Spirits of Christmas

Charles Dickens may have resurrected the tradition of telling tales guaranteed to cause fright on Christmas Eve, but RadioTheatre and Dan Bianchi are giving Dickens a run for his money.   

Giving gifts, singing carols and sending generic holiday cards are the norm each year, but it seems the culture of telling ghost stories at Christmas has become lost over several decades. Set in old Manhattan and told during RadioTheatre’s late-night broadcast, Bianchi, and director R. Patrick Alberty awaken imaginations and create a supernatural experience in the most simplistic way with Ghosts of Christmas Past

The stage is set for four — the host narrates from tale to tale while three storytellers move seamlessly from character to character. As director of sound and music, Bianchi allows listeners and viewers to imagine a setting fit for six ghostly tales. Frank Zilinyl, R. Patrick Alberty, Adam Segaller and Zoe V. Speas are dressed in all black, lurking in the shadows. Speas’s makeup is beautiful but hauntingly pale.  The snowstorm outside helped to create a dark and drafty theater with a red, gigantic skull as the backdrop, adding the perfect touch.  

As the dial is turned to RadioTheatre, the host’s (Zilinyl) voice is eerie from the outset. “It Happened On Christmas” highlights just how busy and jaded the typical New Yorker can be. Mr. Carter (Alberty) runs into the super, Mr. Beasley (Segaller), while on his way to church on Christmas Day; Beasley’s on his way up to the roof to “check on the pigeons.” Shortly after, Mrs. Cacciatore (Speas) hysterically screams to her neighbors that she’s seen Beasley fall from the roof to his death, everyone laughs and brushes her off.  Why wouldn’t they? His body has disappeared. A man doesn’t get up and walk away, after falling stories to his death. Does he? It isn't until the tenants of the building need their super, that they realize he is in fact dead, and missing…

Written to be a little less dark, “A Wonderful Crazy” begins with the often-unbelievable fact, that most people do not enjoy Christmas. On Christmas Eve, John (Segaller), bombarded with debt and despair, spends his holiday at a bar. An old friend, Mike (Alberty), shows up and offers his checkbook and a chance at love. John is baffled — how does John know Linda (Speas) is his heart’s desire? Why is he offering him a second chance at life? The bartender (Zilinyl) drops a major bomb on John, causing him to evaluate everything that’s happened in his past and what’s in store for Linda and his future, proving not all ghosts are haunting Zilinyl — giving hope that guardian angles do exist.

“The Calling” literally causes chills down the spine. Taking place in 1911, a young man (Segaller) loses his wife after she goes to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory; she leaps to her death after being caught in the infamous fire. Nine months later on Christmas Eve, he sets the table, prepares an elaborate meal and awaits her return. Sound effects paint a mental picture of a spirit entering the hallway as a neighbor’s dog howls at the wind. Horrified by her ghostly presence that is not like that of his wife’s, he cowards away.  The narrator (Speas) has the ability to grasp the audience’s spirit so that they’ll hang on her every word, spinning the fear of the deceased wife, to anger at the uninviting husband; angry that he is gutless and causes his love to flee, when all she wanted was warmth and love. It is absolutely magnificent.

During the conclusion, the host drops a hint that they wish to broadcast every year during RadioTheatre, keeping with the Victorian tradition of celebrating Christmas among the supernatural. Bianchi hopes to return next year with more ghastly folklore. As long as the dead keep on living, New York is sure to tune-in, embracing the paranormal in the East Village.

RadioTheatre's Ghosts of Christmas Past presented by the Horse Trade Theater Group at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street) runs through Jan. 12. The following schedule is current: Sunday, Dec. 29 at 3 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 8 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 11 at 6 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. General admission is $18 and $15 for students. Tickets may be purchased by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or are available online at www.horsetrade.info.   

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Stumbling Toward Eternity

The bleakness that often characterizes Irish dramatist Conor McPherson’s work is tempered by the climactic scene in his new play, The Night Alive, which is being presented at the Atlantic Theater Company, a venue during the last decade for his plays Port Authority and Dublin Carol. As fans of the Irish author know, McPherson embraces using supernatural elements that often carry a sense of dread — or worse. In The Weir (1999), a group of people in an Irish pub tell ghost stories to pass the time, but the most vivid one sends chills up the spine. Shining City (2006) featured a scene that had audiences screaming and jumping out of their seats. The hero of The Seafarer (2007) chances an ultimate high-stakes poker game with the Devil.

That sense of real evil in the world is largely subdued in McPherson’s new play, The Night Alive, which has transferred from the Donmar Warehouse in London under the author’s direction. Although the supernatural element is neither so flashy nor so chilling, it is there, but it is used for a very different effect. As usual, too, McPherson portrays modern Ireland with sympathy and clear eyes. Poverty, struggle, drink, stupidity and violence are part of the picture, but so are compassion and unexpected kindness.

As the play opens, the middle-aged Tommy (a scruffy Ciarán Hinds) has brought a young woman named Aimee (Caoilfhionn Dunne) to his home, a room of extraordinary chaos in a rambling old house (superbly designed by Soutra Gilmour, as are the costumes). Aimee's nose is bleeding from a beating; Tommy has rescued her. Soon they are joined by Michael McElhatton’s slow-witted Doc, a chum of Tommy’s who has been tossed out of his sister’s flat where he’s become an unwelcome guest. Doc hopes to bunk at Tommy’s for the night, but Aimee has been offered the extra cot. Though Tommy resists letting Doc stay, he eventually relents.

Tommy finds himself attracted to Aimee, but her past brings him trouble. Doc has heard that she is “on the game,” and Kenneth, her pimp, played with a vicious and unbalanced élan by Brian Gleeson, eventually shows up.

Adding to the pressures on Tommy is his uncle, Maurice, who owns the house and, from his Catholicism, disapproves of Tommy’s friends, slovenliness and separation from wife and children. Jim Norton, an indispensable part of McPherson’s best plays, invests his character, who is alternately bullying and empathetic, with elegance and a flailing loneliness.

McPherson's writing is tight too; it takes only Doc's lingering hand on Tommy's shoulder to raise a suspicion that he's homosexual, and only a couple passing references to cement the fact. As the troubles sort themselves out, there is welcome humor, notably an exchange in which Doc tries to explain to Aimee the evolution of his nickname from “Brian” to “Bri” to “Doc” because the last is shorter than "Bri." There’s nifty low comedy, too, when Maurice, who knows someone is stealing his vegetables from his garden, stumbles across a bag of turnips and overlooks a much more shocking discovery because of his fixation.

Nonetheless, a deep-seated darkness looms throughout. Aimee explains to Tommy that she stayed with Kenneth because she always figured suicide was an option. And the devout Maurice confesses to Tommy: “There’s even days when mass just takes you nowhere, just deposits you back on the pavement, just another invisible man, knowing that the end is sneaking in on you and knowing it’s gonna be the worst part of your life.”

The linchpin of the play is Tommy, and Hinds mines the richness of the character — Tommy tries to cheat Doc and belittles him, but fundamentally cares about his friend and habitually looks after him. It’s a portrait of the way poverty can force decent people to flirt with injustice. But after all the anguish and scrambling and bickering in the characters’ day-to-day existence, McPherson embraces something new for him: a sense that good can win out with perseverance. It's a big step forward for the author, who in the last decade has brought his near-fatal alcoholism under control. As so often in literature, it’s Doc, the “holy fool,” who articulates the truth; his speech in the last moments of the play sets up the surprisingly mundane vision of paradise in McPherson’s brave new work.

The Night Alive plays at the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th St., through Feb. 2. Evening performances are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday and 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $65 and are available by visiting atlantictheater.org.


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Great Birnam Wood in Harlem

Shakespeare's Macbeth is as topical this month as year-end bonuses and the holiday windows at Saks Fifth Avenue. Ethan Hawke is giving a much-discussed performance in the title role at Lincoln Center. The entertainment press is trumpeting a film adaptation, featuring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, which begins shooting immediately after New Year's. The Park Avenue Armory has announced that Sir Kenneth Branagh will make his New York stage debut next summer in a highly praised production of the play seen earlier this year at the Manchester International Festival in England. And Punchdrunk's Sleep No More, the "immersive" entertainment inspired by the Shakespearean tragedy, is in the third year of an open-ended run down in Chelsea. 

Less publicized — and somewhat off the beaten path — is another Macbeth, which is being presented by What Dreams May Co. Theatre and features non-traditional casting. (The company appears committed to equal opportunity for women, despite the disproportionate number of male roles in the Shakespearean canon.) This fleet, streamlined production of Shakespeare's most compact tragedy is at the 133rd Street Arts Center in Harlem through Dec. 21.

Macbeth was first performed early in the reign of King James I of England (1603-1625) by The King’s Men, a London troupe of which Shakespeare was a member. Since the King was also James VI of Scotland, his accession, upon the death of Elizabeth I, united the crowns of the two nations. Shakespeare likely intended the play to curry favor with the monarch; his depiction of Banquo, an ancestor of the King, as a virtuous man whose children are destined to be kings appears to be an oblique defense of James's divine right to the thrones of both countries.

Macbeth, in the words of G. Wilson Knight, is "Shakespeare's most profound and mature vision of evil." At the beginning of the play, the title character (Alan Brincks), a near relative of King Duncan of Scotland, encounters a group of witches who predict that he will become king but that the descendants of his friend Banquo (Lindsey Zelli) will ultimately occupy the throne. Spurred by his ambitious wife (Nicole Schalmo), Macbeth kills Duncan (Joshuah Laird) to make the witches' prophecy come true. Murder follows murder as Macbeth tries to conceal his crimes. Hoping to secure the royal succession for his own family, he has Banquo killed. But Banquo’s son, Fleance (Zoe Sjogerman), and Malcolm (Vince Reese), Duncan's rightful heir, flee the country and survive the brief, bloody interregnum of King Macbeth.

In a program note, director Christina Sheehan describes Macbethas “an adrenaline rush of a play”; and her swift-paced direction, utilizing every inch of the auditorium's tiny playing area, keeps the actors on the move and the audience wide awake. The cast — 12 talented Millennials, five of them playing two or three roles — is consistently adept with Shakespearean verse. Brincks and Schalmo, an imposing pair with ample on-stage chemistry, play the Macbeths as besotted with each other and mutually aroused by the prospect of power. As Banquo, Zelli is the embodiment of rectitude and her cross-gender casting works well. Jonathan Emerson is a volcanic Macduff, infuriated by the murder of his king; crushed by the slaughter of his wife and children; determined throughout that justice will be done. The Act IV scene in which Emerson's Macduff goads Reese's Prince Malcolm to avenge his father's death and reclaim the throne for his family is the production's most emotionally powerful point.

Though the playbill lists no credits for scenic, costume, or lighting design, someone has made wise choices in each of those departments. The players work on a largely unadorned stage, furnished with chairs and a few props. A fanciful banner brings Great Birnam Wood "to high Dunsinane hill" simply but with theatrical flair. The theater's lighting equipment, though rudimentary, is deployed to suitably eerie effect. The actors wear street clothes with a few adroitly designed enhancements — spooky hooded cloaks for highwaymen and supernatural figures; richly colored sashes for the royals; and a couple of sheets of silky, scarlet fabric representing battlefield casualties and the blood of murder victims. Reese, doubling as fight director, has choreographed a compelling final scene, and the actors wield their weapons convincingly in all episodes of combat. 

The cast of this Macbeth is mature enough to meet the technical challenges of Shakespeare's text and young enough to lend a hip quality to the proceedings. The entertaining result supports Mary McCarthy’s assertion, half a century ago, that “bloodstained Macbeth, of all Shakespeare’s characters” seems “the most ‘modern’” and the most readily transposed "into contemporary battle dress or a sport shirt and slacks.”

Macbeth by William Shakespeare presented by What Dreams May Co. Theatre, 308 West 133rd Street between St. Nicholas and Frederick Douglas Boulevard in Harlem, runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Saturday, Dec. 21. Tickets: $18. Running time is two hoursn including one intermission. Tickets may be purchased by visiting www.brownpapertickets.com/event/495842 or calling 1-800-838-3006. 

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Music on the Double

The subtitle of the Anderson twins’ splendid new revue, Le Jazz Hot, is How the French Saved Jazz. It derives from a comment that Quincy Jones made to them: “If it weren’t for France, jazz would be dead.”

Written and directed by Peter and Will Anderson, the theatrical entertainment combines music and fascinating commentary. As a visual accompaniment to their thesis, the brothers have unearthed old film clips and photographs of composers and performers who flourished in France. They include Sidney Bechet, Kenny Clarke, Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s no accident, of course, that most of the performers were black Americans; in Paris they found little of the racism they had to endure in the States.

The clips begin on a lighter note, however, with an amusing silent film from the early 20th century in which a cellist plants himself on a sidewalk and begins to play, but is pelted with vegetables and garbage. The twins' subtle point is, perhaps, that the subjects of their revue are going to get more respect.

The background on the music being played is interesting and informative, and frequently makes one want more. Who suspected that Baker was smuggling secret information to Portugal written on her music in invisible ink during World War II? 

Less well known is a performer like Bechet, who went to Paris at 28 with La Revue Nègre and later headlined at Bricktop’s club. Bricktop, of course, made a brief appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, set in the French capital in the 1920s; Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” was featured on the soundtrack. The Andersons' quintet delivers a silky version that conjures the romantic atmosphere of Allen’s film. 

The only scenery is a chalkboard on the wall that features the musicians’ names and their instruments — in French. Will and Peter are listed as playing anches (reeds), and there are a variety of saxophones and clarinets clustered around them; batterie is the word for Decker’s percussion, while the other instruments’ names are similar to English. In spite of the bilingual sign, Will issues a warning at the top of the show: “Musicians are not liable for mispronounced French words.” Luckily, the music does the speaking for the Andersons' colleagues: percussionist Luc Decker, bass player Clovis Nicolas and guitarist Alex Wintz. 

If this sounds like a lecture with music on the side, it’s not. Although the brothers eagerly share information, there's plenty of jazz, and the atmosphere is intimate, as if Peter and Will were entertaining friends of their parents at a casual family gathering. The numbers include familiar tunes like Henri Betti’s “C’est Si Bon,” Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris,” Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” and Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” But there are more traditional jazz numbers, such as the lilting swing of Bechet’s “Promenade aux Champs-Élysées”; Reinhardt’s often-recorded “Nuages” and the swift scales of his “Rhythm Futur,” with a standout performance by Wintz; and the more pronounced percussion and uptempo of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Afro Paris,” with a clarinet solo by Will. On the mellower side is a swing version of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” played to a montage of scenes from the film The Red Balloon; in it, Wintz does another amazing solo as a group of children crowd around the balloon.

The revue includes a foray into Hollywood, with Duke Ellington’s music for the 1961 film Paris Blues, starring Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman. The brothers play the alto and tenor sax on the music, and note the verisimilitude of the actors in portraying jazz musicians, although, Peter says, “Poitier had his mouthpiece on backwards.” 

Oh! — that poor cellist in the silent film? After enduring tons of abuse, he is suddenly handed a bouquet by a woman. The Anderson twins deserve one, too, for their delightful show.

Le Jazz Hot will play through Dec. 29 at 59E59 Theaters on the following schedule: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8:30 p.m. on Friday; at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Saturday; 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $25 through Dec. 15 and $35 thereafter, through Dec. 29. There is no performance Dec. 25, and an additional performance at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 27. Tickets may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or visiting www.59e59.org.

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WASPs in Denial

No one familiar with A.R. Gurney will be surprised that his new play, Family Furniture, is set near Buffalo, New York, or that four of the five characters are white Anglo-Saxon Episcopalians. Those things, though, are about all that’s predictable in Gurney’s touching new comedy, currently at the Flea Theater in a crackerjack production directed by Tony nominee Thomas Kail.

Over a five-decade writing career, Gurney has chronicled middle and upper-middle class Protestants with a perspicacity comparable to that with which his contemporary Philip Roth approaches middle and upper-middle class Jews. In Gurney's compactly structured new play, as also in Roth's novella Goodbye, Columbus, a sensitive young man is altered in the course of a 1950s summer by disorienting discoveries about those around him and his social milieu. Both Roth and Gurney's protagonists head into autumn altogether more worldly than they were in June.

Gurney depicts a prosperous U.S. in which Cold War anxiety is taking the edge off the elation of World War II victory. The location is a summer colony on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie, close enough to Buffalo for paterfamilias Russell (Peter Scolari, familiar most recently, as Lena Dunham’s father on Girls) to commute on weekdays. While Russell carries on with the breadwinner's routine, his wife, Claire (Carolyn McCormick, widely known as pathologist Dr. Olivet on Law & Order), luxuriates in weeks of vacation. The play’s events unfold against a backdrop of the Army-McCarthy hearings, a political spectacle which Americans are following in "real-time" on their newly acquired television sets. As Russell observes, the world has "changed radically ... since the war." In his own household, for instance, the comforting verities of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture are under siege: daughter Peggy (Ismenia Mendes) may soon be engaged to an Italian-American from a working-class family; and son Nick (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), a college junior, is dating Betsy, a Jewish woman (Molly Nordin) who's coaching him to think far more critically about literature and especially about matters social and political. 

Russell is liberal-minded about Buffalo's increasing diversity, but he's uneasy at the prospect of the children marrying outside his Anglo-Saxon comfort zone. “We all need roots,” he says. “Deep roots, tap roots, you might call them. And we don’t last long without them.” Russell aims to be tolerant (within certain bounds): “I like to think we are able to embrace the future without denying the past.” Denial, however, is the thing at which he most excels.

From curtain-up, Gurney’s characters reveal what dab hands they are at maintaining secrets and ignoring reality. Claire, ostensibly alone on an overnight shopping trip in Manhattan, has dropped out of sight. She reappears pretty quickly; but her explanations for this and other absences never quite add up. Nick is confident he knows what's going on; and he assumes poor Russell has been snowed by his wife's lame excuses. Betsy, the play's non-WASP, declares that Russell “must be very naïve.” Defensive about his father's predicament, Nick shuts down the discussion, telling Betsy his father's “a complicated guy.” What Nick doesn't yet understand is the societal compact by which his parents and their forebears have managed to rise above social breaches and personal affronts that, if acknowledged, might capsize friendships, wreck marriages and swamp families. This tacit covenant is at the heart of Family Furniture; and, by placing it there, Gurney suggests it is, or used to be, essential to WASP culture. Speaking of the kinds of secrets with which Family Furniture deals — among them, infidelity, inconvenient pregnancy, abortion, feuds and embarrassing break-ups — Claire tells Nick: “People can know and not know … [a]nd still get along famously.”

Family Furniture is felicitously cast with a combination of seasoned pros and well-trained younger actors, all of whom understand that, in Gurney's script, what's unsaid is as important as what's said. The playwright's stage directions call for scenic design that’s as elliptical as his dialogue — “simple and somewhat abstract.” Rachel Hauck (set design) and Andrew Diaz (props) have taken Gurney at his word, creating a suggestive, uncluttered environment, furnished with readily moveable benches and tables, utilizing the imagination of both performers and audience. Claudia Brown’s costumes reflect the handsome styles of the Eisenhower era and the timeless taste of the Ivy Leaguers who populate Gurney’s universe. Betsy Adams’s lighting evokes the season's progression, early summer to Labor Day, and since the production has no detailed scenery, suggests the distinction between interiors and exteriors. 

Gurney and Roth belong to the remnant of a generation that brought insights of post-Freudian psychology, plus unprecedented sexual candor, to fiction and drama. While Roth recently declared an end to his literary career, Gurney, at 83, is going strong. He may be looking backward in Family Furniture to the era of Goodbye, Columbus, but his swift exposition, efficient dialogue, and the play's relatively brief running time (sans intermission) belong to the zippy, impatient theater of today. And Gurney's authorial voice has irony enough to mark him as a denizen of the 21st-century. Family Furniture invites us, for a hundred minutes or so, to ponder a social convention that, according to Gurney, has saved face, spared feelings and, in some instances, kept families intact. Now's the time to do so: it's a self-willed naivety unlikely to survive social media, Internet gossip and the bluntness of our current tell-all, know-all discourse. 

Family Furniture by A.R. Gurney presented by The Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street in TriBeCa, runs Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m., through Sunday, December 22. Tickets are $15, $30, $50 and $70, and may be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting www.theflea.org.

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Nutcracker Meets Erotica

Entering the Minetta Lane Theatre last Saturday night for Nutcracker Rouge, I was not quite sure what to expect. I first heard of Company XIV just two years ago and soon became familiar with their growing reputation for borrowing from multiple performative traditions and taking them to another level. The company, brainchild of art director/choreographer/founder Austin McCormick, is an acclaimed multidisciplinary troupe whose unique blend of jazz, opera, vaudeville, burlesque and old-time theatrics have been shaking up the theater scene since its founding in 2006. 

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Trash Talkers' Tale

John Pollono’s résumé indicates he has had some notable acting appearances, but his new play, Small Engine Repair, provides evidence that he also has a fine sense of dramaturgy. Director Jo Bonney’s swift 90-minute production gives four actors an opportunity to showcase some ethnic characters with swagger and distinctive accents. Needing only one set, Small Engine Repair should not only provide a healthy income for Pollono as he pursues a career either in acting or writing, or both, but also give audiences a good time.

Set in the titled enterprise, in Manchester, N.H., the play quickly establishes an atmosphere of foul-mouthed comic insult hurled by macho dolts, and then lingers there awhile. Frank (Pollono), the owner, has invited his childhood friends of 30 years, Packie (James Ransone) and Swaino (James Badge Dale), to stop by. But neither Packie nor Swaino, whose last interaction resulted in a violent falling-out over cough drops, knows the other is coming. When Swaino arrives, Frank attempts to play mediator as they begin drinking some expensive scotch that Frank has bought, ostensibly to help effect a reconciliation.

Loaded with scabrous, Mamet-like dialogue, the play recalls American Buffalo, also about three small-time working-class strugglers, in its vulgar brio. The junk shop in Mamet’s play has its counterpart in Frank's cluttered workspace, designed superbly by Richard Hoover with oil cans, jacks, wrenches, screwdrivers and a sliding entry door.

For a while, Pollono's Frank plays the centered straight man to his goofier colleagues, bringing a solidity and a dark undercurrent to the character. And gradually it becomes apparent that the men's bawdy discussion of women, pornography and prostitutes is linked to the playwright's theme. Pollono has something to say about men’s callous treatment of women and the way social media have exacerbated a viral atmosphere of disdain toward them. Typical of the men's mindset is the preening Swaino’s answer to whether he has been in touch with an ex-girlfriend: “I kind of lost contact with her after I stopped calling.”

Swaino sees himself as a ladies’ man, but no sane woman would want him for a long-term relationship. Dale plays him all-out, with slicked-back, curly, graying hair, a tracksuit with the top open halfway down his chest, and Buddhist mala beads on his wrists (Theresa Squire did the costumes) — he’s a borderline caricature of someone who sees himself as God’s gift to women.

Ransone is equally fine as the quick-tempered, put-upon Packie, who laments his lack of money and attributes it to being Irish: “My people were oppressed by white men,” he declares in all sincerity. And his heritage brings some serious teasing by Swaino, who calls him a “leprechaun” and says: “You got no reason to be angry at me, Packie. I don’t got no pot of gold.” Packie, whose slighter build is derided but who has an enviable sexual organ, is also tech-savvy — and it's one of his saving graces.

Gradually, though, one senses that something more is going on underneath the colorful give-and-take and Frank's watchful eye. We learn that Frank has raised his daughter, Crystal, by himself; that now her mother, Karen Delgado, is back in town; and that Swaino has had a meeting with her, unbeknownst to Frank. Though the last is in some measure a red herring, the secrets and offstage characters help the plot thicken. As Swaino and Packie drink, they discover that Frank is also awaiting a drug dealer named Chad, a 19-year-old from Boston.
The action kicks into gear with the arrival of Chad (Keegan Allen), and it would be unfair to reveal too much about it. But all the actors dive into the characters with zeal. Packie admires the pampered preppie’s accomplishments as a basketball player at Northeastern: “He plays in Massachusetts,” says Packie. “It’s a whole different thing down there. They play against black people.” Allen's laid-back Chad seems to have not a care in the world and enjoys their admiration of his youth and good looks.

A late twist (you may guess it before it arrives) propels the play into violence, and the resolution, lewd and comical, involves Packie and some crucial lighting by Lap Chi Chu. One of the pleasures of Small Engine Repair is that its heroes may be losers and jerks, but the world is full of much worse.

Small Engine Repair will play through Dec. 15. Evening performances are: Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. There is an additional performance on Monday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m. General tickets are $69-$89 and may be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting www.mcctheater.org.

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The Fervent Years Revived

At the curtain call of Sidney Kingsley's medical-crisis drama Men in White, a member of the Off-Off Broadway troupe The Seeing Place brandishes a clear-glass vase containing a little bit of folding money and assures the house that any contributions, however modest, will be appreciated. That polite solicitation is a reminder that it takes more than let's-put-on-a-show energy (which the cast has in abundance) to keep a theater company afloat. In the words of its promotional literature, the 27-member Seeing Place (that's a literal translation of the classical Greek noun theatron) is an "actor-driven company: built by actors, managed by actors to be a base for actors who want to grow and hone their craft in a creative and supportive artistic home." Men in White is the first of five socially conscious plays that The Seeing Place is offering as its fifth season. 

Back in 1933, Men in White was the first successful production of another "actor-driven company" — the Group Theatre, which flourished in New York for most of the Great Depression. The play won the Pulitzer Prize; and, in 1934, MGM released a movie version starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy. Over the years, Men in White has inspired hospital dramas on television from Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare to ER and Grey's Anatomy. (Kingsley's Detective Story has similarly provided a template for police dramas up to the present, with the Law and Order and CSI franchises.) The Seeing Place production is the first professional revival of Men in White in New York in three decades.

Set during the Depression, Men in White portrays life at various levels of St. George's, a cash-strapped private hospital in Manhattan. The protagonist, Dr. George Ferguson (Brandon Walker), is a high-minded intern of unusual promise, engaged to a socially-ambitious woman (Erin Cronican) whose father (Stewart Steinberg) is a benefactor of St. George's. Distressed by conflicting demands from his all-consuming vocation and his possessive fiancée, Ferguson turns for momentary sympathy to a nurse (Martine Moore) who shares his altruistic views. Predictably enough, melodramatic complications ensue. What's surprising is that Kingsley's old-fashioned dramaturgy raises issues — the ethics of abortion, for instance, and how healthcare should be financed — that are as urgent now as they were 80 years ago.

The narrative of Men in White is engaging; but the play is of interest principally because it's linked inextricably to the Group, a collective of actors, directors and writers inspired by the ideas of actor-director Konstantin Stanislavsky and committed to producing plays of social significance. The Moscow Art Theatre, which Stanislavsky co-founded, visited the United States a decade before the Group produced Men in White; its performances on Broadway and elsewhere during that tour had a profound effect on both playgoers and theater professionals. The New Republic critic Stark Young, who saw the troupe in January 1923, describes their work as "that rarest of events in the theatre anywhere, the combination of acting, producing and dramatic writing, one proceeding from another and all illuminating one idea."

The Group's production of Men in White was directed by Lee Strasberg, who later, as artistic director of the Actors Studio, would become the chief proponent of method acting. The cast included future acting gurus Sanford Meisner and Robert Lewis; future director Elia Kazan; and Clifford Odets, who would write the Group's greatest plays, Awake and Sing!, Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy. The scenic designs by the distinguished Mordecai Gorelik included an operating-room set, innovatively lighted, for the crucial surgery scene, which was staged in a fashion that critics described as "balletic." Reviewing Men in White in The Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch said: "The effectiveness of the production can be credited less to any one element in it than to its remarkable wholeness, to the way in which everything in the acting and direction, as well as in the script itself, works with everything else to produce an unbroken continuity of interest and to leave behind a complete unified impression."

With its huge cast and complex staging demands, Men in White is a massive undertaking. The ostensive magic of the Group's original production was a function of gifted actors working full-time (unhindered by "days jobs"), with ample rehearsal time, since the collective-bargaining agreements of that era were less restrictive than those of today. Treading in the footprints of the Group Theatre is a daunting notion. The Seeing Place is to be commended for staging Men in White on a tight budget, with 16 actors covering 27 roles; and there's much that's admirable about what the cast accomplishes. Walker, in particular, gives a strong, thoughtful performance as Dr. Ferguson; and he's well-matched by Cronican in their several scenes together. Serving as both leading lady and director, however, Cronican may be on stage too much to have the bird's eye view necessary to direct a script as complicated as this one. The chaos of the climactic operating room scene, for instance, might have been averted if Cronican had viewed things from afar rather than being stuck in the center of the onstage action.

This presentation of Men in White doesn't approach the "remarkable wholeness" and "unified impression" that Krutch so admired in the Group's staging — the cast is uneven; what's suspenseful in the script is undercut by erratic pacing; even the Prokofiev that serves as entr'acte music is out of kilter with the mood of the dramatic material. But, for those interested in 20th-century drama, this is an opportunity, at a mere $12 per ticket, to experience a milestone work of the 1930s that's now nearly forgotten. And there's a plucky spirit to the production that's in sync with those Depression-era pioneers who founded the Group. That plea for donations at the curtain call, with the clear-glass vase and its small amount of folding money, is more than a testament to the difficulty of creating an environment in which artists may develop serious work in this costly city. It's a declaration that the theater deserves both passion and sacrifice.

Men in White by Sidney Kingsley presented by The Seeing Place at The Sargent Theater (in the American Theater of Actors, 314 West 54th Street) runs Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., through Sunday, November 24. General admission $12. 

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Life's Bitter Dregs

The correspondence of director Alan Schneider and his friend Samuel Beckett indicates that the Irish playwright never wanted his radio play All That Fall adapted for theatrical presentation. His response to an overture by Schneider, entrusted with numerous Beckett plays during the author’s lifetime, including Waiting for Godot, indicates Beckett’s final decision was essentially “Let it stay as it is.”

Happily, British director Trevor Nunn hasn’t heeded that advice, and his stage adaptation works wonderfully well. How to turn a radio play into a piece of theater? Set it in a radio station with the actors portraying actual voice performers. Cherry Truluck’s set features 10 microphones hanging from the ceilings in a zigzag pattern in a gray room. A half dozen chairs on either side of the room allow for sitting for the actors as they await their cues, and recording is signaled by a red light over an upstage door. For verisimilitude, Paul Groothuis’s sound effects don’t always synchronize with the actors. As Eileen Atkins’s Mrs. Rooney trudges in the studio, after all, her actual footsteps don’t need to be aligned with the scraping sounds provided for radio listeners. Nunn’s ingenious concept allows the play to breathe for the stage.

It helps that Nunn has assembled a sterling cast, headed by acting legends Atkins and Michael Gambon as her blind, irascible husband. The action consists of Mrs. Rooney’s walk to the train station to meet her husband’s train, and their walk back to their home in a storm. But there’s no mistake that this is a Beckett play: it’s bleak and funny; it mocks religion, underlines the misery of life, and leaves you in an exhilarated funk. If you’re new to Beckett and want to just dip your toe in, these 75 minutes are a good way to start.

As Mrs. Rooney sets out, she meets various residents of her Irish village. There’s Christy (Ruairi Conaghan), driving a cart with a donkey that he beats, upsetting Mrs. Rooney: “No, no, enough! Take her by the snaffle and pull her eyes away from me. Oh this is awful!” The theme of life itself as a painful burden arises again when she encounters Mr. Slocum (Trevor Cooper) in his car. After a comical interlude with Slocum trying to push Mrs. Rooney into the car and finally succeeding, he runs over a chicken. “What a death!” cries Mrs. Rooney. “One minute picking happy at the dung, on the road, in the sun, with now and then a dust bath, and then — bang! — all her troubles over.”

But even the routine inquiries about loved ones elicit unhappy news. When she meets a bicyclist, Mr. Tyler (Frank Grimes), she asks, “What news of your poor daughter?” “Fair, fair,” he responds. “They removed everything, you know, the whole...er…bag of tricks. Now I am grandchildless.” Near the end of the play she asks a young boy, Jerry, “How is your poor father?” and Jerry answers, “They took him away, Ma’am.” “Then you are all alone?” she asks. “Yes, Ma’am,” says the boy.

Though the existential woes are relentless, they mix cheek by jowl with comedy. The kind but unappreciated Slocum at one point sits in silence, prompting Mrs. Rooney to ask, “What are you doing, Mr. Slocum?” Slocum’s deadpan answer: “Gazing straight before me, Mrs. Rooney, through the windscreen, into the void.”

Religion, too, takes a hit. Discussing the vicar’s text for the Sunday service, Mrs. Rooney tells her husband, “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down” (Psalm 145:14). There’s a pause as Gambon’s gruff, boisterous Rooney and his wife take it in, then they erupt in derisive laughter.

Beckett aficionados will recognize recurring elements from other plays: a young boy, Jerry, echoes the messenger boy in Waiting for Godot; Mr. Rooney is blind, just as Hamm in Endgame (played terrifically in a 2004 West End production by Gambon, who wore dark glasses) and Pozzo in Godot; a reference to a ditch calls to mind the same in Godot. Some of the writing is obviously mordantly funny; not so obvious is what an actress like Atkins can make of a simple line such as “Do you want some dung?”

Gambon makes a relatively late entrance, but provides a solid foil to Atkins’s worn down, caviling wife. The blind Mr. Rooney rails like Lear, and it is surely no accident that they make their way through a pelting rain to get home. It makes one realize that Gloucester’s line “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods/They kill us for their sport” might have been written by Beckett rather than Shakespeare.

All That Fall plays through Dec. 8. Evening performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. There will be no performance on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28. Single tickets are $70 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or going to www.59e59.org.

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Killer Performers in a Mock Mystery

Two consummately talented singer-actors shine bright in Murder for Two, a musical mystery from Second Stage that has moved to New World Stages in midtown after a summer run on the Upper West Side. While it’s ideal brainless summer fun, it’s a bit riskier to put on amid autumn’s weightier offerings, but director Scott Schwartz’s nifty production makes one hope there is an audience for light-headed laughter at any time of year.

In Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair’s book, the set-up is hoary — guests invited to an isolated rambling mansion, a killer on the loose, a variety of suspects (think of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, invoked here, or Neil Simon’s film Murder by Death). But add a sparkling score (music by Kinosian; lyrics by Blair) and two performers, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Brett Ryback, who have a fine way with a Steinway, and you’re halfway there — if “there” is a frenetic parody of all the murder mystery tropes, you can tick off from the top of your head.

The victim is famed novelist Arthur Whitney, whose birthday was to be celebrated in a posh affair organized by his simmeringly resentful wife, Dahlia. The guests include Barrette Lewis, a haughty, glamorous ballerina; Murray and Barb, a squabbling married couple; Dr. Griff, a blabby psychiatrist; three kids (Timmy, Yonkers and Skid) from a choir in Badoinkaville, which is apparently equivalent to the Lower East Side in Collarhorn, the fictional small-town setting; and a bewildered firefighter who makes a brief appearance. 

Moreover, there is Dahlia Whitney, the loopy socialite widow, and her niece Steph, an ambitious college student interested in law enforcement whose thesis is “How to Assist in the Solving of a Small-Town Murder.” If you think that Jefferson Mays, who is playing a mere eight characters in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway, has a challenge, check out Blumenkrantz, who plays all 12 suspects.

Opposite Blumenkrantz is a charismatic Ryback as Officer Marcus Moscowicz, a straight-arrow policeman bucking for detective, though he carries emotional scars. He’s supposed to secure the scene, but, mistaken for the expected detective, he seizes the opportunity to solve the crime before the official sleuth arrives. His only backup is another officer, Lou, seen only in silhouette, thanks to Jason Lyons’ inventive lighting. 

A tone of one-upmanship is set immediately, as Ryback and Blumenkrantz have a tug-of-war over removing the piano cover. But despite the tomfoolery, they both sound great on the eighty-eight, and that includes not only their nimble fingers but Ryback’s rear end and Blumenkrantz’s feet. 

The backstage set by Beowulf Borritt is apt but unprepossessing: a trunk, some cables, and an outline of a mansion that, lighted by Lyons, casts a looming shadow on the upstage wall. Blumenkrantz adopts various voices, postures, and pitches for his characters (not to mention vocalizing a creaking door), and adds a gesture to complete the characterizations: a sweep of the hand on imaginary hair for Steph; a pair of black-rimmed glasses for Dahlia; and a cigar and raspy voice for Dr. Griff. And, as one of the kids, he dances a Charleston on his knees. 

Schwartz’s pacing resembles a Marx Brothers movie (a piano duet has a sly homage to Chico Marx), and it works most of the time. Occasionally Blumenkrantz’s switching of characters is a bit confusing, and some of the low comedy is as old as vaudeville — a light bulb on the proscenium arch goes on when Marcus gets an idea — but, for the most part, the hijinks are fun. If breaking the fourth wall seems routine and the firefighter scene feels like filler, those are quibbles.

On the plus side, Kinosian has a gift for writing catchy melodies, and Blair’s lyrics display a naughty wit. When Marcus worries that Timmy, Yonkers and Skid may suffer emotionally from seeing blood and Arthur Whitney’s corpse, they reassure him they’re survivors (literally) in a song called “A Lot Woise”:

“Went on a camping trip and lost nine members of the choir there
When our tent was set on fire there,
Yeah, we seen a lot woise.

"I can’t imagine how my best pal Johnny musta felt that night
When his face began to melt that night,
Boy, we seen a lot woise.”

A two-character show can’t work, though, without virtuosity in the performers, and both Ryback and Blumenkrantz make one hope to see much more of them, on a larger stage and a bigger budget. For now, though, it’s enough just to make their acquaintance.

Murder for Two will play at New World Stages, Stage 5, 340 W. 50th St., through Jan. 5. Evening performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Sunday at 7 p.m.. Matinees are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

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Hamlet on the Upper West Side

The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is the longest of William Shakespeare’s 36 plays and probably the most complex. In the four centuries since the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the band of players to which the Bard belonged) first presented Hamlet, critics have expended countless gallons of ink debating the play's strengths and flaws. Harold Bloom calls Hamlet “our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello and Beckett.” T.S. Eliot finds the play “puzzling” and “disquieting,” and declares that, “far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece,” it's “an artistic failure.” The fact that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most frequently produced work indicates that audiences, on the whole, are less skeptical of its merits than Eliot.

The contours of Prince Hamlet’s story come from Historia Danica by Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques. Shakespeare remolded the existing material to the shape of the English revenge tragedies popular in his day. The result, as always with Shakespeare, is altogether different from the sources on which the playwright drew. In Shakespeare’s version, Hamlet, a student at the University of Wittenberg, has returned to Denmark for his father's funeral. By a ghostly visitation (the Ghost being his father, the late King), Hamlet receives a piece of life-changing news: the King didn’t die from a snakebite, as generally believed; he was poisoned by Claudius, the new king who is Hamlet’s paternal uncle and now his stepfather. The social strictures of the day demand that the son avenge the parent's death; yet, for most of the play, Hamlet procrastinates, keening over his loss, fuming about his mother’s swift re-marriage to the avaricious uncle, pondering mortality and that “undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveler returns.” He masks his intentions and his real emotions with an "antic disposition."

On Manhattan's Upper West Side, the small, ambitious Frog and Peach Theatre Company is offering Hamlet with a film-noir flavor that enhances the mysterious qualities of Shakespeare's plot and underscores what's most suspenseful in the dialogue. The Frog and Peach Hamlet gets off to a sluggish start but, as the student-prince figures out what's rotten in Denmark, the pace accelerates. After a single intermission (which falls surprisingly early in the proceedings), the action moves with a sense of inexorability toward the company's engrossing enactment of the duel scene, with its moving reversals and many deaths. The cast — six members of the Actors' Equity Association and eight non-union performers — handles Shakespeare’s blank verse competently and, in some cases, with élan.

Brando Boniver plays Hamlet as a straight-shooter who's discovering how deceitful the world can be. He's a meditative sophomore, learning to dissemble for his own protection. Boniver's mixture of naivety and wisdom gives an interesting slant to the Prince's familiar monologues. Imposingly tall and clad, of course, in black, Boniver leavens Hamlet’s melancholy with considerable humor; here and there, he refreshes a well-known line with a dash of Millennial inflection. He delivers the play's most famous soliloquy — "to be, or not to be" — in feigned madness, waltzing Ophelia (Megan McGarvey) around the stage. This unexpected bit of blocking invigorates a passage that's familiar to the point of being stale; and, in this staging, the soliloquy works both as an expression of Hamlet's thoughts on the mortal condition and, from Ophelia's point of view, as a burst of creepy logorrhea about suicide. 

As Horatio, Hamlet’s closest friend and the one who survives to tell the Prince's tale, Jonathan Reed Wexler is the very model of loyalty and comradely affection. Of all the cast, Wexler is most at ease with Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. His unadorned delivery of the "flights of angels" speech, as well as the subsequent lines about the "carnal, bloody and unnatural acts" he has witnessed, provides a moving summary of all the preceding turmoil. It’s tempting to imagine what Wexler's vocal skill, unaffected style, and assured stage presence would bring to the title role.

Director Lynnea Benson has trimmed Shakespeare's text judiciously (the performance runs only slightly more than two and a half hours), and offers some interesting innovations. A single Player (Roger Rathburn) represents the traveling troupe that arrives in Elsinore to "catch the conscience of the King." To make this casting-efficiency work, Horatio joins Rathburn in the play-within-a-play; and Wexler, gussied up in tacky road-show finery, wrings considerable humor out of Horatio's consternation at being pressed by Hamlet into service as an amateur thespian.  

Benson has cast Amy Frances Quint and Ilaria Amadasi as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's supposed-friends from Wittenberg, invited to Denmark by Claudius to spy on the Prince. Quint and Amadasi are a couple of Bond Girls, too mature to be undergraduates (even if Wittenberg had enrolled women in those days). They simper and posture and paw Boniver like a pair of medieval Mrs. Robinsons. This non-traditional casting is a risky directorial gambit; but the louche qualities with which Quint and Amadasi imbue their characters make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern effective foils to Boniver's fundamentally ingenuous Hamlet. In most productions, Hamlet's emotionless sacrifice of the lives of his erstwhile friends is unnerving. In the Frog and Peach production, Quint and Amadasi are cold-hearted foxes outfoxed by the Prince; and their treachery proves a milestone in Hamlet's education about the dark side of humankind. It all makes sense.  

Despite a few Nordic touches, the scenic design by Andy Estep is not committed to a particular locale; and the costumes by Lindsey L. Vandevier reflect no particular era. Both scenery and clothes have been managed admirably on a tight budget and, in their simplicity, serve their purpose well. Some weaknesses in the production may be a function of the church-basement nature of the The West End Theatre. Broadway veteran Dennis Parichy has to contend with a primitive lighting system; and the original score by Ian McDonald of King Crimson and Foreigner gets a less-than-fair hearing due to the abruptness of all the sound cues.

By the time Frog and Prince Company finishes its run, there will be other Hamlets competing for attention in the Tri-State area. In the weeks ahead, English actor Rory Kinnear (of Skyfall fame) will be seen in the title role at various cinemas in the region as the Royal National Theatre reprises its worldwide broadcast of the 2010 production; Kevin Kline is including material from Hamlet in his one-man show at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton; and the Bedlam Theatre Company will commence an open-ended run of its 4-actor Hamlet at the Culture Project on Bleecker Street. The prevalence of Shakespeare's greatest creation in and around New York this autumn confirms Harold Bloom's declaration: "There is no end to Hamlet or to Hamlet, because there is no end to Shakespeare."

William Shakespeare's Hamlet presented by The Frog and Peach Theatre Company at The West End Theatre (above the Church of St. Paul/St. Andrew, 236 West 86th Street) runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through Sunday, November 10. General admission $18; seniors and students $12. 

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Love and Other Drugs

According to the old adage, “love is blind” – so goes the premise behind Shakespeare’s classic play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Titan Theatre Company’s production expands this idea with the concept of a sort of “blind” casting – that is, having eight of the nine actors’ roles chosen for them by the audience before every performance. Through this method, the notion of love as something that does not discriminate is quite literally put on display and brought to the forefront in ways possibly never before seen with the play. The results, with the company’s talented cast, is a romantic comedy like no other.

For the uninitiated, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells the tale of a group of young lovers, a pair of which – Theseus, duke of Athens and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons – are about to embark on their upcoming nuptials.  The rest of the lovers find themselves in a love triangle (or perhaps, a love square), as Demetrius pines for Hermia, who is betrothed to Lysander, while Helena yearns for Demetrius’ affections herself. In the midst of all this, a play is scheduled for the wedding celebrations by a group of simpletons: Quince, a carpenter; Flute, a bellows-mender; Snout, a tinker; Snug, a joiner; and Bottom, a weaver. Rounding out this eccentric cast of characters are the creatures of the wooded forests in which much of the action takes place: Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow), a mischievous hobgoblin; his master of sorts, Oberon, king of the fairies; his queen, Titania; and her attendant, Peaseblossom.

It is through Oberon and Titania’s quarrel over the possession of an orphan boy that the plot thickens, as the Fairy King orders Puck to use a flower with magical properties in order to make Titania fall in love with a beast, so as to pluck the orphan from her ownership while she’s in her daze. The two conspirers also happen to witness Helena pursuing Demetrius in the woods, and Oberon orders Puck to cast Demetrius under the spell of the charmed flower. However, while the task of distracting Titania is successfully done (as she falls for Bottom, turned into a donkey after the group’s rehearsal in the woods), Oberon discovers that Puck has mistakenly made Lysander, not Demetrius, fall in love with Helena. So ensues madness of comedic proportions.

Shakespearean actors are often lauded not only for their ability to decipher and interpret the Bard’s language, but also for their sheer ability alone. They are often classically trained, and as such are able to embody these characters and present them to a modern audience with ease and grace. The cast of this production is no exception – in fact, they far exceed all the usual qualities of a Shakespearean actor, given the task thrown at them. The unique casting process challenges each of the eight actors (the character of Puck is always played by the same actor; in this case, by Matthew Foster) to memorize all 16 roles in the play.

While confusing at first, as some of the female roles were played by men and vice versa, switching things up with the casting only helped to further heighten the comedy and eventually made for a great night at the theater. Each actor was given a track of double roles, and each one was astounding in their grasp of each character. Jonathan Matthew Finnegan was wonderfully flamboyant and ever as the scorned lover of Helena (he also played fairy Peaseblossom), while Sean Hudock was adorable in his roles as the romantic Hermia and shy, cowardly Snug.  Though perfectly capable as Lysander, it was Lloyd Mulvey’s take on Flute that garnered much laughter, particularly during the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene. One of the production’s taglines was: Who’s your bottom tonight? – and this night’s Bottom, played by Emily Trask, was the highlight of the evening, as she managed not only to make the audience cry with laughter, but also induce chuckles from her fellow cast mates. 

The casting process also gave way to an interesting reinterpretation of the costumes. As no one knew beforehand which roles they were to play, the cast was first introduced to us wearing “uniforms” of white dress shirts and black slacks. Once cast in their roles for the night, their individual costumes were adjusted, with the women wearing skirts and sashes, and the men wearing sweaters and blazers over their outfits. For the lovers, costume designer Scott Frost had each pair wearing corresponding colors, a clever way for the audience to figure out whose true love belongs to whom. 

As for the set design, the production went for a minimal yet elegant set befitting a fantastical play such as this, featuring a simple stone-like platform, replete with bits of shrubbery. Alan Pietrowicz’s lighting, most of which consisted of a neon-colored fixture along the back wall (which would change color depending on the scene), as well as overhead lighting, which would dim in order to signify the transition from day into night and therefore setting the tone for the lovers’ trysts in the forest.

The Titan Theatre Company’s rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is one that will leave you entranced and thoroughly entertained. With a clever reimagining and talented cast, this is one dream you won’t want to wake up from.  

A Midsummer Night's Dream is playing at The Secret Theatre (4402 23rd Street in Long Island City) until November 3, 2013.  

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The Truth Isn't Easy

The Israeli Arab, Ali Said, says that he met Eileen in the hallway of the Mayfair Hotel; in his account, their eyes met and they went into a room for wild sex. “I’m a wonderful lover. She enjoyed herself,” Ali informs his interrogator, Dov (Ezra Barnes). Not so, Eileen tells Dov in a separate interview. She met him in the park, where he approached her and began a conversation, though it did indeed end in intercourse. She was a virgin, even at fortysomething. No, says Ali, she was definitely not a virgin.

Lucile Lichtblau's play The English Bride is a compact, fascinating play about what we know about people — what anyone can know — and what lies folks will tell and even believe to keep their lives under control. This exercise among three liars, which recalls the classic film Rashomon, is based on a 1986 incident in which a Muslim Arab was arrested for attempting to blow up an El Al flight in Britain. As Dov, an Israeli Mossad agent, interviews the accused bomber and the woman who loved him, he has no qualms about employing lies to find the truth. The structure, a collection of monologues and two-person scenes that unfold as Dov tries to separate the truth from lies, is admirably lean and vigorous in the hands of director Carl Wallnau.

As the meeting and deepening relationship between Ali (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and Eileen (Amy Griffin) is recounted, the story appears straightforward. She and Ali have small disagreements — will the child she’s carrying be a boy or a girl? Will it have Eileen’s fair complexion or Ali’s darker skin? Will she agree to wear a veil? Wallnau makes sure that Lichtblau’s plot, which snakes around on itself, delivers all the surprises forcefully — a woman in the audience gasped involuntarily in the last minutes as an important plot point proved shockingly bogus.

Griffin, in the title role of an unprepossessing refugee from the northern British city of Leeds, sports a persuasive regional accent. Eileen talks confidently but masks the desperation of a woman on the cusp of middle age and fleeing a miserable life with a depressing family. Ali’s attraction to her is different from that of other men, she says. “He was different,” she tells Dov. “With him, I always believed down deep he meant what he said even though I never let on to him that I believed him,” adding “my mum used to tell me ‘never trust a man who smiles.’” The last is a nice touch, a suggestion of painful family life and past close-mindedness, and Lichtblau’s understanding of her characters is reflected by several such small moments. One can accept those as facts, but so many others about Eileen are offered and rescinded that one’s head may spin by the end.

Nor is Eileen's story the only fluid one. Ali, played by Goodfriend with initial hostility and then canny charm toward his questioner, is never what he seems. The action, set in interrogation rooms, the park, an airport and elsewhere, is served well by Bob Phillips’s design: three different levels set in a corner, with a bench on each of the side levels. The whole area is backed by a curtain of interlocking paper loops resembling a chain link that one finds usually in doorways; here they provide a stunning pattern for Joyce Liao to cast her evocative lighting.

Said, invested with confidence and much courtliness by Goodfriend, is a handsome man who claims he picked up Eileen in the hallway of the hotel where she works, but who denies attempting to blow up an airplane. Yet, although a bombing is central to the plot, Lichtblau forbears demonizing Ali and only occasionally makes a reference to the political situation in the Middle East. After Eileen learns that Ali is an Arab, she says, “I didn’t know Arabs lived in Israel,” and he answers, “that’s something the Israelis have trouble with as well.” The play avoids emphasizing the hot-button topics of the political crisis in favor of the personal relationship of the couple, although Ali’s motivation for the crime he is accused of draws inevitably on politics. Indeed, there is a clash of the personal with his political motivation as Eileen reveals she is pregnant and slowly one realizes that Ali expects Eileen to wear a veil and raise the child as a Muslim, though she wants to raise it Catholic.

As Eileen and Ali offer Dov their divergent perspectives, they move together and enact the scenes in the way that whichever principal is speaking remembers. And although Dov listens, he knows from experience that he has to sift for the truth. “She’s a born liar,” he says, after Eileen misidentifies someone. “Most people are,” he adds, “myself included.” Barnes finds the cool aloofness in Dov as well as the confidence of someone used to the upper hand — which may also be a subtle reflection of the political landscape. A play touching on any aspect of the Middle East cannot fail to seem familiar at times, but Wallnau manages to keep that sense fleeting as he strips layer after layer of mendacity to help the audience reach — what? Not the truth, but a murky approximation of it.

The English Bride plays at 59E59 Theater through Nov. 17 on the following schedule: Tuesday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.

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A Groaner in Verona

Updating Shakespeare is like putting a diaper on a porcupine. It's not strictly necessary, but if you are going to do it, you had better be very careful. Director Tea Alagic’s production for the Classic Stage Company is so illogical and reckless that, if the metaphor were literal, she’d look like a pincushion.

For starters, Alagic, whose credits don't include Shakespeare, has played fast and loose with the text. There are cuts, but that’s to be expected. (As on Broadway, Paris's slaying is omitted.) Yet sometimes, she has just ignored the words. Right away, when the Montagues and Capulets fight and Benvolio (McKinley Belcher III) says, “Put up your swords,” it’s a puzzlement. The brawlers haven’t got swords — they’ve been fighting with their hands. Do they have invisible swords? Is this Shakespeare by way of Hogwarts? Later, though, when Romeo tries to commit suicide, he actually has a knife, and Friar Laurence disarms him. After Juliet has visited the cleric and returns home, she tells David Garrison’s Lord Capulet that she is enjoined “to fall prostrate here” to beg his forgiveness — and she kneels. Apparently “prostrate” meant something else in Verona. Perhaps the most ludicrous scene is the second brawl, in which Mercutio is slain. Again without weapons, the actors grab tiny packets of stage blood and punch their opponents, smearing gouts of red on one another. It's death by stage prop.

As one might expect in this situation, extraneous business receives closer attention. When Mercutio suffers a hangover following the party at the Capulets’, he fumbles with a bottle of aspirin — a real one. As a joke, it's cute but irrelevant. And when Romeo and Juliet meet at the Capulets’ costume ball, the hero is wearing a giant Winnie-the-Pooh head, simply to let lighting designer Jason Lyons cast funny shadows on the rear wall. It’s clever business, but the laughter it produces undercuts the romance.

With such a scattershot approach to the text, it’s no wonder that the acting varies wildly. Garrison employs a hastily yet precisely spoken naturalism as Lord Capulet. Elizabeth Olsen’s Juliet (who looks way past 14) recites clearly but without inspiration. Julian Cihi’s Romeo, though he’s too puppyish, finds the right emotional tone in isolated places, and, like Garrison, attempts to make the heightened verse sound natural.

Ironically, the most damaging casting is that of Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence. He is in command of language, rhythm, meaning and inflection to a degree that makes you wish this Romeo and Juliet would morph into King Lear just to keep hearing him talk. He is so compelling that everyone around him looks inept by comparison, with a couple exceptions.

Kathryn Meisle’s Lady Capulet also speaks the language fluidly, but she looks less comfortable dressed as a cougar in Clint Ramos’s hot pink jacket and slacks with leopard-print blouse and shoes. T.R. Knight brings intelligence and clarity to his low-key Mercutio. And Daphne Rubin-Vega, cast against type as Juliet’s Nurse, turns in a fascinating performance.

Making the Nurse Hispanic is one of Alagic’s curiosities that works. Why there are so many Hispanics in an Italian city — Dion Mucciacito’s Tybalt is another — is unexplained, but in this case, it lends credence to the Nurse’s reaction at hearing of Tybalt’s killing: “Oh, Tybalt, Tybalt. The best friend I had.” Although the part is often played by middle-aged to older actresses, the text makes clear that the Nurse only weaned Juliet 11 years before, so Rubin-Vega’s age is right. Nevertheless, her glamour is a shock. Ramos puts her in a mantilla and dark glasses at one point, suggesting an Italian movie star of the 1960s, like Monica Vitti or Claudia Cardinale, although the text is peppered with Spanglish and not Italian. But the actress nails the humor in the Nurse’s blathering with a musician’s attention to rhythm and phrasing.

This production has no clear time or place — it’s a mishmash. Alagic seems to be trying to kill the romanticism at every turn. The floor of the essentially bare stage (a waist-high upstage platform and nine tubular chairs are the only other set pieces) seems to be that of a gymnasium, and there’s no balcony in the balcony scene. Juliet wears boots and a shift that make her look like a refugee from a rave. And Alagic even cuts a chunk of the final scene so the play ends not with the lyrical, “Never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Instead, with lines of the Prince’s now assigned to Friar Laurence, the play ends with an abrupt blackout. It’s more Jacobean than Shakespearean, yet it is an interesting choice — unlike so many that have gone before.

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George Kelly Comes Forth

Philip Goes Forth, George Kelly’s Depression era comedy-drama, chronicles a conventional young man’s plunge into bohemian New York. Back in 1931, when the play premiered, Kelly’s work was as popular and as integral to American culture as that of his fellow Pulitzer Prize recipient Eugene O’Neill. Today he's remembered principally, if at all, as an uncle of Grace Kelly, the Oscar-winning movie star whose 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier revived the economic fortunes of Monaco by bringing worldwide attention (and flocks of tourists) to that Mediterranean principality. Ah, the ironies of history.

In George Kelly’s day, Broadway audiences were accustomed to playwrights easing them gingerly into the dramatic action. Philip Goes Forth opens with something few writers would risk today: 40 minutes of solid exposition, including backstory disclosures by a conveniently loquacious parlor maid.

Just out of college, Philip Eldridge (Bernardo Cubría) has returned to his hometown, 500 miles from New York. He's training as an executive at his father’s firm (precise business unspecified) but longs to be in show biz. Philip's Babbitt-like father (Cliff Bemis) thinks his son should be grateful that he’s got a secure job in the midst of the Depression. The “old man” scoffs at Philip's declaration that he wants to write plays; the young man packs up his wounded pride and heads for Manhattan.

With the first act dedicated to set-up, Philip Goes Forth finally gets going in Act Two, when the protagonist takes refuge in a Murray Hill rooming house where all inhabitants have artistic aspirations. His compatriots include a hack writer (Teddy Bergman), an unsuccessful composer (Brian Keith MacDonald), and one person – a poet – with a genuine gift (Rachel Moulton). Their little community is overseen by a former stage star (Kathryn Kates), sympathetic to the challenges and disappointments faced by those in the arts.

Kelly’s theme in Philip Goes Forth is the contrast between genuine artists and the mere wannabes who are drawn to la vie de bohème but lack the vision, passion, or application necessary to create anything worthwhile. In an earlier play (and Broadway hit), The Torch-Bearers (1922), Kelly lampooned the pretensions of suburban aesthetes. The masterstroke of that Kelly classic is the magniloquent Mrs. J. Duro Pampinelli, director of a thoroughly awful Little Theater group. Mrs. Pampinelli, vividly drawn by the playwright (and catnip to generations of character actresses), is the very model of a hick-town culture-vulture. Philip Goes Forth – like The Torch-Bearers — pokes fun at pseudo-artists and the Philistines who love them. The characters of Philip Goes Forth, however, lack the intricacy and gusto of Mrs. Pampinelli; they represent ideas with which Kelly is grappling, but don't spring to life like the best of the playwright's creations.

Director Jerry Ruiz and his ten actors work hard to give Kelly's lackluster script a patina of professionalism. Cubría plays the title role with gung-ho energy and the earnestness of the adolescent hero in a Horatio Alger novel. As Philip's odyssey progresses, the actor re-calibrates his performance to reflect all the young man is learning in the New York School of Hard Knocks. Cubría woos ingénue Natalie Kuhn with an innocence — or, rather, naivety — that’s at once daffy and believable. Kuhn, who manages to be both dewy-eyed and down-to-earth, lends credibility to sweet banalities, such as: “I think it’s wonderful that you should want to do something on your own. After all, [your father’s] achievement isn’t yours. And you’re a man, as well as he is… I should think he’d respect you all the more for it.” 

Bemis, Moulton, and Christine Toy Johnson (as Philip’s sympathetic aunt, Mrs. Randolph) give notably engaging performances. Carole Healey, playing a two-faced society matron (Mrs. Oliver), has two scenes of high comedy in which the tone of Kelly's writing is somewhat out of kilter with the rest of the play. Flamboyant but not quite over-the-top, Healey imbues the flat character of Mrs. Oliver with surprising dimension and gets the evening's loudest, most prolonged laughs. When events stray down a melodramatic path, neither Kelly nor the slightly uneven supporting cast are at their best. 

Steven C. Kemp (sets), Christian DeAngelis (lights) and Joshua Yocom (props) evoke the 1930s in contrasting scenic designs for a provincial living room in Act One and the townhouse of the second and third acts. The former is all right angles, unadorned and startlingly white; the townhouse has deep, warm hues, oblique lines and exotic bric-a-brac. The handsome costumes by Carisa Kelly enhance the production's period flavor. Contemplating the extremes of old-fashioned formality with which the designer has clothed her actors while also listening to the handful of speeches that are most alien to a 2013 sensibility, playgoers may be perplexed. Does what's stilted and jejune in Philip Goes Forth reflect merely the social rigidity of the era the dramatist is depicting or a limitation in Kelly's craft? Those acquainted with other works by the playwright, especially The Torch-Bearers and The Show-Off (1924), are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Mint Theater Company focuses on plays that have been neglected and, in some cases, forgotten. For 18 years, this troupe, under producing artistic director Jonathan Bank, has resurrected worthy dramas. Though not likely to be remembered as one of the company's most valuable rediscoveries, Philip Goes Forth is a diverting piece by a playwright who ought to be more than a footnote in the biography of Princess Grace.

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Edging into the Ruling Class

The Keen Company’s revival of The Film Society, the 1988 play that established the talent of Jon Robin Baitz, shows a playwright in his mid-20s already possessed of uncommon insight, yet decades away from Other Desert Cities. Though it draws on Baitz’s early days living in South Africa, it is an astonishingly mature play, as André Bishop notes in the preface to the 1993 paperback edition from Theatre Communications Group.

In short, punchy scenes set in 1970 in Durban, South Africa, Baitz shows the way institutionalized racism survives and invidiously co-opts people with nobler impulses. Jonathon Balton (Euan Morton) is a teacher at Blenheim, a private boys’ prep school where he has instituted a “film society.” It’s nothing much: he shows films such as Touch of Evil and Top Hat in a feeble attempt to impart culture to the students. The films are as much for his soul as for refining their feelings, which he knows are influenced by their white parents' apartheid views.

Although Jonathon chafes at the school’s rigid strictures and kowtowing to those parents, it is his two best friends and fellow teachers, Terry Sinclair (David Barlow) and his wife, Nan (Mandy Siegfried), who seriously rock the boat. Terry has repeatedly organized events in which the boys can meet or be spoken to by a black activist. As the play opens, the parents are in an uproar that a black minister was the surprise speaker at the school’s Centenary Day.

Though the incident precipitates a crisis for Terry and, indirectly, Nan, Jonathon tries his best to protect both of them. He and Terry have been friends since childhood, and he tolerates Terry’s reckless activism because of it. Nonetheless, Jonathon is under pressure to conform from the pompous but well-intentioned headmaster, Neville Sutter (a composed and weary Gerry Bamman), who is himself feeling the heat from Jonathon’s meddlesome mother (Roberta Maxwell), a grande dame given to wearing caftans and turbans. Maxwell finds a nice balance of iron authority and honeyed wheedling; her late husband was headmaster at Blenheim, and she has the money to parlay Jonathon into the same position.

The young Baitz is particularly accomplished at crisscrossing all the strands of the drama: the brutal racism of South Africa, embodied by Richmond Hoxie’s apoplectic teacher, Hamish Fox, who invokes the Mau-Mau uprising and General Idi Amin as reasons for the rightness of white supremacy; Jonathon’s desperate, failing attempts to win concessions for his friends and, later, after gaining power, to fully protect them; and the way he is maneuvered into the job by the powers-that-be. (His absorption into the establishment is given a nice visual effect from the gradual improvement of his appearance in suits designed by Jennifer Paar.)

Nor does The Film Society ever become too obvious a symbol; you have to listen closely as the drama progresses to follow its fortunes. The whole play, though, requires close attention, as Jonathon is manipulated incrementally; director Jonathan Silverstein has done a fine job of keeping one guessing what’s going to happen next. (One quibble, though; it’s unlikely that anyone with cultivation, when asked for a drink, would simply hand over the one he’d been sipping and then fix a fresh one for himself, as Jonathon does when Nan asks.)

Steven C. Kemp’s set is visually striking and underscores the political situation. It features three functional playing areas — the school office, Terry and Nan’s home, and Mrs. Balton’s parlor — but surmounting them is a huge painting on the rear wall, a representation of the St. George’s and St. Andrew’s crosses melded in white, representing the British Empire, which had ruled South Africa. But the white of the crosses, though dominating, is eroding, and in places underneath one sees the kente patterns of black African tribes — a neat visual complement to the political situation.

Morton is a multilayered Jonathon. The text at various points suggests Jonathon is a closeted homosexual, and Morton finds body language to enhance that notion, but he’s never a pushover. He may not pick his battles wisely, but he’s easygoing and composed in taking on issues he cares about. As he slowly assumes more authority, one sees his transformation to a bureaucrat who, like Neville, has no life but the school’s. Barlow creates a Terry who is as irritating as he must be, but still sympathetic; he is, after all, on the side of the angels, and Siegfried's Nan is a loyal though often exasperated partner for him.

That the play has stood up after more than two decades is a measure of Baitz's talent. If one wants to see the first steps toward the playwright's masterly Other Desert Cities, this is the place to start.

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Take a Trip Down Under

Who doesn’t love a good Aussie accent? The U.S. premiere of Australian Made Entertainment’s Once We Lived Here, with book and lyrics by Dean Bryant, music by Mathew Frank and direction by Matthew Foster, is an Australian production through and through. From the “G’Daybill” to the glossary of phrases from down under, to the actors’ accents, to the lingo, you are truly transported to the outback throughout this moving production.

Once We Lived Here has a plot that everyone can recognize — a family is brought together by unfortunate circumstances for a few uncomfortable days of pretending to have anything in common at this stage in their lives and eventually, family secrets are spilled. But despite the somewhat stale general story-arc, Once We Lived Here contains twists and turns, and character development that engulfs the audience and makes them truly care about the stories unfolding on stage.

Since their father’s tragic death, the three siblings of Once We Lived Here (Amy, Lecy and Shaun) have splintered apart. Although each of them disproves of how the others are living their lives, they all return to the family sheep station, Emoh Ruo (“Our Home”) to check in on mother Claire, who is sick and doesn’t have much time left.

Lecy, played by Morgan Cowling, is a one-time nerd who has grown up, moved to the city and hasn’t looked back. Trying to branch into the world of television, she’s accused by her siblings of only caring about material things. But as the show develops, we see that Lecy isn’t as confident as she would like the world to think. To Cowling’s credit, Lecy’s change throughout the show gradually builds until you can’t help but be moved by her. 

Shaun, played by Adam Rennie, is an instantly likeable musician who hasn’t had much success. Living on the road and playing gigs, he’s never stuck to anything for too long. Memories from his past haunt him, which is extremely evident during his performance of “The Shearing Shed” (Rennie’s voice is spectacular).  

Amy, played by Kathleen Foster, is the oldest and has lived at Emoh Ruo with Claire since her father’s death, desperately trying to run the farm despite a drought that won't break and finances that continue to slip. Though written as the character that would seemingly get the most understanding from an audience, Foster's portrayal of Amy left me hesitant to root for her. 

As if there weren’t already enough catching up going on, in typical motherly fashion, Claire (Renee Claire Bergeron) also invites Burke (Sean Cleary) to visit. Years earlier, Burke came to Emoh Ruo to help out and fell in love with Amy. But it’s been eight years since then and Amy insists that it’s too late to rekindle the old romance.

As the week progresses and the bush fires draw closer, the family is forced to confront things that they’ve avoided for far too long. Although it may sound cliché, audience members are sure to relate to at least one character and to slowly fall in love with the folks of Emoh Ruo.

The songs are catchy, the lyrics are not too predictable, and the performances of them are stellar. Standouts included “The Shearing Shed,” “As Far As the Eye Can See” and “We Like It That Way.” There are laughs along the way, though you’ll likely find yourself wiping your eyes as well. 

The set, impressive for such a small space, was used well and the lighting helped seamlessly signal flashbacks. 

At some point, most people question how they’re even related to their family members. But in the end, family is family. And as Claire reminds her kids, “there’s nothing perfect out there, just what works and doesn’t work.” Once We Live Here works. 

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Intellectual Gymnastics

Gymnos: A Geek's Tragedy blends two of my favorite things: Ancient Greek theater and working out. However, in this work, the mixture is an uneasy one. The world of gym rats seems to have no room for someone of intellectual inclinations and the so-called "geek" — a successful playwright with a chance at Broadway — cannot make himself fit in the world of fitness freaks. The at times funny play written by Nina Mansfield and directed by Adyana de la Torre, currently playing at HERE Arts Center, misses the mark when it comes to the important crossroads between betterment of the mind and improvement of the body.

The plot, at most points during the production, is both difficult to ascertain and seemingly irrelevant. The thin storyline centers around the aforementioned dramatist on a deadline: he owes a script in a week. At the same time, he is being haunted — or more precisely harassed — by a series of muses who, rather than inspiring his imagination, suggest he engage in matters of physical exercise. They justify this by referring to a former love interest of his, Helen, ostensibly based on the historical "face that launched a thousand ships," and with whom he failed romantically both due to a lack of confidence and a lack of well-defined abs. From there, we follow our seemingly self-appointed hero through his series of herculean trials: from one bizarre, oppressive gym to the next.

The performances are uneven at best, and although I understood the abundance of actors on stage to be standing in for a Greek chorus, they often do little more than make the world of the drama seem cluttered. It is hard to root for the hero, as his challenge appears to benefit no one but himself, and even there, he does not seem to care all that much.

The best sequences incorporate dance; I found myself wishing more of the play actually staged the fitness experience as opposed to the time spent in the gymnasium itself. The play does pick up in the second act and the highlight of the production is de la Torre's brief on stage performance as a zealous Zumba instructor. The worst parts are the overwhelmingly vulgar humor, which, though at first laugh-out-loud funny, wears out its welcome from overuse and becomes more awkward than raucous fun.

Both the lighting and set are fine, and the costumes do appropriately fit the world of the play. Unfortunately, no aesthetic element is enough to compensate for this ultimately self-serving production. The protagonist is not likeable enough to propel the story forward, nor is the text, even comedically, rich enough to carry an otherwise undramatic spectacle to any sort of fulfillment. The space between body and mind is explored in this play but, in the end, left as disconnected as it was at the beginning.

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All Steamed Up and Boiling Over

TACT’s revival of William Inge’s 1963 play Natural Affection is the first since the Broadway premiere. Though the drama flopped (perhaps partly attributable to the 1962 newspaper strike that killed off the New York Daily Mirror), it proves much sturdier 50 years later than one might expect.  

In the lecture collection Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, the renowned acting teacher declares, “Inge loves women for their helplessness, their tenderness, their ability to raise families, their goodness of heart to the people they’re involved with. He’s very much a woman-protective writer.” One virtue of TACT’s production, strongly cast as usual, is that whatever tenderness and helplessness Adler was thinking of during her lecture, Inge has moved on.

In Natural Affection, Inge tackles the hot topics that simmered just before civil rights eruptions took over as No. 1: working women; unmarried couples living together; repressed homosexuality; and disaffected youth, then known as juvenile delinquents. And although the characters talk about Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth for comic effect, the playwright takes a cue from it. Natural Affection has plot elements as lurid as anything in Williams.

Director Jenn Thompson introduces a saxophone playing jazz music periodically to underscore the hothouse atmosphere, where sexual attitudes are more open and casual than the repressed yearnings in Inge's Pulitzer Prize–winning Picnic. Kathryn Erbe’s level-headed Sue Barker, the female protagonist, lives unmarried with Bernie Slovenk, a car salesman (Alec Beard). She’s a successful buyer of women’s lingerie at a department story, but Bernie is having a tough time at his job selling cars, and he chafes at Sue’s income, which is greater than his. Though she longs for marriage, he balks at any union until he can be the breadwinner.

The urban setting, Chicago, is also unusual for Inge. Sue and Bernie live in a comfortable, modern and slightly tacky apartment building (designed by John McDermott with stripes on the hallway walls that suggest a prison). The equilibrium is upset when Sue’s son Donnie (Chris Bert), born out of wedlock, is scheduled to visit for Christmas. When she had Donnie at 18, Sue placed him in an orphanage. When she got him out, he fell in with the wrong crowd. After stealing a car and beating a woman, he was sentenced to reform school. Now Sue wants to give him a taste of family love during his Christmas visit, but she doesn’t realize that Donnie has permission to stay out on parole if she’ll agree to look after him during the last year of his sentence. 

Two neighbors, Vince and Claire Brinkman, complicate the relationships: Bernie has had a few flings with would-be model Claire (a ravishing, petulant Victoria Mack); Vince (John Pankow) cannot satisfy her sexually and is a heavy drinker. Inge suggests also that Vince may be a repressed homosexual with a yen for Bernie. Beard as Bernie does a nice job of finding affection and disillusion in the character, chafing at the failure of his ambitions, struggling to be faithful to Sue and finding himself at sea. To Inge’s credit, neither Bernie nor Sue is perfect, and Erbe balances Sue’s guilt and confidence, and her obligations to lover and son — until Inge introduces a character revelation that’s hard to swallow.

By that time, though, the play has veered into overheated melodrama. One can almost feel the story go off the rails when Vince goes on a drunken tirade against everything modern: television, movies, abstract paintings and brutalist buildings. Pankow does the bravura moment full justice, but it sounds as if it’s the author’s philippic, and the play's last act, with twists and violence, moves into potboiler territory. (Inge’s title is double-edged because “natural” can mean something good and appropriate, or, in describing a child like Donnie, illegitimate; the opposite meanings apply to different relationships in the play.)

Thompson's direction is mostly solid, although an early, brief scene with Donnie and Gil, a fellow inmate on leave, doesn't work. Gil should be a menacing presence, but Tobi Aremu is too well-scrubbed and casual; only the subject matter — Gil’s sounding out Donnie about whether he could kill people — suggests he’s dangerous. Thompson interpolates a moment when the fleeing Gil grabs a knickknack and pockets it, but the petty theft is almost laughable as a marker of criminality. (And, unfortunately, the move primes an audience for someone to comment on the missing item, but it doesn’t happen.) Nonetheless, her production demonstrates that this unfamiliar Inge play has much more food for thought than the term “flop” would suggest.

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Life and Death in South Africa

What can we truly say to own in this life? Our homes, our gods? Our own mortality and deaths? Ndebele Funeral, written by Zoey Martinson, directed by Awoye Timpo, and presented by Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative, brilliantly uses this theme of ownership as an aspect of the human condition to present a multifaceted, complex and utterly transcendent work of theater. 

This is no mere AIDS play nor post-apartheid post-colonial drama, though it engages the real-world stakes of both of those issues. Rather, it is an emotionally-driven exploration of what it means to have faith in something when we have so little control over our own fates. It delves into the question of what it means to be human in a world where the odds always seem stacked against humankind.

We meet Daweti (played by Martinson) awakening in a strange sort of bed, which we later learn is a self-constructed coffin, a personally designed final resting place. The action of the drama centers around her interactions with the day's two visitors: her longtime best friend Thabo (Yusef Miller) and a fieldworker for the government, Jan (Jonathan David Martin), on-site at her shack to take stock of how well she has used some subsidized building materials. Of course, we can surmise that she has put them to good use; the house she has built is not to live in now, but for her imminent future.

The richness of this play is not just in its honest story, which shows us both bits of Daweti's past with Thabo and touches of the difficult present that each of the three characters face. Much of what makes this play so meaningful is the way in which it is told — a fourth-wall breaking style of performance, that incorporates music, rhythm, physicality, and narrative storytelling, interspersed throughout the forward-moving action. Because of this, the world of this play seems blessed with the same magic that each of its characters is trying to capture in his or her own life.

The actors are all exceptionally good in their roles. They bring these characters to life as complicated individuals, not just as mouthpieces for the various philosophical perspectives presented in the text. Miller makes Thabo joyful yet haunted, a perfect counterpart to Martinson's harsh but charming Daweti. Martin creates an utterly sympathetic Jan who, rather than feeling like the oppressor, displays the vulnerability of his social position while still attempting to exert power over his circumstances.

The setting, in its simplicity, brings to life Daweti's messy, unfinished shack, with a sense of reality, even though it merely suggests the completed structure. The only drawback is the lighting, which at times to create moods, becomes a bit too dark to allow the audience to really engage with the facial expressions of the actors on stage.

All in all, Ndebele Funeral is everything great theater should be: it is entertaining with its humor and musical numbers; it is thought-provoking in its philosophizing and use of historical information; and it is heart-wrenching in its representation of the depths that we will go to in the name of love and friendship. If the one thing we can own is our memories, then this is a work to keep with us, long after the house lights have come on. It is a play that reminds us of the impact that the lives of others have on us. And that is a connection not easily severed, even if we do commit to never look back.

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