In the middle of the last century, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—producers, publicists, and prolific playwrights—were leading lights in the American entertainment industry. They are now remembered for writing Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history, and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their 1945 hit State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize and became a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That play is typical of the witty comedies with serious-minded underpinnings that Broadway audiences relished during World War II and after.
On Aug. 14, 1924, after a third night of sold-out houses at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, inveterate Irish playgoer Joseph Holloway noted in his diary: “The Shadow of a Gunman [has] been staged for three nights with the usual result—that crowds had to be turned away each performance. . . . Certainly [Sean O’Casey] has written the two most popular plays ever seen at the Abbey, and they both are backgrounded by the terrible times we have just passed through, but his characters are so true to life and humorous that all swallow the bitter pill of fact that underlies both pieces.”
The challenging economics of New York theater makes two-actor plays a holy grail for Off-Broadway producers. Among the numerous two-handers of the past three or four theater seasons, none has had a more arresting first act than Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. Set in an Alpine aerie, with Cold War elegance courtesy of scenic designer James J. Fenton, Switzerland depicts a showdown between Patricia Highsmith (Patricia J. Scott), author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a man she has just met named Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold). Ridgeway is supposedly a representative of a New York publishing house, sent to Switzerland to convince the 73-year-old novelist to sign a book contract.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, in revival at the Abrons Arts Center, is about the Catholic activists who burned 378 draft records with napalm in Catonsville, Md., in 1968, because “pouring napalm on pieces of paper is preferable to pouring napalm on human beings.” Its author, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, was a member of the Nine and a lifetime antiwar activist. In his play, Berrigan edits and interweaves excerpts of the trial to build arguments against the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism.
Last year’s Off-Broadway production of Daniel’s Husband by Michael McKeever focused on a loving gay couple whose lack of a legal document deprived the title character (named Mitch) of the right to determine the care of his spouse, who was stricken with a serious disease. It was easy to sympathize with the principals, whose desire for normal domesticity elicited sympathy. Charles Gershman takes a more daring tack in his new play The Waiting Game: his “hero,” Paolo, is a meth-smoking lodestar of promiscuity.
The reinvigoration of a classic can sometimes depend on a good new translation, and the Irish playwright Conor McPherson (already represented this season by the musical Girl from the North Country) has done a sterling job putting juice back into August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, one of the Swedish playwright’s masterpieces. The central couple, a captain named Edgar and his wife, Alice, are close to their 25th wedding anniversary, but their union resembles a pitched battle.
Midtown is getting a little bit greener this winter, as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables comes to life in an enchanting new version by Royal Family Productions. Adapted and directed by Chris Henry, Anne of Green Gables: Part I faithfully dramatizes Montgomery’s tale of 11-year-old orphan Anne Shirley’s new life on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century.
The title of Ray Yamanouchi’s new play suggests there is only one American tradition. Is it fireworks on the Fourth of July? Is it celebrating Thanksgiving? Or is it putting out flags on Memorial Day? The walls at the 13th Street Theater hint that Yamanouchi’s view is much darker. There are posters for shows like A Darkey Misunderstanding and the musical Big Minstrel Jubilee by William H. West (1853–1902) and one that cautions “Negroes Beware: Do Not Attend Communist Meetings,” along with a 19th-century advertisement about the Democratic Party (the face of a white-bearded man) and the Republican party (a black man with unruly hair). More modern flyers hang there too: a picture of Angela Davis with the words “Black Power” and a recent Black Lives Matter poster.
It’s surprising that Ah, Wilderness! doesn’t get done more often. Eugene O’Neill’s only full-length comedy—not, he later said, an autobiography, but a look back at the teen years he wished he’d had—the gentle two-acter is warmhearted, smart about intergenerational conflict, and extremely influential. It’s the template for every stage family comedy from You Can’t Take It With You to Morning’s at Seven and beyond, not to mention countless TV sitcoms, up to and including Modern Family. It rings with universal truths that are easy to identify with, and it’s not hard to stage.
Jordan Jaffe’s comedy-drama Whirlwind hinges on a hot topic: environmental activism. It’s also descriptive of the relationships at its center. Bethany Goodbridge (Annapurna Sriram) handles issues of environment, health and safety at Arrow Energy, a San Francisco firm that builds wind farms. Her boss, Cooper (Johnny Wu), is an arrogant corporate type who likes to brag that he has his own jet. He also has more than a businesslike eye on her. Christian Conn plays the man who brings the whirlwind into their lives and ruffles their feathers—an apt description, since he is irate that one of the company’s isolated wind farms is killing birds at a terrible rate.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), familial conflict, crucifixions and redemption are all brought to the forefront in Paul Calderon’s Master of the Crossroads, which starts off on an elevated note when Yolanda, played by Sarah Kate Jackson, storms into the home of her ex-brother-in-law, Jim-Bo. She pleads with Jim-Bo, played by Obi Abili, to convince Cornbread, Nixon Cesar, to release a man that Cornbread has mistakenly confused for being an Arab.
When actors address audiences directly, they’re said to breach the stage’s “fourth wall.” In The Mortality Machine, it’s the audience that does the breaching, penetrating all parts of the playing space and performing assigned roles side-by-side with the professionals. In this two-hour drama—site-specific, immersive, and improvisatory—part of the mystery for the playgoer is who else has bought a ticket and who’s being paid to act.
Ghosts and demons are expected to rise up on Halloween, and the ones within the haunted house of Jack Neary’s twisted and brutal tragicomedy, Trick or Treat, do not disappoint. The walking dead linger on the staircase while the spirits of deceased relatives, as well as some long-buried secrets, emerge to effectively tear apart a family. Hints of betrayal, mental illness and physical violence pervade the air, so don’t even ask what happened in the basement. Not that Neary’s characters are wearing white sheets, bloody robes or devil horns. No, this is a far scarier and more tragic clan: a passive-aggressive, Irish-American, middle-class family in eastern Massachusetts.
Tyler Everett, the protagonist of Dan Ireland-Reeves’s compelling play Bleach, takes a utilitarian view of whoring. A recent recruit to the world’s oldest profession, Tyler (Eamon Yates) has figured out how, on any given night, to reap maximal rewards at the intersection of human sexuality’s demand and supply curves.
Sebastian Barry, the Irish playwright who made a theatrical splash with his 1995 play The Steward of Christendom, has since then become as renowned for his novels (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Days Without End, A Long Long Way) and only sporadically returned to the theater. On Blueberry Hill, a presentation of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, is less a traditional play than two intertwined monologues—like The Pride of Parnell Street, a 2007 play from Barry’s hand that was presented by the same company, Fishamble, or Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—but it is riveting.
Neil LaBute burst upon the New York theater scene 20 years ago with Bash, a trio of one-act plays. It is a form he frequently returns to, and for the fourth year in a row he is represented by an evening of three one-acts under the umbrella title, LaBute New Theater Festival. Anyone familiar with the playwright’s work knows that his plays often attempt to shock—or at the very least agitate—his audiences with provocative, you-can’t-say-that-in-public pronouncements and confessions. Seemingly ordinary and recognizable individuals give voice to amoral and dark thoughts, and a successful LaBute play prompts a fair amount of uncomfortable laughter and occasional squirming in one’s seat. Fans of LaBute will be happy to know that the latest offerings contain their share of unease, and they unsettle with needling provocations around politics, race, and personal relationships.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins with a declaration of futility. Estragon, one of the play’s tramps, attempts to remove an intractable muddy boot and despairingly announces, “Nothing to be done.” This sense of existential desperation pervades the New Yiddish Rep production, performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. Director Ronit Muszkatblit’s version has to be one of the bleakest in recent memory. While the approach may not appeal to casual theatergoers, Beckett devotees will find much to savor.
The simply and ironically titled Real takes place in two time periods, New York in the present day and in 1934. The shift between them calls to mind one of Alan Ayckbourn’s time-travel plays, but playwright Rodrigo Nogueira’s voice is completely different. In the opening scene, a woman named Dominique (Rebecca Gibel), a retired concert performer, is hosting a dinner party with her husband (Charlie Pollock), who has revealed to the couple who have joined them that Dominique is practicing again.
Last year, in one of the most exciting Off-Broadway debuts of the season, the Ensemble Studio Theatre staged Abby Rosebrock’s Dido of Idaho, a darkly comic manifesto on feminism in the face of infidelity, and morals in the face of family dysfunction. Rosebrock has now returned with another new work, a character-driven drama called Blue Ridge, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.
“Obscene, provocative, criminal, controversial”—those are words used to describe Lenny Bruce, the stand-up comedian and scathing social critic who gained popularity in the 1950s and ’60s. I’m Not A Comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce, written by and starring Ronnie Marmo, captures both the acerbic and the soft sides of Bruce, who was a man seeking a voice in an oppressive time for free speech.