Trevor and Judy and Tony and Sarah

New House Under Construction is a puzzling play, perhaps because it feels like several different plays in one. Alan Hruska has built his plot around four characters comprising two couples. However, the members of each couple, and what each character wants, undergo as many revolutions as the set of the title. It’s enough to give the audience a case of whiplash. It doesn’t help matters much that the playwright’s characters play an odd game of give-and-take with the audience of 59E59 Theaters. Almost from start to finish, Hruska has every character exposit startling amounts of his or her history through their dialogue, spelling out major details from their lives. But they withhold important kernels of information that would be beneficial to the development of the play, giving the audience no real reason to connect to anyone in the show.

For instance, why are Trevor (Anthony Crane) and Tony (Kevin Isola) lifelong rivals? And if so, why are they still in close contact? Information like this would go a long way toward explaining why Trevor is building a new house for the man. Trevor, who appears to be the play’s lead, or at least its most sympathetic character, is a short story writer who moonlights as an architect. Though married to Judy (Nancy Lemenager), Trevor years ago dated Sarah (Shannon Koob), who is now married to Tony.

Hruska may play mum on that subject, but he doles out plenty of other tidbits. Judy admits to Sarah that she has sexual feelings for her, and is interested in pursuing them. Judy tells Trevor that she used to see Tony, and still has feelings for him. Tony reveals to Trevor that at age nineteen, Sarah aborted the child she had conceived with Trevor. (This particular unveiled secret holds a lot of dramatic potential that remains unrealized.)

Both couples swap partners, and in the space of one of Hruska’s overused scene changes, an entire year has passed. But it isn’t that Hruska, who also directs the play, hasn’t given his audience time to catch their breath. Rather, the problem is that the audience is never breathless in the first place. The revelations come so quickly and so early that they are rendered meaningless.

Perhaps sensing that Construction needed additional shaping, Hruska then introduces a fifth character to shift the entire play in a new direction. Sam Coppola is Manny, an analyst for, ultimately, all four of his fellow characters. It is unclear what Hruska tries to accomplish with the addition of this therapist, aside from creative laziness. Giving each character a sounding board allows them to soliloquize everything that is on their mind, thus merely stating what is going on inside their heads instead of playing those emotions.

Construction makes yet another tonal shift rather late in the game, when Sarah and Trevor are and always have been married, and Judy and Tony are currently married for the second-go-round. Sarah and Tony are trying to adopt a baby, and Judy and Tony find themselves in a position to assist them. These scenes are a case of too little too late, but are also a source of confusion. Have we entered an alternate reality? Is this a dream? Is everything that preceded it a figment of one character’s imagination? Instead of adding up to a creative aggregate, Hruska’s creative manipulations only serve to fragment the play.

The five performances go a long way toward strengthening Construction. Crane makes Trevor as full-bodied a character as he can with his limited material. I genuinely cared for him; I felt sorry for him when he felt deprived, and was happy when his character seemed to be so. Both Koob and Lemenager are stuck playing conceits. Neither Judy nor Sarah is a person one might encounter in the real world; they merely exist and say things to move the play forward. However, both actresses imbue their characters with nuance and credibility where they can to suggest the possibility that these women might actually possess emotions like desire and regret.

Isola has a more challenging job, since Tony is such a dolt. He’s a substance-abusing womanizer who doesn’t care who he hurts with his brutal words. Unlike the other three leads, Tony possesses no sympathy factor. Despite the many changes affecting his character, he remains unfazed and unchanged. There never seems to be anything lurking beneath the surface. Coppola, on the other hand, plays Manny, and, later, a representative from the adoption agency, taking straightforward characters and adding layers of compassion and understanding.

Hruska would have done good to turn a more objective eye to his play and do a more aggressive editing job. The scribe creates many scenes, some of which last as long as a scene change, thus fragmenting the play to an extreme degree. Additionally, the major changes in tone contribute further to an overall episodic feel. Construction plays like an experiment that escaped from a theatrical lab still in rough form. (Though Kenneth Foy’s set is certainly a sturdy thing of beauty.)

Construction’s varying relationships require some quick mental mathematics on the behalf of the audience, but I’m not sure that they are rewarded for their hard work in the end. Hruska’s play gives plenty of answers, but it has yet to define what the questions are.

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Mommy & Me

“Sometimes leaving home can be a greater act of love,” says the title character of Perdita, “than staying.” An internationally recognized human rights activist, her complicated notions of familial responsibility are rendered still more complex by the knowledge that Perdita is written and performed by the title character’s son. Neither childish tirade nor sentimental portrait, Pierre-Marc Diennet’s moving new play tells the story of his mother’s remarkable life as seen (if not always witnessed) by her devoted son. The smartly structured text consists of a series of scenes that jump between a loosely chronological history of Perdita’s life as an international activist, fighting injustice, and a present day that finds her back in the United States, fighting cancer. Nick Francone’s scenic design includes dates and locations, in the form of postmarks, projected against the set at the start of each scene. It’s a creative design choice that roots each scene in time and incorporates the theme of long distance connections so important to the story; oversized postcard fragments and foreign cityscapes form the production’s backdrop.

Under director Linsay Firman, the disparate scenes of Diennet’s carefully constructed script flow organically into one another. Avoiding the solo-performance convention of directly addressing the audience, Perdita contains only scenes of dialogue between characters. Playing himself, he is refreshingly free of irony and self-deprecation. He treats himself, as a character, with the same integrity and critical eye that he does with all of the characters he portrays. Particularly arresting is a scene of conflict between himself at 15 and his mother just before she leaves him in Geneva; the scene plays like a standard scene of a realistic family drama; not formally acknowledging Diennet’s personal connection to it is an effective choice. His ability to depict personal conflict onstage, and to play both sides of it without wrapping it into a neat conclusion, is in itself a gift to his mother.

While the mother-son drama forms the heart of the story, Diennet includes a host of other characters along the way, and masterfully portrays all of them. He shifts easily from role to role, granting each character extraordinary degrees of specificity. While a scene where he plays a distraught African woman praising Allah in the wake of her daughter's wartime death, comes perhaps a bit soon in the production -- other intense moments that occur later feel more appropriate -- he nonetheless depicts her, like all of his characters, as someone with a meaningful perspective. He's his mother’s son.

The care Diennet has taken with his mother’s story is itself a heartwarming gesture. That he does it so powerfully, and with such substance, makes it not just a gesture but a breathtaking piece of theater. In the second act of the production, Diennet has Perdita tell a Sri Lankan with whom she wants to study nursing in Africa that living the life you want to live is itself a way of loving your family; it’s not hard to imagine that the same is true of storytelling.

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Where's the Beef?

Criticizing A.R. Gurney’s plays for lack of depth is like criticizing your Toyota Prius for not winning NASCAR—you should know what you’re buying right from the start. Gurney has always written slightly behind the curve, illustrating the dynamics of new societal mores for The New Yorker set when their controversy is waning in the rest of the world. Gurney is at his best when he's light. His plays are nearly always entertaining—sometimes even exhilarating, if not quite profound. Yet, A Light Lunch, currently enjoying its World Premiere at The Flea Theater, feels like a throwaway, a diversion. At one point it alludes to itself as an aborted work. It’s light, even by Gurney’s standards.

In A Light Lunch, Gurney is good-naturedly-- sometimes even painfully--aware of his pigeonholed reputation as a cataloguer of the foibles of the privileged upper classes. He pokes fun at himself throughout the play, almost as if he’s trying to inoculate it from criticism. Even the title suggests that we’re not going to get full-on Gurney here.

A Light Lunch is set in a nondescript Italian restaurant frequented by “theater people,” replete with checked red and white tablecloths; there are no set changes. The wall is decorated with Paul Howard caricatures of playwrights whose work has been presented at The Flea. That’s the most interesting part of a set that we see for 80 minutes in this intermissionless one act.

Shortly after George W. Bush has left office, Beth (Beth Hoyt), a young lawyer from Texas, working for the Bush family, flies to New York to meet Gary (Tom Lipinski), Gurney’s agent. The Bush family, through a mole, has learned that Gurney has written an unreleased play highly critical of the former President, and has authorized Beth to offer an obscene amount of money to the playwright to make sure it “will never see the light of day.” From an administration that was hopelessly oblivious to the arts, this, alone, should be the most absurd part of the play.

The action should be as preposterous as the plot but, incongruously, it isn’t. Directed by Jim Simpson, Hoyt and Lipinski can’t seem to find the ridiculous in their roles and play their characters too straight.

It takes the likeable but apparently dense Gary almost half the play to figure out that Beth is working for Bush and not against him, while the rest of us have known that from the start. Throughout the play, the audience is so far ahead of the characters that I found my mind wandering until they caught up. “There’s Mac Wellman!” “Is that Young Jean Lee?” I asked myself as I squinted at the caricatures. I also noticed from my vantage point that, while Beth is served actual food, there is nothing in Gary’s soup bowl. “C’mon, propmaster, take a chance! It’s only liquid!” I caught myself muttering.

The pair’s waitress, Viola (Havilah Brewster), an aspiring actress in perpetual audition mode, with an incorrigibly exaggerated New York accent, succeeds in being as annoying as she’s meant to be, interrupting negotiations just when they’re about to get tense. For every joke that works there are about three warmed over late night television clunkers, like this exchange that takes place when it appears that Beth will be returning to Texas empty handed:

GARY (to BETH): I assume the Bush family will reimburse you for the full amount...

VIOLA: Don’t be too sure. Did you read Bush's proposal on Medicare?

A new character, Marshall (John Russo), Viola’s boyfriend and a drama professor at The New School, arrives near the end of the play to help devise an appropriate ending to what we learn is an unfinished play. Russo, who is the only actor seemingly tuned into the absurdity of the premise, turns in a terrific performance, but it’s all too little, too late.

Unfortunately, in the end, A Light Lunch is about as satisfying as an empty bowl of soup.

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Big Boots, Little Emperor

It is not faint praise to say that Horizon Theater Rep’s production of Caligula (by Albert Camus) is better than one might expect. Phrased in almost entirely philosophical terms, Camus’s script, translated by David Greig, is “set in an unspecified country during the twentieth century” and features a self-obsessed ruler named Caligula. Camus is obviously indebted to the specific legacy of Gaius Julius Caesar’s extravagant madness. Like the real-life Caligula, director and star Rafael De Mussa’s ambitions are large, and it is not surprising that he falls short. However, Caligula’s actions make for a literally spectacular show, at times as gruesome and uncomfortable as a gladiatorial match. The twisted ironies—perversions that become normal through repetition—provide the humor that makes the show an entertaining, if ponderous, diversion. Taking inspiration from the strange history of Caligula’s reign, Camus’s play gives an explanation for his random acts of madness. After several years of respectable reign, Caligula began to exhibit the bizarre capriciousness for which he is remembered, in history and art. Among some of the more fantastic claims: that he treated his horse as consul; proclaimed himself Venus; and executed according to the nonjudgmental laws of logic. For example, when Caligula was reported to have fallen ill, a patrician offered to give his life for the improvement of the emperor’s health. Upon his recovery, Caligula took it. This sort of reasoning gives the play its shape and its voice.

Delighting in Caligula’s diabolical mania with a relish similar to that of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, De Mussa manages an ironically whimsical gravity. His deadliness is clear, but also desperately funny. The murderous acts are so extreme that there is no appropriate reaction—but it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity.

However, because Caligula’s actions are based on a dogged commitment to the logical, each grotesque act is equally terrible. The plot, therefore, neither advances nor picks up speed. There are moments of tension, but overall it can be disappointingly dull. When nothing makes sense, everything makes sense—the play becomes so caught up in its twisted logic that everything is a bit too straight. As Caligula becomes depressed, claiming: “everything comes to the same thing. A little sooner, a little later,” the audience experiences a corresponding letdown.

If the other actors were as charismatic and energetic as De Mussa, perhaps the lack of tension would be a less glaring flaw. As it is, there is a general greenness and discomfort among the actors portraying the aristocracy. When they are plotting, Camus’s words feel about as dull and heavy as a Roman column. Among the other stars orbiting Caligula’s planet, Romy Nordinger as his wife, Caesonia, and Ben Gougeon as his henchman, Helicon, stand out for their performances. Still, there is no character to identify or sympathize with, just a powerful overarching concept.

The set likewise contributes to the show’s stagnancy. There is only so much room for the actors to move and interact when a table dominates center stage. This table is occasionally used to clever effect: to establish hierarchy, to show disrespect, to stand between two dueling personalities; however, it is just an object and in the end it takes up a lot of space that might be put to better use.

The table is part of a festive set that uses more modern examples of lavishness to echo the excesses of Rome. Little is done to explain or emphasize the particular music, wardrobe or set choices, but there is little about this interpretation that adds insight to a text that seems to prefer the power of the word above all else.

In the end it is Camus’s observations and wit, as well as Caligula’s fascinating story that provide the show’s highlights. However, though the writing is precise and perfect as a logically reasoned construction, the play’s failings are mostly due to the fact that the logic of absolute power is self-sustaining and fatalistically circular. When Caligula asks: “what god could fill a lake so deep?” the ensuing silence is profound. Certainly the gods of theater are not up to the task. Though he grasps at meaning, Caligula is left blinking at the void, with no more significance than when the curtain lifted. The theory of absolutes is complete, but at the cost of story and character.

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Baby, It's Cold (and Deadly) Outside

While multiple deaths on frozen tundra might not be everyone’s idea of holiday cheer, the Brick Theater’s dark comedy, The Granduncle Quadrilogy: Tales from the Land of Ice, makes for good morbid fun. Much to the chagrin of any characters in his vicinity, the aging Granduncle (played at various ages by Richard Harrington) has decided to share the stories of his past – stories that manage to incorporate stabbing, drowning, slave labor, and a rather inappropriate use of a mammoth trunk. For the most part, the cast tackles the twisted plot with such whimsical innocence that tragic moments rarely seem so. This is particularly the case with Harrington’s warm, yet tone-deaf narration as Granduncle, which provides a hilarious counterpoint to the grim content.

It’s no surprise that Granduncle’s memories are a tad depressing: his home is a frigid, barren landscape (simply rendered by a draped white backdrop) plagued by war. As a result, he and his fellow Land of Ice inhabitants cling as tightly to their religion – centered on a belief that they will join their child-messiah beneath the ice in the afterlife – as they do their furs.

Jeff Lewonczyk’s script so extensively crafts entire cultures with their own lexicons, traditions, and histories that it feels like fictional anthropology. Whether it’s the mating rituals (do a little dance, choose a mate, go to war, and if she doesn’t get pregnant, she joins you) and recreational drugs (huffing albatross eggs) of the Ice folk or the surprisingly expressive hiss-based language of the foreigners who capture Granduncle, the play nicely pulls you into its own world.

In the cast’s capable hands, even the most peculiar traditions or phrasings (describing smell as “taste for nose” was a favorite of mine) seem natural. Playing multiple roles, they make convincing natives of these societies. A particular standout is Fred Backus, who plays both a goofy child and sociopathic foreman with equal conviction.

With such inventive storytelling, it’s unfortunate that the play grows boring by the end, due to its length. Sure, we’ve all had to sit through a long-winded tale from an old relative, but I don’t think grandpa would ever be so cruel as to subject us to a quadruple-header. If anything could be trimmed, it would be the third segment about the construction of a giant ice wall by citizens-turned-slaves. While the kooky, fairy tale plots of the other stories make their fatalities digestible, this one mirrors our world too much.

Still, Granduncle largely succeeds in telling a good story well—a simple goal, but one too often overlooked or unnecessarily complicated by aggressively experimental or ironic productions. Such a uniquely imaginative show as this is enough to put you in the holiday spirit – no matter how many bodies pile up.

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Theatrical Potatoes

The potatoes have brains. Two women stand center furiously peeling potatoes, the skins flying every which way. They seem to be preparing dinner for their two husbands, who are out hunting. The common scene is interrupted when one of the women, Bethy, looks more closely at her potato and realizes it has organs and is a sentient being. So the kitchen sink scene is shattered. The other woman, Fern, turns to Bethy and asks her to “kill me and eat me quick, before the men get back” and then tell the men that she ran off with another hunter. She repeats her plea several times before fleeing the stage. Sibyl Kempson's new play, Potatoes of August is a fugue. The program kindly provides both definitions of “fugue”: in music, “a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others, and developed by interweaving the parts.” In psychiatry: “a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity, often coupled with flight from one's usual environment. . . “ The content and structure of Potatoes of August follow both definitions of fugue. The characters have matching costumes, yet are different people. The opening scenes feature Fern and her husband Buck in their living room, followed by Bethy and her husband Gordon in their living room. When the potatoes speak (accompanied by stop motion video of dancing potatoes), their voices are kind of in unison, but it doesn't match up so that their speech is overlapped and almost indiscernible.

The play is highly theatrical and demonstrates an understanding of theatrical theory. The acting style takes a cue from Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect—the actors' are not emotionally involved in their characters and thus, the audience never becomes so either. Their lines are delivered in banal tones; the acting could be called terrible if you didn't know it was on purpose. There are video projections explaining where the action is taking place. The accompanying songs are melodic, but the voices singing them are terribly off key. Instead of limiting themselves to the stage area, the characters make use of the entire space, running up into the balcony, and around the audience.

The characters' beliefs are thrown into question. Fern lies in her thoughtscape, remembering how people behaved when she was a little girl. Gordon constantly mentions the astronomer Carl Sagan, reminding Bethy of his ideas and principles. Bethy runs around the perimeter of the audience, wondering what is happening, and what is she supposed to be feeling. The show is heavy embedded with philosophy, with a short reading list provided on the back of the program. However, one does not need to be familiar with Swedenborg or Sagan to understand and the enjoy the play.

Potatoes of August will probably be most enjoyed, however, by someone with a background in theater. While there is a linear plot embedded in the play, it is ultimately more about its form. The story comes through and is given a boost by the theatricality of the piece. The piece is very exciting to watch, provided you know what is going on. However, its theatricality may be inaccessible to someone only familiar with the commercial theater and its ilk. Which isn't a bad thing, but it does make one wish that more works of theater would embrace their theatricality instead of simply trying to lamely imitate the movies.

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Everybody's Talking

Amy Patrice Golden is a luminous and immensely talented actress. Her look is a distinct – not to mention distinguished – combination of both Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and erstwhile adult actress Traci Lords, which is appropriate; Golden possesses a deep reservoir of talent with just a hint of a naughty side. This makes Golden perfectly cast as Pink, the narrator and subject of Kristen Kosmas’ The Scandal!, a fascinating look at depression, suicide, and small-town life presented by the Horse Trade Theater Group and The Management in the East Village’s Red Room. Director Courtney Sale guides this show as a smart and stirring character study with a winning combination of humor and pathos.

Pink’s world is essentially a cocoon, in which she knows little about herself and even less about others. Her friends are not necessarily the best influences on her decisions. Her mother is aloof and judgmental, choosing to ignore the absence of Pink’s father, who has killed himself. His specter continues to haunt Pink, who treads around the darker edges of life.

Pink explains fairly early in this one-woman show that she has designs to drown herself at the age of 33 by weighing herself down with rocks in the river, Virginia Woolf-style. However, even the best-laid, most maudlin plans go awry. The scandal of the title is an entirely different event altogether.

Golden spends Scandal! accounting for what led to the event Pink describes. She meets Radio, a mysterious stranger. Her attraction to him leads to a complicated relationship that forces Pink to re-evaluate her beliefs about herself and her dealings with others. The thoughts that the character weighs may be dark, but her account is certainly illuminating.

It is unclear whether it was a choice on the part of Kosmas, Golden, or Sale, but Golden cleverly refrains from mimicking the different vocal styles of each character she portrays. While this choice is occasionally confusing (it can be hard to remember who is who), it turns Scandal into something more than the typical one-actor show. Golden isn’t playing multiple characters; she instead plays Pink, and all other characters the audience sees are played as Pink’s interpretation of them, filtering them through her own limited subjective sensibilities.

Take, for example, when Pink encounters Radio. Instead of merely recounting their conversation, she repeats their dialogue for the audience. Then, Pink summarizes the encounter with her own skewed recollection of events, allowing audience members to observe both the gross and the net capture of the encounter. Strokes like this are not difficult to create, and yet they add an enormous amount of character dimension to the play.

Golden masters these transitions brilliantly, etching in those character dimensions. Her performance is not only heartfelt, it is also extremely well-disciplined, navigating Kosmas’ shifts in events and tone carefully. She holds the audience in her thrall with a tautly focused performance. And her delivery is pure poetry; I only wish that her perfect cadences were not always drowned out by Jennifer Hudson, The Cars and the other musical artists being blasted by the KGB Bar directly beneath the Red Room.

Nonetheless, Golden gives a performance to remember in Scandal. Contrary to its own name, Kosmas has fashioned a play that should be remembered not for anything sensational, but for its substance. It is a careful, soulful journey through one woman’s mind with a star who proves that any choice of hers, even silence, can be Golden.

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Renaissance Bad Girls

Jacobean drama doesn’t come much more lurid than Thomas Middleton’s revenge tragedy Women Beware Women. Characters die not just by the sword but by flaming gold and poisoned incense. Middleton, one of a host of fascinating playwrights overshadowed by Shakespeare, is better known for his tragedy The Changeling, but that’s probably because Women Beware Women is a much more complex and effects-laden piece—the finale is a bloodbath during a masque. Director Jesse Berger’s adaptation captures the spirit deftly and is marvelously well-spoken by a commanding cast. The story revolves around a Florentine family, two brothers and a sister (the same siblings, incidentally, that inspired playwright John Webster in The White Devil). Fabritio (Everett Quinton) has a daughter, Isabella (Liv Rooth), whom he wants to marry to a rich doofus, the Ward of Guardiano (John Douglas Thompson). But Fabritio’s brother, Hippolito (Al Espinosa), has an incestuous passion for Isabella. The linchpin of the drama is their sister, Livia, played with marvelous relish by Kathryn Meisle. Livia is a bit too sympathetic to Hippolito. (“I am pitiful to thy afflications” she tells him and then adds, in a throwaway line, “But if you question my affections/That will be found my fault.”) She feeds the unsuspecting Isabella a story that she is not of their blood, thus spurring on the affair. At the same time, she persuades the corruptible Isabella to go ahead and marry the Ward for his fortune.

Meanwhile, next door to Livia is a widow (Roberta Maxwell) with a strapping son, Leantio (Jacob Fishel), who has just brought home a bride, Bianca (Jennifer Ikeda), from Venice. Though Leantio asks his mother to keep Bianca hidden while he travels as a merchant, the women are seen at an upper window during a state procession by the Duke of Florence, who forms a passion for the mystery girl. He uses his connection to Livia to meet and rape Bianca. He then persuades Bianca to become his mistress and buys off Leantio with a commission.

Middleton’s world is full of corruption, greed and sexual license, but in Jacobean fashion, the most sinister moments are interlaced with comic ones. The play is not only about buying and selling women as chattel; the idiotic Ward is just as much a victim (and the impressive Alex Morf balances wild slapstick with a notable measure of innocence and sympathy).

Berger’s adaptation eliminates a lot of thick verbiage and makes the story accessible, and David Barber fills the wide St. Clement’s stage with balconies, corridors, and platforms, so it serves as house, court and cathedral. The warrens and rooms are invaluable in the rape scene, as Mother and Livia play chess, while the Duke simultaneously assaults Isabella in a different area. Clint Ramos’s costumes reflect a sense of excess, with sparkling threadwork and avant-garde palettes used in primarily a late 17th-century style—but not exclusively: Leantio wears a cardigan and tie with his frock coat and knee boots.

For the most part, the flaws are minor occasional acting excesses, such as an over-the-top moment of mugging to the audience by Livia at Leantio’s hotness. However, there is one serious exception: Berger, whose director’s note boasts of Middleton’s “unique voice,” has changed the ending as well as the nature of an important character.

Middleton’s original presents the Duke’s brother, the Cardinal, as the voice of reason and morality. He’s the one who speaks last, over the corpse-strewn stage, and represents the continuance of the state—the rare Catholic prelate in plays of the era who is a decent man (unlike, for instance, the Cardinal in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi). A late scene in which the Cardinal tries to set his brother on the path to heaven is spoiled by his transformation in this version into a one-note, slinking hypocrite, played by Jonathan Friedman as a grimace in a chasuble. By pushing the only decent character into the web of evil, Berger has distorted Middleton’s vision and turned him from a cynic into a nihilist.

There is so much that’s good in this production that it would be a shame to miss it, and perhaps people who don’t know Middleton will come away with an eagerness to see more of him, or Webster, or Philip Massinger, or John Fletcher. But if the Red Bull mission, stated on its website, is to explore "the seldom-seen classics of Shakespeare and his contemporaries," then Berger needs to trust the playwrights.

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Child Left Behind

I learned a few interesting things about what a dystopian world (at least according to celebrated British playwright Edward Bond’s Chair) will look like in the year 2077: ·Curiously, people will still use voice recorders similar to the ones we use today! ·Laptops will still exist and they will look amazingly like the Toshiba Satellite on which I’m typing this review! ·Most sadly, house music and death metal will still blast from passing cars! (They’ll still be cars!)

Such curiosities bring to mind John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York. Set too in a dystopian future, the history of the civilized world depends on super classified information stored on…wait for it…an audiocassette. Somehow, as I left the drive-in with my girlfriend, Liz, and popped in a cassette of Van Halen’s Fair Warning, that possibility seemed preposterous even in 1981.

Quibbles with lazy prop design aside (to be fair, the script calls for a laptop), one problem with works set in the future is that the viewer has no choice but to indulge the creator’s vision and systems of logic. Another playwright might view the future as utopian, glittering. For Edward Bond it’s all pretty much downhill; Chair is a singular vision of depravity, poverty, inhumanity and authoritarianism. No, anyone who’s read Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, or is a sci-fi buff, will realize that Bond’s vision is not a particularly original one; but, as presented in Chair, it’s a coherent and frightening one nonetheless.

In the year 2077, civil rights have been crushed. Human emotions like pity and kindness are forbidden. Bond’s city of the future is one where people fear looking out their windows. They rarely venture outside and they stick to themselves. The streets are ruled by the military and the mentally ill. Everyone’s life is catalogued. The slightest violations of government dictates are punishable by imprisonment, torture or death. It’s in this city of the horrible future that we meet Alice (Stephanie Roth Haberle) and her emotionally underdeveloped son, Billy (Will Rogers).

Alice found Billy in a garbage bin 26 years before and, because she felt pity for the foundling, kept him for a few days rather than turn him in to the state. Soon she realized that her delay would cause grave repercussions. In Chair’s world, such actions represent a death sentence.

Billy, who has never left his domicile, experiences the world only through his imagination. He spends his days drawing infantile pictures with crayons, which he hangs on the walls of his and Alice’s sparsely furnished two-room apartment. Billy is a likeable guy but he gets annoying after a while. Think of a much tenser version of “Simon,” Mike Myers’ famous Saturday Night Live character. Bond lets Billy prattle on nonsensically for way too long with only occasional but piercing profundity, particularly in the third picture (Bond calls scenes “pictures”). It’s not the fault of Mr. Rogers, who does a fine job illustrating Billy’s excitability and nervous tics.

Back to the problem of pity. Well, Alice is at it again with that darned kindness and pity. Alice, against her better judgment, stands at the window, watching the street below in this apocalyptic, violent age. Alice has been observing a soldier and his elderly female prisoner wait for a bus. Billy surprisingly convinces Alice to bring the soldier a chair on which to sit while he waits. This simple kind decision propels the play’s action in unforeseen and deadly directions.

Unfortunately, both Ms. Haberle as Alice and Alfredo Narciso as the Soldier tend to overact their roles. In Haberle’s case, it’s a bit hard to believe that someone can shake so much without suffering a calamitous health problem right on the spot. David Zinn’s forceful scenic design is appropriately spare and antiseptic—cold. When Alice draws the curtains and allows the sun to slice through the grayness, it is both welcome and overpowering; this is a play of extremes. Annika Boras, as the government officer who invades Alice’s home to conduct an inquiry into the events that have transpired from her simple act, turns in a most creepy and convincing performance.

Earlier this year, Bond said in an interview with Michael Billington of The Guardian that, “If my plays are staged and acted in the way in which they are written, what comes across is a colossal affirmation of life." With expert direction by Robert Woodruff, here Bond is right. For Alice, there are drastically few ways to retain one’s dignity and identity. Yet, she finds and embraces one that will involve a major break in her family unit. It occurs to her in her darkest moment, like a welcome sliver of sunlight in a garbage bin.

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You Must Remember This

Who wouldn’t want to be able to change one’s past and make for one’s self a better future? Kip, the protagonist of Bob Stewart’s A Memory Play, tries to do just that, but, in an odd twist, his changing the past would result in him having no future at all. That may sound more confusing than Stewart’s premise turns out to be. Kip (Trey Albright), the thirty-nine-year-old struggling playwright who narrates Memory, explains that he is using his writing skills to re-fashion the day his parents wed. He expounds that because of the lifetime of cruelty and lies their marriage has inflicted on each other and on their four children, Kip’s memory play would intervene and see to it that his parents never did marry.

Kip relates to the audience how his father, Steve(Artie Ray), a libidinous military man, and his mother, Judy(Susan Izatt), a secretive Southern belle, stole away to a motel room one day in 1947 to negotiate their impulsive marriage. Izatt and Ray act out the events of the day, and Kip occasionally breaks the action to alter something one of them says or does. He explains that seemingly innocuous matters that the two discussed at the time, like whether or not they should wait to have sex until marriage, were warning signs of greater potholes that lay ahead in the rocky road of matrimony. However, the disagreements that Stewart presents never seem as severe as Kip makes them out to be.

Memory emerged from an initial run at the Midtown International Theater Festival in 2000, and its current incarnation at the Workshop Theater suggests that it may still be a work in progress. The show runs a little more than one hour, but there is enough potential for material to comprise a two-hour-plus show. What director Gary Levinson’s staging cannot quite do is show Kip’s audience what these larger problems are, and how troubles snowballed into major domestic problems.

As it stands now, Memory involves little more than having Kip continually interrupt his parents’ dialogue and repeatedly assert how wrong they are together. Levinson needs to be able to find a way to better entwine Kip’s narration on stage right with his parents’ interaction on stage left. The fallout of Kip’s parents’ marriage wouldn’t need to be the focus of the show, but the more future problems the audience can witness, the more urgent Kip’s need to revise his own personal history would feel. Kip is also said to be one of four children; it would have been helpful to hear from or see something about the opinion of the other siblings.

I also found some of Stewart’s toying with dramatic conventions a little cloying. Kip reads aloud a textbook definition of what a memory play is, to humorous effect. But to have him explain later on that a quick change of his t-shirt signifies the passage of time is both lazy and insulting to the audience.

Albright, though, is a great asset to the show in a performance brimming with energy, humor, and most importantly, compassion. A lot of the burden of Memory falls on the actor; Kip must earn our trust that he has good, heartfelt reasons for not wanting his parents to wed, and Albright does that with a deeply human, relatable performance that cuts through the show’s stagier matters. He also plays several minor characters in the 1947-set scenes, including a gay baker and a minister, with aplomb.

Izatt and Ray are also both quite talented, but Stewart’s play reduces them to playing conceits, rather than characters. As Kip re-positions their characters, they have to keep changing, and as a result, what is required of them is something more akin to an improv exercise than a performance with consistent through-lines.

Stewart’s somewhat self-referential idea about the power the writer has as a creative force is a fascinating one, rife with dramatic potential (it is also at the center of Ian McEwan’s Atonement). But Stewart never quite gets to the heart of the matter. Now, according to the script and press notes, Memory is the first part of an intended Marriage Variations trilogy, in which context the play might appear in a different light. In its current version, for all of its talking, Memory doesn’t say quite enough.

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The Puppets and the Cooks

Loud music begins playing and suddenly a Santa Claus emerges from the theater doors, followed by a group of people dressed as chefs, each playing an instrument. They process through the theater's lobby and out into the street, where they continue to make music. After a few moments, they return inside, leading an expectant audience back into the theater, eager to see the newest production from Bread and Puppet Theater, The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus . All the elements of a Bread and Puppet show are there—cheaply constructed yet breathtaking puppets, dance, music, and a political message. And yet, this show does not deliver. The stated purpose of the performance is to explore the “need for human fermentation,” the need to cast off the restraints of the government and its message of conformity. However, the story gets lost somewhere in the mix, yielding not an audience ready to break free of their bonds, ready to take up the banner of activism, but rather one that is confused and unfortunately, a bit bored.

The group of cooks introduce themselves as the “Sourdough Singers.” They mostly speak an unintelligible gibberish. Their first dance features the brass instruments played in a breathy manner; it's not music so much as wind that comes out of them. The cooks end up in a straight line, moving their arms up and down. Only one person is fully visible in the line, the rest become arms following her lead. Shortly after the line, giant man puppets are brought onstage.

The giant (at least fifteen feet tall) puppets are quite frightening, and are maneuvered in such a way by the puppeteers that they hover disapprovingly above the audience's head. Their purpose may be obvious- if one had been given a synopsis of the show—they are those who seek to control humans, who make sure everyone stays in line. They are initially intimidating, but they ultimately don't do anything besides mutter a bit before being placed against the stage walls to watch the remainder of the performance.

The bulk of the show is what the company has called the “Storm Office—the Storm Poem and Implementation Machine.” The implementation machine object is quite adorable, a pulley and crank system that raises and releases a hammer that then hits a fire alarm bell. The machine itself kept breaking; the rope would fall off the pulley and not raise the hammer, requiring a human hand to aid it in pulling up. This malfunction was slightly charming, and I hope, intentional, a reminder of the company's dedication to cheap art.

After the appearance of the giant men puppets and the machine, it was hoped that the Storm Office would continue the visual stimuli of the show, since the verbal was almost forgotten. There was narration, particularly during the Storm Poem, but it was not engaging in the least. Sadly, the visuals in this section were lacking as well, and were without explanation. There was an inexplicable tin bathtub that rattled threateningly, several giant headed puppets and very often a simple white puppet who seemed to be the focus of the section.

Even the most lovingly baked bread sometimes doesn't rise quite right. The intent of the company never quite comes through in The Sourdough Philosophy Spectacle and Circus . However, in an age of garishly expensive theater that not many people can afford, it is a relief that Bread and Puppet continues to operate with the same spirit that they have had for 45 years.

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There's No Such Thing As Too Much Truth

Antigone. It's a story we've heard and seen many, many a time. And yet, here it is again, in a new retelling by Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson called Too Much Memory . The text is a collage of the Sophoclean play, the Anouilh adaptation and texts from figures as various as Peter Brook, Susan Sontag, and Richard Nixon. And despite the fact that it is, as the lone chorus member says, an “adaptation of an adaptation of a re-translation,” the original story shines through loud and clear, its message the same as all those years ago and yet still relevant for the present day. A square playing space is outlined on the stage using tape and later traced using chalk. A video screen stretches along the back wall. The actors assemble around the perimeter of the square, talking, playing card games, and reading the newspaper. When it is their cue to go onstage, they take the time to trace the outline of the square and enter from a specific spot, as if going through a door, as if the audience is not meant to see them on the stage's edges.

Yet, we see them. The play is set in the present day. The chorus member makes a point to distinguish the “present” from the “contemporary.” Characters reference pop culture and their cell phones, and yet the play transcends all that. It is not about transforming the story into a mirror image of our life—it is about presenting the truth: no matter what, it is important to do what is right rather than what is lawful. And also, the truth that justice is not always served, and one does not necessarily learn from past mistakes.

Laura Heisler is amazing as Antigone. The actress conveys a strength in the face of her character's actions and yet a vulnerability at the same time. When she hears her fate—that she will be placed in a hole and buried alive—she completely breaks down. Her sobs, the kind that border on hyperventilation, produce a visceral reaction in the viewer. Peter Jay Fernandez, who plays Creon, is very much the politician whom initially you want to like, in whom you want to see the good, but who ultimately gives you no choice but to despise him for his callousness and inability to care.

The play is helped by its lighting design and its barely noticable use of video. There are other subtle elements in the design as well. Antigone wears a bright orange scarf, which is later used to bind her wrists, and which she even later uses to hang herself. Eurydice, Creon's silent wife, sits in the back right corner, taking in the events, smiling for the cameras, and seeming to be an empty shell of a person. The chorus member starts the play by lifting a copy of the New York Times in the air, relating the events of the story back to events in the present.

Everyone should see Too Much Memory . The play successfully returns a sense of urgency to the theater. In an age of being bashed over the head with so-called facts, facts that often overlook the truth of the matter, facts that are given a spin to benefit who is speaking them, it is important that theater such as this be seen and discussed by as many people as possible.

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Caroling to a Different Tune

‘Tis the holiday season, and with it the expected theatrical renditions of A Christmas Carol. The classic tale of generosity triumphing over greediness continues to give a meaningful context to the seemingly retail-dominated tradition of gift-giving, while offering a literary staple in an accessible package. Miracle on Mulberry Street, the brainchild of playwright, actor and acting coach John Pallotta, puts a notably adult twist on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The dark comedy is set in a world of prostitutes, cross-dressers and mobsters, and centered on a jaded, middle-aged criminal named Ebenezer Scroogiano (Ezie Cotler).

The large cast—there are more than 30 featured actors—consists mostly of Pallotta’s workshop students, and is markedly inexperienced. From the uneven, sometimes clever script to the modest staging and a raunchy cast of characters, Mulberry Street is a messy affair, although not always negatively so. Despite the obvious flaws in the production, it showcases some promising talents and is at points elevated by the enthusiasm of its cast.

Diversions are expected in a farcical script, but Pallotta’s narrative takes off slowly. Before Scroogiano enters the stage, the audience has been introduced to a singing mobster, a paperboy, two transvestites, a homeless woman and a group of dismayed former girlfriends. We learn that Scroogianno has a habit for stinginess and womanizing, and planned the murder of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marlianni (Luigi Babe Scorcia in a standout performance). The background context is necessary and adds to the story’s humor, but the numerous character introductions, however amusing, give the narrative a rambled, distracted feel before the story even begins.

As Scroogianno, Ezie Cotler turns a likable performance. Although he isn’t quite electrifying enough to immediately draw our interest, he appears to grow into his own as the story progresses. He makes a newcomer’s mistake of obviously focusing his eyes over the heads of the audience and thus revealing his nervousness, but he is nevertheless committed to the character. Cotler delivers his lines with a confidence that shows a flair for improvisation, and isn’t afraid to let out a scream or slam himself into the floor when the script demands it. Scroogianno is a sleaze, as expected, but we root for him.

Numerous diversions from the story offer each cast member a moment in the spotlight (the two rowdy transvestites show up several times, for example), and some performances are obvious standouts. As the Ghost of Christmas Present, Katherine Blair is particularly magnetic. Her role as an aspiring actress trying out for the role is a clever meta-moment in the show. She enters the stage with a crumpled script in hand, speaking to an offstage director, and throws herself into hilariously clichéd warm-up exercises. “Unique New York, Unique New York, Uniquenewyork” she rants while laying onstage. “I’m trying to get my equity card,” she later explains. In a cast of over-the top characters, hers offers a welcome dose of familiarity and authenticity—as well as arguably the only digression from the story that doesn’t feel distracting.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of the production is its sloppily executed stage design. The back wall has a crammed appearance, from misplaced wooden cubes to a nylon suitcase, and hardly brings to mind the home of a wealthy crime lord. Although high production values shouldn’t have been expected, the staging draws unnecessary attention to the fact that Mulberry Street is a largely amateur-driven affair.

Pallotta is able to turn a clever line and create dynamic moments between his characters, but his script attempts to reach into too many directions at once. His number of eccentric characters is excessive, and his tone wavers between goofy and disturbing. In an unsettling scene that should have no place in a comedic work, Scroogianno confronts the hysterical ghost of a woman he killed. Placed in an otherwise boisterous, funny work, the scene feels wildly inappropriate.

Despite the limitations of Miracle on Mulberry Street, one is still likely to admire Pallotta’s devotion to this diverse, inexperienced cast. Offering $20 workshops through Acting4less, he is committed to making stage training accessible to all experience and income levels—and in the most ruthlessly competitive city in the country, this approach is both brave and refreshing.

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Lives Led Astray

In his new, ambitious play, Prayer for My Enemy, Craig Lucas has employed an obsolete tradition, the aside, to such an extent that it seems an innovation: characters speak to each other, but then in soliloquy reveal their inner thoughts, which are often the opposite of what they’ve said. It’s a dramatic tactic that proves initially fruitful in Bartlett Sher’s production, as it draws and keeps one’s interest, but eventually it wears thin, and at times it proves confusing. Prayer feels like an overstuffed dysfunctional family drama, which it is. Lucas touches on homosexual love, the war in Iraq, betrayal, guilt, and the alienation of modern society with its attendant mental stresses, but he also has bigger big fish to fry. When a young husband named Tad looks at the stars and reflects to his wife on their luck, one gets an inkling of the wider picture: “if it could be any little slice of time, any eighty-year slice in all that time, what are the odds that it would be this slice of time that we happen to be alive in…” That sense of universality calls to mind the sweep of Thornton Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth. It recurs in a late monologue by the spirit of a dying character trying to communicate eternal verities to his descendants: “Charity. Civility. Sacrifice. Contemplation. Don’t smirk; all wisdom is plagiarism, only stupidity is original. These are pillars of human history.”

Lucas doesn’t share Wilder’s propensity for optimism, however. The characters here strain to keep their sanity, and the cautionary words from the dying are never heard nor affirmed by the living. American society at peace, Lucas shows, has just as many angry, ruthless and destructive inhabitants as Iraq—in fact, based on the sample he presents, probably more. And one of the root causes is a failure to tell the truth, to utter the words one actually thinks.

It’s a grim world in which people go through hell and put others through it, and the strife is not only physical but emotional. Says Victoria Clark’s Dolores, a woman whose mother has had a stroke and whose lover wants her to live in Manhattan: “Charles, my fiancé, loves all that frenzy. To me it’s only long shrieks of rage, the fury of so many people’s resentment and frustration and, well, they’ve been put in a space too small for so many, a big filthy loud dangerous ugly unsanitary uncivil and foul-smelling cage.” The burden of her mother on her now is, she says, “payback for all the wretched things I put her and dad through.” Yet she is also used by Charles, and eventually her disintegration becomes a key element of the drama.

Certainly the damage inflicted on Lucas’s hero, Billy (Jonathan Groff), is extensive. Billy is a young veteran of the Iraq war who is home on leave. His father, Austin (Skip Sudduth, a bit too much of a caricature), is bipolar and has a history of emotionally abusing his family, especially Billy, whom he has often belittled as homosexual, though Billy has outwardly done everything to negate that opinion, including enlistment. Nevertheless, Billy is gay, and when he runs into Tad (Zachary Booth), a boyhood friend on whom he had a deep crush, he is elated. Discovering that Tad has been married dampens his hopes a bit, but the audience, hearing Tad’s inner thoughts, learns that Tad has always harbored a love for Billy. There’s much in Billy's situation to suggest that Lucas, who is openly gay, is writing, in a sense, about the destructive repercussions of not expressing one's true nature, of withholding one's true feelings from others—in short, of being in the closet.

Tad, however, begins to court and eventually marries Billy’s sister, Marianne (a marvelously caustic and exasperated Cassie Beck). The bullying Austin is on the wagon after a history of alcoholism that has alienated Marianne almost completely. He is able to be softened only by Billy’s mother, Karen: a frowzy, often belittled peacemaker in the expert hands of Michele Pawk.

The outstanding Clark, however, has no scenes with the others for a long time, though her travails and festering umbrage at them provide comic relief to the tensions of Billy’s family. It’s not easy performing solo, but Clark is the glue that keeps the viewer interested. What is she doing there? How is she connected to all the others? Once the link is made, it packs a wallop. However, the play loses steam after that, and the overall demands it makes on its audience in sorting out thoughts from speech become exhausting. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating, if flawed work.

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Room on Fire

"Let me take a casual peep at those slanderous gabs," says Isabel Lewis, as a short burst of jazzy music erupts and she jazzily saunters across the PS 122 stage in Lewis Forever: Freak the Room. This moment encapsulates the whole experience of the earnest, but ultimately too unpolished Freak the Room – for the Lewis siblings, every mundane task (like crossing the stage to fetch a newspaper) becomes a lively, self-indulgent ritual. Not to say that Freak the Room is pompous in any way, just that the Lewis's project seems wrought from a distinctive "twinspeak" that the rest of us are not privy to. The few short snatches of dialogue are indecipherable dream language – something about a bad newspaper review, maybe? About being appreciated as artists? These usually lead into prolonged dance numbers or, in one case, a well-choreographed fight scene.

And to my thunderstruck surprise, there is actually a scene where the Lewis kids tie silver handkerchiefs over their faces and... ahem... "freak" the room. Well, the room's furniture, anyway.

The most compelling segment of this mad revel is a live video feed interview, where Eric, who is not actually a Lewis sibling, uses a video camera to aggressively prod the others along like hostages. Since the camera is plugged into a live monitor onstage, the audience is treated to very intimate images of the somewhat stunned performers. This sequence ends with the Lewis's pre-framed on the monitor, bawling their eyes out to "I Got Life" [cq] from the hippy musical Hair. The inclusion of the Hair track at once suggests the proper context for the Lewis's undertaking – Freak the Room is a modern take on the sixties-era "Be-In." After making this connection, it is easy to enjoy the rest of the whole, frantic endeavor.

Much of the high-energy dancing and sofa-humping showcased here is very engaging, but simply goes on too long without evidence of intended direction or target reaction. When able performers dance in unvaried movements long enough for it to get boring TWICE, one simply can't help wonder if there is a purpose beyond the performers having a good time. Though admittedly more of a happening than a play, Freak the Room feels a little light on substance. There is a tenuous thread of searching for the truth throughout: in the brusque video interviews, in the need to disprove the newspapers “gabs”, and even in the sudden, bursting honesty of the drum-heavy dance numbers. Perhaps the pounding, strangely timed dances are a celebration of this continued search for truth, or maybe just a sensory escape from the fact that we might never find it. Maybe the Lewis’s are suggesting that our identities are in flux between the lies we tell the camera and those that are printed in the paper? Maybe we’re all just silver faced hump-bots desperate for connection on any level?

Regardless of the Lewis’s intent, the result looks like a dozen theatrical conceits thrown at the wall, in hopes that what sticks somehow says something profound about our collective unconscious. For all the talk of “transnationalism” and cultural unity in the promotional materials, the piece’s slurred decadence might end up alienating some audiences. There are nothing but good ideas here, but the strange excesses and illogical pacing feel as though the Lewis siblings could use an objective guiding hand rather than following their inner muses with complete abandon. Towards the end, George Jr. suggests that the show is reinvented for every performance, but it wasn't clear if he was commenting on the fleeting nature of performance art in general or if the show is literally rewritten for each performance. If he meant the latter, the show's messiness is somewhat understandable.

But as I said, all four siblings – George Jr., Isabel, Sarah, and the imposter Eric – are vigorous in their commitment to the material. Each brings a unique timbre to the proceedings, whether it’s suave or poetic. Their dynamic came together agreeably during the final portion of the evening, when they held a kind of "funeral" for the evening's performance, complete with an Allen Ginsberg poem sung as dirge by the audience.

By that point, despite its pacing and directional issues, Freak the Room’s sincere performers rub off on the audience. To the Lewis’s credit, we all sang and, on some level, lamented the end of this truly inimitable, raucous performance.

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Watching the Detectives

This review could have easily been titled, “Deconstructing Holmesy,” but the multi-instrumentational singer/songwriter allusion above appropriately edges it out. In fact, the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL) Theatre’s brilliant show, The Uncanny Appearance of Sherlock Holmes, is a trifecta of movement, music, and words, with equal parts suspense/psychological exploration, layered character-driven comedy, and an original, indie-rocking soundtrack to enhance all of the above. It’s smart, quirky, fun, and at times reduced me to tears of laughter, my highest personal praise. Based on a story by director Brad Krumholz, who co-founded NACL Theatre in 1997 with Tannis Kowalchuk (starring as Sherlock Holmes’ ever-supportive partner in crime and narrator, Dr. John Watson), the play takes on the well-known characters of Arthur Conan Doyle and spins them into new, wonderful, and sometimes wacky configurations. Called in to investigate the bizarre murders of Dr. Jeremy Nietzsche and Dr. Kevin Freud, Holmes encounters a wily female detective, Jacqueline Derrida, played dynamically by Sarah Dey Hirshan, who cleverly pushes him to explore the limits of his legendary abilities, and even ultimately (to our amusement), his own identity and inner self, rarely seen in the crisp character.

Krumholz traces his mystery-reading roots back to Encyclopedia Brown (a.k.a. “America’s Sherlock Holmes in tennis sneakers”), which ultimately led him to read the Sherlock Holmes stories and beyond. The piece was developed in collaboration with the powerhouse ensemble who all act, move acrobatically, and step in and out of their characters into band roles to perform original songs reminiscent of everything from early David Bowie to The Velvet Underground to The Smiths (as well as the above-referenced Elvis Costello). Using the classic rock formation of bass, guitar, keyboards and drums, the “band” also features eccentric instruments like the accordion and harmonium for more unique flavor. Although also a collaboration, most of the music was written by Glenn Hall, who plays two solid supporting roles – Inspector Lestrade and Professor Roderick Champion. Brett Keyser, who brings his determined Sherlock Holmes full circle, complete with the unpredictable soul searching, wrote most of the poetic lyrics – a perfect fit for the rock-and-roll score as well as an effective expression of his journey.

It’s all a joy to watch. The songs cut into the immediate plot, but like dream sequences, they open a door into the inner world of the characters, and actually insert much more play room into the structure. The tightly choreographed movements do the same, providing yet another layer of stylized behavior, sometimes like interpretive dance, sometimes just Marx Brothers silly (again, an accomplishment), all the while continuing to enhance the story. The transitions, accompanied by lighting shifts designed by Juliet Chia, work as excellent scene-changers, and overall the style works much better than the traditional musical format would, where characters suddenly bursting into song can often feel contrived. Here, the comedy is so tightly woven, it actually transcends its own spoofyness to become more of a moving target; just when you think you know where it’s going, something else shifts your focus, or pops up to amuse or twist your expectations. This explicitly demonstrates NACL’s stated mission to “create innovative original work that is ensemble-based, utilizing devised methods of creation, heightened physicality, and song to create vivid theatre experiences.” That it most certainly does. Krumholz’s direction is swift, (he also plays guitar in the band as “Silent Sonny”), and his comedic ideas and writing are utterly inspired.

And our not-so-elementary dear Watson, is played by the female Tannis Kowalchuk, who slips in and out of her phony facial hair and booming voice to now and then reveal feminine attire and slinky behavior. More than mere cross-dressing, she expresses her character’s essence quite beautifully, and we come to understand Watson also on a deeper-than-expected level. His steadfast, unwavering support, undying love, and maybe even hero-worship, perhaps makes it an impossible love affair, but even more apparent: it illustrates the epitome of the successful work-spouse relationship. Whether fully noticed or not by the preoccupied Holmes, Watson is content to help out behind the scenes. He exhibits jealousy of the interloping detective Derrida, but his and Holmes' overriding mutual dependency is evident (and sweet). It feels exactly right, we just never saw Watson in quite this light before.

In fact, every characterization presented here is original and quirky. Liz Eckert does quintuple-duty in colorful supporting roles, and is especially funny as the clumsy and socially awkward lab assistant Belle Whittaker and the literally “over-the-top” Bishop Wilberforce, with her every interaction funny and memorable. Sarah Dey Hirshan’s Derrida is smart, cool, and collected, and her additional portrayal of the prop-enhanced Mountebank is a one-of-a-kind gem, hysterically executed.

The set design by David Evans Morris also works well, both as the band performance space as well as simple elements to clearly delineate the various locations. The play is so imaginative that it doesn’t need much, plus as you might suspect, these performers are actually capable of becoming set pieces themselves, such as the well-oiled horse and carriage bit, with mid-scene costume and/or character shifts, all lending fluidity without missing a beat.

NACL Theatre, which had been in residence at La MaMa E.T.C. for several years, now operates from their own home base in the Catskills, where they run a theater and artists residence and offer a multi-disciplinary performer training (classified into Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral work, what else?). They’re a great company with lots of “juice;” definitely don’t miss this highlight, and be on the lookout for more of their “uncanny appearances” in the future.

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Count of Three

Anyone for a Threesome? asks the title of a theatrical evening currently onstage at the Red Room on East 4th Street. A collection of three short plays written and directed by three young artists, self-described “20-somethings with big dreams and lots of energy,” the program runs Monday evenings from now until Christmas. The first play of the evening, I am Tricky Nicky, written by Adam Samtur and directed by P. Case Aiken III, opens to a woman seated alone at a café table. Dressed in a pink floral skirt paired with brightly striped knee socks, she all but screams crazy. And indeed, moments later her psychologist enters. If the plot is a bit predictable – this is a play that draws on the tradition of doctors who need their patients more than the other way around – perhaps that’s because this is a patient, the script implies, who can predict the future. Where Mindy Matijasevic lends a grounded confidence to Nicky’s elliptical stream of consciousness, Susan Stout is nervous and flighty as her articulate counselor. They make a good match for one another.

The doctor’s use of her tape recorder to make notes about the session allows us to see layers of depth within a character trying hard to maintain a cool front, though at times her use of the machine more closely resembles Zach Morris asides than a professional tool, or even a compellingly dramatic one. “I'm going to press on, I have to,” she tells her tape recorder; why not just show us her doing so? Cutting redundancies would help the pace of the scene tremendously, propelling it more directly toward its inexorably violent conclusion.

All the plays address themes of violence and destruction, especially Aiken’s Sans Deus. A whimsical look at mechanized violence influenced by B horror films, the play juxtaposes the story of a man who lost his hand, and his attempts to recreate the appendage, with occasional appearances by a mad scientist, and a dialogue between two young men casually plotting murder with a complicated, atmosphere controlling machine. Under the smooth direction of Matthew Kagen, the quirky story bounces along as the men experience the ecstasy of their labors’ fruition. A less weighty sense of import might help emphasize the charming whimsy central to the story, yet of the three plays this one has the both the most unfamiliar content and the best sense of its performative style. It makes an amusing end to the evening.

The centerpiece of the program, Kagen’s Let Them Eat Cake, directed by Samtur, features two young women in pastel skirts and demi cup bras earnestly debating the merits of studying abroad versus staying on campus. That scene follows separate opening bits in which each of them engages in well-choreographed sex sequences: angry, fully-clothed quickies with lots girlish squealing. Curiously, only after sex do they remove their blouses, then stay that way for the duration of the play; their male partner stays dressed in his shirt, khakis and a plethora of paper party hats.

Light shifts, designed by Matt Brogan, indicate that the sex scenes occur in fantasy, or as program notes suggest, ask audiences to consider the possibility that they might occur in fantasy, but Samtur’s directorial skills are not sharp enough to cogently convey the idea of a possible reality. And if the sex is a fantasy but mundane reminiscing about college is not, why on earth would the girls choose to not wear clothing? More to the point, if the whole play is a fantasy, whose fantasy is it? And how does that impact the style of the play? Greater attention to that question might have strengthened the production.

At best, the toplessness is a distracting choice made by eager young men who confuse unmotivated undress with edgy, sophisticated theater. At worst, it's cheaply exploitative. At no point, however, is it particularly sexy. Given that Kagen's script purports to be smartly engaged with collegiate sexual politics, he should know better than to resort to meaningless objectification. References to antiquity and use of occasional French words are not enough to render the characters bright or the play classy.

The old show biz pearl of wisdom advises that when an act is weak, add a puppy. But even the cutest pups can’t compensate for an off-key number, and topless young women don't hide an ambling, self-important script. All of the plays would benefit from a lighter sense of themselves. Still, that these young artists are serious enough about their work to mount it onstage at the Red Room is an admirable accomplishment. With continued dedication to both producing and their artistic development, it will be interesting to see what directions they go in next.

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Nuclear Family

Vít Hořejš’sThe Very Sad Story of Ethel and Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and About Their Untymelie End While Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York tries to be many things: a history play, a musical, a tragedy, and even a modified puppet show, but it winds up becoming a mishmash. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were married American communists convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. They were sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair in 1953, leaving their two young sons orphaned. The story surrounding their actions is filled with intrigue, innuendo, betrayal and misguided idealism. It’s a shame that this production shares so little of those elements with us.

Above the stage hang blackboards filled with mysterious mathematical formulae and intricate drawings. Yet, we never hear about the secrets that Julius (Brian P. Glover) proffered to the Soviets. And we hear little from Julius himself, other than a well-worn bit of Marxist propaganda. Julius is curiously bereft of personality for a character so immediately central to the story. And Ethel’s portrayal is bound up for too long with that of her lower East Side mother, who admonishes that she forgo her dreams of singing on Broadway, get married and have children. This could be the yarn of any number of young women from post-Depression immigrant families in New York City.

The play also spends far too much time on events that have only general application to the Rosenbergs: the entire first half of the 20th century, the Great Depression, and World War II—events that were “formative” for the Rosenbergs, as the production’s press release asserts. It’s fairly safe, though, to conclude that such major events and eras were “formative” for anyone who happened to be alive at the same time as the Rosenbergs.

What this play needs to address is: What did the Rosenbergs do? Why were they arrested? What did they know? And why did they do what, in light of recent evidence, we know for a fact that Julius, at least, did: pass atomic secrets, however arguably useless, to the Soviets? Without intimate involvement in the espionage story of the Rosenbergs themselves, whether factual or whimsical, this generic play cannot live up to its ambitious title. In fact, we learn more about the history of the electric chair than we do of the actions that made the Rosenbergs the first civilians executed in the United States for espionage. The Rosenbergs here come across as ineffectual and almost senseless individuals who are simply acted upon.

It's an intriguing idea--the Rosenbergs as figurative puppets--but it's somewhat disingenuous, too. The play too conveniently skips over some parts of the "sad story." Julius was not a dumb man; with a degree in electrical engineering and radar experience in the Army Signal Corps, Julius had access to something the Soviet KGB clearly wanted. And, he supplied them with it. While the ultimate fate of the Rosenbergs was decided by skilled and cunning prosecutors who pulled the strings and unsuccessfully used the less implicated Ethel as a "lever" against Julius, surely free will played a major role in bringing the couple to that fate.

The production boasts of using “found objects” as symbolic proxies for characters and settings in the play: “So a bed frame doubles as a lectern and a pulpit; office chairs double as electric chairs,” states the press release. Similar things are done by a lot of companies on limited budgets. Yet, using teddy bears, for example, in place of the couple’s children proves to be a misguided idea that greatly detracts from the intensity of the tale. And, though the play was conceived by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, the only literal marionettes featured are miniature ones of the Rosenbergs that never move and a giant teddy bear that gets electrocuted by Thomas Edison. Don’t ask.

Another problem with this play, peppered generously with sometimes clever musical numbers, is that no one in the cast sings well. Deborah Beshaw as Ethel’s mother, Michelle Beshaw as the unscrupulous prosecutor Roy Cohn, and Theresa Linnihan as Ethel are all particularly egregious examples, but there's hardly a decent voice in the entire ensemble—not a good thing for a musical play. Several members of the cast might have also profited from the assistance of a dialect coach.

Complicating things further is that most members of the ensemble play multiple and sometimes unnecessary characters in such a way that it is difficult to keep their identities straight. Some theater companies (the Elevator Repair Service immediately comes to mind) are skilled enough to control and capitalize on such confusion to the benefit of the production, but this group cannot.

One bright spot in the production is Michelle Beshaw’s costuming; it effectively conveys a sense of New York’s lower East Side at the turn of last century. And it is remarkable just how much Ms. Linnihan and Mr. Glover resemble, from extant photos, their historical counterparts.

Yet, The Very Sad Story of Ethel and Julius never gets us below the surface of these potentially fascinating characters. In the end, we’re left looking at the walls, trying to figure out just what of this confused concoction actually stuck.

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Bright Lights, Dark Highway

Never mind the lush stagecraft and atmospheric bliss that make up most of The Debate Society’s production Cape Disappointment; you’ll probably be laughing long before the first lighting cue. As Hanna Bos and Paul Thureen gleefully rattle off cuckoo tourism slogans about Detroit (such as “When you’re here, you’re in Detroit!”), you’ll say a quiet thank you to yourself or whoever dragged you unwillingly to Performance Space 122. That’s because Cape Disappointment doesn’t actually disappoint – in fact, it’s the best play by The Debate Society yet. Like some inbred lovechild of Richard Foreman and Robert Altman (who is babysat on the weekends by David Lynch), Cape Disappointment employs imaginative theatrical effects to construct a scatological narrative about aberrant behavior in a bygone, supposedly squeaky-clean era. The action of three unrelated stories takes place on the dark roads surrounding a dilapidated drive-in theater (scrupulously designed by Karl Allen), where old timey glitz has crumbled into ageless junk. Hitchhiking with a stranger, rendezvousing with creepy locals, out of gas – at each turn, the characters find themselves thrust into horror movie scenarios that morph, like the ramshackle drive-in, into meditations on better days long gone.

While the script, by Bos and Thureen, utilizes tangential zigzags and sometimes elusive plot devices, the storyline is far more coherent than previous Debate Society ventures. Particularly effective is the use of sunny voice-over narration in the segment titled “The Pedophile and the Little Girl,” which skews the creepy scenario with a children’s book kind of sweetness that becomes endearing, even touching. In all three storylines, we live with these loopy, at times repulsive characters long enough to care about them and whatever it is they’ve lost. And they’ve all lost something – a home, a pet bird or just their way along the winding highway. For Aunt Gracie (Pamela Payton-Wright), who is being chauffeured by her niece and nephew, there is nostalgia for her hometown of Sisterville, which once looked forward to the economic boons of a man-made lake. But the lake never came to Sisterville and all of the marinas and scuba equipment stores banking on the future business dried out. You see, in Cape Disappointment characters can even be wistful for the good times that never happened.

Director Oliver Butler and show’s designers have outdone themselves with the show’s staging and ambient elements. Along with Allen’s thorough scenic design, lighting designer Mike Riggs’ piercing assortment of distant headlights and rotating lighthouse beacons deserves much esteem. Thanks to the innovative design, the show can peak furtively out of the shadows and through the floorboards or just bounce in the dark with a flickering flashlight – you only catch glimpses of action and are allowed to fill in the blanks yourself. In one compelling, but infuriating scene, two lost children crunch along through the dark woods, but then run screaming in terror when they see something looming large above them. We never see it. The buzz and pop of period radio stations designed by Nathan Leigh scores most of the obscure events, completing Butler’s moody jigsaw of sensory information.

Co-authors Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen where typically absorbing in their various roles. Bos’s wailing reaction to a dead turkey is hysterical, but the best scene for both her and Thureen is the final, unmoved moments of “The Pedophile and the Little Girl.” Michael Cyril Creighton and Pamela Payton-Wright both make worthy contributions as well, most notably Creighton’s wide-eyed movie buff salesman and Peyton-Wright’s softly reflective Aunt Gracie.

A singular experience of high style and excellent craftsmanship, there is really only one thing to say about the transcendent Cape Disappointment : “When you’re seeing it, you’re seeing Cape Disappointment!”

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Bros Before Blows

The five men that reunite in The Most Damaging Wound could have fallen prey to any number of clichés found in tales of male bonding, with tales of sexual braggadocio and drunken heart-to-hearts leading up to a night of epiphany that Changes their Lives Forever. The remarkable thing about Blair Singer’s fantastic new play is just how adroitly he maneuvers around all of them and charts his own original course, helped enormously by the camaraderie of his perfectly-cast ensemble. Wound is a knowing play, with a keen understanding of the nuances of how male friendship develops and morphs over time. While they may differ from female relationships, they nonetheless require attention or face the threat of erosion, something Singer’s characters confront in the play. Fresh from their college days at Syracuse roughly fifteen years earlier, this quintet of friends gathers at an Upper East Side restaurant soon to be opened by GG (Michael Solomon) to celebrate the birth of Kenny’s (Ken Matthews) first son by burning a time capsule from the undergrad days, inspired by Robert Bly’s Iron John. Alan, (Michael Szeles), a pharmaceutical lobbyist, has traveled up from Washington, DC; Dicky (Chris Thorn), has come down from Boston; and Bo (Bard Goodrich), hails from the New York area.

Director Mark Armstrong immediately eliminates any distance between audience and actors in Manhattan Theatre Source’s confined performance space (April Bartlett’s set is perfect for their spare stage). Among other things, Wound is to be praised for the director's sense of economy in storytelling. None of Singer’s characters tell us anything for the sake of lazy exposition, and we never learn much about any character.

Take, for example, the specter of father figures that hangs over several of the characters. Singer provides enough information for us to know that Ken had an abusive father of some sort, that both Dick and GG’s fathers have provided for their sons’ varied career paths, and that Bo’s father is slowly losing a battle to an aggressive form of cancer. These references are subtle enough to shade in the characters without overpowering them. For every time I had a question about a character’s history, I found myself feeling grateful that Singer refrained from spoon-feeding me too much information.

Singer also provides the perfect conduit to introduce us to these men in the form of Christine (Megan Mcquillan), Alan’s mistress. Her entrance into the play is welcome not only because it ups the dynamic but also because it shifts the prism through which the audience sees this male quintet. She is an outsider, but also possesses a more intimate knowledge of Alan, which allows her to fit right into this group. Through her, we learn more about each character’s past, and their connections to each other. Bo, for example, was a gay musician known on the northeast college circuit before going sober. His closest friend was the hard-partying Dick, whose inability to quit his old ways is one reason for their current estrangement. Ken’s discovery of Christine, meanwhile, rocks what he considers to be the foundation of his strong friendship with Alan.

Armstrong’s keen eye supports every one of Singer’s directives in this unequal quadrangle. Watch how carefully he blocks each scene so that Solomon’s body language reinforces GG’s feelings of being an outsider. (The actor does very nimble work to convey what it is to belong to a group of friends, but only on its periphery.) And pay attention to the look in Matthews’ eyes when Alan is talking. Much like the playwright, Armstrong too is deliberate with the details of his staging. There is something going on at all times in every area of the small stage. Every prop and accessory, from a wayward cell phone to the ring on a character’s finger, is there for a reason.

Furthermore, his actors know what to do to make every moment count in Wound. Often, when actors are without dialogue, they either lose character or refuse to cede the spotlight to a co-star out of ego. These actors know how to fill the spaces between bigger moments; one can look at any character who is not currently the centerpiece of the action and see them furthering their storyline in non-verbal ways. This completes the tableau and allows all events to unfold in an organic way, a skill often absent elsewhere.

As a result, Wound works as a showpiece for each of its stellar stars. Matthews leads the pack with a carefully measured performance of fear and loyalty that leaves the actor emotionally bare; I marvel at his ability to define precisely the right magnitude of emotion for Ken without toppling the play by being too heavy. Thorn has a trickier role. It looks easy to play a fun-loving guy; it doesn’t look like work. But he provides a lot of dimension to show the pathos behind the partying in one heck of a performance. And Szeles’ and Goodrich’s best work is in the scenes with their counterparts.

Mcquillan, too, is a real gift. Her performance is as much of a clarion call as that of her male counterparts, with her confident presence and syrupy voice. It is seductive but also unmistakable real, making it easy to see how Alan and all other men might fall for her. She is able to make us believe that she has led an entire life offstage – one that she would be eager to toss aside for a life with Alan. In just an hour and a half, Singer fashions an entire world for each of these characters, which, problems and all, looks mighty inviting. I certainly left this show longing to have been friends with each of them.

Equal parts diverting and riveting, always deeply human, The Most Damaging Wound is easily one of the best plays of the year.

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