our society. And by the end, you will finally figure out why this woman has sacrificed her sanity in order to be a true agent of change.

Call Me Crazy: Diary of a Mad Social Worker runs until July 27 at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café (236 East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C in the East Village). Daily performances are held at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15. For tickets and further information, visit www.nuyorican.org.

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Boxing Meets Broadway

Boxing. Broadway. Sound like uncommon bedfellows? Think again, because the current production of Rocky on Broadway — recently imported from its debut in Germany — successfully marries sports and big-budget theater.  Storytelling is not the goal of this musical, since most of the audience members are familiar with the underdog plot line of Sylvester Stallone's 1976 sports drama flick. Instead, Rocky is all about spectacle; in fact, the best thing about this musical is that it is unapologetically popular: loud, obvious and for the masses. Like any proper sporting event, Rocky is above all meant to be fun —  and in spite of its tired and uncomplicated storyline — it is quite possibly the most fun production on Broadway right now.

Rocky's strengths lie in its visual attractions. Supplying plenty of eye candy, Andy Karl (as Rocky Balboa) and Terence Archie (as Apollo Creed) lead a ripped ensemble of boxers, who spend most of their stage time half-clothed. On the design side, Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina's cinematic montages of Rocky training flicker onto towering concrete facades of South Philly — a beautiful link to the musical's filmic heritage. The awe-inspiring sets designed by Christopher Barreca transition fluidly between Rocky's gritty apartment, a meat locker and a floating boxing ring. Visually citing famous scenes from the movie, part of the fun of Rocky is recognizing these iconic cinematic moments on stage. Even David Zinn's costume design is citational, skillfully duplicating Rocky's famous leather jacket and fedora hat.

With all this visual splendor, Rocky succeeds in delivering high-volume, in-your-face action in droves (especially in the second act). As mentioned before, however, this musical relies heavily on audience knowledge of the film's plot to "fill in the blanks" of its rather stupefying script. Adrian's abrupt disappointment in Rocky's decision to fight Apollo Creed, for example, is less contrived in the film. No bones about it, though: this musical is wholly unconcerned with plot development. Rather, its primary concern is to reproduce and spectacularize the relics of Stallone's filmic legacy. In a more serious genre, this would be a problem; but again, Rocky only presents itself at face value. It's a sports film musical — what more do you want?

Musically, however, Rocky falls somewhat flat. While dynamic songwriting team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' music and lyrics are enjoyable, they are not catchy upon first listen. Do not expect Rocky to deliver an exceptionally innovative musical score that will have you humming all the way home to Brooklyn. Similarly, do not expect performers with unmatchable vocal gravitas. This is not to say that the vocal performances are sub par: the chorus is certainly powerful as one, and Karl and Margo Seibert (as Adrian) match each others' tones quite well. Simply put, Rocky's production value depends far more on adrenaline-inducing spectacle than musical ingenuity.

The moral of Rocky's story is to come for the spectacle and stay for the boxing match. If you're looking for mindless summer fun and are sick of bumming around the movie theater, give Rocky a go.

Tickets for Rocky can be purchased at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway between 50 and 51st Sts.) by visiting Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. Performances run Monday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. A limited number of day-of-show rush tickets will be available at the box office on a first-come, first-served basis. Rush tickets are $35 (Tuesday through Friday) and $45 (Saturday and Sunday). Rush tickets will be become available at 10 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon on Sunday for performances on the same day. Rush tickets are subject to availability and limited to two per person.

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Steiningly Abstract

The group Theater Plastique had a hit at last year’s New York International Fringe Festival with its inaugural production, Gertrude Stein Saints! The show has now returned for a longer run at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, and it’s a compelling, if unusual, piece of theater. Neither play nor opera — as Four Saints in Three Acts, Stein’s original work was, with a score by Virgil Thomson — Gertrude Stein Saints! is more a song cycle. Beyond that, it’s a calling card for the invention and musicianship of an unusually talented group of young performers.

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More Ado in Harlem

The Public Theater presentation of Much Ado About Nothing, with a starry cast performing in the bucolic setting of Central Park's Delacorte Theater, is likely to be among New York City's most sought after tickets. Up at the 133rd Street Arts Center, What Dreams May Co. Theatre and Queens Players are currently offering another Much Ado, hardly publicized but well worth a visit. In a perfectly ordered New York City, the masses of would-be theatergoers who fail to score seats for Much Ado in the Park (and those unwilling to sacrifice a day to waiting in line for free tickets) would find their way to Harlem to see the handiwork of 14 unknown actors, directed by Nicole Schalmo, in a tiny, second-floor auditorium with a minimum of scenery and equipment. 

Much Ado About Nothing is a rowdy mixture of the silly and the serious. The central plot comes from classical Greek literature via 16th-century Italian sources — Ludovico Ariosto and Matteo Bandello — and Edmund Spenser's English epic The Faerie Queene. The story concerns Claudio (Gregg Ellson), just home from war, who spurns his bride, Hero (Christina Sheehan), at the altar. Hero is virtuous, but circumstantial evidence, contrived by the toxic Don John (Jonathan Emerson), suggests otherwise; and Claudio has been taken in by Don John's scheme. Hearing Claudio's harsh accusations, Hero faints away; her father, Leonato (Rafael Svarin), claiming she's dead, concocts a plan to clear her name and punish Claudio's arrogance. Things are dire until a band of bumbling rustics — constable Dogberry (Kenny Fedorko), his sidekick Verges (Nathan Beagle), and two officers of the municipal watch (Kate Fallon and Meghan Blakeman) — unwittingly thwart Don John's conspiracy.

There isn't much that's plausible about the misunderstanding between Claudio and Hero or what follows it; and, based on that implausibility, W.H. Auden has declared that Much Ado is "not one of Shakespeare's best plays." Yet throughout the past four centuries, this relatively dark comedy has been a crowd-pleaser. Its popularity is due, in large measure, to the subplot in which Hero's cousin Beatrice (Aimee Marcelle) and Benedick (Gonzalo Trigueros), a military comrade of Claudio, are tricked into falling in love with each other. The opinionated, sharp-tongued Benedick and Beatrice are among Shakespeare's most vivid creations; and Auden aptly describes them as “the characters of Shakespeare we’d most like to sit next to at dinner.”

The youthful cast handles both verse and prose with confidence and brio. Fedorko, adept at low Shakespearean comedy, makes Dogberry a highlight of the proceedings. Emerson, a forceful, nuanced Macduff in the What Dreams May Co. Macbeth last December, does what he can to lend verisimilitude to a one-dimensional role; his Don John is an exuberantly villainous cartoon, enormous fun to watch but inexplicably malevolent.

As in most productions of Much Ado, the evening belongs to Beatrice and Benedick. Shakespeare uses the reluctant lovers as tools to skewer the conventions of courtly love; Marcelle and Trigueros (presumably guided by Schalmo) ensure that Beatrice and Benedick are always emotionally complex and convincing. Marcelle is a striking comedic presence, compellingly vivacious without upstaging her compatriots. She's well-matched in raillery and romantic chemistry by Trigueros's Benedick. The pair navigate a credible, touching transformation from prickliness to devotion. 

In addition to being the production's director, Schalmo is responsible for costumes and, with Emerson, for the lighting design. She has transferred the action of the play from Renaissance Messina to a small town in the American Midwest. This conceit, applied with a light touch, works very well for a story of deception, backbiting and intrigue; and it frees the actors of anxiety about speaking Shakespeare's lines in their natural accents. 

Schalmo and her self-assured cast keep the action moving at a swift, consistent pace and make the most of the modest dimensions of the 133rd Street Arts Center stage. With no design fripperies to distract the audience, the production is focused throughout on the humor and beauty of the Bard's text. The simplicity of this Much Ado turns out to be a formidable asset.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, presented by What Dreams May Co. Theatre, in association with Queens Players at the 133rd Street Arts Center (308 West 133rd St. between St. Nicholas Ave. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem), runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 21. Tickets: $18. For tickets, visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/495842 or call 1-800-838-3006. 

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Sexy Star Vehicle

A “village bike,” one learns in the script of Penelope Skinner’s new play, set in an English country town, is slang for a woman who has slept around — she has been ridden by everyone. At the Lucille Lortel Theatre, that description eventually applies to Becky, a young wife who is newly pregnant but not showing. Vividly embodied by film star Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Becky exhibits a growing erotic desperation as her husband, John (a superbly blockheaded and smug Jason Butler Harner), seems to have lost interest in having sex. But though MCC Theater's production of The Village Bike initially has the makings of a sex comedy, Skinner has much more on her mind.

Becky gradually tries to spark John's libido by watching porn movies, but nothing seems to help. At the same time, she has bought an old bicycle in the town so she can get herself out of the cottage and get some exercise, in spite of John’s overly solicitous worries. He’s the kind of guy who is more in tune with the rights of free-range chickens than his wife’s needs.

Skinner’s early scenes are laden with comic double entendre. When Mike, a plumber who has come to fix John and Becky’s leaking pipes, needs to be paid, Becky can’t find her checkbook. “What can we do?” she asks, clad in a shift and a skimpy robe. “Is there something we can do?” It’s a scene out of a porn film, delivered by the sexy Gerwig with enough ambiguous lubricity to make Max Baker’s wide-eyed handyman wonder what kind of solution she has in mind.

When Oliver Hardcastle, the seller, delivers the bike to Becky, he and Mike discuss it in language that confuses the sexually volatile Becky: “She’s a pretty one, though.” “Gorgeous.” “Hardly been ridden.” But the bike chain is not quite right, and so Scott Shepherd’s strapping Oliver promises to repair it. At the moment, however, he’s dressed as the historical character Dick Turpin in a redcoat outfit, since he’s a re-enactor in village pageants nearby. (His name and costume also suggest a nod to She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith, a comedy with a character named Hardcastle that is about people assuming disguises for “romantic” reasons.) The older Oliver is also married, but his wife, Alice, has a high-powered job that takes her away from the village for long periods. Inevitably, fixing the bike becomes fixing Becky's sexual needs.

Ultimately, Becky finds herself more satisfied by the sex-without-love she has with Oliver than by the love-without-sex at home, and she takes risks to keep the fulfillment going. She and Oliver explore fantasies, such as rape-by-intruder and making videos. Skinner’s play is not so much about sexual needs as about the ways that men and women use each other. Under Sam Gold's direction, the point is made that Becky finds herself imprisoned by her marriage. And Becky’s friend, Jenny (Cara Seymour), a chatty but well-meaning neighbor, confides her frustrations at the absence of her husband, Jules, who has a job that takes him abroad. Intellectually stultified, she still advocates parenthood for Becky even as she confesses it destroyed her self-esteem and her desire for sex. But she masks her disinterest from Jules, just as Oliver seems to hide his affairs from his wife, Alice. Or does he?

With nobody to confide in, Becky becomes more and more dependent on her trysts with Oliver, and more desperate to solidify her relationship with him, even as she loses all sense of herself. Gerwig charts a course from befuddlement and dissatisfaction to tearful desperation and near-insanity. Stooping, she still fails to conquer. It’s a harrowing journey.

Shepherd brings a devil-may-care attitude to Oliver, yet Skinner implies he might be far more dangerous than Becky realizes. Harner fills a thankless part, that of a man so obsessed with social issues that he is clueless about his personal life. Talking of the apparently repaired pipes, he says, “They haven’t made a noise. Doesn’t mean it’s fixed. If something makes a noise, then stops making a noise, that’s when you should be really worried.” He has no idea it applies to his own marriage. It’s merely one of many moments to ponder at length in Skinner’s deftly plotted drama.

Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike is running until July 13 at the MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St. between Bleecker and Hudson Sts). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. There are no performances on July 4 and 7. For tickets, call MCC Theater at 212-727-7722 or OvationTix at 866-811-4111.

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