Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, the opening entry in the annual Brits Off-Broadway series, is less a play than a boisterous entertainment, inspired by an actual 1942 booklet issued to American soldiers and airmen arriving in Britain to help battle the Nazis. What the creators spin from it is a curious pastiche: part culture clash, part British music hall, seasoned with sometimes hoary comic clichés and a genial spirit.
All Our Children, the first play by the experienced theater and opera director Stephen Unwin, is structured as a moral debate that sheds light on the mass murder of disabled children in Nazi Germany. The play is well-staged and intermittently powerful, but overly schematic, as the characters too often feel like mouthpieces rather than fully realized individuals. It premiered on the West End in London in 2017, and now comes to the Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center, with a new cast, under the sure-handed direction of Ethan McSweeny.
By the time of Oscar Hammerstein II’s death, in August of 1960, The Twilight Zone had completed its first season on CBS, and The Lawrence Welk Show was six seasons into its 16-year run on ABC. It’s worth noting this not because one of the theater’s greatest librettists was a known fan of either TV show, but because both programs may come jarringly to mind at Doreen Taylor’s Sincerely, Oscar, a combination memoir and homage that celebrates the talent, and apparent immortality, of the man whose timeless work ranges from “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” to “Some Enchanted Evening.”
No one attends the symphony for a surprise ending, or to watch the string section go rogue. The enjoyment lies in the way that each instrument performs as expected, to the height of the players’ abilities, creating controlled harmonies and disciplined rhythms that pull at the heart while being pleasing to the ear. So it is with Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie, the absorbing new comedy from The Mad Ones that finds six parents, each with an instantly recognizable personality, playing off one another during a market-research session at a pace that can only be described as musical.
Charlie’s Waiting, a new dark comedy by Mêlisa Annis, demonstrates its young author’s flair for weaving comedy and drama together, as well as a wicked imagination. The “what if” behind the plot creates tension that is palpable.
Annis’s play opens in an English country residence, designed by Meganne George with a sparse, clean, white interior. Ludovica Villar-Hauser’s stylish direction utilizes it as a blank canvas on which to paint a picture of domestic bliss, yet Annis tells a story of characters whose lives are messy with deceit and lies.
You’ve probably heard the story, or maybe you saw the Tim Robbins movie. In 1937, the WPA shut down the Federal Theatre Project’s new “play in music” four days before opening, fearing that its radicalism and pro-union message were just too incendiary. John Houseman (producer), Orson Welles (director), and Marc Blitzstein (author) were determined to put it on somehow. On opening night, forbidden from using the designated theater and lacking an orchestra, they sent an actor out to find a piano. The audience was marched 21 blocks to another, vacant theater somebody else had found. Not allowed to appear onstage, the actors performed from the house, with Blitzstein, the only nonunion performer, playing the score from the stage. The effect was electrifying, and The Cradle Will Rock went on to find other backing and enjoy a successful, conventionally staged run.
The Red Bull Theater, founded in 2003 to focus on Jacobean drama (those English playwrights who were overshadowed by Shakespeare) has in recent seasons been incorporating non-Jacobean plays into its offerings, so it’s a pleasure to see the company back on home ground with John Webster’s potboiler The White Devil. Webster is best known for The Duchess of Malfi, perhaps the greatest non-Shakespearean play of the period; The White Devil’s complex plot is inspired by the same Italian family.
In the opening moments of Theater for a New Audience’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Metellus Cimber (Ted Deasy), one of the conspirators against Caesar, confronts a “mechanical,” or ordinary citizen, who is out on the street loudly celebrating the festival of Lupercal. Metellus ends up putting a chokehold on the man and then tossing him to the ground. The violent energy doesn’t let up for the next two hours and 40 minutes of a production that, at moments, is clear and invigorating, but at others sacrifices subtlety for movement and spectacle.
In telling the story of an innocent young man wrongly convicted of a brutal murder, Lee Brock’s highly watchable production of Lyle Kessler’s Perp becomes a battle between good and evil. Its colorful characters challenge black-and-white assumptions, which in turn gives rise to universal questions about which side of this dichotomy they are on. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the play is the professional debut of Ali Arkane in the lead role. Arkane’s quirky portrayal of the protagonist Douglass is endearing through and through. With Douglass as the criminal center stage, Perp is one of the most serene crime dramas ever.
Willy Holtzman calls his pocket-size play about Judy Holliday Smart Blonde. Not a bad title, considering Holliday’s reportedly high IQ and her early success, on stage and screen, as Billie Dawn, the seemingly dumb, actually discerning protagonist of Garson Kanin’s 1946 smash-hit comedy Born Yesterday.
Florian Zeller’s play, The Mother, is subtitled “a black farce.” If that conjures images of slamming doors and maids running around frantically in their underwear, forget it. The frenzied activity in Trip Cullman’s production is almost entirely provided by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, and although she strips down to a slip and garters at one point to put on a sexy red dress, it’s not at all lubricious or funny.
Superheroes haven’t had an easy time of it in musicals. It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman opened in 1966 to critical praise but public indifference, and then there was that little show about Spider-Man some seasons back. Add to this unlucky list Superhero at Second Stage, which at least invents its own superheroes rather than sullying the reputations of beloved ones. Further, it’s beautifully produced, assembled by experienced hands (book, John Logan; music and lyrics, Tom Kitt), and possessing several good songs. The trouble is, Superhero isn’t so much written as programmed.
Grace, blessings, and charity can come from the most unlikely sources and individuals. This is the central premise of Chisa Hutchinson’s Surely Goodness and Mercy, in which a precocious 12-year-old boy and a cantankerous school lunch lady are a pair of unlikely saviors. Set in Newark, N.J., the play shows that amid the grit and grime of urban life, simple acts of benevolence can have reverberating and profound effects.
A Jewish Joke is a one-man show about partnerships, but that is just one of its several paradoxes. The play explores Jewish comedy, though from the serious viewpoint of its effect during the era of the Hollywood blacklist, when humor could either get a guy out of a jam, or reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes. Many old jokes are told during the 90-minute production; however, they are delivered with such odd undertones that it is impossible to tell whether director David Ellenstein was hoping for legit laughter or uncomfortable sighs from the vintage zingers that are rife with sexism and prejudice. And Joke is a play about writing which, when it falters, does so because the script is, at times, contrived or repetitious. When it succeeds, it does so because Phil Johnson, of San Diego’s Roustabouts Theatre Company, so fully inhabits his role that his character’s stressed-out persona transcends the page.
Johnson portrays Bernie Lutz, a film writer for MGM Studios in its mid-20th-century heyday. Though successful at his craft, he looks the worse for wear. His sad brown suit is wrinkled, his tie atrocious, his eyeglasses cheap, and his limp comb-over barely covers his scalp. He would be considered Kafkaesque, except that on this particular morning he finds he has been transformed into, not a cockroach, but a commie. His name, along with that of his lifelong friend and writing partner, Morris Frumsky, have turned up in Red Channels, the right-wing publication that, in 1950, accused scores of entertainers and journalists of having ties to the Communist Party (Real-life names cited by Red Channels ran the artistic gamut from Orson Welles to Dorothy Parker to Leonard Bernstein.).
It seems Morris had recently taken Bernie to a soirée that was more than just the cocktail-weenie extravaganza Bernie thought it to be. The fact that Morris is nowhere to be found as the play begins, despite the fact that their latest flick, The Big Casbah, is set to premiere that very evening, telegraphs all we need to know about Bernie’s impending doom. But Johnson, who co-wrote the piece with Marni Freedman, walks us through Bernie’s very bad day nonetheless. First, it turns out that the government had sent him a warning letter regarding the “important work of investigators under Senator Joseph McCarthy,” but he conveniently had torn it into three pieces without bothering to read it, allowing him to now build tension by slowly finding each section amid the piles of crumpled papers strewn about his bungalow. Then his colleagues begin disassociating. Danny Kaye shows him the door. Louis B. Mayer has no time for him. And when Harpo Marx gives him the silent treatment, he reaches a crisis point: testify against Morris to clear his own name, or protect his pal and risk sacrificing his career.
Without other characters in the room to play against, Bernie frequently turns to the audience and tells one of the many off-color gags he has collected on index cards. Most are groaners and, whether meant to be awful or not, they do keep the audience from becoming too emotionally caught up in Bernie’s dilemma. It’s the old “alienation effect,” a technique pioneered by another member of the Hollywood blacklist, Bertolt Brecht.
Bernie also has framed pictures of his wife and his parents with which to interact. But mostly, he is on the phone. Indeed, the plot revelations are entirely dependent on the seemingly endless number of calls that Bernie makes and receives. The playwrights employ a couple of devices to minimize the drudgery. Rather than repeatedly having to dial the rotary phone, Bernie has an unseen secretary place his calls. Somehow, she is able to do so with lightning speed, adding a surreal aspect to the evening. And Bernie answers the phone each time with a different one-liner (“Bernie’s Yacht Club”). None are particularly funny, but it beats enduring a hellacious string of hellos.
Production supervisor/designer Aaron Rumley provides a desk for Bernie to work behind, and I will just assume that its drawers are full. Why else install hooks across the front of it and glaringly hang from them the scripts that Bernie risks forfeiting? Regardless, Johnson, who has been touring and perfecting this role since 2016, when the show won Best Drama at the United Solo Fest NYC, makes it work, taking his character’s motto to heart: “When there is no mensch, be the mensch.”
A Jewish Joke, by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson, runs through March 31 at The Lion Theater (410 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit ajewishjoke.com.
Jackie Sibblies Drury is not content to let audiences just watch her plays; she wants to make them conscious of how and why they are watching. In Fairview, her 2018 breakout, this meant disrupting a black family sitcom with tone-deaf white voices. For Drury, the mundane is anything but; it’s in banal, everyday interactions that society’s fault lines become most clearly visible, if we know how to see them.
Playwright Matt Williams created the TV series Roseanne, co-created the TV series Home Improvement, and was a writer on The Cosby Show, which is to say that the man knows a little something about domestic comedies in which hard-working parents love and nurture their large families. In his new play, Actually, We’re F**ked, he attempts to go in a different direction, exploring whether two young couples who are barely holding their marriages together can stop fretting, navel-gazing, and betraying each other long enough to have, or even want, a ch**d.
Psychosexual hang-ups were at the center of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play earlier this season, and they form an important part of Daddy, his newest work. Daddy, too, has an interracial gay relationship at its core, but this time Harris’s interests encompass homophobia, ageism, materialism, parental strife, fundamentalist Christianity, and the philosophy of art.
Hurricane Diane packs a lot into its 90-minute running time. It’s the type of idea-driven play that in lesser hands might become more academic journal article than piece of theater, but writer Madeleine George and director Leigh Silverman have crafted the evening with a deceptively light touch. Not since Dr. Strangelove has humanity’s inevitable annihilation been such a good time.
We Are the Tigers, which punningly describes itself as “a killer new musical,” is a whodunit that explores the trajectory of a group of teenage girls who couldn’t be more different. The girls are part of a cheerleading team called the Tigers, but are dogged by an epic stumble in the last game which went viral and left them the laughingstock of their high school community. This year, they’re determined to make a comeback. In the course of an evening, two cheerleaders are bumped off and another set up, but can the motive really be just to restore their reputation?
The twisted identities and raucous antics of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night have delighted audiences for centuries—and a new production is showing why. Directed by Lynnea Benson, Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night offers an enjoyably accessible take on the Bard’s famed tale.