Life x 3, Yasmina Reza’s high comedy about a dinner party gone seriously wrong, falls almost midway between her breakthrough hit Art (1994) and the equally acclaimed God of Carnage (2005). That may partly explain why this 2000 play has remained in the shadows, but on the surface it also seems a mere artistic exercise for the Iranian-born French playwright. As the title implies, Life x 3 examines the same evening from three different angles, but it also comments on its characters’ stresses and petty conflicts in relation to the universe. The excellent production is a welcome, if unusual, revival by the New Light Theater Project, which usually presents new plays.
Shadow of Heroes, a gripping and sad tale, ruminates on the question: “Where does fraud begin and truth leave off?” It brings to life the true story of László (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) and Julia Rajk (Erin Beirnard), Marxist leaders in the Hungarian resistance during World War II. László and Julia are fierce and clear-eyed leaders whose actions helped create the post-war government in Hungary. But it is János Kádár (Michael Turner), a nebbishy friend who seems barely capable of carrying out the underground tasks asked of him, who survives the rise and fall of factions and, after the war, becomes a central figure in the newly formed government, while László and Julia are imprisoned and later martyred.
Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, has not aged well. Brecht himself never saw a production of his allegory about the rise of German National Socialism, and what improvements he might have made in rehearsal cannot be known, but John Doyle’s version at Classic Stage Company seems a heavier slog than usual for a play already rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.
Origin Theatre Company, established in 2002, is dedicated to presenting American premieres of works by European writers. Origin’s current production, Beautiful Day Without You, is a commissioned play by Marco Calvani. Primarily known in Italy, Spain, and France, Calvani is an actor, director, and playwright, and he has collaborated several times with playwright and provocateur Neil LaBute. Beautiful Day Without You is Calvani’s first full-length play in English.
Low-wage workplaces, in two towns separated by a river, provide the backdrop for Lewiston/Clarkston, two 90-minute dramas separated by a meal break. Playwright Samuel D. Hunter peppers these compelling plays with characters who are descendants of 19th-century explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. But their reasons for traveling, or staking territorial claims, have more to do with personal setbacks and family tragedy than with discovery or affirmation. If Lewis and Clark were dispatched westward by Thomas Jefferson, these beaten-down distant relatives, making their way through a drug-addled world of subdivisions and superstores, seem as if they were sent on the road by Jack Kerouac.
With two plays Off-Broadway this year, playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and director Awoye Timpo are quickly becoming a creative power couple. The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company saw a novelist return home to Nigeria after years away, while Good Grief, which has just opened several blocks east at the Vineyard Theatre, explores the lives of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S. through their children.
Steven Levenson’s fast-paced and hilarious play, Days of Rage, opens in October 1969. America is riven. The war in Vietnam has taken more than 30,000 American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated. Twenty thousand mostly young people turned out to protest the war in Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and police are assigned to contain and control the crowd at all costs. Eight of the protesters, later known as the Chicago Eight, were put on trial in late August 1969. Word goes out to bus protesters to the trial. Both the protesters and the Chicago Eight see the case as a way to put the nation itself, its racism and unjust war, on trial. Levenson’s powerful play focuses a sharp gaze at politics and the hidden volatility that can tip over into violence and the spilling of blood.
Gloria: A Life, by Tony-nominated Emily Mann, captures Gloria Steinem’s ascent from a young journalist relegated to “women’s interest” stories to an icon of the feminist movement. Active in promoting women’s rights from the 1970s on, she is famous for saying, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” The play is performed in two acts: the first act is the story of Steinem’s life, and the second is a “talking circle,” in which the audience is invited to carry on a conversation about the themes of the play.
Ensemble Studio Theatre has long been a company that nurtures new plays, but the author of its current offering, Travisville, has never had one staged before. Nevertheless, in his debut, William Jackson Harper, an actor who appeared on Broadway in All the Way, about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attempt to pass the Civil Rights Act, has written a thrilling and important drama so rich in detail and nuance that it could have come from a seasoned writer. Tackling the same legislation as his own starting point, Harper sifts through the granular, day-to-day effects of it, the promise vs. the reality. The story he tells is all the more forceful thanks to the impeccable cast that embodies his humane characters.
Despite the seemingly predictable setup of its initial premise, Joseph C. Ernst’s Goodbody cleverly subverts expectations. It opens on the striking image of a young woman waking up over a dead body, with a smoking gun in her hand and no memory of what happened just moments before. In the corner of the barn sits a man, bound in a chair—the only person who can help her remember. While this all seems like the makings of your average Quentin Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy, such appearances can be deceiving.
Director Kimberly Senior engages the audience from the first beat of Sakina’s Restaurant, performed by its author, Aasif Mandvi, for the 20th-anniversary production of his Obie Award–winning play. Dispensing with the fourth wall, she introduces the central character, Azgi, carrying a suitcase in the aisle of the auditorium, and he lights up the space with his greeting, “Hello, my name is Azgi,” a bright, toothy smile and a twinkle in his eye. Azgi has received a letter from America and is about to set off on the journey of a lifetime—leaving his native India to live and work in a restaurant in the U.S.
The works of Kurt Vonnegut are having a mini-renaissance in New York this year. His 1970 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June has reopened at the Duke after an Off-Off-Broadway run in the spring. Now comes Brian Katz’s stage adaptation of his early novel Mother Night (1962). Vonnegut aficionados may note a few tenuous links to his masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), and it’s a pleasant introduction to the writer, so vital to the 1960s but so out of fashion nowadays.
Like many teenagers in the late 1980s and early 90s, Heidi Schreck was obsessed with Patrick Swayze. Unlike many teenagers, Schreck earned money for college by winning speech contests in American Legion halls across the United States. What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck’s reimagining of those speeches, is less about America’s founding document than the country’s history of violence against women. The play’s humdrum title is misdirection. What the Constitution Means to Me is feminist agitprop autobiography masquerading as civics lesson, not blurring the line between the personal and the political but denying that such a line ever existed.
With Network and To Kill a Mockingbird just around the corner, it seems like a good time to question the practice of putting classic movies onstage. Can the theater bring any added value to such highly regarded works? Certainly it can reshape them: Network, it seems, will come with a lot of multimedia doodads and whatever else director Ivo van Hove drags into it, and Mockingbird will feature adults in the kids’ roles. Whether those shows will equal the impact they had on the big screen remains to be seen. Meantime, downtown, Axis Company is also having a go at screen-to-stage, with its adaptation of High Noon.
Bedlam, the estimable theater company founded in 2012, has a reputation for reinvigorating classic texts with a combination of raw energy and incisive interpretation. At its best, Bedlam distills a work to its bare essence using a small cast to reveal the play’s soul, which apparently had always been hiding in plain sight. Their production of Saint Joan, for instance, employed just four actors and revealed the vigor and immediacy within Shaw’s verbosity. The same four actors performed Hamlet as a giddy romp that also succeeded in finding new depths of pathos and urgency. And their adaptation of Sense and Sensibility managed to plumb the theatricality from Jane Austen’s 19th-century novel with 21st-century showmanship.
If you didn’t know that A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur was by Tennessee Williams, you might easily guess it. When the critic John Mason Brown reviewed A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, he noted that play’s similarities to The Glass Menagerie: “Mr. Williams’ recurrent concern is with the misfits and the broken; with poor, self-deluded mortals… If they lie to others, their major lie is to themselves. In this way only can they hope to make their intolerable lives tolerable. Such beauty as they know exists in their dreams. The surroundings in which they find themselves are once again as sordid as is their own living.” Brown might have written the same words about Creve Coeur, first produced in 1979.
Bernard Pomerance, who died last year at age 76, is best known for having written that brutal little lesson in humanity, The Elephant Man. That play’s best line, “We have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch,” nicely encapsulates the playwright’s concerns over the societal tendency to perform acts of charity for the sake of the giver. But, as is discovered in the wandering world premiere of Spin Off, which was drafted in 2003 and revised in 2006, Pomerance’s thought processes were not always so tidy.
To anyone who grew up in the Albany area before cable television (or, as I did, in western Massachusetts, served only by Albany stations), the name Erastus Corning was inescapable. For 35 years he was the Democratic mayor of the city, and nightly broadcasts featured him prominently. Sharr White’s marvelous new play The True makes Corning (Michael McKean) a central character in a story of what political parties and machine politics once were and, by contrast, what they have become. It has scope, intelligence and terrific writing.
A teenage boy goes missing, and his foster sister embarks on an urban odyssey to track him down in the Playwrights Realm’s brazen production of The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll'd. Early-career dramatist Jonathan Payne unleashes a Pandora’s box of theatrical devices, including symbolically named characters, direct audience interaction, screen projections, a live-streaming cellphone, and actors not only breaking the fourth wall but breaking character as well. Veteran off-Broadway director Awoye Timpo molds it all into a bracing panorama of societal failures amid institutional racism. That is, until the final scene when, with the play’s momentum waning, she and Payne risk one last gambit that unfortunately swallows up all that came before it.
James and Jamesy in the Dark is an extraordinary piece of theater that fits no mold but its own. It draws on many sources—or pays homage to them—but it is a unique, thought-provoking delight. Two gifted physical performers (in whiteface and dressed top-to-toe in gray outfits, including gloves) embody the title characters. Eventually, the audience comes to recognize the taller one as Aaron Malkin’s more phlegmatic James and the shorter, more emotionally fragile one as Alastair Knowles’s Jamesy.