Drama

Life x 3

Life x 3

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.

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Shadow of Heroes

Shadow of Heroes feature image

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.

Ernő Gerő (David Logan Rankin, left), Hungarian party leader after the war, and László Rajk (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) talk candidly about politics. Top: Gerő (Rankin) toasts the new Hungarian Communist party with Beater, a partisan (Joseph J. Menino, left).

Ernő Gerő (David Logan Rankin, left), Hungarian party leader after the war, and László Rajk (Trevor St. John-Gilbert) talk candidly about politics. Top: Gerő (Rankin) toasts the new Hungarian Communist party with Beater, a partisan (Joseph J. Menino, left).

The portrait of Hungarians living under a totalitarian government is well wrought in Robert Ardrey’s gripping 1958 drama, directed by Alex Roe. The Author (Joel Rainwater) adeptly narrates the historical events, and there are many to follow, as the story outlines how politics is played like a chess game. After the war, László is made foreign minister. Someone asks, “When did he become foreign minister?” The response is “This morning.” But for each advance, there is a coup. László is soon accused of anti-party actions and imprisoned, tortured and hanged.

Ernő Gerő (a standout performance by David Logan Rankin), the Communist party leader after the war, cuts an imposing and sinister figure. Other characters, such as Viktor (H. Clark Kee), a cruel but bumbling general; his brutal son (James Ross; a talent to watch) who tortures the prisoners, including Rajk, show how personal views were redirected as political winds changed.

The Soviets played a complicated role in the Hungarian Revolution. Zenon Zeleniuch is the cold, emotionless Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary who helped suppress the revolution. He is not the only ideologue in this history lesson. When Gerő isn’t clear about something, he says, “Can’t you tell me something in party terms?”

László (John-Gilbert) (R), in the grip of Rakosi (Zenon Zeleniuch) (L) on his way to prison. Photographs by Emily Hewitt.

László (John-Gilbert) (R), in the grip of Rakosi (Zenon Zeleniuch) (L) on his way to prison. Photographs by Emily Hewitt.

A very simple set (Vincent Gunn) of large wooden boxes, which are moved around to create scenes, gives a sense of the poverty of society during the Hungarian Revolution. Jessie Lynn Smith’s lighting, balancing light and dark, captures the shadowiness of both the actions of so many, as well as the way heroes (such as László and Julia) were cast to the corners during this tumultuous time. Sidney Fortner’s costumes expertly exaggerate the difference between peasants (in drab, worn-out clothing) and politicos (in sharp, well-cut suits). The actors play multiple roles and include Margaret Catov, Steve Humphreys and Joseph J. Menino.

“Don’t look at your watch,” László tells János. “Looking at a watch doesn’t change time.” How right he is. People disappeared, were killed quietly, or executed publicly. At one point, János is brought down from his political pedestal, imprisoned and tortured so badly his hand is crippled. But then he is appointed to head the party, where he served for more than 30 years. (It’s hard to keep track when government appointments changed like a game of musical chairs.) What is the cost of totalitarianism? The cost is the truth and everyone’s changes according to political need, and for their own protection, making even a simple thing like friendship a complicated and sometimes dangerous proposition.

Shadow of Heroes plays through Dec. 9 at the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 E. 4th St., between Avenues A and B). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. To purchase ticket, call (800) 838-3006 or visit the box office or metropolitanplayhouse.org/shadow.

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

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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 does little to ameliorate a play rife with didacticism, pretentious faux-Shakespearean speeches, and characters baldly modeled on Adolf Hitler and his cronies.

In keeping with Brechtian theory, announcements of events help the audience along: here, loudspeakers describe turning points in German history, from the Nazi appropriation of Hindenburg’s support to the Anschluss with Austria in 1938. A chorus periodically chants a forecast or a commentary, such as, at the opening:

Raúl Esparza (left) plays the title role and Eddie Cooper is Ernie Roma in Bertolt Brecht’s  The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.  Top: A scene from the play, with George Abud (center).

Raúl Esparza (left) plays the title role and Eddie Cooper is Ernie Roma in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Top: A scene from the play, with George Abud (center).

…The mysterious
Dullfleet murder!,,,
Justice lies in coma!
Togetherness in gangsterdom!...
Who rubbed out Ernie Roma?...
And in the grand finale of the show:
Crooks conquering the town of Cicero!

Brecht chose satire and allegory as the primary means of telling his story of gangsters in Chicago taking over the Cauliflower Trust—a grocery combine that stands in for Weimar Germany. Ui’s henchmen have names that correspond to their Nazi models: Givola for Goebbels, Giri for Goering, Roma for Ernst Roehm.

They speak in Shakespearean iambs, a counterpoint to their criminal status. The disconnection between flowery language and lowlife shenanigans is a comic technique that Charles Portis used effectively in True Grit and that the Oscar-winning film Tom Jones employed in 1963. In George Tabori’s translation, also from 1963, it’s all musty and too clever by half. “But I won’t tolerate no hebetude,” says Ui at one point, using a nifty word scarcely heard or written any more, with a meaning not discernible from the context. The surprise of the formal language from the mouths of thugs quickly wears thin.

More direct references to Shakespeare are also distracting. Richard III is invoked by name, for instance, and a late scene echoes Richard’s wooing of Lady Anne. Apart from that, Ui recites most of “Friends, Romans, countrymen” and later says, “Is this a Luger that I see before me?” And Roma refers to his “salad days.”

The performers, for the most part well-spoken and clear, bring little nuance to the blunt script. The exception is Raúl Esparza in the title role. As Ui, he sports a creditable Brooklyn accent and invests the character’s low self-esteem with comic spin that may recall a certain President’s narcissism:

Nobody talks about me any more.
Yeh, fame is kinda short-lived in this burg!
“Whatever happened to Arturo Ui?”
Two months without a brawl, and twenty murders
All forgotten.

As he climbs the ladder, he takes lessons in walking and rehearses throwing blame on others—“Oh, that doesn’t sound right!” Ui’s character veers toward self-aggrandizement, and Esparza calibrates the danger and the comedy superbly. By the time he says, “What I demand is trust and trust again!” it’s clear that the revival is keyed to this particular moment in American political life. But it makes the Julius Caesar in Central Park with a Donald Trump lookalike in the title role seem subtle by comparison.

Omozé Idehenre plays Betty Dullfeet, and Christopher Gurr is her husband. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Omozé Idehenre plays Betty Dullfeet, and Christopher Gurr is her husband. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Also coming off well is Eddie Cooper’s Ernie Roma, a giant of a thug who emanates danger and power, but speaks the heightened lingo with the finesse of Sydney Greenstreet. George Abud handles the words authoritatively and often quickly, but with admirable clarity, although his two roles, Clark and Ragg, are secondary. Actress Omozé Idehenre is a formidable (male) opponent of Ui and the Cauliflower Trust; director John Doyle’s gender-blind casting neither adds nor detracts.

Doyle has the actors rush around and shout a good deal to disguise the talkiness of the play, but there is an immediacy in his three-quarters staging. Doyle has designed a sort of rough theater set: a chain-link fence perhaps 20 feet high separates the upstage, which contains lockers, from the playing area, and it lends an industrial coldness to the proceedings, something Brecht would have appreciated. Hats dot the upstage wall (costume designer Ann Hould-Ward’s selection of pork pies, bowlers, cloth caps, et al. are a significant plot element, scalps for Elizabeth A. Davis’s ruthless Giri: “Her prime perversion, believe it or not,/Collecting the hats of the people she shot.”)

Brecht aficionados may find it worth the effort to add Arturo Ui to their lists, but this tiresome production may discourage those who have never seen Brecht’s great works—Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle—from giving them a try. That would be too bad.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui runs through Dec. 22 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St.) Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; an additional student matinee is scheduled for Nov. 29, and there are no performances on Nov. 22 or 23. Tickets may be purchased by calling (866) 811-54111 or visiting classicstage.org.  

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Beautiful Day Without You

Beautiful Day Without You feature image

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.

Directed by Erwin Maas, the play treats a number of contemporary issues in the U.S., including racism, homophobia, drug use, and the limitations of the health care system. Emphasizing the racial and gender divisiveness metaphorically, the play is framed by the specter of a dead puny dog of mixed breed (and awaiting an autopsy in a refrigerator’s salad crisper) and an offstage Doberman, a powerful purebred descended from notable European lineage and described as “supreme breed.” There are also a few shocking twists and more than a few scabrous epithets along the way to the unconvincing conclusion. In short, this is Neil LaBute territory with even less subtlety.

Richarda Abrams (left) plays Janet Blount, an out-of-work nurse, and Anne Son is Rachel Huang, an animal control officer, in Marco Calvani’s  Beautiful Day Without You . Top: Son with Dan Butler, who plays Bob Sacco, a belligerent Doberman owner.

Richarda Abrams (left) plays Janet Blount, an out-of-work nurse, and Anne Son is Rachel Huang, an animal control officer, in Marco Calvani’s Beautiful Day Without You. Top: Son with Dan Butler, who plays Bob Sacco, a belligerent Doberman owner.

Bob Sacco (Dan Butler) proudly boasts of his white European ancestry and is the owner of Blaze, the “supreme breed” Doberman. Blaze is accused of killing Pippi, a small mongrel dog, owned by Janet Blount (Richarda Abrams), an African American, out-of-work nurse. The hot-tempered and alcoholic Bob claims to have no recollection of the incident, and Janet, who calls the deceased animal her “baby,” apparently took the animal home after the attack rather than to a veterinary hospital. In just one of many implausible plot points, it is only after Bob refuses to take responsibility for his dog’s actions that Janet threatens to call the police.

Rachel Huang (Anne Son), an Asian-American lesbian (all of the characters’ individual identities are underscored in the play) is the animal control officer assigned to investigate the case. As the play progresses, the trio develop an unlikely codependent relationship. Bob has a stroke, Janet becomes his nurse, and Rachel finds support and assistance from the other two in helping to cope with her heroin-addicted wife.

The connections joining the characters are tenuous at best, and the play lacks satirical bite and caustic social commentary. That said, Calvani deserves credit for tackling pressing cultural issues in the U.S. They seem to derive, however, from the perspective of an outsider, one who hasn’t been steeped in America’s boiling identity politics. For instance, quotidian racism and homophobia, except when addressed by neo-Nazis and white nationalists, tend to be insidious in their carefully contained subtext and in deep-rooted discriminatory practices. Here, bigotry and bias are expressed openly and carelessly. For instance, Rachel overtly refers to Janet and other African Americans as “you people”; Janet points to Saint Paul in the Bible for justifying her attitudes toward homosexuality; and Bob describes a presumably effeminate dog with an anti-gay slur and bemoans the rise of African American fraternities at Northwestern. Ranting about the changing demographic in the Chicago suburb, he says:

When we moved here this neighborhood used to be so close-knit, quiet, harmless. I mean, look at it now! I swept my sidewalk only yesterday and go look at it now! A disaster, junk everywhere! They are dirty, loud, lazy. And most of all they are poor! I don’t know how it happened but somehow we became less and less and less!

Janet (Abrams) nurses a stricken Bob (Butler). Photographs by Deen van Meer.

Janet (Abrams) nurses a stricken Bob (Butler). Photographs by Deen van Meer.

The characters and their devotion to one another come across not as simply insensitive but borderline psychopathic.

Maas’s direction does not mitigate the play’s tilt toward overstatement. The evening begins (and ends) with the three actors jogging in place and picking up the pace to a fevered sprint. The mad dash and heightened emotions rarely slow down enough to let the audience take a breath, and the evening becomes rapidly enervating.

As the emotionally on-edge Bob, Butler (the bullying Bulldog from television’s Frasier) is aggressively forceful, but he injects his performance with a few moments in which he reveals vulnerability as well as abject grief over the death of his wife. Blount, as the financially struggling nurse with her own family problems, holds her own against her belligerent neighbor. Son’s character is the least fully drawn, but she too has some nice moments as she exposes the character’s efforts to keep personal issues out of her professional life.

Guy De Lancey designed the set, lighting, and costumes. The entire theater, including the floor and audience seats, is draped in white painter’s canvas. The impression is that of a liminal space, a world somewhere between earth and heaven, art and reality, and being and becoming. Regrettably, this is a play that would have been more effective if it were grounded in the here and now.

Beautiful Day Without You plays through Nov. 25 at the West End Theatre (263 West 86th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. There are no performances on Nov. 21 and 22, but there is an added matinee at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24. Tickets range from $35 to $65 and can be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting origintheatre.org.

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Lewiston/Clarkston

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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.

Chris (Edmund Donovan) and Heidi Armbruster as his mother, Trisha. Top: Arnie Burton plays Connor, the platonic roommate of Kristin Griffith’s Alice, in  Lewiston,  the first half of Samuel D. Hunter’s linked plays,  Lewiston/Clarkston.

Chris (Edmund Donovan) and Heidi Armbruster as his mother, Trisha. Top: Arnie Burton plays Connor, the platonic roommate of Kristin Griffith’s Alice, in Lewiston, the first half of Samuel D. Hunter’s linked plays, Lewiston/Clarkston.

Lewiston, the more intriguing of the two works, is set at a fireworks stand off a rural highway in Lewiston, Idaho. Alice (Kristin Griffith), a sturdy and stoic septuagenarian, runs the place while holding tight to the 20 acres of family land that have yet to be overrun by new construction. Alice’s helper, platonic roommate and voice of reason is Connor (Arnie Burton), a former butcher who just wishes that Alice would sell off her property so they could go live in a nice condo with a swimming pool. Hunter keenly shows the pair to be stuck in an unnatural stasis. Field mice, shaken by the shrinking fields, have taken to gnawing through the stand’s inventory to eat the gunpowder, while the only fireworks Alice can legally sell are those that stay tethered to the ground. “Fountains, sparklers, smoke bombs, little rolly things. Not much else.” But then Alice’s 24-year-old granddaughter, Marnie (Leah Karpel), comes to call, providing the spark that will blow up their unstable calm.  

It is Marnie’s first visit since she was a child, and although she arrives with just a backpack, she brings no shortage of emotional baggage. She and Alice are both haunted by Marnie’s mother, who arrives as a disenfranchised voice on a collection of cassette tapes that Marnie has inherited. Marnie’s connection to the land, meanwhile, is full of ironies. Her childhood home is now a gas station. She has built, and abandoned, an urban farm in Seattle. The very concept of urban farming sounds crazy to Connor, but not as crazy as her vegetarian lifestyle. “Oh well lah dee dah, look who’s too good for the food chain,” he says mockingly. All three characters get under one another’s skin as they weigh the importance of holding on to the past against the sacrifices of letting it go. Precise, charismatic performances from Griffith and Burton, as survivors who have had to swallow a lot over their lifetimes stand in juxtaposition to Karpel’s sensitive work as a woman whose own problems are just beginning. Under the fine direction of Davis McCallum, the trio brings a perfect tension to the proceedings.

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.

Where Lewiston is about finding home, Clarkston is about fleeing it. Where Lewiston slowly peels back layers of story to reveal harsh realities, Clarkston tears open its wounds and lets them seep. The action, this time, takes place in Clarkston, Wash., under the cold, fluorescent lights of a Costco, that great American icon of overabundance amid poverty, with its shelves full of 80-inch televisions and giant tubs of cheese puffs.

Two night-shift workers, Chris and Jake (Edmund Donovan and Noah Robbins), are getting to know each other. There are commonalities. They are both in their early 20s, both have fled their families, and both are gay. But the tensions lie in their differences. Chris is outwardly rugged yet sensitive enough to want to be a writer. He has been living on his own for six months, needing to escape his mother, Trisha (Heidi Armbruster) and her struggles with drug addiction. Jake is scrawny and sickly, carrying a disease that he is sure will kill him before he turns 30. He has escaped his apparently caring and well-to-do family in Connecticut, because it is the only thing in his life that he can escape. Chris plans for the future while Jake sulks: “It’s a terrible time to be alive. There’s just nothing left to discover.”

Noah Robbins, foreground, as Jake, and Donovan as Chris in  Clarkston . Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Noah Robbins, foreground, as Jake, and Donovan as Chris in Clarkston. Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Gut punches come hard and fast to Chris. His dream is crushed, his mother falters, and he learns a hard truth about his absent father. Jake provides little solace as they attempt to become more than just friends. He considers suicide in front of Chris one moment and further aggravates Chris and Trisha’s broken relationship the next.

Hunter is perhaps counting on Jake’s sickness to make him a sympathetic character, but despite (or perhaps because of) a performance from Robbins that captures all of Jake’s irritating qualities, he is difficult to like. Chris is in need of comforting, but it is hard to buy the attraction he feels. We are left wanting more interaction between Donovan and Armbruster, who are no less than captivating in the scenes that they do have together. Hunter is also too carefree, at times, in his setups. We learn, early on, that Jake tends to drop things and that neither man has ever been to the Pacific Ocean, so we know it is only a matter of time before Jake indeed drops something important and the two make a beeline for the coast.

McCallum and his production team keep things intimate, staging the plays for an audience of 51 in what was formerly the house of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Folding chairs on a carpeted playing area have replaced the battered old installed seating, and communal tables come out between plays, allowing the audience to compare appetites while contrasting the West Village to the West.

Lewiston/Clarkston is playing through Dec. 16 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday, with special Friday matinees at 1 p.m. on Nov. 9, 16, and 30. For tickets and information, visit rattlestick.org.

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Good Grief

Good Grief featured image

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.

Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) rekindle their romance in Hgozi Anyanwu’s  Good Grief . Top: N (Anyanwu) and MJ (Ian Quinlan) as their younger selves.

Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) rekindle their romance in Hgozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief. Top: N (Anyanwu) and MJ (Ian Quinlan) as their younger selves.

Making everyone else feel lazy, Anyanwu also leads the cast of Good Grief as Nkechi, a young woman whose sprightly energy masks a deep seam of pain. Growing up in ultra-white Bucks County, Pa., Nkechi and her brother Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha) have always felt out of place, but the death of MJ (Ian Quinlan), Nkechi’s soulmate, has struck them both in ways they can neither fully understand nor articulate. Parents Papa and NeNe (Homecoming Queen vets Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes) are doing the best they can to understand Nkechi’s pain, but the generational and cultural divide may be too wide.

Anyanwu’s play mostly avoids the clichés that tend to reduce stories of death to stages-of-grieving checklists. Good Grief acknowledges the fickleness of memory by jumping around in time and doubling back on certain scenes, to show first how Nkechi (who goes by “N” since people have a hard time saying her name) wishes certain events happened, versus how they actually happened, inevitably in much more mundane, messy fashion.

N drops out of pre-med following MJ’s death, but she isn’t sure if it was just a convenient excuse to leave something she was only doing to please her parents. This is familiar ground for second-generation immigrant stories, but the tropes are made fresh by Timpo’s magical-realist direction, which favors natural, relaxed speech but concedes that even reality often feels unreal, especially when experienced through the prism of extreme emotional duress. Timpo and sound designer Daniel Kluger together create the play’s most moving scene by having N’s sobs emanate from the stage speakers instead of N herself, who cowers in a corner. This experience of sadness, as though viewed from outside oneself, is immediately familiar and heartbreaking.

Set designer Jason Ardizzone-West further divorces N’s memoryscape from tangible reality by rendering rural Bucks County without a single tree or hint of nature. The set is all steel girders and sliding panels of augmented pegboard. Like Ardizzone-West’s Emmy-winning design for this year’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, the set serves primarily to sculpt and bend Oona Curley’s lights. Yet small stabs of realism, such a stereo playing Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” anchor meaningful moments with a kind of solidity, as with all forms of nostalgia.

N and JD (Hunter Parrish) release long-buried emotions. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

N and JD (Hunter Parrish) release long-buried emotions. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Pop-culture nostalgia is actually the emotional currency for the younger characters in the play. In a single scene, N and Bro reference The Wire, Clarissa Explains It All, The Hulk, Coach Carter, Lean on Me, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, “Conjunction Junction,” and DRS’s 1993 tribute to fallen friends, “Gangsta Lean.” These throwbacks are more than conversation fodder for the characters, though; they are landmarks that continue to define their self-image. Anyanwu seems to be suggesting, though without any reinforcement from the production itself, that it is this very adherence to pop culture totems that keeps N and Bro from properly dealing with their pain, and not their perceived difference from their white town. (And the play does go to great pains to imply that this difference is illusory, down to the inclusion of a nice white boy, JD, played by Hunter Parrish.)

The only “good” grief on display in Good Grief is Papa and NeNe’s. Though their Nigerian identity isolates them from their Americanized children, it also has allowed them to thrive while their children flounder. As N sobs upstairs, Papa and NeNe dance and rekindle their affection. It’s not cruel indifference, just hard-won perspective. “Go back to school,” Papa advises N. “Do first, feel second.”

Good Grief ends on a note of cosmic rejuvenation which the play, for all its creativity, never quite earns. In the end, grief is grief and there are really only two endings likely: triumph or capitulation. N is the play’s lodestar, but by framing her existence almost entirely through the men in her life, the outcome feels increasingly arbitrary. N deserves to be more than her sadness. Grief can be good or bad, but it isn’t necessarily interesting.

Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief plays through Nov. 18 at the Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.

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Days of Rage

Days of Rage  feature image

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.

Levenson writes with great clarity about the fundamental unclarity of the human situation. Several times Jenny talks in startling detail about the effects of napalm and the Vietnamese children it has killed. It is the spring of her idealism and of her willingness to resort to violence. Hal has no satisfying response to her.

The play, adventurously directed by Trip Cullman, opens with a crash of music and blaring lights that subside quickly, leaving the audience facing the interior of a house: a living room below and bedroom above. It is in this house that the intimate political and personal saga of “the collective” unfolds. Spence, Jenny and Quinn (Mike Fest, Lauren Patten, and Odessa Young, respectively) have quit school to join the movement and, with two more of their friends, created “the collective.” The loud period music of Darron West’s brilliant sound design punctuates the short scenes capturing the heady mix of weed, idealism, radical politics and youth that fills the house.

For those old enough to remember, the mix is pitch-perfect. These are days of free love, of radical politics, of revolution, and of rejecting parents, school, and, most passionately of all, the war in Vietnam. Spence has a volume of Lenin that he reads. As members of the collective, the three share all decisions (money) and responsibilities (dishes). Even their bodies are on a rotating schedule: “We share everything,” Spence explains to Peggy. “Why should our bodies be any different?"

The timing and ensemble work of the actors is flawless. Spence, Jenny and Quinn spend their days fruitlessly trying to sign people up for free rides to Chicago for the protest. The story takes off with two events. Hal (J. Alphonse Nicholson), whose brother is fighting in Vietnam, is a gentle black man who works for a living and whose quiet attention stirs Jenny into life and into a reevaluation of that life as a romance buds. How will Hal’s presence in Jenny’s life play out in a collective in which everything is shared?

Lauren Patten (left) is Jenny and J. Alphonse Nicholson is Hal in Steve Levenson’s  Days of Rage.  Top: Tavi Gevinson (left) plays outsider Peggy, and Odessa Young is Quinn. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Lauren Patten (left) is Jenny and J. Alphonse Nicholson is Hal in Steve Levenson’s Days of Rage. Top: Tavi Gevinson (left) plays outsider Peggy, and Odessa Young is Quinn. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

At the same time, a wacky outsider, Peggy (Tavi Gevinson), desperate for a place to crash even with $2,000 in her pocket, swears allegiance to the Revolution and worms her way into the group. It is Peggy who first insists she is being followed by the FBI. It is Peggy who will try to get the collective to expel Jenny, and it is she who will supply Spence with a gun, egg him on to use it, and push the collective over the edge. This is the edge that Levenson sets out to explore, the cocktail that will or will not explode into violence.        

Levenson writes with great clarity about the fundamental unclarity of the human situation. Several times Jenny talks in startling detail about the effects of napalm and the Vietnamese children it has killed. It is the spring of her idealism and of her willingness to resort to violence. Hal has no satisfying response to her. Are there times in which violence makes sense? But shattering news arrives: two friends have accidentally blown themselves up in an attempt to bomb a Detroit bank as an act of political protest. Hal points out that innocent workers in the bank, whose only “crime” is that they were trying to make a living, would have been killed if they had succeeded. It is now Jenny and her friends who are silent. Clearly, this violent protest cannot be the answer, either.     

There is a second instance in which a bomb fails to explode—in a story Jenny shares with Hal. They are spooky moments, in which life appears to be imitating art since this play was already in previews when the country was startled by pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats which have also not exploded. The year 1969 is a window into our fraught times, and Levenson uses it just as Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials to focus his unsparing gaze on the McCarthy years in The Crucible.  

Days of Rage is playing through Nov. 25 at the 2nd Stage (305 West 43rd St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets from $40. For tickets and information, call (212) 246-4422 or visit 2st.com.

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Gloria: A Life

Gloria: A Life

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.

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Travisville

Travisville feature image

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.

Bjorn DuPaty (left) plays minister Ora Fletcher, and Denny Dale Bess is the mayor, Ainsley Gillette, in William Jackson Harper’s debut play,  Travisville.  Top: Minister D. L. Gunn (Nathan James, right) addresses a meeting of ministers (from left, Ivan Burch as Howard Mims, Brian D. Coats as Alden Hurst, and DuPaty).

Bjorn DuPaty (left) plays minister Ora Fletcher, and Denny Dale Bess is the mayor, Ainsley Gillette, in William Jackson Harper’s debut play, Travisville. Top: Minister D. L. Gunn (Nathan James, right) addresses a meeting of ministers (from left, Ivan Burch as Howard Mims, Brian D. Coats as Alden Hurst, and DuPaty).

Co-produced by Radio Drama Network, Travisville takes its name from a section of Dallas (though it’s unnamed in the play), where an urban development project has targeted a largely black section of town. It will displace the residents, and those who profit will be the white developers. It’s an old problem that blacks have had to face repeatedly, and an element of August Wilson’s Jitney, too. What emerges under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, however, is the sense of stifling oppression. Although the Civil Rights Act has just been passed, the white mayor, Ainsley Gillette (Denny Dale Bess), urges a calm to let attitudes change gradually. Going along is Brian D. Coats’s elder Alden Hurst, a dying but still vital leader of the city’s black congregations. Gillette has persuaded Hurst to agree to the razing of Travisville as a boon to the community, white and black.

Two newcomers threaten to upset the established order, however. One is Ora Fletcher (Bjorn DuPaty), a young minister Hurst is grooming as his successor. Fletcher, married to a sympathetic and pregnant wife (a warm and lighthearted Stori Ayers). Fletcher hasn’t got his footing in local politics yet, but as he learns how it operates, the audience does too.

The second person upsetting the apple cart is Zeke Phillips (Sheldon Best), a young organizer of sit-ins and an activist, but one not immune to logic and discussion. He has sparked a local crisis by leading a sit-in at a lunch counter that resulted in “rednecks” getting into a fight with him, and three arrests. Gillette is upset about it, although another minister, Nathan James’s D.L. Gunn, is taking a firmer stand with the mayor than Hurst:

Gunn: It’s not exactly against the law for a Negro to sit a lunch counter anymore. It just sounds like a fight to me.
Gillette: Right. But…come on.
Gunn: …Come on what?
Gillette: This is gonna take some time. This can’t…this won’t just happen overnight.
Gunn: Of course. However, to be fair, this hasn’t been overnight.

As the play, co-produced by Radio Theatre Network, unfolds, Zeke urges black residents to stand up for their rights and not accept low-balling offers for their homes, which the city plans to seize by eminent domain. Many blacks, fearful of ending up with nothing, balk at Zeke’s proposal, but Shawn Randall’s Orthell Dawson sees the point. His wife, Georgia, though, isn’t keen on fighting, and Lynnette R. Freeman, in a wrenching speech, details why:

I don’t need this. I keep my mouth shut all day. Picking up after these white folk, spending time with their kids while mine have to go Sister Franklin’s. … Then, on the off day I get to bring my babies to work, they still have to come after the little white kids I’m being paid to raise. Eat after they eat. Play with stuff when they done.

Sheldon Best (left) as Zeke Phillips listens to Georgia Dawson talk about her struggles. Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Sheldon Best (left) as Zeke Phillips listens to Georgia Dawson talk about her struggles. Photographs by Jeremy Daniel.

Most of the actors double in roles, as black ministers, homeowners, and church folk. Canny costume designer Suzanne Chesney provides charcoal suits for the middle-class blacks and a beige suit for the mayor; when he wears gray, it’s still lighter than the grays of the black characters. And Chesney gives Ayers as a slightly comic church lady an appropriately bright hat for worship.

The conflict between Hurst on the one side and Fletcher, Gunn, and Phillips on the other plays out deftly in Harper’s hands. “We’re not a monolith, young man,” Fletcher tells Phillips at one point. Nor is Gillette a stereotype; he may feel obliged to see the big picture, but he’s aware that his actions will hurt the black population, and Harper allows some sympathy for the delicate balancing act he has. All in all, Travisville is a powerful drama from an exciting new voice in the theater.

The Ensemble Studio Theatre and Radio Drama Network production of Travisville runs through Oct. 28 at Ensemble Studio Theatre (545 W. 52nd St., almost at 11th Avenue). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 and 25–27 and at 5 p.m. Oct. 28; there is also a matinee at 2 p.m. Oct. 27. For tickets and information, visit ensemblestudiotheatre.org.

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Goodbody

Goodbody feature image

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.

Raife Baker as Spencer and Amanda Sykes as Marla in  Goodbody . Top: Baker with Alex Morf as Charlie Aimes. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

Raife Baker as Spencer and Amanda Sykes as Marla in Goodbody. Top: Baker with Alex Morf as Charlie Aimes. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

After a shaky start, the play eventually finds its groove over the next hour or so, displaying an interesting dichotomy of its own to rival that of its characters. Stuck together, the gun-wielding Marla (Amanda Sykes) and chair-bound Spencer (Raife Baker) must each rely on the word of the other as means of escape from their unusual predicament.

Marla: You had me running around out there like I’m the Hardy Boys, thinking some big bad guy was gonna find us, and the whole time you were just trying to get the gun! Holy smoke.
Spencer: There is a big bad guy!
Marla: How do I know you aren’t the big bad guy?

All this is further complicated by the entrance of bumbling cop-turned-mobster Charlie Aimes (Alex Morf), who longs to be taken seriously, only to be comically undermined by his ever-constant need to unsheathe his gun from its holster (as well as by Spencer’s equally constant need to call Aimes by his vulgar childhood nickname).

Rounding out the cast of characters is the omnipotent Chance O’Leary (Dustin Charles), one-half of the O Brothers, a prominent family of Irish mobsters. In a grotesque game of show-and-tell, each vacillates between trust and doubt.  Through a series of misunderstandings, a pattern begins to emerge as each character’s façade slowly fades away and all hell breaks loose.

As the play’s oddball trio of small-time criminals, actors Sykes, Baker and Morf each create a believable dynamism between them, buoying Ernst’s often nonsensical, hilarious dialogue (not an easy feat considering the various acts of violence they commit against one another throughout). Morf, in particular, provides some much-needed levity as the naive and eager-to-please Aimes—especially in scenes shared with Baker, whose Spencer acts as a quick-witted foil to his counterpart. As for Sykes, her Marla walks the line between innocent airhead and ravenous avenger with comedic ease; while Charles’s cherub-faced Chance deliciously serves both morality and malice, at once reminiscent of many a crime boss before him. (Lukas Haas in Brick and Ralph Fiennes’ Harry in In Bruges, for instance, spring to mind.) 

Marla comforts an uneasy Spencer.

Marla comforts an uneasy Spencer.

From physical façades to actual façades, Matthew McCarren’s set and lighting design help to not only bolster its theme of hiding in plain sight, but its claustrophobic atmosphere, as well. Taking its cue from the film world, McCarren’s subversion of the ordinary in his use of farming tools as deadly weapons helps to add stakes to the trio’s situation, especially once Chance makes his entrance. Under Melissa Firlit’s direction, the actors’ make effective, economical use of the small stage, taking advantage of McCarren’s inclusion of a ladder, one of many key props for the plot at its center. And the action in this dark comedy,  whether it’s the initial, heart-pounding gunshot or the somewhat comical showdown, is helped by Cliff Williams’ fight direction, with each sequence inciting in the audience both gasps and giggles alike.   

With its deftly crafted humor amid literally stomach-curdling violence, Goodbody successfully pays homage to the action-comedy genre with unabashed, bloody brio.

Goodbody plays through Nov. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison, Manhattan). Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information, visit 59e59.org.

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Sakina’s Restaurant

Sakina’s Restaurant

Leslie R. Herman

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. 

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Mother Night

Mother Night feature image

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.

Originating in San Francisco at the Custom Made Theatre Company, Katz’s adaptation, which he has directed, can’t really substitute for the novel or as a credible meal in itself. However, as an aperitif to whet the appetite for the full Vonnegut experience of works like Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, it will do. Certainly fans of Vonnegut will find familiar elements.

You admire pure hearts and heroes. And you believe in romance. You’d be an authentic hero, about a hundred times braver than any ordinary man.

The central character is Howard J. Campbell Jr. (Gabriel Grilli), a prisoner in an Israeli jail awaiting trial for Nazi war crimes. (Campbell also puts in an appearance in Slaughterhouse-Five.) A playwright who was born in America but raised in Germany after age 11, Howard married Helga, a German actress with Nazi sympathies (Trish Lindstrom), and eventually became a speechwriter and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda. (The adaptation has cameos by Adolf Eichmann and Josef Goebbels.)

Like the novel, the play uses Howard as a narrator and jumps backward and forward in time. If at first Vonnegut seems to be exploring the thoughts and behavior of a dyed-in-the-wool American turned Nazi, a redeeming complication is introduced: Howard was, in fact, a double agent whose broadcasts, punctuated with pauses, hems and haws, and coughs, communicated top-secret information to the listeners. Only FDR and Howard’s handler, Wirtanen (a woman now, in a departure from the novel, played with steely determination and yet kindness by Andrea Gallo), were aware of his spy status. Wirtanen has gleaned the best way to recruit Howard from reading and seeing his plays: “You admire pure hearts and heroes. And you believe in romance. You’d be an authentic hero, about a hundred times braver than any ordinary man.”

Mother Night, like several Vonnegut’s novels, has a picaresque feel, and Katz’s production conveys the various episodes without seeming too disjointed as it jumps from Berlin parties to Greenwich Village to the Israeli prison. But Howard, as a writer/recorder/narrator, isn’t as interesting as the eccentrics who come into his orbit. They include Helga’s family: her sister Resi (also Lindstrom) and their father, a Nazi police chief. Howard also falls in with a gruff old painter name Kraft (Dave Sikula), who turns out to be a Communist agent living in Greenwich Village. There he also encounters an American Aryan supremacist, Jones (Eric Rice), a religious nut whose declarations sound eerily contemporary.

Everything we do is to make the country stronger. Join with us, and let’s get the Jews! The Catholics! The Negros! The Unitarians! The foreign-born, who don’t have any understanding of democracy, who play right into the hands of the socialists, the communists, the anarchists, the anti-Christ and the Jews!

Jones seemingly reunites Howard with his long-lost Helga, who disappeared during the war in a visit to troops in Crimea, and now brings him a suitcase of all his early writings. Howard learns that her father was hanged by slave laborers working on his home in Berlin.

From left: Eric Rice, Matthew Van Oss and Dave Sikula play members of the ensemble in  Mother Night,  as well as individual characters. Top: Gabriel Grilli as Howard Campbell, with Trish Lindstrom as his wife, Helga. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

From left: Eric Rice, Matthew Van Oss and Dave Sikula play members of the ensemble in Mother Night, as well as individual characters. Top: Gabriel Grilli as Howard Campbell, with Trish Lindstrom as his wife, Helga. Photographs by Carol Rosegg.

At some points, too, Katz introduces a chorus, and they are a bit more jarring; immediately after the reunion, the chorus appears to poetically describe Howard and Helga’s lovemaking: “…my love-slave girl met me in greedy kind/ until Mother Night herself,/ who had made the most extravagant demands on us,/ could ask no more./ Mother Night herself called an end to the game.”

But although the script is packed with incidents, the production doesn’t really catch fire as a thrilling piece of theater. Then, too, the actors have varying abilities. Gallo and Sikula, along with Dared Wright as Howard’s brutal nemesis, are the most successful. Yet although the eccentric characters are always welcome, Grilli’s Campbell feels bland as an Everyman manipulated by others. His story at times seems just to plod.

All the main characters, who have assumed identities contrary to who they really are, provide Vonnegut his baldly declared theme, and it doesn’t let Howard off the hook, secret hero or not. It’s repeated as almost the final line: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

The Custom Made Theatre Company’s production of Mother Night runs through Nov. 3 at 59E59 Theatres (59 East 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, visit 59e59.org.

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What the Constitution Means to Me

What the Constitution Means to Me feature image

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.

Mike Iveson as a member of the American Legion in  What the Constitution Means to Me . Top: Heidi Schreck makes the political personal.

Mike Iveson as a member of the American Legion in What the Constitution Means to Me. Top: Heidi Schreck makes the political personal.

The play plants its femme-centric flag with preshow songs like Ariana Grande’s “God Is a Woman” and Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” with the lyric “I keep pushin’ forwards but he keeps pullin’ me backwards.” These he’s dominate the stage, with row after row of photos of pale, stale, and male veterans lining the walls of Rachel Hauck’s Legion Hall set, reconstructed more from Schreck’s memory than precise research. The play is not anti-veteran, but neither does it equivocate about the primary source of violence against women. In fact, Schreck implicates the whole audience in this violence, or at least invites them to consider their complicity, by pretending to be her American Legion onlookers. “You are all men,” she says, though Schreck’s ultimately hopeful play implies that the condition is not terminal, and might even be treatable; Mike Iveson, who joins Schreck onstage as the competition arbiter, eventually removes his costume to reveal his “true” self, which Schreck hopes can represent “positive male energy.”

What the Constitution Means to Me is built on such fluctuations of identity, with Schreck slipping in and out of character as her younger and current selves. Her conversational introduction engenders an easy and immediate intimacy with the audience. Raised to be “psychotically polite,” Schreck is a generous, responsive entertainer, tailoring her performance to the crowd’s humor and at one point waiting for an overwhelmed patron to leave before continuing a story of abuse. Hers is no vanilla presence, however; after a few more walkouts, she conceded that “those of you who are still here seem to be nice.” Schreck spends most of the evening playing her current self, so What the Constitution Means to Me might be more appropriately termed a stand-up routine than a play.

This obscuring of identity, so well-suited to the theater, at once broadens and limits the play’s scope. The stories of Schreck’s great-grandmother, a mail-order bride from Germany who died of “melancholia” in a mental institution at age 36, and her mother, who was repeatedly sexually abused, are affecting and horrifying. Yet it is never apparent if Schreck is speaking as herself or as the version of herself created for this play, and when she conjures tears at her ancestors’ trauma, it’s hard to not feel like the audience is being taken for a ride, or at least instructed how to feel.

Rosdely Ciprain debates the Constitution’s virtues. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Rosdely Ciprain debates the Constitution’s virtues. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

The play’s coup is the inclusion of a high-school-age debater from New York City; Rosdely Ciprain and Thursday Williams alternate in the role. Though the debater doesn’t enter until late in the show, her arrival brings the hope that allows Schreck to cope with the “staggering facts of violence against women.” Schreck and her young companion engage in playful scripted debate, again uneasily walking the “real”/performed divide, but the vision of young, diverse womanhood leading the charge is undeniably moving.

To call What the Constitution Means to Me timely is to state the obvious, yet it’s sheer theatrical serendipity that this play, long in development, should come out right when the confirmation of a new Supreme Court Justice is affirming our country’s ugliest tendencies. There is no period in the history of this country, though, in which its anti-patriarchal message would not be timely; that’s the whole point. Schreck demonstrates again and again that women’s bodies, just like those of African-Americans and all immigrants deemed “bad,” have been left out of the Constitution from the beginning. At the end of the play, Schreck and the young debater model community-building by asking each other questions submitted by audience members. Yet despite the evening’s timeliness, its optimism feels increasingly ingenuous. The play’s final line, “Are we done?” spoken by the young debater as a comedic throwaway, is chilling in ways the play neither intended nor can do much about.

Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me plays through Oct. 28 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with a special 7 p.m. closing performance on Oct. 28. For tickets and information, visit nytw.org.

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High Noon

High Noon feature image

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

Fred Zinnemann’s spare little 1952 Western, most film buffs will tell you, probably should have beaten out The Greatest Show on Earth for Best Picture that year, and it did garner Oscars for actor (Gary Cooper), film editing, scoring, and song. It’s the tense story of a small-town marshal about to be visited by the killer he sent up the river years ago, who’s heading back for revenge and almost sure to succeed. The marshal, having married a sweet Quaker lady that very day, first leaves town, then reconsiders, tries to assemble a bunch of deputies, fails, and is left to face the killer and his cohorts alone. It’s about bravery and resoluteness vs. small-town hypocrisy and avoidance of responsibility, or, as Pauline Kael put it, “The Western form is used for a sneak civics lesson.” 

Phil Gellin (left) and Spencer Aste are townspeople in  High Noon.  Top: Aste, with Jon McCormick (center) as Senator and Brian Barnhart as Marshal Will Barnon.

Phil Gellin (left) and Spencer Aste are townspeople in High Noon. Top: Aste, with Jon McCormick (center) as Senator and Brian Barnhart as Marshal Will Barnon.

At Axis, it also has other things on its mind. The stage, gray and empty and Cinerama-wide, represents the whole town, and in an attention-getting opening, there’s darkness and movie-ish music (Paul Carbonara’s), thundering sound effects (also Carbonara’s) and then, lights up, the entire cast. They’re celebrating the wedding of retiring marshal Will Barnon (Brian Barnhart) and Alice (Katie Rose Summerfield). And from there the script, presumably cobbled together by the whole company (there’s no writer credit), sticks fairly close to Carl Foreman’s original, but with some odd digressions and odder directorial touches.

For some reason, most of the characters’ names, and some of their personalities, have been changed. Harvey, Will’s ornery second-in-command, handsomely played by Lloyd Bridges in the film, is now Senator (Jon McCormick), although not really; this isn’t even a state, but his mother gave him an ambitious name. The hateful hotel clerk is now a hateful bartender (Phil Gillen). The killer’s menacing brother has become a giggly half-wit (Nicholas McGovern). And Alice, in conversation with Helen Ramirez (Britt Genelin), Will’s former mistress and now Harvey/Senator’s squeeze, confides in her, “I’m a feminist,” surely not a term heard much in the Old West. 

Beyond the adjustments in plot and characterization, and there are several, director Randy Sharp has reconceived the material as something of an existentialist nightmare. The townspeople often fade, dreamlike, into the background, but act as one; when Alice declares, “I don’t care who’s right or wrong,” they all suddenly look at her, as if to emphasize the town’s collective guilt. When Helen offers a speech, not in the movie, about her awful marriage, Alice inexplicably waltzes around. And while the town debates the value of fighting or not fighting, what’s Helen doing lying on the floor, waving her arms?  

Britt Genelin (left) as Helen Ramirez and McCormick. Photographs by Pavel Antonov.

Britt Genelin (left) as Helen Ramirez and McCormick. Photographs by Pavel Antonov.

Anyway, some of the staging’s effective, especially in its isolation of Will from everyone else. Barnhart, while not very Gary Cooper–like, cuts a striking figure. He seldom looks at anyone even while talking to them; he’s a loner, a sole force of heroism among cowards, and he suffers for it. As potential deputies fade away one by one, he agonizes, and we feel his helplessness and fear the showdown. 

Only there ain’t no showdown. Spoiler, but it’s unavoidable: The narrative ends before that dreaded train pulls in, and we’re denied not only the film’s taut editing and crisp cinematography as the shooting starts, but any denouement at all. The 85-minute film was praised for taking place in real time; this is over in an hour. Sharp and company do zero in on moral conflict—is Will really heroic for reviving old trouble? Is the town really wrong to want to push it away? Interesting questions, though they go unanswered. Some good acting happens, notably by Summerfield and Genelin, and there’s also expressive lighting (David Zeffren) and eye-filling costumes (Karl Ruckdeschel). In short, this High Noon makes a reasonable case for reinvestigating and reinterpreting beloved old movies. But be advised, it’s missing a couple of reels.

High Noon plays through Oct. 27 at Axis Company (1 Sheridan Square). Performances are at 8 p.m. Oct. 36, 813, 1820, and 2427. For tickets, call Theatermania (212-352-3101) or visit axiscompany.org.

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Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet feature image

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.

Bedlam’s latest production, Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, described in the show’s publicity as a mash-up of Uncle Vanya and Romeo and Juliet, takes a different approach. Rather than burrowing into the separate plays for new subtextual insights, the adaptation by Kimberly Pau looks outside of the texts for inspiration. The dramaturgical merging attempts to show how the classic works complement each other through their über-textual parallels. The final result, unfortunately, is as ungainly as the show’s title. The production ultimately numbs Chekhov’s aching anguish and neuters Shakespeare’s romantic poetry.

Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and Eric Tucker as Astrov in Kimberly Pau’s  Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet.  Top: Zuzanna Szadkowski as Yelena/Juliet and Edmund Lewis as Vanya/Romeo.

Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and Eric Tucker as Astrov in Kimberly Pau’s Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet. Top: Zuzanna Szadkowski as Yelena/Juliet and Edmund Lewis as Vanya/Romeo.

Actually, the mash-up designation is rather misleading. While one might expect this appellation to be a classical cocktail mixed with equal parts Vanya and equal parts Romeo and Juliet, the primary focus is essentially on the former. Pau has provided a script that is a generally faithful version of Chekhov’s play with just two eliminated characters (Vanya’s mother and Sonya’s former nanny), but the rest of the existentially afflicted individuals are all present.

For the first two thirds of Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, directed by Eric Tucker, audiences can expect a fairly straightforward interpretation of Chekhov’s masterwork. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the lives of Vanya (Edmund Lewis) and Sonya (Susannah Millonzi) are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Sonya’s father and pedantic professor, Serebryakov (Randolph Curtis Rand), and his young wife, Yelena (Zuzanna Szadkowski). Astrov (Tucker), the neighboring doctor and dabbler in botany, has become a permanent fixture in the home, and his passionate love for Yelena wreaks emotional havoc on the household.

Vanya also loves Yelena, and both Sonya and Yelena love Astrov, and although no one dies as a result of star-crossed passions, their fates are even worse: except for the haughty professor, the characters will presumably live in eternal misery and loneliness.

In Bedlam fashion the proceedings are punctuated with cheeky anachronisms and choreographed chaos. When Vanya threatens Serebryakov with a gun, for example, the characters scream that he is “going postal,” and Yelena has a momentary daydream/dance break underscored by the 1980s lovers’ anthem, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Moments of emotional turmoil are highlighted with actors forcefully rolling set pieces into and out of the playing space. (John McDermott’s scenic design, which playfully creates a Russian estate with moveable birch trees, office furniture, and an iconic samovar, is spot-on.)

Tucker and Szadkowski. Photographs by Ashley Garrett.

Tucker and Szadkowski. Photographs by Ashley Garrett.

The Romeo and Juliet tangents offer little in the way of emotional or intellectual illumination. At times, there are moments of cleverness, such as in a reference to Vanya’s dream. This prompts Astrov to metamorphose into Mercutio and recite his well-known Queen Mab monologue. There is also an extended riff late in the play in which Vanya fantasizes about killing Serebryakov, and the characters assume an alternative reality. Vanya/Romeo and Yelena/Juliet are romantically tragic in ways that undercuts the quotidian tragedy that Chekhov presents.

If the amalgamation does not effectively serve Chekhov’s and Shakespeare’s works, the five-member ensemble (with an on-stage musician, John Coyne, who masterfully accompanies the cast in periodic Russian folksongs) tears into the material. Alternating between rough-and-tumble acting and broad comedy, each actor also has quiet moments to show the sense of solitude just under the surface.

Les Dickert’s impressive lighting (with a special nod to the birch trees with red fairy lights) and Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s mix of contemporary and period-inflected costumes (including putting Yelena/Juliet in a white wedding dress for most of the second act) provide a waking dreamlike quality to the proceedings.

Chekhov purists might be more inclined to see the current production of Uncle Vanya across town at Hunter College. Richard Nelson’s spare, quiet production seems more radical in its simplicity. The Bedlam production needlessly and regrettably complicates the play with its infusion of dramatic schizophrenia.

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet plays through Oct. 28 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd St. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For a performance calendar and tickets, visit bedlam.org.

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A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur feature image

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.

Its two main protagonists are Dorothea (“Dotty”), a young teacher, and an older woman, Bodey, from whom she rents a space in a cramped apartment (vividly evoked by Harry Feiner as a warren of furnishings with a smash of colors). The other two characters are Helena, a well-dressed, determined woman with a plan to upset the arrangement and Miss Gluck (Polly McKie), an emotional mess in a bathrobe. Her mother has recently died, and she thinks her upstairs apartment is haunted and keeps dropping down to see the sympathetic Bodey.

Kristine Nielsen (left) is Bodey and Jean Lichty is Dotty in Tennessee Williams’s  A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur.  Top: Nielsen and Lichty with Annette O’Toole as Helena.

Kristine Nielsen (left) is Bodey and Jean Lichty is Dotty in Tennessee Williams’s A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur. Top: Nielsen and Lichty with Annette O’Toole as Helena.

Produced by La Femme Theatre Company, “dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the universal female experience,” Creve Coeur doesn’t have the more experimental elements of Williams’s late plays, nor even the framing device of A Glass Menagerie—although Creve Coeur is set in St. Louis, in the 1930s—but the delusions are present.

Dotty (Jean Lichty, founder of La Femme) is a struggling schoolteacher who rents space in a cramped apartment as she’s waiting for something better to turn up, specifically a phone call from Frank Ellis, the flashy high school principal who has taken her out.

Bodey (Kristine Nielsen), the landlady, is a dynamo who cooks, sympathizes and tries to interest Dotty in her brother, Buddy. Bodey has planned a regular Sunday outing for Creve Coeur, where there’s an amusement park, and she hopes Dotty will go. Buddy will be there.

Dotty knows that Bodey is playing matchmaker, despite Bodey’s denials, and she tries to emphasize her lack of interest in Buddy: “He simply isn’t a type that I can respond to…In a romantic fashion, honey. And to me, romance is—essential.” Fans of Williams can foretell there’s going to be heartbreak (crève-coeur is French for “heartbreak”), even if Dotty is shrewd enough to see past Bodey’s machinations, in Williams’s lyrical description of a grim future: “You’ve been deliberately plotting to marry me off to your brother so that my life would just be one long Creve Coeur picnic, interspersed with knockwurst, sauerkraut—hot potato salad dinners.”

Nielsen with Polly McKie as Miss Gluck. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

Nielsen with Polly McKie as Miss Gluck. Photographs by Joan Marcus.

In spite of the lyricism, though, Williams’s extended back-and-forth between the two women feels laborious, and director Austin Pendleton, who does a fine job otherwise, makes a crucial mistake by having Bodey read a notice in the newspaper and throw it to the ground, unnoticed by Dotty; you can almost predict in the first moments that the paper has an engagement announcement involving Ellis. The action hangs like an albatross on the already repetitious dialogue of the first half.

Things pick up when Helena arrives. Annette O’Toole is a smartly dressed social climber who teaches at Dotty’s school; she has found an apartment but needs Dotty to share expenses. It’s the clash between Helena and Bodey that provides the interest.

From the start, the elegant, supercilious Helena is thwarted by Nielsen’s tough broad, and you can’t help but root for Bodey as she prevents the pushy intruder from walking all over her—even suggesting a possible physical opposition. Nielsen expertly navigates the kindness, toughness and self-delusion of her character while finding unexpected comic moments. O’Toole, too, though easy to dislike, makes Helena more than a mere snob; she is also a woman with dreams who is too proud to admit she needs a helping hand. Lichty charts Dotty’s slow disintegration of confidence and her growing fragility and frustration, but her Dotty never implodes, even when her hopes are dashed. McKie, in a part that requires little English but expertly accented German, excels in making the weepy Gluck memorable.

Ultimately, it’s the actors who refresh the tired themes of this late Williams drama. Williams fans who rarely have the chance to see his lesser plays in good productions will welcome this opportunity.

La Femme’s production of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur plays through Oct. 21 at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $55–$99 and may be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting lafemmetheatreproductions.org.

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Spin Off

Spin Off

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.

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The True

The True

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.

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The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d

The Revolving Cycles Truly and Steadily Roll’d

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.

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James and Jamesy in the Dark

James and Jamesy in the Dark

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.

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